1955 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast
The rock era begins with “Rock Around the Clock” and Chuck Berry, but for grown-ups there’s the hi-fi revolution, Easy Listening and the Mambo dance craze!
Welcome! This is 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 Billboard magazine, the music industry’s top trade publication. This week we’re turning the clock back to 1955, the year Marty McFly returns to in the 1985 time travel movie Back to the Future, and the year the first Rock ‘n Roll song, “Rock Around the Clock,” hit #1 on a Billboard pop chart.
Before the Hot100 streamlined things in 1958, there were three different Billboard pop charts: Best Sellers in Stores, Most Played in Juke Boxes and Most Played by Disc Jockeys. Bill Haley & The Comets’ so-called “first Rock ‘n Roll song” first hit #1 on the Best Sellers chart the week of July 9, 1955, then topped the Jukebox and DJ charts over the next couple weeks, finally winning Billboard’s “Triple Crown” in the August 6th issue when it was #1 on all three simultaneously.
Now I say “so-called first Rock ‘n Roll song” because over on Billboard’s R&B chart, there were lots of Black R&B records all the way back to the mid ’40s that had that same beat, sound and attitude. Rock ‘n Roll, you could even say, was the sound of Black America in those pre-Elvis years, when the pop charts, by contrast, were dominated by crooners, pop singers, Hollywood & Broadway show tunes and Mitch Miller’s gimmicky novelty productions.
Notably absent from the pop charts in the early ’50s? Anything kids could dance to. Mambo sparked an adult dance craze that made several Cuban bandleaders famous and had the top crooners and pop singers all cutting Mambo records, but besides that, you have to go back more than ten years to the early ’40s—the World War 2 years before a 40% federal cabaret tax on dancing establishments, plus wartime gas and tire rationing, the draft, and a two-year musicians’ strike hit Big Band Swing like a wrecking ball—to find the last time upbeat Dance music was America’s default music.
So no wonder that when DJ Alan Freed started spinning R&B records for the first time on a powerful radio station, Cleveland’s WJW, it caught on, notably with the up and coming generation of young White people, who’d never even been exposed to this music before, or really anything like it. So it was dangerous and exciting. And Freed played that up, treating his overnight audience of Silent Generation teenagers like some kind of secret hipster society, which he dubbed “The Moondoggers.” That was in 1951. Freed applied the Black slang phrase “Rock ‘n Roll” to describe the music, and by 1954, he was on a 50,000 watt station in New York: one of the nation’s top radio personalities—and R&B was the new wellspring of energy and ideas in Pop.
White crooner Johnny Ray had become a proto-Teen Idol star with his R&B-style emotive ballads. But the point of no return was “Sh-Boom”—an indie record by a Black Doo-Wop group, The Chords, that cracked the top ten on both the pop Jukebox and Sales charts with no radio support whatsoever in July 1954—followed just a week later by the major label cover version by The Crew-Cuts, a White Canadian vocal group, that hit #1 on all three Billboard Pop charts for four weeks.
#10 Les Baxter – Unchained Melody
And we’ll be getting back to all of that a little later, but first up at #10, a relic of a very different, but just as potent, trend in the mid ’50s: hi-fi. Folks gearing up their swanky mid-century living rooms with new cutting edge home audio equipment. Classical, the biggest music genre for that crowd, but the more Pop-oriented among them bought records like our #10 hit and carved out a whole new niche on the charts later dubbed “Easy Listening.” Here’s bandleader Les Baxter: his version of “Unchained Melody.”
Les Baxter along with his Orchestra and Chorus: the biggest hit version of a song that’s been recorded over 1,500 times since it was first published in 1955: “Unchained Melody,” #10 on our Chartcrush Countdown. Over the years, no fewer than nine different versions of that song have made the charts—four of them, including Baxter’s, in ’55. The most famous version today, of course: the one by The Righteous Brothers from 1965 that was in the ’90s movie Ghost starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze.
Now, vinyl had only been around for a few years in ’55. Before vinyl, with shellac 78s, playback quality was so awful that even radio stations shied away from playing records. The difference was so obvious that listeners could immediately tell if it was a record versus a live performance. In the ’40s when American Federation of Musicians president James C. Petrillo railed against “canned music” during the AFM’s musicians’ strikes against record companies, folks knew exactly what he was talking about.
So imagine the thrill of hearing, for the first time sound bursting forth from speakers in a room like the performer was right there with you. Hi-fi shops were cropping up all over America in the ’50s and ’60s, and every one of them had a demonstration room where you could hear this miracle of modernity with your own ears. And if you were so inclined and could afford it, you broke out the wallet and geared up. Then, having made that investment, you wanted a record like Les Baxter’s “Unchained Melody,” with its lush strings and otherworldly chorus, that made your state-of-the-art hi-fi sound like the money it cost.
Baxter, no stranger to the charts in ’55. He backed Nat King Cole on two massive hits, “Mona Lisa” in 1950 and “Too Young” in ’51 (although there’s some controversy over whether it was really up-and-comer Nelson Riddle who did the work on those). On his own, though, Baxter had scored numerous top ten hits before “Unchained Melody.” And he was back with an even bigger hit the next year: “The Poor People of Paris,” the #5 record of the year on our Chartcrush ranking for the year of Elvis, 1956. That’s a pretty impressive string of chart achievements for what most folks (from about 1970 on) would dismiss as “elevator music.”
Baxter died in 1996, just as hipster Lounge music savants were reviving his career as the gravitational center of a subgenre of Lounge called “Exotica.” Baxter’s 1951 LP Ritual of the Savage: the origin point that inspired other Exotica notables like Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman and Juan García Esquivel. Jet age ersatz tropical and primitive sounds, for armchair explorers: good stuff for your cocktail hour.
#9 Tennessee Ernie Ford or Bill Hayes – The Ballad of Davy Crockett
We’re counting down the top ten hits of 1955 on this week’s edition of The Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show, and at #9, a chart artifact from the very first mass-cultural hysteria ignited by TV, in the year that AT&T completed the first trans-continental cable system for live broadcasts, and the number of American homes with TVs passed two thirds. The so-called “Crockett Craze” inspired by Disney’s five-part miniseries Davy Crockett launched no fewer than four versions of its theme song onto the pop charts. At #9, it’s “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”
“Ballad of Davy Crockett,” the #9 song of 1955 according to our exclusive ranking here on the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. Again, four different versions of that song on the charts during the Crockett Craze inspired by Disney’s Davy Crockett miniseries that aired December ’54 to February ’55.
If you’re streaming the podcast version of the show on Spotify, you heard Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version that’s more familiar since the ’50s. That was #5 for four weeks on the Jukebox chart and the #28 song of the year. But the most successful version in 1955 (and the one you just heard if you’re listening on radio) was the first one that producer Archie Bleyer cut with singer Bill Hayes literally the day after he got the idea to do a record of the theme song while watching on TV. The Hayes version, unfortunately: not available on Spotify.
On the charts, Hayes and Tennessee Ernie both beat the version that’s in the actual miniseries, which was also out on a record, by the actor who plays Davy Crockett, Fess Parker. All the versions peaked on the charts in May and June of ’55, when Disney’s repackaged wide-screen Technicolor feature film version of the miniseries was in theaters and practically every boy in America was walking around in a coonskin tail hat like the one Fess Parker wears in the film.
#8 Roger Williams – Autumn Leaves
So Rock ‘n Roll’s opening salvo on the Pop charts was in the summer of ’55—the one-two punch of “Rock Around the Clock” followed by Pat Boone’s version of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.” After that Rock percolated under the radar for a few months while the top of the Pop charts got very conservative, as if a horrified public was recoiling at what it’d just heard and needed a safe space.
At #9, one of the records that was a hit in those months as the weather got colder—in the top three of at least one of Billboard’s Pop charts (Sales, Airplay or Jukeboxes) for 13 weeks. It’s pianist Roger Williams’ unique instrumental take on a song that was already a familiar standard in 1955, having been recorded by many top artists since its appearance in 1945. Appropriately titled for when it was a hit on the calendar, here’s “Autumn Leaves.”
“Autumn Leaves,” #8 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1955, Roger Williams, with his innovative descending scales and arpeggios at the piano, representing the random falling and blowing of leaves in Autumn—a unique touch he added to a familiar song. The only piano instrumental ever to hit #1 on a Billboard chart: four weeks atop the sales chart, suggesting that its biggest appeal was among the newly minted home hi-fi audiophiles I mentioned when we heard Les Baxter’s “Unchained Melody” back at #10. Williams scored big again in 1966 with his instrumental and chorus rendition of “Born Free.”
#7 The Four Lads – Moments to Remember
Now I mentioned The Crew-Cuts in the intro: the Canadian vocal quartet who scored a big hit in 1954 with their cover of The Chords’ “Sh-Boom.” Well the two founding members of The Crew Cuts got their start singing in a quartet with two of the founding members of the group with our #7 song. All of them were alumni of St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto.
In 1951, Mitch Miller, Columbia’s powerful head of A&R, signed them to sing backup on what became Johnnie Ray’s breakthrough hit, “Cry.” After charting three top tens in rapid succession with Ray, they started headlining their own records, and by ’55 they’d charted nine of them. But this one was the biggest of their career. The song, originally written specifically for crooner Perry Como, but he didn’t think it was right for him and The Four Lads got it. #7: Four Lads, “Moments to Remember.”
The Four Lads “Moments to Remember,” #7 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show for 1955. These clean-cut collegiate foursomes were quite a phenomenon in the early-to-mid ’50s: Four Lads, Four Coins, Four Freshmen, Four Preps, and the biggest of them all, still to come in our countdown. It can get confusing!
The Four Lads followed up “Moments” with two more top five hits in rapid succession heading into ’56, then two more in ’57. After that, though, the hits dried up and Columbia did not renew their contract, but they continued to release records on various labels, and even dented the Easy Listening chart a couple times in the late ’60s.
#6 The Chordettes – Mr. Sandman
At #6 is a song that has become a symbol of mid-’50s innocence, maybe even innocence itself, thanks to its appearance in dozens of movies and TV shows since for that express purpose. It’s often used in a jarringly ironic way, like in Deadpool or the first film to use it, 1981’s Halloween 2, but sometimes just to anchor the viewer to the time and place that produced it: mid-’50s America.
Given how ubiquitous it’s been since the ’50s, people are surprised when they look it up and see it at a middling #18 on Billboard’s 1955 year-end Best Sellers chart, which is what you’ll likely find if you do a search for “top songs of 1955” on the web. But it’s one of the many records throughout chart history that peaked over the holidays, so Billboard splits its ranking points between two different years. Counting its full chart run including its weeks in late 1954, however, as we do for every song here at Chartcrush, it’s #6. It topped at least one of Billboard’s three charts for nine straight weeks, Thanksgiving ’54 to the end of January ’55, here are The Chordettes, “Mr. Sandman.”
Chordettes, “Mr. Sandman,” the #6 song of 1955 according to our exclusive Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show ranking, which is tabulated from positions on Billboard’s three weekly pop charts before the Hot100 debuted in late 1958: Best Sellers, Radio Airplay and Jukebox Plays.
It’s the second of the two hits in our countdown produced by Archie Bleyer, the guy whose idea it was to put a version “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” out on a record. That’s Bleyer doing the hands-on-knees percussion throughout the song and saying “Yes?” in the third verse. Both “Sandman” and “Davy Crockett” were on the label Bleyer founded and ran, Cadence Records, which launched The Everly Brothers in ’57.
#5 The Four Aces featuring Al Alberts – Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing
Now of all the movies “Mr. Sandman” appears in, maybe the most famous: the aforementioned Back to the Future: the scene where Michael J. Fox as Marty first sees his hometown after travelling back in time to 1955 in Doc Brown’s souped-up DeLorean. But that was a different version that was also a top ten hit in 1955, by another clean-cut collegiate-styled male vocal quartet: the one I was holding back after we heard The Four Lads’ “Moments to Remember” at #7—because I was saving them for right now at #5.
In ’54 they’d done a cinematic-sounding version of the title song from the movie Three Coins in the Fountain, which out-charted the actual soundtrack version by Frank Sinatra. Instead of recording songs for movies, these guys recorded songs from movies, and outsold the originals! In ’55, they repeated the trick with the Oscar winning title theme to a blockbuster romance starring William Holden and Jennifer Jones, and they didn’t even wait for the movie to hit theaters! Well, not only did it work again; it did even better than “Three Coins.” The biggest hit of their career, #7 on Billboard‘s 1955 year-end bestsellers list, #1 on the year-end DJ chart, and #5 on our Chartcrush ranking. Here are The Four Aces featuring lead singer Al Alberts: “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.”
#5 on our Chartcrush Countdown of the top ten songs of 1955, The Four Aces, “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” later used as the theme of a CBS daytime soap opera in the late ’60s and early ’70s also called, yep, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.
#4 Mitch Miller – The Yellow Rose of Texas
Now at #4 is a traditional Folk song, well known in Texas and the South, that dates back to at least the 1850s. But according to a Billboard article from when the song was #1 on the charts, it first resurfaced in the 1950s as part of a songbook published by the copyright-clearance organization BMI, Songs of the Confederacy. The book inspired a Columbia Records album that collected Confederate marching songs, and a companion album compiled Union songs. Columbia President at the time, Goddard Lieberson: a big Civil War buff. Well, that project, in turn, inspired one of Lieberson’s subordinates, again, Mitch Miller, Columbia’s head of A&R but also a bandleader, producer and chart veteran himself, to do a reworked version of one of the Confederate marching songs on Columbia’s The Confederacy album. And that turned out to be the record that dethroned “Rock Around the Clock” at the top of the Best Seller chart, staying at #1 for six weeks, and becoming the #4 song of 1955. Here is Mitch Miller headlining his own record, leading His Orchestra and Chorus: “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
A folksier version of “Yellow Rose of Texas” by veteran singer Johnny Desmond was also a hit on the pop DJ and Jukebox charts in 1955. And a version by Ernest Tubb on the Country charts. But Mitch Miller’s more military-sounding version we just heard came out on top.
OK, so let’s break this down: a Confederate marching song, a year after the Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education, but Southern states and cities fighting those rulings throughout 1955, and the Civil Rights movement on the ground barely underway. Rosa Parks didn’t stay in her seat on that bus in Alabama until December 1955. So in the middle of all that, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” shoots to #1 on the pop charts for six straight weeks in the Fall: a Confederate marching song.
Not to question Columbia Records or Mitch Miller’s motives for making the record, but it seems like the song’s huge popularity once it was out there in the wild might’ve had more than a little to do with the backlash against Civil Rights. As an October 1955 Billboard article reported, though: since the Davy Crockett phenomenon in the Spring, “pioneer-type material” was all the rage, and “Yellow Rose” was just the latest in a string of hits in that mold. So that was another factor. But always fascinating to look at these song rankings in the context of when the songs were popular, and what else was happening in the world.
The political overtones weren’t lost on the pop culture at the time. Satirist Stan Freberg put a send-up of “Yellow Rose” on the charts, also in ’55, that opens with a rebel yell by the heavily-accented singer, whose irritation at the snare drummer for playing too loud increases until he finds out the drummer is a Yankee and threatens to secede from the band “so help me Mitch Miller.”
#3 The McGuire Sisters – Sincerely
At #3 in our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1955 is a girl group whose first charting single entered the charts literally the same week as The Crew-Cuts “Sh-Boom” in July of ’54, and it too was a Pop cover of a song by a Black Doo-Wop group, The Spaniels’ “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight.” It didn’t do as well as “Sh-Boom,” but then in ’55 they offered up this sublime reinterpretation of a Doo-Wop song by future Motown co-founder, executive and Marvin Gaye mentor Harvey Fuqua. His group The Moonglows had taken it to #1 on the R&B Jukebox chart in December ’54; then The McGuire Sisters (Ruby, Dottie and Phyllis) made it their first #1 Pop hit in early ’55: “Sincerely.”
Billboard’s #1 bestseller for six weeks, but it topped the DJ chart for ten weeks, mid-February to mid-April, pre-Davy Crockett and “Rock Around the Clock:” The McGuire Sisters’ “Sincerely,” #3 as we count down the biggest hits of 1955 here on The Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show.
The Sisters scored another #1 hit in ’57 with “Sugartime.” They continued into the 1960s, but stopped performing in the late ’60s, because Phyllis, the middle girl and soloist in the group, got mixed up romantically with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana. And there was a big trial and Phyllis had to testify, so it was all public and a big scandal. But they got back together in ’86, still looking and sounding great, for a series of nostalgic nightclub engagements in Vegas, New York, Atlantic City, et cetera.
#2 Bill Haley & His Comets – (We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock
And that brings us to the #2 song on our countdown. I’ve been talking about it since the start of the show because it’s the most important song of 1955. On July 9, it became the very first Rock ‘n Roll song to reach #1 on the Billboard pop chart. And it stayed at #1 for eight weeks: our #2 record of the year: Bill Haley and His Comets, “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock.”
Record jobbers and retailers were telling Billboard in 1955 that they’d never seen anything like the way “Rock Around the Clock” was selling. And lots of people had never heard anything like it either. A reviewer who saw a show in Chicago wrote that Haley & The Comets “are masters of mob psychology and mass hysteria, building slow but hard and by the time they hit their last three numbers, there’s hardly a member of the audience, young or old, who isn’t keeping cadence clapping and foot stomping.” So there’s a data point for you: clapping and foot stomping equaled mass hysteria in Chicago in 1955!
Over in the U.K., audiences were more demonstrative: fights and riots broke out in theaters showing the movie that introduced “Rock Around the Clock” to a mass audience in the opening credits: Blackboard Jungle, starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier, about juvenile delinquency in urban schools. Suffice to say, Rock ‘n Roll started off with a big bang heard around the world on the pop charts, and music was never the same. Bill Haley & The Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock:” the #2 song of 1955.
#1 Pérez Prado – Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White
But it wasn’t #1. And that brings us to the other big Pop music story in ’54 and ’55: Mambo: the fusion of Swing and Cuban music. And the artist at #1 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1955: the guy who introduced Mambo in 1951 at the Tropicana Hotel in Havana. He also put out an album that year, Mambo-Jambo, and sparked a dance craze that continued through the ’50s. So while the kiddos were dancing again to R&B and Rock ‘n Roll, grownups were signing up in droves at Arthur Murray Dance Studios, learning the rhumba box step and other Latin dances. And buying records like our song at #1. It’s Pérez Prado and His Orchestra, “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.”
Pérez Prado’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White:” Billboard’s #1 Best Selling record of 1955, #1 on its year-end Jukebox chart too. Radio DJs though? Not as enthusiastic: #7 on that one. And it was by no means the end of Prado’s impressive career on the Pop charts: he was back in 1958 with “Patricia.”
Now of course, if you’re even a casual fan of vintage television, you’ve seen I Love Lucy, and Lucy’s Cuban bandleader husband Ricky Ricardo. And you might assume that the Ricky character was modeled after a guy like Prado. Not so. It’s actually the other way around. Desi Arnaz, who played Ricky and was Lucille Ball’s real-life husband: also a Cuban bandleader in real life. A protégé of the original Latin bandleader, Xavier Cugat in the 1940s, when Prado was still tickling the ivories in Cuba. Not to diminish Prado’s achievements or title as the “Mambo King” at all, but I Love Lucy premiered on TV the same year Prado’s first album came out: 1951.
So, that’s our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1955, but we’re not quite done yet. We have a couple pretty important honorable mentions before we wrap up…
Bonus: Chuck Berry – Maybellene
…starting with another Rock ‘n Roll milestone that was a hit after Rock’s initial surge in the Summer of ’55, but before Elvis Presley debuted in March ’56. Since the top of the show I’ve been talking about White artists doing Pop versions of Black R&B hits and outperforming the originals on the Pop charts: “Sh-Boom” in ’54, The McGuire Sisters’ “Goodnight Sweetheart” and “Sincerely.” Some other notable examples: The Fontane Sisters’ version of The Charms’ “Hearts of Stone,” Georgia Gibbs’ hit covers of LaVern Baker’s “Tweedly Dee” and Etta James’s “The Wallflower,” Pat Boone’s first hit with his thoroughly whitewashed version of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.”
“Whitewashing:” the term disparagingly applied to the whole phenomenon of “cleaning up” R&B songs so Mainstream Pop radio could play them alongside crooners and Pop singers and lushly-orchestrated Hollywood hits. Well, finally, in September of ’55, a rockin’ record by a Black artist cracked the top ten. It was pretty crude-sounding, so it received almost no airplay. Mainstream Pop radio wouldn’t play Country or “Hillbilly” records in the ’50s either, for the same reason. But it was a top ten jukebox hit and a top ten bestseller in stores for six weeks, despite cover versions by Pop singers that didn’t chart at all. And that makes it a milestone. It’s Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.”
“Maybellene” wasn’t just Chuck Berry’s first pop hit. It wasn’t even just his first R&B hit; it was his first record, period! Adapted from a well-known Western Swing song called “Ida Red” that he liked to play at gigs with mixed-race audiences, or even Black audiences, if only for the shock value. Berry went to Chess Records in Chicago to see about releasing some blues music. Label head Leonard Chess was more excited, though, about selling a “Hillbilly song sung by a Black man.” Chuck Berry, the Father of Rock ‘n Roll.
Bonus: Frank Sinatra – Learnin’ the Blues
Finally, our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown look back at the year 1955 wouldn’t be complete without recognizing one of the most spectacular comebacks in Pop history. After a messy divorce from Ava Gardner and slumping badly on the charts in the late ’40s and early ’50s, ironically right at the height of the Crooner Era, he had a new label, Capitol, a new bandleader, arranger and collaborator, Nelson Riddle, and a new sound that he’d been honing—which with this song became his signature sound for the rest of his career.
On the charts it had the misfortune of being a hit at the same time as “Rock Around the Clock,” peaking at #2 for five of the weeks Bill Haley was #1 in July and August, and just missing our top ten at #11 on the year. But radio loved this song. It was #5 on Billboard‘s year-end DJ chart and #1 on the weekly DJ chart for two nonconsecutive weeks, making it his first #1 on any chart since 1947. Of course I’m talking about Frank Sinatra. Here’s “Learnin’ the Blues.”
So that sound that Sinatra and Nelson Riddle forged: it brought back Jazz and Swing on the charts and kept it relevant into the Rock Era. Call it “Neo-Swing” or “Vegas Swing:” it wasn’t a nostalgia trip; it was new territory, infusing Swing music with the excitement and energy of Rock ‘n Roll. By the end of the ’50s, it was as big as Rock ‘n Roll, with dozens of male and female singers scoring hits. Teen Idol Rock ‘n Roller Bobby Darin even abandoned Rock and scored his biggest hit with the #2 song of 1959 in the style, “Mack the Knife.”
And that’s gonna have to do it for our 1955 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. I’ve been your host, Christopher Verdesi. Thanks for listening. Check out our website, chartcrush.com, for written transcripts and streaming links for this and other Chartcrush countdown shows, plus chart run line graphs and other nifty extras. We count down a different year every week on this show, from the beginning of the charts in the 1940s all the way up to the present, so tune in again next week, same station and time, for another edition of Chartcrush.