Mr. Pop History Presents 1963 Week-By-Week
Overview by Robert Neill
The Pop History events of 1963 all seem trivial by comparison to the tragic historical event that took place in November: the assassination of President John Kennedy. Much has already been written about the political, social and historical ramifications of this event and its aftermath. It seems almost too-flippant to discuss the death of JFK in terms of its effect on popular entertainment, but to fully understand the development of Pop History for the remainder of the 1960's, it is necessary to consider as a factor the impact of the Kennedy assassination.
Some Pop Historians have suggested a link between America's melancholy national mood following the assassination and the flourishing of Beatlemania in the USA in late 1963 and early 1964. As ludicrous as this sounds, there may be some validity to the idea. The Beatles had been popular in England since 1962 and some of their records had already been released in the USA in mid-1963. Yet, it wasn't until after the Kennedy assassination that Americans latched onto the Beatles as the next big thing in rock n' roll. Why did the same people who ignored the Beatles in mid-1963 suddenly adore their music so much a few months later?
Some suggest that by December of 1963, Americans needed something light-hearted andfrivolous to shake off the gloomy post-assassination mourning. The music being produced by the Beatles at that point, combined with the group's 'Fab Four from England' style and image, provided that light-hearted distraction at just the right moment. The fact the mop-top rock group was from another country rendered it acceptable for them to behave in a goofy and silly manner so soon after the US President's death without seeming disrespectful: they couldn't be expected to feel that pain as deeply as Americans did. Whatever combination of factors led to the mushrooming popularity of the Beatles from late 1963 on, the Liverpudlian quartet altered and shaped Pop History for the rest of the 1960's.
One entertainment phenomenon that was derailed by the assassination was the work of political satirist Vaughn Meader. Meader's "The First Family" parody album, in which he imitated the President, had been a colossal best-seller in late 1962 and early 1963. Though the novelty (and sales) had already begun to wear off prior to the assassination, Meader's satires of the Kennedys no longer seemed funny or appropriate in the wake of the national tragedy. His post-assassination TV appearances were canceled. "The First Family" album and its 1963 sequel disappeared into the back of most people's record collections and vanished even more quickly from the collective American consciousness.
By 1963, the first wave of rock n'roll had long-since ended. Many revisionist Pop Historians try to dismiss 1959-1963 as a bleak period in music history in which little music of value was created. They're wrong: many of the finest records of the pop music era were recorded during those years. By 1963, 'surf music' and its subcategories were thriving, Phil Spector was producing a string of rock n' roll classics for artists like The Crystals and The Ronettes, Motown was providing an outlet for talented young African-Americans like The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and many enduring pop, soul, R&B and rock n' roll artists were recording songs and creating sounds that continue to be admired, analyzed and enjoyed (and often imitated / plagiarized) decades later.
Many of these pop music genres were competing for room on the best-seller charts and on the radio in 1963. The hits of that year are about as eclectic an array of musical styles as can be found in any year, including some unusual ones that came from unexpected sources: 1963 was, for example, the year that jazz instrumentalist Mongo Santamaria, The Singing Nun and Japanese vocalist Kyu Sakamoto
all released best-selling songs in the USA, the latter two artists even performing their hits in foreign languages. The two music styles that ended up dominating 1963 seemed to come equally out of left field: folk music and novelty records.
Hootenannies and folk singers suddenly became the dominant trend in popular music in 1963, bringing into the forefront of American consciousness enduring artists like Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. The American entertainment industry latched onto and exploited the folk music explosion just as it had done with 'The Twist' a year earlier.
1963 also saw a proliferation of comedy records and novelty songs, probably inspired by the comedy trend begun the previous year by the success of Vaughn Meader's aforementioned "The First Family." "Harry, The Hairy Ape" by Ray Stevens, "On Top Of Spaghetti" by Tom Glazer, "The Martian Hop" by The Ran-Dells and "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" by Rolf Harris are just some of the novelty songs that got substantial air play in 1963.
Some entrepreneurial entertainers managed to combine both musical trends to double their chances ofsuccess: hence the Smothers Brothers' famous bickering-sibling folksingers act or the album "My Son, The Folksinger" by Allan Sherman. Sherman, who wrote funny new lyrics for traditional melodies, scored big in 1963 with his albums and his hit singles like "Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh," and provided the template for much later artists like Weird Al Yankovic, who used more or less the same approach.
The trend toward gimmicks and novelty also extended into the new television programs introduced in 1963. Novelty shows like "Mr. Ed" and "The Beverly Hillbillies" had already proven wildly popular with TV viewers, leading to more sitcoms built around gimmicks like 'identical cousins' (The Patty Duke Show) or a visiting man from Mars (My Favorite Martian). The latter show and the new alien-filled science-fiction anthology series The Outer Limits were signs that the entertainment industry was finally beginning to acknowledge the US public's fascination for outer space exploration.
One of the biggest trends in 1963 television was doctor-mania, thanks to the on-going popularity of rival medical series "Ben Casey" and "Dr. Kildare." The male leads of those two programs (Vincent Edwards and Richard Chamberlain) equaled (and sometimes even surpassed) Elvis Presley in popularity in 1963. Both actors even recorded pop music albums, despite limited singing talent. The 1963 craze for doctors on TV led to the creation of other medical series, including ABC's daytime soap opera "General Hospital," which was not only still thriving 40 years after its April, 1963 debut, but had even generated a successful spin-off soap opera of its own. Doctor-mania even carried over into theatrical films like "Captain Newman, MD."
Another popular TV dramatic genre jumped into existence in 1963 with the debut of "The Fugitive," which served as a prototype for later series like "Starman," "The Incredible Hulk," "The Immortal," "Alias Smith & Jones, " "Nowhere Man," "Johnny Bago," and even the sitcom "Run, Buddy, Run." "The Fugitive" centered on a man who was constantly on the run because he was being trailed by a relentless pursuer who wanted to capture him. The central character had to keep his identity a secret from the people he met and could never settle in one place very long before his cover was blown and he had to move on. The later Fugitive-inspired series all copied this format with slight variations.
Another odd trend of 1963 television was new sitcoms about goofy servants and comical employees--probably inspired by the success of "Hazel." Bill Dana's already-popular Jose Jimenez character became a bumbling hotel bellhop in his own 1963 sitcom. Imogene Coca played "Grindl," a domestic worker, in her own show that year. In "The
Farmer's Daughter" sitcom, Inger Stevens went to work as a governess for politician William Windom. "Our Man Higgins" was about a butler.
"Maverick," the show that some revisionist tele-historians claim 'killed off' the TV Western genre, had been canceled in early 1962, but many of the Westerns it supposedly killed off continued to thrive in prime time and some new cowboy shows even debuted that year, too. Other popular TV genres that continued in 1963 prime time included cop and lawyer shows, game shows, military comedies, military dramas, musical-variety programs, anthology dramas, cartoons and sitcoms built around popular entertainers. Even the private detective genre began making a comeback.
Some of the most noteworthy films of 1963 were big, sprawling, epic and sometimes way-too-long adventures, many of them on historical subjects. This was not a year in which Hollywood placed an emphasis on tightly-written, quickly-paced stories.
The four-hour-long "Cleopatra," for example, was so huge in its scope, it just about bankrupted 20th Century Fox. The highly-acclaimed "America, America" lasted almost three hours. Historical dramas "PT 109" and "55 Days At Peking" were both over two hours long. "Tom Jones," also at over 2 hours, received multiple Oscar nominations and won for Best Picture. In 1963, even comedies could provide an endurance test: "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" was 2 and a half hours long.
The acting Oscars for 1963 movies went to performances in films of more manageable lengths. Sidney Poitier won Best Actor for the sentimental drama "Lilies Of The Field." Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor went to Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas for "Hud." British character player Margaret Rutherford won a Supporting Actress Oscar for "The VIP's."
Other noteworthy 1963 films include Jerry Lewis' comedy classic "The Nutty Professor," the guest-star-laden mystery-thriller "The List of Adrian Messenger," Alfred Hitchcock's often-imitated nature-amok terror thriller "The Birds," two Elvis pictures ("Fun In Acapulco" and "It Happened At The World's Fair"), the family-oriented Disney perennials "Son of Flubber" and "The Sword in the Stone," the film version of the hit musical "Bye, Bye
Birdie" and movies featuring popular characters like Tammy, Flipper, Tarzan and The Three Stooges.