It all started in the spring.
I was in high school and it was the early 1990’s. I was on lunch – or maybe I was supposed to be in class – and I was sitting in my 1983 Ford Escort playing with the radio dial. I was growing tired of the Top 40 radio of the time – one of the last current hits I remember liking was “Cream” by Prince – and, looking back, this was the time that I began to disengage from “current” music. I always say that the Black Crowes were the last new band I liked and that 1992 is basically the cut-off point for me.
Scanning the AM stations, I remember stumbling on what I assume was a “beautiful music” station or at least I heard a song that contained sweeping strings akin to Les Baxter or other of his ilk. Even though I was a classic rock-and-earlier guy at the time, I recall being momentarily mesmerized by these sounds. It’s a topic for another article but here may have been sown the seeds of my future embrace of lounge and easy listening. Anyways, as I turned the dial I came upon another magical sound. I wish I could remember the song but it was an “oldie” and the station turned out to be Oldies 1150 out of Hamilton, Ontario.
By this point in my life, I was already well aware of the rock & roll and pop sounds of the Fifties and Sixties. But it was an epiphany of sorts when I realized that I could, through this radio station, have access to this great music 24/7. I decided to leave the dial where it was and Oldies 1150 became my new station.
A couple of years later I was living on my own in Apartment Zero and by this time, I had made another startling discovery – my hometown had its own oldies station, Oldies 1090. This station was on in my bachelor apartment all the time and on a Saturday night when I would cram a couple dozen people into my small living space the oldies were the soundtrack. People that didn’t know me well were at first surprised but got quickly on board.
Additionally, I frequently called into the station to request songs or try to win prizes. Often I would correctly identify the title or artist and win something like a KFC family meal – huge for a poor guy like me living on his own. Often people I knew would later tell me they had heard me on the radio. One time I had won a party size pizza. With an apartment full of people on a Saturday night, I got an idea; “hey, gang, why don’t we take up a collection and order a pizza?”. I collected money from everybody – and then called to order my free pizza. Legend.
I fell in love with the star DJ on Oldies 1090, Dave Schneider, “Your Friendly Neighbourhood Schneider-man”. Once when I called in and was on the air with him I closed by saying “every night before I go to bed, I thank God for Dave Schneider”. They ended up using that clip on a station ID. Years later when I was about to move out of town, I called one last time and talked to Schneider. I told him I was the guy who thanks God for him and he laughed and told me that his co-workers always teased him about that. I got a bit serious with him and told him I was moving away and that I would miss the station. I asked if he would play one last song for me and he obliged, bidding me a fond farewell. He played the Beach Boys’ “Sail On, Sailor” for me.
Later in the digital age, I discovered TuneIn Radio and the plethora of stations available there. Surely, I thought, they’ll have some oldies stations. Many “oldies” stations, though, played A LOT of Eighties music and while I love the music of that decade, I also want it to be separate from my Fifties music. When I instead searched for “doo wop music”, I discovered the magnificent The Doo Wop Express. Oregon broadcaster Ron Norwood was the man behind this wonderful station that played rock & roll and R&B from the early Fifties to the early Sixties with the odd “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” thrown in. The station was perfect and I connected with Mr. Norwood and spent a few years writing the oldies blog for his site. When he decided to retire, my wife and I lost the greatest radio station I’ve ever heard.
Then I was forced to buy a new-to-me car and this came equipped with Sirius XM radio and a free trial. I thrilled to the sounds of 50s on 5, 60s on 6, Siriusly Sinatra, Soul Town and other stations. When it came time to pay for the service, I did for a time. And then one day I looked at my music library. When was I listening to the music I had collected? If I’m paying for Sirius, then it will be on all the time so I get my money’s worth. Eventually, Sirius and I parted ways and, happily, I was able to find comparable stations on free internet radio. I ain’t no Rockefeller, as I always say.
Now for some Canadian Content. In the Great White North, many of us are customers of (victims of?) Rogers and one thing I’ll give them. As a Rogers customer, you have access to Stingray Music, a network available on your TV and on the app that contains many good stations. Their Jukebox Oldies, Classic Soul/R&B, Country Classics and Easy Listening are on often in our home.
I have provided this history of “my life with oldies radio” for a purpose. I have listened to many, many different oldies stations – on the actual radio, through subscription services and through apps. I have noticed a great difference and great similarities in their playlists. Back in Apartment Zero, Oldies 1090 had a certain playlist and when I hear those songs today they take me right back; “oh, that’s an Apartment Zero song”, I’ll say with a sigh. The Doo Wop Express gave me all the essentials with the odd song I’d never heard before like Dickey Lee’s “Patches”. Another internet station I tried, The Doo Wop Cafe, played the deepest of cuts. While I respected them playing songs I’d never heard before, I also missed my favourites. 50s on 5 played all the greatest hits as does my current go-to, Jukebox Oldies.
Through all the years and all the stations, I’ve realized that their are “customary” oldies. Not only are these songs regularly played on any and all self-respecting oldies stations, but they are songs that best represent the music of the era. When even the dumbest people of this day and age are asked about this music, most all will be able to name – or at least recognize – certain songs. These are songs that have lived on in one way or another; through use in commercials or on movie soundtracks. When advertising people or Hollywood music supervisors want to conjure up a certain time, they know to access a specific group of songs.
What follows is one definitive list of the 25 pillars of rock & roll and oldies radio. These songs are the established classics, the staples of this golden era. “Pillar” refers to something that holds something up and “staple” to something that holds things together. Appropriate adjectives for these great songs. Funny but when I look back on the songs of my youth, these are the ones I think of – as if I was born in 1942 instead of 1972. This may be the first of a few lists of these songs that may not be the greatest or most influential but I argue that they are among the most definitive of the era. Let’s identify and celebrate these songs. Songs that you are so familiar with but that you never get tired of hearing.
Earth Angel – the Penguins (1954) // Containing all the elements of what would soon become doo-wop. If any early song from the era is universally cherished, it is “Earth Angel”.
Only You (and You Alone) – the Platters (June, 1955) // Few vocal groups can rival the Platters and the golden sound of unparalled lead singer Tony Williams.
Maybellene – Chuck Berry (July, 1955) // Chuck’s first hit is still his most significant. It sits at the very cornerstone of rock & roll. Chuck’s guitar sound, his supreme lyricism with its youthful, muscular subject matter make it a seminal recording.
In the Still of the Night – the Five Satins (1956) // Perhaps the finest of all rock & roll ballads. This one hit from the Five Satins elevates them to a lofty perch in oldies radio. In this song, divine romance and depth of feeling come through the mists and lead singer Fred Parris and his boys seem to know; there is authenticity in this gem. It is real.
Come Go With Me – the Del-Vikings (January, 1957) // Pittsburgh’s Del-Vikings were an early inter-racial group at a time when that wasn’t a thing. Few other tracks exemplify the joy to be found in group singing – the simple but compelling arrangement here is delightful.
Get a Job – the Silhouettes (November, 1957) // Yet another cool vintage thing to come from Pennsylvania, the Silhouettes wrote this iconic song together. Few songs are more emblematic of the 1950s.
Who’s Sorry Now – Connie Francis (November, 1957) // A standard penned in 1923, Concetta claimed this as her own when she took it to Number 4 where it peaked in the new year of ’58. Few chicks are more “Fifties” than Connie.
Bye Bye Love – the Everly Brothers (March, 1957) // The prototype pop duo, the Everlys are the quintessential purveyors of Fifties country pop and “Bye Bye Love” – with “Wake Up Little Susie” – may be their most recognizable recording.
At the Hop – Danny and the Juniors (December, 1957) // One of the most popular songs of 1958, the Juniors sang this for Dick Clark when it was still called “Do the Bop”. We have Dick to thank for his suggestion that the boys make a change. “Let’s all do the bop” became “Let’s go to the hop” and the rest, as they say…
Splish Splash – Bobby Darin (May, 1958) // Bobby’s break-out single represents maybe the very first blue-eyed soul record. Darin created a stellar rhythm & blues record that had many jocks thinking the singer was black. Get the full story on Bobby here.
Venus – Frankie Avalon (February, 1959) // Frankie Avalon stands head and shoulders above the rest of the gang who filled the void. When the original rock & rollers all fell out of favour for one reason or another, various Bobby’s and Frankie’s took their place. Many were disposable but not this Philly boy. Click this link for a career overview of Avalon.
I Only Have Eyes for You – the Flamingos (April, 1959) // Here is another rock & roll and doo-wop standard that started life as part of the Great American Songbook. Chicago’s Flamingos may be known for just this recording but it is absolute magic in their hands. The guitar strums to start the song and that pulsing piano throughout. Dream time. Perfect.
I’m Sorry – Brenda Lee (1960) // Little Miss Dynamite got started early. All of 15 when “I’m Sorry” hit the charts, Brenda Lee would chart more songs in the 1960s than any other female artist. A true survivor, she is still going as of this writing. Learn all about her career by reading my article here.
Runaway – Del Shannon (February, 1961) // What can be said of this classic among classics? What song depicts this era better than this one? Is there an “oldie” more easily identifiable than this one? Read more below.
Stand By Me – Ben E. King (April, 1961) // Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller came up with this gentle pop gem. The shuffling bass intro and Ben’s “When the night — has come…” is well known the world over.
Runaround Sue – Dion (September, 1961) // In terms of sheer cool, few in the early Sixties could beat Dion DiMucci. His songs “The Wanderer” and particularly “Runaround Sue” have a rare status in pop music history. Read more here.
Duke of Earl – Gene Chandler (November, 1961) // Few songs become so popular that the artist adopts the title as his name. “Duke, duke, duke, duke of Earl, duke, duke…”
Breaking Up is Hard to Do – Neil Sedaka (1962) // Few artists were more prolific or have been more resilient than Neil Sedaka. A pioneer of double-tracking, he sings wonderful harmony with himself here.
My Guy – Mary Wells (March, 1964) // The sound of Motown is at once alone and apart and at the same time interwoven into the soundtrack of the 1960s. Mary didn’t fulfill her promise but this song can be heard right at this minute on an oldies station somewhere in the world.
Do Wah Diddy Diddy – Manfred Mann (July, 1964) // The British Invasion is a beast unto itself and I generally keep discussions of this sub genre separate from old-time rock & roll. But this sound was everywhere in the mid-Sixties, particularly on AM radio. “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” is one of the most recognizable of early English rock.
(Oh) Pretty Woman – Roy Orbison (August, 1964) // This song and it’s singer are what the oldies are all about. Read about the Big O here.
My Girl – the Temptations (December, 1964) // David Ruffin and Co. carried the standard for Berry Gordy’s label through the decade of the Sixties. Along with the next artist on this list.
I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) – the Four Tops (April, 1965) // The Four Tops placed the words “Sugar pie honey bunch…” into millions of ears, minds and hearts. Get the skinny on the origins of Motown with my article.
Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me – Mel Carter (June, 1965) // At mid-decade, Mel Carter offered this tune that would have sounded as much at home in 1960 as it would in 1970. Absolutely timeless.
I Got You (I Feel Good) – James Brown (October, 1965) // Brown’s strutting audacity is the stuff of legend. And his first trademark song is without a doubt one of the first pillars of oldies radio and soul music.