1951 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast
It’s Crooners unleashed as ethnic sounds score, Mitch Miller starts a genre gold rush mining Country for Pop hits, and the year’s #1 record taps deep anxieties.
Welcome to the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show, I’m your host, Christopher Verdesi. Every week, we dive deep into a year in Pop music and count down the top ten songs according to our exclusive recap of the weekly charts published at the time in Billboard magazine, the music industry’s top trade publication and chart authority. This week on Chartcrush, we’re counting down 1951, the year the public’s appetite for emotive, belt-it-out, leave-it-all-on-the-table Crooning became unmistakable.
Which might seem like not that big a deal, but as scholar Allison McCracken lays out in her book Real Men Don’t Sing: Crooning in American Culture, for decades leading up to the early ’50s, society just wasn’t ready for strange men intimately addressing women in their homes on radio or records. Remember, this was pre-internet, pre-TV. People had very different ideas about privacy. So in the late 1920s when the electric microphone let singers get up close and sing softly and Crooners started showing up on the radio, it sparked a huge backlash. “Every time you kiss your girl, who is she thinking of?” asked the song in a 1932 Warner Brothers cartoon. And the response: “Crosby, Columbo and Vallée.”
Bing Crosby, Russ Columbo and Rudy Vallée, the first wave of swoon-worthy Crooners. Of those, only Crosby was able to adapt his voice and persona to masculine norms and build a durable career through the Great Depression. In the ’40s, Frank Sinatra and Perry Como captivated a whole new generation of Teen Bobbysoxers, but they didn’t stray too far from the narrow zone of acceptability mapped out by Crosby and Male Vocalists who dutifully sang their featured “vocal refrains” on Big Band records in the ’30s. In the late ’40s, Frankie Laine and Vic Damone pushed the envelope a little further, but ’51 was the year the floodgates opened.
Dramatic singing went over better on TV, of course, as America’s affluent households got their first sets, but also, a new generation was coming up, christened in 1951 “The Silent Generation,” aged 6 to 26 in 1951, America’s most conservative generation marked by a “revolt against revolt,” as Pulitzer-winning Poet Peter Viereck put it, with a “strong but inarticulate” belief in Democracy and the American Way that included improving race relations at home and engaging globally. Silents weren’t much into sign-carrying or street shouting, but those causes informed their taste in music, and that’s very apparent on the Pop charts through the ’50s and into the early ’60s. Silents, of course, the generation that put Rock ‘n Roll and R&B on the Pop charts, but first they got their Crooner on in the early ’50s, and it’s no coincidence that the previous generation’s smooth, low-key singers like Crosby scored their last top 10s in 1950. Even Frank Sinatra went out of style. He later made an epic comeback, of course, but in ’51, young people wanted more “oomph” from their Singers.
#10 Tony Martin – I Get Ideas
We lead off our 1951 countdown with an older Crooner who never gained much traction until “There’s No Tomorrow,” his adaptation of the Operatic Italian standard “O Sole Mio” that stayed in the top ten for 16 weeks in 1950. And his next blockbuster was another international song, this time from Argentina. At #10 it’s Tony Martin’s “I Get Ideas.”
Tony Martin repeating in the top 10 on the year with “I Get Ideas,” #10 on our 1951 Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown, the year after “There’s No Tomorrow” was 1950’s #6 hit. He starred in several big Technicolor musicals and made the top 10 four more times before his chart fortunes dried up mid-decade.
#9 Eddy Howard – (It’s No) Sin
Martin’s first solo hits in 1946 had been for then-startup Mercury Records. By ’51 he was on RCA, but Mercury out of Chicago, had become one of the top labels in the business, and at #9, the first of two hits on Mercury in our 1951 top 10 countdown, by an act who’d scored major hits in the ’40s for New York’s Majestic Records, but when Majestic went belly up in ’48, Mercury snapped him up, which made sense because for years he’d been headlining at Chicago’s top nightclub, the Aragon Ballroom, with his shows going out live on WGN, a station so powerful that it could sometimes be heard in the U.K.! It’s singing Bandleader Eddy Howard, “(It’s No) Sin.”
Six different versions of “(It’s No) Sin” made the charts in late ’51 into ’52 and Eddy Howard’s wasn’t the first. That was by unknown Philadelphia Vocal group The Four Aces, who couldn’t get signed, so they had to self-release it on their own label. Theirs had the title as just “Sin,” which raised eyebrows and no doubt moved some inventory, and Mercury repeated the trick with their Eddy Howard version we just heard at #9 here on our 1951 countdown, but then added the “It’s No” in parentheses for later pressings.
Eddy Howard faded over the next couple years, but The Four Aces were only getting started: eight top 10’s for Decca over the next four years: the top Male Vocal quartet in an era that, it turned out, couldn’t get enough fresh-faced, clean-cut collegiate foursomes.
#8 Mario Lanza – Be My Love
So after Tony Martin’s operatic “There’s No Tomorrow” sold a million in 1950, why not an actual Opera Singer? Good looks and acting ability, a definite plus, and that helped land our actual Opera singer at #8 his seven-year deal with the MGM movie studio after Louis B. Mayer saw him perform at the Hollywood Bowl. Metro cast him in back-to-back Technicolor musical blockbusters as an ethnic working-class singing Romeo opposite the refined, aristocratic Kathryn Grayson, also a trained Opera Singer. From the second of those, 1950’s The Toast of New Orleans, it’s a duet with Grayson in the film, but the record is all Mario Lanza: what became his signature song and first chart hit, “Be My Love.”
Mario Lanza’s “Be My Love,” #8 here on our Chartcrush Countdown of 1951’s top hits. Like his roles in those first two MGM musicals, Lanza really was a rags-to-riches success story: from South Philly, son of Italian immigrants. Then Opera Singer, movie star and starting in ’51, Pop star. For his next role he got the lead in The Great Caruso, a biopic of the great early 20th century Tenor Enrico Caruso, who was Lanza’s idol. And that movie yielded another top 10 hit later in ’51, “The Loveliest Time of the Year,” but then at his peak in ’52, he was fired from his next film over creative differences with the Director, which sent him into a tailspin of seclusion, alcoholism and overeating, and he died at just 38 in 1959 while undergoing a controversial crash weight-loss program in Italy.
#7 Tony Bennett – Cold, Cold Heart
At #7 we have another new Crooner who’d just exploded on the charts with his biggest hit that we’ll be hearing later in the Countdown, but for the follow-up, Columbia’s visionary new head of A&R, Mitch Miller, did something pretty audacious. He took a twangy, heartsick Honky Tonk ballad that’d just topped the Country charts, gave it to his new tuxedoed Italian-American Crooner from Astoria, Queens, and his just-hired Arranger-Conductor Percy Faith, and tasked them with transforming it into a Pop hit.
Now in his previous A&R role at the aforementioned Mercury Records in ’49, Miller had catapulted Jazz singer Frankie Laine to superstardom with the Bluesy Western hits “Mule Train” and “That Lucky Old Sun.” So Miller already had been mining the uncharted nexus between Country and Pop for a couple years by ’51. But here, he wasn’t looking to turn his Crooner into a Cowboy; this was about transforming a Country song into a slicked-up, citified Pop smash. And just about the last guy anyone would’ve expected to sing a Hank Williams song, hit it out of the park. At #7 it’s Tony Bennett, with his version of Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart.”
“Cold, Cold Heart” bought Hank Williams and his boys “quite a few beans and biscuits,” as he put it introducing the song on TV just after Tony Bennett’s version we just heard at #7 had completed its 30-week chart run. Hank’s twangy original sold a bunch too, but a #1 Pop hit was a whole ‘nother level, and no one had ever scored such a big one adapting a Honky Tonk song before: quite a coup for Columbia’s new A&R head, Mitch Miller.
Other labels got the message, but so did Nashville itself, and the Country music biz spent the rest of the decade re-tooling to crank out its own citified Pop hits with strings, choruses and lush arrangements. And it wasn’t long before others applied the same logic to R&B, mining that chart for songs that could be classed up into Pop hits. Which really took off once the Silent Generation’s fascination with Doo Wop and R&B and all Black music started showing up on the Pop charts thanks to DJs like Cleveland’s Alan Freed and L.A.’s Hunter Hancock. Young folks eventually embraced Folk, of course, but Honky-Tonk Country remained a musical ghetto, even in Nashville, until the Outlaw movement in the ’70s with “Convoy,” CB radios, Smokey & The Bandit and The Dukes of Hazard.
#6 Rosemary Clooney – Come On-a My House
Well, we’re counting down the top ten hits of 1951 here on this week’s Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show, and we’re down to #6: a record that signaled a changing of the guard in Female Pop vocals. Dinah Shore had been one of Columbia’s biggest acts in the late ’40s, but arch-rival RCA wooed her away with a million dollar deal just as Mitch Miller was coming aboard at Columbia. Dinah was already known for cutesy Novelty hits, and RCA had one set to go for Summer, the teasing rhyme ditty “Sweet Violets,” so Miller countered by handing an ethnic Novelty song to Columbia’s promising young Female singer, and it was her breakthrough: #1 on all three Billboard Pop charts for five straight weeks in August, and the first of five top 5 hits over the next three years for Rosemary Clooney, backing ensemble directed by Miller with harpsichord (that was something new!). “Come On-a-My House.”
“Come on-a My House,” an early songwriting win for Ross Bagdasarian, the guy who, in the late ’50s under his pseudonym David Seville introduced the world to sped-up chipmunk voices on “Witch Doctor” and Alvin and the Chipmunks. Rosemary Clooney hated the song, but Mitch Miller threatened to terminate her contract if she didn’t do it, and she later said she could hear the anger in her voice whenever she heard it.
Miller and Columbia did notch the win vs. Dinah’s Novelty “Sweet Violets” though. That debuted the same week but only got to #3 and was Dinah’s last top 10 hit. Doubtful that RCA made back the million it cost to poach her from Columbia.
#5 Les Paul & Mary Ford – How High the Moon
At #5 as we continue counting down the top 10 hits of 1951 here on this week’s edition of Chartcrush, Billboard #1 Jukebox hit of the year, by music’s hottest guitarist since the late ’30s, now teaming up with his vocalist wife and an L.A. garage full of tape and studio gear, most of which he either invented or modded during his long recovery from a serious car accident. The record, entirely produced by him in that garage with just guitar, his wife’s vocals, and a whole lot of multitracking with tape.
Studio whiz Bill Putnam had overdubbed Patti Page’s vocals for Mercury using acetate records, but this guy geeking out in his garage in L.A. wasn’t just overdubbing one or two vocal parts. This was next-level studio gimmickry with flanging, delay, phasing, varispeed: all never-before-heard effects. Capitol Records sat on it for a whole year, but it rocketed straight to the top when it finally came out. It’s Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “How High the Moon.”
Husband-wife act Les Paul and Mary Ford, #5 on our Chartcrush Top Ten countdown of 1951’s biggest hits, “How High the Moon.” Again, just Les on guitar, Mary on vocals, with lots of overdubbing and effects, all cooked up in Les’s garage: an incredible achievement with the technology of the time. “How High” had become a standard since debuting on Broadway in 1940, and Paul called it “the national anthem of the jazz world,” but Les and Mary had the charts all to themselves with it in ’51: the only song in our countdown with no copycat cover versions, which must’ve felt like the music equivalent of Bobby Thompson’s famous walk-off homer that won the Giants the pennant in the Fall.
#4 Nat “King” Cole – Too Young
So if you go on the internet and look up 1951’s top hits, almost every source shows our song at #4 as year’s #1 song. So why do we have it at #4? Well, a couple reasons. Since the Hot100 debuted in 1958, Billboard’s Best-Sellers chart has become the default go-to for pre-Hot100 song rankings. OK, but most American homes in the ’50s did not have record players or stacks of records, so Retail Best-Sellers really only reflects the affluent end of Pop fandom. Well, at Chartcrush, our method for those years weighs the Jukebox and Airplay charts equally with Sales. Secondly, Billboard’s year-end rankings, even now, do not factor chart action outside of their “chart year,” even if a song was already on the chart before the start of the year, or still on it at the end. Instead, songs like that get split between the years, which is a huge disadvantage vs. songs whose whole runs were within that timeframe. Well, our Chartcrush rankings correct that flaw by counting every song’s full chart run in whichever of the calendar year it earned most of its points.
So for this artist’s 1951 hit, it’s a demotion, but either way it’s his second top 5 showing in back-to-back years after his “Mona Lisa” was the #1 song of 1950. Black artists had charted multiple Pop hits in the ’40s, but Nat “King” Cole set a new high watermark in the first years of the ’50s. At #4, “Too Young.”
Les Baxter gets the Conductor credit on that record but Baxter’s protégé Nelson Riddle has since been recognized as having done most of the work on “Too Young.” Riddle later pointed out that Nat “King” Cole was his own A&R man, selecting by his count 14 of 15 of the songs he scored hits with, at a time when label A&R guys like Mitch Miller ran tight ships and Singers rarely had much say.
Well “Too Young” was a savvy choice. Broadway vets Sidney Lippman and Sylvia Dee had written it to appeal to Teens, and it was the hit that convinced the music biz that that was a winning formula. Nat “King” Cole went on to be the first Black entertainer to host a network TV show in 1956 and ’57, and he scored another dozen top tens in the ’50s, Nelson Riddle getting credit on most of ’em, in addition to arranging and conducting Frank Sinatra’s comeback on Capitol.
Les Baxter did well too: his trailblazing Exotica albums, not to mention his seven top ten chorus-and-strings Easy Listening versions of current Pop hits from ’51 to ’56, which proved that targeting hi-fi nuts looking to soundtrack their soirees and cocktail hours was, for a time, just as smart as targeting Teens.
#3 Perry Como – If
Now, I began the show talking about all the smooth ’40s singers whose chart careers hit the skids as the new generation of emotive Crooners came up. At #3, the big exception, thanks to TV. His 15-minute musical variety show followed the news three nights a week on CBS, but on this song he also upped his vocal game enough to stay relevant up against the Marios and Tonys conquering the airwaves. Still, a lot of the drama is in the arrangement, while the man later dubbed “Mr. Relaxation” remains the calm in the eye of the storm. It might not’ve won over swaths of young fans looking for vocal thrill rides, but it kept him in the top 10 through the ’50s. At #3, here’s Perry Como’s big 1951 hit, a song there were eight versions of on the charts in ’51, “If.”
Bing Crosby, the sole survivor of the ’30s Crooner backlash thanks to his own masculine casualness, called Perry Como “the man who invented casual,” no doubt his humble way of passing the baton at age 48 and fading from the charts as the ’50s began.
In 1981, the Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV did a spoof commercial for a fictitious “Perry Como Is Still Alive” tour, in which Eugene Levy as Como sings recent Disco hits in various stages of repose up to and including lying in bed with head on pillow. Como had to wipe away tears of laughter after seeing that at the Emmys.
#2 Tony Bennett – Because of You
Now Mitch Miller’s biggest problem when he came on board as head of A&R at Columbia in 1950? An acute Crooner shortage. Buddy Clark had just been killed in a bizarre crash landing on Beverly Blvd. in L.A. after the plane he was on ran out of fuel. And Columbia’s most famous Crooner Frank Sinatra was a trainwreck, resented by veterans for playing soldiers and sailors on the big screen despite having never served, owing back taxes, having to answer a Senate committee’s questions about alleged mob ties, and all over the gossip magazines, his torrid affair with also-married actress Ava Gardner. He hadn’t scored a top 10 hit in three years when he angrily vetoed two songs Mitch Miller had lined up to revive his career, storming out of the studio saying “I don’t sing this crap,” and the songs ended up being back-to-back top 5 hits for the unknown Miller called in as a last-minute replacement, Guy Mitchell.
Now, Frankie Laine jumped ship at Mercury to follow Miller to Columbia, and “Jezebel” was a big hit for him in ’51, but our Singer at #2 was Miller’s biggest Crooner coup of the year: the only act with two hits in our 1951 Countdown. Before he cut it, Miller warned him: “Don’t try to imitate Sinatra,” and for the next 65 years, he never did. Here again, Tony Bennett: his breakout hit, “Because of You.”
Tony Bennett’s “Because of You” was #1 for nine of the 11 weeks between late September and the beginning of December. The song that displaced it for those two weeks in the middle? Bennett’s own “Cold, Cold Heart” which we heard at #7, and that was the longest stretch an artist held both the #1 and #2 spots on the charts until The Beatles in 1964.
Success came quickly for Bennett. After the War he studied singing on the GI bill. Then in ’49 Broadway star Pearl Bailey hired him to open for her at a club gig in Greenwich Village. Bob Hope was in the audience and snapped him up for his road show. Mitch Miller needed Crooners, heard Bennett’s demo, and next thing Tony’s signed to Columbia and his very first record, “Because of You,” is #1. All in less than two years. Appropriately, his next #1 hit after ’51? “Rags to Riches.”
#1 Patti Page – The Tennessee Waltz
And we’re down to #1 on our Chartcrush Countdown of the 1951’s top hits. It’s yet another Mitch Miller production, by another Miller A&R signing. But not at Columbia; before, when he was still at Mercury Records. And it’s not a Crooner; it’s the ’50s top Female singer. And the record we’re about to hear was her biggest hit. But unbelievably, it first came out as the B-side of her 1950 Christmas disc. Straight away Mercury knew they had a hit though, so later pressings put it as the A-side with a different song (not “Boogie Woogie Santa”) on the flip. Theories abound as to why the record connected so immediately and universally in the Winter of ’50 and ’51, but before we get into that, let’s hear it. At #1 it’s Patti Page’s “The Tennessee Waltz.”
“The Tennessee Waltz,” Patti Page, #1 for 13 straight weeks December 1950 to March of ’51, and our #1 record of 1951. Now when we heard Nat “King” Cole’s “Too Young” back at #4 (’51’s big Summer hit), I got into how Billboard’s rankings to this day only count weeks within its chart year, and how that strongly favors songs (like “Too Young”) whose runs were all within the year, vs. a record like “The Tennessee Waltz” that went ’50 into ’51. Well “Tennessee Waltz” was such a monumentally big hit that the article accompanying Billboard’s 1951 year-end recap had to go to great lengths to explain why “one of the top tunes and records of all time” is only #10 on their ranking! Well, counting its full chart run, as we do for every song here on Chartcrush, it gets its well-deserved trophy: a record that captured the public’s mood like few before or since, with its theme of betrayal and loss and Mitch Miller’s haunting, atmospheric production.
Writers over the years have argued that the “old friend” who steals Patti’s sweetheart represents the government getting caught up in the Cold War, NATO, the U.N., the War in Korea. Others have suggested that it’s former ally the Soviet Union. But really it can be any leftfield disruptive force, and there were plenty of those as the second half of the 20th century began, not just globalism and communist expansion, but TV, plastics, rampant consumerism, suburbia, the military-industrial complex… UFOs. Hard to single any one of those out.
So that’s our Chartcrush Countdown of 1951’s top records, but as I’ve been pointing out throughout the show, nearly all big hits in those days had multiple versions on the charts. 1950 was the last year with two versions of any one song among the top ten records. From ’51 on, every year’s top ten records is ten different songs. But in ’51 there were still songs that, combining all the versions, were among the year’s biggest hits, despite no one version being strong enough to make the top 10 records, so let’s take a look at those in the time we have left.
#16 Del Wood – Down Yonder
First up we have a 1921 Ragtime Piano piece that had seven charting versions. The first to catch on was by a Female secretary who moonlighted as a Honky Tonk piano player, and got the chance to record after filling in on some sessions for an indie label in Nashville. A lawsuit from the song’s publisher yanked the record off the airwaves at the height of its popularity, but together with the six properly licensed copycat versions that were on the charts by then, it’s the #10 song of the year, and the secretary’s version notches in at #16 on our records ranking, higher than any of the others. Here’s Del Wood (real name Adelaide Hazelwood), “Down Yonder.”
“Down Yonder,” the #10 song of 1951 when you combine all seven charting versions. Lawsuits notwithstanding, Del Wood got to quit her typing job after “Down Yonder,” signing first with Decca, then RCA, then landing her dream job: full-time at the Grand Ole Opry.
#13 The Weavers and Terry Gilkyson – On Top of Old Smokey
Next in our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown bonus segment of 1951 songs that were top hits combining all of the charted versions, a traditional song collected by folklorists visiting the Appalachians in the 1910s, re-worked by Pete Seeger and cut with his group The Weavers along with deep-voiced Folkie Terry Gilkyson. Versions by Vaughn Monroe and Percy Faith with Burl Ives appeared and all of them together make it 1951’s #6 top tune. The Weavers’ was by far the biggest, #13 on our records ranking: “On Top of Old Smokey.”
Pete Seeger calling out verses on The Weavers’ “On Top of Old Smokey.” They were huge stars after their record of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” was a #1 hit in 1950, but word spread about their leftist political activities pre-stardom, and with the Korean War raging, Mao in China, Soviets testing nukes, and Americans on trial for handing them the technology, the country wasn’t taking any chances with homegrown communists. So before the year was out, The Weavers found themselves without a recording contract, frozen out of stores, unable to book gigs or appear on radio or TV, and under FBI surveillance. Things eventually loosened up, but the surprise Folk craze they sparked in ’50 and ’51 had to wait for The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
#12 Les Paul and Mary Ford – Mockin’ Bird Hill
Now in all this competition with different versions of songs, sometimes there were some sharp elbows, like when Les Paul and Mary Ford’s cover of “The Tennessee Waltz” came out on Capitol a few weeks after Patti Page’s hit #1. Les and Mary didn’t just use the vocal overdubbing that’d become Page’s trademark, the harmonies themselves were the same. So when Les and Mary’s next record came out, Mercury rushed Page into the studio, and the two versions of that song duked it out in the top 10 for 14 weeks. Les and Mary’s was the bigger hit (#12 on our ranking), but just barely. Page’s is #17. Those plus the original Country version and one other that charted combined, it’s the #5 song of the year: “Mockin’ Bird Hill.”
“Mockin’ Bird Hill” was Les Paul and Mary Ford’s second biggest hit of ’51 after the one we heard earlier at #5, “How High the Moon.” And it was also Patti Page’s second biggest, after “The Tennessee Waltz.”
#14 Guy Mitchell – My Heart Cries for You
Finally, remember Frank Sinatra’s tantrum about the songs Mitch Miller wanted him to record? Well one of those wound up with eight versions on the chart. The biggest was by Miller last-minute replacement for Sinatra, Guy Mitchell. It narrowly misses our top 10 at #12, but all eight versions together make it the #2 song of the year: “My Heart Cries for You.”
The “B” side of “My Heart Cries for You” was the other song Sinatra swatted away, “The Roving Kind,” also recorded that day by Guy Mitchell. It was a #5 hit and #24 on our 1951 ranking.
And that’s gonna have to be a wrap for our 1951 edition of The Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. I’ve been your host, Christopher Verdesi. Check out our website, chartcrush.com, for written transcripts and streaming links for this and other Chartcrush Countdowns, plus chart run line graphs and other ginchy extras. Also, check out our Chartcrush Minute vids on TikTok, @Chartcrush. Every week we count down a different year from the beginning of the charts in the ’40s all the way up to the present, so tune in again next week, same station and time, for another edition of Chartcrush.