Did Rock & Roll Kill Your Hit Parade?

I don’t really recall Your Hit Parade as a radio program, but after it made the jump to TV in 1950 it eventually became a regular part of my family’s viewing schedule. The show, which was also sometimes called the Lucky Strike Hit Parade (since the American Tobacco Company paid the bills) had a pretty simple format. A stable of singers and musicians would perform the nation’s top songs each week, always ending with the number one hit, which would be presented with a lot of fanfare and hoopla. Since there would be some repeats each week among the top songs, the staff of the show had to come up with different scenery and costumes to keep it interesting.

Every week we’d gather around to watch it on our TV, which couldn’t have had more than a 14 or 15 inch screen — black and white of course. (The only color set I ever saw in those days was when an uncle of mine got a “color converter” by mail-order. It turned out to be a multi-colored sheet of transparent plastic that you stuck onto your TV screen, which allowed you to watch an actor walk across the screen and change from yellow to green to red to — well, you get the idea. It made you nauseous to watch it.)

Part of the fun of watching the show was guessing what the top song would be each week, and I remember bouncing around on the carpet in front of the TV, making my guesses while ignoring my Mom’s entreaties to move back from the TV because it would “strain your eyes”. Of course, it was usually pretty easy to guess the number one song, because by the time you got to that point of the show you had a pretty good idea what the top song was just by a process of elimination. However, since the show used a mysterious combination of stats from “record sales, jukebox plays, radio requests, and sales of sheet music” (?), some surprises were inevitable. But there was never a hint of manipulation and we never questioned any of their choices. In fact, if the show said a song was number one, then by golly that was it as far as we were concerned.

Through the years there were various lead singers coming and going, but it seems like they usually had two gals and two guys. Those I remember best were Dorothy Collins, Gisele MacKenzie (both Canadians, by the way), Russell Arms, and the delightfully named Snooky Lanson. Since the programming was made up of the pop music of the time – the kind of songs made famous by Doris Day, Perry Como, Nat King Cole and others – it was relatively easy for the show’s singers to do acceptable versions for the audience, and I don’t remember ever noticing much of a difference.

However, rock and roll began to appear on the pop charts, and not only were many of the songs complex but they also didn’t seem to lend themselves well to being performed by other singers. After all, once you’d experienced Elvis singing “Hound Dog”, it was a little difficult to settle for Snooky Lanson, even if the show’s writers tried a humorous approach, such as having him sing it directly to a mournful bloodhound. (As a gag, Elvis also did this on the Steve Allen Show.) And yet, the show’s producers couldn’t ignore the new music because it’s popularity was growing every day.

The rising popularity of rock and roll is generally blamed for heralding the beginning of the end for Your Hit Parade, but I think that was only part of the reason. There was also a phenomenon I’d call the silly song factor. It seemed to me that there were a continually increasing number of popular songs that were just – well – silly, and it became progressively more challenging for the show’s writers and performers to come up with credible attempts at presenting them. How many ways can you stage a musical number that features songs like “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window”, or “Tweedle Dee”, or maybe “Hernando’s Hideaway”?

As far as I’m concerned, the silly song that applied the final blow was a tune that was part of a national craze. If you weren’t around at the time, you can’t imagine how Disney’s Davy Crockett took the country by storm. It was a TV show about a relatively forgotten frontiersman turned congressman, who’d had the bad luck to be at the Alamo. Not only was it a huge hit, but it was probably the first big merchandising tie-in too, as kids all over America went nuts for anything connected with the show — especially coonskin caps. (It also made a star of Fess Parker, although it type-cast him so strongly that his other most-remembered role was later in the TV series Daniel Boone.)

Not coincidentally, “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett” was very popular and had versions by three different singers on the pop charts at the same time. (And a fourth a short while later.) That meant Your Hit Parade had to feature it, week after week, and usually in the number one position. I can still remember rolling on the floor and laughing with delight as it was awarded the top position every week, probably setting some kind of record in the process. And I even recall most of the lyrics, including the immortal, “Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree. Kilt him a b’ar when he was only three.”

Your Hit Parade didn’t last much longer, although they did try to bring it back a year or two later, an attempt that ended in failure. Any time you hear the show mentioned now, it’s usually with the addendum that it was a casualty of rock and roll. I’m willing to agree that it was badly wounded by rock and roll, but folks — Davy Crockett “kilt” Your Hit Parade.

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