Chartcrush Countdown Show 1959 Episode Graphic

1959 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast

Teen Idols and Folk surge as Congress takes aim at Rock ‘n Roll DJs and Payola, and a plane crash in Iowa claims three major stars on “the day the music died.”

::start transcript::

Welcome! This is The Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show and I’m your host, Christopher Verdesi. Every week on Chartcrush, we dive deep into a year in Pop music and culture and count down the top ten songs according to our recap of the weekly charts published in Billboard, the music industry’s top trade mag. This week on Chartcrush, it’s 1959, a tough year for Greasers, Rock ‘n Roll’s original fan base of working class, gang-affiliated, motorcycle- and hotrod-obsessed young men portrayed by Marlon Brando and James Dean in ’50s films like The Wild Ones and Rebel Without a Cause, and then later by throwback group Sha Na Na, Henry Winkler as The Fonz in Happy Days and John Travolta as Danny Zuko in Grease once ’50s nostalgia took hold in the ’70s.

No one called them “Greasers” or thought of them as a movement ’til people started having to name all the Boomer youth subcultures in the mid-’60s (Hippies, Mods, Beats, Radicals), so it was applied retroactively, first by Surfers in California, who had their own distinct subculture. Then S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders in 1967 made it stick. In the ’50s, though, they were just Jets or Sharks or Jesters, Devils or Wanderers: their local gang. No connection with other leather-jacketed, dungareed and cigarette sleeved toughs. Usually the opposite! And to respectable folks, of course, they were just “hoodlums” and “troublemakers.” But they were the edgy, dangerous, thrill-seeking rebels in a time of unprecedented conformity, so girls were titillated, boys were jealous, and the Greaser became an enduring icon of “cool.”

Early Rock ‘n Roll was Greaser music, a marriage of Pop’s two low-brow musical ghettos, R&B and Country, but anyone could listen to it and safely have some of that “cool” rub off. But was it safe? The New York Daily News didn’t think so, calling Rock ‘n Roll “an inciter of juvenile delinquency” just as Elvis was breaking out in April of 1956. In ’58, a journal for music teachers called it “a threat to civilization” and “the most disgraceful blasphemy ever committed in the name of music.” And the most powerful man in the music biz, Columbia Records’ Mitch Miller, considered it “musical baby food.” Preachers and segregationists, of course, had been up in arms, for different reasons, right from the start.

So, quite a diverse collection of anti-Rock crusaders, but leaderless and without a coherent plan of attack, until 1959. That’s when Congress got out in front, but not for any of those reasons. Since 1950 the record biz had ballooned from a $50 million business to a $500 million business, but at the same time the five major labels’ share of top 40 hits had dwindled from 89% to just 25%, a catastrophic loss of market share. And blue-chip copyright clearers ASCAP were hemorrhaging too as rival BMI collected and paid the royalties for all the low-brow songwriters that ASCAP had been thumbing its nose at for years. So with lobbyists breathing down their necks, Congress targeted, not suggestive lyrics or onstage antics or even the link to juvenile delinquency; they found a money angle! Payola! Radio DJs accepting bribes to play certain records (ahem, indie label Rock ‘n Roll records, that is). Well that was a new one for anti-Rock ‘n Roll crusaders, but it explained everything, didn’t it? Well the moral panic and hearings over Payola cast DJs like Alan Freed (the guy who coined the term Rock ‘n Roll in the early ’50s), as shady racketeers selling out America’s youth. Freed was a combative, chain-smoking wise guy in the hearings, and it cost him his job at New York’s WABC, then his house, seized by tax authorities three months later. Dick Clark, on the other hand, was pleasant and cooperative when it was his turn in the 1960 hearings that shaped the legislation that outlawed Payola, and got to keep his network radio show and American Bandstand on TV. But going forward, radio got super-careful about what went on the air. Program directors, not DJs, picked the records, and anything too crude-sounding was a red flag, so they steered clear to stay above suspicion.

#10 Guy MitchellHeartaches by the Number

One record that didn’t raise any eyebrows though: our song at #10 as we get things rolling here on our 1959 edition of Chartcrush. He was a chart veteran: the first to make it purely as a recording act, with hardly any experience performing live. That was in 1950, and after 16 hits, followed by a chart slump from ’53 to ’56, he got a second act with his very first #1 and then his own variety show on ABC, which only aired for a few months, but he became one of only a handful of acts with career peaks before and during the Rock era. At #10 is his second career #1 from late ’59. It’s Guy Mitchell with “Heartaches by the Number.”

I mentioned Mitch Miller in the intro, head of A&R, first at Mercury, then Columbia Records. Well, mining the Country charts for Pop hits was one of Miller’s trademark gambits, and wildly successful. Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz,” Tony Bennett’s “Cold Cold Heart” and Rosemary Clooney’s “Half as Much” were all top five Country hits a year or less before Miller gave them to his Pop Singers to record.

And he still had the knack in ’56 when he gave Guy Mitchell what became his big comeback hit, “Singing the Blues,” his first #1 and the #1 overall song of 1957 by our reckoning, beating out Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. Marty Robbins’ version of “Singing the Blues” out at the same time was #1 on the Country charts for 13 weeks. Well after “Heartaches by the Number” was a big Country hit for Ray Price, Miller and Mitchell did it again. But Guy’s Pop version was his last #1 and last Top40. In 1967 though, he went to Nashville and reinvented himself as an actual Country singer.

#9 Ritchie Valens – Donna

So on February 3, 1959, three of Rock ‘n Roll’s biggest stars, Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and our 17-year-old act at #9 had just done a gig in Iowa as part of a three-week, 24 date package tour of three Upper Midwest states organized by a talent agency in the dead of Winter. The next day’s show was in Minnesota but the heater on their bus wasn’t working, so rather than freeze, they chartered a plane. Tragically, though, the plane crashed minutes into the flight and everyone was killed. Don McLean later memorialized the crash as “the day the music died” in his 1972 hit “American Pie.”

Holly and Richardson were veterans compared to the 17-year old star, who’d only just scored his first two hits in the Fall. But his third had just hit #3 on the Hot100 that fateful night on its way to #2 for two weeks, a bigger chart hit than either of his tourmates had yet scored. At #9, it’s Ritchie Valens’ ballad, “Donna.”

Blocked from the top spot at #2 for two weeks by a song we’ll be hearing later in the countdown, but its ten weeks in the top ten make it our #9 song of 1959, Ritchie Valens’ “Donna.” The upbeat “La Bamba” on the flip was on the chart at the same time but only got to #22. It’s Valens’ signature song though: one of the first Latin Rock hits, sung in Spanish, and the title of the Valens biopic starring Lou Diamond Phillips. Los Lobos’ version of “La Bamba” from the soundtrack to that film was #1 for three weeks in the Summer of 1987.

Now “Donna” missed the top ten on Billboard’s year-end ranking for ’59 at #14 because its first six weeks of chart action in late ’58 weren’t factored. At Chartcrush we rank every song’s full chart run: key difference. By the way, Guy Mitchell’s “Heartaches by the Number,” our #10 song? Same story, but at the end of the year. Billboard has that one at #88 for ’59 and #93 for 1960.

#8 The BrownsThe Three Bells

“Folkniks Оп March: Hill Sound Upsurge” was a front-page Billboard headline trumpeting the first Newport Folk Festival in ’59, an annual event that defined Folk as genre distinct from Country in the ’60s, but Country and Folk had already been resolving into separate camps.

The Kingston Trio’s 1958 smash “Tom Dooley” that started the Folk Revival had topped the Pop chart and never cracked the Country chart. And our trio from Arkansas at #8, who’d been scoring Country top tens for years and appearing on TV showcases like Louisiana Hayride and Ozark Jubilee, didn’t play at Newport. But they still managed to straddle the Country-Folk divide well into the ’60s after our next song, which was a huge Pop crossover hit: ten weeks at #1 on the Country chart and four on the Hot100. And it even got to #10 on the R&B chart!

The song was a standard by ’59, originally in French and done by numerous artists before, but the trio’s lead singer, Jim Ed Brown, had the same name as the song’s character, so it’d already been in their repertoire for years before they decided to record it. At #8, The Browns, Jim Ed and his sisters Maxine and Bonnie, “The Three Bells.”

The Browns at #8 as we count down the biggest hits of 1959 here on The Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. “The Three Bells” got The Browns on Ed Sullivan and American Bandstand and they followed it up with more updated standards, including an update of the 1946 hit “The Old Lamplighter” that got to #5 in 1960.

After The Browns, Jim Ed Brown went on to a long solo career as a Country Singer through the early ’80s, including his 1967 drown-your-sorrows anthem “Pop a Top.”

#7 Lloyd PriceStagger Lee

So as anyone who’s ever done a corporate compliance job or had to operate under any kind of scrutiny can tell you: it’s not enough to just obey the letter of the law; you’ve got to avoid even the appearance of impropriety to keep regulators off your back. And since the Payola scandal was really about the broader backlash against Rock ‘n Roll, for radio that meant being very careful about what Rock records got on the air, if any.

New York’s WINS, Alan Freed’s station until he quit in 1958, nearly lost its broadcast license for turning a blind eye to its DJs taking Payola and played Frank Sinatra for 66 hours straight to demonstrate to everyone that they were committed to “pretty music.” Well, not every station went to that extreme, of course, but going forward it was clear to labels and artists that if they wanted their records on the radio, they had to have class and polish and production values: no more raucous R&B or raw Rockabilly.

So the Brill Building sound took hold over the next few years. But even before the first Payola hearings, our act at #7 saw the stitches on that fastball, so when he set out to update an old down ‘n dirty Blues standard in late ’58, he told the bandleader/arranger Don Costa that he didn’t want it to sound like a Blues record; he wanted horns like voices and a big, mainstream sound that’d pass muster with the general public. And Costa, who was also head of A&R at the label, ABC-Paramount, was just the guy to give him that. At #7 it’s 1959’s biggest R&B star, Lloyd Price: his first Pop hit, #1 for four weeks, “Stagger Lee.”

Yet another song that narrowly missed Billboard’s 1959 year-end top ten because they didn’t count its first few weeks on the chart in ’58. Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” is #13 on their ranking. But his follow-up hit “Personality” did make their top ten at #3, despite it never reaching #1. We have that one at #15.

Price scored his first hit on the R&B chart as a Teen in the early ’50s after Art Rupe, founder of L.A.’s legendary Specialty label signed him on a scouting trip to New Orleans. His song “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was 1952’s top R&B hit and one of the first to catch on with White kids digging Black R&B in the early ’50s. But he got drafted in the last months of the Korean War and when he returned in ’55, Specialty was scoring hits with Little Richard and Price’s former chauffer Larry Williams, and ‘ol Lloyd was yesterday’s news. So he bought out his contract from Rupe, co-founded his own label and his first release on that got picked up by ABC-Paramount, where he stayed until ’63.

After the hits dried up, Price started another label, Double L Records, which launched Wilson Pickett’s career in the mid-’60s, and mostly focused on the business side of things, and not just music. In 1974 he teamed up with Don King to promote the epic Rumble in the Jungle title fight, Ali vs. Forman

#6 The FleetwoodsMr. Blue

Next up, another example of the smooth, polished, unthreatening Folk-adjacent sound that was a safe bet for labels and radio in the thick of the Payola hysteria. And also another example of an act that, like Lloyd Price, had two massive hits in 1959. But in the case of this high school trio from the Pacific Northwest, both made Billboard’s year-end top ten at numbers 10 and 8. The latter, “Come Softly to Me,” just misses our top ten at #11, but the one Billboard had at #10, the follow-up, stayed on the chart into 1960, so again, counting that full chart run, it’s the bigger hit, #6 on the year. It’s Gretchen Christopher, Barbara Ellis and Gary Troxel, originally Two Girls and a Guy, but renamed to a Seattle record distributor’s telephone exchange as a gimmick to sell more records locally. It’s The Fleetwoods, “Mr. Blue.”

The Fleetwoods’ “Mr. Blue,” #6 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1959. Are ya sleepy? That’s the song on the radio in the scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation where the camera pans to show the whole Griswold family asleep in the car, including Chevy Chase as Clark, who’s driving! “Mr. Blue” was only #1 for one week, but in the top ten for a very impressive 11.

Their debut “Come Softly to Me” was on top four weeks in the Spring, but had fewer in the top ten. Again, we have “Come Softly” at #11. Interestingly, both songs were top five hits on the R&B chart too. Gary Troxel got called to active duty in the Navy before 1959 was out and despite meeting up to record in L.A. during his shore leaves over the next couple years, they couldn’t keep their momentum and split in ’63.

#5 Paul AnkaLonely Boy

Now, I mentioned ABC-Paramount’s A&R head Don Costa when we heard Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” back at #7. Well, one of Costa’s first discoveries in that role was our Canadian Singer and Songwriter at #5. At 17 in 1957, he moved to New York with just $100 in his pocket, auditioned for Costa, got signed, and his first record, “Diana,” was a #2 hit. A great start, but it took him nearly two years and a dozen more singles to match it. When he did, though, with this song, it was #1 for four weeks. At #5 it’s Paul Anka’s “Lonely Boy.”

Paul Anka’s “Lonely Boy,” the #5 hit of 1959, both on Billboard’s original year-end Hot100 chart and on our Chartcrush ranking that we’re counting down the top ten from this hour. It was on the charts while the Teen exploitation movie he sings it in was in theaters (his acting debut), about a sexy delinquent played by ’50s blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren, sent to a reform school run by nuns.

Anka was only getting started: four more top tens over the next year, and fun fact, in 1960 he wrote one of TV’s most instantly-recognizable themes, the theme to Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, originally titled “Toot Sweet.”

After ’63 the hits trailed off and he spent the rest of the ’60s playing Vegas, but like other Teen Idols and early Rockers, he rode the ’70s nostalgia wave back to the top of the charts: a #1 duet with Soul singer Odia Coates in ’74, “(You’re) Having My Baby,” and another three top tens after that.

#4 The PlattersSmoke Gets in Your Eyes

At #4, the fourth and final #1 hit for the ’50s top charting Doo Wop group, honed into a powerhouse stage act by veteran Songwriter/Producer/Arranger/Manager Buck Ram, and then whooshed to fame on records and the charts along with Rock’s initial burst in ’55 and ’56 doing Ram’s songs. “Only You,” “The Great Pretender,” “(You’ve Got) The Magic Touch,” all top fives. Starting with “My Prayer” in late ’56 though, they pivoted to updating old standards in their unique style with Tony Williams’ distinctive lead vocals, and our #4 song was the third of those to top the charts. It’s The Platters with “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” at #4: yet another record whose run began at the tail end of 1958, so Billboard didn’t factor all of its chart action into their ranking for ’59 and ranked it #16 on the year. With its lush, dreamy orchestration, it was a milestone in Vocal Group records heading into the ’60s. No one would suspect Payola on a record like that, right?

The song had been recorded dozens of times back to the mid-’30s by a who’s who of Big Band and Pop names, but as with their previous covers of standards, The Platters completely reinvented it and made it their own. At the end of ’59, Lead Singer Tony Williams split from The Platters to pursue a solo career but was unsuccessful, as were The Platters without him.

#3 Frankie Avalon – Venus

So if you’re flipping through Billboard to see how they covered the plane crash that killed Richie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, the “day the music died,” it’d be pretty easy to miss the four column inches clustered on page six of the February 9, 1959 issue with 11 other short news items and a boxed legal notice that’s the most prominent thing on the page. The headline? “Tragedy Fails to Halt GAC Winter Tour.”

Since GAC was a talent agency (short for “General Amusement Corporation”), they had no problem filling the vacated slots for the remaining gigs on the tour, and one of the acts they brought in was the Teen Idol at #3, and the choice was emblematic of the shift from legit Rockers steeped in Blues and Country back to the swoon-worthy Pop Crooners of yesteryear. At #3 it’s Frankie Avalon’s first #1 hit that entered the chart the same Billboard issue as that short news burst, February 9, and peaked a month later: “Venus.”

Unlike the earthy, sometimes lewdly suggestive R&B hits earlier in the ’50s, the Teen Idol records that took over the charts in the wake of Payola usually framed romance in terms of unfulfilled yearnings and longings. Frankie Avalon’s “Venus,” #3 on our 1959 Chartcrush Countdown, the epitome of that: a prayer to the Roman goddess of love to be his matchmaker!

It was Avalon’s first #1 since his chart debut in the beginning of ’58, and he got to the top again later in ’59 with “Why.” And he continued charting singles for a few more years. But he was an even bigger movie star, paired with Annette Funicello in a string of seven American International Pictures beach party movies in the early ’60s. And remember what I said about that nostalgia-based comeback trend in the ’70s talking about Paul Anka? Well, add Frankie Avalon to that list with his Disco update of “Venus” that charted for 11 weeks in 1976.

#2 Johnny HortonThe Battle of New Orleans

At #2 is the second of the two Folk records in our countdown. Three if you count “Stagger Lee” but that was more of a Blues record and an R&B record. We heard The Browns’ “Three Bells” at #8. Both (or all three of those) are story songs, and over on the Country charts, the trend was even more glaring. Six of the ten songs that topped the Country chart in ’59 were story songs.

This one’s about an historical event: a decisive battle in the War of 1812, written and first recorded in 1957 by prolific Folk Songwriter and School Principal Johnny Driftwood to get his students in Arkansas interested in history. Driftwood’s own version didn’t cause much of a stir, but this one by our struggling Honky Tonk and Rockabilly Singer at #2 struck a chord with ’50s kiddos steeped in Westerns and mid-’50s Davy Crockett mania and it was #1 for six weeks in June and July. The #2 song of 1959 is Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans.”

Johnny Horton, “The Battle of New Orleans,” #2 here on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown of 1959’s biggest hits, about the American victory vs. the British Navy in the War of 1812 that made General Andrew Jackson a legend, and future President who’s on the $20 bill. Horton followed “Battle” with other historically-themed songs, and two were top five hits: “Sink the Bismarck” and “North to Alaska,” which was used in the opening credits of the John Wayne movie of the same name. But tragically, while the that one was climbing the chart in late 1960, Johnny Horton was killed in a head-on collision with a truck after playing a gig in Austin, Texas at the peak of his fame.

#1 Bobby DarinMack the Knife

Now Billboard has “Battle of New Orleans” as 1959’s #1 song of the year, but, yet again, we have a record with a chart run that went into 1960, that’s a bigger hit when you count it’s full run, so “Battle” gets bumped to #2, and we have at #1 the first Rock Era Teen Idol type Singer who had the stones to wade into neo-Swing Jazz Crooner territory and try to out-Sinatra Sinatra. And it entered the chart just two weeks after his feather-light, yearning Teen Idol ballad “Dream Lover” exited.

It’s a song from a German opera: a Kurt Weill composition from Berthold Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera,” which debuted in Berlin in 1928 and with American Marc Blitzstein’s updated English lyrics was one of the longest-running off-Broadway musicals in history. Louis Armstrong charted a version of the song in 1956, and after our Singer at #1 saw the show, he added the song to his nightclub act and recorded it with a fresh Swing arrangement by Richard Wess. Atlantic Records’ honcho Ahmet Ertugun was skeptical, but once he heard it, not only did he want it on the album, but he wanted it out as a single too, and it was #1 for seven weeks, October and November. At #1, it’s Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife.”

Bobby Darin had come a long way since “Splish Splash (I Was Taking a Bath),” his first hit in ’58. “Mack the Knife,” our #1 song of 1959 here on the Chartcrush Countdown Show. With Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” at #7, that makes two songs about murder in our countdown. And I’ll just leave that there except to point out that 1959 was peak Mafia, just before Robert F. Kennedy, JFK’s brother and Attorney General, started really clamping down on organized crime in the first years of the ’60s.

So did Darin out-Sinatra Sinatra? Well Frank didn’t go anywhere near “Mack the Knife” until 1984 and he called Bobby’s “the definitive version.” Darin blazed the trail crossing over to Adult Pop territory in ’59, but year later, Elvis was out with his “O Sole Mio”-derived “It’s Now or Never,” and Bobby Darin followed up with more of the same on “Beyond the Sea” and charted 33 more hits before his untimely death in 1973 after heart surgery at just 37.


So that’s our countdown. Now as I’ve been saying throughout the show, several of the hits we’ve heard this hour were not in Billboard’s year-end top ten for ’59 because their chart runs extended back into ’58 or ahead into 1960, and Billboard just didn’t factor those weeks. Again, at Chartcrush, our ranking method factors every song’s full chart run into whichever calendar year it earned the most points.

To recap, Guy Mitchell’s “Heartaches by the Number,” Ritchie Valens’ “Donna,” Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” and The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes:” none of those were among the top ten on Billboard’s year-end Hot100. But that means Billboard had four songs that weren’t in our countdown, so in the time we have left, just to be thorough, let’s take a look at those.

Wilbert Harrison – Kansas City

At #9, Billboard had one of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s first songs, written in 1952 and recorded a few times, including by Little Richard, but not a hit until Wilbert Harrison’s version in 1959, which was #1 for two weeks in May: “Kansas City.”

We have “Kansas City” at #20 on our Chartcrush ranking. Wilbert Harrison couldn’t release a timely follow-up to “Kansas City” because his previous label was claiming he was still under contract with them and sued. By the time that was settled, his moment had passed. But his song “Let’s Work Together” got to #32 in 1969 before Blues Rockers Canned Heat got their cover version all over FM radio in the early ’70s.

The FleetwoodsCome Softly to Me

Next, as I mentioned when we heard “Mr. Blue” at #6, The Fleetwoods’ first hit was also in Billboard’s year-end top ten. It just misses ours at #11, “Come Softly to Me.”

Recorded a cappella with just minimal instrumentation overdubbed later, The Fleetwoods’ “Come Softly to Me,” #1 for four weeks in the Spring.

Bobby Darin – Dream Lover

Billboard also had Bobby Darin’s hit right before “Mack the Knife” in its ’59 year-end top ten at #6.

Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” shakes out at #19 on our Chartcrush ranking for 1959. It never got to #1 but stayed in the top 10 ten weeks.

Lloyd Price – Personality

And finally in our bonus segment review of the four Billboard year-end top ten hits bumped out of our Chartcrush top ten by other hits whose chart runs weren’t entirely in Billboard’s ’59 chart year, Lloyd Price’s “Personality.”

“Personality” is our #15 song of 1959 and Billboard’s #3. That’s a discrepancy we can’t explain with what’s known about their ranking methodology that year, or any ranking methodology, but we’re sure it wasn’t Payola because they wouldn’t do that, right?

And on that shaky note, we’re going to have to wrap things up for our 1959 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show because we’re all out of time. Hey, if you like what you heard and you want more, head over to our website, for a full transcript of the show and a link to the podcast version on Spotify, plus cool extras like our full top 100 chart and interactive graph of the actual chart runs of the songs we heard this hour. We do that for every year, 1940s up to now, and it’s all on the website. Again, I’ve been your host, Christopher Verdesi. Thank you for listening, and be sure and tune in again next week, same station, same time, for another year, and another edition of Chartcrush.

::end transcript::

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Verified by MonsterInsights