1956 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast
Elvis Presley rules the charts and personifies Rock ‘n Roll as teens buy millions of 45s, top-40 radio explodes and Seeburg launches the 200-selection jukebox.
Welcome! This is the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show and 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 exclusive recap of the weekly Pop charts published at the time in Billboard magazine. This week on Chartcrush it’s 1956.
Do ya like Elvis? Well, ’56 was Elvis Presley’s breakthrough year on the charts, and he has four songs in our Top Ten Countdown. Now here at Chartcrush, we’ve ranked every year since Billboard started doing weekly Pop charts in 1940 using the same ranking method for every year. For pre-Hot100 years, we combine Billboard’s weekly Best Sellers, Jukebox and DJ charts into a unified Hot100-style ranking, just like Billboard did in 1958 when it created the Hot100, and then do the ranking just like Hot100 years after 1958. Besides Jimmy Dorsey and his Big Band in 1941, Elvis is the only act in chart history with four records in the top ten on a year. The Beatles in ’64, Bee Gees in ’78, Ace of Base in ’94, Usher in 2004, they all had three.
Now Elvis, or Rock ‘n Roll for that matter, couldn’t have dominated the Pop charts the way it did without cheap, unbreakable vinyl 45 singles. 45s brought record collecting within budget for teenagers for the first time. They cost about 65 cents apiece in the ’50s, which was a little over $7 adjusting for inflation. And the portable record players teens got to play them on ran between $20-50. They made great gifts for Christmas, birthdays, graduations. By ’56, 45s had been around a little over six years, and teens were buying boatloads of them.
But not only that: the Seeburg Company in 1955 introduced the first 200-selection jukebox. With two songs per record, side A and side B, that’s 100 45s, and with three quarters of a million jukeboxes out there in the wild, that’s a lot of records. And more slots to fill in jukeboxes meant more variety, so Billboard kept having to increase the number of positions on its Pop charts in the ’50s. 45 changers and 45s selling like crazy, but jukeboxes, a huge part of the record biz. “Put another dime in the jukebox,” as Joan Jett once said. Or you could “turn up the radio” as glam rockers Autograph sang around the same time, and tune in to your local Top 40 station. Top 40, a format pioneered in the Midwest just after 45s debuted, by Todd Storz, who, legend has it, noticed customers in a bar across the street from his radio station in Omaha, Nebraska playing the same record over and over again on the jukebox.
Now the oldest Baby Boomers in 1956 were only turning ten, so the generation buying all these Rock ‘n Roll records and putting all those dimes in jukeboxes was the one that came before Boomers, the Silent Generation aged 11-31 in ’56, so-called because they tended to keep their heads down and work within the system to build comfortable lives and nest eggs. But as teens, music, Rock ‘n Roll, especially, was their outlet.
Comprising the adult 30- and 40-something demographic in the mid ’50s, of course, was the “Greatest” or “G.I.” generation that’d fought and won World War 2, raised in the era of Victrolas and scratchy-sounding shellac 78s. But in the ’50s vinyl records and electronics revolutionized the quality of sound for home audio. If you could afford it, you geared up your swanky mid-century living room with a hi-fi system. Albums of course became the preferred format for audiophiles, especially once stereo hit, which made singles even more the domain of young people, but in the mid ’50s, grownups were buying lots of 45s too, preferring ones that made their expensive new hi-fi’s sound like the money they cost.
#10 Nelson Riddle & His Orchestra – Lisbon Antigua
And one of those is our #10 song: the first of two instrumentals we’re gonna hear this hour. He became Frank Sinatra’s top arranger and bandleader with Capitol Records in the ’50s, but even before that, he’d worked under Les Baxter on Nat King Cole’s early ’50s smashes “Mona Lisa” and “Too Young,” and some say he was the arranger on those records even though Baxter got the conductor credit. But like Baxter, plus Columbia’s Percy Faith, RCA’s Hugo Winterhalter, Decca’s Frank Chacksfield and others, he also got to put out his own records, and this one was huge: piano, string section, brass, and a wordless male chorus. It’s Nelson Riddle’s version of an old Portuguese children’s song, “Lisbon Antigua.”
Nelson Riddle’s “Lisbon Antigua,” the #1 Best Seller for four weeks, March into April, but it didn’t fare quite as well on the Jukebox or DJ charts. Which was the pattern for so-called “hi-fi hits.” In the Summer, after it was a chart hit, it showed up theaters, in Ray Milland’s film noir Lisbon.
#9 Elvis Presley – Hound Dog
So Elvis! Four songs in our 1956 Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown, and at #9 is what some say is his signature song, not just because it was a huge hit, but because his performance of it on TV in June caused such an uproar across the media and instantly transformed Elvis from just the latest in a string of fleeting and essentially harmless Teen fads to the personification of the whole Rock ‘n Roll movement and a cultural phenomenon. At #9, “Hound Dog.”
Performing “Hound Dog” for 40 million viewers on comedian Milton Berle’s very mainstream prime-time TV variety show on June 5, 1956, Elvis abruptly stopped, waved his arm and commenced a slow, grinding version that he accented with some, ahem, very suggestive body movements. Ben Gross of the New York Daily News wrote that popular music “has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley. … Elvis, who rotates his pelvis … gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos.” And that’s just one sample. You should see what the Times said!
“Hound Dog” was Black slang for a ladies man who tries to schmooze his way into a woman’s life so she’ll take care of him and he doesn’t have to work. A male gold digger! Which made total sense sung by female singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, for whom songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote it in 1953 and scored a #1 R&B hit. Lieber and Stoller, a pair of East Coast Jewish guys who bonded over their obsession with Black culture and R&B as students in Los Angeles in 1950, and started writing songs together. They wrote over 70 chart hits early in the Rock Era including #1’s for The Coasters, Drifters and Elvis. Lieber and Stoller knew what a “hound dog” was. Did Elvis? Did Freddie Bell & The Bellboys, the White vocal group whose version he copied after seeing them at the Sands in Vegas? And how about all the DJs and teens who turned it into an iconic early Rock ‘n Roll hit? Probably not! And for all the day-after outrage in the press over Elvis’s gyrating on Milton Berle, no one really bothered to explore the lyrics!
Elvis recorded his version in New York a month after that Milton Berle appearance, and it was originally the “B” side of the 45! But that record with not one but two hits on it simultaneously topped the Pop, Country and R&B Best Sellers charts from mid-August to the end of October. We’ll hear the A-side a little later in our 1956 edition of The Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show.
#8 Kay Starr – Rock and Roll Waltz
Now Rock ‘n Roll was 1955’s big headline on the Pop charts, with Bill Haley & The Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” first to hit #1 in August, then Pat Boone’s version of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” a #1 Jukebox hit in September while Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” was also in the top ten. When the weather cooled off in the Fall of ’55 though, so did Rock on the charts. As it turned out, it was the calm before the storm.
While America’s biggest record label RCA was busy poaching Elvis from Sam Phillips’ indie Sun Rockabilly label outta Memphis, they scored the first hit with “Rock ‘n Roll” in the title by a veteran Pop singer who’d been at it since the ’30s and was one of the top Pop acts of the early ’50s, with nine top tens to her name including the #1 “Wheel of Fortune,” which was the #2 hit in our 1952 countdown. It’s a Novelty number about oldsters trying to dance to their teenage kids’ Rock ‘n Roll records, and it replaced The Platters’ “The Great Pretender” at #1 in March, right as Elvis was debuting on the charts. At #8 it’s Kay Starr’s “Rock and Roll Waltz.”
Pop singer Kay Starr’s “Rock and Roll Waltz,” Billboard’s #10 Best Seller, but #1 on their year-end ranking of 1956’s Jukebox hits. Combining those, plus the DJ chart, it lands at #8 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show ranking we’re counting down this hour.
Before Rock ‘n Roll, the last dance craze to sweep the nation: Mambo, but mostly with adults. Cuban bandleader Perez Prado’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” the #1 song of 1955, beating “Rock Around the Clock” at #2, and veteran Crooners Perry Como and Vaughn Monroe both scoring in ’54 with “Papa Loves Mambo” and “They Were Doin’ the Mambo,” respectively, both on RCA by the way. So it made a lot of sense to repeat that trick with Rock ‘n Roll and Kay Starr.
#7 Elvis Presley – Love Me Tender
And speaking of Crooners and Crooning: still mandatory for male Pop singers even after Rock ‘n Roll broke through, to reach that next level of popularity, just like female vocal chops were in the ’90s. Well, Elvis of course was a natural. Three of his chart hits in ’56 were Croons, and the biggest of those was Civil War-era song updated with new lyrics by the guy whose “Singers” backed up Bing Crosby on “White Christmas,” Ken Darby. It was written for Elvis’s first movie, a Musical Western, working title The Reno Brothers. But it was released ahead of the film, and when record sales hit a million, producers decided to release the film with the same title as the song. #1 Best Sellers and Airplay for all of November, then Jukeboxes for a week after that, our #7 song of 1956 is Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender.”
They easily could’ve fleshed out that arrangement with lush strings and a chorus typical of Pop Ballads at the time. And an instrumental version by orchestra leader Henri Rene issued by the same label (RCA) while the Love Me Tender movie was in theaters in the Fall, did just that. But in an era before producers dominated recording sessions, Elvis was in control in the studio, so the sound of his records? It’s all Elvis. And not just that. Early on, manager Col. Tom Parker required songwriters to put Presley down as a co-writer if they wanted him to cut their songs so Elvis would half the publishing royalties. He was a shrewd operator, that Col. Tom! But in many cases Elvis earned that co-credit by changing up lyrics on the fly in addition to being the de facto producer and arranger at his sessions.
#6 Dean Martin – Memories Are Made of This
Well, we’re gonna stick with Crooners for the #6 hit on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1956: the first #1 for an Italian-American Rat Packer who’d nearly topped the charts in ’54 with his breakthrough, “That’s Amore.” He’d been on the charts since 1949, though, so the #1 in ’56 was a long time coming. #6, it’s Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This.”
The top song on the charts for five weeks January into February of 1956, before Elvis, and #6 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1956, Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This.” And Deano was far from done: “Return to Me” and his version of “Volare” were massive hits in 1958, both with verses sung in Italian. And in 1964 at the height of Beatlemania, he actually made good on his wild boast that his latest record was gonna knock his Fab Four-obsessed son’s “pallies” off the top of the charts. “Everybody Loves Somebody” bumped “A Hard Day’s Night” from the #1 spot in August! One of the last oldskool Crooner hits on the Hot100, but Martin was dominant on the Easy Listening chart for the rest of the ’60s while he hosted his top-rated prime-time variety show on NBC all the way into the mid-’70s, and then his series of celebrity roasts into the mid-’80s.
#5 Jim Lowe – The Green Door
But back to 1956. Dot Records was the Gallatin, Tennessee label that’d unleashed Pat Boone’s “Ain’t That a Shame” in ’55, the second big Rock ‘n Roll hit after “Rock Around the Clock.” And Boone followed it up with four more top tens, all on Dot, including a #1 with his “whitewashed” cover of Bluesman Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind.” That’s #19 on our 1956 Chartcrush ranking. But Elvis, Carl Perkins, Sun Records and Rockabilly had changed the game, so Dot scrambled for Elvis-style material and found Sanford Clark’s “The Fool,” which got to #8 in September, then an even bigger hit that was by a New York DJ! After Archie Bleyer’s “Hernando’s Hideaway” in ’54, it’s the second #1 hit in the mid-’50s about the mysterious goings-on at secret members-only after-hour clubs. At #5, Jim Lowe’s “The Green Door.”
33-year-old Missourian Jim Lowe had just started his long career in New York radio when Dot put out “The Green Door” and it dislodged Elvis’ biggest hit of ’56 from #1 in November, and then Elvis’ “Love Me Tender” replaced it two weeks later. Some have called it a Novelty. Most records by radio guys are, including Lowe’s first Dot Record in 1955, “Close the Door (They’re Comin’ in the Windows).” But Novelty hits rarely spark as much speculation about what inspired them. Theories about “The Green Door” abound, ranging from a Chicago speakeasy, to a lesbian club in London featured in the 1968 Robert Aldrich movie The Killing of Sister George, to “The Shack” in Columbia, Missouri where Lowe went to college. Covers over the years include Country singer Crystal Gayle in the ’70s, Welsh singer Shakin’ Stevens, fresh from playing Elvis in a West End musical. His was a #1 hit in the U.K. in 1981. And a surprisingly faithful rendition by New York Horror Rockers The Cramps.
Incidentally, don’t look for “The Green Door” on Billboard’s Top Ten lists for ’56 because its chart run goes seven weeks into 1957: just one of dozens of songs throughout the history of Billboard’s year-end charts whose runs straddled two different years, so they fell through the cracks. At Chartcrush, though, we rank every song’s full chart run in whichever year it earned the majority of its ranking points.
#4 Les Baxter, His Chorus & Orchestra – The Poor People of Paris
OK, so we heard Nelson Riddle’s “Lisbon Antigua” at #10; at #4, the record that 1956’s newly-minted hi-fi enthusiasts made the year’s biggest instrumental hit, by the conductor/arranger I mentioned who mentored Nelson Riddle at Capitol. He scored his first top ten under his own name in ’51 with a chorus-and-strings rendition of “Because of You,” the Tony Bennett hit. “April in Portugal” and the first hit version of “Unchained Melody” followed, both among the top ten Best Selling singles of 1953 and ’55, respectively, and he kept the streak going into ’56 with the record that Elvis’ first hit replaced at #1. It’s Les Baxter: “The Poor People of Paris.”
Les Baxter’s last chart hit, the million-seller “The Poor People of Paris,” #4 as we count down the biggest hits of 1956 here on the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown show. Capitol continued putting out Les Baxter singles, but he shunned Rock ‘n Roll, and after “Poor People of Paris,” he disappeared from the charts completely, even the album charts, despite averaging over three LP’s of new material a year on Capitol from ’56 to ’62, mostly in a subgenre of Easy Listening lounge music called Exotica that was especially popular with hi-fi-equipped 30- and 40- something War vets, many of whom had visited or served in “exotic” locales like the Caribbean and South Pacific.
A resurgence of interest in Exotica in the ’90s, after Baxter’s albums had been languishing in thrift shop bins for 25 years, got Capitol to release its two-disc Exotic Moods of Les Baxter anthology in ’96, as it turned out, just before he died at 73. And Silicon Valley’s culture gazette, Wired magazine eulogized him. Writer David Toop snarked that Baxter “offered package tours in sound, selling tickets to sedentary tourists who wanted to stroll around some taboo emotions before lunch, view a pagan ceremony, go wild in the sun or conjure a demon, all without leaving home stereo comforts in the white bread suburbs.” Not unlike more recent hipster coffee-shop fare like the Putumayo World Music series for example.
#3 Elvis Presley – Heartbreak Hotel
Well we’re down to #3, which Billboard named the #1 Best Seller of the year in its recap, since it was #1 on the weekly Best Sellers chart for eight straight weeks. But radio wasn’t quite as enthusiastic, so when you factor in the DJ chart, other songs outrank it. It’s Elvis’s first #1 record and his first single for RCA after leaving Memphis’s legendary rockabilly label, Sun, a few months prior. With lyrics inspired by a newspaper story about a lonely man who jumped to his death out a hotel window, it’s “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Like nothing heard in Pop music up ’til then or since: Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.” It gets your attention from the first syllable with its sparse and bleak intensity, and doesn’t let you go until the bitter end. Imagine how that must have sounded up against the other songs you’ve been hearing in our 1956 Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown so far! Even in Elvis’s own repertoire it stands alone in its desperation. It reached the top five on the Country, Pop and R&B charts from April to July.
Carl Perkins was still on Sun Records, and his “Blue Suede Shoes” hit the charts the same week as “Heartbreak Hotel,” and they were neck-and-neck all of March into April with Perkins even leading two of those five weeks, until “Heartbreak Hotel” shot to #1. “Blue Suede Shoes” shakes out at #26 on our Chartcrush ranking.
#2 Gogi Grant – The Wayward Wind
At #2 we have a song that veteran Western singer Tex Ritter took into the top ten in the U.K. in 1956. But the version that was a hit in the U.S. was the first one that was recorded, by the singer who beat out Doris Day for most popular female vocalist in Billboard’s DJ poll: the only year Day didn’t win from 1949 all the way to ’58. And it’s the song that knocked “Heartbreak Hotel” out of the #1 spot in June: Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind.”
#1 on the nation’s airwaves in 1956 according to Billboard’s year-end DJ chart, Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind, which came out on the indie Era label out of Hollywood, who signed Grant after her first two singles in 1952 had failed to chart for RCA. But her first record on Era was a top 20 hit in 1955, “Suddenly There’s a Valley,” and then “The Wayward Wind” caught fire, just a few months after the mania over Disney’s Davy Crockett miniseries had died down a bit.
By the way, ’56 was the last year any record sung by a female made the top ten on Billboard’s year-end chart ’til Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry” in 1960. Our Chartcrush rankings have Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy” at #4 for 1957, but no females in ’58 or ’59 on our rankings either.
#1 Elvis Presley – Don’t Be Cruel
And we’re down to #1 here on our 1956 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. It’s the A-side of the B-side that was our #9 song of the year, “Hound Dog.” For the fourth time in our countdown, here again, Elvis Presley: his biggest hit the year he notched four of the top ten records. At #1, it’s “Don’t Be Cruel.”
It took 28 takes to get “Don’t Be Cruel” how Elvis wanted it. He perfected the arrangement on a piano right there in the studio. “Hound Dog” took 31 takes the same day. Despite all that, RCA’s Stephen H. Sholes got the production credit on the record. Elvis did “Don’t Be Cruel” all three times he appeared on CBS’s top-rated Ed Sullivan Show in ’56 into ’57.
Well, there you have ’em: the top ten songs of 1956 here on the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. Now there are several songs that made the published year-end top ten on one of Billboard’s three chart categories (Sales, Jukebox Plays and Airplay), yet missed the top ten on our combined ranking. In the time we have left, let’s give some of those a listen, shall we?
#12 The Platters – The Great Pretender
Billboard’s #4 Jukebox and DJ Airplay song of the year narrowly missed the year-end Best Sellers ranking at #12, which is where it lands in our Chartcrush ranking: #12 on the year. It’s the Black vocal group that bridged the gap for Teens between Rock ‘n Roll’s first hits in the Summer of ’55, and Elvis in early ’56, prominently featured in the first B-movie Rock exploitation film, Bill Sears’s Rock Around the Clock. Here’s The Platters’ biggest hit, “The Great Pretender.”
Platters, “The Great Pretender,” #1 for two weeks in February between Dean Martin and Kay Starr. Their “My Prayer,” also hit #1 for two weeks later in the year, in August, and that one was Billboard’s #4 Best Seller of 1956.
#15 Doris Day – Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Será, Será)
But instead of a Platters twofer, we’re gonna move on to Billboard’s #8 Best Seller, which was #13 and 12 on the year-end Jukebox and DJ rankings, respectively, and our Chartcrush #15 song of the year, from the Alfred Hitchcock picture The Man Who Knew Too Much, starring Jimmy Stewart and the singer, also an A-list leading lady, who made it her signature song for the rest of her career. It’s Doris Day’s “Que Será, Será (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).”
Doris Day’s hitmaking career goes all the way back to 1945 when she was the singer on two of the iconic homecoming anthems for troops returning from World War 2, “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time” and “Sentimental Journey,” both with the Les Brown Big Band, with whom she continued to perform and record ’til her first movie and solo records in 1948.
#16 Morris Stoloff Conducting The Columbia Pictures Orchestra – Moonglow and Theme from ‘Picnic’
#5 on Billboard’s year-end DJ chart was only #27 on Jukeboxes. Maybe because it was always on the radio! It’s an instrumental medley from the blockbuster movie Picnic starring William Holden and Kim Novak and our #16 hit of 1956: Morris Stoloff with the Columbia Pictures Orchestra, “Moonglow and Theme from ‘Picnic.'”
Composer George Duning wrote the Theme from Picnic as a musical counterpoint to the 1933 tune “Moonglow,” so musically it made sense to mash ’em up as a medley. In 2004, director Martin Scorsese used the same recording to score a key romantic scene in The Aviator where Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes and Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn fly over Los Angeles at night in one of Hughes’ private planes.
#21 Perry Como – Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)
Next we return to Croonerdom and a record that hit #1 on the DJ chart for a week and was Billboard’s #9 DJ song of the year. But it stalled at #2 Sales and Jukeboxes behind “Heartbreak Hotel” and shakes out at #21 on our combined yearly ranking here on the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown show. The singer was the first to get his own TV show in 1948, and now, at 44, he was back on NBC doing his live one-hour variety show on Saturday nights that, in the Fall of ’56, became the first to be broadcast in color! Of his four top ten hits in 1956, this was the biggest. It’s Perry Como’s “Hot Diggity.”
“Hot Diggity, subtitled “Dog Ziggity Boom,” Perry Como here on our 1956 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. Singer Al Jolson coined that phrase in 1928 and anyone who watched TV in the late ’70s no doubt remembers the Oscar-Meyer hot dog commercial that repurposed the song.
Finally Billboard’s #3 DJ Airplay song of the year, which was #20 and 10 on the year-end Best Sellers and Jukebox charts respectively, and #24 on our combined Chartcrush ranking.
Fresh-faced Canadian Vocal Quartet, The Four Lads, coming off their massive 1955 hit “Moments to Remember,” “No, Not Much,” wrapping up Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show look back at 1956.
I’ve been your host, Christopher Verdesi, and I want to thank you for listening this hour. On our website, chartcrush.com, you can get a written transcript and streamable Spotify versions of this and other Chartcrush Countdown Shows, plus chart run line graphs and other jazzed extras. Also, check us out 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 again, same station, same time, for another edition of Chartcrush.