1950s EASY-POP Songs and Singers...on the verge of Rock 'n Roll
EASY-POP Music Arrangers of the 1950s
Ray Anthony This strong, direct arranger was successful at keeping the big band sound alive in the fifties and scored with television themes from Dragnet and Peter Gunn.
Les Baxter At Capitol Records he arranged the music for Nat King Cole’s biggest hits Mona Lisa and Too Young. With his own orchestra he recorded dozens of instrumental LPs, movie themes, and hit singles including The High and the Mighty, Ruby, The Poor People of Paris, and Unchained Melody.
David Carroll This arranger and conductor for the Crew-Cuts and Vic Damone at Mercury Records had his own instrumental hits with Melody of Love, In a Little Spanish Town, It’s Almost Tomorrow, and The Ship That Never Sailed.
Don Costa ABC Paramount Records had this popular arranger work with Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Steve Lawrence, and Eydie Gorme.
Frank DeVol This conductor/arranger at Capitol and Columbia Records brought a distinctive touch to string-laden balladry and a frisky playfulness to his arrangements for Tony Bennett and Doris Day.
Percy Faith As the arranger at Columbia Records he was responsible for Tony Bennett’s Rags to Riches and Stranger in Paradise as well as his own recordings of Moulin Rouge(Where is Your Heart) and Theme for A Summer Place.
Gordon Jenkins As staff conductor at Decca he composed his ‘Manhattan Tower’ suite and at Capitol he created his signature repeated descending minor-second arrangements for Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra.
Stan Kenton This arranger was one of the first to include strings in his arrangements—blurring the definition line between a band and an orchestra. In 1951, he recorded the title song from the 1945 film Laura.
Ralph Marterie A native of Italy and an arranger at Mercury Records, with his orchestra he recorded hits Caravan and Skokiaan.
Billy May He was the composer, arranger, and conductor at Capitol for Peggy Lee.
Mitch Miller Originality was this arranger’s hallmark at Columbia Records backing Guy Mitchell and Doris Day. He had a penchant for offbeat material and diverse musical textures. He opened the field to out-of-the-norm instrumentation and orchestration. In 1955, he recorded his own hit single Yellow Rose of Texas with his ‘Sing along with Mitch’ choral group.
Robert Mersey This arranger at Columbia Records worked with Andy Williams’ Can’t Get Used to Losing You, Hopeless, and Almost There.
Jack Pleis At Coral Records he was the conductor for Karen Chandler’s Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me and then at Decca for Toni Fisher’s The Big Hurt. He composed and recorded the theme from the movie blockbuster ‘Giant.’
Joe Reisman In the early fifties, he was the arranger at Mercury Records for Patty Page’s Conquest and You Belong to Me and later at RCA Victor Records for Perry Como’s Catch a Falling Star and Magic Moments.
Henri Rene At RCA Records he arranged Eartha Kitt’s C’est Si Bon and Santa Baby.
Nelson Riddle This popular orchestra leader at Capitol Records collaborated on the original Frank Sinatra ‘concept’ albums and he created classic arrangements for Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney, and Dinah Shore.
Billy Vaughn As musical director for Dot Records he oversaw ‘cover’ recordings by Pat Boone and Gale Storm and his own 1954 violin-laden hit version of Melody of Love.
Paul Westin His sensitive arrangements at Capitol and Columbia lent eloquent support to several female singers including Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting, as well as his wife, Jo Stafford.
Hugo Winterhalter As the musical director and arranger at RCA Records, he brought instrumental flourishes to the recordings of Eddie Fisher and the Ames Brothers.
Who Created Those Infectious Arrangements
Often a 50s EASY-POP recording can be identified in the first instant as the musical arrangement establishes a unique sound and sets the stage for the singer. Recordings had to contain a ‘hook’ to catch the listener’s ear and stand out from the very first groove.
The arrangements often included an unexpected fillip—a finger snap, a slight prod, or a stinging stimulant. There were no introductory verses, as there had been in big band compositions, nor lengthy instrumental introductions. The beat was established and the lyric refrain began in the first few seconds.
In the fifties, the A&R man was often the creative force of a recording company. The title ‘Director of Popular Artists and Repertory’ indicated a job that was as important as it sounded. They decided what songs artists would record and they demanded creative orchestral accompaniments.
The A&R men were producing records for their own sake and this was new. In the past, bands and singers reproduced in the studio what they’d been performing nightly at public appearances. For the first time, musical compositions were created not as live performance pieces but as records for a radio audience with an unprecedented appetite for variety. Musical arrangers were in charge and they created sounds that were different, exciting, and fresh.
The prominence of the vocalist did require innovative accompaniment that provided essential support for the singer. A swing band, a jump trio, or a full-blown orchestra backed nearly every recording artist. Doris Day’s musical arrangements often included 8 brass players, 5 woodwinds, 10 strings, a rhythm section, and 8 background singers.
There was never a recording decade with more variety in musical accompaniment than the fifties. Maybe the instrumental diversity was driven by the restrictions of the three-minute 45rpm record format, the demands of the audience around the new jukeboxes, or a response to the constantly quickened tempo. But whatever the reason, there was an unprecedented assortment of sounds.
Columbia records was the most successful EASY-POP recording company, thanks in part to its ‘Artists and Repertoire’ chief Mitch Miller and an important part of his magic was the musical accompaniment—unusual combinations of refreshing sounds that opened up the field to out-of-the-norm instrumentation and orchestrations. He put a harpsichord with Rosemary Clooney on Come On-A My House, whiplashes on Frankie Laine’s Mule Train, and he backed Guy Mitchell with French horns. On Johnny Ray’s recordings of Cry, Please Mr. Sun and The Little White Cloud That Cried he added a singing group, the then unknown Four Lads, to provide vocal background. (Whitcomb, 1972, p.215)
Background singers are another recognizable element in fifties recordings. The familiar “doo doo wah, doo doo wah,” “ba ba ba bum,” and “la la la” appeared in dozens of recordings. In Doris Day’s Anyway the Wind Blows the chorus provided “by up up up ah” and it was the background singers that provided the distinctive “ka kunk ka chew” that opens Jane Morgan’s recording of With Open Arms and chant “mush” in Johnny Horton’s North to Alaska.
Sometimes these ‘background singers’ provided critical lyric elements. In the recording of I Dreamed, the background singers, not the primary vocalist Betty Johnson, sang the phrase ‘knights in armor, princes, kings, buccaneers and wedding rings.’ In the Margaret Whiting/ Jimmy Wakely duet A Bushel and a Peck it was the chorus in the background who sang the phrase ‘a thousand chickens goin’ to the dickens.’
The unusual arrangements and unique musical instruments were full of surprises and delights. There were snare drums in Patti Page’s Left, Right, Out of Your Heart; bongo drums in the Four Lads’ Only One of You; a celeste in Buddy Holly’s Everyday; a concertina in the polka Hoop-Dee-Doo; an organ in Doris Day’s Love Me in the Daytime; a harp in Joni James’ Among My Souvenirs; and castanets in Patti Page’s All My Love.