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

p03t21l3.jpg

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 a seismic event in music, it would be wrong to think that from then on, the UK number 1s 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  nice crooners singing 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, followed by three top 10 hits. He then topped and tailed 1955’s singles chart 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 Morecambe & Wise’s Christmas special in 1976. Valentine’s version of Christmas Alphabet became the more famous version, and the oldies won out, knocking Haley from his lofty perch and making it 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 won New Musical Express’s best male vocalist category from 1953-57), he’s been largely forgotten.

His popularity waned in the next decade, despite two TV series (one with Peter Sellers) and he met a tragic end on 6 May 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

Meanwhile…

20 December: Cardiff becomes the official capital of Wales.

New Year’s Day: Possession of heroin becomes fully criminalised.

4 January: 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.

37. Jimmy Young with Bob Sharples & His Music – The Man from Laramie (1955)

jimmy-young-the-man-from-laramie-decca.jpg

As well as the mambo craze of 1955, Britain was also in love with cowboys and country and western music. Slim Whitman’s Rose Marie held the top spot for 11 weeks, and the first ‘official’ country song to hit number 1 happened earlier that year – Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Give Me your Word (although, as I said here, it’s not really a country song, and you could argue that Frankie Laine’s Hey Joe should earn that honour).

That summer had seen the release of Western movie The Man from Laramie, starring James Stewart in the title role, as a stranger who causes ructions by working for the rival of a cattle baron. Lester Lee and Ned Washington had written the theme, and Al Martino performed the US version. He only just scraped into the top 20 in the US, but Jimmy Young, riding high off his previous number 1 with Unchained Melody, became the first homegrown artist to have two consecutive number 1s in the UK.

Young makes a better job of The Man from Laramie, than he did Unchained Melody. It’s a jolly, rickety old number, and I suppose it’s kind of catchy, but having said all this, I have no desire to ever hear it again.

Basically, it’s Young telling us all the ways in which the Man from Laramie is brilliant. His voice is better suited to this than his previous chart-topper, but he’s still bellowing, and the worst bit is the cringeworthy way he changes his voice to sing smarmily:

‘He had a flair for ladies
Now the ladies loved his air of mystery’

The fact Young is so fondly remembered for his career as a DJ rather than his music suggests he was right to switch careers. He became a disc jockey that year on Housewive’s Choice, but sensing the music climate was changing following Elvis’s success, he decided to go full-time, working for Radio Luxembourg and the BBC.

In 1967 he was one of the original band of DJs on the fledgling Radio 1. Considered too ‘square’ by some of the station’s bosses, he proved them wrong and his morning show proved very popular. He switched to Radio 2 for the lunchtime show in 1973, and stayed with the station, becoming a national institution, loved for his charm and relaxed style. He was just as nice in person as on the air, by all accounts, and was mourned by millions when he died peacefully in his sleep on 7 November 2016, aged 95.

Written by: Lester Lee & Ned Washington

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 4 (14 October-10 November)

Births:

Presenter Timmy Mallett – 18 October

Deaths:

Songwriter Harry Parr-Davies – 14 October

34. Jimmy Young with Bob Sharples & His Music – Unchained Melody (1955)

Singer-Jimmy-Young.jpg

Summer 1955 brought a heatwave to many parts of the country, particularly Yorkshire, and the UK enjoyed a modern record of low unemployment (barely 1% of the workforce).

It was also the summer of Unchained Melody. Written for a little-known prison movie called Unchained, also released that year, the music came from Alex North, and lyrics were by Hy Zaret. The film centred on a prisoner deciding whether to go on the run or finish his sentence and live in peace with his family. Zaret only agreed to write the lyrics if he could leave out the film’s name, which might have helped with its longevity, ultimately. Todd Duncan sang the original vocals in the movie.

The song is now a standard, and one of the most covered in history, with well over a thousand recorded versions in various languages. In the summer of 1955 alone, four versions existed in the chart at one time – by Al Hibbler, Les Baxter, Liberace and future Radio 2 DJ, Sir Jimmy Young.

Leslie Ronald Young was born 21 September 1921 in Cinderford, Gloucestershire. He suffered greatly with illness as a child, nearly dying from bronchitis, double pneumonia and pleurisy. But he would later excel at sport, and turned down a place with Wigan’s rugby league team.

He worked as an electrician and physical training instructor for the RAF before becoming a singer in 1950. His cover of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s Too Young was a big sheet music seller in 1951, and he signed with Decca Records a year later. But it was 1955 that proved his most successful year in music, with two number 1s to his name.

By all accounts Young was a radio legend and a thoroughly nice person to boot. However, his version of Unchained Melody is a strange mess. It makes Robson and Jerome sound like the Righteous Brothers.

Whilst I admit I’m not much of a personal fan of crooners and opera-style singers like Al Martino and David Whitfield, I can appreciate the slickness of the production of their hits and their ability to sing. Young’s Unchained Melody sounds amateurish by comparison, with strings and guitar backing that seems ill-matched and uneven, and poor Young is either putting no effort in or bellowing, as if the producer is prodding him every now and then to display some passion.

In spite of all this, record buyers loved it for some reason, and he enjoyed three weeks at the top. Unchained Melody would return to number one three more times, courtesy of The Righteous Brothers in 1990, Robson & Jerome in 1995 and Gareth Gates in 2002.

Written by: Alex North & Hy Zaret 

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 3 (24 June-14 July)

Births:

The Clash guitarist Mick Jones – 26 June

Deaths

Criminal Ruth Ellis – 13 July

Meanwhile…

30 June: Gloster Meteor jet fighter crashed on takeoff in Kent, killing all crew members and two fruit-pickers. Later that day, two Hawker Sea Hawk jets crash into the North Sea in two separate incidents, leaving one pilot dead.

13 July: Ruth Ellis became the last woman to be hanged in the UK before the death penalty was abolished. She had shot dead her lover, racing driver David Blakely on Easter Sunday (10 April).

27. Dickie Valentine with the Stargazers and Johnny Douglas & His Orchestra – Finger of Suspicion (1955)

1955-dickie-valentine-christmas-alphabet-1353318873-view-0.jpg

By the time 1955 rolled around, people were a bit exhausted from a month of honky tonk madness courtesy of Winifred Atwell. Let’s Have Another Party was toppled by Finger of Suspicion, sung by Dickie Valentine with The Stargazers. The Stargazers had twice before took number 1, with Broken Wings and I See the Moon, but this was Valentine’s first of two that year.

Valentine, born Richard Maxwell in Marylebone, London on 4 May 1929, had been a child actor, starring in Jack’s the Boy in 1932 when he was only three years old. he moved into music as a teen, impersonating famous singers, before music publisher Sid Green brought him to the attention of bandleader star Ted Heath. He joined Ted Heath’s band in 1949, singing alongside Dennis Lotis and Lita Roza, who had a number one in 1953 with (How Much is That) Doggie in the Window?.

Looking rather like a young Orson Welles, Valentine demonstrated star quality and was voted Top UK Male Vocalist in 1952, and again in 1954. By this point he was a solo artist. Following the success of his Royal Command Performance that November, Finger of Suspicion worked its way to the top.

Written by Paul Mann and Al Lewis, Finger of Suspicion trundles along nicely. At first unassuming, it’s somewhat of an earworm. It’s not a song about crime, unless the crime is taking Valentine’s heart. Yes, the singer is just being a bit of a charmer really. He’s not sleeping well, he’s so in love with this girl, which might explain the song’s stately pace. The Stargazers work well as his backing singers, making up for the abomination that was I See the Moon.

Finger of Suspicion had somewhat of a chart war with Rosemary Clooney and the Mellomen’s Mambo Italiano. She knocked him off the top after only a week, before Valentine took over again for a fortnight, only for Clooney and co. to win out again. 1955 was easily Dickie Valentine’s biggest year of success. with three more top 10 hits, before getting the Christmas number 1 spot. The Stargazers had further hits that year, but their time at number 1 was over, and by the end of the 50s they were no more.

Written by: Paul Mann & Al Lewis

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 3 (7-13 January, 21 January-3 February)

Births:

Presenter Kirsty Wark – 3 February

Deaths:

Artist Lamorna Birch – 7 January
Dancer Annette Mills –  10 January
Conservative MP Sir Rhys Rhys-Williams – 29 January

Meanwhile…

23 January: An express train derailed at Sutton Coldfield railway station after taking a curve too fast. 43 were injured, and 17 killed.

27 January: Michael Tippett’s controversial opera The Midsummer Marriage was premiered at the Royal Opera House.

17. The Stargazers with Syd Dean & His Orchestra – I See the Moon (1954)

IMG_1639.JPG

If Eddie Calvert’s nine-week run seems odd now, well, I See the Moon having a five-week stint, followed by a further week later on, is just staggering.  It was written by US playwright and composer Meredith Wilson, who later became best known for being the man behind hit Broadway musical The Music Man.

This was the radio comedy group’s second of three number 1s. Broken Wings, was quite a staid, serious affair, but I’d always take that over this, unless I needed to torture someone.

The actual song isn’t too bad, but the production and performance, full of self-consciously wacky noises that harm the ears, are nauseating. The only real selling point is that it offers a curious glimpse into what passed as comedy in 1954. The Stargazers, for some unfathomable reason, decide to sing as though they are pissed-up and tone deaf. Easily the worst number 1 so far.

Hard to believe now but for five weeks this was considered the best song in the country, until Doris Day toppled it with the more deserving Secret Love. Yet somehow I See the Moon went back to number 1 on 23 April. Strange days indeed.

Written by: Meredith Wilson

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 6 (12 March-15 April, 23-29 April)

Births:

Actress Leslie Anne-Down – 17 March

Deaths:

Rugby union international James Peters – 26 March

Meanwhile…

24 March: Following an eight-day trial, The Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Peter Wildeblood and Michael Pitt-Rivers were convicted for ‘conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons’. Sent to prison for being gay, basically. Montagu protested his innocence, and eventually public opinion turned in his favour, and his case is considered one of the main reasons for the reform of the law on homosexuality.

8. Lita Roza – (How Much is) That Doggie in the Window?

2006BA9827_jpg_l.jpg

Here’s one we all know. (How Much is) That Doggie in the Window? is known to most as a timeless nursery rhyme rather than a chart-topper. It is about as far removed from a modern number 1 as it’s possible to get, but children of every generation since have grown up with it and loved it, including my own daughters.

It was written by Bob Merrill, author of the tacky She Wears Red Feathers, number 1 by Guy Mitchell a month previously. Loosely based on a folk song called Carnival of Venice, an earlier version, The Doggie in the Window, sung by one of the most famous singers of the 50s, Patti Page, is still the most well-known, and hit number 1 on the Billboard charts in the US, selling millions. But it didn’t make it to number one in the UK. Enter Lita Roza.

Lita Roza, born Lilian Patricia Lita Roza on 14 March 1926, hailed from Liverpool. She credited her passion for music to her father, an accordionist and pianist. He was of Filipino ancestry, which is where Roza’s sultry looks originated too.

Her desire to make it in show business was with her as a child. Aged 12 she became a dancer, at 15 she was working with a comedian, and she first became a singer a year later. Roza signed up with The Harry Roy Orchestra in London but by the time she was 18 she had quit and moved to America with her new husband. The marriage was short-lived and shortly after World War Two she returned to the UK.

Roza became a singer with The Ted Heath Jazz Band and juggled this with a burgeoning solo career. She regularly topped polls in Melody Maker and the New Musical Express for best female singer.

A creditable artist, she didn’t want to record a novelty record, but her A&R, Dick Rowe, nagged her until she relented. However, she insisted on singing it in only one take, and refused to ever perform it live. Roza claimed in a 2004 interview that she kept her word, and so she began a long tradition of artists who hate the song they become best known for.

Nonetheless, it immortalised her as the first UK solo act to become number 1. Listening to her cover alongside Patti Page’s (not something I can see myself doing more than once), I prefer Roza’s, as she sings with much less affectation than Page.

She remained popular until rock’n’roll took off, when she moved into TV work, and also appeared in the Eurovision Song Contest heats from 1957, 1959 and 1960.

However, Roza clearly had some affection or appreciation of (How Much is) That Doggie in the Window? as when she died she left £300,000 in her will to charities. £190,000 of this went to dog-related charities: Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and The Cinnamon Trust. She passed away on 14 August 2008, aged 82.

Written by: Bob Merrill

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 1 (17-23 April)

Births:

Novelist Sebastian Faulks – 20 April

7. The Stargazers – Broken Wings (1953)

The ‘comic’ stylings of She Wears Red Feathers were knocked from number 1 on 10 April, and we were back to appropriately mournful ballad territory, but for the first time, it was a British vocal group.

The Stargazers, went through several incarnations following their inception in 1949. The original line-up consisted of Dick James, Cliff Adams, Marie Benson, Fred Datchler and Ronnie Milne. 

The Stargazers became famous via their appearances on radio shows of the era, including The Family Hour and The Goon Show. By 1953 James had departed. He went on to be a music publisher, establishing Dick James Music in 1961 and becoming one of the founders of The Beatles publishing arm, Northern Songs in 1963. Bob Brown replaced him in the group.

Broken Wings has not aged well. Written by John Jerome and Bernard Gunn, the lyrics point out correctly that with broken wings, no bird can fly. The subject of the song has been let down by their lover, who has been unfaithful.

‘With broken wings, no bird can fly
And broken promises mean love must fade and die
I trusted you, you can”t be true
My heart no longer sings
It”s wings are broken too’.

Musically, The Stargazers’ cover is a dirge, with only two points of interest. One is the sparse instrumentation, dominated by an electric piano. Very different to what had been top of the pops up to this point. Second is that the producer was Dick Rowe, the man who famously said ‘Guitar groups are on their way out, Mr Epstein’ when The Beatles failed their audition for Decca. He made up for his mistake by signing, among others, The Rolling Stones, Them, Tom Jones and Small Faces.

If you want to hear a catchier song called Broken Wings, there is of course, this track by Mr Mister.

Written by: John Jerome & Bernard Gunn

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 1 (10-16 April)

Births:

Mathematician Andrew Wiles – 11 April
Labour MP Stephen Byers – 13 April

Meanwhile…

13 April: Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published, beginning an almighty cultural legacy.