Here’s a strange one. Taking up the top spot for most of March was Academy Award-winning Hollywood actor Lee Marvin – definitely not a professional singer – and Wand’rin’ Star, from the 1969 western musical film Paint Your Wagon, based on the 1951 stage show.
Set in a mining camp during the Gold Rush in California, the film also starred Clint Eastwood in a singing role. Despite its notoriety now, it was panned upon its release. Not much of a fan of westerns or musicals, I’ve never seen it, and likely never will.
The song Wand’rin’ Star, like the rest of the music in the film/show, came from Frederick Loewe, with the lyrics by Alan J Lerner. Together, the duo wrote some of the most famous musicals of all time, including My Fair Lady (Vic Damone had a UK number 1 in 1958 with On the Street Where You Live).
The makers of the movie had a problem when it cames to filming. Prematurely white-haired, gruff-voiced Marvin, one of the top actors of the era, was no singer, yet he had top billing in his role as prospector Ben Rumson. And he refused to mime.
Marvin was born 19 February 1924 in New York City. The son of an advertising executive and fashion editor, he struggled from authority from an early age – running away from home for two days at the age of four, and expelled from a succession of boarding schools. However when he was 18 he dropped out of a Florida prep school to join the Marines in 1942, determined to prove how tough he was. Marvin was wounded in action in 1944 and spent a year in hospital.
Upon his discharge he took up various menial jobs and stumbled upon acting almost by accident. Soon, he was in a Broadway production of Billy Budd, before the 50s beckoned, and he garnered many small TV roles.
Next, came Hollywood, and a role as a murderer in an episode of crime drama Dragnet got him noticed, leading to him being typecast as the bad guy in films. Two such roles came in The Big Heat and The Wild One (both 1953) – the latter of which may be where The Beatles got their name from (Marvin’s gang were called The Beetles). He finally got to be leading man in the TV crime drama The M Squad, which ran from 1957-60.
Once the series ended, he went up a notch in film roles, starring in The Comancheros (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Donovan’s Reef (1963). But it was 1965 surprise-hit comedy Cat Ballou that really shot him to the big time, and he won the Best Actor Oscar that year.
The Dirty Dozen was a commercial success, and Point Blank adored by critics, both in 1967. Hell in the Pacific was also acclaimed a year later, and in 1969 Marvin was set to star in The Wild Bunch, but he fell out with director Sam Peckinpah and opted for Paint Your Wagon instead.
Wand’rin’ Star finds Marvin’s character fending for himself and contemplating his hobo lifestyle. The song was orchestrated and arranged by Nelson Riddle, who had been working with some of the most legendary singers since the 40s – including Frank Sinatra on his first number 1, Three Coins in the Fountain.
The first time I listened to this, I thought Siri had accidentally picked an instrumental version, perhaps used as incidental music in the film. It’s quite some time before Marvin’s gravelly vocal begins. And you know what, yes, it’s out of tune and his timing is also off at times, but I’d take his voice over the dated backing singers.
It’s all about the mood, and Marvin’s baritone fits perfectly. His off-key rasp puts across that this is someone that’s been damaged, that’s gone through some shit, but is proud of the lifestyle he has.
Also, there’s some really great lyrics here, particularly:
I’ve never seen a sight that didn’t look better looking back
Do I know where hell is?
Hell is in hello
Heaven is goodbye for ever, it’s time for me to go
No wonder this was played at Joe Strummer’s funeral, and covered by Shane MacGowan and the Popes. There’s real depth here. I can do without the backing singers taking over at one point, and I probably won’t be listening to it much in the future, but it’s surprisingly good. And the public clearly thought so too. This even kept Let It Be off the top spot!
Marvin remained active in films throughout the 70s, but despite his roles becoming diverse, nothing matched the 60s for him, commercially or critically. He was offered the role of Quint in Jaws (1975) but turned it down.
He was embroiled in a high-profile lawsuit in 1979 when his old live-in girlfriend, Michelle Triola, who had changed her surname to Marvin, claimed he had promised her half his income while they were still together. This was the first time the US Supreme Court has allowed such a case between unmarried couples. The judge only awarded her enough money to get back on her feet.
Marvin claimed to spend much of the remainder of his years living in the desert, which makes him sound very similar to the character Ben – no wonder he sang it with such conviction. He starred in Gorky Park in 1983, and his final film was The Delta Force alongside Chuck Norris in 1986.
Marvin fell ill that December, and after a number of issues he died of a heart attack on 29 August 1987, aged 63.
Written by: Alan J Lerner & Frederick Loewe
Producer: Tom Mack
Orchestra conducted by: Nelson Riddle
Weeks at number 1: 3 (7-27 March)
12 March: The government’s anti-rabies measures following an outbreak in Newmarket, Suffolk meant that the quarantine period for cats and dogs was increased to one year.
13 March: The Bridgwater by-election became the first in which 18-year-olds could vote. Tom King of the Conservatives was the victor.
17 March: Martin Peters, who scored for England in the 1966 World Cup final, became the first footballer in the country worth £200,000 after transferring from West Ham United to Tottenham Hotspur.
23 March: – 18 victims of the thalidomide scandal were awarded nearly £370,000 in compensation.