Monday 22 April 2024

Every Number One Single From The 1950s Ranked

Join me as I journey through every decade ranking all the UK number ones – starting with the 1950s.

Since NME co-founder Percy Dickens published the first weekly UK singles chart back in November 1952, there have been 1424 individual UK number ones (at the time of writing this post). I plan to listen to them all. And then rank them!

But instead of ranking them all in one gargantuan post, I’ve decided to break down the number ones decade by decade. Starting with the 1950s. And ending with the 2020s (or 2030s, depending on how long it takes me to reach the present day).

So, let’s begin with the 1950s. The last great era of swing music. The golden age of country music. Oh, and there was also this small and mildly consequential music genre called 'rock and roll' that emerged on the scene. Exciting stuff!

Despite priding myself as a musical aficionado, it turns out I know jack shit about this era of music. Out of the 94 songs that made it to number one during this decade, I probably recognised about 20 of them (and I realise why many of them have disappeared into the mists of time). 50s pop experts will probably not enjoy my ramblings. However, if you have only a vague musical knowledge of this period, you may enjoy discovering some of these singles along with me. 

It's worth mentioning that a few of these hits were double A-sides (e.g. Elvis's 'One Night/I Got Stung'), but I've decided to purely review the first single in each case (so 'One Night' and not 'I Got Stung'), because I've already got far too many songs to cover here. I've provided hyperlinks so that you can hear each song for yourself. Ready to rock and roll?

The worst of the 50s…

Cliff Richard had two number ones in the 50s (one of which is in this section)...

94. ‘Broken Wings’ – The Stargazers (1 week 1953) ‘TAAAKE THESE BROKEN WINGS’ was what I was hoping for, but we’re about three decades too early for that. Behold, the first single to top the UK charts by a UK artist: a mix of 1930s-sounding vocal harmonies and tacky organs that not even a musty Blackpool bingo hall would consider playing today.

93. ‘Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes’ – Perry Como (5 weeks 1953) This Perry Como track has a nice energy to it, but my God, the trumpets sound like shit.

92. ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’ – The Dream Weavers (2 weeks 1956) This sounds like a lullaby. Wait, it is!

91. ‘Yes, Tonight Josephine’ – Johnnie Ray (3 weeks 1957) Good luck getting in Josephine’s panties with those annoying ‘yip yips’ and monotone guitars.

90. ‘Living Doll’ – Cliff Richard & The Drifters (6 weeks 1959) Cliff’s first number one! It’s sadly pretty wishy-washy and the lyrics aren’t creepy at all: ‘I’m gonna lock her up in a trunk/ so no big hunk can steal her away from me

89. ‘Only Sixteen’ – Craig Douglas (4 weeks 1959) Craig Douglas was 17 when he recorded this song, so nothing dodgy is going on here, but alas - the twee guitars and breezy singing still make this track pretty nauseating. 

88. ‘Cara Mia’ – David Whitfield and The Mantovani Orchestra (10 weeks 1954) I feel as if I’m listening to opera, which is unfortunately not my thing.

87. ‘Answer Me’ – David Whitfield (2 weeks 1953) David Whitfield again with his Gaston-like bellow, this time sounding a bit less operatic.  

86. ‘Answer Me’ – Frankie Laine (8 weeks 1953) Back in the 50s, it was common for a UK and US artist to release exactly the same song at the same time. This version is mildly better (and charted for longer), but still slow and dreary enough that I never want to listen to it again.

85. ‘The Song From Moulin Rouge’ – Mantovani (1 week 1953) A French accordion instrumental? Come on!

84. ‘Oh Mein Papa’ – Eddie Calvert (9 weeks 1954) The trumpets aren’t bad, but those Wizard-of-Oz-esque choirs in the background are dated even by 50s standards.

83. ‘What Do You Want?’ – Adam Faith (3 weeks 1959)  This dude's hiccupy voice sounds like he's doing a bad Buddy Holly impression. Next.


Frank Sinatra only had one UK number one...

82. ‘Outside of Heaven’ – Eddie Fisher (1 week 1953) In the early-to-mid 50s, everyone wanted to sound just like Frank Sinatra.

81. ‘A Woman In Love’ – Frankie Laine (4 weeks 1956) The result was a bunch of flamboyant big band singles that all had the same crooning vocals.

80. ‘I Believe’ – Frankie Laine (18 weeks 1953) Some of these Sinatra clones did very well. This song was number one for 18 weeks!

79. ‘Hold My Hand’ – Don Cornell (5 weeks 1954) Others did such a good job of imitating Sinatra that you could have convinced me they were the real deal.

78. ‘Here In My Heart’ – Al Martino (9 weeks 1952) Here we have the first ever UK number one! Al Martino became such an icon in the UK after this single that he migrated over here from the US (although it's believed this was largely to escape the attention of the Mafia, who had taken over his management).

77. ‘Three Coins In The Fountain’ – Frank Sinatra (3 weeks 1954) Oh look, it’s the OG Frank Sinatra himself. Surprisingly, out of all of the iconic Sinatra songs released during the 50s, this forgettable single was only one to make it number one. What was wrong with British listeners in the 50s??

76. ‘Give Me Your Word’ – Tennessee Ernie Ford (7 weeks 1955) This dude’s deeper frog-like voice makes this one a little more interesting.

75. ‘Stranger In Paradise’ – Tony Bennett (2 weeks 1955) Tony Bennett’s signature vibrato also helps him to stand out.

74. ‘Unchained Melody’ – Jimmy Young (3 weeks 1955) Not bad, but I prefer the Righteous Brothers version. I can’t seductively craft pottery to this.

73. ‘I’m Walking Behind You’ – Eddie Fisher ft. Sally Sweetland (1 week 1953) I anxiously anticipated a creepy stalker anthem, but it’s actually a convincingly sad song about being lovelorn, albeit still pure Sinatra-core.

Songs that are kinda fun, but also quite annoying…

I don't know if this was the doggie she was singing about. I just Googled 'Lita Roza and dog'...

72. ‘Rockabilly Rock’ – Guy Mitchell (1 week 1957) The three key changes are impressive, but the ‘rockabilly rockabilly rockabilly rock’ chorus gets irritating FAST.

71. ‘I See The Moon’ – The Stargazers (6 weeks 1954) This monstrosity was going to be ranked dead last until I realised it was a comedy record. That gives the Muppet-like vocals some charm, even if the song’s still not very funny. WE ARE NOT AMUSED.

70. ‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?’ – Lita Roza (1 week 1953) Unlike the Patti Page version, I think the dog barks are real in this one. Apparently, Lita Roza hated this song so much that she never sung it again after recording it.

69. ‘Cumberland Gap’ – Lonnie Donegan (5 weeks 1957) The lyrics are very repetitive, although these are some pretty wild vocals for 1957! Hmm, maybe I ranked this too low? Oh well, too late now…

Crap Christmas songs…

It doesn't help that it's April...

68. ‘Christmas Alphabet’ –Dickie Valentine (3 weeks 1955) The 50s gave us Christmas classics such as ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’, ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ and ‘Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!’ – and yet this shitty acrostic poem is what made it to number one.

67. Mary’s Boy Child’ – Harry Belafonte (7 weeks 1957) The Boney M version is so much better. Geez, we’re not even half-way yet.

Showtunes and more swing (the birth of rock and roll can't come soon enough)…

Doris Day had two number ones...

66. ‘Little Things Mean A Lot’ - Kitty Kallen (1 week 1954) If a woman wanted to make a sexy pop hit in the early 50s, it usually came in the form of a slow watered-down swing ballad like this.

65. ‘Secret Love’ – Doris Day (9 weeks 1954) Soundtracks from musicals were also popular. Doris Day's soaring voice is very pretty here, but this is music for the movie theatre, not the radio. 

64. ‘Softly, Softly’ – Ruby Murray (3 weeks 1955) This shit probably drove all the guys wild back in the day. 'Softly, softly come to me/touch my lips so tenderly'. Ooh, how scandalous. Of course, compared to modern equivalents like 'WAP' and 'Pound Town' it's pretty innocent and mundane.

63. ‘My Son, My Son’ – Vera Lynn (2 weeks 1954) Zzzz. Even Vera Lynn is boring me. Although the darker section in the middle of the song did catch my ear. 

62. Look At That Girl’ – Guy Mitchell (6 weeks 1953) It’s amazing how adding some faster walking bass and a guitar solo livens things up. This is still very much swing, but it’s a lot better.  

61. Comes A-long A-love’ – Kay Starr (1 week 1953) Here the walking bass is sped up even more.  Much more my speed, but we’ve still got a way to go before we get into banger territory.

The first Elvis impersonators…

Pat Boone (not Elvis) had one UK number one...

60. ‘I’ll Be Home’ - Pat Boone (5 weeks 1956) As soon as Elvis came along and started winning over all the chicks with his hip thrusting, male singers stopped trying to croon like Sinatra, and instead started crooning like Elvis.

59. ‘Young Love’ – Tab Hunter (7 weeks 1957) Hollywood actors like Tab Hunter were even lowering their voice just to sound more like him. It's got charm, but it feels inauthentic. 

58. ‘Butterfly’ – Andy Williams (2 weeks 1957) The 'Moon River' singer pulls off a pretty good Elvis impression here. But come on, stop biting the King's style!

57. ‘Memories Are Made Of This’ – Dean Martin (4 weeks 1956) Dean Martin sounds identical to Elvis here. Interestingly, I've just discovered that Dean Martin was a big inspiration to Elvis. So, hang on a minute... was Elvis actually a Dean Martin impersonator?   


Guy Mitchell (centre) had four UK number ones...

56. 'Just Walking In The Rain’ – Johnnie Ray (7 weeks 1956) Another way to make a number one hit in the 1950s was to add some whistling.

55. ‘The Story Of My Life’ – Michael Holliday (2 weeks 1958) It quickly became hackneyed, but it did make the songs a bit catchier (particularly as Holliday’s storytelling here isn’t exactly novel-inspiring)     

54. ‘Singing The Blues’ - Tommy Steele (1 weeks 1957) Out of the two whistle-heavy versions of ‘Singing The Blues’ that reached number one, Tommy Steele’s slurry-voiced rendition is my least favourite.

53. ‘Singing The Blues’ – Guy Mitchell (3 weeks 1957) Yeah, this one sounds better, although it’s still not the best whistle anthem of the 1950s. That one will appear later.

It takes two to tango…

Sweet mother of God, what is this artwork??

52. ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ – The Johnston Brothers (2 weeks 1955) This track is very cheesy. But the castanets, tango beat and sneaky-sounding vocals make it a lot more interesting than anything featured previously on this list.

51. 'No Other Love' – Ronnie Hilton (6 weeks 1956) One tango tune wasn’t enough. Brits in the 50s were evidently so crazy about the tango that this too ended up topping the charts. I actually prefer this version to the Perry Como version.    

Ragtime revival…

Winifred Atwell was the first black artist to score a UK number one!

50. ‘Let’s Have Another Party’ – Winifred Atwell (5 weeks 1954) I thought ragtime went out of fashion in the 1910s? Oh well, I’ll take this over Sinatra-core and showtunes, even if I can’t believe this beat the likes of ‘Mr Sandman’ and ‘Mambo Italiano’ to number one (although the latter did eventually get there).

49. The Poor People Of Paris’ – Winifred Atwell (3 weeks 1956) Another ragtime instrumental from Winifred Atwell. Is that a theremin I hear at 0:53?

48. Roulette’ – Russ Conway (2 weeks 1959) I’m astonished there was so much ragtime topping the UK charts in the 50s. Strange times.

47. ‘Side Saddle’ – Russ Conway (4 weeks 1959) This one’s genuinely catchy. Is this still ragtime? Or is it honky tonk? I don’t want to anger the ragtime purists.

Okay, the songs are getting better…

Alma Cogan (left) had one UK number one...

46. ‘Dreamboat’ – Alma Cogan (2 weeks 1955) Alma Cogan was dubbed ‘the girl with the giggle in her voice’ and there’s definitely something bubbly about her singing that sets her apart.

45. ‘The Garden of Eden’ - Frankie Vaughan (4 weeks 1957) Frankie’s got a Tom Jones swagger here. I’m digging it.

44. ‘The Finger of Suspicion’ – Dickie Valentine ft. The Stargazers (3 weeks 1955) ‘The finger of suspicion points at you’ is a fun hook. And The Stargazers’ contribution is thankfully minimal.

43. ‘Rose Marie’ – Slim Whitman (11 weeks 1955) I’m not a big country fan, but this guy’s yodelling voice has character and the lazy lap steel or whatever the fuck it is in the background is cool too.

42. ‘The Man From Laramie’ – Jimmy Young (4 weeks 1955) Back when country singers still sung heroic tales about cowboys. Kinda charming.

41. ‘Sixteen Tons’ – Tennessee Ernie Ford (4 weeks 1956) A great working man’s anthem. I can picture all the coal miners clicking their fingers along to this.

40. ‘Dream Lover’ – Bobby Darin (4 weeks 1959) You can hear the yearning in Bobby’s voice in this wet-dream-themed rock and roll ballad.

39. ‘Travelling Light’ – Cliff Richard & The Shadows (5 weeks 1959) The reverb on Cliff’s voice here is very atmospheric, even if he’s clearly trying to rip off Johnny Cash.

38. ‘Here Comes Summer’ – Jerry Keller (1 week 1959) Was this song in Grease? It should have been.

Finally, some decent number ones…

Buddy Holly scored two number ones...

37. ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ – The Platters (1 week 1959) Doo-wop group The Platters serve up a very pretty ballad with some truly powerful belting vocals.

36. ‘On The Street Where You Live’ – Vic Damone (2 weeks 1958) Yes, this is Sinatra-core – but it’s good Sinatra-core. It’s lusher and more powerful.

35. ‘She Wears Red Feathers’ – Guy Mitchell (4 weeks 1953) This theatrical novelty song about a city banker falling in love with an island girl is a bit hard to geographically pinpoint with its elephants and ‘huly huly’ skirts. But the song also features ‘baboons with bassoons’, so maybe it’s not worth the nitpicking. Overall, goofy, but fun.

34. Lay Down Your Arms’ – Anne Shelton (4 weeks 1956) Here's another dated but unique novelty song with military marching instrumentation, bossy Mary Poppins vocals and some clever wordplay: ‘Lay down your arms and surrender to mine’.

33. ‘You Belong To Me’ - Jo Stafford  (1 week 1953) Compared to other slow swing singles from the early 50s, this one is convincingly seductive, even if it does seem like the military is being overly romanticised (you can tell these last two songs are pre-Vietnam).

32. ‘One Night/I Got Stung’ – Elvis Presley (3 weeks 1959) Been wondering when Elvis would show up? Here he is with one of his lesser known double singles. It’s not one of his best, but the snarl and the racy lyrics have an edginess that much of the rest of this list has lacked so far.  

31. ‘Whole Lotta Woman’ - Marvin Rainwater (3 weeks 1958) We’re getting into the rock and roll hits now. I like the cheeky tone of this one.

30. ‘All Shook Up’ – Elvis Presley (7 weeks 1957) This was the first Elvis track to top the UK charts. The ‘uh-huh-huh’ in the chorus is iconic, but I still think Elvis had more interesting number ones.

29. ‘That’ll Be The Day’ – The Crickets (3 Weeks 1957) Some catchy singing from Buddy Holly here. I can see the influence on a later band with a bug-themed name.

28. ‘(Now And Then, There's) A Fool Such As I/I Need Your Love Tonight’ – Elvis Presley (5 weeks 1959) Elvis was churning out number ones in the late 50s, and this is a pretty fun one (especially the impressively deep vocals at the beginning)

27. ‘What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?’ – Emile Ford & The Checkmates (6 weeks 1959) The last number one of the 1950s. It’s got some hooky flirtatious singing from Emile, and those doo-wop backing vocals slap.

26. ‘Gambling Man/Putting On The Style’ – Lonnie Donegan (2 weeks 1957) This is such an intense track for 1957! It’s rockabilly bordering on punk rock. One of the few UK musicians pushing the envelope (most of the innovative tracks here are US imports).

25. ‘Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)’ – Doris Day (6 weeks 1956) Showtunes aren’t my thing, but this is an undisputed classic.

24. ‘As I Love You’ – Shirley Bassey (4 weeks 1959) Shirley Bassey’s soaring vocals are magnificent, even if this is no ‘Goldfinger’ (check out my Bond movie theme rankings here).

23. It’s Only Make Believe’ – Conway Twitty (5 weeks 1958) Despite starting off very Elvis-like, this dude’s voice really transforms as it builds up. I even got Creedence Clearwater Revival vibes from it once it reached its climax.

22.  It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ – Buddy Holly (3 weeks 1959) This single reached number one after Buddy Holly’s death (the first posthumous UK number one), which gives this otherwise chirpy breakup song an interestingly darker energy.

21. ‘Such A Night’ – Johnnie Ray (1 week 1954) ‘Such A Night’ was ahead of its time. The instrumentation is still quite jazzy, but the rock and roll spirit is there in the lyrics and vocal delivery. In fact, this song was even banned from some radio stations at the time for being too racy.

Now for the top 20…

20. ‘It’s All In The Game’ – Tommy Edwards (3 weeks 1958)

Despite black musicians doing most of the musical innovation during the 50s, few made it to the top of the UK or US charts. This soulful rock and roll ballad was the first US number one by a black artist. It wasn’t the first UK number one by a black artist though - as already mentioned earlier, Winnifred Atwell’s 1954 ragtime hit ‘Let’s Have Another Party’ earns this title.

19.The Day That The Rains Came’ – Jane Morgan (1 week 1959)

The epic strings and the commanding vocals in this song give it a Bond theme feel that stop it from being just another Broadway-style ballad. Jane Morgan was in her mid-30s when she released this hit and I was shocked to find out that she's still kicking (she's 100 years old next month!)

18. ‘Mack The Knife’ – Bobby Darin (2 weeks 1959)

Even during the peak of rock and roll, swing singles were still hitting number one. This one deserves it – it’s got a fun build-up with several key changes and huge amounts of swagger. Plus, the serial-killer-themed lyrics are pretty damn edgy for the time.

17. ‘Hey Joe’ – Frankie Laine (2 weeks 1953)

This country hit ranks this high if only for the brief wacky guitar solo midway through, although the song theme is pretty sordid too (he's singing about stealing his best friend's girlfriend!). I wonder if Jimmy Hendrix was singing about the same Joe?

16. ‘This Ole House’ – Rosemary Clooney (1 week 1954)

Another country song that’s a bit nuts. I love the deep voice in the chorus, plus my flat is currently falling apart, so some of the lyrics are relatable.  

15. ‘Rock and Roll Waltz’ – Kay Starr (1 week 1956)

‘Rock and Roll Waltz’ is a charming novelty hit about two parents who try to dance to rock and roll, but don’t know how – so they end up waltzing to it. And the song itself is a rock and roll song, but with a waltz rhythm, which is pretty creative. 

14. ‘Hoots Mon’ – Lord Rockingham’s X1 (3 weeks 1958)

 Hoots mon, there’s a moose loose aboot this hoose!’ This Scottish rock and roll song is batshit insane in the best way possible. The trumpets kinda sound like something you'd hear in a Madness song.

13. ‘Magic Moments’ – Perry Como (8 weeks 1958)

This is the whistle anthem to end all whistle anthems. Except maybe ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’. Or ‘Centerfold’. Okay, there are a lot of songs with much more iconic whistle melodies, but this is still a lot better than all the other whistle anthems featured earlier thanks to its hooky verses and soothing chorus: 'maaaagic moooooments'.

12. ‘Cherry Pink (And Apple Blossom White)’ – Eddie Calvert (4 weeks 1955)

The 50s was so grooveless that this cha-cha instrumental is a breath of fresh air. I'm loving the spiky rhythm and the way in which the whole track teasingly pauses for that long swooping trumpet note. The 50s equivalent of a dance music 'drop'. 

11. ‘Cherry Pink (And Apple Blossom White)’ - Perez Prado and His Orchestra (2 weeks 1955)

Yes, it’s the same bloody song. There’s not much difference between the two versions, but I do think this one (the original Cuban version) is a little rawer and more satisfying. 

10.When’ – Kalin Twins (5 weeks 1958)

Finally, we’re into the top 10. This one hit wonder from the Kalin Twins has some fun finger clicking in it, plus some vocal harmonies to rival The Everly Brothers. 

9. ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love?’ – Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers (3 weeks 1956)

I’m loving the youthful energy in this rock and roll single. Lead singer Frankie Lymon was only 14 at the time and his voice is giving off some serious young MJ vibes. I’m not sure why this song has been largely forgotten.

8. ‘Diana’ – Paul Anka (9 weeks 1957)

The opening sax is iconic and Paul's ascending vocals are truly passionate. Did you know Diana was a real person? And despite the lines 'I'm so young, and you're so old', she was only 2 years older than Paul at the time? And there I was thinking this was the quintessential cougar anthem. 

7. ‘Who’s Sorry Now?’ – Connie Francis (6 weeks 1958)

This rock and roll breakup ballad from Connie Francis has aged really well. It’s got an earnest bitterness to it instead of just being soppy like so many heartbreak tunes from the era. And the instrumental is so timeless that Adele could sing over it and it wouldn’t sound dated.

6. ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ – Jerry Lee Lewis (2 weeks 1958)

Now we’re into the genuine bangers. ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ has some energetic piano playing and the zaniest hook of any rock and roll hit from the 50s. I did think about ranking this lower after reading Jerry’s Wikipedia page (don’t do it), but in this case I’ll separate the art from the artist.  

5. ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream/Claudette’ – The Everly Brothers (7 weeks 1958)

The Everly Brothers were the kings of vocal harmonies (until The Beach Boys came along). There’s something so smooth and comforting about their cadences that it’s no wonder this song spent 7 weeks at number one.

4. ‘Rock Around The Clock’ – Bill Haley & His Comets (5 weeks 1955/1956)

‘Rock Around The Clock’ was the first ever rock and roll song to top the UK charts. Up until then it was all Sinatra-core and Broadway numbers and goofy Stargazers hits. Imagine how exciting this must have sounded. Even today, the bubbly vocals and popping bass and speedy guitar solo all still sound so good.

3.Mambo Italiano’ – Rosemary Clooney (3 weeks 1955)

Rosemary Clooney’s fiery Italian-American accent would probably be dismissed as cultural appropriation today (she was Irish-American herself). Of course, the music listeners of the 1950s weren't that sensitive, and several covers by major Italian and Italian-American musicians were released shortly after. I personally think it's still a bold and exciting song. Her inflections are so playful and the lyrics are utterly balmy: ‘Hey mambo, no more mozzarella.’ 

2.Jailhouse Rock’ – Elvis Presley (3 weeks 1958)

Some would probably rank this as the number one number one, and I can see why. Elvis’s voice sounds truly intense here and those opening two chords and snare hits are iconic. The homoerotic lyrics are also pretty revolutionary, even if they weren’t intentional and seemed to fly over everyone’s head at the time: ‘you’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see’.

1.Stupid Cupid/Carolina Moon’ – Connie Francis (6 weeks 1958)

It was a pretty close call between the top three. But ‘Stupid Cupid’ just about edges it to the top spot for me. The witty rhyming of ‘stupid’ and ‘Cupid’ combined with the octave-jumping vocal delivery and Cupid’s arrow ‘boiiing’ noise make this the most playful hook of the 50s. Add some rock and roll guitars and a superb sax solo, and you’ve got a winning formula that no artist was able to improve upon (…until the 1960s, which is next on my agenda!).

What do you think was the best UK number one of the 50s?