50s Black Music, 23 Popular Songs

50s Black Music

50s Black music merged soul, gospel, and R&B into rock and roll, a musical style that launched the careers of such well-known musical icons as Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard.

The songs on this list represent some of the best 50s Black music and artists who influenced musical history.

“Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole

Song Year: 1951

This beautiful song appears in popular media still to this day. Nat King Cole’s rich, smooth voice made this and all his songs instantly recognizable.

Nat King Cole made musical history by becoming one of the most famous Black musical artists of all time. He released his first hit, “Sweet Lorraine,” in 1940 and never stopped making fantastic music.

During his career, Cole released over 100 songs that hit the pop charts and gave us the favorite Christmas classic, “The Christmas Song.” His 1956 variety show, “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show,” made history when it became the first television show with a Black male host.

“I Got a Woman” by Ray Charles

Song Year: 1954

This R&B and soul song became Ray Charles’ first #1 hit in the United States. Ray Charles wrote this song that eventually became favorites by such musical powerhouses as Elvis Presley and The Beatles in the 1960s.

Fellow musicians referred to this soul-music pioneer as Brother Ray. Ray Charles went blind during early childhood but didn’t let it stop him. He went on to become one of the most well-known singers in the world.

One of the most popular songs in history is his 1960s version of “Georgia on My Mind.”

“I Wanna Be Loved” by Dinah Washington

Song Year: 1950

This song is one of Dinah Washington’s most well-known. Her pure vocals and the jazz, swing, and R&B influence in this song make it memorable.

Washington had 27 top hits in the top ten of the R&B chart by 1955, but this song was her first crossover to appear on the pop chart. Dinah Washington could sing every genre and had her first top ten pop hit in 1959 with “What a Difference a Day Makes.”

“Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry

Song Year: 1958

This rock and roll classic and Berry’s collection of 50s Black music helped form the genre and earned him the nickname “The Father of Rock and Roll.”

Berry was already a favorite by the time he released this song, but it helped him become an established superstar by the end of the decade. His first hit came in 1955 with the release of “Maybellene.”

Berry earns places in all the “best of” lists and is considered one of the most influential rock and roll artists of all time.

“Roll Over Beethoven” by Chuck Berry

Song Year: 1956

Listed in the Library of Congress as the most representative Chuck Berry song, the recording features Berry’s signature rock and roll sound with upbeat music and driving guitar.

From his first hit single, “Maybellene,” to his hits of the 60s and 70s like “No Particular Place to Go” and “My Ding-A-Ling,” Berry shaped Black musical history and rock and roll. He influenced all the artists who followed in his footsteps.

“Satin Doll” by Duke Ellington

Song Year: 1953

Not all 50s black music consisted of R&B and emerging rock and roll. Duke Ellington and his orchestra topped charts with jazz and swing since their first appearance in the 1930s and still had hits in the 1950s.

“Satin Doll” was a favorite jazz piece he released in 1953. Ellington had multiple popular hits in the previous decades and regularly appeared at The Cotton Club in Harlem.

One of Ellington’s classics was a song called “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing),” which earned an induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” by Ella Fitzgerald

Song Year: 1956

Ella Fitzgerald recorded her album “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook” several years after the two met and became close friends. They performed together often at the Cotton Club.

Her recording of Ellington’s classic track is the distinctive version most people think of when they think of the song.

Known as “The First Lady of Song,” Fitzgerald enjoyed a 60-year performing career and collaborated with greats like Ellington, The Ink Spots, and Louis Armstrong.

“Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

Song Year: 1950

Fitzgerald’s song with Armstrong, “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” is her most downloaded and streamed track today. Her clear voice playing off Armstrong’s rough growl of a singing voice and sweet trumpet licks make this piece of music unforgettable.

Louis Armstrong was a singer and trumpeter who performed from the 1920s until he died in 1971. Though he’s an icon of 50s black music, he’s best known today for his 60s hits “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello, Dolly!”

“Thinking of You” by Sarah Vaughn

Song Year: 1950

Sarah Vaughn might not be as well known today as other names from the era, but she was one of the most popular 50s Black music artists. A jazz singer, Vaughn won four Grammys during her career.

Vaughn’s career began when she won the iconic amateur night contest at the Apollo Theater, and the prize included a week’s run on its stage. She collected her reward by opening for the powerhouse and now legendary Ella Fitzgerald in 1942.

She remained active in the music industry well into the 1980s.

“I Only Have Eyes For You” by The Flamingos

Song Year: 1959

This doo-wop love ballad became a favorite romance and wedding song because of the beautiful lyrics and melody. This group charted with the track, but it first appeared in the 1934 film “Dames” and the records of several artists that year.

The recording became an iconic doo-wop and signature song for the group. They often appear in lists of the most influential artists of the era.

“Searchin'” by The Coasters

Song Year: 1956

“The Coasters” had several hits in the 1950s, but this song was one of their earliest and most popular along with “Young Blood.” The band formed in 1955, only one year before they started putting out one hit after another.

“Yakety Yak” by The Coasters

Song Year: 1958

This song and “Charlie Brown” came out in the same year, continuing The Coasters’ runaway success. Other hits by this iconic group include “Poison Ivy” and “Little Egypt (Yin-Yang).”

While many people today might think of other Black groups like The Platters and The Miracles when they think of 50s Black music, The Coasters were the first group ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” by Harry Belafonte

Song Year: 1956

This song became a signature song for Belafonte, whose album “Calypso” was his breakthrough record.

You can’t talk about 50s Black music without mentioning Belafonte and his hits like this song and “Jump in the Line.”

The first Jamaican musical star in the US, he brought calypso music to the mainstream. Belafonte earned the name “King of Calypso” because of the music’s popularity. He won three Grammy Awards during his musical career.

Belafonte also earned critical acclaim as an actor, winning a Tony Award for a supporting role in the Broadway show “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac” from 1953-1954.

He starred in several films and televisions shows and won an Emmy Award for his 1959 50s Black music review “Tonight With Belafonte.”

His last single, 1967’s “A Strange Song,” peaked at #5 on the contemporary music chart.

“In the Still of the Night” by Fred Parris and The Satins

In the Still of the Night by Fred Parris and The Satins

Song Year: 1956

“In the Still of the Night” was the defining hit for The Satins, who had only formed as a band two years earlier. The recording became one of the foundational doo-wop songs of its era.

Famous American songwriter and composer Cole Porter wrote the song, and other artists such as Tommy Dorsey recorded it as early as the 1930s.

This group began with six members and went through several name changes during its run but ended up as The Five Satins. They earned an induction into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.

The Five Satins’ version of this iconic song became the definitive recording and their most well-known tune.

“Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino

Song Year: 1956

Fats Domino helped create the genre of rock and roll with songs like “Blueberry Hill.” Other artists like Gene Autry and Louis Armstrong had recorded it previously, but none became as well-loved as Domino’s version.

The recording of this 1940 song became his most popular single, though he followed it up with the next track on the list and created another classic.

“I’m Walkin'” by Fats Domino

Song Year: 1957

Another hit of 50s Black music, “I’m Walkin’,” hit #1 on the R&B and #4 on the pop chart. It helped secure Domino’s place in the annals of musical history.

Domino and frequent writing partner Dave Bartholomew wrote this song together along with several others that Domino recorded. He and Bartholomew wrote over 40 hits together just during the 1950s, including this song.

“Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard

Song Year: 1955

Little Richard’s arguably most famous song, “Tutti Frutti,” still appears frequently in popular culture like movies and television.

Little Richard is one of the most iconic artists from 50s Black music who helped create rock and roll. He never won an individual Grammy but received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1993.

Three of his songs earned places in the Grammy Hall of Fame: “Lucille,” “Long, Tall Sally,” and this track.

“Good Golly Miss Molly” by Little Richard

Song Year: 1958

Another of the most popular songs from 50s Black music is this one, which Little Richard reportedly wrote after hearing the phrase used by a DJ on the radio.

He recorded this song multiple times, and many other artists covered it, but the definitive version is the original. This track and “Tutti Frutti” listed above appear on all the “best of” lists for top songs of all time in rock and roll and any other style of music.

“There Goes My Baby” by The Drifters

Song Year: 1959

The Drifters was a 50s Black music doo-wop and R&B group that rose to fame in the 1950s and 1960s.

This song is one of the most famous from their first decade. Their best-known hits from the 1960s include songs still played today like “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “Under the Boardwalk.”

“Fool, Fool, Fool” by The Clovers

Song Year: 1951

This song was one of the earliest hits for the Black R&B and doo-wop group The Clovers. They had several hits during the 50s, including their 1959 release of “Love Potion No. 9.”

The group won many awards and recognitions, including an induction into the Doo-Wop Hall of Fame. They’re also in the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and the R&B Hall of Fame.

“The Great Pretender” by The Platters

Song Year: 1955

Samuel “Buck” Ram wrote this song and many other hits for The Platters. Ram wrote songs for other top Black artists like The Coasters and Ike and Tina Turner but managed and produced The Platters.

This song hit #1 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart and was far from their only hit.

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by The Platters

Song Year: 1958

One of the most enduring love songs from the 1950s by any artist is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by The Platters. This beautiful track is used in movies, TV, and advertising often. If you listen to it, you’ll understand why.

The Platters had many other hits many people will recognize. “Only You (And You Alone)” is another top song of theirs.

This Black group was the first group in the rock and roll era with an album that reached the top ten in the US.

“Every Day I Have the Blues” by B. B. King

Song Year: 1955

This song was one of B.B. King’s top hits in the 1950s. King was an icon of not just 50s Black music but music in general.

His method of playing blues guitar has influenced everyone who came after him, leading him to frequently be called the “most important guitarist in the history of music.”

This song is blues with a soul sound and gospel vibe, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. King played all the genres with equal skill and managed guitar solos with his unique style of playing that few others could match.

This music legend hailed from a cotton plantation in Mississippi and began playing music at church. More than being known for any single song, B.B. King is known for his influence on guitarists. His style changed the sound of R&B and rock and roll.

In 1987, King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He released 42 studio albums, the last in 2008, seven years before his death.

Best 50s Black Music, Final Thoughts

The 1950s produced some of the most memorable music of all time, including music by Black artists.

Jazz, swing, soul, gospel, R&B, and rock and roll music all benefited from the Black artists who gave us classic hits and genre-bending music.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this sampling of the best 50s black music and keep exploring these artists’ catalogs for more fun and inspirational songs.

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