Taylor Swift, the country artist turned pop singer, made history this week when songs from her new album, “Midnight,” swept every Top 10 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 list of the most popular music singles in the United States. She is the first artist to achieve this distinction, surpassing Drake, who took nine of the 10 spots in September of last year.
At this time 50 years ago, in 1972, when Billboard released its weekly Top 100 list, hits by two of rock ’n’ roll’s iconic figures — Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry — were in the top spots: Presley at No. 2 with “Burning Love,” his last Top 10 single, and Berry at No. 1 with his controversial novelty hit “My Ding-a-Ling,” the only song over a decadeslong career to take the top spot.
Coming out of the music-rich world of Memphis (rhythm and blues, country and gospel), Presley’s first appearance on a top hits list was in 1954 with “That’s All Right (Mama),” an R&B song, performed previously by Black singers, though Elvis’ rendition made the country charts. By 1956, Presley had broken into the national consciousness with five No. 1 songs and a record-viewing appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Chuck Berry, an African American man from St. Louis, was heavily influenced by rhythm and blues. After serving time in a juvenile reformatory for armed robbery and working at an auto assembly plant, Berry devoted his life to music. By 1955, he had his first hit single, “Maybelline,” which got to No. 5 on the then-titled “pop” chart (and No. 1 on the R&B list). Because he actually scored a big hit before Elvis, Chuck Berry is often referred to as the “real” “king” (or “father”) of that 1950′s phenomenon: rock ’n’ roll.
The zenith of both men’s music careers occurred between 1956 and 1964, with frequent top 40 hit singles and touring performances around the country. This despite Presley’s stint in the U.S. Army and Berry running afoul of the law again, this time convicted of violating the Mann Act (transporting a minor girl across state lines for immoral purposes).
Beginning in 1964, rock ’n’ roll (soon to be shortened to “rock”) moved in multiple different directions, ignited by The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other individuals and groups (though most acknowledged Elvis Presley and/or Chuck Berry as influences on their musical style). Both Presley and Berry appeared sporadically on music hit lists, while retaining their loyal fan base; in Elvis’s case, some of his hits came from a series of movies he made, such as “Blue Hawaii,” “Fun in Acapulco” and “Viva Las Vegas” (forgettable to many, though not to my mother or grandmother).
Both musicians enjoyed a revival beginning in the late ‘60s. While Berry continued to tour and gain new fans, Presley staged a successful “comeback” television special, began engagements in Las Vegas (attired in what became his trademark jumpsuits) and again saw his singles jump to bestselling status, including “Kentucky Rain,” and his number one hit “Suspicious Minds” in 1969.
While “Burning Love” was from an album of Elvis Presley’s movie songs, Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling” created much controversy. Written and first recorded in 1952 by jazz and R&B musician Dave Bartholomew, a different version of the song was recorded by Berry while on tour in London early in 1972. It tells of the singer receiving “a cute little toy … silver bells hanging on a string,” called a “ding-a-ling.” The rest of the song explains how he protects the toy in perilous situations such as falling off a wall and crossing a creek with “snapping turtles,” while the lyrics cleverly exercise a double entendre (having to do with part of the male anatomy).
It was that last fact that made the song so controversial once it started being played on radio stations in mid-September. Certain radio stations around the United States refused to play the song (inserting a commercial or even running an older rebroadcast of American Top 40, something still done to this day), while in the United Kingdom, there was an unsuccessful campaign to get the song banned by the BBC.
In all, both songs spent 12 weeks on American Top 40, with “My Ding-a-Ling” at No. 1 for the weeks of Oct. 21 and 28, 1972. It was the “last hurrah” for the “kings of rock ’n’ roll.” Both Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry continued touring; in Presley’s case, drug use contributed to deteriorating health, leading to his premature death in August 1977 at age 42; Berry played concerts into his 80s, before his death at age 90 in 2017.
William J. Thompson is a Baltimore historian, teacher, and writer. His email is email@example.com.