‘50s music has gems apart from popular rock songs

January 26, 2020 — by Mathew Luo

The 1950s was a revolutionary decade for music. It saw the rise of a plethora of new musical styles, including rock and roll, “cool jazz” and bebop jazz, resulting in plenty of timeless art.

Rock and roll, of course, was the biggest genre to emerge from the ‘50s. Two of its most famous musicians were Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, who were both just getting their names out at the time. Their music is generally upbeat, featuring a solo vocalist backed by a loud snare drum and an electric guitar. Their biggest hits include “Jailhouse Rock” by Presley and “Peggy Sue” by Holly.

Still, I prefer many of the lesser-known rock bands from the era, such as the Platters, who also made their name in the early ‘50s. I’m fond of the Platters’s more creative arrangements that feature fuller orchestras in comparison to Presley and Holly’s rock groups. The Platters’s hits include “Only You (and You Alone)” and “The Great Pretender,” two very lyrical and feel-good songs. 

The Platters got me through four years of high school, and like many of these oldies, my memories of listening to them mean as much to me as their musical content. 

Generally, though, I’m not too fond of rock. Instead, I prefer the “cool jazz” and bebop styles that evolved around the same time. While rock performers do share the same slicked-up hair and conspicuous drug usage as many jazz musicians, rock and roll is too scratchy, repetitive and accented for me. In contrast, ‘50s jazz is slick and cool. It conjures up images of rainy evenings in a nightclub with a bourbon and a cigarette in hand, even though I’m not old enough to drink nor suicidal enough to smoke.

Such jazz musicians include “Yardbird” Charlie Parker, one of the most influential bebop saxophonists of all time, with hits like “Ornithology” and “Tea for Two.” Parker’s music is quick and chromatic compared to earlier jazz giants like Louis Armstrong. 

My favorite music from the ‘50s is from three jazz pianists: Errol Garner, Bill Evans and Art Tatum. Their singles include “Misty,” an original composition from Garner; “Green in Blue” from Evans; and a cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Tatum. The three pianists have wildly different styles, but they all share a moodier, introspective tone and a focus on solo-piano performances backed by a soft drum set and a walking base. It’s great music for rainy days, but I listen to it every day. 

Whatever your preference may be, the ‘50s offer music that rivals the greatest hits of today. I’m especially fond of the varied styles of jazz that evolved during that time, but there’s plenty of music to discover and enjoy, no matter your taste.