Hmm. Novelty songs were all the rage back in the 50s. I’ve nothing against novelty songs if done right, but these early ones came way before anyone had even thought of political correctness. She Wears Red Feathers is the bizarre tale of an English banker’s love for a hula-hula girl, who apparently ‘lives on just cokey-nuts and fish from the sea’. The banker and his love get married in a ceremony involving an elephant and baboons playing bassoons… clearly, the weirdest number 1 up to this point.
This song didn’t do great in the US, but the British have always had a more eccentric sense of humour, and they welcomed it with open arms and sent cheeky US crooner and actor Guy Mitchell’s version to number 1 on 13 March.
Mitchell’s real name was Albert George Cernik. The son of Croatian immigrants (parents who immigrated to the US seems to be a common theme among many of these early number 1 stars) was born on 22 February 1927. Cernik was signed to Warner Brothers Pictures when only 11 to sing and act.
During World War Two he served in the US navy before accepting an invitation to join Carmen Cavallaro’s big band, but solo stardom was right around the corner when he, like Al Martino, won the radio talent show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in 1949. A year later he signed with Columbia, where Mitch Miller took him under his wing and dubbed him Guy Mitchell, because he seemed like a nice guy. Debut single My Heart Cries for You made him an instant success, narrowly missing out on the top spot in America. His first hit in the UK, the bizarre Feet Up (Pat Him on the Po-Po), was the first ever number two in the singles chart.
Despite the lyrics to She Wears Red Feathers being highly questionable, (‘cokey-nuts’ is performed by Mitchell in a ‘comedy’ accent), the chorus is memorable. It’s the sort of tune you can imagine Nigel Farage singing after a skinful.
Worryingly, it’s the earliest number 1 I have heard. It’s been lurking somewhere in the dark corners of my mind all this time, as I recognised the title when I came upon it and the chorus started up in my brain automatically. I’ve no idea where I heard it. We certainly didn’t own a copy, so it must have been in a film or TV show.
The song was created in 1952 (all these early number ones so far have actually dated from the previous year) by US songsmith Bob Merrill. Merrill had an astounding hit rate and was the second most successful songwriter of the decade in this country. He co-wrote If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake with Al Hoffman and Clem Watts in 1950, and specialised in comical, catchy tunes.
Merrill and Mitchell worked very well together, especially when produced by Mitch Miller, who was renowned for inventiveness and gimmickry. Miller hated rock’n’roll when it came about, calling it ‘musical baby food’, and he turned both Elvis Presley and the Beatles down. Not exactly forward-thinking, Mitch.
However, back in the early 50s, Mitchell, Merrill and Miller could do no wrong, and Mitchell scored another three number 1s.
Glam rockers Mud recorded an awful cover of She Wears Red Feathers in the 70s, when being PC still didn’t matter, and you can hear it here, if you really need to.
Written by: Bob Merrill
Producer: Mitch Miller
Weeks at number 1: 4 (13 March-9 April)
Author Christopher Fowler – 26 March
Queen Mary – 24 March
Poet Idris Davies – 6 April
24 March: Queen Mary, consort of the deceased King George V, died peacefully in her sleep.
On the same day, the discovery of several bodies at 10 Rillington Place shocked the country. The murderer, John Christie, had moved out four days earlier, leaving several bodies hidden around the house. He had killed at least eight people, including his wife Ethel.
31 March: Both the funeral of Queen Mary and the arrest of Christie took place. Mary had insisted that the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II should not be delayed in the event of her death. The trial of Christie, later in the year, revealed a terrible miscarriage of justice in which a husband and father had been wrongly sentenced to death by hanging.