As a kid, I spent many of my New York City summers glued to a transistor radio. So steamy weather naturally reminds me of stickball, car rides without air conditioning, and tracking the Billboard charts. Back in the 1960s, my favorite AM hits were instrumentals, which probably explains my eventual migration to jazz. Which got me thinking. About hits and jazz.
Curious, I combed through the Billboard charts pulling together a list of jazz artists who had Top 40 hits starting in 1955. I was hunting for a) well known jazz musicians who b) recorded jazz-flavored singles that c) had a big influence on jazz and pop music in general.
Today I'm featuring the top 10, with more to come over the coming days. The songs below are ordered based on their highest position reached on the Top 40 chart and feature the artist who recorded it, the date the song entered the Top 40, its highest rank, and some analysis:
1. Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White—Perez Prado (3/1955, #1). At the height of the mambo craze, bandleader Prado recorded a horn-rich instrumental version of this French song. The single climbed to No. 1, where it remained for 10 weeks. To give you an idea of how big a hit it was, there was only one other single in the 1950s that remained at No. 1 longer—Elvis Presley's Don't Be Cruel, with Hound Dog on the flip side. The King's hit lingered for 11 weeks.
2. Patricia—Perez Prado (6/1958, #1). Known for his intricate and perfectly executed mambos and cha-cha-chas, bandleader Prado composed Patricia and three years after his 1955 hit, he had another. His unashamed use of the organ on this track had a profound influence on pop and soul acts that followed, including Booker T & the MGs. Interestingly, Patricia was the last record to reach #1 on the Billboard Jockeys and Top 100 charts. Both lists were folded into Billboard's newly introduced Hot 100 chart the following week.
3. Hello, Dolly!—Louis Armstrong (2/1964, #1). At the behest of manager Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong made a demo recording of Hello, Dolly! for the song's publisher to use to promote the Broadway musical, which opened in January 1964. Kapp Records released Armstrong's demo as a commercial single that same month. It reached #1, and Louis broke The Beatles' streak of three No. 1 hits in a row.
4. Grazing in the Grass—Hugh Masekela (6/1968, #1). This South African trumpeter 's instrumental hit was written by Philemon Hou and was covered, with lyrics added, by Friends of Distinction, a Fifth Dimension-esque group whose equally rousing version reached #3 in 1969. Cowbell players everywhere rejoiced.
5. Soulful Strut—Young-Holt Unlimited (12/1968, #3). Two of the three members of this soul-jazz trio were former members of the Ramsey Lewis Trio. This languid instrumental was covered by r&b vocalist Barbara Acklin in 1969 as Am I the Same Girl, which in turn was covered by Dusty Springfield that same year. This song's stunning success made jazz artists more keenly aware of the importance of soul and left a lasting jazz influence on pop. It had a profound effect on me. After I bought this single, I stopped buying rock and concentrated on jazz.
6. The Girl from Ipanema—Stan Getz (6/1964, #5). Released just as the bossa nova craze was heating up, this single featured vocals by Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto and included Antonio Carlos Jobim on piano and Joao Gilberto on guitar. The song became the unofficial anthem of a South American genre considered at the time to be the adult alternative to The Beatles and other British invasion acts.
7. The "In" Crowd—Ramsey Lewis (8/1965, #5). This funky party theme for those in the know was performed by a jazz trio and supported by hand-clapping and shouts. The song was written by Billy Page and originally recorded by Dobie Gray, appearing on the album, Dobie Gray Sings for 'In' Crowders That 'Go Go. His single reached #13 in 1965. Ramsey Lewis' cover was a crossover hit and greatly influenced rock and r&b. Not only was the song covered by The Mamas and the Papas in 1966, there's a soul connection here as well. When bassist Eldee Young and drummer Isaac Holt left Ramsey Lewis in 1966 to form the Young-Holt Trio, they were replaced by Cleveland Eaton and Maurice White, who would go on to form Earth Wind & Fire in 1970. Lewis reunited with White in 1976 to record Sun Goddess.
8. Walking in Rhythm—The Blackbyrds (3/1975, #6). This group was led by trumpeter Donald Byrd and featured some of his Howard University students. The relentlessly upbeat song with accelerating instrumental intro was a soul-jazz dance hit just before the Philadelphia sound and disco began to standardize rhythms and overwhelm the charts starting in the early summer of 1975.
9. Watermelon Man—Mongo Santamaria (4/1963, #10). Written by Herbie Hancock, this Latin-jazz hit with Marty Sheller's funky jazz trumpet solo singlehandedly launched the boogaloo dance movement. The boogaloo had a profound impact on both jazz and soul. On the jazz side, Blue Note records after 1963 heavily featured instrumentals with a boogaloo feel, including Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder. On the pop side, James Brown adapted the boogaloo and influenced an entire generation of soul and funk musicians.
10. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy—Cannonball Adderley Quintet (1/1967, #11). This slow groove burner written by Joe Zawinul featured an early use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano on a pop tune. Recorded in 1966 at a studio with a live audience and an open bar, the song's jazzy riff builds steadily and then releases in a soul feel. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy had a heavy influence on pop groups (it was covered by The Buckinghams in 1967) and on soul groups such as TSOP, Earth Wind & Fire, Kool & the Gang, and even the Parliament-Funkadelic.
In summary, four jazz-influenced singles hit No. 1 on Billboard's Top 40 chart. Two were by trumpet players (Louis Armstrong and Hugh Masekela) and two featured trumpets prominently (Perez Prado). All of the top 10 hits were funky and perfect for parties, except, of course, Hello, Dolly! Then again, Louis was always an exception.
Stay tuned for my second-tier list of Top 40 hits by jazz artists.