224. Jim Reeves – Distant Drums (1966)

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Autumn 1966 saw the singles chart ruled for five 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 on 20 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 50s 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.

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 (see below)

Meanwhile…

21 October: At 9.15am 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.

26 October: Former chart-topper Alma Cogan, whose Dreamboat was number 1 in 1955, died of ovarian cancer aged only 34.

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

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With this single, 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.

Helen Kate Shaipro had been born in London’s Bethnal Green on 28 September 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 10. 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 this follow-up.

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 very impressive, 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 

Meanwhile…

10 August: Britain applied for membership to join the European Economic Community.

16 August: 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.

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.

25 August: 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.