15. Frankie Laine with Paul Weston & His Orchestra – Answer Me (1953)

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In a year in which US crooner Frankie Laine so completely dominated the fledgling UK charts, it seems fitting that he finished 1953 at the top. Even more so that it was with Answer Me, which as I mentioned here, is so typically of its time. Despite becoming banned by the BBC for its religious content (yes, really), both Laine’s version and David Whitfield’s continued to outsell the other top 10 as winter set in. After a week at number 1, Hull-born tenor David Whitfield’s single was overtaken by Laine’s version.

Although nothing can disguise the cloying sentimentality of Answer Me, this recording, with the backing of Paul Weston & his Orchestra, is stronger. Laine’s singing is more natural, and softer, with an organ, guitar and choir accompanying him. Like I Believe, he saves the bellowing until the end, giving the song time to build. It reached number 1 on 13 November, and there it remained until 7 January 1954, for a very impressive eight weeks.

However, on 11 December, David Whitfield’s version sold equally well. Or at least, it did in the few shops whose sales counted towards the top 12. And so for a week, both versions were recognised as number 1 singles. It’s a shame it didn’t occur during Christmas week, it could have become pop music’s version of the Christmas truce in World War One.

As mentioned in my blog on Whitfield’s version, both he and Laine later recorded covers of Answer Me, My Love, in which the then-shocking references to God were removed. Neither of these outperformed their first versions though. Just goes to show the universal appeal and interest in ‘banned’ songs really.

With a few slight exceptions, looking back at the number 1 singles of 1953 has proven that ‘pop’ music had a long way to go before it became exciting, memorable and most importantly, fun. However, some of the key ingredients were starting to fall into place.

Written by: Gerhard Winkler & Fred Rauch/Carl Sigman (English lyrics)

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 8 (13 November 1953-7 January 1954)

Births:

Comedian Griff Rhys Jones – 16 November
Labour MP Hilary Benn – 26 November
Labour MP Alistair Darling – 28 November
Labour MP Geoff Hoon – 6 December
Comedian Jim Davidson – 13 December
Director Anthony Minghella – 6 January

Meanwhile…

20 November: Piltdown Man, discovered in 1912 and believed to be the remains of an early human, were proved to be a hoax.

25 November: England lost dramatically to Hungary in football’s ‘Match of the Century’ by 6-3, ending a 90-year unbeaten home run against sides from outside the British Isles.

26 November: The House of Lords voted to go ahead with the government’s plans for commercial television.

14. David Whitfield with Stanley Black & His Orchestra – Answer Me (1953)

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Until the rise of The Beatles, most songs in the 50s and 60s charts tended to be covers, and often multiple versions of these songs were available at once. This led to the last two number 1s of 1953 being covers of the same track, and even, for one week, number 1 at the same time. An oddity, no doubt, brought on by the fact that the charts were compiled in such an amateurish fashion, with the New Musical Express simply ringing around 20 shops to ask what was doing well.

Answer Me was originally a German song called Mütterlein, written by Gerhard Winkler and Fred Rauch. The English lyrics were by top US songwriter Carl Sigman, who used to collaborate with Duke Ellington, among others. In Answer Me, a man asks God why his love has left him:

‘Answer me, Lord above:
Just what sin have I been guilty of?
Tell me how I came to lose my love
Please answer me, oh, Lord’

I would have thought God had bigger things to think about… These lyrics proved to be controversial. It seems laughable now, but the BBC actually banned Answer Me due to complaints over its religious content, and both David Whitfield and Frankie Laine later released toned down versions called Answer Me, My Love, in which Sigman cleaned up his act. This seems even more bizarre when you consider the huge success of I Believe, but it must have been due to the explicit references to God.

With its depressing lyrics, all-too-early-50s stately pace and overwrought style, Answer Me is a less memorable I Believe. David Whitfield’s voice was clearly made for this type of song, but you just wish he’d tone it down a bit.

Nonetheless, Whitfield was a hugely popular male tenor when he first hit number 1. Hailing from Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire, he was born on 2 February 1925. Whitfield sang in the choir at his church as a child and during World War Two he would entertain fellow troops.

He featured in the Radio Luxembourg version of Opportunity Knocks after the war, which was his platform to fame. His second single was a version of I Believe, but follow-up Bridge of Sighs was his first taste of top 10 action.

Whitfield was the most successful British singer in the US in 1953, but the problem was, the unstoppable Frankie Laine’s version was in the charts at the same time.

Written by: Gerhard Winkler & Fred Rauch/Carl Sigman (English lyrics)

Producer: Bunny Lewis

Weeks at number 1: 2 (6-12 November, 11-17 December)

Births:

Equestrian Lucinda Green – 7 November
Comedian Jim Davidson – 13 December

Deaths

Poet Dylan Thomas – 7 November

Meanwhile…

11 November: Current affairs series Panorama first appeared on the BBC. Groundbreaking, and still often controversial, this series continues to unearth unpleasant truths all these years later.

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

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 eight 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, Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You and current number 1, Dance Monkey by Tones and I.

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.

Christmas Day: The Queen made her first ever Christmas speech to the Commonwealth, sat in the same chair as George V and George VI before her.