The 1960s dawned on a racially divided America, but some of the greatest records of the era were made by blacks and whites working together, including Etta James and the Chess brothers, Ben E. King and Leiber-Stoller, Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach and—memorably—the sublime racially mixed Memphis group Booker T. and the MG’s. Meanwhile, The Beatles scored a #1 single with an inspired Isley Brothers cover, and The Righteous Brothers ushered in a new hybrid—blue-eyed soul.

Click on any song title below to play it on Spotify. The full 66-song playlist can be found on both Spotify and Apple Music.

T H E  S I X T I E S,  P A R T  O N E

Etta James, “At Last” (Argo, 1960): Back in 1942, this ballad was a mild-mannered hit for Glenn Miller, but you’d never know it from the way young Etta James grabs hold of “At Last” and transforms it into a volcanic eruption, as she lets go of all the frustrations of a life swollen with heartbreak. A self-described former “juvenile delinquent” who for a time eased her pain with heroin, James “was a powerful woman but so troubled,” said Beyoncé, who played her in the film Cadillac Records. When Etta rears up to belt out the opening lines— “At last, my love has come along”—it sounds like she’s waited an eternity for this special moment. No matter that she’s a mere 22—she knows all about hurting. In a smoldering contrast of uptown elegance and naked emotion, James’ fierce outpouring is set off by the silkiness of a string section, as she hits the climactic notes as if her life depended on it. It took a ’90s car commercial, of all things, to lodge the track in the hearts of lovers everywhere.

Ben E. King, “Stand by Me” (Atlantic, 1961): Ben E. King came up with the follow-up to “Spanish Harlem,” his first post-Drifters single. He’d written it for his old group, but Drifters manager George Treadwell had rejected it. “He said, ‘Not a bad song, but we don’t need it,’” King recalled. Later on, producer Jerry Leiber was more receptive when the singer suggested trying it as a session was breaking up. “I showed him the song,” King explained. “Did it on piano a little bit. He called the musicians back into the studio and we went ahead and recorded it.” The inspirational lyric’s impact was deepened by a vibrant arrangement juxtaposing a seductive bass line with sawing strings. “Stand by Me” returned to the pop charts 25 years later as the title song of Rob Reiner’s film.

Booker T. and the MG’s, “Green Onions” (Stax, 1962): The Stax rhythm section—black organist Booker T. Jones, white guitarist Steve Cropper, black drummer Al Jackson Jr. and white bass player Lewie Steinberg—tossed together this earworm instrumental as they were warming up for a session. Stax President Jim Stewart, who was in the control room preparing to engineer the session, dug what he was hearing and rolled tape. The instrumental was so damn funky that they decided to put it out; initially, Stewart wanted to put it on the B-side of “Behave Yourself,” the other tune they cut that day. But he changed his mind after WLOK Memphis DJ Reuben Washington got hold of the acetate and played it four times in a row; need we add that the phones lit up? The next order of business was to come up with a title for the song and a name for the group. “Green Onions” topped the R&B charts and hit #3 at Top 40, moving north of a million units. Duck Dunn replaced the MG’s’ lone Jewish member in 1965.  

Dionne Warwick, “Walk On By” (Scepter, 1964): Spotting New York native Dionne Warwick singing backup on a Drifters session, producer/songwriter Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David decided to hire her to sing song demos for them. Thus began a partnership that would span two decades and yield 22 Top 40 singles. On this one, Warwick’s cool, cerebral alto comes across with a melancholy made more wrenching by its restraint, as she sings a zinger of an opening: “If you see me walkin’ down the street/and I start to cry each time we meet/Walk on by.” Bacharach’s arrangement is perfectly calibrated to his diva’s understatement, further ratcheting up the implied drama: an electric guitar chinks against the beat like the memory of romance, and a halting trumpet line deepens the sense of hopelessness. Finally, at the top of the second verse, strings erupt as Warwick soars to her upper register, letting go after holding back. “When I was doing songs with Dionne,” Bacharach explained, “I was thinking in terms of making three-and-a-half-minute movies.”

The Beatles, “Twist and Shout” (Parlophone, 1963): With “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” released in December 1963, The Beatles not only ushered in the Technicolor cavalcade of the British Invasion, they also nearly singlehandedly lifted the pall that had covered America since the JFK assassination less than a month earlier. That ebullient single opened the floodgates, and a lot of what followed consisted of covers, as the Fab Four ripped into songs from Motown, Chuck Berry, Arthur Alexander and other black American artists with the unfettered joy of kids on Christmas morning. They tackled The Isley Brothers’ 1962 recording of “Twist and Shout” at the tail end of their first album session, knocking off takes of 10 songs in 13 hours, and by that time John Lennon’s voice was raw, so much so that he only had enough left for one take. “Every time I swallowed,” he recalled, “it felt like sandpaper.” John’s shredded-tonsil effort resulted in one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll vocals ever recorded. Released as a single in the U.S. in March 1964 on Vee-Jay imprint Tollie (which shows you how clueless Capitol U.S. was at that point), three weeks after The Beatles’ historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, “Twist and Shout” hit #2 a month later, as the Fabs took complete control of the Top 5, an unequaled occurrence. It would be the only Beatles cover to make the U.S. Top 10.

The Righteous Brothers, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” (Philles, 1964): The Righteous Brothers—SoCal native Bill Medley and Michigan transplant Bobby Hatfield—practically invented blue-eyed soul. Phil Spector was in the audience when the duo opened a show for his hit girl group The Ronettes. He was so blown away by the raw elegance of their voices that he immediately signed them to his Philles label and proceeded to give them his dense, echo-drenched Wall of Sound treatment. The resulting single explodes with unleashed primal emotion and harnessed musical massiveness. Medley’s mahogany-hued baritone muscles its way upward from the deep bottom of his range through a mass of thunderclap percussion, a phalanx of strings and celestial backing vocals. When he hits the surging, gospel-fervent choruses, he’s joined by the trumpeting tenor of Hatfield in a fiery exchange of voices that’s pure Godzilla and Rodan, the lyrics as large and clear as the Hollywood sign on a smog-free day.

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