357. John Denver – Annie’s Song (1974)

The unassuming US singer-songwriter and activist John Denver wrote some of folk and country’s biggest hits, but was a one-hit wonder in the UK, where he scored the number 1 spot with this tender tribute to his first wife.

Born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. on New Year’s Eve 1943 in Roswell, New Mexico, his father was a stern US Army Air Forces pilot who had difficulty showing his children emotion, and it made his eldest son introverted, as did the constant moving around due to his father’s job. Deutschendorf Jr. was shy to mix with others, but loved music and became a member of Tuscon Arizona Boys Chorus. However, that was cut short when forced to move once more and he disliked ending up in a segregated school in Montgomery, Alabama.

At college he began playing the guitar at local clubs, having been bought one by his grandmother when he was 11. When it was pointed out to him that his surname was rather unwieldy for showbiz purposes, he became John Denver, paying tribute the capital of Colorado, his favourite state. Denver joined a folk group called The Alpine Trio but dropped out of the Texas Tech School of Engineering in 1963 and moved to Los Angeles. In 1965 he joined The Mitchell Trio when founder Chad Mitchell left. A year later he recorded a demo tape of his own material for friends as a Christmas present called John Denver Sings. Among the songs was Babe, I Hate to Go. Producer Milt Okun was impressed and took it to Peter, Paul and Mary, who recorded it for an album but changed the name to Leaving on a Jet Plane.

In 1969 Denver signed with RCA Records and recorded his debut solo LP, Rhymes & Reasons. Peter, Paul and Mary’s cover of Leaving on a Jet Plane was released as a single and it topped the Billboard Hot 100 and reached number two in the UK in 1970. That year he released two albums, Take Me to Tomorrow and Whose Garden Was This.

1971 brought Denver’s breakthrough when his album Poems, Prayers & Promises contained the track Take Me Home, Country Roads. This country classic narrowly missed out on the US top spot, but Denver was on the road to fame, and the hits increased in America. Rocky Mountain High reached the top 10 in 1973, and between 1974-75 Denver had four number 1s there – Sunshine on My Shoulders, Annie’s Song, Thank God I’m a Country Boy and I’m Sorry. Despite his shyness, the image of his embroidered shirts, long hair and granny glasses stood out, making him resemble a more polite, American version of John Lennon.

Annie’s Song was written, according to Denver himself, in 10-and-a-half minutes one day on a ski lift to the top of Ajax Mountain in Aspen, Colorado in July 1973. Exhilarated after skiing a difficult run, Denver’s senses came alive with the immersion of the colours and sounds around him, and they inspired him to think of his then-wife, Annie. He got home and wrote it all down, then later presented it to Okun, who pointed out the tune was similar to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. An hour later all that remained the same were the first five notes.

Sure, Annie’s Song is a very pretty melody, and Denver’s voice has a charm, but it’s never done much for me. Rather like Don McLean’s Vincent, the intro is very strong, but it’s downhill from there. ‘You fill up my senses’ is a great lyric, but the subsequent outpouring of comparisons doesn’t hold the attention. Denver would have been better off spending more time on the words – they’re cliched and ultimately lack a personal touch, but such Hallmark-style writing was popular among the more conservative, old-fashioned singles buyers of the mid-70s, so it was perhaps inevitable this would reach number 1 in the same year as She.

Denver’s manager Jerry Weintraub insisted the singer appear on as many TV shows as possible, despite his reticence, particularly in the UK, where he was much less well-known. Back home though, he won an Emmy for a live concert special in 1975. That December, Rocky Mountain Christmas became ABC’s highest-rated programme up to that point, with an astounding 60 million viewers. He is also remembered fondly for his appearance on The Muppet Show, even here in the UK. He also acted, starring in the film Oh, Boy! (1977) alongside comedian George Burns, hosted the Grammy Awards five times and appeared on The Tonight Show numerous times.

Denver’s music may not have been to everyone’s tastes, but his political leanings were sound. In the mid-70s he supported Jimmy Carter and they became close friends when he became president, even appointing Denver to serve on the President’s Commission on World Hunger. He founded the Windstar Foundation in 1976 to promote sustainable living, and did work for the poor, the homeless and African AIDS charities over the years.

As the hits dried up towards the end of the 70s, Denver spent much of the next decade becoming more heavily involved in politics. Despite being a critic of Ronald Reagan’s administration, Reagan awarded him the Presidential World Without Hunger Award in 1987. Five years earlier, he had finally had enough of Weintrauub’s interference and sacked him. His ex-manager accused him of being a Nazi. Little bit over-the-top and very wrong by all accounts. Despite all his charity work, he was turned down when he asked to appear on 1985 chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic, We Are the World. According to its producer Ken Kragen, this was because many involved, but not he, believed Denver’s image would harm the song’s credibility.

In the mid-70s Dever reconciled with his father, and he helped him learn to fly, beginning his obsession that would ultimately be the death of him. Spookily, he would have potentially died even sooner had he got his wish of being the first citizen to go into space courtesy of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Despite the tragic explosion, Denver continued to support NASA and obsessed about space, even reportedly entering discussions with the Soviet Union (where he had been the first US musician to perform in more than 10 years) with the hope of buying a place on one of their flights. Once the talks reached a possible $20 million price tag, Denver backed down.

Denver released his autobiography, Take Me Home, in 1994, in which he revealed some facts that went totally against his nice guy image, including drug use, drunk driving and domestic violence. After divorcing Annie in 1982, the woman who had filled up his senses, he found out she’d cut down some trees he liked. As revenge, he showed up at her place, shredded her furniture with a power saw, then proceeded to choke her. Pretty terrible stuff. His second marriage only lasted five years, ending in 1993.

On 12 October 1997 Denver died from multiple blunt force trauma when his experimental Rutan Long-EZ plane crashed into Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, California. He wasn’t legally allowed to fly due to his drunk driving arrests, but his autopsy found no drugs or drink in his body. Denver was 53.

In 1978, four years after Denver had his only UK number 1, the Belfast-born flute player James Galway scored his only chart hit with his cover of Annie’s Song.

Written by: John Denver

Producer: Milt Okun

Weeks at number 1: 1 (12-18 October)

Births:

Actor Matthew Macfadyen – 17 October

Meanwhile…

16 October: Rioting prisoners set fire to Belfast’s Maze Prison.

350. Ray Stevens – The Streak (1974)

Think of the fads of the 70s and you’ll likely think of spacehoppers, rollerskates and lava lamps. But what about all the naked men and women that made the headlines for streaking at sporting events? This was still popular during my childhood in the 80s, and I just assumed it was something that happened every now and then because, well, people are silly and it’s funny to take all your clothes off and run around until you’re caught (I imagine). I didn’t realise until now it became a ‘thing’ in the 70s.

There were examples going back way further though. In the 15th century, the Adamites protested the Holy Roman Empire’s morality by running naked through their Bohemian village. Apparently, the Quakers revived the pastime in the 17th century. Modern streaking started up in the free and easy 60s at US universities, and peaked in 1974, with a streaker at the Oscars and ever more elaborate and organised stunts taking place.

That February, one of the most famous sporting streaks happened at the England v France rugby match at Twickenham Stadium, when an Australian named Michael O’Brien decided to take to the field with his genitals flapping in the breeze. The subsequent photo of the police covering his bits with a helmet became iconic, and kickstarted all the UK sport streaks that followed. So novelty song and country singer-songwriter Ray Stevens’ opportunism paid off when he decided to immortalise streaking in song.

Ray Stevens was born Harold Ray Ragsdale on 24 January 1939 in Clarkdale, Georgia. His love of music began with his first piano lessons, aged six. At 15 he formed an R’n’B band called The Barons, and three years later he enrolled in Georgia State University as a music major. That same year he released his first material as Ray Stevens on Capitol Records’ Prep Records, but his cover of Rang Tang Ding Dong sank without trace. Further material was released sporadically over the next few years.

In 1961, Stevens signed with Mercury Records and began to get noticed for his novelty songs. With titles like Jeremiah Peabody’s Polyunsaturated Quick-Dissolving Fast-Acting Pleasant-Tasting Green and Purple Pills, that was always likely. The politically incorrect Ahab the Arab was a number five hit in the US in 1962, and Harry the Hairy Ape reached number 17 the following year.

But Stevens also wanted to release serious country material too, and so he signed with Monument Records in 1968 and Mr Businessman followed, giving him his first US hit in five years. He also released the first version of Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down by Kris Kristofferson (later a hit for Johnny Cash). Novelty songs still could do well for him though, and Gitarzan reached number eight in 1969.

It was in 1970 that Stevens’ career went up a notch. He was working in Nashville when his gospel-tinged ballad Everything Is Beautiful, preaching against racism and extolling tolerance of others, became huge, topping the US charts and reaching number six in the UK – his chart debut over here. He kept on dabbling in novelty songs though, notably Bridget the Midget (The Queen of the Blues), a UK number two in 1971. Interesting to see how Stevens could preach about a better world in his country material, and then make cheap jokes in his comedy material… a sign of the times, perhaps.

Stevens was on a plane flicking through a magazine when he came across an article on streaking. He thought it would make a good idea for a comedy song and made some notes. Some time later, he woke up one morning and streaking was all over the news – 1973 and 74 were peak years in the US for the phenomenon. He quickly finished The Streak and recorded it ASAP for maximum topicality.

The naked truth is, The Streak is dross. Over a hoedown-style backing, Stevens plays a news reporter interviewing a redneck (also Stevens) at various disturbances caused by ‘The Streak’. Despite the redneck shouting ‘Don’t look Ethel!’ every time the naked guy appears, Ethel has a gander, and by the end, she’s joined in the streaking. Do you think that sounds like a bad record? Try listening to it.

So many things annoy me about The Streak. The tacky production, the ‘boogity boogity’ backing vocal on the chorus, the kazoo, Stevens’ cliched characters, the childishness, the canned laughter. If you have to add canned laughter to point out where the jokes are on a comedy record, there’s something wrong. This makes Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) and even My Ding-a-Ling look like high art by comparison. I can’t think of a single positive thing to say about it.

To be fair to Stevens, at least he wasn’t a one-trick pony. In 1975 he just missed out on another UK number 1 with a country cover of jazz standard Misty. Two years later, his final UK chart entry saw him cover Glenn Miller’s In the Mood in the style of a clucking chicken under the pseudonym Henhouse Five Plus Two. I listened to five seconds here and had to stop.

But I can just about forgive Stevens all this because in 1981 he sang Cannonball, the opening song to the celebrity-packed car chase film The Cannonball Run. It’s not just for nostalgia reasons either, this is a great song!

Stevens’ last serious album Me, was released in 1983. He’s concentrated on novelty material ever since. He opened his own theatre in Branson, Missouri in 1991 , which lasted two years, and he began selling videos to his old songs, The Streak among them (guess what, it’s awful). In 1996 he received thousands of sympathy cards after online news of the wrestler Ray ‘The Crippler’ Stevens confused fans. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1999, but he beat it and received a clean bill of health.

Stevens’ love of comedy and videos found its natural home online on YouTube, where he posts cheap novelty songs with equally cheap videos declaring his outspoken political views. One I found, Obama Nation from 2012, slates the then-President. Abomination/Obama nation, get it? Hmm.

Written & produced by: Ray Stevens

Weeks at number 1: 1 (15-21 June)

Births:

Radio presenter Natasha Desborough – 21 June

Meanwhile…

15 June: The National Front clash with counter-protestors in London’s West End. The Red Lion Square disorders resulted in the death of 21-year-old Kevin Gateley, a university student.

17 June: A bomb explodes at London’s houses of Parliament, damaging Westminster Hall. The IRA claimed responsibility. 

287. Christie – Yellow River (1970)

Here’s a number 1 with an unusual story. Yellow River, Christie’s sole chart-topper, could in a sense also be classed as The Tremeloes’ third number 1, if they hadn’t thrown it away.

Leeds-born singer-songwriter Jeff Christie, born Jeffrey Christie on 12 July 1946, had been a member of rock band The Outer Limits, who had released singles in the late 60s. He had been inspired to write Yellow River after imagining a soldier looking forward to returning home to Yellow River (probably a mythical place) after the American Civil War, and probably thought it would work well with the anti-Vietnam War sentiment of the time.

Christie offered the song to The Tremeloes, who liked it, and recorded it ready to release as a single, but then they went to number two with, ironically, Call Me Number One, and they decided to steer away from pop towards a more progressive sound.

Tremeloes guitarist Alan Blakley’s brother Mike was in a struggling band called The Epics, which also included guitarist Vic Elmes. The story gets muddy here, but someone, possibly Alan, to help Mike, and maybe feeling guilty about ditching Yellow River, suggested its songwriter travel to London to record a new vocal over the track himself, and he did so, forming a new band for its release, called Christie and featuring Elmes and Mike. Their debut single was released on 23 April.

The chorus to Yellow River has existed in my subconscious for years, after I heard a snatch of it on some advert for a compilation album, but also due to the jingle being used in adverts for phone book Yellow Pages when I was a child, before the days of JR Hartley. Bad move by The Tremeloes – it’s a good tune, and way better than their previous number 1s Do You Love Me? and Silence Is Golden.

Apparently, Christie were keen to be considered the British answer to US country rock trio Creedence Clearwater Revival, and they do a great job of living up to that here, except of course, it’s not them behind that speedy finger-picked guitar, effervescent rhythm and top drumming – it’s The Tremeloes. Okay, there’s a fair few number 1s better than this in 1970, but that chorus in particular is a real ear worm. It’s easy to see why it topped the charts, even if it was for only a week. Steer clear of the later remake as it’s leaden by comparison.

Follow-up single San Bernadino, also from their eponymous debut album, was released in October, and reached number seven in the UK, and number 1 in Germany. But the success proved short-lived, and Blakely left before the release of 1971 album For All Mankind. Elmes’s departure in 1973 left Christie as the only remaining original member. No amount of line-up changes (and there were more) could capture that initial momentum though, and in 1976, after Navajo reached number 1 in Mexico, they split up.

Jeff Christie went solo in 1980 for a couple of singles, and then probably did quite well out of the Yellow Pages campaign. He reformed Christie in 1990 with backing from members of the band Tubeless Hearts, and they bid to represent the UK in the 1991 Eurovision Song Contest with Safe in Your Arms, but failed. They have toured and recorded intermittently ever since.

Written by: Jeff Christie

Producer: Mike Smith

Weeks at number 1: 1 (6-12 June)

Deaths:

Novelist EM Forster – 7 June

Meanwhile…

10 June: Earlier in 1970 the Tories were enjoying a few months after the Conservatives had enjoyed opinion poll leads of more than 20 points, and looked likely to form the next government, but the tide had turned. Labour were now several points ahead of the Conservatives, with eight days to go before the general election. Labour’s win would be a record third-in-a-row, if it happened.

282. Lee Marvin – Wand’rin’ Star (1970)

Here’s a strange one. Taking up the top spot for most of March was Academy Award-winning Hollywood actor Lee Marvin – definitely not a professional singer – and Wand’rin’ Star, from the 1969 western musical film Paint Your Wagon, based on the 1951 stage show.

Set in a mining camp during the Gold Rush in California, the film also starred Clint Eastwood in a singing role. Despite its notoriety now, it was panned upon its release. Not much of a fan of westerns or musicals, I’ve never seen it, and likely never will.

The song Wand’rin’ Star, like the rest of the music in the film/show, came from Frederick Loewe, with the lyrics by Alan J Lerner. Together, the duo wrote some of the most famous musicals of all time, including My Fair Lady (Vic Damone had a UK number 1 in 1958 with On the Street Where You Live).

The makers of the movie had a problem when it cames to filming. Prematurely white-haired, gruff-voiced Marvin, one of the top actors of the era, was no singer, yet he had top billing in his role as prospector Ben Rumson. And he refused to mime.

Marvin was born 19 February 1924 in New York City. The son of an advertising executive and fashion editor, he struggled from authority from an early age – running away from home for two days at the age of four, and expelled from a succession of boarding schools. However when he was 18 he dropped out of a Florida prep school to join the Marines in 1942, determined to prove how tough he was. Marvin was wounded in action in 1944 and spent a year in hospital.

Upon his discharge he took up various menial jobs and stumbled upon acting almost by accident. Soon, he was in a Broadway production of Billy Budd, before the 50s beckoned, and he garnered many small TV roles.

Next, came Hollywood, and a role as a murderer in an episode of crime drama Dragnet got him noticed, leading to him being typecast as the bad guy in films. Two such roles came in The Big Heat and The Wild One (both 1953) – the latter of which may be where The Beatles got their name from (Marvin’s gang were called The Beetles). He finally got to be leading man in the TV crime drama The M Squad, which ran from 1957-60.

Once the series ended, he went up a notch in film roles, starring in The Comancheros (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Donovan’s Reef (1963). But it was 1965 surprise-hit comedy Cat Ballou that really shot him to the big time, and he won the Best Actor Oscar that year.

The Dirty Dozen was a commercial success, and Point Blank adored by critics, both in 1967. Hell in the Pacific was also acclaimed a year later, and in 1969 Marvin was set to star in The Wild Bunch, but he fell out with director Sam Peckinpah and opted for Paint Your Wagon instead.

Wand’rin’ Star finds Marvin’s character fending for himself and contemplating his hobo lifestyle. The song was orchestrated and arranged by Nelson Riddle, who had been working with some of the most legendary singers since the 40s – including Frank Sinatra on his first number 1, Three Coins in the Fountain.

The first time I listened to this, I thought Siri had accidentally picked an instrumental version, perhaps used as incidental music in the film. It’s quite some time before Marvin’s gravelly vocal begins. And you know what, yes, it’s out of tune and his timing is also off at times, but I’d take his voice over the dated backing singers.

It’s all about the mood, and Marvin’s baritone fits perfectly. His off-key rasp puts across that this is someone that’s been damaged, that’s gone through some shit, but is proud of the lifestyle he has.

Also, there’s some really great lyrics here, particularly:
I’ve never seen a sight that didn’t look better looking back
And especially:
Do I know where hell is?
Hell is in hello
Heaven is goodbye for ever, it’s time for me to go

No wonder this was played at Joe Strummer’s funeral, and covered by Shane MacGowan and the Popes. There’s real depth here. I can do without the backing singers taking over at one point, and I probably won’t be listening to it much in the future, but it’s surprisingly good. And the public clearly thought so too. This even kept Let It Be off the top spot!

Marvin remained active in films throughout the 70s, but despite his roles becoming diverse, nothing matched the 60s for him, commercially or critically. He was offered the role of Quint in Jaws (1975) but turned it down.

He was embroiled in a high-profile lawsuit in 1979 when his old live-in girlfriend, Michelle Triola, who had changed her surname to Marvin, claimed he had promised her half his income while they were still together. This was the first time the US Supreme Court has allowed such a case between unmarried couples. The judge only awarded her enough money to get back on her feet.

Marvin claimed to spend much of the remainder of his years living in the desert, which makes him sound very similar to the character Ben – no wonder he sang it with such conviction. He starred in Gorky Park in 1983, and his final film was The Delta Force alongside Chuck Norris in 1986.

Marvin fell ill that December, and after a number of issues he died of a heart attack on 29 August 1987, aged 63.

Written by: Alan J Lerner & Frederick Loewe

Producer: Tom Mack

Orchestra conducted by: Nelson Riddle

Weeks at number 1: 3 (7-27 March)

Meanwhile…

12 March: The government’s anti-rabies measures following an outbreak in Newmarket, Suffolk meant that the quarantine period for cats and dogs was increased to one year.

13 March: The Bridgwater by-election became the first in which 18-year-olds could vote. Tom King of the Conservatives was the victor.

17 March: Martin Peters, who scored for England in the 1966 World Cup final, became the first footballer in the country worth £200,000 after transferring from West Ham United to Tottenham Hotspur.

23 March: – 18 victims of the thalidomide scandal were awarded nearly £370,000 in compensation.

227. Tom Jones – Green, Green Grass of Home (1966)

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And so, after such a stellar year of chart action, we’re back at the Christmas number 1. For the first time since 1962, it isn’t The Beatles, who were working on Strawberry Fields Forever. Holding court as the top of the pops for the whole month, and most of January, was 1966’s best-selling single – Tom Jones’s cover of Green, Green Grass of Home.

Since his last number 1, the storming It’s Not Unusual in 1965, Jones’s popularity had slipped somewhat. Granted, his theme to What’s New Pussycat?, by Bacharach and David, did well, but his theme to the James Bond movie Thunderball wasn’t so popular. His manager Gordon Mills decided a new approach was needed, and steered Jones towards using that deep voice to become a light entertainment-style crooner.

Green, Green Grass of Home had been written by Claude ‘Curly’ Puttman, Jr, and was first made popular by flamboyant country star Porter Wagoner in 1965. Later that year, controversial rock’n’roller Jerry Lee Lewis recorded a version for his album Country Songs for Country Folks, and it was this version that made Tom Jones decide to give it a crack himself. His producer Peter Sullivan weren’t so sure – country wasn’t what they had in mind for Jones, so Les Reed, who had written It’s Not Unusual, arranged the track and took it in an easy listening direction.

Jones recalled in an interview for The Mail on Sunday in 2011 that Lewis was on a UK tour just before the single’s release, and met with Jones. He was bowled over by this new pop version, and told Jones he had a hit on his hands.

It’s an odd one, really. Green, Green Grass of Home is still considered one of Tom Jones’s best songs, and yet it leaves me rather cold. The arrangement is rather dated now, particularly when compared to the previous number 1, Good Vibrations. I think the Beach Boys classic would have made for a much more appropriate song to round the year off. But there’s no accounting for taste. Which leads me onto my next point.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m against the death penalty, but it’s hard to feel sorry for the singer once you know the twist – that he’s behind bars and reminiscing on his hometown before he is hanged. The likelihood here is that this man has done something terrible. An odd choice for Christmas number 1, all in all. I hate the ‘Mary/cherries’ rhyme as well.

Green, Green Grass of Home is a sign of what happens to the charts in 1967. After all this energy, vigour and innovation, things go somewhat downhill. 1967 was a great year for albums, and I used to think that once we got full-blown into the ‘flower power’ era, there would be some wonderful single number 1s. There’s far fewer than I hoped, and more often than not, the fashion sways back towards MOR.

Also that year, Tom Jones performed in Las Vegas for the first time. Like his friend Elvis Presley in the 1970s, his recording output suffered as his live act grew more flamboyant, and it was here he cultivated the sweaty, open shirt image that would make him a figure of fun over the years. There were still hits from time to time though, such as Delilah in 1968. From 1969 to 1971 he presented his own variety show on ITV called This Is Tom Jones. The year it ended he recorded one of my favourite Jones tracks, She’s a Lady, written by Paul Anka and later used to great effect in Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (1998).

By the mid-70s his career had declined and he tried to get more film and TV work, but by the early 80s he was recording country material that failed to chart. The first of his many comebacks came in 1987 when A Boy From Nowhere made it to number two. Then the following year he teamed up with Art of Noise for a smash-hit cover of Prince’s Kiss. Unfortunately, someone missed the point of the original, and changed the lyrics from ‘Women, not girls rule my world’ to ‘Women and girls rule my world’, which sounds a bit seedy to me.

In 1992 he kickstarted the idea of ‘legends’ appearing at Glastonbury Festival, and had cameos on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Simpsons the following year. Also in 1993 he was back in the charts with If I Only Knew. I personally find this track hilarious for its opening, in which Jones’s bellow is used to headache-inducing levels. It’s hard not to enjoy it though. 1996 saw him cameo in Tim Burton’s sci-fi comedy movie Mars Attacks. He rounded off the millennium with Reload, an enormously successful collection of covers featuring the stars of the time.

It was around then I got a bit sick of Tom Jones. That bellow was everywhere, from the dodgy duet It’s Cold Outside with Matthews (which takes on new levels of meaning when you read he allegedly banged her over the mixing desk during the recording) to the especially irritating version of Mama Told Me Not to Come with Stereophonics. The biggest hit, Sex Bomb, with Mousse T, long outstayed its welcome. But the Queen loved him and he was given an OBE that year, before being knighted in 2006.

He’s never really gone away since the success of Reload, and is now a national treasure. There’s one more number 1 with which he’s involved, from 2009, so I’ll return to his story then.

Written by: Curly Putman

Producer: Peter Sullivan

Weeks at number 1: 7 (1 December 1966-18 January 1967) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Footballer Dennis Wise – 16 December
Rugby player Martin Bayfield – 21 December
Rugby league player Martin Offiah – 29 December
Comedian Mark Lamarr – 7 January
Actress Emily Watson – 14 January

Deaths:

Land and water speed record breaker Donald Campbell – 4 January 

Meanwhile…

12 December 1966: Harry Roberts, John Whitney and John Duddy are sentenced to life for killing three policemen in August.

20 December: Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith were in the news throughout the month as they attempted to negotiate the whole independence saga. On this day, Wilson withdrew all offers and announced that he will only consider independence when a black majority government is installed in Rhodesia.

22 December: A steadfast Smith announced he already considered the country a republic.

New Year’s Eve: Thieves stole millions of pounds worth of paintings from Dulwich Art Gallery in London.New Year’s Day 1967: The Queen decided to commemorate England’s World Cup achievement by making manager Alf Ramsey a Sir, and also awarded captain Bobby Moore with an OBE.

3 January: Stop-motion children’s TV favourite Trumpton began on BBC One.

4 January: Motorboat racer Donald Campbell was tragically killed while trying to break his own water speed record attempt on Coniston Water in the Lake District. Footage shows his Bluebird K7 and smash into the water. His body wasn’t found until 2001.

7 January: Another classic TV series began on BBC Two – The Forstyte Saga.

15 January: The UK entered the first round of negotiations for European Economic Community Membership.

18 January: The flamboyant Jeremy Thorpe replaced Jo Grimond as leader of the Liberal Party. He was a popular leader and increased the party’s voting stastics, but controversy would end his leadership early.

224. Jim Reeves – Distant Drums (1966)

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Autumn 1966 saw the singles chart ruled for five weeks by a man who had died two years previous. American country singer-songwriter Jim Reeves ruled over the charts with Distant Drums in the same surprising way that Ken Dodd had a year previous with Tears. Amid all the amazing, pioneering music coming thick and fast, the charts were suddenly owned by the old folk once more.

‘Gentleman Jim’ had been born in Galloway, Texas on 20 August 1923. Known as Travis during his childhood, he loved to play baseball and spent three years in minor leagues before severing his sciatic nerve. As a sufferer of sciatica myself, I can only imagine this must have been really bloody painful.

Reeves avoided World War Two when he failed his physical exam in 1943, and so he began working as a radio announcer. A fan of popular singers like Frank Sinatra, Jimmie Rodgers and Bing Crosby, he would sometimes sing live in-between songs, and began to see a career in it.

By the early 50s Reeves was doing well in the US charts. Bimbo reached number 1 in the country chart in 1954. His first and only album release for Abbott Records, Jim Reeves Sings, came in November 1955. By that point he had signed a ten-year deal with RCA Victor with Steve Sholes. That same year, Sholes signed Elvis Presley.

Like every other country and western performer of the era, Reeves’ earliest recordings had him adopting a loud, rather cliched Texan style, but over time he developed his trademark style, a smooth, warm and gentle baritone, his lips nearly touching the mic as he crooned. RCA executives thought this was a bad idea, but Reeves was lucky to have producer Chet Atkins on his side. The first example of this new approach, Four Walls, was a commercial hit for Reeves in 1957. Soon, other artists were adopting the same approach, and this gentle approach, together with lush arrangements, became known as the Nashville Sound.

As the 60s began Reeves scored big in the pop and country charts with He’ll Have to Go. From here on in his stature grew enormously worldwide, eclipsing his fame in the US, even. He was more popular than label mate Elvis in South Africa. Among his hits in the UK in 1963 was Welcome to My World, used in recent years in adverts for Thomson Holidays.

In an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come, the singer’s final session for RCA resulted in three songs – Make the World Go Away, Missing You and Is It Really Over? With tape left over, they cut one more track – I Can’t Stop Loving You, which had been a number 1 for Ray Charles in 1962.

On 31 July Reeves and his manager Dean Manuel (also the pianist in Reeves’ backing group, the Blue Boys) were flying over Brentwood, Tennessee when they encountered a violent thunderstorm. Two days later, after intense searching by friends including Marty Robbins, the wreckage was found, and by the afternoon, Gentleman Jim’s death was announced publicly.

Material by Reeves continued to be released after his untimely death, aged 40. Distant Drums was a song by country singer and dancer Cindy Walker. It had been recorded by Roy Orbison in 1963, but it is Reeves’ version that is remembered best.

So just how did Distant Drums not only make it to number 1, but hold court for five weeks? It’s really hard to say. It seems RCA had chosen to release it due to creeping anti-war sentiment over the situation in Vietnam, but I’m not sure you could describe it as an explicit protest song. Even if it was, surely there were more commercial examples of such a thing out there? The fact he was two years dead already means it wasn’t due to the strength of feeling after he was gone, either.

To be fair to Reeves, he never intended it as a single – it was merely meant as a demo, and had been tarted up with an orchestral backing. But lord, is it dull. I’m no country fan anyway, but it’s a B-side or album track at best. I’ve read that perhaps so many young bands were jockeying for the top spot at the time, Reeves’ single split the vote, but who knows? It’s another one of those chart mysteries.

Written by: Cindy Walker

Producer: Chet Atkins

Weeks at number 1: 5 (22 September-26 October)

Births:

Prime Minister David Cameron – 9 October 
Footballer Tony Adams – 10 October

Deaths:

Singer Alma Cogan – 26 October (see below)

Meanwhile…

21 October: At 9.15am in the mining village of Aberfan in Glamorgan, South Wales, pupils at Pantglas Junior School were just beginning their lessons. A large colliery spoil tip, high up on a mountain slope behind the village, suddenly turned into a slurry due to a period of heavy rain beforehand. Within five minutes, the slurry had engulfed the school, along with nearby houses and a farm. This tragic event resulted in the horrific deaths of 116 children and 28 adults. The TV footage of the incident makes for surreal, grim viewing.

26 October: Former chart-topper Alma Cogan, whose Dreamboat was number 1 in 1955, died of ovarian cancer aged only 34.

194. Roger Miller – King of the Road (1965)

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Toppling Ticket to Ride after three weeks was another song about travelling. Roger Miller’s charming country tale of a hobo, King of the Road was a very different beast, however.

Miller was born into poverty at the height of the Great Depression on 2 January 1936 in Fort Worth, Texas. His mother died when he was only a year old. His father was unable to support the family and so Roger went to live with an aunt and uncle on a farm outside Erick, Oklahoma.

Educated in a one-room schoolhouse, Miller was an introverted dreamer, and began making up songs from a young age. He fell in love with country music, and a relative bought him a fiddle. Desperate but broke, he stole a guitar when he was 17, but turned himself in the next day. He enlisted in the army to avoid jail, and while in service he became the fiddler in The Circle A Wranglers.

Upon leaving the army he moved to Nashville and auditioned for the influential Chet Atkins. He was so nervous he sang in two different keys, so Atkins asked him to come back later. Miller went to work at a hotel, where he was soon known as ‘the singing bellhop’. He met with George Jones and was introduced to music executives, but Miller chose to marry, start a family, and become a fireman. He later claimed he was only there for two fires, and slept through the second, so decided maybe music was the life for him after all. He returned to Nashville and soon found himself in demand as a songwriter, with Jim Reeves among those recording his material.

Miller signed with Decca Records in 1958, and then RCA Victor in 1960, but his waywardness increased, and despite growing success he ditched the songwriting, and his wife, and became a dedicated wild child instead.

Eventually he had ambitions to become an actor, but was short of money and signed a deal with Smash Records in exchange for cash. He wrote Dang Me in four minutes, and both that and Chug-a-Lug were huge country hits and made the top ten in the Billboard chart. Miller had discovered a knack for writing simple, humorous country hits, and his career was transformed. When it came to writing King of the Road, he recalled driving one day and seeing a sign that read ‘Trailers for sale or rent’.

Despite being normally wary of country music, I don’t see how anyone could dislike King of the Road. At a push, you could argue that the life of a tramp is probably not half as fun as Miller’s song suggests. But it’s tough not to be won over by the imagery he conjures, and that weather-beaten, wry voice of his fits the character like a fingerless glove. It comes across like a not-too-distant cousin of Sixteen Tons, which had been a number 1 for Tennessee Ernie Ford 10 years previous.

The subject matter was inspired by a hobo Miller met at an airport, and considering the singer-songwriter’s upbringing, it’s fair to say Miller identified with the tramp’s way of life. He wasn’t blindly romanticising such a lifestyle. I first became aware of this song thanks to REM, who disowned their cover, for some reason.

The hits continued for Miller, including the wry, timely England Swings. 1967 saw his popularity wane though, and his TV series was also cancelled.

In 1973 he voiced the rooster minstrel Allan-a-Dale in Disney’s animated animal version of Robin Hood. Much maligned over the years for looking cheap and ripping off earlier Disney features, I won’t have a bad word said about it. I saw it at a young age and will always have a soft spot for it, and that’s partly down to Miller’s three songs from the movie – Whistle-Stop, Oo-De-Lally and Not in Nottingham.

Miller stopped writing songs in 1978, but in the early 80s he received an offer to write a score for a Broadway musical based on the 1884 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He had never read the book, but when he realised it was based in rural Oklahoma, he felt inspired once more. Opening in 1985, Big River was critically-acclaimed and Miller won the Tony Award for Best Score.

As the 90s began he co-wrote and provided backing vocals to Dwight Yoakam’s hit It Only Hurts When I Cry and embarked on a tour, but it was cut short the following year when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Miller’s carefree past caught up with him, and he died on 25 October 1992 aged 56.

Written by: Roger Miller

Producer: Jerry Kennedy

Weeks at number 1: 1 (13-19 May)

Births:

Journalist Christina Lamb – 15 May
Presenter Jeremy Vine – 17 May

Meanwhile…

13 May: It was well under a year since Labour narrowly got into power in the general election, but already the Conservatives were fighting back, making big gains in the local elections.

17 May: Tragedy struck Cambrian Colliery when an explosion killed 31 miners.

19 May: West Ham United became only the second British club in history to win a European trophy, defeating West Germany 2-0 at Wembley Stadium to take the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

192. Cliff Richard – The Minute You’re Gone (1965)

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Remember this guy? Cliff Richard? Biggest British pop star before The Beatles, had seven number 1s with The Shadows?

It’s often said that The Beatles and the other new groups of this era vanquished all who came before them, but it wasn’t as straightforward as that. Cliff was very much still a presence in the charts, and although his last number 1 was Summer Holiday in 1963, every song he had released since made it to the top 10.

Cliff had been a Jehovah’s Witness since 1961, but in 1964 he became an active Christian and joined evangelical group the Crusaders. This won’t have worked wonders for a rock’n’roll star at the time, but the hits continued. Not in the US though, where he could barely get noticed, save for a cover of It’s All in the Game (a UK number 1 for Tommy Edwards in 1958).

His US label, Epic Records, wanted to change this, and met with Richard and his producer Norrie Paramor to sketch out plans, armed with 50 US songs to try. They picked 15, and Richard liked the idea of travelling to various American cities to record specific tracks. In Nashville, he recorded The Minute You’re Gone, which had been written by local fiddle player and singer Jimmy Gately, and became a country hit for Sonny James in 1963. The track was co-produced by Billy Sherrill, known for his work with Tammy Wynette and George Jones. Nashville-based musicians performed the backing, making Cliff’s eighth UK number 1 his first without Hank Marvin and co. The Anita Kerr singers provided backing vocals.

I was curious to hear this, wondering if it was going to be an exciting new development in the Cliff Richard sound. I should have known better. The Minute You’re Gone is a dull ballad, rendered even more bland by Richard’s safe delivery. He doesn’t exactly sound heartbroken here. Does he ever, though? The tune is very reminiscent of Ray Charles’ 1962 chart-topper I Can’t Stop Loving You, but not as good. Bring back The Shadows.

Although it brought him back to the number 1 position after two years away, The Minute You’re Gone ended a startling run of 23 consecutive top ten hits between 1960 and 1965. This is still a record for male artists, I believe. Cliff had somehow managed to make himself sound more dated than he sounded in 1963. To make things worse, he was knocked off the top by a single that made everyone look old-fashioned by comparison.

Written by: Jimmy Gately

Producer: Billy Sherrill & Bob Morgan

Weeks at number 1: 1 (15-21 April)

Deaths:

Physicist Sir Edward Victor Appleton – 21 April

153. Frank Ifield with Orchestra arranged and conducted by Norrie Paramor – Confessin’ (That I Love You) (1963)

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The 1963 Merseybeat marathon at the top of the charts took a brief pause that summer to allow two huge-selling artists return stints. The first was Australian yodelling country singer Frank Ifield, who prior to Merseybeat was the top music sensation. He’d had three number 1s, I Remember You and Lovesick Blues in 1962, and The Wayward Wind earlier this year, making him the first UK-based act to score three in a row.

Ifield’s schtick was to take an old song (usually a country one), make it sound (slightly) more modern, yodel as and when he saw fit, and then stick some harmonica over the top. Confessin’ (That I Love You) was more of the same, but this time Ifield was covering a jazz standard.

Originally credited to Chris Smith and Sterling Grant, the song was called Lookin’ For Another Sweetie and was first recorded by Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller & His Babies in 1929. The following year it was rewritten as Confessin’, with new lyrics from Al J Neiburg and the music credited to Doc Daugherty and Ellis Reynolds.

By now, you’d think this formula would have looked stale, but Confessin’ (That I Love You) was popular enough to keep Ifield at the top one last time, for a month. It’s the least listenable of a mixed, occasionally bizarre bunch of tunes. It sounds very old-fashioned… but it’s not terrible. I’m always a sucker for some harmonica, and I love the unusual, which is probably the best way to describe Ifield’s yodelling on this song. A strange part of me enjoyed it, but I doubt I’ll be listening to it again.

By and large, the record buyers out there at the time were thinking the same thing, and Ifield became the first (and most recent) star to feel the effects of the sea change in the pop world.  Which was kind of ironic, as John Lennon admitted The Beatles used harmonica so much at the time because of Ifield. Bizarrely, both acts featured together on a cheap US compilation from Vee-Jay Records called Jolly What! England’s Greatest Recording Stars: The Beatles and Frank Ifield on Stage. The ‘copulation’, as it was accidentally called in the sleeve notes, featured Ifield hits alongside the second and third Beatles singles, plus their B-sides. Needless to say, the title was misleading, and the acts were not performing together.

Ifield’s singles started to perform badly by the middle of the decade, and he began appearing in pantomimes and faded into obscurity, eventually returning to Australia.

In 1991, a bizarre dance remix of She Taught Me How to Yodel was released and credited to Frank Ifield and the Backroom Boys. I’m not sure I’ve heard the correct version, but several remixes are on YouTube, and they’re all predictably odd. Nowadays he tours Australia with  performances of his hits and memories of his years as a pop star.

This song also marked the end of an era for his producer Norrie Paramor. He had first produced a number 1 back in 1954 – Eddie Calvert’s Oh Mein Papa. Back then, the term ‘producer’ didn’t even exist. Paramor had been behind over 20 number 1s at this point. His story wasn’t over yet, but his peak years now came to an end, with George Martin taking over as the most important producer in the UK.

Written by: Al J Neiburg, Doc Daugherty & Ellis Reynolds

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 2 (18-31 July)

Births:

Chess player Julian Hodgson – 25 July
Norman Cook, aka DJ Fatboy Slim – 31 July

147. Frank Ifield with Norrie Paramor and His Orchestra – The Wayward Wind (1963)

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Aussie-born yodelling superstar Frank Ifield’s third and penultimate number 1 was a step back from the unrestrained lunacy of Lovesick Blues. Unlike that and I Remember You, The Wayward Wind was a cover of a more recent track. Written by Stanley Lebowsky and Herb Newman, it was first recorded in 1956 by US singer Gogi Grant, who took it to number 1 in the US. The Beatles had recently featured it in their live sets of 1960 and 61, but no versions survive. By reaching number 1 once more, Ifield became the first UK-based act to have three chart-toppers in a row, and he momentarily broke up the seemingly endless Shadows-related number 1s of early 1963.

You can see why The Beatles would cover this, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was one of their early singles at the start thanks to the earthy harmonica refrain. It’s catchy and easily the best element of the song. Then the swirling strings begin and you know this must be produced by Norrie Paramor. I’ve lost count of how many number 1s he’s been responsible for by now but it’ll be by far the most to date. However, he would soon be overtaken by George Martin. Then Ifield starts singing… I enjoyed his barmy performance of Lovesick Blues, but he misjudged this one. His overly-mannered performance is reminiscent of something 10 years previous. He sounds like Frankie Laine, or Jimmy Young on his awful The Man from Laramie. It’s no surprise to see he released a version of his own in 1956.

With a title like The Wayward Wind, it’s tempting to make a joke about Ifield having some sort of stomach issue, which would possibly explain his yodelling too, but I wouldn’t do that… no, this song is about a roamer who’s left a broken heart behind. It may be Ifield’s worst number 1 yet, but you’ll be humming that harmonica part for a while afterwards.

Written by: Stanley Lebowsky & Herb Newman

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 3 (21 February-13 March)

Births:

Labour MP Baron Andrew Adonis – 22 February
Actress Alex Kingston – 11 March