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Your Hit Parade

Your Humble Blogger happened to be listening to All Things Considered t’other day, and I heard a twelve-minute piece by John McDonough called “A Look Back at ‘Your Hit Parade’”. The piece focused on what killed the show, rather than (as you might expect) on what kept the show alive for more than twenty years. Mr. McDonough identifies two trends which he seems to muddle with each other, both of which are highly dubious, and he misses two things which seem obvious to me and which seem to have been far more likely to bring about the ultimate demise of Your Hit Parade.

I should start, as Mr. McDonough appropriately did, by pointing out the distinction of Your Hit Parade, which is that the songs were performed anew each week by the Hit Parade orchestra and singers, unlike Casey Kasem’s later countdown show America’s Top 40, which played popular recordings. There is a big difference between a show that highlights songs and one that highlights recordings. Another way of looking at it is that the cast of Your Hit Parade was simply not as successful as the cast of America’s Top 40, the latter of which was by definition the most successful recording artists of the time. So if we’re looking at what killed Your Hit Parade, the answer has got to answer the question of why Your Hit Parade died, but ten years later, America’s Top Forty flourished.

The first killer that Mr. McDonough identifies is the stylistic change from jazz and theater based songs to blues and rock, which he claims was a shift from writing to performance. “The blues was either a performance or it was nothing at all.” Unlike the previous two decades, he claims, the songs that became popular were associated with their writers, and with a particular performance. “It [rock and roll] was a place where authenticity was valued over artifice, where singers would become their own songwriters and vice versa, where only the author would have the authority to render the authentic version, where the performance would become the central product and the song, accessory or worse [a statement?].” I have no idea what he’s talking about, and it’s not just that I can’t make out the last word in the sentence. In 1959, when Your Hit Parade was cancelled for the last time, Bob Dylan was a Minnesotan nobody named Zimmerman; in 1959, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had recorded nothing. Yes, Chuck Berry had a hit with his self-written “Maybelline”, and Buddy Holly had recorded “Peggy Sue” and “Rave On”, but the singer-songwriter was scarcely common. In 1958, the Everly Brothers had two massive hits: “All I Have To Do Is Dream” and “Bird Dog”. These were added to their two hits of the previous year: “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie”. All four of those songs were written by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. I’m not convinced that the success of Buddy Holly clearly signaled the rise of the singer-songwriter more than Johnny Mercer’s or Hoagy Carmichael’s hit recordings of their own songs. That rise happened, and would clearly have signaled the end of a house-band style of countdown, but it hadn’t happened by 1959.

It’s also, by the way, possible to say that while the ‘authenticity’ of the singer-songwriter hadn’t been a big deal, songs were associated with stars in a way they hadn’t been earlier, and that the house-band style worked against that. The problem there is that it doesn’t seem to be true. In 1938 the house band played “Ti-Pi-Tin” 12 times on its way up to and down from the number one position. The Andrews Sisters had recorded it in March, and although there were several recordings both before and after, it’s hard to escape the fact that “Ti-Pi-Tin” was on Your Hit Parade pretty much because of the Andrews Sisters. Ella Fitzgerald recorded “A-Tisket A-Tasket” in 1938; it was on Your Hit Parade for eleven weeks. “Whistle While You Work” never got to the top place, peaking at # 2 in 1938, but as it climbed up and down it was broadcast eleven times, all shortly after 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Again, none of these were singer-songwriters, but all of them were stars, or from a blockbuster movie, just as they are now, and the house band version was clearly a reference to those recordings. And yet, Your Hit Parade survived. Anyway, Mr. McDonough doesn’t mention the issue of the star or of the star recording outside of the context of the singer-songwriter.

(The information about what was played when comes via The BigBands Database, by the way, and although it seems plausible enough, I have no way of verifying it.)

The second killer, according to Mr. McDonough, was simply that popular music after 1955 or so sucked. “The Hit Parade might have survived if enough good tunes had come along, but in 1955, the American Songbook was about to be challenged from below by a rudimentary folk form called the blues.” He then says that the 12-bar blues of hits such as “Dance with me, Henry” was, you know, boring. He quotes Russell Arms, who was on the show from 1952 until 1957, calling the last years “kind of a tug of war between rock and good songs”. Now, I happen to like the popular music of the thirties and the popular music of the fifties. And I can’t deny that a fair amount of the popular tunes of the fifties are stupid songs that, divorced from blistering performances, have little to recommend them. But how is that different from “A-Tisket A-Tasket”? And then there’s “Elmer’s Tune” (fifteen weeks in 1943), and “How Much is That Doggie in the Window” (twelve weeks in 1953), and “Jeepers Creepers” (eleven weeks in 1938), and “Mairzy Doats” (eleven weeks in 1940), and “Sam’s Song” (twelve weeks in 1950), and “The Umbrella Man” (eleven weeks in 1939), and “Woody Woodpecker” (only nine weeks in 1948).

Mr. Arms asks “How many weeks in a row can you do ‘Blue Suede Shoes’?” How many weeks in a row can you do “Peg o’my Heart”? They did it for twenty weeks in 1947, without killing the show. In 1953, Mr. Arms and his colleagues performed “Vaya con Dios” twenty-three times without killing the show. In 1954, Mr. Arms and his colleagues performed “Mister Sandman” eighteen times without killing the show. And the problem was a tug of war between rock and good songs? In 1955, Mr. Arms and his colleagues performed “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” fifteen times without killing the show. The problem was neither the prevalence of lousy songs nor the dearth of good ones, or the show would not have lasted twenty years. There’s got to be some other reason.

By the way, one of the legends of the Great American Songbook that Mr. McDonough is that Frank Sinatra pretty much invented it out of the frustration of being the boy singer for Your Hit Parade. The format of the show meant that even as the star, he got only very limited choices. Sure, he got to sing such magnificent songs as “Don’t Fence Me In” and “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Paper Doll” and also such ... other ... songs as “The Trolley Song” and “Shoo Shoo Baby”, not to mention “Swinging on a Star”. He sang “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” and “Besame Mucho”. He sang “Milkman Keep Those Bottles Quiet”. He evidently sang “No Love No Nothin'” four times in January and February of 1944 in addition to the six other performances the band did with other singers that year. Later, after his career died and he had his first great comeback, he decided to have his own damn’ record company and not record any more crappy songs just because they were popular. As a result, he wound up selecting the basis for what became known as the Great American Songbook, and defining what was a standard and what was not. This isn’t true, in any significant sense, but it is illustrative. It also points out one reason the show lasted as long as it did: Frank Sinatra.

Anyway, Mr. McDonough does not notice a couple of things that I think are much more likely to have killed the show. The most important, I think, is simply the generation gap. The baby boom started in 1946 (more or less); by the late fifties, the baby boomers were entering their teens, and starting to have a significant impact on popular music. They pull the ratings (particularly of television shows, but also of music), because there are so damn many of them. So unlike the situation from 1935 to 1955, when the radio-listening population changes only gradually, from 1955-1959 the television-watching population changes quickly and drastically. Things become old-fashioned much quicker. And old-fashioned things get cancelled quicker. Meanwhile, there is suddenly a ton of competition. By 1957, ABC is broadcasting American Bandstand. As Rodney Buxton writes for the Museum of Broadcasting, “the increased spending power of American teenagers in the 1950s attracted advertisers and companies marketing products specifically targeting that social group.” Their parents were, perhaps, watching the Lawrence Welk show, which premiered in 1955. These two shows were hugely successful for a long time, in part (I suspect) by carving up the audience, and sharpening their appeal. This was something Your Hit Parade couldn’t do. The problem wasn’t that people wouldn’t tune in for “Blue Suede Shoes” every week, it was that the people who tuned in for “At the Hop” or “Hard Headed Woman” weren’t tuning in to hear “Volare” or “It’s Only Make Believe”. No music show was ever going to bring parents and children together to enjoy the same music. Ten years later, when the boomers could fully dominate the music scene, the countdown came back.

The other thing that I think killed Your Hit Parade is that it just wasn’t very good. Really, why would you think it would be a good television show? What about the thing makes for good TV? Honestly, it’s much harder to understand why Lawrence Welk stayed on television than to understand why Your Hit Parade got cancelled. Lawrence Welk was, however inexplicably, a star; Your Hit Parade had, um, Gisele MacKenzie. And Russell Arms. And Snooky Lanson. Seriously, Ms. MacKenzie was the closest thing to a star they had during the TV years, and she left in 1957, shortly before the show was axed for the first time. Coincidence? You be the judge.

I suspect that even if Your Hit Parade had stayed on the radio, it would have died in the sixties, when Elvis, Dylan and the Beatles completed the shift from song to recording. But it would have had a chance. On TV, it had no chance. And it didn’t have much to do with the rise of the singer-songwriter or the death of the popular song.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


dylan's also a good counter-example, because his performances often sucked beans inside out and many of his biggest songs were popularized by other performers, in totally different arrangements. no, dylan is absolutely a writer of songs, even if he's also a performer. "knockin' on heaven's door" is the ultimate "song" according to this definition - it's been covered dozens of times, and virtually anybody can perform it to good effect.

hmm. that doesn't address the question of actual hit songs, though. regardless - i don't like the argument either. the popularity of cover bands at special occasions, the popularity of karaoke (and american idol), and the publishing of lyric sheets inside albums all imply that it's still about the songs for most people. otherwise who'd sing along with the radio - it's not like we shut up and listen when a favorite comes on.

v. you didn't list the post-war rhythmic and harmonic revolution as a change, that the instruments were going avant garde and bands were getting smaller to accommodate heavier and heavier improv - jazz was coming apart and people were definitely listening to the new stuff, based on its increasing presence in movie soundtracks as the 50s went on. ella held her title as a jazz singer but many others became "pop" vocalists as jazz left behind the dance hall and became a modern conceptual challenger of symphonic concert music.

that could have been a boomer event but i think not, it was well underway before the 40s were over and people were shall we say already diggin' it at that point.

Well, and as you say, the post-war changes you mention were well over by the time the show went downhill in 1955 (or so). I suspect the hit recordings that popularized the songs were made with smaller and smaller bands throughout the forties, although of course during the war itself the popularity of combos (such as Nat King Cole's trio) for stateside live entertainment was balanced by the popularity of the military big bands records. Or so I'm told.
I do think there's a substantial sense that in the thirties and forties any band was expected to be able to play any popular song, which is no longer the case. If Billy Strayhorn wrote a hit song for the Duke, you could bet Benny and Tommy and Harry and Woody and Chick and the Count would have to play it at dances, and you'd probably get three or four of them recording it. Now, although you do get covers, the relative priority of song and performance has changed. When we sing in the shower, we demand R-E-S-P-E-C-T like Aretha rather than like Otis. And the authenticity thing, although not the issue is was in the seventies, is still enough to give people a stick to beat the boy bands with.
Um, each in our own showers.
I should, however, have pointed out that the quote The blues was either a performance or it was nothing at all applies only to rhythm-and-blues, if to that; I hope that Mr. McDonough wasn't suggesting that, say, the Beale Street Blues or the St. James Infirmary Blues were nothing as songs, and that the zillion interpretations of them by every band worth its salt were as nothing.
You make a good point about Dylan, by the way. I think of him as the pivot, where his performances (some of which I adore, by the way) are often made acceptable simply because the songs are his, and other than the authenticity factor, you'd just as soon hear somebody else's version. What I forget is that, judging by sales, people would just as soon hear somebody else's version. The Byrd's, by preference, rather than Mr. Shatner's.

Your analysis is convincing, but I have to wonder... how did you come to have such an interest in and familiarity with a radio show from the 1930s-50s?

knock me over with a feather, i didna know tha' aboo the great big ban's...

If Billy Strayhorn wrote a hit song for the Duke, you could bet Benny and Tommy and Harry and Woody and Chick and the Count would have to play it at dances, and you'd probably get three or four of them recording it.

now, this is cool, because when salsa music became big in the 70s, something similar happened. not as much on the recording side, but in performance, in spite of the new authenticity/originality thing, even the most famous bands were expected to know the other hits. this included songs that weren't salsa. if people wanted to dance to it, they'd request it.

(the relative poverty of the spanish-speaking audience here stands in for the higher cost of technology in the earlier period - or something - because the famous salsa bands had to do a lot of live gigs, more than rock bands were ever expected to do.)

mind i'm not saying the one jazz is better than the other. i was thinking that the search for authenticity (an inevitable event - "every" technology improvement seems to cause a crisis like this, as increasingly perfect mechanization creates increasingly indistinguishable copies) was maybe first born in bird-n-diz and such, before... well, if there's a before. the influence of blues and gospel on jazz singing in the 30s is strong, right?

when did jukeboxes come out? maybe that's another way to look at this.

My parents used to talk about Your Hit Parade a lot. My sense was that when they were young teenagers (they were born in 1940-41, I guess, so when they were 14 or 15 YHP was still huge) it represented everything that they hated about the dominant culture of the 1950's. They both can still get indignant talking about "How Much is that Doggy in the Window" or "Shrimp Boats are A-Comin'".

What I'd like to know is -- how did they pick the songs? Were these really the songs that were the top hits in the sense that people were buying singles of them, or calling their radio stations to request them, or buying the sheet music? If not, and it's hard to believe they were, then we're talking about an unbelievably paternalistic attitude of "you will like these songs because we say they're hits". But if they _were_ really hits, then my parents were presumably right about the cultural wasteland of the early 1950's.

According to the page you linked to, the show's announcer said each week:
Your Hit Parade survey checks the best sellers on sheet music and phonograph records - the songs most heard on the air and most played on the automatic coin machines - an accurate, authentic tabulation of America's taste in popular music.

I wonder.

My interest is not so much in the show as in the music; I have come to adore the popular music of the thirties and forties. Sad but true. Blame John Alston.

My parents also—particularly my father—talk about Your Hit Parade as being a Big Deal. My dad is older, and remembers the show from the Sinatra years, before is was a symbol of fuddy-duddiness.

As far as I know, they never revealed their survey, and it was never really doubted. Sheet music sales were a big element of it, at least at first, as presumably were payoffs by sheet music publishers. When the Billboard charts came out, they didn't seem to explode the Hit Parade. Although, I must say, I don't know much about the history of the Billboard charts.

And remember, as bad as some of that 50s stuff was, Johnny Mercer's "Something's Gotta Give" lasted for ten weeks in 1955, and they also performed "Learnin' the Blues", which is a lovely song and has become a standard, and "Autumn Leaves" as well that year. And for all that Sammy Cahn's "Love and Marriage" was a big hit for Frankie, it never made number one on Your Hit Parade.

If we set up the inane hits of one era against another, they all lose; "Doggie" is pretty darned bad, but so is "The Thong Song" and "Josephine and her Flying Machine". I think it was when I was watching a video of Howard Jones' "Like to Get to Know You Well" that my mother said something along the lines of 'boy, modern music today is every bit as stupid and repetitive as the stuff we listened to as teenagers'. Something to keep in mind when my Perfect Non-Reader is thirteen.

the summer before last, i think, my mother uncovered in family storage a real treasure: her personal 45 carrying box. this feels a very deb thing. it's a decorated weatherproof container, padded inside, with a nice handle, for carrying your personal music collection to parties.

in other words: ipod, circa 1958. if every young woman brought one of these boxes, you could get a good blister or two on your feet. unless of course...

you were my mother... brought up wishing she were the perfect southern girl...

every song was essentially a variation of "mister sandman."

not even "ain't no rockin' no more."

maybe this is unrelated maybe not. while visiting a somewhat depressed lumber region up north, i was struck with my inability to separate the technology of photography from the people. probably this is common. somewhere in my head, there are blurry people who stand stock still somehow fighting a massive civil war, spilling grey blood on grey grass. the noticeable lack of primary colors in ordinary fashion of the time doesn't help correct this. neither do the tiny, fully painted models of ruins that stand alongside giant blocks of grey at museums of ancient history.

new movies that might feed this part of my brain with corrected images of the past don't work, because they're filled with people who are obviously modern people pretending to be part of the past. everything else that is modern about the performers pulls the color of their lives back into the general time of color and movement.

i thought a good project, to fix this a little, would be to adjust a series of photographs, at 10 year intervals, to match the chemical and equipment characteristics of some useful famous daguerreotypes, to remind that these things can bend our reality the same way. this summer i may do that; it will take some research and effort, or maybe all i need is to find who out there has already done this. in any case i don't want it now, i want it when i have time to think about it...

as part of that i realized that i am now vastly separated from the thousands of years before music performances could be recorded. i would think that old music being inaccessible or mysterious would be the defining relationship, but instead the experience is to be dominated by the recently dead. now that i have a sizeable music collection, if i were to stop picking up new stuff right now, there would be a future point when all the musicians involved were dead, something that is possibly within reach of my own lifetime.

okay okay this has been discussed. the irony for instance of frank sinatra celebrating his own death with a breathtakingly long radio concert. or a particularly tragic recording i have of rwandan group singing, made in the 1950s. the problem is, how does one live in a world where history has in some ways stopped becoming history, where no one's glory days ever end, because the music is still there.

the engine of personal relationships and real live experience (even of simulations) will never make us completely stupid to our own times. i'm struck though that so many modern musical developments are related to reassembling or "reassessing" glory period material. sampling, plagiarism, mimicry. is each energetic new recording doomed to become a stick to discipline later musicians? no the real question i have is:

is it just television that did this? the idea of the image of the musician? billions of records of new music are distributed every year. what if the thing that changed was the increasing number of historic recordings, pressuring upcoming musicians to get into the A-list or see the bing crosby outlive them?

My great-grandmother taught my sister and I to sing "Mairzy Doats" with her as kids. I think of it now not as a "good" song or a song that has any particular temporal popularity stuck to it, but as a member of the same class of default songs as, say, "America the Beautiful" or "This Land is Your Land" or "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" that I was learning at preschool and kindergarten around the same time.

Nana was also fond of this little bit of poetry: "MR ducks / MR not / OSAR / CM wangs? / LIB / MR ducks!", so she clearly had a fondness for the silly.

I'd also like to mention that I've been greatly enjoying reading this comment thread, as with so many others here. Thanks!


went looking for a page on recording technology history because i thought since jukeboxes were old, what other technological or social changes might have influenced a change in music. see i had read a short bio about the beatles that talked about their basically immeasurable influence on all kinds of music, and i thought, when did the LP come out, when could people buy songs in groups, from one artist? 1948.

so then i read down the page a little, first "top 40" show hits the radio 1949. roy brown's "good rocking tonight", 1947.

this all goes along with revived industry and an enormous subsidized push out from center cities into new low density, high tech suburbs to keep the money flowing. but more important, in 1947 the music industry was controlled by 6 companies. when teenagers, with their own money, rejected the mainstream music, a lot of small labels popped up to fill the gap.

in addition to this, recording equipment was getting steadily cheaper. experiments were becoming affordable.

from reading about jamaican music i can tell you, there's a big financial benefit to stripping down your studio operation when your audience is easily bored. the simpler your arrangements, the simpler your lyrics, the easier you can release new records. one of the tricks to stripping down is developing an aggressive, unique studio sound, a foundation of coolness that you can put behind new singers, different arrangements, whatever - in other words the producer is all important - because a great producer can take a house band (or even pre-recorded backing tracks) and put them with the right words and singer that will move butts, and also product.

the other economic advantage of producer-based rather than writer-based music is that it helps distinguish your product in a very competitive industry. by using a house band and particular production values ("heavy on piano," "blazing horns," "amazing backing harmonies"), anybody who copies you will only help sell your other records!

anyway i guess what i'm saying is, as recording equipment got cheaper and younger people got money to buy records, the surge of little competing labels meant that the new music was probably going to demonstrate a high value on originality and a low value on big bands (too expensive) or selling sheet music (too short a shelf life for each song).

anyway - back to mostly guessing - once that competitiveness made the leap to the LP, big labels could dominate again - a single LP of new exciting songs, tied up with a pretty conceptual bow, is just the kind of cost/revenue ratio big industry likes.

just listened to the show. hadn't listened to the show. don't know why i didn't listen to the show.

the show mentioned deejays and producers. i only mentioned producers. the show mentioned sheet music as the old way of distributing/controlling music, records as the new way. the show mentioned authenticity.

it's possible that kasey casem's top 40 show came so late (20+ years after the first show aired) because regional shows were popular enough that a syndicated show wasn't wanted?

for the time being i'll treat this as digital corkboard. any time i find something relevant to the changing emphasis from interpretation to commodity, which i think is what we're talking about here, i'll just throw it on this pile. repetitions likely.

(1) lip-sync at concerts indicates the power of deejays and producers in today's pop music business. but i suspect it also demonstrates the fanatical attention to detail of today's young music audience, made possible by incredible media access.

(2) generally modern dance halls don't play the radio or album versions of "original" songs. the work of the first producer is a starting point for another production team's dance remix. or it could be a chain: one producer creates an officially authorized 12" dance track, while another creates a new unauthorized mix live in front of an audience. thus the original song is thoroughly transformed by the local audience's tastes (through its agent, the live DJ), creating something similar to a local band's version of a hit song.

(3) similarly a live DJ's responsibility includes carefully managing rhythm, tone, and social milieu of songs for the length of a set. because of the huge number of available recordings this is an extremely valuable localizing skill, both to create an environment where people want to listen and dance and to maintain the feeling of shared experience (in past, present and future). i think this is analogous to a band "knowing all the songs."

this is the genie that won't go back in the bottle, too, because at some point the wide audience's tastes broadened to a point beyond the ability of any particular musician or band to satisfy, and not just because blacks and spanish-speaking audiences could afford to support their own separate recording industries.

(4) considering the success of phil spector a few years later or the importance that brass sections would take in mature R&B, the argument that blues chord progressions didn't make for good hit-parade raw material looks like a simple skill mismatch. but what if instead there was a fear of blowing the roof off the studio - perhaps reinforcing the building would have extended the life of the show.

(5) various recordings of american folk music of european, african, latin and amerindian origin became widely available in the early 50s with the advent of the LP. fantastic compilations of locally-produced records (the anthology of american folk music) or of field recordings buried in the library of congress (many by alan lomax) were very influential in creating the new "authentic" sounds, or at least of reminding the wide population of the utility and breadth of american troubadour and work song traditions.

and sacred songs, of course.

Corkboard away. Do you know that a lot of the Folkways stuff is available on-line a buck a whack? That'll take care of any remaining time, money or energy you have left...

V -

Thanks for that link. In addition to being a great resource, the page itself makes my web developer heart sing. Very nice. Those of us who've gotten excited recently about new ways to load info into a page in real time (cf. Google Suggest, Google Maps), including me, should be reminded that there are ways to do this (such as the Smithsonian site uses) that have been around for a while.

oh dear, yes, that could be expensive. especially since they sell lossless audio files at the same price. hmm. not a good deal, unless looking for just the one song... their compilations tend to run to 20+ tracks. nice that they include the liner notes as a PDF tho!

we are now the proud owners of a lightly used copy of The Anthology of American Folk Music all sx cds with all the beautiful notes. Wow!

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