On September 27, 1989, the iconic song by Billy Joel,  We Didn’t Start the Fire hit the airwaves.  It was a history lesson set to music.  When you first heard the song, did you know or remember all the people places, things and events mentioned in the lyrics?  I sure didn’t.  Back in 1989 before the internet was something everyone had access to, my boyfriend (now husband) and I headed to the local public library and looked up all the historical references.  This month, for the A to Z Challenge, I am writing about that history.

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it
Today is brought to you by the letter J.  Billy Joel’s song lyrics begin with 1949,  the year of his birth on May 9, 1949.  Today I begin with persons mentioned for that year in the order they are mentioned.

1949 – Johnnie Ray

Johnnie Ray signs his first recording contract with Okeh Records, although he would not become popular for another two years.

John Alvin “Johnnie” Ray (January 10, 1927 – February 24, 1990) was an American singer, songwriter, and pianist. Extremely popular for most of the 1950s, Ray has been cited by critics as a major precursor of what would become rock and roll, for his jazz and blues-influenced music and his animated stage personality. Tony Bennett credits Ray as being the true father of rock and roll.  Recognize the name.  I did not here is one of his hits.

1949 – Joe DiMaggio

Joe DiMaggio and the New York Yankees go to the World Series five times in the 1940s, winning four of them.

Joseph Paul “Joe” DiMaggio (November 25, 1914 – March 8, 1999), nicknamed “Joltin’ Joe” and “The Yankee Clipper”, was an American Major League Baseball center fielder who played his entire 13-year career for the New York Yankees. He is perhaps best known for his 56-game hitting streak (May 15 – July 16, 1941), a record that still stands.  DiMaggio was a three-time MVP winner and an All-Star in each of his 13 seasons. During his tenure with the Yankees, the club won ten American League pennants and nine World Series championships.  At the time of his retirement, he ranked fifth in career home runs (361) and sixth in career slugging percentage (.579). He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955, and was voted the sport’s greatest living player in a poll taken during the baseball centennial year of 1969. So why did Billy Joel list him in 1949?  Joe DiMaggio and the New York Yankees go to the World Series five times in the 1940s, winning four of them.  1949 was one of them.


1950 – Joe McCarthy

oseph McCarthy, the US Senator, gains national attention and begins his anti-communist crusade with his Lincoln Day speech.

On February 9, 1950, during a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, Senator Joseph McCarthy (Republican-Wisconsin) claims that he has a list with the names of over 200 members of the Department of State that are “known communists.” The speech vaulted McCarthy to national prominence and sparked a nationwide hysteria about subversives in the American government.  In the next few weeks, the number fluctuated wildly, with McCarthy stating at various times that there were 57, or 81, or 10 communists in the Department of State. In fact, McCarthy never produced any solid evidence that there was even one communist in the State Department. Hmm fact checking 1950s style.


1953 – Joseph Stalin

On March 5, 1953, Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union since 1924, dies in Moscow.  He was 74 year-old.  Stalin did not mellow with age; he prosecuted a reign of terror,

Joseph Stalin dies on March 5, yielding his position as leader of the Soviet Union.

purges, executions, exiles to the Gulag Archipelago (a system of forced-labor camps in the frozen north), and persecution in the postwar USSR, suppressing all dissent and anything that smacked of foreign, especially Western European, influence. To the great relief of many, he died of a massive heart attack on March 5, 1953. He is remembered to this day as the man who helped save his nation from Nazi domination—and as the mass murderer of the century, having overseen the deaths of between 8 million and 10 million of his own people.


1954 – Juan Peron

Juan Perón spends his last full year as President of Argentina before a September 1955 coup.

Juan Domingo Perón [8 October 1895 – 1 July 1974] was an Argentine lieutenant general and politician. 1954 was his last full year in office.  After serving in several government positions, including Minister of Labour and Vice President, he was thrice elected President of Argentina, serving from June 1946 to September 1955, when he was overthrown in a coup d’état, and then from October 1973 until his death in July 1974.

During his first presidential term (1946–52), Perón was supported by his second wife, Eva Duarte (“Evita”), and the two were immensely popular among many Argentines. Eva died in 1952, and Perón was elected to a second term, serving from 1952 until 1955. During the following period of two military dictatorships, interrupted by two civilian governments, the Peronist party was outlawed and Perón was exiled. When the left-wing Peronist Hector Cámpora was elected President in 1973, Perón returned to Argentina and was soon after elected President for a third time. His third wife, María Estela Martínez, known as Isabel Perón, was elected as Vice President on his ticket and succeeded him as President upon his death in 1974.

So for any excuse to include some of the music from Evita, I share the following from Youtube

Private and public moments from life of the most charismatic couple of Argentina – Eva & Juan Peron. Their feelings, work and tragedy of Eva’s cancer.
Music: “You Must Love Me” by Madonna, Evita Motion Picture Soundtrack.

1955 – James Dean

James Dean.

1955 was quite a year for James Dean.  James Byron Dean (February 8, 1931 – September 30, 1955) was an American actor. He is remembered as a cultural icon of teenage disillusionment and social estrangement, as expressed in the title of his most celebrated film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), in which he starred as troubled teenager Jim Stark. The other two roles that defined his stardom were loner Cal Trask in East of Eden (1955) and surly ranch hand Jett Rink in Giant (1956).  Dean’s premature death on September 30, 1955 in a car crash cemented his legendary status. He was 24 years-old. He became the first actor to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and remains the only actor to have had two posthumous acting nominations. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked him the 18th best male movie star of Golden Age Hollywood in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars list.

1963 – JFK blown away, what else do I have to say?
 So much has been written about this tragic moment in world history.  If I was to write a song similar to this song by Billy Joel, I would have to start this this event as it happened just days before I was born.

From the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum website

Shortly after noon on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, Texas.   Crowds of excited people lined the streets and waved to the Kennedys. The car turned off Main Street at Dealey Plaza around 12:30 p.m. As it was passing the Texas School Book Depository, gunfire suddenly reverberated in the plaza.  Bullets struck the president’s neck and head and he slumped over toward Mrs. Kennedy. The governor was also hit in the chest.  The car sped off to Parkland Memorial Hospital just a few minutes away. But little could be done for the President. A Catholic priest was summoned to administer the last rites, and at 1:00 p.m. John F. Kennedy was pronounced dead. Though seriously wounded, Governor Connally would recover.

The president’s body was brought to Love Field and placed on Air Force One. Before the plane took off, a grim-faced Lyndon B. Johnson stood in the tight, crowded compartment and took the oath of office, administered by US District Court Judge Sarah Hughes. The brief ceremony took place at 2:38 p.m.

Less than an hour earlier, police had arrested Lee Harvey Oswald, a recently hired employee at the Texas School Book Depository. He was being held for the assassination of President Kennedy and the fatal shooting, shortly afterward, of Patrolman J. D. Tippit on a Dallas street.

On Sunday morning, November 24, Oswald was scheduled to be transferred from police headquarters to the county jail. Viewers across America watching the live television coverage suddenly saw a man aim a pistol and fire at point blank range. The assailant was identified as Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner. Oswald died two hours later at Parkland Hospital.

21 responses

  1. Denise says:

    What a fantastic post. Like reliving my life. First, Johnnie Ray. I was a huge fan and never forgave my father for throwing out my record collection – old 78 rpm. I love his song “Cry”. Every girl I knew was devastated by James Dean’s death. And JFK was killed when I was a senior in HS. As for Stalin, I was in Moscow a few years ago and a Russian asked us what Americans think of Stalin, obviously waiting for us to say how great he was. Not. I was going nowhere near that topic while standing in front of his statue in Red Square.


  2. Knew about Johnnie Ray, as he was a total teen heartthrob. Shame so few people know about him today.

    Romance Spinners


  3. Shailaja V says:

    I love that song! Such an iconic one which captured the angst of the times so well. Also a huge fan of ‘This Day That Year’ references so this was a perfect snapshot of memory lane. James Dean was a national treasure, to be sure.

    *J for Job: Shailaja/The Moving Quill*

    *Theme:Oxymoron in 100 words
    *Category: Flash Fiction/ Writing/ WR


  4. Old grey-haired Hippie Lady says:

    Awesome post – informative.

    My A-Z post The Genealogy Search Continues:
    J is for Jewish Genealogy


  5. Birgit says:

    I know the song that Johnnie Ray sang and know a little about him. It’s a shame that he is not known more today. Senator Joe knew how to stir up fear just like someone else today. The ultimate worst is Stalin in my books…a disgusting SOB who persecuted millions including Jewish people and had no care to send many of his men and women to die at the front during WW2. It’s a shame most people don’t know him as the evil SOB rotting in hell right beside Hitler.


  6. This is fascinating history! I was a child when Kennedy was shot and remember reading about it in the newspaper. I heard about the others much later. Oddly, I discovered a post-war issue of the Australian Women’s Weekly with Joseph Stalin on the cover instead of the usual female celebrities or brides! He wasn’t mentioned inside, so still no idea why.

    Reading this post reminds me of “Bye Bye Miss American Pie” by Don McLean, which refers to the plane crash that killed several famous American musicians in the 1950s.


  7. Liz Brownlee says:

    Lovely – I ADORE ‘just Walking in the Rain’. Wish there were more songs like this now!

    J is for Dame Jane Goodall #AtoZ Challenge

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Liam says:

    A couple of really bad Joes and a DiMaggio there.


  9. JEN Garrett says:

    Great theme! I first heard “We didn’t start the fire” in high school, and have wondered what all the historical references were. But never bothered to look them up myself, lol.


  10. JEN Garrett says:

    I first heard “We didn’t start the fire” in high school, and have wondered what all the historical references were. But never bothered to look them up myself, lol. Great theme!


  11. John Holton says:

    Johnny Ray was one of Dorothy Kilgallen’s lovers, as I recall.

    Have you seen David von Pein’s JFK channel? It’s really amazing what he’s managed to collect, including radio and TV reports from his assassination. A tremendous archive. I was seven when JFK was assassinated, and I go there from time to time to refresh my memory of that day.


  12. Arlee Bird says:

    One of the funniest episodes that I’ve seen on TV was the old Jack Benny Show where Johnnie Ray was the guest. Had me in tears the first time I saw it.

    Evita is one of my favorite musicals.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out


  13. […] of people both private and public whom he disliked. During the 1950s, Winchell supported Senator Joseph McCarthy‘s quest to identify Communists in the entertainment industry, but his popularity and […]