If the postwar prosperity of Fifties America gave us the emergence of both rock & roll and teen culture itself, it serves to reason that it also gave us the summer jam – or at least pop music’s increased social significance in the months when school is out. Billboard didn’t originate the Hot 100 until 1958, so this list was compiled by tabulating length of peaks within that chart window, as well as peaks across pre-Hot 100 sales, jukebox and disc jockey charts between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox, from 1950 to 1959. We’ve also taken the liberty of deleting all the ballads – so our apologies to Percy Faith, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, the Andrews Sisters and many more. By Al Shipley
People say that the 1950s were a more innocent time for America. And when you realize that a doo-wop adaptation of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” ruled the pop charts in the summer of 1958, you might be inclined to agree.
The last major American hit for Cuban bandleader Perez Prado was the end of an era: It came at the tail end of our initial fascination with Mambo, and was the final song to top charts before Billboard introduced the Hot 100.
The biggest hit from Presley’s film King Creole, this nasty (and catchy) piece of chauvinism was the 1958 equivalent of Chris Brown’s “Loyal.”
Not to be confused with the Seventies comeback hit “Burning Love,” Elvis recorded “A Big Hunk O’ Love” in the only studio session of his army enlistment. Even a draft notice couldn’t stop Private Presley from running the pop charts for his fourth summer in a row in 1959.
Possibly the ultimate teen idol anthem. “Poor Little Fool” was written by Sharon Seeley when she was just 15 about her brief fling with one star, Don Everly, and she pitched the song to another pop idol, Ricky Nelson. She became the youngest woman to write a Number One hit in America.
Lieber and Stoller, two producers from the east coast, wrote “Hound Dog” and countless other rock and R&B hits of the Fifties. But it was L.A. doo-wop quartet the Coasters that became the vehicle for dozens of their most raucous ideas, none catchier or funnier than the depiction of teenage chores and rebellion in “Yakety Yak.”
Canadian pop crooner Paul Anka may not strike you as a typical summer jam fare, even in his heyday. But a half-century after hits like “Lonely Boy,” he’s back in the game in 2014 with Michael Jackson’s Anka-penned posthumous hit “Love Never Felt So Good” featuring Justin Timberlake.
Serving as something of a preliminary round for Eurovision, the Sanremo Music Festival is an Italian song contest in which songwriters enter previously unreleased works for competition. In 1958, singer/actor Domenico Modugno and co-author Johnny Dorelli took home the prize for “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare),” which became the festival’s biggest international hit and an unlikely foreign language chart-topper in America.
Georgia Gibbs (born Frieda Lipschitz) was the daughter of Russian immigrants, but her biggest hit was adapted from an Argentinian tango. Gibbs revamped the song in a more overtly summery rock version in the Sixties, nicking a riff from “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” but it can’t compare to the heat of her original recording.
A year before Pat Boone scored his first hit covering Fats Domino, the Canadian flat tops in the Crew-Cuts provided an early example of white artists bringing crossover success to songs originated by black artists. The Chords recorded “Sh-Boom” first, making it a rare top 10 hit for a black group, before the Crew-Cuts swooped in and took it to Number One.
The flirtatious “Come On-A My House” is, it may surprise you, the only pop smash co-written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author: dramatist and novelist William Saroyan. But even after the song helped Rosemary Clooney become a household name, she admitted openly that she’d always hated the song, and that Mitch Miller had ordered her to record it.
“The King of the Mambo,” Prado helped popularize the Cuban-originated genre in America with a rare instrumental chart-topper, “Cherry Pink (And Apple Blossom White).” One of Prado’s songs became a summer jam decades later, in 1999, when Lou Bega updated his “Mambo No. 5.”
Four years after Mitch Miller took an ode to the Texas Revolution to the top of the charts, rockabilly singer Johnny Horton achieved the same feat with a light-hearted song about another 19th century military conflict. Marching snare drums: the hot beats that powered 1950s summer jams!
In the spring of 1955, Sinatra released the landmark LP of his greatest musical reinvention, In The Wee Small Hours. But Ol’ Blue Eyes never stopped cranking out standalone 45s, and this slightly jauntier but still lonesome track became his biggest pop hit of the era.
In hindsight, “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” is probably the slightest of Presley’s initial run of chart-toppers, hitting in the summer of 1957 after the colder months had been heated up by classics like “Love Me Tender” and “All Shook Up.” And yet, his hiccups and vocal tics have seldom been more charmingly goofy as they were in this 106-second gem.
“The Yellow Rose of Texas” was first published in 1858. But it took 97 years to become a chart-topping hit, when pop producer Mitch Miller came up with a catchy arrangement of the tale of the Battle of San Jacinto that knocked Bill Haley out of the Number One spot.
Shelby F. Wooley was a character actor with a long career in westerns, appearing in movies like High Noon and The Outlaw Josey Wales. But he found pop immortality in the novelty song “The Purple People Eater,” and enjoyed a string of country hits while mentoring future Nashville legend Roger Miller.
As was frequently the case in the Fifties, Stanley Lebowski and Herb Newman’s “The Wayward Wind” was recorded by several different artists, many of which ended up competing for the hit. Country singer Tex Ritter, British radio personality Jimmy Young and a pre-stardom Shirley Bassey all took a swing at “The Wayward Wind” in 1956, but it was Gogi Grant, recording for the tiny Era Records label, that made it one of the summer’s biggest hits.
“Rock Around The Clock” didn’t top the charts until summer 1955, after its initial release a year earlier as a B-side failed to attract much notice. Thankfully, placement of the song in the hit ’55 film Blackboard Jungle helped the song rock around the calendar and ultimately become the first Number One of the rock & roll era.
1956 became the summer of Elvis, or rather the first of several, with the July release of “Don’t Be Cruel” (backed by another chart-topper, “Hound Dog”). In early September, Presley opened his first Ed Sullivan Show appearance with this hip-swiveling classic, and the rest is history.