Sitting Out The Dance On The Stairway

Originally posted January 21, 2009

I heard a snippet of “Judy In Disguise” on the radio the other day, and just that little bit – no more than ten seconds’ worth – of that hit from John Fred & His Playboy Band triggered one of those memories that slide past us now and then:

It’s lunchtime at South Junior High School. We’re allowed, after we’ve eaten, to head down to the gym, where we can play records and dance. Of course, I don’t dance. None of the guys do. But we hang around the edges of the gym, listening to the tunes and watching groups of girls dance. It’s not a bad way to spend the second half of a very short lunch period, better than sitting in the cafeteria.

And one day, for certain, one of the records that someone brought for lunchtime listening and dancing was “Judy In Disguise.” Because whenever I hear it, I’m in that gymnasium, hanging back on the edge with the other guys.

Based on the charts, that would have been late 1967 or early 1968. It was January 20, 1968, when “Judy In Disguise” reached No. 1, where it would stay for two weeks. And that memory of watching the girls dance in the gym also triggered another recollection, this one coming from a little bit later in the school year.

This time, it was an after-school dance in the cafeteria. All the long tables had been folded up and moved to a side room, giving us plenty of room to dance or to mill around on the edges. Some of the guys danced; most of us didn’t. But we gabbed as we stood along the walls and watched.

Then, I heard the teacher who was operating the record player announce a “snowball,” one of those dances that starts with one couple. After a short time, the music would pause, and each of those two dancers would select a new partner from the watching crowd. That would continue for some time, maybe two or even three records. On this day, when the teacher announced the dance, she also – only God knows why – announced my name and that of a young lady whom I didn’t know well, calling us to come start the dance.

I was in the back of the lunchroom, and there was a door. I bailed. And I sat on a nearby flight of stairs until the snowball was over.

A Six-Pack From The Charts (January 20, 1968)
“Next Plane To London” by the Rose Garden, Atco 6510 (No. 35)

“Love Is Blue” by Paul Mauriat & His Orchestra, Philips 40495 (No. 47)

“Back Up Train” by Al Green & the Soul Mates, Hot Line 1188 (No. 58)

“Carmen” by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, A&M 890 (No. 69)

“Dancing Bear” by the Mamas & the Papas, Dunhill 4113 (No. 72)

“Let the Heartaches Begin” by Long John Baldry, Warner Bros. 7098 (No. 88)

There is an earnest clunkiness – or perhaps clunky earnestness – to “Next Plane To London” that makes the record endearing. I don’t know if I ever heard it when it was out. This was before I really listened to Top 40, and the record was on the charts for only seven weeks and peaked at No. 17. But I like it a great deal when it pops up on the player these days. The Rose Garden was from Parkersburg, West Virginia, and this was the group’s only hit.

“Love Is Blue” was on its way up the chart, having jumped to No. 47 from No. 84 in one week. In three weeks more, the record would reach No. 1 and stay there for five weeks. At the time, according to my aging edition of the Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits (1988), Mauriat’s single was the only U.S. No. 1 hit to have been recorded in France. I don’t know if that’s still true. I do know that the record was Mauriat’s only Top 40 hit, and it was the first instrumental to reach No. 1 since the Tornadoes’ “Telstar” in 1963. (Thanks go, I believe, to JB at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’.)

“Back Up Train” was the title track to Al Green’s debut album. The single – like the album overall – carries hints of what was to come in a few years when he’d team up with Willie Mitchell. The record just barely missed the Top 40, spending three weeks at No. 41 before falling back.

Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass had a remarkable run in the mid-1960s. From “The Lonely Bull” in 1962 through “A Banda” in 1967, the group had thirteen Top 40 hits. “Carmen” was the second single – I believe – from A Banda, but failed to reach the Top 40, peaking at No. 51 in February 1968.

“Dancing Bear” is an odd record, with its woodwind introduction. (It puts me in mind a little bit of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair.”) By the time “Dancing Bear” was released, the Mamas & the Papas’ time in the Top 40 was about done. The single peaked at No. 51 during the first half of January 1968, and the group’s last Top 40 hit – “Dream A Little Dream Of Me,” actually credited to “Mama Cass with the Mamas & the Papas” – would go to No. 12 during the summer of 1968.

“Let the Heartaches Begin,”which went to No. 1 in the U.K., was one of several ballads that brought Long John Baldry some chart success in Britain in the mid-1960s. Those ballads were anomalies in a career based first in folk and blues and later in bluesy rock, as was noted here recently with “Don’t Try To Lay No Boogie-Woogie On The King of Rock & Roll.” The single’s British success didn’t translate on this side of the Atlantic; “Heartaches” spent two weeks in Hot 100, peaking at No. 88.

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