224. Jim Reeves – Distant Drums (1966)

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At 9.15am on 21 October in the mining village of Aberfan in Glamorgan, South Wales, pupils at Pantglas Junior School were just beginning their lessons. A large colliery spoil tip, high up on a mountain slope behind the village, suddenly turned into a slurry due to a period of heavy rain beforehand. Within five minutes, the slurry had engulfed the school, along with nearby houses and a farm. This tragic event resulted in the horrific deaths of 116 children and 28 adults. The TV footage of the incident makes for surreal, grim viewing.

That autumn had seen the singles chart ruled for 5 weeks by a man who had died two years previous. American country singer-songwriter Jim Reeves ruled over the charts with Distant Drums in the same surprising way that Ken Dodd had a year previous with Tears. Amid all the amazing, pioneering music coming thick and fast, the charts were suddenly owned by the old folk once more.

‘Gentleman Jim’ had been born in Galloway, Texas in August 1923. Known as Travis during his childhood, he loved to play baseball and spent three years in minor leagues before severing his sciatic nerve. As a sufferer of sciatica myself, I can only imagine this must have been really bloody painful.

Reeves avoided World War Two when he failed his physical exam in 1943, and so he began working as a radio announcer. A fan of popular singers like Frank Sinatra, Jimmie Rodgers and Bing Crosby, he would sometimes sing live in-between songs, and began to see a career in it.

By the early 1950s Reeves was doing well in the US charts. Bimbo reached number 1 in the country chart in 1954. His first and only album release for Abbott Records, Jim Reeves Sings, came in November 1955. By that point he had signed a ten-year deal with RCA Victor with Steve Sholes. That same year, Sholes signed Elvis Presley.

Like every other country and western performer of the era, Reeves’ earliest recordings had him adopting a loud, rather cliched Texan style, but over time he developed his trademark style, a smooth, warm and gentle baritone, his lips nearly touching the mic as he crooned. RCA executives thought this was a bad idea, but Reeves was lucky to have producer Chet Atkins on his side. The first example of this new approach, Four Walls, was a commercial hit for Reeves in 1957. Soon, other artists were adopting the same approach, and this gentle approach, together with lush arrangements, became known as the Nashville Sound.

As the 60s began Reeves scored big in the pop and country charts with He’ll Have to Go. From here on in his stature grew enormously worldwide, eclipsing his fame in the US, even. He was more popular than label mate Elvis in South Africa. Among his hits in the UK in 1963 was Welcome to My World, used in recent years in adverts for Thomson Holidays.

In an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come, the singer’s final session for RCA resulted in three songs – Make the World Go Away, Missing You and Is It Really Over? With tape left over, they cut one more track – I Can’t Stop Loving You, which had been a number 1 for Ray Charles in 1962.

On 31 July Reeves and his manager Dean Manuel (also the pianist in Reeves’ backing group, the Blue Boys) were flying over Brentwood, Tennessee when they encountered a violent thunderstorm. Two days later, after intense searching by friends including Marty Robbins, the wreckage was found, and by the afternoon, Gentleman Jim’s death was announced publicly.

Material by Reeves continued to be released after his untimely death, aged 40. Distant Drums was a song by country singer and dancer Cindy Walker. It had been recorded by Roy Orbison in 1963, but it is Reeves’ version that is remembered best.

So just how did Distant Drums not only make it to number 1, but hold court for five weeks? It’s really hard to say. It seems RCA had chosen to release it due to creeping anti-war sentiment over the situation in Vietnam, but I’m not sure you could describe it as an explicit protest song. Even if it was, surely there were more commercial examples of such a thing out there? The fact he was two years dead already means it wasn’t due to the strength of feeling after he was gone, either.

To be fair to Reeves, he never intended it as a single – it was merely meant as a demo, and had been tarted up with an orchestral backing. But lord, is it dull. I’m no country fan anyway, but it’s a B-side or album track at best. I’ve read that perhaps so many young bands were jockeying for the top spot at the time, Reeves’ single split the vote, but who knows? It’s another one of those chart mysteries.

On the final day of Distant Drums‘ number 1 reign, former chart-topper Alma Cogan, whose Dreamboat was number 1 in 1955, died of ovarian cancer aged only 34.

Written by: Cindy Walker

Producer: Chet Atkins

Weeks at number 1: 5 (22 September-26 October)

Births:

Prime Minister David Cameron – 9 October 
Footballer Tony Adams – 10 October

Deaths:

Singer Alma Cogan – 26 October 

123. Helen Shapiro – You Don’t Know (1961)

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10 August 1961 saw Britain apply for membership to join the European Economic Community. Six days later, John Harte’s theatrical adaptation of DH Lawrence’s controversial Lady Chatterley’s Lover opened at London’s Arts Theatre. It was the only version to be staged until a second version in 2016. On 23 August, police launched a manhunt into the A6 murder. This brutal attack resulted in the murder of scientist Michael Gregsten, who was shot dead, and his mistress, Valerie Storie, was raped and shot five times, leaving her paralysed. And two days from then, Birmingham police launched a murder inquiry when the body of missing teenager Jacqueline Thomas was found on an allotment. It was 2007 before Anthony Hall was charged with her murder.

During this three-week period, Helen Shapiro became the youngest female number 1 artist. Aged only 14, but blessed with a smoky, mature voice beyond her years, she enjoyed two chart-toppers in 1961. She had been born in London’s Bethnal Green in 1946, and her pre-fame years were spent growing up in Clapton. She was too poor to own a record player, but learnt to play the ukelele, and her unusually deep voice earned her the nickname ‘Foghorn’. A precocious talent, Shapiro became the singer of Susie and the Hula Hoops at the age of ten. Mark Feld was the group’s guitarist, still years away from changing his name to Marc Bolan. When she reached 13 she began lessons at The Maurice Burman School of Modern Pop Singing, based in London’s Baker Street. The school was famous for having produced Alma Cogan, who had reached number 1 with Dreamboat in 1955. Burman was so astounded by Shapiro’s voice, he waived his tuition fee, and brought her to the attention of the UK’s top producer of the time, Norrie Paramor. The EMI hit-maker refused to believe she had only turned 14, until she visited his office and sang St Louis Blues at him. Only a few weeks later she cut her first single, the ironically-named Please Don’t Treat Me Like a Child, which reached number three after her appearance on ITV’s new pop music show Thank Your Lucky Stars. The song’s writers, John Schroeder and Mike Hawker, teamed up again for the follow-up You Don’t Know.

Were it not for the novelty of a teenager sounding wise beyond her years, I’m not sure You Don’t Know would have done as well as it did. Shapiro’s voice is great, and you can see why she caused such a fuss at the time, but the song is too stately and rather dull, ultimately going nowhere. It’s all very well to sound mature, but the team behind her would have done better to try and capture her youthful energy at the same time – something they would achieve with her follow-up single later in the year.

Written by: John Schroeder & Mike Hawker

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 3 (10-30 August)

Births:

Felt singer-songwriter Lawrence – 12 August 
Actress Saskia Reeves – 16 August
Tears for Fears singer Roland Orzabal – 22 August 

36. Slim Whitman – Rose Marie (1955)

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Remember how I said I seemed to have a problem with pop’s longest-running number 1 singles? Well here’s one now. Influential country-western singer, guitarist and yodeller Slim Whitman’s Rose Marie, which enjoyed a massive 11-week-long reign in 1955. It stood as the longest-running continuous number 1 until 1991, when Bryan Adams overtook with 16 weeks at the top in 1991 with (Everything I Do) I Do It For You.

Born Otis Dewey Whitman Jr in Tampa, Florida, Slim grew up loving the country songs of Jimmie Rodgers. During World War Two he entertained fellow soldiers with his singing. He was so entertaining, his captain blocked a transfer to another ship. This was a massive stroke of luck as everybody on that ship was killed when it sank. He taught himself to play the guitar with his left hand, despite being right-handed, after losing a finger in an accident. This later had an effect on a young Paul McCartney, who was left-handed and decided to retune his guitar just as Whitman had. George Harrison was also taking note, and once said the first person he ever saw with a guitar was Whitman. The instrument was beginning to become fashionable, thanks in part to Slim. Elvis’s future manager, ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, had heard Whitman on the radio and took him under his wing, and his first single came out in 1948. A young Elvis Presley even supported him.

Whitman had become very popular by 1955, even more famous in the UK than the US. He avoided standard country fare about drinking and having no money, and became known for his more romantic material. His yodelling became his trademark, and it may sound surprising but even Michael Jackson listed him as one of his ten favourite vocal performers. Rose Marie had been released as a single in 1954. It was taken from the 1924 opera of the same name, with music by Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart, and the lyrics by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II. Eventually it toppled Alma Cogan’s Dreamboat, and it reigned supreme from July to October.

When I say I have a problem with Rose Marie, I’m perhaps being harsh. It’s not bad, especially by the standards of the time. At first I was baffled by its success. As I explained when reviewing Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Give Me Your Word, I’m not a country fan. I found myself more amused by Whitman’s voice than anything. I’m not averse to a bit of yodelling either (see Focus or Mr Trololo), but I just could not see the appeal. Unlike most of the other songs so far though, I went back to it a few times, and it has grown on me. Lew Chudd’s production is effectively haunting, and the lyrics pack more depth into them than the usual hits of the time (of course, it was written 30 years earlier, so that explains that). It’s a love song, but Whitman is powerless against his emotions:

‘Oh Rose Marie, I love you
I´m always dreaming of you
No matter what I do, I can’t forget you
Sometimes I wish that I never met you’

Nonetheless, Whitman has given up. He belongs to her now.

‘Of all the queens that ever lived, I choose you
To rule me, my Rose Marie’

So, yes, fair play to Whitman. But… 11 weeks at number 1? A world record for 36 years? Really? Having said that, when you’ve the likes of Jimmy Young as your competition, perhaps it’s understandable (sorry Jimmy). Whitman enjoyed success for the rest of his long life, with peaks and troughs, but always remembered fondly. He died surrounded by his family in 2013 at the age of 90.

There were a few noteworthy events in Britain during the 11-week-run of Rose Marie. The Guinness Book of Records was first published on 27 August. On 4 September, BBC newsreaders were seen on television reading reports for the first time. The two in question were Richard Baker and Kenneth Kendall, who became celebrities themselves in time. Ten days later, Airfix produced their first scale model aircraft kit. 22 September saw the start of ITV, in London only. The first advert shown is for Gibbs’ SR toothpaste. And most important of all, on 26 September, Clarence Birdseye started selling fish fingers in the UK. Mind-blowing.

Written by: Rudolf Friml, Herbert Stothart, Otto Harbach & Oscar Hammerstein II

Producer: Lew Chudd

Weeks at number 1: 11 (29 July-13 October)

Births:

Actress Gillian Taylforth – 14 August
The Jam bassist Bruce Foxton – 1 September
Sex Pistols guitarist  Steve Jones – 3 September
Children’s television presenter Janet Ellis – 16 September
Actor David Haig – 20 September
Human League singer Phil Oakey – 2 October
Athlete Steve Ovett – 9 October 

Deaths:

Politician Leo Amery – 16 September 

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

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On 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. Two days earlier, Alma Angela Cohen, better known as Alma Cogan, scored her first and only number 1 with the poppy Dreamboat, written by Jack Hoffman.

Born 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 none other than ‘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 the nickname the ‘girl with the giggle in her voice’. after breaking down 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 1950s pop fare. 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