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 second 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.
Otis Redding – “Sitting On The Dock of the Bay”
(#1 Pop/#1 R&B)
With his body in Memphis and his mind on the banks of the San Francisco Bay, at the intersection between southern soul and California pop that he foresaw through his participation at the Monterey Pop Festival, Otis Redding sits and waits for a new world to be born. The wistful descending guitar chords and gentle wind sounds waft around his pained vocals, which – like his fan Jimmy Cliff – sit in limbo as he finds the resolve to keep waiting, breathing and dreaming. But the waiting is the hardest part, and he whistles away his uncertainty as he ponders what might or might not come next. It’s not hard to imagine that this new world would’ve had a key place for Otis Redding, with his electric talent and rising stardom. But, by the time this song hit the top of the charts, he was gone. It’s a shame that he didn’t make it to that new world, and that he ended up whistling through his own graveyard. But, even fifty years later, you can still hear him on the breeze. Just sit, listen and wait.
The Fireballs – “Bottle of Wine”
This barreling garage party initially sounds like an exuberant celebration of hedonistic excess, but it’s a flimsy mask for a desperate blues about the singer’s increasingly unworkable relationship with the bottle, which has both set him up and let him down. Maybe a more tonally appropriate take was beyond the capacity of the good-timing Fireballs, led by the amiable goof Jimmy Gilmer, whose previous hit was the giggly sex comedy “Sugar Shack.” But, then again, maybe the Fireballs understood that the desperation of the lyric was accentuated by the way that Tom Paxton’s cheery melody and the growling, devil-on-the-shoulder voice undercut the merry chorus of revelers.
Bobby Goldsboro – “Honey”
(#1 Pop/#1 Country)
Back in 1968, when “the music mattered, man,” this wispy near-parody was the #1 Pop hit in the United States the week after the assassination of Martin Luther King and it stayed on both Pop and Country charts throughout that cruel summer. I’m a proud poptimist, so I listened closely trying to figure out some secret resonance (or potential resistance) to the music or cultural contexts of the moment in Goldsboro’s muted vocals, washed-out arrangement and clumsy lyrics. But I can’t figure it out. Sorry.
The Box Tops – “Cry Like A Baby”
“Cry Like A Baby” rushes in with the sound of the overwhelming love that vocalist Alex Chilton had and lost. Before he sings a note, the crack American Studios crew has set up the bubblegum bounce behind behind Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham’s gospel ode to helpless hopelessness. Chilton is particularly effective here, centering the swirling arrangement and finding a supple sweet spot between the gritty soul register he used on “The Letter” and the sweet pop ache he settled into with Big Star. He’s Romeo laid low, promising to do better if he’s lucky enough to get another chance. It’s not clear whether he’ll make good on these promises, but you can tell that he’s sincere in the moment as he falls to his knees and begs forgiveness.
Manfred Mann – “Quinn the Eskimo”
Even as Dylan and The Band’s fabled “Basement Tapes” recordings remained hidden away, minus a few well-circulated bootlegs, several of the sessions’ songs found their way to the charts through recordings by other artists. One of the first and biggest was Manfred Mann’s lush pop version of Dylan’s cryptic portrait of a returning hero. Their take doesn’t exhibit the sepia-toned rootsiness of the Dylan-Band recordings, and thus remains free from their attendant “old, weird America” mythos, but there’s something strangely affecting about the way that the group – still treading the sonic pathways of the British Invasion – pairs Dylan’s unsettlingly cheery lyrics with the reassuring commands of lead singer Mike D’Abo and his whistling chorus of zealots.
James Brown – “I Got The Feelin’”
(#6 Pop/#1 R&B)
Leave it to the Godfather of Soul and the peak-period JBs to create tracks like “I Got A Feelin’” that are simultaneously air-tight and so full of space that there are entire phrases in the rests between punches of horns and stabs of drum. These are funk linguistics at their most sophisticated; when the band drops out on “baby, baby, baby,” which he offers in near-identical repetitions, his pleading R&B past collapses and is reabsorbed into his ever-expanding galaxy of polyrhythms. Papa’s got a brand new dimension.
The Impressions – “We’re A Winner”
As Lauren Onkey wrote in her fantastic recent piece on the R&B hits that surrounded the assassination of Martin Luther King, the poise of “We’re A Winner” can’t help but sound out of place with the moment’s sadness and anger. But, as Onkey notes, the unintentional ambivalence of the call doesn’t preclude its power as a response. “How did these confident lyrics feel on April 5 or 6?,” she asks, “Bitter? A call to the future?” The answer, of course, is both, and these two impulses aren’t contradictory. Indeed, in the hands of the brilliant Chicago ensemble and songwriter Curtis Mayfield, “We’re A Winner” is warm and tender love song to a community in the throes of both triumphs and tragedies. Bathed in gospel assurance and freedom-song insistence, offers – in Onkey’s words – offered both “comfort” and a “way to express mourning.”
Gladys Knight and the Pips – “The End of Our Road”
A similar ambivalence exists for Gladys Knight as she confronts a new reality. If her previous hit “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” found Knight wrestling with how to move forward in a failing relationship, she’s found her answer here. Over a house-rocking background, Knight mixes the existential awareness that “every road’s got to end somewhere” with the personal certainty that – thanks to a negligent partner – this road ends now. With the discontent that fueled the moment’s political assertions just barely under the surface, Knight and the Pips call for a clean break now that truth has made reconciliation impossible. All that’s left is to call Tyrone and move your shit to the left, to the left.
Buck Owens – “How Long Will My Baby Be Gone?”
Buck Owens sounded perfectly at home in the rising paisley dawn of country-rock, both because his Bakersfield Sound helped set its paradigm and because he so expertly tweaked his expectant twang and rumbling, guitar-driven arrangements to answer the rockers who bowed in his direction. As with so many of his great records, Owens’s delivery and bopping rhythms act as counterpoint to the longing and desperation of his lyrics. Here, with a steel guitar weeping in the background, Owens’ famed vocal hiccup is the throat-catching well of tears.
Percy Sledge – “Take Time To Know Her”
Even at his most open-throated, Percy Sledge’s voice always sounded trapped, bound up in the middle of the achiest Muscle Shoals arrangements and in the eye of soul music’s many emotional storms. Here, he sings from the center of a tragic tale of faded love and bad decisions, where Sledge’s failure to heed generational wisdom has left him on the wrong side of the dark end of the street. With simmering horns riding alongside Sledge through the swells, the only hope for Sledge’s protagonist is that he learned his lesson.
Loretta Lynn – “Fist City”
Speaking of lessons that you should’ve learned, Loretta Lynn already warned you. She told you that “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” an earlier hit that preludes and presages this badass firecracker. Over a tightly-wound arrangement that bursts open in the chorus, Lynn smiles and blesses your heart before she reminds you that – although she’s confident that her man wants nothing to do with you – she has two insurance policies in case she needs to take care of business by herself. Lynn’s signature wordplay and badass honky-tonk kick offer a soundtrack to what might happen when the Coal Miner’s Daugher stops being polite and starts getting real.
Jerry Lee Lewis – “Another Place, Another Time”
After a decade of fame and misfortune, Jerry Lee Lewis’s first in a decade-long run of Country hits calls out to other places and other times beyond the lovelorn memories that he cried over in this stately ballad. He looks back to his rock ‘n’ roll ‘50s – where he recorded hopped-up covers of Hank Williams and Ray Price – and ahead to the smooth country ‘70s, when he wrapped his leather-bound voice around a compelling series of honky-tonk classics. Looking backwards and forwards, inward and outward, Jerry Lee Lewis waits and watches in a manner that’s not dissimilar to fellow genius Otis Redding, even as their sounds remain only partially connected through the shared subtext and sonics of the country-soul that took root in places like the Memphis they both called home.
In the sound of 1968, it seemed like everyone was seeking new worlds.