The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1950s: 470 – 461
The Jungle Book, the Blues Brothers, and Buck Dharma.
470. “The Thing,” Phil Harris. Songwriter: Charles Randolph Grean; #1 pop; 1950. Indiana native Phil Harris worked in show business for decades in radio, as a bandleader, and as an actor. He may be best known today for voicing the character of Baloo in the 1967 Disney film “The Jungle Book.” He had ten Top 40 chart singles from 1933 to 1950 with the novelty number “The Thing” being his only #1 hit. The concept of “The Thing” was taken from the traditional bawdy Irish folksong “The Chandler’s Wife,” where a three beat drum pattern serves as a whimsical alternative to naming an activity, or in the case of The Thing, an unknown object or creature. As is so often in life, mystery is so much more alluring than knowledge.
469. “I Don’t Know,” Willie Mabon and His Combo. Songwriter: Willie Mabon; #1 R&B; 1952. “What should I say to make you mad this time, bay-beeeee?” Willie Mabon documented the battle of the sexes on this early 1950’s #1 R&B singles “I Don’t Know” and “I’m Mad,” which were the most successful singles released by Chess Records before the era of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Mabon portrays a disdainful ladies’ man on “I Don’t Know,” in which he’d rather anger his many lovers than flatter them. Tennessee Ernie Ford covered “I Don’t Know” in 1953, but unlike Mabon, didn’t start the song with a death threat (changing “Good kind papa gotta poison you” to “One of these days I’ll be leaving you”). “I Don’t Know” was rediscovered during the 1970s with covers by Freddie King and The Blues Brothers.
468. “Night Train,” Jimmy Forrest. Songwriters: Oscar Washington, Lewis P. Simpkins, Jimmy Forrest; #1 R&B; 1952. Tenor saxophonist Jimmy Forrest was a St. Louis native who performed with Duke Ellington during the 1940s. It was from the Ellington song “Happy Go Lucky Local” that Forrest took the primary vamp for “Night Train,” although he changed the tone from a dinner club to a smoky blues bar. Rock critic Bill Dahl on one of the primary uses of the song, “It’s highly unlikely that a stripper sashayed anywhere in the U.S. during the 1950s without baring her all (at least on a semi-regular basis) to the lusty bump-and-grind groove of tenor saxman Jimmy Forrest’s immortal instrumental ‘Night Train.’ Its smoky sensuality and relaxed yet forceful rhythmic thrust was tailor-made for the noble role.” The next generation of fans would know “Night Train” from James Brown’s 1962 Top 5 R&B cover version. Forrest didn’t find the charts again after 1952, but had a lengthy career as a sideman and bandleader, appearing on dozens of albums from 1951 until his death in 1980.
467. “Don’t Let Go,” Roy Hamilton. Songwriter: Jesse Stone; #13 pop/#2 R&B; 1958. Roy Hamilton grew up performing gospel music and had formal training in opera and classical music. His wheelhouse was dramatic material such as “Unchained Melody,” which he took to #6 on the pop charts in 1955. “Don’t Let Go” was more an upbeat, teen oriented sound, written by Jesse Stone, who also worked as the arranger for the recording. Stone’s legacy as a songwriter includes Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” “Money Honey” by The Drifters, and The Clovers’ “Your Cash Ain’t Nothing But Trash.” As for Roy Hamilton and his booming baritone, he had the last of his sporadic hits with 1961’s “You Can Have Her” and passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1969 at the age of 40. Keyboardist/session musician Bobby Wood, “Roy Hamilton was a dream, he was one of my heroes. He made you want to play your heart out.”
466. “I Gotta Know,” Wanda Jackson. Songwriter: Thelma Blackmon; #15 country; 1956. Wanda Jackson grew up in Oklahoma and California, where she saw Western swing acts Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, and Tex Williams as a young girl. She received a regular radio slot at the age of 15 and was soon discovered by Hank Thompson. She had a Top Ten country hit in 1954 with “You Can’t Have My Love,” a comically themed duet with Thompson’s bandleader Billy Gray. Still a teenager, she often shared billing with Elvis Presley and they had a short romantic relationship. Elvis encouraged Jackson to record rockabilly material and she returned to the country charts in 1956 with the dramatic tempo changes of “I Gotta Know.” Her first rockabilly hit was written by Thelma Blackmon, the mother of one of Jackson’s teenage friends from Oklahoma.
465. “One Summer Night,” The Danleers. Songwriter: Danny Webb; #7 pop/#4 R&B; 1958. A Brooklyn, street-corner doo wop act, The Danleers had their only hit with the romance number “One Summer Night,” which has been described by author Wayne Jancik as “one of the most thermal make out tunes to be heard on rock and roll radio.” (Their unusual name resulted in the group being referred to as “The Dandleers” on the original pressing of “One Summer Night.”) Lead singer Jimmy Weston, “We were all young kids. We wanted to ROCK. But (manager) Danny Webb was into that Platters thing and that wasn’t making it for us. He was tellin’ us that we would last longer singing that type of music. The name Danny Webb is on ‘One Summer Night’ as writer. I wrote it, not him. But I was a young boy and Danny was such a sweet talker. I went along with it. At the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal. I just wanted to sing, you understand!” The Diamonds did a cover of “One Summer Night” that made the Top 40 charts in 1961 and the Beach Boys incorporated the chorus into their 1992 release “Slow Summer Dancin’ (One Summer Night).”
464. “No Money in this Deal,” George Jones. Songwriter: George Jones; Did Not Chart; 1954. This was the first single that George Jones ever released, sounding a bit too much like his heroes Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell on this comical romp. Jones, “I can’t imagine being as nervous today as I was when I cut my first two songs for Starday at age twenty-two. When anybody gets nervous they rely on their reflexes, and I was no exception.” Check out the Western swing influence on this honky tonk legend with the raw like sushi fiddle break followed by a piano turn and a guitar solo.
463. “Venus,” Frankie Avalon. Songwriters: Ed Marshall, Peter DeAngelis; #1 pop/#10 R&B 1959. Philadelphia native/teen idol Frankie Avalon (nee Francis Avallone) was twelve years old when he made his network television debut, but didn’t have his first pop hit until five years later, with the 1957 Top Ten single “DeDe Dinah.” “Venus,” a prayer to the goddess of love, was his first #1 hit and his signature song. Avalon in 2013, “I still remember it so vividly. I’ll never forget it. The minute I heard the song, I fell in love with it and we decided to go to New York right away to record it. I sat in the back seat of the car with (record executive) Bob (Marcucci), rehearsing the arrangement he had done on the guitar. We walked into Bell Sound in New York. We had a 7 PM recording date. It was all one track then, the band was there with you and they played and you sang and that was it, buddy. No mixing and fixing like today. Back then, they pressed the acetate recording right away. I waited for it to be done until 4:00 AM. I took it back to Philly with me like it was gold. I had a little Victrola and I played it over and over again. I just knew it was going to be a smash.”
462. “Come Softly to Me,” The Fleetwoods. Songwriter: Gretchen Christopher; #1 pop/#5 R&B; 1958. The Fleetwoods were a vocal trio from Olympia, Washington who formed in 1958 and had immediate success with their #1 pop hit “Come Softly to Me.” Gretchen Christopher, “Gary (Troxel) walked me downtown for my dance class after school. He was humming something. I asked what it was. “Oh, just some jazz trumpet riff I have in my head,’ he replied (author’s note – this became the ‘dahm dahm, dahm do dahm, ooby do’ hook). ‘Well, keep it up, but slow it down,’ I said, recognizing that it was based on the same chord progression as the song I was writing. Arranging it mentally, on the spot, I sang my ‘Come Softly’ in counterpoint against the nonsense syllable Gary was humming, and it worked.” This quiet, insistent number has been covered by a range of artist to include Buck Dharma and The Roches.
461. “The Glory of Love,” The Five Keys. Songwriter: Billy Hill; #1 R&B; 1951. “The Glory of Love” first found the pop charts in 1936 as a bouncy, big band number by Benny Goodman. The Five Keys were a Virginia R&B vocal group who slowed down the tempo, emphasizing sincerity over wit on this early version of doo wop. Marvin Gaye on lead singer Rudy West, “He had a pure, satin style that thrilled me.” The Five Keys had crossover pop success during the rock ‘n’ roll era (“Ling, Ting, Tong,” “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”), but failed to make a lasting commercial impression. Rudy West in 1991, “In retrospect, I wish we had better management and exposure. You had a few black performers, like Nat King Cole and Louie Armstrong, crossing over. We were still considered black artists, like most of our peers. It trapped us.”