In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
1963 was the year that Bob Dylan released The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which means it’s the year that “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Masters Of War” entered the world. And yet the biggest folk single of the year was a chirpy, strummy, generally meaningless novelty version of an old jug-band song, recorded by the guy who replaced Pete Seeger in the Weavers when Seeger got blacklisted for his Communist sympathies.
Erik Darling, the aforementioned replacement Weaver, had also been a member of the Tarriers, who’d had a huge hit in 1956 with a version of “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” He’d put together the vocal trio the Rooftop Singers specifically to record a version of “Walk Right In,” a song that the Mississippi blues relic and jug-band pioneer Gus Cannon had recorded with his Cannon Jug Stompers in 1929.
The new version of “Walk Right In” turned out to be a blessing for Cannon, who was in his 70s and who had recently pawned his banjo when the Rooftop Singers’ version hit. Cannon got songwriters’ royalties out of hit, and he ended up recording for Stax. But the Rooftop Singers’ take on the song removes all the strange intensity of Cannon’s admittedly goofy original. Instead, it’s shot through the same kind of gratingly genteel bourgie silliness that’s all over all those folk songs that topped the charts in the early Hot 100 era. (Folk-rock was still about three years away from becoming a thing, and folk needed it a whole lot more than rock did.)
As far as those early folk hits go, I’d take “Walk Right In” over the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” or the Highwaymen’s “Michael.” The muscular interplay between Darling and Bill Svanoe’s guitars is pretty neat, and all three singers at least sound like they’re enjoying themselves. But this is still cheesed-out whitebread pop-folk, and it remains deeply irritating on some primal level.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s copyright-flouting reggae star Max Romeo interpolating “Walk Right In” (as well as, I’m pretty sure, Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby”) on his extremely horny 1973 single “Sexy Sadie”: