Wednesday, November 28, 2012

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1963

In many ways, 1963 was the last year of the '50s. The repressed social mores were still intact, pop culture was largely conservative and non-threatening, and the world we knew was mostly quiet and boring. Most people will argue the '60s --or at least what we consider to be the '60s-- didn't really began until after President Kennedy's sudden and tragic assassination that November. In fact, some of the seeds were planted in the year or two immediately before that fateful day in Dallas. Surf rock was king, the Brill Building was queen, folk blared from the coffee shops, and the British Invasion was in its planning stages.

Looking at the big picture, 1963 was mostly about jazz. This was a year that could almost rival 1956, 1959 or 1964 as one of the greatest 12-month spans ever for the distinctly American musical genre. '63 was also a banner year for the legendary Blue Note label, as evidenced by nine of the twelve jazz albums listed below. The giants of the era (Miles, Mingus, Monk) could be depended upon for masterpieces and career-defining works, while the young guns (Hancock, Hill, Green) were challenging the form and building formidable reputations.

1. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Charles Mingus. As much a conceptual piece about love and struggle as it is Mingus' most personal work, this is probably the greatest achievement in orchestration by any jazz musician ever. Written as a ballet in six parts, Mingus and his eleven-piece band bounce between haunting blues and dancing vivacity with equal precision. Famously deemed "The Angry Man of Jazz," Mingus was in treatment for much of Black Saint's production and his psychotherapist famously wrote the album's liner notes.
2. Seven Steps to Heaven, Miles Davis. Going into '63, Miles was in flux. Health problems forced him to cancel several concert dates, and amidst the uncertainty his original quintet left for greener pastures. Landing on his feet Davis launched his second great quintet, including Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and a teenage Anthony Williams. The result is fresh, startling blend of new and old, with the instant classic title track tag-teaming with Louis Armstrong's "Basin Street Blues."
3. Back at the Chicken Shack, Jimmy Smith. The finest session by the man who "invented" the jazz organ contains probably his defining composition, a 10-minute jam that spotlighted then-unknown saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. Recorded in 1960, Chicken Shack inexplicably sat on a shelf for three years; it likely found daylight when Turrentine broke out as a leader and composer. Is this a strong soul-jazz effort, or a fore-bearer of funk?
4. Monk's Dream, Theolonius Monk
5. Black Fire, Andrew Hill
6. Idle Moments, Grant Green
7. The Sidewinder, Lee Morgan
8. One Step Beyond, Jackie McLean
9. Our Man in Paris, Dexter Gordon
10. My Point of View, Herbie Hancock. Speaking of Herbie, his second full-length as a leader was simultaneously daring (five original compositions), adventurous (two words: "King Cobra") and incredibly skillful. Featuring Grant Green and several past and present members of Miles Davis' quintet --drummer Tony Williams was so in-demand at 17 years old, its absurd-- Hancock's versatility and innate ability to arrange his supporting cast bode well for his later work.

Honorable Mention: Good Move!, Freddie Roach; Never Let Me Go, Stanley Turrentine.

1. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan. His second album (and first of mostly original music) and the one that defined who Dylan was, what he was doing, and where he was taking folk music. The protest songs steal the show, with "Blowin' in the Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and the vicious "Masters of War" being the album highlights. Until Blonde on Blonde three years later, this was the folk album to beat.
2. Please Please Me, The Beatles. Much like the debut albums of their contemporaries Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, the Fab Four's first full-length is a fine listening experience trumped only by their later, more essential works. The Beatles' template is already there, though there's a certain innocence and naïveté not heard in their other albums. Recorded in 24 hours, Please Please Me sounds effortless.
3. Live at the Apollo, James Brown. Give it up for Soul Brother Number One! Capturing a certain panache and swagger that his studio recordings could barely capture, JB drives through his early hits as an exuberant audience eats out of his hand. A candidate for the best live album of all time, in any genre, in any era.

Honorable Mention: In Dreams, Roy Orbison.

"Louie Louie," The Kingsmen
"Walk Like a Man," The Four Seasons
"One Fine Day," The Chiffons
"It's My Party," Lesley Gore
"Pipeline," The Chantays
"Wipeout," The Surfaris
"Surf City," Jan & Dean
"Rhythm of the Rain," The Cascades
"I Will Follow Him," Little Peggy March
"Be My Baby," The Ronettes

Your thoughts?


  1. I was very young that year, and as usual, I don't recognize the albums, but I remember every one of the singles. What great songs!

  2. "Surf City" really pissed off old man Murray Wilson. It really should had been the Beach Boys first #1 hit.

    Hey I can comment in Firefox on here now.

  3. We see the enormous impact that The Beatles had...the creative explosion that was to come and last for decades wouldn't have been born out of surf music!