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!

Top 10s – Buddy Holly

February made me shiver, With every paper I delivered, Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step…

Sixty-one years ago today, a light aircraft slammed into a field in Iowa during a snow-storm, killing everyone on board. The four passengers were Ritchie Valens (a seventeen-year-old up and coming rock ‘n’ roller), J.P. Richardson (AKA The Big Bopper, of ‘Chantilly Lace’ fame), pilot Roger Peterson, and Charles Hardin Holley. Buddy Holly.

The Day the Music Died has passed into folklore. I’m not going to write about that today. Rather, for my 2nd artist’s Top 10 post – check out the first one I did here – I’m going to list my favourite UK hit singles from a man whose legacy stretches far. The Beatles, The Stones, punk rock and power pop – they all owe a big debt to Buddy.

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As before, I’m restricting myself to ‘A’-sides of singles that charted in the UK. So no ‘Everyday’, no ‘I’m Gonna Love You Too’, no ‘Not Fade Away’, and no ‘You’re So Square… Baby I Don’t Care’. Don’t blame me… Blame the people that didn’t buy those singles, or the record labels that never released them…

10. ‘Think It Over’, with The Crickets, 1958 – peaked at #11

People sometimes forget that Buddy Holly recorded some down and dirty rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe it’s the thick-rimmed glasses that make him seem a little more, how to say, cerebral, than Elvis or Little Richard… But while he was able to add more subtlety than most of his contemporaries, ‘Think It Over’ has swagger and attitude to spare. Is she sure she doesn’t want him? Really sure? Maybe she should think it over… Great piano solo, too.

9. ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’, 1959 – reached #1

Holly’s only solo #1, three months after he died. More strings than you’d expect from a rock ‘n’ roll single, and a very memorable vocal performance. Lots of trademark hiccups and southern drawl. The video above starts with a snippet of ‘Heartbeat’… not sure why. Read my original post on ‘It Doesn’t Matter…’ here.

8. ‘Reminiscing’, 1962 – reached #17

Some sexy sax, and a quality chugging riff. And Buddy’s voice. I’ve always loved the way he has fun with the line You’re a mean mistrea-ea-ea-ter… This peaked in the early sixties, along with several other gems from his back catalogue.

7. ‘What To Do’, 1965 – reached #34

Since this was never a big hit in Holly’s lifetime, you can hear it in all manner of overdubbed and re-imagined versions. I’ve gone for this stripped-back one, though. Just Buddy Holly and a guitar, so close to the mic that you can hear his breathing. It was a minor hit a full six years after his death. I love the lines about ‘soda pops’ and ‘walks to school’, that by the mid-sixties must have sounded very old-hat.

6. ‘Early in the Morning’, 1958 – reached #17

Some more swagger from Mr. Holly. We-e-e-e-el, he crows at the start, You gonna miss me… To be honest he doesn’t sound very heartbroken. In fact he might just be enjoying the break-up. I love his vocals here, one second yelping, the next growling…

The Top 5 were all Top 10 hits in the UK, all priceless slices of rock ‘n’ roll goodness:

5. ‘Maybe Baby’, with The Crickets, 1958 – reached #4

Every Buddy Holly song has a little detail – beyond the lyrics and melody – that makes it stand out. In ‘Maybe Baby’ it’s the reverb on the guitar. A near perfect pop song.

4. ‘Peggy Sue’, 1957 – reached #6

 

Buddy’s first ‘solo’ single – even thought The Crickets are clearly accompanying him in videos around online… It was written for the drummer, Jerry Allison’s, girlfriend after they had temporarily split up. Probably more groundbreaking than the 3 songs I’ve chosen above it… That drumbeat for a start is like nothing heard in a rock ‘n’ roll single before. Just my personal preference. The moment when the electric guitar comes in. My, my, my…

3. ‘That’ll Be the Day’, with The Crickets, 1957 – reached #1

If the plane crash was The Day the Music Died, then this is the moment it all began. The jingle-jangle intro, the hiccuping voice, the John Wayne inspired hook… My favourite bit has always been the start of the second verse – the country twang on the: well-a, when Cupid shot his dart… Read my original post on this number one record here.

2. ‘Oh Boy!’, with The Crickets, 1957 – reached #3

Teenage angst – you can here my heart a-callin’ –  and lust – a little bit of lovin’ makes the everythin’ alright – in The Crickets 2nd big hit. Holly’s vocals rasp, yelp and strain against the conservatism of 1950s America, and it just pips ‘That’ll Be the Day’ into the runners-up slot…

1. ‘Rave On’, 1958 – reached #5

We-a-he-a-he-al… The opening second of this record already seals its place as an all-time great. The way he stretches out the opening syllable is sublime, and then it morphs into a proto-punk number with its relentless riff surfing along in the background. One minute fifty seconds of rock ‘n’ roll brilliance, the well from which so much modern pop music springs…

Charles Hardin ‘Buddy’ Holley

September 7th 1936 – February 3rd 1959.

102. ‘Three Steps to Heaven’, by Eddie Cochran

And we’re back down to earth with a bump, after the era/career/life defining ‘Cathy’s Clown’. Which is ironic, given the title of this next number one…

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Three Steps to Heaven, by Eddie Cochran (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 23rd June – 7th July 1960

Now there, Are three, Steps to heaven… Just listen, And you will, Plainly see… The guitars click and twirl and sound for all the world like a Buddy Holly B-side – the sickly little brother of ‘Heartbeat’, perhaps. And as life, Travels on, And things do go wrong… Eddie Cochran is crooning away here in a manner that would make Perry Como proud. Just follow, Steps one, two, and three…

Now, I might not be as familiar with Eddie Cochran as I am with certain other rock ‘n’ rollers; but I do know that he was a rock ‘n’ roller. He was one hell of a rock ‘n’ roller. But if you were to base your impressions of him on his sole UK #1, you might think Eddie C. was a mere pap-peddler, a run-of-the-mill teen idol singing a cutesy ‘How To Guide’ for love. There’s nothing wrong with this song, as such, but there ain’t much that’s great about it either.

What are those three steps to heaven, then? You’re dying to know, aren’t you? Step one, You find a girl you love… Uh-huh… Step two, she falls in love with you… OK… Step three, you kiss and hold her tightly… And that’s it? Yeah that sure, Seems like heaven, To me… Oh Eddie, if only it were that simple.

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I’ve already mentioned that the rolling, clockwork guitars sound very Buddy Holly-lite – and this might have a lot to do with The Crickets acting as Cochran’s backing group here (and scoring their 2nd, albeit uncredited, chart-topper in the process) – but that’s not this record’s only link to ‘The Father of Modern Pop Music’. Eddie Cochran, like Buddy when he scored his only solo #1, was dead by the time this topped the charts. Two months earlier, during a UK tour, the taxi in which he had been travelling blew a tire and smashed into a lamppost. He was thrown from the car, after valiantly covering and saving his fiancé, and died in hospital the following day. He was just twenty-one. Considering that his two previous singles had stalled at #22, I think it’s safe to assume that this record was being bought as a memorial as much as it was for the actual music.

I’m torn… It’s great that a star as influential at the birth of rock and pop as Eddie Cochran got his moment in the record books. But there are so many better ways to remember him than this twee little ditty. There’s the teenage angst of his breakthrough hit ‘Summertime Blues’, the classic riff from ‘C’Mon Everybody’, or the steaming proto-punk of ‘Somethin’ Else’ (which would be turned into a proper-punk hit by Sid Vicious some twenty years later).

It’s comparable, in a way, to the fact that Chuck Berry scored his one and only UK #1 with ‘My Ding-A-Ling’. Which really winds some people up. But – and I’m sticking my neck out here – I think that ‘Three Steps to Heaven’ being Eddie Cochran’s biggest hit is the real travesty. At least my ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ was bawdy, smutty, silly, funny… It is rock ‘n’ roll, for all that it is also a dumb nursery-rhyme. This? Well this song commits a far worse crime in my book. The crime of being bland! And I, donning my judge’s cap for a moment here, order this record to be removed from my sight. Forever. Next!

64. ‘That’ll Be the Day’, by The Crickets

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That’ll Be the Day, by The Crickets (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 1st – 22nd November 1957

That intro…

I wish I could describe it, or transcribe the notes onto the page, and somehow do it justice. But I can’t. It kind of rolls, kind of cascades, and kind of jangles. And yet does none of those things. Just click on the video link below and listen for yourselves, if you aren’t already familiar with one of the seminal moments in pop music history.

I’ve been using that word a lot recently: ‘seminal’. Maybe I’ve been over using it. But it’s just so easy to stick in as I go. Pretty much every second record we come across at the moment is ‘seminal’. And, to be fair, they’ve had enough time to become so. We are listening to songs that topped the charts sixty-one years ago. That’s more than enough time to become ingrained and cemented – and in some cases mummified – in the popular psyche. And I suppose this is why it’s so common to compare old music favourably to its modern counterparts, because we grow up with these totems of musical history – the Elvis’s, the Holly’s, the ‘Rock Around the Clocks’ – and current pop stars are easy to cast as Johnny-come-lately copycats. But who knows? As I write this post the current UK #1 single is ‘Shotgun’, by George Ezra. And there’s every chance that that will be just as revered as ‘That’ll Be the Day’ in sixty-one years’ time. Every chance…

Anyway – to the record. That intro draws us into a song about – on first listen – a guy who hopes his love’ll never leave ‘im. Well, that’ll be the day when you say goodbye, That’ll be the day when you make me cry, You say you’re gonna leave, You know it’s a lie, Cos that’ll be the day-y-y, When I die… Except, wait a sec. He isn’t blindly hoping his girl sticks around; he’s pretty confident about it. He ‘knows it’s a lie’. You sit and hold me, And you tell me boldly, That some day I’ll be blue… Nope, Buddy says. That’ll be the day! The song title is actually a challenge: challenging his girl to even think about breaking up with him. Compare lyrics – if you dare – with Eddie Fisher’s ‘Outside of Heaven’, from way back in January 1953, to see just how far pop music has come in under five years. This is an arrogant record, a sexy record. This is rock ‘n’ roll!

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Buddy Holly’s voice dances and flirts – plays, almost – with the listener. He coos, he pauses, he growls. I mentioned in my last recap that the rock ‘n’ roll records which we’ve featured so far have focused on the singer, rather than the band. Not here. The Crickets play tightly, but also very loosely. There’s a great, rough-around-the-edges feel to this record that contrasts greatly with the polished cheese of Paul Anka’s ‘Diana’, whose bumper run at the top this track ended. We have a solo, which is just as jangly as the intro, and I love the drums – especially in the second verse and final chorus: When Cupid shot his dart, He shot it at ya heart, So if we ever part, Then I’ll leave you… BA DOOM DOOM!

I’m going to term this period in music as the ‘2nd Wave of Rock ‘n’ Roll.’ We’ve had Elvis, now we’ve had Buddy. Whereas as earlier it was the oldies jumping on the rock ‘n’ roll bandwagon – your Kay Starr’s, your Johnnie Ray’s and your Guy Mitchell’s – now we are getting kids who have been weaned on rock, who’ve grown up and formed their bands knowing nothing but this cool new music. And ‘That’ll Be the Day’ is the perfect poster-song for this new movement – four kids from Texas playing their own songs, fast and loose.

As with Elvis, I know the music of Buddy Holly pretty well. When I was about twenty I – as everyone really should – bought his Greatest Hits and took it home to hear how modern pop music was invented. And I’d love to wax lyrical on him, but I’ll hold back for the simple fact that we’ll be hearing from him again soon. He’ll be dead by that time, but he will at least have one last hurrah at the top of the UK Singles charts (he should have had around twenty hurrahs, but that’s a story for another day…) The Crickets, though, will not be back at the top of the charts again and so I would recommend that you go away and listen to, in no particular order, ‘Oh Boy!’, ‘Maybe Baby’, ‘Not Fade Away’ and ‘It’s So Easy’. And anybody who thinks I’m exaggerating when I say that so much of modern pop lies in the two minutes twenty seconds of this record should listen to the ‘ooh-hoos’ Holly delivers at the end. The Beatles spent their first two years ripping that trick off.

It is nice, though, that so many of the major rock ‘n’ rollers of the 1950s are getting a moment in the sun (i.e. the chance to feature in this countdown). The Crickets just now, while Buddy Holly will also get a solo turn. Bill Haley’s been. Jerry Lee is up soon. Chuck Berry will get there eventually (how I am looking forward to writing about that particular number one!) There are some glaring omissions, though: no Little Richard, no Fats Domino, no Gene Vincent… The chart Fates can be cruel.

They wouldn’t have dared, however, keep a record as immense as ‘That’ll Be the Day’ from the top.