by Terry Teachout
via Commentary magazine
n May 9, 1964, Louis Armstrong’s recording of the title song from Hello, Dolly! became the best-selling single in America, leaping past the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” to reach the top of Billboard’s pop chart. It would be the last jazz record, and the next-to-last show tune, to do so. When Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly!” was replaced by Mary Wells’s “My Guy” a week later, an era—the one that has since come to be known as the “golden age” of American popular music—ended. Rock and roll, the preferred music of the baby boomers, thereafter supplanted golden-age popular song as the lingua franca of pop music in the U.S. and Europe.
Nothing stays popular forever, and by the ’90s, rock had in turn been supplanted by hip-hop as America’s top-selling pop-music genre. But the splintering of our common culture prevented hip-hop from developing into the new lingua franca. Instead, we now have many popular musics, none of which has anything remotely approaching the cultural dominance that was enjoyed by rock and roll for more than a quarter-century.
The surviving rock stars of the ’60s and ’70s are now in their own golden years, and their lives and work have become the subject of numerous biographies and journalistic histories. The latest, David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971, the Year that Rock Exploded, is a lively survey of the year that saw the release of such top-selling albums as Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Led Zeppelin IV, Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson, the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Carole King’s Tapestry, and the Who’s Who’s Next.1 Hepworth, a veteran British rock journalist, contends that these albums constitute a “rock canon” that has proved to be of permanent artistic and cultural significance:
Many of the musicians who made those 1971 records are still playing today, in bigger venues than ever, in front of huge, multi-generational crowds made up of the children and even the grandchildren of their original fans . . . . These records are not just remarkably good and uniquely fresh; they have also enjoyed the benefit of being listened to more times than any recorded music in human history.