(Pictured: Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak in The Man With the Golden Arm, 1955.)
(It is my usual practice to do date-centric posts like these on or close to their anniversaries. This one I’m not saving til next March.)
Before the rock era, the song was often more important than the performer. During the pre-1920 Pioneer Era, major labels frequently advertised records by title only. Well into the 1950s, it was common for labels to release competing versions of songs at the same time. One hit would spawn several other recordings of the same song, and all of them would duke it out in the marketplace. And on the Billboard Top 100 of March 14, 1956, there was a whole lot of duking going on.
There are a lot of rock ‘n’ roll classics on that chart: “The Great Pretender,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” Bill Haley’s “See You Later Alligator,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Heartbreak Hotel” among them. But we’re not interested in those here.
The Billboard Top 100 was one of four influential charts the magazine published at the time. And on 3/14/56, Les Baxter was #1 with “Poor People of Paris.” If Baxter wasn’t your style, there were versions of the same song by big-band star Russ Morgan (#41), by Lawrence Welk (#53), and by country guitarist Chet Atkins (#92). At #2 was the Nelson Riddle Orchestra with “Lisbon Antigua,” which also charted at #31 in a version by Mitch Miller. Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This” (#9) was also available in a version by Gale Storm (#89). Record buyers could also choose among three charted versions of “Mr. Wonderful,” by Peggy Lee, Teddi King, and Sarah Vaughan. Two versions of “It’s Almost Tomorrow,” by the Dream Weavers and Jo Stafford, were on the chart in this week; two more would soon chart. Two versions of “Innamorata” charted, by Jerry Vale and Martin.
The practice of white acts covering black R&B hits also added to number of contestants in the ring. Frankie Lyman’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” was at #7; white cover versions by Gale Storm, the Diamonds, and Gloria Mann were at #15, #23, and #86 respectively. The white folks were having the better of some other songs, however. Teresa Brewer’s cover of “Bo Weevil” sat at #23 while Fats Domino’s was down at #48. R&B duo the Teen Queens had “Eddie My Love” at #26 behind versions by the Fontane Sisters (#20) and the Chordettes (#21).
“Poor People of Paris” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” were not the only songs with four versions during that week in 1956. Main title music from The Man With the Golden Arm appeared on the chart in versions by bandleaders Richard Maltby, Dick Jacobs, Elmer Bernstein, and Billy May. Three more versions of the Golden Arm theme would chart by summer: by Les Elgart, Buddy Morrow, and the McGuire Sisters. The latter, called “Delilah Jones,” was a vocal that set lyrics unrelated to the movie to the Golden Arm theme. The Man With the Golden Arm starred Frank Sinatra as a drug addict fighting to stay clean, and was up for three Oscars to be awarded in the spring of 56.
But neither “Poor People of Paris,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” nor “The Man With the Golden Arm” was the chart champion for the week of March 14, 1956. That was “Moritat (Theme From The Threepenny Opera).” Using various titles, six different versions were on the March 14 chart, by the Dick Hyman Trio (#9), Richard Hayman and Jan August (#16), Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars (#22), Lawrence Welk and His Sparkling Septet (#31), Les Paul (#57) and Billy Vaughn (#63). The Threepenny Opera, which had been written in 1931 and first performed in Germany, had been a hot ticket in New York since 1954 as an off-Broadway production. It would win two Tonys in April.
When the battle was over, Hyman’s version of “Moritat” ended up the biggest chart hit, but the song had even greater popularity ahead. In 1959, “Moritat” would become one of the longest-running #1 hits of the pre-Soundscan era under the title “Mack the Knife,” recorded by Bobby Darin. It would spend nine weeks atop the Hot 100 and win Record of the Year at the Grammys.
There were other weeks like this in the late 50s, and simultaneously charting movie themes would be a thing well into the 70s. But I’ve been down this rabbit hole long enough for now.
(Billboard‘s online archive doesn’t include pre-Hot 100 charts, so if you want to see the whole 3/14/56 chart, find a .doc file here. Many chart positions are shown as ties, which is how Dean Martin and Dick Hyman can both be at #9, and the Diamonds and Teresa Brewer can both be at #23. Don’t @ me.)