1952 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast

New and established Crooners and Pop Singers are on top as Ike is elected, Elizabeth II is coronated, the Cold War becomes the new normal and “the ’50s” begin.

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::start transcript::

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 10 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 1952.

Things finally settled down in 1952 in America after a turbulent start to America’s postwar era: double-digit inflation, industrial strikes (coal, railroads, auto industry, steel), world-changing geopolitical upheavals and political partisanship. The Cold War took shape after World War 2 ended, during President Harry S. Truman’s Presidency, with the Soviet Union installing communist satellite governments in the countries it occupied: Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and others. In 1948 they blockaded Allied-controlled West Berlin. In ’49 they got the bomb—years before anyone thought they could—and communists under Mao Zedong took over in China. Then in 1950, North Korea invaded the South, starting the Korean War.

Meanwhile, spy rings were being exposed that’d passed key technologies (including nuclear) to the Soviets. In one high-profile case, a former State Department official, Alger Hiss, was so high up that he’d been at President Roosevelt’s side in meetings with the British and Soviet leaders that had shaped postwar Europe! What the actual heck? We’d just lost over 400,000 soldiers fighting Nazis and Japs. This was supposed to be peacetime!

Well 1952 was a presidential election year (the first on TV), and Truman’s hot-headed, partisan governing style by ’52 was wearing thin; it was so out of sync with the mood of the public that he lost his own party’s first primary and dropped out. And America turned to a genial, mild-mannered manager with an infectious smile to calmly captain the ship through very, very stormy seas. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Ike” his nickname: the former five-star general who’d commanded the Allies to victory in Europe and accepted Nazi Germany’s surrender, so universally admired that both parties had tried to recruit him to run! And almost like flipping a switch, things did settle down after the election, into an orderly, logical, businesslike pursuit of America’s interests abroad, and here at home, what economist John Kenneth Galbraith dubbed The Affluent Society: rising production, rising wages, consumerism, suburbia, cars, highways, TV, Technicolor: in other words, “The Fifties.”

Senator Joseph McCarthy’s rabid and sometimes reckless anticommunist crusade was at its peak in 1952, and even that withered over the next couple years in the glow of Eisenhower’s class and charm and easygoing optimism. Ike pulled a few strings behind the scenes, but he really didn’t really have to say a word.

Now young people in 1952 (pre-teen to late 20s) were the generation after the “Greatest” or “G.I.” generation that fought World War 2. An article in Time in 1951 christened them the “Silent Generation,” and it stuck because they weren’t looking to change the game, just master it: as young people keeping their mouths shut, their eyes and ears open, following the rules, building careers and nest eggs, embodying middle-class consensus values, respecting authority and making it a high priority to get along with everyone: schoolmates, work colleagues, neighbors. Milton-Bradley’s Game of Life kind of encapsulates the Silent Generation’s values and M.O. That’s the board game with the spinner, cars and plastic mountains, and I mean the 1960 version with Art Linkletter’s picture on the box; not the ’90s Hasbro reboot!

Here’s a fun fact for you: almost all of the music icons and era-defining comedians, actors and directors of the 1960s were Silents, not Baby Boomers! Dylan, Beatles, Hendrix, Brown, Leary, Kesey, Coppola, Kubrick, Hopper, Redford, Beatty, Cosby, Carlin—all Silents, not Boomers. As The New Yorker’s Louis Menand pointed out in 2019 (I’m paraphrasing): Silents created culture in the ’60s; Boomers, in their vast numbers, consumed it. But before that, back in 1952, it was the Silents who were the consumers, and the songs we’re gonna hear this hour in our 1952 countdown were the soundtrack of their formative years.

#10 Al Martino – Here in My Heart

At #10 is an Italian-American nightclub singer—a Silent!—who got his big break at 25 when he was on the #1 TV show for the 1951-’52 season, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, whereon radio celebrity Arthur Godfrey hosted talent scouts whose discoveries competed for audience approval measured by an applause meter. And he won first prize singing a current Perry Como hit. This, however, was his winning record on the charts. It’s Al Martino’s “Here in My Heart.”

Al Martino, “Here in My Heart,” #10 on our Chartcrush countdown of the biggest Pop hits of 1952 as determined by our exclusive ranking that combines action on Billboard’s weekly published Best-Sellers, Airplay and Jukebox charts (their three separate Pop charts, pre-Hot100) into a single weekly ranking. And from there we apply the exact same number-crunching mojo as for years after Billboard streamlined things with the Hot100 in 1958, to get our yearly rankings. The song, “Here in My Heart,” was actually meant for Al Martino’s friend Mario Lanza, the bona fide opera singer who’d broken through on the Pop charts (and in the movies) in 1951. But after Martino won Talent Scouts on TV and needed a song, Lanza handed him “Here in My Heart” and didn’t record a competing version. Tony Bennett and Vic Damone both did, but Martino’s was by far the favorite.

Just as he was enjoying his success, though, the Mafia came a-knockin’ on Al Martino’s manager’s door and left with his signature signing over Martino’s contract. When Martino bristled about forking over all his earnings to the Mob, he got a good beating and signed a promissory note for the $80 grand anyway. And then packed his bags and fled to the U.K. There was a silver lining though: “Here in My Heart” had been an even bigger hit in the U.K.: #1 for nine weeks after being the very first chart topper on the brand new U.K. Singles Chart, just launched by Percy Dickins of the newspaper New Musical Express. After six years in exile, a relative smoothed things over and Al Martino was able to return to the U.S., but it took him five more years to return to the charts with a pair top tens in ’63 and ’64. In the movie The Godfather, Al Martino plays singer Johnny Fontaine. He came by that role honestly!

#9 The Mills Brothers – The Glow Worm

#9 is a veteran act who’d been making hit records since the early ’30s. Now in 1942, union boss James C. Petrillo took his American Federation of Musicians out on strike against record labels: no new records with union players ’til labels agreed to pay performance royalties. A big blow to America’s preferred music at the time, Big Band Swing, but a huge opportunity for a vocal act whose records actually stated, right there on the disc, “No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other than one guitar,” which was played by one of the members of the group and therefore exempt from the Petrillo recording ban. So their record “Paper Doll,” was the #1 best-seller for 12 weeks at the height of the strike, ’43 into ’44, and the #1 song of 1943. And they continued scoring top tens in the same style after the strike. But in ’52 they ditched their trademark simple guitar accompaniment for a full Swing Band treatment courtesy of former Glenn Miller sax player Hal McIntyre’s band. This was The Mills Brothers’ last big chart hit: “The Glow-Worm.”

Fans weren’t just familiar with veteran hitmakers The Mills Brothers in ’52; that song was a well-known standard too, originally from a German operetta adapted for Broadway in 1907, then completely re-written by famed Hollywood and Pop lyricist Johnny Mercer for the record we just heard at #9 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1952. It debuted higher on the charts than any other song in our countdown, and was in the top ten on all three Billboard Pop charts (Sales, Airplay and Jukeboxes) for 11 weeks, October ’52 to January ’53.

The Mills never scored another top ten hit, but they continued putting songs on the charts all the way to 1968. Bing Crosby hosted their 50th Anniversary in showbiz at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in L.A. in 1976.

By the way, Billboard’s year-end Best-Sellers chart (what you’re likely to find if you search the web for “top songs of 1952”) has “Glow-Worm” at a middling #21. That’s because six of its 18 weeks in the top ten were in 1953: not counted toward 1952. At Chartcrush, though, with the luxury of hindsight, we count every song’s full chart run, and then it ranks in the year it earned the majority of its points, which for “The Glow-Worm,” is ’52.

#8 Rosemary ClooneyHalf as Much

So in 1951, Columbia Records’ head of A&R Mitch Miller did something that raised a lot of eyebrows: he paired Columbia’s hot new Italian crooner Tony Bennett with a song written by a singer who’d been scoring big hits on the Country & Western charts for the past three years. Tony Bennett’s version of Hank Williams’s “Cold Cold Heart” became Bennett’s second #1 hit in as many months in ’51, so Miller repeated the trick in ’52 with another singer—this time a female—and another song by Hank Williams. Hank’s own version had just hit #2 on the Country chart for a week in May; then Columbia’s Pop version enjoyed a 15-week run in the top 10 on all three Billboard Pop charts, July to October. At #8, it’s Rosemary Clooney’s version of Hank Williams’s “Half as Much.”

“Half as Much,” #8 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show for 1952: Rosemary Clooney’s second #1 hit, after another Mitch Miller production in 1951: the campy, ethnic, noveltyish “Come On-a My House.”

Now you might wonder, why didn’t Hank Williams’s own version of “Half as Much” cross over to the Pop charts? Well, before Rock ‘n Roll and even after, genres were very segregated, on radio, TV, jukeboxes, even retail, everywhere. Pop hits needed to have slick production values, and Country and R&B fans preferred their records crude and raw and straightforward and honest. Which turned out to be their appeal in later years. But in the early ’50s Black and Hillbilly acts weren’t even trying to cross over, and no one was asking them to. But Mitch Miller saw the potential in Country songs, and others were starting to apply the same logic to R&B.

Speaking of Country, in 1952, Kitty Wells became the first woman to hit #1 on the Country charts with her answer song to Hank Thompson’s hit “The Wild Side of Life,” “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”

#7 Eddie FisherAny Time

Our #7 hit: yet another Pop version of a recent Country smash. It was the first major hit by a Crooner who was “discovered” in 1949 at Grossinger’s, the biggest resort The Borscht Belt of pre-Jet Age vacation destinations in the scenic Catskill Mountains about 100 miles north of New York City. “Borscht” because many of the middle class Jews who vacationed at places like Grossinger’s (which inspired the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing, by the way) were immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe, where Borscht soup is a dietary staple.

I said “discovered” all air-quotey before because according to a book published in the ’80s, the Publicity Director at Grossinger’s staged the “discovery” of our Crooner at #7, along with comedian and radio celebrity Eddie Cantor (the “Apostle of Pep”). He even paid the audience to cheer. Well it worked! The invited press went back to their papers and glossies and dutifully wrote glowing reviews of the performance, and after the singer appeared on Cantor’s radio show, RCA signed him and Billboard named him the most promising male vocalist of 1950.

But then, just as he was reaching peak fame, he got drafted! He didn’t get shipped off to Korea, though, except later, at his own request, to entertain the troops. No, he spent his two years singing with the U.S. Army Band in D.C., appearing in uniform on TV and scoring hits. Wonder why Elvis couldn’t get that deal in ’58 when there wasn’t even a war on? On TV he was introduced as PFC (“Private First Class”). Here’s his Pop version of a Country hit earlier in the year by Eddy Arnold (who was on the same label, RCA). It’s a different Eddie: PFC Eddie Fisher: “Any Time.”

“Any Time,” Eddie Fisher, #7 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1952, besides Les Paul, one of the few hits of that era to feature, you just heard it, a guitar solo! By the time Fisher finished his Army stint in ’53, he was one of the biggest celebrities in the country. He married Debbie Reynolds, a top Hollywood singer/actress after starring in Singin’ in the Rain alongside Gene Kelly. That film, by the way, a crowning achievement of producer Arthur Freed’s unit at MGM that ushered in the golden age of blockbuster Technicolor movie musicals—another defining feature of the ’50s decade. Fisher and Reynolds’ daughter, born a year after they were married, was Carrie Fisher—Princess Leia in Star Wars. In ’58 Fisher had an affair with and married one of Reynolds’s best friends, Elizabeth Taylor, and it was an epic showbiz scandal. His career never recovered and in the ’60s Liz Taylor dumped him and married actor Richard Burton.

#6 Vera LynnAuf Weiderseh’n Sweetheart

Princess Elizabeth was coronated Queen Elizabeth II of Britain on June 2, 1952. A few weeks later, our #6 song by a British singer entered the charts and soon became the first-ever #1 U.S. hit by a foreign artist. She’d been an inspiration to troops and civilians (including American G.I.s stationed in Britain) during World War 2—dubbed the “Forces Sweetheart”—and was the Queen’s lifelong friend. #1 for four weeks on all three Billboard charts in August, our #6 song. It’s Vera Lynn’s, ” Auf Weiderseh’n Sweetheart.”

“Auf Weiderseh’n,” German for “goodbye.” Vera Lynn heard patrons in a pub in Switzerland singing the song, commissioned new English lyrics and brought a few of her majesty’s soldiers in for the sing-along. Other versions of the song made the charts too: Eddy Howard, bandleader Les Baxter, The Ames Brothers, Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians, but that one was the biggest: #6 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1952.

Kind of ironic to hear Vera Lynn of all people singing a German song after she was such a symbol of British spirit and resolve in the fight against the Nazis, famously serenading terrified Londoners sheltering in tube stations as German planes dropped their bombs during the Blitz. But after the War, Germany immediately became the lynchpin of the Cold War struggle against the Soviets and international communism, so cultural bridges like that served an important purpose.

In ’49, the year of the Berlin Airlift, no fewer than five renditions of “Forever and Ever,” formerly the theme song of the German Luftwaffe, made the U.S. charts! And as I mentioned earlier, our #9 song, “The Glow Worm:” also originally a German song. The next time a female British solo act hit #1 in America? Petula Clark’s “Downtown” in 1965. Vera Lynn passed away in 2020. She was 103.

#5 Patti PageI Went to Your Wedding

Our next artist at #5 re-upped her contract with Mercury Records in 1952 after helping put the label on the map in the late ’40s along with male singers Frankie Laine and Vic Damone, with Mitch Miller helming A&R before moving over to Columbia. Mercury head Arthur Talmadge told Billboard in ’52 that in the five years she’d been on the label, she’d sold ten million records. But up to 1952, all her hits had featured a studio innovation that her first, “Confess” in ’48 had introduced: a singer harmonizing with herself via tape overdubs! I mentioned Les Paul and Mary Ford earlier: they took overdubbing to extremes: layering not just vocals, but numerous guitar parts and scoring massive hits. But in ’52, our singer at #5 who’d started it all eschewed the studio tricks to showcase her solo voice, and scored her third #1 after “All My Love” and “Tennessee Waltz” in ’50 and ’51. At #5, it’s “The Singin’ Rage, Miss Patti Page:” “I Went to Your Wedding.”

At the end of ’52 Billboard noticed that lots of previously unknown songwriters had broken through on the charts during the year. One was Jesse Mae Robinson, who became the first Black woman admitted to the oldest and largest performance rights organization, ASCAP, after her very first try at writing a Pop song, “I Went to Your Wedding.” We just heard Patti Page’s version at #5 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown of 1952’s biggest hits.

Now speaking of Country crossover, Page was familiar to Country fans after “Tennessee Waltz” in ’51, but Country fans reckoned that “vision of loveliness” better describes a bride walking down an aisle than a groom, so Country radio preferred male singer Hank Snow’s version.

#4 Jo StaffordYou Belong to Me

“I Went to Your Wedding,” actually the B-side of the Patti Page single it was on. The intended hit on the A-side of the record was Page’s version of our next song at #4, which of course is not Patti Page. It’s by another early ’50s female Pop powerhouse, and by ’52 a seasoned veteran, ubiquitous on radio and TV, with over 50 chart hits since 1944 to her name. But incredibly, no #1’s until this one. A war vet once told her that the Japanese would blast her records for the Americans in their foxholes so they’d get homesick and surrender. For that she got the nickname “G.I. Jo.” At #4 it’s Jo Stafford, “You Belong to Me.”

Jo Stafford’s “You Belong to Me,” #4 as we count down the top ten hits of 1952 here on this week’s Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. Stafford married the bandleader who’d backed her on nearly all her dozens of hits, Paul Weston, in ’52. And the marriage lasted until death did they part, in 1996 when Weston died. Stafford passed away 12 years later in 2008.

In later years, as a couple they conjured up pseudonyms, and as Jonathan & Darlene Edwards, they did versions of songs with off-key vocals and sloppy piano playing, like you might hear in a no-cover cocktail lounge on a Tuesday. Mitch Miller blamed their album in 1962, Sing Along with Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, for his lucrative Sing-Along with Mitch TV and record franchise jumping the shark, and in 1978 The Bee Gees: reportedly not at all amused by Jonathan & Darlene’s interpretation of “Stayin’ Alive.”

#3 Leroy Anderson ‘Pops’ Concert OrchestraBlue Tango

So “You Belong to Me” was #1 on Billboard’s year-end DJ chart for 1952. Radio loved Jo Stafford. The #1 Best-Selling record in 1952, though, was only #4 on that year-end DJ chart, and only #8 on the Jukebox chart. Translation? It was a lot more popular with older and richer music fans who could afford records and home-audio gear than it was with the public at large.

One of the first things the newly-formed Recording Industry Institute of America did in 1952 (long before it started suing music fans for sharing mp3s online!): a study of record-buying among home audio enthusiasts. No surprise: Classical: by far the top genre, but knowing that it’s a lot easier to wrap your head around all the Easy Listening and light orchestral records that topped the Pop charts in the ’50s. Like the one at #3 on our Chartcrush ranking for 1952. Soundtrack legend John Williams called him “one of the great American masters of light orchestral music,” it’s American composer Leroy Anderson, “Blue Tango.”

“Blue Tango” at #3: composed and conducted by the artist who made it a hit, Leroy Anderson. And there were competing versions by top bandleaders like Hugo Winterhalter, Les Baxter and Guy Lombardo. Anderson’s light orchestral novelty numbers like “Syncopated Clock,” “The Typewriter” and “Sleigh Ride,” as well as “Blue Tango,” have permeated the culture over decades of repurposing on TV and radio, and are instantly recognizable to multiple generations of Americans.

#2 Kay StarrWheel of Fortune

Next up it’s yet another female singer! ’52 a strong year for the ladies at the top of the charts: five of the ten songs. So much for calling it the “Crooner Era!” Unlike “Blue Tango’s” wildly different rankings across the three of Billboard pre-Hot100 year-end charts (Best-Sellers, Jukebox Plays and Radio Spins), this was #2 on all three, and (no surprise) it’s #2 on our ranking.

Jazz and blues legend Billie Holiday called her “the only White woman who could sing the Blues.” But only problem with that: she wasn’t white! Her father was full Iroquois, and her mother a quarter Choctaw, a quarter Cherokee and half Irish! She’d been on radio and the featured singer on records credited to various bandleaders since the ’30s, but her first solo effort was just hitting the charts in 1949 when she sang at President Truman’s Inaugural Gala. A string of four top 10s followed in 1950, and by ’52 she was one of the top acts in the biz. It’s Kay Starr with “Wheel of Fortune.”

The #2 song of 1952, “Wheel of Fortune:” the biggest of Kay Starr’s 40 chart hits between 1948 and 1962, and it resurfaced in 1997 in the star-studded film noir revival flick L.A. Confidential. Ironically Starr’s chart fortunes waned a bit after “Wheel” ’til she switched labels from Capitol to RCA and was one of the first Pop singers to exploit the Rock & Roll “fad” with her novelty, “The Rock & Roll Waltz.” That one peaked at #1 just a week before Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel” exploded onto the charts in early ’56, and Rock & Roll was here to stay.

#1 Johnnie Ray & The Four Lads – Cry

Now combined, our #2 and #1 songs of 1952 held down the top spot on the charts for almost the entire first half of the year. “Wheel of Fortune” hit #1 the week of March 22 and stayed for ten weeks. The song it replaced had been #1 since January 5. Now despite Kay Starr being a woman, and the Crooning sensation at #1 being male, their singing styles? Remarkably similar, a similarity he fessed up to, citing Starr as a major influence, along with his mentor, the Black R&B singer LaVern Baker.

Crooners had already been pushing the stylistic envelope for a few years on what the public would accept from a male singer, but a guy emoting wildly and sobbing like this on a record? By the beginning of April, comedian Stan Freberg’s parody, “Try,” was already climbing the Best-Sellers chart, and insult comedian Jack E. Leonard and future Rat Packer Sammy Davis, Jr. were mocking him relentlessly in bits on variety TV shows. Oldsters were laughing, but the kiddos were all in a tizzy over Johnnie Ray. His first hit, #1 for eleven weeks, January to March: “Cry.”

Johnnie Ray’s “Cry” at #1. Originally from Oregon, Ray was discovered singing in an African-American nightclub in Detroit, where he’d honed that over-the-top Emo singing style on the advice of R&B singer LaVern Baker and her manager: pretty radical for a White singer, especially a White Male singer, in an era of polite, comparatively restrained Crooners. But it was that very over-the-topness that caught Mitch Miller’s attention as head of A&R at Columbia. Miller put him on Columbia’s R&B subsidiary label, Okeh, paired him with Canadian vocal quartet The Four Lads, and produced “Cry” and its flipside, which was also a top ten hit, “The Little White Cloud That Cried.”

So there you have ’em: the top ten songs of 1952 here on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. Now again, for pre-Hot100 years, we combine Billboard’s Retail Sales, Disk Jockey and Juke Box Plays charts into a single ranking that reflects all three. But there are a few songs that made the year-end top tens on those charts that don’t make the cut when you put it all together.

Columbia’s in-house bandleader Percy Faith scored the #10 Best-Seller of the year with this Brazilian-flavored romp.

“Delicado” was #17 on our Chartcrush ranking. Percy Faith scored big again in ’53 with his “Song from Moulin Rouge.”

We heard Eddie Fisher’s “Any Time” at #7: his best showing of the year on Billboard’s Jukebox chart (where it was #6). But record buyers and DJs preferred a different Eddie Fisher side.

“Wish You Were Here” was our #13 song, but Billboard’s #8 Best-Seller and #11 DJ song, beating “Any Time” on both of those charts.

DJ’s also liked Fisher’s “I’m Yours,” #10 on the DJ chart; #22 on our combined ranking.

Also on the DJ chart, a vocal quartet notched the #8 song.

The Four Aces, “Tell Me Why,” #12 on our Chartcrush ranking.

And Georgia Gibbs’s first #1 hit was also a big hit on the airwaves: #5 on the DJ chart.

That one just misses our Chartcrush Top Ten at #11. It was also #11 on both Billboard’s year-end Best-Sellers and Jukebox charts. Gibbs became controversial later in the ’50s for covering, with great success, Black R&B hits that were already showing crossover potential in their original versions by the Black artists.

The Country star who co-wrote Patti Page’s megahit “Tennessee Waltz” scored Billboard’s #10 year-end Jukebox hit…

Pee Wee King’s “Slow Poke” was only #23 and #16 on Billboard’s Year-End Best-Sellers and DJ Rankings, respectively—#15 on our Chartcrush list.

And finally, I told you that Johnnie Ray was big with the kiddos when we heard “Cry” at #1 in our countdown. So big, in fact, that the B-side was also one of the year’s top records on Billboard’s Year-End Juke Box chart.

Johnnie Ray’s “The Little Cloud That Cried,” Billboard’s #9 Jukebox song, the flipside of “Cry” on the same 45. Now there’s one Jukebox record that got played to death in ’52: a double dose of Crooner Era Emo. “Little Cloud,” #18 Best-Sellers and #19 DJ; #14 on our combined ranking.

Well that’s all the time we have. I want to thank you for listening to our 1952 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. I’ve been your host, Christopher Verdesi, and I hope you enjoyed what you heard. 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 crackerjack extras. 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 again—same station, same time—for another edition of Chartcrush.

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