For the past week or so, I have immersed myself in "oldies" music. This started as a determination to weed my CD/tape collection, but it quickly morphed into repeated walks down the memory lane of the 1950s.
These were my childhood, pre-teen years, so several of them pre-date any real awareness of the "hit parades" or popular artists, but our home was filled with my parents' listening choices and my older sister's. And many early '50s hits were revisited in the 1960s by later artists.
Two things stand out in my thinking now. One, the era was steeped in post-war optimism (despite the realities of the time) and romantic idealism ran high; two, absolutely silly songs could soar on the sales charts.
Take, for example, Patti Page's "How Much is That Doggie in the Window?" Eight weeks at #1 in 1953. Or "Purple People Eater" (six weeks in 1958). Or "The Battle of New Orleans", which spent six weeks at #1 in 1959, and "Charlie Brown" (also1959). I remember that one from a grade school variety show. I have a picture of my little brother -- probably a second grader --standing on the gymnasium stage.
Close behind these were songs like "Teen Angel" and "Running Bear" (both 1959). Their category, tragic love songs -- not to be confused with sad love songs -- evidently had great appeal to teenagers and advanced on into the '60s.
Earlier in the era, idealized romantic love songs permeated the air waves. Such a time of innocence, when we believed we could achieve a world of sustained romantic love and devotion. My older sister remembers a lot of slow-dancing songs (today, you'd do well to find two or three the entire duration of the prom) and songs that told stories.
Her memories include "Diana", "Lollipop, Lollipop" (we loved mimicking the sound), "Love Me Tender," and "Unchained Melody." That originally appeared in about 1955, but returned again and again, most notably with the Righteous Brothers in 1965 and the movie Ghost in 1990.
She also remembers "The Stroll", which reminds me that American Bandstand can probably take the credit for a lot of songs rising on the hit lists. Starting as a local in Philadelphia in 1952, Dick Clark took it to national television in 1956.
It motivated us to race home from school, grab our peanut butter sandwiches, and practically swoon as our idols made guest appearances. Also to learn new dance steps -- like The Stroll -- and to rate a new song's possible popularity based on its dance-ability.
My earliest direct memories probably start at about 1957. A time when you actually had to be able to sing. And that's what you did, just stood there and sang. Didn't hurt to be beautiful or handsome, either.
So here comes dream-boat Pat Boone, and what could entice us more than "April Love" or "Love Letters in the Sand". Even at 10...
Or Frankie Avalon (didn't hurt that we thought he would marry Annette), with "Venus" and "Bobby Sox to Stockings" (1959).
By then the transition to rock and roll was well under way, but still, the Top Ten from 1959 included everything from that aforementioned Battle to the Fleetwoods (with their smooth romantic cadence of "Mr. Blue" and "Come Softly to Me"), to Dodie Stevens' "Pink Shoelaces" (the guy's), to Paul Anka's "Lonely Boy".
Within the Top 25, 5/6 instrumentals became hits, including Dave Baby Cortez' "The Happy Organ." I loved that, and remember skating to it at the local roller rink.
Elvis was there, too, but he only made it to #30 (though he'd had four big hits in 1956).
Thinking back, I expect I lived a lot of the 1950s with the Ponytails' "Born Too Late" (and yes, they did have ponytails): pre-teen crushes on my sister's male classmates, my dreamy sixth grade teacher (all the girls felt gifted if they got him), and those TV rock stars.
The '50s brought us a decade suspended between the after-math of World War II and the rising specter of the Vietnam War. It offered a promise of American prosperity, hope for happy-ever-afters, and visions of world peace. In the following decades, most of those visions failed to materialize.
Still, it's nice to walk down Memory Lane. I think I'll just keep these CD's and tapes. They remind me that "If you can dream it, you can do it." Who better to summarize the decade than Walt Disney.