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 third 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.
Friend and Lover – “Reach out of the Darkness”
I’m not sure how this bit of well-intentioned piffle sounded in the context of the summer 1968, but – listening back – it’s an agreeable breath of air freshener that signals its period kitsch to such a degree that it’s almost admirable. (Here, it may have been helped by its rather remarkable behind-the-scenes pedigree: produced by Joe South and Bill Lowery and featuring session work from Ray Stevens and other pros who worked the country-pop axis from Atlanta to Nashville to Muscle Shoals.) It all sounds almost unbearably sad in its naive hopefulness, although the chorus – sung with tremulous clarity by Cathy Post – sounds more desperate with every repetition.
Archie Bell & the Drells – “Tighten Up”
(#1 Pop/#1 R&B)
A different, and more substantive, kind of reaching out is audible here. As they announce at the beginning of their masterpiece, Archie Bell & the Drells are here from Houston, Texas to rep their hometown and call out their contribution to the land of 1,000 dances. The song owes some of its celebratory tone and push-and-pull sound from a constellation of soul stars, but it also emerged specifically from the particularities of the Houston scene. As historian Tyina Steptoe notes in her astonishing history of race and culture in Houston, the spare funk workout of “Tighten Up” (developed by the college-based group the T.S.U. Toronadoes before being turned over to Bell and company) was anchored by a horn section inspired by Mexican orquesta bands. Thus, Steptoe notes, “the most popular soul song to emerge from Houston in the 1960s…bore the sonic imprint of a developing cultural relationship between Mexican Americans and African Americans” who challenged the boundaries of segregation through soul-era collaborations. With local roots and global impacts, “Tighten Up” offers a bustling tribute and brand-new beat.
The Rascals – “A Beautiful Morning”
The Rascals – when they were “Young” and afterwards – understood better than many of their “blue-eyed” contemporaries that soul was less about a set of musical characteristics and more about a sensibility or mode of communication. In this, a doors-opening invocation of possibility and reassurance, Felix Cavaliere’s vocals glide across an airy arrangement that bathes in the tender glow of a new day.
The Irish Rovers – “The Unicorn”
Despite big dreams and best-laid plans, we’ll never ever make it back to the garden. In this parable of lost innocence, writer Shel Silverstein pulls a puff-the-magic-dragon trick, hiding an existentialist farewell to youth inside a folk sing-a-long that the Irish Rovers deliver with a perfect mixture of pathos and playfulness. Although musically one of the odder hits of the year, its theme – part cautionary tale, part woeful lament – is right in time with the moment’s dreams and realities.
The Troggs – “Love Is All Around”
The Troggs are probably most famous as the knuckleheads behind the glorious blurt of “Wild Thing” or the screaming match captured on the widely-bootlegged “Troggs Tapes.” But they clean up pretty well, too, as demonstrated by this lilting ballad. Shy and hesitant, singer Reg Presley and the band glide through a first dance that trades the pounding pulse of the garage for the subtler interactions that will be required if the party moves elsewhere.
Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass – “This Guy’s In Love With You”
The simmering intimacy of Burt Bacharach and Hal David so convincingly blurred the line between easy listening, pop, jazz and R&B that it revealed the distinctions between them to be flimsy or even nonexistent. Here, Herb Alpert and the Brass prove that squares still have edges with a vulnerability that seamlessly blends Bacharach/David’s sublimated emotion with the pristine precision of Alpert and his crew. Alpert leveraged his success as an artist into the creation of A&M Records – a story told brilliantly by historian Eric Weisbard – for which this was the first #1 hit and which specialized in a particular brand of smooth, adult-minded pop. Alpert’s version of “This Guy’s In Love With You,” which he sings as supply as he wields his horn, is a fitting choice for an early label triumph.
Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 – “The Look of Love”
One of the early artists signed to A&M was Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, whose blend of jazz, pop and bossa nova was personally endorsed by Alpert and became an important part of the label’s late-60s ascendance. Listening to their own version of a Bacharach/David standard, it’s easy to hear why. The song builds from restrained smolder in the opening section – where vocalist Janis Hall bobs and weaves through waves of syncopated percussion and subtle interjections from Mendes’ keyboard – through a climactic second half with full orchestration before fading out with increasingly frayed cries of “don’t ever go.” Like Alpert’s “This Guy’s In Love With You,” Mendes’s take on “The Look of Love” is the soundtrack of trying – and not necessarily succeeding – to hold it all together.
Merrilee Rush – “Angel of the Morning”
Merrilee Rush’s protagonist probably hopes you’ll still love her tomorrow, but her faith is slipping. There’s a sadness here in the recognition that both participants are “old enough to face the dawn” after a one-night stand, but also a resolve that doesn’t deny its pleasures. Rush’s thin soprano is perfectly tuned for this tension, flickering across pitch and volume as she leads the band at American Studios in Memphis through the repeated destruction and reconstruction of the wall of sound.
Sweet Inspirations – “Sweet Inspiration”
Speaking of the American Studios musicians, here they provide the backing for The Sweet Inspirations – the Cissy Houston-led group who started as gospel singers before transitioning into secular recordings and back-up work – as they testify atop a supple electric-guitar riff and bubbling arrangement. A definitive example of southern soul’s mix of gospel roots and pop ambitions, “Sweet Inspiration” erases any lingering boundary between Saturday-night revelry and Sunday-morning redemption.
Roger Miller – “Little Green Apples”
Roger Miller’s brilliance as a songwriter shouldn’t overshadow his gifts as a singer, since his warm and tender vocals cover the waterfront from good humor to sad mood as effectively as his compositions. This is particularly showcased on his original version of a Bobby Russell ballad that became a cross-genre hit for several artists. Sitting back in love and wonderment, Miller’s vocal (supported by a warm bed of plucked guitar and orchestral strings) is bathed in playful contentedness, with a joyful teardrop that could easily turn lonesome if his partner ever went away.
Peggy Scott & Jo Jo Benson – “A Lover’s Holiday”
Their moment in the spotlight was fleeting, but Peggy Scott & Jo Jo Benson made some really wonderful records in the late-1960s, including this joyous message to love. “Love is reassuring,” they remind us, as the two lovers build a new world (kinda like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell did earlier in the year) around their shared affections and their mutual belief that “we don’t care what people say.” In 1968, as alliances frayed and new fissures emerged, the necessity of finding such spaces in a divided and often violent world became even more essential. Even if they were only between two people. And even if they were only a temporary reprieve, a holiday that might never turn into a longer-term escape.
Waylon Jennings & Anita Carter – “I Got You”
A similar testimony is offered here, as a pre-Outlaw Waylon Jennings and a post-Family Anita Carter insist that those who may be forgotten by society – “two unnoticed people” who can’t afford the finer things and don’t get invited to the cool parties – aren’t ignored by each other. Over deliberate rhythms, with stabs of horns and bopping background vocals, the duo offers a call to acknowledge the invisible that miraculously avoids both “Silent Majority” acrimony or bleeding-heart sermonizing.
Hugh Masakela – “Grazing In The Grass”
(#1 Pop/#1 R&B)
The musical dialogue across the Black Diaspora radiates off the grooves of Hugh Masakela’s strutting instrumental, which he recorded while in exile from South Africa and was later covered (with added vocals) by U.S. pop-soul group The Friends of Distinction. A joyous combination of relaxation and excitement, Masakela’s trumpet rings alongside Al Abreu’s tenor sax and atop bubbling rhythms that point the way toward the funky fusions of the 1970s and offer a musical reconnection across oceans and traditions.
Conway Twitty – “The Image of Me”
It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels. It was Conway Twitty, and he’s really sorry. His purring Romeo tactics turned a “simple” girl into a fallen woman, placing her on a barstool and in the throes of sin. There’s a good bit of mansplaining here, with Twitty assuming that the woman secretly hates herself and claiming that her story’s important because of what it says about him, but the vulnerability in Twitty’s delivery and the gently weeping melody undercuts the patronizing tone. Especially because Twitty understands that he’s right there next to her, both literally and figuratively, getting lost in the bright bar lights.