115. Elvis Presley – Wooden Heart (1961)

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It came as no surprise that the best-selling single of 1961 was by Elvis Presley. However, I would have hoped it would be one of his better tracks, something of similar quality to Are You Lonesome Tonight?. As history has proven time and time again in the charts though, it’s that some artists can release any old tat, and that often, there’s no accounting for taste when it comes to the number 1 single. Here is a prime example. Wooden Heart is probably Elvis’ recording nadir, and yet it stayed at the top for a ridiculous six weeks.

The song was based on the German folk song Muss i denn by Friedrich Silcher. It’s possible that, as with It’s Now Or Never, Elvis heard the original while based in West Germany and fancied recording it, but if so, he never admitted to it. This is understandable. It took four people to adapt this song, and the guilty party are Elvis soundtrack collaborators Fred Wise, Ben Wiseman and Kay Twomey, along with German bandleader Bert Kaempfert. A year later, Kaempfert hired the Beatles to back Tony Sheridan on his album, My Bonnie, released in 1962.

It featured in his new movie, GI Blues, in which he played the magnificently-named Tulsa McLean, a solider serving in West Germany who also has a music career. Wherever did they draw the inspiration for this particular plot? I haven’t seen the film, and definitely have no intention of doing so, but he sings Wooden Heart to a puppet. Let that sink in for a minute. It would seem that Elvis’s transformation from dangerous heart-throb to family entertainer was complete.

Is there anything good to say about Wooden Heart? I suppose you could argue it was a brave decision for Presley to turn his hand to something so different from his standard fare. And, annoyingly, it is rather catchy. But so catchy it deserved to be number 1 for six weeks? No. The lyrics are trite, too, and half way through, Elvis starts singing the words to Muss i den, then a translation of the new lyrics at the end. Maybe this was his weird way of paying tribute to the country he lived in for two years? I really don’t know.

Wooden Heart didn’t even get released as a single in the US, so the people behind him may have known it might cause his reputation some damage. However, a cover by Joe Dowell later made it to number 1, so there’s the proof that US audiences were as bad as British. Eventually, Elvis’s version was sneaked out as the B-side to Blue Christmas in 1964.

Tottenham Hotspur won the Football League First Division title for the second time during the reign of Wooden Heart, defeating Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 on 17 April. They have failed to win it since. On 27 April, Sierra Leone became the latest country to gain independence from the UK – perhaps they discovered we had picked Wooden Heart as the best single available? 1 May saw betting shops become legal under the terms of the Betting and Gaming Act 1960, and 19 people died in a fire at the Top Storey Club, a nightclub in Bolton. This tragedy resulted in the swift passing of a new Licensing Act to improve fire safety.

Written by: Fred Wise, Ben Weisman, Kay Twomey & Bert Kaempfert 

Producer: Steve Sholes

Weeks at number 1: 6 (23 March-3 May) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Politician William Hague – 26 March
Rugby league player Ellery Hanley – 27 March
Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom – 29 March
Actor Robert Caryle – 14 April
Fashion designer Bella Freud – 17 April
Actor Nicholas Lyndhurst – 20 April
Chef Phil Vickery – 2 May

Deaths:

Artist Vanessa Bell – 7 April 

114. The Everly Brothers – Walk Right Back/Ebony Eyes (1961)

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March 1961: On the sixth of the month, influential singer-songwriter, actor, comedian and cheeky ukelele maestro George Formby died of a heart attack, aged 56. Two days later, Edwin Bush is arrested in London for stabbing Elsie May Batten with an antique dagger from the shop in which he worked. He became the first British criminal to be identified using the Identikit system. Five days from then, five members of the Portland Spy Ring go on trial at the Old Bailey, accused of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. A week later, on 20 March, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre changed its name to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and the following day, the Beatles made their first performance at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. The Everly Brothers were occupying the top of the charts for the third time for most of that month, with a double A-side single, Walk Right Back/Ebony Eyes.

Walk Right Back had been written by their friend Sonny Curtis, who had performed with Buddy Holly and joined the Crickets as their vocalist after Holly’s death. He came up with the song while in the army and played it to Don and Phil while on leave. They liked it immediately and said they’d record it, but Curtis had only written one verse so far. He didn’t get the next verse to them in time, so the brothers simply sang the one verse they had, twice. They might have done better to have waited, as Walk Right Back only really works as a neat little guitar lick. It’s far too chirpy for such sad lyrics, and a disappointment after All I Have to Do Is Dream and Cathy’s Clown, but those magic harmonies are still great to hear, and always uplift any song of theirs. Curtis would later do better, when he wrote the classic I Fought the Law.

Ebony Eyes is also a let-down. It was written by the bizarrely-named John D Loudermilk (what does the ‘D’ stand for? Nothing, apparently), who had written for artists including Eddie Cochran. With teenage death songs such as Tell Laura I Love Her all the rage, Ebony Eyes tells the sad story of a young man who lost his fiancée in an airplane crash during stormy conditions. She was on board, Flight 1203, which was lost in skies as dark as his lover’s ebony eyes. It’s a bit hokey and maudlin to my ears, and is made even more so by Don’s ill-advised spoken word performance. The brothers had tried their hand at acting lessons, which he had hated, so why he decided to play the song’s protagonist, I don’t know. Sadly, no version of him bursting into laughter exists as far as I’m aware (see my blog on Elvis Presley’s Are You Lonesome Tonight?). Again, the sublime vocals raise the song above most fare of the time, but this single fails to reach their usual high standards.

Written by:
Walk Right Back: Sonny Curtis/Ebony Eyes: John D Loudermilk

Producer: Wesley Rose

Weeks at number 1: 3 (2-22 March)

Births:

Olympian javelin thrower Fatima Whitbread – 3 March 

Deaths:

Singer George Formby – 6 March
Conductor Thomas Beecham – 8 March 

113. Petula Clark – Sailor (1961)

Two whole years since a female artist had last got to number 1 (Shirley Bassey, with As I Love You), Petula Clark finally broke the drought with Sailor. Long before her most famous hit, Downtown (which never got to number 1), Clark had been a child star. She was born Sally Olwen Clark on 15 November 1932, at Longsgrove Hospital in Epsom, Surrey. Both her parents were nurses there, and it was her father who later came up with her stage name, Petula. During World War Two, she lived with her sister at her grandparents home in South Wales. It was a small, very modest house, with no electricity or running water. Her grandparents spoke little English, so she learnt Welsh. She became a singer in the chapel choir, and discovered a talent for impersonating artists such as Vera Lynn. She first began performing publicly aged only seven, in 1939.

Clark’s big break came about during World War Two, by accident. In 1942, she attended a BBC radio broadcast with her father, and they intended to post a message to her uncle, serving overseas, but the air raid sirens began and the recording delayed. The producer asked for someone to help calm the attendants, and Clark sang Mighty Lak’ a Rose. It went down so well, she was asked to do so again when the broadcast went out, and suddenly Clark was touring and entertaining the troops, as well as King George VI and Sir Winston Churchill. She even became a mascot for the army, her face plastered on tanks for good luck. Clark garnered a number of film appearances during the rest of the decade, appearing alongside fellow child star and future two-time number 1 artist Anthony Newley in Vice Versa (1948). There was also Petula Clark, her television series for the BBC. As the 1940s wound up, Clark teamed up with producer Alan A Freeman to record a number of international hits, including The Little Shoemaker in 1954. However, she was struggling to shed her image of the child star-turned-adolescent, and wanted to be recognised as a more mature performer. She was able to achieve this away from the UK, becoming popular in France and Belgium. performing alongside Sacha Distel. By the time she came to record Sailor, she was approaching her thirties, and was based in Paris.

The track was an English language version of the 1959 German song, Seemann (Deine Heimat ist das Meer) by Werner Scharfenberger and Fini Busch, which had been a hit for Lolita. In the original, Lolita is aware of her lover’s desire to travel, but Normal Newell (who had produced Russ Conway’s number 1s, Side Saddle and Roulette) had been tasked with writing English lyrics, and he hurriedly turned it into a plea for the sailor to come home, taking only ten minutes to write his version. Sailor had been brought to Clark’s attention by Tony Hatch, who assisted with the production, on this, their first collaboration. It was Hatch that later penned Downtown, and they had many hits together. He also wrote the theme to Crossroads in 1964, and went on to write several other soap opera themes with his wife Jackie Trent, including Emmerdale Farm and Neighbours.

It’s a shame Hatch didn’t get to write something for Clark sooner really, as Sailor is an outdated, old-fashioned ballad playing on people’s memories of World War Two. The orchestra and backing singers make it sound like it could be from the charts of 1953. Also, it certainly shows that Newell knocked off the lyrics so quickly, as there’s not many to comment on (for some reason, Newell was credited as David West) and they’re rather hackneyed and cliched. What it does have going for it, though, is some fine, atmospheric harmonica, courtesy of Harry Pitch.

I can see why Clark was keen to cover Sailor, as it makes her sound older than her years, so it could have helped her shake off her old image – but then again, perhaps not, because of the war connection to the words. It’s no surprise that Clark’s song competed against a version by Anne Shelton, who was also a star during the war, and had scored a number 1 back in 1956 with the awful Lay Down Your Arms. Whatever Petula Clark’s reasons, it worked and her version spent a week at number 1. Shelton’s also made it to the top ten, but it marked the end of her successful career.

It would be six years before Clark’s next number 1, and I’ll talk about her more in depth when we get to 1967, but it’s interesting to note that as I write this, it was 50 years ago this week that Clark made history alongside Harry Belafonte. He was a guest on her US TV special, Petula, and during the show they performed an anti-war duet. At one point, Clark touched Belafonte’s arm, and this marked the ever time a white woman and black man had physical contact on TV. Ridiculously, in some areas this caused a furore, and one of the advertising managers threatened to resign if the moment was transmitted. What a prick.

Written by: Werner Scharfenberger & Fini Busch/David West (English lyrics)

Producer: Alan A Freeman

Weeks at number 1: 1 (23 February-1 March)

112. Elvis Presley with the Jordanaires – Are You Lonesome Tonight? (1961)

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5 February 1960 saw the first edition of The Telegraph newspaper’s weekend edition, The Sunday Telegraph, and a fortnight later, police had to break up a demonstration outside the Belgian embassy in London. The protest was over the murder of the ex-Prime Minster of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba.

For the majority of that month, Elvis was at number 1 for the sixth time with his version of Are You Lonesome Tonight?. This ballad had been written back in 1926 by vaudevillians Roy Turk and Lou Handman, and was a hit for a number of artists, including Vaughan Deleath, Gene Austin and Al Jolson. Colonel Tom Parker rarely told Elvis what to sing, but asked him to record it because his wife, Marie, loved Austin’s version. Elvis, backing singers the Jordanaires and his band had finished recording his comeback album, and 1960’s best-selling single, It’s Now Or Never and decided to record Parker’s request at 4am on 4 April. When it came time for him to record the vocals, Presley asked everyone to leave the studio and told co-producer Chet Atkins to turn the lights out. Perhaps embarrassed by the spoken word part, he wasn’t happy, and told Steve Sholes to throw the tape away as he couldn’t do it justice, Sholes, Atkins and engineer Bill Porter disagreed, and eventually everyone was happy. Depending on which story you believe, that sound you hear at the end (only really discernible with earphones) is either Elvis accidentally knocking a chair over in the dark, the Jordanaires bumping into their microphone stand, or one of the producer’s stapling a contract together.

To my ears, Are You Lonesome Tonight? is the King’s best number 1 since Jailhouse Rock, three years previous. It’s a beautiful song, and Elvis is in fine voice. It must have been quite something to listen to him recording in the dark. The Jordanaires are also used well, their voices used to create a comforting sound rather than smothering the song, which happened on occasion. Unfortunately, the spoken word section, with a reference to William Shakespeare’s As You Like It does date and spoil the song somewhat, but fair play to him for recording the lyrics in full. When he powers through the song’s ending though, it’s quickly forgotten about, and the result is one of Elvis’s most memorable, soulful love songs. When this hit number 1, Elvis became the first act to have the number 1 single and album (the soundtrack to his movie GI Blues)

It soon became a staple track in his live sets, and featured in the 1968 comeback special, Singer Presents… ELVIS. It also featured in his first Las Vegas show the following year, and it was around this time that the famous ‘laughing version‘ was unofficially recorded. Fifty seconds in, Elvis kills the mood by changing the lyrics from ‘Do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there?’ to ‘Do you gaze at your bald head and wish you had hair?’ The rest of the song descends into farce, with backing singer Cissy Houston gamely soldiering on while Presley becomes unable to continue, laughing until the song’s climax. Whether this happened for a bit of fun, embarrassed by the spoken word section or because he was out of his head isn’t clear, but it’s an enjoyable, infectious outtake, and it’s nice to hear Elvis not take himself seriously. This version even charted in 1982. Sadly it is clear by the time of this posthumous televised performance of Are You Lonesome Tonight?, recorded a couple of months before his death, that drugs were having a big effect. It’s a tragic sight to see a bloated, sweaty Elvis rambling before the song’s start, and spouting gibberish during the song, but, despite the fact he would soon be gone, when he puts the effort in, his voice sounds as great as ever.

Written by: Roy Turk & Lou Handman

Producers: Steve Sholes & Chet Atkins

Weeks at number 1: 4 (26 January-22 February)

Births:

Singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole – 31 January
Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor – 16 February
Politicians Angela and Maria Eagle – 17 February
Footballer Justin Fashanu – 19 February
Actress Imogen Stubbs – 20 February 

Deaths:

Cricketer Stan Nichols – 26 January 

111. Johnny Tillotson – Poetry in Motion (1961)

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1961 was an unusual year for number 1s. There was more movement at the summit of the charts than ever before, with a whopping 21 chart-toppers. Many were short-lived, lasting only a week at a time, and it’s tough to work out a trend or scene that may have had an impact. Elvis Presley could still do no wrong, and had four number 1s, more this year than any other artist had managed in 12 months. Unusually, Cliff didn’t score any new number 1s this year, but was still a regular in the upper reaches. There was still a place for rock’n’roll, but with many of the greats already gone, the scene was missing some of the initial excitement and danger.

As is often the case, the year got off to a fairly unexciting start, with singer-songwriter Johnny Tillotson’s Poetry in Motion knocking Cliff and the Shadows’ I Love You from the top and enjoying a fortnight at number 1. Tillotson was born in April 1939 in Jacksonville, Florida. Aged only nine, he was sent away to look after his grandmother in Palatka, which seems a bit much. While at high school there he began to be known as a talented singer, and after gaining further notice in national talent contests, Archie Bleyer signed him to Cadence Records. He began releasing self-penned singles in 1958, and a cover of Earth Angel, making slight dints on the charts, but he made his name with Poetry In Motion, written by Mike Anthony and Paul Kaufman. Kaufman later claimed the inspiration came from the parade of schoolgirls he would see pass by his window every afternoon…hmm…

Bill Porter, by now the US’s most in-demand sound engineer, supervised the session. Among the musicians involved were saxophonist Boots Randolph, whose 1963 hit Yakety Sax became the much-remembered signature tune on The Benny Hill Show, used every time Benny was chasing or being chased by scantily-clad ladies. Floyd Cramer was on piano, and would feature on the next number 1, Elvis’s Are You Lonesome Tonight?, as well as having a number 1 under his own name with On the Rebound in May.

Randolph’s saxophone is probably the most memorable element of this so-so track, giving the sound some punch and distinction. It’s not a bad tune, but a bit average and unmemorable, other than the solid production. The lyrics aren’t earth-shattering either, and ‘She doesn’t need improvement/She’s much too nice to rearrange’ is as iffy as the inspiration behind the song. The only other noteworthy mention goes to the reference to Love Potion No. 9, which had been a hit in 1959 for the Clovers.

Johnny Tillotson became a teen idol after its release, but his father had become terminally ill. This inspired his 1962 song, It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’, which became a big country hit and was later covered by Elvis. He had further hits, and starred in films, including 1966 comedy The Fat Spy with Jayne Mansfield (considered by many as one of the worst films ever made) but his fortunes waned as the 1960s drew to a close. The 90s saw Tillotson reguarly touring other countries, but tragedy hit his family when his 22-year-old daughter Kelli was killed in a car crash in 1991. 2010 saw the release of his single Not Enough, which paid tribute to all uniformed US personnel, and saw him gain recognition for the first time in years.

Written by: Mike Anthony & Paul Kaufman

Producer: Archie Bleyer

Weeks at number 1: 2 (12-25 January)

Births:

Simon Russell Beale – 12 January
Madness singer Suggs – 13 January
Footballer Peter Beardsley – 18 January
Designer Wayne Hemingway – 19 January

110. Cliff Richard and the Shadows – I Love You (1960)

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New Year’s Eve 1960 was the final day that the farthing, a coin that had been in use since the 13th century, could be used as legal tender. It was also the day that conscription ended in the UK. The times, they were a-changing.

Unfortunately, they weren’t changing quickly enough in the music world. 1960 had proven to be a rather staid year as far as number 1s went, with only a few highlights (Cathy’s Clown, Shakin’ All Over, Apache and Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel)). And so it seems appropriate that the Christmas number 1 that year was also pretty dull. Elvis Presley’s It’s Now or Never had been unstoppable for two months, but the UK’s other biggest-selling artist of the era managed to topple it during Christmas week. Not for the last time, Cliff Richard was the festive chart-topper, but this wasn’t considered such an honour back then.

In my review of Every Christmas Number 1, I decided Cliff Richard and the Shadows’ I Love You was the worst Christmas best-seller of the 1960s, describing it as ‘generic’, ‘tepid’ and ‘very forgettable’. Since then I’ve discovered that the singer’s father fell ill during I Love You‘s fortnight at the top, and died a few months later. This track was his favourite number 1 by his son, so I feel a bit guilty. Not enough to change my opinion, though. If you’re going to call a song I Love You, you should be pulling out al the stops to make it interesting, in my opinion. Like their previous number 1, Please Don’t Tease, the writer is rhythm guitarist Bruce Welch, and once again, it’s a very bland and polite track, but it got the job done, I guess. There were better number 1s to come for Cliff and the Shadows, but not for a while.

The first week of 1961 saw the debut of a classic television series. The Avengers premiered on ITV on 7 January. The original episodes focused on Dr David Keel, played by Ian Hendry, with John Steed (Patrick Macnee) growing in popularity throughout the series, before eventually becoming the central character. Two days later, British authorities announced a large Soviet spy ring had been uncovered in London.

Written by: Bruce Welch

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 2 (29 December 1960-11 January 1961)

Births:

Footballer Steve Bruce – 31 December
Actor Mark Wingett – 1 January 

109. Elvis Presley – It’s Now or Never (1960)

elvis_presley-its_now_or_never_s.jpgAfter two years military service, Elvis Presley was discharged from the US army in March 1960. The story goes that Elvis’s time in Friedberg, West Germany involved mainly parties, girls and drugs. While there, he met Priscilla Beaulieu for the first time, at a party at Elvis’s house. Then only 14, the pair agreed to stay in touch when he left West Germany, but she was convinced they would never meet again.

Elvis had been worried about his music career losing momentum during his time as a GI, but a steady stream of singles had been put aside beforehand, and the number 1s kept coming. However, he was itching to get back to recording, and before the month was out he was back in the studio, rush-releasing a new single, Stuck on You, which hit number 1 in the US (surprisingly, it stalled at number three over here). He then began work on the comeback album, Elvis Is Back! at RCA’s Nashville studio. While stationed in West Germany, he had heard Tony Martin’s 1949 hit There’s No Tomorrow, which was based on the famous Italian tune, O Sole Mio, which had once been recorded by one of Elvis’s heroes, the crooner Mario Lanza. Before Elvis had returned from the army, he told his music publisher Freddy Bienstock he was keen to record a new song based on the melody. Tasked with finding the right songwriters, he returned to his office in New York to find Aaron Schroeder (who had co-written Elvis’s 1959 number 1, I Got Stung) and Wally Gold, who had previously had hit singles while in the group the Four Esquires. The duo made quick work of the task, coming up with It’s Now or Never in half an hour. As usual, Steve Sholes produced, and Bill Porter was the sound engineer. Porter was having a particularly busy but successful time of it, having worked on music by the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison’s Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel), which was usurped from the top by It’s Now or Never. Listening to the two back-to-back, there’s a definite similarity.

It’s Now or Never found Elvis reverting to crooner mode, with his vocal performance closely resembling Mario Lanza’s almost-operatic method of intonation. Elvis is issuing an ultimatum to his lover – act now or lose him for good. He struggled to lift his voice to hit that impressive final note, recording it over and over. Porter told Presley he could easily just splice two takes together, but he insisted on his vocal being all one take, and pulled it off on the next run-through. It’s Now or Never really impressed at the time and was a huge hit, but rights issues in the UK meant its release was delayed for four months. This was no setback however, as the single racked up lots of advance orders. When finally released on 3 November, it went straight to number 1, where it remained for two months, becoming the biggest-selling single of 1960. It is also one of the biggest-selling singles of all time, selling over 25 million worldwide. And it meant the King had now achieved five number 1s – overtaking Frankie Laine and Guy Mitchell, who had four each.

Unfortunately for me and I expect many people of a certain age, It’s Now or Never means only one thing – ice-cream. Walls’ Ice Cream used O Sole Mio for many years on their famous adverts for Cornetto. So for me it’s impossible to hear this Elvis track without picturing a man on a gondolier trying to steal a woman’s ice-cream. It’s also a disturbing irony that disgraced sexual predator and DJ Jimmy Savile selected It’s Now or Never when he appeared on Desert Island Discs.

To celebrate 50 years of his music, It’s Now or Never was among the batch of re-releases of his most popular singles, and it went to number 1 once more for a week on 5 February 2005. In 2017, Priscilla Presley revealed online that this song was Elvis’s favourite among his huge catalogue. Wonder if he liked Cornettos?

On 9 December, the first episode of legendary soap opera Coronation Street aired on ITV. Among the characters introduced in that first show were Ena Sharples, Elsie Tanner and Annie Walker, all of whom became mainstays, alongside Ken Barlow, played by William Roache, who is still in the soap to this day.

Written by: Wally Gold & Aaron Schroeder/Eduardo di Capua (O Sole Mio)

Producer: Steve Sholes

Weeks at number 1: 8 (3 November-28 December) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Actress Tilda Swinton – 5 November
Presenter Jonathan Ross – 17 November
Singer Kim Wilde – 18 November
Fashion designer John Galliano – 28 November
Footballer Gary Lineker – 30 November
Def Leppard bassist Rick Savage – 2 December
Actor Kenneth Branagh – 10 December – Kenneth Branagh
Footballer John Lukic – 11 December
Footballer Chris Waddle – 14 December
Presenter Carol Vorderman – 24 December
Historian Andrew Graham-Dixon – 26 December

Deaths:

Architect Sir Nina Cooper – 22 December