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What Happened to the Popular Music of the 1950s?

By Don Robertson 1998

The “Good Ole Days”

I have the advantage of being old enough to remember what living in late 1940’s and early 1950’s was like.  I was born and raised in Denver, Colorado. In 1950, I was eight years old. Back then life was uncomplicated. There were no TVs, families talked and socialized, crime did not dominate the newspapers, people did not curse in public, drugs were unknown in the schools in my neighborhood, pornography was illegal, kids laughed and played, mothers and fathers were still married, and people often would whistle a happy tune when they walked along the street.
     The older kids met at neighborhood soda fountains after school and attended school dances on the weekend.  My Mom and Dad belonged to several social clubs, and I can remember when they loved the dances that were frequently held at the Gyro Club, the Denver Athletic Club, and the Aviation Country Club.  They danced into the early hours of the morning to music provided by one of the small dance bands that worked the city. In 1950, TV was a rumor in Denver, but we listened to the radio, and the airwaves were filled with the most wonderful sounds. Since people weren’t focused on sex and violence, radio shows were pretty innocent by today’s standards, and the music…. Ah….it was wonderful. Songs were filled with positive emotion that made you feel great.  And when a boy sang about a girl and a girl sang about a boy, it was about romance. It was about love.
     The number one popular song of the year 1950 was the beautiful ballad “Mona Lisa” sung by Nat “King” Cole.  In 1951 it was the gorgeous and lush ballad “The Loveliest Night of the Year” sung by Mario Lanza and 1952’s top pop song was Leroy Anderson’s exhilerating instrumental “Blue Tango”. It didn’t make a difference if it was a kid tossing a nickel into the jukebox at the soda fountain or my mom and dad requesting a song from their favorite dance band, in either case there was no difference in the music:  everyone listened to and loved the same pop music. There was no separate music meant only for kids back then. The tunes on the top pop charts were loved by all. 
     What kind of music was it?  It was clean, wholesome and inspired, and it dealt with love as a romantic feeling. Popular music during that era was beautiful and lush. What glorious days those were for me back in 1949 and the early 1950’s. Radio and TV commercials were simple, music was glorious, we were innocent, and life was good. We didn’t need to lock our doors at night, and kids wandered all over the neighborhood until late at night without harm.
     The highpoint for popular music arrived in 1954, the year I like to call the Golden Year of Popular Music. That year saw the advent of some of the greatest pop recordings. The theme song from the movie “The High and the Mighty”, “Three Coins in the Fountain”, “Whither Thou Goest”, “Vaya con Dios”, “Ebb Tide”, “The Happy Wanderer”, “Stranger in Paradise”, “Cara Mia”, “The Man with the Banjo”, “The Man Upstairs”, “The Chapel in the Moonlight”, “Answer Me My Love”, “If I Give My Heart to You”, “Little Things Mean a Lot”, “Hey There”, and “Secret Love”.

1954 - The Peak Year, When the Transition Began

     The year 1954 was also the year that Rock and Roll Music entered the picture with a song called “Shake Rattle and Roll” by Bill Haley and the Comets. “Shake Rattle and Roll” wasn’t really a rock and roll tune: the term Rock and Roll had not yet reached the ears of John Q. Public. “Shake Rattle and Roll” was a cover of a rhythm and blues tune performed by white musicians. But the following year, Bill Haley and the Comets would make a hit with “Rock Around the Clock”, the title song from the movie Blackboard Jungle, a film that glorified juvenile delinquency. My parents would not let me go see that movie, but I gathered it was filled with kids in black jackets flashing switchblade stiletto knives, while sneering out of the sides of their mouths. Following that influential movie were the infamous flicks of James Dean that helped to establish a prototype of youthful rebellion, and “Rock” music became its banner.
     Rock and roll started innocently enough with “crossover” tunes from the rhythm and blues charts. This music had a strong beat and sounded pretty funky when performed by artists such as Fats Domino and Little Richard. White radio audiences had not heard music like that before. Soon a separate genre began to appear, and this really crystalized when Elvis hit the charts in 1956.  And the kids were the ones that the new music appealed to. I remember my mom reading about the emergence of rock and roll in the newspaper and commenting to me “It is just a fad. It will last only a short time.”

Listen to Music from the Early 1950s

Fads and Instrumentals

     There were many musical fads back in those days: there was the Davy Crockett fad, heralded by a TV show, a song called “The Ballad of Davy Crocket”. Every kid had to have a coon-skin cap, it seemed. Then there was the banjo fad, with a release of dozens of new recordings of old-time songs that featured a banjo. The “Crazy Otto” fad was created by a German piano player who had invented a way of making his piano sound like an out-of-tune barroom instrument, a bunch of pianists jumped on that one. But rock and roll was not a fad.
     In the mid-1950’s, the most popular music was still the older style pop music, with Nelson Riddle’s beautiful instrumental “Lisbon Antiqua” landing at the top of the charts for the year 1956, followed by “So Rare” by the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra in 1957.  But a rock and roll tune hit the top of the charts in 1958.  It was “Chantilly Lace” sung by the Big Bopper.
     The new rock and roll music was still fresh and pretty innocent with many memorial tunes: “Rockin’ Robin”, “Susie Darlin’”, “Yakety Yak”, “Tequila”, “Rebel Rouser” and “At the Hop” by Danny & the Juniors. The last two years of the fifties were still dedicated to ballads and love tunes, but many of these songs were sung by the new youthful singers: Carl Dobkins Jr., Dobie Stevens, Ritchie Valens, Frankie Avalon, The Fleetwoods, Bobby Darin, and Brenda Lee.

Music For the “Younger Generation”

     By 1960, pop music was becoming dominated by music clearly performed by, and for, the younger generation. This was the beginning of a term that became popular in the mid-sixties: the generation gap. This described the growing abyss that was beginning to separate the becoming-hip youngsters, now plugged into the exciting new music, from the square adults who found their satisfaction in what soon became labeled as “easy listening music”: the sleepy and emotionless after-life for the orchestras and singers of the early 1950s, such as that performed by the Jackie Gleason Orchestra and the weekly faire of Lawrence Welk’s television show.
     The top pop tunes of the early 1960s were mostly ballad-style songs sung by the new younger generation of singers: “Tossin’ and Turnin’” by Bobby Lewis, “Runaway” by Del Shannon, “Travelin’ Man” by Ricky Nelson, with surf music making its advent in 1962. The mid-sixties brought us the first of a new kind of rock music when the Beatles appeared in 1964, followed by the Mama’s and Papas, the Monkees, Johnny Rivers, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and the Association in 1966. And it was during the summer of 1967, the so-called (by the media) “Summer of Love”, that a downturn began, when darkness made its entrance in pop music, leading to the rage of heavy-metal bands, grunge and punk rock.
     Alas, the halcyon days of the 1950s were gone… and forgotten.