Top Oldies of 1961

This list was compiled by me, your Oldies Guide at, from various sources -- chart positions, sales figures from time of release to the present day, critical standing, and historical importance. Only 45 rpm singles that peaked on the pop Top 40 in 1961 are eligible; artists are only allowed one entry per year in order to give a more balanced view of the cultural landscape. (Click on "compare prices" to find the song on CD and buy it if you like!)
of 10

Roy Orbison, "Crying" b/w "Candy Man"
Monument 45-447 (31 July 1961)
recorded June 1961, Nashville, TN

Very possibly the finest two minutes and forty-six seconds from rock's most wonderfully incomprehensible force of nature. Like the best ballads from the Big O, it works itself up slowly and unnoticeably to a frenzy of high romantic drama without ever becoming histrionic -- or succumbing to a standard pop structure. The very fact that this is Roy's most painful mini-opera gives it a fair claim on being his best.

of 10

Ben E. King, "Stand By Me"

ATCO 6194 (April 1961) b/w "On the Horizon"
recorded 27 October 1960, New York, NY

This, possibly the high-water mark of early-Sixties New York soul, became a smash twice, just like Chubby Checker's "The Twist" -- although Ben's version hit again a full twenty-five years later, and for obviously different reasons. A stunning tribute to the power of fidelity and loyalty, one that pits the entire world against our lovers. Quite a popular motif then, and one that may have hinted at things to come.

of 10

Ray Charles, "Hit The Road Jack"

ABC-Paramount 10244 (August 1961) b/w "The Danger Zone"
recorded 5 July 1961, New York, NY

No, it wasn't written the way it was depicted in Ray -- but results are what count. Those who say the Genius went completely soft when he jumped to ABC overlook the alternately furious and comic duet between Ray and his Raelette of choice on this brief but powerful stomper. Smooth yet raw, as is Brother Ray's way, and wrapped around a descending chord figure that instantly became part of the pop lexicon.

of 10

Del Shannon, "Runaway"

BigTop 3067 (6 March 1961) b/w "Jody"
recorded 21 January 1961, New York, NY

When Del's pianist came up with the opening figure on this smash, he knew something was up, and wrote the song around it that night. That keyboardist -- Max Crook by name -- also came up with rock's most famous organ solo on demand, although the instrument in question is actually a custom-made oddity dubbed a "musitron." But it's Shannon's typically dark and lonely tale of regret that brings the whole thing together.

of 10

Shep and the Limelites, "Daddy's Home"

Hull 740 (27 March 1961) b/w "This I Know"
recorded 1 February 1961, New York, NY

James "Shep" Sheppard may be the only person in rock and roll history to answer his own song under a completely different name: this gorgeously tender slice of prime doo-wop is effectively a sequel to "A Thousand Miles Away," which had hit previously for Shep's old group, the Heartbeats. The songs are similar in many respects, but the extra experience helped make this one more memorable in the minds of many fans.

of 10

Gary "U.S." Bonds, "Quarter To Three"

Legrand 1008 (May 1961) b/w "Time Ole Story"
recorded March 1961, Norfolk, VA

Depending on whom you ask, the "Norfolk Sound" that graced most of Gary's singles was either a wall of sound that rocked or a cacophonous mess. Whatever it was, it never hit harder than on this record, which borrowed a gospel backup band's instrumental raveup and placed Bonds' perfectly-suited voice above the fray. Many oldies work well at parties, but few sound like a party captured on vinyl. This 45 was just that.

of 10

The Shirelles, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow"

Scepter 1211 (November 1960) b/w "Boys"
recorded September 1960, New York, NY

The girl-group genre wasn't exactly born with this song, but it established early the sound, feel, and subject of the form. And with Carole King behind the pen, it couldn't miss. But these lyrics couldn't have come from any man, anyway, not given their almost risque exploration of the dating ritual from the distaff side. Romantic on the surface, which is why it endures, but also gently radical in its point of view.

of 10

The Tokens, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"

RCA Victor 47-7954 (September 1961) b/w "Tina"
recorded 21 July 1961, New York, NY

One of the stranger anomalies in rock history, "Lion" began life as a spontaneous recorded outburst by a Zulu tribesman, morphed into a misinterpreted folk smash, found its way to a Noo Yawk doo-wop group, and eventually wound up in the hands of the Sam Cooke producing duo known as Hugo and Luigi, who added tympani, silly woodwinds, and an opera singer. You have to hear it to believe it. But you already have.

of 10

Ricky Nelson, "Travelin' Man" b/w "Hello Mary Lou"

Imperial 5741 (April 1961)
recorded February 1961, Hollywood, CA

The year's best two-sided bargain found this teen idol hitting his early stride with help from the Jordanaires and the guitar of James Burton, a legend in hiw own right. One song is about giving your heart to lots of women, the other about losing it to just one, but Ricky's personality and talent, thoroughly underrated commodities both, pulled all the elements together. A commercial and artistic peak for rockabilly's poppier side.

of 10

Ernie K-Doe, "Mother-in-Law"

Minit 623 (27 March 1961) b/w "Wanted, $10,000.00 Reward"
recorded January 1961, New Orleans, LA

The biggest hit and best friend New Orleans R&B ever had. While a novelty of sorts, it, like most other Crescent City classics, feels deadly serious about its silliness. Allen Toussaint's satire is more clever than anything found on other '61 singles, but it's K-Doe gently boinin' all over the expert backing that gives it heart. A gentle poke, not a cruel joke, even if Satan SHOULD be her name.

What do you think?

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