The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1950s: 70 – 61

Written by | April 4, 2020 4:30 am | No Comments

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My love must be some kind of blind love, I can’t see anyone but you.

70. “A Lover’s Question,” Clyde McPhatter. Songwriters: Brook Benton, Jimmy T. Williams; #6 pop/#1 R&B; 1958. North Carolina native Clyde McPhatter took his church trained soprano into the world of R&B music during the 1950s, singing for Billy Ward and the Dominoes (fronting the unit on “Have Mercy Baby,” “Do Something for Me,” and “The Bells,” one of the oddest hit records of any era). He then led the original version of The Drifters, before they became a crossover pop sensation, singing on the major R&B hits “Money Honey,” “Such a Night,” and “What’cha Gonna Do.” After a tour in the Army, he became a solo act, having his biggest hit with the doo wop inspired ballad “A Lover’s Question,” a song about romantic insecurity. Rock critic Bruce Eder on McPhatter’s influence, “McPhatter was idolized by Black audiences as few singers before or since ever were, and helped define rhythm & blues and its transformation into soul.” He was described by blues historian Robert Palmer as “probably the most influential black singer of the mid-50’s,” yet, could not adjust to life after fame and drank himself to death at the age of 39.

69. “Memphis, Tennessee,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; Did Not Chart; 1959. This long distance plea for help was originally the b-side to “Back in the U.S.A.” in 1959 and hit the U.K. Top Ten in 1963. Musically, “Memphis” sounds like a muted form of rockabilly, but the hook is in the story. As the song develops, it is revealed that the phone call was made in hopes of finding a six-year-old daughter, the victim of a broken family. A 1963 Lonnie Mack instrumental version of “Memphis” preceded the Johnny Rivers cover that peaked at #2 on the pop charts in 1964. Most interesting version – Wilson Pickett’s 1973 release sounds like a Blaxploitation film waiting to happen.

68. “Sh-Boom,” The Chords. Songwriters: James Keyes, Claude Feaster, Carl Feaster, Floyd F. McRae, James Edwards; #9 pop/#2 R&B; 1954. The Chords were a Bronx based R&B vocal group who were discovered while singing in a subway and had their first and only hit with the ecstatic doo wop of “Sh-Boom.” (An inferior version by the Canadian group The Crew-Cuts was also a major hit in 1954). Author Bryan Thomas, “’Sh-Boom’ is supposed to have been titled after the threat of an atom bomb explosion which, in the midst of Cold War posturing in 1954, was a very real topic on the public’s mind. However, this demented ditty also included the surreally optimistic message that everything was ultimately fine and as the rest of the lyrics suggested, ‘life could be a dream.’ By the end of June 1954, ‘Sh-Boom’ had climbed up the charts nationwide, charting on both the R&B and pop lists, a nearly unprecedented feat for its time. For all practical purposes – along with the Crows’ 1953 hit ‘Gee’ – ‘Sh-Boom’ introduced the white audience to black R&B music for the first time.”

67. “Well…All Right,” Buddy Holly. Songwriters: Buddy Holly, Norman Petty, Jerry Allison, Joe Mauldin; Did Not Chart; 1958. Buddy Holly drops his famous hiccupping vocal style and gives an unflinching statement of lifelong commitment on the 1958 b-side “Well…All Right.” Perhaps as a reference to the maturity of the subject matter, rock critic Bruce Eder has opined that “Well…All Right” was “years ahead of its time as a song and a recording.” British music journalist Jon Savage, “’Well…All Right’ is brutally simple but complex at the same time, with a fantastic acoustic guitar riff that has the power of a full band. Holly sounds at once tender, resigned, determined and furious. It’s a generational statement before such things were consciously thought of, and it could have been recorded yesterday.” And, a summary from blogger Brian Miller, “The song is more than lovely; it is a masterpiece of dynamics.” There are no drums on the record, Jerry Allison plays a cymbal pattern that perfectly complements Holly’s guitar work.

66. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” The Platters. Songwriters: Jerome Kern, Otto Harbach; #1 pop/#3 R&B; 1958. Jerome Kern composed over 700 songs to include “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which he wrote with lyricist Otto Harback for the 1933 musical “Roberta.” Paul Whiteman (who looked like a less disheveled version of Oliver Hardy) and his Orchestra had a #1 single in 1934 with their kitschy big band take. Tom Breihan of Stereogum, “’Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ is a deeply and fundamentally sad song. It’s about losing yourself in love, ignoring all the friends who tell you that these things fall apart. And then it’s about losing someone and being forced to admit that all your friends are right. Lead tenor Tony Williams keeps his composure all through the song, singing with a sweet fondness that only lets in a hint of that sadness. But then he builds up to a fiery, cinematic final note, exploding upward as the strings swirl with him. The song must’ve sounded terribly old-fashioned, even in 1958. But it’s also immaculately sung and beautifully orchestrated in ways that only add to that central emotional gut-punch.”

65. “Young Blood,” The Coasters. Songwriters: Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus; #8 pop/#1 R&B; 1957. The title concept for “Young Blood” came from Doc Pomus and was passed to Leiber and Stoller by Jerry Wexler. It took Jerry Lieber fifteen minutes to write the lyrics, describing an all-encompassing lust in a manner that was both playful and illicit. Authors Michael Campbell and James Brody, “The story told in ‘Young Blood’ deals with youthful infatuation, but it is a far cry from the starry-eyed romance found in songs like ‘Earth Angel.’ The Coasters’s songs were the opposite of most doo-wop: steely-eyed, not sentimental, and deeply humorous. The Coasters’ singing sounds slick, not sweet. Although the Coasters have a black sound, the theme of the song is universal: teens of all races could relate to it, and did.”

64. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” Lloyd Price. Songwriter: Lloyd Price; #1 R&B; 1952. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was the first hit for Lloyd Price, who went from writing radio advertising jingles to becoming an R&B star after Specialty Records owner Art Rupe went to New Orleans seeking new talent. Since Price didn’t have his own band, he was backed by Dave Bartholomew’s crew to include Fats Domino on piano. The melody is taken from the 1940 Champion Jack Dupree song “Junker Blues” as was Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man.” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was arguably one of the first rock ‘n’ roll records and it created the template for much of the commercial New Orleans music of the decade. However, it’s staying power is in Price’s pained vocals of unrequited love. Price has noted that the inspiration for the lyrics was a breakup with his girlfriend, resulting in him singing “with pitiful sorrow in my voice.” From a business standpoint, it’s shocking that a teenage Lloyd Price received the sole writing credit. Art Rupe, “It never occurred to me to put my name on Lloyd’s composition or that of any other songwriter. To do so would have been theft.”

63. “Bye Bye Love,” The Everly Brothers. Songwriters: Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant; #2 pop/#1 country/#5 R&B; 1957. “Bye Bye Love” was written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, starting a long relationship between the married songwriters and the well-coiffed singing duo. Boudleaux Bryant, “‘Bye Bye Love’ was shown over 30 times before it was ever cut. It was even shown the very morning of the same day the Everly Brothers heard it in the afternoon. When it was turned down, the fella said, ‘Why don’t you show me a good strong song?’ So nobody really knows what a good song is.” Music historian Brian Mansfield on this hello-loneliness number that was the Everly Brothers’ first hit, “The juxtaposition of heartbroken lyrics and carefree melody, combined with the brothers’ singular two-part harmony, made them instant stars.” Fab Four Trivia – “Bye Bye Love” was the first song Paul McCartney ever performed on stage.

62. “I Only Have Eyes for You,” The Flamingos. Songwriters: Harry Warren, Al Dubin; #11 pop/#3 R&B; 1959. The R&B vocal group the Flamingos hailed from Chicago and had a soft doo wop sound similar to the Skyliners and the Platters on their signature song, “I Only Have Eyes for You,” which was released six years after the group initially formed. The song was originally released in 1934 and recorded by many artists, including as a #2 pop hit for big band leader Ben Selvin’s, whose version included the warbling dramatic oversinging of its era. Before the Flamingos recorded their shimmering doo wop take, it had been recorded by Doris Day, Billie Holiday, the Ames Brothers, Patti Page, and Eddy Arnold during the 1950s. There is so much reverb on the Flamingos’ version that it gives the song a strange, ethereal beauty. First tenor Johnny Carter, “I can’t now remember exactly how we got so much reverb on the ‘doo‑bop sh‑bop’ backing vocals to make them go that far back, but it was really heavy and just a little of it was used on Nate to warm up his lead. There were no overdubs, everything was done live in complete takes, and you can hear a few little mistakes in there. However, the way it was in those days, if it sounded good to the engineer or whoever was in the control room, that was it. Time was money.”

61. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” Jerry Lee Lewis. Songwriter: Dave “Curlee” Williams, James Faye “Roy” Hall; #3 pop/#1 country/#1 R&B; 1957. Trivia question: who produced the original version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On?” It wasn’t Sun Studio’s Sam Phillips, but a young Quincy Jones who produced Big Maybelle’s R&B version in 1955. Originally, African American songwriter Dick “Curlee” Williams was credited as the songwriter. Eventually, boogie woogie pianist James Faye “Roy” Hall received a credit as well. Hall enjoyed a drink now and again. Here’s how he described the creative process, “We was down in Pahokee, on Lake Okeechobee.. out on a damn pond, fishin’ and milkin’ snakes .. drinkin’ wine, mostly. This guy down there had a big bell that he’s ring to get us all to come in to dinner, an’ I’d call over [and] say, ‘What’s goin’ on?’ Colored guy said, ‘We got twen’y-one drums, we got an old bass horn, an’ they even keepin’ time on a ding-dong.’ See, that was the big bell they’d ring to git us t’come in.” That must have been quite an interview. “Shakin’” was the world’s introduction to Jerry Lee Lewis, who as a young man embodied the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll perhaps more definitively than anyone else ever has.

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