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Top 10 Oldies of 1959

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This list was compiled by me, your Oldies Guide at About.com, from various sources -- chart positions, sales figures from time of release to the present day, critical standing, and historical importance. Only 45 rpm singles that peaked on the pop Top 40 in 1959 are eligible; artists are only allowed one entry per year in order to give a more balanced view of the cultural landscape. (Click on "compare prices" to hear a sample of each song, compare prices on its CD, and buy it if you like!)

1. "What'd I Say (Parts 1 and 2)," Ray Charles

Atlantic 2031 (June 1959)
recorded 18 February 1959, New York, NY

Yes, this epochal recording -- considered the first "soul" song for its mixture of churchy call-and-repsonse and bluesy couplets -- was created exactly as you saw it in the biopic Ray. In fact, the original recording was even longer than this seven-minute wonder, which was then snipped in half. There's a shorter edit of the two-parter out there, too, but a song this primal is like sex: you need to make it last as long as you can.

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2. "There Goes My Baby," The Drifters

Atlantic 2025 (May 1959) b/w "Oh My Love"
recorded 6 March 1959, New York, NY

One of the strangest and yet most breathtaking productions in rock history, this number -- another important soul milestone, but more urbane and filled with Latin inflections and off-tune tympani -- caused Atlantic's Jerry Wexler to threaten to throw the master out the window. There's no denying the dizzying romantic swell of the orchestration, however, which would guide singer Ben E. King through his own solo career.

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3. "Donna / La Bamba," Ritchie Valens

Del-Fi 4110 (17 November 1958)
recorded October 1958, Los Angeles, CA

Hero of the Pacoima barrio Ritchie Valens died not long after this two-sided smash had peaked, but it was enough to guarantee him a place in the rock and roll pantheon, and not just because of the Winter Dance Party, either. One of the genre's most innocently and emotionally raw ballads backed by the song that practically invented Tex-Mex, a rockin' rendition of a Latin standard. A continuing inspiration to la raza rockers.

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4. "I Only Have Eyes For You," The Flamingos

End 1046 (May 1959) b/w "At The Prom"
recorded March 1959, New York, NY

It was this doo-wop group's manager who pushed them into doing standards like this one, which had already been a hit twenty years earlier for Eddy Duchin. But slowed down and graced with an frekaishly ghostly arrangment that still defies explanation, it was transformed into a new standard, a transmission from some plush, ethereal make-out valhalla where romance isn't just a nice idea, it's a sensual experience all its own.

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5. "Lonely Teardrops," Jackie Wilson

Brunswick 55105 (15 October 1958) b/w "In The Blue Of The Evening"
recorded August 1958, Detroit, MI

Jackie Wilson was a soul prophet without a country, the kind of man who could box by day and belt out "Danny Boy" by night. But there were times he wasn't overwhelmed by his own love of schmaltz, and this was one of them. Written by Motown's Berry Gordy, it balanced pop sophistication and soul's unbridled bursts of joy perfectly, the ideal setting for one of rock's most thrilling instruments.

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6. "I Want to Walk You Home / I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Some Day," Fats Domino

Imperial 5606 (July 1959)
recorded 18 June 1959, New Orleans, LA

Fats was still on a roll as rock's original gods perished all around him, quietly cranking out hit after massive hit. This was one of his best bargains, a deceptively simple pledge that somehow spoke volumes (a la the Beatles' later "I Want To Hold Your Hand") backed with a remake of Bobby Mitchell's rather wan protest that showed just how genius Fats' Creole phrasing really was. (Not to mention the sheer snap of his backup band.)

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7. "Sea Cruise," Frankie Ford

Ace 554 (April 1959) b/w "Roberta"
recorded March 1959, New Orleans, LA

Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns had already recorded this as the followup to their smash "Don't You Just Know It," but singer Bobby Marchan's vocal was problematic, so the relatively-unknown white boy from Gretna was given a stab at it. Needless to say, it worked, although the Clowns balked at the opening sound effects, all out of key with the actual song. In the end, it didn't matter much: a rock classic was born.

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8. "Almost Grown / Little Queenie," Chuck Berry

Chess 1722 (April 1959)
recorded 17 February 1959, Chicago, IL

Chuck Berry was on such a roll by 1959 that it's hard to pick just one classic 45 from this twelvemonth, especially since he'd go on to wax "Back In The U.S.A." b/w "Memphis, Tennessee" later in the year. However, this single was the slightly bigger hit, and featured the Moonglows on backup vocal. Which one you prefer has much to do with whether you identify more with the proud American in Berry or the eternal teenager in him.

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9. "Kansas City," Wilbert Harrison

Fury 1023 (April 1959) b/w "Listen My Darling"
recorded February 1959, New York, NY

A recipe for tranforming black tradition into the best kind of pop product. Take an ancient blues already morphed by R&B, pass it through the loving hands of Lieber and Stoller, slap it on an urbane "walking" shuffle, add sax, and get Wilbert Harrison to bring it home with his sophisticated yet worldly mojo. The result is a "one hit wonder" that, like so many, is practically a part of American folklore now.

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10. "Sleep Walk," Santo & Johnny

Canadian-American 103 (27 July 1959) b/w "All Night Diner"
recorded April 1959, New York, NY

His brother Johnny plays on it, and his sister (mother?) Ann gets partial credit, but this is Santo Farina's moment, as befits a man who started out playing acoustic axes like steel ones before receiving Shaolin-style training in the art of Hawaiian guitar. The result is a wonder that fits its title like a sleepy hand in a velvet glove, quite possibly rock's most enduring fantasia of an instrumental.

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