By the spring of 1959 it had been three years since Winifred Atwell had last topped the charts, with The Poor People of Paris. Despite the changes in musical tastes since then, there was still a market for jolly old honky tonk instrumentals that you could have a jolly good knees-up to. Who could fill that gap? Step forward, Russ Conway.
Born Trevor Stanford (the name his self-penned songs would be credited to) on 2 September 1925 in Bristol, his mother had been a pianist but died when he was only 14. His two brothers had formal musical education, but no real talent to speak of, whereas Conway was the opposite.
He served in the Navy during World War Two, where he was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal for ‘gallantry and devotion to duty’. During the war his many health problems began, which saw him discharged due to a stomach ulcer. He had lost one of the tips of a finger in an accident with a bread-slicer, but that didn’t stop him taking his friend’s advice, and upon his return, Conway agreed to stand in for a holidaying club pianist. He then began performing in pubs and clubs, before being spotted by the choreographer Irving Davies. He signed to EMI’s Colombia label, where he would play piano for stars including Gracie Fields.
Eventually Conway made it on to The Billy Cotton Band Show, and it was Cotton who was instrumental in persuading Conway to loosen up and develop the style that made him a solo star. His first solo single, Party Pops, was released in 1957, and was a medley in the vein of Atwell’s 1954 Christmas number 1, Let’s Have Another Party. However, it was by composing that he made his breakthrough. When writing a score for a TV musical version of Beauty and the Beast, Conway was asked at the last minute to write a tune for a ballroom scene. He hastily came up with one and called it Side Saddle.
This has to be one of the strangest number 1 singles so far. I’m really struggling to grasp how it happened. At least with Atwell, her number 1s were covers of familiar tunes played at a manic pace. I’ve now listened to Side Saddle several times and I can’t remember the tune, let alone work out how it spent a month at the top. It has a certain quaint charm I guess and will have reminded the oldies of the time of their youth, perhaps. That’s the best I can manage, I’m afraid.
Written by: Trevor Stanford
Producer: Norman Newell
Weeks at number 1: 4 (27 March-23 April)
Actress Emma Thompson – 15 April
Painter Peter Doig – 17 April
The Cure singer Robert Smith – 21 April
30 March: An early CND rally took place in Trafalgar Square that saw 20,000 demonstrators attend.
2 April: United Dairies merged with Cow & Gate to become Unigate. You might say, ‘So what?’, and it’s before my time too, but Unigate are fondly remembered for their ‘Watch out there’s a Humphrey about’ adverts in the 70s… My mind is wandering… can we have a number 1 I can understand next, please?