The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1950s: 430 – 421
“I hung in there like a hair on a grilled cheese.”
430. “Western Movies,” The Olympics. Songwriters: Cliff Goldsmith, Fred Sledge Smith; #8 pop/#7 R&B; 1958. Gun violence still sounded like innocent fun on this 1958 novelty doo wop hit by the Los Angeles African-American vocal group The Olympics. Although played for laughs, the lyrical theme is not much different from Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives.” The Olympics generally sounded like a poor man’s Coasters on later singles such as “Hully Gully” and “Big Boy Pete,” but they had one serious fan in John Lennon. The abrasive moptop covered the “Western Movies” b-side “Well” as “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go),” reinterpreting the song as a heavy blues rocker on the “Sometime in New York City” album.
429. “You Upset Me Baby,” B.B. King. Songwriters: B.B. King, Jules Taub; #1 R&B; 1954. B.B. King had his fourth and final #1 R&B hit with “You Upset Me Baby,” a song about a woman who weakened the narrator’s heart with her 36-28-44 figure. Rolling Stone magazine, “Subsequent live versions would streamline this King original into a brisk workout, but the studio version’s unrushed lope suits King’s awestruck profession of good-natured lust made with offhanded charm.” Records of this type reflect that King was more concerned about being a well-rounded entertainer than the formalist that he was frequently defined as.
428. “Twice the Lovin’ (In Half the Time),” Jean Shepard and Speedy West. Songwriter: Floyd Huffman; Did Not Chart; 1953. Jean Shepard, reflecting on her status as a pioneer female country singer, “As you know, there wasn’t none of us, but I was happy to do my part. I hung in there like a hair on a grilled cheese.” Missouri farmer turned California session player/steel guitarist Speedy West was also credited on “Twice the Lovin’ (In Half the Time),” a song where Shepard declares her independence from a heartbreaking man. The record didn’t chart, but it had more spirit than many of her later Nashville productions. Jean later scored with the same theme of rejection on the yodeling 1964 #5 hit “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar).” In 1955, she became the third female member of the Grand Ole Opry, following in the footsteps of Minnie Pearl and Kitty Wells.
427. “Rockin’ Robin,” Bobby Day. Songwriter: Leon Rene (Jimmy Thomas); #2 pop/#1 R&B; 1958. Fort Worth native Bobby Day found two ways to be a one-hit wonder during the late 1950s. As a member of The Hollywood Flames, he had a #11 pop hit with the birds and the bees referencing “Buzz Buzz Buzz” and shortly thereafter released the #2 pop hit with the tweet tweet tweet “Rockin’ Robin.” Day also released the original versions of “Over and Over,” later a bigger hit for the Dave Clark Five, and “Little Bitty Pretty One,” a bigger hit for Thurston Harris. Author Charlie Gillett has described “Rockin’ Robin” as “a nursery level lyric and a sophisticated-but-relentless arrangement,” perhaps describing how this earworm can be both pleasurable and painful at the same time.
426. “Tonite Tonite,” The Mello-Kings. Songwriter: Billy Myles; #77 pop; 1957. The Mello-Kings were a New York Italian-American vocal doo wop group, who had their only chart hit with the teen pledge of eternal devotion “Tonite Tonite.” Author Jay Warner, “’Tonite, Tonite’ became a solid Pop/R&B harmony classic and consistently sold for years, tallying well over two and a half million sales and invariably winding up in the Top Ten oldies surveys year after year.” A version of The Mello-Kings still performs and, three hours ago as I am writing this, were advertising for a first tenor spot on their Facebook page: “Must know the 50’s music. Mature and a team player. Jersey shore area.”
425. “The Flying Saucer (Part I),” Buchanan and Goodman. Songwriters: Bill Buchanan, Dickie Goodman; #3 pop; 1956. Novelty record maker Dickie Goodman was an early proponent of sampling, taking pop culture issues of the day and intermixing “newsman” commentary with snippets of pop songs. On “The Flying Saucer (Part I),” Goodman took clips from Elvis, The Platters, Little Richard, and others, scoring his biggest pop hit with a spoof of the Orson Welles radio program “War of the Worlds.” Goodman worked this shtick for decades, having another Top Ten single in 1975 with “Mr. Jaws.” His son Jon Goodman on his father’s mixture of business and pleasure, “In New York there was a watering hole called the Ratfink Room. All the comics would come into the Ratfink Room, give my father $20 and ask him to write something funny for them. He wrote a lot of material for Jackie Mason and Stanley Lewis.” The hard partying Goodman developed a serious gambling problem and committed suicide in 1989.
424. “I’m Ready,” Muddy Waters. Songwriter: Willie Dixon; #4 R&B; 1954. The preparedness of Muddy Waters knows no bounds on “I’m Ready,” where the TNT drinking, dynamite smoking blues giant is prepared for fisticuffs, women, or to close down a bar. Rock critic Bill Janovitz, “The original 1954 Waters recording of this blues standard absolutely swings, almost like a big band — or at least a jump-jive arrangement. Like most Dixon compositions/productions, ‘I’m Ready’ is one of the first modern blues tracks, an electric Chicago arrangement that had little to do with its acoustic Delta roots. This track has more resemblance to jazz and links up to early rock & roll. Little Walter (Jacobs) is the featured instrumentalist here, and he makes a case for being the Charlie Parker of the blues harp. He sustains menacing, bee-hive-buzzing chords under the verse stop-time while Waters sings his lines. His actual solo must go down as one of popular music’s all-time greatest in any genre or on any instrument.”
423. “Bloodshot Eyes,” Wynonie Harris. Songwriters: Hank Penny, Ruth Hall; #6 R&B; 1951. Alabama native Hank Penny had a long career in the country music business, working in radio, being a bandleader, doing television gigs, and he even had a seven year run in Las Vegas. Penny had no sympathy for his hard living ex, noting that her “eyes look like two cherries in a glass of buttermilk,” on his 1950 Top Five country hit “Bloodshot Eyes.” His original sounds somewhat like the comedy act the Hoosier Hot Shots performing Western swing. Wynonie Harris took “Bloodshot Eyes” into the world of R&B/jump blues with his 1951 cover. Both Hank Penny and Wynonie Harris recorded for Syd Nathan, the owner of King Records, who owned the publishing on this song, which tells you why it was covered by Harris. Still, it fit Wynonie’s persona, sounding like Louis Jordan performing in a dice rolling alley, instead of for the respectable folks.
422. “Making Believe” Kitty Wells. Songwriter: Jimmy Work; #2 country; 1955. Singer/songwriter Jimmy Work was raised in rural West Tennessee and relocated to Pontiac, Michigan in the mid-1940s. It was in Michigan that he started performing on local radio and he wrote the Red Foley #2 hit “Tennessee Border” in 1949 (Work’s hometown of Dukedom, Tennessee is located on the Tennessee/Kentucky border). Work recorded for several labels from 1949 to 1955, finally scoring a hit with “Making Believe” which peaked at #5 for him. Kitty Wells has the best known version of this classic tear jerker, staying at #2 for fifteen weeks and sounding positively adrift. Other popular covers have been released by Emmylou Harris, Social Distortion, and Loretta Lynn/Conway Twitty. Songwriter Jimmy Work passed away in his hometown of Dukedom, Tennessee in 2018 at the age of 94.
421. “Ubangi Stomp,” Warren Smith. Songwriter: Charles Underwood; Did Not Chart; 1956. Mississippi native Warren Smith scored two Top Ten country singles in the early 1960s (both Harlan Howard compositions – “I Don’t Believe I’ll Fall in Love Today” and “Odds and Ends (Bits and Pieces)”), but his legacy comes from his short rockabilly tenure at Sun Records. Nick Tosches, “’Ubangi Stomp’ typified the tough, churlish strain of country music that evolved in the 1950s. Aflash with images of sex, violence, and redneck existentialism, rockabilly was the glorious florescence of white rock-and-roll. It seemed such a sexy, pagan horror, such a dangerous new creature, that America feared it, preached against it, and tried to ban it. And, yet, deep in its surly soul, rockabilly too carried ancientry.”