18 October 2019

Music in the Time of a Private Eye

Music in the Time of a Private Eye
by O'Neil De Noux

Research for my private eye series set in the 1940s-1950s drew me to YouTube to learn just how bad popular music was before rock and roll. The radio was filled with dreck. In 1947 Perry Como had a hit with Chi-Baba Chi-Baba and Al Jolson was still around with The Anniversary Song. 1948 gave up hits like MaƱana by Peggy Lee with a God-awful Spanish accent and The Andrews Sisters with the yodel polka Toolie Oolie Doolie. In 1949 we had a faux-western hit by Dinah Shore called Buttons and Bows where the "cactus hurts by toes" and Tommy Dorsey's brassy The Huckle-Buck. 1950 came with hits like Goodnight Irene by the Weavers and Perry Como was back with another polka Hoop De Doo. Wait, 1950 gave us Nat King Cole's Mona Lisa. Thank God for Nat.

The Weavers were back with a top hit in 1951 – On Top of Old Smokey. Lord, help us. Phil Harris had a big hit with The Thing (No, not from the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World, but a goofy novelty song). Perry Como was back with the sleep-inducing If and we had the tear-jerker Tennessee Waltz by Patti Page. I admit, I sorta like Tennessee Waltz.

1951 gave us the unforgettable Aba Daba Honeymoon by Debbie Reynolds and Patti Page's Mockin' Bird Hill, where the morning sun kisses roses on a windowsill. For some reason, I like Mockin' Bird  Hill. Hey, maybe I just like Patti Page. (I also like sugar songs like 1963 's Sugar Shack by Jimmy Gilber and the Fireballs and – please forgive me – 1969's Sugar Sugar by the Archies).

1951 hits did give us a good hit with Nat King Cole's Too Young, but watch out, it can put you to sleep. Tony Bennett's Because of You was OK, but not one of his best. He also had a hit with his cover of Hank Williams' Cold, Cold Heart but the original by Williams was far better. But that version was played on hillbilly radio stations. No way my cool cat PI would listen to country music, even though Hank Williams had dynamite songs.

The radio hits of 1952 were highlighted by Kay Starr with Wheel of Fortune and Vera Lynn's Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart and the Mills Brothers with The Glow Worm. Irish-American Rosemary Cooney gave us at hit with an horrendous Italian-accented Botch-A-Me.

According to Billboard, the No. 5 tune of 1953 was P.S. I Love You (No. Not the cool one by The Beatles – John was 13, Paul 11, George 10 and Ringo 13 at the time). This hit came from four singers wearing college freshmen beanies and sweaters with a big W on the chest. They were The Hilltoppers, hailing from Western Kentucky State College. At No. 2 sat another sleepy song, You, You, You by The Ames Brother.

Tony Bennett had a couple top hits in 1953 with Rags to Riches and Stranger in Paradise.

OK, what about Frank Sinatra? He was in a slump between 1946 and 1953. Dean Martin did have success with 1952's You Belong to Me and 1953's Sway. In 1953, he finally had a top 10 song with That's Amore at No. 2.

My private eye is saved by listening to jazz and rhythm and blues on the radio with New Orleans own Fats Domino's 1951 hit The Fat Man. Too bad my PI has to wait years for Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and so many others.

Antoine "Fats" Domino 1928-2017

That's all for now.


  1. I'm a rock 'n' roller, O'Neil. But I have to disagree with you about some of the music before R&R. The swing music of the 30s and 40s is terrific. I love listening to that. And I have a novel coming out set in the 1940s, during the war. Half the fun in doing the research was listening to the music. Though I think by the late 40s/early 50s music was kind of bland. Same thing happened in the early 60s, and then the Beatles came along to liven things up again.

  2. I agree with Paul. Jazz in the 20s through the swing era of the 40s produced a lot of brilliant music. In the 40s, Charley Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, and several other jazz pioneers explored bop and pushed music light years forward, as the Beatles did in the mid-60s. It's great stuff, especially for late 40s and early 50s sound tracks. Yes, progressive jazz became self-indulgent and unlistenable to large segments of the record-buying public, and Pop in the early 50s may be so bland and watered down as a reaction to that. Keep in mind that even though Bennett, Page, Como, and Day were singing lame songs, they could sing on pitch and some of the arrangements are terrific music.

    Early rock 'n' roll was very simple and basic, like Elvis's "Don't Be Cruel," the percussion consisting of someone thumping his hands on a packing crate. It was a reaction to the complex jazz played in clubs. Racism was apparent with the Pat Boone et al covers of the hotter R & B. Remember the New York radio station (WABC???) announcing it would play the original versions instead of the watered down white covers? It was a boon to music-lovers, especially the kids who picked up a guitar after hearing Elvis and Scotty Moore.

    Punk in the 70s was the same phenomenon. It appeared as a backlash to the overblown and self-indulgent prog-rock-pseudo-symphonic stuff that EL&P, Yes, and a few other bands had moved to, sort of symphony, sort of progressive jazz, and sort of BS. Punk went back to three chords and the truth, with many musicians who couldn't really carry a tune, but sold tons of product because it was so accessible.

    All this said, I came of age during the British Invasion and still love the blues that inspired the Stones, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Pretty Things, and other bands. I play lots of blues. One of my friends calls me "the funkiest whitebread Midwest kid" he knows. But I also play folk, country, sixties, and alt-rock.

    Most contemporary stuff bores the crap out of me because it has no melody and a synthesized drum, combined with really banal lyrics. But if it tells a story and gives the musicians something to do, I may try to play it.

    OK, will someone bring a ladder and help me down off this soap box now?

  3. There's always been a lot of dreck on radio, and not just back in the days where there were constraints on how much profanity, etc., you could use in a song. Watch Radio Days sometime and think about "Mairsy Doats" and other 1930s-40s hits that Woody Allen used.

  4. Hey man, don't diss the Weavers. They sparked most of the music I enjoy.

  5. Husband & I sang "Stardust" in the style of Nat King Cole at our wedding. It is a difficult song to sing well, but we rehearsed a long time.

  6. Since I was born a while after all this, and don't know any of those songs, I would say you nailed it, O'Neil! Whereas, I do know a lot of the 40s songs. Interesting post.

  7. An intriguing read, O’Neil! I’m not half the rock n roller I used to be, and I see the the 30s-50s as an incredible era for American music, maybe THE era. Big band morphed into bebop and cool jazz, almost all the greatest jazz musicians call this era home. Your nod to r n b of this era is right on target. I appreciate Rob’s Weavers mention. Really, this is when country and folk came into it’s own. There was horrible popmusic that snuck in under the rock n roll radar. That era after the great Buddy Holly but before the Brits? Not so good. Thanks for a terrific blog O’Neil!


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