54. Tommy Steele & The Steelmen – Singing the Blues (1957)

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Guy Mitchell only enjoyed a week at the top of the charts with Singing the Blues before record buyers decided they preferred Tommy Steele’s version. This bizarre turn of events had happened before in December 1953, when Frankie Laine‘s version of Answer Me knocked David Whitfield‘s from the top.

Tommy Steele was enjoying immense popularity at the time, and is considered by many to be Britain’s first rock’n’roll star.

Born Thomas William Hicks in Bermondsey, London on 17 December 1936, he had been a merchant seaman, and sang and played guitar and banjo in London coffee houses in his spare time.

He fell in love with rock’n’roll when a ship he worked on docked in Norfolk, Virginia in the US and he heard Buddy Holly on the radio. He and his group, The Steelmen scored their first hit with Rock with the Caveman in 1956, reaching number 13. It was a rip-off of Rock Around the Clock, but a pretty good one.

It was beginning to become common practise for British singers to record covers of songs that were going down well in the US, and release them over here before the imports became better known. Although his version of Singing the Blues hadn’t beaten Mitchell’s to the top spot, it had knocked it down after only a week.

By this point, Elvis-mania had well and truly gripped the nation, and Tommy Steele decided to ape him for his version. Clearly this worked at the time, but his affectation is so obvious now as to sound laughable. His slurring of the opening line is way too over-the-top, and makes Pat Boone sound much more authentic at ripping the King off. Thankfully Steele settles down and things pick up when he drops the impression, but The Steelmen’s backing is almost identical to Mitchell’s, right down to the whistling, so inevitably you compare the two, and when you do, Steele is the loser. Mitchell was a veteran by this point, and sounds relaxed and at home with the material.

So, Steele had succeeded in beating Presley to a UK number 1 single, and won the initial battle with Mitchell, but was only in pole position for a week before everybody decided they’d actually preferred Mitchell’s version, which went back to the top for its second of three stints. Perhaps Steele should have laid off the Elvis impressions and stuck to sounding like Bill Haley & His Comets.

Steele’s debut album, The Tommy Steele Story, became the first number 1 album by a UK act later that year. Also in 1957, he found himself competing against Mitchell once more, as they both covered Mervin Endley’s sequel, Knee Deep in the Blues. Neither version fared as well, though. He went solo in 1958, and continued with his music until the rise of The Beatles, before wisely concentrating on his film and theatre career, and still has an army of dedicated fans. He’s starred as the lead role in the musical Scrooge since 2009, and is also a successful sculptor.

Written by: Melvin Endsley

Producer: Hugh Mendl

Weeks at number 1: 1 (11-17 January)

Meanwhile…

16 January: The Cavern Club, a place for jazz aficionados before later becoming home to The Beatles as they went stratospheric, opened its doors for the first time.

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.

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.

26. Winifred Atwell & Her ‘Other’ Piano – Let’s Have Another Party (1954)

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As 1954 drew to a close, the charts were finally livening up. Rosemary Clooney’s This Ole House had shown the way forward, and a certain song called Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & His Comets had been getting attention. Unlike the previous December, when record buyers had chosen the solemn Answer Me by Frankie Laine as their Christmas number 1, everyone decided they wanted to spend the festive season having a bloody good knees up. And so on 3 December, Winifred Atwell’s instrumental Let’s Have Another Party went to the top and stayed there until the new year. She had become the first black person to have a number 1.

Una Winifred Atwell was born in Trinidad & Tobago, date unknown, though her gravestone suggests 1910. She was expected to join the family business and become a pharmacist, but she had loved playing the piano since childhood, and left her home to study music in the US, before moving to London and becoming the first female pianist to achieve the highest grading at the Royal Academy of Music. Substituting for an ill star at the Capitol Theatre, she caught the interest of famous impresario Bernard Delfont with her frenetic honky tonk style of playing. Before long, her version of Black and White Rag made her famous (it was later used as the theme tune to the BBC’s snooker show Pot Black)

Let’s Have Another Party was a follow-up to her hit Let’s Have a Party (see what she did there?). Atwell showcased her skills once more with a medley of 10 songs. Easily the longest chart-topper so far, she ran through Somebody Stole My Gal, I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight, When the Red Red Robin, Bye Bye Blackbird, The Sheik of Araby, Another Little Drink, Lily of Laguna, Honeysuckle and the Bee, Broken Doll and Nellie Dean. She did this without pause, at a relentless pace, and as old-fashioned as it sounds now, it’s very refreshing to hear something so different to what came before. Atwell had mad skills, you could say. You can imagine people gathering round the gramophone on Christmas Day and actually smiling along to this, or perhaps even going so far as to have a little dance, and it’s a lovely image.

Although the charts in 1954 had often offered up more of the same, the number ones were of more interesting fare than 1953, with a little less crooning and more (dreadful) comedy, jazz and pop. 1954 showed early signs of how unpredictable the UK charts could and would be in years to come.

Written by: Leo Wood/Walter Donaldson & Russ Kahn/Harry Woods/Ray Henderson & Mort Dixon/Harry B Smith, Francis Wheeler & Ted Snyder/Clifford Grey & Nat Dyer/Leslie Stuart/William Penn & Albert Fitz/Douglas & Guy C Rawson/Henry W Armstrong

Weeks at number 1: 5 (3 December 1954-6 January 1955)

Producer: Johnny Franz

Births:

Author Hanif Kureishi – 5 December
Author Louis de Bernières – 8 December
Singer Annie Lennox – 25 December
SNP leader Alex Salmond – 31 December
Classicist Mary Beard – 1 January
Comedian Jimmy Mulville – 5 January 

Deaths:

Author James Hilton – 20 December

Meanwhile…

Christmas Day: The Prestwick air disaster occurred at 3.30 that morning, when the RMA Cathay struggled with intense rain and landed short of the runway at Prestwick Airport in Scotland. The aircraft overturned and burst into flames, killing 28 of the 36 on board, including two children and cricket star Kenneth Davidson.

20. David Whitfield, with Chorus and Mantovani and His Orchestra – Cara Mia (1954)

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Doris Day’s Secret Love had a second, lengthy eight-week stay at number 1 after toppling Johnnie Ray’s Such a Night. Eventually Day ran out of steam and on 2 July, Hull’s favourite soprano David Whitfield returned to number one with his version of Cara Mia, with dual credit going to popular conductor Mantovani and his orchestra.

Both were at the height of their fame and had previous chart-toppers to their name, Whitfield with Answer Me and Mantovani had The Song from The Moulin Rouge. This track easily outdid the success of both, and stayed top of the pops for a mammoth 10 weeks, a UK record at the time.

Cara Mia, Italian for ‘My Beloved’, was credited to Tulio Trapani and Lee Lange. In fact, Trapani was Mantovani, who had arranged the song, and Lange was producer Bunny Lewis. Why did they use aliases? I’m not sure, but it’s the first time we’ve seen a number 1 with credits for pseudonyms. Why am I mentioning it? Because there’s not a lot that can be said about the song itself, unfortunately.

After a run of interesting tracks, we’re back in the rather’dull, overblown sludge territory that seemed so popular in the early 50s. Whitfield can hold a note, that’s for sure, but once more I find myself asking how this could be number 1 for so long. Then again, I did the same when Bryan Adams reigned for so long in the summer of 1991, so perhaps it’s going to be a common theme with the biggest sellers.

Neither artist had a number 1 again, although Mantovani came close with follow-up Swedish Rhapsody, and continued to enjoy huge sales figures, as well as presenting his own TV series in 1959. The composer ceased recording in the mid-70s, and died in a Kent care home on 8 April 1980, aged 74.

As for Whitfield, he too had further success for a few years, and his top 10 entries continued until 1957. including recording the theme music to the TV series The Adventures of William Tell, he fell out of favour when rock’n’roll took hold. It also didn’t help that he would turn down offers to go to America, preferring to stay put in Hull.

Whitfield recorded two further versions of Cara Mia, in 1966 and for his final album in 1975. He too died in 1980, of a brain haemorrhage while touring Australia on 15 January, aged only 54.

Written by: Tulio Trapani & Lee Lange

Producer: Bunny Lewis

Weeks at number 1: 10 (2 July-9 September)

Births:

Pet Shop Boys singer Neil Tennant – 10 July
Singer Joe Jackson – 11 August
Singer Elvis Costello – 25 August

Deaths

Physician Henry Valentine Knaggs – 11 July

Meanwhile…

4 July: Meat rationing came to an end in the UK.

15. Frankie Laine with Paul Weston & His Orchestra – Answer Me (1953)

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In a year in which US crooner Frankie Laine so completely dominated the fledgling UK charts, it seems fitting that he finished 1953 at the top. Even more so that it was with Answer Me, which as I mentioned here, is so typically of its time. Despite becoming banned by the BBC for its religious content (yes, really), both Laine’s version and David Whitfield’s continued to outsell the other top 10 as winter set in. After a week at number 1, Hull-born tenor David Whitfield’s single was overtaken by Laine’s version.

Although nothing can disguise the cloying sentimentality of Answer Me, this recording, with the backing of Paul Weston & his Orchestra, is stronger. Laine’s singing is more natural, and softer, with an organ, guitar and choir accompanying him. Like I Believe, he saves the bellowing until the end, giving the song time to build. It reached number 1 on 13 November, and there it remained until 7 January 1954, for a very impressive eight weeks.

However, on 11 December, David Whitfield’s version sold equally well. Or at least, it did in the few shops whose sales counted towards the top 12. And so for a week, both versions were recognised as number 1 singles. It’s a shame it didn’t occur during Christmas week, it could have become pop music’s version of the Christmas truce in World War One.

As mentioned in my blog on Whitfield’s version, both he and Laine later recorded covers of Answer Me, My Love, in which the then-shocking references to God were removed. Neither of these outperformed their first versions though. Just goes to show the universal appeal and interest in ‘banned’ songs really.

With a few slight exceptions, looking back at the number 1 singles of 1953 has proven that ‘pop’ music had a long way to go before it became exciting, memorable and most importantly, fun. However, some of the key ingredients were starting to fall into place.

Written by: Gerhard Winkler & Fred Rauch/Carl Sigman (English lyrics)

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 8 (13 November 1953-7 January 1954)

Births:

Comedian Griff Rhys Jones – 16 November
Labour MP Hilary Benn – 26 November
Labour MP Alistair Darling – 28 November
Labour MP Geoff Hoon – 6 December
Comedian Jim Davidson – 13 December
Director Anthony Minghella – 6 January

Meanwhile…

20 November: Piltdown Man, discovered in 1912 and believed to be the remains of an early human, were proved to be a hoax.

25 November: England lost dramatically to Hungary in football’s ‘Match of the Century’ by 6-3, ending a 90-year unbeaten home run against sides from outside the British Isles.

26 November: The House of Lords voted to go ahead with the government’s plans for commercial television.

14. David Whitfield with Stanley Black & His Orchestra – Answer Me (1953)

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Until the rise of The Beatles, most songs in the 50s and 60s charts tended to be covers, and often multiple versions of these songs were available at once. This led to the last two number 1s of 1953 being covers of the same track, and even, for one week, number 1 at the same time. An oddity, no doubt, brought on by the fact that the charts were compiled in such an amateurish fashion, with the New Musical Express simply ringing around 20 shops to ask what was doing well.

Answer Me was originally a German song called Mütterlein, written by Gerhard Winkler and Fred Rauch. The English lyrics were by top US songwriter Carl Sigman, who used to collaborate with Duke Ellington, among others. In Answer Me, a man asks God why his love has left him:

‘Answer me, Lord above:
Just what sin have I been guilty of?
Tell me how I came to lose my love
Please answer me, oh, Lord’

I would have thought God had bigger things to think about… These lyrics proved to be controversial. It seems laughable now, but the BBC actually banned Answer Me due to complaints over its religious content, and both David Whitfield and Frankie Laine later released toned down versions called Answer Me, My Love, in which Sigman cleaned up his act. This seems even more bizarre when you consider the huge success of I Believe, but it must have been due to the explicit references to God.

With its depressing lyrics, all-too-early-50s stately pace and overwrought style, Answer Me is a less memorable I Believe. David Whitfield’s voice was clearly made for this type of song, but you just wish he’d tone it down a bit.

Nonetheless, Whitfield was a hugely popular male tenor when he first hit number 1. Hailing from Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire, he was born on 2 February 1925. Whitfield sang in the choir at his church as a child and during World War Two he would entertain fellow troops.

He featured in the Radio Luxembourg version of Opportunity Knocks after the war, which was his platform to fame. His second single was a version of I Believe, but follow-up Bridge of Sighs was his first taste of top 10 action.

Whitfield was the most successful British singer in the US in 1953, but the problem was, the unstoppable Frankie Laine’s version was in the charts at the same time.

Written by: Gerhard Winkler & Fred Rauch/Carl Sigman (English lyrics)

Producer: Bunny Lewis

Weeks at number 1: 2 (6-12 November, 11-17 December)

Births:

Equestrian Lucinda Green – 7 November
Comedian Jim Davidson – 13 December

Deaths

Poet Dylan Thomas – 7 November

Meanwhile…

11 November: Current affairs series Panorama first appeared on the BBC. Groundbreaking, and still often controversial, this series continues to unearth unpleasant truths all these years later.