Best-Sellers vs. Worst-Sellers

As I was finalizing my recent Bill Doggett piece, I was trying to confirm the “four million” sales figure that is so often attributed (Wikipedia) to his 1956 smash hit, “Honky Tonk” – an extraordinary number for an instrumental, especially in the mid-50s.  Ultimately, I was  impelled to wield the search phrase “best-selling instrumental single” to confirm that number — and see what other truths I might unearth along the way.

Second item in the search results:  Wikipedia’s entry for “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” that claims this #1 Billboard hit (for two weeks – on the pop chart for a total of nine) is the “biggest-selling instrumental single in the history of recorded music.”  Yes, yes, but how many copies sold?  “Only” two million!  Guinness World Records affirms this achievement.  Sadly, this means that either (1) Guinness is somehow unaware of “Honky Tonk” selling four million copies, or (2) “Honky Tonk” sold fewer copies than is previously thought.

Million-seller “Honky Tonk”:  Only question is how many?

Bill Doggett Honky Tonk LPWorth pointing out that even though “Honky Tonk” would ‘only’ peak at #2, the song would nevertheless spend over half the year (29 weeks vs. 9 for “Star Wars” theme) on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.  Take that, George Lucas.

Since Zero to 180 is more interested in profiling under-recognized artists and songs, I decided to shift my search efforts to see what might be of interest within the realm of “worst-selling” record-holders.  Lo and behold, I would quickly discover an amusing news item from this past August that unmasks a music industry model that just might be a bit creaky and unsustainable:  Worst-Selling #1 Album in Sales-Tracking History!

Disney Channel’s Descendents television series – as a result of Billboard altering their formula for identifying a #1 album to allow “on-demand streaming and digital track sales” – hit the top spot … with just 30,000 (!) “pure” album sales as reports Rolling Stone [the exact same link, by the way, as from Zero to 180’s recent Led Zep piece].

One of Decca’s worst sellers

Alan Freeman 4545 Clunker of Note:  Zero to 180 would like to thank 45Cat’s YankeeDisc for pointing out that Alan LeslieFluffFreeman, MBE and 40-year British disc jockey/radio personality, would enjoy the distinction of having recorded one of Decca’s Worst-Ever Sellers (“and is now, predictably, a rarity and collector’s item“):

“Madison Time”      Alan Freeman     1962

Did you know:   Bill Doggett’s biggest seller would enjoy a resurgence in the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in February and March of 1961 for reasons unknown to the government?  As it turns out, this was a more contemporary ‘re-boot’ by King that included vocals.

A Ha Moment:  By the way, I think I just now determined the source of the “4 million” figure, thanks to UK reissue label of note, Ace Records, in the liner notes to their compilation, Honky Tonk!  The King & Federal R&B Instrumentals:

“Still, ‘Honky Tonk’ did enough to earn a gold disc for a million sales (a total of 4 million was mentioned by [King’s Detroit branch manager] Jim Wilson, but who knows).”

Boom!  Bap!   15th Musical Fight!

1970 Rare Bowie ‘Blues’ Track

“At the start of 1969, [David Bowie] wrote ‘Space Oddity,’ a song that punctured the global mission for the Apollo moon mission,” Peter Doggett observed in his Introduction to 2011’s The Man Who Sold the World:  David Bowie and the 1970s — an analysis of Bowie’s songwriting, chronologically speaking, throughout his ’70s commercial peak.

Note use of ‘Future Shock‘ typeface in RCA’s 45 re-launch in US – 1973

David Bowie - Future Shock 45-aBowie may have cast a cloud over the US space program, but there’s no denying how “Space Oddity” – and the song’s inspiration, Kubrick’s 2001 – tapped into the world’s fascination with the then new reality of space travel.  I remember purchasing RCA’s American ‘re-boot’ of Bowie’s 1969 self-titled album (on cassette, actually – and retitled for his US breakout hit) at Cincinnati’s old Swallens on Red Bank Road in 1974/75 (i.e., the period between my Beatles and Who obsessions).

Midcentury Modern – mildly charming in retrospect perhaps but not at the time

Swallen's - midcentury modern

Mercury, who signed Bowie for a one-album deal, would release “Space Oddity” in 1969, only to have the song peak at #124.  In 1973, RCA would reissue the A-side and hit commercial paydirt in the US:  #15.

As it turns out, there’s more to the story:  Bowie had actually recorded two versions of ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969 – the original version being not only shorter but a much different arrangement altogether (not really a secret: 14,000,000+ views on YouTube).

Rare 1972 RCA promo EP

David Bowie - rare 72 promo-aHowever, since Zero to 180 serves to shed light on less-examined aspects of popular music history, it first considered pulling together a bullet point list of ‘early Bowie trivia’ as a tribute to David Bowie, who (along with Red Simpson) just left us  [#1 Jeopardy question:  Answer:  Title of the rarest of Bowie’s three Mercury A-sides for US release.  Question:  What is “All the Mad Men“? – as confirms 45Cat’s BeatleJohn] .

But then I chickened out and decided to feature one early Bowie rarity that seems to have escaped the world’s attention, relatively speaking.  There are but a handful of YouTube clips for “Lightning Frightening” — Bowie’s 1970 bottleneck-blues-meets-glitter-rock composition that went unissued until pressed into service as a bonus track on Rykodisc’s 1991 CD reissue of The Man Who Sold the World — and this clip “only” has 22,479 views:

“Lightning Frightening”     David Bowie     1970

Wait!  Zero to 180 almost forgot about its piece from November, 2014 that points out Bowie’s innovative use of both (1) the kalimba and (2) stylophone (thanks, Deborah!) in the aforementioned breakout hit, “Space Oddity.”

Check out Bowie’s appearance in this rare 1971 RCA advert

David Bowie in 1971 RCA ad

Early David Bowie:  The Silver Spring Connection

In the outpouring of grief over David Bowie’s passing, the world has suddenly become aware of Silver Spring, Maryland’s place of distinction as the location where Bowie spent his first ever evening in the US.  According to his American host, Michael Oberman, there was a cultural exchange that led to a breakthrough in the conceptualization of Bowie’s next big persona:  Ziggy Stardust:

“Fast forward to January of 1971:  My brother, Ron, was Director of Publicity for Mercury Records (Bowie’s American label at the time).  David was already a star in Great Britain and Europe…but he hadn’t really broken big in the U.S.  Ron decided to bring David to America to do a promotional tour and meet the press, DJ’s and others who could help David’s career in the U.S.

David flew from London to Dulles airport in Virginia.  He was held in customs for a few hours just because of the way he dressed (shame on you customs people!).  My parents and I picked David up at Dulles and brought him back to my parent’s home on Admiralty Drive in Silver Spring.  This was David’s first day ever in the U.S.  He was delighted to spend it with an American family.  David and I already had a connection from a brief 1969 phone conversation for my column.

We spent a couple of hours chatting in my parent’s living room.  A lot of the discussion was about the theater and stage acting.  After some refreshments, we all went to Emerson’s Restaurant in Silver Spring (not Hofberg’s Deli as some publications have reported).  The hostess at the restaurant seated us in a booth and proceeded to close the curtains on our booth.  We all had a good laugh over that.

After dinner, we took my parents back home.  David, my brother and I went back to my house in Takoma Park.  Besides writing for the Star, I also managed a band called Claude Jones and had co-managed a band called Sky Cobb.  When we got to my house, the members of Sky Cobb were in my living room…passing a bong around. The band didn’t even try to communicate with David…something that some of them regret to this day.  David had never seen a bong before…and, no, he did not partake of the substance in the bong.

Late that night, David went to his hotel in DC and left the next day.  An interesting fact for all Bowie fans:  David went to Mercury Records headquarters on East Wacker Drive in Chicago.  Mercury had signed an oddball artist from Texas named The Legendary Stardust Cowboy.  My brother played David a song by that artist.  The song was a minor hit called ‘Paralyzed.’  David was intrigued.  My brother arranged for David to fly to Texas to meet the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.  David was blown away and adopted “Stardust” for his new persona, Ziggy Stardust.  Rock-and-roll history was made.”

David Bowie – Silver Spring, md – 1971

David Bowie in Silver Spring Michael Oberman‘s riveting photograph c/o Facebook


The Legendary Stardust Cowboy – it bears mentioning – rates but a single footnote in Doggett’s 1970s Bowie study.