Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Act Naturally

Country Crossover Hits: Part 4

For our final Country Music Crossover post, we're featuring American singer-songwriter and actor Ricky Nelson, who first began his entertainment career in 1949 playing himself in his family's radio sitcom series, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (followed by a successful TV sitcom of the same name in the late '50s). In 1957, after recording his first single and debuting as a singer on the TV series, Nelson's music career took off and he was the first teen idol to utilize TV to promote hit records. From 1957 to 1962, he had 30 Top-40 hits (more than any other artist except Elvis Presley and Pat Boone), including "Poor Little Fool," which was the first #1 song on then newly-created Billboard Hot-100 chart. When his career came to a halt in the wake of the British Invasion in the mid-'60s, he moved more towards country music, becoming a pioneer in the country-rock genre and had one last hit with "Garden Party" in 1972. Unfortunately, like quite a few iconic singers, he was killed in plane crash in 1985. Released in 1961, this rockabilly tune seems to make the lists of crossovers, hitting #9 on the US pop chart and #2 in the UK. Written by singer Gene Pitney with Cayet Mangiaracina, here's 21-year-old Ricky Nelson performing "Hello Mary Lou" on that All-American TV series.  

At 4 foot 9 inches tall, next is Little Miss Dynamite, country pop singer Brenda Lee, who was a young girl with a mature voice when she was discovered. Although she sang rockabilly and country music from a very young age, her record label she signed with in the mid-50s decided to market her exclusively as a pop artist, thus none of her best-known recordings from the 1960s were ever released to country radio (despite her country sound). In 1960 at 15-years-old, Lee recorded her signature song "I'm Sorry," which hit #1 on the Billboard pop chart and was nominated for a Grammy. Even though it was not released as a country song, it was among the first big hits to use what was to become the Nashville Sound, which emphasized stringed-instrumental sound with smooth vocal harmonies. In time, this country pop tune has become accepted by country fans as a standard of the genre, and is a fixture on many "country oldies" programs. Even peaking at #4 on the R&B chart and #13 in the UK, this song is considered as one of the "finest teen pop songs of the era" (Allmusic). In this (unfortunately poor quality) video, the adorable Brenda Lee sure makes singing like this look so easy.    
Next up, it's American singer/guitarist Buck Owens who had 21 #1 hits on the country music charts with his band, the Buckaroos. Originally from Texas, he moved to Bakersfield, CA where he drew up his inspiration for his purely American music, and pioneered the Bakersfield Sound (a reaction against the over-produced  honky-tonk Nashville Sound in the 1950s). Owens was also known for co-hosting the hilarious TV variety series Hee Haw from 1969 to 1986. This next country tune became a crossover hit in a roundabout way. Released in March of 1963, "Act Naturally" was his first chart-topping hit on the country chart, staying at #1 for four weeks and making Owens a country superstar. In 1965, The Beatles brought more attention to this song with their (still country) cover version of this tune, featuring Ringo Starr on the lead vocals. Released in the US as the B-side of "Yesterday," it actually peaked at #47 on the singles chart (their adorable performance on Ed Sullivan here). Later in 1989, Owens and Starr teamed up for a brand-new version, also creating a lighthearted music video for it (here), and this duet peaked at #27 on the country chart. Now for a performance by the original, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos on the Ranch Show in 1966.      

We'll finish this series with the American country music singer-songwriter and musician Merle Haggard who, like Buck Owens, helped create that Bakersfield Sound with his band The Strangers. Unrelated to his troubles with the law in his younger days, Haggard aligned himself with the growing outlaw country movement in the late '60s (a subgenre of country music whose artists had a raw sound and scruffier look in contrast to those clean cut singers of the Nashville Sound, wearing those rhinestone-covered Nudie suits ). In many of his songs, his guitar playing and voice gave country a hard-edged, blues-like style, and even into the '90s and 2000s, he has continued to release successful albums. Of his 38 #1 country hits, one of his most popular songs is "Okie from Muskogee," which also became a minor pop hit, reaching #41 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart after its release in September 1969. Written by Haggard with his drummer Roy Edwards Burris during the height of the Vietnam War, this tune was first intended as a patriotic statement in support of the troops, but now has become more of a spoof than redneck anthem, as hippies (who are derided in the lyrics) seem to enjoy the humor in it; even counterculture acts like the Grateful Dead and Phil Ochs have cover versions of their own. From 1969, here's Merle Haggard performing "Okie from Muskogee" with The Strangers.    

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