1969 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast
Woodstock galvanizes the Boomer-Hippie counterculture as men walk on the moon, Bubblegum and Doomsday Folk triumph and Black acts score the year’s top 2 songs.
Welcome to the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. I’m your host, Christopher Verdesi. Every week on Chartcrush, we dive deep into a year in pop music and count down the top ten songs according to our recap of the weekly pop charts published at the time in the music industry’s leading trade publication, Billboard magazine. This week on Chartcrush, we’re setting our sights on 1969: an empowering year for Americans of all backgrounds.
The transcendent event, of course, Apollo 11, which fulfilled late President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 promise to go to the moon “and other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” 53 million American households and 650 million viewers worldwide sat glued to their TVs on July 20, 1969 as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the lunar surface and planted the stars and stripes.
A few weeks later was the Woodstock festival: three days of peace and music at Yasgur’s Dairy Farm in Bethel, New York. 50,000 attendees was what promoters had told local authorities to sidestep objections and get the necessary permits (really they were expecting 200,000). But nearly 500,000 showed up to hear—really a who’s who of Rock music. It rained, it poured. It was muddy. It was overcrowded. There were plenty of hallucinogenic drugs, but food, clean water, medical facilities and Porta-Potties, not so much. And ugh, the traffic! People abandoned their cars and walked, leaving the roads in and out jammed for miles.
Like the moon shot, Woodstock was hard and had all the makings of an epic disaster. But somehow a half million young Baby Boomers who’d grown up listening to stories about the Depression and War beat the odds and not only got through it, but galvanized the hippie counterculture and had a once-in-a-lifetime blast.
And the big protest movements of the ’60s, Civil Rights and opposing the war in Vietnam, were making real progress: the Voting Rights act in 1965, the Fair Housing Act in 1968, and the new Nixon administration’s policy of Vietnamization starting to shift the combat role in Vietnam to the Vietnamese, with the first withdrawals of U.S. troops. All those, huge tangible victories that validated America’s “can do” grassroots spirit. Americans in 1969 had more reasons than ever to believe that anything, even really hard things, were within reach, even the New York Mets winning the World Series, which they did in 1969: the Miracle Mets.
Of course, there were proverbial “other shoes” dropping all over the place, many on the front-page like assassinations, riots, hijackings; in Vietnam, the Tet offensive and Mỹ Lai Massacre; the Manson family and Zodiac murders in California; Cleveland, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River catching fire because of industrial pollution. All of which contributed to a gathering sense of unease. But 1969 was a year of triumphs and validations: maybe the last year Americans could be unabashedly optimistic before the accumulated reality of all the “other shoes” burst the bubble in the ’70s.
#10 Tommy Roe – Dizzy
And speaking of attempting the impossible as we kick off our countdown: how about a Bubblegum Pop song with 11 key changes between four different keys in under three minutes? That won’t mean much to you unless you know a little music theory, but trust me: it’s pretty ambitious, to the point of ridiculousness. But hey, in the year Bubblegum Pop became its own distinct genre, ridiculousness was kind of the whole point! And if you think such a song could never be a hit, think again. Hey, if you’re driving, pull over because our #10 song by Buddy Holly-inspired early ’60s rocker-turned-pop-singer Tommy Roe (who also co-wrote it) gonna make you—the title of the song—”Dizzy.”
Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy” at #10 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1969. Roe opened The Beatles’ very first U.S. concert in Washington, D.C. in 1964 and was one of the few American early ’60s teen idol-type acts to score #1 hits both before and after the British Invasion: “Sheila” in ’63 and “Dizzy” for four weeks in March ’69. In between he scored a pair of top tens in ’66 with “Hooray for Hazel” and “Sweet Pea.” Notice, though: Tommy Roe was not invited to play at Woodstock.
#9 Tommy James & The Shondells – Crimson and Clover
No Bubblegum acts were. And that chasm in Pop music, between Bubblegum and serious music, was getting wider. Up to the late ‘60s, there wasn’t even really a distinction. All the mainstream dailies, glossies and TV considered Pop and Rock silly kids’ music. Of course they did. Top 40 radio and after-school shows like American Bandstand were targeted at kids. No more pretense to high art than a cartoon or a toy commercial. But as a generation, Baby Boomers were different from previous generations in that they weren’t growing into some version of their parent’s music. No! They were taking their teen music obsessions with them into adulthood, especially those who’d uprooted themselves from their families, friends, churches, and communities to be part of the counterculture. For them, music, and the emotional bond they felt with their favorite artists, wasn’t just some take-it-or-leave-it type diversion; they needed their favorite artists, authors, filmmakers, what have you, to reflect and to share their experiences as they lived and matured, to help fill the role of everything they’d uprooted themselves from.
All this was only beginning to come into focus in ’69, the year the oldest Boomers turned 23 and the startup Hippie mag Rolling Stone created a new Reviews Editor position in ’69 and one Greil Marcus got the job—a guy who (as rock critic Robert Cristgau put it) “wanted fans who expected records to change their lives, and got mad when they didn’t.” So with the largest wave of young people in U.S. history out there putting music at the center of their very existence, and underground publications like Rolling Stone critically reviewing new releases through that prism, dozens of successful chart acts found themselves scrambling to stay relevant.
One such act: our artist at #9, with a history of chart hits like “Hanky Panky,” “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Mony Mony” in a style that was now being dismissed as “Bubblegum.” In ’68, though, he demanded and got total artistic freedom from his label: a pretty bold move since his label, Roulette Records, was controlled by the New York mafia. Remember Hesh Rabkin from HBO’s mob series The Sopranos? Modeled on Morris Levy, the head of Roulette! So at the end of 1968, he unleashed the record he hoped would win over the counterculture and underground press. Chart success, of course, irrelevant to that question, but it turned out being their second #1 hit. It’s Tommy James & The Shondells, “Crimson and Clover.”
“Crimson & Clover,” Tommy James & The Shondells, #9 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1969. So did James succeed in remaking his group from teen pop idols to psychedelic counterculture icons? Well, you could argue it both ways. They scored two more counterculture-oriented top tens in ’69, “Sweet Cherry Wine” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion” but maybe the biggest check in the yes column, their invitation to play Woodstock. “We were in Hawaii,” James later recalled, “and my secretary called and said, ‘Yeah, listen, there’s this pig farmer in upstate New York that wants you to play in his field.’ That’s how it was put to me. So we passed.”
#8 The Beatles – Come Together
So in 1967, Billboard came up with a way to improve its system of ranking the songs for its year-end charts. Up to ’67, all it was, was an inverse point system based on the weekly charts. I know, that’s a mouthful but it’s pretty simple: the song at #100 gets one point and the song at #1 gets 100 points, and so on. Add up all the points by song for all the weekly charts, and there’s your ranking.
OK, sounds fair. But here’s the problem: in any given week on the Pop charts, is the #1 song really only 10% more popular than the #10 song? Eh, usually, no. Turns out, once you get into the top ten, this intangible thing we’re trying to gauge, “popularity,” rises on more of an exponential (or “hockey stick”) type curve. So the improvement in ’67 was: a hundred bonus points for the #1 song. So now, #1s are worth 200 points, with a better chance of ranking higher, as people would expect. Now for some reason, after doing bonus points for the 1967 and 1968 year-end charts, the folks at Billboard decided to ditch them for ’69, and because of that, Billboard‘s top ten for 1969 doesn’t include any Beatles songs.
Well here at Chartcrush, we do use a bonus point system to address the hockey stick in the top ten, so we have two hits by the Fab Four the year after they scored the #1 hit of the year with “Hey Jude.” The first of them is at #8. Released a couple weeks after the album it’s on, Abbey Road, came out, it’s a John Lennon opus, “Come Together.”
Beatles, “Come Together” #8 here on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show for 1969. Now the flip-side of that single was George Harrison’s “Something,” also from the Abbey Road album and a big hit. We had to do a little head-scratching to decide which song we should play at #8 because while both songs were still on the charts in November ’69, Billboard changed its policy about so-called “double-A side” singles. These are records with hits on both sides. Instead of letting them chart individually, they started combining them into a single chart position. Fortunately, Billboard‘s biggest competitor, Cashbox magazine, with a completely separate chart operation, continued ranking sides separately. They had “Something” peaking at #2 and “Come Together” with three weeks at #1, so we think we got it right.
#7 The Beatles – Get Back
At #7, the other Beatles song (that’s right, it’s a Beatles twofer), which hit the charts six months earlier, in May, while the band was recording Abbey Road. It was a non-album single, until their last LP, Let It Be, appeared in the Spring of 1970, nearly a year later. One of the highlights from their impromptu rooftop concert in London in January ’69, which turned out to be their last live performance, at #7, “Get Back.”
7 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1969: “Get Back:” The Beatles 17th #1 U.S. hit, tying Elvis, and the only Beatles single to credit a featured musician, American keyboard player Billy Preston. Preston had first met The Beatles all the way back in 1962 in Germany on tour with Little Richard’s band, so when he was in London, he paid a visit to his old pals in the studio. They wheeled in a Fender-Rhodes piano and he hung out for eight days.
Lyrically, “Get Back,” a McCartney song, started as a parody of anti-immigrant politics, but evolved into the cryptic stories of Jojo and Loretta, which free-flying hippies, known for paying close attention to Beatles lyrics, saw as an admonition to go home, mend fences, and “get back to where you once belonged.”
#6 Sly & The Family Stone – Everyday People
At #6, the first big American chart act with a racially integrated, male and female lineup, and also the only act in our countdown who played at Woodstock. They were one of the hottest groups on the charts when they did, and their set was in the overnight hours Saturday into Sunday between Janis Joplin and The Who. This song was the only #1 hit played by any act at the festival: an appeal for peace and equality among races and social groups that coined the phrase “different strokes for different folks,” it’s Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People.”
Produced and written by Sly Stone, Sly & The Family Stone’s first #1, “Everyday People:” the #6 song of 1969 here on our 1969 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. Sly Stone had been a radio DJ, producer and session keyboard player in the Bay Area for years before Sly & The Family Stone came together in ’67. And he used that diverse experience to update James Brown’s mid-’60s Funk sound with rock hooks, and melody, and the fusion made songs like “Everyday People” and their other big hit in ’69, “Hot Fun in the Summertime” irresistible to the pop mainstream.
After ’69 and Woodstock, Sly moved from San Francisco to a mansion in L.A., where he entered, as Guardian writer Sean O’Hagan put it in 2007, a “terminal zone of drugs, guns, chaos and paranoia.” From there, his music got shriller and weirder. But so did the times. And Sly & The Family Stone scored two more #1 hits in ’70 and ’71. From there, though, it was sadly all downhill.
Stone is often mentioned in conversations about lost ’60s geniuses along with Beach Boy Brian Wilson and Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett.
#5 Zager & Evans – In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)
Now sometimes it takes a bit of head scratching to connect what was happening on the Pop charts to events and currents in the larger world. Our record at #5 is not one of those times. It’s a weird, anxious sci-fi meets book of Revelation end-times prophesy that homes in on mankind’s growing dependency on pharma and tech, and the moon landing was right in the middle of its six-week run atop the chart after a year of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes in theaters. Recorded in a single take in ’68 at a studio in rural Texas and self-released, it started catching on in the Midwest. So RCA remastered it with some overdubs and put it out nationally. It’s Nebraskan duo Denny Zager and Rick Evans, their only hit: “In the Year 2525.”
“In the Year 2525” subtitled “Exordium & Terminus,” Zager and Evans, the #5 song of 1969 according to our Chartcrush ranking. Despite its six weeks at #1 (July into August), it was only #26 on Billboard‘s official year-end chart, for the same reason The Beatles missed their top ten: no bonus points for #1 songs. It must’ve been a shock to music fans to see “2525,” which was everywhere in the summer of ’69, at a middling #26 on the year. In 1970, Billboard restored #1 bonus points.
Zager and Evans disappeared completely from both the U.S. and U.K. charts after “2025” was #1 on both: a one-hit wonder in the truest sense. Why was that? Well, their follow-up single was a first-person lament about an accused rapist who crucifies himself in his jail cell. Hmm, yeah, hard pass, even in 1969.
#4 The Rolling Stones – Honky Tonk Women
At #4, the song that hit #1 the week after Woodstock, dislodging “In the Year 2525” from the top spot. The group, second only to The Beatles among British Invasion acts, and the single was the capstone on their triumphal return to blues rock after a disastrous foray into psychedelia in ’67 that consisted of a Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ripoff album roundly panned by critics. The aforementioned critic Greil Marcus, however, gave the song an enthusiastic thumbs up as “likely the strongest three minutes of Rock ‘n Roll yet released in 1969.” It’s The Rolling Stones, “Honky Tonk Women.”
The Rolling Stones’ fifth #1, “Honky Tonk Women,” #4 on our 1969 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. Now the Stones’ lead guitarist, Brian Jones, had just drowned in his swimming pool in July, but that wasn’t why they didn’t play Woodstock. Front man Mick Jagger was in Australia shooting a movie.
At the end of the year though, with their new guitarist Mick Taylor on board, they did play a one-day free concert that was hyped as “Woodstock West,” and, accordingly, drew a Woodstock-sized crowd to the Altamont Speedway west of San Francisco. The vibes at Altamont, though, by all accounts, not very peacy or lovey. Sensing this, The Grateful Dead, who’d helped create the event, bailed just hours before their scheduled set. Stage security was provided by the notorious Hells Angels biker gang, who were paid in beer, and while The Stones played, an 18-year-old fan high on meth pulled a gun while rushing the stage and was stabbed to death by a Hells Angel, which sparked months of handwringing about the death of Woodstock Nation as the ’70s began.
The Stones kept a pretty low profile stateside for a year, but they were back in ’71 with their Sticky Fingers album and yet another #1 hit, “Brown Sugar.”
#3 The Archies – Sugar, Sugar
So as I’ve been mentioning, Bubblegum Pop was a consequence of the new strident, opinionated underground music journalism of Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus and others elevating the Rock album and reserving praise for a select few “serious” artists making “important” records. Well in Pop, of course, not all records are capital “I” Important, not all artists are capital “S” serious, and some of the biggest chart acts found themselves running out of road, standing at a bridge having to answer a proverbial gatekeeper’s riddle, on penalty of being deemed insufficiently weighty and tossed into the gorge with the other wannabes.
Any act without at least one foot in country, R&B or adult contemporary was affected. Of course, the out-of-the-box response to that: just refuse to play the game and tell the gatekeeper where he can stick his riddle. And that was Bubblegum, a complete (you might even say defiant) lack of pretention: pure pop fluff. And our #3 song was like an exclamation point to that. It wasn’t even a real group!
The Archie Show was a Saturday morning cartoon that debuted in the Fall of 1968. 17-year-old Archie and his Riverdale High School friends Jughead, Reggie, Veronica and Betty. On the show they had a band, and this record by their cartoon band, The Archies, wound up Billboard’s #1 song of 1969 thanks to having the longest chart run of the year at 22 weeks. By our reckoning though, it’s #3, “Sugar, Sugar.”
The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar.” The #3 song of 1969 according to our ranking here on the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. Now, when TV group The Monkees demanded more creative control over their music, much like Tommy James had done before recording “Crimson and Clover,” music mogul Don Kirshner, tired of dealing with pesky human beings, conceived The Archies and recruited songwriters Jeff Barry and Andy Kim, vocalists Ron Dante and Toni Wine and a bunch of studio musicians. Copycat cartoon bands The Banana Splits and Josie & The Pussycats followed in the early ’70s, but no cartoon band ever approached the success of “Sugar, Sugar” again.
#2 The Fifth Dimension – Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures)
Now our next song at #2 as we close in on the #1 hit of 1969 here on the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown show captured the essence of the counterculture and effectively packaged it to cross over to the mainstream. Sly Stone’s “Everyday People” may’ve been the only #1 hit performed at Woodstock, but the crowd spontaneously broke out singing this song even though the group wasn’t there.
#1 for six weeks in the Spring, it’s a mashup medley of two selections from the controversial musical Hair, about a tribe of politically active, long-haired hippies in New York who live a Bohemian life and protest the Vietnam draft. Not an original cast recording, mind you; it’s by a soft-soul vocal group that had been putting songs on the charts for a couple years before 1969. At #2, it’s The Fifth Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”
When Fifth Dimension lead singer Billy Davis Jr. saw Hair on Broadway, he called his producer Bones Howe wanting to do the “Aquarius” part. Howe told him “This isn’t a song, it’s only an introduction.” But after seeing the musical himself, Howe got the idea of doing it as a medley with a snippet from a whole other part of the show, saying “we’re gonna just jam them together like two trains.” Another vocal group, The Cowsills, who inspired The Partridge Family, got their version of Hair’s title song to #2 in May, the last two weeks “Aquarius” was #1.
#1 Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through the Grapevine
And that gets us to #1 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1969: a record that was #1 for seven weeks, but only ranked #86 on Billboard’s year-end ranking. Now after my whole spiel about #1 bonus points earlier, you might be thinking that’s why, and you’d be partially right. But the main reason for the song’s dismal finish is: Billboard only counted nine of the 15 weeks it was on the chart, because its chart run began in late November of 1968, and Billboard’s 1969 chart year for its year-end ranking started on January 4. Omitting its first weeks on the chart plus not awarding #1 bonus points gave this song the rawest deal in year-end chart history. But one of the main reasons we do the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown show is to correct the record by counting every song’s full chart run and properly acknowledging the importance of top tens and #1s. When you do that, Billboard’s #86 song becomes Chartcrush’s #1 song of 1969. It’s Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
Marvin Gaye recorded his version of “Grapevine” in the Spring of ’67, and it sat on a shelf for over a year while Gladys Knight & The Pips’ version was a massive hit and became Motown’s top selling single ever up to that point. When Gaye’s version finally came out in ’68 it was an album cut. A DJ on Chicago’s biggest Black music station, WVON, started playing it, and Motown boss Berry Gordy, Jr. finally relented and put it out as a single. He’d been reluctant because the song’s paranoid intensity didn’t comport with the silky smooth image he was trying to cultivate for Marvin Gaye, but once it dropped it shot to #1 and stayed at the top spot for seven weeks: our #1 song of 1969, here on the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show.
Now given all the issues I’ve raised with how Billboard compiled its 1969 year-end chart, you won’t be surprised to know that there are a few songs that were Billboard year-end top ten hits, but didn’t make our countdown.
Billboard had another multi-ethnic group, like a British Sly and The Family Stone
“Build Me Up Buttercup” The Foundations: our #17 song. Billboard had it at #9.
Billboard’s #8 song first dented the Hot100 in 1967, and then returned in ’69 and got to #6 with 16 weeks on the chart.
Tom Jones’ “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” was #33 on our Chartcrush ranking.
A second Sly & The Family Stone record made the top ten on Billboard’s year-end Hot100 at #6
We had “Hot Fun in the Summertime” at #25 on the year.
And finally, The Temptations’ biggest hit of the year just missed our countdown at #11.
The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next to You” was Billboard’s #3 song of the year.
Now one act that didn’t make the top ten on the year on our ranking or Billboard’s was nevertheless the #1 singles act of 1969 by just about any measure when you rank artists instead of songs. That’s because they charted five singles during the year, and two of them got all the way to #2 on the weekly chart, including “Proud Mary.”
During their four year chart career from ’68 to ’72, incredibly, Creedence Clearwater Revival never had a #1 hit, but they had five #2’s, and “Proud Mary” was the first, peaking at the runner-up spot for three weeks in March of ’69.
The Youngbloods – Get Together
Now we’re gonna close out our 1969 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show with one of the enduring anthems of the ’60s: a timeless, impassioned appeal for peace and brotherhood that frames the issue as a choice between love and its opposite, fear. It was first released in 1967 and barely scraped the charts, but then it was picked up for a radio PSA for the National Conference of Christians and Jews, then reissued, whereupon it rose into the top ten and peaked for two weeks at #5 in September ’69, landing at #33 on our ranking. It’s New York folk-rock group The Youngbloods “Get Together.”
The Youngbloods’ lone top 40 hit, “Get Together.” After they split in 1972, group leader Jesse Colin Young went on to a successful solo career with six charting albums in the ’70s.
Well I hope you enjoyed our 1969 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. I’ve been your host, Christopher Verdesi. Check out our website, chartcrush.com, for written transcripts and streaming links for this and other Chartcrush countdown shows, plus chart run line graphs and other far out extras. We count down a different year every week from the beginning of the charts in the ’40s all the way up to the present, so tune in again next week—same station and time—for another edition of Chartcrush.