Collecting the “Greatest Hits”

Jun 2015 Collecting the “Greatest Hits”

By Pat Murphy

When I first started to buy albums more than 50 years ago, “greatest hits” compilations were a particular attraction.

After all, you could get a whole whack of favourites in one package, most of which you hadn’t been able to afford as separate singles. It seemed like a perfect deal.

Of all the hit collections around back then, 1959’s The Buddy Holly Story was probably the most notable. There may have been only 12 tracks, but they were all winners. From the likes of Peggy Sue, Rave On, Oh Boy and That’ll Be the Day to both sides of the posthumously-issued It Doesn’t Matter Anymore/Raining in My Heart, it was a treat.

The record-buying public certainly thought so. Between May, 1959, and May, 1964, it had 15 different chart runs for a grand total of 156 weeks in the Top 20. Merely calling it impressive would be a giant understatement.

Elvis, of course, was also a big player in this particular market, beginning with his first collection in 1958. For my money, though, Golden Records Volume 2 was the best of his compilation offerings. Released in the UK in the early summer of 1960, it was the album with multiple iterations of the gold-leaf suit photo on the cover, plus the assertive declaration that “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.”

Clearly, RCA’s marketing department didn’t subscribe to the idea of hiding your light under a bushel!

Mind you, if I’d been in charge of the compilation, I’d have dropped My Wish Came True and Loving You in favour of Hard Headed Woman and King Creole. Still, I suppose the fact that UK buyers got a 14-track version, whereas Americans had to be content with 10, means that one shouldn’t quibble.

Bobby Darin also had a nifty package called – no marks for originality here – The Bobby Darin Story. First released in America in March 1961, it came with the gimmick of a New York “wise guy” spoken introduction and sign-off from the man himself, which was all right the first few times you played it, but got a tad tedious from then on.

However, the music was more than adequate compensation, courtesy of 12 tracks ranging from the rock ‘n’ roll of Queen of the Hop and Plain Jane to the rock-a-ballad Dream Lover to the finger-snapping hipster of Mack the Knife and Clementine. The early Darin was distinguished by the versatility of his musical range, and it was all on show in this album.

Then there was 1964’s The Very Best of the Everly Brothers, the kind of project guaranteed to annoy the purists. You see, it was a hybrid featuring six original hits recorded on Warner Brothers in 1960-62, alongside six re-recordings of hits done for Cadence in 1957-59. You couldn’t, so the argument went, possibly recreate the original magic.

Well, perhaps not, but at least they gave it an excellent shot. The re-recordings were made in Nashville and the arrangements were identical to the originals. When I played it on my mid-60s record player, my ears weren’t keen enough to pick-up any significant difference. And you couldn’t take substantive issue with the selection of material.

On the British side of things, Lonnie Donegan got into the act with 1962’s Golden Age of Donegan. Released on Pye’s budget Golden Guinea label, it did very nicely indeed, going as high as No.3 during a 23-week run.

But, while it was very much a value-for-money proposition, it wasn’t quite as good as it could have been. To be sure, the fact that Rock Island Line had been on Decca meant it was off limits. However, despite being Pye tracks, the likes of Gamblin’ Man, Jack O’Diamonds and Tom Dooley were excluded in favour of Seven Daffodils, Love is Strange and Fort Worth Jail.

As for Cliff and the Shadows, 1963 was the year for first getting into the “greatest hits” groove. Through July and August that summer, they both hovered near the top of the charts, held off only by The Beatles debut album.

The Shadows’ Greatest Hits was first out of the gate in June. Covering the period 1960-62, its 15 tracks drew from nine UK singles (including five B-sides) and one EP. And the latter – the driving The Boys – was an Australian chart-topper. Succinctly put, the collection was precisely what it said on the tin.

Cliff’s Hit Album followed a month later and, covering the period August 1958 through May 1962, it also was true to its title. In retrospect, though, the compilers perhaps tried to cover too much chronological ground, resulting in inclusion/exclusion decisions that over-emphasised the softer beat ballads at the expense of omitted rockers like Gee Whiz It’s You, Dynamite and D in Love. If your impression of Cliff’s earliest years came exclusively from this album, you wouldn’t quite get the full picture.

So, what was my very favourite “greatest hits” collection, the one I’d have taken to the proverbial desert island?

Estimable as all of the above albums were, that distinction belonged to Ricky Nelson and the 1964 UK version of Million Sellers – never to be confused with an earlier American release carrying the same title.

By the time it came out, Ricky had disappeared from the UK chart, which made the thought that went into the compilation particularly commendable.

Assembled with the UK specifically in mind, as evidenced by the inclusion of the 1958 Top 10 hit Someday (never released as a single in America), the collection’s generous 16 tracks pretty much touched all the relevant bases from his Imperial catalogue.

Yes, I’d have ditched I Wanna Be Loved in favour of You Are the Only One, but as the former scraped into the UK Top 30 while the latter didn’t, the choice made was eminently defensible. Besides, what could you possibly complain about on an album that opened with Hello Mary Lou and closed with It’s Late, while also including such goodies as Lonesome Town, Stood Up, Never Be Anyone Else But You, Believe What You Say, Travelin’ Man and Poor Little Fool?

Buying “greatest hits” collections might not have been the most imaginative thing to do, but it made a lot of practical sense. And, obviously, I wasn’t the only person to do it. Indeed, I’ll bet you indulged a time or two yourself!

A native of Ireland, Pat Murphy now lives in Toronto, Canada.