(Pictured: the Four Lads harmonize, 1955.)
Although there are better dates, a lot of authorities date the birth of the rock era to 1955, specifically when “Rock Around the Clock” became a national hit. But if a new era had really begun that year, it wasn’t a clean break from the era before. Take as an example the Billboard Top 100 singles chart dated November 2, 1955. It’s the first week for this new chart, which incorporates sales, airplay, and jukebox play into a single big chart, even though Billboard will continue to publish those separate charts for a couple of years yet. On this new chart, Pat Boone and the Platters are in the Top 10, and a handful of other records have an early rock ‘n’ roll sound, but the chart is dominated by the kind of pop music that had been popular since big-band jazz fell out of fashion after World War II: songs by solo vocalists and vocal harmony groups, and orchestrated instrumentals.
The domination is led by one song in particular. Six versions of “Autumn Leaves” appear on the 11/2/55 chart. The biggest and best-known version, by pianist Roger Williams, is at #2 in this week. The new Top 100 has cleared the way for five other versions to debut: by Steve Allen (#44), Victor Young (#54), Mitch Miller (#64), Jackie Gleason (#67), and the Ray Charles Singers (#77).
As we saw with a March 1956 chart a few months back, it was common for multiple versions of the same song to chart at the same time. For example, the Top 100 shows four versions of “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”: the Four Aces at #1, Don Cornell at #30 (a Top-10 hit the previous week down so far this week thanks to the new methodology), David Rose at #60, and Woody Herman at #79. Two versions of “The Shifting, Whispering Sands” are in the Top 10. Other songs heard in multiple versions include “At My Front Door,” “Only You,” “He,” “Black Denim Trousers,” “Seventeen,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Suddenly There’s a Valley,” and several others.
The song from this chart best known to the non-geek population today might be Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage,” thanks to its use as the theme song for the TV show Married With Children. A regular reader of this blog would certainly know the Platters’ “Only You” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline,” as well as “Ain’t That a Shame,” although probably the Fats Domino version and not so much the one by Pat Boone. “I Hear You Knocking” would be more familiar in versions by Smiley Lewis and/or Dave Edmunds than the one by Gale Storm. I would like to think that anyone with a decent appreciation for the history of American popular music would know “Autumn Leaves,” “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” and at least two others: “The Yellow Rose of Texas” by Mitch Miller and “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford. “The Yellow Rose” had been #1 earlier in 1955, and “Sixteen Tons” would be massively popular as 1955 turned to 1956, with eight weeks leading the Top 100 and 10 weeks at #1 on the country chart.
(Although he’s largely forgotten today, Tennessee Ernie Ford—a conservatory-trained singer who started as a radio announcer in the 40s—was a big star from the 50s to the 70s, with many country hits, a couple of TV shows and many guest appearances, and some successful gospel albums.)
And then there’s “Moments to Remember” by the Four Lads. The Lads were first heard on record backing up Johnnie Ray on his enormous 1951 hit “Cry.” Between 1954 and 1958, they would hit the Top 10 seven times. You may know a couple of those songs, if not their specific performances: “No, Not Much” and “Standing on the Corner.” “Moments to Remember” was their biggest hit. It’s one of those records I most likely heard before I knew it; I first became aware of it as a little baby disc jockey thanks to the radio show Sunday at the Memories.
The deeply nostalgic “Moments to Remember” was popular in September, October, and November, and that could not have been a coincidence. Autumn is a season when we’re reminded that all in our lives is fleeting, and it makes time run in reverse. Amid the shades of bygone days, places, and people crowding close around, “Moments to Remember” sounds very much like The Truth:
Though summer turns to winter
And the present disappears
The laughter we were glad to share
Will echo through the years