The 10 Greatest R&B Hits of 1959

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

The story goes that rock and roll was dead by 1959, what with many of its pioneers already in jail, in the service, back in the church, or suddenly off this plane of existence entirely. Yet it was rhythm and blues, largely responsible for the cultural explosion in the first place, which found itself suffering most as the lines between roots music and pop began to blur and then to disappear entirely. 1959 nevertheless had its share of raw and authentically "black" music, but it was largely subsumed by the poppier stuff -- when it made it to national radio at all. Here are the best of 1959's R&B classics, excluding, as always, those which have already made my pop Top 10 list! 

So confused was the musical status quo by the end of the decade that it came to this -- the man behind "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" happily bopping an ancient murder ballad, drenched in slick West Coast production and backed by a trio of white vocalese egging its title killer on. Moral watchdogs as well as ordinary folks were horrified that a hit song would glorify such a grisly scenario ("The bullet went through Billy and it broke the bartender's glass"), but while a non-violent ending was also issued -- at the insistence of Dick Clark -- it's barely remembered today. Consider, too, that '59 was also the year of Bobby Darin's similarly bouncy take on "Mack the Knife," and, well, you gotta wonder.

To say that this, James Brown's second big hit, is more refined than the first is an exercise in relativity that rivals Einstein -- "Please, Please, Please" was the rawest R&B anyone had ever heard. But people forget that the Godfather had a way with a ballad, too, and the religious fervor of his secular pleading also made this one quite the crowdpleaser. Especially if said crowd was full of young shrieking females of color who'd been waiting for just such an "unrefined" Sinatra. The image revamp not only saved the Famous Flames' bacon after two years of wandering, it also very nearly scraped the bottom of the pop top 40.

The very beginning of swamp-pop, arguably its apotheosis, and still its unofficial anthem, all these decades later, "Mathilda" established the formula: Fats Domino's crawling Creole boogie -woogie piano stroll tied to the melodies -- guitar and voice both -- of a Cajun waltz ballad. The combination was not only perfect for R&B loving teens in places like Lake Charles, LA, where the band hailed from, it was also another way to inject some real bathos into what was already becoming a bland and co-opted youth culture movement.

Brother Ray would make his greatest bid for immortality this year with "What'd I Say," but this earlier  single, which preceded it by six months or so, was even grittier and more lubricious, and charged with even more sexual energy than the Nappy Brown original to boot. As such, it barely staggered into the Hot 100, which may be why this was the closest Charles ever got to true gospel fervor again. If it weren't for a classic episode of The Cosby Show, "Night Time" might even have disappeared from the pop consciousness entirely.

Rarely was the connection between soul and gospel made so obvious, either before or since, on this deathless smash --  it didn't just borrow elements from call-and-response raveupsit was one, albeit one that was developed on a secular stage as the unknown Isleys sought to get the audience involved in a cover of Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops." This made it even more raw than Charles' big pop crossover, but though it went nowhere at first, a few years' word of mouth helped establish it as the frat-boy party anthem, exactly as you see in the retro comedy  classic Animal House. By that time the Bros had finally established a foothold with "Twist and Shout." Which certain white folks also fell in love with.

Recorded with what may be history's greatest natural corner-of-the-bathroom echo, the Falcons' lone Fifties hit is so disarmingly raw yet romantic it stalled out at #17 over on the pop charts. But it still moved a cool million units, almost certainly on sheer talent: that's Joe Stubbs, kid brother of Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, singing in a ghostly bel canto tenor, backed by future soul luminaries Sir Mack Rice and Eddie "Knock on Wood" Floyd. Joe went on to The Contours and 100 Proof (Aged in Soul); the Falcons rebounded with.some kid named Wilson Pickett.

The man affectionately known as The Babbling Brook may have been one of the decade's first crossover artists, but just because he came off like a sepia Tennessee Ernie Ford at times didn't mean he had no soul, and his signature ballad proves it. A real textbook example of romantic karma -- see also The Velevtones' version of "The Glory of Love" -- it was cowritten by Benton for Nat King Cole, but wound up jumpstarting songwriter Brook's singing career instead. Better still, the moral stance of his lyrics made this one a natural to be revived, endlessly, as a country standard.

If Jackie Wilson and Lloyd Price (not to mention Gene McDaniels and Marv Johnson) were all starting to sound distressingly similar on pop radio by the end of the decade, Jackie could at least call on his sheer vocal prowess to redeem himself. This hit is a perfect example: what  would be a piece of fluff in anyone else's throat is a near-triumph for Wilson, not just in vocal gymnastics but his signature ability to invest every musical moment with the kind of intensity that suggested his whole life was riding on the outcome. Maybe that's why it still couldn't make the pop top 10.

It features the kind of clever yet slightly risque pun that could have only come from the pen(s) of Lieber and Stoller, yet just as with the hipster defiance of "Charlie Brown," the generational rebellion of "Yakety Yak," and the outright ephebophelia of "Young Blood," the larger implications were largely lost on the record-buying public, unless you were one of those few who paid very close attention. No doubt the Coasters' rep as the clown princes of r&b helped them sneak this kind of social commentary past the censors as mere novelty.

Lieber and Stoller's only actual controversial hit of 1959 really was a novelty -- and, in keeping with the Clovers' snakebit history, one which became truly popular only after a series of covers. An intriguing tale of a potion that makes men sexually irresistible, it was a concept straight out of black folklore, despite the fact that L&S were two Jewish white men from Hollywood. The real eyebrow-raiser here wasn't voodoo, however, but rather the line about kissing a cop -- intended as mere vaudeville, it nevertheless served as an indicator of what really made middle America nervous.