The Fifties weren’t just about the creation of rock and roll music. In fact, as hard as it is to believe, there really was popular music prior to 1955. The decade of the fifties is a two-sided tale. For many Americans, it was a time of innocence – a time where mother’s stayed home and took care of little Billy and Susie, bake sales, honesty and wholesomeness. For these fortunate ones, life was never better than during the Eisenhower era. America ruled the world following World War II and aside from those “pesky Ruskies”, we were at peace.
On the other side of the coin, the fifties were also a time of anguish and agony. Civil rights were at a stand still and the black community was starting to rebel. American troops were sent to Korea and Europe was still coming to terms with the destruction of their continent.
But in music, the biggest change was the new rock and roll genre that swept the nation. Rockers like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, teen idols like Paul Anka and Bobby Darin and bands like the Crickets and the Platters tore up the charts in the second half of the decade.
The rebellion was on
Mack the Knife – Bobby Darin (1959)
Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht wrote this in 1929 for the German play The Threepenny Opera. "Mack" is Macheath, the title character, portrayed as a criminal. The light melody can make this feel like an upbeat song, but it contrasts sharply with the lyrics, which are about a murderer. Darin took a chance when he recorded this. His previous hits like "Splish Splash" and "Dream Lover" were aimed at a teenage audience, and this song had very dark subject matter. Darin's management didn't want him to record this, but he ignored their advice and it paid off: it introduced him to a wide audience of adult listeners. He became a regular on various TV shows, played a lot of high-end resorts and became the youngest headliner at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, where he was once a busboy.
Jailhouse Rock – Elvis Presley (1958)
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who also wrote “Hound Dog,” which became a huge hit when Elvis recorded it, wrote this. Leiber and Stoller excelled at writing catchy Pop songs with elements of Blues music. Their songs could be very funny and clever, and often take place in unusual situations. Some of their other hits include "Love Potion #9" and "On Broadway." This was featured in the Elvis movie of the same name, where Elvis plays a wrongly accused convict who becomes a star when he gets out. The film, which is considered one of the best of his 31 movies, is famous for the scene where Elvis performs this song in an elaborate dance number taking place in prison. January 2005 marked what would have been Elvis Presley's 70th birthday. In commemoration, Elvis' record label re-released this in the UK where it went straight to #1, making it the oldest recording ever to top the UK charts. It also became the third single to hit #1 twice in the UK, following "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "My Sweet Lord," both of which were also posthumous re-releases.
Peggy Sue – Buddy Holly (1957)
Holly wrote this about Peggy Sue Gerron, who was dating Holly's drummer with The Crickets, Jerry Allison. Holly was not involved with Peggy Sue, but liked the name for the song. Allison and Peggy Sue eventually got married, but divorced 11 years later. At first, Holly was going to call this "Cindy Lou." Jerry Allison asked if the name could be changed as a favor to him. It probably wouldn't be heard outside of Lubbock, Texas anyway and it would really mean some brownie points for Jerry. Buddy had no problem with the name change. "Peggy Sue" has been mentioned in they lyrics to several other songs, including "Splish, Splash" by Bobby Darin and "Barbara Ann" by The Regents and later by The Beach Boys. Holly wrote a sequel to this called "Peggy Sue Got Married," which was released on a compilation album after he died. It inspired the 1986 movie Peggy Sue Got Married starring Kathleen Turner and Nicolas Cage.
Ain’t That a Shame – Fats Domino (1955)
This is a heartache song about a breakup that was the other partner's fault. Domino wrote it with Dave Bartholomew, who worked on most of Domino's hits. Like several other songs previously heard exclusively in black bars or nightclubs, the crooning Pat Boone covered this. Concerned about how educated, upper-class whites would respond to the title, he originally wanted it changed to "Isn't That a Shame," but the producers realized the original title would sell better and kept it. In 1960, Domino recorded a sequel called "Walking To New Orleans," where he leaves and goes back to his hometown.
Put Your Head on my Shoulder – Paul Anka (1958)
Anka first became famous as a teen idol in the late 1950s and 1960s with hits songs like “Diana”, “Lonely Boy”, and this one. He went on to write such well known music as the theme for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Tom Jones' biggest hit “She's A Lady”, and the English lyrics for Frank Sinatra's signature song “My Way”. Anka recorded his first single "I Confess" at age 14. In 1957 he went to New York City where he auditioned for Don Costa at ABC, singing what was widely believed to be a lovestruck verse he had written to a former babysitter. In an interview with NPR's Terry Gross in 2005, he stated that it was to a girl at his church whom he hardly knew. The song, "Diana", brought Anka instant stardom as it rocketed to number one on the charts.
Earth Angel – The Penguins (1954)
The Penguins were 4 black high school students from Los Angeles. The group was named for the logo on Kool cigarettes. The band recorded this in a garage and released it on a small black-owned label called Dootone Records. When it sold over 4 million records, it proved that independent record labels could succeed, and many more began operating across America. In the '50s, most hits by black artists were quickly recorded by white artists who often ended up with the bigger hit (Pat Boone did this to Little Richard more than once). The white group who recorded this on a major label was The Crew-Cuts. Their version went to #3 in the US and hit #4 in the UK.
Only You – The Platters (1955)
The Platters were one of the most successful vocal groups of the early rock and roll era. Their distinctive sound was a bridge between the pre-rock Tin Pan Alley tradition, and the burgeoning new genre. Despite their early lack of chart success, the Platters were a profitable touring group--successful enough that The Penguins, coming off their #2 Earth Angel single, asked Platter’s manager, Buck Ram to manage them as well. With the Penguins in hand, Ram was able to parlay Mercury Records' interest into a 2-for-1 deal. To sign the Penguins, Ram insisted, Mercury also had to take the Platters. Ironically, the Penguins would never have another hit. Convinced by the band that "Only You" had potential, Ram had the Platters re-record the song It had been released by the band earlier, under a previous, unsuccessful, label) during their first session for Mercury Records. Released in the summer of 1955, it became the group's first Top Ten hit on the pop charts, and topped the R&B charts for seven weeks. The follow-up, The Great Pretender, with lyrics written in the washroom of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas by Buck Ram, exceeded the success of their debut. It became the Platters' first national #1 hit.
Chances Are – Johnny Mathis (1957)
One of the last in a long line of traditional male vocalists who emerged before the 1960s, Mathis concentrated on romantic jazz and pop standards for the adult contemporary audience through to the 1980s. Starting his career with a flurry of singles of standards, Mathis became more popular as an album artist, with a dozen of his albums achieving gold or platinum status, and over 60 making the Billboard charts. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Mathis has certified sales of over 17 million units in the United States.
Tears on my Pillow – Little Anthony and the Imperials (1958)
Their first and best-selling single, this used the same backing tracks as the Penguins' "Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)." This was done as an economy move as the record company barely had enough money for the session tape. Little Anthony & The Imperials released their first new LP in several years in Oct. 2008 entitled, "You'll Never Know" and they performed on "Late Show With David Letterman" on Tuesday, August 26th.
Teenager in Love – Dion & The Belmonts (1959)
Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman wrote this song about a schoolboy with a delicate heart. Like Dion & The Belmonts, Pomus and Shuman were from New York City. Other songs they wrote include "Save the Last Dance for Me," "Let's Live For Today" and "This Magic Moment." Pomus and Shuman wrote in the offices of the Brill Building, where many Pop hits of the '50s and '60 originated. The biggest consumers of Pop music at the time were teenagers, and this song was clearly targeted to them. Dion was a teenager when this was released, but he turned 20 about a month later. He was one of several teen idols of this era; others included Ricky Nelson, Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Ritchie Valens.