Any discussion of the music of 1968, or any other year, is incomplete by solely focusing on albums. So I thought I’d offer some assorted (jumbled) thoughts on some of the singles that reached the Top 10 of the Hot 100, Country and R&B charts during the year. Here’s the first installment. This is just a smattering of the hits, of course. There are some that I’ve avoided because I’ll talk about the albums on which they were included, or some because I don’t have much to say about them, and still others that I left off for no good reason. But these capsule portraits hopefully reveal some of the individually noteworthy moments on the upper reaches of the Hit Parade, as well as some surprising connections between them.
John Fred and his Playboy Band – “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)”
Given how much huff-and-puff we hear about how much the more the “music mattered, man” back in 1968, it’s rather amusing to realize that the year began with this glorious goof knocking The Beatles off the top of the pop charts. Then again, it’s not hard to imagine the Fab Four – with their smirking irreverence and love of wordplay – getting a kick out of this playful undercutting of psychedelic profundity. In fact, with its strutting bassline and sexy bridge, it’s not hard to imagine them rocking this out in a rehearsal when no one was paying attention.
The Lemon Pipers – “Green Tambourine”
In one way, this track is pure cliché, blatantly ripping off “Mr. Tambourine Man” and more largely trading on the hippie pop fad that bookended the Summer of Love. But there’s a surprising note of menace in this tale of a poor street musician desperately hustling for coins, particularly in the echoing distortion of Ivan Browne’s lead vocal on the hook. Like Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” the Lemon Pipers give us a perhaps unintentional glimpse of the rude awakening that would soon come to end the hippie dream. (In fact, it’s not hard to imagine this, rather than “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” as the theme to David Fincher’s great film Zodiac.) More than just a trifle, “Green Tambourine” is a strange little Pied Piper trip into the shadows.
Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart – “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight”
There’s also a touch of menace in this bit of bubblegum dynamite from songwriting pros Boyce and Hart, who step out from behind their wall of Monkees royalty money to deliver this great big blast of bang-shang-a-lang. With its furiously-strummed acoustic guitars, nervous close harmonies, and emotional dread, it could’ve been a killer Everly Brothers single. And its horny angst would’ve made it a great cover for a power-pop or early punk band. It’s as tightly-wound as a sugar rush, and just as likely to lead to an emotional crash.
Paul Mauriat – “Love Is Blue”
I should know better, but I’ll admit that I was surprised to learn that one of the biggest hits of 1968 (when “the music mattered, man”) was this easy-listening instrumental by a French orchestra leader. It topped the charts for 5 weeks, as did the album it came from, a testament to the larger popularity of smooth adult-contemporary sounds, and to the specific pleasures of Mauriat’s smooth version of a former Eurovision entry. There’s a subtly hypnotic power to Mauriat’s restrained arrangement (more mood than melody), as well as a certain sonic congruity with the fuller orchestration and blissed-out mellowness that marked all manner of pop, rock, country and R&B in this period. It’s a minor pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.
The Letterman – “Going Out of My Head”/ “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”
In another of the year’s more surprising successes, veteran vocal trio The Lettermen returned to the Pop Top 10 with a medley recorded in front of a live audience. The Letterman riff on two of pop’s best falsetto crooners – Little Anthony and Frankie Valli – by jamming their hits together in a medley that befits the “thank you, thank you” setting of the revue-style album the single was taken from, but also emphasizes each song’s evocative focus on the obsessive mysteries of love. Neither would replace the original by a long shot, of course, but the stylistic jam-cut works. In its smoky alchemy, and its mash-up construction, it evokes the work of the Lettermen’s primary pop acolyte, Brian Wilson, then absent from the charts and exploring a quiet faraway place.
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles – “I Second That Emotion”
(#1 R&B/#4 Pop)
Smokey Robinson’s songwriting genius, which helped remake the language of popular music through the hits he wrote for others and himself, covered the emotional waterfront from worried heartbreak to escapist fun. But he never sounded more playful than on this track, which marries one of his signature brilliant lyrics to the rising swell of peak-period Motown sound. The verses express doubt before opening into the hope of the chorus, where Robinson allows himself a moment of hope and excitement at the possibility of finally finding a love that’s true. Joined in harmony with the Miracles (who leave him to wonder alone in the verses), Robinson’s trademark falsetto carries an air of sweet release as it affirms the sweetness of this possibility. Leave it to Smokey Robinson to base a glorious love song on a mechanism of parliamentary procedure.
The Delfonics – “La-La Means I Love You”
(#2 R&B/#4 Pop)
Smokey Robinson didn’t write this hit from the early days of Philadelphia soul, but – between the aching falsetto and the lyric that uses alone-in-the-crowd imagery to explore deep emotional subtext – his influence is all over this beautiful track. The Delfonics and co-conspirator Thom Bell create a definitive early statement of the Philly sound and a graceful encapsulation of the pop dream. Even as the singer can’t find the correct words to express his love, he finds a purer articulation through an elemental musical phrase. From the first “la la,” you know that no smooth-talking Romeo ever had a chance.
Sam & Dave – “I Thank You”
(#4 R&B/#9 Pop)
From its soul claps to its praise shouting, “I Thank You” is maybe the purest example of Sam & Dave’s secular gospel to make the charts. Backed by their trusted MGs and Memphis Horns (with Booker T. Jones’ organ offering particularly supple support), Sam Moore and Dave Prater give praises to a lover who found them, turned their whole world around, and saved them in the process. The object of their affection isn’t an idol on the wall, though, but a living, breathing human being with a mind and body of their own. There may be no better (or sexier) tribute to his beloved than when Prater sings that “you’ve got me trying new things too, just so that I can keep up with you.” Redemption comes in many varieties.
The Temptations – “I Wish It Would Rain”
(#1 R&B/#4 Pop)
Listening to this song, like so many entries in the seemingly-bottomless canon of Motor City masterpieces, it’s astonishing to think that anyone ever bought into that “Motown isn’t real soul music” nonsense. This track from the Temptations – just on the cusp of their “Cloud Nine” makeover – not only gives the lie to that notion, but creates a musical world that blends the swoon of the early Motown sound with its growing interest in sonic experimentation. Between deep gospel vocals from David Ruffin, an arrangement driven by stabbing guitar and church piano, and the cascading vocals of the other Temptations (who keep the rain and tears “fallin’, fallin’, fallin’”), this song is a brilliant manifestation of how effectively Motown mixed the high shine of pop aspiration with R&B’s commitment to emotional realism. By the time the thunderclaps come in at the end, you believe that Ruffin got his wish, although you’re not sure if anyone else can feel the rain as it pours out of his heart.
Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell – “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”
(#2 R&B/#10 Pop)
In 1968, when new and better worlds seemed not only possible but just around the corner, one of soul’s great duos map out an affirming world of love and protection for each other. Gaye and Terrell’s voices interlock and interweave, calling out their joyful wishes for each other and then joining together in harmony over the track’s swaying sunshine. “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” sounds the hope of an expansive political moment and the joyous possibilities of new personal beginnings. But it also sounds the caution of that same expansive moment, and – particularly given Terrell’s death in 1970 – it becomes a heartbreaking tribute to how quickly and tragically those worlds can fall apart. I hope the two of them are singing together in a new and better world somewhere.
Gladys Knight & The Pips – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”
(#1 R&B/#2 Pop)
Marvin Gaye’s musical conversation with great R&B women extended to his blockbuster version of this cut that was first popularized by label-mate Gladys Knight. While Gaye’s version sometimes (unfairly) overshadows Knight’s take, her performance offers an powerful complement and counterpoint that centers her refusal to ignore her lover’s duplicity and her desperate attempts to either save the relationship or end it with an honest reckoning. Knight wrangles these internal and external conflicts inside a singularly powerful vocal, backed brilliantly by the Pips’s insistent background singing and a thunderous Funk Brothers track. Knight has no doubt of the outcome of the confrontation, but she knows it’s necessary nonetheless. And she’ll handle the consequences.
Lynn Anderson – “Promises, Promises”
Lynn Anderson gets exactly where Gladys Knight is coming from. In her 1970 anthem, she made clear that she never promised you a rose garden, but her breakthrough hit from two years earlier makes clear from the get-go that you promised her a helluva lot and didn’t come up with a single thing. Now she’s thoroughly tired of your shit, but she’s not denying that she’s got some of her own. After all, despite her lover’s failings and his ending claim that he’s gone for good, Anderson knows that he’ll be back and she’ll accept him. The worst broken promises are the ones we’ve made to ourselves, and the piercing guitar and Anderson’s weary vocals emphasize their awareness of these existential blues.
Dolly Parton & Porter Wagoner – “The Last Thing On My Mind”
Those same existential blues anchor this transformative version of Tom Paxton’s well-known folk ballad. Dolly and Porter turn a solo lament of lost love into a final conversation between two partners who mourn the loss of a love that was so strong but also acknowledge their shared culpability in its failure. There’s a catharsis here alongside the grief, with the bopping arrangement suggesting that the end of this relationship will mean a weight eventually lifted from both sets of shoulders. The shifting focus between the two singers illustrates this mutual understanding, but also shows how good intentions and great chemistry can still lead to a dead end. The final verse – when Dolly sings “I’ve got plenty of reasons for going,” Porter admits “this I know” and later cries “please don’t go” – makes clear that the feelings will remain even after this necessary moment of closure.
Glen Campbell – “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”
Sometimes there’s even less closure. The tragedy of this song – plainly expressed in Jimmy Webb’s lyric and melody, and given such aching expression in Campbell’s vocal – is not so much that he’s left his love behind. It’s in the lack of that final conversation that Dolly and Porter got to have, the recognition that they failed to build a world around each other in the hopeful manner of Marvin and Tammi. Literally and figuratively looking backward, Campbell understands that his partner will experience the slow build of heartbreak as the full finality of his departure sets in. But part of his concern might be projection, since his teardrop tenor lets us know that he’ll be doing his share of crying too.
Love really is blue.