We Dialed BLackburn 1 . . .

Originally posted February 12, 2009

When I was a sprout and one of the tasks at hand was for me to memorize our home phone number, the chore was helped immensely by the fact that part of our phone number was a word . . . and that was the case all over the U.S. at the time.

In St. Cloud, that word was “BLackburn” and our phone number – a number still in use – began with BLackburn 1. My mom has had that phone number for more than fifty-two years, since some time before we moved from Riverside Drive to Kilian Boulevard. She told me this morning that she thinks that sometime during the nine years on Riverside, the phone number changed from 332OJ to the current one.

Sometime in the 1960s – maybe as early as 1966, using the title of Wilson Pickett’s “634-5789” as a rough historical guide – the alphabetic prefixes to phone numbers were discontinued, and phone numbers became all numeric. I imagine the change had something to do with the technology for direct dialing of long distance calls. But in a way, it’s too bad. There was something kind of neat about those prefixes.

I remember a couple of exchange names beyond BLackburn (which was taken from the name of a city in northern England), mostly from movies and television: MUrray Hill and ALgonquin. The Glenn Miller song “Pennsylvania 6-5000” refers to a phone number. But there had to be thousands of prefixes in use. Many of them are cataloged at the Telephone EXchange Name Project, which is a fascinating place to rummage around. Do you remember your phone number’s prefix? If so, feel free to leave a note.

This came to mind this week, of course, because the RealPlayer landed on “Beechwood 4-5789” by the Marvelettes. I posted it here once before, but when it sparked memories of BLackburn, I figured I’d post it again, so I went and found a Billboard Hot 100 from the song’s time on the chart.

A Six-Pack From The Charts
(Billboard Hot 100, September 1, 1962)

“Party Lights” by Claudine Clark, Chancellor 1113 (No. 5)

“The Wah Watusi” by the Orlons, Cameo 218 (No. 24)

“Beechwood 4-5789” by the Marvelettes, Tamla 54065 (No. 39)

“Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” by the Rivingtons, Liberty 55247 (No. 59)

“The Ballad of Paladin” by Duane Eddy, RCA Victor 8047 (No. 67)

“Lolita Ya-Ya” by the Ventures, Dolton 60 (No. 74)

“Party Lights” is a combination of R&B and the girl group sound, and its success was an accident. The hit was supposed to be the other side of the record, a Jerry Ragovoy tune titled “Disappointed.” Since the B-Side was supposed to be no big deal, according to writer Dave Marsh, the folks at Chancellor let Clark record and produce one of her own songs – “Party Lights” – for the flipside. But “Disappointed” stiffed, and a deejay somewhere flipped the record over. “Party Lights” entered the Hot 100 on June 30, 1962, and a little more than two months later, it peaked at No. 5.

Nonsense sounds! “Wah-Watusi!” “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow!” And you could throw “Lolita Ya-Ya” in there as nonsense, too. The watusi was a dance, of course, and the Orlons’ record found its place in a long line of records about dances that includes “The Stroll” by the Diamonds in 1958, Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” in 1960 and 1961 and continued all the way through the years to Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” in 1996. (That’s obviously a quick and incredibly incomplete list; anyone want to add other dance-titled records?) “The Wah-Watusi” was on its way back down as September started. It peaked at No. 2 in July, being blocked from the top of the charts by Bobby Vinton’s “Roses Are Red.”

As to the Rivingtons’ record, by the end, I don’t think the singers have found out what the title means, except that it sounds good on a record. The record reached only No. 48, which I find a little startling for something that was so much fun. If you want more on “Poppa-Oom-Mow-Mow,” the aforementioned Dave Marsh dissects the relationships between it, the Rivingtons’ 1963 record “The Bird’s The Word” (No. 52) and the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” (which went to No. 4 in 1963) in The Heart of Rock & Soul.

The Ventures’ record – even with its nonsense sounds – is a different kind of animal. If it reminds me of anything at all, it’s French pop from about the same time, the kind of music examined lovingly at the blog blowupdoll, for one. And that makes some sense. The Ventures’ record was a cover of a single by Sue Lyon (MGM 13067) pulled from the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film, Lolita. Lyon played the title role in Kubrick’s film. By the start of September, the Ventures’ “Lolita Ya-Ya” had been in the Hot 100 for five weeks, and it moved up to No. 61 two weeks later and then fell from the chart. (I have no idea how well the Lyon version of the song did on the charts, and I’d be interested to know.)

“The Ballad of Paladin” was the theme to a TV western, Have Gun – Will Travel, which starred Richard Boone and ran on CBS from 1957 through 1963. Boone played a bounty hunter and hired gun who used the alias of Paladin. Eddy’s instrumental version of the theme went to No. 33. On the show, the theme was sung by the suspiciously named Johnny Western:

“Have Gun – Will Travel” reads the card of a man,
A knight without armor in a savage land.
His fast gun for hire heeds the calling wind.
A soldier of fortune is the man called Paladin.
Paladin, Paladin, where do you roam.
Paladin, Paladin, far, far from home.

As one might guess, Have Gun – Will Travel was regular Saturday evening viewing at our home.

As to the Marvelettes’ single, it’s a nearly perfect bit of early Motown R&B. It was the fourth of ten Top 40 singles for the Marvelettes, peaking at No. 17, and might be the best things the girls from Inkster, Michigan, ever did. (Though “Please, Mr. Postman” and “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” were close to sublime, too.) The only quibble I have is that the title should have been “BEechwood 4-5789”)

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