10 Great Live Performances of the 1960’s and 70’s

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The evolution of the music industry has been astounding, traveling from the time of Elvis to Beatlemania, The Supremes, the British Invasion, and The Rolling Stones–Michael Jackson, Run DMC, Nirvana, Enya, Justin Timberlake and Linkin Park.  Yes, Linkin Park has sold more albums then any other band during the last ten years.  Unfortunately, in modern times we have had an expansion of lip-syncing and poor live performances, including some recent gems from Jessica Simpson, Kanye West, anything with T-Pain, and The Pussycat Dolls to name a few.  Back in the 1960’s and 70’s record executives seemed to look for that true talent, not just looks and sex appeal.  I have compiled a list of some of the best performances of the 1960’s and 70’s and the stories behind them.  This list focuses on folk rock and some easy listening tunes from this era.  You won’t find recording legends such as The Doors, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, or The Clash on this list; that is for another day.  Feel free to comment on the selections and contribute for future endeavors.

10. The Beach Boys – Little Deuce Coupe

The Beach Boys were labeled “America’s Band” in a musical decade that was dominated by British talent.  Formed in 1961, this band jumped on the scene creating music that astounded the masses.  The group has had thirty-six U.S. Top 40 hits, including four that reached the top spot.  This live footage was taken from a Beach Boys concert filmed March 14, 1964 at NBC Television Studios.  The performance has been released on DVD titled The Lost Concert and features some of the band’s greatest hits.  “Little Deuce Coupe” was released on the b-side of the hit record Surfer Girl in 1963.  It reached #15 on the U.S. charts and might be the greatest car song ever created.  The lyrics are specifically written around the 1932 Ford Model B.  It is a favorite of the band members who are frequently quoted saying that they loved to perform this tune.  In 1963, the group came up with the idea to use instrumental segments of the song as a way to introduce themselves before performing.  This can be seen in the video as they begin their set.

9. Jerry Lee Lewis – Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On

Jerry Lee Lewis is an American rock ‘n’ roll and country music pioneer.  Early in Jerry’s career he was extremely ridiculed by many people.  Just like Elvis, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, many felt he made the “devil’s music.”  The energy and excitement that this man brought to his performances is matched by none.  He taught people how to get up, dance, and move with the music.  This song was not written by Lewis, but he made it his own by adding various boogie piano riffs.  It was released in 1957 and reached #1 in the U.S. and #8 in the UK.  I selected this particular performance from The Johnny Cash Show, which was a musical variety show on air from 1969-1971.  This is a bit later in Jerry Lee’s career, but he is still electric.  Johnny Cash is also charismatic with his introduction to the tune.  A highlight in the video is at 1:45 when Jerry Lee kicks his seat away and shows us what he is all about.

8. Michael Jackson – Ben

Michael Jackson is one of the greatest and controversial musicians of our time.  His record sales and award nominations dwarf all others and he is the “most successful entertainer of all time.”  He has thirteen Grammy Awards, thirteen #1 singles in his solo career, and has sold over 750 million units worldwide.  He made his professional music debut in 1971 at the age of 11 as a member of the Jackson 5.  The song “Ben” is Michael’s first #1 hit single in his solo career and was released in 1972, when he was only 13 years old.  It made him the third youngest solo artist to top the charts, followed only by Stevie Wonder and Donny Osmond.  This is probably the weirdest choice for a movie theme in history.  This song about love and friendship was written and released for the horror flick Ben, which is the sequel to Willard and tells the story of killer rats.  It subsequently won the 1973 Golden Globe for Best Song and was nominated for the Academy Award.  This live performance was filmed on the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour in 1972.  Thirteen year old Michael Jackson’s stage presence and vocal prowess is untouched by any.

7. Mama Cass Elliot – Dream a Little Dream

I was collectively searching for a performance from an exceptional female solo artist.  It was undoubtedly more difficult for female talent to get recognized during this musical era.  Cass Elliot instantly came to mind.  Her amazing vocals and stage performance could not be passed up, regardless of how much gender bias she faced.  Cass Elliot came to fame in the 60’s with the group Mamas and the Papas and continued a solo career after the band’s breakup.  In 1974, after performing two sold-out concerts at the London Palladium, Mama Cass retired to her room and died of a massive heart attack in her sleep.  In 1968, her rendition of “Dream a Little Dream” was her biggest solo hit selling over one million records.  This performance comes from a 1968 episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  It really shows off her voice and is a funny skit.  It gives us a rare, loving, and even seductive look at Mama Cass in her prime.

6. Paul Simon – American Tune

Paul Simon is an American singer and song writer who came to fame in the 1960’s with the band Simon & Garfunkel.  He has sold millions of records, but is also known for his compassion in the community and his lyrics.  In 2006, Time magazine named him one of the Top 100 people who “shaped our world.”  I could have selected a number of Simon’s songs for this list, but I have chosen a lyrical masterpiece.  “American Tune” was released in 1973 on Simon’s second solo album.  The song only reached #35 on the U.S. charts, but has become extremely popular over the years.  Paul Simon continually expresses himself emotionally and politically through his music.  He has said that he wrote “American Tune” after being extremely disappointed with Richard Nixon’s re-election.  He also performed the song live on the November 18th 2008 airing of The Colbert Report in support of President Obama.  This live performance was recorded on London BBC Television’s Michael Parkinson Show on December 27, 1975.

5. Del Shannon – Runaway

I had to add the musical talent that is Del Shannon and his hit “Runaway.”  Shannon stormed onto the music scene in the early 1960’s.  He was periodically on the charts during this time and “Runaway” reached #1 in 1961.  Del is a personal favorite of mine because of his amazing vocal range.  He can hit those unbelievably high falsetto notes, which is seriously dangerous territory for any male artist.  The limited few that I can compare him with are Roy Orbison, Jackson Browne, and Dion.  Del Shannon has one of the most tragic stories in rock history.  One would say that it was a bit strange that Del often had brooding themes of abandonment, loss, and rejection in his lyrics.  This was a man that was adored by thousands of fans, yet still he wrote about heartache and breakup.  Sadly, in 1990 Del Shannon committed suicide with a .22 caliber rifle.  Like so many music legends who commit suicide, we can be thankful for the music that he gave us.  We will remember the times when he kicked his shoes off, had a little fun, and made the ladies boogie.  Like this video of him performing “Runaway” on live television in 1961.  A highlight of this video comes at the 1:10 mark when the teenagers show us how to break down 60’s style.

4. John Lennon – Stand by Me

I don’t find the need for a short bio on John Winston Lennon.  He has only written and performed some of the greatest hits in rock history.  His life was tragically taken on December 8, 1980.  He was only 40 years old.  In the 1970’s Lennon spent a lot of time in the studio recording music.  During this era he wrote some amazing songs and also released a cover album.  Songs included on this album are Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” by Chuck Berry and the classic lyric “Stand by Me.”  This song was originally written and performed by Ben E. King and was a top ten hit on two separate occasions–when it was originally released in 1961 and also in 1986 when it was re-released for a film.  Lennon’s version is so captivating and hypnotizing that I had to include it.  This clip was filmed in the recording studio as Lennon laid the track down for his album.  Part of me wishes that John would have taken his gnarly colored glasses off, so we could peer into the soul of a pure musical genius.

3. Bob Dylan – Blowin’ in the Wind

In the 1960’s an entire generation began to feel unrest and to raise questions about peace, war, and freedom.  One of the vocal leaders of this era was Bob Dylan.  Using lyrics, poetry, writings, and free speech he became a leading figure in the civil rights movement and the opposition to the Vietnam War.  His music incorporates political, social, and literary references that touch his listeners and that paint an important picture.  Written and released in 1963, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is Dylan’s masterpiece.  This is a song that asks nine questions.  The answers to these questions could determine the course of an entire generation.  Listening to the answers that we build could save much heartache, pain, and envy.  Yes that is a bit poetic, but so is this song.  It was ranked #14 on the Rolling Stone list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”  This performance is Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, accompanying him is Joan Baez, The Freedom Singers, and Peter Paul & Mary.

2. The Supremes – Baby Love

This list would not be complete without the most popular female singing group in history.  With a combination of doo-wop, pop, soul, and even disco hits, The Supremes were the only group to rival the worldwide popularity of The Beatles in the 1960’s.  They had twelve #1 hit singles under the Motown label during this era.  The band consisted of lead singer Diana Ross, accompanied by Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson.  The song “Baby Love” reached the #1 spot for four weeks in 1964.  It was the second of five straight Supremes songs to go to the top of the charts.  As a group, The Supremes can be seen as an important force in the civil rights movement during the 1960’s.  Like Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens, this band paved the way for African American R&B and soul musicians in the business.  This performance was taken from the long-running British music chart television program, Top of the Pops.  It was filmed in 1964 and shows off the band’s traditional stage routine.

1. The Beatles – Let it Be

This band from Liverpool, England could be the greatest ever created.  In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine named The Beatles #1 on a list of the “Greatest Artists of all Time.”  It was quite difficult to select only one live performance from the band.  They have had numerous influential concerts and recordings.  In researching this list I had to account for video quality, availability, and sound.  “Let it Be” was released in March 1970 and quickly went to the top of the charts in the U.S., Australia, Italy, Norway, and Switzerland.  It reached #2 in the UK.  It was the last single released by The Beatles while still active.  This performance was filmed in 1970 at a recording studio.  It features Harrison and Lennon on guitar and a grizzled McCartney on the piano and also providing the vocals.  This song encompasses some of the greatest lyrics ever written contributing to the undeniable theme of the tune.

Honorable Mention: The Beatles – Help

I had to add this clip as an honorable mention.  I wanted to include a video with all four of The Beatles in their mid-60’s prime.  This is actually not a live performance, but a promo video released by the group.  It is really a funny show and captures the true personalities of the band members.  You can just imagine the record executives and businessman standing around giving John, Paul, George, and Ringo cues.  Then we have Ringo in the back with the umbrella thinking “don’t forget about me.”  The irritated and cool Lennon doesn’t smile too much and just seems annoyed when they all start jumping up and down.  Of course the smiley and loving Paul seems to be readily aware of the cameras and enjoying himself as usual.

Dedicated to elanki17, who is not a psychopath.


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14 Comments

  1. I find the title of this list quite misleading. My impression of 'live' performances would consist of concert venues, not films of studio recordings or taped variety shows. Those are not 'live'.

      • I agree that these are live, because in the 1970’s it was still common for bands to plug everything in and play properly. It’s a pity you didn’t include one of James brown’s Soul Train performances, which would have illustrated well just how brilliantly a band could play live in a studio if they were good enough.

  2. I hear what you are saying Spocker I wasn't trying to be misleading, but looked for performances that I felt were not lip-syncing and then labeled those live. These videos are much different then many recorded performances these days, which are almost all lip-synced.

  3. Lisa Palacios on

    The best part of the Help promo video is when both John and George momentarily either forget to lip sync or forget the words. Watch for it!

  4. It is tragic that the genius of Del Shannon is overlooked so often. Thank you for including him. It speaks very well of you as a knowledgeable writer/critic.

  5. No Hendrix at Woodstock? Or Santana in the same festival? No Otis Redding at Monterey? The Who and Jimi Hendrix at Monterey? The Beatles' rooftop concert? No Elvis in his comeback TV special? No The Band for the filming of The Last Waltz?

  6. Summer of Love on

    Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock was the greatest performences by any muscian, why? Because I attended that rainy afternoon and you felt amazing as a person.

    Grateful Dead at the Red Rocks Amplitheathre in Colorado in 78' ?

    Micheal Jackson was not a muscian he could barley play guitar.

    To put Hendrix in the dust of Jackson (whom i think was a molester) is a shame Jimi played for 7 years and died before he could make more than 5 albums.

  7. Don Newbury on

    Not a bad list but I do have a gripe about “American Tune” by Paul Simon. I was singing an old hymn in church one Sunday and at one point, the melody seemed very familiar. Then it dawned on me. It was the same exact melody of “American Tune.” I’ve always been disappointed that Simon never gave credit for sampling the hymn on the “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” album or anywhere else for that matter.

    So, it gives the impression that he wrote the whole song as opposed to taking a portion of the old song and just adding his own touches to it. The rappers do it all the time and even though they were forced to years ago, they give credit to any sample they might have used.

    I have taken other songs he has recorded ever since then with a grain of salt.

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