Biggest Selling '60s Music Singles by Year
The 1960s marked a significant era in music and brought about the rise of iconic artists we know and love today. The decade also saw the dominance of singles as a way to buy music, and many saw massive commercial success, becoming best-sellers in their respective years.
From the infectious instrumentals of early '60s music to the groundbreaking hits released later in the decade, each year brought forth its own chart-topping hits and memorable melodies.
Here are the top-selling songs of the 1960s by year, according to Billboard's Year-End charts.
1960: Theme from A Summer Place by Percy Faith
Release date: September 1959
"Theme from A Summer Place" was composed by Max Steiner for the 1959 film of the same name that starred Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue as young lovers.
After the movie was released, this secondary (to the film) instrumental track took off. It was then rearranged and recorded by Percy Faith, a Canadian bandleader and composer, for his 1960 album "Percy Faith's Greatest Hits." His version of the song became a massive hit and was at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart for nine weeks.
"Theme from A Summer Place" has since been covered by various artists and has been featured in countless films ("Animal House" in particular), television shows and commercials, cementing its status as one of the most recognizable instrumentals ever written.
1961: Tossin' and Turnin' by Bobby Lewis
Release date: April 30, 1961
This catchy single describes the narrator's inability to sleep due to losing a love ("I couldn't sleep at all last night, got to thinkin' of you, baby, things weren't right"). The song's relatable theme (who hasn't been there?) and Bobby Lewis' soulful delivery resonated with listeners, making the track the hit of 1961.
Lewis became the first artist to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with a debut single, but he was never able to come close to the song's success again. "Tossin' and Turnin'" remains one of the defining hits of the 1960s and has also been featured in countless films (once again, in "Animal House"), television shows and commercials.
1962: Stranger on the Shore by Acker Bilk
Release date: October 1961
If you've never heard of this clarinet-focused instrumental, you wouldn't be the first, but "Stranger on the Shore" was indeed the biggest song of 1962. Bilk initially named the song "Jenny" after his daughter, but when it became the theme song for a BBC children's show "Stranger on the Shore," its name was changed to reflect that show's popularity. After its name change, it went to the top of the charts worldwide.
In May 1969, "Stranger on the Shore" also went into space with the crew of Apollo 10. One of the astronauts, Gene Cernan, included it on a cassette in the command module of the rocket.
1963: Surfin' U.S.A. by the Beach Boys
Release date: March 4, 1963
"Surfin' U.S.A." is the title track and lead single from the Beach Boys' second studio LP. This upbeat and energetic tune celebrates the Southern California surfing culture and lifestyle, with lyrics paying homage to the best surf spots around the world:
"You'd catch 'em surfin' at Del Mar
Ventura County line
Santa Cruz and Trestle
All over Manhattan
And down Doheny Way."
Musically, "Surfin' U.S.A." sparked controversy due to its similarity to Chuck Berry's song, "Sweet Little Sixteen." Berry's publisher filed a lawsuit against the Beach Boys and won. Subsequent releases of the song credit both Brian Wilson and Chuck Berry as the songwriters.
Although the Beach Boys were associated with surf culture, none of the band members, except for drummer Dennis Wilson, were actual surfers.
1964: I Want to Hold Your Hand by The Beatles
Release date: Dec. 26, 1963
"I Want to Hold Your Hand" changed popular music as we know — its release and subsequent success marked the beginning of Beatlemania (and the British Invasion) in the U.S. In February 1964, the Beatles performed the song on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
This moment in TV and music history solidified their status as international sensations and ignited a cultural phenomenon. The song marked the Beatles' emergence as one of the most influential and beloved bands of all time, and it remains an essential part of their extensive catalog.
1965: Wooly Bully by Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs
Release date: March 12, 1965
Written by the band's frontman, Domingo "Sam" Samudio, "Wooly Bully" reworks a lesser-known tune from just a few years earlier — "Hully Gully Now" by Big Bo and The Arrows. Samudio rewrote the lyrics to replace "Hully Gully" with "Wooly Bully" and a '60s music classic was born.
Because the lyrics were somewhat indecipherable, the song was banned by several radio stations, but there is really nothing illicit going on (there's something about dancing, and the "Wooly Bully" is a bison — in other words, the lyrics are mostly nonsensical.)
"Wooly Bully" didn't make it to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, but it was still the best-selling single of 1965. Its popularity was further enhanced by the band's energetic live performances and the song's inclusion in popular TV shows and movies (most notably Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" in 1987).
1966: California Dreamin' by The Mamas and the Papas
Release date: Dec. 8, 1965
There are so many songs written about California that there could be a separate list dedicated to them, but if you were to ask anyone what song encapsulates a longing for the Golden State, it would be "California Dreamin.'"
In 1963, native Californian Michelle Phillips was newly married to John Phillips, and the couple was living in New York City during the harsh winter. John wrote the song about Michelle's longing to be home and about bringing the wrong clothes for the cold climate.
According to John: "It’s my recollection that we were at the [Hotel] Earle in New York, and Michelle was asleep. I was playing the guitar. We’d been out for a walk that day, and she’d just come from California, and all she had was California clothing. And it snowed overnight, and in the morning, she didn’t know what the white stuff coming out of the sky was because it never snowed in Southern [California]. So, we went for a walk, and the song is mostly a narrative of what happened that day, stopped into a church to get her warm, and so on and so on."
1967: To Sir With Love by Lulu
Release date: September 1967
"To Sir With Love" was recorded by British singer and actress Lulu. It was featured in the film of the same name, starring Sidney Poitier and Lulu (who sings it in the movie).
The film tells the story of an idealistic young teacher (Poitier) whose teaching methods are put to the test by a group of unruly, working-class students who don't believe they have much of a future.
"To Sir With Love" is not only the theme song for the film, but it reflects the gratitude of the students toward their teacher for changing their lives.
1968: Hey Jude by The Beatles
Release date: Aug. 26, 1968
At seven minutes and 11 seconds, "Hey Jude" is the longest single on our list. A song of this length was unheard of for radio at the time, but this didn't affect its popularity. (It was the Beatles, after all.)
Paul McCartney wrote "Hey Jude" for John Lennon's son, Julian, to offer support and encouragement to the young boy who was going through a hard time during the divorce of John from his first wife, Cynthia.
"Hey Jude" sold over 8 million copies worldwide within the first six months of its release, making it one of the best-selling singles of all time.
1969: Sugar, Sugar by The Archies
Release date: May 24, 1969
The Archies were a fictional band created for the animated television series "The Archie Show" in the late 1960s. (It and the current TV show "Riverdale" are based on "Archie Comics" from the 1940s.) The voices for the characters were performed by session musicians and vocalists, including lead vocalist Ron Dante.
Radio stations didn't want to play "Sugar, Sugar" because it was made by a cartoon band, but Don Kirshner, who owned the Archies' label, Calendar, would visit the stations himself with the single in hand and play the song without revealing who it was.
"Sugar, Sugar" writer Andy Kim said the tactic worked — one play and audiences were hooked. "That was the best part of being in the music world then — you really had such an active audience response to what they hear. And you didn't have that many choices. So, if the audience loves it, you play it. And that started what became a wildfire all across this planet. When I toured, no matter where I was, I'd start the song, and everyone would sing along."