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 

40. Dickie Valentine with Johnny Douglas & His Orchestra – Christmas Alphabet (1955)

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As winter 1955 dawned, Rock Around the Clock-mania had set in, and Bill Haley & His Comets were finally enjoying their stint at number 1. Although this was indeed a seismic event in music, it would be wrong to think that from then on, the UK number ones were constantly rock’n’roll numbers. Teenagers, as they had recently been named, still only represented a portion of the record-buying market. There were still a lot of older folk who were more than happy with the status quo, who liked a nice crooner to sing something warm and cosy, and especially with the dark nights drawing in, etc. Smooth singer Dickie Valentine had enjoyed a very successful year, with his collaboration with the Stargazers, Finger of Suspicion, topping the charts back in January. He was still enjoying fame at the end of the year, and must have been thinking it’d be pretty damn good to top and tail 1955’s charts with two number 1s. He got exactly that by cottoning on to an idea that would serve artists well for years to come – if you want a number 1 at Christmas time, why not do a song about Christmas time?

Christmas Alphabet had been written by Buddy Kaye and Jules Loman the previous year, and was performed by US singing trio The McGuire Sisters. Kaye liked his alphabet songs – he’d written ‘A’ You’re Adorable (The Alphabet Song) back in 1949 for Perry Como, although these days it’s probably best known as featuring in Angela Rippon’s guest spot on a Morecambe & Wise Christmas special. Valentine’s version became the more famous version, and the oldies won out, knocking Haley from his lofty perch and making Christmas Alphabet the first explicitly-festive Christmas number 1.

It’s based around a very simple idea. Valentine just lists seasonal stuff around each letter that makes up the word ‘Christmas’. He runs through it twice, to make sure it’s all sunk in, and that’s it, job done. Some of the rhyming is tenuous though…

‘S is for the Santa who makes every kid his pet,
Be good and he’ll bring you everything in your Christmas alphabet!’

Erm, sorry, what? Santa makes every kid his pet? It’s news to me. Disturbing news, at that.

Although by this stage of my blog I’ve been longing for rock’n’roll to come along and shake things up, I have to confess that I don’t mind Christmas Alphabet. Reason being, I’m a sucker for a Christmas song. Especially older ones. Christmas is of course, a time for feeling all cosy and warm, if you’re lucky enough to have that option. 50s music is often perfect at encapsulating that. So I’m quite surprised, especially considering its historical importance, that Christmas Alphabet seems to have been forgotten about. You never hear it in shops, and it’s never on compilations. John Lewis are unlikely to get someone to make one of those annoying, wet, folky covers and stick it on an advert, either. It might be a slight little number, but it deserves to be remembered.

You could say the same about Valentine himself. Despite being adored at the time, he’s been largely forgotten, and that might be a reason behind Christmas Alphabet‘s obscurity. His popularity waned in the next decade, and he met a tragic end in 1971. Aged only 41, he was driving to a gig in Wales with bandmates at over 90mph in the early hours of the morning, when he lost control of the vehicle on a bend, killing the three of them.

Written by: Buddy Kaye & Jules Loman

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 3 (16 December-5 January 1956)

Births:

Poet Carol Ann Duffy – 23 December