Sunday, January 16, 2022

Download Jeopardy-style game show theme music for free

Here's a piece of copyright- and royalty-free music I recorded that you can use if you are looking for something similar to the Jeopardy game-show theme for training events, videos, PowerPoint presentations, etc., but can't use the actual Jeopardy theme for copyright reasons.

I posted the track on YouTube a while ago but am adding it to this page so people can find it more easily. To download the audio, click the download link below or use a YouTube-to-MP3 site to rip the audio directly from the video.

MP3 download link

(When you click the link above, a preview screen will appear. Click the download icon in the top right-hand corner to download the file.)

Sunday, January 9, 2022

The polkapocalypse: Late August at the Hotel Ozone (1966) and "Beer Barrel Polka"


"Eight savage young women raised in the 
barren aftermath of the Final World War."

The most terrifying aspect of this mid-Sixties Czech post-apocalyptic film is that it envisions a future in which the only surviving phonograph record is "Beer Barrel Polka."

That sounds like it could be a Mel Brooks conceit, but the movie, Late August at the Hotel Ozone, is not a comedy. Directed by Czech writer/director/actor Jan Schmidt, it’s a grim black-and-white film about a small band of women who have been surviving in the woods for 15 years after a nuclear war has wiped out almost everyone on Earth.

The women live as primitives, sleeping on the ground and killing animals with their bare hands, sometimes for food or self-defense but other times just for fun. The apparently unsimulated killing of animals is a prominent feature of the story, with the women killing a snake, a dog, a cow, and some fish, the latter of which they catch by tossing hand grenades into a river. 

The women are young adults but seem childlike, relying on their leader to break up their fights and rescue them from the dangerous situations they wander into. The women talk very little, urinate in their jeans, and seem unfazed by death, whether human or animal. They waste scarce resources such as fuel and ammo without concern for the future. One woman finds some rifle cartridges and throws them into the campfire, which sends all the women scrambling for cover as bullets zip past, threatening to injure or kill bystanders and the group’s two horses.

Eventually the women run into an older man who has been living in an abandoned hotel (the Hotel Ozone of the title). The man has surrounded himself with artifacts from before the war and hasn’t seen another person in 12 years, so he’s overjoyed to meet the women. The women’s leader, who has fallen ill, is delighted to see a man again, but the girls have no use for him.

In a standard exploitation film, the arrival of the male at this point would signal a probable threat, like a fox in a henhouse, but in this movie, the man is gentle and caring. The only mention of sex in the entire movie is a passing remark the leader makes about wanting to find men so the women can have babies, but the young women don’t appear to share this goal. They’re ready to kill the man the instant they meet him, and he’s spared only because the leader intervenes.

For a short while, the man cares for the ailing leader, feeds them all, and tries to share the wonders of the lost world with them, but only the leader, who remembers the old world firsthand, appreciates his treasures and memories. His fresh milk, coffee, board games, and paternalism are of no interest to the young women.

The leader dies, and the man begs the women to stay with him in the hotel so he can provide care and enjoy their companionship, but the women see no value in those things. In anger, he declares that the young women are like animals, and in reply, they kill him for his record player and return to the wild.

Originally titled Konec srpna v Hotelu Ozon and released in the US under two similar English titles (The End of August at the Hotel Ozone and Late August at the Hotel Ozone), this odd movie shares some thematic elements with other apocalyptic films and books.

The futurelessness of the story reminded me of Children of Men and The Road. The idea of the last male on a planet of women reminded me of the comic book series Y: The Last Man. The inexplicably gendered outcome of the apocalypse was similar to the movies Only and Light of My Life, although both of those portray the extinction of women, not men. The post-apocalyptic scrabble over a gramophone also occurs in the 1977 short film The Portable Phonograph (and the 1950s Walter Van Tilburg Clark short story on which it’s based).

Similar themes notwithstanding, Late August at the Hotel Ozone isn’t very much like any of those movies except for The Portable Phonograph, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Clark’s short story partially inspired this movie. To me, Late August at the Hotel Ozone seems more closely related to some of the other weird, artsy apocalyptic films of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, like Glen and Randa and possibly Vase de Noches, if you interpret the latter as taking place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The US DVD that was released by FACETS includes a booklet that contains an interview with director Jan Schmidt in which he says the most direct inspiration for the film was Nevil Shute's 1957 nuclear war novel On the Beach.

The movie’s lopsided gender composition is intriguing, but the movie is more concerned with generational issues than feminist ones. If you squint hard enough, you can view it as a problematic movie about female empowerment, but it seems more like an expression of dismay over societal changes.

“Beer Barrel Polka”

The significance of “Beer Barrel Polka” as the last surviving phonograph record in Late August at the Hotel Ozone is intriguing, partly because the contrast between the jaunty tune and the hopelessness of the film could've been played for comedic effect but wasn’t. 

"Beer Barrel Polka" is sometimes said to be the most internationally famous Czech song, which might be true. To a lot of Americans like me, the film's choice of this particular song seems inherently humorous, like the use of Slim Whitman’s “Indian Love Call” in Mars Attacks (1996). In the US, polka music is rarely heard outside of specific regions of the country, and the polka is often associated with novelty music, such as that of Weird Al Yankovic. On the other hand, many Americans unironically love polka, and “Beer Barrel Polka” became a national Top 40 pop hit as recently as 1975 (for Bobby Vinton). But it’s probably safe to say that the song held greater significance for the Czech filmmakers than it does for the average American music listener.

Polka originated in Czechoslavakia, and “Beer Barrel Polka” was composed by Czech songwriter Jaromir Vejvoda in 1927. Vejvoda didn’t create it from whole cloth, though; he adapted an earlier instrumental polka titled "Modřanská Polka," and the lyrics were added later by other songwriters. The song gradually found an international audience and reached the US in a big way in 1939, when a number of artists recorded the song, including European accordionist and bandleader Will Glahe, whose rendition topped the pop chart for four weeks.

The English-language rendition of “Beer Barrel Polka” (sometimes titled "Roll Out the Barrel") is an invitation to join the merriment and dance the polka, a sentiment that matches the upbeat, happy music. However, the early Czech lyrics, under the title “Škoda Lásky” (which means something like “wasted love”), describe heartbreak, aging, and lost love.

I don’t know to what extent these binary sentiments informed Czech viewers’ interpretation of “Beer Barrel Polka” when they saw this at the time of its release, but the song has been interpreted and reinterpreted so many times over the decades that no single performance or set of lyrics can capture every potential meaning. 

Some of the more unusual interpretations of "Beer Barrel Polka" include a 1977 disco version by Myron Floren (listen in the video below), a 1960 rock version by The Chaparrals ("Beer Barrel Rock"), and an all-tuba instrumental arrangement by the Heavy Metal Tuba Quartet.

Given the storied history of the song, what is the significance of "Beer Barrel Polka" within the context of the movie, and why are the women attracted to it? Is the use of this happy song in an end-of-the-world movie meant to be ironic? Do the lyrics of “Škoda Lásky”—the ones about aging and heartbreak—reflect the old man's predicament? Or is the song a symbol of Czechoslovakian cultural achievement? If it is, do the women appreciate it because Czech culture abides or because it's merely a shiny object in the wasteland?

If “Beer Barrel Polka” is understood to represent Czech culture and achievement to viewers, then whether or not the women sincerely appreciate it is a matter of only fleeting concern, because a delicate wind-up record player and brittle 78 RPM record won't last long outdoors in the hands of feral women. In that respect, an argument could be made that this is an antifeminist film made on the eve of the 1960s counterculture and Women's Liberation movements that questions the ability of women to carry the cultural torch, whatever importance that has in a world where people are nearly extinct.

Friday, November 12, 2021

First appearance of "My Favorite Things" on a Christmas album? It wasn't Jack Jones


Jack Jones is often credited as the first artist to include the song "My Favorite Things" on a Christmas album, but Jones was beaten to the punch by several years by another artist: Pete King.

"My Favorite Things," from the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical The Sound of Music, wasn't intended to be a Christmas song at all. It contains some mentions of snowflakes and sleigh bells, though, and quickly became associated with the holiday.

The Sound of Music
 opened on Broadway in 1959, and that same year, the Pete King Chorale recorded an album of songs from the musical, which was titled The Sound of Music. The chorale's rendition of "My Favorite Things" was even released as a single
The following year, the Pete King Chorale included the song as the first cut on their 1960 Kapp Records Christmas album, Christmas Time. Kapp again released "My Favorite Things" as a single, this time with a holiday-themed picture sleeve

In 1961, Julie Andrews performed the song on a televised Christmas special. And then in 1964, Jack Jones recorded the version that is usually credited as the song's first appearance on a Christmas album. Within five years, the song had drifted into the Christmas category and soon appeared in mid-'60s Christmas albums by artists such as The Supremes and Kenny Burrell.

Pete King wasn't merely the first artist to include the song on a Christmas album—he also had a role in Jack Jones' recording of "My Favorite Things": King brought Jones to Kapp Records initially and arranged some of his early albums. King didn't arrange Jones' version of "My Favorite Things," though; that credit goes to Marty Manning.

The Pete King Chorale's Christmas album was a good seller and Kapp reissued it every year around the holidays in the early 1960s. The chorale's sound, if you haven't heard them, is more pop oriented than that of, say, the Robert Shaw Chorale. You can listen to the entire album in the video below.
King was an orchestral pop composer and arranger who was born in Greenville, Ohio, home of the famous Maid-Rite Drive-In Sandwiches shop. (King might have eaten there, because it's been open for more than 80 years!) King enjoyed about a decade of work as a bandleader, arranger, and recording artist until a stroke left him deaf and he was forced to retire from music. You can find his bandleading and arranging credits on many recordings by top-tier artists such as Doris Day, Dean Martin, and Julie London, and he has an extensive discography under his own name as well.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Clyde Otis, The Diamonds' "The Stroll," and the mysterious Nancy Lee (1957)

What if you wrote a #1 hit all by yourself but a music industry bigwig put his teen daughter's name on the song as your co-writer? And then she was featured in all the publicity for the song instead of you? That's exactly what happened to Clyde Otis in 1957 with "The Stroll." 

Song publishing was a big source of revenue in the music industry in the 1950s, so it inevitably became a bargaining chip for people in positions of power. Songwriters were often asked to give up a portion of their royalties and share the credit for their work in exchange for getting their song published, and practically no songwriter was immune to being exploited in this way. Both struggling and established songwriters fell prey to these arrangements, and one particularly egregious example involved Otis and "The Stroll."

Clyde Otis
Although Otis wrote the song, which was later recorded by the Canadian vocal group The Diamonds, the story actually begins with The Diamonds. 

Dick Clark, the host of TV's American Bandstand, tipped off The Diamonds to the fact that teenagers were doing a dance called “The Stroll” to “C.C. Rider,” sung by turban-wearing R&B shouter Chuck Willis. An opportunity existed, Clark said, for someone to create a song specifically for the dance, which was a laid-back line dance that Billboard described as a "rock and roll version of the minuet."

The Diamonds thought this was a great idea and asked songwriter Clyde Otis to write such a song. Otis had written his first Top 20 hit in 1956 for Nat King Cole ("That's All There Is to That") and then wrote a bunch more hits for Brook Benton in addition to becoming one of the first African-American A&R men at a major label, in this case Mercury Records, which was also The Diamonds' label.

By any measure, Otis knocked it out of the park with "The Stroll." It's a memorable song with a hypnotic rhythm that perfectly accompanies the dance it was designed for. Even though The Diamonds were Canadian and a little square, they recorded "The Stroll" with Fats Domino's band, and the record ended up having great crossover appeal for rock, pop, and R&B listeners. And King Curtis's saxophone on the record was not just icing on the cake—it transformed a gentle stroll into something that sounded raunchy and dangerous.

The song seemed like an inevitable hit, and The Diamonds, Mercury Records, and the song's publishing company were all delighted. But in an odd twist, Clyde Otis—the guy who actually wrote the song—didn't receive as much glory (or money) for it as he should have, because he ended up sharing the composing credit with teenager Nancy Lee as part of a promotional scheme that was probably completely unnecessary.

Nancy Lee was the daughter of Jack Lee, an executive at Meridian Music, the company that published Otis's new song, and someone—possibly Jack Lee himself—had an out-of-the-box marketing idea: What if they claimed that his teen daughter had co-written the song? Wouldn't that be a great hook for radio and magazine stories? Music reporters and disk jockeys would be clamoring to learn more about this delightful teen upstart! And, of course, the record would sell well as a result.

You can look at this promotional campaign in a few different ways. Nancy's sudden appearance as the co-writer of "The Stroll" was either a) a fraudulent attempt to create interest in the song by claiming that it was written by a high schooler when it wasn't, b) a crass attempt to attach an executive's kid to a sure-fire hit so she could enjoy 15 minutes of fame, or c) an offensive attempt to whitewash the involvement of a black songwriter in a song that was recorded by a white vocal group. Elements of all these might have come into play.

Nancy Lee's alleged involvement in writing the song fueled the marketing campaign, and she appeared in a number of promotional photos with The Diamonds. Some of these photos were used for the sheet music of "The Stroll," and others accompanied magazine articles that profiled the teen.

What did Clyde Otis think about this arrangement with Nancy Lee? I don't know, but I doubt that he, as the sole songwriter, was overjoyed at being omitted from photos that supposedly depicted the writer of "The Stroll." A 1958 issue of Radio Mirror went so far as to refer to the song as Nancy's composition without even mentioning Otis. It's hard to imagine that all this exclusion was unrelated to Otis's skin color. 

In DISCoveries magazine in 2004, Andy Merey asked The Diamonds' Dave Somerville about Nancy Lee:

Who was Nancy Lee?: Curiously, on the original "Stroll" 45, Clyde Otis shares songwriter credits with the mysterious Nancy Lee. Upon examining the original legal songwriter document for "The Stroll", signed on November 17, 1957 by Meridian Music Corporation and the other parties involved, it reveals that Nancy Lee was seventeen at the time, too young to sign the contract on her own, so her mother co-signed as legal guardian.


It seems strange and unlikely that an established songwriter of the stature of Clyde Otis would team up with an underage, seventeen-year old schoolgirl in the big city of New York and collaborate with her in composing "The Stroll". I asked David Somerville about Nancy Lee and how did she come about co-writing "The Stroll". He said, "You wanna know something? She didn't write a damn thing. The song belonged to Clyde Otis. She was the daughter of one of the executives at the publishing company."


The songwriter share was divided up as follows: 66 2/3% for Clyde Otis who solely wrote the song, and 33 1/3% for Nancy Lee, er, Meridian Music Corporation. But such shenanigans shouldn't really come as a surprise, for they ran rampant within record companies and music publishing firms during the 1950s.


In the case of Nancy Lee, the misfeasance was unabashedly blatant. The sheet music for "The Stroll" featured a photo of Nancy Lee, identified as co-writer, flanked by The Diamonds in Stroll position. The British version featured a similar picture but with Nancy Lee in Stroll action as she is being observed by The Diamonds. But this was an imaginative and cute idea just the same. Most sheet music at the time simply featured a picture of the song artists; seldom were there any action shots.

So, adding injury to insult, Otis was not only excluded from the song's promotional campaign but also had to give up a third of the song's publishing royalties in order to maintain the publisher's ruse that Nancy Lee co-wrote the song. Yet Nancy couldn't even receive the money herself, because she was a minor, so a third of Otis's royalties went to Nancy's mom.

Here's a philosophical question: In exchange for giving up a third of his royalties and some name recognition, did Clyde Otis get any bang for his buck out of this Nancy Lee stunt? 

I don't think so. The song was probably on track to succeed no matter what, given the A-list artists and major label behind it and the endorsement of Dick Clark, who played a big role as a hit maker by featuring up-and-coming records and artists on his show. Whether or not the Nancy Lee marketing campaign made a difference, "The Stroll" became a smash hit on the pop and R&B charts (#1 in Cash Box!), and teens across the nation lined up to do the Stroll to this and other records in a similar vein, such as The RevelsMidnight Stroll” and Chuck Willis’s “Betty And Dupree.” 

Clyde Otis himself further capitalized on the craze by recording an EP of pop standards “in Stroll tempo” in 1958 (although his name was hard to find on the record). And Willis, for his part in all of it, became known as the King of the Stroll. Nancy Lee does not appear to have continued her music career beyond appearing in some photo shoots with The Diamonds.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Joe Dowell's rarest album: BGA Benefit Concert 2002


Joe Dowell, who scored a #1 US pop hit with "Wooden Heart" in 1961, released a number of obscure records after being dropped by Smash Records just two years later, but his rarest album isn't Joe Dowell Sings Folk Songs, the private-label album from 1964 that was pressed in an edition of 500, or Of Earth & Heaven, his self-released inspirational CD. His rarest album is BGA Benefit Concert, a live recording of a program he performed as a fundraiser for Bloomington Grove Academy in Bloomington, Illinois, in October 2002. 

I don't know anything about Bloomington Grove Academy other than that it is allegedly haunted. The live album didn't receive a retail release and doesn't even have a proper cover; it's just a CD-R with a paper label that Joe gave away to a small number of people. Joe gave me the copy above when I interviewed him for the liner notes of the Bear Family CD Wooden Heart

In the Bloomington Grove Academy concert, Dowell performs variously with live instrumental accompaniment and pre-recorded instrumental backing tracks and was joined by his wife and daughters on vocals on some songs. A guest singer, Ronnie Jones, sings "Old Man River" and possibly "It's More Than a Tattered Flag," which is sung by someone other than Joe. One of Joe's daughters sings "I Got the Sun in the Morning" solo. The second half of the concert includes instrumental renditions of a piece by Moritz Moszkowski, Santo & Johnny's dreamy guitar instrumental "Sleepwalk," and the country standard "Steel Guitar Rag." 

The only songs in the program that Joe had recorded before are "Wooden Heart" and "Jamaica Farewell," the latter of which he included on his 1964 folk album. Most of the songs are pop and folk standards, including an interpretation of Ed Ames' hit "My Cup Runneth Over." When I interviewed Joe, he told me that he wished Smash Records had allowed him to become an easy-listening vocalist like Ames instead of positioning him as a teen idol, which Joe believed sabotaged his career aspirations. He really disliked the label "teen idol."

The copy of the CD that Joe gave me has a note on the front that was written by Joe's friend Paul Dunn, a former disk jockey. At the time that we were working on the Bear Family anthology, Joe was lobbying hard for it to include an updated new recording of "Wooden Heart," which he was certain would become a #1 hit all over again and catapult him into the late-night television talk-show circuit. That didn't happen, but the note reflects some of that effort:

Hey, Greg,

Here is a rare copy of Joe Dowell's LIVE Bloomington Grove Academy Fund Raising CD. HIGHLIGHTS of the CD include Joe Dowell singing a great, updated version of "Wooden Heart" with his German wife and two daughters singing on the chorus. I wish that Joe's upcoming Bear Family CD would include a year 2003 version of Joe singing "Wooden Heart" with his family! Cuts #1, 2, 9 and 18 feature Joe doing Frank Sinatra songs with Frank's original orchestral backgrounds. Joe's voice really comes through strong on cuts #5, 7 and 10. You will also enjoy guest artist Ronnie Jones doing an a capella version of Showboat's "Old Man River"! 


Paul Dunn

For those who would like to experience this rare concert program and hear what Joe sounded like 40 years after "Wooden Heart" went to #1, I uploaded most of the tracks to YouTube, and they can be heard below.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Halloween novelty hit "Monster Mash" becomes a cereal


Bobby "Boris" Pickett's 1962 chart-topper "The Monster Mash" is the daddy of all Halloween novelty records, and because of the song's renewed popularity on Tik Tok, General Mills is releasing a new limited-edition monster cereal this season called "Monster Mash."

General Mills says the cereal is being released to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their monster cereals, which were introduced in 1971, but I'm guessing that the Tik Tok popularity of "Monster Mash" influenced the direction that their anniversary celebration took.

Whatever the catalyst, the song "Monster Mash" is worth celebrating. It holds up to repeated listening better than a lot of novelty songs and inspired the great Mr. Show sketch "Monster Parties: Fact or Fiction?" Collectors of Halloween-themed novelties know that a lot of these songs are terrible, but "Monster Mash" is catchy, crackles with energy, and tells a story.

Although Monster Mash cereal is being branded as a new cereal, it isn't exactly new. It's a combination of pieces from all five monster cereals: Count Chocula, Franken Berry, Boo Berry, Fruit Brute, and Fruity Yummy Mummy. The inclusion of the latter two cereals is interesting, because those varieties have been discontinued for years, and, apart from a brief return to the market several years ago, will be available for the first time in a long time in the Monster Mash medley. 

A caveat, though: If you fondly remember Fruit Brute and Fruity Yummy Mummy from your childhood, don't get your hopes up about revisiting them in the Monster Mash mix, because they might be reformulated like the other three monster cereals. 

That's right—the monster cereals of today are nothing like they were when they were introduced. Back in the '70s, the monster cereals were made with oat flour, so the flavor and texture were similar to Cheerios. When the monster cereals started being offered only as seasonal items at Halloween, the recipes were reformulated, and now they're made with corn meal, like Cap'n Crunch. And also like Cap'n Crunch, the crunchy bits now have the same ability to shred the roof of your mouth as broken glass and volcanic rock.

Food quality aside, any addition to the monster cereals line is sure to excite cereal fanatics, for whom the monster cereals hold a special place in pop-culture history. The new Monster Mash box has an awesome retro 1970s look but at least one anachronism: The reverse flying-V guitar that Boo Berry is playing wasn't introduced until 2007.

A brief aside about Boo Berry: As a longtime fan, I miss the old recipe, so when Cheerios introduced a blueberry flavor a few years ago, I hoped it would be more like the original Boo Berry than the current Boo Berry is. Unfortunately, the blueberry flavor is subtle and the cereal has no marshmallows, which are an integral part of the monster cereal experience. However, if you removed the marshmallows from a box of modern Boo Berry and added them to the blueberry Cheerios, you'd end up with something more like the original Boo Berry than the current Boo Berry is. Someone should do this and let me know how it is.

It's worth mentioning that the monster cereal characters are no strangers to novelty records. In 1979, General Mills issued a series of flexi discs that featured the monster characters, including the classics "The Monsters Go Disco" and "Monster Adventures in Outer Space."  

Sunday, September 5, 2021

When Encyclopedia Britannica hated rock 'n' roll


The alleged use of educational and reference materials to push an agenda has been a point of controversy in the sciences for decades, but did you know that the Encyclopedia Britannica was used to promote the anti-rock 'n' roll viewpoints of cultural elites in the late '50s and early '60s?

It's true. In Arnold Shaw's excellent book The Rockin' 50s (published in 1973), Shaw shares some quotations about the state of music in 1958 from the Encyclopedia Britannica yearbook. The encyclopedia entry was written by Sigmund Spaeth, a Britannica contributor who really hated rock 'n' roll. Spaeth summed up the popular music of 1958 like this:

The incubus of rock 'n' roll continued to weigh down the popular music of the year, with a majority of the music representing some form of the illiterate, savage noise.... The violence of this juvenile concentration on aboriginal rhythms actually led to several cities eventually barring rock 'n' roll from public performance. ... One of the biggest sensations of the 'Hit Parade' was a definitely Negro exaltation, He's Got the Whole World in His Hands...."


Intrigued by this outpouring of racially loaded anti-rock rhetoric from a stodgy encyclopedia, I looked at Britannica Book of the Year 1960 to see if Spaeth held forth in a similar manner that year. He did! Spaeth wrote:

The menace of 'rock 'n' roll' continued through 1959, although it showed some signs of weakening. Elvis Presley's military service did not interfere noticeably with his standing as high priest of the cult, and his popularity with teen-agers accounted for at least three hits....

...There was also a flicker of encouragement in the fact that some real folk music managed to find its way into the mass of incredible trash, a trend already established by the jazzed-up Negro exaltation, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hand."  

There he goes again with that "Negro exaltation" stuff. He really liked that phrase. 

Spaeth also liked show tunes, or at least some of them. Remarking that the "few good songs" that were released in 1959 "were seldom heard except in the theatres," he went on to say:

When Kurt Weill wrote The Three-Penny Opera, he deliberately turned out a vulgar, worthless tune called "Mack, the Knife." Brought up to date and recorded by Bobby Darin, it became one of the big hits of the year.

Elsewhere in the entry he gets in some digs at Fabian, describing him as "highly synthetic." Fair enough. 


In the 1962 yearbook Spaeth was right back at it, beginning his article on the previous year's music thusly:

Once more it was difficult if not impossible to express any enthusiasm for the music being produced in the U.S. As of 1961 there was very little material that could be credited with either musical value or novelty. There was the same emphasis on the "big beat" characteristic of the nauseous "rock 'n' roll," although this particular type of musical illiteracy seemed gradually to be losing its hold on even the most undiscriminating teen-agers. 

I wonder if many teenagers read this encyclopedia entry and agreed?

Spaeth argued, with some merit, that the hit records of 1961 were hits only because of payola and the star power of the performers, not the quality of the songs: 

Again the success of a popular song depended largely on phonograph records rather than sheet music, and the sale of records could be traced to the drawing power of the interpreters, not the merit or appeal of the song. The form of bribery known as "payola" reportedly continued to play an important role in such spurious promotion of commercial trash. 

After giving a rundown of the previous year's hits, Spaeth managed to find two pop records he actually liked: 

To balance such a consistent array of nonsense, there were at least two songs published in 1961 that could command respect. The first was the theme from the motion picture Exodus, by Ernest Gold, whose background music for that film won an Academy award. The song had an excellent melody of the Hebraic type and was helpfully recorded by Pat Boone (also credited with the words), the Ferrante-Teicher team and orchestrally by Mantovani

The other outstanding popular song of 1961 was "Never on Sunday," also derived from a film of the same title and winner of the "Oscar" as the best of the year in that field. The composer was a Greek, Manos Hodijidakis, and the song profited by the recordings of Don Costa, the Chordettes and the star of the picture itself, Melina Mercouri

Even though I'm a Pat Boone fan, I find it pretty amusing that a person could hate all the music of the rock 'n' roll era until Pat Boone's vocal version of "The Exodus Song" came along.

Today, artists in music and film are sometimes criticized for remaking old songs and movies instead of creating new ones, but Spaeth felt differently; he hated new music and liked old music, so he saw any return to pre-rock songs and styles as an improvement:

There was an encouraging trend toward the revival of song hits of the past, including some authentic folk music, obviously resulting from the increasing realization by even the juvenile singers of the poverty of current material.


Fascinated by Spaeth's indefatigable crusade against rock, I hoped to find a continuation of his thoughts in the following year's installment, but the 1963 yearbook contained a much milder assessment of the previous year's music. What changed? Well, Spaeth didn't write that year's entry—he died in 1965, so he appears to have retired from Britannica in '63. The 1963 entry on popular music was written by Lester L. Brown, who said:

There was some improvement in the general quality of rock 'n' roll records over previous years, mainly because the smaller recording firms that had championed the idiom in the beginning had acquired enough wealth to dignify the songs with thoughtful arrangements using brasses and strings. Rock 'n' roll was essentially the same musical ragamuffin it had been in the mid-1950s but was somewhat more attractively outfitted. 

The standard narrative in rock histories is that popular music was so insipid and uninspiring in the early '60s that music listeners were desperate for anything new and different, and that's why the British Invasion happened, but according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, American pop music was actually better in 1963 than it had been in the previous years, including 1958, which is my personal favorite year in music. It's an opinion I don't recall ever hearing or reading elsewhere.

Who was this Spaeth guy, you ask? He was almost 80 years old when he wrote the words above and had been active in music, music instruction, and music journalism for decades. A musicology PhD, he wrote for The New Yorker in the 1920s and hosted some radio shows in the 1930s: Keys to Happiness (a piano instruction program), The Tune Detective (which became Spaeth's nickname), Song Sleuth, and Sigmund Spaeth's Musical Quiz. He wrote some books too. He wasn't alone in being a high-profile hater of rock 'n' roll in the '50s; he had allies among folks like Mitch Miller and Stan Freberg