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 a seismic event in music, it would be wrong to think that from then on, the UK number 1s were constantly rock’n’roll numbers. Teenagers, as they had recently been named, still only represented a portion of the record-buying market. There were still a lot of older folk who were more than happy with the status quo, who liked  nice crooners singing something warm and cosy, and especially with the dark nights drawing in, etc.

Smooth singer Dickie Valentine had enjoyed a very successful year, with his collaboration with The Stargazers, Finger of Suspicion, topping the charts back in January, followed by three top 10 hits. He then topped and tailed 1955’s singles chart by cottoning on to an idea that would serve artists well for years to come – if you want a number 1 at Christmas time, why not do a song about Christmas time?

Christmas Alphabet had been written by Buddy Kaye and Jules Loman the previous year, and was performed by US singing trio The McGuire Sisters. Kaye liked his alphabet songs – he’d written ‘A’ You’re Adorable (The Alphabet Song) back in 1949 for Perry Como, although these days it’s probably best known as featuring in Angela Rippon’s guest spot on Morecambe & Wise’s Christmas special in 1976. Valentine’s version of Christmas Alphabet became the more famous version, and the oldies won out, knocking Haley from his lofty perch and making it the first explicitly-festive Christmas number 1.

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

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

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

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

You could say the same about Valentine himself. Despite being adored at the time (he won New Musical Express’s best male vocalist category from 1953-57), he’s been largely forgotten.

His popularity waned in the next decade, despite two TV series (one with Peter Sellers) and he met a tragic end on 6 May 1971. Aged only 41, he was driving to a gig in Wales with bandmates at over 90mph in the early hours of the morning, when he lost control of the vehicle on a bend, killing the three of them.

Written by: Buddy Kaye & Jules Loman

Producer: Dick Rowe

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

Births:

Poet Carol Ann Duffy – 23 December

Meanwhile…

20 December: Cardiff becomes the official capital of Wales.

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

4 January: As 1956 began, it became apparent that the Prime Minister Anthony Eden had plunged in the polls, which seemed surprising following the Conservatives’ solid victory in the election the previous year. Whether Labour had received a bounce off the back of electing their new leader, Hugh Gaitskell, remained to be seen.

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 1, 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 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. With this and This Ole House, that’s two good number 1s in a row from Clooney.

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 though, with two variety series in the US in 1956-57. She would often appear with Bing Crosby on TV too.

Clooney would struggle throughout her life, suffering several nervous breakdowns, depression, prescription drug addiction, two divorces to actor José Ferrer and money problems.

Unlike many stars from her era, she continued to record and act through the decades. In 1995 she appeared alongside her nephew George in US drama hit ER, which earned her an Emmy nomination.

Clooney was a long-time smoker though, and despite surgery to remove lung cancer, she died on 29 June 2002, aged 74.

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

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

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

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

Written by: Paul Mann & Al Lewis

Producer: Dick Rowe

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

Births:

Presenter Kirsty Wark – 3 February

Deaths:

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

Meanwhile…

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

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