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 Frankie Lymon

Fifty-two years ago today, one of our youngest chart-topping artists passed away. Franklin Joseph ‘Frankie’ Lymon, the voice of The Teenagers.

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(The Teenagers, with Frankie Lymon in the centre.)

He barely was – a teenager that is – when their debut hit ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ made #1. Lymon was thirteen when it was recorded, and he sounds his age as you listen to it now, sixty-four years later. His unbroken voice flits like a sparrow around a doo-wop song about heartache, like a choir boy gone rogue. Listen to it below, and read my original post on it here.

(Performing the song on national TV, and bantering with Frankie Laine – a man not short of #1 singles by 1956.)\

Note how early ‘Why Do Fools…’ hit #1. Mid-1956. Only the 2nd ever rock ‘n’ roll chart-topper, after ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (not counting Kay Starr’s in-name-only ‘Rock and Roll Waltz’.) The Teenagers were knocked from the top by Doris Day, after they themselves had deposed Pat Boone. That’s where we were, when five kids from Harlem shook things up. In nearly every one of their songs – which do all sound a bit similar – a saxophone solo comes charging along, sounding as if it is hell-bent on blowing codgers like Boone away for good.

Their only other UK chart hit was the brilliantly titled ‘I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent’, which made #12 and sounds like the theme song to a misguided government campaign aimed at errant youths. The Teenagers still tour today, Herman Santiago being the only surviving member. But this is not their story. This is Frankie Lymon’s, and he had already left the band by 1957.

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(Lymon with Little Richard)

His first solo release, a cover of the thirties hit ‘Goody Goody’, was fine, but didn’t catch on. And by then, aged fifteen, Lymon was already addicted to heroin. He hadn’t had much of a childhood, he would relate in an ‘Ebony’ magazine interview in 1967, growing up in Harlem around prostitutes and pimps, smoking weed and ‘knowing’ women, all before he even joined The Teenagers. Watching him perform, you can definitely see the street-kid swagger behind the suits and the polished smiles.

(I think this is a genuinely live performance and, if so, then wow! I’m out of breath just from listening.)

The hits dried up as the fifties drew to a close, and the drugs started to take their toll. There was a steady stream of women – fake marriages, then scam marriages in Mexico, making the title of his biggest hit sound ever more prescient. His managers and label offered no help, and there clearly wasn’t much of a support network around him. Eventually he got caught up in drug charges and, rather than go to jail, he was drafted into the army.

In the forces he went clean, and sober, and every-so-often AWOL to perform tiny, low-key gigs, by this point near forgotten amongst the British Invasion acts that were dominating the Billboard Hot 100 at the time. He left the army, recorded a few demos, and by 1968 was preparing a comeback with Roulette Records.

Unfortunately, and in a tragic Hollywood ending, the day before his first recording session with his new label, Lymon was found dead on his grandmother’s bathroom floor, a needle in his arm. He was twenty-five.

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You could say this about any child star that goes off the rails, but there’s it’s almost painful to watch Frankie Lymon performing with The Teenagers, the proto-boyband that brought some New York swagger to the staid singles chart of the mid-fifties, and to think what was to come.

Frankie Lymon, September 30th 1942 – February 27th 1968

2nd Anniversary Special! Cover Versions of #1s Part I – Joni Mitchell & Telex

It’s two years since I started this blog and I’m exactly 250 number ones in! To celebrate, I am doing a week-long special: cover versions of #1 singles! Whenever I write a post, I not only discover and enjoy the #1 singles, I also often discover and enjoy other recordings of these hit songs.

I’ve picked ten covers – two a day – of songs that have topped the charts earlier in our countdown. Some are brilliant, some are weird, some are by artists that we have met already in this countdown, others are by artists that will never get anywhere near the top the charts… Enjoy!

First up: two #1s from the 1950s, re-imagined two decades later.

‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’, by Joni Mitchell and The Persuasions (1980)

(Originally hit #1 in 1956, with Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers)

I have to admit I struggle with Joni Mitchell – to my shame – but this is lovely. It’s a live recording too, which adds something extra. The music is tight and upbeat, but Mitchell’s vocals show the heartache behind the lyrics. It got to #102 in the US, and didn’t chart in the UK.

‘Rock Around the Clock’, by Telex (1979)

(Originally hit #1 in 1955, with Bill Haley & His Comets)

Telex were a Belgian synth-pop group who deconstructed the single that some say kicked the whole rock ‘n’ roll shebang off. Is this amazing, or is it terrible? Or does it straddle perfectly the fine line between the two…? It’s worth a watch simply for the lead-singer reading the paper mid-performance. This cover reached #34 in the UK, and Telex went on to represent their country at the Eurovision Song Contest, with a song titled ‘Eurovision’, and finished in 19th place.

Two more #1 cover versions tomorrow…

48. ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’, by The Teenagers ft. Frankie Lymon

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Why Do Fools Fall in Love, by The Teenagers ft. Frankie Lymon (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 20th July to 10th August 1956

Ah-doo-ma-da-doo-ma-da-doo-ma-doo-doo-doo…

The perfect antidote to our recent, saccharine-heavy chart toppers.

Ooh-wa-ooh-wa-wa…

This is one of the very few songs we’ve covered so far that I don’t think I need to really describe. Surely everyone knows this?

Why do birds si-ing, so gay? And lovers await the break of day? Why do they fall in love?

It’s a breathless, relentless song: two minutes twenty seconds packed with vocal harmonies, scattish drums and a brilliantly aggressive saxophone solo. There are certain records that simply had to have topped the charts, so seismic are they in shaping the history of pop music. This is one of them. It’s a great record. A classic. I love it.

But… That’s not good enough. I can’t leave it there – the shortest post yet. Let’s do this track justice. Why is it such a classic?

Firstly, Frankie Lymon’s voice. One of the things I know about this track, without doing any research, is that Lymon was just thirteen when he recorded this song. His voice is perfect. Not technically perfect, mind: it cracks and breaks a couple of times. But perfect for a song about first love, about being in love and getting rejected and, rather than wallowing in self-pity and whining about how you’ll wait for ever and a day for your loved one (c.f pretty much every male-led #1 thus far), it’s about shrugging your shoulders and realising what a fool you’ve been. It’s a wonderfully cynical record. Lymon sounds just like a heart-broken teenage boy, full of hurt and bravado. Because he was.

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Which brings us onto the second reason. This is a song for teenagers, by teenagers. Literally: it’s by ‘The Teenagers’. Lymon was the youngest of the five, but none of the others were any older than sixteen when this song hit the top spot. Bill Haley, on the other hand, was thirty. This is the next big step in rock ‘n’ roll’s evolution. While this is strictly a doo-wop record, I make it the 4th rock ‘n’ roll record to top the charts. And I’m being pretty generous in making it four. But, interestingly, the four tracks have all been lyrically very distinct. Bear with me. ‘Such a Night’ was all about sex, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ about partying (and maybe a little bit of sex), ‘Rock And Roll Waltz’ about uncool parents and now ‘Why Do Fools…’ gives us hormonal heartbreak. We just need a song about vomiting all over a friend’s back garden at a house party to get the full set.

Reason number three? This is the first song I’ve covered on this blog, I believe – and bear in mind that we are forty-eight songs in now – in which you can’t make out all the words. The line I quoted back at the start? I had to check the lyrics online. I thought it went And lovers who wait to play all day… And the line: Why does my heart skip a crazy beat? Before I know it will reach defeat… I always thought it was… it will re-tweet tweet… Whatever that might have meant in 1956. A basic cornerstone of rock music is slurred lyrics that you can’t immediately understand and which, more importantly, annoy your parents because they’re not sung PROPERLY!

The fourth, and final, reason…? Well, 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. I first really got to know this song after buying an old second-hand CD compilation called ‘Don’t Stop, Doo-Wop’. It was brilliant; twenty-odd fifties and sixties doo-wop tracks, a few more of which will feature in this countdown. I wish I knew what I’d done with it.

Unfortunately, this will be The Teenagers one and only appearance here. Not that they were one-hit wonders, though, as they followed this classic up with the excellently titled ‘I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent’.

Even more unfortunately – tragically, in fact – Frankie Lymon trod a very rock ‘n’ roll path following this early success. By 1957 he had struck out on his own, away from The Teenagers. Aged 15, however, he was also a heroin addict and a lover to women twice his age. His career was ended by this addiction, and by the simple fact of his voice breaking. He lost his only child when she was just two days old. He died of an overdose, in 1968, at the horribly young age of twenty-five, on his grandmother’s bathroom floor. I mean… That’s a grim tale. As trite as it sounds though, what better way to remember him than as a fresh-faced, fresh voiced kid singing about fools in love?

One more time then: Ooh-wa-ooh-wa-wa…