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

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The Dream Weavers’ It’s Almost Tomorrow was knocked off the number 1 spot for the second and final time by Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell, scoring her second and final number 1 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, scoring a number three hit in 1955 with Let’s Have a Ding Dong. and then this track, all ploughing the same furrow. 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.

There was insight and intelligence behind Atwell’s fun-loving public persona, and at heart she was shy, eloquent and intellectual. She claimed her own life was untouched by racism, and considered herself lucky to be so loved. But after buying an apartment in Sydney and while touring the country in 1962, she spoke out about the plight of the Australian Aborigines.

Atwell suffered a stroke in 1980 and announced her retirement on TV the following year. Sadly, her house was destroyed by an electrical fire in 1983, and while staying with friends she died of a heart attack on 28 February.

It would be wrong to dismiss Atwell as a throwaway from a bygone age – her piano skills had a surprising 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 

Meanwhile…

17 April: Chancellor of the Exchequer 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.

20 April: 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, and the inspiration for The Beatles’ Lady Madonna in 1968.

40. Dickie Valentine with Johnny Douglas & His Orchestra – Christmas Alphabet (1955)

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As winter 1955 dawned, Rock Around the Clock-mania had set in, and Bill Haley & His Comets were finally enjoying their stint at number 1. Although this was a seismic event in music, it would be wrong to think that from then on, the UK number 1s were constantly rock’n’roll numbers. Teenagers, as they had recently been named, still only represented a portion of the record-buying market. There were still a lot of older folk who were more than happy with the status quo, who liked  nice crooners singing something warm and cosy, and especially with the dark nights drawing in, etc.

Smooth singer Dickie Valentine had enjoyed a very successful year, with his collaboration with The Stargazers, Finger of Suspicion, topping the charts back in January, followed by three top 10 hits. He then topped and tailed 1955’s singles chart by cottoning on to an idea that would serve artists well for years to come – if you want a number 1 at Christmas time, why not do a song about Christmas time?

Christmas Alphabet had been written by Buddy Kaye and Jules Loman the previous year, and was performed by US singing trio The McGuire Sisters. Kaye liked his alphabet songs – he’d written ‘A’ You’re Adorable (The Alphabet Song) back in 1949 for Perry Como, although these days it’s probably best known as featuring in Angela Rippon’s guest spot on Morecambe & Wise’s Christmas special in 1976. Valentine’s version of Christmas Alphabet became the more famous version, and the oldies won out, knocking Haley from his lofty perch and making it the first explicitly-festive Christmas number 1.

It’s based around a very simple idea. Valentine just lists seasonal stuff around each letter that makes up the word ‘Christmas’. He runs through it twice, to make sure it’s all sunk in, and that’s it, job done. Some of the rhyming is tenuous though…

‘S is for the Santa who makes every kid his pet,
Be good and he’ll bring you everything in your Christmas alphabet!’

Erm, sorry, what? Santa makes every kid his pet? It’s news to me. Disturbing news, at that.

Although by this stage of my blog I’ve been longing for rock’n’roll to come along and shake things up, I have to confess that I don’t mind Christmas Alphabet. Reason being, I’m a sucker for a Christmas song. Especially older ones. Christmas is of course, a time for feeling all cosy and warm, if you’re lucky enough to have that option. 50s music is often perfect at encapsulating that. So I’m quite surprised, especially considering its historical importance, that Christmas Alphabet seems to have been forgotten about. You never hear it in shops, and it’s never on compilations. John Lewis are unlikely to get someone to make one of those annoying, wet, folky covers and stick it on an advert, either. It might be a slight little number, but it deserves to be remembered.

You could say the same about Valentine himself. Despite being adored at the time (he won New Musical Express’s best male vocalist category from 1953-57), he’s been largely forgotten.

His popularity waned in the next decade, despite two TV series (one with Peter Sellers) and he met a tragic end on 6 May 1971. Aged only 41, he was driving to a gig in Wales with bandmates at over 90mph in the early hours of the morning, when he lost control of the vehicle on a bend, killing the three of them.

Written by: Buddy Kaye & Jules Loman

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 3 (16 December-5 January 1956)

Births:

Poet Carol Ann Duffy – 23 December

Meanwhile…

20 December: Cardiff becomes the official capital of Wales.

New Year’s Day: Possession of heroin becomes fully criminalised.

4 January: 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.