A Gathering Of No. 1 Records

Originally posted June 10, 2008

I learned something the other week: One can squeeze onto a CD all of the No. 1 hits from January 1964 through January 1972 (and at pretty good bitrates, too).

My friend Rick called a couple of weeks ago. His college-age daughters had just seen Across the Universe, the film that tells a parable about the Sixties using covers of Beatles music. The girls wanted to hear the Beatles’ originals, which wasn’t hard to do. But they also wanted to know what else their mom and pop heard when they turned on the radio back in those dimly known days.

Rick and I talked about various ways to make sure the girls got a reasonably good idea of what it was like to listen to the radio during the years of our youth, and we came up with the idea of collecting the No. 1 songs, starting in January 1964, one month before the Beatles landed in New York and altered American pop music (and so much more) forever.

So I spent a few hours digging through the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, checking the listings of No. 1 songs through the years in the back of the book. To get through 1971, which was Rick’s original target, would account for 163 different recordings, starting with Bobby Vinton’s “There! I’ve Said It Again,” which was No. 1 for four weeks in January 1964, through “Brand New Key” by Melanie, which was the eighteenth and final No. 1 song of 1971, topping the chart for the last week of that year and the first two weeks of 1972.

So I started digging, collating, labeling and – eventually – burning. I had most of the 163 songs in mp3 form already. I had to dig into the vinyl for a couple – I had up to that point pretty much digitally ignored the Monkees – but I got there. And when I copied “Brand New Key” into the software to burn the CD, there was some room left. So I brought in the first three hits listed in the book for 1972: Don McLean’s “American Pie,” “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green and Nilsson’s “Without You.”

“American Pie” presented a problem, sort of. It was released as a double-sided single when United Artists issued it in late 1971, but I doubt whether many DJs actually played the 45 on the air. After the song hit, I’m sure that most played the album track, which clocks in at 8:33. So by putting the album track on the CD, I really hadn’t included the single, if one wanted to be technical.

There were two other records that presented similar problems, to a greater degree. When Rod Stewart released “Maggie May” as a single, he trimmed a thirty-second acoustic guitar introduction and another twenty seconds elsewhere from the version found on the album Every Picture Tells A Story, making the single a little less than a minute shorter than the album version. There’s not a great deal of difference once one gets past the intro, but the version I slid onto the CD wasn’t the single version. I goofed.

I didn’t get a chance to goof on the other song that presented a problem: The Doors’ “Light My Fire.” I knew the version I had in the player was the album version, clocking in at about seven minutes (on the original vinyl in 1967, the song ran 6:50; the CD reissue has pushed that to 7:08 for some reason). I went to the LP stacks and pulled down 13¸the greatest hits album released in 1970, sure it had the single version of the song. It didn’t. Not wanting to delay the project, I put the album version on the CD and went ahead and burned and mailed the CD.

Curious if the single version of “Light My Fire” still existed anywhere, I left a note at a forum I frequent. I got a note back very quickly from one of my fellow forumites, and an exchange of emails later, I had an mp3 of the single version of “Light My Fire,” which clocks in at 2:51. I tend to think the single version works better than the album track, which includes a long and rather pedestrian instrumental break. That thought is congruent with my view of the Doors as a pretty good singles band that got incredibly self-indulgent and unfocused when it came to albums. (But you know, I still listen to a couple of those albums anyway.)

All-Music Guide says that there are 358 CDs that contain versions of “Light My Fire.” (AMG is also being uncooperative this morning, not letting me access the listing of those CDs. Oh, well.) In my own files, I have covers of the song by Erma Franklin, Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, Minnie Riperton, José Feliciano and Clarence Carter. The best known of those is likely the Feliciano, which went to No. 3 in the summer and autumn of 1968. (That was also the time when his rather free-form interpretation of the U.S.’ national anthem at a World Series game brought amazingly intense criticism).

So I thought I’d share the Clarence Carter version, which came from his 1969 album, The Dynamic Clarence Carter. And, as it seems to be not all that easy to find, I thought I’d share the Doors’ single version as well.

Clarence Carter – “Light My Fire” [1969]

Doors – “Light My Fire” [Elektra 45615, 1967]

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