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 indeed a seismic event in music, it would be wrong to think that from then on, the UK number ones 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 a nice crooner to sing 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. He was still enjoying fame at the end of the year, and must have been thinking it’d be pretty damn good to top and tail 1955’s charts with two number 1s. He got exactly that 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 a Morecambe & Wise Christmas special. Valentine’s version became the more famous version, and the oldies won out, knocking Haley from his lofty perch and making Christmas Alphabet 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’s been largely forgotten, and that might be a reason behind Christmas Alphabet‘s obscurity. His popularity waned in the next decade, and he met a tragic end in 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

38. The Johnston Brothers with Johnny Douglas & His Orchestra – Hernando’s Hideaway (1955)

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Compared to the charts in the previous two years, the number ones of 1955 have been quite diverse, and, well, weird at times. We’ve had standard, dreary early 50s music, ballads, novelty songs, mambo and country music. But when are we going to get to some rock’n’roll? The genre that changed everything, that shook up pop forever? We’re nearly there. Earlier that year, a film called Blackboard Jungle had been released. It featured rock’n’roll as its soundtrack, and by November, the music that featured in the opening credits, a former B-side for Bill Haley & His Comets called Rock Around the Clock, had been gathering momentum. At the same time, Rock Island Line by skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan was also released. A revolution had begun. First though, a song from a musical. I’m about as much of a fan of musicals as I am country, bar a few exceptions. Well, who doesn’t love Grease?

Hernando’s Hideaway, by the Johnston Brothers, knocked Jimmy Young from the top on 11 November. It featured in The Pajama Game, a Broadway show by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, that had moved to the West End earlier that year. Originally performed by Carol Haney, the Johnston Brothers were a male vocal group led by the marvellously named Johnny Johnston. The other members were Alan Dean, Eddie Lester and Denny Vaughan. Like the Walker Brothers, they weren’t actually related. With the musical sparking so much interest, several versions were available, but it was the brothers’ version that ruled the roost on these shores, beating off Johnnie Ray and Archie Bleyer (oo-err).

Set to a very famous tango tune (is this tune stolen from a tango standard, or is this how it became famous?), the song concerns a dodgy-sounding Spanish dive. where lovers can meet in private. Featuring atmospheric castanets and shouts of ‘Ole!’, the Johnston Brothers, at least, don’t attempt comedy Spanish accents, and let’s face it, back then, nobody would have minded if they had. I’m sure it works fine in the context of a musical, but a UK number 1? Not in my eyes, or ears, but maybe I’m getting impatient for what is to come.

The Johnston Brothers had a few more singles before calling it a day, with Johnny Johnston moving into writing advertising jingles. Johnny Johnston Jingles Ltd (again, great name) came up with, among others, the famous ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’ jingle.

Meanwhile, on 20 November the Milton rail crash left 11 dead and 157 injured when a speeding train derailed near Didcot. Another crash left more dead less than a fortnight later.

Written by: Richard Adler & Jerry Ross

Producer: Hugh Mendl

Weeks at number 1: 2 (11 November-24 November)

Births:

Go West singer Peter Cox – 17 November
Architect Amanda Levete – 17 November
Cricketer Ian Botham – 24 November

 

37. Jimmy Young with Bob Sharples & His Music – The Man from Laramie (1955)

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As well as the mambo craze of 1955, Britain was also in love with cowboys and country and western music. Slim Whitman had ruled the roost with Rose Marie for 11 weeks, and the first ‘official’ country song hit number one earlier that year – Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Give Me your Word (although, as I said here, it’s not really a country song, and you could argue that Frankie Laine’s Hey Joe should earn that honour). That summer had seen the release of Western movie The Man from Laramie, starring James Stewart in the title role, as a stranger who causes ructions by working for the rival of a cattle baron. Lester Lee and Ned Washington had written the theme, and Al Martino (forever immortalised as the first UK number one artist with Here in My Heart) performed the US version. Martino only just scraped into the top 20 in the US, but Jimmy Young, riding high off his previous number 1 with Unchained Melody, became the first homegrown artist to have two consecutive number 1s.

 

Thankfully, Young pulls off The Man from Laramie, unlike his weird uneven Unchained Melody. It’s a jolly, rickety old number, and I suppose it’s kind of catchy, but I have no desire to ever hear it again. Basically, the Man is amazing and Young tells us all the ways in which this is true. His voice is better suited to this, but he’s still bellowing, and the worst bit is the cringeworthy way he changes his voice to sing with a layer of smarm:

‘He had a flair for ladies
Now the ladies loved his air of mystery’

Poor Jimmy Young. I am hard on him I suppose, but the fact he’s so fondly remembered for his career as a DJ rather than his music suggests he was right to switch careers. He became a DJ that year on Housewive’s Choice, but sensing the music climate was changing following Elvis’s success, he decided to go full-time, working for Radio Luxembourg and the BBC. In 1967 he was one of the original band of DJs on the fledgling Radio 1. Considered too ‘square’ by some of the station’s bosses, he proved them wrong and his morning show proved very popular. He switched to Radio 2 for the lunchtime show in 1973, and stayed with the station, becoming a national institution, loved for his charm and relaxed style. He was just as nice in person as on the air, by all accounts, and was mourned by millions when he died peacefully in his sleep in November 2016, aged 95.

Written by: Lester Lee & Ned Washington

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 4 (14 October-10 November)

Births:

Presenter Timmy Mallett – 18 October

Deaths:

Songwriter Harry Parr-Davies – 14 October