116. The Marcels – Blue Moon (1961)

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Following on from their league title victory, Tottenham Hotspur became the first English football team of the 20th century (and only the third in history), to win the double, after a 2-0 victory over Leicester City in the FA Cup Final on 6 May. Two days later, George Blake was sentenced to 42 years in prison. He had been found guilty of being a double agent for the Soviet Union.

The number 1 single at the time was this fast-paced doo-wop version of the classic ballad Blue Moon. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart began writing it in 1933 for the movie Hollywood Party, starring Jean Harlow. The main lyrics were:

‘Oh Lord, if you’re not busy up there,
I ask for help with a prayer,
So please don’t give me the air ‘

However, the song didn’t get finished. A year later, Hart rewrote the lyrics to create a track for the Manhattan Melodrama. It was now called It’s Just That Kind of Play, and the words were changed to:

‘Act One:
You gulp your coffee and run,
Into the subway you crowd,
Don’t breathe, it isn’t allowed.’

This time, the song was cut from the film, but MGM asked Rodgers and Hart for a song to be used in a nightclub scene. Hart rewrote the lyrics again and renamed it The Bad in Every Man. This time the lyrics had been changed to:

‘Oh, Lord…
I could be good to a lover,
But then I always discover,
The bad in ev’ry man’

Guess what? MGM still weren’t happy, and although they could see there was a great tune there, the lyrics weren’t full of hit-making potential. They asked for some more romantic words and a new title, and a (surely exasperated) Hart came up with:

‘Blue moon
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own’

Finally, they had completed Blue Moon. Artists including Mel Tormé recorded versions, but it was Elvis Presley that first brought it to the attention of rock’n’rollers. His 1954 recording made it onto his eponymous debut album, released two years later.

Fast forward to 1961, and the Marcels were struggling to finish their debut album. The mixed-race doo-wop group, named after the then-popular marcel wave hairstyle, had formed in 1959, consisting of lead singer Cornelius Harp, Richard Knauss, Fred Johnson, Gene Bricker and Ron Mundy. The Marcels were not a high priority for their label, Colpix Records, and producer Stu Phillips was told not to waste much time on them. However, one night he sneaked the group into the studio after everyone else had left. They recorded three songs and had time for one more, and one band member said they knew Blue Moon. Phillips told them they had an hour to learn it, and the song was hurriedly recorded in only two takes.

Anyone who bought this version expecting a re-run of the original must have got quite a shock when Fred Johnson’s famous ‘bomp-baba-bomp-ba-bomp-ba-bomp-bomp… vedanga-dang-dang-vadinga-dong-ding’ rang out and bounced straight into a comparatively raucous run-through of the track. To many people, this intro is the best bit of the song, and one of most famous intros in doo-wop and rock’n’roll history, but originally Johnson’s vocal came from their cover of Zoom by the Cadillacs. A shrewd Phillips decided to lift it and stick it at the start of Blue Moon to give it some oomph, and it proved to be an inspired decision. Not that this blog should purely be about the intro, mind – the whole track is fun, and a much-needed antidote to some of the tracks I’ve sat through of late. It stayed respectful to the original, yet at the same time, shook things up enough to make it appeal to both young and old.

Blue Moon was huge in the US and UK, and allegedly famous DJ Murray the K (later to try and lay claim to the title ‘the fifth Beatle’ during the British Invasion) played it 26 times in a single show. The Marcels were unable to sustain this success, although a cover of Heartaches did okay. Unfortunately, the group’s white members, Knauss and Bricker, left due to racial problems when they toured the Deep South. Members came and went, and although the original group reformed briefly in 1973, the band splintered into various incarnations. Cornelius Harp died in June 2013, aged 73, and Ron Mundy died in 2017, aged 76.

This doo-wop classic has popped up in many places over the years, but perhaps the most famous appearance is over the end credits of An American Werewolf in London (1981), with versions by Bobby Vinton and Sam Cooke appearing earlier in the comedy horror.

Written by: Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart

Producer: Stu Phillips

Weeks at number 1: 2 (4-17 May)

Births:

Bucks Fizz singer Jay Aston – 4 May
Actress Janet McTeer – 8 May
The Cult guitarist Billy Duffy – 12 May
Actor Tim Roth – 14 May

94. Emile Ford and the Checkmates – What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? (1959)

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Here we are, then. The final number 1 single of the 1950s, and it shows how far the decade had progressed musically since that first number 1 by Al Martino in 1952. More so than I would have guessed before starting this blog, in fact. When I wrote about this song for Every Christmas Number 1 I saw it as ‘clever and cocky’ and a sign of rock’n’roll’s cultural impact after Elvis’s arrival. At the time, I didn’t know the song in question dates back much further than Here in My Heart.

What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? (is this still the UK number 1 with the longest title?) was written back in 1916 by Joseph McCarthy, Howard Johnson and James V Monaco. McCarthy and Monaco were responsible for You Made Me Love You, and Johnson had come up with the words for I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream. Their new composition became a hit duet for two of the most popular singers of the early 20th century, Ada Jones and Billy Murray, during World War One. It took a man who was fascinated with sound to make What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? feel so contemporary.

Emile Ford was born Michael Emile Telford Miller in Castries, Saint Lucia in the West Indies. His father was a politician and mother a singer and musical theatre director. He moved to London in 1954 to pursue his interest in sound reproduction technology, and studied at Paddington Technical College in London, learning to play guitar, piano, violin, bass guitar and drums, among other instruments. He became interested in rock’n’roll and became a performer at the age of 20, shortening his name to Emile Ford, and garnered appearances on music TV shows Six-Five Special and Oh Boy!. In 1959 he formed Emile Ford and the Checkmates with guitarist Ken Street and half-brothers George Sweetnam-Ford on bass and Dave Sweetnam-Ford on saxophone. The band took the unusual move of turning down EMI because they refused to let them self-produce, unlike Pye Records, who they signed with. Their first single was to be a cover of the country song Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles, with a doo-wop version of What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? quickly knocked off in half an hour at the end of a recording session. Airplay was so in favour of the latter that it was promoted to the A-side.

For a man with a reputation for his obsession with sound engineering, it’s ironic that his only number 1 was made almost as an afterthought, with little manipulation. It only adds to its charm though, and the swaggering doo-wop arrangement makes it one of the catchier number 1s of the decade, let alone year. Ford’s vocal is suitably raw and powerful too.

What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? rocketed up the charts, and initially shared the top spot with Adam Faith’s bizarrely-similarly-titled What Do You Want?for a week, before taking over and becoming the 1959 Christmas number 1. It remained there for six weeks, ruling the charts for most of the first month of the 60s. Ford became the first Black British artist to sell a million copies of one single. The band made the top 20 several times more, and they were voted Best New Act of 1960 by the New Musical Express. They became augmented by female backing singers known as the Fordettes for a while, before they went to work with Joe Brown. In 1960, Ford used his success as a way to continue an idea he had been working on. The band became the first group to use a backing track system at times for their hugely popular stage show, so you could argue that Ford invented karaoke, in a sense. Whether he did or not, this invention certainly changed live music forever, eventually. Their live sets were also known for their punchy sound, thanks to the band insisting on using their own PA system. It’s interesting to note that Ford, like Jimi Hendrix, had synaesthesia, a condition where a person can see certain colours in relation to the sound they are hearing. He believed this condition was a huge factor in his obsession with sound.

The band split in 1963 as the Beatles became huge (at one point the Fab Four had supported them), and Ford set up a recording studio with his father in Barbados in 1969, before moving to Sweden. In the 70s he worked on his open-air playback system for live shows, which he dubbed the Liveoteque Sound Frequency Feedback Injection System. This equipment was later used by artists as huge as Pink Floyd and Michael Jackson. Ford died in April 2016, aged 78. The song that made his name would see further chart action in 1987, when 50s-throwback Shakin’ Stevens recorded his version. Take a look at the video and try not to smile at a now-bygone age. You just don’t get videos as cheesy and cheery as this anymore. Keep an eye out for a pre-fame Vic Reeves, too.

So that’s the 50s number 1s all wrapped up. I hope you’ve enjoyed a read and a listen. Before I move on to one of the most fascinating decades in music though, I’m going to have to decide on my best and worst number 1s of the 50s. Watch this space…

Written by: Joseph McCarthy, Howard Johnson & James V Monaco

Producer: Michael Barclay

Weeks at number 1: 6 (18 December 1959-28 January 1960)

Births:

Comedian Tracey Ullman – 30 December
Chef Nigella Lawson – 6 January
Choreographer Matthew Bourne – 13 January
Actor Mark Rylance – 18 January
Racewalker Paul Blagg – 23 January 

Deaths:

Tennis player Dorothea Douglass Lambert Chambers – 7 January
Children’s author Elsie J Oxenham – 9 January
Author Nevil Shute – 12 January

76. Tommy Edwards – It’s All in the Game (1958)

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10 November 1958, and Donald Campbell breaks the world water speed record in his Bluebird K7. This was the fifth time he had done so. Campbell seemed to be invincible, but eventually his luck ran out in the worst possible way.

Sitting at number 1 at the time was a song with an unusual history. It’s All in the Game dates back to 1911, when banker Charles G Dawes wrote Melody in A Major. It soon also became known as Dawes’s Melody, and followed him into his political career, and he came to hate it. Dawes eventually became Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge from 1925 to 1929.

In 1951, Brill Building songwriter Carl Sigman decided to write lyrics to this melody. He had a knack for adapting songs, and specialised in writing English lyrics to songs composed in other languages. For example, in 1953 he wrote lyrics for that year’s Christmas number 1, Answer Me. Bizarrely, on the day Sigman took his finished work, It’s All in the Game, to Warner Brothers publishing executive Mac Goldman, Dawes died of a heart attack. Goldman quipped that Sigman’s lyrics must have killed him.

Tommy Edwards was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1922. He began performing at nine years old, but it was in 1946 that he began a recording contract with MGM. He began making inroads into the charts three years later, before hitting number 18 with his waltz-time cover of It’s All in the Game. By 1958 however, MGM were ready to drop Edwards. In a last-ditch effort to save his career, he hit upon the idea of re-recording  his hit in a doo-wop style. One of the first stereo singles to ever be recorded, the new version struck gold.

The number 1 version suffers by comparison to some of the other songs covered in 1958. On the whole, it’s been the year with the highest quality of number 1 singles I’ve covered so far. It’s serviceable enough though. Edwards is being philosophical to some poor broken-hearted girl, informing her that love is all one big daft game and all will be well eventually. I don’t want to sound cynical, but I think his optimism might be slightly misplaced. If her beau doesn’t call once in a while, he’s not necessarily soon going to be by her side once more. A harsh dose of reality might be better advice. It’s very well produced, and it’s great to hear a stereo recording finally. The song also works well in a doo-wop style, but the problem is, Edwards kept his vocals largely the same as his 1951 version, so they sound a bit too mannered for my liking, and it drags the whole thing down.

Edwards tried to repeat the trick and re-recorded other past songs in the same style, and they did okay, but not well enough. It’s All in the Game was later covered by acts including the Four Tops and Cliff Richard. Tommy Edwards died in 1969 of a brain aneurysm, believed to have been brought on by alcoholism. He was only 47.

Written by: Charles G. Dawes & Carl Sigman 

Producer: Harry Myerson

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

Births:

Model Kim Ashfield – 25 November

Deaths:

Politician Lord Robert Cecil – 24 November 

48. The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon – Why Do Fools Fall in Love

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On 22 July, music newspaper Record Mirror published the first ever UK Albums Chart. They had their own version of the singles chart, but it is the New Musical Express charts that I use for this blog, as these are the ones recognised by the Official Charts Company as canon until 1960. The first album at number 1 was Frank Sinatra’s classic Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!. 26 July saw the beginning of the Suez crisis, when Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser shocked the British government by announcing the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. Initially, Anthony Eden believed he had the country’s support in taking military action, and Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell agreed, but in the following weeks he took a more cautious tone.

Meanwhile, the number 1 single in the UK was a breath of fresh air following a few lacklustre affairs. The Teenagers with Frankie Lymon became the youngest act to date to rule the roost, with the classic rock’n’roll and doo-wop number Why Do Fools Fall in Love. At the tender age of 12, New Yorker Frankie Lymon was working as a grocery boy to help his struggling family. He became friends with a doo-wop group known as the Coup de Villes – lead singer Herman Santiago, Joe Negroni, Jimmy Merchant and Sherman Games. There are several versions of who came up with the song, and indeed several court battles have ensued over publishing rights, but a neighbour of the Premiers, as they were known in 1955, handed the group some love letters written by his girlfriend, to use as inspiration. By the time they had their audition with tough producer George Goldner, they were known as The Teenagers. Santiago was either ill, or late, but whatever the reason, Frankie Lymon had a crack at the lead, and the group recorded trheir biggest single and one of rock’n’roll’s most memorable hits. Why Do Fools Fall in Love influenced the Jackson 5 and spawned the girl-group sound, as well as hundreds of imitators. And Lymon was barely a teenager.

For a song recorded such a long time ago, Why Do Fools Fall in Love still sounds fresh. It’s bursting with youthful energy, and a large part of that is down to Lymon’s lead vocal. This was pure rock’n’roll but filtered through the innocence of such a young group with little experience of the world. And the saxophone break is a blast. The song charted highly in the US, but performed even better in the UK. And then, before their career had barely begun, things began to fall apart.

Tensions understandably began to surface when the next single was credited to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Early in 1957, Goldner began pushing Lymon as a solo act, and his departure was made official by September. The Teenagers went through a string of replacement singers, to little success, and Lymon’s career went into freefall. They reunited briefly in 1965 but it didn’t last. He had become addicted to heroin at the age of 15, and died of an overdose in 1968 at his grandma’s house, aged only 25. A tragic victim of the often cruel music industry.

Written by: Frankie Lymon & Morris Levy

Producer: Richard Barrett

Weeks at number 1: 3 (20 July-9 August)

Births:

Sculptor Andy Goldsworthy – 26 July
Madness guitarist Chris Foreman – 8 August