BARRY LEVINE: A bunch of turkeys hit the top of music charts

THE OLD ROCKER: My list of turkey tunes for the 10 years starting 1955

Barry Levine

Barry Levine


Brian Hyland (Special photo)

Premature Thanksgiving wishes to one and all. May you all take a moment on Nov. 28 to give thanks and to appreciate what you have.

Turkey Day is one of my favorite holidays of the year – good food, good football on TV and a good time with family and friends.

Turkey Day has another meaning for me. It gives me time to reflect on songs that reached No. 1 from 1955 through 1965 and wonder how that gobbler made it to the top slot.

Here’s my list of the turkeys from that period:

“Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wooley reached No. 1 in June 1958, supplanting one of the Everly Brothers’ best all-time hits, “All I Have to Do is Dream.” In the aftermath of writing his novelty song, Wooley met with the head of MGM records. After playing his portfolio of songs for him, Wooley was asked if he had any others. Wooley said he had one that was the “bottom of the barrel,” and he proceeded to play “Purple People Eater.” The record exec loved it and three weeks after its release, the song was No. 1. Wooley, who starred in the popular TV series “Rawhide” as cattle driver/scout Pete Nolan, should have stayed on the small screen.

David Seville’s “The Chipmunk Song” climbed to No. 1 in December 1958, ousting “To Know Him is to Love Him” by the Teddy Bears. “To KNow Him” was written and produced by the legendary Phil Spector, six months after he graduated high school, and was one of the era’s best cheek-to-cheek tunes. Seville sped-up the voices on “The Chipmunk Song” to get the effect that he wanted. His chipmunks, Alvin, Simon and Theodore, could not sing and didn’t deserve to be No. 1. I guess there’s no explaining taste in music.

More than 25 instrumental songs during the rock era rose to the top spot and more than half reached the pinnacle from 1955 to 1962. The trend started in 1955 when “Autumn Leaves” by pianist Roger Williams climbed to No. 1. Santo and Johnny, guitar-playing brothers Santo and Johnny Farina, of Brooklyn, N.Y., had the last No. 1 instrumental hit of the 1950s with “Sleep Walk.” It rose to the top spot in September 1959, beating folk hit “The Three Bells” by the Browns. There were a lot of instrumentals that merited top honors. This was not one of them.

Brian Hyland was a 16-year-old student at Franklin K. Lane High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., when he recorded “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” in the spring of 1960. In September of that year, it surpassed Brenda Lee’s first No. 1 hit, “I’m Sorry.” Hyland had two other hits, “Sealed with a Kiss” in 1962 and a cover of “Gypsy Woman” in 1970. Both reached No. 3 on the charts and both warranted No. 1 consideration far more than “Itsy Bitsy.”

Larry Verne’s novelty hit about a soldier telling Gen. George Custer that he didn’t want to fight against Sitting Bull and the Sioux Indians in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 claimed the top spot in October 1960, unseating “My Heart Has a Mind of its Own” by Connie Francis. How “Mr. Custer” snared the top slot over two rock ‘n’ roll classics — “Chain Gang” by Sam Cooke at No. 2 and “Save the Last Dance for Me” by the Drifters at No. 4 — is still a mystery to me.

Ernie K-Doe had his only Top 50 hit when “Mother-in-Law” rose to No. 1 in March 1961. The song surpassed Del Shannon’s rock classic “Runaway” to earn the top slot. “Mother-in-Law” was written by Allen Toussaint, who championed the piano-driven New Orleans sound. He wrote the tune because he blamed his mother-in-law for most of his marital problems. K-Doe found the song in Toussaint’s trash and said that he wanted to record it. Toussaint acquiesced, and K-Doe pushed it to the top. The unfortunate aspect of the song is it poked fun at all mothers-in-law. Truth be told, they ain’t all bad.

The second half of the No. 1 turkey list is scheduled to appear on Nov. 24.

Barry Levine is an entertainment writer for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at dot0001@yahoo.com.