Jim Bishop: Threading the phonograph needle

Do clothes make the person? I don’t think so, but songs about articles of clothing sure made a closetful of hit records over the years.

This was certainly the case in the mid- to late 1950s. The recipe was simple: identify a random clothing item, make a fashion statement about it in about two minutes and wrap the lyrics around a catchy melody, typically with a lengthy instrumental bridge in the middle.

This awareness hit me anew as I played “Black Slacks,” a top 20 hit for Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones in1957, on my weekly “Friday Night Jukebox” ’50s music show on public radio station WEMC-FM.

“Black slacks with a cat chain down to my knees, I ain’t nothin’ but a real cool breeze, black slacks . . .” the groovy group intoned. Anyone know what a cat chain is? If so, don’t pussy-foot around – admit it – a long watch chain worn by hep cats and zoot-suiters.

The formula worked well the first time, so the group followed up with a musical footnote, “Penny Loafers and Bobby Socks.” This footloose effort stopped in its tracks at #42.

The same year, the late Marty Robbins tore up the charts with his ballad of unrequited love, “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation,” peaking at #2. I’ve often thought, if everyone in the country drove a pink car (picture that!) the US would indeed be a pink car nation.

The Royal Teens popped the musical question, “Who wears short shorts?,” in 1958, the lyrics apparently written on someone’s coffee break. Today, it’s obvious that short shorts have made a comeback. The group’s follow-up quasi-hit informed us that if you didn’t wear a “Big Name Button” then “you’re a square and you’re really nowhere.”

Remember the sudden but (fortunately) passing craze for the sack dress and the chemise? Singer Gerry Granaham protested with his 1958 song, “No Chemise, Please,” declaring whoever came up with this designer travesty “must have been a woman- hater . . . Take back the sack and hang it on the rack, bring the sweater back.”

Bobby Pedrick, Jr., a 12-year-old with a squeaky tenor voice, gave us “White Bucks and Saddle Shoes” in late 1958. He renamed himself Robert John and had a top 3 hit in 1972 with a remake of the Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and topped the charts in 1979 with “Sad Eyes.”

Frankie Avalon vocalized on the syrupy “Bobby Socks to Stockings” (#8 in 1959), a song one can hardly imagine being interpreted on a music video some 50 years later.

Clothing songs continued to help promote certain styles. In 1959, Dodie Stevens sang the praises of her fashion plate boyfriend Dooley, who wore tan shoes and “Pink Shoelaces” (#3), a polka-dot vest and a big Panama with a purple hat band . . .” Dooley worked for the Barnum & Bailey circus, I believe. The “I’ve Had It” group, the Bell-Notes, sported “White Buckskin Sneakers” the same year.

That good-time group, The Coasters kept me in stitches in 1960 with their “Shoppin’ for Clothes,” a “spoken” story of a dude checking out jazzy threads against a funky sax backing. Alas, once he selected a suit, the would-be Dapper Dan’s credit “didn’t go through,” and he sulks out the door, despondent and saying out loud, “That suit’s pure Herringbone . . . ”

A novelty song about minuscule clothing item became a #1 hit in 1960 for 16-year-old Brian Hyland, “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” The KAPP record label was reluctant to even release the disc because it might “lower the image” for its middle-of-the road artists such as pianist Roger Williams and singer Jane Morgan. Hyland went on to have a #3 hit in 1962, “Sealed With a Kiss.”

I look at what teenagers/young adults wear today and shake my head, then remind myself that our parents responded similarly to what we wore back in Medieval times.

My all-time favorite cool cat ensemble, circa 1958, consisted of the following: black slacks with a belt in back and pegged cuffs; a long-sleeved white shirt with the sleeves rolled back one time; a pullover sleeveless, v-neck charcoal sweater, a thin, shiny plastic belt; a red bow tie (“they say me oh my”) and white buck loafers (with not a single scuff mark). I was ready to dance the night away to the jitterbug, the bop, the stroll and my favorite, the slow dance.

In the early ’60s, I was proud – and oblivious to what it looked like – to wear a boatneck shirt with three-quarter-length sleeves and clamdigger slacks that rode down over my calves. By then my hair style had morphed somewhat, still a precision flat top but with flowing long sides. It took a special barber, a cut above the rest, to make it look just so.

These days, I’m just about the only person who wears a tie to my church, and that’s okay. I’ve found over the years that if I keep my skinny and paisley neckwear it’ll eventually be in style again. That’s also been the case for many of the sports shirts in my limited collection.

Well, that about covers it for this tuneful treatise on clothes, except to add this musical advice from the late Carl Perkins: “You can do what you want, but lay off of my blue suede shoes.”

Postlude: You can hear most of the aforementioned “fashionable oldies” on the next edition of the “Friday Night Jukebox,” 8 p.m. Aug. 27 on 91.7 FM, WEMC, online at www.wemcradio.org.
 
 

Jim (Fashion Plate) Bishop is public information officer at Eastern Mennonite University. He can be contacted at bishopj@emu.edu.


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