268. Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1969)

Eurovision 1969 took place on 29 March, and the UK, represented by Lulu with the song Boom Bang-a-Bang, shared first place with not one, not two, but three countries – France, the Netherlands and host nation Spain.

April Fool’s Day saw the Hawker Siddeley Harrier (‘Jump Jet’) entered service with the RAF. Eight days later, Sikh busmen in Wolverhampton won the right to wear their turbans while on duty.

Ruling the charts after four weeks of Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? was a stone-cold soul classic. I Heard It Through the Grapevine by Motown legend Marvin Gaye was one of label’s greatest, and yet boss Berry Gordy, usually so sharp at spotting hits, just couldn’t see it.

Gaye was born Marvin Pent Gay Jr on 2 April 1939 in Washington DC. The Gays had it tough, and he was raised in Public Housing Project the Fairfax Apartments in the Southwest Waterfront neighbourhood. Most buildings lacked electricity and running water.

Gay developed a love of singing from the tender age of four, where he would perform in church while his father backed him on piano, and he was encouraged at school to pursue a singing career after singing in a school play when he was 11.

Sadly, poverty wasn’t Gay’s only problem, as his father ruled with an iron fist, and would often subject Marvin to beatings, which went on well into his teenage years, and of course ultimately led to a tragic end.

In the early 1950s the Gays moved to DC’s Capitol View neighbourhood, where Marvin would stay until 1962. He joined a glee club in junior high, and then several doo top groups. As his relationship with Marvin Sr grew worse, he dropped out of high school and joined the United States Air Force. Gay’s relationship with his father clearly affected his dealings with authority figures, and he clashed with his sergeant.

Back in in DC, Gay formed the group the Marquees. They worked alongside none other than Bo Diddley, who helped them get signed and wrote their only single, Wyatt Earp. Although they were soon dropped, it inspired Gay to start writing. They changed their name to Harvey and the New Moonglows, and Gay recorded his first lead vocal in 1959. They also backed Chuck Berry on Back in the USA.

In 1960 Gaye became a session drummer for Tri-Phi Records, but that Christmas he performed at Berry Gordy’s house and earned himself a contract with Motown subsidiary Tamla. Before the release of his first single, Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide, in May 1961, he decided to add the ‘e’ to the end of his surname, to stop jokes about his sexuality and distance himself from his estranged father.

His single and album, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye failed to make an impression, but 1962 was an important year for the struggling singer, with second album That Stubborn Kind of Fellow featuring three hit singles. The next few years saw his star rise, with singles such as How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) in 1964.

Gaye became well known for his duets. He had made an album with Mary Wells, and early in 1967 It Takes Two with Kim Weston became one of his most famous songs. But he gelled best with Tami Terrell, recording classics including Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Gaye suffered with shyness on stage, and helped to bring him out of his shell. Unfortunately, that October she collapsed in his arms on stage, and it was discovered she had a brain tumour. Although she continued to record, it spelled the end of her live career. Gaye was devastated, and became disillusioned with the music industry.

It had been in February that year that Gaye had recorded I Heard It Through the Grapevine. The song had been started by Motown’s Barrett Strong, writer of Money (That’s What I Want), in 1966. He had heard the phrase ‘I heard it through the grapevine’ in Chicago. Its origins came from black slaves during the Civil War, who had developed their own human telegraph system relay messages – the ‘grapevine’.

Working with producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield, they developed their classic tune of suspicion and betrayal. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded it first, but Gordy vetoed its release as a single (it eventually surfaced as an album track in 1968).

Gaye’s recording followed, but wasn’t straightforward either. With Paul Riser on board arranging the strings played by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the track also featured the Funk Brothers and the Andantes supplied backing vocals. Production took two months, and an argument ensued between Gaye and Whitfield when the producer told the singer to try in a higher key than his normal range.

As the whole world now knows, Whitfield was right. Gaye’s performance, taken out of his already formidable comfort zone, really hits the point home. The singer has been hit with an emotional bombshell. He feels disbelief. He is wounded, angry, paranoid, confused. Gaye’s performance is the reason his version is remembered long after Robinson’s. If aliens landed tomorrow and asked me what soul music was, I’d play them this. And that intro is simply one of the coolest in soul and pop.

And yet, Gordy still couldn’t see it. Once more, he refused to allow it to become a single, but it did make it onto Gaye’s album Into the Groove in 1968. In the meantime, Motown’s head honcho did allow Gladys Knight & the Pips to release theirs as a 7″. And fair enough really, as it’s excellent in its own way. Inspired by Aretha Franklyn’s Respect, Whitfield sped things up, added some funk, and Knight sang it with real anger. In contrast to Gaye, Knight is really pissed off, and her man is going to rue the day he messed with her. Leftside Wobble’s techno update in 2011, Grapevine Boogie, is a real banger.

Gaye’s version began to be heard on the radio, and eventually Gordy relented. In 1968, to his surprise, it went to number 1 in the US, and propelled Gaye to superstardom. The UK is just one of many other countries in which it subsequently hit the top spot. In the Groove was even renamed I Heard It Through the Grapevine!. And yet, Gaye was still reeling from Terrell’s condition. She died from brain cancer in 1970.

Follwing a battle with depression, he returned that year with a new, politicised approach. Gordy didn’t want the single What’s Going On released, considering it too controversial. This time Gaye didn’t back down, and after going on strike, he won out. It was a huge hit in 1971, and the album of the same name is a landmark in music.

Despite signing a lucrative deal to remain on Motown, Gaye’s outspoken political views caused further ructions with Gordy. He was forced to shelve the 1972 album You’re the Man, which was finally released earleir this year. The carnal classic song of sensuality Let’s Get It On became his second US chart-topper in 1973. For me, I Want You, the title track of his 1976 album, is just as hot, if not better.

As 1975 drew to a close, Gaye was mired in lawsuits with former bandmates and he was going through a divorce with his first wife Anna, elder sister of Berry Gordy. Disco was big, and he was under pressure to adopt the sound. He responded with Got to Give It Up, a funky floorfiller with a supersmooth falsetto from Gaye. It went to number 1 in the US in 1977, and if you want to hear its influence on 21st-century pop, just listen to 2013 number 1 Blurred Lines.

As the 70s came to an end, Gaye’s personal problems had become too much again. He had money problems and was battling addiction to cocaine. He owed so much in taxes he feared a prison sentence, so he relocated to London following a European tour in 1980. While working on a new album, the master tapes were stolen and were given to Motown. Gaye was furious when the sessions surfaced in January 1981, edited and remixed without his knowledge, as (Far Cry). His time at Motown was over.

Relocating to Ostend in Belgium, Gaye quit the drugs, returned to the church, and was reborn. He signed with CBS in 1982, and released Sexual Healing. Another steamy, sexy classic, but with an updated sound (check out that 808), it became his biggest-selling hit ever, earned him two Grammy Awards, and the album it spawned from, Midnight Love, was also huge. It would be his last recorded work.

In 1983 he made his last TV appearances, most notably on the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever special. But his return to making hits brought back old problems, and his drug issues resurfaced. He was becoming increasingly paranoid, and that summer he returned to live with his parents. It would be a fatal choice.

The world was left stunned on 1 April 1984 when the news came out that Marvin Gaye had been shot dead by his own father. He was only 44. Years of bad blood had come to a head and ended in the worst possible way. Marvin had intervened in an argument between his mother and father, and Marvin Gaye Sr shot his own son twice. He was initially charged with murder but his sentence was reduced to voluntary manslaughter when it was discovered he had, of all things, a brain tumour. He died in a nursing home in 1998.

It’s likely my first exposure to I Heard It Through the Grapevine was in 1985, when Gaye’s version was copied and used in a Levi’s advert. One of the most famous commercials of the decade, it made Nick Kamen, the man who strips down to his boxers, into a star. It also propelled Gaye to number eight in the singles chart. Carling Black Label spoofed the ad the following year, which starred Steve Frost and Mark Arden.

Gaye’s life reads like the script of a Hollywood blockbuster, without the fairytale ending. But scrape away all the personal problems and you’re left with that versatile, beautiful voice. He was soul music.

Written by: Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong

Producer: Norman Whitfield

Weeks at number 1: 3 (26 March-15 April)

Births:

Sporting executive Karren Brady – 4 April

248. Cliff Richard – Congratulations (1968)

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Well well well, if it isn’t comeback Cliff. It had been three years since Cliff Richard’s last number 1, the tepid The Minute You’re Gone. Once Britain’s answer to Elvis Presley, he had been considered an actual danger to the country’s youth when Move It became the first rock’n’roll hit by a Brit. Around the time of his last bestseller he had been struggling with the fact he was now a practising Christian. He relented from quitting music to become a teacher, and was working out a way of being a pop star and spreading the word of the Lord.

Fortunately, he still had a loyal fanbase, who stuck with him through Beatlemania and the hippy movement. Richard was still scoring top ten hits and narrowly missed out on the Christmas number 1 in 1965 to Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out (see Every Christmas Number 2). In 1966 he had a top ten hit with Visions, and another two with the Shadows (Time Drags By, and In the Country, which is in fact ace). In 1967 he had a further three with It’s All Over, The Day I Met Marie and All My Love (Solo Tu).

Despite worries it would ruin her credibility, Sandie Shaw had become the first UK winner of Eurovision that year with Puppet on a String, and it had revistalised her career. Cliff and/or his management must have taken note, and perhaps feeling he had no ‘cool’ image left to ruin, repeating Shaw’s feat could help Richard solidify his new Christian family entertainer stylings. And so he appeared on The Cilla Black Show performing six songs that the public would then vote on, with Cliff performing the winner at the event in the Royal Albert Hall on 6 April. Like Shaw the year previous, he wasn’t best pleased with the nominated song.

Congratulations was written by Bill Martin and Phil Coulter, the duo behind Puppet on a String. Coulter presented Martin with a melody and song title, I Think I Love You. Nice tune, but Martin argued that you either loved someone or you didn’t. He looked for a five-syllable word for a new title, and there and then created a song that would be used to, well, celebrate stuff for years to come.

The ubiquitous Congratulations has been derided over the years, but praise Cliff’s Lord, it’s better than the incessantly crazed Puppet on a String. Not only that, it’s the singer’s best number 1 since he and the Shadows released Summer Holiday in 1963, shortly before the Beatles changed everything. The lyrics may be on the smug side, but nobody actually remembers anything but the song’s title, and Martin and Coulter really struck gold there, creating a memorable chorus with a theme that everyone can relate to. The oompah slow down just before the end is a bit lazy and clearly designed to appeal to European audiences, and like many pop standards, I’d be happy to never hear it again, but I can’t help but like it at the same time. Incidentally, that’s future Led Zeppelin member John Paul Jones you can hear on bass guitar.

Such was Congratulations‘ potential, the British press got fully behind Cliff, and even ran articles asking which country would come second to it at Eurovision. As you can see in the clip above, he performed on the day with gusto, beaming away and doing some unusual strutting while dressed in the outfit that inspired Mike Myers in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). It looked certain to be two years in a row for the United Kingdom, but then Germany had the penultimate vote, and perhaps in revenge for the World Cup final two years before, they gave Spain six points. Congratulations lost out by one measly point to Massiel’s spectacularly named La, La, La.

Cliff Richard had the last laugh. La, La, La has long since been forgotten (understandable, considering the title) but Congratulations was a hit all around the continent, and became the pop star’s ninth chart-topper. It remains one of his most popular songs, and he often pulls it out of the bag for big occasions, such as outside Buckingham Palace after the Royal Wedding in 1981, and at Southampton Docks the following year when British troops returned victorious after the Falklands war, which is pretty poor taste really. It must have been pretty satisfying to knock the Beatles off their lofty perch for a change, too.

But did Cliff really lose Eurovision? In 2008 a documentary was released by Spanish filmmaker Montse Fernandez Vila that claimed Congratulations was the real winner, and there had been foul play from Francoist Spain. Richard made a meal of this in the press, saying he really wasn’t bothered as his song was better and more famous anyway, but maybe there should be a proper investigation, you know, just in case. Nothing ever came of it.

And so we say goodbye to Cliff Richard once more, as it would be another 11 years before he ruled the singles chart again. He may not have eclipsed Elvis or the Beatles, but he would outlast both. The music world would change several times over before we get round to August 1979 and We Don’t Talk Anymore.

While Congratulations held court at the top of the charts, opinion polls revealed on 11 April showed the problems with the pound had caused a dramatic slump in Labour’s popularity, with Edward Heath’s Conservatives racing ahead with more than 20 points difference. It wasn’t all plain sailing for the Tories though, as 20 April was the date of Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech on immigration. His harsh rhetoric, full of foreboding on the dangers of immigration, was latched onto by racists and the Far Right. He was dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet a day later. Powell had been a popular figure in the Party, and remained so, but many believe his career suffered as a result of his speech, despite the fact many polls at the time suggested the public agreed with him. Years later, Labour’s left-wing leader in the 1980s, Michael Foot, expressed sympathy for Powell, suggesting it was ‘tragic’ that such a colourful figure had been somewhat misconstrued due to his colourful quote (pardon the pun).

Also in the news… 23 April saw the introduction of the new five and 10 pence coins in the run-up to Decimalisation.

Written by: Bill Martin & Phil Coulter

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 2 (10-23 April)

Births:

Actress Amanda Mealing – 22 April 
Actor Ricky Groves – 23 April

 

237. Engelbert Humperdinck – The Last Waltz (1967)

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September 1967, and the Summer of Love was over. This was certainly reflected by the number 1 single for most of the month. But first, a look at the news at the time…

On 6 September, the UK’s first supertanker Myrina was launched in Belfast. It was the largest ever ship built in the country at that point. Three days later, former Prime Minister Clement Attlee MP was hospitalised with a ‘minor condition’. It turned out to be more serious than that. Attlee died of pneumonia on 8 October, aged 84. Presiding over the most radical government of the 20th century, his legacy is among other things, the welfare state and the NHS. A true legend. 20 September saw the launch of RMS Queen Elizabeth II, better known as the QE2.

In the worlds of television and radio, surreal cult TV series The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan was broadcast on ITV for the first time on 29 September. The following day, in the wake of the banning of pirate radio stations, the BBC overhauled its radio programming. The Light Programme was split between Radio 1 and Radio 2, the Third Programme became Radio 3, and the Home Service was now Radio 4. Radio 1 was modelled on the pirate station Radio London, and wisely deciding it needed to be hip, picked Flowers in the Rain by the Move as the first ever track to play. Had it used the number 1 at the time, it might not have been seen as rather square.

Engelbert Humperdinck was back, pop pickers. The mighty Release Me had been the year’s biggest seller and held even the Beatles at bay, but his follow-up There Goes My Everything couldn’t topple Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale. And so Humperdinck, songwriters Barry Mason and Les Reed, and all the straights who wanted revenge on these drug-taking hippies teamed up to end this run of psychedelic anthems at number 1. Or something like that.

And what dastardly results they conjured up. The Last Waltz was number 1 for five long weeks, and suddenly we’re back in the world of light entertainment ballads that could have been written years previous.

But the problem with The Last Waltz is the singer, not the song. It’s got a nice, Bacharach & David-style piano led tune to begin with. It’s Humperdinck that ruins it, and its made me realise I perhaps went a little easy on him when I reviewed Release Me. Humperdinck is right to bristle at the idea of being called a crooner – he certainly has a hell of a set of lungs on him – but what use are they if you’re going to ignore the emotion of the material and sing every song the same way?

The Last Waltz is a man recalling the day he met an ex-lover, who he danced with at the end of the night. Then it jumps (such a big jump it doesn’t create much of a dramatic effect) to their final waltz together. He sounds exactly the same throughout. And then, to top it all off, he starts a jolly little ‘la la la la la…’ over the melody. Doesn’t exactly create the impression Humperdinck gives a toss about her, to my ears. I’m not saying he needs to be wailing in sheer agony, but it takes more than a great voice to impress me.

Clearly though, in a world that was rapidly changing,  the majority of record buyers were ready for the safety net of some easy listening once more. Humperdinck was the pop star of 1967, ratcheting up 11 weeks as top of the pops. 1968 was another great year, with A Man Without Love and Les Bicyclettes de Belsize in the top ten, as did Winter World of Love in 1969.

As the 1970s progressed the singles slowly began to chart lower and lower. However his albums still did well, and in 1972 he presented the BBC One variety show Engelbert with The Young Generation, featuring the Goodies as regular guests. With the advent of disco, Humperdinck proved very popular in the US by adopting the ‘Philadelphia Sound’ and would perform his stage show on Broadway.

The 80s saw Humperdinck spend most of his time in the US, either performing in Las Vegas or making cameos on cheesy TV shows such as The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Album releases continued and he became involved with lots of charities including the Leukemia Research Fund, the American Red Cross and various AIDS relief charities. So say what you like about his music, but at least he has a heart.

He also proved he had a sense of humour in the 90s. During the lounge revival he sang Lesbian Seagull on the excellent Beavis & Butt-head Do America in 1996. His career has continued into the 21st century, with a greatest hits compilation, Engelbert at His Very Best reaching the top five in 2000. He was nominated for a Grammy in 2003 for his gospel album Always Hear the Harmony: The Gospel Sessions. To mark 40 years since Release Me and The Last Waltz he released an album of songs by British composers called The Winding Road in 2007. He missed out on appearing on the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach, released in 2010 when his management declined on his behalf without him ever hearing what Damon Albarn had in mind. He was said to be gutted by this and would like to work with them one day. Would make for an interesting listen.

In 2012 Humperdinck found himself representing the United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, Azerbaijan. Unfortunately the appeal of a big-name star held no sway and Love Will Set You Free was voted second to last. But Humperdinck carried on regardless and released a double CD of big-name duets in 2014. Engelbert Calling featured Cliff Richard, Smokey Robinson, Elton John and Il Divo. His 50th anniversary of becoming a star was marked with another best of, and a new album. 2017’s The Man I Want to Be featured covers of tracks by contemporary stars Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars.

Now aged 82, Gerry Dorsey, aka Engelbert Humperdinck, shows no signs of slowing down. Back in the mid-90s, a friend and I wrote a sitcom. Called Life’s a Drag, it was our attempt at an ever weirder version of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. The main character, played by Rodney Bewes, was to be a tired, daydreaming middle-aged man working for a cigarette company (get it?). His boss was to be played by Tom Baker, and Bill Oddie would be a wise old tramp living in his back garden. His son was to be called Engelbert, as his wife would have been a Humperdinck obsessive. One day Bewes was starring in a play in our town, so once it was over we marched into the theatre to present Bewes with our script. He stared at us, totally baffled, and needless to say, we never heard back.

Written by: Barry Mason & Les Reed

Producer: Peter Sullivan

Weeks at number 1: 5 (6 September-10 October)

Births:

Actor Toby Jones – 7 September
Actress Tara FitzGerald – 18 September
Lexicographer Susie Dent – 21 September
Businesswoman Denise Coates – 26 September
Actor Guy Pearce – 5 October

Deaths:

Physicist John Cockroft – 18 September 
Conductor Malcolm Sargent – 3 October
Politician Norman Angell – 7 October
Prime Minister Clement Attlee – 8 October
Chemist Cyril Norman Hinshelwood – 9 October

232. Sandie Shaw – Puppet on a String (1967)

sandie-shawMay 1967 was exceptionally wet with frequent thunderstorms. On the second day of the month, Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that the UK would be applying for EEC membership. On the sixth, Manchester United won the Football League First Division title. Five days later, the UK and Republic of Ireland officially applied for the EEC.

The month before, the UK became the first winners of the Eurovision Song Contest with an English language track. Sandie Shaw, a former number 1 artist twice with (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me in 1964 and Long Live Love in 1965, was victorious in Vienna, Austria with Puppet on a String.

Since Long Live Love the hits had continued for Shaw for a time, including Message Understood and Tomorrow, but steadily the sales numbers began to drop and by 1967 she was only scraping into the top 40.

A large factor in this may have been the fact she was involved in a divorce scandal. She had been involved in an affair with Douglas Murdoch, a TV executive on Ready, Steady, Go! Her management decided a move into cabaret, to present a more family-friendly image, may save her. Shaw disagreed and thought it would destroy all her credibility, but she still found herself performing five songs on The Rolf Harris Show, which the public would then vote on to choose the track she would perform in Vienna.

To her horror, Puppet on a String was a runaway success. It nearly didn’t happen though, as the BBC were horrifed by the sex scandal (the judge called her a ‘spoiled child’) and were ready to drop her right up until the day before the show.The barefooted performer, in her 1991 autobiography The World at my Feet (clever title), she said, ‘I hated it from the very first oompah to the final bang on the big bass drum. I was instinctively repelled by its sexist drivel and cuckoo-clock tune.’

 

Shaw has it spot on. What a painful listen. The oompah element is bad enough, but is at a manic speed that makes her wailing sound like a needy woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It’s sadly ironic she ended up singing such pathetic lyrics, as she was clearly a strong woman, which was probably sadly unusual in the pop world at the time. The song’s protaganist is likely being used and seems okay with that, despite the ups and downs.

It’s bad enough being subjected to it once. Now, imagine you’re Shaw, a once-respectable star, reduced over the years to performing it over and over. It could send anyone insane. The fact the song will have reminded her of a tough time in her personal life will have only made her hate Puppet on a String all the more.

However, her management were wise to enter the song in Eurovision, as this is precisely the kind of crap its audience lapped up back then, and she was popular in the continent. It won by a huge margin, made her the first female artist to have three number 1s, and was the biggest selling single of the year in Germany. It’s also believed to be the biggest-selling Eurovision song of all time, and potentially the biggest-selling single by a British female singer ever. Let that sink in for a moment.

Her career revitalised, the Dagenham singer was a sensation once more. In 1968 she began her own fashion label and the BBC soon forgot their issues with her, giving her a TV series, The Sandie Shaw Supplement. Her last hit single was Monsieur Dupont in 1969, which reached number six. Also that year she released an album of covers of the hip rock stars of the time. Reviewing the Situation featured her version of Led Zeppelin’s Your Time Is Gonna Come, and ended with a decent version of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. The decade came to a close with her single Heaven Knows I’m Missing Him Now – the inspiration for the Smiths’ Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now in 1984.

When her contract with Pye Records ran out in 1972 she chose to retire from music. She had branched out into acting and writing children’s books, but eventually found herself working as a waitress in a London restaurant. She released two singles in 1977 and the following year became a Buddhist, which she still is. She also divorced her first husband, fashion designer Jeff Banks in 1978.

In 1982 she married Nik Powell, co-founder of the Virgin Group with Richard Branson, and she was introudced to the new wave of pop stars, working with BEF (later to become Heaven 17) and duetting with Chrissie Hynde at a Pretenders concert. Her first album in years, Choose Life, was released in 1983.

Later that year she received a letter from ‘two incurable Sandie Shaw fans’. Morrissey and Johnny Marr, singer and guitarist in indie darlings and 60s-pop-star-worshippers the Smiths, told her that, ‘the Sandie Shaw legend isn’t over yet. There is more to be done.’ Powell knew Geoff Travis, owner of the Smiths’ label Rough Trade, and soon she was recording her version of their debut single Hand in Glove. Morrissey was obsessed with the fact their first release hadn’t been a hit, and hoped Shaw would rectify this. Although it only reached number 27, she was back on Top of the Pops, miming with Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce backing her. Two years later she was touring universities with a backing band made up of members of new wave group JoBoxers.

Her life took another turn in the 90s, when she divorced again and met third husband Tony Bedford. She trained to be a psychotherapist and together in 1997 they opened the Arts Clinic with the aim of providing help for those in creative industries. She also battled for control of her archive recordings and made new versions of her 60s and 80s recordings.In the 00s Shaw seems to have come to terms with Puppet on a String, announcing she was proud of her Eurovision past. To celebrate her 60th birthday in 2007 she released a remake, Puppet’s Got a Brand New String, produced by 80s pop star Howard Jones. She wisely ditched the oompah stylings of the original, though.

In 2010 she recorded the theme to the comedy film Made in Dagenham, which dramatised the Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968. Shaw had actually worked there before she was famous. Lyrics came from left-wing singer-songwriter Billy Bragg.

Sandie Shaw was made an MBE in 2017. Now 71, she is well respected as a key figure of the 60s pop scene and a formidable personality who refused to tow the line in a male-dominated industry. We can easily forgive her for Puppet on a String.

Written by: Bill Martin & Phil Coulter

Producer: Ken Woodman

Weeks at number 1: 3 (27 April-17 May) 

Births:

Footballer David Rocastle – 2 May
Journalist Jon Ronson – 10 May

Deaths:

Poet John Masefield – 12 May 

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 

 

196. Sandie Shaw – Long Live Love (1965)

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After Sandie Shaw rocketed to number 1 with (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me in September 1964, the hits kept coming, and she became a regular on the three big music programmes of all the time – Top of the Pops, Ready, Steady, Go! and Thank Your Lucky Stars. Girl Don’t Come reached number three that December and I’ll Stop at Nothing number four in February 1965. As mentioned in my blog for It’s Not Unusual, Shaw was offered that track, but after hearing the demo by Tom Jones, she astutely said he should record it himself.

Another reason Shaw declined was that she preferred Long Live Love, which had been written by Chris Andrews. He was a singer-songwriter who had been performing since 1959 and written several hits for Adam Faith. He was responsible for Girl Don’t Come, which was originally planned as a B-side but became so popular it became promoted. Andrews became a big brother figure for Shaw, and he also produced Long Live Love.

Shaw’s second track proved very popular, staying at the top for three weeks and the first instance in nine years that a female solo artist has usurped another (last time, Anne Shelton toppled Doris Day in 1956). However, it’s rather irritating, and not a patch on her first number 1. I find it smug, saccharine and lazy. Shaw meets her guy at eight, gets home late, and says to herself ‘Long long live love’. Well, that’s just great, but I found it more interesting when she was haunted by the man who broke her heart, personally. Weirdly, by the end of the song the brass is aping It’s Not Unusual, but it can’t compete with that song either.

Long Live Love performed well in Canada and Australia, but once again failed to give her a look-in in the US. Shaw was canny in recording foreign language versions of her hits, and Long Live Love became Pourvu Que Ça Dure in France, Du weißt nichts von deinem Glück in Germany, Viva l’amore con te in Italy and ¡Viva el amor! in Spain.

Andrews would have success under his own name a few months later when Yesterday Man reached number three that Sepetember and hit number 1 in Germany. To Whom It Concerns also did well for him, and became the theme tune for RTÉ’s long-running The Late Late Show.

Olivia Newton-John performed a track called Long Live Love for the UK in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, reaching number four. The two songs were not the same, but there is a strange link, as Shaw got to number 1 one last time with the UK’s first Eurovision Song Contest winner, Puppet on a String in 1967. Actor Nick Berry released a version of Andrews’ Long Live Love in 1992 as his follow-up to the theme from his police drama Heartbeat. It bombed.

Written & produced by: Chris Andrews

Weeks at number 1: 3 (27 May-16 June)

Births:

Style Council drummer Steve White – 31 May 

Deaths:

Children’s author Eleanor Farjeon – 5 June
Politician Cecil L’Estrange Malone – 8 June