230. Engelbert Humperdinck – Release Me (1967)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by: Eddie Miller, James Pebworth & Robert Yount

Producer: Charles Blackwell

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

Births:

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

Deaths:

Author John Haden Bradley – 6 March 

 

41. Tennessee Ernie Ford with Orchestra conducted by Jack Fascinato – Sixteen Tons (1956)

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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. On 24 January, plans were announced for the building of thousands of new homes in the Barbican area of London, which had been devastated by Luftwaffe bombings in World War Two. In the charts, interest in Dickie Valentine’s Christmas Alphabet understandably died down after the holidays, and the first new number one of the year was Rock Around the Clock, enjoying its second run at the top, before being usurped by a truly unique single.

Sixteen Tons had originally been written and recorded by country singer-songwriter Merle Travis back in 1946. Travis’s songs often spoke of the hardships of workers in the US as he came from a mining family in Kentucky. His brother once wrote him a letter with the line ‘You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt’. His father was also fond of saying ‘I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.’. Back then, miners were paid with credit vouchers that they could use to buy goods at the company store. Travis had the beginnings of a very catchy chorus . He came up with a song whose humour is as black as the dirt in the miners’ fingernails, and Tennessee Ernie Ford was listening. Ten years later, his cover became his second UK number 1 single in less than a year.

Sixteen Tons is so much better than Give Me Your Word. His previous number 1 was a mediocre ballad that anyone could have recorded. It’s hard to think who could perform Sixteen Tons as well as Ford. Featuring a sparse arrangement that features his deep, booming voice and finger-clicking to begin with, followed by a clarinet backing him up, Ford speaks not only for US workers, but any slave to the man. In the gloomy winter months of 1956, no doubt UK miners could find solace in such a song. Although the mining references root the song firmly in the past, anyone who finds themselves slaving away just to get by can identify.  And it helps that it’s as catchy as hell.

Selling millions upon millions, Sixteen Tons became Ford’s signature song, and earned him his own TV show, which ran for five years. Unfortunately, he and his first wife Betty had alcohol problems, and while he managed during his career peak, by the 70s his love of whiskey was taking its toll. Betty died in 1989 but even this couldn’t curtail his drinking. He died of liver failure on 17 October 1991 – 36 years to the day of the first release of Sixteen Tons. However, he left behind the definitive version of a song that truly resonates.

Written by: Merle Travis

Producer: Lee Gillette

Weeks at number 1: 2 (20 January-16 February)

Births:

Sex Pistols Singer John Lydon – 31 January
Actor Philip Franks – 2 January
New Order bassist Peter Hook – 13 February

Deaths:

Author AA Milne – 31 January 

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

28. Rosemary Clooney with the Mellomen – Mambo Italiano (1955)

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A lot of writers will tell you that sometimes their best work comes when they’re hard-pushed to meet a deadline. This is how Bob Merrill came up with Mambo Italiano. He was already a renowned hitmaker. Indeed, this became his fourth UK number one, after She Wears Red Feathers, (How Much is That) Doggie in the Window? and Look at That Girl. Merrill was looking for a way to cash in on the craze for mambo music in New York in 1954, and considered Rosemary Clooney the best artist for the job. The problem was, he couldn’t think of a tune and he was running out of time, until one night he was eating in an Italian restaurant and it came to him. He quickly scribbled his idea on a napkin, rang the studio from the restaurant payphone and dictated the whole thing to producer Mitch Miller and the studio pianist.

Whether this explains the fact the lyrics are often either lazy, stereotypical Italian (basically, any Italian word an American would have known, and some Spanish as well) or actual gibberish, I’m not sure. let’s face it, Merrill had written borderline offensive songs before (She Wears Red Feathers), and been very successful with it. In less enlightened times, who was going to stop him? He gets away with it on Mambo Italiano for two reasons. One, the tune is so catchy. Two, Rosemary Clooney’s performance.

Clooney (actor George Clooney’s aunt, if you didn’t know. I didn’t until recently) throws herself into the song completely, and does a very good impersonation of an Italian despite her Irish-American upbringing. This is in part due to the many Italian musicians she worked with. She’s the embodiment of the lusty temptress, and she even throws in some feral growling at times. It’s easily the sexiest number one yet. So hats off to Clooney. With this and This Ole House, that’s two good number 1s in a row. Mambo Italiano has been covered many times since, with Dean Martin’s being probably the most notable. Martin was Italian-American and didn’t seem to have a problem with the song. In fact, neither did Italy, as it became popular there in 1956 thanks to a cover by Carla Boni. I guess as far as national stereotypes go, ‘those Italians are always horny and we like their food’ is one of the better ones.

Mambo Italiano knocked Dickie Valentine’s Finger of Suspicion off the top spot for a week, before Valentine took over again for another fortnight. A further two-week stint followed for Clooney, and then her time at number 1 was over. She continued to have television and music success for many years, but also suffered from several nervous breakdowns, depression, prescription drug addiction and money problems. She continued to perform though, until succumbing to lung cancer in 2002, aged 74.

And who were the Mellomen, who were credited alongside Clooney on this track? They were a very popular singing quartet, that’s who. At this time they consisted of Thurl Ravenscroft (also the voice of Tony the Tiger, who helped out Clooney on This Ole House), Max Smith, Bill Lee and Bob Hamlin. They went under several guises through the years, and together, and separately, they recorded with Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby and Doris Day, as well as providing voices for Disney films including Alice in Wonderland (1951) and The Jungle Book (1967).

Written by: Bob Merrill

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 3 (14-20 January, 4-17 February)

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 one 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