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The Top 10 R&B Hits of 1954

The top 10 best and biggest rhythm and blues hits of the postwar period


Two things were clear as rhythm and blues music -- no longer known officially as "race" music -- entered the middle of the Fifties: One, its popularity was increasing exponentially, which was why scores of white pop artists were cannibalizing the original songs in a misguided attempt to capture the teen audience, and two, that black music, whatever you called it, was becoming more upfront about sex than it had ever been. The best R&B singles of 1954 were sometimes romantic, but mostly raunchy, and yet still valuable to a record industry that didn't know what to do with them. The next year would spell it all out.

1. "The Things That I Used to Do," Guitar Slim

New Orleans' greatest blues guitarist sounded appropriately raw on this effortlessly casual ballad of romantic regret; so much so, in fact, that his distortion set a new standard for the instrument. But he turned to none other than Ray Charles, recording in NOLA at the time, to provide the backing, and Brother Ray obliged with a slightly slicker combo of New Orleans Stroll and Charles' own jazzy big-band leanings. Once it finally broke out of the South at the end of '53, it became not only the biggest national R&B hit of the year but a monumental step forward towards legitimizing straight blues for urbanites... of any color.

2. "Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)," The Penguins

Penguins lead Cleveland Duncan had a clear high tenor that "sounded white," whatever that meant, and that probably had much to do with this primitive b-side becoming doo-wop's first big crossover hit. Or it may be that the song, written by but not credited to Jesse Belvin, also featured elements of several vocal group hits on the burgeoning West Coast vocal group scene. It probably also didn't hurt that the naked simplicity of the presentation made the romance seen not only sexless but positively noble. Didn't stop the bluenoses from complaining entirely, however.

3. "Gloria," The Cadillacs

Still -- and sadly -- largely known mainly to doo-wop aficionados, this magnificent example of the style is one of the more beatific vocal group performances ever waxed, with Earl "Speedo" Carroll's astonishing and ghostly lead giving a double meaning to the title -- the subject of his adoration certainly sounds like an earthly female, but you could attach a Catholic subtext to something this sonically holy and no one would blink an eye. Perhaps it was a little too pretty for pop and R&B audiences, both of whom passed on it, but it soon worked its way to East Coast groups, who began using it as the new gold standard. In fact, it became the most-covered vocal group 45 of its day, and The Cadillacs soon rebounded with a much earthier song about Carroll's naughty nickname.

4. "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man," Muddy Waters

Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" and Muddy's own later "Mannish Boy" took their cues from this electric blues landmark, which came with a rather unique approach to sex: in an era where everyone else was practically begging for it, Waters was advertising it. The result was the first in a long line of electric blues about sexual prowess, this time tempered by Muddy's own taste for near-voodoo mythologizing. Also financial boasting: it would be hard to argue with the empowerment of a line like "I got 700 dollars / Don't you mess with me." The title is probably self-explanatory.

5. "Sh-Boom," The Chords

As pure a rock and roll record as anything that came along after Bill Haley or Elvis, "Sh-Boom" was nevertheless beaten on the charts by the Crew Cuts' infamously stiff and silly novelty version, one which inexplicably retained the suggestive lyrics ("Every time I look at you / Something is on my mind!") but replaced the amazing scatting of lead Carl Feaster with a goofy "yadadadadada" hook. Then again, the original was actually a b-side to a Patti Page cover, proving that the two Americas were on a musical collision course anyway. And neither version revealed that the onomotopoeia of the title was inspired by A-bomb testing!

6. "Work With Me, Annie," The Midnighters

Billy Ward's Dominoes had raised a number of eyebrows with the craftily coded "Sixty Minute Man," but Hank Ballard's Midnighters -- having just cast off their old moniker of The Royals -- caused an outright national scandal with their Annie saga, which began with this mega smash and which, for the first time, caused the feds at the FCC to get involved. In case Hank's almost uncomfortably pleading vocal didn't make it clear what "work" really referred to, these imps had a followup later that same year called "Annie Had a Baby." (Other naughty variations included Etta James'"Roll With Me, Henry," neutered by Georgia Gibbs as "Dance With Me Henry.") The concept of rock music as cultural menace had its roots right here.

7. "Shake, Rattle and Roll," Big Joe Turner

Big Joe had been working the jump blues style since the end of WWII, but he kept refining the formula of 1953's "Honey Hush" until he'd mathematically reduced the swinging beat to something simple enough to clap along to -- as Jerry Garcia was later to note about disco, it was a beat simple enough that white kids could dance to it. Less translatable was the sly raunch of metaphors like "I'm a one-eyed cat / Peepin' in a seafood store," which was so subtle Bill Haley's hit cover kept it in while excising lines like "Wearin' those dresses / the sun comes shining through / I can't believe my eyes / all this mess belongs to you."

8. "Hearts of Stone," The Charms

The Charms never got their proper place in the pantheon of doo-wop, at least commercially, but that may be because they were a little too ahead of their time. While this hit defines the genre, it's also catchy and non-threatening enough to appeal as pop, a lament about trying to get through to the romantically obstinate. (Or maybe the spiritually obstinate: the Jewels' original, slower and more primitive, betrayed their original incarnation as a gospel quintet in the "jubilee" style.) Radio was still segregated, however, so the Fontane Sisters got the hit with a watered-down version.

9. "Lovey Dovey," The Clovers

Steve Miller's "Really love your peaches / Wanna shake your tree" line was scandalous enough when he used it in his 1974 hit "The Joker," so you can imagine what consternation it brought to black and white authority figures of the day; as smooth a sexual proposition as was put forth by any lounge lizard, but undoubtedly one that sounded like a lot of fun. Another nail in the coffin of decency, if you were of a certain age, or prudery, if you weren't. These guys were so ahead of their time they got to "One Mint Julep," "Devil or Angel," and "Love Potion No. 9" before anyone else.

10. "Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite," The Spaniels

Jesse Belvin's "Goodnight My Love" was Dick Clark's own personal favorite for ending a sock hop, but for everyone else this doo-wop standard was the go-to song for closing out a night of rock and romance, what with its signature basso profundo opening and tasty jazzy leads bleeding through the achingly slow goodnight kiss. Once again, these guys had their thunder stolen by white pop acts looking to cash in on the new craze without a name, but that's probably also because Alan Freed, who gave it a name, refused to air the song without getting a piece of the publishing. They refused, but the song eventually found its place in history anyway.
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