26. Winifred Atwell & Her ‘Other’ Piano – Let’s Have Another Party (1954)

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As 1954 drew to a close, the charts were finally livening up. Rosemary Clooney’s This Ole House had shown the way forward, and a certain song called Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & His Comets had been getting attention. Unlike the previous December, when record buyers had chosen the solemn Answer Me by Frankie Laine as their Christmas number 1, everyone decided they wanted to spend the festive season having a bloody good knees up. And so on 3 December, Winifred Atwell’s instrumental Let’s Have Another Party went to the top and stayed there until the new year. She had become the first black person to have a number 1.

Una Winifred Atwell was born in Trinidad & Tobago, date unknown, though her gravestone suggests 1910. She was expected to join the family business and become a pharmacist, but she had loved playing the piano since childhood, and left her home to study music in the US, before moving to London and becoming the first female pianist to achieve the highest grading at the Royal Academy of Music. Substituting for an ill star at the Capitol Theatre, she caught the interest of famous impresario Bernard Delfont with her frenetic honky tonk style of playing. Before long, her version of Black and White Rag made her famous (it was later used as the theme tune to the BBC’s snooker show Pot Black)

Let’s Have Another Party was a follow-up to her hit Let’s Have a Party (see what she did there?). Atwell showcased her skills once more with a medley of 10 songs. Easily the longest chart-topper so far, she ran through Somebody Stole My Gal, I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight, When the Red Red Robin, Bye Bye Blackbird, The Sheik of Araby, Another Little Drink, Lily of Laguna, Honeysuckle and the Bee, Broken Doll and Nellie Dean. She did this without pause, at a relentless pace, and as old-fashioned as it sounds now, it’s very refreshing to hear something so different to what came before. Atwell had mad skills, you could say. You can imagine people gathering round the gramophone on Christmas Day and actually smiling along to this, or perhaps even going so far as to have a little dance, and it’s a lovely image.

Although the charts in 1954 had often offered up more of the same, the number ones were of more interesting fare than 1953, with a little less crooning and more (dreadful) comedy, jazz and pop. 1954 showed early signs of how unpredictable the UK charts could and would be in years to come.

Written by: Leo Wood/Walter Donaldson & Russ Kahn/Harry Woods/Ray Henderson & Mort Dixon/Harry B Smith, Francis Wheeler & Ted Snyder/Clifford Grey & Nat Dyer/Leslie Stuart/William Penn & Albert Fitz/Douglas & Guy C Rawson/Henry W Armstrong

Weeks at number 1: 5 (3 December 1954-6 January 1955)

Producer: Johnny Franz

Births:

Author Hanif Kureishi – 5 December
Author Louis de Bernières – 8 December
Singer Annie Lennox – 25 December
SNP leader Alex Salmond – 31 December
Classicist Mary Beard – 1 January
Comedian Jimmy Mulville – 5 January 

Deaths:

Author James Hilton – 20 December

Meanwhile…

Christmas Day: The Prestwick air disaster occurred at 3.30 that morning, when the RMA Cathay struggled with intense rain and landed short of the runway at Prestwick Airport in Scotland. The aircraft overturned and burst into flames, killing 28 of the 36 on board, including two children and cricket star Kenneth Davidson.

25. Rosemary Clooney with Buddy Cole & His Orchestra – This Ole House (1954)

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)

24. Vera Lynn with Frank Weir, His Saxophone, His Orchestra & Chorus – My Son, My Son (1954)

‘Vera, Vera, what has become of you?’ So Roger Waters sang on Pink Floyd’s Vera from 1980 double album The Wall. It may well be partly because I love that album, but at some point I got it into my head that Dame Vera Lynn had died, a long time back. I was shocked upon researching this to find out she turned 100 on 20 March 2017. 100! Well done Vera.

What’s more, ‘the Forces Sweetheart’ achieved an incredible feat that year. She released the compilation Vera Lynn 100, making her the first centenarian performer to have an album in the charts. Amazing really, when you consider that she had three singles in the initial UK top 12 back in 1952 (which was actually a top 15 due to tied positions) – Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart, The Homing Waltz and Forget-Me-Not. The first of those three had also been the first single by a British performer to be number 1 in the US. And now I’m updating this in 2019, Lynn is the oldest living number 1 artist on these shores.

It had taken a long time for Britain to recover from World War Two, so it’s no wonder that Lynn was still in vogue in the mid-50s. However, rationing had just come to an end, so I’m sure this would have been symbolic of a need to finally move on from such traumatic times. Perhaps this is partly why My Son, My Son remains her only number 1 single, and the beginning of her decline in fame. It had been written by Gordon Melville Rees, Bob Howard and trumpeter Eddie Calvert, who had scored a number 1 with Oh Mein Papa back at the start of the year. But how did Vera Lynn become such a national treasure?

Born Vera Margaret Welch in East Ham, Essex on 20 March 1917, she was performing publicly by the age of seven, and it was four years later that she took her grandmother Margaret Lynn’s surname and became Vera Lynn. She made her first radio broadcast with The Joe Loss Orchestra in 1935 and began making her initial recordings with them, plus other big dance band names such as Charlie Kunz.

At the same time, she was recording as a solo artist. Her first release was Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire in 1936 and her first hit came a year later with The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot. But of course she is most famous for the 1939 recording We’ll Meet Again, the most memorable song of World War Two.

Her first solo live performance – by which time she had become the Forces Sweetheart – was 1940, the year of the Blitz. In 1941, Lynn began her own radio programme, Sincerely Yours, where she would perform soldiers’ requests and send messages to overseas troops. A year later came her second most well-known song, The White Cliffs of Dover.

She dedicated her career to the war effort, touring Egypt, India and Burma to lend moral support until Hitler was defeated in 1945. This of course also helped her become better known in other countries, and in 1952 her fame spread to the US. She went to number 1 there with Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart for nine weeks. And two years later came My Son My Son.

I feel bad slating this, but the fact she helped a nation keep sane in the war doesn’t make My Son, My Son any easier to enjoy now. Frank Lee’s production is overblown, with backing vocals from a male voice choir that hurt the ears. The lyrics tap into the spirit of songs like We’ll Meet Again by paying tribute to a mother’s son. You can picture a soldier’s mum singing it in-between sobbing over a letter from her brave boy fighting in another country. It seems trite in this day and age, and possibly to the younger generation back then, keen for something with some energy and spirit. Having said that, it was the all-too-typical-of-the-time Hold My Hand by Don Cornell that knocked Lynn off the top for a second run as bestseller.

My Son My Son was Lynn’s commercial peak, and her decline came soon after, like so many of her ilk, but in the 60s and 70s she had her own BBC variety series and would regularly guest on other shows, including The Royal Variety Performance and Morecambe and Wise’s 1972 Christmas special.

Lynn’s enduring popularity and link to the war effort meant she was a natural to use during anniversary celebrations, and her final performances marked VE Day’s 50th anniversary in 1995 by performing outside Buckingham Palace and later that evening in Hyde Park. A fitting end to a remarkable live career.

It says a lot about Lynn that the fact she had (an admittedly) poor number one is somewhat of an afterthought really during her long career. Who cares when you are known as the person that kept so many soldiers going during terrible times? 

Written by: Gordon Melville Rees, Bob Howard & Eddie Calvert

Producer: Frank Lee

Weeks at number 1: 2 (5-18 November)

Meanwhile…

13 November: Great Britain defeated France at the Parc des Princes in Paris to win the first ever Rugby League World Cup final.

 

23. Don Cornell with Orchestra directed by Jerry Carr – Hold My Hand (1954)

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Frank Sinatra’s three-week stint at number 1 with Three Coins in the Fountain came to an end when he was replaced by another crooner. Don Cornell (born Luigi Francisco Varlaro on 21 April 1919) was a super-smooth baritone singer from the Bronx.

He had been a singing waiter, until a fight with someone over a racist remark caught the eye (not literally) of a boxing promoter. Varlaro won 20professional fights, but decided to walk away when asked to throw a fight for money. Sounds like a pretty decent guy, all in all.

He became a guitarist but his bandleader Sammy Kaye decided to promote him to front-man and introduced him one night as Don Cornell, without giving him prior knowledge.

Fast forward a few years and Cornell was now doing well as a solo artist. In 1952 he had a hit with I, which, weirdly, was the only song title made up of a single character until Prince’s 7 in 1992.

Hold My Hand had been written by Jack Lawrence and Richard Myers and featured in the romantic comedy Susan Slept Here (1954), starring Dick Powell in his final role, alongside Debbie Reynolds.

The song suffers in comparison to Sinatra’s. Although Three Coins in the Fountain isn’t Ol’ Blue Eyes best, his voice has aged better than Cornell’s, which now sounds a bit too polished. Having said that, the orchestra improves it, with little flourishes to keep the ears interested. I’ve heard worse.

Although record buyers decided they preferred it to Three Coins in the Fountain, Hold My Hand lost out to it in the Best Original Song nominations at the following Academy Awards ceremony. It only went to number two in the US, but stayed on top in the UK for four weeks, and then a further week after Vera Lynn had her fortnight of glory with My Son, My Son.

In another example of how God-fearing we still were back then, (see David Whitfield’s Answer Me), the BBC considered banning Hold My Hand for the opening line, the apparently blasphemous ‘So this the kingdom of Heaven’. Cornell agreed to record this again and change it to ‘So this the wonder of Heaven’. Laughable, really.

Cornell’s success tailed off in the UK, though he still performed well in America, and in 1963 he became one of the first stars to be included in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He died in 2004 from emphysema and diabetes on 23 February 2004, aged 84.

Written by: Jack Lawrence & Richard Myers

Producer: Bob Thiele

Weeks at number 1: 5 (8 October-5 November, 19-25 November)

Births:

Singer Adam Ant – 3 November

Meanwhile…

13 October: Chris Chataway broke the 5000m world record.

19 October: Britain agreed to end its occupation of the Suez Canal. Colonel Gamel Abdul Nasser had recently come into power in Egypt, and both sides agreed that British troops would be withdrawn in 1956. It didn’t quite work out like that…

2 November: The radio premiere of Hancock’s Half Hour. One of the most influential comedies of all time, it was written by Alan Galton and Ray Simpson, and introduced the world to troubled comedian Tony Hancock, playing an exaggerated version of himself.

22. Frank Sinatra with Orchestra conducted by Nelson Riddle – Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)

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The first true musical legend to appear in this blog, Frank Sinatra was one of the 20th-century’s true icons, he remains an influential figure to this day, and the epitome of cool. If you choose to ignore his links to crime and the more unpleasant stories about him, that is.

Francis Albert Sinatra was born on 12 December 1915 in Hoboken, New Jersey, the only child of Italians ‘Dolly’ and ‘Marty’ Sinatra. Delivered via forceps, Sinatra was born with a perforated eardrum and severe scarring on his left cheek, neck and ear. A skinny child with bad acne, he was given tough love by his parents, with some biographers claiming his mother abused him in his youth. Sinatra became interested in jazz music from a young age, and his idol was Bing Crosby. His uncle bought him a ukelele when he was 15, and he would entertain his family, getting his first kick out of entertaining others. Expelled from high school in 1931 for being rowdy, he took on several odd jobs and would sing for free on local radio stations. He never learnt to read music properly, and would do so by ear only.

In 1935 his mother persuaded him to join local singers The 3 Flashes. He worshipped them, but they only let him join because he had a car. Renamed the Hoboken Four, they won first prize on a local radio talent show, and Sinatra became their lead singer, provoking jealousy due to the attention he received from girls. By 1939 he was working as a singing waiter when he joined the Harry James Band as their singer, and it was with them that he released his first record, From the Bottom of My Heart. He then moved on to The Tommy Dorsey Band. Dorsey became Sinatra’s father figure, who would learn and copy his mannerisms. Their bond was so strong, Sinatra asked him to be godfather to his daughter Nancy, born in 1940.

For the next two years his popularity grew with each recording, and he pushed Dorsey to let him make music under his own name. He became obsessed with the idea of overtaking Crosby as a star, and following a legal battle he left the group. According to some newspaper reports, Sinatra’s mobster godfather had to hold a gun to Dorsey’s head in order to persuade him.

In 1943 Sinatra signed with Colombia, and Sinatramania was in full swing. It was around this time he became known as ‘The Voice’. His fame eclipsed Crosby and he would entertain US troops during World War Two. His first album, The Voice of Frank Sinatra, was released in 1946.

In 1954, Frank Sinatra was the comeback kid. The early 50s had seen his career slump drastically. His Mafia connections had caused problems, he had left his label, Columbia, Hollywood had rejected him, and his audiences were dwindling. However, his suitably bitter performance in World War Two drama From Here to Eternity in 1953 earned him rave reviews and marked a spectacular turnaround in fortunes. He even later won an Oscar for Best Supporting Role, but before then he had signed with Capitol and released a cover of the now-creepy-sounding I’m Walking Behind You, which was a UK number 1 for Eddie Fisher and Sally Sweetland.

February 1954 saw the release of his album Songs for Young Lovers. Featuring I Get a Kick Out of You and They Can’t Take That Away from Me, it is still considered one of his best. The same month, his duet with Doris Day, Young at Heart, was a huge hit.

Three Coins in the Fountain was the title track for a new romantic drama. With lyrics by US star collaborator Sammy Cahn and music by UK songwriter Jule Styne, the song refers to the traditional act of throwing a coin into Rome’s Trevi Fountain and making a wish. They had been asked to write the song without any knowledge of the movie whatsoever, and it was so rushed that 20th Century Fox didn’t sign a contract, meaning the composers were screwed over the royalties. Charming.

The song isn’t that memorable, and although I’m no Sinatra expert, it doesn’t strike me as up there with his classics. But what does shine through is the quality of his voice. That warm, unmistakable timbre to his croon puts him head and shoulders above other stars of the era. And considering the rushed nature of the song’s creation, it’s not too shabby. It earned him his first UK number 1, and he stayed at the top for three weeks. It also went to number 1 in the US too, but performed by The Four Aces. In 1955, it earned Sinatra another Oscar, this time for Best Original Song.

It would be 12 years before Sinatra had another UK number 1 single. By then, pop music had changed and changed again, but Ol’ Blue Eyes would remained a colossal star throughout.

During Three Coins in the Fountain‘s reign, the UK singles chart increased in size from its initial 12 to 20. It’s also worth me pointing out that this chart, that first began in 1952, was originally only seen in the New Musical Express. However, it is now considered to be the most important chart of the time, until it was overtaken by Record Retailer from 1960 to 1969.

Written by: Jule Styne & Sammy Cahn

Producer: Voyle Gilmore

Weeks at number 1: 3 (17 September-7 October)

21. Kitty Kallen with Orchestra directed by Jack Pleis – Little Things Mean a Lot (1954)

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David Whitfield and Mantovani’s Cara Mia took up the number 1 spot for virtually the whole summer in 1954, somehow. As the nights started to grow darker, US singer Kitty Kallen finally got a look in with Little Things Mean a Lot. It had been written a year earlier, with lyrics by Edith Lindeman, a newspaper editor, and disc jockey Carl Stutz, both residing in Richmond, Virginia.

Kitty Kallen, born Katie Kallen to Russian Jewish immigrants on 25 May 1921 in Philadelphia, New Jersey, would impersonate famous singers as a child. She had her own local radio show before she became a teenager.

She joined the Jimmy Dorsey Band at 21 and sang the vocals for his US number 1 Besame Mucho, later covered by the Beatles on Beatles For Sale. Her recording of Little Things Mean a Lot saw her career go up a notch, hitting the top of the Billboard charts before doing the same in the UK.

It’s a rather sweet little number, and a move away from Kallen’s big-band stylings to something approaching pop. She sings a list of ways in which her lover can make her happy, and luckily for him, they’re all easily enough done. She’s a very low-maintenance partner. Beating Lennon and McCartney by 10 years, she points out expensive jewellery isn’t important to her. Money can’t buy her love. Was this their inspiration? Possibly.

By the end of 1954 the song had sold over two million copies, and with her beautiful voice and striking looks, she found herself topping polls to be the most famous female singer around. It all went wrong from there.

In 1955, her throat began to seize up, but only affected her when performing live. This convinced her the problem was psychological, and she spent five years with psychotherapists, none of which helped matters. Instead she found relief in religion, and returned to performing for a few years before retiring in the mid-60s.

Bizarrely, after she retired, several other women tried to pass themselves off as Kitty Kallen. In 1978, she and her family were baffled by reports of her death. It transpired one of her impersonators had died. Frank Sinatra wasn’t having it though. ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ (whose Three Coins in the Fountain took over at number 1 the week after Little Things Mean a Lot) called the family to offer his condolences, but wouldn’t take no for an answer when Kitty’s husband explained and said she was just sleeping (perhaps a bad choice of words, in retrospect). He refused to hang up until he could hear her voice. Kallen actually lived until 7 January 2016, dying at the ripe old age of 94.

Written by: Edith Lindeman & Carl Stutz

Producer: Milt Gabler

Weeks at number 1: 1 (10-16 September)

20. David Whitfield, with Chorus and Mantovani and His Orchestra – Cara Mia (1954)

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Doris Day’s Secret Love had a second, lengthy eight-week stay at number 1 after toppling Johnnie Ray’s Such a Night. Eventually Day ran out of steam and on 2 July, Hull’s favourite soprano David Whitfield returned to number one with his version of Cara Mia, with dual credit going to popular conductor Mantovani and his orchestra.

Both were at the height of their fame and had previous chart-toppers to their name, Whitfield with Answer Me and Mantovani had The Song from The Moulin Rouge. This track easily outdid the success of both, and stayed top of the pops for a mammoth 10 weeks, a UK record at the time.

Cara Mia, Italian for ‘My Beloved’, was credited to Tulio Trapani and Lee Lange. In fact, Trapani was Mantovani, who had arranged the song, and Lange was producer Bunny Lewis. Why did they use aliases? I’m not sure, but it’s the first time we’ve seen a number 1 with credits for pseudonyms. Why am I mentioning it? Because there’s not a lot that can be said about the song itself, unfortunately.

After a run of interesting tracks, we’re back in the rather’dull, overblown sludge territory that seemed so popular in the early 50s. Whitfield can hold a note, that’s for sure, but once more I find myself asking how this could be number 1 for so long. Then again, I did the same when Bryan Adams reigned for so long in the summer of 1991, so perhaps it’s going to be a common theme with the biggest sellers.

Neither artist had a number 1 again, although Mantovani came close with follow-up Swedish Rhapsody, and continued to enjoy huge sales figures, as well as presenting his own TV series in 1959. The composer ceased recording in the mid-70s, and died in a Kent care home on 8 April 1980, aged 74.

As for Whitfield, he too had further success for a few years, and his top 10 entries continued until 1957. including recording the theme music to the TV series The Adventures of William Tell, he fell out of favour when rock’n’roll took hold. It also didn’t help that he would turn down offers to go to America, preferring to stay put in Hull.

Whitfield recorded two further versions of Cara Mia, in 1966 and for his final album in 1975. He too died in 1980, of a brain haemorrhage while touring Australia on 15 January, aged only 54.

Written by: Tulio Trapani & Lee Lange

Producer: Bunny Lewis

Weeks at number 1: 10 (2 July-9 September)

Births:

Pet Shop Boys singer Neil Tennant – 10 July
Singer Joe Jackson – 11 August
Singer Elvis Costello – 25 August

Deaths

Physician Henry Valentine Knaggs – 11 July

Meanwhile…

4 July: Meat rationing came to an end in the UK.