293. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Voodoo Chile (1970)

30 years on, I can still remember the first time I saw Jimi Hendrix. I can pinpoint the date reds because it was a clip on Good Morning Britain in which the presenters were talking about the 20th anniversary of his death, so I was 11. I’d never seen anything like this otherworldly flamboyant peacock, tearing away at his guitar with supernatural abandon, on stage in darkness. It was mesmerising, exciting, and even scary.

Jimi Hendrix was the greatest guitarist of his generation, perhaps ever, but he never had a number 1 in his lifetime. Voodoo Chile, from the final album by The Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric Ladyland in 1968, was released posthumously. Not a pop single, but what a riproaring way to call time on Hendrix and the 60s.

He may have seemed like he’d arrived on Earth from outer space, but Johnny Allen Hendrix was born 27 November 1942 in Seattle, Washington, the eldest of five children. Four years later his parents changed his name to James Marshall Hendrix in honour of his father Al and his late brother Leon Marshall. Al was in the army, and absent for much of his eldest’s childhood. His mither Lucille struggled and James would often be sent to female family members and friends of Lucille.

When Al returned from service, he and Lucille would argue violently, and the shy James would hide in a closet. Many years later, he revealed to a girlfriend that he was once abused by a man in uniform. At the age of nine, his parents divorced and Al was granted custody.

In 1957, father and son were clearing an old woman’s home when the young Hendrix found a ukelele with one string left, which she said he could keep. He learnt to play by ear, and would particularly enjoy doing so to Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog.

By mid-1958, a few months after his mother’s early death, he bought his first acoustic guitar. He would play for hours, learning the blues licks of Robert Johnson, BB King and Muddy Waters, but the first tune he learned to play in full was the theme to Peter Gunn.

Soon after his purchase he formed his first group, called The Velvetones. but struggled to be heard above the din, and in 1959, Al bought him one. Hendrix joined The Rocking Kings, and began playing professionally.

Aged 18, Hendrix was caught riding in stolen cars more than once, and police offered him a choice between prison or the army, and he chose the latter and enlisted in 1961. Hendrix struggled and missed his beloved guitar, but when Al sent him it his peers would tease him and hide it from him. Fellow serviceman Billy Cox was impressed with his playing though and they soon joined other servicemen in a band called The Casuals.

After they had both been discharged in 1963 the duo formed new band The King Kasuals. Their second guitarist Alphonso ‘Baby Boo’ Young could play with his teeth, and before long Hendrix could too. As well as The King Kasuals, Hendrix began performing as a backing musician for soul stars including Sam Cooke, Ike & Tina Turner and Jackie Wilson.

In 1964 Hendrix joined The Isley Brothers’ backing band The IB Specials and made his first recording on their two part single Testify. But he got bored of being restricted to the same set every night and left in October to join Little Richard’s touring group The Upsetters. He would make his TV debut appearing alongside the rock’n’roll legend in 1965

There would be further performances with artists including saxophonist King Curtis, but Hendrix couldn’t stand the restrictions of not getting the spotlight to himself, so in 1966 he moved to New York’s happening Greenwich Village and would begin a residency fronting his new band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, and it is here that he really developed his incredible style.

That May, while performing with Curtis Knight and the Squires he found an important fan in Linda Keith, the girlfriend of Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. Their producer Andrew Loog Oldham was somehow blind to the potential of this virtuoso axeman, so Keith told Chas Chandler about him. Chandler was about to leave The Animals and was looking to move into managing and producing talent. He saw Hendrix performing Hey Joe in Greenwich Village, and was blown away. Hendrix signed with him and moved to London in September.

Hendrix and Chandler were on the lookout for members of a new band to showcase the former’s talent. They asked guitarist Noel Redding to play bass for him after seeing him at an audition for The New Animals, and drummer Mitch Mitchell had recently been fired from Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames. Chandler suggested Jimmy change the spelling of his name, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience had arrived.

The trio performed for the first time in France, supporting Johnny Holliday, that October. A month later they signed to Track Records, a new label set up by Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, managers of The Who. A performance at the ultra-hip Bag O’Nails in front of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Pete Townshend set tongues wagging. Debut single Hey Joe shot to number six in December.

If ever there was a case of right time, right place, it was The Jimi Hendrix Experience, in Swinging London, in 1966 and 67. And 1967 was truly their year. Purple Haze and The Wind Cries Mary were top 10 hits in March and May respectively. These first three singles displayed the versatility of these firebrands. They could do soulful covers, write their own psychedelic rock and tender ballads. Debut album Are You Experienced, also released in May, went even further, with the blues of Red House and experimental rock like the title track. It’s rightly considered one of the greatest debut albums of all time, and climbed the charts in the Summer of Love alongside landmark LPs by The Beatles and Pink Floyd.

That summer saw Hendrix blow McCartney’s mind with a live performance of the title track to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and one of the most memorable rock performances of all time at the Monterey Pop Festival. As if Hendrix’s guitar-playing wasn’t impressive enough, he ended their show by setting his instrument on fire. After Monterey they briefly toured as support for The Monkees, quitting after a fortnight due to the audience’s general bafflement.

The trio ended an incredible year with the release of second album Axis: Bold as Love. While the least impressive of their three LPs, it was still sterling work. On 20 December they set to work on the opus that would be the group’s swansong – the double album Electric Ladyland.

Tensions rose during recording, with Hendrix taking more of an interest in the production, which annoyed Chandler, as did his increasing perfectionism. Not only that, the sessions were getting more and more chaotic thanks to fellow musicians dropping by, and also Redding was busy with his new group Fat Mattress, so Hendrix would record his own bass parts. Nonetheless, Electric Ladyland was a masterpiece thanks to songs like Crosstown Traffic and the definitive Bob Dylan cover, All Along the Watchtower. And then there was the album closer.

Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) was a rocked-up, alternative to Voodoo Chile, a 14-minute-plus blues jam featuring Steve Winwood, among others, earlier on the album. The day after that version had been recorded, The Jimi Hendrix Experience returned to the studio to film a documentary, and a session of jamming resulted in Hendrix’s sole number 1 single.

What a track, what a way to pay tribute to one of the greatest musicians ever, and what a full stop on the 60s. Voodoo Chile, as it became confusingly titled upon its posthumous single release (the Slight Return being dropped by Track Records) is no pop single. It’s The Jimi Hendrix Experience at full throttle and saying goodbye. Opening with one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time, the track then explodes.

Hendrix pays tribute to the masters of blues from his youth with some lyrical imagery portraying Hendrix as some kind of superhuman, able to chop down mountains with the edge of his hand. Not that far removed from songs like Bo Diddley’s I’m a Man.

The music is in another dimension to such material, though, a heavy psychedelic onslaught of guitar noodling that, thanks in part to the stereo panning, swirls around your head and never gets boring, unlike perhaps some of Hendrix’s later work. The lyrics don’t last long, but may well be the reason this was picked as a tribute to Hendrix. The second and last verse ends with the guitarist apologising for taking up all the listener’s sweet time (like he has anything to apologise for) and then a promise:

‘If I don’t meet you no more in this world
I’ll meet you in the next one
And don’t be late
Don’t be late!’

Voodoo Chile has probably always been my favourite song by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and I love the fact that for one week, this was number 1. Storming, magnificent and unforgettable.

Electric Ladyland was released in October 1968. 1969 began with the trio caused controversy with their appearance on the BBC’s Happening for Lulu when they abruptly stopped performing Hey Joe to perform Sunshine of Your Love by way of tribute to the recently disbanded Cream. They prevented Lulu performing her closing number, and Hendrix was told they would never work for the BBC again. Around this time, Chandler quit.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s two February gigs at the Royal Albert Hall were their final UK shows, and in June after a performance at the Denver Pop Festival, matters between Hendrix and Redding came to a head, and Redding left.

Hendrix expanded the line-up, adding his old friend Cox on bass, and they headlined the Woodstock Festival as Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, famously blowing the minds of the remaining hippies on the Monday morning with an incendiary version of The Star-Spangled Banner.

To put an end to several years of legal disputes, Hendrix recorded a live album, Band of Gypsys, with Cox and new drummer Buddy Miles. The Band of Gypsys were not to last long as an entity though, and Hendrix’s manager Michael Jeffrey announced in February 1970 that The Jimi Hendrix Experience were to return in their original line-up. This was news to the frontman though, who was reluctant for Redding to return, so he began touring with Mitchell and Cox instead on The Cry of Love Tour.

On 31 August 1970 Hendrix headlined the Isle of Wight Festival, but was beset with technical problems. On 2 September he angered fans in Denmark after three songs announcing ‘I’ve been dead a long time’. After a badly-received set in Germany, Cox was suffering from severe paranoia after a bad LSD trip, and he returned to the US.

Hendrix and Mitchell returned to the UK, and the former spoke to Chandler about being unhappy with Jeffrey’s management. He did an impromptu performance on 16 September with War at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, which was uncharacteristically low-key.

Two days later, his girlfriend Monika Dannemann found him unconscious in bed, and he was pronounced dead soon after. Hendrix had choked on his own vomit on a cocktail of barbiturates and sleeping tablets. He was only 27.

Perhaps Jimi Hendrix was never meant to live a long life. His flame only burned for a few years, but it burned brighter and more colourfully than most can only dream about. Following Redding’s departure, Hendrix had struggled to live up to those first three albums, which suggests The Jimi Hendrix Experience had a very special alchemy. Mitchell was a fantastic drummer in particular, and if Hendrix hadn’t been in the spotlight so much, he may have been better remembered. Redding, sardonic and grounded, was perhaps good at stopping Hendrix from getting too carried away in the studio.

Redding was found dead at home in Ireland on 11 March 2003 after a shock haemorrhage, aged 57, and Mitchell died five years later on 12 November in a hotel in Portland, Oregon of natural causes, aged 62.

Written by: Jimi Hendrix

Producer: Chas Chandler

Weeks at number 1: 1 (21-27 November)

Births:

Novelist Stel Pavlou – 22 November
TV presenter Zoe Ball – 23 November

Meanwhile…

27 November: The Gay Liberation Front organised its first march in London.

292. Matthews Southern Comfort – Woodstock (1970)

Matthews Southern Comfort, led by former Fairport Convention singer Ian Matthews, had a surprise number 1 with this beautiful cover of Joni Mitchell’s epitaph to the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival 1969, which also seemed to mourn the end of the optimism of the hippy movement, and touched a nerve following the recent death of the festival’s headliner Jimi Hendrix. Of the three famous versions out there, this is the best.

Mitchell hadn’t actually attended or performed at the festival as her manager had told her to appear on The Dick Cavett Show instead. She was in a relationship with Graham Nash at the time, though and he was there performing as part of his new supergroup with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. Watching the events unfold on TV from her hotel room had a profound effect on the singer-songwriter, and she put pen to paper.

Woodstock turned Max Yasgur’s farm that hosted the festival into the garden of Eden, and the journey to the site became a spiritual journey that would lead to enlightenment. Mitchell imagines meeting a child of God on their way to the site, starts to feel like she can be a part of a movement, and before you know it there are half a million likeminded souls.

She began performing her new song only a month after Woodstock, at the Big Sur Music Festival. Her recorded version found its way on to her third album Ladies of the Canyon in March 1970. It’s a sparse, low-key arrangement, performed on an electric piano. Sadly, it’s somewhat spoilt by her annoying double-tracked backing vocals.

Around the same time, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (for Neil Young had joined the fray) released their version on the album Déjà Vu. They had recorded a version with Jimi Hendrix while working on the song, released on the outtakes album Both Sides of the Sky (2018). I’m a huge fan of CSNY, but find their version of Woodstock somewhat of a misfire. They ditch the haunting melancholy of the original and turn it into a rather bog-standard rock anthem. An alternate take was used to close Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock documentary (1970). Which brings us to Matthews Southern Comfort. But who were they?

Ian Matthews MacDonald was born 16 June 1946 in Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire. When he was 12 the MacDonalds moved to Scunthorpe, close to where I live. He left school at 16 and worked as an apprentice signwriter, and by the mid-60s he was performing in local bands. MacDonald moved to London in 1965 and formed surf music trio The Pyramid.

In the winter of 1967 he was recruited to sing for the then-new rock band Fairport Convention, and was among the line-up to record their eponymous debut (1968) and follow-up What We Did On Our Holidays in 1969. Sometime between the two, MacDonald changed his name to Ian Matthews (his mother’s maiden name), to avoid confusion with Ian MacDonald of King Crimson.

However, the second LP by the band saw them moving toward the traditional folk for which they would become so influential, and Matthews departed during the making of Halfbricking in 1969.

He quickly began work on his debut solo album, Matthews’ Southern Comfort, featuring more of the US country sound he performed. The line-up featured former Fairport colleagues like Richard Thompson, and included his own material as well as covers. Matthews put together a touring band, called Matthews Southern Comfort (minus the apostrophe), featuring lead guitarist Mark Griffiths and Gordon Huntley on pedal steel guitar from the album, plus new members Carl Barnwell on guitar, bassist Andy Leigh and Ray Duffy on drums.

Matthews Southern Comfort released their debut LP Second Spring in July 1970, and the world shrugged. However, a month prior to that they had recorded a set for BBC Radio 1’s Live in Concert. They needed one final song, and Matthews had recently bought Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. The band kept their version of Woodstock faithful to the original, and it went down so well, the BBC contacted their label about it. Uni Records suggested it was recorded and added to their next album, Later That Same Year. Matthews refused, but said it could become a single. However, while recording the new version, the arrangement was radically altered, in part to suit Matthews’ voice.

Apparently Mitchell later told Matthews this was her favourite version of Woodstock, and I agree completely. This recording is sublime. Matthews Southern Comfort perfectly capture the sadness of the end of an era, the feeling that the counterculture didn’t pull it off. That we never did get ‘back to the garden’. Of special note is Huntley’s steel guitar, giving the song a sense of yearning for what could have been, the circular guitar sounds (mixed down in the single version) and Matthews’ tender voice and the lovely harmonies. This version is what Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s should have sounded like.

MCA Records, the parent company of Matthews Southern Comfort’s record label, only agreed to release Woodstock if CSNY’s version tanked, which it did. But they refused to spend money on promotion upon its release in July. Luckily for Matthews and co, they had a fan in BBC DJ Tony Blackburn, who made it Record of the Week on his Radio 1 breakfast show. Here’s a great example of how long it could take a single to climb the charts back in the day. Three months to make it to number 1!

Top of the Pops would show a lovely promo film during Woodstock‘s weeks at number 1, with a beautiful hippy girl wandering around the streets and looking at posters of the Woodstock film. Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s pretty fitting.

Were the band pleased to be chart-toppers? Not really, it turned out. Matthews didn’t like the extra demands on his time being a pop star entailed, and he walked out in December, making Woodstock their final single. He went solo, and the rest of the line-up continued as Southern Comfort, releasing three albums between 1971 and 1973.

Matthews recorded two albums in 1971 (If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes and Tigers Will Survive), before forming a new group called Plainsong, which included Andy Roberts. When they collapsed Matthews continued to record while living in Los Angeles, working with Michael Nesmith of The Monkees at times during the 80s and 90s. He has gone by the name Iain Matthews ever since 1989.

In 2000 he moved to Amsterdam and continues to record and perform, sometimes reviving Matthews Southern Comfort or Plainsong. Matthews co-wrote Thro’ My Eyes: A Memoir with Ian Clayton, released in 2018.

There are similarities shared between Woodstock and Scott McKenzie’s 1967 number 1 San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). Both are folk songs written to commemorate counterculture festivals and give them mystical meaning. Yet by the time we get to Woodstock, it’s over. Hendrix’s death in September and this track are a full stop on the 60s. And yet, the festival scene certainly wasn’t over, with the very first Glastonbury Festival taking place the day after Hendrix’s death and celebrating its 50th anniversary this June, bigger than ever. And the next number 1 would be a very fitting postscript.

Written by: Joni Mitchell

Producer: Ian Matthews

Weeks at number 1: 3 (31 October-20 November)

Births:

The Divine Comedy singer-songwriter Neil Hannon – 7 November
Actor Harvey Spencer Stephens – 12 November
Race walker Verity Snook-Larby – 13 November

Deaths:

Liberal MP Alasdair Mackenzie – 8 November
Labour MP Bessie Braddock – 13 November

Meanwhile…

17 November: The Sun newspaper featured a Page Three girl for the first time. This tradition made stars of Samantha Fox and Maria Whittaker among others, but divided public opinion. However it continued for 44 years, until 2015.

20 November: The 10 shilling note ceased to be legal tender.

291. Freda Payne – Band of Gold (1970)

Multi-talented American singer Freda Payne enjoyed an impressive six weeks at number 1 with this soul track, featuring noteworthy lyrics that have been much misunderstood over the years due to cuts made before its release.

Freda Charcillia Payne was born in Detroit, Michigan on 19 September 1942. Her younger sister was Scherrie, who became the final lead singer of The Supremes in time. Growing up, the elder Payne enjoyed female jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, which would later have an impact on her singing style. She attended the Detroit Institute of Musical Arts as a teenager, and also recorded jingles for the radio, as well as taking part and winning various talent shows.

In the early 60s Payne toured as a jazz singer with big names such as Quincy Jones and Bill Cosby, leading to her debut album in 1963, After the Lights Go Down Low and Much More!!! for Impulse! Clearly, exclamation marks were popular back then. Three years later came the follow-up How Do You Say I Don’t Love You Anymore for MGM Records, and TV appearances on various chat shows.

Payne spent the next few years dipping her toes into acting, until 1969 when she was contacted by old friends and hitmakers Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr. Holland-Dozier-Holland had left Motown in 1968 and formed their own label, Invictus, also home to Chairmen of the Board and the first Parliament album, Osmium. Her first single for Invictus was the long-forgotten Unhooked Generation. Holland-Dozier-Holland then offered her Band of Gold, which they’d written with Ron Dunbar, but due to their dispute with Motown, they were forced to use the pseudonym Edyth Wayne in the credits.

Band of Gold touched on an unusually adult theme for its time. It’s about a recently wed woman, already separated from her husband, due to their honeymoon going awry. They ended up sleeping in separate rooms, with her hoping he would return and try to make love to her once more.

So, what went wrong? The ambiguous lyrics have been open to interpretation – her husband must surely be impotent, or gay? Over the years, Band of Gold became popular in the gay community thanks to the latter theory, one that was borne out by an interview Lamont Dozier did for Songfacts (songfacts.com), where he confirmed the husband loved his new wife, but was unable to get it up as he was a secret homosexual.

But according to Dunbar, the original version of Band of Gold explains exactly what the issue was. The first verse originally ended with ‘And the memories of our wedding day, and the night I turned you away.’ The original bridge also said ‘Each night, I lie awake and I tell myself, the vows we made gave you the right, to have a love each night’. Apparently, Payne has also said she didn’t want to record Band of Gold because she felt too old to come across like a naive, virginal teenager. So there we have it – the poor guy, believed to have been unable to get it up for all these years, was given the cold shoulder from his new wife, and walked out. A messy start for the poor newlyweds, and we’ll never know if they ironed out their differences.

I was surprised upon first listen to hear this was number 1 for so long. Not because it isn’t decent – it is, but it took a few listens to make an impact on me. It helps if you pay attention to the lyrics, which I didn’t at first, and I assumed it was about a guy cheating on his bride, or something along those lines. Payne performs it well, sounding indignant (which also helped create the confusion – she sounds like she’s been let down between the sheets) and hurt at the same time. The stomping rhythm is very Motown, and the tune gets under the skin eventually.

I also like the electric sitar, played by session guitarist Dennis Coffey, who also played on Edwin Starr’s War, among others. Lead guitar comes from Ray Parker Jr, that’s right, the man behind the theme to Ghostbusters in 1984. The backing vocals were performed by Scherrie, Pamela Vincent, Joyce Vincent Wilson and Telma Hopkins. Wilson and Hopkins would soon be members of Dawn, number 1 artists with Tony Orlando in 1971 and 1973.

Band of Gold had a formidable run, and reached number three in the US, but Payne couldn’t get anywhere near repeating the feat. Deeper and Deeper, released at the end of the year, reached number 33 in the UK, but none of her singles reached the top 40 after that. However, Bring the Boys Home, her anti-Vietnam War single, did well in her home country in 1971

Payne left Invictus in 1973, and signed with Capitol Records in 1977, releasing three disco albums between then and 1979. Hot was her final LP for 16 years.

Sensing her music career was stalling, Payne concentrated on acting in the 80s. She also briefly hosted her own talk show in 1981, Today’s Black Woman. Only one single was spawned in this decade – In Motion, in 1982.

In 1995 Payne recorded a comedy album, called, bizarrely Freda Payne Sings the (Unauthorized) I Hate Barney Songbook: A Parody. Was she not a fan of the purple dinosaur? The following year came the festive  Christmas With Freda and Friends, featuring a duet with her sister.

The new millennium began with the soul singer appearing on the big screen alongside comedian Eddie Murphy in Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000). She’s been releasing music sporadically ever since, and recorded Saving a Life, a duet with Cliff Richard, in 2011, which led to her supporting him on a UK tour. Her last album to date is Come Back To Me Love in 2014 – was this a message for Darlene?

Band of Gold is a curious number 1, sounding rather like a forerunner to disco and yet very much old-school Motown at the same time. Rather a bridge between what had passed and what was to come. It’s been covered several times since, by stars including Belinda Carlisle, but nobody has matched Payne’s original.

Written by: Edyth Wayne & Ron Dunbar

Producer: Brian Holland & Lamont Dozier

Weeks at number 1: 6 (19 September-30 October)

Births:

Actress Emily Lloyd – 29 September

Footballer Richard Hancox – 4 October

Footballer Jason Cousins – 4 October

SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh – 5 October

Olympic rower Sir Matthew Pinsent – 10 October

Footballer Andy Marriott – 11 October

Meanwhile…

19 September: The first Glastonbury Festival was held. Then known as the Worthy Farm Pop Festival, farmer Michael Eavis had been inspired after attending a blues festival at the Bath & West Showground. 1500 watched Tyrannosaurus Rex headline after The Kinks pulled out.

3 October: Tony Densham, driving the ‘Commuter’ dragster, set a British land speed record at Elvington, Yorkshire, averaging 207.6 mph over the flying kilometre course.

5 October: BBC Radio 4 first broadcast the consumer affairs magazine programme You and Yours, a mainstay to this day.

15 October: The new Conservative government created the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment.
Also this day, Thames sailing barge Cambria, the last vessel trading under sail alone in British waters, loaded her last freight, at Tilbury.

19 October: British Petroleum announced it had found a large oil field in the North Sea.

23 October: The Mark III Ford Cortina went on sale.

290. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – The Tears of a Clown (1970)

Much like Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine in 1969, The Tears of a Clown was an album track by Motown legends, several years old, that could have easily languished as a forgotten album track, but is now considered a soul classic.

William Robinson Jr was born 19 February 1940 in Detroit, Michigan. It was his uncle Claude that gave him the nickname ‘Smokey Joe’ while he was still young. He was a clever child, and sporty, but he really loved music. In a 2007 interview with CBS Robinson revealed he and Aretha Franklin lived only a few doors down from each other, and he had known her since she was five.

Robinson formed a doo-wop group called The Five Chimes in 1955, which included schoolfriends Ronald White and Pete Moore. They changed their name two years later to The Matadors. The line-up then consisted of Robinson, White, Moore and cousins Bobby and Claudette Rogers (who Robinson married in 1959) .

The Matadors auditioned for Brunswick Records but failed. However, among those watching was songwriter Berry Gordy Jr, who was impressed with Robinson’s voice in particular. Gordy recorded what was to become their debut single around the time they settled on The Miracles as their name. Got a Job was given to End Records to distribute – Gordy made the princely sum of $3.19 for his production, and Robinson suggested he start his own record label. Which he did, in 1959, and he called it Tamla Records. Bad Girl became their first single to chart in the US, and around this time guitarist Marv Tarplin, fresh from playing with The Primettes (later The Supremes) joined Robinson and co to form the classic line-up.

The Miracles’ first hit came in 1960, when Shop Around reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on the R’n’B chart. It was only modest successes on Motown Records after that until the classic You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me in 1962. The group’s brand of bittersweet, smooth soul, with Robinson’s beautiful voice, made them Motown’s top-selling act and earned them rave reviews for their live performances, which helped them become known as ‘The Showstoppers’.

But The Miracles were so talented, they all helped write some of Motown’s greatest songs sung by other groups. I’m talking soul classics such as The Way You Do the Things You Do and My Girl for The Temptations and My Guy by Mary Wells. Most other Motown acts had their songs written by staff songwriters, but The Miracles mostly recorded their own.

Around 1964, Robinson was made vice president of Motown, and other members of The Miracles took jobs within the label. Unfortunately, Smokey and Claudette made plans to start a family, but the intense touring schedule was believed to contribute to several miscarriages by Claudette, and in 1965 she quit touring, TV and and publicity photos, despite continuing to record until 1972.

That same year they finally made their way into the UK singles chart with one of Motown’s best songs, The Tracks of My Tears, from the album Going to a Go-Go, reaching number nine. From this album onwards they became known as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. In 1966 (Come Round Here) I’m the One You Need reached number 13.

At that year’s Motown Christmas Party, Robinson was approached by fellow label legend Stevie Wonder with a backing track he had come up with along with his producer Hank Cosby. Wonder wondered (sorry) if Robinson wanted to work on it, as he was stumped for any lyrics. After a few days, Robinson felt inspired to come up with something circus-themed to match the distinctive opening, and went back to the clown in the opera Pagliacci, who puts on a show for his audience while crying on the inside. He had used this before in the 1964 song My Smile Is Just A Frown (Turned Upside Down), written for Carolyn Crawford. Weirdly, Little Stevie Wonder covered (I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over, which also referenced Pagliacci, on his album Tribute to Uncle Ray in 1962.

For that famous circus-like opening, they hired Charles Sirard from The Detroit Symphony Orchestra to play the bassoon, which is the low burbling sound beneath the piccolo by Jim Horn. Horn would also feature on albums by The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys.

The Tears of a Clown became the closing track on Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ 1967 album Make It Happen. And, unbelievably, there it stayed for three years. In the meantime I Second That Emotion was a top 30 hit on these shores that year, but then the UK hits dried up once more.

By 1969, Robinson was ready to quit the group and concentrate on his role as Motown vice president and be at home more for Claudette, as they had finally started a family. But all that was to change in 1970, when the frustrated British division of Motown asked Karen Spreadbury, head of a Motown fan club here, to pick a song they could release as a single, and she chose The Tears of a Clown.

Motown may be a legendary label, and for good reason, but you do have to wonder about how many hits they let slip through the net when you look at the stories behind The Tears of a Clown and I Heard It Through the Grapevine. Perhaps Gordy (and Wonder, before he became more experimental) found that opening too weird, without realising its exactly that which draws the listener in to begin with. But Robinson was such an expert songsmith he’s able to keep up the momentum, with his always wonderful, soaring vocal and great lyrics.

The idea of a song about a man masking his pain had been done plenty of times before, including by Robinson himself on The Tracks of My Tears. However, I’d argue Robinson’s lyrics here make The Tears of a Clown the definitive example. I particularly like ‘But don’t let my glad expression/Give you the wrong impression’ and the chorus. Robinson is a man on top of his game here. A sad song about heartbreak that’s uplifting and you can dance to it. Oh, and of course, Robinson’s voice. What’s not to love?

The renewed interest in Smokey Robinson and the Miracles meant The Tears of a Clown was then released in the US, albeit in a new mix. It reached number 1 in their home country too.This double success persuaded Robinson to stay on as lead singer for longer. They had their own TV special in the US, The Smokey Robinson Show, also starring The Supremes, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder. One more hit, 1971’s I Don’t Blame You at All followed, and then Robinson decided it was time to go in 1972, introducing Billy Griffin as his replacement. Their final album together was Flying High Together, including the ironic single We’ve Come Too Far To End It Now. Claudette chose to retire entirely from the group too, and within a year Tarplin had gone.

Their first releases in 1973 landed without trace, but they scored a 1974 US hit with funk song Do It Baby. And then in 1976 came the great disco smash Love Machine – Part 1, which was a US number 1 and reached number three in the UK. Despite this, The Miracles left Motown and signed with Columbia Records in 1977, but the hits dried up again, and they split in 1978.

In 1980 The New Miracles were formed and lasted three years. Then in 1983 the Robinsons, Moore, Tarplin and Rogers reunited to perform a medley on the TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.

In 1993 White, Rogers and New Miracles member Dave Finley reformed The Miracles with former Shalamar singer Sydney Justin. Sadly White died in 1995. The group continued to perform until 2011, with even Claudette returning to the fold (now divorced from Smokey), but age caught up with some of the longest-serving members. Tarplin died in 2011, then Rogers in 2013, then Moore in 2017.

Smokey Robinson went on to have a solo UK number 1 in 1981 with Being With You, so I’ll cover his solo career and the controversy with his entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in due course.

The Tears of a Clown has been covered time and time again, and the most notable version is Tears of a Clown, a well-deserved number six hit for ska and new wave group The Beat in 1979.

Written by: Hank Cosby, Smokey Robinson & Stevie Wonder

Producers: Hank Cosby & Smokey Robinson

Weeks at number 1: 1 (12-18 September)

Births:

Cricketer Darren Gough – 18 September

Meanwhile…

18 September: US rock star and guitar god Jimi Hendrix, died in London from a suspected drug-induced heart attack, aged only 27.

289. Elvis Presley – The Wonder of You (1970)

The Wonder of You was Elvis Presley’s 16th and final number 1 in his lifetime. In the five years since his last number 1, Crying in the Chapel (which dated back to 1960), the King’s career had reached the doldrums, before a dramatic comeback. Sadly, though, The Wonder of You marked the beginning of another descent – his last one.

Presley proposed to Priscilla Beaulieu at Christmas 1966, seven years after they had first met, and they married in May 1967. Earlier that year he had released the Grammy-winning gospel album How Great Thou Art, but in October his soundtrack LP to his movie Clambake registered record low sales. The Summer of Love had just passed, flower power was everywhere, and Elvis couldn’t have been more out of fashion.

His manager Colonel Tom Parker made a deal for Presley to appear in a Christmas special on TV in December 1968. The singer was initially sceptical, and he had every reason to be, seemingly forever stuck releasing one dire film after another. However, once he got talking to the show’s director and co-producer Steve Binder, he realised this could be the chance to revitalise a failing career. He was proved right. The 68 comeback special, titled simply Elvis, featured lavish numbers, but everyone remembers the back-to-basic segments, in which he performed in tight leather in front of a small crowd (his first live performances since 1961). It was a return to the Elvis of the 50s, raw and fresh, with buckets of charisma. And he looked cool as fuck. No longer would the King be willing to do whatever he was told by Parker

Elvis kickstarted a purple patch in which the King was seemingly let off Parker’s tight rein, and he went on to record some of the best material of his career, particularly during the sessions for the 1969 album From Elvis in Memphis. The album closed with In the Ghetto, which reached number two on these shores, but was held off the top spot by Thunderclap Newman’s Something in the Air. Criminally, Suspicious Minds, probably my favourite Elvis song, also stalled at number two at the start of 1970 here, despite becoming his final US number 1.

Presley was keen to get back to regular live performances, and just when things were looking up for the new decade, Parker booked him to an initial run of 57 shows over four weeks at the new International Hotel in Las Vegas. Bill Belew, who had struck gold by coming up with the King’s leather look for his comeback, designed his first jumpsuit to wear. His initial Vegas show went down a storm, and Parker booked him a five-year run in which Presley would perform every February and August. The Jordannaires chose not to join him, and longtime collaborators guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer DJ Fontana also declined.

The Wonder of You was a live recording from one of his Vegas gigs of February 1970. It was the first live number 1 since Lonnie Donegan’s My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) in 1960. Thankfully it’s not as bad as that horror show of a song, but they are similar, in that Wonder of You represents the final slide into cabaret for a once vital, dangerous artist.

The song, written by Baker Knight, was originally a top 30 single for US singer Ray Peterson in 1959. It also became a hit for number 1 artists Ronnie Hilton, and The Platters too.

Elvis turns this into an anthem in which he pays tribute to the fans that have stuck by him through thick and thin. It even mentions him by his nickname, albeit inadvertently.
‘And when you smile the world is brighter
You touch my hand and I’m a king
Your kiss to me is worth a fortune
Your love for me is everything’

It’s one big love-in really, a drunken singalong, and the King and crowd alike are all having a whale of a time. But it all feels rather hollow with the knowledge of what was to come. Elvis’s next number 1 came after his death. His Vegas residency had transformed into a bloated drug-addled, depressed, darkly-comic version of the singer here.

Since its time at number 1, The Wonder of You has become associated with football clubs Port Vale, Arsenal and Scottish team Ross County.

Written by: Baker Knight

Weeks at number 1: 6 (1 August-11 September) 

Births:

Footballer Alan Shearer – 13 August
Snooker player Peter Ebdon – 27 August

Deaths:

Footballer Jesse Pennington – 5 September

Meanwhile…

9 August: Police battled with black rioters in Notting Hill, London.

20 August: England may have lost at the World Cup, but there was some good news for team captain Bobby Moore – he was cleared of stealing a bracelet in Colombia just before the tournament had begun.

21 August: The moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party was first established in Northern Ireland. 

26-31 August: The third Isle of Wight Festival took place, with music from Jimi Hendrix, The Who and The Doors. This was the last of the three original festivals there, and was the largest event of its kind for years, with anywhere between 500,000 and 700,000 attending.

9 September: BOAC Flight 775 was hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine after taking off from Bahrain. This was the first time a British plane had been hijacked.

288. Mungo Jerry – In the Summertime (1970)

For a while, weirdly, it looked like Mungo Jerry may be the heirs to The Beatles’ throne. This rock/pop/skiffle/jug band scored 1970’s biggest-selling number 1, and one of the most memorable summer anthems of all time with their debut single In the Summertime. ‘Mungomania’ was a very real thing.

Mungo Jerry formed from the ashes of 60s rock’n’roll and blues band The Good Earth, featuring, among others, singer-songwriter and guitarist Ray Dorset and keyboardist Colin Earl. The other half of the band were gone by the end of 1968, and with one remaining commitment – the Oxford University Christmas Ball of 1968 – left to go, Dorset hired Joe Rush to play double bass. The Good Earth played again when the night was over, performing folk, skiffle and jug band originals and covers.

This more low-key, acoustic version of the band went down well, and they built a following thanks to regular gigs. Banjoist, guitarist, and blues harp player Paul King made them a quartet. Rush left, to be replaced by Mike Cole, and they changed their name to Mungo Jerry, taking the name from TS Elliot’s poem ‘Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer’, as featured in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

Mungo Jerry signed with Pye Records, who placed them on their progressive imprint Dawn Records. They set to work recording their eponymous debut album, and the tracks that would make up their first single. This was to be one of, if not the first maxi-single in the UK. Vinyl maxi-singles were played at 33⅓rpm, rather than 45, and featured more than two tracks.

Dorset was still working his day job in a lab for watchmakers Timex when he came up with lead track In the Summertime, which he knocked off in 10 minutes. Clearly he could tell this ditty could make for a great debut for Mungo Jerry, but it’s unlikely he knew the impact this tale of youthful freewheeling would have for the next half a century.

Much like Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky, In the Summertime will be the one track associated with Mungo Jerry (despite a second, long-since-forgotten, number 1), has been used countless times in the media, and is a tune neither I or millions more will ever tire of. It’s all about that loveable, rickety old backing track, really, with a distinctive rhythm created by Dorset stomping and playing an African percussive instrument called the cabasa. I assume it’s also him doing the breathy interjections. Dorset’s an interesting character. His voice has an unusual bleating quality, like a friendly sheep. Footage of him from back in the day though, such as in the video they filmed for the single, above, used to scare me when I was younger. I used to think, with all the teeth and sideburns, he was some kind of hairy villain. Special mention must go to Earl’s piano riff, too.

50 years on, its the lyrics that prove problematic. In the Summertime is a song about being young, about the generational divide of 1970. You could even call it a somewhat passive-aggressive statement of intent:
‘We’re no threat, people,
We’re not dirty, we’re not mean,
We love everybody but we do as we please’

Dorset and his gang are happy-go-lucky, but in the end, they’ll do what they want, so don’t stop them. And that involves womanising and driving recklessly, possibly while under the influence. The lyric ‘If her daddy’s rich take her out for a meal/If her daddy’s poor just do what you feel’ may have just sounded cheeky back then, but it’s unpleasant to hear these days.

And of course, thanks to a memorable public information film from 1992, it’s ‘Have a drink, have a drive/Go out and see what you can find’ that stands out the most. Anyone that saw this at the time will likely never get the graphic image of the drink-driving accident out of their head whenever they hear this song. But because my mind has unlimited storage for 80s adverts, I also can’t hear it without picturing the curly-haired juggler of oranges in the rewritten version for Outspan. Pretty sure that’s Dorset himself singing ‘Grab an Outspan, the small ones are more juicy naturally’.

Despite the bad vibes of some of Dorset’s lyrics in the 21st century, it’s such an addictive song, it seems it’s never going to go away, and I’m glad about that. In the Summertime stayed at number 1 for seven weeks that summer – the lengthiest run of the 70s until Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody managed nine weeks in 1975/76. The UK’s brief flirtation with Mungomania had begun.

Jamaican-American rapper Shaggy released a version of In the Summertime in 1995, which reached number five that summer. Featuring his mate Rayvon, it eschewed the drink-drive references, but kept the rest of the dodgy bits intact.

Written by: Ray Dorset

Producer: Barry Murray

Weeks at number 1: 7 (13 June-31 July) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Singer-songwriter MJ Hibbett19 June
Field hockey player Russell Garcia – 20 June
Field hockey player
Christine Cook22 June
Footballer David May – 24 June
Actress Lucy Benjamin – 25 June
Footballer Steve Morrow – 2 July
Singer-songwriter Martin Smith – 6 July
Boxer Wayne McCullough
– 7 July
Take That singer
Jason Orange – 10 July
Actor John Simm – 10 July
Conservative MP Saj Karim
11 July
Children’s TV presenter
Andi Peters – 9 July
Director Christopher Nolan – 30 July
Actor Ben Chaplin – 31 July

Deaths:

Scottish sociologist Robert Morrison MacIver – 15 June
Artist Edwin La Dell – 27 June
Dramatist Githa Sowerby – 30 June
Publisher Allen Lane – 7 July
Conservative MP Iain Macleod – 20 July

Meanwhile…

13 June: Actor Laurence Olivier was made a life peer in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. Olivier was the first actor to be made a lord.

14 June: England’s defence of the FIFA World Cup came to an end when they lost 3-2 to West Germany at the quarter final in Mexico (see here).

17 June: The bodies of two children were discovered in shallow graves in woodland at Waltham Abbey, Essex. The bodies were believed to be those of Susan Blatchford (11) and Gary Hanlon (12). The tow children had last been seen alive near their homes in North London on 31 March. This became known as the “Babes in the wood” case.
Also on this day, British Leyland launched its luxury Range Rover.

18 June: The first general election in which 18-year-olds were entitled to vote. Opinion polls pointed towards a record third consecutive victory for the Labour government, led by Harold Wilson.

19 June: Edward Heath’s Conservative Party defied expectations, to win the election with a majority of 30 seats. Notable new MPs included future Labour leaders Neil Kinnock and John Smith for Labour, and Kenneth Clarke, Kenneth Baker, Norman Fowler and Geoffrey Howe, who would all serve in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Cabinet in the 80s.

21 June: British golfer Tony Jacklin won the U.S. Open.

22 June: The Methodist Church allowed women to become full ministers for the first time.

26 June: Riots broke out in Derry over the arrest of Mid-Ulster MP Bernadette Devlin.

29 June: 32-year-old Caroline Thorpe, wife of Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, died in a car crash.

3 July: British Army soldiers battled with IRA troops in Belfast, leading to the deaths of three civilians.
Also on that day, 112 were killed when Dan-Air Flight 1903 from Manchester to Barcelona crashed in the mountains of Northern Spain. There were no survivors.

8 July: Roy Jenkins became Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

14 July: 5 speedway riders were killed in Lokeren, Belgium when a minibus carrying members of the West Ham speedway team crashed into a petrol tanker after a brief tour. One of the casualties was Phil Bishop, a founding member of the West Ham speedway team from before World War Two.

15 July: Dockers voted to strike, leading to a state of emergency the following day.

16–25 July: The British Commonwealth Games were held in Edinburgh. Australia came first, England second, Scotland fourth and Northern Ireland were 10th on the medal table.

17 July: Lord Pearson proposed a settlement of dockers’ strike.

30 July: The dockers’ strike was settled.

31 July – The last issue of grog in the Royal Navy was distributed.

287. Christie – Yellow River (1970)

Here’s a number 1 with an unusual story. Yellow River, Christie’s sole chart-topper, could in a sense also be classed as The Tremeloes’ third number 1, if they hadn’t thrown it away.

Leeds-born singer-songwriter Jeff Christie, born Jeffrey Christie on 12 July 1946, had been a member of rock band The Outer Limits, who had released singles in the late 60s. He had been inspired to write Yellow River after imagining a soldier looking forward to returning home to Yellow River (probably a mythical place) after the American Civil War, and probably thought it would work well with the anti-Vietnam War sentiment of the time.

Christie offered the song to The Tremeloes, who liked it, and recorded it ready to release as a single, but then they went to number two with, ironically, Call Me Number One, and they decided to steer away from pop towards a more progressive sound.

Tremeloes guitarist Alan Blakley’s brother Mike was in a struggling band called The Epics, which also included guitarist Vic Elmes. The story gets muddy here, but someone, possibly Alan, to help Mike, and maybe feeling guilty about ditching Yellow River, suggested its songwriter travel to London to record a new vocal over the track himself, and he did so, forming a new band for its release, called Christie and featuring Elmes and Mike. Their debut single was released on 23 April.

The chorus to Yellow River has existed in my subconscious for years, after I heard a snatch of it on some advert for a compilation album, but also due to the jingle being used in adverts for phone book Yellow Pages when I was a child, before the days of JR Hartley. Bad move by The Tremeloes – it’s a good tune, and way better than their previous number 1s Do You Love Me? and Silence Is Golden.

Apparently, Christie were keen to be considered the British answer to US country rock trio Creedence Clearwater Revival, and they do a great job of living up to that here, except of course, it’s not them behind that speedy finger-picked guitar, effervescent rhythm and top drumming – it’s The Tremeloes. Okay, there’s a fair few number 1s better than this in 1970, but that chorus in particular is a real ear worm. It’s easy to see why it topped the charts, even if it was for only a week. Steer clear of the later remake as it’s leaden by comparison.

Follow-up single San Bernadino, also from their eponymous debut album, was released in October, and reached number seven in the UK, and number 1 in Germany. But the success proved short-lived, and Blakely left before the release of 1971 album For All Mankind. Elmes’s departure in 1973 left Christie as the only remaining original member. No amount of line-up changes (and there were more) could capture that initial momentum though, and in 1976, after Navajo reached number 1 in Mexico, they split up.

Jeff Christie went solo in 1980 for a couple of singles, and then probably did quite well out of the Yellow Pages campaign. He reformed Christie in 1990 with backing from members of the band Tubeless Hearts, and they bid to represent the UK in the 1991 Eurovision Song Contest with Safe in Your Arms, but failed. They have toured and recorded intermittently ever since.

Written by: Jeff Christie

Producer: Mike Smith

Weeks at number 1: 1 (6-12 June)

Deaths:

Novelist EM Forster – 7 June

Meanwhile…

10 June: Earlier in 1970 the Tories were enjoying a few months after the Conservatives had enjoyed opinion poll leads of more than 20 points, and looked likely to form the next government, but the tide had turned. Labour were now several points ahead of the Conservatives, with eight days to go before the general election. Labour’s win would be a record third-in-a-row, if it happened.