It never occurred to me that This Ole House could be about anything other than, well, doing up an old house. To me, and probably most children of the late-70s or early-80s, it conjures up happy memories of Shakin’ Stevens hanging around an old building in the video of his 1981 cover version. What with this, his cover of Green Door, and his love of denim, I think I assumed Shaky was some sort of singing builder as a child. Upon researching the original number one version, by Rosemary Clooney, I found out the dark origins of this chirpy tune, and suddenly the song is probably the deepest UK number 1 up to this point.
Stuart Hamblen was an alcoholic, gambling-addicted singer-songwriter and radio personality. He was constantly getting into scrapes and being bailed out due to his charm. In 1949, he decided to take a different path, converting to Christianity after attending one of Billy Graham’s rallies. He was fired from his radio show for refusing to do beer commercials, and stopped his addictions. While out hunting with a friend, he came across an abandoned shack on a mountain. Upon inspection, they found a dog guarding a dead body. Allegedly, he came up with the lyrics while riding back down the mountain. So, the ‘ole house’ in question is in fact the body you leave behind when you die. Seems obvious when you then read the lyrics, but to be fair, I didn’t do that back in 1981, I was barely reading.
Of course, the fact the tune is so catchy and, (especially by comparison to most number 1s of the day), kind-of rollicking, also obscures the subject matter. It wouldn’t make a bad funeral song. Sod the fact you’re dying, your body has had it anyway, and better times await. It’s the perfect vehicle for Rosemary Clooney, who belts it out with gusto.
Clooney, born 23 May, 1928 in Maysville, Kentucky, was one of three children born to alcoholic parents, which meant a lonely existence, often being left with relatives. But at the age of 16 she formed a singing duo with her sister Betty. Brother Nick would later become a newsreader, and of course Rosemary’s nephew is Hollywood star George Clooney.
Clooney made her first recordings with Tony Pastor’s big band, before turning solo in 1949. Two years later, she rocketed to success with Come On-a My House in 1951, which she hated (yet another ‘house-related’ song). 1954 was one of her most successful years, as that winter also saw the release of the film White Christmas, in which she starred alongside Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye.
Unlike most number 1s of the era, people could actually dance to this! Pop was back at the top. In particular, the piano break is a lot of fun, and best of all, the man with the deep voice singing ‘Ain’t a-gonna need this house no longer…’ is Thurl Ravenscroft, the original voice behind Tony the Tiger! What more could you ask for?
Written by: Stuart Hamblen
Producer: Mitch Miller
Weeks at number 1: 1 (26 November-2 December)