The wide scope of American oldies pop music includes a number of top-notch records that feature cool music and excellent — often moving and emotional — lyrics, but little or no actual singing.
Such records fall into what could be termed “spoken-word” music, and a fair number of such records earned prominent places on nationwide charts during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. So let’s take a look — and perhaps a listen — to some of those classic numbers.
The following could well form a Top 10 of such spoken-word hit records. [To hear a song, just click on the title]
(1) “DESIDERATA” — San Francisco talk show host Les Crane won a Best Spoken Word Grammy for his excellent interpretation of a 1927 poem by Max Ehrmann. “Desiderata” is translated from Latin as meaning “things to be desired.” The record went to No. 8 on the Billboard magazine pop music charts.
(2) “WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW IS LOVE” — Tom Clay, a disc jockey from Detroit, performed a moving commentary about such things as bigotry, hatred and prejudice, with vocal accompaniment by The Blackberries. It was a No. 8 Billboard charter in the summer of 1971.
(3) “THREE STARS” — This was one of the best tribute songs concerning the tragic Feb. 3, 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. It went to No. 11 for Tommy Dee with Carol Kay & The Teen-Aires in the spring of 1959. Dee was a DJ at KFXM in San Bernardino, Calif.
(4) “RINGO” — This narrative by Lorne Green went to the top of the charts in late 1964. It carried a Wild West theme as performed by the native of Ottawa, Canada, who starred in many films and in the longstanding TV series “Bonanza.”
(5) “THE AMERICANS (A Canadian’s Opinion)” — This was a big U.S. charter for two artists in 1974. The best-selling version was a narrative by Byron MacGregor — a news director at CKLW radio in Windsor, backed by an instrumental playing of “America The Beautiful.” To hear the rendition by Gordon Sinclair — a broadcaster/author who first broadcast it on CFRB in Toronto on June 5, 1973 — click here. McGregor’s version went to No. 4 on Billboard, while Sinclair’s peaked at No. 24.
(6) “THE SHIFTING, WHISPERING SANDS” — Billy Vaughn’s Orchestra backed this fine narrative by Ken Nordine, which went to No. 5 in the autumn of 1956. Rusty Draper, a singer-guitarist from Tulsa. hit the No. 3 position on Billboard, but his rendition could be called a “singing narrative” rather than a “spoken-word” version. To hear it, click here.
(7) “AN OPEN LETTER TO MY TEENAGE SON” — Victor Lundberg, a DJ-newscaster from Grand Rapids, Mich., addressed the nation’s youth with this commentary, which went to No. 10 on Billboard in late 1967.
(8) “DECK OF CARDS” — Wink Martindale came into national prominence with this No. 7 record from the autumn of 1959. A native of Jackson, Tenn., Martindale was a longtime DJ on a major Top 40 outlet in Los Angeles (KFWB), and he later hosted a number of TV game shows.
(9) “WHAT IS TRUTH” — Legendary C&W performer Johnny Cash was at his best with a spring of 1970 recording that reached No. 19 on the national pop charts. This one is included as a “spoken word” item although some may consider it borderline singing.
(10) “OLD RIVERS” — Walter Brennan — a native of Lynn, Mass., who played Grandpa on “The Real McCoys” TV series — had several “spoken word” hit records, including this one, which went to No. 5 in the spring of 1962.
Others deserving honorable mention
* “MAMA SANG A SONG” (Stan Kenton, No. 32, 1962) — This was the top-selling version of this one. To hear Walter Brennan’s rendition, click here, and to hear Bill Anderson’s version, click here.
* “THE MEN IN MY LITTLE GIRL’S LIFE” (Mike Douglas, No. 6, 1966) — A Top 10 recording for Mike Douglas, who sang with the Kay Kyser orchestra in the ’40s and had his own TV talk show for years.
* “I.O.U.” (Jimmy Dean, No. 35, 1976) — Dean’s touching ode of thanks to his mother.
* “HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF” (Buddy Starcher, No. 39, 1966) — A commentary by a former DJ in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Miami.
* “TIL DEATH DO US PART” (Bob Braun, No. 26, 1962) — Recorded by a Cincinnati television talk show host.
* “THE TEEN COMMANDMENTS” (Paul Anka, George Hamilton IV and Johnny Nash, No. 29, 1959) — Performed by three young recording artists on the ABC Paramount label.
* “HOT ROD LINCOLN” (Johnny Bond, No. 26, 1960) — Bond was a singer/actor who appeared in more than 50 films. To hear a 1960 rendition by Charlie Ryan, click here, and to hear Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen from 1972, click here.
* “KING HEROIN” (James Brown, No. 40, 1972) — The Godfather Of Soul with a commentary on heroin misuse.
* “TEDDY BEAR” (Red Sovine, No. 40, 1976) — A sad trucker/CD tale from the West Virginia C&W singer-songwriter.
* “DON’T BLAME IT ON THE CHILDREN” (Sammy Davis Jr., No. 37, 1967) — A fine narrative from the multi-talented performer.
* “DUTCHMAN’S GOLD” (Walter Brennan, No. 30, 1960) — Another spoken-word classic from Brennan, backed by Billy Vaughn’s orchestra.
Many of the above spoken-word classic recordings provide much food for thought, and it’s a near-certainty that most listeners will shed at least a tear or two when listening to some of them.