45. Winifred Atwell & Her ‘Other’ Piano – The Poor People of Paris (1956)

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On 17 April, Chancellor of the Exchequer (and future Prime Minister) Harold Macmillan announced in his Budget speech the launch of Premium Bonds, to go on sale on 1 November, with £1,000 prize available in the first draw, taking place in June 1957. Three days later, jazz maestro (and eventual presenter of Radio 4’s comedy panel game I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue) Humphrey Lyttelton and his band recorded Bad Penny Blues with then little-known sound engineer Joe Meek. It became the first British jazz record to get into the top 20.

Meanwhile, The Dream Weavers’ It’s Almost Tomorrow was knocked off the number 1 spot for the second and final time, and Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell scored her second and last number one with her cover of The Poor People of Paris.  Her fast-paced piano-playing and charming personality had seen her at number 1 during Christmas 1954 with Let’s Have Another Party, and this track was more of the same. Why change a winning formula though?

La goualante du pauvre Jean, as the song was called in France, translates into The Ballad of Poor John in English. Marguerite Monnot, one of Edith Piath’s top songwriters, had written the original music, with words by René Rouzaud. However, US songwriter Jack Lawrence wrote the English lyrics, and misinterpreted the French title, which is why the two differ so much. None of this really matters here though, as Atwell’s cover was instrumental.

Atwell, as usual, plays the song as if her life depends on it. It’s so frenetic, I accidentally pressed play on two separate clips at once and felt a nervous breakdown coming on. While this style of playing is considerably dated now, it still has a certain charm, and anything with a bit of life to it impresses in these early days of the chart. The main reason it appeals to me, however, is because I immediately recognised it as having featured in 90s Channel 4 comedy show Vic Reeves Big Night Out, a show that changed my life (no exaggeration). In the show, Bob Mortimer’s character Man with the Stick sings a slowed-down version, all about his ill-fated works holiday with ‘good-laugh’ Terry. Here it is in all its glory.

Atwell’s career continued to skyrocket. She had her own television series and performed to millions. She was loved by the Queen, who even requested she perform at a private party to keep spirits up during the Suez Crisis. Sadly, her race was an issue in the Deep South, which meant she never repeated her success in the US. An insightful, intelligent woman, she never complained about racism affecting her own life, considering herself lucky to be so well-loved, but frequently spoke out against it after moving to Australia. She died in 1983 of a heart attack, but her piano skills had an unlikely impact on the world of progressive rock, with both Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman citing her as an influence.

Written by: Marguerite Monnot

Producer: Hugh Mendl

Weeks at number 1: 3 (13 April – 3 May)

Births:

Tennis player Sue Barker – 19 April
Actress Koo Stark – 26 April 

44. Kay Starr with Hugo Winterhalter’s Orchestra & Chorus – (The) Rock and Roll Waltz (1956)

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US jazz singer Kay Starr was the third person to have a UK number 1 back in 1953, and had added some much needed light relief after the previous two chart-toppers with the poppy Comes A-Long A-Love. Starr was ahead of her time and one of the main influences for those early rock’n’roll acts. Therefore, she would seem a natural choice when the older generation decided to have a stab at this new genre that Bill Haley & the Comets had got so many teenagers all fired up over. ‘Just imagine the crossover appeal such a song could have!’, writers Shorty Allen and Roy Alfred must have thought. ‘We’ll stick the genre in the title, get Kay Starr to sing it, and the teens AND their parents will go out and buy it!’ And while it seems that could have perhaps been the case, after all, (The) Rock and Roll Waltz did knock It’s Almost Tomorrow off the top for a week, it’s big missed opportunity.

For a start, apart from perhaps the bass, this tune is sadly lacking in both rock and roll. It’s just a cheesy novelty waltz. Starr sings of coming home late one night after a date, to hear a ‘jump tune’ coming from the front room. What the hell are her parents doing in there? Oh, don’t worry, the silly buggers are just trying to waltz to one of Starr’s rock’n’roll records! The chorus is exceedingly naff:

‘A-one, two, and then rock
A-one, two, and then roll
They did the rock and roll waltz
A-rock, two, three, a-roll, two, three
It looked so cute to me
I love the rock and roll waltz’

Apparently Starr didn’t actually love (The) Rock and Roll Waltz, to her credit, but gave it a bash anyway, and it paid dividends, so who am I to criticise? It was her final big hit as rock’n’roll continued to grow, but she recorded many albums throughout the rest of the 50s and 60s, right through until 1997. She died from complications of Alzheimer’s on 3 November 2016, aged 94.

Written by: Shorty Allen & Roy Alfred

Producer: Joe Carlton

Weeks at number 1: 1 (30 March-5 April)

Deaths:

Writer Edmund Clerihew Bentley – 30 March  

 

43. The Dream Weavers – It’s Almost Tomorrow (1956)

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From one of music’s most enduring stars to perhaps the first UK number 1-hit wonder. After a month at number 1 with Memories Are Made of This, Dean Martin relinquished the top spot to a group with a unique story. The Dream Weavers was primarily a vehicle for aspiring US songwriting duo Gene Adkinson and Wayne Buff. Other members came and went. They were both at different high schools when they first met, before attending the University of Florida together. They didn’t have a group name at this point. Taking part in a freshman talent show, they performed in front of thousands  of students and won, earning themselves their own radio show. As they closed their first show in 1955, they performed It’s Almost Tomorrow, a song they wrote together in 1953, with Buff taking up lead vocal duties. Chuck Murdock, the announcer on their show, decided to run a contest to decide on a name for the group. The winner announced felt their song was so dreamy, they should be called The Dream Weavers.

I’m not sure ‘dreamy’ is the right word to describe It’s Almost Tomorrow, but it’s worthy of  praise. It’s a song of heartbreak, where the singer is already mourning the loss of his loved one, and is waiting for the inevitable as the sun comes up. The lyrics show a depth beyond the writer’s years, and it’s set to a moving tune. It really works in the song’s favour that Buff isn’t an amazing singer. You don’t want smooth crooning on this song, you want to feel the singer’s vulnerability, and you can. In a way it’s old-fashioned, and sounds like it could have been made in the 40s, but at the same time, a modern-day cover could work well, providing they sorted out the messy ending, and ditched the female backing vocals.

The Dream Weavers couldn’t get a record company interested in the song, so they went and made a recording themselves. A very unusual move back then, but they were convinced the song could be a hit, and they were right. Decca were impressed and the group recorded the version that topped the UK charts. After a fortnight it was toppled by Kay Starr’s (The) Rock and Roll Waltz, but reigned again for a further week a fortnight later. Adkinson and Buff failed to come up with anything that good again, and faded into obscurity following Buff’s marriage to Mary Rude, who had performed their backing vocals.

Some big sporting events took place during It’s Almost Tomorrow‘s reign. On 24 March, Devon Lock had a clear lead in the Grand National before shocking attendees by collapsing near the finish, making 100/7 outsider E.S.B. the surprise winner. 7 April saw the young Manchester United team win the Football League First Division.

Written by: Gene Adkinson & Wade Buff

Producer: Gene Adkinson, Wade Buff & Milt Gabler

Weeks at number 1: 3 (16-29 March, 6-12 April)

Deaths

Actor Robert Newton – 25 March 

42. Dean Martin – Memories Are Made of This (1956)

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It’s funny how each person’s opinion of legendary artists and their music can differ depending on their age and what stage the artist’s career was at. David Bowie was any number of characters: Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke… but to me Bowie was the grown-up version of the boy from Channel 4’s version of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, who had been so traumatised by flying around with a snowman, he had taken to dicking about empty buildings with a blouse-wearing Mick Jagger in the video to Dancing in the Street. It was around 15 years later before he became one of my favourite artists ever, and I’m still not over his death. Anyway, back to my point. To many, Dean Martin is a bona fide musical icon, and Memories Are Made of This is one of his most popular tracks. But my opinion is clouded by two things: the film The Cannonball Run (1980), and Bisto gravy. More on that later.

As 1956 began, Dean Martin was coming to the end of his ten years as one half of a showbiz duo with Jerry Lewis. He had originally been a nightclub singer before he teamed up with the comedian to become hugely popular. However he was becoming disillusioned with the feeling he was playing second fiddle to Lewis. After all, his own music career was going from strength to strength. That’s Amore, Sway and Mambo Italiano had all been big hits in the previous few years, and Memories Are Made of This had recently topped the Billboard chart. It had been written by Terry Gilkyson, Richard Dehr, and Frank Miller. According to Gilkyson’s daughter, this sweet little number in which a man looks back on his life and loves was simply her father paying tribute to meeting his wife and starting a family. Unusually, the writing trio decided to perform the backing vocals themselves. Calling themselves The Easy Riders, their doo-wop stylings feature throughout the otherwise sparse backing, and are an important ingredient of the song. Whether you like them or not is another matter…

I can’t fault Martin’s performance of Memories Are Made of This. I’m a fan of his voice. I like the way he often sounds like he’s drunk (apparently Martin didn’t drink anywhere near as much as his reputation suggests). The Easy Riders, I can do without. I find the backing vocals irritating and distracting. They’re too catchy. I can understand the song’s popularity, but as mentioned earlier, the associations I have are problematic.

To me, Dean Martin will always be Jamie Blake, the tipsy, priest-impersonating bad guy from the comedy The Cannonball Run, who constantly ridiculed his sidekick, Morris Fenderbaum (Martin’s Rat Pack friend Sammy Davis Jr). When you read how much Davis Jr was picked on by the other Rat Pack members, their roles in the film now leave a sour taste. But I loved that film as a child. So much so, I confess I used to pretend to be Jamie Blake. Me and other kids down my street used to have pretend Cannonball Run-style races on bikes, go-karts and skateboards down my street as a child, and I’d often pretend to be Martin’s character. Strange? Absolutely. But it means I forever think of him as a comedy actor rather than a great singer. I realise this is my problem, though…

This song was then used in a long-running advert for Bisto gravy in the mid-90s, and it ran for so long I got sick to death of it. So when I hear Memories Are Made of This, I can’t help but picture a drunken Dean Martin, in a priest outfit, pouring gravy while singing. Not the memories the writers had in mind.

Memories Are Made of This was Dean Martin’s only UK number 1. Later that year he and Lewis officially split, and refused to speak to each other for 20 years. Martin became a bigger star, in movies, music and television. He became close friends with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack formed at the end of the 50s, and his most famous song, Everybody Loves Somebody was released in 1964. Although his reputation for drinking was a myth, he was a heavy smoker, and was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1993. He rejected surgery and died on Christmas Day 1995. Despite my bizarre recollection of him, Dean Martin was a charming star who touched the hearts of millions. On the day he died the lights of the Las Vegas Strip were dimmed in his honour. His crypt features the lyric ‘Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime’.

Written by: Terry Gilkyson, Richard Dehr & Frank Miller

Producer: Lee Gillette

Weeks at number 1: 4 (17 Feb-15 March)

Births

Author Andrea Levy – 7 March

41. Tennessee Ernie Ford with Orchestra conducted by Jack Fascinato – Sixteen Tons (1956)

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As 1956 began, it became apparent that the Prime Minister Anthony Eden had plunged in the polls, which seemed surprising following the Conservatives’ solid victory in the election the previous year. Whether Labour had received a bounce off the back of electing their new leader, Hugh Gaitskell, remained to be seen. On 24 January, plans were announced for the building of thousands of new homes in the Barbican area of London, which had been devastated by Luftwaffe bombings in World War Two. In the charts, interest in Dickie Valentine’s Christmas Alphabet understandably died down after the holidays, and the first new number one of the year was Rock Around the Clock, enjoying its second run at the top, before being usurped by a truly unique single.

Sixteen Tons had originally been written and recorded by country singer-songwriter Merle Travis back in 1946. Travis’s songs often spoke of the hardships of workers in the US as he came from a mining family in Kentucky. His brother once wrote him a letter with the line ‘You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt’. His father was also fond of saying ‘I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.’. Back then, miners were paid with credit vouchers that they could use to buy goods at the company store. Travis had the beginnings of a very catchy chorus . He came up with a song whose humour is as black as the dirt in the miners’ fingernails, and Tennessee Ernie Ford was listening. Ten years later, his cover became his second UK number 1 single in less than a year.

Sixteen Tons is so much better than Give Me Your Word. His previous number 1 was a mediocre ballad that anyone could have recorded. It’s hard to think who could perform Sixteen Tons as well as Ford. Featuring a sparse arrangement that features his deep, booming voice and finger-clicking to begin with, followed by a clarinet backing him up, Ford speaks not only for US workers, but any slave to the man. In the gloomy winter months of 1956, no doubt UK miners could find solace in such a song. Although the mining references root the song firmly in the past, anyone who finds themselves slaving away just to get by can identify.  And it helps that it’s as catchy as hell.

Selling millions upon millions, Sixteen Tons became Ford’s signature song, and earned him his own TV show, which ran for five years. Unfortunately, he and his first wife Betty had alcohol problems, and while he managed during his career peak, by the 70s his love of whiskey was taking its toll. Betty died in 1989 but even this couldn’t curtail his drinking. He died of liver failure on 17 October 1991 – 36 years to the day of the first release of Sixteen Tons. However, he left behind the definitive version of a song that truly resonates.

Written by: Merle Travis

Producer: Lee Gillette

Weeks at number 1: 2 (20 January-16 February)

Births:

Sex Pistols Singer John Lydon – 31 January
Actor Philip Franks – 2 January
New Order bassist Peter Hook – 13 February

Deaths:

Author AA Milne – 31 January