The 1960s was a great era for music. Beatlemania took over the world, Chubby Checker inspired a dance craze, and Nancy Sinatra sent girls flocking to buy go-go boots. In 1964, Motown Records—which launched in 1959—got its first #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 with "My Guy," a song written for Mary Wells by Smokey Robinson.
As the civil rights movement gained force and Vietnam War raged on, Bob Dylan sang about racial injustice and a possible nuclear apocalypse. The Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Johnny Cash also graced the radio waves. Popular songs like “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkel, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye, and “Hey Jude” all topped the charts. At 63 years old, Louis Armstrong became the oldest man to get a #1 hit with “Hello Dolly.”
For a walk down musical memory lane, Stacker combed through news reports about influential songs in the 1960s and consulted data from the Billboard Hot 100 to create a list of 50 songs you’ll remember if you grew up during the decade. Read through to see which hits take you back.
The Beatles gave the world "Hey Jude” in 1968. It was a tribute to friendship, written by Paul McCartney for John Lennon’s son Julian during Lennon’s divorce from his first wife. The Beatles performed the song on the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” instead of "The Ed Sullivan Show” for its U.S. television premiere.
Johnny Cash released "Ring of Fire” in the summer of 1963. June Carter, his future wife, co-wrote the song for her sister Anita Carter, who also recorded a version of the song. Johnny Cash said he decided to add mariachi trumpets after hearing them in a dream. Carter’s version topped both the country and pop charts, becoming one of his most iconic hits.
"Tossin’ And Turnin'” topped the Hot 100 for seven weeks during the summer of 1961. Bobby Lewis only had one other Top 10 hit in his career: "One Track Mind,” released the same year.
The Beatles released "I Want To Hold Your Hand” in 1963. The Lennon-McCartney collaboration fueled Beatlemania in the U.S, staying at #1 for seven weeks right before the group made its first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. By that time, more than 2 million copies of the single had been sold in the U.S.
Elvis Presley recorded this ballad in 1960. "It’s Now or Never” sold 25 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling single of Presley’s career.
In 1960, a teenage Brenda Lee topped the charts with "I’m Sorry.” The song was nominated for a Grammy.
Louis Armstrong recorded the title track for the musical "Hello Dolly!” in 1963, despite not being familiar with the show. Apparently, Armstrong was not all that impressed with the song. It reached the top spot on the Billboard top 40 in 1964, making the 63-year-old Armstrong the oldest person to have a #1 hit record.
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons reached #1 in November of 1962 with this break-up song. The band also had hits with "Sherry” and "Walk Like A Man” the same year.
"Sugar Shack” by the Fireballs was the best-selling song of 1963. The pop hit also topped the charts in Australia, Hong Kong, Sweden, and South Africa. According to frontman Keith McCormack, the song was composed over coffee during breakfast.
The Rolling Stones released "Honky Tonk Women” on July 4, 1969, a day after the death of their former band member Brian Jones. The song marked the band’s shift from pop to rock.
This 1968 classic was the first and only Billboard #1 hit for Otis Redding. It topped the charts the year after Redding died in a plane crash. The song was written as an overture to the Tet Offensive, assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy, and the election of President Richard Nixon.
This American classic was almost called "Good Vibes,” but Beach Boys frontmen Mike Love and Brian Wilson changed it to vibrations and a hit was born. The song was the last #1 hit written by Wilson, who later spiraled into drugs and depression.
In the summer of 1965, The Rolling Stones released one of their most famous songs: "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” It became the band’s first #1 hit in the U.S. According to Rolling Stone magazine, it’s the #2 greatest song of all time. According to Keith Richards, he recorded the 30-second riff that inspired the song while he was asleep.
The Kingsmen released "Louie Louie” in 1963, sparking interest with the Federal Bureau of Investigation after a complaint that the lyrics weren’t suitable for the public. For two years, the FBI analyzed the song before determining "it was not possible to determine whether this recording is obscene.”
In August of 1964, "Where Did Our Love Go” by The Supremes reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The trio—Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard—didn’t like the song at first, but they weren’t in a position to turn it down. Just a few weeks later, the group had another hit with "Baby Love.”
In 1964, Dick Clark told the country that "Be My Baby” by The Ronettes would be "the record of the century.” In 2017, Billboard put the song at the top spot on their "100 Greatest Girl Groups of All Time” list. Lead singer Ronnie (born Veronica Bennett) met future husband Phil Spector—whom she divorced in 1974—while recording the album.
On Valentine’s Day in 1967, an up-and-coming gospel singer named Aretha Franklin recorded "Respect.” Franklin rearranged the Otis Redding song to have a more feminist tilt, making it an anthem for the women’s rights movement and launching her career. Franklin released "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” later the same year.
In 1964, Motown Records got its first #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 with "My Guy." Smokey Robinson wrote and produced the song for singer Mary Wells, who toured with The Beatles.
In 1968, Simon & Garfunkel released "Mrs. Robinson,” made famous in the film "The Graduate.” The song is known for referencing the older love interest of Dustin Hoffman in the movie, but it originally paid homage to Eleanor Roosevelt.
In August of 1968, Tammy Wynette recorded "Stand By Your Man.” Wynette originally wanted to call it "I'll Stand By You, You Please Stand By Me," but Ben E. King had already hit #1 with "Stand By Me."
In 1967, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell hit #1 with "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The husband-and-wife writing team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson wrote the song, and the voices of Gaye and Terrell made it a hit.
In 1969, John Fogerty wrote "Fortunate Son” as member of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Fogerty penned the song about men being drafted into the Vietnam War. Despite what some people may think, the lyrics about a "senator’s son” do not reference former Vice President Al Gore. Instead, it’s a reference to David Eisenhower, who is the the grandson of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the son-in-law of President Richard Nixon.
Roy Orbison wrote "Pretty Woman” about his first wife Claudette Frady, who died in a motorcycle accident two years after the song hit #1. The Library of Congress added the song to the National Recording Registry in 2008.
Michelle Phillips and her husband John—half of the Mamas & the Papas—wrote "California Dreamin” after the former West Coast residents spent a winter in New York. The couple divorced in 1970, and in 2001, Michelle said she was shocked when her ex claimed she didn’t deserve any creative credit on the song.
Songwriter Mars Bonfire—or Dennis Edmonton—said his Ford Falcon was the inspiration behind “Born to be Wild.” The following year, the tune appeared in the the counterculture classic “Easy Rider.”
In 1961, Nancy Sinatra made go-go boots a must-have after the music video for "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” was released. Sinatra said she immediately knew the song would be hit after she recorded it.
In 1967, Jimi Hendrix released "Purple Haze.” Hendrix said the lyrics for the song came to him during a dream after he read a sci-fi novel before going to sleep. His band, The Experience, performed the song for the first time in the U.S. at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, the show where Hendrix lit his guitar on fire.
The Beatles performed their version of "Twist and Shout” in 1964 on "The Ed Sullivan Show.” Despite popularizing the hit, the Beatles did not write it. The original song was written by Bert Berns for the group The Top Notes in 1961.
Ben E. King released "Stand by Me” in 1962. The group’s producer was originally upset that the band—and an accompanying orchestra—took longer than expected to record the song. It went on to become a #1 hit, and inspired author Stephen King, whose novella was the basis for the 1986 film "Stand By Me.”
Neil Diamond’s "Sweet Caroline” hit the radio waves in 1969. In 2007, Diamond said the song was an ode to President John F. Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline. In 2014, however, he told "Today” that the love song was actually written about his wife. He just couldn’t couldn’t think of anything to rhyme with Marsha.