1949 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast
Big Band Swing is extinct and Jazz is off into Bebop-land, but Crooners, Pop Singers and Sweet Bands are making waves, and Country-Western is breaking through.
Welcome to the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show, I’m your host, Christopher Verdesi. Every week on Chartcrush, we do a deep dive into a year in pop music and count down the top ten songs according to our recap of the weekly pop charts published at the time in the music industry’s top trade publication, Billboard magazine. This week on Chartcrush, we’re turning the clock back to 1949, when the biz emerged from the second and final musicians’ strike over royalty payments by record labels by James C. Petrillo’s American Federation of Musicians. Both so-called “Petrillo bans” had prohibited union musicians—basically all professional musicians in the ’40s—from cutting records, and the first, which lasted two years from 1942 into ’44 had been a crushing blow to Big Bands. Swing jazz: all but extinct by ’48.
So during the second ban, record labels focused on other things—like inventing new kinds of records! Up ’til the late ‘40s, the fragile, breakable ten-inch 78 rpm shellac record was the only format for music. Each side could have about three and a half minutes of music: a song. They were singles. The word “album” (what we still call a collection of songs packaged together): until 1948 when Columbia launched the 33⅓ RPM vinyl LP record (LP short for “long playing”), an “album” was literally an album—like a book or photo album—of 78s that you put on a bookshelf. An LP has, what? 10 songs or tracks? Well, that would be five 78s in an “album” of records.
Not to be outdone, in 1949, Columbia’s arch-rival, RCA-Victor, introduced the 45 RPM vinyl record. At launch, RCA pitched the 45 as not only a new format for singles, but as a competitor to the LP. People were already used to discs with one song on each side, and you could stack 45s in any order and play a whole “album” of them or even create your own album. Plus, they were smaller and more portable, and RCA, also the biggest consumer electronics company, was ready with several models of players with changers for 45s. Of course, what ended up happening was: the LP became the format for “albums” for the next 40 years, and the 45 became the format for singles, eliminating the shellac 78. But in 1949, when union musicians could record again, unbreakable LPs and 45s were the new media and vinyl itself, a kind of plastic: this new, atomic-age synthetic stuff: it was all very futuristic and exotic and exciting.
Now before we start counting down the songs, a note about how we compile our rankings for the pre-Hot100 era here on Chartcrush. Billboard launched its Hot100 chart in 1958. Before that there were three different weekly pop charts—Best Sellers in Stores, Most Played by DJs and Most Played on Jukeboxes—which Billboard compiled from weekly nationwide surveys of participating retail proprietors, radio DJs and jukebox operators. The Hot100 combined these sources and streamlined things, but actually, the three separate charts give us more, not less, information about what was popular and with whom than the combined ranking compiled from the same sources behind the scenes.
If you do a search for the top songs of 1949 or any other pre-Hot100 year, chances are what you’ll find is Billboard’s year-end Best Sellers chart—as if every household had an expensive record player and a collection of 78s lying around: certainly not the case in the ’40s and even most of the ’50s. As in all eras, looking only at sales of physical media paints a picture that skews older and richer. But that was even more true pre-Hot100. So rather than fall back on Best Sellers, what we’ve done here at Chartcrush is: just what Billboard did when it created the Hot100: combined the three pre-Hot100 charts—Sales, Airplay and Jukeboxes—with equal weight for each into a single weekly ranking. And then from there we apply the exact same methodology we use for Hot100 years to get our year-end rankings.
#10 Perry Como – Forever and Ever
OK, so now that that’s out of the way, let’s spin some records! Our artist at #10 was back as the year’s top crooner after holding that distinction two years in a row in ’46 and ’47. But not only that, he was the top artist in ‘49, after slumping in 1948. Of the 15 sides he cut in a frenzy in late ’47 before the musicians’ strike went into effect, only one made the top ten. But in ’49, he had his best year yet, with six top tens. What a comeback! More about how and why after the song. Here’s Perry Como’s “Forever and Ever.”
Perry Como, “Forever and Ever,” #10 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1949. As I said before the song, ’49 was Perry Como’s best year yet after being on top for two years, then slumping in ’48. Of course, dramatic comebacks have happened throughout chart history, and while it can sometimes be a chore to try to figure out why, with Perry Como it’s pretty easy. Television!
’49 was the tipping point when prices dropped and everyone who could afford one went out and bought a TV: 100,000 sets a week were selling in ’49, with new stations popping up everywhere, not just in big cities. And it wasn’t just Perry Como. Also in ’49, a previously unknown Chicago pianist-singer’s very first record (Al “Flying Fingers” Morgan’s “Jealous Heart”) rocketed up the Best Sellers chart after his half-hour TV show premiered, proving that early TV adopters were also big-time record buyers.
But even before that, at the end of ’48, NBC decided to wheel some cameras in to televise established artist Perry Como’s usual Friday evening network radio show since 1944, The Chesterfield Supper Club. And from there all the way ’til 1967, Perry Como was one of TV’s highest rated variety hosts and a top crooner on the charts.
#9 Russ Morgan – Forever and Ever
Now we’ll be hearing from Perry Como again in our countdown, but we’re not quite done with that song, “Forever and Ever,” either, because it’s also our #9 record, by a different act. That’s right: two versions of the same song at the same time! Almost unheard of since the ’60s, but common in the ’40s into the ’50s. When a new song was published or was a hit, every record label’s A&R guy would scramble to match it up with an artist on their roster. That was their job: matching artists to repertoire: A and R. Often, many versions would chart, and occasionally more than one would be a big hit.
So, “Forever and Ever” started out as an old German folk song that was published and a big hit in Germany in 1940. When London Records noticed a sales spike in 1948, they thought “wow, what if this song was in English?” and recruited New York ukulele pioneer May Singhi Breen (“The Ukulele Lady”) to write English lyrics, whereupon multiple versions appeared of what Time described in 1949 as “the kind of lilting, easygoing melody in 3/4 time that almost everyone thought he had heard before, but no one could remember exactly where or when.”
London’s version by English singer Gracie Fields was the first to come out, but the two that were the biggest hits were also the first to chart: Perry Como’s and the one we’re about to hear at #9 by a bandleader who’d been at it since the early ’20s. He’d had some minor chart successes earlier in the ’40s, but ’49 was his year, with four top tens including two #1’s—all waltzy, singalongy carnival-sounding numbers like this. Here’s Russ Morgan & His Orchestra: the biggest hit version of “Forever and Ever.”
Russ Morgan—”Music in the Morgan Manner”— the tagline on all his records and the title of his radio program since the ’30s—joined by vocal group The Skylarks: their version of “Forever and Ever,” beating out Perry Como’s in our ranking by just a hair, the #9 song on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show for 1949.
Now as I mentioned, “Forever and Ever” was a song that was a hit in Germany in 1940, with new English lyrics written in 1948. Well the original German song’s title translates to “Fly Home with Me,” and get this: it was the theme song of the German Luftwaffe in World War Two! So how in the world did the theme song of Hitler’s air force become a hit less than four years after the War? Well, it’s doubtful that many in the West knew any of this, but Germany was very much top of mind in ’48 and ’49 because of the Berlin Blockade and Airlift.
The Soviet Union had refused to join the other Allies in winding down the occupation of Germany and pulling out troops. So Britain, France and the U.S. combined their respective occupied sectors and formed a new, democratic, capitalist nation state, West Germany. The Soviets were not at all happy about this. So since Germany’s biggest city and capital, Berlin, was situated deep inside the Soviet-occupied Eastern sector, completely surrounded, the Soviets cut off the electricity and launched a military blockade—a siege to starve and freeze the Allied-occupied Western half into submission and absorb all of the city into East Germany. It didn’t work. Public sympathy for suffering Berliners mounted, and the Allies’ Berlin Airlift, incredibly, kept over two million West Berliners warm, fed and clothed through the winter by flying hundreds of tons of supplies over the blockade into West Berlin via previously-agreed-upon air corridors. Finally in the Spring of ’49, the Soviets lifted the blockade after nearly a year, but to make sure they were ready if it happened again, the Allies formed The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
#8 Margaret Whiting & Jimmy Wakely – Slippin’ Around
OK, moving on now to #8, which was the first of seven top 20 hits for the unlikely duet pairing of a top female pop singer since her early hits with pianist Freddie Slack’s swing band in 1942, and a western movie actor turned singing cowboy who’d just scored his first top ten country crossover hit in ’48 with “One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart).” The naughty (but playful) duet shot into the top ten in late September, and stayed all the way ’til February 1950. It’s Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely, doing Western swing and honky tonk trailblazer Floyd Tillman’s country hit from earlier in the year, “Slippin’ Around.”
“Slippin’ Around,” the #8 song on our Chartcrush Countdown Show for 1949: Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely: the longest stay in the top ten of any song in 1949 (21 weeks).
Capitol Records, eager to follow-up Whiting’s first playful-but-naughty duet hit with Johnny Mercer on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which of course became a winter holiday standard, but—fun fact—was first a hit in July and August of ’49 before AC was everywhere and people needed songs like that to help them “think cool” while watching the blowing ribbons on their oscillating fans in the dog days of summer.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” banned by some platforms in the 2010’s over sexual harassment connotations, but “Slippin’ Around” didn’t have to wait 60 years to become controversial. Adultery, the sensitive issue in ’49. But before “Slippin’ Around” had even exited the charts, songwriter Floyd Tillman, Capitol Records and Whiting ‘n Wakely were out with “I’ll Never Slip Around Again,” a soundalike sequel in which the “Slippin’ Around” couple is now married to each other and working through some pretty well-founded trust issues!
#7 Perry Como – Some Enchanted Evening
Up next at #7, a song from the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific: one of the most successful Broadway musicals ever, which had everything to do with the millions of young Pacific theater war veterans who were now back home, aged late 20s to early 30s, building their lives and giving birth to Baby Boomers. The so-called “Greatest” or “GI” Generation, at the peak of their cultural sway in ’49.
The song is the biggest hit—not just from South Pacific, but from any Rodgers and Hammerstein show, with seven versions on the Billboard charts between May and November ’49 including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford, plus the original cast version by Italian opera singer Ezio Pinza, who played the lead on Broadway opposite legendary stage actress Mary Martin. And six of those versions were top ten hits. But the biggest was by 1949’s top crooner, who we’ve already heard in our countdown. Here again, Perry Como, his biggest hit of the year: “Some Enchanted Evening.”
Perry Como, the singer whom the original crooner, Bing Crosby, called “the man who invented casual,” “Some Enchanted Evening” from 1949’s biggest musical, South Pacific: the #7 song on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show.
#6 Blue Barron or Russ Morgan – Cruising Down the River
And as we get set to spin our #6 song, recall that large touring big-name swing bands had ceased to be economically viable for a variety of reasons—the war and draft, the Petrillo AFM recording bans, gas and tire rationing and a crushing federal cabaret tax on dancing establishments. By ’46, most of the big bands had dissolved. So what happened to all those jazz players? Well, no doubt a lot of them took day jobs, but the most committed among them formed small, nimble combos that could find a niche and get gigs, and that became bebop: serious, complex jazz meant for listening, not dancing—and not the pop charts.
But some bands did survive into the era of TV and massive record sales: the so-called “sweet bands” (or “society orchestras”), who tended to have a profitable long-term radio or venue engagement in a single city, so didn’t need to tour, and weren’t even really affected by tax-related “no dancing” policies because they played light, innocuous, unchallenging pop, like “Forever and Ever” which we heard earlier, and like our song at #6, which had eight—eight!—versions on the charts in ’49. At #6, it’s “Cruising Down the River.”
“Cruising Down the River,” the #6 song on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1949. Now, if you’re listening on radio, you just heard the biggest of the eight versions, by Blue Barron & His Orchestra. Barron’s version isn’t on Spotify though, so if you’re listening to our podcast show, we subbed in the version that’s #12 on our ranking, by Russ Morgan & His Orchestra, the sweet band who’s very similar sounding, waltzy “Forever and Ever” we heard at #9. Both Barron and Morgan’s versions—quite similar to each other—were on Billboard’s charts for 22 weeks, but radio preferred Barron—possibly because they were already playing other Russ Morgan hits.
The song “Cruising Down the River” holds the distinction of being the first by British composers to top the U.S. charts—submitted to a songwriting competition by two middle-aged English ladies and winning, then becoming a hit in the U.K. in 1946 for bandleader Lou Preager before us Yanks got a hold of it in ’49.
#5 The Andrews Sisters – I Can Dream, Can’t I?
At #5 as we continue counting down the top ten from 1949 here on this week’s Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show, one of America’s most successful recording acts in the ’40s. So if we’re making a list of pop institutions that survived and thrived the demise of big bands, as evidenced by the 1949 charts, we’ve got to add this trio of sisters to sweet bands and the other, vocalist headliners, which we’ll get to in a few minutes. The singing siblings had already been making hit records for a couple years when the Billboard charts started in 1940. And they were tireless boosters of the war effort with USO tours and bond drives. They charted hits every year in the ’40s—over 20 of ‘em all told up to this one, their second #1 after 1945’s “Rum and Coca-Cola.” Here are Laverne, Patty and Maxene Andrews: The Andrews Sisters at #5 with the ballad, “I Can Dream, Can’t I?”
The Andrews Sisters with Patty Andrews singing the solo parts, “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” backed by bandleader Gordon Jenkins who’d just become Musical Director at Decca Records, and was about to unleash one of the top hits of 1950, Greenwich Village folk group The Weavers’ “Goodnight Irene.” Radio loved The Andrews Sisters. “I Can Dream” was Billboard’s #1 DJ song of ’49, and they had another good year in 1950 with multiple hits including the #1, “I Wanna Be Loved,” again featuring Patty singing the solo parts. In ’51, Patty split for a solo career which yielded one minor chart hit, but The Andrews Sisters were eclipsed by other sister acts in the ’50s—Fontanes and McGuires most notably, despite reuniting and cutting a dozen singles on Capitol from ’56 to ’59.
#4 Vic Damone – You’re Breaking My Heart
So from the week of August 20th when our #7 song, Perry Como’s “Some Enchanted Evening,” first hit #1, to the end of the year, it was all crooners at the top of the charts—which, it turned out, was a much more significant development in late ’40s pop than sweet bands or even the evergreen Andrews Sisters.
For many years, Bing Crosby had been the only successful male vocalist headliner on records. Early in the Depression, society just wasn’t ready for effete, tuxedoed singers whispering sweet nothings in women’s ears behind closed doors, so the first wave of crooners in the late ’20s and early ’30s provoked a backlash. Flapper heartthrob Rudy Vallee, the most prominent target. Alone among that group of first-gen crooners, Crosby managed to carve out a zone where pop singing and masculinity could co-exist until Frank Sinatra, then Perry Como caught on in the ’40s. But all three (Crosby, Sinatra and Como) continued to play it pretty safe, even after the floodgates opened and dozens of new crooners appeared, swinging for the fences. Which was already starting to happen in ’49, evidenced by our singer at #4—one of the first to break through with the Italian-inflected romantic singing style that was about to dominate the charts in the early ’50s. But in ’49, he was one of the singers who was blazing that trail, with his #1 hit, an English version of the Italian song, “La Mattinata.” It’s Vic Damone, “You’re Breaking My Heart.”
#4 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1949, Italian-American crooner Vic Damone “You’re Breaking My Heart.” Damone’s first charting record in ’47, “I Have but One Heart” also has a verse in Italian, but with a much more restrained vocal, in line with the template set by Crosby and male singers who’d been successful as featured performers on records behind bandleaders. In the late ’40s no one really had a handle on what the public wanted or would tolerate from male singers, but tastes were changing and by the end of ’49, one thing that was abundantly clear was: Italian guys definitely had a leg up. Sinatra, Como, and now Vic Damone: all Italian-Americans. And every new crooner with a hit record was testing the waters and expanding the possibilities.
#3 Evelyn Knight & The Stardusters – A Little Bird Told Me
At #3, we have a cover version by a white female pop singer of a song by a black female R&B singer, and both versions hit the charts at the same time, with a couple more soon after. Now as you’ve been hearing, multiple versions of songs was the rule, not the exception, in the ’40s. But with this, the vocals on the pop version were so similar to the R&B version that it sparked a lawsuit that produced a landmark court decision. The original by the black singer, Paula Watson, got to #6 on the pop DJ chart, and a version by another black singer, Blu Lu Barker, got to #4 on that same chart a few weeks later which was pretty amazing for R&B crossover in 1949. But the dominant version was the supposed “pop” version by the white singer who’s clearly imitating Watson’s vocal: #1 on all three Billboard pop charts (Sales, Airplay and Jukeboxes) for five solid weeks in January and February. It’s Evelyn Knight, “A Little Bird Told Me.”
Evelyn Knight, “A Little Bird Told Me,” #3 as we count down the top ten from 1949 here on this week’s edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. Knight hit #1 on the Jukebox chart again in March with her follow-up, “Powder Your Face with Sunshine.” Now more about that lawsuit. Knight’s cover of “Little Bird” was so similar to the original by black singer Paula Watson that Watson’s label, the west-coast indie, Supreme Records, sued Decca for lifting the arrangement, texture, and vocal style. They were so close that even musical experts called as witnesses couldn’t tell the difference. Still, the court upheld a previous court’s ruling that you can not copyright an arrangement or sue over interpretations of a style. That ruling, still in force.
#2 Frankie Laine – That Lucky Old Sun
Next at #2, another male singer whose big chart breakthrough was in 1949. Country-western was beginning to exert a strong influence on pop, which accelerated over the next few years as the major label A&R men started plundering the country charts for pop hits. Mitch Miller, the leading plunderer as the head of A&R at Columbia, where he launched crooner Tony Bennett’s career in 1951 with Hank Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart” (which Bennett hit out of the park). But before that, in ’49 at Mercury Records, Miller prodded this Italian singer from Chicago whose emotive style hadn’t yet connected, to steer away from jazzy crooning and take up country and blues material. And 1949 turned out to be the year the world caught up to Frankie Laine. His first #1 hit and our #2 song of 1949, “That Lucky Old Sun.”
Frankie Laine’s first #1, “That Lucky Old Sun,” the #2 song on our Chartcrush Countdown of the top ten hits of 1949. Laine topped the chart later in 1949 with “Mule Train,” which came complete with whip snaps and hoof sounds. Gimmicky novelty hits, a Mitch Miller trademark. Not surprisingly Elvis Presley later cited Laine as a major influence, and he became ubiquitous on movie Westerns soundtracks in the ’50s. His version of “High Noon” did even better than the Tex Ritter version that was in the actual film starring Gary Cooper. When Mel Brooks made his classic 1974 comedy send-up of movie westerns, Blazing Saddles, Frankie Laine was the natural choice to sing that theme song too! Six versions of “Lucky Old Sun” charted in 1949—Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong and others, but Frankie Laine’s biggest competition with the song came from our artist at #1.
#1 Vaughn Monroe – Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)
Some years it’s close, but 1949 was not one of those years: by far the top Sales, Airplay and Jukebox song of the year: #1 on all three simultaneously for eight weeks, May into July. And it seemed to just come out of nowhere, this record.
The singer: already a big name but it was unlike anything he’d done before—unlike anything anyone had done before really. And almost certainly the catalyst for Frankie Laine’s sudden course correction into Western music at Mitch Miller’s urging (its run on the charts came months before Laine’s two hits late in the year). The artist being on RCA, it was also one of the first records issued on a 45. It’s Vaughn Monroe, the original hit version of a song that’s been covered many, many times, “Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend).”
Vaughn Monroe with that deep baritone: one of the most instantly recognizable voices in the history of pop: the #1 song of 1949, “Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend).” It really was a cowboy legend: when he was 12, songwriter Stan Jones says he was working on a ranch in Arizona, and one day he decided to take his horse on a shortcut over a mountain to get home before a storm rolled in, and he came across an old cowpoke who pointed up at the sky and said “Son, look up and you’ll see the red-eyed cows of the devil’s herd.” Well by golly, 12-year-old Stan looked, and what he saw looked just like a heard of red-eyed cattle in the clouds. “You be careful now,” the man said as a terrified Stan rode off, “or else you’ll end up one of those ghost riders chasing that herd across the sky for all eternity.”
Jones recorded the song himself. Then folk singer Burl Ives did a version, but it was Vaughn Monroe’s version that connected, and boy did it! Some of the more memorable covers of the song down through the years: instrumental surf bands The Ramrods and Ventures in the early ’60s, Johnny Cash in the ’70s, and southern rockers The Outlaws in the early ’80s: “Riders in the Sky.”
And there you have ‘em: the top ten songs of 1949 according to our recap of Billboard’s combined weekly Sales, Airplay and Jukebox charts here on the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show.
Bonus: Hank Williams – Lovesick Blues
Since there’s some time left, we have a couple great bonus cuts for you. First up, Billboard’s #1 country bestseller of 1949: the explosive chart breakthrough for a gaunt Alabama singer-songwriter that earned him a spot at The Grand Ole Opry after they’d rejected him in 1946. And he sure wowed ’em: an unprecedented six encores. Hank Williams: “Lovesick Blues.”
Hank Williams’s first big hit: #1 on the country charts for a staggering 16 weeks, and it even dinged the pop DJ chart for a week “Lovesick Blues:” a Tin Pan Alley song from the ‘20s that country singer Rex Griffin reinterpreted in 1939. Hank didn’t really add anything new to the Griffin version, but it was getting such a reaction from crowds that he recorded it over the objections of his label and even his band. Interestingly, no one else put out a version of “Lovesick Blues” in 1949, but since the late 50s it’s easier to list the top country acts who haven’t attempted it.
Bonus: Paul Williams – The Hucklebuck
Now, it’s always nice when we’re doing these excavations for the Chartcrush Countdown Show to uncover a forgotten morsel of period slang in a big hit. The term “hucklebuck” was everywhere in 1949—long understood among black folks as a sexual position, at some point it became a dance in which the male partner hung back behind the female with one hand on her waist and the other on her shoulder, and the couple gyrated hips in unison. Very sexy. Of course, every dance craze needs a song, and in this case the song was the #1 R&B record of 1949, Paul Williams & His Hucklebuckers, “The Hucklebuck.”
Paul Williams, “The Hucklebuck,” Billboard’s #1 R&B song of 1949 here on the Chartcrush Countdown Show. The hucklebuck dance went national and cross-racial in 1949. Lyricist Roy Alfred wrote words: “Wiggle like a snake. Waddle like a duck. That’s the way you do it when you do the hucklebuck,” and big bandleader Tommy Dorsey took a stab at it, attempting a comeback after dissolving his band in 1946—a great swing version that got to #5 on the Best Sellers chart, followed on the chart by a version by none other than Frank Sinatra.
Well that’s gonna have to do it for our 1949 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. I’ve been your host, Christopher Verdesi, and I want to thank you for listening! On our website, chartcrush.com, you can get a written transcript and a link to stream this and other Chartcrush countdown shows on Spotify, plus chart run line graphs and other jake extras. Every week, we count down a different year from the beginning of the charts all the way up to the present, so tune again—same station, same time—for another edition of Chartcrush.