230. Engelbert Humperdinck – Release Me (1967)

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Spring, 1967 saw one man sitting atop the charts. For seven weeks Engelbert Humperdinck was number 1 with Release Me. It was the year’s biggest seller, and famously, was the first song to prevent the Beatles from reaching number 1 since 1963. But before I go into that, what else was happening in the UK over those six weeks?

On 4 March the first North Sea gas was pumped ashore at Easington, East Riding. That same day, Queens Park Rangers became the first Third Division side to win the League Cup when they beat West Bromwich Albion 3-2 at Wembley Stadium. Supertanker SS Torrey Canyon ran aground between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles, creating the biggest oil spill in the world at the time, and it remains the biggest in UK history. At the Astoria Theatre in Finsbury Park, London on 31 March, guitar legend Jimi Hendrix set fire to his instrument for the first time. He was taken to hospital afterwards for burns to his hands. As he had superhuman axeman powers, it didn’t put him off doing it time and time again.

Norwell Roberts made history on 3 April, becoming the first black officer for the Metropolitan Police Service. Five days later the Grand National was won by 100-1 outsider Foinavon, and Sandie Shaw became the first singer to have an English-language entry win the Eurovision Song Contest, with Puppet on a String. It would soon become her third and final number 1. And as Humperdinck’s reign finally began to end, Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead received it’s premier at the Old Vic in London.

So, Release Me. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me after blogging so many hits of the time, but it wasn’t Humperdinck’s song originally. It was first written in 1949 by country music singer-songwriters Eddie Harris and Robert Yount, with James Pebworth also receiving a confusing third of the royalties. Confusing, because over the years he used several different pseudonyms that often cropped up on various versions, sometimes even two at once. Harris recorded the first version, but it was Ray Price who made it a hit for the first time in 1954. Then along came Humperdinck. Who was this bizarrely named singer?

It won’t come as a surprise to find out it’s not his real name. He was born Arnold George Dorsey in May 1936. One of ten children, he spent his first decade living in Madras, British India (now Chennai), before the Dorseys moved to the less exotic Leicester. Interested in music from a young age, he learnt the saxophone and would play it in nightclubs, and apparently didn’t attempt to sing live until he was 17, when his friends persuaded him to enter a pub contest. His impression of Jerry Lee Lewis earned him the name Gerry Dorsey, which he used for nearly a decade.

Dorsey’s career was interrupted by National Service, and he made his first recordings after being discharged with Decca Records in 1958. He failed to make his mark.

That all changed in 1965 when he teamed up with his old roommate Gordon Mills. Mills was Tom Jones’s manager, and was the one who came up with his name change. He reckoned he could do the same for Dorsey, and suggested ‘Engelbert Humperdinck’. Humperdinck was a German composer in the 19th century, and among his works was Hansel and Gretel. Quite why Mills thought this would be a reasonable name is unknown to me. At least ‘Tom Jones’ had been in the public eye at the time, having been the name of a big film.

Humperdinck signed a new contract with Decca under his new stage name, and things picked up when he started to do well in Europe, entering the Knokke song contest and having a hit in Belgium with Dommage, Dommage. Around this time he visited German songwriter Bert Kaempfert, and became keen on Strangers in the Night. He recorded it and wanted it released as a single, but Frank Sinatra got there first.

Fortune finally smiled on Humperdinck when Dickie Valentine fell ill and had to miss an appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. He sang Release Me, and had rave reviews. Soon, his recording was at the top of the charts, and it held firm.

I thought that overfamiliarity with Release Me would make listening to it a waste of time, but there were a couple of surprises. For one, it was a lot slower than I remembered, but I think my brain had somehow replaced it with the version used on BBC Two Nineties comedy The Fast Show – a version which at least had some flair. Humperdinck’s version isn’t half dreary to begin with. Charles Blackwell’s production makes it all sound a little too slick, and doesn’t really give off the impression that Humperdinck is dying to move on from his partner (hard to believe it was produced by the man behind Come Outside). But I have to admit I was impressed with his singing in the latter half. He has a great voice, you have to give him that, and he does sound pretty anguished during that final run through the chorus. Apparently Humperdinck didn’t like being referred to as a crooner, because he felt his range was better than that, and I wouldn’t argue with him.

I can’t dislike Release Me as much as many Beatles fans do. Obviously it didn’t deserve to keep Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever from number 1, but it’s by far the worst number 1 I’ve heard, and there’s far worse to come. I like the lyrics too. Although the track is nearly 20 years old by this point, I can’t imagine it was easy to come by songs that hinted at separation and divorce back then. You’re only hearing one side of the argument, true, but you can’t help feeling some degree of empathy.

But, like Tears and Distant Drums in the two years previous, just why did this become so huge? And why does the list of 1967 number 1s feature lots of lengthy stints at the top, and from safer material than the previous few years? I think, perhaps, that things got a little too weird for many record buyers, and particularly the older ones. Whereas many of the number 1s of 1965 and 1966 still had commercial appeal, even if they were breaking new ground too. And so there was a return to the safe, slick world of easy listening and light-entertainment-style pop. Humperdinck was also a heart-throb, unlike Ken Dodd and Jim Reeves, so that will have helped him somewhat as well.

It wasn’t just Release Me that had a lasting impact – even the B-side left its mark. Ten Guitars was so popular in New Zealand, it’s considered the unofficial national anthem.

And so, as some of the greatest rock bands of all time prepared to release albums that would go down in history as 20th-century classics, an amusingly-named warbler who had struggled for years was the biggest singer in the UK with an easy listening cover of an old country song. And he had another chart-topper before the year was out, too.

Written by: Eddie Miller, James Pebworth & Robert Yount

Producer: Charles Blackwell

Weeks at number 1: 6 (2 March-12 April) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson – 4 March
Scottish actor John Barrowman – 11 March
Race walker Lisa Langford – 15 March
Lush singer Miki Berenyi – 18 March
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah – 24 March
Presenter Helen Chamberlain – 2 April

Deaths:

Author John Haden Bradley – 6 March 

 

140. Elvis Presley with the Jordanaires – She’s Not You (1962)

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14 September saw Teledu Cymru begin transmissions to the North and West Wales region, which meant that ITV was now available anywhere in the UK. Six days later, Ford launched one of its most famous cars, the Cortina, which would have then set you back £573. Although it later became a much-mocked vehicle, it was one of the most popular cars of the 1970s, and even into the 80s, when poor families like mine could still be seen driving around in one. The following day, long-running student quiz University Challenge made its debut on ITV. This original incarnation ran until New Year’s Eve 1987, with Bamber Gascoigne presenting.

Meanwhile, Frank Ifield’s million-selling yodelling superhit I Remember You was finally usurped by, well, guess? That’s right, it’s Elvis again, for the 12th time! At this point he’s still making music that is nearly always a pale imitation of his previous classics (Can’t Help Falling in Love excepted, of course), he’s still starring in bad films, and he’s basically muddling through, yet still the UK are buying everything he releases and sending him to the top. This was soon to change, as we know. Previous number 1, Good Luck Charm, saw one of his top songwriters depart from the team due to a financial dispute, and other great creative talents were soon to leave too. She’s Not You was a rare collaboration between Doc Pomus, who co-wrote Surrender, and Lieber and Stoller, the duo behind Presley’s best number 1, Jailhouse Rock. Unusually, Chet Atkins is also credited as producer alongside Steve Sholes.

She’s Not You is a step up from Good Luck Charm, although that’s not saying a great deal. Once again, the music is a plodding boogie-woogie, but at least this time Elvis sings with some presence. The lyrics are also an improvement. The idea of Elvis settling for second best and comparing her to his true love is a good idea. But come on now, this stuff is starting to sound really dated – even the sexist Come Outside sounded more progressive than this, and record buyers were perhaps finally feeling the same, as it only remained at number 1 for three weeks – Elvis’s shortest stint since 1959’s I Got Stung/One Night. The next number 1 would be the sound of the future.

Written by: Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller & Doc Pomus

Producer: Steve Sholes & Chet Atkins

Weeks at number 1: 3 (13 September-3 October)

Births:

Comedian Steve Punt – 15 September
Comedian Jack Dee – 24 September
Scottish footballer Ally McCoist, – 24 September
Everything But the Girl singer Tracey Thorn – 26 September

Deaths:

Dramatist Patrick Hamilton – 23 September

138. Ray Charles – I Can’t Stop Loving You (1962)

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12 July: Blues singer Long John Baldry performs at London’s Marquee Club. His support act for the night are performing their first gig. The Rollin’ Stones consisted of Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ian Stewart and Dick Taylor. They would become the Rolling Stones shortly after, but it would be nearly another year before the first classic line-up fell into place. The following day, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan sacked a third of his cabinet. Panicking after poor polling results and Liberal gains in by-elections, the speed and scale of the dismissals saw the press refer to it as the Night of the Long Knives, which was the name of a purge in 1934 Nazi Germany.

That same week, soul pioneer Ray Charles achieved his only solo number 1 single with his cover of singer-songwriter Don Gibson’s I Can’t Stop Loving You. He had already brought jazz, gospel and blues sounds into soul, and here was a successful attempt to draw on elements of country and develop the genre further. The original version had been a hit for Gibson in 1958.

Born into poverty in Greenville, Florida in September 1930, Ray Charles Robinson was blind by the age of seven due to glaucoma, but it didn’t prevent him studying composition and learning to play various instruments, including of course, the piano, at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind. By the time he became a teenager, both his parents had died, and he used his savings to move to Seattle in 1947, where he performed in two different bands, and adopted his trademark sunglasses. Back then however he modelled himself on Nat ‘King’ Cole, and his early recordings were fair facsimiles of his softer sound. It wasn’t until he joined Atlantic Records in 1952 that he began experimenting with mixing genres, and he began to score his first R&B hits, including Mess Around and the mighty I Got a Woman. In 1959 he reached his pinnacle for the label when he released perhaps his finest song. What’d I Say combined Latin rhythms with soul to create a racy classic that made him a pop star.

By 1962, Charles had moved to ABC-Paramount Records due to a contract that offered him greater artistic freedom. He had further pop hits, including Georgia on My Mind and Hit the Road Jack, but following a near-death experience in a plane, he decided to try something new. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was the result, and is considered by many his finest album.  I Can’t Stop Loving You became its first single after a version by Tab Hunter, who had previously hit number 1 with Young Love, enraged Charles. ABC-Paramount quickly edited the album version down and had a hit on their hands.

My ears were crying out for something a bit more mature after Come Outside, but I must confess to being disappointed by this. It could be down to my lack of appreciation for most country music, but I don’t feel I Can’t Stop Loving You hits the mark like his aforementioned hits. Charles is in fine voice as always, his weathered tones belying the fact he was only 31 when he recorded it, but the backing vocals from the Randy Van Horne Singers are shrill and date the production. The album version is also overlong, but at least the single edit shaves off some of the excess fat. It’s another number 1 that is perhaps easy to respect, less easy to enjoy, these days. But this single did open the doors to the further blurring of boundaries. They didn’t call him ‘the Genius’ for nothing.

And to think he managed to do all this while nursing a heroin addiction! However, in 1965 he was arrested for possession for a third time, and went into rehab. This time he kicked it for good, even though two subsequent hits sound like statements of defiance – I Don’t Need No Doctor and Let’s Go Get Stoned. By the 1970s his star was on the wane. 1980 saw a cameo in much-loved musical comedy The Blues Brothers, and this would definitely have been the first time I became aware of Charles, as I was obsessed with this film for years in my childhood. In 1985 he made another appearance at number 1 when the charity supergroup USA for America topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with the mediocre We Are the World. Charles acted as bandleader, trying his best to coax better performances out of those who couldn’t be arsed (I’m looking at you, Paul Simon). His health declined as the new millennium dawned, but after hip surgery in 2003 he was ready to hit the road once more. Sadly ill health took hold, and at the age of 73 he died of complications from acute liver disease in 2004. Several months later, the biopic Ray was released, starring an Oscar-winning Jamie Foxx in the title role.

From humble beginnings and personal struggles, Ray Charles went on to not only become one of soul and R&B’s most important figures, whose music was enjoyed by millions, but he was also an inspiration to a diverse range of legendary artists, including Stevie Wonder, Elvis Presley, Steve Winwood and Roger Waters. He also contributed to the civil rights movement, and will be remembered as one of the 20th century’s brightest talents.

Written by: Don Gibson

Producer: Sid Feller

Weeks at number 1: 2 (12-25 July)

Deaths:

Historian GM Trevelyan – 21 July

137. Mike Sarne with Wendy Richard – Come Outside (1962)

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April 1962 had seen the release of Carry On Cruising, the sixth film in the series. By this point, the movies had developed (or regressed depending on which way you look at it) into bawdy innuendo-laden comedies – saucy seaside postcards on film. Sid James and Kenneth Williams were topping the bills, and this type of humour remained incredibly popular for years to come. So it comes as no surprise that eventually someone would try to capture this essence on vinyl. Writer and producer Charles Blackwell was the guilty party that came up with Come Outside.

Blackwell had been working with genius producer Joe Meek, and had helped arrange Johnny Remember Me, so we’re clearly talking about someone who should know better. Its singer, John Leyton, was an actor, and a starring role in a soap had helped the single get to number 1. Perhaps he had this in mind, as Leyton was managed by future influential figure Robert Stigwood, who also managed Mike Sarne.

Sarne, born Michael Scheuer in 1940, was primarily an actor, but also dabbled in music. He provided phonetic transcriptions to guide singers including Leyton and Billy Fury in cutting German versions of their hits. It seems that Blackwell approached Stigwood with Come Outside, and one of them considered Sarne perfect for the job. At the time, a young actress called Wendy Richard was working as his secretary. Although she was born in Middlesbrough, she had developed a strong line in sardonic putdowns, spoken in a broad Cockney accent. Stigwood thought she could make the perfect comic foil for Sarne, but Blackwell wasn’t keen. Let’s be grateful Stigwood won out, because if he hadn’t, the song would seem even seedier than it became.

It’s important to remember just how popular smutty comedy was in the 1960s and 70s when listening to Come Outside. I’m not defending it – it’s bloody awful, and this is from someone with a soft spot for the Carry On films – but context is everything. This is a comedy song, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but in the era of #MeToo, it makes for uncomfortable listening.

Musically, Come Outside isn’t too bad. It’s a catchy tune, and it doesn’t sound too far removed from the Merseybeat sound that was yet to come. Mike Sarne is performing the song as a cheeky Cockney rogue who’s just dying to get his ‘little doll’ outside for a bit of ‘slap and tickle’ as he calls it. The trouble is, Wendy Richard would rather listen to the band that’s performing. And so Sarne goes on and on, in this awful, flat Cockney voice, harassing her to join him because ‘There’s a lovely moon out there’. I don’t think astronomy is on his mind for one second, and Richard’s character is no fool either. In fact, she played a slightly older version of this character for years in Are You Being Served?. Miss Brahms spent most of her time fending off the amorous Mr Lucas, and various characters that replaced him, throughout the 70s, using sarcasm as her main form of defence. Did Perry and Croft know this song well enough to give her the part on the basis of this performance? You could almost congratulate her character in this song for refusing to take any crap, but sadly by the end of Come Outside, she can’t take his moaning any longer, and Sarne gets his way as the song fades out.

This song didn’t seem to come up too much in obituaries for Richard when she died of breast cancer in 2005, and I had no idea she’d had a number 1 single until I began researching this. You can’t blame anyone for preferring to concentrate on her long -running roles as Miss Brahms and then Pauline Fowler as EastEnders, the latter of which made her a national treasure. I wouldn’t blame Richard for wanting to keep quiet about Come Outside either. Sarne eventually ditched music and moved solely into acting and directing, but before then he made other songs, including Will I What?, which repeated the number 1 formula but with Billy Davis in the female role. This time, she puts him off by mentioning marriage and he suddenly remembers he’s meant to be with the boys down the pub. Oh that lad! What a cad/dickhead!

In other news during July 1962, the month began with more heavy smog over London, making the summer air, darkening the summer mood. Laurence Olivier became the first artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre, upon its opening on 3 July. And on 11 July, live television was broadcast from the US to the UK for the first time via the Telstar communications satellite, with the first public transmission on 23 July. Blackwell’s associate and electronics obsessive Joe Meek was no doubt watching from his flat-cum-studio, and an idea for a song was forming.

UPDATE: The Wikipedia entry for this song mentions a remake in 1991 for Children in Need, performed by Samantha Fox, Frank Bruno, Liz Kershaw and Bruno Brookes. I naturally assumed this was a joke, but apparently, such a thing exists! If anyone can point me in the direction of this, I can die happy. An official Children in Need song about a man pestering his girlfriend for sex – and they say the 70s were politically incorrect…

ANOTHER UPDATE: I’ve found the video!

Written & produced by: Charles Blackwell

Weeks at number 1: 2 (28 June-11 July)

Births:

Actress Amanda Donohoe – 29 June
Actor Neil Morrissey – 4 July