The 1950s were a time of breaking out of post-war depression and into a new age of artistic expression. Sultry blues, rebellious rock ‘n roll, and romantic reminiscence defined the music of the 1950s, and here are just a few of the highlights, provided by Emily Fletcher.
Smile – Nat King Cole
Sometimes known as ‘the song Charlie Chaplin wrote’, this simple lyrical reminder to “Just smile” despite what you may be going through ignites the warmth of unity and resilience in a world once divided by war. Chaplin actually wrote the music which was used in his film Modern Times, and it has since be re-recorded many times by the likes of Judy Garland and Michael Jackson. Cole’s rendition was the first to include lyrics; its simple orchestration and Cole’s rich tones make this song forever a classic.
I’ve Got You Under My Skin – Frank Sinatra
A list which recognises 1950s music wouldn’t be complete without an appearance by Frank Sinatra. Although known mostly for popularising many covers of songs, his suave look and vocals make for songs perfect for relaxing by the fire with a glass of whiskey in your tuxedo, as one does every day. I’ve Got You… was originally written Cole Porter and was actually nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. It became a signature for Sinatra and many an artist in the years to come.
Summertime – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
some of the greatest lyrical writing of all time
The immense talent of Ella Fitzgerald helped give us some of the greatest duets of all time, often alongside the equally phenomenal Louis Armstrong. Summertime is one such hit, taken from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Fitzgerald takes the listener straight to the intense heat of a summer in the American South and the slick lyrics have been hailed by the likes of Stephen Sondheim as some of the greatest lyrical writing of all time.
Jailhouse Rock – Elvis Presley
Elvis rose to fame in the 1950s to become one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century. His ‘suggestive’ dance moves and role in bringing a fusion of country music and blues with an up tempo beat to create rock ‘n roll made him the icon he is today. Jailhouse Rock was written for the film of the same name which Elvis starred in. It’s been noted the song has many tongue-in-cheek references to homosexuality yet Elvis performed it as straight rock ‘n roll. It was an early hit in the outstanding career of Elvis Presley.
Put Your Head On My Shoulder – Paul Anka
Recently popularised through TikTok in a remixed sound bite, Paul Anka’s simple love song defined his role as a teen idol at the end of the 1950s; at just 17 he had five singles in the top 20. The influence of the lyrics was simply Anka watching couples with their head on each others shoulders as he performed some of his other popular love songs, he decided to capture that sentiment in this charming hit.
Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry
Iconically performed by Marty McFly in Back to the Future, this rock ‘n roll hit is credited as being one the first rock ‘n roll songs about being a rock ‘n roll star, a trope of music which has permeated several other genres to this day. Chuck Berry himself is cited as one of, if not the, Father of rock ‘n roll and this hit has all the guitar riffs, tempo, and danceability which came to typify the genre.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes – The Platters
Another cover hit originally written as a showtune decades before, this version by The Platters faced legal action by the composer’s wife for her dislike of the arrangement. However, the simple piano accompaniment and typical rock n’ roll ‘woos’ and ‘wahs’ in the backing vocals make this perfectly nostalgic for the reminiscent ballads of the era.
I Got a Woman – Ray Charles
Perhaps now best known for the sampling of this track performed by Jamie Foxx in Kanye West’s Gold Digger, this 1954 hit was Ray Charles’ first of many and makes use of blues, jazz, and gospel influences, alongside the accompanying piano he was best known for playing. Despite being blind since childhood, Charles became one of the pioneers of soul music during the 1950s thanks to his soulful storytelling through his music
Come Fly With Me – Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra has to dominate this list just about as much as he dominated the 1950s itself. In this hit, he ignites all the sense of wanting to go on holiday that we’ve all been feeling these past couple years. Written for his album of the same name, the remaining tracks also took on that sense of romance and travel. This song will ignite all the memories of those great holiday moments and, at the time, the sense of coming into relative prosperity following the post-war era. The jazzy, big-band orchestration helps this song to forever remain a timeless hit.
Dream A Little Dream of Me – Doris Day
This dreamy love song by 1950s film icon Doris Day evokes all the simplicities of romance. Nominated for an Oscar in 1959 for Pillow Talk, she performed throughout many genres from musical-comedy and thrillers later in her career; the former gave her many successful musical hits. Dreaming is certainly not an unfamiliar topic within music and this sentimental hit is a more dream-like rendition than some of predecessors, with Day’s smooth echoing vocals and a simple accompanying orchestration creating a haze of lyrical warmth.
Listen to these songs (plus more) on this playlist:
In-article videos courtesy of Mark Parker, Frank Sinatra, Puerto Libre, Turner Classic Movies, The Ed Sullivan Show, Classic Mood Experience, dannyqb, and mohamed farouk via @youtube.com. No changes were made to these videos.
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