This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles album Please Please Me, a recording that changed the course of music history. The year 1963 marked a pivotal point in music, as the charts in the early 1960s were dominated by more traditional pop performers after the initial flourish of rock & roll seemed to fade as Elvis entered the Army (and the movies), Buddy Holly died, and audiences seemed happy with performers like Bobby Vinton, Edyie Gormet, The Four Seasons and so on. Yet there was still loads of great music coming out, so let’s look at ten great non-Beatles albums from 1963!
Charles Mingus: Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
A relatively short album at ~38 minutes, this embodies everything Mingus to me: the band-as-voice concept, fully drawn musical characters, impressionistic realizations, and amazing playing. The musical soundscapes are about various dance movements, and you can follow these through the music.
Beach Boys: Surfin’ USA
Brian Wilson lamented losing the spotlight to the Beatles, and losing the ‘cool factor’ in the mid-60s, and in retrospect it is easy to see he was right. Yet in context the music – while interesting and complex – was very bright and cheery in and era where that was fast falling out of fashion. The Beach Boys had two stunningly good albums in 1963 (the other was Surfer Girl) that showed them as highly developed songwriters.
Dave Brubeck: Live at Carnegie Hall
One of the greatest live albums of all time, this was my first exposure to Brubeck classics like Take Five and Blue Rondo A La Turk. This track – Castillion Drums – is a feature for drummer Joe Morello. An amazing double album that was another top seller for Brubeck.
Bob Dylan: The FreeWheelin’ Bob Dylan
One of Dylan’s best during the height of his creativity, and one of the best folk albums ever made. There is great song after great song, and cemented his place at the top of the musical world.
James Brown: Live at the Apollo
James Brown, the ‘hardest working man in show business’ could sure put on a show … and this album showed him in what was one of his favored settings, playing tons of great music and getting the crowd going. If you can listen to this without your
John Coltrane: Impressions
Impressions was a major moment in jazz – featuring four songs, two long and two short, and focusing on wide open modal thematic development, Impressions juxtaposed Indian themes, model music, the new ‘free jazz’ and straight-ahead post-bop. The two main songs are India, which leans towards Indian and free jazz, and Impressions, a modal masterpiece. Yet the ballad ‘After the Rain’ is gorgeous in a way Coltrane seldom managed.
Thelonius Monk: Monk’s Dream
So much of what Thelonius Monk is famous for as a composer was done through the 1950s that it is easy to forget about his 1960s output and also his skill as a leader. But perhaps his best album was 1963’s Monk’s Dream. Featuring dense compositions, angular and jagged playing, and amazing band mates, the recording sounds like it could have been released anywhere between 1959 and 1965, but it remains one of the best jazz albums of the year.
Bill Evans: Conversations with Myself
WHAT?!?! Overdubbing in Jazz?!?! You bet – on the left side you have Bill Evans, and on the right side … Bill Evans. Fresh from his amazing trio work and losing bassist Scott LaFaro to a tragic car accident, Evans undertook what stands as one of the most inventive and jubilant pieces of solo/duo jazz music.
Sam Cooke: Night Beat
Just one year prior to his death, Night Beat features the singer at his best, belting our blues and ballads that are just gorgeous to hear, with a band that backs up every nuance of feeling Cooke delivers.
Duke Ellington & John Coltrane: Ellington & Coltrane
I remember watching the Cosby Show back in the mid-80s and after Bill Cosby put needle to vinyl hearing Duke Ellington’s piano and then John Coltrane’s sax … and knew I was going to be spending more money at the local record shop that weekend! The album combined the elder legend of ‘jazz as art’ and the up-and-coming champion of modern jazz in a setting that complimented both of their styles.
Peter, Paul And Mary: Moving
On the strength of Puff the Magic Dragon alone this album belongs on the list, even if folk purists view the trio as ‘folk lite’. The song remains immensely popular as a children’s song, and I have yet to meet a U.S. born adult who can’t – and won’t – sing along as soon as it starts playing.
Each of these albums (and yes I ended up with 11 … so what?) is excellent, but by the end of 1963 the music world had changed … jazz was moving out of the mainstream (as the contrast between Impressions and Ellington & Coltrane shows), traditional pop wasfalling out of favor, and even the bright cheery sounds of the Beach Boys started to struggle for airtime. Only Bob Dylan from this group maintained his coolness and popularity through the decade.
And of course you knew I wouldn’t end without featuring something from Please Please Me! I wrote about the Beatles here, and declared that ‘Ask Me Why’ was my choice track from the album, featuring a rhythm that could have been on a Stan Getz song and yet at the same time this was a new type of pop song. Enjoy: