When World War II ended in 1945, the country lost itself in celebration—and for good reason. One of the most painful and tragic periods in American history had come to a victorious close. But the joy was short-lived. Almost immediately, the nation began to grapple with the escalation of the Cold War and a world growing ever more complex. Americans longed to return to a simpler time—a yearning that was reflected in the songs they embraced.
“The most obvious trend of the popular music in the United States during the years following the end of the Second World War was the pervasive climate of nostalgia,” says musical historian J.C. Marion, who runs a website devoted to post-World War II pop music.
Radio airwaves were dominated by upbeat songs performed by straight-laced, well-scrubbed singers. “It’s striking how conservative the veterans were when they got back,” says pop music expert Michael Lasser, host of the national radio show Fascinatin’ Rhythm. “It was their children who kicked up their heels.”
Those children were the product of the so-called baby boom, the explosion of births that followed the soldiers’ return home after World War II. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, those youngsters were dictating the course of popular music, and they preferred the more raucous sounds of young rebels like Elvis Presley and The Beatles to the clean-cut crooners their parents had danced to.
The social and cultural changes of the baby boom transformed American life forever and were reflected in its music. Here’s a compilation of the most popular hits of the era.
1946 “The Gypsy” by The Ink Spots
Written by Billy Reid
English orchestra leader Billy Reid’s tale of a young lover taking comfort from a fortune teller’s words was recorded by many artists, but Marion calls the version by Ohio doo-wop quartet The Ink Spots the best rendition of the biggest song of 1946.
1947 “Near You” by Francis Craig and His Orchestra
Written by Francis Craig and Kermit Goell
Nashville, Tenn., bandleader Francis Craig just wanted to make a record as a keepsake for his family, but “Near You” wound up topping the charts for 17 weeks.
1948 “Buttons and Bows” by Dinah Shore and Her Happy Valley Boys
Written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans
The Academy Award-winning tune was penned for Bob Hope and Jane Russell to sing in the movie The Paleface, but songbird Dinah Shore had the biggest hit with it.
1949 “Ghost Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)” by Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra
Written by Stan Jones
Stan Jones based the supernaturally spooky song on a terrifying tall tale that he heard at age 12 from a cowboy in Arizona.
1950 “The Tennessee Waltz” by Patti Page
Written by Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King
“The Tennessee Waltz” was born in 1948 when country star Pee Wee King and his band’s vocalist, Redd Stewart, wrote words for an instrumental tune previously titled “No Name Waltz.”
1951 “Cry” by Johnnie Ray and the Four Lads
Written by Churchill Kohlman
“Cry” was penned by Churchill Kohlman, an amateur tunesmith who at the time worked as a night watchman at a Pittsburgh dry-cleaning business. It was a perfect fit for Johnnie Ray, whose emotion-packed singing earned him nicknames including “The Prince of Wails.”
1952 “You Belong to Me” by Jo Stafford
Written by Pee Wee King, Redd Stewart and Chilton Price
Dean Martin and Patti Page both enjoyed hits with “You Belong to Me,” but it was California-born pop songstress Jo Stafford who took it all the way to No. 1.
1953 “Vaya Con Dios (May God Be With You)” by Les Paul and Mary Ford
Written by Inez James, Barry Pepper and Larry Russell
Guitarist Les Paul and singer Mary Ford were married at the time they released “Vaya Con Dios (May God Be with You)”. Paul’s virtuosity is a perfect complement to Ford’s vocal, Marion says.
1954 “Little Things Mean a Lot” by Kitty Kallen
Written by Edith Lindeman Calisch and Carl Stutz
Lyricist Edith Lindeman was the amusement critic for the Richmond, Va., Times-Dispatch, while composer Carl Stutz was a radio announcer. Big Band singer Pretty Kitty Kallen turned their “Little Things” into a very big hit.
1955 “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” by Perez Prez Prado
Written by Louis Guglielmi
Perez Prado, the Cuban bandleader known as King of the Mambo, re-created this French hit as an instrumental cha-cha for the Jane Russell movie Underwater!
1956 “Don’t Be Cruel” by Elvis Presley
Written by Otis Blackwell and Elvis Presley
“Don’t Be Cruel” was the first of several songs penned by songwriter Otis Blackwell that would become hits for Elvis Presley, a young man who was popularizing a raucous new form of music: rock ‘n’ roll.
1957 “All Shook Up” by Elvis Presley
Written by Otis Blackwell and Elvis Presley
“All Shook Up” was born when a business associate shook a bottle of Pepsi and offhandedly suggested to Otis Blackwell that he should write a song called “All Shook Up.” Blackwell did just that.
1958 “At the Hop” by Danny & The Juniors
Written by Arthur Singer, John Medara and David White
Singer played pal Dick Clark, host of American Bandstand, a tune he’d co-written for Philadelphia quartet Danny & The Juniors. Clark had one suggestion: Change the title from “At the Bop” to “At the Hop.”
1959 “Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin
Written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Dick Clark’s advice wasnt as sound in this case; he warned Bobby Darin against recording “Mack the Knife,” a murder ballad from 1928’s The Threepenny Opera. Darin recorded it anyway, and snared his first and only chart-topper.
1960 “The Theme From A Summer Place” by Percy Faith and His Orchestra
Written by Mack Discant and Max Steiner
Yes, this instantly familiar tune does have lyrics (There’s a summer place/Where it may rain or storm … ). But it was Canadian bandleader Percy Faith’s instrumental take that became the definitive version.
1961 “Tossin’ and Turnin'” by Bobby Lewis
Written by Ritchie Adams and Malou Rene
Indianapolis native Bobby Lewis had been recording since 1952, but it wasnt until songwriter pal Ritchie Adams presented him with the irresistible “Tossin’ and Turnin'” that he finally got his big break.
1962 “I Can’t Stop Loving You” by Ray Charles
Written by Don Gibson
Music-business professionals scoffed at soul giant Ray Charles’ audacious decision to record country songs like Don Gibson’s 1958 “I Can’t Stop Loving You”—until he began having enormous hits with them that crossed radios boundary lines between pop, country, and rhythm and blues.
1963 “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs
Written by Keith McCormack and Fay Voss
Keith McCormack and aunt Fay Voss wrote the catchy song in late 1962, and New Mexico band Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs made it a smash. When lead singer Gilmer left the group in 1968, McCormack took his place.
1964 “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles
Written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Brits John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at the home of McCartney’s then-girlfriend. The tune became The Beatles’ first American hit, signaling a sea change in pop music, youth culture and the future of entertainment.