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Love Songs From the '50s: Oldies but Goodies
Against the backdrop of 1950s American prosperity and global leadership, major advances in science, and an emerging consciousness regarding civil rights, there was unforgettable music. The music of the 1950s saw the dawn of rock n' roll. Doo-wop songs crossed over from the R&B charts and became mainstream. For the first time, teenagers became a market to be reckoned with. And what do teenagers have most on their minds? Love.
Travel back in time to the 1950s—even if you weren't there the first time around—by making a playlist of love songs from the era. Then share it with someone you love.
1. "Only You (And You Alone)" by The Platters
The Platters—one of the most successful groups in the early rock n' roll era— released this doo-wop song in 1955, and it became their first hit on the pop charts. In an America still wrestling with the issue of segregation, they were one of the first African American musical groups to achieve crossover success from the R&B charts.
In this song, a young man sings the praises of his beloved, his dream come true. Knowing her has brought about such positive changes in him. Her love has brought him pure bliss, thereby making everything in his world okay, and he declares the young woman to be his destiny. In 1950s speak, she is clearly marriage material!
The Platters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
2. "Dream Lover" by Bobby Darin
Did you know that 1950s teen heartthrob Bobby Darin, whose real name was Walden Robert Cassotto, selected his stage name from a neon sign? The first three letters of the word mandarin (as in Chinese food) were unlit, and that inspired his chosen moniker.
The fresh-faced young Darin released this love ballad in 1959 as a follow-up to his song, "Splish Splash." Darin was a songwriter and wrote both hits.
"Dream Lover" features a guy who dreams each night about a girl he can fall in love with—someone he can hold and call his own. Whereas today's young men often seek short-term hookups, this song's narrator searches for a lifelong romance:
Dream lover, where are you?
With a love, oh, so true
And the hand that I can hold
To feel you near as I grow old ... .
In his personal life, Bobby Darin encountered two failed marriages, lived a tragic life, and died at only 37 years old. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
3. "Earth Angel" by The Penguins
This 1954 doo-wop hit was the only Penguins song to cross over from the R&B charts to the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts. The tune was featured in the 1985 movie, Back to the Future. It was also named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
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"Earth Angel" is a song of supplication by a young man in love. He adores his sweetheart and places her upon a pedestal, calling himself a mere fool in love with an angel. She is a vision of loveliness, and he prays that his darling will favor him with her attention. Oh, to be sought after like that!
4. "Put Your Head on My Shoulder" by Paul Anka
A little physical lovin' is what the guy in this 1959 international hit seeks. The narrator confides in his date that he's fallen in love with her and would like her to hold him in her arms, kiss him goodnight, and put her head on his shoulder. He suggests that perhaps she could even whisper in his ear those three magic words that he longs to hear. Don't encourage him too much!
5. "Since I Don't Have You" by The Skyliners
Written and performed by The Skyliners, this 1958 doo-wop ditty was the first Billboard Hot 100 song for this group. It describes a despondent narrator who has lost the love of his life.
As a result, he believes that his entire world is gone, including his hopes, dreams, and any reason for happiness. (Melodramatic, wouldn't you say?) The man perceives himself as simply miserable without her and lays the guilt on as thick as peanut butter.
This love song appeared in the film American Graffiti. It was later successfully covered by musicians as diverse as folk artist Don McLean (1981), country singer Ronnie Milsap (1991), and hair metal band Guns N' Roses (1994).
6. "I Only Have Eyes for You" by The Flamingos
This 1959 R&B crossover tune was The Flamingos' first and highest charting song on the US Billboard Hot 100. The lovestruck man narrating the song is utterly focused on his beloved. Drunk with love, he confesses that he may as well be blind to what's going on around him because he only has eyes for his sweetheart. We've all felt like that, right?
The Flamingos were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and have been aptly described as doo-wop at its finest and most sophisticated. "I Only Have Eyes for You" was listed as one of Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The song was also featured in several movies, including the iconic movie American Graffiti.
7. "Come Go With Me" by The Del-Vikings
It's so awkward when the one you love doesn't love you back . . . yet. That's only a technicality for the narrator in this 1956 doo-wop song which features a smitten fellow who begs the object of his attention to just give him a chance. He emphasizes how much he loves and needs her and asks that she never leave him. Is someone refusing to take "no" for an answer?
The Del-Vikings were one of the few racially mixed pop groups in the 1950s to achieve success. "Come Go with Me," their first single to cross over from the R&B charts to the Billboard Hot 100, was their biggest success.
8. "You Send Me" by Sam Cooke
Fellas, take note. This is how to convincingly convey love to a woman.
The man in this 1957 R&B crossover song discloses to his darling that holding her, kissing her, and simply being in her presence thrills him. It's lasted too long to be mere infatuation, and he wants to take her home and marry her.
It was often common practice in the 1950s for white singers to record cover versions of popular black R&B songs, as the tunes typically didn't cross over to mainstream pop charts. However, Sam Cooke's original song was a chart-topper on both the pop and R&B charts. Rolling Stone magazine named Cooke's version of the song one of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Sam Cooke also helped to found the soul genre and was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
9. "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers
Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers were the first 1950s popular musical act comprised exclusively of teenagers. Known as the boy soprano, Frankie and his group of doo-wopping back-up vocalists set the stage for the girl group sound of the 1960s. Additionally, the Jackson Five and many of the Motown groups can trace their musical roots right back here.
In "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" (1956), the narrator admits he's a fool for falling in love. He can't help it. Falling in love is as natural as the birds singing, the rain falling, or lovers waiting for the sunrise. This was the first and biggest pop hit for the group.
Rolling Stone magazine recognized the song as one of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and in 1993, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Sadly, Frankie died of a heroin overdose at the age of 25. At the time he died, he was legally married to three women, having never bothered to divorce any of them.
10. "Bye Bye Love" by The Everly Brothers
This 1957 rock duo with country roots was known for their close harmony. As a result, their sound influenced groups decades later, including The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, and The BeeGees.
"Bye Bye Love" was their first charting success, crossing over from the country chart to the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B chart as well. The tune features an anguished young man whose girlfriend has dumped him for another guy, leaving him lonely and ready to cry. Feeling empty, he misses her touch as he eyes how happy she appears to be with her new beau.
The song was named as one of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine. The Everly Brothers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
11. "Love Me Tender" by Elvis Presley
Who would have imagined that the only high school class Elvis Presley failed was music? And can you believe that after an early singing tryout, he was bluntly told to stick to truck driving because he'd never make it as a singer? The next time you fall short, remember the King of Rock N' Roll's early failures.
Elvis' early number one smash hit is a warmhearted love song that expresses how much the narrator loves his sweetheart. She has fulfilled his dreams and made his life complete, and all the narrator asks for is that she continue to love him for the rest of their lives. The 1956 love song is based on the tune of a Civil War ballad, "Aura Lee."
A hit on the country, pop, and R&B charts, "Love Me Tender" was named to Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Elvis was inducted into five music halls of fame.
12. "It's All in the Game" by Tommy Edwards
The melody of this number one pop song from 1958 was written four decades earlier by Charles Dawes, the man who later became Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge. When lyrics were added by a 1950s songwriter, the tune was transformed into a jazzy number that praises the magic of love.
Although love often involves tears, quarrels, and playing hard to get, the song's narrator chalks it up to part of the game of love. Kissing and romance make the game worthwhile. Popular covers of the tune were later recorded by Cliff Richards, The Four Tops, Merle Haggard, and others.
13. "I've Got You Under My Skin" by Frank Sinatra
Ahhh, Ol' Blue Eyes! Many a teen and older lady as well have swooned over him. If you're too young to be familiar with Frank Sinatra's music—a swag-worthy blend of jazz and pop—then you should correct that situation right now. The man is a legend, and this 1956 tune is his signature song.
The unforgettable song takes the perspective of a besotted man. He addresses the woman he's attracted to, admitting that although he originally didn't believe their affair would work out, he now finds her hard to resist:
I'd sacrifice anything, come what might
For the sake of having you near
In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night
And repeats and repeats in my ear.
Among other awards, Frank Sinatra was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan in 1985, the Congressional Gold Medal in 1997, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
14. "Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite" by The Spaniels
In this 1954 doo-wop song, it's 3 a.m., and a young man regretfully says goodnight to his date. He knows that her parents won't be pleased if they stay out any later, so he does his best to leave. (Wasn't this the era when they were super worried about a girl's reputation?)
The Spaniels were best known for this song. It made a resurgence in the 1970s when it appeared as the closing number on the Sha Na Na weekly variety show. Additionally, the tune was featured in American Graffiti.
Significantly, The Spaniels pioneered the practice of having the lead singer use one microphone while the other vocalists in the group shared a second microphone.
15. "Everyday" by Buddy Holly
It's remarkable that Buddy Holly was only 19 years old when he co-wrote and sang this 1957 rock song, a crossover to the R&B charts. The upbeat tune eagerly describes how the narrator looks forward to striking up a romantic relationship with a young woman. His world is spinning as he eagerly anticipates that she might also return his affections.
Sadly, Buddy Holly's life was cut short at the age of 22 when he and several fellow musicians perished in a small plane crash on February 3, 1959, while on tour. The date is often referred to as "The Day the Music Died" and became the subject of Don McLean's iconic 1971 song, "American Pie."
At the time, future country superstar Waylon Jennings was a new member of Buddy Holly's band and gave up his seat to J. P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper") who was suffering from the flu. Ritchie Valens and the pilot also perished in the crash.
Buddy Holly was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Rolling Stone magazine recognized "Everyday" as one of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
1950s History and Culture
During the 1950s, 77% of American households purchased their first television set.
The Korean War began in 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea. Fighting ended in 1953, resulting in a demilitarized zone. Because no peace treaty was signed, the two countries are still technically at war.
Labor unions represented nearly 1/2 of the American workforce.
Developed by Dr. Jonas Salk, the first polio vaccine was made available to the public in 1955.
Watson & Crick discovered the structure of DNA in 1953.
Disneyland opened in 1955. It hosted the first 1 million visitors in just 7 weeks.
In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the justices of the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.
In a 1950 speech, the term "McCarthyism" was coined to describe making reckless, unsubstantiated allegations of treason or subversion, especially against political opponents.
Barbie dolls were first introduced by Mattel in 1959.
In 1958, the first pacemaker was implanted by Dr. Ake Senning.
Swanson introduced beef, turkey, and chicken pot pies in 1951 and tv dinners in 1954. Yum!
Defying Alabama law, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in 1955 and was arrested. Her civil disobedience prompted the Montgomery bus boycott.
First manufactured as a wallpaper cleaner, Play-Doh was reconfigured the product then introduced it in the 1950s as a toy.
Alaska and Hawaii are admitted as the 49th and 50th states in 1959.
Ray Kroc opened the first McDonalds restaurant in 1955.
In 1958, NASA was formed and Explorer 1, the first unmanned satellite, was launched, amping up the space race.
In 1952, War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected the 34th U.S. President and served 1953-1961.
Joe DiMaggio retired from the New York Yankees after the 1951 season. Willie Mays debuted with the New York Giants the same year.
16. "Your Cheatin' Heart" by Hank Williams Sr.
People unfamiliar with country music often get confused over which Hank Williams is which. Actually, there are three generations of them. This is the legendary grandfather that started it all with hits like "Honky Tonkin'," "Move It On Over," and "Hey, Good Lookin'."
As talented as Hank Sr. was, he led a brief and tragic life. Born with spina bifida that caused him lifelong back pain, he abused alcohol as well as morphine and other prescription painkillers. As a result of his substance abuse and unreliable behavior, Hank Sr. was fired from The Grand Ole Opry. Then, on New Years Day 1953, he died unexpectedly in the back of his 1952 blue Cadillac while en route to a concert at the age of 29.
"Your Cheatin' Heart" was one of his posthumously released hit singles. The 1953 song describes a man who is trying to lay a guilt trip on his lover, thus attempting to dissuade her from cheating on him. Infidelity will make her cry, leave her sleepless, and her guilty conscience will give her away.
In 1961, Hank Sr. was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame welcomed him in 1987, and he also won a Special Pulitzer Prize for his role in transforming country music.
17. "Sea of Love" by Phil Phillips
Phil Phillips was a one-hit wonder with this 1959 R&B crossover song that he penned for a romantic interest. Sadly, he received only $6,800 for the wildly successful tune. Not wanting to be further exploited, he declined to record an album.
The song is elegant, smooth, and simple. It features a young man declaring his love to a woman and reminiscing about the night they met:
Do you remember the night we met?
That's the night I just knew you were my pet
I want to tell you
How much I love you.
These days you couldn't get by with calling a woman your "pet," but it was a different era and the term of endearment was allowable, at least in music.
18. "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" by The Four Aces
Love is the reason for living, according to this 1955 chart-topping pop song. This romantic ditty proclaims how gorgeous love is by comparing it to April's rose as it blossoms in the Spring. The narrator declares that his beloved taught his heart to sing. May they always be that in love, especially years 10 years later when the kids are sick and screaming and the bills are late.
The tune appeared in a 1955 movie and later in a soap opera, both by the same name.
19. "A Teenager in Love" by Dion and The Belmonts
When you're a teenager, few things take higher priority than your love life. However, with hormones raging, a teen can find that love is also the source of rollercoaster emotions. This 1959 doo-wop number asks, "Why must I be a teenager in love?" and laments how arguments can be heart-wrenching. It seems that a teenager's entire happiness can hinge on the success of their romantic partnership.
The lead singer of the group, Dion DiMucci, pursued a solo career and achieved some success with singles such as "Runaround Sue." He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without The Belmonts, producing controversy.
20. "Chances Are" by Johnny Mathis
Light as a feather, Johnny Mathis' voice floats in this 1957 pop and R&B crossover hit wherein the narrator acknowledges that he has fallen hard for his sweetheart. He admits to exhibiting all the classic signs of lovesickness: