Weekend Viewing: YOUR HIT PARADE

Before American Idol, there was Your Hit Parade, except the singers were the same most episodes, and the suspense was not about who would be voted off, but which song would turn out to be number one that week.

This episode, complete with Lucky Strikes commercials, is from December 1955, when Your Hit Parade‘s formula was starting to show signs of trouble after running for 20 years (first on radio, then on television). In some ways it was a format better suited to radio, since the TV version had to come up with visual gimmicks to sell the songs even though nobody cared about anything else except the songs. (One smart thing that American Idol did was jettison most staging gimmicks and go back to the basics: a singer, a song, and a stage.) But 1955 was the year rock n’ roll songs started to hit the charts, turning a survey of top hits into a mix of songs that the YHP team was suited to, like Snooky Lanson Russell Arms singing Sinatra’s new hit “Love and Marriage,” and songs they really weren’t as well suited to, like The Platters’ “Only You.”

In 1956, this problem would become more acute; the fragmentation of popular music into two very different styles — traditional pop music was still hugely popular, but rock n’ roll was suddenly even bigger — meant that YHP could no longer guarantee that its audience would like all the songs it had to offer. The shows that survived were the ones that embraced the fragmentation and basically told the audience to enjoy some things but not others, the way Ed Sullivan’s show did. Today AI has, to a certain extent, brought back the YHP aesthetic by carefully choosing songs that won’t bother anybody; but I doubt anyone could put together a popular mass-audience program devoted entirely to current songs.

The bandleader of Your Hit Parade was Raymond Scott, who composed all those wonderful experimental jazz pieces that Carl Stalling used in his Warner Brothers cartoon scores (“Powerhouse,” most famously); he was married to the most famous vocalist from the YHP TV version, the wonderful Dorothy Collins (best remembered now as the star of the Broadway musical Follies).

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