Honor Roll

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(Pictured: Pee Wee King and his group, originators of “Tennessee Waltz,” one of the 20th century’s biggest hits.)

We’ve mentioned here a time or two the battery of “main” charts Billboard published in the 1950s: Best Sellers in Stores, Most Played by Jockeys, and Most Played in Jukeboxes. But from 1945 through 1963, Billboard also published a weekly Honor Roll of Hits. It was a listing by song title, showing the various versions that were available for sale. The Honor Roll of Hits reflects a reality of American popular music from the birth of recorded sound until the 1960s: the song was often more important to record buyers than the artist. In their ads from the pre-1920 Pioneer Era, record companies frequently touted which songs were available with no mention of who recorded them. From the 20s to the early 50s, competing versions of popular songs frequently charted at the same time.

“The Tennessee Waltz” is a representative example, but by no means the only one of its kind. Several versions hit big on the country charts in 1948, the biggest by Pee Wee King, but also in recordings by Cowboy Copas and Roy Acuff. In late 1950, Patti Page released a pop version that became a generational smash, eventually doing 13 weeks at #1. During the week of February 3, 1951, Page’s version was #1 on Best Selling Pop Singles and Most Played in Jukeboxes. It was #2 on the cumbersomely named Most Played Jukebox Folk (Country and Western) Records chart. And it brought 18 other versions trailing behind it onto the Honor Roll of Hits. The 1948 recordings by King, Acuff, and Copas were reissued, and Copas also cut a duet version with Ruby Wright. Other versions that charted were by Guy Lombardo, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Jo Stafford, Spike Jones, the Fontane Sisters, and Anita O’Day. And there were eight other versions beyond that.

“Tennessee Waltz” was also #1 on Best Selling Sheet Music during the week of 2/3/51, but beyond the evidence of the charts, that week’s Billboard contains a note that vividly illustrates its popularity: a radio station in Utica, New York, did a fundraiser for the March of Dimes in which a listener who made a donation could request a song. They got so many requests for “Tennessee Waltz” that the DJ on the air raised the price to $50. Billboard reports: “He got five $50 contributions for the M.O.D.” By one online calculator, $50 in 1951 is equivalent to more than $500 today.

I really need to write about Patti Page sometime. A pioneer of multi-track recording, Page made several records in the 50s that everybody would have known: not just “Tennessee Waltz” but “Mockingbird Hill,” “Doggie in the Window,” “Cross Over the Bridge,” and the spectacularly beautiful “Allegheny Moon” and “Old Cape Cod.” She hit the Top 10 as late as 1965 with “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte.” Her “Tennessee Waltz” moved six million copies; she’s said to have sold over 100 million in her career.

This post started out to be about one thing and turned into something else, and now I don’t have a good way to tie it all together, so I’m just gonna dump out the last of it and be on my way.

—By the end of the Honor Roll of Hits era, there wasn’t much to see. On the chart issued December 29, 1962, for example, there’s only one version shown for 28 of the 30 entries.

—On the same page of Billboard that has the 12/29/62 Honor Roll of Hits are a pair of charts headed Best Selling Phonographs, Radios, and Tape Recorders, one for monaural equipment and the other for stereo. A note in the headline explains: “These are the nation’s best sellers by manufacturers based on results of a month-long study using personal interviews with a representative national cross-section of record-selling outlets (only) that also sell phonographs, radios and/or tape recorders.” Rankings are based on a weighted point system, the methodology of which is not clearly explained. Charts are published every three months, although Billboard is careful to specify that they reflect sales only during the past month. In this particular week, the top brand on both charts is Webcor. Other brands listed include some you’d recognize, like Decca, Sony, Ampex and RCA Victor, and some you might not, like Voice of Music, Roberts, and Telectro.

If you are looking to get lost for hours as we stay on lockdown, I recommend the Billboard magazine archive at American Radio History. It offers a limitless supply of rabbit holes to crawl into.

4 thoughts on “Honor Roll

  1. Wesley

    I remember an interview with Joel Whitburn where he said he picked Billboard’s charts to chronicle over Cash Box’s primarily because Cash Box had ranked records by song titles as indicated here rather than by artists for most of the 1950s. I also recall that one of the first compilations of the Cash Box chart had the compiler note that he was unable to determine the artists behind a handful of songs that appeared in the lower reaches during the 1950s before Cash Box started differentiating between versions.

    The TV series Your Hit Parade tried to use this same approach in the 1950s especially when rock and roll hit the scene, which resulted in countdowns where songs like “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady finished at #1 without ever topping Billboard or even Cash Box. But when Elvis dominated the chart by 1956, there was little they could do to downplay his impact without becoming irrelevant.

    And I heartily endorse you doing a blog on Patti Page. She was all over the place on TV and on the radio during the 1950s through mid-1960s and deserves an in-depth remembrance by you, JB.

  2. Tim Morrissey

    Pee Wee King was born in Abrams, WI and came to fame initially with his polka band in Milwaukee. Some time ago somebody from WI wrote an article titled something like “the king of country music is a polka musician from Milwaukee.” Sorry I can’t link specifics – just stuff that rattles around in my head.

  3. “Stuff that rattles around in my head” is another way of describing this blog, and most of the ones I read regularly, so no worries.

  4. T.

    It was the early 2000’s, San Francisco. I was the guitar player in a Punk band that was opening for the Dictators, one of the legendary New York groups. We had a spot in the set where I could play anything I want, by myself, and then lead the band into the next song.
    On this sold-out night, in front of a pack of rabid Dictators fans, I chose to play a bit of “Tennessee Waltz”, nice and clean and quiet. After I did, you could hear a pin drop. Then the place erupted in cheers. I always thought it was a beautiful song and that crowd did too.

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