The 15 best love songs of the 1950s, ranked

13 February 2024, 12:57

Buddy Holly with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra album trailer

By Mayer Nissim

What's the greatest love song of pop's early years?

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The 1950s were an incredible time for popular music.

With the crooners of the early pop age still going strong, we also had the dawn of the rock 'n' roll era and the continued evolution of the teenager.

And the two things that teenagers are obsessed with are girls, girls, girls and boys, boys, boys.

So while the 1950s were packed with songs about everything from chewing gum losing its flavour on the bedpost overnight (thanks, Lonnie Donegan) to a Sheb Wooley's hit about a purple alien who eats people (or was it an alien who eats purple people?), much of the charts were packed with love songs.

They weren't all gooey missives about dreamboats and petticoats, though, with a range of styles and sentiments capturing the whole emotional spectrum. Read on for our favourite 15 love songs of the era.

  1. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers - Why Do Fools Fall In Love

    Why Do Fools Fall in Love

    When it comes to Frankie Lymon, we'll save the story of his tragic death aged just 25 for another day, and instead, focus on his incredible career and music, and of course his signature song 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love'.

    Originally titled 'Why Do Birds Sing So Gay?', written by Teenager Herman Santiago and based on some love letters given to the group by a neighbour of bassist Sherman Garnes.

    A UK number one and US R&B number one, the song featured in American Graffiti and had successful covers by The Beach Boys and Diana Ross.

  2. Nina Simone - My Baby Just Cares For Me

    My Baby Just Cares For Me (2021 - Stereo Remaster)

    Actually a jazz standard that dates to the 1930 musical Whoopee! and previously a hit for Eddie Cantor, Nina Simone's 1957 cover took it to the next level.

    Nina's version had a second life thirty years later when it was used in a perfume ad, which not only gave that recording a bump, but also helped boost Nina's own profile for a new generation.

  3. Johnny Mathis - Misty

    Johnny Mathis - Misty (Audio)

    Another much-performed jazz standard, 'Misty' was written and recorded in 1954 as an instrumental by pianist Errol Garner with lyrics later added by Johnny Burke.

    It was another Johnny, Johnny Mathis, who made the song the enduring hit we all know and love when he recorded it for his 1959 album Heavenly.

    Apparently it was earmarked to be an industry-only promo, before fan demand meant a proper commercial release was inevitable.

    It later made a comeback in the Clint Eastwood horror movie Play Misty for Me.

  4. The Chordettes - Mr Sandman

    The Chordettes - Mr Sandman (Live 1958)

    Written by Pat Ballard and first recorded in 1954 by Vaughn Monroe and his Orchestra, but it's The Chordettes version from later that year that's stuck.

    Its witty lyrics urge the sandman to bring the singer a "dream" (as in, a dream fella), the song was a massive smash hit in the US and was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

  5. Sam Cooke - You Send Me

    Sam Cooke - Sam Cooke – You Send Me (Official Lyric Video)

    Sam Cooke released such a diverse collection of music in his all-too-brief career that was tragically cut short by his death in 1964, aged just 33.

    Alongside powerful political songs like 'A Change is Gonna Come' and 'Chain Gang', and rockers like 'Shake' and 'Twistin' The Night Away', you had love songs like 'Cupid' and Sam's debut single 'You Send Me'.

    Released in 1957 and backed with 'Summertime', it made Cooke an instant star, topping not just the R&B Chart but also the Billboard Hot 100. A decade on, it was successfully covered by Aretha Franklin.

  6. Connie Francis - Stupid Cupid

    Stupid Cupid - Connie Francis 1958 {Stereo}

    Connie Francis needed a hit single after a couple of career-threatening flops, and pushed Brill Building duo Howard Greenfield and Neil Sedaka (yes, that Neil Sedaka) to give her something upbeat.

    Sedaka wasn't sure about offering a "classy lady" like Connie something as daft 'Stupid Cupid', but she absolutely loved it.

    "I started jumping up and down and I said, 'That's it! You guys got my next record," Connie said.

    The track dragged Connie back into the top 15 in the US, and better still, all the way to number one for six weeks in the UK.

  7. The Teddy Bears - To Know Him Is To Love Him

    The Teddy Bears - To Know Him Is To Love Him - 1958

    Musically, Phil Spector would be become best known as a songwriter and producer who invented the Wall of Sound and made pop feel truly orchestral. (We'll leave the other awful aspects of Spector's life for another time).

    But before he became the man behind the desk, he was briefly part of a vocal group, The Teddy Bears, who had their only hit with the Spector-written 'To Know Him Is To Love Him', with lead vocals by Annette Kleinbard.

    A US number 1 and UK number 2, the sound is tender, the lyrics beautiful but actually soaked in tragedy, with the title refrain being inspired by the words on Spector's father's tombstone "To Know Him Was to Love Him".

  8. The Penguins - Earth Angel

    Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)

    Or, 'Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)'. Produced by Dootsie Williams there's been plenty of legal arguments over who actually wrote the song, with elements being (ahem) "borrowed" from Jesse Belvin, Patti Page, and the Hollywood Flames.

    We'll park all that and thank the eventually credited songwriters Curtis Williams, Jesse Belvin and Gaynel Hodge. And of course, The Penguins. The doo-wop group were one-hit wonders, but what a beautiful, romantic hit, and with 10 million copies sold and eventual Grammy recognitions.

    And let's not forget Marty McFly's contribution to Marvin Berry's version in Back to the Future.

  9. Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong - Dream a Little Dream of Me

    Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong - Dream A Little Dream Of Me (Audio)

    Sure, it's sentimental, but there's a reason why 'Dream a Little Dream Of Me' has been recorded over 400 times since it was written in 1931 by Fabian Andre and Wilbur Schwandt (music) and Gus Kahn (lyrics).

    Early versions came from Ozzie Nelson and Wayne King and their respective orchestras, but our very favourite is from the dream team of Ella Fitzgerald on vocals, with trumpet from Louis Armstrong.

    That was actually one of SEVEN versions released around the summer of 1950.

    The song endured, and actually had its biggest hit version in 1968 when The Mamas & the Papas put their hazy spin on it.

  10. Johnny Cash - I Walk The Line

    Johnny Cash - I Walk The Line (Lyric Video)

    One of Johnny Cash's very best songs and his first Billboard number one (on the Hot Country charts), the quirky chord arrangement is said to have been inspired by Cash hearing some accidental backwards guitar tapes on his recorder while in Germany.

    Written about his marriage to Vivian Liberto, the lyrics talk about the temptation of infidelity and "walking the line" to remain faithful ("I find it very, very easy to be true /I find myself alone when each day's through").

    Ultimately Cash and Liberto would split, with Cash going on to wed June Carter and remaining married until her death. A love song, Cash originally planned the song to be nice and slow, but producer Sam Phillips suggested doing things in that classic Cash "boom-chicka-boom" uptempo rockabilly style.

    Cash re-recorded the song a few times over the years, and the song gave its name to the acclaimed 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line.

  11. Peggy Lee - Fever

    Peggy Lee - Fever (Official Video)

    Most of the songs on this list are pretty chaste, as most 1950s love songs were, but 'Fever' by Peggy Lee was a jolt of pure sexual energy ("Fever / In the mornin' / A fever all through the night") that set the decade alight.

    By the time Peggy got her hands on it, the song – written by John Davenport (actually a pseudonym for Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell) – had already been a decent hit for Little Willie John in 1956.

    Two years later, Lee took it stratospheric, changing up the arrangement and even the lyrics to turn it into a global smash.

  12. Elvis Presley - Love Me Tender

    Elvis Presley "Love Me Tender" (October 28, 1956) on The Ed Sullivan Show

    Elvis Presley's earliest hit singles were dominated by hard-hitting rockers like 'That's All Right' and 'Blue Suede Shoes', and even his ostensible love songs usually had something of a twist ('Heartbreak Hotel').

    But Elvis was quite the heartthrob, so there was still a fair sprinkling of bona fide love songs sprinkled about in his first decade, and none more loved up than 'Love Me Tender'.

    The melody was nabbed from Civil War ballad 'Aura Lea', wit lyrics credited to Vera Matson (though apparently by her husband Ken Darby).

    'Love Me Tender' was released a month before the movie that showcased it, and in fact it was such a hit that the working title of the movie The Reno Brothers was changed to Love Me Tender because the track was such a hit.

  13. The Platters - Only You

    The Platters - Only You 1955 (HD)

    Or 'Only You (And You Alone)', this monster love song was written by Buck Ram and sung by The Platters, with lead vocals by Tony Williams.

    The group had actually recorded the song first for Federal Records in 1954, but it stayed on the shelf until they re-recorded it for Mercury the following year.

    "We tried it so many times, and it was terrible," remembered the group's Herb Reed.

    "One time we were rehearsing in the car... and the car jerked. Tony went 'O-oHHHH-nly you.' We laughed at first, but when he sang that song—that was the sign we had hit on something."

  14. Buddy Holly - True Love Ways

    True Love Ways

    Buddy Holly was as adept at beautiful love songs as he was at the pioneering rock 'n' roll that made him a superstar in his all-too-short career. 'True Love Ways' was written by Holly with Norman Petty, and he recorded the song with the Dick Jacobs Orchestra just four months before the plane crash that took his life.

    So many love songs are about that first flush of young lust/love, but 'True Love Ways' is about something so much deeper ("Sometimes we'll sigh / Sometimes we'll cry / And we'll know why / Just you and I / Know true love ways")

    The song was released posthumously on The Buddy Holly Story, Vol. 2 album, becoming a hit single in the UK in 1960, but in every real sense, it's a 1950s song so we have no qualms including it here.

    Remarkably, a US single release flopped, though a cover by Peter and Gordon in 1965 was a number 14 hit in the US, and went to number 2 in the UK. In 1983, a cover by Cliff Richard reached the UK top ten.

  15. The Everly Brothers - All I Have To Do Is Dream

    The Everly Brothers - All I Have To Do Is Dream (1958) 4K

    Written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, The Everly Brothers recorded 'All I Have To Do Is Dream' as-live in a couple of takes – backed by Chet Atkins on guitar and Floyd Chance on bass – and scored a remarkable hit.

    Not only did the song top the UK charts, it topped the Billboard charts. ALL the Billboard Charts of the time: Best Sellers in Stores, Most played by Jockeys, Country, R&B, AND Top 100.

    The lyrics explore the daydreaming wonder ("whenever I want you, all I have to do is dream") and dangers ("gee whiz, I'm dreamin' my life away") of your love being just a dream away.

    Roy Orbison covered the song in 1963, and it's worth mentioning that the Everleys' original single featured an early Orbison composition 'Claudette', named after his first wife.

    Other covers over the years include versions by Richard Chamberlain, a duet by Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell, another by Andy Gibb and Victoria Principal, Cliff Richard, The Dandy Warhols, REM and Brandi Carlile.