261. Hugo Montenegro – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1968)

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On 18 November, a warehouse fire on James Watt Street in Glasgow kills 22 office workers in the offices of upholstery factory B Stern Ltd. Only four people in the building managed to escape.

26 November saw the Race Relations Act passed, which made it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services to people in Britain due to their ethnic background. And four days later the Trade Descriptions Act came into force, bringing an end (officially anyway) to shops and traders describing goods in a misleading way.

1968, particularly the first half, had seen some unusual number 1s. As the year drew to a close, things got weird again. Enjoying a full month at the pole position of the singles chart was American orchestra leader and soundtrack composer Hugo Montenegro, with his remake of the theme to Sergio Leone’s 1966 Spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

This film was the final part of Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, following A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, and starred Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name once more. Despite initial scepticism from the critics, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is now considered one of the greatest examples of the genre of all time. I have to confess I haven’t seen any of the trilogy. Westerns aren’t really my bag. But of course, I know the theme to this movie.

As with the other two parts of the trilogy, the score came from Italian composer Ennio Morricone. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (main title) was conducted by Bruno Nicolai. Simply put, it’s one of the most iconic pieces of film music ever, and features at the start of the movie. Largely in part to the theme, Morricone’s soundtrack album was a bestseller. But how did a remake become a number 1 single, two years after the film’s release, and who was Hugo Montenegro?

Montenegro had been born in New York City in September 1925. He served in the US Navy for two years, but was mostly arranging the Newport Naval Base band in Newport, Rhode Island. When World War 2 ended he studied composition at Manhattan College.

By the mid-50s he was directing, conducting and arranging orchestras for record labels, and he directed the Glen-Spice Orchestra on the first release by future pop star hearthrob Dion in 1957.

In the early 60s he found work with RCA Victor producing albums of cover versions of themes from films and TV series, including spy themes and westerns, which is what led to his version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It might sound quaint now, but these kind of albums were popular for decades. I can remember several in our family well into the 80s, featuring the themes of Superman, Star Wars, all the blockbusters of the time.

Montenegro’s version of Morricone’s classic was very similar to the classic original. It was recorded live in one day and featured, among others, Art Smith on ocarina, Art Morgan on harmonica, Elliot Fisher on electric violin, Manny Klein on piccolo trumpet and Muzzy Marcellino provided the whistling.

Despite the popularity of the soundtrack remake back then, it’s still an odd choice for a number 1 single. Having said that, you can’t deny the brilliance of the original, all that ominous forboding, the danger, the intrigue, wrapped up in a brilliant melody and sounding so unusual.

I realise I stated in my previous blog for With a Little Help from My Friends that if you’re going to make a cover, you need to make it different. And yet I enjoyed this facsimile. There’s very little difference, it’s just been made slightly more pop friendly, with light acoustic guitar and the danger slightly turned down. But it doesn’t sound tacky like many of these remakes used to do (ever heard anything from those Top of the Pops albums of the 70s?).

Montegro was understandably taken aback at the success of this single in the US and the UK. By making it to number 1 here it became the first instrumental to do so since Foot Tapper by the Shadows in 1963. It’s not strictly speaking an instrumental though – in this version, the random shouts you hear are actually members of the band shouting ‘HU-GO-MONT-EN-EGRO!’.

The composer continued to record remakes, and also composed original scores for films, including the Elvis Presley western Charro! in 1969. He’s also achieved a cult audience in recent years due to his albums that featured the Moog synthesiser, with the kitsch retro-space-age sounds proving influential on a new generation of musicians. On TV, he was famous for his TV themes for US sitcoms I Dream of Jeannie and The Partridge Family.

In the late 70s he was forced to put his career on hold due to his battle with severe emphysema. He died of the disease in February 1981.

Written by: Ennio Morricone

Producer: Hugh Montenegro

Weeks at number 1: 4 (13 November-10 December)

Births:

Footballer Barry Hunter – 18 November
Journalist Andrew Gilligan – 22 November

Deaths:

Writer Mervyn Peake – 17 November
Children’s writer – Enid Blyton – 28 November