The fifties were an era rife with musical variety, and the best 50s songs reflect that.
There are jazz standards, big band numbers, and the birth of rock ‘n roll. It’s a musically rich era, which makes it hard to narrow down the best songs of the 1950s, but we’ve done our best.
“Don’t Be Cruel” by Elvis Presley
It’s impossible to talk about the best songs of the 50s without talking about Elvis Presley. He released ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ in 1956. He also used this 50s song to open his segment on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’
In 2002, Elvis’s rendition of ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ entered the Grammy Hall of Fame. It was one of Presley’s signature tunes and not without cause.
“Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Hailey and His Comets
Written by Max C Freeman and James E Myres, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ uses a catchy, 12-bar blues structure to catch the listener’s attention.
The song went through several iterations, and one early draft of the piece calls it ‘Syncopated Clock.’
While many musicians claimed to have a hand in recording ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ it was Bill Hailey and His Comets who made it famous. They were an unlikely but instant hit.
“Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis’s recording of ‘Great Balls of Fire’ remains one of the best songs of the 50s for several reasons. Firstly, it’s an excellent song. But it also featured in the film ‘Jamboree,’ ensuring it reached an even wider audience than it would have if limited to the radio.
Otis Blackwell wrote the song with Jack Hammer in 1957. Lewis’s success with it was immediate and enduring.
‘Great Balls of Fire’ was so memorable that it would later get a reference in British comedy ‘Monty Python.’ It was so deeply associated with Lewis that the song title doubled as the title for a biopic about Lewis.
“Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley
It’s impossible to name only one Elvis Presley piece when talking about the best songs of the 1950s.
As his career advanced, the 50s became one of several decades deeply associated with Presley’s music.
‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was written by Tommy Durden and Mae Borden Axton, though Presley also gets attributed with a certain amount of creative input.
Despite its enduring popularity and instant success, one of the great mysteries for years was the story behind the lyrics.
Despite this, it’s considered one of the greatest songs not only of all time but of the Rock and Roll era and continues to be a favorite with musicians today.
“Fever” by Peggy Lee
Eddie Cooley wrote it. Little Willie John performed it first. But it was Peggy Lee who made ‘Fever’ famous. She rewrote substantial portions of the lyrics to reflect lovers through history and added finger snaps.
Suddenly ‘Fever’ was sexy, seductive, and catchy in a way it had never been before. Today it’s the definitive version of this jazz standard, as well as one of the best 50s songs.
“I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash wrote and recorded ‘I Walk the Line’ in 1956 on the advice of his producer, Sam Phillips.
It was Cash’s first success and it’s markedly different from his later work, which would be colored by darkness and complex musicality.
But there’s an arresting simplicity and sincerity to ‘I Walk the Line.’ Listening to it, it’s immediately apparent why it resonated with so many people as quickly as it did, and why it continues to be a moving song today.
“Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers
Initially, some radio stations banned ‘Wale Up Little Susie' for being too suggestive. But that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best songs of the 1950s.
The Everly Brothers were a household name, and ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ demonstrates why. The tune is catchy, the lyrics are playful, and the harmonies are accessible.
It’s the kind of 50s song anyone can sing, provided they’re less squeamish than the radio stations.
“When I Fall in Love” by Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole is best known for his jazz standards, like ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right.’
But before starting on jazz, Cole had a career as a crooner. ‘When I Fall in Love’ is an excellent example of his earlier style, as well as one of the best songs of the 50s.
Victor Young wrote the music, and Edward Heyman composed the lyrics. It first appeared in the film ‘One Minute to Zero.’
In the film, Jerri Southern sings this piece. But in 1956, Cole collaborated with his daughter on an arrangement of this classic 50s song. The result is as unforgettable as anything Cole ever sang.
“I Met Him on a Sunday” by the Shirelles
One of the distinguishing features of ‘I Met Him on a Sunday’ as sung by The Shirelles is that all the singers get a chance to try their hand on the lead vocal line.
At the time the group recorded it they weren’t The Shirelles yet. Instead, they were just out of school and calling themselves the Poquellos. They changed their name to The Shirelles, thinking it would bring them more success. ‘I Met Him on a Sunday’ continued to be one of their signature tunes throughout their time together.
“Haunted Heart” by Jo Stafford
Another of the best songs of the 1950s, ‘Haunted Heart’ is and was a popular jazz standard. But no one sings it like Stafford. Her contralto infuses it with a warmth and intimacy few could equal.
Despite being mostly smooth and liquid sounding, there are several moments where dotted rhythms add extra musical color. It’s a melody as haunting as the title promises, and it lingers long after the music stops.
“Blue in Green” by Miles Davis
Released late in the 50s, Miles Davis’ ‘Blue in Green’ squeaks onto this list as one of the best songs of the 1950s.
Who to credit with its composition was a source of controversy for years, but these days most musicologists attribute it to Davis himself and Bill Evans.
In addition to being one of the best jazz songs of the 1950s, ‘Blue in Green’ is an excellent example of modal jazz. Instead of relying on a traditional chord progression, this is jazz that segues between scales, though it keeps one tonal center.
Davis was a dab hand at modal jazz, and the album debuting ‘Blue in Green,’ called ‘A Kind of Blue’ largely wrote the book on how to play modal jazz well.
“In the Still of the Night” by The Five Satins
This doo-wop staple is another of the best 50s songs. It’s better-known today for featuring on the soundtrack to ‘Dirty Dancing,’ but that wasn’t always the case.
Freddy Paris wrote the song and The Five Satins released it in 1956. It ensured that they became a name to conjure with over the years. In addition to ‘Diry Dancing,’ this doo-wop favorite featured in several other films, including:
The Buddy Holly Story
“Walkin’ After Midnight” by Patsy Cline
“Walkin’ After Midnight” has a distinctive honky-tonk melody that’s immediately recognizable. But it wasn’t always that way. Initially, Kay Starr’s record label declined the piece.
Written by Alan Block and Don Hecht, the combination of the jaunty rhythm with the unsettling undertones of the lyrics was disconcerting to many. Cline infused it with warmth and smoothness, resulting in one of the best songs of the 1950s.
“I Put A Spell on You” by Jay Hawkins
‘Screamin’ Jay Hawkins released ‘“ Put A Spell On You” in 1956.
It’s one of the most memorable 50s songs because it’s the musical equivalent of a haunted house. The unevenness of the rhythm and the color of Hawkins’ voice combine to create an extremely disconcerting piece.
There’s a touch of blues mixed into this famously banned melody, but mostly it sounds like a fun-fare ride.
“My Baby Just Cares For Me” by Nina Simone
Nina Simone is one of the 1950s most underrated jazz singers.
“My Baby Just Cares For Me” began life as a musical number in the musical ‘Whoopee!’ by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn. If Simone hadn't turned it into a jazz standard and one of the best 50s songs, it might have faded into obscurity.
But Simone makes it a warm, playful, intimate jazz number that became particularly famous when it featured in a commercial for Chanel No. 5.
“Ain’t That a Shame” by Fats Domino
It was Pat Boone who put “Ain’t That A Shame” on the map, but that’s no reason to overlook Fats Domino’s version.
Antoine Domino was a pianist with a marked musical effect on artistic greats like Elvis Presley and John Lennon. Here he combines swing with a touch of rock ‘n roll.
“The Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by The Platters
Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach collaborated on ‘The Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ and other songs for the musical ‘Roberta.’
Over the years, the song proved popular with various artists, including:
- Paul Whiteman
- Irene Dunn
- Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
Despite this, it’s The Platters' version people remember, and not without some chagrin on the part of the artists. Kern’s widow so disliked The Platters’ take on the music that she tried to prevent its distribution.
She wasn’t successful, and this 1958 version of ‘The Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ remains one of the best 50s songs.
“Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran
Eddie Cochran wrote and recorded ‘Summertime Blues with his manager, Jerry Capehart.
Various artists have since covered it, including:
- The Who
- Blue Cheer
- Brian Setzer
But it was Cochran’s initial recording that made the song one of the best 50s songs. Following its release, it quickly became one of the top ten on the Billboard 100.
In addition to the vocals, listen for hand-clapping and electronic bass. Notably, Cochran played all the guitar parts as well as sang all the vocals for ‘Summertime Blues.’
“You Send Me” by Sam Cooke
Like many of the best 50s songs, ‘You Send Me’ as sung by Sam Cooke is unapologetically sentimental. Some might even say soppy.
It proved a transformative moment for Cooke, who took the opportunity to experiment with something outside his gospel upbringing. You can still hear some of that in his musical style, but the result is an unaffected love song that resonated with listeners everywhere.
It was so popular that several artists went on to cover the piece, including
- Aretha Franklin
- Michael Bolton
“Goodnite Sweetheart Goodnite” by The Spaniels
Written by Calvin Carter and James ‘Pookie’ Hudson, ‘Goodnite Sweetheart’ was a staple of the mid-1950s. The song was the biggest hit The Spaniels ever had.
While the song afterward came in for a lot of parody and ribbing, it was number 5 on the R&B charts in 1954.
The song is acapella, and the most memorable part for many is the deep, off-rhythm bass line.
“Money Honey” by the Drifters
Jesse Stone wrote ‘Money Honey,’ and when the song debuted in 1953, it was with Clyde McPhatterson backing the newly-emerged The Drifters.
It’s a memorable recording for the rich blend of the singers' voices and an outstanding saxophone solo that is a technical tour de force as well as excellent fun. It’s also got one of the most famous screams in rock ‘n roll music, making The Drifters’ ‘Money Honey’ even more memorable.
“Cry Me a River” by Julie London
In 1953, Arthur Hamilton wrote ‘Cry Me A River.’ In 1955, Julie London made it famous.
In London’s hands, ‘Cry Me A River’ became not only one of the most memorable mid-50s songs but also one of the best songs of the 1950s.
Originally, the song was meant to feature in the film ‘Pete Kelly’s Blues,’ sung by a young Ella Fitzgerald. But the song got dropped from the film score, and it wasn’t until 1961 that Fitzgerald put her mark on this song. And by then, it was all but synonymous with London.
It blends blues with jazz to an interesting harmonic effect. And in 1956, it went to film after all. This time the film was ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ and it was London singing. Who else?
“Sh-Boom” by the Chords
Another of the best 50s songs, ‘Sh-Boom’ is sometimes better-known as ‘Life Could Be A Dream.’
It’s an early doo-wop song written by:
- James Keyes
- Claude Fester
- Carl Feaster
- Floyd F. McRae
- William Edwards
It’s often cited as the first doo-wop song to make a name for itself in the rhythm and blues charts.
The Chords are the most famous singers of this 50s song, but they weren’t the only ones to perform it. The Crew Cuts did an equally well-known version of ‘Sh-Boom.’
“Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet
‘Take Five’ is another of the best 50s songs. It’s also one of the first examples of a jazz-pop fusion. Quartet member Paul Desmond composed ‘Take Five.’
Among other things, it's notable for its blend of Brubeck’s steady jazz chords and Desmond on a more musically digressive saxophone.
But ‘Take Five’ isn’t only a piece from a time capsule. The Dave Brubeck Quartet is ongoing, and Desmond’s composition remains one of their signature performance pieces.
“What A Difference a Day Makes” by Dinah Washington
María Grever wrote ‘What a Difference a Day Makes’ in 1934. What’s less well-known is that she originally composed it in Spanish.
But it became one of the best songs of the 1950s when Dinah Washington sang an English lyrics version of the piece.
Washington single-handedly turned Grever’s composition into the next jazz standard, and for years, it was the hallmark of a good jazz singer and a variety of famous artists covered it, including:
- Sarah Vaughan
- Rodney Stewart
- Aretha Franklin
“Chantilly Lace” by The Big Bopper
‘Chantilly Lace’ is one of those 50s songs to leave an indelible mark on the music that succeeded it. It’s full of a jittery, jumpy rhythm that set the standard for music going forward.
Additionally, it’s fun and fast-paced. The music never lets up until the last chord sounds, and the result is that you can’t talk about the best songs of the 1950s without talking about ‘Chantilly Lace’ and how it changed music, even if The Big Bopper died prematurely not long afterward.
“What I’d Say” by Ray Charles
Last but far from least is Ray Charles’ ‘What I’d Say.’ One of the best 50s songs, it rollicks along at a clip, with Charles demonstrating virtuosic talent as he sings and plays.
Incredibly, it began as an improvisation at the end of a practice set. It didn’t just stick – Charles used it to create the soul genre whole cloth.
Top 50s Songs, Final Thoughts
From jazz to blues to rock ‘n roll, the best songs of the 50s encompass a variety of genres. Some are tender serenades, others are fast-paced, and many are playful. But all are worth listening to. The 1950s gave us some excellent music, so sit back, have a listen, and enjoy it.