209. The Overlanders – Michelle (1966)

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On 30 January Palitoy first launched their Action Man figures. The UK version of Hasbro’s GI Joe, created in 1964, went on to delight children (and some adults) for decades to come. The following day, Britain officially ceased all trade with Rhodesia.

That week also saw folk-pop quartet the Overlanders begin a three-week stint at the top with their version of the Beatles’ Michelle. Originally a trio, they formed in the early 1960s and consisted of Paul Arnold on piano and guitar, Laurie Mason on piano and harmonica and Peter Bartholomew on guitar, with all three providing vocals. Originally their repertoire derived mainly from American folk tunes. The Overlanders signed to Pye Records and Tony Hatch became their producer. That July they released their self-penned debut single Summer Skies and Golden Sands to little fanfare. Third single, a cover of Chad & Jeremy’s Yesterday’s Gone briefly entered the Billboard chart during the British Invasion in 1964. After that, every release was a failure, so the Overlanders decided to beef up their sound, adding Terry Widlake on bass and David Walsh on drums during 1965. As that year came to a close, the Beatles released their sixth album Rubber Soul, and among the most popular tracks was Paul McCartney’s folk-flecked Michelle.

This song originated as a joke from years earlier. McCartney had been to a party of art students, one of whom was a French bohemian who entertained the guests with songs. Paul wrote the tune to Michelle as a spoof of that night, with comedy-French-style groaning in lieu of any lyrics. While making Rubber Soul the Beatles were considering comic songs as a potential new direction, and John Lennon suggested McCartney put some proper lyrics to his party piece.

McCartney turned to Jan Vaughan, French teacher and the wife of Ivan Vaughan, his former bandmate in the Quarrymen. It was she that came up with ‘Michelle, ma belle’, and a few days later he asked her for a French translation of ‘these are words that go together well’ . McCartney then took Michelle to Lennon, who completed the song with the ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ bridge.

Such was the strength of the Lennon and McCartney catalogue, their album tracks were often released as singles by other artists, knowing that covering Beatles originals gave them a very good chance of scoring a hit. Although released as a single in some countries, the Beatles chose not to do so in the UK or US. At the same time as the Overlanders decided to give it a go, George Martin produced a version by David and Jonathan. However, apparently the Beatles gave their blessing to the Overlanders version, because their label Pye had agreed to Brian Epstein’s request not to release a single by Lennon’s estranged father Alfred. The Overlanders won the UK chart battle, although David and Jonathan hit number 1 in Canada.

Despite being one of the Beatles’ better-known album tracks, I’m not that big a fan. Apart from the catchy chorus, it’s a bit smarmy, fairly throwaway and should have remained a joke between the group. And the Overlanders version is worse, sounding smarmier. Beefing up the production makes the song worse, losing the fragility of George Harrison’s guitar solo (which was George Martin’s idea). Were this not a Beatles song, I’m not sure the Overlanders would have become the one-hit wonders they were.

Upon the release of their version, Paul Russell left the Overlanders to be replaced by Alan Warran. In 1967 Paul Arnold left the group to go solo and he was replaced by Ian Griffiths, and Terry Widlake left in 1968 to be replaced by Mike Wedgwood. These changes were a sure sign they couldn’t last, and soon the group was no more, sounding decidedly out-of-date by this point. Arnold formed the New Overlanders in the 70s.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: Tony Hatch

Weeks at number 1: 3 (27 January-16 February)

Births:

Footballer Keith Dublin – 29 January
Singer Rick Astley – 6 February
Journalist Sarah Montague – 8 February 

Deaths:

Barrister Ronald Armstrong – Jones 27 January 

188. The Seekers – I’ll Never Find Another You (1965)

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As winter turned to spring in 1965, one of the biggest-selling singles of the year came from Australian pop and folk quartet the Seekers, who were the first act from that country to have success in the UK and US with I’ll Never Find Another You.

The Seekers had formed in Melbourne in 1962 as the Escorts. they consisted of Athol Guy on double bass, Keith Potger on 12-string guitar, Bruce Woodley on guitar and Ken Ray on vocals. After changing their name to the Seekers, Ray left the group when he got married. He was replaced by Judith Durham, a traditional jazz singer whose strong vocals made the quartet stand out from the crowd. Gathering a following in Melbourne, the Seekers signed a recording deal with W&G Records. Their debut album, Introducing the Seekers, was released in 1963, and their first single was a version of Waltzing Matilda.

The group were offered a 12-month stint as entertainers on a cruise ship in March 1964. In May they visited the UK, and intended to stay for ten weeks before returning to their homeland, but media mogul Lew Grade’s Grade Organisation offered them work. They signed a new contract with World Record Club and became regulars on the entertainment series Call in on Carroll.

Fortune favoured the Seekers when they appeared on a bill headlined by a singer who went by the name Dusty Springfield. Dusty had been part of a pop and folk trio called the Springfields with her brother Tom and Tim Fielld (who was replaced by Mike Hurst). The Springfields had been doing well in the UK and the US in the early 1960s, but Dusty was keen to break free of the folk sound and chose to go it alone. Tom (whose real name is Dionysius P. A. O’Brien!) was keen to continue writing material in ther same vein, and after meeting the Seekers at the gig he became their writer and producer. Among his first songs was I’ll Never Find Another You.

Following several number 1s chronicling relationship issues or break-ups while the nation mourned the loss of Sir Winston Churchill, it seems the UK were ready for a good old-fashioned pop song.  It has a lovely opening courtesy of Potger’s guitar, but then you hear the reference to the ‘promised land’ in the first verse and wonder if we’re in ‘happy clappy’ territory. It’s very likely that the ‘you’ in the song’s title is God or Jesus rather than a lover, and that this is in fact a song of faith, but once you get past that, it’s not bad really, and Durham’s tough, forthright voice is a nice counterpoint to the sweet backing harmonies. It’s unlikely I’d ever listen again, though.

Written & produced by: Tom Springfield

Weeks at number 1: 5 (25 February-10 March)

Births:

Actress Alison Armitage – 26 February
Wrestler Norman Smiley – 28 February
Filmmaker Paul WS Anderson – 4 March
Radio DJ Andrew Collins – 4 March

127. The Highwaymen – Michael (1961)

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One of the more unexpected number 1s (at least, to modern ears) of 1961 was the result of the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 60s. Acts such as the Kingston Trio offered a clean-cut, collegiate take on historical folk songs and presented them to mainstream audiences, and for a time, did very well. One such group were the Highwaymen, who went all the way to number 1 in the UK, UK and Germany with Michael, their version of the African-American spiritual, Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.

Michael, Row the Boat Ashore was first recognised during the American Civil War at St Helena Island, one of South Carolina’s Sea Islands. It was sang by former slaves, known as freedmen, whose owners abandoned the island when the Union navy came to enforce a blockade. Abolitionist Charles Pickard Ware had come to supervise plantations on St Helena Island in 1862, and it was he that first wrote the song down in music notation.  It was first published in the influential collection Slave Songs of the United States in 1867, by Ware, his cousin William Francis Allen and Lucy McKim Garrison. According to Allen, the song refers to the River Jordan and the Archangel Michael, who is often referred to as a psychopomp. A psychopomp is an entity whose job it is to guide newly deceased souls to the afterlife. The lyrics have changed many times over the years, but the most widely known version today came from Tony Saletan, who taught it to folk legend Pete Seeger in 1954, who in turn taught it to the Weavers. The success of this influential quartet, based in Greenwich City, was largely responsible for the folk revival.

The Highwaymen were first formed at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. The five-piece consisted of lead singer and arranger Dave Fisher, who had sang in a doo-wop group at high school, plus Bob Burnett, Steve Butts, Chan Daniels and Steve Trott. I’m not sure the decision on the group’s name was a wise move, because pictures of the freshman quintet suggest the least scary bunch of highwaymen you’d ever be likely to meet.

These Highwaymen do produce a rather sweet, homely sound, though. Beginning and ending with a lonesome whistle from banjo player Butts, it’s a polite, faithful rendition, with some nice harmonising, as well as solo spots for each singer. Some voices pull these bits off better than others, though. I suspect some people who sent this to number 1 may not have been aware of the song’s origins, and may have just bought it because it sounded religious and has a memorable tune. Mandolin player and guitarist Trott, who later became a federal appeals court judge, believed the success of their version came down to the fact that Fisher had added some minor chords that weren’t in the song before.

Other versions of Michael were also around at the time, with Lonnie Donegan reaching number 6, also in 1961, and Harry Belafonte in 1962, but it was the Highwaymen’s cover that sold millions. They followed it up with a cover of Lead Belly’s Cotton Fields, which also performed well. However, most of the group wanted to continue to pursue academic achievements. Trott was the first to depart in 1962, and was replaced by Gil Robbins, the father of actor Tim Robbins. That line-up split in 1964, with only Fisher continuing with music and putting together a new version of the group, before moving to Hollywood to compose and arrange for film and television. The original line-up, minus Daniels, who had died of pneumonia in 1975, reunited in 1987 to celebrate their 25th college reunion. In 1990 they threatened legal action against the country music supergroup of  Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, who were also calling themselves the Highwaymen. The suit was dropped when wily old Nelson offered them a slot on stage as a warm-up act. The group disbanded for good when Fisher died of bone marrow disease in 2010, aged 69. Burnett died a year later, leaving only Trott and Butts as the only surviving members. The team behind This is Spinal Tap (1982) made an affectionate spoof of the collegiate folk scene in 2004. A Mighty Wind is well worth a watch.

Written by: Traditional

Producer: Dave Fisher

Weeks at number 1: 1 (12-18 October)

115. Elvis Presley – Wooden Heart (1961)

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It came as no surprise that the best-selling single of 1961 was by Elvis Presley. However, I would have hoped it would be one of his better tracks, something of similar quality to Are You Lonesome Tonight?. As history has proven time and time again in the charts though, it’s that some artists can release any old tat, and that often, there’s no accounting for taste when it comes to the number 1 single. Here is a prime example. Wooden Heart is probably Elvis’ recording nadir, and yet it stayed at the top for a ridiculous six weeks.

The song was based on the German folk song Muss i denn by Friedrich Silcher. It’s possible that, as with It’s Now Or Never, Elvis heard the original while based in West Germany and fancied recording it, but if so, he never admitted to it. This is understandable. It took four people to adapt this song, and the guilty party are Elvis soundtrack collaborators Fred Wise, Ben Wiseman and Kay Twomey, along with German bandleader Bert Kaempfert. A year later, Kaempfert hired the Beatles to back Tony Sheridan on his album, My Bonnie, released in 1962.

It featured in his new movie, GI Blues, in which he played the magnificently-named Tulsa McLean, a solider serving in West Germany who also has a music career. Wherever did they draw the inspiration for this particular plot? I haven’t seen the film, and definitely have no intention of doing so, but he sings Wooden Heart to a puppet. Let that sink in for a minute. It would seem that Elvis’s transformation from dangerous heart-throb to family entertainer was complete.

Is there anything good to say about Wooden Heart? I suppose you could argue it was a brave decision for Presley to turn his hand to something so different from his standard fare. And, annoyingly, it is rather catchy. But so catchy it deserved to be number 1 for six weeks? No. The lyrics are trite, too, and half way through, Elvis starts singing the words to Muss i den, then a translation of the new lyrics at the end. Maybe this was his weird way of paying tribute to the country he lived in for two years? I really don’t know.

Wooden Heart didn’t even get released as a single in the US, so the people behind him may have known it might cause his reputation some damage. However, a cover by Joe Dowell later made it to number 1, so there’s the proof that US audiences were as bad as British. Eventually, Elvis’s version was sneaked out as the B-side to Blue Christmas in 1964.

Tottenham Hotspur won the Football League First Division title for the second time during the reign of Wooden Heart, defeating Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 on 17 April. They have failed to win it since. On 27 April, Sierra Leone became the latest country to gain independence from the UK – perhaps they discovered we had picked Wooden Heart as the best single available? 1 May saw betting shops become legal under the terms of the Betting and Gaming Act 1960, and 19 people died in a fire at the Top Storey Club, a nightclub in Bolton. This tragedy resulted in the swift passing of a new Licensing Act to improve fire safety.

Written by: Fred Wise, Ben Weisman, Kay Twomey & Bert Kaempfert 

Producer: Steve Sholes

Weeks at number 1: 6 (23 March-3 May) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Politician William Hague – 26 March
Rugby league player Ellery Hanley – 27 March
Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom – 29 March
Actor Robert Caryle – 14 April
Fashion designer Bella Freud – 17 April
Actor Nicholas Lyndhurst – 20 April
Chef Phil Vickery – 2 May

Deaths:

Artist Vanessa Bell – 7 April