133. Elvis Presley with the Jordanaires – Rock-A-Hula Baby (“Twist” Special)/Can’t Help Falling in Love (1962)

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So far, the 1960s had seen mixed fortunes for the King. When he was good, he was great (see (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame), and when he was bad, he was execrable (see Wooden Heart). He wasn’t always guaranteed to top the charts in the US anymore, but record buyers in the UK were still sending nearly every release to number 1. The problem, in part, was the fact he was stuck on the movie treadmill, forever churning out sugary musicals that also demanded soundtrack albums. In 1960 he tried to wrestle control, starring in the straight drama Flaming Star. He insisted on cutting back on the songs, and it featured only two. However, it performed poorly, and when his next drama, Wild in the Country (1961) did the same, it was back to the light-hearted, song-packed romances that audiences loved.

Blue Hawaii was the first, and most famous, of three Elvis films shot on the island. He starred as former soldier Chadwick Gates (!), and his mother was played by Angela Lansbury. No, Lansbury hasn’t always been old – she was only ten years older than he was, in reality. He arrived in Hawaii to record the soundtrack and shoot location filming in March 1961, and both Rock-A-Hula Baby (“Twist” Special) and Can’t Help Falling in Love were considered the strongest material to release together as singles before the film’s release in late 1961. Eventually they toppled Cliff Richard and the Shadows’ The Young Ones after its six-week run at number 1 on 22 February. This single is perhaps the finest example of just how all-over-the-place quality control had become in the Presley camp.

Rock-A-Hula Baby (“Twist” Special) was written by Ben Weisman, Fred Wise and Delores Fuller. Weisman was nicknamed ‘The Mad Professor’ by Elvis, and held the record for having had the most number of songs recorded by Presley – 57 in total. Fuller was once the girlfriend of cult low-budget film director Ed Wood, and had starred in his 1953 docu-drama Glen or Glenda and this was her first published song. Weisman was keen to combine Hawaiian music with the dance craze ‘the twist’, born via Chubby Checker’s cover of The Twist in 1960.

Hats off to Elvis again for trying different styles, but this is one of his poorer singles. I quite like the initial couplet ‘The way she moves her hips to her finger tips/I feel I’m heaven bound’, but it’s downhill from there. It probably works as a scene in Blue Hawaii (I’m not going to watch it to find out, I doubt I’ll ever watch an Elvis musical), but as a single, it’s ill-judged at best. Unlike the flip side.

Can’t Help Falling in Love fully deserves its classic status, and is Elvis’s finest ballad. It came from the songwriting team of Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss, who were responsible for the 1961 English-language version of Mbube for the Tokens, which they renamed The Lion Sleeps Tonight. 20 years later Tight Fit went to number 1 with their version. Can’t Help Falling in Love wasn’t an entirely original track either – the melody was taken from the 1784 French song Plaisir D’Amour by Jean-Paul Egide-Martini (who was German, despite his name). Apparently, Elvis’s associates and film producers disliked the demo, but he insisted on recording it. Yet another sad example of the fact that Elvis may have been better off without some of his team and allowed to make his own decisions more often.

Elvis purrs the lyrics beautifully, the production is intimate and, well, pretty much perfect. The Jordanaires, often overused, make for the perfect vocal accompaniment. Hal Blaine is the drummer here, and the session drummer went on to become one of the most in-demand session drummers, playing with the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel, among others. The lyrics hint that Elvis is perhaps involved in an illicit relationship (‘Shall I stay?/Would it be a sin?’), but ultimately it doesn’t matter – he’s surrendering to his emotions (‘Take my whole life too’… ‘Some things are meant to be’).     However, in Blue Hawaii, the song features in a scene in which he presents his love interest’s grandmother with a music box for her birthday. This version starts with the music box as the backing, before transforming to the single version.

It soon became apparent this was one of Elvis’s best songs, and Can’t Help Falling in Love became the finale of his live shows in the late 60s and 70s. It lost some of its magic though, as it was played faster than the intimate original recording. It came the last song Elvis performed on TV, closing his 1977 special, Elvis in Concert, and the last song he ever performed, at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis on 26 June that year. Less than two months later, he was dead.

In 1993 it topped the charts once more, via a rubbish reggae-lite cover by UB40. More on that another time. For me, the best use of this song came at the hands of Jason Pierce’s space-rockers Spiritualized. He added it to the end of the title track to his strung-out free-jazz, gospel and psychedelic masterpiece, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space in 1997, mixing it in amongst Pachalbel’s Canon and lyrics of obsessed love, to astounding affect. Unfortunately, the Presley estate objected (perhaps due to the drug overtones of the album?) and blocked the use after the earliest pressings. Pierce was forced to re-record the track, adding his own lyrics, which he now claims to prefer (there’s not a lot in it, but I prefer the original). However, in 2009 Pierce planned to release a deluxe edition of the album, and permission was granted to return the ‘Elvis mix’ to the start of the album, providing he rename the track Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (I Can’t Help Falling in Love). This seems a bit rich, considering Peretti, Creatore and Weiss borrowed so much of the melody in the first place, but that’s the music business for you.

Elvis’s tenth stint at number 1 lasted a month. On 26 February, the Irish Republican Army officially called off its Border Campaign in Northern Ireland, calling to a halt its attempt to halt British rule and unite Ireland. On 15 March, the Orpington by-election marked the start of the Liberal Party’s revival when Eric Lubbock caused an upset by defeating expected winner, Conservative Peter Goldman.

Written by:

Rock-A-Hula Baby (“Twist” Special): Ben Weisman, Fred Wise & Dolores Fuller/Can’t Help Falling in Love: Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore & George David Weiss

Producer: Steve Sholes

Weeks at number 1: 4 (22 February-21 March)

Births:

Novelist John Lanchester – 25 February 
Comic book artist Simon Bisley – 4 March 
Altered Images singer Clare Grogan – 17 March 

132. Cliff Richard and the Shadows – The Young Ones (1962)

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Exactly a year to the day since Cliff had last held the top spot in the singles chart, the boy wonder scored his fifth number 1 with one of his most memorable songs. The Young Ones was the title track to his latest film, released at the end of 1960. After aping Elvis with his music, Cliff’s management had decided he should also become a movie star, and this was his third feature film.

The musical revolved around his character Nicky, an aspiring singer whose youth club was threatened by the millionaire property developer Hamilton Black (Robert Morley), who planned to replace the youth club with an office block. The youth club members decide to put on a show to save the club, but guess what? Nicky is Hamilton’s son! Families, eh? In the end, Hamilton is so proud of his son’s burgeoning success, he decides to join the young ones singing and dancing on stage. Lovely. The cast also featured Carole Gray as Cliff’s romantic interest, and the Shadows were also on board, although it was decided they weren’t very good at acting, so they were relegated to non-speaking roles, and Hank Marvin and Jet Harris’s roles were taken by future sitcom stars Richard O’Sullivan (Man About the House) and Melvyn Hayes (It Ain’t Half Hot Mum).

The film’s title track was written by Sid Tepper and Roy C Bennett, who were behind the group’s second number 1, Travellin’ Light. They also had experience in writing for Presley’s films. The Young Ones is a pretty successful attempt at defining the spirit of teenagers, which let’s not forget were still a pretty new concept back in 1962. Some critics take exception with Norrie Paramor’s strings, and I can see their point. He certainly was guilty of over-egging things when producing (see Walkin’ Back to Happiness) at times. However, I feel the arrangement works and adds to the air of wistfulness in the lyrics. As is often the case, the star of the show is Hank Marvin, who provides yet another memorable guitar line. Although Cliff was adored, I do wonder how successful he would have been in the early years without such a great guitarist behind him. Incidentally, the drummer on the soundtrack is Tony Meehan, who by the time of this release was no longer with the Shadows – he had been replaced by Brian Bennett.

It seems to me that The Young Ones is the first number 1 that revealed pop was becoming aware of the passing of time; recognising that youth is only temporary and will soon be in the hands of another generation. It was one of Cliff’s biggest ever hits, becoming the first British song to shoot straight to the top, and is certainly among his best work. I may look upon it favourably because it’s caught up in childhood memories. I recall playing my parents’ record – it must have been one of the earliest pieces of vinyl in the family collection (it probably belonged to my mum, she was a Cliff fan, and by coincidence has the same name as his 1980s romantic interest, Sue Barker) – and comparing it to the version I preferred. I’m referring of course to the fact that 20 years after its release, Tepper and Bennett’s song became the name of one of the most influential sitcoms of all time – BBC2’s The Young Ones.

I was only three when Rik, Vyvyan, Neil and Mike first burst onto our screens in 1982, so it’s unlikely I can remember that far back, but I can still remember wanting to cry when the final episode was first shown, and I was only five then! I’m not sure it’s right that my parents should have let me watch such a show so young, but I’m forever grateful they did. Of course, I didn’t know just how brilliant a show it was, I was just laughing at the cartoon violence, but there had never been anything like it. The theme tune was a suitably anarchic version of the original, sang by the cast, with Rik Mayall’s voice the most notable. Rik’s character was the Cliff fan, so this made sense. It was also entirely appropriate because if there was ever a comedian who realised the importance of staying young, it was Mayall. I grew up watching him on The Young Ones, remember his reading of George’s Marvellous Medicine on Jackanory, became an awkward teenager when Bottom arrived on TV, and like so many others, was shocked when he died in 2014. He was 56, which is no age to go, but he seemed so much younger than that, because he kept that spark of life that usually dims over time. I still can’t believe he’s gone, really, and the photo of his comedy partner Ade Edmondson helping to carry his coffin is such a tragic sight. Hearing a snotty Mayall singing ‘Cos we may not be the young ones very long’ now sounds desperately sad to me.

This won’t be the last time this blog notes the connection between Cliff and The Young Ones, of course – unless something happens and I don’t get as far as 1986. That year they collaborated on the first Comic Relief single, recording a new version of Cliff’s first number 1, Living Doll. Special mention should also go to Viv Stanshall & Kilgaron’s 1976 version of The Young Ones, in which the eccentric former Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band singer played it surprisingly straight. Another hero who went far too young, Stanshall was only 51 when he died in 1995 in an accidental fire while asleep in his flat.

My apologies for having mentioned death so much in a blog concering a song about youth! I’ll endeavour to completely avoid it next time…

Written by: Sid Tepper & Roy C Bennett

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 6 (11 January-21 February)

Births:

Broadcaster Emma Freud – 25 January
Comedian Eddie Izzard – 7 February
Comedian Hugh Dennis – 13 February 
Presenter Vanessa Feltz – 21 February

Deaths:

Historian RH Tawney – 16 January

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.

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

124. John Leyton – Johnny Remember Me (1961)

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With the exception of the Everly Brothers’ Cathy’s Clown and Temptation, we’ve yet to have any number 1 singles that showed any sign of evolution in production techniques. Pop had simplified since the inception of the charts, and most producers simply got the act in a studio and recorded live or as close to as possible, in as few takes as they could. Eccentric genius Joe Meek helped to change all that, and broadened pop’s horizons. And all from a flat above a leather goods shop in Islington.

Meek had been interested in electronics most of his life. Growing up in Newent, Gloucestershire, he filled his parents’ shed with old radios, circuitry and random electronic paraphernalia. He worked as a radar technician during his national service, and then in 1953 he worked for the Midlands Electric Board, using their resources to produce his first record. Meek later became an audio engineer, at first for a radio company, before first making his presence felt in the charts in 1956, upsetting jazz musician Humphrey Lyttelton by compressing the sound of his single Bad Penny Blues. Despite this, it became a hit. He was also involved in Anne Shelton’s number 1, Lay Down Your Arms, but I won’t hold that against him too much (I decided this was the worst number 1 single of 1957, here).

Meek co-founded Triumph Records in 1960, and the company had a top 10 hit with Angela Jones by Michael Cox, but Meek’s fiery temperament combined with distribution issues meant the label lasted less than a year. Soon after he conceived and produced concept album I Hear a New World, years before the term even existed. I first heard this around 13 years ago, and didn’t appreciate it anywhere near as much as I should have. I’ve just re-listened to prepare me for writing about Meek, and while the album (that was shelved for decades) is so primitive as to be amusing in places, it’s also astounding to think such a thing was being worked on as early as 1960. At times the album resembles ambient music, again, decades before the term existed. With the help of financial backing from a fellow eccentric, Major Wilfred Alonzo Banks, he set up his own production company, RGM Sound Limited, and ran it from his flat at 304 Holloway Road. One of Meek’s acts, Geoff Goddard, had tried to become famous under the alias Anton Hollywood (!) but fame eluded him. One night, a haunting song came to Goddard in a dream. He woke with a start and immediately sang it into the tape recorder he kept by his bedside. In an era in which teenage tragedy songs were performing so well, Johnny Remember Me could potentially be a huge hit. This gothic tale of a man haunted by his love’s spirit had a memorably eerie chorus. They just needed Meek to work his magic, and find the right singer.

John Leyton was an Essex-born actor who had worked his way up from bit parts on television and in films to becoming well-known due to his part as Ginger in Granada’s adaptation of Biggles. His good looks even earned him a fan club. Leyton’s manager was Australian-born entrepreneur Robert Stigwood, who went on to manage Cream and the Bee Gees. The Robert Stigwood Organisation, or RSO, eventually went into film production and was responsible for Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here… Stigwood thought Leyton should record a cover of Tell Laura I Love Her with Meek, but Ricky Valance reached number 1 in 1960 with his version, and Leyton’s was withdrawn from sale. Clearly thinking that Leyton could portray the camp drama needed for their own death disc, Meek gave Leyton another shot and recorded Johnny Remember Me with him. Charles Blackwell looked after the arrangement. Leyton later recalled that the kitchen sink production involved Meek actually producing from the kitchen, with him in the sitting room, backing singers in the bathroom and string players upstairs.

With its urgent, galloping rhythm, courtesy of backing band the Outlaws, Johnny Remember Me begins like a theme from a western (a clever touch – this genre was still very popular in the UK), but the lyrics suggest a very British drama, with references to mist and the moors bringing to mind Wuthering Heights. When the ghostly wail of Lissa Grey takes over in the chorus, you’re aware you’re listening to a pretty special song. I’m not sure what the sounds are that Meek conjures up in the instrumental break, but I haven’t heard anything that unusual in a number 1 up to this point. Meek’s production is perfect, managing to sound ghostly without sounding cheesy. British pop had just taken a leap forward, and on a shoestring budget.

Stigwood’s idea to promote Johnny Remember Me was a masterstroke, and will have played a key factor in its success. Leyton had just bagged a role in ITV drama Harpers West One. He played rock star Johnny Saint-Cyr, and in one scene he had to perform in front of adoring female fans. Stigwood suggested he perform his new single, and the plan paid off. Leyton took Johnny Remember Me to number 1 for three weeks, before Shirley Bassey took over, but Leyton then went back to the top for a fourth week.

Leyton’s follow-up, Wild Wind, went to number 2, but the following year his association with Meek and Goddard ended. He took on more acting work to stay busy (including a part in 1963’s The Great Escape), but by the 1980s he had retired from showbusiness. However, in the 90s he began performing on the nostalgia circuit, which he still does to this day, with his backing band the Flames. My parents have seen him, and my dad says he looks ridiculously young despite being 82. As we know, Meek didn’t go on to enjoy a long life, but that’s a story for another time…

Although Meek was gay, in 1961 such matters were still considered something to be ashamed of in mainstream culture. But things were slowly changing. On 31 August the movie Victim was released, and made history as the first film to feature the word ‘homosexual’. The subject matter also came up in A Taste of Honey, a cinematic adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s kitchen sink play, that was released on 14 September. Also that month, a stand collapsed during a match involving Glasgow Rangers at Ibrox Park on 16 September. Three people died and 35 suffered injuries.  The following day, police arrested over 1300 protestors during a CND rally in Trafalgar Square.

Oh, and a brief snatch of Johnny Remember Me made a cameo appearance in Bronski Beat and Marc Almond’s version of I Feel Love in 1985. Quite why they two acts decided to stick the chorus to this in the middle of a medley of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love and Love to Love Your Baby, I do not know, but the video makes for an amusing watch. Enjoy Jimmy Somerville and Marc Almond trying to out-camp each other here.

Written by: Geoff Goddard

Producer: Joe Meek

Weeks at number 1: 4 (31 August-20 September, 28 September-4 October)

Births:

Actor Kevin Kennedy – 7 September
Author Tom Holt – 13 September

Deaths:

Scottish sculptor Sir William Reid Dick – 1 October