The 1950s were a time of radical change in the music industry. Many genres were developing, most notably rock and roll. Though the decade is beyond living memory for most of us, these best 1950s songs remain widely known for their catchy melodies and their influence on the development of 20th-century music.
1. Diana — Paul Anka
Paul Anka’s song “Diana” was inspired by a girl he met at his church. The song, released in 1957, was wildly popular in both the US and the UK, where it spent nine weeks at no. 1 on the charts. The mournful song begs Diana to give him a chance and promises a wonderful future together. Presumably, it made life pretty annoying for anyone named Diana in the late 1950s.
2. I Walk The Line — Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash’s song “I Walk The Line” is so well-known that the song title was recycled for the 2005 movie based on his life. The song, which was released in 1956, climbed to no. 1 on the charts and became one of the most famous songs of his career. The song exemplified Cash’s signature “freight train” tempo and was a pledge of love for his first wife Vivian Liberto.
3. That’s Amore — Dean Martin
There probably isn’t a person alive who doesn’t know those opening lines “When the moon hits your eye, Like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” The song was released in 1953 as part of the soundtrack of the movie The Caddy, bringing Martin’s career to the next level. It was the best-known song of his career, even lending its title to his biography.
4. Why Do Fools Fall in Love — Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers
“Why Do Fools Fall In Love” was first released in 1956 and became one of the most famous 1950s songs. It was popular enough to earn covers by The Beach Boys, The Diamonds, and decades later, Diana Ross. It also placed on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
5. Ooby Dooby — Roy Orbison
In the grand tradition of early rock and roll, 1956’s “Ooby Dooby” relied on a chorus of gibberish words. Roy Orbison’s band tried unsuccessfully to get producers to let them perform the song for several years before finally getting a recording deal in 1956. It sparked a dance craze of the same name that involved wildly shaking the whole body.
6. You Send Me — Sam Cooke
The lyrics might not make sense to us these days, but back in 1957, the phrase “you send me” meant “you excite me.” The song made Sam Cooke an overnight sensation, climbing to the top of the Billboard 100 as well as the R&B Records chart. It bridged the gap between black and white audiences and would later be covered by Aretha Franklin, Michael Bolton, Whitney Houston, The Chicks, and many others.
7. Shout — The Isley Brothers
Released in 1959, the song “Shout” is still a popular party song to this day. Incorporating elements of gospel music, rock and roll, and R&B, the song was eventually inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The concept for the tune came from musical improvisations with call-and-response exercises from crowds at earlier concerts. This led to the song’s famous “A little bit softer now…” sequence.
8. Bye Bye Love — The Everly Brothers
In 1957, the Everly Brothers’ song “Bye Bye Love” was at the top of the charts, selling a record number of singles. Though their version was considered one of the best originals, it was actually released at the same time as a country cover by Webb Pierce. The song was extensively covered by other well-known artists in later decades, including The Beatles, Simon And Garfunkel, and Lacy J. Dalton.
9. Tutti Frutti — Little Richard
In 1955, Little Richard’s song “Tutti Frutti” made history with its release. Its unique vocalizations, musical style, and percussive elements would become a blueprint for the developing genre of rock and roll. In 2007, the song was voted no. 1 on the list of Top 100 Records That Changed The World. It fused elements of blues, boogie-woogie, and gospel, introducing a distinctive percussion style that would be copied by Chuck Berry and other artists.
10. Heartbreak Hotel — Elvis Presley
“Heartbreak Hotel” was released in 1956, inspired by the death of a man who leapt from a hotel window. The song spent seven weeks at the top of the charts and became one of Elvis Presley’s most famous songs. He routinely performed it at all of his live performances for the rest of his career. The mournful song was covered by many other well-known musicians, including Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan.
11. Blue Suede Shoes — Carl Perkins
Though the song “Blue Suede Shoes” is better known by its Elvis Presley cover, it was originally recorded by guitarist Carl Perkins in 1955. The song was considered revolutionary for its fusion of blues, country, and rock music, leading to it being called the first rockabilly song. Perkins’ version was one of the best-selling singles for 16 weeks. It was also named one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll.
12. La Bamba — Ritchie Valens
“La Bamba” was originally a Mexican folk song, with the earliest recorded versions appearing in the 1930s. It wasn’t widely known throughout the rest of the world until Ritchie Valens recorded a cover in 1958. He fused the traditional elements of the song with rock and roll elements, and it became wildly popular. It is considered one of the most important songs in the history of rock and roll.
13. Lady Sings the Blues — Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday’s mournful “Lady Sings The Blues” was the title track of her 1956 album, released at the same time as her autobiography of the same name. The song is considered a self-declaration about Holiday’s life and musical style, as she was often challenged on the question of whether she was really a blues singer.
14. Great Balls of Fire — Jerry Lee Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis initially recorded “Great Balls Of Fire” for the soundtrack of the 1957 movie Jamboree. But the song became popular in its own right, selling a million copies in the US within 10 days of its official release. It peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard Top 100. The song was extensively used for TV and movies, including the 1989 biopic about Lewis’ life.
15. Walkin’ After Midnight — Patsy Cline
Patsy Cline’s song “Walkin’ After Midnight” was recorded in late 1956. Interestingly, it had been recorded by another singer earlier and hadn’t gained much attention. It wasn’t until Cline performed it on an episode of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts that it became popular—so popular, in fact, that her studio pushed the release date up to the next month. “Walkin’ After Midnight” is widely considered one of the defining songs of modern country music.
16. Blueberry Hill — Fats Domino
Fats Domino’s cover of “Blueberry Hill” wasn’t the first recording of the song—in fact, it was recorded six times in 1940 alone. It wasn’t until 16 years later that Fats Domino released his own version, pulling on influences of rock and roll. It is widely remembered as the greatest hit of his career and has been named on many lists of the best and most impactful songs of all time.
17. Dream a Little Dream of Me — Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
“Dream A Little Dream Of Me” was composed in 1931 and covered countless times over the decades, including by the Mamas And The Papas in 1968. But inarguably, its most famous cover was Ella Fitzgerald’s 1950 duet with Louis Armstrong. Nothing beats the romantic crooning of two giants of jazz, and the song is still well-known to this day.
18. Rock Around The Clock — Bill Haley & His Comets
“Rock Around The Clock” was a 1954 cover by Bill Haley & His Comets. It remained at no. 1 on the US charts for two months straight. It had many missteps between when it was recorded in 1952 and when it found success, going through many versions, studios, and even recording artists before being passed to Billy Haley & His Comets.
19. Little Bitty Pretty One — Thurston Harris
“Little Bitty Pretty One” was released in 1957 but is still widely known to this day. It’s especially impressive if you consider the fact that most of its lyrics are simple vocalizations, such as humming or repetitions of “ah.” But it’s impossible to forget those opening-hummed harmonies, which have been covered countless times in the decades since Harris’ version.
20. Wake Up Little Susie — The Everly Brothers
“Wake Up Little Susie” is a 1957 song recorded by The Everly Brothers. It tells the story of a teenage couple who go to a drive-in movie and fall asleep in the car. They wake up early in the morning to realize that they have stayed out past their curfew and fear what their parents will say.
21. Mack the Knife — Bobby Darin
“Mack The Knife” began as a piece from a 1920s opera. It entered popular culture in America in 1955 when Louis Armstrong released an English version. But Bobby Darin’s 1959 cover is by far the best known. It has been called one of the top songs of 1959 and one of Rolling Stone’s Best 500 Songs of All Time.
22. The Battle of New Orleans — Johnny Horton
It seems strange that a song about the War of 1812 would do well in the era of rock music, but Johnny Horton managed to record one. “The Battle Of New Orleans” is a humorous account of the historic event, with ridiculous lyrics such as “So we grabbed an alligator and we fired another round… And when we touched the powder off the gator lost his mind.”
23. Poor Little Fool — Ricky Nelson
“Poor Little Fool” was written by Sharon Sheeley when she was only 15 years old. She pitched it to Ricky Nelson, who made some adjustments to it before releasing it in 1958. The song was a huge hit, peaking at no. 1 on the Hot 100 in the US and no. 4 in the UK.
24. Yakety Yak — The Coasters
“Yakety Yak” might have been released in 1958, but it is still just as relatable to modern audiences. The bouncy song depicts the exchanges between a parent and a teen who is grouchily attending to their chores, with frequent repetitions of “Yakety yak (don’t talk back).”
25. Love Me Tender — Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley’s song “Love Me Tender,” released in 1956, was one of the biggest songs of his career. Although the lyrics were written for him, the melody was recycled from the Civil War-era song “Aura Lee.” Presley took the song and gave it his signature flair, which made it go down in history.
26. Shake, Rattle, & Roll — Big Joe Turner
Big Joe Turner recorded “Shake, Rattle, & Roll” in 1954 in an attempt to create an upbeat blues song with pop influences. The song placed on both the Top 100 and the R&B charts. It would go on to be famously covered by musicians such as Bill Haley and Elvis Presley.
27. That’ll Be The Day — Buddy Holly and the Crickets
Buddy Holly first recorded “That’ll Be The Day” as a solo artist in 1956 before releasing a new version with The Crickets the following year. The song received gold certification for selling more than one million albums in the US alone. The song has also been placed in the Grammy Hall of Fame and is stored in the National Recording Registry for its cultural and musical significance.
28. Love is a Many-Splendored Thing — The Four Aces
“Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing” went through many versions before The Four Aces recorded their version in 1955. Originally part of the soundtrack to the movie of the same name, the song won an Academy Award for Best Original Song. However, it wasn’t widely popular until The Four Aces version was released. The song was extensively covered throughout the 20th century, most notably by Engelbert Humperdinck.
29. Little Darlin’ — The Diamonds
At first listen, “Little Darlin’” by The Diamonds might not sound like anything special. Like many other songs of the 50s, the lyrics are all about mourning a lost lover. But the 1959 song became famous as a cover of an R&B version just two years earlier. The Diamonds took the song and added elements of doo-wop and rock and roll, propelling it to the Top 40.
30. There Goes My Baby — The Drifters
“There Goes My Baby,” released in 1959, was penned by the famous Ben E. King and recorded by the new lineup of The Drifters. The track explored elements of different instruments and musical genres and opted for free verse rather than rhyming stanzas. Despite this departure from tradition, it remained extremely popular and was named on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
31. Come Fly With Me — Frank Sinatra
It is difficult to choose the most famous Frank Sinatra track, but 1958’s “Come Fly With Me” is definitely in the running. This song perfectly showcases Sinatra’s smooth vocals and impressive range. Its romantic lyrics have led to its use in countless movies and television shows, as well as covers by many other well-known musicians.
32. The Purple People Eater — Sheb Wooley
Did you think “What Does The Fox Say?” was the first weird song to top the charts? Sheb Wooley did it all the way back in 1958 with “The Purple People Eater.” The song was supposedly based on a joke Wooley heard his friend’s child tell. Despite the silly premise, the song climbed to the top of the charts in the US, Canada, and Australia. It is still widely known to this day.
33. Johnny B. Goode — Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry released the song “Johnny B. Goode” in 1958. It flew to the top of the charts, landing at no. 2 on Billboard’s Top R&B Sides and no. 8 on the Billboard Top 100. The song is considered revolutionary in the development of rock music, earning a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame for its influence on the genre. The song was famously performed by Michael J. Fox in 1985’s Back to the Future.
34. Banana Boat — Harry Belafonte
“Banana Boat,” released in 1956, is one of the earliest and most famous examples of calypso music (as well as elements of mento music). It was released by Jamaican musician Harry Belafonte and became his best-known song throughout his career. The song, which uses a call-and-response style, is meant to harken back to workers on Jamaican docks unloading banana shipments.
35. Rockin’ Robin — Bobby Day
“Rockin’ Robin” was released in 1958 and became the most successful song of Bobby Day’s career. It is still widely known for its iconic opening chorus, which imitates birds tweeting. Michael Jackson’s 1972 cover of the song was the most popular track on his album from that year.a