It’s a brand new year so let’s try a brand new way of doing things. Each week I’ll move year-by-year and post 5 songs that cracked the Billboard top 5 for the month in which I post. Why don’t we start with 1959 because, well, why not?
5. “One Night” by Elvis Presley
The King started 1959 at the #5 spot with this song, originally recorded by Smiley Lewis in 1956. Lewis’ version begins “One night of sin / Is what I’m now paying for,” a line too suggestive for RCA and Elvis’ handlers. The cleaned up version was released in ’58 and peaked at #4 before working it’s way downward in the following year.
4. “Sixteen Candles” by The Crests
Comprised of three African Americans, an Italian American, and one Puerto Rican, The Crests were the first interracial doo-wop group to achieve any chart success. This song was their biggest hit, reaching #4 in January 1959 before peaking at #2 the following month (they were kept out of the top spot by the next song on this list). I suspect we’ll see some cinematic representation of the 50s more than a century from now (or whatever cinema becomes by then) where this song will be played. I’m not sure that make its timeless but, rather, more “time bound” and iconic.
3. “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price
It’s a song about a real life event——the 1895 Christmas night murder of a man (Billy Lyons) by a St. Louis pimp (“Stag” Lee Shelton) all over a Stetson hat. A song evolved over time, “corrupting” the name of the assailant into we have now. Lloyd Price’s version would reach the top spot the following month but it peaked at the #5 position in January 1959. As a young teenager I loved to listen to this on an old 45 my folks had. Even then it sounded like a game changer to me. I can only imagine what this sounded like in 1959.
2. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by The Platters
This is why you slow dance. The Platters reached #1 with this gem in January 1959. It was originally written for a musical named Roberta in 1933 and had grown into something of a standard over the next two decades for everyone from Glen Miller to Nat King Cole. The Platters were already established after hits like “Only You” and “(You’ve Got) The Magic Touch” when they started reworking older tunes and making them their own. The widow of the original composer stirred some controversy when she expressed her displeasure with the reboot of her husband’s work by a rock ‘n roll group. It’s a peak into the window of time when rock ‘n roll meant something bad.
1. “Donna” by Ritchie Valens
How can I not put this at my top spot? The seventeen-year-old Chicano named Richard Valenzuela had a professional musical career that lasted less than a year. He only released three singles in his lifetime. The first was a song he wrote, “Come On, Let’s Go.” It was his first hit record (the B-side was the Lieber/Stoller song “Framed”). His second was this song, a tune he wrote about the girl he loved. The B-side was “La Bamba,” Valens’ reworking of a Mexican folk ballad. Side A peaked at #3 in January 1959. On February 2, Valens (along with Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. “The Big Bopper”) would perish in a plane crash. “Donna” would peak at #2 a couple of weeks later. “La Bamba” at #22.