Mellow Crooners to the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll

To Listen:

To hear these songs, go to Frans Kwaad’s site. He’s a retired earth scientist who lives in the Netherlands (the site is in Dutch and English), and he’s a 1950s music buff. His site is a great resource.

A mellow year, indeed. The pop music of 1950 had an essentially backward-looking feel, with Big Band stars like Sammy Kaye and Guy Lombardo scoring hugely on the charts. Also faring well was Bing Crosby – and Der Bingle had been America’s star since the early 1930s.

A big year for dulcet-toned crooner Nat King Cole, a rare black presence on the radio who was so butterscotch smooth he offended no one. Also thrilling audiences were the easy-listening jazz-pop sounds of Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney (Rosemary had a son named George, who became an actor).
Hit singer Johnnie Ray was so over-the-top histrionic that he’s sometimes called the first rock singer, but his style owed more to tuneful R&B than rock – some call him the “missing link” between Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Ray could (and would) sob onstage to great effect, and his big hits this year were “Cry” and “The Little White Cloud That Cried.”

A great year for the sanguine stylings of vocalist Eddie Fisher, whom Coca-Cola offered the unheard of sum of $1 milion to be its corporate spokesman. Beloved by teens and older folks alike, the pleasant-voiced tenor scored thirty-five songs in the Top 40 between 1950 and 1956. Along the way he would have five wives, including Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds. Also doing well this year were the immortal Les Paul, the guitarist and recording studio innovator (one of the first to use multi-track recording), and the demure sex kitten singer Theresa Brewer.

Ah, to be an American in 1954. Throw a steak on the grill, stir a chilled Martini, and enjoy endless white-picket-fence prosperity. On the Hi-Fi this year were Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and – for the youngsters – the Crew Cuts, trilling “Sh-Boom.” Skies were blue and worries were none. (Except, of course, for the rows of A-bombs the Ruskies had aimed at us, the fact that blacks couldn’t vote and women were hardly allowed in the workplace – but if you don’t talk about it, it’s not a problem, right?)

Proving that the mid 1950s was a simpler time, scoring a big hit this year was “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” (“Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”). Also selling truckloads of singles were the sleep-inducing piano stylings of Roger Williams, and the whole milk vocals of Pat Boone. But wait – what’s that clattering racket? Oh, goodness, the teenagers are buying records! The proof: the phenomenal success of “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets.

This would be one of the great transition years in American pop music. Dominating the charts was the untamed hellfire shout-outs of Elvis Presley, not to mention the R&B-flavored pop of Fats Domino and the Platters. But plenty of the old guard chaperoned these young rebels: Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Perry Como, and the always-pleasant Ames Brothers. Still, 1956 was the year that rock ‘n’ roll stood up and demanded to take over the pop charts.

On one side, the mellow-voiced status quo heavyweights: Perry Como, Pat Boone, and Johnny Mathis. On the other, the fresh-voiced gate crashers: Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Sam Cooke, and Chuck Berry. Who’s going to win?

A new species emerged this year, as exemplified by the finger-snappin’ Bobby Darin and the highly emotive Connie Francis: fresh young singers who could appeal to a younger audience without offending Mom and Dad. It was almost as if record execs had performed a lab experiment, merging old crooners with new kids on the block for maximum profit. But the real rockers would have none of it, and Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly kept pushing the rollicking new sound.

With Elvis in the Army, the teen sound grew all mushy, as a well-coifed set of teen idols took over America. The younger set was thrilled and lulled by the saccharine sounds of Bobby Darin, Frankie Avalon, and Paul Anka. That raucous rock noise, it appeared, had been just a passing fad. But artists like Ray Charles and Jackie Wilson revealed that something new was still on the way.