36. Slim Whitman – Rose Marie (1955)

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Influential country-western singer, guitarist and yodeller Slim Whitman’s Rose Marie enjoyed a massive 11-week-long reign in 1955. It stood as the longest-running continuous number 1 until Bryan Adams spent 16 weeks at the top in 1991 with (Everything I Do) I Do It For You.

Born Otis Dewey Whitman Jr in Tampa, Florida on 20 January 1923, Slim grew up loving the country songs of yodelling Jimmie Rodgers. During World War Two he entertained fellow soldiers with his singing. Whitman was so entertaining, his captain blocked a transfer to another ship. This proved to be 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 was very popular by 1955, and 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 10 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.

At first I was baffled by the success of Rose Marie. 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 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 might explain why). 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.

Whitman made history in 1956 when he became the first ever country star to perform at the London Palladium. He continued to have hits on these shores, including I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen in 1957.

His star began to wane as the 60s began, with mainly minor hits in the US country charts. Though he continued to record, Angeline (1984) was his last album for 18 years. He relied on royalties from compilations until he began work on his final album Twilight on the Trail which finally saw release in 2010.

In 2013 Whitman died of heart failure on 19 June, aged 90.

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 

Meanwhile…

27 August: The Guinness Book of Records was first published.

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.

14 September: Airfix produced their first scale model aircraft kit.

22 September: ITV began, in London only. The first advert shown is for Gibbs’ SR toothpaste.

26 September: Clarence Birdseye started selling fish fingers in the UK.

1. Al Martino – Here in My Heart (1952)

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So, we begin. Going back, back, way back in time, before boy and girl bands, before dance, punk, psychedelia, The Beatles and rock’n’roll, to a smog-ridden UK on 14 November 1952.

Winston Churchill’s Conservatives had been back in power a year, following Labour’s huge socialist changes to the country after World War Two under Clement Atlee, and Elizabeth II had ascended to the throne earlier that year (that’s right, she’s been Queen longer than the charts have existed). That March, Maurice Kinn and Percy Dickins bought the Musical Express and Accordion Weekly, transforming it into the New Musical Express (wish it had kept that name). Dickins had been following what Billboard were doing with their chart system in the US, and decided to follow suit, with the charmingly antiquated and inaccurate system of ringing around 20 record stores around the country to find out what vinyl 78s were selling the most. He compiled a top 12 (Why 12? Who knows?) and thus US singer and actor Al Martino made history.

Martino was born Jasper Cini in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 7 October 1927. His parents were Italian immigrants who ran a construction business, and he worked as a bricklayer along with his brothers. But the young Cini aspired to be a singer and would emulate heroes like Perry Como and Al Jolson. Key to his ambitions was family friend Mario Lanza, who had become popular and encouraged Cini to follow in his footsteps.

Cini served with the United States Navy during World War Two, and after the war was over, Lanza suggested he try singing in local nightclubs. He adopted the stage name Al Martino and moved to New York in 1948, recording for the Jubilee label.

In a sense, Martino was the singles chart’s original X Factor-style success story. In 1952, he won first place on the TV show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, which earned him a recording contract to record this single.

After reaching number 1 in the US, Here in My Heart remained at number 1 for nine consecutive weeks in the fledgling UK top 12, making it the only chart-topper of 1952, and therefore, the first Christmas number 1, too. Only seven other tracks have lasted longer – Bryan Adams’s (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, Wet Wet Wet’s cover of Love is All Around, One Dance by Drake, David Whitfield’s Cara Mia, Rihanna’s Umbrella, I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston and most recently, Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You.

It’s hard to see the huge appeal of Here in my Heart now. All the tracks above have their critics (me amongst them), but you can see how they did well. Martino’s track is a maudlin, melancholy piece of pop-opera (popera?) in which he shows off his vocal range to a slushy string-laden backing. The tune is forgotten as soon as the track ends, but to a country still suffering trauma from a terrible war, it may have provided some succour to the UK in the early 50s.

Martino signed with Capitol Records soon after, and the Mafia took an interest in him too, buying out his management and ordering him to pay thousands to them as a ‘safeguard’. Martino did what he was told, but wisely decided to move to the UK afterwards.

The chart hits continued here until 1955, but he had little exposure in his home country. Fortunately a family friend intervened and Martino returned to the US in 1958, but it wasn’t easy to resume his career thanks to the impact of rock’n’roll. The Exciting Voice of Al Martino, his 1962 LP, helped turn his fortunes around.

The following year he scored another big single in the US with his version of I Love You Because, and in 1966 he had his final top 10 hit on these shores with Spanish Eyes.

Martino’s run-in with the Mafia took on a whole new meaning when he played Johnny Fontane in The Godfather (1972) and sang the theme tune, Speak Softly Love. He would return to the role in The Godfather Part III in 1990.

The first ever UK number 1 singles star continued to record and perform into the 21st century. Al Martino died of a heart attack on 13 October 2009, aged 82.

Written by: Pat Genaro, Lou Levinson & Bill Borrelli

Producer: Voyle Gilmore

Weeks at number 1: 9 (14 November 1952-15 January 1953)

Births:

Comedian Mel Smith – 3 December
TV presenter Clive Anderson – 10 December
Actress Jenny Agutter – 20 December
Journalist and politician Jackie Ballard/Director and producer Richard Boden – 4 January

Meanwhile… 

25 November: Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap began its run at the New Ambassador Theatre in London.
4-9 December: The Great Smog of London enveloped the capital, causing approximately 4000 deaths.
12 December: The fondly remembered children’s TV show Flower Pot Men, chronicling the adventures of Bill and Ben, debuted on the BBC Television service.
25 December: The Queen made her first ever Christmas speech to the Commonwealth, sat in the same chair as George V and George VI before her.