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Top 10 Pop Songs from the 1950s

by James Bray Rating: Release Date:

The 1950s are often overlooked in the celebration of pop music as they are overshadowed by the revolutionary nature and the exuberance of the 1960s. The hallowed music of the 60s has been mined for all kinds of mediocre and arbitrary anthologies found in bargain baskets and motorway service stations up and down the country. Great pop music from the 1950s is, for the most part, confined to niche market releases of 'oldies' and nostalgia compilations. The ostensible conventionality and conformity of the era with its pressed shirts and gingham dresses make it seem dull in comparison with the vivacity of music of the 1960s. However, as we'll see in the songs that I have chosen, the superficial conformity of this era belies a world on the brink of huge social and economic change.

The use of music from this period in film soundtracks popularised the songs for new generations of kids. Directors in the 70s and 80s were using songs from their youth in the 50s to evoke a sense of time and place, of innocence and of endless possibility. This was done most effectively in movies like George Lucas' American Graffiti or in Emile Ardolino's Dirty Dancing or even in Chris Columbus' Home Alone.

I haven't included songs by Elvis, the rat packers, any of the early rock 'n' rollers like Chuck Berry or Little Richard or any blues players; I wanted to concentrate on 50s pop gems rather than well established artists and genres. This list of course, is completely objective and is not in any way arbitrary... So, in no particular order...

1. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers- 'Why Do Fools Fall in Love?'

This irrepressible song is where barber shop meets rock and roll leaving us with a doo-wop classic. A huge hit for the group (at a time when the teenager was a relatively new concept) led by an amazingly young Frankie Lymon who was only 13. Like many black acts in this period they made televisions appearances wearing suits and had their hair heavily oiled so that they could be passed off as white performers on black and white TV sets. Lymon tragically died at the age of 25 from a heroin overdose.

2. The Platters- 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes'

The Platters 1958 release is the definitive version of this song. Beautifully orchestrated with wonderful vocals; this ballad is of operatic proportions.

3. Brenda Lee- 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree'

This 1958 release is one of the best Christmas songs and unfortunately, like Lee herself, it's often overlooked. Its raunchy country pop take on Yuletide celebration is completely infectious. Lee was supposedly only 14 when she recorded this track which is astounding considering the smoky and sultry vocals. This song was used to great effect in Home Alone.

4. The Flamingos - 'I Only Have Eyes For You'

Like 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' this is a superior cover a show tune from the 30s. By the 50s, the music industry had perfected certain recording techniques and the production on this track is sublime. More epic use of the crescendo and pitch perfect evocation of 1950s crushing: this song isn't to be missed.

5. Mickey and Sylvia- 'Love is Strange'

The teasing interplay between Mickey and Sylvia on this song was highly erotic by 1950s standards; A 'Je t'aime... Moi Non Plus' for 50s America. Wonderful vocals and Mickey Baker's inspired guitar work is only too effective.

6. The Chordettes- 'Mr Sandman'

With its bewitching melodies and technically complex chord progression, this song is scarily good, even the knee slapping percussion is perfect. This idiosyncratic little gem contains one of the scariest moments in pop music, when The Sandman starts to talk back. "Yes?" he enquires at one min 39 secs.

7. Domenico Modugno-' Volare'

More big band extravagancies in this wonderful Italian song. Fairy tale orchestration breaks into the infectious chorus that everyone knows, VO-LAR-RÉE!! This song was the Italian entry in the 1958 Eurovision song contest where it only managed third place.

8. Jackie Wilson- 'Lonely Tear Drops (Say You Will)'

This soulful, bittersweet classic was a hit for Jackie Wilson in 1958. The doo-wop backing vocals, Wilson's swinging lead and the fast paced but plaintive guitar arpeggios combine to create an irresistible song. It was a close call on the list between this or 'Reet Petite' from Jackie Wilson but this track just about has the edge. A countrified cover of 'Lonely Tear Drops' is used in Mike Figgis' great, tragic film Leaving Las Vegas.

9. Nina Simone - 'My Baby Just Cares for Me'

Nina Simone's 1958 recording is the definitive version of this song. Simone's beguiling talent for sultry jazz pop combined with her perfect arrangement make this track a classic. This song remained relatively unknown until the 1980s when it was used in an advertising campaign for Chanel No. 5.

10. The Moonglows- 'Sincerely'

In this 1954 hit The Moonglows achieve a soulful r&b song of almost biblical proportions; the impassioned delivery is reminiscent of gospel music though the song is perfectly packaged as a 50s slow dance standard. Look out for the bass barber-shop backing vocals and Bobby Lester's bravura lead.

The vast majority of the songs on this list are performed by black artists. The mercurial talent of these great musicians, who worked in a recording industry that was dominated by white executives, set the stage for the progressive cultural and social upheaval that would take place in the 60s. The 50s were not so dull and conservative after all.

# Although I stipulated that there should be no blues songs on the list I can't help but mention one of my personal favourites from this era; Howlin' Wolf's 1957 version of 'Sitting on Top of the World'. It's just the blues perfectly executed with Wolf's unmistakable vocals, "...I had to take Christmas in my overalls."

Comments (3)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Totally with you on The Flamingos version of 'I Only Have Eyes for You'. Listening to it now, in fact. I love it's slightly spooky atmosphere. And Nina Simone is my favourite singer of all time.

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Good List, but surely there's room for some Buddy Holly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIpc2nsYQUs&;amp;feature=related

Also A Lover's Question by Clyde McPhatter: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJGXfr7sFS0
Runaround Sue by Dion and The...

Good List, but surely there's room for some Buddy Holly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIpc2nsYQUs&;amp;feature=related

Also A Lover's Question by Clyde McPhatter: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJGXfr7sFS0
Runaround Sue by Dion and The Belmonts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c49klxPex-k
Earth Angel by The Penguins: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9H4heyqcdJ8&;amp;feature=related

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Runaround Sue just missed out on the list, it's really great although I associate with that lame thriller movie with Julia Roberts from the early 90s. Earth Angel is another great one but I think The Moonglows just have it with Sincerely.....

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