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1963 in music: culture in transition

Bob Dylan led a musical revolution. His influence changed pop music for a time.

The music scene was about to change dramatically. The folk revival of the early sixties was beginning to wane, although Bob Dylan was producing some of his best work. Likewise, the teen idol craze was nearing the end. On the other hand, Motown and Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” broke into the mainstream and were about to become a force. The revolution began in December when the Beatles released their first American singles. However, Beatlemania’s full impact was not felt until 1964. As a result, 1963 represented a transition year in music as established styles began to make way for the second rock era.

Rock n Roll’s first era began in 1956 with Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry blazing trails. The movement stymied in the late fifties as Presley joined the army, scandal plagued Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard found religion, and Buddy Holly died in a plane crash. The original rock n roll stars disappeared and the genre appeared dead. Young people turned to folk music and teen idols to fill their time.

Folk music peaked in the Great Depression and then disappeared into the wind. In the early sixties, it reemerged as young people sought their own voice. By 1963, Bob Dylan emerged the leader of the movement. His earlier work did not register upon the national consciousness. However, he released The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan that year and everything changed. Dylan inadvertently became the spokesman of his generation. The album centered on modern themes such as the civil rights movements, fear of nuclear war, and included sarcastic love songs. On top of this, he condemned war in a prelude to the Vietnam conflict.

Dylan’s concentration on civil rights themes led to his inclusion in the March on Washington. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” before millions on television and a few hundred thousand in Washington. Dylan performed at the event with other folk superstars including Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary. The event integrated young with old, white with black, and conservatives with liberals.

Folk music hit its zenith with Dylan, but adapted to survive the British Invasion. Meanwhile, teen idols seemed to disappear from the charts after 1963. Those that adapted survived. For example, Brenda Lee became a country artist. Leslie Gore continued to record, but her career cratered by 1968. She released her biggest hit, “It’s My Party” in 1963.

Country music provided an alternative to pop and folk. Patsy Cline died in a plane crash at the height of her popularity. Johnny Cash released his most iconic and distinctive work, “Ring of Fire” as the nation inched closer to the Vietnam War. Cash’s hit is notable for the mariachi band accompanying his baritone voice and iconic guitar sound.

Cash continued to be a star into the next decade. However, music pivoted in 1963. Phil Spector employed his “Wall of Sound” studio technique to The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and a technological revolution in recording occurred. Records never sounded the same again. Spector had a number of guitars playing the exact same parts at once and included extra musicians all within an echo chamber. The end result was a full, vibrant sound that transcended AM radio.

As Spector pioneered recording technology, Barry Gordy melded pop to soul music to create the “Motown Sound.” Motown Records incorporated in 1960 and scored their first major hit with “Shop Around” in 1960. The Marvelettes gave Motown its first #1 pop hit with “Please Mr. Postman” in 1961. By 1963, Motown had established its own niche. In fact, Motown provided the only competition for the British Invasion. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas released “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave”, which hit #4 on the charts, led to Motown’s first Grammy nomination, and was later covered by an upstart British band from Shepherd’s Bush, The Who.

The Who caused some controversy with their raucous stage shows, but nothing like “Louie Louie” scandal. The Kingsmen covered a straight forward ballad and transformed it into something seditious. People believed the band intentionally slurred the words to make them undecipherable. According to legend, the song was filled with obscenities and described a sailor having sex with a prostitute. The FBI investigated the song for nearly three years and could not find any evidence to support the claims. Later, the drummer admitted to yelling “fuck” when he dropped his stick about one minute into the record. Despite the lack of evidence, stations banned “Louie Louie.”

The Kingsmen never created the level of controversy The Rolling Stones managed to engender over their 50 year career. The Stones formed in 1962 and named themselves after a Muddy Waters’ tune. They released their first single, “Come On”, the following year. The Chuck Berry cover peaked at #21 on the UK charts. The band continued to tour in 2013. Their endurance was based on their roots in traditional R&B and blues as opposed to popular trends.

The Stones rode the British Invasion to America. The Beatles ignited the invasion in 1963. The British press dubbed their popularity “Beatlemania,” which Bob Geldof later described as the smell of young girls urinating on themselves. The band released their first singles in America after Christmas. At first, American audiences thought the four a bit goofy and laughed at their lyrics. However, in a short time, they ruled the charts and the music industry completely changed.

1963 represented a transition period between the early sixties and the Second Rock Era. Folk music and teen idols performed well on the charts, but were being pushed by Motown. Barry Gordy’s talent helped Motown compete with the British Invasion whereas teen idols disappeared and folk musicians plugged in. However, those events occurred after The Beatles. The Fab Four had a monster year in Britain, but did not break in the U.S. until 1964. Once that occurred, music was never the same.

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