Nothing brings back the memories of where you were and what you were doing at a particular time in your life like hearing a song that came from that time. In the summer of 1963, I was, like the rest of girls my age in those days, 10-1/2 going on 18. From the time school had let out in June, where I lived in the suburbs of Detroit, music was in the air every day. It came from those polished, wing-backed, convertible top-down cars whizzing by, street parties, picnics in the park, backyard barbecues, teen dances at the local high school, or kids like me blasting it from their transistor radios as we danced with abandon on our lawns or our basements.
The music of that summer was either music to do a new dance to – like the Miracles, Mickey’s Monkey, or Major Lance’s The Monkey Time talking about doing the new dance called The Monkey – which looked a lot like you might imagine, a monkey climbing a tree…Twist those hips, let your backbone slip. Then there was the Mashed Potato Time by Dee Dee Sharp, which had already been out for several months…You’ll find this dance is so cool to do, c’mon baby, gonna teach it to you...the record of which my friends and I wore grooves in the vinyl from playing it so much everyday. Dancing the “mashed tater” was to pretend your body was like a potato masher kitchen tool and your feet were the bottom of it. You stood straight, and moved your feet in a back and forth outward/inward motion, the same as you would mash potatoes in a pan. We couldn’t decide which one we liked better though, the Mashed Potato, or The Bird, Dee Dee’s other dance hit, Do The Bird that had been out since the Spring of 1963. Look out, look out, there’s a big bad bird that’s flying about…even though Dee Dee’s audience that summer were mostly much older teenagers, the lyrics were definitely a kids wacky dance paradise that all of us found creative ways to act out in dancing it. And you have to remember, we didn’t have digital sound, MP3’s, CD’s, or DVD’s, in those days. Stereo was the new sound upgrade from monaural and we played our vinyl records on special stereo speaker equipped phonographs with diamond-tip needles to get the best possible sound.
If the Monkey and the Bird, were crazy fun dances for people to do, the Bossa Nova was THE sophisticated, “continental’s” dance from Brazil. In those days, there were frats – collegiate type teenagers, greasers – a hold over style from the 50’s, and continentals – the slick international types who drove foreign cars and wore black sunglasses like those you saw in foreign films. The Bossa Nova had been introduced in the United States a few years earlier but just started to really catch on that year when Elvis Presley’s Bossa Nova Baby, came out in his Fun in Acapulco movie. Another bossa nova-regaling song, Blame it on the Bossa Nova, by the great Eydie Gorme (who died a few weeks ago, August 10, 2013, 50 years after this song came out) became THE sophisticated suburban housewives’ picks for their summer patio dance parties. The lyrics were all about dancing and love…I was at a dance, when he caught my eye, standing all alone, looking sad and shy. We began to dance, swaying to and fro, and soon I knew, I’d never let him go. A year later, in 1964, both Presley’s and Gorme’s Bossa Nova songs would be eclipsed by Stan Getz’ and Astrud Gilberto’s The Girl from Ipanema.
But, the most fun I, and my slightly older brother David, had dancing in the Summer of 1963 was joining in the crazy hula hoop dancing contests that kids in my suburban neighborhood held. We chose a recently released song that was really big on the music charts that summer. It wasn’t really a dance song, but we made it into one doing the Wipeout Hula to the music of The Surfaris Wipeout. As you might guess, the object was to see how fast, and how long, you could hula hoop to that dizzying drum beat and repetitious guitar twang that began after that hyena-like laugh at the beginning. Some kids would even circle hula hoops on their arms or necks while trying to spin one around their hips or waist. Others, who couldn’t keep the hoops up gave up and started doing the forward swim, and backstroke movements of The Swim, another fun dance of those days. Close your eyes for a moment, hear that music in your head? Now, imagine rows of kids gyrating wildly inside their multicolor hula hoops. Are you laughing yet? The picture is as hilarious now as it was unbridled fun, freedom and innocence for us back in those summer days. I don’t even remember what the prize was, or if there was one, we were gyrating, falling, and laughing too much to care.
Sharing the spotlight with dancing and new dance songs intended or not, was that age-old favorite – summer love. Through my little girl’s eyes, it seemed everywhere I went; people were either dancing or falling in love or both. And my older cousin, Peggy, was one of them. We spent a lot of time together in those days, and she frequently took me along to the many summer teen dances at her high school. She had a major crush on a guy named Larry, and she claimed The Crystals, Da Doo Ron Ron, a song about a girl’s crush on a guy named Bill, were like her feelings about Larry. I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still, da-doo-ron-ron-ron, da doo-ron-ron. Somebody told me that his name was Bill, da-doo-ron-ron-ron, da-doo-ron-ron. Yeah, my heart stood still, yeah, his name was Bill, and when he walked me home, da-doo-ron-ron-ron, da-doo-ron-ron. In my 10-something year-old brain, I thought da-doo-ron-ron referred to dumbstruck love babble, like something you might nervously answer in nonsensical gibberish should your crush suddenly speak to you, maybe even flubbing your lips with your finger afterwards, I don’t know.
However strange the title of the song was, and however, lamenting my cousin Peg may have been scouting for Larry at her dances, hearing that charged, mix of instruments lead-in was like getting a jolt of electrical energy into your feet. Then when La La Brooks started in with those vocals, you just had to get up and dance. That saxophone riff in the middle, and the prominent saxophone sound, that was present in most of Phil Spector-produced songs of those days really got you up and moving. The Crystals were one of several Phil Spector attractive girl-group recording artists who, with their big, 60’s elaborate hairstyles, pencil dresses and high heels, all had that unmistakable Spector “wall of sound” flavor. The Ronettes were another popular Spector girls group, who, although the lyrics of their songs, like Be My Baby, might have made you feel a little down, a girl pleading with her love interest to be “just hers”, that signature rockin’, calypso-beat-like music they were set to had just the opposite effect. It made you want to get up and do the stroll, or the cha-cha even. Oh, since the day I saw you (cha cha cha), I have been waiting for you (cha cha cha), you know I will adore you (cha cha cha) till eternity…Another Crystals, hit, Then He Kissed Me, also spoke about the quintessential summer-love event, a guy at a dance coming over to ask you to dance, letting him walk you home, and then the first kiss under the shining stars. Romance was all over the music then.
In fact, unlike a lot of “love songs” of past years, most of the love anthems that summer made you want to dance rather than sit and daydream, or cry, about your love interest. Where I lived, the newly popular Motown sound was as hot as the temperatures that summer. We all danced to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Heat Wave, the lyrics likening falling in love to a “heat wave” in your heart. Then there was Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me, with, what my 10-year-old sensibility thought was kind of odd lyrics for a “love” song. . I don’t like you, but I love you, seems like I’m always thinking of you, though you treat me badly, I love you madly. Okay, whatever. It still was one of the best songs to do the stroll to. And if Spector songs had their sound, so did Motown. You always knew a Motown-sound song, it’s incredible cache of musicians gathered in Hitsville USA’s studios down on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit – my hometown – were evident in every one of their songs.
For sure, dancing away those summer days and nights to some of the greatest music ever, 1963 America seemed like the greatest, happiest place to be for a kid like me. In August of that year, it seemed like America was on the path to becoming an even greater place to live when the Civil Rights March on Washington took place near the end of the summer on August 25. But neither me or my friends, nor my brothers, cousins, our families, our neighbors, could have ever known that the dancing, innocent, fun, music and teenage love filled summer was really just the calm before the storm that would forever change the face of America. In those Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer, like Nat King Cole’s song that summer extolled – a time of summer picnics and carefree days and nights – none of us could ever dream what was coming down the pike for America later that fall in November 1963.
Looking back on those days, on this 50th anniversary of the Summer of 1963, I prefer to remember the fabulous music that oozed out of the many summer scenes, the crazy hula hoop contests, the teen-crush dances, riding in the backseat of my mom and dad’s beautiful silver, convertible Chevy Impala, and the sometimes confused wonderings of a 10-year-old girl’s thoughts about future love. That entire summer, for me, seemed to all get rolled into one warm summer-breeze feeling song in RobinWard’s, Wonderful Summer…I’ll always thank you for giving me the most wonderful summer of my life…