There can be few things more satisfying for a band or singer than scoring a #1 single. Consequently, there can be few things more frustrating for them than having a record climb and climb and climb all the way up to #2… and then drop down. It must compare to a golfer missing a hole-in-one by mere centimeters, losing a class election by one vote, or running a big race and coming in second by a nose. In all cases an admirable and commendable feat has been accomplished, but that feeling of, “If only it had gone just a tiny bit more” is a powerful and consuming one.
Below are 10 cases of classic 45s from the 1960s that truly deserved to reach #1 on the American Billboard charts, but which just (if not justly) missed out doing so. Sometimes these must-own tracks were simply kept out of the #1 spot by another must-own, but as you’ll see, other times a monstrously historically important and influential single was beaten by something a bit more disposable, likely to prompt a feeling of, “Are you kidding me? That kept it from going to #1?” Check these could-have-been-chart-toppers below.
1) “Walk, Don’t Run,” The Ventures (1960)
Instrumental gold from one of rock’s all-time greatest instrumental combos. The band and record that launched a million guitar players and helped prompt an early ’60s boost in Fender sales. For all that, “Walk, Don’t Run” deserved to be a #1 record. Alas, it was not, for although it made a nice leap up the chart, landing at #2 on August 29, 1960, it still had to bow to the King, as Elvis Presley was then enjoying week three of a five-week reign with “It’s Now or Never.” The poor Ventures never did score a #1. Elvis racked up three that year alone.
2) “Wipe Out,” The Surfaris (1963)
Over 50 years later, this record is pretty secure in its status as the ultimate surf instrumental. It’s impossible not to think of that drumbeat, the infectious guitar riff, or at least that goofy-voiced laughing intro whenever you see a film clip of surfers in action. In fact, there’s a 65 percent chance the record is already there as the soundtrack of whatever you’re watching. If the producers aren’t using it, they’re probably using some cheaper music library instrumental based on it. In the world of surf music, this record has long been the Big Kahuna. On the charts, though, it only managed to Hang Two on August 10, 1963. The Surfaris were the victims of genius — a 12-year-old genius — as Little Stevie Wonder was then enjoying his very first chart-topper with “Fingertips Part Two.” “Wipe Out” would have another wave of chart life three years later, but by then, the surf was down and the record only got as high as #16.
3) “Be My Baby,” The Ronettes (1963)
That drum beat! Those vocals! That catchy chorus! That incredible production! That’s an awful lot of “that,” but it all adds up to the Ronettes’ blockbuster “Be My Baby.” It was the Ronettes’ biggest hit, one of the best-known girl-group records, one of the most commonly cited examples of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and a huge influence on Brian Wilson and his musical mind. Now, that’s only a quick summation of the historical importance of “Be My Baby,” but a summation of the historical importance of the record that kept it out of #1 would be even quicker. In fact, we’re already done, as outselling “Be My Baby” on October 12, 1963 is about the only anecdote of note for Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack.”
4) “Louie Louie,” The Kingsmen (1963)
Who says rock music was dead in America in the time just before the British Invasion? People that haven’t looked up the big rock hits of those years, that’s who. The Kingsmen’s mega-monster “Louie Louie” is only the most obvious piece of proof that American rock, even in the country’s sad weeks of late 1963, was alive and kicking. As we all know, the song’s popularity, impact, influence, and its just plan classic-icity was and is immeasurable. Yes, “Louie Louie” was big.
But… God was bigger, and for two weeks beginning December 14, 1963, the Kingsmen had the second most popular single in the country, with only the Singing Nun above them with the not-quite-as-fun-to-play-at-your-frat-party “Dominique.”
5) “Twist and Shout,” The Beatles (1964)
Yep, even the Beatles sometimes stalled just short of the top spot. It’s hard to dispute that 1964 was their year among the American record-buying public, particularly in the spring, and their waxing of the Isley Brothers’ hit, one of rock’s strongest cases of the original hit artists having being victims of dispossession, was all over the radio and was making Americans say “ahhhh” more than any doctor. So who in the world was keeping the Beatles out of #1?
Um, they were. You see, on April 4, 1964, the Beatles were not only #2, they were also #1. Oh, and they were also #3. And #4. And #5. And #31, #41, #46, #58, #65, #68 and #79.
Victims of their own success, the Fabs couldn’t twist “Twist and Shout” into the top spot because “Can’t Buy Me Love” was indeed being bought in higher numbers. Then again, it’s a little surprising that “Can’t Buy Me Love” managed to get to the top, as a look back at the charting of ’60s singles suggests that Billboard had some kind of rule which declared that if you have a song whose title begins with the word “Can’t,” #2 is as high as you can go. Elvis Presley, Andy Williams, Herman’s Hermits, and Frankie Valli all found this out the hard way.
Two other times a Beatles single puttered out in second place. In May 1964, “Do You Want to Know a Secret” couldn’t withstand the strong arm of Louis Armstrong and his “Hello, Dolly,” and in September 1966, the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” kept “Yellow Submarine” from rising.
6) “Dancing in the Street,” Martha and the Vandellas (1964)
Motown was strong enough to hold its own against the British Invasion that began in 1964. In that year, which brought #1s by the Beatles, the Animals, the Beatles, Peter and Gordon, the Beatles, Manfred Mann and the Beatles, not to mention the Beatles, the Detroit powerhouse label and its subsidiaries still accumulated four first-place ribbons of their own. Certainly one of them was Martha and the Vandellas’ tremendously infectious instant party monster “Dancing in the Street,” right? After all, it remains one of Motown’s most famous and best remembered tracks, no small feat considering the super-long list of classics borne of Berry’s boys.
But no. Martha and her friends only danced up to #1, because there was a British vehicle known as Manfred Mann occupying their street the week of October 17, 1964, with their equally infectious and party-inducing “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.” A blow for Motown, but they got even two weeks later on October 31 when, for Halloween, they scared the Manfreds out of #1 with “Baby Love” by the Supremes, which stayed perched atop the charts for four weeks.
7) “Like a Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan (1965)
Bob Dylan might place #1 on the list of “Most Important Artists in Rock History Who Never Scored a #1 Single.” What does it tell you that such a groundbreaking, game-changing record as “Like a Rolling Stone” failed to get all the way up to the top? Well, it tells you that the rock world in the summer of 1965 was hardly in short supply of discs for the ages, and there just wasn’t room or time enough for all of them to be top dog. “Like a Rolling Stone” came in second just behind the Beatles when it reached its peak on September 4, 1965, the same day “Help!” dislodged Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” Bob and the Beatles stayed locked in those slots one more week before “Stone” began its downward direction home. The following year Bob again would see one of his singles run out of gas just one spot short of the finish line, when “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” hit a roadblock known as “Monday Monday.” Still, all things considered, #2 isn’t too shabby for a pop single with a hookline that got it banned from many stations and an unrelated title that made it difficult to ask your record dealer for it.
8) “19th Nervous Breakdown,” The Rolling Stones (1966)
One of those “orphan hits” I wrote about last fall. Yet another killer from the Stones, mixing their now-trademark blend of killer riffs, frenzied backing, and biting lyrics. Although this masterpiece did make it to the peak of the Cashbox charts, Billboard never had it higher than #2.
Oh, who’s to blame? Who could have kept an amazing disc like this out of #1? Must have been the Beatles and their current American single “Nowhere Man,” right? Nope. On March 19, 1966, the very week the Stones were deadlocked at #2, “Nowhere Man” was stalled in its own peak of #3. Any pleasure that victory might have given the Stones paled to the pain of seeing themselves losing out to, of all things, SSgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” then in its third of five weeks in command of the Top 100.
“Just insane,” indeed.
9) “Born to Be Wild,” Steppenwolf (1968)
If “Wipe Out” stands as the ultimate surf record, “Born to Be Wild” holds a similar honor for the cycle set. Partially because of its lyrics but mostly because of its use as the track heard during the opening credits of the immensely successful and influential 1969 hippie biker flick Easy Rider, every single day since the late 1960s, somebody somewhere in the world has revved up a motorcycle and played Steppenwolf’s classic on their mental music player. The record was a winner in many ways. Besides being a killer rocker than was just plain fun for bands to play, it had lyrics that talked about freedom and a desire to just hit the literal or proverbial highway to experience “whatever comes our way.”
So what outdid this musical ode to freedom with “to be” in the title? Another musical ode to freedom with “to be” in the title. On August 24, 1968, Steppenwolf, on their motorcycle ride up the charts, skidded out at #2, and their closest shot at ever having a #1 single was thwarted by the Young Rascals who that week were enjoying their third and final #1, “People Got to Be Free.”
10) “Proud Mary,” Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
No discussion of ’60s records stopping at #2 would be complete without throwing the spotlight on good ol’ CCR, who have long fallen into history as the act with the most #2 hits without ever having a #1 single. One time of watching a hit rise and rise up the charts and get so close, only to start to then begin its downward journey is enough agony for an artist, but poor Creedence ended up enduring this scenario five times altogether. (In case you’re curious, runners up for that dubious honor would be Blood Sweat and Tears who had three singles, all in 1969 and all from the same album, unable to climb that one last notch.)
“Proud Mary” is nothing short of one of the most famous songs of the late 1960s. Everybody knows the chorus, and most people enjoy singing it. On March 8, 1969, it reached its second-place peak, their first to do so, while Sly and the Family Stone were in the lead with their first of ultimately three #1 singles, “Everyday People.” That certainly wasn’t the worst record to fall second place to.
One might say otherwise about what happened the following June 28, when the answer to “where for chart thou, ‘Bad Moon Risin’?” was “at #2, behind Henry Mancini’s ‘Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet.'” The band likewise couldn’t have been too pleased on September 27 of the same year when their “Green River” couldn’t flow just a teeny bit more upstream to usurp “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies. The following year, “Travellin’ Band” and “Looking Out My Back Door” both stalled in that space on the charts that now practically had their name on it behind, respectively, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Diana Ross’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
So, what have we learned? If anything, we’ve learned that the next time we fall the most minute bit short of succeeding at something, we’ll remember that “Be My Baby” only got to #2… and that’s pretty good company.
(Cover photo via Wikipedia.)