In the decade of the 1950's the landscape of the record industry had changed dramatically. By 1959 the major record labels had seen their share of the Billboard chart drop to 23%. But at the same time, record sales had boomed, climbing from 189 million in 1950 to 603 million in 1959. Sales had increased a modest 90 million from 1950 to 1955, but then rock and roll invaded the music charts and sales rose dramatically, more than doubling over the next five years. So, although the major's share of the market had declined, they were still experiencing increased sales. But that wasn't enough. Many of the executives of the major labels viewed the influx of rock and roll music, not just as a threat to their pocket book, but as a threat to the core values of American society. They saw no intrinsic value in the music, so they had to find other reasons for its popularity. The culprit was "payola," the practice of paying for a record to get airplay. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) which represented mostly artists from the major labels eventually filed lawsuits against radio stations they claimed were playing records in return for money and other gifts. The accusations prompted a Congressional hearing and eventually the passage of amendments to the Federal Communications Act that made under-the-table payments illegal and required broadcasters to disclose any payments they received for playing a record. In the aftermath of the 1958 television quiz scandals, which revealed that contestants on the game shows had been given the answers, the American public was ready to believe in such conspiracy theories. Many reasoned that the kids wouldn't listen to this "bad" music, but were brainwashed into it by the disc jockeys who played such records over and over only because they were being paid to do so. Besides, many adults associated rock and roll music with the scourge of juvenile delinquency and were ready to support a crusade to squelch the music. Ultimately, the major labels found that clamping down on "payola" had little impact on the popularity of the music. Instead, they would begin to buy out more and more of the independents or hire away their artists when their contracts were ended.
The most successful label of 1959 was not one of the original five major labels, but its corporate background made it the first major to emerge during the rock and roll era. ABC-Paramount records was founded in 1955 by the American Broadcasting System. With the signing of singer Paul Anka and Lloyd Price in 1957, the label was in the top ten in popularity by 1958. In 1959, both Anka ("Lonely Boy") and Price ("Stagger Lee") produced number one records for the company. And further success was on the horizon as Ray Charles would soon join the label.
Of the five majors, RCA was the most successful, led by Elvis Presley's five top twenty entries, including a number one with "A Big Hunk 'O Love." The Browns also contributed a number one with "The Three Bells." A future top performer for the label charted for the first time as Neil Sedaka's "The Diary" (#14) and "Oh, Carol" (#9) both made the top twenty. The Platters helped move Mercury back into the top five with their number one recording, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" while Brooke Benton placed three songs in the top twenty, including "It's Just A Matter of Time" (#3). Columbia's success was primarily due to Guy Mitchell's "Heartaches By the Number" which reached the top of the chart in December. Capitol records with its non rock and roll bias was saved somewhat due to the folk group, The Kingston Trio who had a number one record with "Tom Dooley" in 1958 and placed three in the top twenty in 1959. Decca had fallen on really hard times with only one top twenty record, "My Heart Is An Open Book" by Carl Dobkins Jr.
While Atlantic records found success with The Drifters ("Dance With Me" #15 and "There Goes My Baby" #2) and Ray Charles ("What'd I Say" #6), its subsidiary label, Atco, had an even better showing. Bobby Darin was one of the top performers of the year with a number one ("Mack the Knife") and a number two ("Dream Lover"). The Coasters added another number two, "Charlie Brown" and also placed "Along Came Jones" in the top ten (#9).
Five top twenty records by Ricky Nelson kept Imperial as one of the top independents and Chancellor made the top five with teen idols Frankie Avalon ("Venus" #1, "Why" #1) and Fabian ("Tiger" #3). Connie Francis was the big reason for MGM's success with three records in the top ten. The label also got a major boost from Conway Twitty with his #1 record, "It's Only Make Believe."
The phenomenon of small independent labels being able to strike gold with a single record continued as Dave 'Baby' Cortez made "The Happy Organ" a number one for Clock records, Wilburt Harrison took "Kansas City" to the top for Fury, and Santo & Johnny gave ERIC records a number one with "Sleep Walk."
The biggest success story of the independent labels in 1959 was Dolphin records. Bonnie Buckingham began playing the guitar and performing at the age of sixteen in the Seattle, Washington area. Being a female guitar player was something of a novelty and she changed her name to Bonnie Guitar. In 1955 she moved to Los Angeles and played on sessions for country singers such as Jim Reeves. In 1957 she tried her hand at singing and had a cross-over country hit with her version of "Dark Moon." Further success as a pop singer eluded her and by 1958 she had returned to the Northwest and set up her own record label which she called Dolphin records. She put out an announcement that she was taking auditions for the label and received a demo from Olympia, Washington performed by "Two Girls and A Guy." The song was "Come Softly To Me" and the group (Gary Troxel, Barbara Ellis and Gretchen Christopher) was immediately called to Seattle for a recording session. But before releasing the record, there were two problems. First of all, the group's name was too cumbersome so it was changed to The Fleetwoods (reportedly the telephone exchange for Gary Troxel's phone). After the record was released regionally under the Dolphin label, it was discovered that there was already another record company with that name and subsequent pressings were changed to the renamed Dolton label. As the record started to break nationally, the fledgling label couldn't keep up with the distribution and the label contracted with Liberty records for national distribution. "Come Softly To Me" reached #1 on Billboard on April 13th. Within a few months, Dolton records had its second number one record when The Fleetwoods' "Mr. Blue" reached the top on November 16th. The Fleetwoods would have some further success for the label, but Gary Troxel was drafted into the Navy and the group was limited in its ability to promote its records with public appearances.
So, whether it was the Coed label producing rock and roll classics like "Sixteen Candles" by The Crests, or Hanover record's very forgettable "Uh! Oh!" by The Nutty Squirrels, in 1959, apparently if you paid enough money, you could get your record played on the radio. But it took more than money to produce a hit record. By 1959, the record labels knew their best shot was something at least close to rock and roll. But, just as it is today, nobody was sure what would make a hit record. Sometimes it was a sound, sometimes it was a lyric, and sometimes it was a gimmick. Warner Brothers decided to enter the record business in 1958 and in 1959 had its first hit record. "Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)" by Edd Byrnes and Connie Stevens was based on the character Byrnes played in the television series, "77 Sunset Strip." The television exposure produced a hit record (#4) no payola was necessary. As Kookie said, " .. that's the kind of scene that I dig, baby you're the ginchiest."