The Rubettes’ retro 50s and 60s vibe fitted right in with the tail end of the glam years, yet the best element of their sole number 1, Sugar Baby Love – that soaring, Frankie Valli-style falsetto, wasn’t from a member of the band. Somehow, a demo became a number 1 single for a month.
The idea of the band originated in 1973 from the head of A&R at Polydor Records, Wayne Bickerton and Tony Waddington. Together, they had been in The Pete Best Four and went on to write songs, including soul favourite Nothing but a Heartache in 1969. Bickerton and Waddington were considering writing a rock’n’roll musical and had come up with four retro bubblegum pop songs – Sugar Baby Love, Tonight, Juke Box Jive and Sugar Candy Kisses (which became a hit for Mac and Katie Kissoon). In October 1973 they arranged for demos of the tracks to be recorded, with the possibility of putting the first in the running for a shot at the Eurovision Song Contest. They assembled, among others singer Paul Da Vinci for the lead, backed by keyboardist Pete Arnesen and drummer John Richardson, among others.
With the song demos finished, they offered the material to Leicester-based rock’n’roll revivalists Showaddywaddy (which would have been highly appropriate) who turned them down, as did former vocalist with The Move, Carl Wayne. Bickerton and Waddington decided to clean up Sugar Baby Love but in essence release the original demo, under a random 50s-sounding name, hence The Rubettes. What they didn’t expect was to then have to quickly assemble a real group to promote the song when it started to gain momentum. And it posed a problem, as Da Vinci wasn’t able to join them as he was under a solo contract elsewhere. Richardson and Arnsesen returned, and joining them were Alan Williams as singer, Tony Thorpe on guitar, Mick Clarke on bass and Bill Hurd on keyboards. The Rubettes were bedecked in white suits and cloth caps to help them stand out in these days of frequently outlandish outfits.
But it’s Da Vinci’s stunning falsetto that stands out on Sugar Baby Love, both uplifting and sad at the same time and conjuring up the hits of The Four Seasons. Unfortunately, as good as it is, that’s really all the song has going for it. It could be that I’m not a fan of doo-wop and Valli in general, but I’ve never enjoyed Sugar Baby Love. Perhaps because it was only ever meant as a demo, it strikes me as being an empty, soulless pastiche, and a warning that glam was running out of ideas, if you can even really call it glam.
The idea of the song is better than the reality. Da Vinci is urging the listener not to make the same mistake as him. He clearly regrets hurting his love, and implores them to ‘Love her anyway, love her everyday’, which is a good lyric, to be fair.
Nobody was any the wiser as Williams mimed along to the demo on Top of the Pops, which they only lucked their way on to after Sparks had problems with work permits. This must have been pretty annoying for the Mael Brothers, as Sugar Baby Love kept This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us from the top spot. I wonder how Da Vinci felt, too?
The next two singles, Tonight and Juke Box Jive, came from the original demos too, and the latter in particular did well, reaching number three at the end of the year. I Can Do It reached number seven in 1975, but then they started to lose their ground, and they ditched the doo-wop. Arnsesen left later that year, followed by Hurd in 1976. They reached number 10 with the country-styled Baby I Know, sang by Thorpe, and never had another top 40 entry. He departed the band in 1979 following arguments.
The Rubettes dissolved in 1980. Since then, they have followed the well-trodden path of reforming, splitting into several different versions, and going to court over the use of the band’s original name, which lets face it, is what gets the punters flocking to see these bands of yesteryear. Currently, there’s The Rubettes featuring Alan Williams, The Rubettes featuring John, Mick, & Steve (February 2019) and The Rubettes featuring Bill Hurd.
As for Da Vinci, he reached number 19 with solo hit Your Baby Ain’t Your Baby Anymore in 1974. Further failed attempts followed, so in 1977 he went back to session work. He wrote Any Way You Do It, the first single by disco group Liquid Gold in 1978, and in 1981 he sang on Tight Fit’s Back to the 60’s Part II medley.
Luke Haines’s indie rock band The Auteurs released a song called The Rubettes in 1999, which referenced their number 1.
Written by: Wayne Bickerton & Tony Waddington
Producer: Wayne Bickerton
Arranged by: Gerry Shury
Weeks at number 1: 4 (18 May-14 June)
Presenter Denise van Outen – 27 May
Ventriloquist Nina Conti – 5 June
Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester – 10 June
20 May: The first meeting was held by The Centre for Policy Studies, a Conservative social market think tank established by Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher and Alfred Sherman.
28 May: Following a strike by unionists, power-sharing in the Northern Ireland Assembly collapses.
1 June: An explosion at Flixborough chemical plant kills 28 people and seriously injures 36. Had it happened on a weekday the numbers would have been much higher.
5 June: Snow Knight, ridden by Brian Taylor, was victorious in the Epsom Derby. The odds were 50/1.
8 June: Jon Pertwee became the third actor to relinquish the role of The Doctor in Doctor Who, citing the death of his friend and TV enemy Roger Delgado in 1973. The final episode of ‘Planet of the Spiders’ saw Pertwee regenerate into Tom Baker.
10 June: The Queen’s last surviving royal uncle, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, dies at his home in Northamptonshire, seven years after his last public appearance. His funeral is held at Windsor Castle on 14 June.