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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by: Buddy Kaye & Jules Loman

Producer: Dick Rowe

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

Births:

Poet Carol Ann Duffy – 23 December

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

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As well as the mambo craze of 1955, Britain was also in love with cowboys and country and western music. Slim Whitman had ruled the roost with Rose Marie for 11 weeks, and the first ‘official’ country song hit number one 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 (forever immortalised as the first UK number one artist with Here in My Heart) performed the US version. Martino 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.

 

Thankfully, Young pulls off The Man from Laramie, unlike his weird uneven Unchained Melody. It’s a jolly, rickety old number, and I suppose it’s kind of catchy, but I have no desire to ever hear it again. Basically, the Man is amazing and Young tells us all the ways in which this is true. His voice is better suited to this, but he’s still bellowing, and the worst bit is the cringeworthy way he changes his voice to sing with a layer of smarm:

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

Poor Jimmy Young. I am hard on him I suppose, but the fact he’s so fondly remembered for his career as a DJ rather than his music suggests he was right to switch careers. He became a DJ 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 in 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)

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Summer 1955 brought a heatwave to many parts of the country, particularly Yorkshire, a modern record of low unemployment (barely 1% of the workforce), and three aircraft accidents in one day. On 30 June, a 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.

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 keep out the film’s name, which might have helped with its longevity, ultimately. As we all know, 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, Jimmy Young.

Jimmy Young had been 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, but it was 1955 that proved his most successful year recording music, with two number 1s to his name.

Ah, Jimmy, this is awkward. I feel bad speaking ill of the (fairly) recently deceased, especially when by all accounts he 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, 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 that summer.

On 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).

Written by: Alex North & Hy Zaret 

Producer: Dick Rowea

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

Births:

The Clash guitarist Mick Jones – 26 June

Deaths

Criminal Ruth Ellis – 13 July

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

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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, 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 ten hits, before getting the Christmas number 1 spot. The Stargazers had further hits that year, but their time at number 1 was over.

On 23 January, an express train derailed at Sutton Coldfield railway station after taking a curve too fast. 43 were injured, and 17 killed. Four days later, Michael Tippett’s controversial opera The Midsummer Marriage was premiered at the Royal Opera House.

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
Politician Sir Rhys Rhys-Williams – 29 January

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

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On 24 March, 1954, 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. Perhaps the most long-winded reason in history, this was the charge that sent Oscar Wilde to prison in 1895. Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, Home Secretary at the time, had promised to ‘rid England of this plague’. Lord Montagu had already been in court a year earlier, and claimed he was part of a witch-hunt to commit someone high profile. Montagu continued to protest 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.

The number 1 single at the time was I See the Moon, by the Stargazers. It had knocked Eddie Calvert’s Oh Mein Papa from the top on 12 March. If Calvert’s nine-week run seems odd now, well, I See the Moon having a five-week stint, followed by a further week later, 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 number 1. The first, Broken Wings, was quite a staid, serious affair.  I’d take that over this though. The song itself isn’t too bad, but the production and performance are nauseating. The only real selling point is that it offers a curious glimpse into what passed as comedy in 1954. Produced by Dick Rowe, who also produced Broken Wings and (How Much is That) Doggie in the Window?, there are self-consciously wacky noises that harm the ears,. 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, I’d have to say. And yet Rowe went on to sign, among others, the Rolling Stones, Them and the Small Faces.

For five weeks this was considered the best song in the country, until Doris Day took over with the more deserving Secret Love. Yet somehow I See the Moon went back to number 1 on 23 April! The Stargazers had one more number 1 in 1955 with Dickie Valentine. I haven’t listened yet, but i’m guessing it beats this.

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

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

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Here’s one we all know. (How Much is) That Doggie in the Window is more like a timeless nursery rhyme than a chart-topper. It is about as far removed from a 2017 number one as it’s possible to get, but children of every generation since have grown up with it and loved it, including my own young daughters. It was written by Bob Merrill, author of the tacky She Wears Red Feathers, number one 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 one 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 hailed from Liverpool and was a singer with The Ted Heath Jazz Band. She regularly topped polls in the 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 one. 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.

However, Roza clearly had some affection or appreciation for her sole number one, as when she died in 2008, 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.

(How Much is) That Doggie in the Window spent one week at the top, from 17 April, 1953. Six days previously, Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published, beginning an almighty cultural legacy.

Written by: Bob Merrill

Producer: Dick Rowe

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

Births:

Author Sebastian Faulks – 20 April

 

 

 

 

7. The Stargazers – Broken Wings (1953)

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On 24 March 1953, while She Wears Red Feathers continued its hold on the top of the UK charts, Queen Mary, consort of the deceased King George V, died peacefully in her sleep. On the same day, the discovery of several bodies at 10 Rillington Place shocked the country. The murderer, John Christie, had moved out four days earlier, leaving several bodies hidden around the house. He had killed at least eight people, including his wife Ethel. A week later on 31 March, both the funeral of Queen Mary and the arrest of Christie took place. Mary had insisted that the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II should not be delayed in the event of her death. The trial of Christie, later in the year, revealed a terrible miscarriage of justice in which a husband and father had been wrongly sentenced to death by hanging…

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. Only this time, for the first time, the act responsible were not a US singer. They were actually homegrown, and there were five of them. The Stargazers, went through several incarnations following their inception in 1949, but it is believed at the time of their first number one the vocal group were Cliff Adams, Ronnie Milne, Marie Benson, Fred Datchler and Bob Brown. They had lots of success on BBC Radio during the 50s, so, like the US chart-toppers that preceded them, their appearances in the media of the time no doubt helped them achieve their number 1 placing.

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 one point of interest, which is the sparse instrumentation, dominated by an electric piano. Very different to what had been top of the pops up to this point. A week later they were replaced by something much more memorable and light-hearted, but the Stargazers weren’t done with the charts. 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
Politician Stephen Byers – 13 April