Top 10s – The 1950s

Time for a Top 10… Usually I rank the ten best singles from a particular artist (last time it was The Kinks) but I thought I’d fiddle with my criteria a little, and rank my favourite #1 singles from an entire decade.

Starting with the singles chart’s very first decade. Back where it all began, when rock ‘n’ roll was but a twinkle in Elvis’s eye. The list is in chronological order – not ranked in order of preference – and to choose the songs I went back and read through my recaps to see which ones I dug at the time, live, as it were…

So, without further ado, the ten best #1 singles of the 1950s, according to me:

1. ‘Look at That Girl’, by Guy Mitchell – #1 for 6 weeks in Sept/Oct 1953

Only the 12th-ever number one single, from one of the decade’s biggest chart stars, and a runner-up in my first recap. This was the very first whiff of rock ‘n’ roll at the top of the UK charts (a very faint whiff, but still) and I think it appealed more than it probably should have because I’d waded through so much Eddie Fisher and Mantovani to get to it. Still, a catchy, upbeat tune. As I wrote in my original post:

“It sounds to me as if a battle is taking place here, between traditional easy-listening and the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll movement. On the one hand you’ve got the usual twee backing singers and floaty trumpets, parping away at the end of each line; on the other you have the hand claps and the guitar solo.”

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2. ‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray – #1 for 1 week in April/May 1954

Johnnie Ray was known for his emoting, which lent him two spectacular nicknames: ‘The Prince of Wails’ and ‘The Nabob of Sob’. But for his 1st of three #1s he was overcome with a slightly more enjoyable emotion… lust! By far the sauciest number one of the pre-rock era, I awarded it ‘Best Chart-Topper’ in my 1st recap. I’d go as far as saying it was the best #1 single ever… Until 1957 came along. My original post is here:

“…what makes it, and elevates it to a classic, are Ray’s vocals. Like Doris Day before him there’s an effortlessness to his voice that draws you in and yanks you along. But his voice is nothing like the clean-cut, honeyed tones of Miss Day. ‘Such a Night’ isn’t being sung here – it’s being ridden, it’s being humped… it’s being performed!”

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3. ‘Mambo Italiano’, by Rosemary Clooney & The Mellomen – #1 for 3 weeks in Jan/Feb 1955

I remember noting, back in the early days of the charts, that it felt like the girls were having all the fun. Guys were being boringly earnest – Al Martino, Eddie Fisher, David Whitfield all proclaiming overwrought, undying love over heavy orchestration. Meanwhile Rosemary Clooney, in her 2nd #1, was singing in cod-Italian about fish bacalao (which is Portuguese, but whatever.) It’s a song that resonates to this day, with a 00s remix and a 2011 pastiche by Lady Gaga. I named it a runner-up in my first recap:

“…while this is a mambo record, sung by an easy-listening singer-slash-actress, this is rock ‘n’ roll. It may be fun and funky, but it just about manages to retain an air of cool around all the silliness. While we were waiting for Bill Haley to come along and kick-off things off, the ideals and attitudes, if not the actual sounds, of rock ‘n’ roll were being sneaked in right under our noses.”

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4. ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra – #1 for 2 weeks in April/May 1955

Another saucy slice of Latin pop, which I named the very best song in my 2nd recap! Again, my opinion of it was probably exaggerated because of all the pre-rock easy-listening mulch surrounding it. It is catchy, though. Just you try not swaying along. Can’t be done! I tried summing up the record’s appeal in my original post

“…it allows Janet and John from Southend to draw close and to feel one another’s bodies, taught and trembling from two and a half minutes of intense mambo.”

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5. ‘Dreamboat’, by Alma Cogan – #1 for 2 weeks in July 1955

The 3rd #1 from 1955, making it officially the best year of the decade… (Hmm…) ‘Dreamboat’ is just a spectacularly fun pop song, sung with a giggle and a wink by perhaps the biggest British female star of the pre-rock age. As I wrote at the time:

“…there isn’t much else to ‘Dreamboat’ -it’s a fun little ditty. Cogan sings it well, with the perfect pronunciation we’ve come to expect but also with a light, playful touch that’s been missing from many of the number ones so far.”

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6. ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’, by The Teenagers ft. Frankie Lymon – #1 for 3 weeks in July/Aug 1956

Regrets, I have a few… One of them being that I named this classic as a runner-up to Perez Prado in my 2nd recap. What was I thinking? ‘Cherry Pink…’ is great and all, but this is timeless. The first number one by kids, for kids – the Teenagers were all, you guessed it, teenagers – is one of the catchiest, golden pop moments of all time, let alone the decade. As I wrote

“… it’s just a great song. A summer smash. It oozes New York city: steam, water spraying from a sidewalk valve, the sun blasting down, the Jets and the Sharks… (I dunno. I grew up in small town Scotland.)”

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7. ‘That’ll Be the Day’, by The Crickets – #1 for 3 weeks in November 1957

Perhaps the most obvious choice of the ten… What else needs to be said. Press play, gasp at the spectacular intro, and enjoy two and a half minutes of rock ‘n’ roll perfection…

“…Buddy Holly’s voice dances and flirts – toys, almost – with the listener. He coos, he pauses, he growls… The Crickets play tightly, but also very loosely. There’s a great, rough-around-the-edges feel to this record that contrasts with the polished cheese of Paul Anka’s ‘Diana’, whose bumper run at the top this track ended.”

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8. ‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis – #1 for 2 weeks in January 1958

But… I didn’t name ‘That’ll Be the Day’ as one of the very best chart-toppers. Oh no. In my 3rd recap, that honour was reserved for The Killer. On any given day, I could wake up and prefer ‘Great Balls…’ to ‘That’ll Be the Day’, or vice-versa. What’s the point in debating?  These two records were nailed-on to make my 50’s Top 10. Pure rock ‘n’ roll greatness…

“…It’s just an absolute blitz, an assault on the senses, a two-minute blast which takes rock ‘n’ roll up another notch.”

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9. ‘Who’s Sorry Now’, by Connie Francis – #1 for 6 weeks in May/June 1958

A spot of schadenfreude in the decade’s sassiest #1 single. Connie got dumped, and is now taking great pleasure that the tables have turned on her ex in his new relationship. You had your way, Now you must pay, I’m glad that you’re sorry now… Who says girls in the 50’s were all sweetness and apple pie? The twang in her voice when she launches into the final verse is something to behold. As I wrote at the time…

“A lot of the female artists we’ve met previously on this countdown have been cute, and flirty, and fun to listen to – Kitty Kallen, Kay Starr, Winifred Atwell… But no girl has brought this level of spunk to the table.”

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10. ‘Dream Lover’, by Bobby Darin – #1 for 4 weeks in July 1959

Last up –  a record that encapsulates everything great about the 1950s, mixing rock ‘n’ roll with swing, doo-wop and a touch of pre-rock crooning, to create pop perfection. Another runner-up to Jerry Lee in my 3rd recap, but there’s no shame in that. In my original post, I wrote:

“…I don’t want to really write any more about this record. I want to leave it there. Minimalist. This is where easy-listening and pop collide to create a seriously classy song.”

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And there we have it! The ten best #1 singles of the 1950s!

Remembering Bobby Darin

Named after a faulty sign outside a Chinese restaurant (the letters M-A-N were blacked out, leaving only D-A-R-I-N), today we remember perhaps the most underrated of the big fifties stars…

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Underrated, perhaps, because nobody knew where to fit him in. He didn’t look much like a teen-idol. He could sing rock ‘n’ roll, as well as more old-fashioned swing and jazz. His hit singles include both self-penned songs, like his debut ‘Splish Splash’, and modern interpretations of standards, such as his 1961 Top 10, ‘You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby’.

Born in Harlem, New York, in 1936, into a family of low-level mobsters and vaudeville singers, his mother was actually his grandma and his sister his biological mother  – a fact he didn’t find out until he was in his thirties. He was a sickly child, with recurring bouts of rheumatic fever, and always knew that he was not expected to live to an old age.

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(The sheet music for Darin’s first big hit.)

Which perhaps explains why he crammed so much into his short life. Songwriter, singer, actor, presenter, political campaigner, chess player… His two UK chart toppers perhaps best sum up his approach to life and music. In the space of four months in 1959 he hit #1 with the swaying rock ‘n’ roll ballad ‘Dream Lover’

And then with a cover of ‘Mack the Knife’, a German musical number from the 1920s, about a murdering, thieving, raping ‘shark’ called MacHeath…

Two number ones of the highest quality. ‘Mack the Knife’ stands out in particular – it doesn’t sound much like any of the other hits of the time, and the lyrics are pretty niche. It’s simply a record that got to #1 because it’s really, really good. Darin continued to have hits through the early sixties, including karaoke standard ‘Beyond the Sea’ and one of my personal faves, ‘Things’.

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(Bobby Darin with Connie Francis – whom he wrote songs for and had a relationship with – and Ed Sullivan in 1960.)

As the sixties progressed he moved into films, then TV and political campaigning. Darin was heavily involved in Robert F. Kennedy’s career, and he went into a deep depression when Kennedy was assassinated, having been present when it happened.

He continued to perform right up until his death, and by the end was on oxygen before and after each performance. Bobby Darin passed away during an operation on his heart, aged just thirty seven.

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Bobby Darin, May 14th 1936 – December 20th 1973

 

91. ‘Mack the Knife’, by Bobby Darin

We kick off the next thirty #1s in the October of ’59 – four chart-toppers away from the 1960s! And this… This is a real palate cleanser after the cheesy numbers, the Cliffs and the Jerry Kellers, that immediately preceded it. This is something different.

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Mack the Knife, by Bobby Darin (his 2nd of two #1s)

2 weeks, from 16th – 30th October 1959

It begins with the softest of intros – a tickle of drum, a pluck of bass. Oh the shark, babe, Has such teeth, dear, And it shows them, Pearly white… Bobby Darin is holding back, almost sneaking the lyrics out when we’re not looking. Just a jack-knife, Has ol’ MacHeath, babe, And he keeps it, Out of sight…

The best thing about this song – and there are many great things about this song – is that the lyrics slowly unfold. You are not quite sure what it is that you are listening to, what on earth this record is about, on first listen. The title doesn’t give anything away for a start. Then the first verse alludes to ‘scarlet billows’ and ‘traces of red’. All very mysterious…

Just to make sure, then, that we’re all on the same page – this is a song, a number one selling hit no less, about a hitman. A man, MacHeath, who does murders and stuff. A proper wrong ‘un. The following verses – and this record is nothing but verses, each one ramping up the tempo both in terms of the sound and the sinister lyrics – make it clearer.

Now on the sidewalk, Sunny morning, Uh-huh, Lies a body, Just a-oozin’ life… And: There’s a tugboat, Down by the river don’t ya know, Where a cement bag’s, Just droopin’ down… We’ve got stabbings, and guys swimmin’ with the fishes. A chap that disappears not long after ‘drawin’ out all his hard-earned cash.’ And then there’s the ladies: Jenny Diver, Miss Lotte Lenya and ol’ Lucy Brown. Whether they’re MacHeath’s lovers, or his victims, is left ambiguous.

And ambiguous is a good word with which to describe this latest #1. Superficially, it’s a perky swing number with a quiet start and a loud finish. In recent years, thanks to Robbie Williams and ‘Big Band Week’ on X-Factor, ‘Mack the Knife’ has been somewhat bland-ified. Yet if you sit down and actually listen to the lyrics… They’re dark, man. How great is it, after ‘Here Comes Summer’s saccharine mulch about ‘drive-in movies’ and ‘Joe’s Café’, and Craig Douglas’s paean to puppy love, to have a chart-topper that’s about a vicious murderer. I wonder how it got past the censors of the day? If the opacity of the lyrics, or the old-fashioned big-band swing, helped Darin get away with it.

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It’s a brilliant number one; but also a bizarre one. A song that begs the age-old question: How did this end up on top of the charts? If the success of Darin’s earlier #1 ‘Dream Lover’ led to this, then that’s yet another feather in the earlier song’s cap. Both songs showcase how good a singer Bobby Darin was – one a traditional pop song, the other a brassy swing number. I mean it as a compliment when I say it sounds as if it were recorded live.

‘Mack the Knife’ had a circuitous route to the top of the UK charts. It was written, in German, in 1928, for a musical called ‘Die Dreigroschenoper’. Catchy title. The show was then translated into English and performed as ‘The Threepenny Opera’ in 1933, then resurrected in 1954, and ‘Mack the Knife’ cherry-picked from it for a single by Louis Armstrong in ’56, before Bobby Darin recorded this definitive version two years later.

It ends with a bang, and probably the song’s most famous line: Look out ol’ Macky is back! Which not only draws this swingin’ little record to an end; but also the chart-topping career of Bobby Darin. Which is a shame, as he really was great. I’ve been digging into his back-catalogue since writing the post on ‘Dream Lover’, and would recommend that you give the frothy ‘Splish-Splash’, the cheeky ‘Multiplication’, and the karaoke-classic ‘Beyond the Sea’ a listen. In fact, just delve in and check it all out. That he topped the charts with two such different, but equally brilliant, records -when a lot of his contemporaries were treading the same path again and again – speaks volumes.

87. ‘Dream Lover’, by Bobby Darin

Now this is more like it. This is a chart-topping single!

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Dream Lover, by Bobby Darin (his 1st of two  #1s)

4 weeks, from 3rd – 31st July 1959

It’s been a while since I listened to this song, or to any Bobby Darin songs, but slipping the needle to hear ‘Dream Lover’ is like slipping into a silk dressing gown and settling down by the fire: Every night I hope and pray, A dream lover will come my way, A girl to hold in my arms, And know the magic of her charms…

We get not one but two groups of backing singers: girls for the ‘oohs’ and boys for the ‘wadda waddas’. We get strings and we get some oh-so-fifties staccato guitars. In fact, I’d put this up there with ‘Diana’ and ‘When’ as the most fifties, most rock ‘n’ rolly, doo-woppy #1 yet. But ‘Dream Lover’ is a much better song than either of those.

And that’s down to Bobby Darin. His voice is as crisp and as clear as a bell, and he lends the song a sort of… gravitas, that places it a cut above pure teeny-bopper fluff. He sounds older than his twenty-three years, and sounds suave where Paul Anka and the Kalin Twins sounded puppyish. Does this then represent the pinnacle of late fifties rock ‘n’ roll-as-pop? Maybe something to consider in our upcoming re-cap.

For all that, it’s a simple song. The singer wants a dream lover, so he doesn’t have to dream alone. Someday, I don’t know how, I hope she’ll hear my plea, Some way, I don’t know, She’ll bring her love to me… The listener knows where the song is going, but is more than happy to be taken along for the ride.

I don’t want to really write any more about this record. I want to leave it there. Minimalist. This is where easy-listening and pop collide to create a seriously classy song. And we’ll be hearing from Bobby D again very soon, so we can delve into his backstory then. For now, just sit back, relax, and enjoy.

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There are two little things of note, though, that we should point out here. I mentioned in my post on ‘Hoots Mon’, back in November ’58, that the production on these chart-topping singles was getting more substantial, beefier. And I have to admit that on ‘Dream Lover’, and to a lesser extent on ‘When’, I’m getting a hint of the ‘Wall of Sound’ technique – Phil Spector and all that – which will be all the rage in three or four years. Listen to the crashing symbols that precede the final verse and chorus here, and you’ll see what I mean. Interestingly, this song was engineered by Tom Dowd, a pioneer of multi-track recording. So there could be something in that…

And finally, while this is a wonderful record more than worthy of a month atop the UK Singles Charts… something has been nagging at me for a while now. Are our #1 singles growing more and more lyrically banal? Let’s explore. Drag your minds back to the dark and smoggy days of pre-rock and yes, song lyrics were probably pondering weightier issues: I believe for every drop of rain that falls, A flower grows… Or Three coins in the fountain, Which one will the fountain bless…? Or I saw her face and ascended out of the common place, into the rare, somewhere in space… from ‘Brainiest #1 Yet’ ‘Stranger in Paradise’. Or they at least talked of love in slightly flowerier, more abstract terms. And there haven’t been any out-of-place, soundtrack songs like ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ or ‘The Man from Laramie’ with lyrics about sharp-shooters and speakeasies hitting the stop spot recently.

In 1958-9, while there are anomalies like ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ and ‘The Day the Rains Came’, it’s mainly all Dream lover, where are you…? All I have to do is dream… And Goodness gracious great balls of fire…! Simple, immediate stuff. Is this a bad thing? Rock ‘n’ roll may have dumbed things down a bit, but its brought an immediacy to our chart-topping hits. Everyone can relate to someone sitting at home wishing for a dream lover. Not everyone can relate to She wears red feathers and a huly-huly skirt… I’m all for it really. And that’s probably a good thing, as our next #1 takes simple to the next level.