For a long time, people counted the beginning of the rock ‘n’ roll era from the summer of 1955, when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” hit #1. That’s still a decent marker, although there are others—“Gee” by the Crows in 1954, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston in 1953, or DJ Alan Freed’s 1952 Moondog Coronation Ball in Cleveland. In any event, historical eras rarely click from one to another with a definite break; they more often shade from one into another. And if we look at the Billboard charts for early January 1955, we can see that shading begin, even though artists of the pre-rock era continue to dominate.
Before the Hot 100 era began in 1958, Billboard published a confusing welter of charts each week, including Best Sellers in Stores, Most Played by Jockeys, and Most Played in Juke Boxes. There’s a great deal of overlap—so much so that an observer 60 years later wonders why they bothered separating them. It seems pretty safe to say, however, that the most popular song in America for the week of January 5, 1955, was “Mr. Sandman” by the Chordettes. It was spending its eighth week atop Best Sellers in Stores, and sat at #2 on the other two charts, having topped them both at the end of December. “Let Me Go Lover” by Joan Weber tops Most Played by Jockeys and Most Played in Juke Boxes. Its story is fairly well known: featured in an episode of the TV series Studio One in November 1954 and stocked in stores a week before the show because Columbia Records knew it was a hit and wanted people to be able to buy it the day after they first heard it.
In the rock era, performances would become more important than songs—we wanted a specific artist doing a specific song a specific way, instead of simply wanting the song and not caring who performed it. Evidence of the older way is on the first Billboard charts of 1955. Three versions of “Let Me Go Lover” appear, by Weber, Teresa Brewer, and Patti Page. Several songs appear twice: in addition to the Chordettes, “Mr. Sandman” is also performed by the Four Aces. The Aces themselves double up on “Melody of Love,” which also charts in a version by Billy Vaughn. Two versions of “Hearts of Stone” appear on Best Sellers: the R&B original by the Charms and a white cover version by the Fontane Sisters; likewise two versions of “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane,” one by the Ames Brothers and one by Archie Bleyer and His Orchestra, as well as two “Teach Me Tonight”s, by the DeCastro Sisters and Jo Stafford. “This Ole House” appears in its original country version by Stuart Hamblen and in a cover by Rosemary Clooney, which is quite good, and features the voice of Thurl Ravenscroft.
(The record charts of January 5, 1955, are thick with sibling acts: not just the Fontane and DeCastro Sisters and the Ames Brothers, but also the DeJohn Sisters and the McGuire Sisters.)
Rosemary Clooney is all over this week, also charting a version of “Hey There” (the flip of “This Ole House”) and “Mambo Italiano.” The mambo had been a popular dance step for several years, and in January 1955 the craze seems to have been peaking, with “Mambo Italiano” and “Papa Loves Mambo” by Perry Como. Clooney’s mambo lays on the ethnic stereotypes to a degree that makes us squirm today, but unlike Como and the remarkably annoying backup singers he featured on a lot of his early 50s tunes, she doesn’t come off stiff enough to break a hip. (Any short list of the most awful records of all time should include “Papa Loves Mambo.”)
There was indeed real rock ‘n’ roll in the air in January 1955: Bill Haley and the Comets, still a few months away from “Rock Around the Clock,” were tearing it up with “Dim, Dim the Lights” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” The R&B sound that we would come to associate with the early rock ‘n’ roll era was already widely popular, including “Earth Angel” by the Penguins. No one could have predicted back then that “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Earth Angel” would forever call up a whole constellation of powerful images, even among listeners decades away from being born.