by John Ellis
One of the things that should prompt a thankful pride in all Americans is how our country’s presidents so often and so willingly reach for the hot handle of responsibility. In fact, a famous president once said, “The buck stops here.” This series, “The Pop Presidents,” seeks to honor an aspect of the last eleven president’s responsibilities that is often overlooked – presiding over the growth of pop music, specifically the genre known as Rock and Roll. Over the course of the first eleven articles, the ten best albums released under each of the eleven administrations’ oversight will be briefly discussed. In the final article of the series, the eleven presidents will be ranked based on the music released during their time in the Oval Office.
Placing his hand on the Bible that January day in 1961, John F. Kennedy was young, good looking, and charismatic – the perfect president to pair with the brash musical genre sweeping the country and awakening its youth. However, just like his “distrust of the senior military officials he had inherited from the Eisenhower administration”, which prompted him to reshuffle the Pentagon leadership, an energetic and decisive President Kennedy wasn’t satisfied with allowing Rock and Roll to be shaped without his guiding hand. Demonstrating forward thinking while still remaining rooted to what was good from the past, President Kennedy willed us Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles. President Eisenhower may have given us Rock and Roll, but President Kennedy redirected its trajectory.
It wouldn’t have been a surprise if his short presidency had hobbled Kennedy’s legacy within the pantheon of Pop Presidents; but, by force of cult-of-personality, Kennedy demonstrated through music the beauty and power of integration. To see that, one needs look no further than Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by Ray Charles. Of course, one could look further, since under JFK’s watch, surf rock melded Southern California beach culture with that of Middle Eastern music chords, scales, and rhythms; not to mention the explosion of the folk renaissance that became the stammering voice of the country’s angst over the Cuban missile crisis.
Honorable Mentions: All Aboard the Blue Train, Johnny Cash; With the Beatles, Beatles; Crying, Roy Orbison; Back at the Chicken Shack, Jimmy Smith; Surfin’ Bird, The Trashmen; Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk.
- Green Onions – Booker T. and the M.G.’s, October, 1963.
The title track of Booker T. and the M.G.’s Green Onions is instantly recognized by most people; but, many of those same people could neither tell you the name of the song nor the name of the artist that recorded it. That’s a shame, because Booker T. and the M.G.’s had a huge influence on the Southern Rock/Soul that was going to soon start coming out of Memphis and Muscle Shoals. And, although recorded early in the 60’s, Green Onion has a sound that is the musical definition of the decade.
- Surfers’ Choice – Dick Dale and his Del-tones, November, 1962.
Who knew that laid back surfers could wreak such violent havoc on their amps and guitars? In way of expounding, and in a brash display of plagiarism, I’m going to quote the Dick Dale website, “Leo Fender gave the Fender Stratocaster along with a Fender Amp to Dale and told him to beat it to death and tell him what he thought of it. Dale took the guitar and started to beat it to death, and he blew up Leo Fender’s amp and blew out the speaker. Dale proceeded to blow up forty nine amps and speakers; they would actually catch on fire.” That quote explains why the father of surf-rock is also considered by some the father of heavy metal. Regardless of his place in heavy metal history, Surfers’ Choice represents the birth of a genre that influenced not only music but culture in general.
- Peter, Paul and Mary – Peter, Paul and Mary, May, 1962.
Part of the folk renaissance, Peter, Paul and Mary, the debut album of the group by the same name, is filled with lush and comforting harmonies to compliment the familiar melodies. That being said, perched on our 21st century tree of cynicism, it can be hard to see and appreciate the subversiveness of folk band likes Peter, Paul and Mary in the late 50s and early 60s. The folk renaissance demonstrated that social commentary is going to be resisted by the status-quo regardless of the form packaged in – ask JFK.
- Surfin’ USA – Beach Boys, March, 1963.
Like the Vietnam War, decisions made during the Eisenhower administration greatly impacted some of the most popular music released during President Kennedy’s time in office. For example, “Sweet Little Sixteen” (’58) by Chuck Berry provided the melody for the title track of the Beach Boy’s Surfin’ USA. Of course, Chuck Berry sued for compensation and won. That hiccup of plagiarism aside, Surfin’ USA was the first glimpse of the innovative genius of Brian Wilson; listen to “Lonely Sea,” and try not to be reminded of late 90’s and early 00’s indie rock bands.
- The Genius Sings the Blues – Ray Charles, October, 1961.
Not just anyone sings the blues; a genius sings the blues. And, before you are tempted to raise an inward eyebrow in contemplation of whether or not the claim crosses into hubristic, know this – The Genius Sings the Blues is Ray Charles’ second entry in this series, and I promise you that it won’t be his last. If that doesn’t convince you, listen to the album without looking up Ray Charles’ birth date, and guess how old he was when he recorded this album. Youth and earned gravitas rarely go hand in hand, but, like President Kennedy, Ray Charles demonstrated ability and forward thinking beyond his years, which would be further demonstrated in less than a year.
- Monk’s Dream – Thelonious Monk, January, 1963.
Few piano players have tickled the sexy out of the keys better than Thelonious Monk. Combine his skills with that of three other jazz musicians who were not only at the top of their game, but seamlessly wove complex runs and fills around Monk’s innovative piano rhythms, and one of the greatest and most recognizable jazz albums of all time was recorded.
- Please, Please Me – Beatles, March, 1963.
On the day that President Kennedy was assassinated, the Beatles released their second album. In fact, With the Beatles was the group’s second release in 1963. Their first release was Please, Please Me; which is not only a better overall album than With the Beatles, but being the first Beatles record, deserves extra recognition. There is absolutely zero way to deny the Beatles influence. But, unlike the editors of Rolling Stone, Sir Paul McCartney doesn’t have any dirt on me; so, I’m not obligated to list a Beatles album #1 on every list. Please, Please Me, which includes an incredible cover of “Twist and Shout,” ranks as President Kennedy’s fourth best album.
- Live at the Apollo – James Brown, May, 1963.
“So, now, Ladies and Gentleman, it is star time. Are you ready for star time?” followed by a chorus of screaming girls opens this shimmering scorcher of an album. If you have ever doubted or simply wondered about the appeal of James Brown, find a porch swing on a hot, humid August day, place a tall glass of sweet tea on the porch rail, and allow the sweat to be propelled down the side of your face by the force and heat emanating from Live at the Apollo. Like President Kennedy’s presidency, it’s not long but it packs a soulful punch.
- The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – Bob Dylan, May, 1963.
What generation gap? On Bob Dylan’s second album, the troubadour married classic tunes with his pointed contemporary lyrics. Something for everyone. Well, except that although Bob Dylan is almost universally revered now, he was considered somewhat of a meddling provocateur back in the day. Of course, the “greatest generation” wasn’t going to be thrilled about a young whipper-snapper preaching about how there have been too many wars of late. So, Dylan became the voice of a confused and concerned generation that had begun to believe that the previous generation no longer had the ability to get out of their own way. Curious about the existential angst produced by the Cuban missile crisis? “Hard Rain” is Dylan’s desperate poetry that reflects his belief that he was about to die. In his words, “Every line in it is a whole new song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”
- Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music – Ray Charles, April, 1962.
James Meredith stated that President Kennedy’s inaugural address was one of the motivators that empowered him to sue the University of Mississippi in May of 1962. Meredith claimed that the University had rejected him based solely on race. That fall, President Kennedy and his brothers’ involvement extended beyond the phone calls putting pressure on Governor Barnett to activating 500 U.S. Marshalls supported by the National Guard. A violent riot broke out. That same turbulent and violent year saw the release of Ray Charles’ masterpiece Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. With much of the country swirling with mistrust and violence, Charles expertly married the music of the two sides into one of the most beautiful albums of the modern era.
 H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty, (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 23.
 If you know a little something about music history, particularly the Beatles history, then you know that With the Beatles wasn’t technically released in the U.S. until 1987 (it was available as an import prior to ’87, of course). The Beatles catalog can be confusing. For example, Please, Please Me, which was released in England in ’63, was released in the U.S. in ’64 as Introducing the Beatles. With the Beatles was released as Meet the Beatles in ’64. It’s not as simple as all that, but I’m not going to try and explain it all in a footnote.