Listen To This Playlist #3: #1 Hits of 1955
This is #3 in the Listen to this Playlist series at Freeway Jam, in conjunction with Rhapsody Radish. Here, we look at playlists of an offbeat nature, on a variety of themes. Then, you can go listen to the playlist over at Rhapsody Radish, for the full experience.
Turn back the clock 50 years and we're at the very dawn of rock 'n' roll. Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry hadn't yet appeared on the national scene. In 1955, fourteen songs held the #1 spot on the charts all year. It's the last snapshot of the pre-rock era.
The #1 singles of 1955:
1. Joan Weber: Let Me Go, Lover [4 weeks at #1]
Joan Weber had precisely one hit, "Let Me Go, Lover", on Columbia Records, at the age of 18. The song was originally titled "Let Me Go, Devil", but was changed to suit the wholesome young singer. After a performance on a TV show called Studio One the song took off, and topped the charts, also reaching #16 in England. Unfortunately, Weber gave birth right after this success and was unable to promote her records; Columbia dropped her soon after. The song itself is a lush waltz, reminiscent of Patti Page. Weber died in 1981.
2. Fontaine Sisters: Hearts of Stone 
The Fontaine Sisters were Perry Como's radio backing singers from 1950 through 1953. Como's musical arranger in those days was Ray Charles (not the soul singer; another Ray Charles), who eventually replaced the Fontaine Singers with a new trio called the Ray Charles Singers. The Fontaine Sisters managed a single hit on their own, "Hearts of Stone" before vanishing into utter obscurity. A close harmony mid-tempo country tune, with the vocals reminiscent of the Andrews Sisters, it's an endearingly corny piece of Americana. Little is known about post-career lives.
3. McGuire Sisters: Sincerely 
From Middleton, OH, the McGuire Sisters were quite popluar among the emerging suburban class in America in the early 1950's. Their mother was an ordained minister who frowned upon secular music, so the sister were gospel-tinged. They rose to prominance on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts TV show. Their record career took off in 1954; they eventually charted 18 singles from 1954-1961. They were among a group of white performers who routinely covered black r&b records in safe, sanitized versions for the (white) suburbanites. "Sincerely" is credited to Harvey Fuqua of the r&b and doo-wop group, the Moonglows. DJ Alan Freed also gets a credit, although he didn't have a hand in writing the song; his credit was in exchange for promotion.
4. Bill Hayes: The Ballad of Davy Crockett 
Pop vocalist Bill Hayes had already achieved recognition for his regular appearances on Sid Caesar's television series Your Show Of Shows, when his recording of "The Ballad Of Davy Crockett" soared to number 1 in the US charts in March 1955, despite three other versions, two of which also made the Top 5. The song also reached number 2 in the UK. He had a minor follow-up, "Wringle Wrangle", from the 1956 movie Westward Ho, The Wagons in the USA, before turning to acting and playing Doug Williams in the US NBC television soap opera Days Of Our Lives.
5. Perez Prado: Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White 
Known as King of the Mambo, Perez Prado was considered the most important musician of the mambo craze, which was briefly a very huge thing indeed; even West Side Story included some. It's disputed whether Prado invented the rhythm, but he was its biggest popularizer, arranging his records with bright up-tempo trumpets, fat-sounding sax, and tight percussion. He put one more record at #1, "Patricia", in 1958; in 1961, a "Twist" version of "Patricia" stalled at #65, his last chart entry. "Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White" isn't exactly a mambo, but it's a fine Latin instrumental, with a famous 'diving trumpet' intro for a hook.
6. Georgia Gibbs: Dance With Me Henry 
Georgia Gibbs had been around awhile by the time she scored a #1 with "Dance WIth Me Henry"; she recorded as far back as 1938 under her original name, Fredda Gibson. Her earliest recordings were jazz; she did some recordings with Artie Shaw. Howvwer, her range was quite broad; she also did pop, ballads, novelty records, and many other styles. Gibbs was another 50's singer who specialized in watered down versions of black artists' music, she covers an Etta James tune here, written by Hank Ballard/Etta James/Johnny Otis. Gibbs' last hit was in 1958.
7. Les Baxter: Unchained Melody 
Les Baxter was a fairly important name outside of the rock universe. He was a pianist who composed and arranged for many top swing bands of the 40's and 50's, and is also credited, along with Martin Denny, as being the inventor of the exotica genre, an easy listening genre with a Polynesian flavor. He got his first break as a member of Mel Torme's band in 1945, was musical director for Abbott and Costello's radio shows, and scored over 100 films. "Unchained Melody" was from one of his film scores; composed by Alex North/Hy Zaret, Baxter's orchestral version was one of several competing versions on the charts at the same time. It is one of the most covered songs in pop music history. Baxter died in 1996.
8. Bill Haley & His Comets: Rock Around The Clock 
Here is where rock 'n' roll started for many listeners. While there are arguments for earlier songs that could be classified as "rock 'n' roll", going all the way back to "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats in 1951 (featuring Ike Turner; also covered by Haley), and Haley's own "Shake Rattle and Roll" in 1953, "Rock Around The Clock" was rock's first #1, applied the now-familiar conventions of the style, and caught the attention of deejay Alan Freed, who promoted it relentlessly, and glommed onto the term, "rock 'n' roll". His and his band's first recording dates from 1948, as The Four Aces of Western Swing; in 1951 Sam Phillips gave Bill Haley and his Saddlemen "Rocket 88" to cover; they became Bill Haley and the Comets in 1952. After this milestons, they's have a few more his, including "See You Later, Alligator" in 1956, but after that, the hits ran dry. Haley died in 1981, he's never really gotten his proper due for his contributions to rock history.
9. Frank Sinatra: Learning The Blues 
Sinatra was in the peak of his career in the mid-50's. Columbia had pushed Sinatra as a skinny crooner in the 40's; in the 50's, Capitol records gave him big bands and costly production; the swing albums he cut in the 50's are the best of his long career. "Learnin' The Blues" was a non-album single when it was released; it was later collected on a 1956 compilation called This Is Sinatra!. Despite the title, this isn't a blues; it's a typical late-hours swing jazz recording; perfect for last call at 2AM. Sinatra's career lasted into the 1990's, but his relationship with rock was always an uneasy one; despite covering the Beatles and Paul Simon late in his career, he never really had much to do with the form. He died in 1998.
10. Mitch Miller: Yellow Rose Of Texas 
Mitch Miller was head of A&R at Columbia records in the 1950's, about as powerful a position in the music business as a man could have. Simultaneously, he was also one of Columbia's most popular recording artists. Interestingly, Miller was at Columbia when Sinatra was; Sinatra reportedly had a strong dislike for him, detesting the easy listening pop tunes Miller wanted him to record. Miller finally dropped Sinatra from Columbia altogether in 1952. "Yellow Rose of Texas" was typical of Miller's own recordings; a grand scale easy listening choral recording. Miller was replaced in 1966 by Clive Davis, whose mission was to bring a hipper, younger audience to Columbia; his first signing was Paul Revere and The Raiders.
11. Pat Boone: Ain't That A Shame 
Until the Beatles arrived, the only artist that rivaled Elvis Presley for chart impact was Pat Boone. Boone was yet another white pop singer who specialized in covering r&b numbers deemed too wooley for the precious white middle class listeners of the mid 50's; "Ain't That A Shame" is a whitebread version of Fats Domino's classic. This sedate version was Boone's first number one hit, and it set the tenor for the rest of his career. He would place 50 more singles on the charts, the last one in 1976. Boone remains active to this day, he's now 71 years old.
12. The Four Aces: Love Is A Many Splendored Thing 
The Four Aces were originally formed by tow Navy shipmates, Al Alberts and Dave Mahoney, who added Lou Silvestri and Sol Vaccaro to round out the quartet. From Philadelphia, they first charted in 1951. The Four Aces specialized in vocal pop harmony records, and were among the most popular of the pre-rock era. "Love Is A Many Splendored Thing", a movie theme, was their biggest, and best hit. Rock 'n' roll rendered them passe, however, and their chart run dried up by 1957. This song also was featured in the film Moulon Rouge.
13. Roger Williams: Autumn Leaves 
Roger Williams, an easy listening pianist with a fondness for arpeggios, was from Omaha, NE, and charted 22 singles from 1955 to 1972. Like many similar artists of his era, he mixed many diverse elements into his instrumentals; light jazz, pop, and classical, to create a soothing hybrid. "Autumn Leaves" was his biggest hit, although he'd reach the top-10 in the 60's with "Born Free", "Lara's Theme from Dr. Zhivago", and "Near You". Although his audience died off in the early 70's, he remained active through the 1980's.
14. Tennessee Ernie Ford: Sixteen Tons 
Perhaps Ford's best known recording, he brings his distinctive baritone to Merle Travis' dark coal-mining song. The grit of the song is diluted by the intrusive Hollywood string production, but it remains a good listen, due to Ford's excellent pipes. Ford was a deejay for WOAI in Bristol, TN in the late 1930's before moving into performing himself in 1949. In 1955 he hit big with this song, and also reached the top-5 with his version of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett", which Bill Hayes took to #1. He continued to chart albums until 1975; elected to the country music Hall of Fame in 1990, he died the following year.
Listen to this playlist at Rhapsody Radish.