The Battle Of The Bands And The War Of '64

Apr 24, 2012

In 1964, British invaders did, with guitars, drums and hair, what their 1812 predecessors with bayonets, guns and war ships couldn't. They laid siege to the hearts and minds of the colonists, and took charge of a great part of commerce. And this time they didn't have to burn down the White House.

The Billboard charts were the battlefield, and the shots were fired over the counter at records stores and on the turntables at radio stations. Bobby Vinton was the first patriot to fall, when his song "There, I've Said It Again" was picked off from the number one spot by the February ambush of "I Want To Hold Your Hand." The Beatles were kings of the mountain for three successive songs, covering 14 weeks. They were felled from the top by this notable combination... a 63-year-old jazz trumpeter who hadn't had a top ten hit for years, performing a Broadway tune. In a throwback to the battle of New Orleans, Crescent-City native Louis Armstrong played the part of General Jackson to rally the home troops with "Hello Dolly."

Armstrong and Motown's Mary Wells held the ramparts for three weeks, but succumbed to a second Beatle charge in late May, this time with a year-and-a-half old song, "Love Me Do." That was an important song for the Beatles, as it established them as an act who recorded songs they wrote. Their producer, George Martin, wanted to follow it up with a "professionally" written song, "How Do You Do It," and got as far as recording a demo take, but the group was adamant about ditching it for their own "Please Please Me." When that song hit number one in England, they were allowed a greater say in what they did, and didn't, record.

Another New Orleans act reclaimed the number one spot after a week. The Dixie Cups' "Chapel Of Love" raised the flag for three weeks, then were overrun by the British group Peter And Gordon, armed with a Lennon-McCartney song, " A World Without Love." The next American volley was fired by the west coast's Beach Boys and "I Get Around," and the original Jersey boys The Four Seasons with "Rag Doll."

A late summer '64 campaign, backed by the artillery of a movie, placed the Beatles back on top for two weeks with "A Hard Day's Night." In a sneak attack, they were toppled by the fabled tippler from Steubenville, Dean Martin and "Everybody Loves Somebody." Martin held the fort for a week, and his reinforcements, The Supremes out of the Motor City for two, with "Where Did Our Love Go?"

At the start of September '64, the wily English employed Trojan tactics, proffering the shell of a traditional blues song, "House Of The Rising Sun," hiding inside its domestic setting of (again) New Orleans, but this time filled with enemy warriors. The Animals popped out and grabbed the flag for Her Majesty.

It was at this point that the American forces outflanked their adversaries. A man who started his career in Memphis recording for Sun records was able to not only attack and win the number one song in the states, but also to take the top on the British charts. Roy Orbison was the hero who came through for his countrymen in late September, spending three weeks as champion with "Oh, Pretty Woman." But also impressive was the counter-attack as Roy took the top in Britain, the only American artist to hit number one across the pond in a 68-week period, and Orbison did it twice.

There were more skirmishes to come, and it’s interesting to note that enemy forces were quick to adapt their weaponry to resemble our own. For just as Roy Orbison captured our ears with a pretty woman walking down the street, three weeks later Manfred Mann parried their way to the top with “There she was just a-walking down the street” in “Do-Wah-Diddy-Diddy.” Well played, Manfred!