Top 10 Songs of the 1940s
Billboard began ranking country records with the jukebox chart in the 1940s (1944, to be exact), though commercial country music had been around since the 1920s. As the business of country music began to grow, the chart would evolve to include radio airplay and record sales. Taste of Country has decided to honor the first generation of chart toppers with our list of the Top 10 Songs of the 1940s. Each one of these early hits was driven nickel by nickel up the charts, as honky-tonk and malt shop patrons played a significant role in helping a record become a hit simply by playing the jukebox.
‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’
‘Blue Moon of Kenutcky,’ released in 1945, was a groundbreaking recording that is not only one of the top songs of the 1940s, but also helped define a new genre that would develop under the guidance of Bill Monroe. Monroe didn’t call his music bluegrass; he was just recording music with the intention of using a sound that differentiated him from other performers. After other artists began to imitate his sound, industry people began to call the acoustic driven music bluegrass, referring to Monroe’s band, the Bluegrass Boys. Monroe was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, but he died in 1996 at age 84.
‘Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)’
After being featured as the lead vocal on the 1945 Spade Cooley hit ‘Shame on You,’ Tex Williams was offered a deal by Capitol Records. Williams' unique ‘talking blues’ delivery worked like magic on the Merle Travis song ‘Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette).’ Released in 1947, the song became Capitol Records' first million seller. The song also stayed at No. 1 for 16 weeks. Tex Williams, who also acted in several western movies, died in 1985 at age 68.
It’s hard to imagine any song on the radio today staying at No. 1 on the charts for over four months, which is more like the entire longevity of a charting single today. However, in 1949, ’Slippin’ Away’ by Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely shot to the top and easily became Billboard’s No. 1 song of the entire year. The Floyd Tillman-penned classic is a shoe-in on our list of the Top 10 Songs of the 1940s. Margaret Whiting, who was raised in Hollywood, died in 2011 at the age of 86. Jimmy Wakely, also known as “The Melody Kid,” died in 1982 at the age of 68.
‘Pistol Packin’ Mama’
Bing Crosby still surprises many country music fans today when they realize that the ‘White Christmas’ crooner actually gets credit for the very first song to ever top the Billboard country charts. At the time, Billboard’s only country chart was actually called the jukebox chart. The honky-tonk favorite ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama’ peaked at No. 1 for five weeks in 1944. Ironically, Al Dexter — the man who wrote it — also went to No. 1 with own version, which became the second song in history to top the Billboard charts. Bing Crosby died of a heart attack in 1977 at age 74.
‘New San Antonio Rose’
In 1938, western swing band leader Bob Wills composed the instrumental dance classic ‘San Antonio Rose.’ In 1944, he decided to give the song a face lift by composing lyrics that would be performed by his band’s lead vocalist, Tommy Duncan. Now titled ‘New San Antonio Rose,’ the song peaked at No. 3, eventually becoming a staple for artists of all genres to cover in concert. The song was elected into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Bob Wills died of a stroke in 1975 at the age of 70.
‘Smoke on the Water’
In 1944, Red Foley hit the charts with a song about World War II with ‘Smoke on the Water.’ The 13-week chart topper, penned by Zeke Clements and Earl Nunn, helped Foley become one of the biggest personalities in country music. In addition to the success of late 1940s songs like ‘Tennessee Saturday Night,’ ‘Mississippi’ and ‘Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy,’ Red Foley’s role in entertainment got even bigger when he landed the hosting spot of ABC’s 'Ozark Jubilee' from 1954-1960. Red Foley, nicknamed for his red hair, died in 1968 at the age of 58.
Written by George Morgan himself, ‘Candy Kisses’ would eventually become a country music standard covered by several artists through the years. Already established as a regional star on shows like the 'WWVA Jamboree,' Morgan got a break when Eddy Arnold left the Grand Ole Opry in 1948. Possessing a similar smooth singing style, the country crooner was an easy replacement on the Opry roster. His debut single 'Candy Kisses' was recorded at his first session for Columbia Records and launched his career with a big, sweet bang! The father of Lorrie Morgan, also known for another 1940s hit, ‘Room Full Of Roses,’ died in 1975 at the age of 51.
‘Walking the Floor Over You’
Most of the selections on our list of the Top 10 Songs of the 1940s became popular after Billboard began tracking songs in 1944. However, we can’t overlook this monster classic that was released in 1941. ‘Walking the Floor Over You’ made Ernest Tubb a household name in the early '40s. The popularity of the record gave Tubb the chance to offer one of the biggest tours in the country music business, boasting a great band known as the Texas Troubadours, featuring future stars Jack Greene and Cal Smith. Launching the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and the 'Midnight Jamboree' radio show in 1947, he earned a reputation for helping upcoming acts like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams and Hank Snow. Tubb, whose name is still blinking on a store front in Nashville, died in 1984 at the age of 70.
After releasing his first single, ‘Move It on Over,’ in 1947, Hank Williams was made a cast member of 'The Louisiana Hayride.' In 1949, Williams landed his first No. 1 single with ‘Lovesick Blues,’ and he quickly became the hottest rising star in country music. Ironically, thought he's known as one of the finest songwriters in history, Williams' first No. 1 song was actually a cover of a popular show tune penned by Cliff Friend and Irving Mills. Hank Williams, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, died in 1953 at the age of 29.
‘Bouquet of Roses’
As the lead singer of Pee Wee King’s Golden West Cowboys in the early 1940s, Eddy Arnold saw his star rise higher and brighter than anyone in the entertainment business through the rest of the decade. Arnold was one of the first country artists to cross over to the pop charts, and he ruled the jukeboxes and airwaves with every hit single. According to Billboard, he was their No. 1 artist of the entire decade of the 1940s; in the 1950s he ranked at No. 2 for the decade, and in the 1960s he placed as the fifth biggest artist of the decade. In 1948, the year that ‘Bouquet of Roses’ was ranked the No. 1 song of the year, there were only six No. 1 records, and “The Tennessee Plowboy” had his name on five of those singles. Eddy Arnold continued to record until his death in 2008 at the age of 89.