Episode 5 of our Space Oddities Podcast is definitely my favorite. On this episode, we will introduce you to a few recordings that paid homage to our early space program in the late 50s / early 60s.
Here are twenty additional songs from our early days in space for you to check out. They are in no particular order:
Walter Brennan was best known as Grandpa Amos McCoy in the 1950s sitcom, “The Real McCoys.” This single was the “B” side of his hit country single, “Old Rivers” that topped the chart at #5.
Jerry Engler wrote this Rockabilly song one day during a lunch break. It received moderate air play, enough that Engler and the Ekkos were invited to open for Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Holly's last guitar riffs before his death were heard on some of Engler's later recordings.
This song went to # 27 on the Black Singles Chart and # 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September 1963.
Reached # 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, #4 on the Billboard Middle of the Road chart
12. Count Down – Dave “Baby” Cortez
Dave “Baby” Cortez Clowney was best known for his 1959 hit, “The Happy Organ”, which has been recognized as the first pop/rock hit to feature an organ as the lead instrument. Cortez was also the musical director for Little Anthony and the Imperials.
Sheldon Allman was an actor in the late 50s/early 60s. If you are a child of the 60s you know some of his work. He was did the vocal for the theme of the TV series, “Mr. Ed” and co-wrote the theme of the cartoon series, “George of the Jungle” with co-writer Stan Worth.
18. Everyone’s Gone to the Moon – Jonathan King
19. Mister Glenn - Little Willie John
20. Werhner Von Braun - Tom Lehrer
Title: Mutniks and Sputniks
Air Date: 06/20/2022
[Theme Music Up & Under]
Welcome to “Space Oddities: Forgotten Stories of Mankind’s Exploration of Space.” I’m Joe Cuhaj.
Episode 5: Sputniks and Mutniks
[Music transitions into episode]
It was a warm spring night in 1961. The sleepy fishing village of Cocoa Beach, Florida was being transformed, and it was all due to the burgeoning space industry. NASA was rapidly hiring scientists, engineers, clerical workers, and custodians to fill positions at nearby Cape Canaveral where the American space program was just getting its footing. The town’s population went from just over 3,000 in 1940 to over 12,000 seemingly overnight.
Being deemed the “Space Capital of America,” it was only natural that many of the businesses around Cocoa Beach took on a space-oriented theme to appeal to the throng of tourists who would be flocking to watch the early manned rocket launches. There were your standard kitschy mom-and-pop souvenir stores on every corner.
Wolfie’s Diner, a favorite of the Mercury and Gemini astronauts, proudly handed customers a menu emblazoned with a helmeted astronaut on the cover.
And hotels with brightly lit neon signs lined the streets topped with giant rocket ships and bursting stars, the signs proudly proclaiming their names – The “Starlight,” “Polaris,” “Satellite” and “Astrocraft Motel.”
Nightclubs where live music and drinks could be enjoyed sprang up across town as well as inside many of the hotels.
One of the larger hotel chains on the beach was the Holiday Inn where in 1961, you could have dinner starting at $1.95 while Helen Knauer entertained you on the organ. There was live weekly entertainment and on this particular Thursday night, a group known as the We Three Trio – Ruthie Warren, Jim Leiber, Marcel Francois - made their first appearance on Cocoa Beach at the hotel’s Riviera Lounge to a standing room only crowd. NBC News was documenting what life was like on Cocoa Beach at the time and was there to capture one of the trio’s songs…
[We Three Trio]
Yes, it was a cheesy song, but it did get me thinking about the interaction between pop culture and the early days of the space program, in particular, the music. There were many songs that documented, in their own unique way, those early pioneering days of space travel.
Many of the songs that were written fit naturally into the bluegrass genre, after all, bluegrass is a story based form of music.
One of the early songs that focused on the space race was one such bluegrass tune that was written and performed by Ray Anderson and the Home Folks. After serving in WWII, Ray put his band together but never had any commercial success. He auditioned for the Grand Ol’ Opry where Opry founder, the George D. Hay, told him to come back when he sounds more like Ray Anderson and not Hank Williams.
His band did record a series of topical records that stirred a little interest including “Stalin Kicked the Bucket,” a song that was released only weeks after Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin died. Just after the successful launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, and the first animal to orbit the Earth, Laika, Anderson penned and recorded a song that appeared on the Starday label - “Sputniks and Mutniks.”
[Sputniks and Mutniks, intro / instrumental]
While the tune has a lighthearted feel, it did express the fears of the world – if the Soviet’s could launch a dog and a satellite into space, then surely they could lob an atomic bomb anywhere in the world they felt like…
[Sputniks and Mutniks]
Another artist that bemoaned the fact that the Soviet Union had beaten the US into space was bluesman Roosevelt “Honeydripper” Sykes. Sykes began playing the piano at age 15, developing a style that has been described as being a “rowdy barrelhouse that created a complex jazz phrasing.” In 1956, Sykes recorded a song called “Satellite Baby” and again, the lyrics talked about the Soviet firsts but instead of fear, the song had a more “we’re coming for you” feel.
[Roosevelt “Honeydripper” Sykes – Satellite Baby]
The 1950s saw a plethora of novelty songs released on a wide range of topics – monsters from outer space like Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater”, runaway cars like the Playmates “Beep, Beep”, and of course, a full lineup of space age hits. Take a listen to a bit of Jerry Engler and the Ekko’s “Sputnik (Satellite Girl).”
[Jerry Engler: Sputnik (Satellite Girl) ]
Since those early days, over 600 Americans have flown into space. Only a handful of those are remembered by the general public like Alan Shepard, Sally Ride, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin. Many people remember another one of the early Mercury astronauts, John Glenn, but many don’t realize how important his flight was to America’s space race with the Soviets and the moral of the nation. His flight aboard Friendship 7 put the US on the board in the space race by putting the first American in orbit around the Earth.
His flight was such an emotional and historic ride that several songs were written and recorded about it.
Most of us today don’t realize just how much of a hero Col. John Glenn was at the time but he was huge, so much so that several records were recorded about the astronaut and his flight, “The Ballad of John Glenn” by Roy West, “Mister Glenn” by Little Willie John, and “The Epic Ride of John Glenn” which was recorded by the motion and television star who is probably best known for his role as Grandpa Amos McCoy on the TV show, “The Real McCoys” – Walter Brennan.
[Walter Brennen – Ballad of John Glenn]
Space-age music continued on into the Gemini missions when the folk group, the New Christy Minstrels, paid tribute to the first American to walk in space, Ed White, and the flight of Gemini 4.
[NCM-Jim ‘n I, Him ‘n I, Flying in Gemini]
One of the most famous songs of the early space age paid homage to the satellite that would change worldwide communications forever. Six nations – the US, England, Canada, Germany, France, and Italy - built ground receiving stations around the world that would pick up signals from the satellite Telstar I.
Telstar would be the first artificial satellite to have continuous communications with the ground, not only supporting transatlantic telephone calls but also live television transmissions. The satellite went live on July 10, 1962, when it broadcast an image of the American flag from a transmitter in Andover, Maine to a receiver in located in France.
Enter Joe Meek, a British sound engineer who was infatuated with the sounds that could be produced by analog electronic circuitry.
He invented a keyboard that used those circuits to produce an unworldly sound, the clavioline. With his new gadget, and his fascination with the new satellite technology, Meek set about writing a song for the British band, the Tornadoes, that would celebrate the satellite and in October 1962, “Telstar” was released.
The song became the first British single to hit #1 in the US, a feat that would not happen again for another two years when the Beatles’ song “I Want to Hold Your Hand” arrived in America.
For more far-out space tunes, check out the Top 20 list we’ve compiled and listen to the songs in their entirety on my website - JOE-CUHAJ.COM/SPACEODDITIES/PLAYLIST. Cuhaj is spelled C-U-H-A-J.
And I am Joe Cuhaj. Thank you for joining me for this episode of Space Oddities. You can read more fascinating, offbeat, and obscure space tales like these in my new book, aptly titled Space Oddities: Forgotten Stories of Mankind’s Exploration of Space, available at your favorite online or hometown bookstore.
While you’re on my website, visit the contact page and drop me a line with your comments and questions. I’d love to hear from you.
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Special thanks this week to ARTIFACTUAL.COM for sharing some reference material used in today’s episode.
Our theme music is called “Inspired” courtesy of BenSounds.Com. We’ll see you next time with more Space Oddities.
[Telstar fade out]