Musical Icons 1950s

Popular Musicians of the Fifties

During the fifties, traditional pop artists performed well on the radio. These artists sang a variety of popular hits. They were also able to translate well on television.

These musicians challenged racial stereotypes and segregation in America. They incorporated elements of rhythm and blues, country, and hillbilly music to create a new genre of music.

Chuck Berry & Johnnie Johnson

Johnnie Johnson, the St Louis pianist who backed Chuck Berry’s early 1950s trio and helped sow the seeds for a worldwide musical revolution, has died at age 80. He had been hospitalized for pneumonia and a kidney ailment.

On New Year’s Eve 1952, Johnson invited Berry to fill in for a saxophonist who had become ill. Berry quickly became the band leader, building up a following in the Cosmopolitan Club and elsewhere in St Louis.

His pumping, two-fisted piano style, able to push out a dancing rhythm and deliver inventive, melodic solos, was the touchstone for rock’n’roll pianists. Johnson received little public recognition until he appeared in Curtis Hanson’s inspired 1986 documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. He later toured with the Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir’s band Ratdog.

Jerry Lee Lewis

Nicknamed “the Killer,” Lewis epitomized rock and roll rebellion with his hard-driving piano pounding and forceful singing. He had a brief run of hit records, but his sleazy image and run-ins with the law drained him of audiences. He later made a comeback as a country singer.

Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana. His family belonged to a Pentecostal church, and his mother worried that music would corrupt him. His first professional gig came when he played for a hat tip at a local Ford dealership. He was paid $15, a princely sum for the time. In 1958 he married his 13-year-old first cousin once removed, which inflamed the British press and scuttled a tour there. Lewis’s second marriage ended in tragedy, but he continued his career as a country star.

Pat Boone

After the devastation of World War II and the strained racial tensions of the Civil Rights Movement the 1950s saw many artists trying to adapt to the new times. Pat Boone became one of the most popular teen idols of the era. He had 38 Top 40 hits and starred in over 12 Hollywood films. A devout Christian he refused songs and movie roles that might compromise his values and his religious beliefs. He also wrote a series of self-help books for adolescents including Twixt Twelve and Twenty.

His music drew upon Rock and Roll, Country Music, Doo-Wop, Jazz (Bebop, Hard Bop, Cool Jazz), and Hawaiian and Polynesian melodies often overlayed with jungle atmospherics like parrots squawking and water sounds. He was a major influence on the Outlaw Country genre that rose to prominence during this time with artists like Patsy Cline and Conway Twitty.

The Diamonds

Dave Somerville, Ted Kowalski, Phil Levitt and Bill Reed formed the Diamonds in 1953. The group was originally a comedy act but their first public performance went over so well they decided to turn professional.

After winning a talent contest on the Arthur Godfrey show the Diamonds were introduced to Nat Goodman a classical pianist who became their manager.

He got them a recording contract with Coral Records. Their first hit was a cover of the Gladiolas Little Darlin’.

This was the beginning of many hits for the group. After the Diamonds success Mike Douglas replaced Phil Levitt as the groups baritone. They charted another six songs on the Billboard charts. The Diamonds also sang on the shows of Perry Como, Vic Damone and Eddy Arnold.

Little Richard

Little Richard smashed through the wall of segregation that held American music back in the ’50s. Performing in the chitlin’ circuit, where black artists performed in traveling medicine shows and vaudeville units, Richard adopted a larger-than-life stage persona and flamboyant style that attracted audiences, even in deeply segregated areas.

On record, his blend of boogie-woogie, R&B and gospel music made spine-tingling rock ‘n’ roll. His raspy croons, wails and screams on songs like “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” pushed the boundaries of pop and created an enduring template for rock music.

In 1957, at the height of his popularity, Richard embraced Christianity and quit secular singing, citing a call to the ministry. But his impact on the era was unmistakable, and he left behind a legacy that influenced everything from hip hop to James Brown.

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