Novelty, parody, and sketch songs have never been a major interest of mine. And most of my reviews would sound the same. So this week, instead of writing about the song, I’m going to pick one of its intriguing quirks or a related topic to spotlight.
Spotlight: Bizarre #1 hits from 1958-1972
Reading about “Purple People Eater” inadvertently sent me down a rabbit hole on the history of #1 hits on Billboard. I was truly astonished at some of the songs that topped the charts. I started compiling them into a list. The longer the list got, the more I worried that my nose was about to start bleeding. I had to stop at 1972 for the sake of my mental health. (I have to admit, though, I am now inspired to have a “Weird #1 Hits” week somewhere later in the year.)
Here are the some of the weirdest moments in Billboard #1 hits from 1958 (the year “Purple People Eater” topped the charts) through 1972, 15 years later.
Just imagine some of these playing every 20 minutes on the radio like “Call Me Maybe” did in 2012. Every one of these is on Spotify and/or YouTube for your perusal.
- “Tequila” by The Champs (3/17/58)
- I constantly found myself surprised at how many instrumentals topped the charts in the early rock era. I don’t remember that happening once in the past 20 years. This is the classic hum-along number from The Sandlot.
- “Witch Doctor” by David Seville (5/5/58)
- Yes, that’s the Alvin and the Chipmunks “Dave.” He wrote, recorded, and hit #1 with the “ooh-ee-ooh-ah-ah” song now most often heard on cartoons, and now stuck in your head. (Sorry.)
- “Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wooley (6/9/58)
- If I’m being honest, a song about man-eating monster that just wants to rock out is far from the weirdest chart-topper of the era. Bonus: A reference to #1 hit “Tequila” from just a couple months before!
- “The Chipmunk Song” by The Chipmunks with David Sevile (12/22/58)
- 1958 was a very profitable year for Sevile (the stage name of Ross Bagdasarian Sr.) to speed up tapes to amusing musical effect. (See “Witch Doctor” seven months earlier.)
- “The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton (6/1/59)
- Even weirder than a story-song about the War of 1812 snuck to the top of Billboard is the fact that it was the official biggest hit of the year across the whole country.
- “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” by Brian Hyland (8/8/60)
- Remember the days when novelty songs could have huge mainstream successes? I don’t either, because I wasn’t born, but I assure you those times occurred. (One odd wrinkle for this song in particular… according to a skit of the song being performed live, it’s not about a woman, but a little girl. Definitely adds a creepiness factor.)
- “Mother-in-Law” by Ernie K-Doe (5/22/61)
- A song about how annoying mother in laws are.
- “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens (12/18/61)
- Nineties kids know the song (often labeled “Wimoweh” on re-releases”) from The Lion King, but it was a legitimate smash in the early ’60s.
- “The Stripper” by David Rose (7/7/62)
- If you’ve ever watch a movie or TV scene set inside a burlesque club, you’ve heard this song. Its title doesn’t even pretend that it’s anything other than stage music for exotic dancers.
- “Monster Mash” by Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers (10/20/62)
- Sure, it’s an odd pick for most-popular-song-in-the-world, if even just for two weeks. But thanks to Halloween playlists alone, it probably gets more airtime than most early-60’s pop songs.
- 6 Beatles songs hit #1 in 1964
- In case you doubted how much Beatlemania really took over the United States… They had six #1s in ’64. Most impressive was the three-song run from February through May of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You”, and “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
- “Chapel of Love” by The Dixie Cups (6/6/64)
- My aunt used to sing this song to me when she babysit me. For years, I thought it was just a nursery rhyme.
- “Leader of the Pack” by The Shangri-Las (11/28/64)
- Nothing spells widespread appeal like biker gang violence.
- “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits (8/7/65)
- “Ballad of the Green Berets” by Sgt Barry Sadler (3/5/66)
- It’s completely insane that a pro-military ballad hit #1 just a year before The Summer of Love. It would be like a pro-NRA song topping the charts in 2018.
- “Incense and Peppermints” by Strawberry Alarm Clock (11/25/67)
- Runaway winner in the category of “song title and artist name combination that sounds like it was made up by a computer AI”
- “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred & His Playboy Band (1/20/68)
- In case you doubted how much Beatlemania really took over the United States… A song hit #1 propelled by a gimmicky title that parodied a Beatles song. (“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”)
- “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie C. Riley (9/21/68)
- A country song about a divorced mom who rants at the PTA of her daughter’s middle school. If I had a nickel for every one of those that went Platinum…
- “Love Theme form Romeo and Juliet” by Henry Mancini (6/28/69)
- Literally just elevator music.
- “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies (9/20/69)
- Chances are you know this song. It’s possible that you don’t know that it was recorded by a fictional band from a comic book series. If you thought Gorillaz invented the cartoon-band-in-real-life niche, you were wrong.
- “Everything is Beautiful” by Ray Stevens (5/30/70)
- Sounds like it belongs on a TV commercial for popsicles.
- “War” by Edwin Starr (8/29/70)
- Most frequently heard these days for puns around the word “war,” it was apparently a radio staple for awhile.
- “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” by Paul & Linda McCartney (9/4/70)
- In case you doubted how much Beatlemania really took over the United States… A track that’s not even one of McCartney’s fifty most popular post-Beatles tracks (per last.fm), and is 100% aesthetically and musically unremarkable, somehow topped the charts. Seriously… I’m a pretty big McCartney fan, and I had no idea what song this was.
- “Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes (11/6/71)
- It’s less surprising that this song hit #1 than the fact that it hasn’t yet been picked to replace “Star Spangled Banner” as our National Anthem.
- “The Candy Man” by Sammy Davis Jr. (6/10/72)
- I had to triple-check this one. Did it really come out in 1972?! Yes (well, technically late ’71)! I would have guessed something closer to 1952. (To be fair, I also didn’t realize it was from the Willy Wonka soundtrack, which makes a little more sense.)
- “My Ding-a-Ling” by Chuck Berry (10/21/72)
- Is this an extended penis joke by the most influential rock and roll musician in history, his first #1 decades after his peak? Of course. Is it remotely surprising something so dumb and crass would surge to the top of the charts? Of course not.
Okay, I knew I said I would stop at 1972, but the #1’s in 1973 and 74 were so batshit, I had to expand my investigation two more years:
- “Keep on Truckin’ (Part 1)” by Eddie Kendricks (11/10/73)
- First, I always love when pop songs have “part 1” or “part 2,” etc., as part of their title. Some all-timers have followed that format: “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles and “Fingertips” by Stevie Wonder, for example. We should bring that practice back. Second, I adore the notion that a disco song is named after a one-page comic by a depressed underground artist, R. Crumb, managed to top the charts. It’s the perfect emblem of counter-culture going mainstream and rotting from the inside. So early ’70s.
- “Photograph” by Ringo Starr (11/24/73) / “Youre Sixteen” by Ringo Starr (1/26/74)
- In case you doubted how much Beatlemania really took over the United States… Ringo Starr had two #1 hits within six months, one of which was a cover of a song about being in love with a 16-year-old.
- “Love’s Theme” by Love Unlimited Orchestra (2/9/74)
- If you had given me this song and asked me whether it was more likely to be a #1 hit in the mid-70s or a stock track of background music you can buy online for 99 cents, I wouldn’t have hesitated in picking the latter.
- “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” by John Lennon (11/16/74)
- In case you doubted how much Beatlemania really took over the United States… A weird Lennon track topped the charts 4 years after The Beatles broke up, making the Beatles four-for-four in post-breakup solo #1’s. (I’m still not sure I believe Wikipedia that Ringo did it before John.) By the way, this isn’t one of his twenty-five most popular solo tracks.
- “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas (12/7/74)
- Can you imagine a song with a line as caricatured and dumb as “they were funky China-men from funky Chinatown” near the top of Billboard in 2018? … [looks up the lyrics of “Shape of You”] –Actually, scratch that.
3 thoughts on “Song of the Day: “Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wooley”
This is an excellent list.
Re: The Archies — and really, as you mentioned above, The Chipmunks did it before them!
Re: RIngo Starr — I don’t know the song “Photograph,” so rather than look it up, I’m just going to allow myself to believe it is a pre-cover of the Nickelback chart-topper, sung by that most talented of all Beatles..
“Sugar Sugar” fun facts: The music video from the original Archie cartoon show prominently featured Sabrina the Teenage Witch, decades before Melissa Joan Hart entered the picture.
Also, my dad has a full collection of Archie cardboard records that you punched out of the backs of cereal boxes.
And even better, the same in Japanese: https://youtu.be/CeCQiDtlPqk