The 50 Best Songs of 1949
Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.
What was music like in 1949? The most obvious difference was in the delivery method. People listened to music via radio broadcasts, and bought 10-inch 78 RPM discs made of shellac that could scratch and crack easier than a dinner plate. "Albums" were exactly that -- three or more 78s collated into a rectangular binder that resembled a family photo book. They were a luxury format reserved for the industry's biggest sellers like Bing Crosby, hit musicals like Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific, and symphonies and operas. The 33 1/3 RPM recording process was still brand new, having been invented in 1948, as was the 45 RPM format, which appeared in 1949. Neither format was widely used until the early '50s.
The big-band era had peaked, a casualty of World War II penny-saving and soldier enlistments. In its stead was Your Hit Parade, a gallery of swinging voices, many of whom trained with big-band orchestras before becoming major attractions in their own right. Doris Day, a former singer for Les Brown's band, "Bewitched" audiences with her honeyed voice and girl-next-door sweetness. Billy Eckstine, a veteran of Earl Hines' orchestra, entranced with his sonorous and wintry tones.
This cavalcade of stars performed the Great American Songbook. Seven different versions of "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific landed on the Billboard charts, with Crosby and Perry Como landing the biggest "hits." There was no Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, but three separate charts: Best Sellers, Juke Box and Disk Jockey. The panoply of pop charts saw five versions of South Pacific's "Bali' Ha'i," six versions of Sammy Fain and Bob Hilliard's "Dear Hearts and Gentle People," and five versions of Fred Glickman and Buz Butler's unlikely cowboy novelty "Mule Train." The audience listened for what a finely tuned voice could bring to the best of Tin Pan Alley.
Crosby's "White Christmas" dominated the holidays, just like it had every year since its 1942 debut. But 1949 brought two more yuletide standards. Frank Loesser's hilariously wolfish "Baby It's Cold Outside" yielded five covers, with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan's version considered the best (but not the biggest -- that honor belonged to Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark). Johnny Marks' "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" earned a definitive interpretation from the Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry.
On the black side of town, folks dug the boogie-woogie jump blues of Jordan, Wynonie Harris and newcomer Ruth Brown. The country blues of yore were becoming an American myth like the Old West, more suitable for Alan Lomax research expeditions than the demands of jivin' jitterbugs. But blues players were learning to adapt, as evinced by John Lee Hooker's hit "Boogie Chillen'." Jazz was increasingly seen as a serious pursuit, too, but that didn't keep saxophone honker Paul Williams from adapting Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time" into "The Hucklebuck," a hit so big it was covered by Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra.
As for Parker himself, he experimented with "Cubop" alongside Cuban émigré Machito's orchestra, resulting in "Mango Mangue." In Spanish Harlem, Tito Puente was scoring his first hits, as was Cuban bandleader Perez Prado. The mambo craze was just around the corner.
Other evidence emerged that the '50s would be a heady decade like no other. Miles Davis issued the first 78s that would later be compiled into The Birth of the Cool. Lennie Tristano made harmonic experiments like "Intuition," the seeds of which would blossom into free jazz. Hank Williams made his debut at the Grand Ol' Opry. And what was this nonsense from the jump blues hepcats about "rockin'" and "rock 'n' roll"?