My Favorite Albums From 1961

January 7, 2012

This is the third year in a row that I have looked at my favorite albums from 50 years ago. Since I was not buying albums at the time, my appreciation of the music is after the fact. I have also found that my musical tastes of pre-Beatles era material tends to be more eclectic now than it ever used to be. So, here are my top 10 albums from 1961.

10) New Juke Box Hits by Chuck Berry.

Average Chuck Berry was still better than most of what was being released during the early 1960s. There are none of his definitive hits here but what was included was a solid example of Berry type of rock ‘n’ roll. The best known song was “I’m Talking About You,” which was covered by a host of bands including The Rolling Stones, The Hollies, The Yardbirds, the early Beatles, and The Animals. Add in such straight-forward rock ‘n’ roll such as “Runaround,” “Rip It Up,” “Stop and Listen,” “Little Star,” “Diploma For Two,” and “Sweet Sixteen” and you have a very solid, if not classic album.

9) Lonely And Blue by Roy Orbison.

Roy Orbison will always be remembered for his series of single releases for the Monument label during the first half of the 1960s. His perfect tenor voice that could soar almost beyond belief was the perfect vehicle for the catchy rock and pop he produced during his classic period. Any of his Greatest Hits albums from the era are music bliss. Lonely And Blue was his first album for the Monument label and while there are a number of what can be called filler songs, he still manages to make them interesting and listenable. The highlights were his big hit “Only The Lonely)” and his interpretations of two Don Gibson tunes, “I’d Be A Legend In My Time” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Any Roy Orbison album on the Monument album would make most top 10 lists for any given year.

8) Volume 2 by Joan Baez.

Joan Baez was a pivotal figure in the folk revival movement of the 1960s. Her perfect pitch voice, her commitment to social causes, and her choice of material made her an important figure during the decade. Her debut album made my top 10 list last year and her sophomore effort was more of the same. It was mainly traditional material such as “Lily Of The West,” “Old Blue,” “Banks Of The Ohio,” and “Lonesome Road,” which not only entertained but told timeless stories.

7) Now Here’sJohnny Cash by Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash had left the Sun label and signed with Columbia but left behind a number of tracks in the Sun vault. By the early 1960s he was on his way to becoming a country superstar. Sun kept releasing his early material to capitalize on his growing popularity. Now Here’sJohnny Cash was his only 1961 release. These older tracks caught Cash on the cusp of transitioning from a rockabilly artist to one who would help establish what would become traditional country music of the era. It was a more simple sound with only minimal backing but the album is a nice ride through his early career and helps to understand the foundation and early evolution of his music.

6) The Genius Sings The Blues by Ray Charles.

Ray Charles was about to sign with the ABC-Paramount label for whom he would sell tens of millions of albums and in his own way would change the fabric of American music. It turned out that he had one last good album in him for the Atlantic label. He fused a strong blues element with his brand of soul that emerged as one of the more creative and influential albums of the year. What he did with such songs as “(Night Time Is) The Right Time,” “The Midnight Hour,” “I Believe To My Soul,” and “Nobody Cares” hinted at his infusion of country elements to his music in the years ahead.

5) A Man Of Constant Sorrow by Judy Collins.

Today it is easy to forget what an important part of the early folk movement Judy Collins was during the 1960s. 1961 saw the release of her debut album that contained mostly traditional folk songs from around he world, plus a reworking of Bob Dylan’s “A Man Of Constant Sorrow.” The album is somewhat dated today but remains a nice glimpse into a very different world of 50 years ago.

4) Roy Orbison At The Rock House by Roy Orbison.

This is a repeat of the Johnny Cash release. The Sun label released this album to capitalize on Orbison’s growing popularity with the Monument label. This was the pre-pop Orbison who was a rocking rockabilly singer. “Devil Doll,” “Ooby Dooby,” “Rock House,” “Mean Little Mama,” and “Sweet And Easy To Love” showed a very different artist than he would become later. It remains a unique album in his catalogue of releases, one of the better releases of 1961, and is still worth seeking out for a listen or two.

3) Blue Hawaii by Elvis Presley.

Elvis issued a number of forgettable soundtrack albums during his career but this one was a winner. Blue Hawaii spent 20 weeks in the number one position on the Billboard Magazine Pop Album Chart and was one of the 10 most commercially successful albums of the decade. It deserved every accolade it received, as the music was equal to many of his studio albums of the time. “Can’t Help Falling In Love” and “Rock-A-Hula-Baby” are almost worth the price of admission alone. An essential Elvis Presley release, which is very high praise indeed.

2) Patsy Cline Showcase byPatsy Cline.

This was Patsy Cline’s second studio album and it would make her a star. Her hits “I Fall To Pieces,” “Crazy,” and “Walkin’ After Midnight” are all memorable and definitive country songs. Her covers of “The Wayward Wind,” “San Antonio Rose,” and “True Love” all showed an artist of depth and talent. While country music has never dominated my turntable time, this was an album that has received extensive play during the last several decades.

1) Rick Is 21 by Ricky Nelson.

Ricky Nelson released dozens of albums during his career, but no studio album as good as this one. It was the perfect cross between the rock of his early career and the increasingly pop sound that he would develop during the 1960s. Big hits such as “Travelin’ Man” and “Hello Mary Lou” would serve as counterpoints to the rocking “Break My Chain” and the ballad “Stars Fell On Alabama.” It was the first Ricky Nelson album I purchased and it remains my favorite release of 1961.

Blue Hawaii by Elvis Presley

March 4, 2009

Blue Hawaii is probably the movie most associated with Elvis Presley. It is also his most popular and endearing. Its soundtrack would sell three million copies and spend an astounding 20 weeks atop the American music charts. This was good news and bad news for the career of Elvis. The good news was the money and continued popularity. The bad news was that because of this success the future emphasis of the career of Elvis Presley would be focused on making movies quickly and releasing accompanying soundtrack albums. Studio releases would be few and far between, and live concert performances would cease.

The movie, Blue Hawaii, had a lot going for it. Elvis looked good, and his voice was in fine shape. He appeared relaxed and interested and gives a fine acting performance. Also, it was 1961, and Hawaii was considered a far off, exotic location that most people would never visit. This was a winning combination for Elvis fans and for the moviegoing public at large.

While the soundtrack to Blue Hawaii is a long way from Elvis’ classic rock ‘n’ roll albums, it is still a fairly strong album and remains a very pleasurable listening experience.

The soundtrack contains one of the great Elvis Presley ballads. “Can’t Help Falling In Love” is still instantly recognizable over 45 years later. This song, featuring a sensitive vocal and romantic lyrics, has been played at who knows how many weddings and proms. It was released as a single and reached number two on the national charts. It was one of his first singles to be pulled off a Presley album. Elvis’ singles and albums were always kept separate so as not to interfere with each other commercially. “Can’t Help Falling In Love” would begin to change that philosophy. The song would also make a huge impact on the easy listening charts, remaining in the number one position for six weeks. It would continue to move Elvis further away from his rock roots.

The title song, “Blue Hawaii,” had actually been around for awhile and had been recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Today the song belongs to Elvis. “Rock-a-Hula-Baby” would be released as the B side of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” and become a hit in its own right, reaching number 23 on the charts. This up-tempo song, that was a cross between rock and pop, was given a joyful performance by Elvis. You really need to watch the movie to fully appreciate this song. “Hawaiian Wedding Song” is another strong ballad by Elvis and also works well within the context of the film.

There is a feel of Hawaii in the music. Songs such as “Moonlight Swim,” “Hawaiian Sunset,” “Island Of Love” and “Aloha Oe” make you almost smell the ocean and feel the tropical breezes. On the other hand, songs such as “Ito Eats,” “Slicin’ Sand” and “Beach Boy Blues” merely serve to fill out the film and album. Songs of this nature and quality would appear all too often in future Elvis movies.

Blue Hawaii is rightfully placed at the top of the Elvis Presley movie list. Both the soundtrack and film are truly essential Elvis. They both represent the Elvis that we would like to remember. So grab a beverage, put your feet up, close your eyes and smell the salt water as you travel to Blue Hawaii.