It came as no surprise that the best-selling single of 1961 was by Elvis Presley. However, I would have hoped it would be one of his better tracks, something of similar quality to Are You Lonesome Tonight?. As history has proven time and time again in the charts though, it’s that some artists can release any old tat, and that often, there’s no accounting for taste when it comes to the number 1 single.
Here is a prime example. Wooden Heart is probably Elvis’ recording nadir, and yet it stayed at the top for a ridiculous six weeks.
The song was based on the German folk song Muss i denn by Friedrich Silcher. It’s possible that, as with It’s Now Or Never, Elvis heard the original while based in West Germany and fancied recording it, but if so, he never admitted to it. This is understandable. It took four people to adapt this song, and the guilty party are Elvis soundtrack collaborators Fred Wise, Ben Wiseman and Kay Twomey, along with German bandleader Bert Kaempfert. A year later, Kaempfert hired The Beatles to back Tony Sheridan on his album, My Bonnie, released in 1962.
It featured in Elvis’s new movie, GI Blues, in which he played the magnificently-named Tulsa McLean, a solider serving in West Germany who also has a music career. Wherever did they draw the inspiration for this particular plot? I haven’t seen the film, and definitely have no intention of doing so, but he sings Wooden Heart to a puppet. Let that sink in for a minute. It would seem that Elvis’s transformation from dangerous heart-throb to family entertainer was complete.
Is there anything good to say about Wooden Heart? I suppose you could argue it was a brave decision for Presley to turn his hand to something so different from his standard fare. And, annoyingly, it is rather catchy. But so catchy it deserved to be number 1 for six weeks? No. The lyrics are trite, too, and half way through, Elvis starts singing the words to Muss i den, then a translation of the new lyrics at the end. Maybe this was his weird way of paying tribute to the country he lived in for two years? I really don’t know.
Wooden Heart didn’t even get released as a single in the US, so the people behind him may have known it might cause his reputation some damage. However, a cover by Joe Dowell later made it to number 1, so there’s the proof that US audiences were as bad as British. Eventually, Elvis’s version was sneaked out as the B-side to Blue Christmas in 1964.
Written by: Fred Wise, Ben Weisman, Kay Twomey & Bert Kaempfert
Producer: Steve Sholes
Weeks at number 1: 6 (23 March-3 May) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*
Conservative leader William Hague – 26 March
Rugby league player Ellery Hanley – 27 March
Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom – 29 March
Actor Robert Caryle – 14 April
Fashion designer Bella Freud – 17 April
Actor Nicholas Lyndhurst – 20 April
Chef Phil Vickery – 2 May
Artist Vanessa Bell – 7 April
17 April: Tottenham Hotspur won the Football League First Division title for the second time, defeating Sheffield Wednesday 2-1. They have failed to win it since.
27 April: Sierra Leone became the latest country to gain independence from the UK – perhaps they discovered we had picked Wooden Heart as the best single available?
1 May: Betting shops become legal under the terms of the Betting and Gaming Act 1960, and 19 people died in a fire at the Top Storey Club, a nightclub in Bolton. This tragedy resulted in the swift passing of a new Licensing Act to improve fire safety.