Arranged by year of release, here are my five favorite songs from the ’50s. (See also the rationale behind all of this.)
1. Nat King Cole, “Red Sails in the Sunset”
There are two distinct periods to Nat King Cole’s long body of work: first, the pianist leading his swinging jazz trio; second, the “Unforgettable” crooner bringing his music to a bigger (and whiter) audience. My dad loved the latter Cole, his uncomplicated, unruffled songs now overlaid with strings and the most syrupy backing choral arrangements this side of, I don’t know, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. (Listen to his renditions of “Ramblin’ Rose” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, for instance; they’re irredeemably terrible.)
This was unfortunate, and I did not, in fact, find out that Cole actually played piano until the early ’90s! It was, however, the Nat King Cole I grew up with: the Cole of “Smile” and “L-O-V-E” (though the fantastic “A Blossom Fell” is from this era too); the Cole played over and over on the stereo and later, once technology permitted, on long road trips; the Cole whose enunciation was held up by my father as a paragon of good singing, “unlike the music you listen to — is he even saying anything?” he’d address me. (I might have been particularly obsessed with New Order’s mumbly “Ceremony” at that point.)
And so “Red Sails in the Sunset” is from the wrong Cole period, but it’s lovely nonetheless, and included here for all the right reasons: my dad sang me to sleep with this song, and I sing my daughter to sleep with it as well.
Amazon link for the compilation Unforgettable.
2. Frank Sinatra, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”
from the 1955 album In the Wee Small Hours
The song is cinematically, melodramatically, solitary from the get-go: the ironic lullaby-like notes in the beginning, with the strings gently nudging the weary Sinatra into an effortless recitation of his loss. The languidness of the song’s arrangement, and the odd, redundant juxtaposition of “wee” and “small” (but what the first few words do is shape the singer’s mouth not into a caress, but into a kind of tired, slackjawed mourning, i.e., no plosives or fricatives), are in perfect consonance with the resigned melancholy of the lyrics. But the almost somnolent haze of the song belies what’s most important: he is wide awake, he does not want to go to sleep, and he is waiting for a call which he knows will never arrive. And he is all alone.
3. Billie Holiday, “I Thought About You”
from the 1956 album Lady Sings The Blues
For me it’s all about that purring lilt in her voice at the end of the line when she sings “The one going back to you.” Sometimes, though, what does it for me is the couplet that goes
And every stop that we made
oh, I thought about you
The “we” of course refers to her and the train’s passengers, but I like thinking she’s with someone else.
4. Link Wray, “Rumble”
I mean, listen to it! It even sounds filthy and dangerous and about to stab you with a dirty knife.
Amazon link for the compilation Rumble! The Best of Link Wray.
5. The Teddy Bears, “To Know Him Is To Love Him”
Phil Spector was all of seventeen years old when he wrote this simple, straightforward philosophical equation of “to know” and “to love” (he also arranged it, and sang in the background), and it’s already a fully-formed marvel of adolescent longing from afar. (Though it’s really a tribute — like Bread’s “Everything I Own” — to Spector’s late father.)
But we don’t find out about the “from afar” part until we hear the second stanza, and we move from the present tense to the future conditional, and the bridge, when Annette Kleinbard finally lets loose, only accentuates the despair: “Why can’t he see me?” This three-part structure is mirrored as well in that fantastic opening line, progressing from “know know know” to “love love love” and finally to — what else, in 1958? — “and I do and I do and I do.”
Amazon link for Phil Spector’s box set Back to Mono.