As a 60s kid, I always considered the 50s as my mum’s and dad’s and older sisters’ music. To me, dull and lifeless. Things like “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window” was about as Rock n Roll as they got. By the way, the singer who sang that song will actually be covered a little later.
But there must have been great singers in the 50s from every musical genre. Whatever those genres might have been. I might be old, but I’m not that old. So, I have had to work a little harder than usual to answer the question, “Who were the most famous singers of the 1950s?”
What many people, myself included, didn’t realize was that, back then, the BBC had banned much of what was going on with music in the 1950s. They preferred the British listening public to get a daily dose of news, light entertainment, general information, and children’s programs.
- The UK Were A Bit Behind
- Top 21 Most Famous Singers Of The 1950s
- Want to Learn About Famous Musicians from Other Decades?
- Most Famous Singers Of The 1950s – Final Thoughts
The UK Were A Bit Behind
The result was that the Rock n Roll revolution spreading across America didn’t get here till much later. As a matter of fact, it was all but banished. Little bits got through, occasionally. And we were “allowed” to buy the records. If we could get them, that is.
But, in truth…
It was impossible to stop it completely, and soon, we were all aware of the names. And those names, influenced many young children in the UK to pick up a guitar for the first time. I even know a few lads who will testify to that.
By 1957, we had programs like ‘The Six-Five Special’ playing Rock n Roll. That coincided with the real explosion of the music and the artists that played it.
So, let’s find Doc Brown, hop in the DeLorean, and have him take us back to the 50s. Back to the “time of innocence” to remind ourselves what was going on musically and who was doing it.
Top 21 Most Famous Singers Of The 1950s
I have put this little fireball of a singer first because one of her songs was the first Rock n Roll song I ever heard. She recorded “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” when she was just 13. Born in Georgia in the last years of World War II, she started singing at the age of five.
Brenda was moved into the hectic music world at a young age and somehow survived. She had multiple hit records with songs like “Sweet Nothings.” She was as popular in the UK as much as she was in America and often toured across the Atlantic.
One time, she even recorded in London, backed by a young session guitarist and future guitar legend, Jimmy Page. Currently, she has sold over 100 million records and is still going. Good on you, “Little Miss Dynamite.”
Here is one American artist who did get through the limited “musical allowances” across the pond. He had some notable successes early in the 50s.
Possibly because they were songs like “My Truly, Truly Fair” and “There’s a Pawnshop on a Corner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” The latter is not unlike “Doggie in the Window” in its style. And “Pretty Little Black-Eyed Susie” was #2 in the UK.
Finally, the song my sister played to death on our little Dansette Junior record player, “She Wears Red Feathers,” which got to #1 in the UK.
A glimpse of what was to come…
It was 1956 when he really pulled one out with his version of “Singing The Blues.” It didn’t sound like it, but “Singing The Blues” was Rock n Roll all dressed up for Sunday dinner, and it reached #1 in the UK and America.
Some great songs from a man that moved us toward the serious stuff still yet to come. If there ever was a very well known 1950s singer, Guy Mitchell was it.
Bill Haley and his Comets arrived in the mid-50s. First, with “Rock Around the Clock.” But, it was the follow-up, “Shake, Rattle, And Roll,” that made UK music history.
It was a cover of a song by Big Joe Turner and became the first Rock n Roll song to enter the British charts in 1954. The days of relaxed Pop and Soft Jazz were taking a back seat. The doggie had gone for a walk.
Haley had a solid musical upbringing…
His British mother was a classical pianist, and his father played mandolin and banjo. An operation on his eye that went wrong caused him to be blind in his left eye all his life.
The story goes that he created the “kiss-curl” haircut to take attention away from it. It didn’t seem to hinder him that much. The success carried on, but personal problems with alcohol affected him.
His position as the preeminent force in early Rock n Roll faded quite quickly as others overtook him. He was already in his 30s in the mid-50s, and the competition was mostly 18 or 19 years old. Nevertheless, his position in the history of 50s Rock n Roll is firmly established.
Those days of relaxed Pop and Soft Jazz I mentioned were personified by many. But one of the better-known exponents was Dean Martin. He was known as the “King of Cool.” And he is one of the most famous singers of the 1950s.
He had a certain style that just seemed to survive. And, even during The Beatles era, when most fell away, he was still there with songs like “Gentle on My Mind.”
He had started as a nightclub singer taking his style from Bing Crosby. He appeared in films, mainly with Jerry Lewis, and became a member of the inner circle that surrounded Frank Sinatra.
During the early to mid-50s…
He had plenty of success with songs like “Memories Are Made Of This” in 1955. And “That’s Amore” from a year earlier.
A career that started with his first recording in 1946 lasted well into the mid-90s. Dino Paul Crocetti, as he was born, did pretty well for himself.
Harry Belafonte was another singer who, in some respects, began to see his career fade in the mid-50s. He had been brought up in Jamaica after being born in New York. As a result, his music often had that ‘calypso-like’ feel.
He had success with songs like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and his million-selling album from 1956, Calypso.
His career diversified from films to the stage to being a preeminent Civil Rights Activist. He received many awards and honors for the latter. His music during the 50s was appreciated in all quarters. And the popularity of those songs remains today. At 95 years he is still with us and still campaigning.
Eartha Kitt was an interesting character. Maybe she wasn’t a musical icon of the 50s as some here are. But, she did have some successful records in the early 50s and was an iconic figure of the time.
She could sing, we are told, in ten different languages and recorded songs like “C’est Si Bon” and “I Want to Be Evil.” And, most famously, the brilliantly sung and acted “Just an Old Fashioned Girl.”
She reveled in creating this mysterious, voluptuous, “don’t come too close” image and likened herself to a black cat. Plus, she worked in films and theater and even appeared in “Batman” in 1967.
Orson Welles called her “the most exciting woman in the world”…
However, she fell out of favor when delivering a tirade against the Vietnam war at a White House dinner in 1968. She also became a committed Civil Rights Activist during the 60s.
In the 2000s, she found a completely new set of fans when she provided the voice for the villain in the Disney film, The Emperor’s New Groove.
When we think about 50s music, The Everly Brothers are one of the acts that automatically come to your mind. A string of hits through the second half of the 50s and into the 60s guaranteed them a place in music history.
From “Bye Bye Love” in 1957 and “Wake up Little Susie” to “All I Have to Do Is Dream” and “Bird Dog.” There was a never-ending run of one great song after another. In many ways, it was these songs that brought the “innocent” side of 50s Rock and Roll over the airwaves.
A side of it that was somehow acceptable…
They created an image that they and their music always seemed to live up to. Even during their acrimonious split, it was somehow still evident.
And the reunion they made in London at the Royal Albert Hall in 1983 brought it all back to those who experienced it all the first time around.
Another who personified the early Rock n Roll area was Elvis Presley. So, let’s create a little ripple here. I don’t agree he was the best singer of the 50s. In my view, there was at least one better, but more of that later.
He was perhaps more known for his on-stage antics in the 50s than anything else. It is fair to say the unsuspecting public might not have been ready for him.
But they got him anyway, and he became a legend…
He had released some singles before, but it was “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956 that brought him to everyone’s attention. That opened the floodgates for “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Blue Suede Shoes.”
There isn’t enough room here just to list the four years of the 50s he was around. His voice at the time was unique. His stage presence could be captivating. He became a representation of the rebellious youth culture starting to emerge.
It is not possible to overestimate his importance to 50s music. Not the best, but easily one of the most famous singers of the 1950s.
It might seem like it was all America, but it wasn’t. Over the pond, things were stirring. Sir Thomas Hicks, or Tommy Steele as we knew him, became a teen idol in the UK.
He emerged onto the scene in the 50s, being told that the British couldn’t be music stars. He proved that wrong very quickly. Tommy was “discovered” singing in the coffee shops in Soho, London. He had success with “Singing the Blues” in 1957 and “Come On, Let’s Go.”
Tommy suffered the same fate as everyone else when those four 50s party-poopers from Liverpool turned up.
So, he went into the theater…
There he carved out another successful career on stage in musicals and as an actor. His first acting role was in the musical film Tommy the Toreador. From that film came a novelty hit, “Little White Bull.”
Since his musical career wound down, he has written a historical book about World War Two, and children’s books. He is a respected sculptor and, up to 2008, was still directing theater productions. Undoubtedly one of the best British rock and rollers.
Harry Webb, or Cliff Richard as we know him, might have ended up the singer of Pop ballads and Pop songs. But he started with a curled lip and the look of an angry young man. He arrived musically with his song “Move It,” released in 1958, which went to #2 in the UK.
He was backed by The Drifters, not the American ones, who changed personnel and became The Shadows. Their first #1 came in 1959 with “Living Doll.”
He has notched up over sixty Top 10 singles in the UK and scored #1 in five different decades. There have been films, the Eurovision Song Contest, and endless albums. And he is still recording and performing in 2023.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Little Richard exploded onto the 50s music scene in 1955 with “Tutti Frutti.” The man was a force of nature in a suit with a piano. He did as much as anyone to shape the future of rock n roll and its legacy. There followed an endless line of successful records, including “Long Tall Sally” in 1956.
He quit music for a while for his Christian beliefs but returned with an explosive tour of Europe. He was always one to court controversy but seemed to ride over the top of it all. Little Richard influenced many people, including The Beatles, through to Deep Purple, Motorhead, and AC/DC.
Someone once said to me, “He knew three chords, created a song, and then 20 others all the same.” There might be some truth in that, but what a song and what a 12-bar riff it was.
“Maybelline” was his first real success in 1955. But, it was what followed for what he is best known for. In 1956, “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Then, in 1957, we got “Johnny B. Goode.”
There was never a dull moment when Chuck was around, on stage or off. Prison, sexual abuse claims, drugs, and alcohol, he went through it all. A man who contributed so much to Rock n Roll. And today, his songs are still played by everyone.
Back To The Future?
I sat with a musician many years ago, and he made a passing reference to Chuck Berry, which surprised me. I just passed it off, even though he was a respected musician. But, it reared its head in the film Back To The Future.
Michael J Fox takes to the stage and plays. Chuck’s cousin in the film, Marvin, phones him. “Chuck… that new sound you’re looking for, listen to this”. It made me smile; I wonder if that actually happened. So, listen to Louis Jordan and “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman.”
Time and space are running out, and there are so many we haven’t even mentioned yet. Let’s give you a few names and a song that they recorded that made an impact.
He did lots of covers of the early Rock n Roll songs. And Elvis Presley opened for him at early 50s concerts. But, he is best known for his ballads like “April Love.”
A more traditional Pop and Country singer. The one who gave us that Rock classic “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window.” I jest, it was a popular single at the time.
Nat King Cole
Not much needs to be said about the great Nat ‘King’ Cole. A jazz and R&B singer, he turned that voice to just about anything. But, he is remembered for two great songs, the 1956 version of “When I Fall In Love” and “Mona Lisa” from 1950.
Born in Cardiff in South Wales, Dame Shirley was another singer who had a stellar career. From singles like “Kiss Me Honey Honey Kiss Me” to singing the themes from the James Bond films in the 60s and 70s. Specifically, “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever.”
Jerry Lee Lewis
Another wild man. Jerry was that and more. He hammered a piano like very few others. He did Country as well as Rock n Roll. But, he may be most remembered for “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and, of course, “Great Balls of Fire.”
And so, moving towards the end now and to one of music’s greats, if not Rock and Roll’s greatest. We are left wondering what he would have achieved if he had lived.
A man whose influence is still heavily felt today. He arrived on the scene with “That’ll Be The Day” and followed that with an endless stream of great tracks. Some of those include:
- “Peggy Sue.”
- “Oh Boy!”
- “Rave On.”
- “True Love Ways.”
Here is a man that wrote the songs as well as sang them. He played good guitar and didn’t just have it slung over his neck for effect. And he could produce a great show. Was he the best? Of course, he was. Only one other did the same as him.
Eddie Cochran also wrote and played, and sang. And, like Buddy Holly, his songs are still being played and covered today. Just like Buddy Holly, he wrote iconic Rock and Roll, like “Summertime Blues,” “C’mon Everybody,” and “Somethin’ Else.”
Between them, Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly defined Rock and Roll and created the basis for modern Rock groups. And again, just like Buddy Holly, Eddie was gone before he’d even scratched the surface of what was to come.
Changing genre for a minute, you can’t have a list of the most famous singers of the 1950s without Ella. She began her career in the 30s and later worked with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Sinatra, and many more. Her voice was described as dazzling.
Nicknamed the “Queen of Jazz,” she recorded such masterpieces as “Lullaby Of Birdland.” Her scat singing is legendary and often copied but never emulated. One of her most revered albums was the live recording at Carnegie Hall.
Whilst Rock and Roll was tightening its grip, Ella just sang. It would have been impossible to overshadow her talent. The greatest female jazz singer of the 50s and probably the greatest ever.
And so, to the last famous 1950s singer on this list. I must admit I was not introduced to her music until the early 1970s. A female singer I did a little bit of work with suggested I listen to her. Glad I did, she brought something else to the table in terms of R&B and Blues.
She had a powerful voice and a strong will as a person, so what you got was a gritty sound full of confidence. It isn’t surprising that many who followed cited her as their inspiration.
She left home at 17…
Along with her boyfriend, trumpet player Jimmy Brown, to start her career in night clubs. They later married. She was seen singing with Duke Ellington and signed by Atlantic records. But, only after a nine-month delay while she recovered after a car crash.
She produced some great material like “Teardrops From My Eyes” and “So Long.” Her records were rarely out of the R&B chart listings for a decade. During that time, she earned the title “The Queen of R&B.” Atlantic records became known as the “House That Ruth Built.”
A resurgence in interest in her style of singing in the 1980s allowed her to have the profile to start a campaign for musicians’ royalty rights. One of the greats of what we can see was a great period of music.
Want to Learn About Famous Musicians from Other Decades?
Well, take a look at our detailed articles on the Best 70s Songs, the Best 60s Rock Bands, the Best 80s Love Songs, the Best 90s Country Songs, and the Best Grunge Bands of the 90s for more awesome musical selections.
Also, you need to listen to them. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, the Best Headphones for Music, the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, the Best Bass Earbuds, as well as the Best True Wireless Earbuds you can buy in 2023.
Most Famous Singers Of The 1950s – Final Thoughts
And so, we come to the end of this list of famous singers from the 50s. As the clock chimed away on the 31st of December 1959 and we entered a new decade, we could not imagine what was awaiting us musically.
Perhaps more to the point, we didn’t realize that the groundwork for what was to come had been laid by these 50s artists.
In some circles, the 50s are not given the credit they should have received. What landed in our lap in the 60s was because of what happened in the 50s. And the people on my list, and some others not included, were at the forefront and helped to make it happen.
Until next time, happy listening.