If you’ve ever been around people of another generation or, heaven forbid, young people with affectations of belonging to “le wrong generation,” or worse still, the bowels of YouTube comments, you’re familiar with the sentiment, “Why isn’t music as good as it used to be?” And listening to most sources on classic music, that seems like a reasonable question. The emphasis, of course, is on “classic”: songs that have stood the test of time and are still just as fresh today. But that’s not an accurate way to measure what a year really sounded like. No, if you want to do that, you’ve got to dig back into the Billboard charts. And thanks to the internet, we can do that any time we want! In this new series, we’ll be picking years at random to find the most deathless classics — and the songs that have blessedly been forgotten.
We’ll be starting today with our year of the month, 1957, when you might have seen Frank Sinatra doing the Twist on top of a Sputnik.
Rock and roll looked like it had hit its peak. It had already been around long enough to mythologize and memorialize, the way Larry Williams did in “Short Fat Fannie,” where he name-dropped at least ten rock classics. The record industry thought the fad was dropping off and scrambled to either co-opt it with their own teen idols or replace it, with calypso of all things. Artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane were guiding jazz through a renaissance, legends like Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Nina Simone, Buddy Holly, and George Jones dropped their first LPs, and Link Wray’s “Rumble” was starting literal riots. But what were Joe and Jane Record-Buyer listening to?
- Elvis Presley – All Shook Up
Well, for once, the most popular song was also the best. You can credit it to Otis Blackwell’s infectiously easygoing groove, or Elvis’ honey-sweet vocals, or Blackwell’s unique turns of phrase like “itchin’ like a man on a fuzzy tree” or “wild as a bug.” Its biggest strength, ironically for a movement based on wild noise, is its command of silence. That half a second between “I’m in love” and “I’m all shook up,” sometimes punctuated by Blackwell backslapping the guitar, sometimes by Elvis popping his lips, give the song a rhythm all its own. Legend has it that Blackwell was challenged to write the song by fellow lyricist Al Shannon, who came up with the title while shaking a bottle of Pepsi. It’s a little amazing Blackwell was able to do so much with so little, but it’s easy to see the inspiration, because Elvis sounds like he’s shook up enough to blow his cap off. His insides are shaking, and he’s scared to death, and if the intensity of these emotions push back against the laidback rhythm, they also make total incapacitation sound like the best feeling in the world. He opens the song by asking “oh bless my soul, what’s wrong with me?” but he makes it sound like the rightest feeling in the world.
And it gets namechecked in “Let Me Clear My Throat.” Can’t go wrong with that.
- Sam Cooke – You Send Me
If Elvis makes being in love painfully intense, Sam Cooke takes it the other way, gliding over a melody that makes love sound like a transcendent experience, as smoothly soothing as his own sweet voice. His backup singers do more than keep up, creating an angelic wall of sound that almost makes the instrumentation redundant. It isn’t, though: Ted Brinson’s powerful bass punctuates the verse and gives more subtle flavors to the chorus. The bridge takes the song well out of the realm of manufactured pop. Whether that’s actually what it is or not, Cooke makes his half-spoken aside sound candid and improvised, riffing on the lyrics the way a jazz musician would riff on the melody. This single marked Cooke’s emergence into the world of secular music, and it signalled other shifts as well. Like most record companies of the time, Keen hedged their bets by releasing a cover by a white singer to take over the pop charts. Instead, Cooke’s version came in at twenty on the year-end singles chart, while Brewer’s is nowhere to be found. It’s not hard to see why – the Brewer cover tosses out the original’s artful minimalism for a wave of sappy strings, and the artful wordless backup is replaced with some dudes repeating after Brewer. Whether or not he really is the Man Who Invented Soul, Sam Cooke proved with this song that he was the Man Who Could Get the Pop Audience to Listen to Soul. Maybe that just wouldn’t fit on an album cover.
- The Diamonds – Little Darlin’
Some critics have claimed the Diamonds were making fun of the doo wop genre, but that’s just because the Diamonds took it as far as it could go. This isn’t parody doo wop. It’s peak doo wop. The original version was by the Gladiolas, and even though it already has a lot of the same magic, it’s much more slow and staid. They seem afraid to embrace the over-the-toppishness that The Diamonds go in for head first – even its wildest moment of abandon, when tenor William Massey briefly turns into Kermit the Frog, suggests they’re not in on the joke. And when the song calls for earnestness, in the spoken word bridge, the Gladiolas hold back on that as well, giving a half-hearted version of the words that the Diamonds’ Bill Reed turns into an anguished plea. His frontman, Dave Somerville, has no time for reserve or dignity: he extends the word you with a “wah-hoo-wah-hoo-wah-hoo” that sounds almost unhinged, and he emphasizes the extra hiccup at the ends of words at least as much as the words themselves. The high notes are higher, the low notes are lower – everything is just more. And if he looks ridiculous, well, as Bono would say years later in what might as well be the dictionary definition of pop music, “The right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear.” So what makes this work while so many other songs on this list were sunk by their silliness? To put it simply, it’s The Diamonds’ commitment. It’s not that they don’t care enough to weed out their doofier affectations. They seem to care too much to be embarrassed by them.
- The Bobbettes – Mr. Lee
Mr. Lee began life as a schoolyard taunt, and while the producers insisted on rewriting it into something more like a conventional love song – because heaven forbid anything else play on the radio – that origin story might explain just why it’s so infectious. That insistent nanny-nanny-boo-boo rhythm gets right in your head and stays there – and the Reggie Obrecht Orchestra’s driving beat makes it even harder not to dance to. And then there’s some of the other little touches – the squealing guitar, the breathless “hey!” between words that’s somehow half a syllable – that turn the hook into pop perfection. The real star here is lead singer Reather Dixon, who has so much range that her bandmates are almost redundant – her vocals here would make “Monster”-era Nicki Minaj’s head spin. She runs all the way from Karen Carpenter sweetness to a Howlin’ Wolf growl, often within the same line.
- Harry Belafonte – (Banana Boat) Day-O
You get the feeling that these songs had to make a huge impact in the first few seconds to get attention to keep listeners’ hands off the radio dials, and no introduction was more thunderous than this one. Just Belafonte’s deep, powerful voice echoing over the airwaves as if it was calling all the way from Jamaica, accompanied only by the soft rumble of the drum. And then he brings in the haunting voices of his backing chorus. It’s no wonder this song was so popular among Americans in search of the “exotic” – it seems to contain within its three minutes an entire world that no longer exists and may have never existed. Belafonte talks on his Carnegie Hall performance about the childhood summers he spent in the Caribbean, and that only makes sense, because he evokes here a dream of a distant, vanished homeland. The song has become a bit of a kitsch item by way of goofy covers and movie soundtracks (more on that later) often mocking the island patois of the lyrics. But Belafonte’s Shakespearean voice gives them an unshakable dignity, a reminder that this is a real language and not just “broken” English. It may have become something silly but here, in its raw form, The Banana Boat Song is deeply, deadly serious.
6. The Everly Brothers – Wake Up Little Susie
Opening with a driving guitar solo that anticipates the driving blues/country rock of Pete Townshend or the Edge, it’s not so hard to see why a song that seems so innocent now was dynamite in 1957. The song about a teenaged couple who fall asleep in the middle of their date to the movies and have to get home before their friends and parents think they’ve gotten up to something caused a moral panic. The censorious reaction kind of misses the point, though, because the song’s about ten times more fun if you take it at its face value: a young couple in danger of all the negative consequences of an illicit affair without getting to have any of the fun. “What are we gonna we tell your mama/What are we gonna tell your pa/What are we gonna tell your friends when they say/Ooh la la?” they sing, running the words together with a jagged, infectious rhythm. And all this over a movie that “wasn’t so hot/It didn’t have much of a plot,” which takes on a whole new meaning if you decide to read it that they did get it on…
7. Chuck Berry – School Days
No, the censors should have been more worried about the pure blast of teen rebellion Chuck Berry was cooking up. Though it suffers a little bit from being rewritten as the even-better “No Particular Place To Go,” this still a defining statement from the dawn of rock. “Hail, hail, rock and roll! Deliver me from the days of old!” The socially acceptable life of schoolwork is a long drudgery, being rushed from class to lunch and back to class without having time to enjoy any of it, “working your fingers down to the bone/and the guy behind you won’t leave you alone.” The only relief is when the bell rings and “You finally lay your burden down” to escape into a world the adults don’t control. Future songwriters will often portray rock and roll as an almost-magic power for good, but few would ever make it quite as transcendent or salvific.
Naw, it’s just fun! Let’s not muck it up with the kind of language the kids were reading in those awful textbooks. Just drop the coin right into the slot, because this is something that’s really hot.
- The Crickets – That’ll Be the Day
Those good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing a better song than Don McLean ever wrote. Buddy Holly’s backing band, the Crickets were credited for copyright reasons, but there’s no doubt that his tic-filled delivery is what makes this song. His trademark hiccups are all over the place, and when he says the day you say goodbye-hi-hi-hi will be the day that you make him cry-y, it sounds like he’s already started bawling. His little woo-hoo on the bridge is almost ghostly, helped in no small part by the tin-roof reverb that later generations would revive as lo fi. The band are no slouches either: the chorus builds to a huge cathartic beat as the drums and bass come together to underline Buddy’s words. With songs like this, Buddy Holly laid the foundations for rock and roll as we know it today, and who knows what he might have done if he’d lived to build the second story.
- Jerry Lee Lewis – Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On
In an era when dance music was just starting to speed up from swing time, Jerry Lee Lewis busted out a proto-punk jam whose title was practically a self-fulfilling prophecy. It starts out with the a thundering piano melody, almost a bass line, and adds an the insistent rat-a-tat of the drums, and eventually adds another piano on top of that first one to play out the high notes and glissandos – in fact, it was the sight of Jerry Lee banging on the keys on TV that sent the song onto the charts. Jerry Lee’s dulcet Southern voice goes everywhere the song needs it to, all the way from “yee-haw” rabble-rousing to all but ordering the listener to dance to softly confidential in the bridge, enough to almost feel like you’re eavesdropping on something. Enhancing his voice is the kind of reverb that runs throughout contemporary recording, making his voice ring in an almost alien way that is somehow inviting instead of alienating. ““I knew it was a hit when I cut it,” Lewis says. “Sam Phillips thought it was gonna be too risqué, it couldn’t make it. If that’s risqué, well, I’m sorry.”
10. Nat King Cole – Send For Me
That said, there ain’t a thing wrong with a good slow dance. Nat King Cole all but defined “smooth,” and listening to this song is the closest you can get to floating on a cloud without having to worry about falling through. Because they’re really just water vapor, you see. Can’t support your weight. Anyhow. “Send For Me” is a shining example of the style of music artists like Jerry Lee would put out of date, not just for its easygoing groove and Cole’s buttery voice, miles away from the howling delivery of the young upstarts. Ollie Jones’ lyrics forego the off-the-cuff style of rock and roll for dizzyingly complicated rhyme schemes, going a whole verse rhyming with a single syllable: “Don’t you dare/Raise a hair/I’m gonna share/Your every care/Anywhere/Oh, yeah/Send for me…I’ll be there.” I mean, sure, “yeah” doesn’t have an R in it and he rhymes “me” with “twiddly dee” in the fadeout, but even perfection isn’t always perfect.
So 1957 was pretty awesome, right? Well, we’ve still got to count down to the worst song…
5. Tab Hunter – Young Love
As a singer, Tab Hunter’s a pretty good actor. The wisdom of recording a single was already doubtful, but he didn’t help his chances any by choosing a song as challenging as this one. The chorus requires him to read the word “I” as several long, lilting notes, all of them much higher than his vocal range can go, and he has to pronounce it “I-hi-hi” just to get them out. Even on the easier passages, he sings so far off key that it’s almost endearing. Sonny James wasn’t much more polished, but he made it work by compressing the range into something within his abilities, and his rawer country music style is much more flattering than the operatic acrobatics Hunter tries and fails to pull off. In fact, just about every cover of this song keeps the “I”s and “you”s down to just two or three notes, and every single one of them can sing better than Tab. The song’s hard to hate, but it is frustrating: you can almost hear the ethereal beauty a better singer could make out of this orchestration, but Hunter’s stupid lack of skill keeps getting in the way.
- Debbie Reynolds – Tammy
They say not to speak ill of the dead, so it’s a little bit awkward to have Debbie Reynolds on here. And honestly, she does everything she can with what she’s given: her voice is smooth and sensually soft as she whispers out the lyrics. If the song had just been a loop of the lilt she adds to the word “whippoorwill” it would be a stone cold classic. It’s Ray Evans’ lyrics that screw everything up, and we can’t blame her for that. Not even Sam Cooke could sell lyrics like “the old hooty-owl/hooty-hoos to the dove” (and he didn’t: he recorded a cover of Tammy for “Songs by Sam Cooke” the same year). Even the name “Tammy” sounds more than a little stupid after it’s repeated so many times. The form and content don’t really fit too well, either. Lines like “My heart beats so joyfully/You’d think that he could hear!” seem more suited to ecstatic belting than this kind of syrup-slow and sappy-sweet orchestration. It makes a certain amount of sense in the original context, where she sings it alone in her room at night (and her mother sneaks in to listen for whatever reason). (Knowing the context also adds another layer of silliness of its own: Reynolds’ character is named Tammy, which makes this into a musical version of “George is getting upset!”)
3. The Tarriers – The Banana Boat Song
Pat Boone is the standard example of white artists messing up black music, but he ain’t got nothing on the Tarriers, token black member notwithstanding. Boone may have softened up some of the hardest rock hits of the era, but at least he let them keep some dignity. The Tarriers can’t be bothered with that. They’d rather turn Belafonte’s elegant Jamaican patois into total gibberish like “hillengolly” and “daydeelite”. Having his and their versions together on the same chart only makes the Tarriers’ weaknesses more jaw-dropping. Belafonte’s baritone thunders over the airwaves. Whenever Erik Darling’s squeaky-clean, squeaky-pitched voice comes in, you’ll wonder who let the kitten into the recording booth. Belafonte paints an indelibly atmospheric portrait of the Caribbean. The Tarriers give us the It’s a Small World version, and the video does nothing to shake that impression: the band plays while happy natives dance in/as the background for the adoring audience of a middle-aged white couple straight out of central casting on Leave It to Beaver. One of the members was a young Alan Arkin, and you’d best believe it’s the funniest thing he ever did.
2. Ricky Nelson – A Teenager’s Romance
If you ever wanted to hear a chorus of Barney Rubbles going Ba Ba Ba Ba and Doo Doo Doo Doo… The record industry has spent most of its lifetime chasing after the all-important teen demographic, never more clumsily than in the fifties. “A Teenager’s Romance” belongs to the long and storied tradition of dumbass kids getting mad at adults treating them like dumbass kids, mostly by distilling every line to its most cliche form. Songwriter David Gillam (and if he was less than two decades removed from his own teendom, I’ll eat my hat) provides brilliant insights into the nature of young love like “A teenager’s romance is fickled or true/A teenager’s romance is red hot or blue/You’re either in misery or high on a crest/A teenager’s romance is like all the rest.” Thrill as he describes the joys of eternal love! “Keep saying you love me/And they’ll look upon/A teenager’s romance/That goes on and on.” Even the title sounds like Gillam jumped for a thesaurus when he decided to write his own version of “Young Love.” As for the poor bastard who had to deliver this nonsense, Ricky Nelson’s later achievements like the haunting “Lonesome Town” seem all the more impressive after seeing what his handlers had in mind for him.
- Russ Hamilton – Rainbow
Is that the Care Bear Choir I hear? No, it’s the backup singers for the worst song of the year, not you can tell the difference. Any song called “Rainbow” is going to have to work overtime to avoid the sap trap, and suffice to say Russ Hamilton doesn’t even try. Some choice lyrics (besides those backup singers cooing “Rainbow rainbow rainbow rainbow rainbow rainbow rainbow” ) include “When we go walking side by side in the moonlight/We count the stars as we go strolling by/Maybe one day we’ll own those bee-oo-tee-ful diamonds/That glisten like the teardrops from your eeeeeeeyes!” Hamilton tries much harder at faking an American accent, and its near-perfection just makes it that much more bizarre when he keeps slipping “awfter”s into the chorus. Just to complete the silly love song bingo, arranger Johnny Gregory was kind enough to include some tinkling bells too. He was present at the birth of Liverpool’s music scene; maybe The Beatles were inspired to the greatness they achieved just to get out from under the shadow of this mess.