‘Vera, Vera, what has become of you?’ So Roger Waters sang on Pink Floyd’s Vera from 1980 double album The Wall. It may well be partly because I love that album, but at some point I got it into my head that Dame Vera Lynn had died, a long time back. I was shocked upon researching this to find out she turned 100 on 20 March 2017. 100! Well done Vera.
What’s more, ‘the Forces Sweetheart’ achieved an incredible feat that year. She released the compilation Vera Lynn 100, making her the first centenarian performer to have an album in the charts. Amazing really, when you consider that she had three singles in the initial UK top 12 back in 1952 (which was actually a top 15 due to tied positions) – Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart, The Homing Waltz and Forget-Me-Not. The first of those three had also been the first single by a British performer to be number 1 in the US. And now I’m updating this in 2019, Lynn is the oldest living number 1 artist on these shores.
It had taken a long time for Britain to recover from World War Two, so it’s no wonder that Lynn was still in vogue in the mid-50s. However, rationing had just come to an end, so I’m sure this would have been symbolic of a need to finally move on from such traumatic times. Perhaps this is partly why My Son, My Son remains her only number 1 single, and the beginning of her decline in fame. It had been written by Gordon Melville Rees, Bob Howard and trumpeter Eddie Calvert, who had scored a number 1 with Oh Mein Papa back at the start of the year. But how did Vera Lynn become such a national treasure?
Born Vera Margaret Welch in East Ham, Essex on 20 March 1917, she was performing publicly by the age of seven, and it was four years later that she took her grandmother Margaret Lynn’s surname and became Vera Lynn. She made her first radio broadcast with The Joe Loss Orchestra in 1935 and began making her initial recordings with them, plus other big dance band names such as Charlie Kunz.
At the same time, she was recording as a solo artist. Her first release was Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire in 1936 and her first hit came a year later with The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot. But of course she is most famous for the 1939 recording We’ll Meet Again, the most memorable song of World War Two.
Her first solo live performance – by which time she had become the Forces Sweetheart – was 1940, the year of the Blitz. In 1941, Lynn began her own radio programme, Sincerely Yours, where she would perform soldiers’ requests and send messages to overseas troops. A year later came her second most well-known song, The White Cliffs of Dover.
She dedicated her career to the war effort, touring Egypt, India and Burma to lend moral support until Hitler was defeated in 1945. This of course also helped her become better known in other countries, and in 1952 her fame spread to the US. She went to number 1 there with Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart for nine weeks. And two years later came My Son My Son.
I feel bad slating this, but the fact she helped a nation keep sane in the war doesn’t make My Son, My Son any easier to enjoy now. Frank Lee’s production is overblown, with backing vocals from a male voice choir that hurt the ears. The lyrics tap into the spirit of songs like We’ll Meet Again by paying tribute to a mother’s son. You can picture a soldier’s mum singing it in-between sobbing over a letter from her brave boy fighting in another country. It seems trite in this day and age, and possibly to the younger generation back then, keen for something with some energy and spirit. Having said that, it was the all-too-typical-of-the-time Hold My Hand by Don Cornell that knocked Lynn off the top for a second run as bestseller.
My Son My Son was Lynn’s commercial peak, and her decline came soon after, like so many of her ilk, but in the 60s and 70s she had her own BBC variety series and would regularly guest on other shows, including The Royal Variety Performance and Morecambe and Wise’s 1972 Christmas special.
Lynn’s enduring popularity and link to the war effort meant she was a natural to use during anniversary celebrations, and her final performances marked VE Day’s 50th anniversary in 1995 by performing outside Buckingham Palace and later that evening in Hyde Park. A fitting end to a remarkable live career.
It says a lot about Lynn that the fact she had (an admittedly) poor number one is somewhat of an afterthought really during her long career. Who cares when you are known as the person that kept so many soldiers going during terrible times?
Written by: Gordon Melville Rees, Bob Howard & Eddie Calvert
Producer: Frank Lee
Weeks at number 1: 2 (5-18 November)
13 November: Great Britain defeated France at the Parc des Princes in Paris to win the first ever Rugby League World Cup final.