During the post war depression, fuelled by gentle, unchallenging orchestral sounds and light music, the ration-booked masses were lulled into an advanced state of slumber by layered strings and discreet melodies. Pop music stopped all of that and provided the emerging teenage generation with a soundtrack to their lives.
The dictionary explanation of the term mentions “an emphasis on craftsmanship rather than formal “artistic” qualities,” and the fact that “much pop music is intended to encourage dancing.” A tactic we all know is the first staging post for a romantic liaison. In the ‘50s courting took place on the dancefloor set against a series of mini soap dramas about boy/girl meeting girl/boy, the first twinkling of love, the longing, the yearning, the break up, the regrets and so forth. Every song an autobiography. On such subject matter pop writing legends like Leiber And Stoller, the occupants of the Brill Building, Bacharach And David and many more cut their teeth providing one liners that would speak to the masses as being absolutely and unequivocally written just for them.
Pop music was the opium of the masses, an addictive noise that stuck in the mind till people heard themselves humming along for no apparent reason and quoting pearls of wisdom from the lyrics as if they were their own words. Pop music affected everyone.
“Do I listen to pop music because I’m miserable or am I miserable because listen to pop music?” mused John Cusack in High Fidelity before penning another list of great break up tunes. Pop music, eventually, provided spiritual guidance for everyone.
During the 1950s, hit factories were set up, delivering a string of catchy songs that would filter onto the radio and into our homes on new, more accessible hi fi units. New technology and new music were hand in hand. Sure, Sinatra, Bing and their buddies had been crooning semantics for romantics for what seemed like centuries, but in the 1950s, the purveyors or RnB, rock ‘n’ roll, doo wop, country and soul seemed to come together, appealing to a much wider audience. The advent of pop music and the pop star as a commodity was just around the corner. Those first pop songs were like beacons awakening a public sending them, gradually, into the celebrity hysteria we all recognise today.
This collection gathers together over 90 tracks tracing the origins of contemporary pop music. These were the first examples of crafted pop tunes. The alternative to The Light Programme and Lawrence Welk’s massed strings. Here were accessible melodies presented as love songs for dreamers, hopeless romantics and regretful spurned partners, all of it caught as beautifully penned cameos in less than three minutes. A cursory examination of the lyrics here place 85% of the songs in one of the various stages of a relationship and our study of what inspired pop music starts with that first date.
THE DATING GAME
As we were pre-warned, the concept of dancing and pop music is interlinked and The Drifters were old hands at expressing the sub-plot of such activities. While The Del Vikings begged for a date, Maurice Williams And The Zodiacs just wanted it to last a little bit longer and Phil Philips’ much slower ‘Sea Of Love’ represented obsessives everywhere with all the hallmarks of a stalker situation. But, not every date had a silver lining and The Everly Brothers’ cheap excuses that they and ‘Little Susie’ innocently fell asleep in the cinema surely struck a chord with parents everywhere.
Pop music was keen to tackle what happened after that first date was over, examining the super serious love-pledging fraternity, the hopeless romantics with their wistful one liners and the late night dreamers who pontificated but did little about it.
Love is indeed a many splendoured thing and admiration for one’s potential other half has long been the subject of the very essence of pop music. Whether that person has the ability to shake the room, make being a rebel an art form or make a virtue of craziness, admiration quickly leads to a love-smitten otherness that’s nothing short of insatiable. Those smitten can’t take their eyes off their quarry and their angelic ways whether it’s ‘Diana’, ‘Mr Lee’ or that elusive ‘Little Bitty Pretty One’.
PLEDGING MY LOVE
Those pledging their love obviously included Johnny Ace with his pondering song of the same name, while both The Flamingos’ ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ and The Chordettes’ ‘Born To Be With You’ made their feelings known from the get-go. Elvis’ ‘Loving You’ was nothing short of the perfect pop tag, with a melody that might have appealed to the Sinatra faithful but, in the hands of this new teen rebel, seemed to possess an almost sinister appeal, while The Platters’ ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ and the gloriously soulful Sam Cooke on ‘You Send Me’ made for perfect love songs.
In lyrical terms, such immediate affection (aka love) could go wrong and leave anyone marooned in a schmaltzy netherworld, but the production on the likes of The Shirelles’ ‘Dedicated To The One I Love’ (later multi harmonised by The Mamas And Papas) and ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ by The Teddy Bears both have a haunting appeal. And The Dubs, Platters, Crests and Fleetwoods all made their vows with similar sweet melancholy melody. Plainly deep love was perfect for pop. Buddy Holly, however, sat on the cusp of the relationship, much in the same way as he did between rock ‘n’ roll and pop, the latter obviously having a unique appeal for him.
“If anyone asks you what kind of music you play, tell him ‘pop.’ Don’t tell him ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ or they won’t even let you in the hotel,” he famously quipped. ‘Maybe Baby’ does have the swagger of rock ‘n’ roll, filled with flippant remarks but he’s hoping to get the girl in the end and, like all good American movies it suggests the perfect ending.
In the creation of this new pop sound, romance wasn’t only recognised by love being pledged, there were far more hopeless cases out there in the 1950s. The Everly Brothers were completely smitten on ‘(‘Til) I Kissed You’ while both Elvis and The Chords seemed to take playful romanticism to new levels on ‘Teddy Bear’ and ‘Sh-Boom’. And, the very concept of ‘I’m Going To Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter’ had unique poignancy in Billy Williams’ soulful version, some way from the faster paced Sinatra take on a song that’s all about the deceit that everything will be fine.
Paul Anka’s ‘Put Your Head On My Shoulder’, a direct influence on Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, is filled with timeless affection but, without doubt, part and parcel of being a hopeless romantic is wishing that everything will come right in the end and The Platters’ belief that ‘Twilight Time’ will prove a turning point was all too soon for The Tempos who were set on be waiting around till September.
Disc one closes with five pop songs by those happy to wait until evening time when sleep encroaches on our every thoughts. Elvis just needed one night to make his dreams come true, while The Chordettes, Bobby Darin and The Everlys were set to sleep on it till things come good while The Spaniels decide enough his enough.
Pop music has always been a philosophical medium and disc two gathers together the best of the ‘50s’ attempts at relationship management along with a few tearjerkers and heartbreakers, songs that were essentially reflecting what was happening to real people, the very essence of pop music’s appeal.
In terms of anecdotal storylines and blueprints for how teenagers should avoid certain situations there are no greater songs than ‘Poison Ivy’ by The Coasters and ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ by Conway Twitty. Tommy Edwards’ ‘It’s All In The Game’, with its explanatory notes, and The Monotones’ quizzical ‘Book Of Love’ have everything down pat, while ‘It’s So Easy’, ‘Only 16’, ‘Sweet Nothin’s’, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘Blue Angel’ all showed that pop music could have maturity and give life lessons at the same time, while ‘But I Do’ by Clarence “Frogman” Henry revealed that sometimes we just can’t be responsible or even understand our actions.
The rest of disc two is concerned with the aftermath, the tearjerking reality of the waiting, hoping, yearning that comes about when it’s over. This is pop music at its greatest, this is the stuff that wakes us from our sleep at night, the stuff that gives a final ultimatum about life without love that everyone, personally, can identify with. Tears are on pillows, Laura needs to be told that someone loves her, there are great pretenders and people are either sorry or should be sorry. As is life, not everything is good.
Disc three continues the trend with classic break up songs and even more considered realisations of what went wrong, viewed from both sides of the split. ‘Crying In The Chapel’, ‘Poor Little Fool’ and ‘Blue Velvet’ are all achingly melancholy while ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ show some dignity in placing the blame elsewhere, unlike the subject matter in ‘Cathy’s Clown’ who’s on a hiding to nothing. Like any great soap opera story lines or any characters passed over in movies, pop music’s creation was all about capturing these troubled episodes in rhyming couplets with melodies and arrangements that added to the dramatic effect.
HEARTBREAK AND REGRETS
The mood continues on a downward spiral with even more heartfelt stories and regretful lyrics. Frankie Lymon’s finger-clicking tale of remorse, ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love?’, The Diamonds’ ’Little Darlin’, The Poni-Tails’ magnificent story of mismatched ages, ‘Born Too Late’, Fats Domino’s ‘Blueberry Hill’, The Rays’ tragic yarn about catching the other man in ‘Silhouettes’, The Fleetwoods’ ‘Mr Blue’, The Drifters’ ‘There Goes My Baby’ and Dion And The Belmonts’ ‘Where Or When’ were all plucking at the heartstrings. They are perfectly crafted pop anthems that whistled from transistor radios as teenagers everywhere reluctantly moved on to their next romantic entanglement.
Within this environment of magnified life, the story song became central to the development of pop music. The expansion into radio on the tail coats of rock ‘n’ roll meant that there was even more room for creativity and although many of the songs still revolved around relationships there were others that added new depth to the pop genre and a brace of songs that melodically took music itself to new places.
The likes of ‘Spanish Harlem’, written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector, were highly sophisticated and, delivered with artistic panache and a big production encircling a mysterious storyline, were simply astonishing. Similarly, the Ben E King-fronted Drifters’ ‘Magic Moments’ had an almost filmic feel with its spiralling strings and layered effects. And, Sam Cooke was pushing the boundaries too. ‘(What A) Wonderful World’ created the template for soul music and ‘Chain Gang’ gave an insight to another world, the ultimate objective of any pop song. Set to an infectious melody line, its repetitive melody and lyric structure was copied on a host of songs that broke free from traditional song structures.
A SIDE OF LOVE
As mentioned the urge to dance is often to the first indication of or at least an attempt to lure in love. And, in this first golden age of pop music the likes of Bobby Freeman’s ‘Do You Wanna Dance’, Little Eva’s ‘loco-motion’ and The Isley Brother’s ‘Shout’ were all tribal gatherings designed to entice potential partners while the suggestion of higher times either uptown or indeed up on the roof were destinations for further canoodling that hinted at more intimate times ahead.
Rock ‘n’ roll, like punk so many years later, had allowed people to break free from genre-specific boundaries and songs like ‘Love Potion No 9 by The Clovers, ‘Handy Man’ by Jimmy Jones, ‘Lucky Lips’ by Ruth Brown and ‘Poetry In Motion’ by Johnny Tillotson mixed styles and transcended mere genre categories, they were the new wave of pop music, perfect for the radio and taking pop into new territory where such left field songs as ‘Mack The Knife’ by Bobby Darin and the seemingly international ‘La Bamba’ by Ritchie Valens could co-exist.
At the end of the ‘50s and the beginning to the 1960’s, pop music seemed to be everywhere. The Famous Flames site also contains a further 25 tracks to download which further enhance this story of the birth of pop. There you’ll find the anthemic simplicity of ‘Here Comes Summer’ by Jerry Keller, the tenacious ‘Little Bitty Pretty One‘ and Bobby Vee’s ‘Rubber Ball’, the kind of song that sticks in your brain forever.
The art of pop became huge business in the ‘60s. It was a revolution in sound and, seemingly, an easy way to shape pop culture and make a few bucks. But, as Robert Wyatt once remarked, “Anybody who thinks pop music’s easy should try to make a pop single and find out that it isn’t.”
For that reason alone, let’s salute these embryonic creative and celebrate it with 170 gems from the first golden era of pop.
Dave Henderson, MOJO magazine, 2011
All tracks are now available on the ‘To Know Them Is To Love Them’ collection at a variety of online sites.
1 Wake Up Little Susie – The Everly Brothers
2 Save The Last Dance for Me – The Drifters
3 Come Go With Me – The Del Vikings
4 Stay – Maurice Williams And The Zodiacs
5 Sea Of Love – Phil Phillips And The Twilights
6 Dance With Me – The Drifters
7 You’ll Lose a Good Thing – Barbara Lynn
8 Tonight’s The Night – The Shirelles
9 Sherry – The Four Seasons
10 Here Comes Summer – Jerry Keller
11 It’s Late – Rick Nelson
12 What Do You Want – Adam Faith
13 Step By Step – The Crests
14 All Shook Up – Elvis Presley
15 Rave On – Buddy Holly And The Crickets
16 He’s A Rebel – The Crystals
17 Stand By Me – Ben E King
18 Crazy – Patsy Cline
19 Why Do Fools Fall In Love – Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers
20 Bring It On Home To Me – Sam Cooke
21 You Really Got A Hold On Me – The Miracles
22 Your Precious Love – Jerry Butler And The Impressions
23 I Love How You Love Me – The Paris Sisters
24 I Can’t Stop Loving You – Ray Charles
25 Lonely Teardrops – Jackie Wilson
26 What A Diff’rence A Day Makes – Dinah Washington
27 Diana – Paul Anka
28 Angel Baby – Rosie & The Originals
29 Earth Angel – Penguins
30 Mr Lee – The Bobettes
31 Little Bitty Pretty One – Frankie Lymon
PLEDGING MY LOVE
32 I Only Have Eyes For You – The Flamingos
33 Born To Be With You – The Chordettes
34 Smoke Gets In Your Eyes – The Platters
35 Loving You – Elvis Presley
36 Pledging My Love – Johnny Ace
37 You Send Me – Sam Cooke
38 To Know Him Is To Love Him – The Teddy Bears
39 Dedicated To The One I Love – The Shirelles
40 Only You – The Platters
41 16 Candles – The Crests
42 Come Softly To Me – The Fleetwoods
43 Could This Be Magic – The Dubs
44 Maybe Baby – Buddy Holly
45 Love Me Tender – Elvis Presley
46 Sincerely – The Moonglows
47 (‘Til) I Kissed You – The Everly Brothers
48 Twilight Time – The Platters
49 Put Your Head On My Shoulder – Paul Anka
50 Sh-Boom – The Chords
51 (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear – Elvis Presley
52 Baby It’s You – The Shirelles
53 Cupid – Sam Cooke
54 Honey Comb – Jimmie Rodgers
55 I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter – Billy Williams
56 See You In September – The Tempos
57 Our Day Will Come – Ruby And The Romantics
58 Soldier Boy – The Shirelles
59 Stubborn Kind Of Fellow – Marvin Gaye
60 Can’t Help Falling In Love With You – Elvis Presley
61 You Belong To Me – The Duprees
62 Love Letters – Ketty Lester
63 PS I Love You – The Beatles
64 A Taste Of Honey – Lenny Welch
65 Soldier Of Love – Arthur Alexander
66 You’re So Fine – The Falcons
LATE NIGHT DREAMERS
67 Mr. Sandman – The Chordettes
68 Dream Lover – Bobby Darin
69 One Night – Elvis Presley
70 All I Have To Do Is Dream – The Everly Brothers
71 Love Came To Me – Dion
72 Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite – The Spaniels
73 It’s All In The Game – Tommy Edwards
74 Book Of Love – The Monotones
75 It’s So Easy – The Crickets
76 Magic Moments – Perry Como
77 Poison Ivy – The Coasters
78 Only 16 – Sam Cooke
79 Sweet Nothin’s – Brenda Lee
80 Don’t Be Cruel – Elvis Presley
81 It’s Only Make Believe – Conway Twitty
82 The One Who Really Loves You – Mary Wells
83 Blue Angel – Roy Orbison
84 But I Do – Clarence “Frogman” Henry
85 Fools Rush In – Brook Benton
86 If You Got to Make A Fool Of Somebody – James Ray
87 Make It Easy On Yourself – Jerry Butler
88 Release Me – Esther Phillips
89 Don’t Make Me Over – Dionne Warwick
90 Don’t Ever Change – The Crickets
91 Running Scared – Roy Orbison
92 Return To Sender – Elvis Presley
93 Tell Him – The Exciters
94 Chains – The Cookies
95 Keep Your Hands Off My Baby – Little Eva
96 Anna (Go To Him) – Arthur Alexander
97 Stupid Cupid – Connie Francis
98 Maybe – The Chantels
99 A Teenager In Love – Dion And The Belmonts
100 Only The Lonely – Roy Orbison
101 Let It Be Me – The Everly Brothers
102 Will You Love Me Tomorrow – The Shirelles
103 Crying In The Chapel – The Orioles
104 The Great Pretender – The Platters
105 Tears On My Pillow – Little Anthony & The Imperials
106 True Love Ways – Buddy Holly
107 I’m Sorry – Brenda Lee
108 It’s Now Or Never – Elvis Presley
109 He Will Break Your Heart – Jerry Butler
110 It Doesn’t Matter Anymore – Buddy Holly
111 Who’s Sorry Now – Connie Francis
112 Love Hurts – The Everly Brothers
113 In The Still Of The Night – The Five Satins
114 Unchained Melody – Roy Hamilton
115 You Don’t Miss Your Water – William Bell
116 Crying – Roy Orbison
117 That’ll Be The Day – The Crickets
118 Ain’t That A Shame – Fats Domino
119 Cathy’s Clown – The Everly Brothers
120 I Met Him On A Sunday – The Shirelles
121 A Fool Such As I – Elvis Presley
122 It’s Just A Matter Of Time – Brook Benton
123 Any Day Now – Chuck Jackson
124 Since I Don’t Have You – The Skyliners
125 Crying In The Chapel – The Orioles
126 Blue Velvet – The Clovers
127 Poor Little Fool – Ricky Nelson
128 Bye Bye Love – The Everly Brothers
129 Big Girls Don’t Cry – The Four Seasons
130 Hit The Road Jack – Ray Charles
131 The Wanderer – Dion
132 Runaway – Del Shannon
133 Rubber Ball – Bobby Vee
134 It Was I – Skip & Flip
HEARTBREAK AND REGRETS
135 Little Darlin’ – The Diamonds
136 Born Too Late – The Poni-Tails
137 Blueberry Hill – Fats Domino
138 Silhouettes – The Rays
139 Mr. Blue – The Fleetwoods
140 There Goes My Baby – The Drifters
141 Where Or When – Dion And The Belmonts
142 Don’t Play That Song For Me – Ben E King
143 You Don’t Know Me – Ray Charles
144 You Beat Me To The Punch – Mary Wells
145 Come To Me – Marv Johnson
146 Lonely Boy – Paul Anka
147 What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For – Emile Ford And The Checkmates
148 This Magic Moment – The Drifters
149 Spanish Harlem – Ben E King
150 (What A) Wonderful World – Sam Cooke
151 Mack The Knife – Bobby Darin
152 Love Potion No 9 – The Clovers
153 Bob Luman – Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache
154 Lucky Lips – Ruth Brown
155 Chain Gang – Sam Cooke
156 Poetry In Motion – Johnny Tillotson
157 La Bamba – Ritchie Valens
158 Please Mr Postman – The Marvelettes
159 Runaround Sue – Dion
160 Peggy Sue – Buddy Holly
161 Playboy – The Marvelettes
162 Little Town Flirt – Del Shannon
163 Beachwood 4-5789 – The Marvelettes
164 Georgia On My Mind – Ray Charles
165 Good Timin’ – Jimmy Jones
A SIDE OF LOVE
166 Up On The Roof – The Drifters
167 The Locomotion – Little Eva
168 Shout Parts 1 and 2 – Isley Brothers
169 Do You Wanna Dance? – Bobby Freeman
170 Uptown – The Crystals