Jazz tunes performed by big bands and crooners dominated popular music in the 1940s. In particular, either Bing Crosby, Glenn Miller, Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey, or his brother Tommy Dorsey were nearly always at the top of the Billboard charts at any given time in the early ’40s, racking up 40 number one singles from the 1940s between them, mostly in the first half of the decade.
Below we take a look at some of the most iconic and beloved number one singles from the 1940s. Many became instant classics and jazz standards, recorded by numerous artists over the years. We’ve also included a link to the original version of each song on YouTube, just in case you’d like to give any of them a listen.
Then, when you’re done, take a look at our piece on some of the most popular number one singles from the 1950s. That, of course, is when the new music genre known as rock and roll started making its mark.
Billboard Number One Singles of the ’40s
- “Only Forever” by Bing Crosby hit number one in October of 1940. It was written and recorded for the movie Rhythm on the River released that year. This was the first of 10 number one singles for Crosby in the 1940s; he had more than any other recording artist during the decade.
- “Frenesi,” which is Spanish for “frenzy,” reached number one at the end of 1940, and it remained in that esteemed slot for 12 weeks. It was the version recorded by popular clarinetist Artie Shaw.
- “Amapola (Pretty Little Poppy)” was recorded by Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra for Decca. In March 1941, it went to number one, where it stayed for 10 weeks. This was the first of seven number one singles for Jimmy Dorsey during this year, when he spent a total of 19 weeks in the top slot for bestselling singles. After Bing Crosby, Jimmy Dorsey was tied for the second-most number one hit singles during the decade (a total of nine) with the band leader in our next entry…
- “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” recorded first by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, closed out 1941 as the year’s last number one single. This was his fourth number one single of the year (out of nine for the span of the ’40s), and shortly after spending six weeks at number one, it became the first gold record, an honor bestowed by RCA Victor.
- “Moonlight Cocktail,” also by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, was recorded the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Starting in February of 1942, it spent 10 weeks in the number one singles slot.
- “White Christmas” is an Irving Berlin holiday classic, covered by countless artists and beloved to this day. Bing Crosby’s version hit number one at the end of October in 1942, and it rode there for 11 weeks, clear through the holiday season.
- “I’ve Heard that Song Before,” recorded by trumpet-playing bandleader Harry James and with vocals by Helen Forrest, stayed at number one for 12 weeks in 1943. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, but it lost to the previous entry on this list.
- “Paper Doll” by the Mills Brothers marked the first number one single for the decade by African American artists. The jazz vocal quartet reached the top spot with this recording for Decca in early November 1943, and stayed there for 12 weeks.
- “Swinging on a Star” is another Bing Crosby classic that dominated the charts in 1944. It was recorded for the film Going My Way, spent more than two months in the number one slot, and it won an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
- “I’ll Walk Alone” was Dinah Shore’s first number one single. She recorded it in 1944 for the musical movie Follow the Boys, and it was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Original Song category. However, it lost to—you guessed it—the above entry.
- “Sentimental Journey” performed by Les Brown and Doris Day peaked at number one in 1945 and stayed there for nine weeks. Recorded for Columbia Records, this hit followed right on the heels of another number one song for the pair, the lesser-known-today “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time.”
- “Till the End of Time” by Perry Como lasted nine weeks as a number one single from the 1940s, reaching the top in mid September of 1945. The classic tune is based on an even older classic, Frédéric Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53.
- “To Each His Own” was a runaway hit in 1946, reaching the number one slot on the Billboard charts with three different versions by three different artists. It was number one for Eddy Howard twice that year for a total of five weeks, plus Freddy Martin and The Ink Spots also reached number one with their recordings. On top of that, a version performed by The Modernaires climbed to number three, and another recorded by Tony Martin got to number four in the same year.
- “The Gypsy” by The Ink Spots spent 10 weeks at number one in 1946. This African American vocal quartet gained international fame and enjoyed an uncommon level of success (at the time) among both white and black audiences. They were also hugely important as predecessors of the R&B and doo-wop styles that would emerge in the ’50s.
- “Heartaches” by big band leader Ted Weems was the number one bestselling single in 1947 for 12 weeks. The song had been around since 1931, but never garnered much attention until this version was released. It features whistling by famous whistler Elmo Tanner.
- “Near You” was written and recorded by Francis Craig and his Orchestra in 1947. It spent 12 weeks in the number one slot of Billboard bestselling number one singles that year. Interestingly, it became an unlikely number one hit again in 1977, this time for country stars George Jones and Tammy Wynette, who released a duet cover version.
- “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” was written by Peggy Lee with Dave Barbour, and their version with her on vocals and his band was a number one single for a little more than two months in 1948.
- “Buttons and Bows” became Dinah Shore’s second of three number one hits from the 1940s in late 1948. It topped the chart for nine weeks. Bob Hope had sung the song for his film The Paleface the year before, when his version won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
- “Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)” is a country and western classic. Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra achieved the number one bestseller spot and held it for 11 straight weeks with their early version in 1949.
- “That Lucky Old Sun” by singer Frankie Laine was the number one single for eight weeks starting on October 1, 1949. He recorded it for Mercury Records. Another single of his, “Mule Train,” would follow in the number one slot for six weeks starting in late November, letting Laine close out the decade on top.