As the summer of 1960 turned to Autumn, heavy rainfall caused severe flooding in the valley of the River Exe and surrounding areas of Devon, and on 7 October, flooding takes place in Horncastle, Lincolnshire. To this day (26 March 2018), it still holds the UK record for the highest 180-min total rainfall at 178mm. Six days earlier, Nigeria was the latest country to gain its independence from the UK. The Sheffield Tramway closed on 8 October, leaving Blackpool as the only place in England using electric trams, and on 17 October the daily News Chronicle stopped publishing, becoming absorbed into the Daily Mail.
During these three weeks, Ricky Valance became the first Welsh male artist to hit the number 1 spot, with one of the more famous teenage tragedy songs of the early 1960s, Tell Laura I Love Her. This genre had been growing in popularity from the mid-to-late 50s, melding rock’n’roll with the stories normally told in folk ballads. The first notable example of these songs was Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots, sang by the Cheers. This song grew in popularity following James Dean’s death in a car accident in 1955. However, the first teenage tragedy song to hit number 1 in the UK had only happened in March 1960. Johnny Preston’s Running Bear had been an unusual track, telling the tale of the doomed romance of two Indians, complete with politically incorrect Indian chanting from George Jones and JP ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson (who had written the track before his untimely death in 1959). Tell Laura I Love Her had been written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh. Barry went on to write or co-write some of the biggest songs of the 60s, including Do Wah Diddy Diddy, Be My Baby, River Deep – Mountain High and Leader of the Pack.
Tell Laura I Love Her had been a big hit in the US for Ray Peterson, but Decca Records refused to release it in the UK, considering it ‘tasteless and vulgar’. 20,000 copies that had already been made were destroyed. An over-the-top reaction, no doubt, but for many, the permissive 60s were yet to actually happen. The BBC were also loathe to play these ‘death discs’, but the Beeb had banned songs before, and it hadn’t stopped them reaching number 1 (see David Whitfield and Frankie Laine‘s versions of Answer Me). Not that this song was particularly vulgar, anyway. So when EMI Columbia offered the track to their new signing, Ricky Valance, he seized the opportunity, and with hit-making producer Norrie Paramore involved, the number 1 spot became his.
Valance had been born David Spencer in 1939 in Ynysddu, Monmouthshire, Wales. He had joined the RAF aged 17, before going on to perform in clubs, and subsequently getting noticed by an A&R representative for EMI. With his sweet voice and good looks, Valance was a great choice for the label.
Tell Laura I Love Her tells the tragic tale of teenagers Tommy and Laura. Tommy wants to marry Laura, and decides to enter a stock car race, with the hope of using the prize money to buy her a wedding ring. However, the race goes horribly wrong, and Tommy is killed when his car overturns and sets alight. Lyricist Barry was a big fan of cowboy culture and originally Tommy entered a rodeo, but RCA had insisted it became a stock car to make it more in keeping with the present fashions, which was probably a wise move.
The song doesn’t get off to a great start, as the verses are rather functional and dull, and the ‘bom-bom-bom-bom’ backing vocal really ruins the mood. The chorus is great, though. Memorable and sad, it lifts an otherwise average song, and Valance’s tender voice fits it like a glove. The lyrics might seem hokey now, but that’s par for the course with this sub-genre. It pales in comparison to recent classics such as Shakin’ All Over and Apache, though.
Tell Laura I Love Her sold over a million in 1960. Although it was his only UK number 1, Movin’ Away went to the top in Australia and Scandinavia. A year later, Valance entered A Song for Europe, but only made it to third place. His name soon slipped from the public eye, but he continued to perform on the cabaret and nostalgia circuit. Following severe depression and a nervous breakdown he became a born-again Christian, and still continues to release music.
Written by: Jeff Barry & Ben Raleigh
Producer: Norrie Paramor
Weeks at number 1: 3 (29 September-19 October)