The year 1961 was an incredible one for music, with the Billboard Hot 100 in its infancy and new artists replacing older faces who had owned the charts for the last decade. In this article, we’ll dive into the 35 best songs of 1961 by taking a look at the Billboard year-end charts to help determine our rankings.
1. Tossin’ and Turnin’ – Bobby Lewis
Bobby Lewis’ Tossin’ And Turnin’ was first released in December 1960, but by July 1961, it had reached the top of both the Hot 100 and R&B charts. In total, it spent seven consecutive weeks at the top of the Hot 100 and was the number-one song of the year for 1961. It would go on to become a standard of the oldies style we know today and was even used in the soundtrack for the 1978 film Animal House.
In 2008, Billboard ranked it as the 27th biggest track of all time, and it was one of only six songs to spend at least seven weeks at the top of the Hot 100 throughout the entirety of the 60s.
2. I Fall to Pieces – Patsy Cline
I Fall To Pieces wasn’t just one of the biggest songs of the year in 1961, it became one of Patsy Cline’s biggest hits of her career. The track quickly rose to the top of the country charts before crossing over to the pop charts and rising to the 12 twelve spot on that chart. Subsequent covers of the song by Diana Trask and Trisha Yearwood would also make it onto the country charts in later years, but Cline’s original version of the song is still the best-known and most successful version.
3. Michael, Row The Boat ashore – The Highwaymen
Michael, Row The Boat Ashore started out as a traditional African-American spiritual song and dates back to at least the American Civil War. Most notably, the track was sung by slaves on St. Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina, and it was published in the 1867 Slave Songs Of The United States. The version in this article was produced by The Highwaymen in 1960, briefly rising to the top of the pop charts in 1961 and winding up as one of the top three most successful tracks of the year.
4. Crying – Roy Orbison
Crying was the title track of Roy Orbison’s third studio album in 1962, but it was released the prior year as a promotional single. Described as a rock-bolero song, it would eventually peak at number two on the Hot 100, held out of the number-one spot by Ray Charles’ Hit The Road Jack. Despite not reaching the top spot of the Hot 100, Billboard recorded it as the fourth-biggest track of the year—and it did spend time atop the CashBox Top 100.
5. Runaway – Del Shannon
Del Shannon’s Runaway would be a track enshrined by Rolling Stone Magazine on two installations of their lists of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 1961, it would become an international hit, rising to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in the US and holding that spot for four consecutive weeks while also reaching the top five in nine other countries.
6. My True Story – The Jive Five
My True Story was the biggest hit ever recorded for The Jive Five. The song was released in 1961 and was co-written by the lead singer of the group Eugene Pitt, Oscar Waltzer, and Joe Rene. It would eventually make it to number three on the Hot 100 and spent three weeks on top of the R&B charts as well.
7. Pony Time – Chubby Checker
Pony Time was originally written by Don Covay and John Berry, with Covay recording and releasing the song in 1960 with his group The Goodtimers. In 1961, Chubby Checker recorded the song and found a lot more success. It provided him with his second number-one US single—after The Twist—when it topped both the US Hot 100 and R&B charts.
8. Wheels – The String-A-Longs
The String-A-Longs released their debut single in 1960, and it turned out to be the biggest hit they ever produced. Wheels would rise in 1961 to become a song that reached number three on the US Hot 100 and number eight on the UK Singles chart. While it did not signal a long run of success for them, it was the eighth-biggest track of the year and a huge commercial success that earned a gold disc.
9. Raindrops – Dee Clark
Dee Clark recorded Raindrops in 1961 and found a huge hit with it. Likening the tears that fall after a lover’s departure to raindrops, the song was an instant classic that rose to number two on the US Hot 100 and number three on the R&B Singles chart.
10. Wooden Heart – Joe Dowell
Wooden Heart was recorded by Elvis Presley in 1960 for the film G.I. Blues and was based on a German folk song. It was a hit single for him, spending six weeks on top of the UK Singles chart from March to April of 1961. Joe Dowell’s version of the track saw more success in the US, rising to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and Easy Listening charts and ranking as the 10th most successful song of the year.
11. Calcutta – Lawrence Welk
Calcutta was a German pop song that crossed over into US fame. TV host and bandleader Lawrence Welk recorded an instrumental version of the track in 1961 that wound up being the biggest hit of his career. It spent two weeks on top of the Billboard Pop chart and helped its album spend an additional two weeks atop the album charts.
12. Take Good Care of My Baby – Bobby Vee
Carole King and Gerry Goffin were the original writers of Take Good Care Of My Baby, but it was Bobby Vee who made the song famous. His version was incredibly popular, spending 15 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and three weeks at the peak position of that chart. It went on to be one of the biggest hits of the year for both Billboard and CashBox chart trackers and would be released as the lead single of his 1962 album of the same name.
13. Running Scared – Roy Orbison
Running Scared was another huge single for Roy Orbison from his 1962 album Crying. In March 1961, this one went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and would soon after reach number nine on the UK Singles chart. It served as the final track on Crying and sold over one million copies, a huge feat at this time.
14. Dedicated to the One I Love – The Shirelles
The Shirelles’ version of Dedicated To The One I Love was by no means the most popular version of the song in history, that honor goes to The Mamas And The Papas, but it was still the 14th most successful track of 1961. The Shirelles’ version of the song was a rerelease of a 1959 single, rising to number three on the Billboard Hot 100 and number two on Billboard’s Hot R&B Sides chart.
15. Last Night – The Mar-Keys
The Mar-Keys recorded Last Night and released it in 1961. One of the most successful instrumental songs of the year, it would appear on their Last Night! album. The 12-bar blues music would earn them a place at number three on the US Billboard Hot 100 and number two on the US R&B charts as well.
16. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow – The Shirelles
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow was another song written by Carole King that The Shirelles recorded in 1960. This one wound up reaching the number-one spot on the US charts, marking the first time a track by a black all-girl group made it to that position. It also went on to reach number two on the R&B chart and number four on the UK Singles chart that same year.
17. Exodus – Ferrante And Teicher
Exodus was one of four big US hits produced by Ferrante And Teicher. The duo were skilled American pianists who worked on movie soundtracks and rearranged classic pieces into clever and prodigious pieces. This song was the theme from Exodus and became their most successful track on the pop charts, rising to the number two spot in 1961 and helping cement the duo as one of the premier easy-listening acts in the country.
18. Where the Boys Are – Connie Francis
Where The Boys Are was the theme song for a 1960 movie of the same name. Connie Francis both recorded the track for the film and acted in it, making her big screen debut as one of four college girls on a spring break trip. Over time, she would record the song in six languages, from German to Japanese, in an effort to help promote the movie. In the US, the track would rise as high as number four on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.
19. Hit the Road Jack – Ray Charles
Everyone has heard Ray Charles’ rendition of Hit The Road Jack at some point. It was originally written by rhythm and blues singer Percy Mayfield, but Charles was the first to record the song, and it eventually became a signature for him. It not only rose to become a number-one hit in the US in 1961, but it would also go on to win a Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording.
20. Sad Movies (Make Me Cry) – Sue Thompson
Sad Movies is a song that contains a sentiment that a lot of people can get behind or relate to, just like its inspiration. Born from the ambiance-killing lights being turned on in a theater after an emotionally heavy film, Sue Thompson would quickly find success with this track. It would be her first to appear on the Hot 100, eventually peaking at number five while reaching the top of the easy-listening charts and eventually headlining her 1962 album.
21. Mother-in-Law – Ernie K-Doe
Allan Toussaint, the man who plays the piano solo in this song, was also the original writer and producer of Mother-In-Law. Ernie K-Doe would record the track in 1961, and it soared up to the top of both the Hot 100 and R&B charts in that year. Later cover versions would also find success, like the one by The Newbeats that was featured on their 1965 album Big Beat Sounds.
22. Bristol Stomp – The Dovells
Bristol Stomp was written for the doo-wop group The Dovells about a new dance craze in 1961 called “The Stomp.” It was hugely successful for them, peaking at number two on the US Hot 100 and earning a gold disc by selling over one million copies. Several renditions of the song would be released in later years, but their original version is still the best.
23. Travelin’ Man – Ricky Nelson
Ricky Nelson was never really meant to sing Travelin’ Man. The song was originally written for Sam Cooke, but he passed on it and it fell to Nelson. That turned out to be a blessing, as it would become his biggest hit in the UK and one of his most successful songs ever. It reached the top of the Hot 100 and number two on the UK Singles chart.
24. Shop Around – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ Shop Around was a mega-hit written by their lead singer. It would end up being their first song to reach one million sales and the first track to achieve that same feat for Motown Records. It topped both the Billboard R&B chart and CashBox Top 100, peaking at number two on the US Billboard Hot 100. It also won numerous awards, including being inducted into the Grammy and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.
25. The Boll Weevil Song – Brook Benton
The Boll Weevil Song was around for a long time before Brook Benton picked it up. Several artists recorded it throughout the 20s, 30s, and 40s, but it originated as a folk song around 1908. Boll weevil infestations devastated farmers throughout the 20s, leading to this blues track becoming increasingly popular. Benton’s version in 1961 was a pop hit, rising to number two on both the Hot 100 and R&B charts.
26. A Hundred Pounds of Clay – Gene McDaniels
A Hundred Pounds Of Clay was written by Kay Rogers, Luther Dixon, and Bob Eglin. Gene McDaniels would be the artist to record and perform the song though, featuring it as the title track of his 1961 album. It was a big success on the charts, reaching the number three spot on the Hot 100 and number 11 on the R&B chart that year.
27. The Mountain’s High – Dick and Dee Dee
The Mountain’s High was held just out of the number one spot on the Hot 100 by Take Care Of My Baby in 1961. It stayed in the number two position on the chart for two weeks and was one of Dick and Dee Dee’s biggest hits as a duo. In the UK, the track also made it into the top 40, peaking at number 37 on the UK Singles chart in 1961.
28. Don’t Worry – Marty Robbins
Don’t Worry was a record-setting song by Marty Robbins. It became his seventh number-one track on the country chart, holding that position for a total of 10 weeks and crossing over to reach number three on the pop charts. It was covered by other country stars in the 90s, most notably by LeeAnn Rimes for her 1999 eponymous album.
29. On the Rebound – Floyd Cramer
On The Rebound was an incredible instrumental by pianist Floyd Cramer. While most of his work was based in the Nashville Sound, this was a change of pace into an uptempo rock and roll instrumental that earned him the number-four spot on the Hot 100 and a number-one hit on the UK Singles chart.
30. Portrait of My Love – Steve Lawrence
Portrait Of My Love had a 1960 release by Matt Monro before Steve Lawrence found an international hit with it the following year. Lawrence’s version spent 16 weeks on the UK Record Retailer chart, peaking on it and the UK New Musical Express chart at number three.
31. Quarter to Three – Gary U.S. Bonds
Quarter To Three is a track that appears on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll list. Adapted from A Night With Daddy G – Part 1, it would become a number-one hit on the US Hot 100 and a top 10 hit on the UK Singles chart in the summer of 1961.
32. Who Put the Bomp? – Barry Mann
Who Put the Bomp? sounds like nonsense, and that’s the point. The song talks about the nonsense words frequently used in doo-wop music and became a huge hit. It would spend 12 weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at number seven in 1961.
33. Calendar Girl – Neil Sedaka
Calendar Girl was a huge international hit. It peaked at number four in the US and number three in Australia and took the top spot on the official charts in Japan and Canada.
34. I Like It Like That – Chris Kenner
Chris Kenner’s I Like It Like That was the original version, rising to number two on the Hot 100 in 1961, held out of number one only by Tossin’ And Turnin’. Ironically, it was also held out of number one on the R&B charts by the same song, making it a track that likely should have reached the top of both charts but came up just short.
35. Apache – Jørgen Ingmann
Apache was a distinctive song recorded by The Shadows, but after hearing their version, Jørgen Ingmann recorded his own. It would later be recorded by the Incredible Bongo Band in 1973, becoming an anthem of early hip hop and being sampled by later artists countless times.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
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