In 1955, the white man was in big trouble. Sure, we ruled the waves. And the land. And anyone who wasn’t white. And women in general. But what good was that when our music was appalling? As evidence, I present to you the Top 10 songs for the year.

The most popular song of 1955 was by a Cuban, Pérez Prado. That’s the start and finish for diversity on this list. “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” is an instrumental. Prado’s work differs from that of other instrumental groups of that era, for example, The Shadows (“Apache”) and The Tornados (“Telstar”) in that it thoroughly sucks. Pérez Prado was the king of mambo in ’55, but “Cherry Pink” is mambo with the temperature turned to Do Not Resuscitate. The trumpet playing is a bunt down the line compared to Herb Alpert’s double off the wall.

In second place is Bill Haley & His Comets with “Rock Around the Clock.” I suspect you know all about this one, which is considered the first rock song. It doesn’t sock you in the jaw as it probably did in ’55 but it still has enough force to rap you on the sternum.

A quick run through the collected works of Bill Haley turns up nothing much, except for “Thirteen Women and Only One Man in Town,” Haley’s thoughtful speculations on life after an atomic war.

Batting third we have Roger Williams with the immortal “Autumn Leaves.” This is not the Roger Williams who founded Rhode Island in 1636. He was more into death metal. “Autumn Leaves” by this Roger Williams would’ve embarrassed Liberace.

Tennessee Ernie Ford bats cleanup with “Sixteen Tons.” What a voice TEF had, as smooth and dark as Tennessee whisky or Tennessee maple woods, if Tennessee made whisky or grew maple woods.

The lyrics tell two stories. One is about a man who is so tough that he could’ve been the subject of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” The other is about a man who is so beat down that he owes his soul to the company store. Paying attention to the lyrics is confusing.

“Sixteen Tons” bears a passing resemblance to Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.” Both songs would be considered novelties today.

Number 5 is Bill Hayes with “The Ballad of Davey Crocket.” This is a real marchin’ and fightin’ song. It paved the way a few years later for two more marchin’ and fightin’ songs, Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Sink the Bismarck.” Horton’s songs don’t give any space to ethnic slurs about Brits and Germans (although in “The Battle of New Orleans” General Jackson’s troops do mistreat an alligator), while Disney piles up the anti-Indian sentiment in “The Ballad of Davey Crocket.”

Crocket is also celebrated in this milestone of the musical arts for abandoning his family and seeking adventures out West because he was fucking bored. And, of course, there’s that episode where Crocket joined the Texicans for their last stand at the Alamo, “where freedom was fightin’ another foe,” even though we stole Texas and freedom’s foe was actually us.

In the 1970s, Bill Hayes (who did not write this hockey puck) found a home as an actor on Days of Our Lives, where he’s been playing the same role for 42 years.

The bottom half of this list doesn’t redeem itself. To appreciate Mitch Miller’s “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” you have to enjoy masses of men singing lustily but without specifics about their favorite gal. To me it sounds like more marchin’ and fightin’. When I was a kid we sometimes watched Sing Along with Mitch, which featured more crud like this. They ran the words past you in a primitive CNN crawl. A little ball bounced from one word to the next (“Just follow the bouncing ball!”) in case you were rhythmically challenged.

I always associate this song with the scene in Giant where Rock Hudson brawls with the racist restaurant owner while “The Yellow Rose of Texas” plays on the jukebox. Probably not what the composer had in mind.

The McGuire Sisters’ “Sincerely,” a cover of The Moonglows’ hit from earlier in the year, could only chart in a deeply segregated musical society. However, the sisters looked great in knee-length leopard-print coats.

Next up are The Four Lads and “Moment to Remember.” Their name alone disqualifies them from any serious consideration of their music. To be fair, their music also disqualifies them.

As we learned from the time I tried to listen to every band with a number in its name, 4 is one of the deadlier numerals. The Four Aces, in their clubbing of “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” don’t prove me wrong.

At the bottom of the list is Les Baxter and his thoughts on “Unchained Melody.” Baxter is popular among hip aficionados of the ’50s-’60s crazes for Tiki music and exotic outer-space sounds. However, his smothering embrace of “Unchained Melody” does not help his reputation. (Four different artists had Top 10 hits with “Unchained Melody” in 1955. Imagine if Meghan Trainor, Taylor Swift, Usher, and Yo-Yo Ma all had Top 10 hits with “All About That Bass” in 2015.)

I’m fond of Baxter’s mambo version of “Never on Sunday” only because that’s the song my Mom sang when she washed the dishes.

In the separate-but-equal United States of 1955, black pop music was walled off in its own category, called R&B. (In 1925 these songs would’ve been called “race records.”) The R&B Top 10 for ’55 had its own share of musical doorstops (including two versions of “Unchained Melody”), but you could include most of these records on a radio playlist today and not lose all your listeners. You can’t make the same claim for “Autumn Leaves” or “The Ballad of Davey Crocket.”

The R&B list includes Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” and Bo Diddley’s song about Bo Diddley. Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” is a far better song than “Rock Around the Clock.” It sounds more like rock; Bill Haley’s song has some residual swing to it. But “Rock Around the Clock” was released two months before “Maybellene” and so takes the prize. The list also includes The Moonglows, Etta James, and Little Walter.

I’m not going to write about black music of the 1950s, because I don’t remember much about the ’50s aside from learning how to dress myself, how to hold a crayon, and how to play hide and seek (while hiding, don’t yell “I’m over here!”). I still use all of these skills at work. But I do remember the black music of the ’70s, and that’s where we’re going next time. Get up. Get on up!

Many thanks to Loyal Reader Accused of Lurking for sending me this illuminating list.

Random Pick of the Day 1
Stevie Wonder, Signed, Sealed and Delivered (1970)
The heart of this album are the glorious “We Can Work It Out,” “Signed, Sealed and Delivered,” and “Heaven Help Us All.” The rest of the album is expertly put together but not distinctive.

Random Pan of the Day
Stevie Wonder, Where I’m Coming From (1971)
This album doesn’t go anywhere. But I hate panning anything by Stevie Wonder, so here’s a bonus Pick:

Random Pick of the Day 2
Stevie Wonder, Music of My Mind (1972)
This is where Stevie, who was just 22, explodes into musical adulthood. The synthesizers on this disc are years ahead of their time. The first two songs, “Love Having You Around” and “Superwoman,” are 15 minutes long. I like them both, but is this where Prince picked up the idea that it was OK to go on and on and on and on?

On “I Love Every Little Thing About You,” Wonder gives us a straightforward love song with a real beat. On “Sweet Little Girl” he does Barry White before there was a Barry White to do. On “Happier Than the Morning Sun” he out-McCartneys McCartney. On “Keep on Runnin’ ” he shows he can rock when he feels like it. This is a pop album with a fist inside a velvet glove. And he hasn’t even written “Superstition” yet.

 

Comments
  1. pauline says:

    When I was in middle school, my best friend’s mother’s name was Minnie. Once we discovered the song Minnie the Moocher it was NOT appreciated when we sang it while we were hanging out at her house.

  2. Accused of Lurking says:

    I would pay $20 to hear Usher sing “All About That Bass.” Maybe more.

    It’s amazing how many of these 60-year-old songs I’ve heard, although not necessarily by the artists who made them a hit in 1955. It’s doubly amazing that you could listen to all of them after so long. I’ll bet you were saying “Thank you, Mr. Internet.”

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      I only knew “Unchained Melody” from the Righteous Bros., and they didn’t record their version until 1965. Turns out this song has been covered more times than “Happy Birthday.”

      Favorite line from a greeting card: “Happy birthday to you? Happy birthday to you? You call that a lyric? Happy birthday to you?”

      Even 20 years ago, in 1995, listening to the best songs of 1955 would’ve involved a trip to Tower Records and another trip to the library while listening to the Golden Oldies station the whole time I was in the car. Even then I probably would’ve missed something. Thanks to Mr. Internet, I nailed them all and some extras I didn’t mention in a couple of hours and never left my desk. Is this good for humanity or am I adrift in the impulse society? (www.amazon.com/The-Impulse-Society-America-Gratification/dp/1608198146)

      $20? Now that you mention it…

  3. Wm Seabrook says:

    When I was 5 years old, the fur hat with fake beaver tail my dad made for me was was my pride and joy; 15 years later I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      When I was a youthful frontier enthusiast, I thought the Davey Crockett song was a stirring call to action! I’ve since backed away from that belief. I just wish I had had a fake beaver tail fur hat!

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