53. Guy Mitchell with Ray Conniff & His Orchestra – Singing the Blues (1957)

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1957 began with political change. Prime Minister Anthony Eden had struggled at the end of 1956 to recover from the debacle of Suez, and perhaps because of this he had suffered ill health. His doctors advised him to quit if he wanted to carry on living, and so he resigned on 9 January. A day later, with no formal process in place at the time, the Conservative Party decided he would be succeeded by then-Chancellor Harold Macmillan. The political situation was so rocky at the time that Macmillan told the Queen he could not promise the government would last longer than six weeks.

The first new number 1 of the year had been in place since 4 January. For the third time, the happy-go-lucky popular crooner Guy Mitchell was back at the top with his version of Singing the Blues. Previously recorded by country star Marty Robbins, it had been written by Mervin Endsley, a musician who had contracted polio at the age of three and had been in a wheelchair ever since. From the age of 11 he spent three years in the unfortunately-named Crippled Children’s Hospital in Memphis. While there he became a huge country music fan and taught himself the guitar. He had written Singing the Blues in 1954 and taken it to Nashville in the hope of getting a hit. And a hit is what he got, several times over.

I wasn’t too flattering about Mitchell’s 1953 number 1s – She Wears Red Feathers and Look at That Girl – but Singing the Blues is a cut above both of them. Produced once more by Mitch Miller (who had given Mitchell his stage name – his real name was Albert George Cernik), Mitchell is in his element here. The country element is hard to detect – this version of Singing the Blues sounds more like the older generation trying to harness rock’n’roll and put their own, safer, stamp on it. And unlike Kay Starr on (The) Rock and Roll Waltz, Mitchell and Miller pull it off. That’s largely down to the song itself, a winning tune set to effectively downbeat lyrics, rather than a naff novelty song with a new genre awkwardly shoved into it.

Mitchell, from the evidence I’ve heard, couldn’t sing a sad song if he tried, and he certainly doesn’t try here. Somehow though, it all gels, with Mitchell turning it into a cheeky come-on over a chirpy backing of whistling, ukulele and backing harmonies. He’s hoping to charm his ex into coming back. And listeners kept coming back to Singing the Blues – his version made it to number 1 for two more week-long stints, making him one of only four acts to have the same number 1 on three separate occasions. The other artists are Frankie Laine with I Believe, Pharrell Williams with Happy and What Do You Mean? by Justin Bieber. At the same time as the Mitchell and Robbins versions were released, they found themselves competing with a third, by up-and-coming rock’n’roller Tommy Steele. More on that next time…

Written by: Melvin Endsley

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 3 (4-10 January, 18-24 January & 1-7 February)

Births:

Astronaut Michael Foale – 6 January
Journalist Francis Wheen -22 January
Comedian Adrian Edmondson – 24 January 

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

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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.

On 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. The Israelis attacked on 29 October, expecting retaliation, Nasser’s army instead withdrew. On 5 November the Anglo-French assault began, soon overwhelming the Egyptian army. By 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.

Throughout the short-lived but infamous conflict, the UK’s number 1 single was Frankie Laine’s 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. It became his fourth and final number 1 on these shores (a record at this point), after I Believe, Hey Joe and Answer Me, all back in 1953.

As usual, Laine gives it his all, 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. Frankie is insistent that the woman he’s bellowing at is in love with him as it’s all 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, on TV, record and film. Although not personally a fan, 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 

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

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From 9 August until 9 September, the seminal art exhibition This Is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery 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 later went on to design the sleeve for The Beatles in 1968.

One day later, a very 50s-sounding song, and one of the most enduring of the era, knocked Who Do Fools Fall in Love from number one. Whatever Will Be, Will Be (usually now known as Que Sera, Sera) has long since surpassed its original use, which was as a vehicle for Doris Day in the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Man Who Knew too Much. Songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans specialised in writing songs for films, and really hit gold here. It may be sugar-coated (courtesy of perpetually squeaky-clean Doris), 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 one, Secret Love. Although, indeed, ‘the future’s not ours to see’, it’s turned out alright for Day, 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.

Whatever Will Be, Will Be is now a standard, and 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. 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. 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, and she was seen as a symbol of a bygone age. Since the sitcom’s end in the 70s, Day has lived a quieter life, but did release her first album in years in 2011, aged 89. These days, she runs several animal welfare organisations, using her celebrity status to raise awareness. A symbol of more innocent times, Doris Day is no doubt a living legend.

During her second and final stint at number 1, Scotland Yard began investigating society doctor John Bodkin Adams. Between 1946 and 1956, more than 160 of his patients died in suspicious circumstances. On 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. And on 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.

UPDATE (13/5/19): Well, even living legends die eventually, sadly. The showbiz world mourned today when Doris Day passed away from pneumonia, aged 97.

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

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

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On 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 saw the beginning of the Suez crisis, 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.

Meanwhile, the number 1 single in the UK was a breath of fresh air following a few lacklustre affairs. The Teenagers with Frankie Lymon became the youngest act to date to rule the roost, with the classic rock’n’roll and doo-wop number Why Do Fools Fall in Love. At the tender age of 12, New Yorker Frankie Lymon was working as a grocery boy to help his struggling family. He became friends with a doo-wop group known as the Coup de Villes – lead singer Herman Santiago, 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, Frankie Lymon had a crack at the lead, and the group recorded trheir 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 Lymon was barely a teenager.

For a song recorded such a long time ago, Why Do Fools Fall in Love still sounds fresh. It’s bursting with youthful energy, and a large part of that is down to Lymon’s lead vocal. This was pure 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. The Teenagers went through a string of replacement singers, to little success, and Lymon’s career 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 in 1968 at his grandma’s house, aged only 25. A tragic victim of the often cruel music industry.

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

41. Tennessee Ernie Ford with Orchestra conducted by Jack Fascinato – Sixteen Tons (1956)

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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. On 24 January, plans were announced for the building of thousands of new homes in the Barbican area of London, which had been devastated by Luftwaffe bombings in World War Two. In the charts, interest in Dickie Valentine’s Christmas Alphabet understandably died down after the holidays, and the first new number one of the year was Rock Around the Clock, enjoying its second run at the top, before being usurped by a truly unique single.

Sixteen Tons had originally been written and recorded by country singer-songwriter Merle Travis back in 1946. Travis’s songs often spoke of the hardships of workers in the US as he came from a mining family in Kentucky. His brother once wrote him a letter with the line ‘You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt’. His father was also fond of saying ‘I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.’. Back then, miners were paid with credit vouchers that they could use to buy goods at the company store. Travis had the beginnings of a very catchy chorus . He came up with a song whose humour is as black as the dirt in the miners’ fingernails, and Tennessee Ernie Ford was listening. Ten years later, his cover became his second UK number 1 single in less than a year.

Sixteen Tons is so much better than Give Me Your Word. His previous number 1 was a mediocre ballad that anyone could have recorded. It’s hard to think who could perform Sixteen Tons as well as Ford. Featuring a sparse arrangement that features his deep, booming voice and finger-clicking to begin with, followed by a clarinet backing him up, Ford speaks not only for US workers, but any slave to the man. In the gloomy winter months of 1956, no doubt UK miners could find solace in such a song. Although the mining references root the song firmly in the past, anyone who finds themselves slaving away just to get by can identify.  And it helps that it’s as catchy as hell.

Selling millions upon millions, Sixteen Tons became Ford’s signature song, and earned him his own TV show, which ran for five years. Unfortunately, he and his first wife Betty had alcohol problems, and while he managed during his career peak, by the 70s his love of whiskey was taking its toll. Betty died in 1989 but even this couldn’t curtail his drinking. He died of liver failure on 17 October 1991 – 36 years to the day of the first release of Sixteen Tons. However, he left behind the definitive version of a song that truly resonates.

Written by: Merle Travis

Producer: Lee Gillette

Weeks at number 1: 2 (20 January-16 February)

Births:

Sex Pistols Singer John Lydon – 31 January
Actor Philip Franks – 2 January
New Order bassist Peter Hook – 13 February

Deaths:

Author AA Milne – 31 January 

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? Bill 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. It’s just a shame it had taken so long to get there.

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. They had previously been a country music act known as Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, but changed their name 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.

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. Ten-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, in particular guitarist Danny Cedrone, who couldn’t think of a new solo and simply redid his performance on earlier track Rock This Joint. It didn’t matter, it’s blistering and 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 one, 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. Bill Haley died in 1981 of a heart attack, aged 55, but hopefully he knew the impact he had in his heyday was permanent. Rock Around the Clock‘s influence makes it immortal, and it will always be respected for this reason.

During its initial run at number one (Dickie Valentine’s festive Christmas Alphabet took the top spot over the holiday season), several newsworthy events took place. Yet another rail crash happened on 2 December in Barnes, South London, leaving 13 dead and 35 injured. And as well as the changes in music, politics was moving on, too. Long-running Labour leader Clement Attlee resigned on 7 December, recognising that, for all the positive changes he helped bring about after the war, it was time for to pass on the torch if the party was to usurp new Tory Prime Minister Anthony Eden. On 14 December, Hugh Gaitskell, a right-wing politician by many Labour members’ standards, defeated Nye Bevan and was named as the new leader.

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
Politician 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

32. Tony Bennett with Percy Faith & His Orchestra and Chorus – Stranger in Paradise (1955)

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As soon as he replaced Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden sought to establish his presence in Number 10 by immediately announcing a General Election for 26 May. For the first time in an election, television proved to take a prominent role in campaigning for Eden’s Conservatives and Clement Atlee’s Labour. As the polls closed, all the signs pointed toward Eden having made a very shrewd move.

On the day of the election, Tony Bennett’s fortnight at number 1 with Stranger in Paradise was coming to an end. One of many versions in the chart that year of Robert Wright and George Forrest’s song from the 1953 musical Kismet, which had only just arrived in the UK, it marked the start of Bennett’s international success.

Anthony Dominick Benedetto knew he was blessed with a good voice, and had been a singing waiter before being drafted into the US army towards the end of World War Two. He later described his time in the front line as a ‘front-row seat in hell’. Returning to his previous career after the war, singer Pearl Bailey invited him to be her warm-up in 1949. She had invited Bob Hope to watch, and he was so impressed he took his on the road with him. And that was the start of Tony Bennett, one of our last living original swingers.

Tony Bennett’s voice is the best thing about this song. It’s yet another smooth ballad, smothered with the usual arrangement, but he sings his heart out and it’s plain to see why he became so famous. However, the lyrics are also noteworthy. It’s another love song, but we’re a step above the usual fare from these times. For example:

‘I saw her face
And I ascended
Out of the common place
Into the rarest
Somewhere in space
I hang suspended
Until I know
There’s a chance that she cares’

Despite being (to date) his only UK chart-topper, the best was yet to come for Bennett, but he faced several peaks and troughs. He survived the rock’n’roll boom that soon followed, and hit big again in 1962 with his version of I Left My Heart in San Fransisco. Even Sinatra said he was the best singer in the world, but the boom of the Beatles saw Bennett feeling out of place once more, and he faced trying times until he nearly died of a cocaine overdose in 1979. In the 1990s though, he enjoyed a big revival. The illness and eventual death of Sinatra in 1998 perhaps made the world realise the swingers should be enjoyed while they were still around.  Bennett was all over television at the time. His natural charm was perfect for telling tall tales of his career, and that voice was still golden.

Always a supporter of civil rights, and with opinions on the Iraq War and apartheid that have later proven him to be on the right side of history, he’s that rare commodity in music, namely a nice guy AND one hell of a talent. He’s now 91 and still recording and performing, and long may he do so.

Tony Bennett is also the earliest UK number 1 act that I have ever seen live. Performing at a very muddy and wet Glastonbury Festival on Sunday 28 June, 1998, my friends and I sat on bin bags near our tents up on the hill by the Pyramid Stage. We probably began watching him with a sense of ironic detachment, as it certainly wasn’t the sort of music we were into. However, he won us over. Though it’s nearly 20 years ago, I remember we danced, we smiled, and the sun even shone for one of the few times that entire weekend. One of the better ‘legend’ slots in the festival’s history.

Written by: Robert Wright & George Forrest 

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 2 (13-26 May)

Births:

Singer Hazel O’Connor – 16 May
Presenter Dale Winton – 22 May