First Friday: May 1968

Originally posted May 2, 2008

When one looks back at the major events of 1968 – or of any year, for that matter – there is generally a kind of storybook quality about them: They happened, they got attention, but they didn’t really affect us or the people around us.

What I mean is: No matter how awful – or in rare cases, beneficial – an event might be that is large enough to attract the attention of the world, simply because of sheer numbers, it rarely affects us or someone we know. To put it in the perspective of an event I mentioned in my look at March 1968, very few of us in the U.S. knew someone involved with the massacre at My Lai. As horrible as it was, when the tale of the massacre became public, very few of us had our revulsion augmented by the fact that we knew someone who had pulled a trigger. And as powerful and terrible as the events of 1968 had so far been as we entered May, most of us were spectators, gaping at the display.

But in May, as obliquely as it might have been, a major news story touched down at our home in St. Cloud. It wasn’t tragic, it could have had a far greater impact than it did, but it was there.

What became known as mai 68 in France began, says Wikipedia, as a series of student strikes that broke out in May at universities and schools in Paris, “following confrontations with university administrators and the police.” The French government, led by President Charles de Gaulle, attempted to end the strikes with more police action, but that only made matters worse.

There were street battles with the police in the Latin Quarter of Paris, followed by “a general strike by students and strikes throughout France by ten million French workers, roughly two-thirds of the French workforce. The protests reached such a point that de Gaulle created a military operations headquarters to deal with the unrest, dissolved the National Assembly and called for new parliamentary elections for June 23.”

Wikipedia further notes: “May ’68 was a political failure for the protesters, but it had an enormous social impact. In France, it is considered to be the watershed moment that saw the replacement of conservative morality (religion, patriotism, respect for authority) with the liberal morality (equality, sexual liberation, human rights) that dominates French society today. Although this replacement did not take place solely in this one month, the term mai 68 is used to refer to the shift in values, especially when referring to its most idealistic aspects.”

In St. Cloud, at my home, we watched the events of about four thousand miles away with great interest. I remember seeing students at the barricades in the streets of Paris, both on television and in photos in newspapers and magazines. Why did it matter? Because my sister, three years older than I and about to graduate from high school, was scheduled to spend six weeks in France that summer – near Paris, I believe – studying French language and culture.

Her six weeks would begin in July, but as the events of May wore on, I seem to remember my sister and my parents being kept informed by the sponsoring agency. There was some concern that the program might have to be canceled. Now, a Midwestern girl not getting her chance to go to France pales, I know, when compared with many of the wounds that the year of 1968 was inflicting. But it would have saddened her greatly, and grief is grief. As it happened, the furor in France died down as the summer came, and the sponsoring agency found a place to host the program in the city of Narbonne, just off the Mediterranean Sea. My sister got her time in France.

The uncertainty, though, had a point, as I look back at it. It was a lesson, as if the universe were pointing out that large events are more than tales on a storyboard: They touch people’s lives.

Beyond the upheaval in France, May of 1968 was a relatively tranquil month, according to the list of events at Wikipedia, almost as if the world were catching its breath for what was to come. Still, relatively tranquil is not tranquil.

There were increasing protests in the United States against the war in Vietnam. In Catonsville, Maryland, a group that came to be called the Catonsville Nine went to the local draft board on May 17. Two brothers who were Catholic priests, Fr. Daniel Berrigan and Fr. Philip Berrigan, headed the group. At the draft board office, Wikipedia says, the nine protestors “took 378 draft files, brought them to the parking lot in wire baskets, dumped them out, poured homemade napalm over them, and set them on fire.” They were tried in federal court in October and found guilty of “destruction of U.S. property, destruction of Selective Service files, and interference with the Selective Service Act of 1967.”

The breakaway Nigerian province of Biafra was surrounded by the Nigerian army. This contributed, Wikipedia notes, “to a humanitarian disaster as the surrounded population was already suffering with hunger and starvation.” Efforts to relive the privation were launched around the developed word. Wikipedia once more: “It has been argued that by prolonging the war the Biafran relief effort (characterized by Canadian development consultant Ian Smillie as ‘an act of unfortunate and profound folly’), contributed to the deaths of as many as 180,000 civilians.”

The images we saw from Biafra in the news were truly horrible. If the name of the province/nation is unfamiliar to you, Google it and click on the image search.

May 1968 in Music
There’s no way to write a paragraph of transition from starving Biafrans to the Top 40 without seeming utterly callous. So let’s just acknowledge, I guess, that some folks could play while some starved. It’s always been so, and – unhappily – it will likely always be so.

Here’s the Top Fifteen for the week of May 4, 1968:

“Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro
“Cry Like A Baby” by the Box Tops
“Young Girl” by the Union Gap Featuring Gary Puckett
“Lady Madonna” by the Beatles
“Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & the Drells
“I Got The Feelin’” by James Brown and the Famous Flames
“Cowboys to Girls” by the Intruders
“The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” by Hugo Montenegro, His Orchetra and Chorus
“A Beautiful Morning” by the Rascals
“The Unicorn” by the Irish Rovers
“If You Can Wait” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
“Dance to the Music” by Sly & the Family Stone
“Take Time To Know Her” by Percy Sledge
“Summertime Blues” by Blue Cheer
“The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde” by Georgie Fame

Not a bad batch, with the exception of Bobby Goldsboro and the Irish Rovers. “Young Girl” might be a little creepy, given today’s point of view, but I’m not sure we thought about it like that back then. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the Intruders’ record. I might recognize it, but I’m not sure.

Here’s the Top 10 albums from that first week of May 1968:

The Graduate by Simon & Garfunkel/soundtrack
Blooming Hits by Paul Mauriat & His Orchestra
Aretha: Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin
Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly soundtrack
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme by Simon & Garfunkel
To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With by Bill Cosby
The Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding
Disraeli Gears by Cream
Are You Experienced by the Jimi Hendrix Experience

A couple things jump out. First, it was a very good spring for Simon & Garfunkel. In its second week on the charts, Bookends had jumped from No. 71 to No. 4, and it would stay on the album chart for another thirty-eight weeks. The soundtrack to The Graduate was in its fifth week at No. 1 with four weeks to go during a forty-seven week stay on the chart. And Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme ,which came out in 1966, had re-entered the Top Ten in early April and would stay until late June, eventuall cataloging sixty weeks in the Top 40.

The other thing I noticed is that Are You Experienced had popped back into the Top Ten after falling out. The last week in April, the first album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience had been at No. 13. The first week in May, it was at No. 10, in its thirty-eighth week in the Top 40. The record had done the same thing in February, popped into the Top Ten and then out again, as well as twice in 1967, in October and December. (Its peak position had been No. 5, according to the Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums and it would be in the Top 40 for a total of seventy-seven weeks.)

The album I’m sharing today would enter the Top 40 during the second week of May. It would be a short stay – just six weeks – and the album would peak at No. 29, but in terms of quality and in terms of influence, Jerry Butler’s The Ice Man Cometh would shine as brightly as anything released in 1968.

Butler came out of Chicago and joined the Impressions in the late 1950s – hitting with, among others, “For Your Precious Love,” which went to No. 11 on two of the pertinent charts of the day in 1958 – before moving eventually to the Chicago-based Vee Jay label in 1960. Six Top 40 hits followed through 1963, the biggest of them being “He Will Break Your Heart,” which went to No. 7 in 1960.

In 1967, Butler signed with Mercury, and after one Top 40 hit – “Mr. Dream Merchant” went to No. 38 in a two-week stay on the chart – went into the studio with two producers being allowed to helm an album on their own for the first time: Leon Gamble and Kenneth Huff. The resulting record threw off four Top 40 hits and started Gamble and Huff along the way to their near-domination of the charts in the 1970s with their Philadelphia International label, which had a roster that included Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, the O’Jays, the Three Degrees, MFSB and more.

That’s not to say The Ice Man Cometh serves only as an appetizer, as a preview of coming attractions. It’s a great album on its own, as Butler’s combination of smooth and gritty is echoed by Gamble and Huff’s setting the blues-based rhythm section to work against pop-based strings and background vocals. The four singles that came from the record were “Never Give You Up” (which went to No. 20), “Hey, Western Union Man,” (No. 16), “Are You Happy” (No. 39) and the record’s single best track, “Only the Strong Survive,” which topped out at No. 4.

(Lovers of Elvis Presley will recall that the King covered “Only the Strong Survive” during his sessions in Memphis in early 1969. When they listen to Butler’s version, they’ll see where Elvis got his ideas. Don’t get me wrong: Elvis’ version of “Only the Strong Survive” is a great record. It’s just not as good as the original.)

Track list:
Hey Western Union Man
Can’t Forget About You, Baby
Only The Strong Survive
How Can I Get In Touch With You
Just Because I Really Love You
Lost
Never Give You Up
Are You Happy?
(Strange) I Still Love You
Go Away – Find Yourself
I Stop By Heaven

Jerry Butler – The Iceman Cometh [1968]

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