131. Danny Williams – Moon River (1961)

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Christmas week 1961 was a particularly cold and frosty affair, with some northern and Scottish areas seeing snowfall. The snow increased in the run-up to the new year, and was heavy at times. By this point, Frankie Vaughan’s histrionics on Tower of Strength may have been wearing thin, and record buyers wanted something warm and comforting. What better than Moon River?

Henry Mancini was the man behind the music, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. The song was written for romantic comedy classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring Audrey Hepburn, which had been released in October. An instrumental version is heard as the film opens, but Hepburn sings it as Holly Golightly in the movie, strumming away at a guitar while sat outside her apartment, watched over by Paul ‘Fred’ Varjak (George Peppard).

Such beautiful music needed lyrics of similar quality, so Mancini and Mercer were well-matched. In Moon River, Mercer is recalling his childhood in Savannah, Georgia. The ‘huckleberry friend’, which some find troublesome, refers to picking huckleberries in the summer, although it is also used deliberately to bring to mind Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn. Despite the song’s classic status now, Paramount Pictures executive Martin Rackin suggested the song should be removed from Breakfast at Tiffany’s following a lukewarm preview. Hepburn was livid, and Rackin relented.

Eventually becoming one of the most covered songs of all time, several versions were available as singles when 1961 drew to a close. Soul star Jerry Butler hit the US charts first, with an instrumental version by Mancini, with orchestra and chorus, close behind, but it was South African-born singer Danny Williams that made Moon River the UK’s Christmas number 1.

Williams was born in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape in 1942. He grew up under apartheid, performing his first solo with a church choir at the age of six. He won a talent contest aged 14 and joined the touring show Golden City Dixies. The show travelled to London in 1959, where Williams impressed EMI’s Norman Newell, who signed him to the HMV label. He was reticent to record Moon River at first, partly due to the ‘huckleberry friend’ lyric, but he changed his mind after seeing the film.

I think you could potentially argue that it’s impossible to record a bad version of Moon River, and Williams certainly didn’t. Featuring lush strings and his smooth voice (he became known as ‘Britain’s Johnny Mathis), it’s a beautiful way to bring 1961 to a close, after such an unpredictable, often uneven year for number 1s. Were it not for another singer sharing his surname, this would possibly be the definitive version. Yet the man most people identify with the song never actually released Moon River as a single, meaning Andy Williams’ sole number 1 was the Elvis Presley rip-off Butterfly in 1957. He became forever known for the song after it made it onto his 1962 album Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes, and he also performed it at the Oscars, where it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Danny Williams’s success led to his appearance in Michael Winner’s film Play it Cool (1962) alongside Billy Fury. In 1963 he supported fellow number 1 artist Helen Shapiro on a nationwide tour. Other support acts included the Beatles. Like so many others, their subsequent rise meant his career was all but over, and he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1968, before being declared bankrupt two years later. In 1994 he took part in a Nat ‘King’ Cole tribute show. Williams always took pride in knowing that Cole declined to record Moon River because he considered Williams’ cover to be perfect. Following the collapse of apartheid he returned to South Africa several times but always considered the UK his home. He died aged 63 in December 2005 of lung cancer.

Moon River is a standard now. One of the most interesting versions for me is the nine-minute-plus version Morrissey recorded as the B-side to Hold on to Your Friends in 1994. He always saw a haunting sadness in the lyrics, and felt the happiness it promised was always out of reach. He changed some of the lyrics to make it bleaker and added the sound of a woman sobbing. Perhaps she was a fan that could see into his future as a right-wing nutjob?

While Williams’ version ruled the charts, 1962 began. The first episode of drama series Z-Cars was broadcast on the BBC on 2 January. The show became famous for its realistic portrayal of the force and ran until 1978. Three days later the album My Bonnie by Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers was released. The brothers in question were in fact the Beatles – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best. By the end of 1962, the line-up had changed and they had released their first single, Love Me Do. Beatlemania was coming ever closer.

Written by: Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer

Producer: Norman Newell

Weeks at number 1: 2 (28 December 1961-10 January 1962) 

Births:

The Jesus and Mary Chain singer Jim Reid – 29 December
Javelin thrower Sharon Gibson – 31 December 
Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie – 4 January 

130. Frankie Vaughan – Tower of Strength (1961)

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It had been four years since Frankie Vaughan last had a number 1 with The Garden of Eden – the longest gap for a number 1 artist up to this point. However, he had continued to do well in the charts, occasionally troubling the top ten. How did Vaughan weather the storm of rock’n’roll, when so many other crooners couldn’t? Perhaps it was that ‘Mr Moonlight’ was unique when so many other singers of his ilk were too similar – too smooth and safe? His two number 1s suggest that might be the case. The Garden of Eden was tougher than most easy listening tunes in 1957, and Vaughan’s performance on Tower of Strength is not only unique, it’s extraordinary.

The song was written by Burt Bacharach, making this his third number 1. However, the lyrics came from Bob Hilliard, not Hal David, his most famous collaborator. It had already been a hit in the US for singer-songwriter Gene McDaniels, but he didn’t have the following that Vaughan had in the UK, and his version barely scraped into the top 50.

Vaughan’s version begins with some rather bawdy-sounding trumpets, sounding like incidental music from a Carry On film. Despite the song’s title, the singer’s imposing physique and the bravado behind the performance, Vaughan is anything but a tower of strength in this track. He wants to break free from his relationship, and he lists the things he’d like to say, before imagining how she’d respond. He sounds not unlike Tom Jones in the way he bellows the vocals, and often that’s something that I’d run a mile from, but in the next section in which the horns turn into a stomp, he cuts loose so much he sounds more like an early soul singer.

‘And I’d walk out the door
You’d be down on your knees
You’d be calling to me
But a tower of strength is a-something
I’ll never be’

He grunts, he growls, he even sings ‘knees’ in a falsetto. He sounds unhinged. Vaughan has shot up in my estimation, and is now one of my favourite crooners. A little bit of madness goes a long way with me. I haven’t heard the original by McDaniels, or the other 1961 version from Paul Raven (later to become grotesque glam rock paedophile Gary Glitter), but I doubt either of them can beat Vaughan for entertainment value.

The hits finally did dry up for Frankie Vaughan in 1963. He suffered with ill health for many years, nearly dying of peritonitis in 1986, which curtailed his role in a stage version of 42nd Street at London’s Drury Lane. Despite his problems, he continued performing until shortly before his death form heart failure in 1999, aged 71.

The Scouse singer may have been most famous for his trademark top hat and cane, but beneath the glitz was a good heart. He gave away his royalties from Green Door in 1956 to Boys Clubs, by way of thanks for the help they gave him during his time as a refugee in Lancaster during World War Two. And in 1964 he was appointed to a committee to give advice on juvenile delinquency. Four years later he persuaded gangs in Glasgow to give up their knives in an amnesty.

Written by: Burt Bacharach & Bob Hilliard

Producer: Johnny Franz

Weeks at number 1: 3 (7-27 December)

Births:

Chef Marco Pierre White – 11 December 
Scottish presenter Carol Smillie – 23 December 

Deaths:

Children’s story writer Charles Hamilton – 24 December 

129. Elvis Presley – (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame/Little Sister (1961)

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On 9 November, Miss United Kingdom, the Welsh-born Rosemarie Frankland became the first British winner of the Miss World beauty contest. The competition had been running for 11 years at this point, and had taken place at the Lyceum Theatre in London.

On the same day, Elvis Presley went to number 1 for the 9th time. Before the Beatles, Elvis was untouchable when it came to chart domination in the UK, but by this point his record sales had dipped somewhat in the US. Despite this, (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame/Little Sister (both written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and recorded during another marathon session in June), was one of his better number 1 releases.

After several attempts at various European sounds, (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame is a throwback to Presley’s early years, and is all the better for it. You can’t really go wrong when using a Bo Diddley beat, and Elvis doesn’t dominate the track, letting the musicians really shine. The lyrics contain a twist, as it turns out Marie was Elvis’s woman, but she’s ran off with ‘a very old friend’, only a day after saying she’d be his for eternity. Poor Elvis. The lack of vocal showboating also helps suggest that, for a change, he’s a loser this time around.

This is one of my favourite Elvis number 1s, although this may be, in part, down to my love of the Smiths. The band lifted the rhythm and used it on Morrisey’s ode to fairgrounds, Rusholme Ruffians, from 1985’s Meat is Murder. Morrissey and Marr shared a love of 50s pop, and Elvis was one of the most famous people to feature on a Smiths sleeve – namely 1987’s Shoplifters of the World Unite. Choosing not to hide his influence, the band would play live performances of Rusholme Ruffians as a medley with (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame, as you can hear on posthumous live album Rank (1988)

Flip side Little Sister showcases a more raw Elvis sound than we’ve heard for some time. Okay, it’s a complete rip-off of Johnny Kidd & the Pirates’ groundbreaking Shakin’ All Over, but I’d rather hear that than anotherWooden Heart. We’re on potentially dodgy ground lyrically, as Elvis is so hurt by his lover this time (she’s only gone and ran off with Jim Dandy), he’s decided to chance his arm with her little sister. We’re not made aware of how young she is, but this verse is questionable:

‘Well, I used to pull your pigtails
And pinch your turned-up nose
But you been a growin’
And baby, it’s been showin’
From your head down to your toes’

Hmm. Nonetheless, it’s great to hear the rock’n’roll side of Elvis once more. The booming bass vocal of Jordanaire Ray Walker is superfluous, however.

Unlike so many singles in 1961 that came and went at number 1 after a week, Presley’s usually stuck around a while longer, and this was no exception, spending four weeks at the top, and during the tenth anniversary of the birth of the UK charts. In its final week, a sexual revolution began when birth control pills became available on the National Health Service. The move would have a far-reaching effect on society, and you could argue the swinging 60s began on this day – 4 December.

Written by: Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman

Producer: Steve Sholes

Weeks at number 1: 4 (9 November-6 December)

Births:

Presenter Jill Dando – 9 November 
Boxer Frank Bruno – 16 November 
Actor Martin Clunes – 28 November

128. Helen Shapiro – Walkin’ Back to Happiness (1961)

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October 1961 drew to a close with stormy weather. The first edition of satirical magazine Private Eye went on sale on the 25th in London, planting the seed of the forthcoming satire boom. In the same week, young husky-voiced starlet Helen Shapiro achieved her second chart-topper of the year. She had only been 14 when You Don’t Know became her first. As impressive and mature as her voice sounded, I bemoaned the lack of youthful energy on display in that track. Her songwriters, John Schroeder and Mike Hawking rectified this on Walkin’ Back to Happiness, one of the better-known songs of the early 1960s.

With a personality to match her voice, the precocious Shapiro didn’t want to record this new single as she found it too corny. Those backing vocals certainly are an acquired taste, and she fell into the ‘good God they’re a bit much’ category. Shapiro was a blues and jazz fan, and preferred the B-side Kiss and Run. Still only 14 when recorded, by the time Walkin’ Back to Happiness was released in September, she had reached the grand old age of 15.

Those backing vocals, arranged by Norrie Paramor, are definitely irritating, and I totally get Shapiro’s point. They’re a step too far in the opposite direction and suggest she is a childish, helium-pitched girly singer, which is far from the truth. Having said that, Walkin’ Back to Happiness is much better than You Don’t Know. It bounces along with an effervescence often sorely lacking in the singles of 1961, and is the kind of pop song the likes of Sandie Shaw would make popular a few years later – I was surprised to see this had been released in 1961. And as annoying as the backing vocals are, they are a memorable hook, and they’re stuck in my head, so they were key to the track’s mass appeal. Getting back together with your love must have been quite an unusual subject matter in 1961, too, and it does a good job of getting that euphoria across. I’d imagine. Nobody I was dumped by ever gave me a second chance. Anyway!

Shapiro’s next two singles, Tell Me What He Said and Little Miss Lonely, made the top ten in 1962. In the same year she also branched out into films, starring as herself alongside Billy Fury in Play it Cool and the female lead in Richard Lester’s It’s Trad, Dad!, which also starred Craig Douglas. In February 1963 she embarked on a UK tour, and among the support acts were the Beatles. This was the first time they had taken part in a nationwide tour. In between the tour, they broke away to record their debut album, Please Please Me. Among the songs was Misery, which Lennon and McCartney had written with Shapiro in mind. She later claimed her label turned the song down on her behalf, and she would have loved to record it. John, George and Ringo even appeared alongside her on Ready, Steady, Go when she lip-synched to Look Who it Is. It doesn’t show John and George in the best light though…

Despite the connection with the Fab Four though, she was beginning to look old before her time, and was eclipsed by other female singers including Shaw, Cilla Black and Lulu. Had EMI allowed her to record Misery, perhaps things would have turned out different. She was reduced to appearances on the cabaret circuit, before announcing her retirement from touring. However, she returned to entertainment eventually, with a role in Oliver! and was one of the main characters in the ill-fated ITV soap Albion Market in the 80s. She returned to music as a jazz singer, performing with Humphrey Lyttelton and his band, until she retired once more in 2002. She has, however, been known to appear on radio from time to time.

Walkin’ Back to Happiness was the last number 1 by a female singer for a long time. Apart from Wendy Richards’ role in the awful Come Outside in 1962, there wouldn’t be another woman at number 1 until Cilla Black in February 1964. Black, of course, made full use of her connection with the Beatles.

Written by: John Schroeder & Mike Hawker

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 3 (19 October-8 November)

Births:

Footballer Ian Rush – 20 October
Radio DJ Pat Sharp – 25 October 

127. The Highwaymen – Michael (1961)

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One of the more unexpected number 1s (at least, to modern ears) of 1961 was the result of the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 60s. Acts such as the Kingston Trio offered a clean-cut, collegiate take on historical folk songs and presented them to mainstream audiences, and for a time, did very well. One such group were the Highwaymen, who went all the way to number 1 in the UK, UK and Germany with Michael, their version of the African-American spiritual, Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.

Michael, Row the Boat Ashore was first recognised during the American Civil War at St Helena Island, one of South Carolina’s Sea Islands. It was sang by former slaves, known as freedmen, whose owners abandoned the island when the Union navy came to enforce a blockade. Abolitionist Charles Pickard Ware had come to supervise plantations on St Helena Island in 1862, and it was he that first wrote the song down in music notation.  It was first published in the influential collection Slave Songs of the United States in 1867, by Ware, his cousin William Francis Allen and Lucy McKim Garrison. According to Allen, the song refers to the River Jordan and the Archangel Michael, who is often referred to as a psychopomp. A psychopomp is an entity whose job it is to guide newly deceased souls to the afterlife. The lyrics have changed many times over the years, but the most widely known version today came from Tony Saletan, who taught it to folk legend Pete Seeger in 1954, who in turn taught it to the Weavers. The success of this influential quartet, based in Greenwich City, was largely responsible for the folk revival.

The Highwaymen were first formed at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. The five-piece consisted of lead singer and arranger Dave Fisher, who had sang in a doo-wop group at high school, plus Bob Burnett, Steve Butts, Chan Daniels and Steve Trott. I’m not sure the decision on the group’s name was a wise move, because pictures of the freshman quintet suggest the least scary bunch of highwaymen you’d ever be likely to meet.

These Highwaymen do produce a rather sweet, homely sound, though. Beginning and ending with a lonesome whistle from banjo player Butts, it’s a polite, faithful rendition, with some nice harmonising, as well as solo spots for each singer. Some voices pull these bits off better than others, though. I suspect some people who sent this to number 1 may not have been aware of the song’s origins, and may have just bought it because it sounded religious and has a memorable tune. Mandolin player and guitarist Trott, who later became a federal appeals court judge, believed the success of their version came down to the fact that Fisher had added some minor chords that weren’t in the song before.

Other versions of Michael were also around at the time, with Lonnie Donegan reaching number 6, also in 1961, and Harry Belafonte in 1962, but it was the Highwaymen’s cover that sold millions. They followed it up with a cover of Lead Belly’s Cotton Fields, which also performed well. However, most of the group wanted to continue to pursue academic achievements. Trott was the first to depart in 1962, and was replaced by Gil Robbins, the father of actor Tim Robbins. That line-up split in 1964, with only Fisher continuing with music and putting together a new version of the group, before moving to Hollywood to compose and arrange for film and television. The original line-up, minus Daniels, who had died of pneumonia in 1975, reunited in 1987 to celebrate their 25th college reunion. In 1990 they threatened legal action against the country music supergroup of  Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, who were also calling themselves the Highwaymen. The suit was dropped when wily old Nelson offered them a slot on stage as a warm-up act. The group disbanded for good when Fisher died of bone marrow disease in 2010, aged 69. Burnett died a year later, leaving only Trott and Butts as the only surviving members. The team behind This is Spinal Tap (1982) made an affectionate spoof of the collegiate folk scene in 2004. A Mighty Wind is well worth a watch.

Written by: Traditional

Producer: Dave Fisher

Weeks at number 1: 1 (12-18 October)

126. The Shadows – Kon-Tiki (1961)

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Although Cliff Richard and the Shadows were still a firm fixture in the charts, and these were the years in which they couldn’t put a foot wrong, 1961 was a surprisingly quiet year for number 1s from either act. Together they released four singles, all of which reached the top five, and the Shadows had also had plenty of top ten success since their influential Apache in 1960. The first week of October saw the instrumental four-piece back at the top with a track by Michael Carr. Carr had co-written We’re Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line with Jimmy Kennedy in 1939, which became very popular during the early stages of World War Two. 21 years later he had written Man of Mystery for the Shadows, which had reached number five in December 1960.

This latest instrumental, Kon-Tiki, was named after the famous hand-built raft used by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl in 1947 to cross the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Tuamotu Islands. A 1950 documentary film about Heyerdahl’s dangerous mission, also named Kon-Tiki, won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature the following year.

You would think a song named after such an adventure would be full of tension and danger, but Kon-Tiki is no Apache. It’s a fast-paced showcase for Hank Marvin’s surf guitar sound, but there aren’t many hooks to speak of and it’s too polite to leave much of an impact.

During Kon-Tiki‘s brief stint at number 1, drummer Tony Meehan left the group to become a session drummer and arranger for eccentric genius Joe Meek, who had produced John Leyton’s Johnny Remember Me. He was replaced by Brian Bennett, who stayed with the Shadows for the rest of their active years.

In the news in October 1961… the entire island of Tristan da Cunha was evacuated to Surrey when a volcano erupted. There they remained until 1963, bizarrely.

Written by: Michael Carr

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 1 (5-11 October)

Births:

Formula 1 driver Julian Bailey – 9 October 
Spandau Ballet bassist Martin Kemp – 10 October
Children’s TV presenter Neil Buchanan – 11 October 

125. Shirley Bassey with Geoff Love & His Orchestra – Reach for the Stars/Climb Ev’ry Mountain (1961)

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It had been over two years since Shirley Bassey became the first Welsh singer to score a number 1 with As I Love You, but her career was still going strong. A few months later she had signed with EMI’s Columbia. She narrowly missed out on the top spot in 1960 with her recording of As Long As He Needs Me from Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, and in November of that year she made her US television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. 1961 single You’ll Never Know also did well, but it was a double-bill of ballads that took her back to the top for the second and (to date) final time. Although largely forgotten about now, one has to wonder if Cathy Dennis and Andrew Todd, co-writers of S Club 7’s Reach, were fans of these tracks. Have another look at the titles…

Reach for the Stars had been written by Austrian singer-songwriter Udo Jürgens, with English lyrics from Bassey’s producer, Norman Newell. Jürgens went on to win the Eurovision Song Contest on his third attempt in 1966 with Merci, Chérie. As I stated in my previous Blassey blog, I’m really not a fan of her voice, so she has to be performing a strong song for me to be able to enjoy her. This is not a strong song. It’s turgid, soppy and completely forgettable. Bassey has not only put her lover on a pedestal, she’s turned him into a God-like figure. And that bellow at the end really hurt my ears, as is usually the case with Bassey. Ah well, maybe things will improve with Climb Ev’ry Mountain.

Things didn’t improve with Climb Ev’ry Mountain. If anything, it’s more forgettable and drawn out than Reach for the Stars. It could be that this single did so well because this track came from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music. It is sung by the character Mother Abbess at the end of the first act, and is intended to encourage people to follow their dreams. As I like The Sound of Music about as much as I enjoy Bassey’s bellow, I only felt encouraged to take my earphones out early.

Reach for the Stars/Climb Ev’ry Mountain only had a week at number 1 before previous number 1, Johnny Remember Me returned to the top. Obviously, Bassey remained a big star, and is now considered a living legend. Her first James Bond theme, 1965’s Goldfinger (with lyrics co-written by previous number 1 artist Anthony Newley), is rightly considered one of the best, and even I can appreciate that one. Despite her fame in the UK, this track has been her only recorded hit in the US, despite her sell-out live shows. Around this time, her UK hits started to drop too. Big Spender is considered one of her best tracks (especially by me), yet didn’t even make the top 20 in 1967. Her cover of Something by the Beatles marked a resurgence as the 1970s began, and she recorded two further Bond themes, Diamonds are Forever (1971) and Moonraker (1979).

Bassey semi-retired in the 80s, but did wonders for her image when she worked with big beat duo the Propellerheads on their retro 60s-styled single History Repeating in 1997. This track was everywhere at the time, and might actually be where my dislike of her voice originated! She turned 60 that year, and a series of high-profile concerts followed. Beloved by the Royal family, she performed at the Duke of Edinburgh’s 80th birthday in 2001 and the Queen’s 50th Jubilee a year later (and again at her 60th in 2012). 2006 saw the Welsh songstress cover Pink’s Get the Party Started for Marks & Spencer’s Christmas ad campaign. This proved to be highly irritating for me. In 2007 her single The Living Tree entered the charts, meaning that Bassey held the record for the longest span of top 40 hits in the history of the UK charts. Stars including Manic Street Preachers, Pet Shop Boys and Gary Barlow write tracks for her 2009 album, The Performance. Comedian David Walliams presented an hour-long special devoted to her in December 2016.

Whatever my opinions on Shirley Bassey’s singing, there’s a lot to like about her. From humble beginnings, she fought against poverty, racism and sexism to become a national treasure, and has maintained her down-to-earth character. There didn’t seem to be much room in the charts back then for strong, sexy women, but Bassey was one of the exceptions.

Written by:
Reach for the Stars: Udo Jürgens/Climb Ev’ry Mountain: Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II

Producer: Norman Newell

Weeks at number 1: 1 (21-27 September)

Births:

Politician Liam Fox – 22 September 
Novelist Will Self – 26 September