Your Hit Parade

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Your Hit Parade

A landmark musical variety series on both radio (1935-1953) and television (1950-1959, 1974), Your Hit Parade was one of the first and most important manifestations of the musical countdown or survey. Unlike later variations on this format, however, on Your Hit Parade the songs were performed live by a regular cast of singers, some of them famous (Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Dinah Shore). The TV version of Your Hit Parade has been cited, somewhat implausibly, as a forerunner of music video and MTV.

The radio series Lucky Strike Hit Parade debuted on the NBC Red network on April 20, 1935. During the next two years, both NBC and CBS carried the program from time to time, until in 1937 it found its "home" in the Saturday evening schedule on CBS, where it remained until 1947, when it moved back to NBC. The TV version premiered in 1950 as a simulcast of the radio series. This arrangement lasted until 1953, at which point the radio series was canceled. Your Hit Parade continued on NBC until 1958, then moved back to CBS and was canceled in 1959. A revival on CBS in 1974 lasted less than a year and is notable mainly for employing future Love Connection host Chuck Woolery as a singer. The cast of singers and orchestra leaders changed frequently, especially during the show's radio years. The TV cast was more stable and included singers Dorothy Collins, Snooky Lanson, Gisele MacKenzie, and Russell Arms, bandleader (and future electronic music pioneer) Raymond Scott, and announcer Andre Baruch. The most memorable feature of the series is probably its opening, which consists of the sound of a tobacco auctioneer; in the TV version there were also pictures of animated, dancing cigarettes. As Philip Eberly points out, Your Hit Parade was one of a multitude of musical programs sponsored by tobacco companies during the Golden Age of American radio.

The idea behind Your Hit Parade was simple yet novel for the 1930s. Each week, the program's house orchestra and featured singers performed the week's most popular songs. The length of the show ranged from 30 to 60 minutes during the program's history, and the number of songs in the "hit parade" varied from seven to fifteen. The American Tobacco Company owned and sponsored the program, and the company's "dictatorial" president, George Washington Hill, "personally controlled every facet of the program," according to Arnold Shaw's account in Let's Dance. The ranking of songs was determined by a secret methodology administered by the company's advertising agency—at first, Lord and Thomas; later, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborne. The hit parade placed songs in competition with each other, and the unveiling of each week's number one song became an eagerly awaited event.

The TV program's opening announcement asserted that the hit parade was an "accurate, authentic tabulation of America's taste in popular music," based on sheet-music sales, record sales, broadcast airplay, and coin-machine play. The most important factor, at least until the mid-1950s, was radio airplay—and, as Shaw points out in Let's Dance, Your Hit Parade itself helped to establish radio as the major venue for American popular music. Radio's dominance came at the expense of vaudeville. Nevertheless, Your Hit Parade remained rooted in Tin Pan Alley—the slang term for the music publishing district in 1890s Manhattan, and the name that eventually came to symbolize the (white) mainstream in American popular music. Tin Pan Alley stood for the primacy of songs (as opposed to records) and for a highly conventionalized song structure and performance style (usually a verse-chorus structure, romantic or novelty lyrics, smooth singing or "crooning," and orchestration). The prevalence of songs over records allowed Your Hit Parade to showcase its own performers along with the week's hits. A song would often remain on the survey for several weeks, so, for variety's sake, the song would be handed off from one singer to another from week to week.

The advent of the TV series prompted an additional attempt at variety—each week, the song would receive a new "visualization." Rather than delivering a straight performance into the camera, singers were placed in a fictional and dramatic context ostensibly inspired by the title or lyrics of the song. For example, in a 1952 episode, Snooky Lanson portrayed a customer singing "Slow Poke" to the back of a female customer at a diner. In this case, as in most others, the visualization had only a tenuous and forced connection with the text of the song—a "slow poke" sandwich appeared on the diner's menu, and the female customer kept Lanson waiting for a seat while he sang lyrics that complained about "you" (presumably his lover) keeping him waiting. As unremarkable as the song itself was, the visualization managed to trivialize it by converting it from a love song into an imaginary monologue about Snooky Lanson's lunch.

Contrary to Michael Shore's contention that " Your Hit Parade was a pathfinder in the conceptualization of music video," the program in fact was a clumsy attempt to import the dramatic premise and visual splendor of musical films into the more frantic production context of live TV. Most music videos, even if they have a dramatic premise, use a prerecorded soundtrack and show the singer lipsynching directly into the camera. Thus the typical music video is quite different from the standard visualization on Your Hit Parade. This is one reason why the TV series, when viewed today, seems unique and old-fashioned.

The reason for the show's demise, however, has as much to do with sound as with image. As the 1950s progressed, Tin Pan Alley gradually lost ground to rock and roll, and records became the predominant medium in the music industry. Radio lost much of its audience to television and soon discovered the Top Forty format as one of the best ways to stay in business. Top Forty, of course, is much like a hit parade but ranks records (as performed by a specific singer) rather than songs (as performed by anybody). Snooky Lanson performed "Heartbreak Hotel" on Your Hit Parade in 1956, but the song was so definitively associated with Elvis Presley that the version by crooner Lanson lacked credibility. This sort of incongruity became more and more common on Your Hit Parade as the decade wore on, and the program's contrived and corny "visualizations" only underscored the series's irrelevance.

Despite belated attempts to make the program more contemporary, Your Hit Parade could not survive the ascendance of rock and roll and the triumph, in both radio and TV, of recording over live performance. The look of the future in musical TV programs was American Bandstand, which rose just as Your Hit Parade was falling, and which remained dominant in its field until MTV supplanted it in the 1980s.

—Gary Burns

Further Reading:

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946-Present. New York, Ballantine Books, 1979.

Burns, Gary. "Visualising 1950s Hits on Your Hit Parade. " Popular Music. Vol. 17, No. 2, 1998, 139-152.

Eberly, Philip K. Music in the Air: America's Changing Tastes in Popular Music, 1920-1980. New York, Hastings House, 1982.

Elrod, Bruce C., compiler. Your Hit Parade. Columbia, South Carolina, Colonial Printing Co., 1977.

Sanjek, Russell. American Popular Music and Its Business, the First Four Hundred Years: III, From 1900 to 1984. New York, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Shaw, Arnold. Let's Dance: Popular Music in the 1930s. Edited by Bill Willard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.

——. The Rockin' '50s: The Decade That Transformed the Pop Music Scene. New York, Hawthorn Books, 1974.

Shore, Michael. The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video. New York, Quill, 1984.

Syng, Dan. "Electric Babyland." Mojo. December 1998, 24-25.

Wolfe, Arnold S. "Pop on Video: Narrative Modes in the Visualisation of Popular Music on Your 'Hit Parade' and 'Solid Gold."' Popular Music Perspectives 2. Edited by David Horn. Göteborg, Sweden, International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM), 1985, 428-441.

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Your Hit Parade

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