“Wonderful World”
Sam Cooke
Label: Keen Records
Year of release: 1960

“Wonderful World,” Sam Cooke’s paean to romance trumping formal education, might have never seen the light of day were it not for a tangle of lawsuits and buyouts among labels and publishers.

Lou Adler, one of Cooke’s closest friends in the late ’50s, and Herb Alpert wrote the song with Cooke, and recorded a demo version just five days after finishing a Billie Holiday tribute project. At the time, Cooke was recording for Keen Records, forming his own gospel label, SAR, and excising himself from his relationship with Specialty Records. Adler and Alpert disassociated themselves with Keen first, according to Peter Guralnick’s book, “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke.”

By the end of 1959, Cooke had left Keen and signed with RCA, an event heralded in a full-page ad in Billboard. RCA’s first single releases from Cooke went nowhere: “Teenage Sonata,” which was also supported by a full-page ad in Billboard, and “You Understand Me” failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100.

Keen owner John Siamas, meanwhile, was on his way out of the music business when he thought he would sift through recordings he had on hand to see if anything was worth releasing. “Wonderful World,” with the simple backing of guitar, bass and drums plus a vocal trio, didn’t fit the model of current R&B.

Released in May 1960, “Wonderful World” peaked at No. 12 on the Hot 100 on June 27, 1960, the week Connie Francis’ “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” ended the Everly Brothers’ run at No. 1 with “Cathy’s Clown.” While it was charting Cooke was touring the country with one-week stands at the Apollo in New York; the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.; and the Tivoli in Chicago, where doo-wop acts the Flamingos and the Crests opened for him.

His 14th single to hit the Hot 100, “Wonderful World” was his highest-charting record since his debut, “You Send Me,” reached No. 1 in 1957. —PG

 

“Under The Boardwalk”
The Drifters
Label: Atlantic Records
Year of release: 1964

Lyricist Arthur Resnick was about two years into his three-year songwriting relationship with Kenny Young when they got the call to write a song in line with the Drifters’ “Up on the Roof.”

“Jerry Wexler asked us to write a follow-up,” Resnick says, recalling their days in the Brill Building working for Bobby Darin’s TM Music. “I lived in Brooklyn on 13th Street and, from our sixth floor window, I could see the Ferris wheel and the parachute jump and, at night, the fireworks on Coney Island.”

Resnick and Young wrote mostly novelty tunes until the “Under the Boardwalk” assignment came in. The song was immediately accepted.

“We rehearsed the original in [producer] Bert Berns’ apartment on Third Avenue and the [musicians] who were supposed to do it went to the studio,” Resnick says, remembering the events of May 20, 1964.

Drifters lead singer Rudy Lewis died in a Harlem hotel that night. The next day, Resnick says, “the union wouldn’t let Bert cancel the musicians, so they got their old singer [Johnny Moore] to come back.”

“Under the Boardwalk” debuted on the Hot 100 on June 27, 1964, and peaked at No. 4—the Drifters’ 14th top 40 single. Resnick would be encouraged to re-create the “Boardwalk” magic and gave the Drifters “I’ve Got Sand in My Shoes,” which hit No. 33 later that year.

Resnick, who would go on to write “Good Lovin’,” says his favorite line in the song—“you can almost taste the hot dogs and French fries they sell”—has had a lasting effect on him: He just issued a video of a reggae version of “The Night Before Christmas” by RT & the Elfettes on Hot Dog Records and has been trying to get Nathan’s Famous to license the song for 20 years.

“I bought stock in Nathan’s when it was $4 a share [in 1995],” he says, “hoping some day I could go to a shareholders meeting and tell them to buy the song.” —PG

*Correction appended: An earlier version of this write-up erroneously stated that Mr. Resnick co-wrote the song "Dream Lover" with Bobby Darin. In fact, "Dream Lover" was written solely by Mr. Darin.

 

“Jolene”
Dolly Parton
Label: RCA
Year of release: 1973

Dolly Parton recorded “Jolene,” one of her signature songs, along with “Another Woman’s Man” on June 12 and 14, 1973, at RCA Studios in Nashville. The tune was the title track of her 14th solo album, though if one counts her records with Porter Wagoner, it was her 26th.

The single would hit No. 1 on Billboard’s country chart after entering the tally on Nov. 3, 1974. It was the second chart-topper of her career, and would be followed by four more No. 1s. Jolene was Parton’s first album to crack Billboard’s top 10, and a year later she would be voted female vocalist of the year by the Country Music Assn.

And it all owes to an encounter with an 8-year-old girl named Jolene.

“She had this beautiful red hair, this beautiful skin, these beautiful green eyes, and she was looking up at me, holding [out] for an autograph,” Parton told NPR in 2008. “I said, ‘Well, you’re the prettiest little thing I ever saw. So what is your name?’ And she said, ‘Jolene.’ And I said, ‘Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. That is pretty. That sounds like a song. I’m going to write a song about that.’”

The story in the song, however, owes to a bank teller who was showing interest in Parton’s husband.

“People love that ‘Jolene’ lick,” Parton continued. “It’s as much a part of the song almost as the song. And because it’s just the same word over and over, even a first-grader or a baby can sing, ‘Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene.’ It’s like, how hard can that be?” —PG

“Mary Poppins” Original Cast Sound Track
Various Artists
Label: Buena Vista
Year of release: 1964

The timing for “Mary Poppins” to join the Grammy Hall of Fame could not be better as the story of the film’s creation, “Saving Mr. Banks,” is opening theatrically this month. Richard Sherman and his songwriting partner, his brother Robert, won a Grammy and two Academy Awards, while the “Mary Poppins” soundtrack spent more than two years on the Billboard 200, notching 14 weeks at No. 1 in 1964. All for a film whose creator didn’t want to have any music.

“I can still hear [novelist P.L. Travers] saying, ‘No, no, no, no. You can’t do that,’ 50 years later,” Sherman recalled during a recent interview at the Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music Conference. Sherman says it took Walt Disney more than 20 years to persuade Travers to hand over the rights to her characters.

Travers disliked any number of the film’s elements—certain songs, the casting of Dick Van Dyke, it being set in 1910—but the Sherman brothers did succeed in creating a new word for the English language: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

“Bob and I wanted to give the Banks children a souvenir to take out of this magic place. As kids, we used to make up words so we said, ‘Let’s give the kids a big obnoxious word.’ It’s a British thing, so we used ‘atrocious,’ then ‘precocious.’ What rhymes with that? Why not ‘docious’? Then we started with ‘colossal,’ hit ‘cali-fragile,’ said ‘That’s good’ and two weeks later we had ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.’” —PG

“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”
B.J. Thomas
Label: Scepter Records
Year of release: 1969

Three years after signing with Scepter Records, B.J. Thomas was asked to record a song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who had written a tune for the Paul Newman/Robert Redford film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The song had been offered to Bob Dylan, who passed on it, as did Ray Stevens, who had just landed the Kris Kristofferson-penned “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

“I still laugh about it today,” says Thomas, who had a million-selling record just a year earlier with “Hooked on a Feeling.” “I tell Ray, ‘You made a bad decision.’ But he just didn’t connect to the song.”

And he wasn’t the only one.

“Mr. Redford was dead set against a song being in what he considered an art film,” Thomas says. To make matters worse, the singer came down with laryngitis. But Thomas refused to let the opportunity go. “Burt realized there was something severely wrong with my throat,” he recalls, adding that Bacharach had the singer plough through several takes before he was satisfied. Somehow the hoarseness worked in his favor. “A 20th Century Fox producer told me, ‘Hey, you’re trying to sound like Paul Newman. That’s a good idea.’”

While the huskiness worked for celluloid, it wasn’t going to pass muster on vinyl. Bacharach had Thomas rerecord it six weeks later in New York for the soundtrack and single. The result topped the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks in 1970, becoming the first No. 1 of the ’70s by an American artist. It also won an Oscar for best original song. —Deborah Evans Price

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