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.

39. Bill Haley & His Comets – Rock Around the Clock (1955)

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Finally! After nearly 40 blogs, rock’n’roll has arrived. Although not the first song of the genre (nobody really knows if such a song actually exists, although Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats is often credited as such), and not the best either, Rock Around the Clock is understandably credited as the tune that brought it to a wider audience, and influenced millions, including many youngsters who were taking note and went on to become star musicians themselves. Rock’n’roll was about feeling rather than form, about stripping away such soppy, sappy lyrics over flowery, string-packed instruments. There’s no wonder it helped bring about the dawn of the teenager. Why should young adults grow from children to instant adulthood? Why not have some fun first, before life gets too dull and dreary? Haley may have been way too old to be a teenager, but it didn’t matter. Rock Around the Clock represented the new young energy that would help sweep the country out of the post-war doldrums.

The song is believed to have been first written in 1952. Credited to Max C. Freedman and Jimmy De Knight (a pseudonym belonging to James E. Myers), it was first recorded by Sonny Day and His Knights, although apparently they’d always had Haley’s group in mind.

William John Clifton Haley was born in Highland, Michigan on 6 July 1925. When he was four he underwent an inner-ear mastoid operation which accidentally severed an optic nerve. This left him blind in his left eye for the rest of his life, and may explain why he grew a kiss curl over his right eye.

The Haley family moved to Bethel, Pennsylvania due to the effects of the Great Depression when he was seven. Both his parents were musicians (his mother originally came from Ulverston in Lancashire) and by the time he was 13, their son was singing and playing the guitar.

Two years later Haley left home to find fame. He spent the 40s in several bands, including The Down Homers and The Four Aces of Western Swing, and was even known as Silver Yodelling Bill Haley at one point.

By 1951 he was leading a country music act known as Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, but they changed their name to Bill Haley with Hayley’s Comets and adopted an early rock’n’roll sound after covering Rocket 88. They had their first hit with Crazy Man, Crazy, which is perhaps the first song of the genre to be shown on television, used on the soundtrack to a play starring James Dean. Soon after, they settled on Bill Haley & His Comets, and they were pianist Johnny Grande, steel guitarist Billy WIlliamson and bassist Marshall Lytle. Before long they had their first drummer, Earl Famous, who was soon replaced by Dick Richards.

In spring 1954 they began working with Milt Gabler, who had worked on several proto-rock’n’roll tracks previously. In their first session they recorded Rock Around the Clock as a last minute B-side to Thirteen Women And Only One Man In Town, a track about the survivors of a nuclear bomb.

Luckily for Haley and co, the son of a famous actor had become quite the fan of that B-side. 10-year-old Peter Ford was Glenn Ford’s son, and Glenn was due to co-star alongside Sidney Poitier in a film about teenage delinquents called Blackboard Jungle. He suggested to director Richard Brooks to stick the song over the opening credits. Swiftly capitalising on the attention, the song was re-released and spent two months at number 1 in the US. It was only a matter of time before their success was repeated in the UK, a nation starving for the return of the good times.

I’m stating the obvious by saying it sounds quaint compared with the songs it later influenced, but there’s more raw energy packed into the opening of Rock Around the Clock than any UK number 1 up to that point. Haley’s voice commands you to take note and to have a good time, and the Comets ably assist, and so does guitarist Danny Cedrone, on loan from The Esquire Boys, who couldn’t think of a new solo and simply redid his performance on their earlier track Rock This Joint. It didn’t matter, it’s blistering and is easily the highlight of the song.

In a genre full of tragedy, Cedrone was one of the first victims. He never had chance to enjoy the group’s fame as a month after they had recorded Rock Around the Clock, he fell down some stairs and broke his neck, dying at the age of 33. By the time they became number 1, the Comets were a different group to the ones that recorded the song. In addition to Cedrone’s death, three other members left the group over money issues.

Before long, the younger acts they had helped influence suddenly made Bill Haley & His Comets look old and staid by comparison. They had become victims of the youth movement they helped usher in. Stardom lasted longer in Europe, where they enjoyed a few more years of being mobbed by fans. But rock’n’roll came and went many times over the years, with several revivals, and Rock Around the Clock was re-recorded several times and often reissued.

Haley battled the booze during the 70s, and towards the end of his life he had a brain tumour. He died on 9 February 1981, aged 55 of ‘natural causes, most likely a heart attack’, according to his death certificate. But in a sense Rock Around the Clock‘s influence has made him immortal.

Written by: Max C Freedman & Jimmy De Knight

Producer: Milt Gabler

Weeks at number 1: 5 (25 November-15 December 1955, 6-19 January 1956) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE DECADE*

Births:

Singer Billy Idol – 30 November
Conservative MP Philip Hammond – 4 December
The Clash bassist Paul Simonon – 15 December
Presenter Angus Deayton – 6 January
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby – 6 January
Actress Imelda Staunton – 9 January
Singer Paul Young – 17 January 

Deaths:

Ecologist Sir Arthur Tansley – 25 November

Meanwhile…

2 December: The Barnes rail crash in Barnes, South London, left 13 dead and 35 injured.

7 December: Long-running Labour leader Clement Attlee resigned. For all the positive changes he helped bring about after the war, it was time for him to pass on the torch if the party was to usurp new Tory Prime Minister Anthony Eden. One week later, Hugh Gaitskell, a right-wing politician by many Labour members’ standards, defeated Nye Bevan and was named as the new leader.

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 1s of 1955 have been quite diverse, and 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, actually. 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 and was originally performed by Carol Haney.

The Johnston Brothers were a male vocal group formed in 1949 and led by the wonderfully named Johnny Johnston. The other members were Alan Dean, Eddie Lester and Denny Vaughan. Like the Walker Brothers, they weren’t actually related. Johnston had been a singer and arranger with the BBC and had previously been a member of The Keynotes. The Johnston Brothers signed with Decca Records in 1953 and soon had their first top 10 hit with Oh Happy Day.

With The Pajama Game sparking so much interest, several versions of Hernando’s Hideaway were available, but it was the brothers’ version that ruled the roost on these shores, beating off Johnnie Ray and Archie Bleyer.

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.

Hernando’s Hideaway is still the nickname for the smoking room in the House of Commons.

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

Meanwhile…

20 November: The Milton rail crash left 11 dead and 157 injured when a speeding train derailed near Didcot.

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’s Rose Marie held the top spot for 11 weeks, and the first ‘official’ country song to hit number 1 happened 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 performed the US version. He 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 in the UK.

Young makes a better job of The Man from Laramie, than he did Unchained Melody. It’s a jolly, rickety old number, and I suppose it’s kind of catchy, but having said all this, I have no desire to ever hear it again.

Basically, it’s Young telling us all the ways in which the Man from Laramie is brilliant. His voice is better suited to this than his previous chart-topper, but he’s still bellowing, and the worst bit is the cringeworthy way he changes his voice to sing smarmily:

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

The fact Young is so fondly remembered for his career as a DJ rather than his music suggests he was right to switch careers. He became a disc jockey 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 on 7 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

35. Alma Cogan with Vocal Group & Orchestra by Frank Cordell – Dreamboat (1955)

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Alma Angela Cohen, better known as Alma Cogan, or ‘The Girl with the Giggle in Her voice’, scored her first and only number one with the poppy Dreamboat, written by Jack Hoffman.

Born 19 May 1932 in Whitechapel, East London of Russian-Romanian Jewish descent, Cogan had been a star for a few years by this point. When she was 14, she had been recommended for a variety show by ‘Forces Sweetheart’ Vera Lynn. Two years later, formidable band leader Ted Heath told her to come back and try and work with him when she was older. He later said it was one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

She became a BBC radio regular, and earned her nickname after bursting into laughter while recording If I Had a Golden Umbrella in 1953. With her sweet timbre, she was compared to Doris Day, particularly on her first hit, Bell Bottom Blues, in 1954. She charted 18 times in the 50s, but Dreamboat was her biggest tune.

Clocking in at under two minutes, Dreamboat is an average piece of 50s pop. It’s a bit too cutesy-wutesy and cheesy for its own good, but must have been fun at the time. The lyrics are confusing. It’s a nautical-themed love song (!), in which she seems to be singing about one person, and how devoted she is to him, how wonderful he is etc. But the first lines are:

‘You dreamboats, you lovable dreamboats
The kisses you gave me set my dreams afloat’

Make your mind up, Alma. The strangest lyric is:

‘I would sail the seven seas with you
Even if you told me to go and paddle my own canoe’

This creates the image of Alma Cogan paddling frantically behind her dreamboat. Or has she got several on the go? Anyway, by the time you’ve pondered all this, this harmless bit of fluff is over. And that was fine with pop fans of the day. Cogan won the New Musical Express‘s Outstanding British Female Singer award four times between 1956 and 1960. Her star waned as the new decade dawned, but she branched out and remained popular due to her starring role as Nancy in the musical Oliver!, plus regular appearances on television and radio.

Her dwindling chart action didn’t prevent Cogan from throwing hip showbiz parties at her widowed mother’s flat in Kensington. Regularly seen attending were the likes of Princess Margaret, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Bruce Forsyth and Roger Moore. She also become closely linked to The Beatles. The teenage John Lennon would playfully tease her, and according to Lennon’s ex-wife Cynthia, they had a romance after meeting on Ready Steady Go! in 1964, but it was kept out of the public eye. Allegedly, Paul McCartney first played the melody of Yesterday on her piano. So it seems a shame the Fab Four couldn’t work their magic and help Cogan’s music career.

In 1966, she collapsed several times while on tour, citing stomach problems. tragically, Alma Cogan died of ovarian cancer on 24 October. She was only 34.

Written by: Jack Hoffman

Producer: Wally Ridley

Weeks at number 1: 2 (15-28 July)

Deaths:

Footballer Billy McCandless – 18 July

Meanwhile…

17 July, racing driver Stirling Moss, dubbed ‘the greatest driver never to win the World Championship’, became the first English winner of the British Grand Prix at Aintree.

34. Jimmy Young with Bob Sharples & His Music – Unchained Melody (1955)

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Summer 1955 brought a heatwave to many parts of the country, particularly Yorkshire, and the UK enjoyed a modern record of low unemployment (barely 1% of the workforce).

It was also the summer of Unchained Melody. Written for a little-known prison movie called Unchained, also released that year, the music came from Alex North, and lyrics were by Hy Zaret. The film centred on a prisoner deciding whether to go on the run or finish his sentence and live in peace with his family. Zaret only agreed to write the lyrics if he could leave out the film’s name, which might have helped with its longevity, ultimately. Todd Duncan sang the original vocals in the movie.

The song is now a standard, and one of the most covered in history, with well over a thousand recorded versions in various languages. In the summer of 1955 alone, four versions existed in the chart at one time – by Al Hibbler, Les Baxter, Liberace and future Radio 2 DJ, Sir Jimmy Young.

Leslie Ronald Young was born 21 September 1921 in Cinderford, Gloucestershire. He suffered greatly with illness as a child, nearly dying from bronchitis, double pneumonia and pleurisy. But he would later excel at sport, and turned down a place with Wigan’s rugby league team.

He worked as an electrician and physical training instructor for the RAF before becoming a singer in 1950. His cover of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s Too Young was a big sheet music seller in 1951, and he signed with Decca Records a year later. But it was 1955 that proved his most successful year in music, with two number 1s to his name.

By all accounts Young was a radio legend and a thoroughly nice person to boot. However, his version of Unchained Melody is a strange mess. It makes Robson and Jerome sound like the Righteous Brothers.

Whilst I admit I’m not much of a personal fan of crooners and opera-style singers like Al Martino and David Whitfield, I can appreciate the slickness of the production of their hits and their ability to sing. Young’s Unchained Melody sounds amateurish by comparison, with strings and guitar backing that seems ill-matched and uneven, and poor Young is either putting no effort in or bellowing, as if the producer is prodding him every now and then to display some passion.

In spite of all this, record buyers loved it for some reason, and he enjoyed three weeks at the top. Unchained Melody would return to number one three more times, courtesy of The Righteous Brothers in 1990, Robson & Jerome in 1995 and Gareth Gates in 2002.

Written by: Alex North & Hy Zaret 

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 3 (24 June-14 July)

Births:

The Clash guitarist Mick Jones – 26 June

Deaths

Criminal Ruth Ellis – 13 July

Meanwhile…

30 June: Gloster Meteor jet fighter crashed on takeoff in Kent, killing all crew members and two fruit-pickers. Later that day, two Hawker Sea Hawk jets crash into the North Sea in two separate incidents, leaving one pilot dead.

13 July: Ruth Ellis became the last woman to be hanged in the UK before the death penalty was abolished. She had shot dead her lover, racing driver David Blakely on Easter Sunday (10 April).

33. Eddie Calvert – Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White (1955)

Tony Bennett’s Stranger in Paradise was toppled from number 1 by Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, but it wasn’t Pérez ‘Prez’ Prado’s version of Louiguy’s mambo tune, which had topped the charts only a few weeks previously. This was a cover by popular British trumpeter Eddie Calvert, the ‘Man with the Golden Trumpet’.

Calvert was a big star at the time, and had been number one the year previous with Oh Mein Papa. He was also one of the writers of Vera Lynn’s only chart-topper, My Son, My Son, also in 1954. Back then it was perfectly normal for several versions of the same song to be in the charts at the same time. See David Whitfield and Frankie Laine‘s Answer Me, for instance, which were even both number 1 at the same time for one week.

There’s no denying Eddie Calvert’s ability on his version, but it’s inferior to Prado’s. It’s missing the authenticity of the King of Mambo, and seems a little too mannered. It reminds me of the Strictly Come Dancing band’s covers of songs. The passion has been sucked out. But at the same time, Calvert actually goes off script more than Billy Regis does on Prado’s version, and does some nice little improvised playing in the song’s latter half, so it’s a decent cover. It’s certainly aged better than Oh Mein Papa.

Calvert, like many other 50s stars we’ve already seen, suffered when rock’n’roll and later The Beatles changed the musical landscape. He left the country in 1968, angry at the amount of tax he was paying under Harold Wilson’s Labour government, and moved to Johannesburg. There he remained until he died on 7 August 1978 of a heart attack, aged only 56.

Written by: Louiguy

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 4 (27 May-24 June)

Births:

The Clash drummer Topper Headon – 30 May
Author Val McDermid – 4 June
World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee – 8 June
Footballer Alan Hansen – 13 June
Comedian Paul O’Grady – 14 June

Deaths:

Radium therapist Jacob Moritz Blumberg – 14 June

Meanwhile…

27 May: As predicted by the polls, the Conservatives won the General Election, with their new leader Anthony Eden back in power with a majority of 31 seats, up 17 from Winston Churchill’s success four years previous. Labour’s infighting between the left and right (sound familiar?) had caused them substantial losses. Their leader, Clement Atlee, who had achieved so much after World War Two, was unlikely to make it to a sixth election in a row.