52. Johnnie Ray – Just Walkin’ in the Rain (1956)

The Christmas number 1 of 1956 was a rather downbeat affair, but a good one. This was Johnnie Ray’s second number 1, after the lusty Such a Night in 1954. He had been immortalised in film too that year, starring in the famous musical-comedy-drama There’s No Business Like Show Business alongside Marilyn Monroe. He had seven further top 10 hits between 1954-56.

Just Walkin’ in the Rain had an interesting genesis: it had been written in 1952 by Johnny Bragg and Robert Riley. They weren’t a songwriting duo – they were prisoners at Tennessee State Prison in Nashville.

The pair were walking across the prison courtyard on a miserable rainy day, when allegedly Bragg remarked, ‘Here we are just walking in the rain, and wondering what the girls are doing’. Riley suggested this would be the good basis for a song, and within minutes Bragg composed a couple of verses. However, he couldn’t read or write, so he asked Riley to write down the lyrics in exchange for a songwriting credit.

At first Ray wasn’t keen on recording it, but producer extraordinaire Mitch Miller persuaded him to give it a go. With his reputation for songs of heartbreak, Ray was an ideal candidate for a cover, and Miller was proven right.

Backed by the Ray Conniff Singers and a mystery whistler (one of the most memorable aspects of the tune), Ray’s version perfectly captures the almost cosy melancholy at the heart of the song. Yes, he’s forlorn and lovesick, but you get the feeling he’s kind-of enjoying feeling sorry for himself. No wonder Morrissey became such a fan – was this track the source of inspiration for Well I Wonder by The Smiths?

Ray is in fine voice too, and makes the song so much more effective than your average crooner would. It reminds me of the infamous ‘You’re Never Alone with a Strand’ ad campaign of 1959, in which a solitary man walks the wet streets, lighting a Strand cigarette to cheer himself up. The ads were soon dropped due to creating an association of Strand with sad, lonely men. Just Walkin’ in the Rain would have provided a perfect soundtrack.

Despite the cultural shift that rock’n’roll brought about, the number 1s of 1956 were still on the conservative side. Music’s popularity was increasing with the rise of the teenager – the top 20 had expanded to a top 30, and singles by Elvis Presley and Lonnie Donegan threatened to hold the top spot, but were kept away by safer choices by the older generation. Come 1957, however, several big names finally made it to pole position, in a year that was made up of entirely male number 1 singles.

Written by: Johnny Bragg & Robert Riley

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 7 (16 November 1956-3 January 1957)

Births:

The KLF musician Jimmy Caughty – 19 December
Iron Maiden guitarist Dave Murray – 23 December
Violinist Nigel Kennedy – 28 December 

Deaths:

Artist Nina Hamnett – 16 December

Meanwhile…

22 November- 8 December: The Olympics took place in Melbourne, Australia.  Great Britain and Northern Ireland won six gold, seven silver and 11 bronze medals.

29 November: Petrol rationing was introduced due to petrol blockades caused by the Suez Crisis.

23 December, the British and French troops withdrew from Suez after pressure from the UN and US.

19 December: Dr John Bodkin Adams was arrested for the murder of patient Edith Alice Morrell.

Christmas Day: The long-running advertising campaign for PG Tips starring ‘talking’ chimps began, with the voices provided by Peter Sellers.

51. Frankie Laine with Percy Faith & His Orchestra – A Woman in Love (1956)

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Throughout the short-lived but infamous Suez conflict (see below), the UK’s number 1 single was Frankie Laine’s fourth and final number 1 – this cover of A Woman in Love.

It had been written by Frank Loesser for the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls. The Four Aces had some success with their version in the US, but the golden touch of Laine surpassed this in the UK.

Despite all his UK previous number 1s happening in 1953, the hits had continued. 1954 saw six top 10 singles and three more in 1955, including Cool Water which stalled at number two.

As usual, Laine gives it his all here, over a tango drumbeat and parping, swinging brass, but I’m already struggling to remember the tune two minutes after hearing it and it’s left me rather cold. Laine is insistent that the woman he’s bellowing at is in love with him as it’s clear in her eyes. I’m not sure shouting this at her is the right way to go about persuading her, though.

Laine had many more years of good fortune ahead. He famously sang the theme to western TV series Rawhide, which began in 1959, and showed he had a sense of humour by doing the same for Mel Brooks’ spoof Blazing Saddles in 1974, which won him an Oscar nomination.

He is now considered somewhat a bridge from the pop of old to rock’n’roll, not so much because of his style, but the way he expressed his voice, putting more soul into his performances than your average swinger of the time.

He was also one of the first white performers to cover black artists. His reputation as a social activist is impressive – he was the first white artist to appear on Nat King Cole’s TV show when he was unable to get a sponsor, purely because he was black. He later performed for free for supporters of Martin Luther King, and devoted a large amount of his time to the Salvation Army and homeless charities.

His final recording, Taps/My Buddy, was dedicated to the firefighters who helped during the 9/11 terrorist attack, and he insisted all profits went directly to them.

Frankie Laine died of heart failure on 6 February 2007, aged 93, his ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

Written by: Frank Loesser

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 4 (19 October-15 November)

Births:

Director Danny Boyle – 20 October
Singer Hazell Dean – 27 October
Actress Juliet Stevenson – 30 October
Screenwriter Richard Curtis – 8 November 

Meanwhile…

Only eleven years after the end of World War Two, the United Kingdom’s reputation as a superpower took a battering that it never really recovered from. Suez. Nasser’s plans to nationalise the Suez Canal company had shocked the UK and France, and plans began to remove him, partly to protect what was left of the British Empire. After meeting with President Eisenhower, Chancellor Harold Macmillan misread the situation and believed the US would not stand in their way. In fact, Eisenhower was insisting on a peaceful solution.

24 October: The UK, France and Israel agreed in secret that Israel would invade Sinai. Then, the UK and France would heroically intervene, and engineer the situation so that Nasser could not nationalise the company. Pretty shameful, sneaky stuff.

29 October: The Israelis attacked expecting retaliation, Nasser’s army instead withdrew.

5 November: The Anglo-French assault began, soon overwhelming the Egyptian army.

6 November. The UN insisted on a ceasefire, and Eisenhower was furious.

There had also been a backlash in the UK, and the consensus now was that Prime Minister Anthony Eden should have acted in the summer before public opinion had turned. Before replacing Winston Churchill, Eden had a reputation as a man of peace. By going to war, and subsequently claiming the meeting between the UK, France and Israel had never taken place, Eden’s reputation was permanently damaged, and parallels were later drawn between him and Tony Blair. By mid-November, newspapers began demanding his resignation.

50. Anne Shelton with Wally Stott & His Orchestra – Lay Down Your Arms (1956)

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On 15 October, the RAF officially retired the last Lancaster bomber. Along with the Spitfire, the plane was synonymous with World War 2. Yet another sign that the country was moving on from the war. You wouldn’t think that by looking at the number one single of the time, however. 

Lay Down Your Arms was a Swedish song, originally called Anne-Caroline, by Åke Gerhard and Leon Landgren, but the English lyrics were from Paddy Roberts, who had written Softly, Softly, a 1955 number 1 for Ruby Murray. It was a boisterous military march-themed love song, in which the protagonist is telling her soldier boyfriend that the conflict is over, so he needs to get himself home, lay down his arms and surrender to hers. Clever, eh?

The perfect person to sing a throwback to the war songs of the 40s was Forces Sweetheart Anne Shelton. Born Patricia Jacqueline Sibley in Dulwich, South London on 10 November 1923, she had begun singing on BBC radio show Monday Night at Eight at the age of 12. She had a recording contract at 15, and avoided being evacuated during World War Two by performing with dance-band leader Albert Ambrose.

Changing her name to Anne Shelton, she performed at military bases during the war, and had possibly avoided death when she was forced to turn down the opportunity to work with Glenn Miller due to prior commitments (this was the tour in which Miller died in a plane crash). She had been the first British artist to record one of the most famous songs of the war, Lili Marlene.

After the conflict ended, she became the first Brit to tour the entire US, coast to coast, which took a year. As the years passed she found it difficult to maintain her success with the songs of the 40s, and looked to war-themed material instead, such as Lay Down Your Arms.

It’s hard to fathom why this got to number 1 as far as the timing goes, let alone the quality. A month later, after the embarrassment of the Suez Crisis, would be more understandable. I can only imagine the older generation were going out in droves and buying this because they preferred it to the new rock’n’roll sounds that were loved by the youth. It’s not terrible, the melody is memorable and I’ve had it swimming round my head since listening to it, but it’s no Rock Island Line or Why Do Fools Fall in Love.

Shelton’s vocal is overbearing – I feel sorry for her soldier boy as she sounds like a terrifying lover. He’d probably be safer back on the beach at Normandy.

The most noteworthy element of the song is the fact troubled genius Joe Meek was the engineer, learning his trade before becoming a famous producer a few years later.

Shelton had a few more hits, including Sailor, which went into the top 10 in 1961 but couldn’t beat Petula Clark‘s number 1 version.  She also made two attempts at entering Eurovision.

As the decades went by she was often brought out for war anniversaries and ceremonies, much like Vera Lynn. She died on 31 July 1994 of a heart attack, aged 70.

Written by: Åke Gerhard & Leon Landgren/Paddy Roberts (English lyrics)

Producer: Johnny Franz

Weeks at number 1: 4 (21 September-18 October)

Births:

Athlete Sebastian Coe – 29 September 

Deaths:

Scientist Frederick Soddy – 22 September 

49. Doris Day – Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) (1956)

Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) is a quintessential 50s standard that has long since surpassed its original use, which was to serve as a musical number for Doris Day in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller The Man Who Knew too Much (1956). Since Day’s role in Calamity Jane (1953), she had been seeking more serious movie roles.

Songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans specialised in writing songs for films, and really hit gold here. It may be sugar-coated (thanks in large part to perpetually squeaky-clean Day’s signature vocal style), like most 50s pop, but the cheeriness belies there’s something lyrically deeper going on – often a key ingredient in some of the best pop music.

‘Que sera, sera’ doesn’t actually mean anything. Livingston and Evans created it from a mix of Spanish and Italian. The Italian phrase ‘Che sarà sarà’ (translated as ‘what will be, will be’) is carved into a wall in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), and the two songwriters decided to add some Spanish to the phrase due to the language’s popularity, and probably because it rolled off the tongue easier.

Although Doris Day’s voice leaves some people cold, and is the sort of thing I’d normally run a mile from, I can’t fault her performance here, just like I couldn’t for her previous number 1, Secret Love.

Although, indeed, ‘the future’s not ours to see’, it’s turned out alright for Day in the song, as by the end she has children of her own, and they in turn are asking her about their future. Yet despite the joy in Day’s voice as the song ends, who knows how the children will turn out? What will be, will be, after all, and the message somewhat pricks the positivity in the production and performance.

It would be impossible to name all the cover versions. My personal favourite has to be Sly & the Family Stone’s suitably strung-out recording from his 1973 album Fresh. Stone had a very tough future ahead of him at that point, making his version rather poignant. I also can’t let this blog pass by without mentioning a memorable advert from my childhood, in which the song was rewritten to sell McCain Steakhouse Grills. As you can see here, the new version was sang by a group of hungry builders in a van, and ends with the chorus changed to ‘We hope it’s chips, it’s chips!’ God knows what Doris Day would have thought of it.

Like Secret Love before it, the song won an Oscar for Best Original Song. However, despite its enduring popularity, it became something of a millstone around Day’s neck, as it became the theme tune to her sitcom The Doris Day Show in 1968, which she didn’t enjoy making. By this point her film career was stalling, the permissive society was at large and she was seen as a symbol of a bygone age. Threats of bankruptcy and the death of her husband Marty Melcher also took their toll.

There were still occasional chart hits in the 60s, however. Move Over Darling, a top 10 hit from the film of the same name in 1963, had been co-written by her son, Terry Melcher. But she did herself no favours by turning down roles like Mrs Robinson in The Graduate (1967) because she deemed it offensive.

Her sitcom ended in 1973, and Day began to live a quieter life running several animal welfare organisations. The 80s did see her involved in lengthy legal proceedings over her money. Her final album, My Heart, was released in 2011.

Day died of pneumonia on 13 May 2019, aged 97. The Doris Day Animal Foundation announced there would be no funeral service, gravesite or memorial. An unusually muted end for a much-loved celebrity, but one entirely in keeping with the modest woman Day was.

Written by: Jay Livingston & Ray Evans

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 6 (10 August-20 September)

Births:

Actress Kim Cattrall – 21 August
Footballer Ray Wilkins – 14 September
Actor Tim McInnerny – 18 September

Meanwhile…

9 August: The opening of the seminal art exhibition This Is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, which featured, among others, Richard Hamilton’s collage Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?. It is now considered to be one of the earliest examples of pop art, a decade before the movement really became popular. Hamilton went on to design the sleeve for The Beatles in 1968.

17 August: Scotland Yard began investigating society doctor John Bodkin Adams. Between 1946 and 1956, more than 160 of his patients died in suspicious circumstances.

10 September: French Prime Minister Guy Mollet visited London and proposed that France should merge with the United Kingdom. The idea was rejected by Anthony Eden.

12 September, Manchester United became the first English team to compete in the European Cup, beating RSC Anderlecht 2–0 in the first leg of the preliminary round.

48. The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon – Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1956)

Following a few lacklustre affairs, here’s a breath of fresh air at number 1. The Teenagers with Frankie Lymon became the youngest act to date to rule the roost, with this classic rock’n’roll and doo-wop number.

Franklyn Joseph ‘Frankie’ Lymon was born 30 September 1942 in Harlem, New York. His parents were both singers in gospel group The Harlemaire, and young Lymon sang with two of his brothers in the Harlemaire Juniors.

At the tender age of 12, he was working as a grocery boy to help his struggling family when he became friends with a doo-wop group known as The Coup de Villes – lead singer Herman Santiago, plus Joe Negroni, Jimmy Merchant and Sherman Games.

There are several versions of who came up with the song, and indeed several court battles have ensued over publishing rights, but a neighbour of The Premiers, as they were known in 1955, handed the group some love letters written by his girlfriend, to use as inspiration. By the time they had their audition with tough producer George Goldner, they were known as The Teenagers. Santiago was either ill, or late, but whatever the reason, Lymon had a crack at the lead, and the group recorded their biggest single and one of rock’n’roll’s most memorable hits. Why Do Fools Fall in Love influenced the Jackson 5 and spawned the girl-group sound, as well as hundreds of imitators. And with Lymon barely a teenager.

For a song recorded such a long time ago, Why Do Fools Fall in Love still sounds exciting. It’s bursting with youthful energy, and a large part of that is down to Lymon’s lead vocal. This was rock’n’roll but filtered through the innocence of such a young group with little experience of the world. And the saxophone break is a blast. The song charted highly in the US, but performed even better in the UK. And then, before their career had barely begun, things began to fall apart.

Tensions understandably began to surface when the next single was credited to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Early in 1957, Goldner began pushing Lymon as a solo act, and his departure was made official by September. New lead vocalist Billy Lobrano made the group unusually mix-raced, with a white member adding to the black and Hispanic mix. But Lobrano didn’t hang around long and they were looking for another singer in 1958. 

While The Teenagers went through a string of replacement singers, to little success, Lymon’s career also went into freefall. They reunited briefly in 1965 but it didn’t last. He had become addicted to heroin at the age of 15, and died of an overdose on 27 February 1968 at his grandma’s house, aged only 25. 

Two more founder members died during the 70s – Games of a heart attack in 1977 and Negroni a year later of a cerebral haemorrhage. In the 80s they hired female singer Pearl McKinnon in a desperate attempt to mimic Lymon’s voice. Funk star Jimmy Castor also had a run as their lead vocalist. 

These days it’s Santiago, along with Bobby Jay, Terry King and Terrance Farward who make up The Teenagers, but even now they bill themselves as Frankie Lymon’s Legendary Teenagers – a testament to Lymon’s star power.

Written by: Frankie Lymon & Morris Levy

Producer: Richard Barrett

Weeks at number 1: 3 (20 July-9 August)

Births:

Sculptor Andy Goldsworthy – 26 July
Madness guitarist Chris Foreman – 8 August

Meanwhile…

22 July: Music newspaper Record Mirror published the first ever UK Albums Chart. They had their own version of the singles chart, but it is the New Musical Express charts that I use for this blog, as these are the ones recognised by the Official Charts Company as canon until 1960. The first album at number 1 was Frank Sinatra’s classic Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!.

26 July: The Suez crisis began when Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser shocked the British government by announcing the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. Initially, Anthony Eden believed he had the country’s support in taking military action, and Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell agreed, but in the following weeks he took a more cautious tone.

47. Pat Boone – I’ll Be Home (1956)

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Elvis-mania was finally in full effect on these shores – Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes and I Want You I Need You I Love You had all bothered the charts, but surprisingly not one hit the top. Record buyers chose the safer option instead, and on 15 June, Pat Boone toppled Ronnie Hilton and I’ll Be Home began five weeks at number 1.

Pat Boone was, according to Billboard, the second-biggest charting artist of the latter half of the 50s, only beaten by Elvis. Early Presley was raunchy, suggestive and dangerous. Pat Boone was not, but he sounded very similar and, like Elvis, was fond of taking songs by black artists and tailoring them to a white audience.

Patrick Charles Eugene Boone was born on 1 June 1934 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Boones moved to Nashville, Tennessee when he was two. He began recording while at university, signing with Republic Records in 1954 and then Dot Records the following year. The hits began that year, when he covered Fats Domino’s Ain’t That a Shame. This hit number one in the US, and seven on these shores.

Boone was about to begin a career in film too when I’ll Be Home hit the big time. The song, written by Ferdinand Washington and Stan Lewis, had originally been a hit for doo-wop group The Flamingos. Boone picked Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti as its B-side.

I’ll Be Home is similar to Love Me Tender. Written from the point of view of a soldier away on duty, it features a sappy spoken-word interlude, and is very mediocre. But Boone was and is overtly Christian, which would have pleased the older record buyers back then. As far as I know he didn’t shake his hips either. So, in short, Elvis-lite. Sometimes there really is no accounting for sense and taste in the UK singles chart.

Nonetheless, Boone was incredibly successful, and could afford to turn down films and songs that didn’t hold up to his strong conservative views – he even turned down the opportunity to work with Marilyn Monroe. DC Comics turned him into a comic strip. I can’t imagine it would have been very exciting, and I wouldn’t expect a Hollywood adaptation any time soon.

The British Invasion ended his peak years and he moved into a more natural genre for him, namely gospel. His film career was still going well, however, and among his many movies he starred in all-star epic The Greatest Story Ever Told in 1965.

In the 70s he set up his own label, Lamb & Lion Records, and signed to Motown country subsidiary Melodyland in 1974. 1978 saw Boone and his daughter involved in a scandal involving an investigation into celebrities endorsing products making false claims when he and his four daughters appeared in an advert for Acne-Statin.

In the 90s he recorded an album of heavy metal covers called In a Metal Mood: No More Mr Nice Guy. He wore a leather jacket on TV to promote it and was subsequently sacked from TV show Gospel America. It took an explanation that he was parodying himself to get his job back.

I may sound rather disparaging of Boone, but it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for a man who was very vocal in supporting both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. He believed that people should ‘respect their elders’ and blindly follow their Presidents into any folly they may choose. In recent years he has also tried to draw links between gay rights protests and terrorist attacks, claimed Barack Obama was ineligible to serve as President, and compared liberalism to cancer. If I was forced to go see one of the many thousands of Elvis impersonators, Pat Boone would be very low down on my list.

Written by: Ferdinand Washington & Stan Lewis

Producer: Randy Wood

Weeks at number 1: 5 (15 June – 19 July) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Joy Division singer Ian Curtis – 15 July 

Deaths:

Writer Walter de la Mare – 22 June 

Meanwhile…

5 July: The Clean Air Act was passed as a result of the events of December 1952 when the singles chart was in its infancy. London had been gripped by the worst smog outbreak it had ever known. The Great Smog of London had lasted five days and is believed to have killed approximately 12,000 people.

9 July: Toy manufacturers Mettoy introduce Corgi Toys model cars, remembered fondly by boys and girls for years to come.

46. Ronnie Hilton with Choir and Orchestra conducted by Frank Cordell – No Other Love (1956)

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Hull-born singer Ronnie Hilton, born Adrian Hill on 26 January 1926,  enjoyed a six-week stay at number one with the old-school No Other Love.

Hill had left school at the age of 14 to work in an aircraft factory during World War Two, before becoming part of the Highland Light Infantry. Following demobilisation in 1947 he became a fitter in a Leeds sewing plant. In an evening, he would sing with The Johnny Addlestone Band. It was in 1954 that Hill took the plunge and became a full-time singer, adopting his new stage name.

Hilton found fame with his covers of popular American songs of the era. No Other Love was taken from the 1953 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Me and Juliet, and had been a US number 1 that year for Perry Como. Hilton’s version contained more ‘oomph’ than Como’s, who, as always, was content to play it cool.

It’s serviceable enough, a standard ballad of the era. Clearly, the older generation still loved these romantic ballads and weren’t going to be swayed by the rogue pelvis of Elvis Presley, whose debut album had been released a few months previous. However, by the time No Other Love had dropped from the charts, Presley had managed three hit singles. Rock’n’roll wasn’t going away.

The following year, Hilton failed in his attempt to represent the UK in the inaugural Eurovision Song Contest. In 1959, Hilton’s last chart hit for some time was The Wonder of You, which Presley took to number 1 in 1970.

Hits were thin on the ground for the singer in the 60s, and he became a regular fixture in pantomimes in his home town. In 1967, he released a version of David Bowie’s The Laughing Gnome as a double A-side with If I Were a Rich Man. It failed to chart, unlike his only album success, an LP of songs from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in 1968.

The 70s were tough, with money problems and a stroke in 1976 to contend with. But after years in the wilderness Hilton later found fame in the 90s by presenting BBC Radio 2’s nostalgic Sounds of the Fifties. He died of a stroke on 21 February 2001, aged 75.

Written by: Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II

Producer: Wally Ridley

Weeks at number 1: 6 (4 May-14 June)

Births:

Dramatist John Godber – 18 May 

Deaths:

Magician Austin Osman Spare – 17 May
Theatre critic Max Beerbohm – 20 May

Meanwhile…

5 May: Manchester City won the FA Cup with a 3-1 victory over Birmingham City at Wembley Stadium. Amazingly, their goalkeeper Bert Trautmann played the last 15 minutes of the game with a broken neck. Ouch.

7 May: The Minister of Health Robin Turton rejected a call for the government to lead an anti-smoking campaign, arguing that no ill-effects had yet to be proven.

8 May: John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger was first performed, at the Royal Court Theatre. Actor Alan Bates was described in the theatre’s press release as an ‘angry young man’, a term that would soon become famous.