The 50´s: The Decade, The Music, The Playlist!

As our regular readers will already know, we here at MVD love to dig through the history of pop music in all its forms and we love to build playlists on Spotify too. And it is with this in mind that we hit upon the idea of digging back to the birth of rock and roll and moving forward to compile decade-by-decade playlists of the music we consider to be the most important and representative of each era, and then alongside that we wanted to try and provide some historical context.

There will inevitably be stuff we´ve missed out and you may well read this and think to yourself “but what about that record or that singer???” and if that´s the case we would love to hear from you! And of course, if you have any other thoughts or opinions or general musings then please feel free to comment and let us know! Anyway, without further ado we would like to present the first in the series: The 50´s.

Culture and Film

The concept of the “teenager” was a concept that took root in the fifties, a consequence of the second world war and the desire to live life to the fullest. Suddenly, there was a defined new market out there. Books, Clothes, Movies and Music for teens were a developing niche.

90's teenagers. Even then Coca-Cola was the drink of choice
90’s teenagers. Even then Coca-Cola was the drink of choice.

Television (which was introduced in the 1940s) became a must have object in every household and the “Golden Age of Television” took place. It started defining the way people saw themselves and the world around them. In art, abstract expressionism (Pollock and De Kooning) were setting new aesthetic models.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday
Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday

Movies were enormously popular with stars such as John Wayne, James Cagney, Judy Garland, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn all being household names, and films such as On The Waterfront, The Bridge On The River Kwai, Twelve Angry Men, Singing In The Rain, All About Eve and Roman Holiday being amongst the most notable.

James Dean in the iconic Rebel Without A Cause.
James Dean in the iconic Rebel Without A Cause.

Directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Japan´s Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini – who won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film on two occasions – were at their creative peaks. Hitchcock in particular was enormously popular and films like Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and Vertigo were box-office smashes. The young actor James Dean made just three films, all as the leading man, before tragically dying in a car crash. The films he made, particularly Rebel Without A Cause, would go on to become classics cementing Dean´s reputation for all-time.

The inimitable Alfred Hitchcock
The inimitable Alfred Hitchcock

Technology: music, recordings, studios, radio evolution

The decade saw a huge growth in independent music radio stations, particularly in the USA, and many of these stations began to play records by both black and white artists. One particular DJ was Alan Freed who would play country, blues and R&B records back to back and used an already extant phrase ´rock and roll´ to describe his playlist, a phrase he would later be credited with popularising.

The original Rock n' Roll DJ Alan Freed
The original Rock n’ Roll DJ Alan Freed

The 7″ 45rpm record became the most popular format for music buyers and jukebox lovers. Techniques for recording in stereo were pioneered and towards the end of the decade stereo LP´s began to be issued. In addition to this studios like the famous Sun studio had began experimenting with reverb and echo effects, most famously heard on Elvis Presley´s ´Heartbreak Hotel´. The solid-bodied electric guitar, pioneered by people like Les Paul in the 1930´s and 40´s became hugely popular and in 1952 the iconic Gibson Les Paul went on sale for the first time followed 2 years later by the equally legendary Fender Stratocaster.

Buddy Holly with his guitar of choice, the Fender Stratocaster
Buddy Holly with his guitar of choice, the Fender Stratocaster

Global politics and events

The world was recovering from WWII, particularly Europe where free market capitalism was embraced by many nations, although there was still a divide between these countries and those aligned with the Soviet state; this division became infamously known as the ´Iron Curtain´ with Germany being divided by it in to two states. The beginning of the space race started when the Russians launched Sputnik. Nuclear tests started to take place.

The Korean war took place from 1950 to 1953. The Cuban Revolution happened with Fidel Castro becoming the leader of the first communist state in the west.Castro and his friend and fellow Revolutionary Che Guavara would become poster boys for the socialist cause in the west.

Fidel Castro, a man who made cigar smoking seem very cool
Fidel Castro, a man who made cigar smoking seem very cool

What became known as the Suez Crisis happened when an alliance lead by Great Britain and France invaded Egypt over the nationalization of the Suez canal. The alliance was forced in to a humiliating withdrawal after the USA and USSR showed rare solidarity in objecting to the invasion.


At the end of the Second World War it was all about pop music and vocal driven groups. In the 40´s the orchestra was the predominant feature while in the 1950´s it became about the singers and the songs and the emotions they expressed.

Frank Sinatra being very, very cool
Frank Sinatra being very, very cool

Frank Sinatra, Tonny Bennet, Rosemary Clooney, Patty Page, Dean Martin, Eddie Fisher, Doris Day and Bing Crosby were dominating the charts early in the decade. Despite this the 50’s would become known for being the decade that gave us Rock n’ Roll! Artists like Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran would become huge stars and legendary names. People like Berry and Holly also pioneered the artist-as-songwriter trend that would influence the likes of The Beatles in to doing the same in the next decade.


Little Richard, one of the most flamboyant showmen of his generation
Little Richard, one of the most flamboyant showmen of his generation

Country music had famous figures like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash and it was the golden age for jazz with artists like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday among others.

Legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane
Legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane

And finally…. The playlist!!!

5 pf our favourite songs from our playlist

1. Rocket 88 -Jackie Brenston & His High Delta Cats:

Recorded in March 1951, the record is considered to be the first rock and roll record. Brenston was Ike Turne´s saxophonist and the Delta Cats didn’t´t really exist. It was inspired by Brenston´s recent discovery of the joys of the vehicle “Oldsmobile 88” and the song “Cadillac Boogie” by Jimmy Liggins.

2. So What- Miles Davis.

Davis is considered on of the most influential musicians of all time. A trumpeter, band leader and composer he was a creative genius, always innovating and pushing limits. You can see that through out his prolific body of work. We chose the first track on his Iconic album Kind of Blue. The album is the best selling jazz album of all time and one of the most influential albums ever made. The album was made with almost no rehearsal, and the musicians, who included fellow Jazz luminaries John Coltrane, “Cannonball Adderly and Jimmy Cobb, were told to improvise as they pleased.  The song is the best example of a modal track (music that uses musical modes rather than standard chord progressions). Dennis Hopper says Davis named the song after talking to him about intellectual issues and Hopper replying “So what?”.

3. Cold, Cold Heart – Hank Williams.

Released in 1951 as a b-side it would quickly become a Disc Jockey favorite and one of 11 number 1 hits for one country music´s biggest stars, as well as a Billboard number 1 for the crooner Tony Bennett in the same year. The song is typical of the ´heartbreak´ songs Williams became famous for and which would sometimes see him referred to as a ´country-blues´ artist. Unfortunately Williams would die in 1953 at the age of just 29 from problems related to alcohol and pills. His legacy lives on though with his songs being covered by numerous artists and his status as a musical legend ensured.

4. You Make Me Feel so Young- Frank Sinatra

The song was composed by Josef Myrow ( who wrote his most famous hits in the 1940´s and 1950´s). Sinatra released the song in his tenth studio album Songs for Swingin´ Lovers, released in March 1956. It was his fourth album with Capitol Records.  Sinatra fans think this is his best or second best album (to “Wee Small Hours”) and many experts consider it to be the greatest album of all time. To this day Sinatra remains a hugely popular and influential singer and entertainer.

5. Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley

More than any other figure, it was Elvis ´The Pelvis´ Presley who helped popularize rock and roll, ensuring it became more than just a gimmick. The King´s first single was also a unique and startling record for the time, with it´s use of reverb and stark moody feel. Released in January 1956 it was number one on the Billboard charts for 7 weeks and was the first of a string of hits that would establish Presley as the most popular star in the world and one of the Twentieth century´s most prominent cultural icons.

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