10 Best ’50s Songs
Country music gave us some of the best '50s songs when it entered its second decade on the charts. Billboard began ranking songs based mostly on jukebox sales in the '40s, but by the '50s, radio and television exposure and album sales were having a bigger influence on a song’s success. From TV stars like Tennessee Ernie Ford and Patsy Cline to legendary bar room favorites like Hank Williams and Hank Thompson -- and new stars like Johnny Cash and George Jones -- these are Taste of Country’s 10 Best '50s Songs.
Tennessee Ernie Ford broke through in 1949 with hits like ‘Mule Train’ and ‘The Shot Gun Boogie.’ With a very likeable personality, he was recruited to host NBC’s game show ‘Kollege Of Musical Knowledge.’ As his star began to rise through radio and television exposure, he released ‘Sixteen Tons’ in 1955. The song was an instant success, selling over four million copies and landing him a deal to host a primetime NBC variety program, 'The Ford Show,' from 1956-1961. “The Old Pea Picker” died of liver failure in 1991 at the age of 72.
1956's ‘Singing the Blues’ set the stage for a platform of greatest hits that would follow, including ‘El Paso’ and ‘A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation).’ Marty Robbins credited Little Jimmy Dickens for his discovery in 1951 While he was hosting his own radio and television show in Phoenix, Little Jimmy Dickens appeared as a guest. The 4’11” Opry star encouraged his own label to sign Marty Robbins, and the suggestion brought forth some of the biggest country crossover hits of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The versatile crooner died of heart failure in 1982 at the age of 57.
Surprisingly, “The King of Rock 'n' Roll” had his first success in country music -- with his first ever No. 1 record, ‘I Forgot to Remember to Forget.’ Elvis’ next single, ‘Mystery Train,’ brought him back to the Top 10, and then came the monster smash that would see him land his first No. 1 pop hit. ‘Heartbreak Hotel' -- co-written by Mae Boren Axton -- shot to the top and stayed at No. 1 for 17 weeks on the country charts, while simultaneously spending eight weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s pop charts. Selling over two million copies, this 1956 jukebox favorite easily makes our list of one of the best '50s songs. Elvis placed 11 songs at No. 1 on the Billboard country charts and was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998.
In 1952, Ray Price began his career in country music with songs like ‘I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)’ and the original version of ‘Release Me.’ In 1956, as Elvis and Johnny Cash were breaking through with debut singles, Ray Price landed a hit with ‘Crazy Arms.’ The song spent an impressive 20 weeks at No. 1 and helped set the foundation for the classic shuffle beat that would be heard on so many honky tonk records to follow. In addition to making our list of the best '50s songs, Ray Price also helped other struggling artists of the day, including Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, and Johnny Paycheck, by employing them in his Cherokee Cowboy Band. At the age of 85, Ray Price is still touring and is currently featured on Randy Travis’ new album.
George Jones launched his career in 1955 with ‘Why Baby Why.’ In 1959, after recording ‘White Lightning,’ he was one of the fastest rising stars in country music. The song was penned by rock 'n' roll legend J.P. Richardson, known as “The Big Bopper,” who also penned '50s songs like ‘Chantilly Lace’ and ‘Running Bear.’ Although this hit would come along a few years before Jones would end up in the tabloids for drinking too much ‘White Lightning,' the song title would be used in the 2000s on the label of his own line of bottled water. At the age of 80, Jones is still recording and touring.
Hank Williams, Sr. had so many big hits that his singles alone could have made up our entire list of the best ‘50s songs. No. 1 hits like ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues,’ ‘Why Don’t You Love Me,’ ‘Moanin’ the Blues,’ ‘Cold, Cold Heart,’ ‘Jambalaya’ and ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ dominated country radio and jukeboxes in the early 1950s. However, we’ve selected ‘Hey Good Lookin’’ to represent Williams on this list. Written and released in 1951, the song stayed at No. 1 for eight weeks and was elected to the Grammy Song Hall of Fame. Like many of his songs, this classic will never be forgotten as it makes it’s way to cover albums and live shows, generation after generation. Hank Williams, Sr. died at the age of 29 in 1953.
Hank Snow has the classic rags-to-riches story that makes any country fan proud. Surrounded by abusive parents, he eventually ran away from home and made a living as a young man working on a fish trawler in the North Atlantic. Finding an escape through music, he traveled playing shows from Montreal to Hollywood, and eventually found regional success in Texas. The Lone Star State gigs impressed Ernest Tubb, who encouraged the Grand Ole Opry to include Hank Snow on their roster. Up until this time, Snow had only had minor regional successes, so to secure his spot on the Opry and his stay in mainstream country music, he desperately needed a hit. That hit came shortly after with ‘I’m Movin’ On,’ in 1950. According to Billboard, it was not only the No. 1 hit of the year, but it’s listed at No. 1 on the Top 100 No. 1 country hits of all-time because of its 21-week stay at the top of the charts and it’s 44-week run.
‘Walkin’ After Midnight’ is the only song on our list that did not reach No. 1. However, the record’s peak at No. 2 and its significance of launching one of the most revered careers in country music make this song more than qualified to make our list of the best ‘50s songs. Patsy Cline began performing in musicals, talent shows and on local radio when she was just a teenager. As she continued to perform regionally, she gained some national attention and released a few songs that remained regional favorites. However, after an appearance on the television show 'Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Souts' in 1957, the world would be introduced to an iconic voice, through her performance of ‘Walkin’ After Midnight.’ Although her story would end in 1963 at the age of 30, her music lives on in the heart of just about every female vocalist.
Released on the legendary Sun Records in 1956, ‘I Walk The Line’ gave Johnny Cash the first No. 1 single of his career. “The Man in Black” released three Top 20 hits prior to his signature recording, including ‘Cry! Cry! Cry!' and ‘So Doggone Lonesome,’ as well as the original version of ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’ As with many Cash classics, this was penned by him for his first wife,Vivian Liberto, the mother of Rosanne Cash. The song also helped establish the signature “boom-chicka-boom” sound created by his band, the Tennessee Two, featuring Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant. The song would come back to life as the title of the Johnny Cash movie ‘Walk The Line’ in 2005. Cash died in 2003 at the age of 71.
In March of 1952, Hank Thompson landed his first No. 1 song with the jukebox smash ‘The Wild Side Of Life,’ The song blames a woman for ruining a relationship because of her honky tonk ways. The song became a bar room classic, but by July of ’52, housewives of the nation responded -- and their spokeswoman was “The Queen of Country Music,” Kitty Wells. Wells had a rebuttal with ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.' In a time when women rarely spoke up, this was a brave, groundbreaking recording and statement. In this No. 1 smash, Wells loudly proclaimed that most every heart that’s ever broken was because there'd always been a man to blame! Not only are both of these recordings tied at No. 1 on our list of the best ‘50s songs, but they were both inducted into the Grammy Song Hall of Fame.