180. Sandie Shaw – (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me (1964)

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Sandie Shaw’s first and best chart-topper was yet another classic from Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Dionne Warwick had recorded a demo version in 1963, but it was soul singer Lou Johnson who first charted with it in the US during the summer of 1964. Sandie Shaw made the song her own, and the song helped make her one of the UK’s most famous female stars of the swinging 60s.

Sandie Shaw was born Sandra Ann Goodrich on 26 February 1947. She was raised in Dagenham, Essex and at the age of six would entertain her aunt with her rendition of Guy Mitchell’s She Wears Red Feathers.

Goodrich went to work at the local Ford Dagenham factory after leaving school, with some part-time modelling on the side. She came second in a talent show and got to perform at a charity concert in London. The young poster-to-be was spotted by Adam Faith, also on the bill, who had two number 1s under his belt – What Do You Want? (1959) and Poor Me (1960).

Afterwards Faith introduced her to his manager, Eve Taylor. She secured Goodrich, then only 17,  a recording contract with Pye Records in 1964, and came up with the name Sandie Shaw. Cheesy, but memorable, unlike Shaw’s debut single, As Long as You’re Happy Baby, which got her nowhere. Taylor went to America to look for a song to save Shaw, and heard Johnson’s version. Knowing she was on to a good thing, she quickly returned home, the single was recorded with Tony Hatch, no stranger to number 1s from female singers, and (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me was rush-released in September.

Shaw premiered the single on Ready, Steady, Go!, and her stunning looks, along with her unique barefooted performance, helped her chances no end. Of course, it’s a bloody good song too – vintage Bacharach and David, in which Shaw is unable to get her ex off her mind. You could argue that the production is far too light-hearted to put across any of the supposed misery this entails – In fact, you could argue that Shaw sounds perfectly happy to be reminded of her love – but far better to just enjoy the song for what it is – a prime piece of 60s pop. Her voice is unusual in the verses, almost French-like, yet very natural during the brilliant choruses, and a nice counterpoint to the raucousness of Lulu or Cilla Black’s foghorn wailing.

(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me climbed the charts slowly but surely, eventually knocking Roy Orbison’s Oh, Pretty Woman from its perch for three weeks, but then the Big O climbed to number 1 once more. But Shaw was now firmly established as a star, with further number 1s and a Eurovision win to come.

Written by: Burt Bacharach & Hal David

Producer: Tony Hatch

Weeks at number 1: 3 (22 October-11 November)

Births:

Actor Clive Owen – 3 October
Footballer Paul Stewart – 7 October

Deaths:

Illustrator Mabel Lucie Attwell – 5 November 

Meanwhile…

24 October: Northern Rhodesia became the independent Republic of Zambia, thus ending 73 years of British rule.

2 November: ITV broadcast its famously shoddy soap opera Crossroads for the first time. Its original run lasted until 1988.

9 November: The House of Commons voted to abolish the death penalty before the end of 1965.

98. Johnny Preston – Running Bear (1960)

This number 1 is one strange beast. Breaking an unusually lengthy spell of UK artists at the top (five months) was US rockabilly singer Johnny Preston with an un-PC novelty-teenage death song (these ‘death discs’ were becoming ever more popular) about the forbidden love of two Indians from warring tribes. Sounds interesting, yes?

Preston, of Cajun and German descent, had been born John Preston Courville on 18 August 1939. After entering singing contests in high school, he formed his first band, The Shades, who caught the eye of JP Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, of Chantilly Lace fame. In 1958 they went into the studio with future country legend George Jones and saxophonist Link Davis to record Richardson’s bizarre song, Running Bear.

Certainly one of the weirder number 1s to date, Running Bear begins with cheers before settling down into comedy stereotypical Indian ‘ocka chunka’ chanting from The Big Bopper and Jones, creating the rhythm of the verses, as Preston tells the tragic tale of the star-crossed lovers. It’s actually a good rhythm they create, but tacky and tasteless to modern ears.

The story is that Running Bear and Little White Dove love each other, but their two tribes hate each other, and as we all know, when two tribes go to war, one is all that you can score. Not only that, there’s a bloody big river separating them. This being the case, I’m not sure of the origins of their love, or how these tribes are managing to do battle, but hey, this isn’t a concept album, you can’t expect the full story I guess. As the verses shift into the chorus, Running Bear changes into your average rock’n’roll track, and the return to the verses afterwards sounds a bit clunky. Before you know it, they’ve decided to meet in the river, have a kiss and drown. And that’s it! I think it’s supposed to come across as romantic, but can’t help seeming a bit stupid. What a way to go.

You couldn’t get away with Running Bear now of course, but it’s not as offensive a number 1 as Guy Mitchell’s She Wears Red Feathers. It’s just outdated, and odd, all in all. The musicians seem to be having a good time, and some of that enthusiasm comes across, at least.

Of course, The Big Bopper died alongside Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in a plane on 3 February 1959, so he never got to see Running Bear become number 1 in the US and subsequently the UK. Due to Richardson’s death, the song got caught up in legal issues, causing its release to be delayed. Perhaps its posthumous release is the reason it did so well, although Richardson isn’t credited as the artist, so how many people would have been aware of the connection? Perhaps it’s just that cowboys and indians were still very popular, and teenage death songs were about to become big. Or maybe it’s just one of those many unsolved mysteries where it’s impossible to work out how a song made it to the top.

The rest of Johnny Preston’s life is fairly mysterious too. His follow-up single, Cradle of Love nearly repeated Running Bear’s success, hitting the top ten in the US and UK. Another release, the rocking Leave My Kitten Alone, was later covered by the Beatles, and is perhaps the best unreleased track of their early years, with Lennon in fine shouty voice. It eventually surfaced on Anthology 1 in 1995. Preston was entered into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and performed on the nostalgia circuit, but eventually retired. He died of heart failure on 4 March, 2011, aged 71.

I can’t imagine why anyone would cover this track, but when I discovered Tom Jones had recorded a funk version in 1973, I had to have a listen. And you know what, it’s actually pretty good! Take a look at this insane clip from a TV special, with crazy dancing and camerawork. Tom should have got his funk on more often.

Written by: JP Richardson

Producer: Bill Hall

Weeks at number 1: 2 (17-30 March)

Births:

Artist Grayson Perry – 24 March

Meanwhile…

26 March: The Grand National was televised for the first time, with Merryman II becoming winner.

28 March: Tragedy struck in Glasgow when a warehouse fire broke out on Cheapside Street. Over a million gallons of whiskey and rum burned out of control for hours. 19 fire-servicemen were killed, making the incident the worst fire services disaster in peacetime, up to that point.

Every 50s Number 1

The Intro

So, my first decade of number 1s is finished, 94 songs and seven months later. When I decided to review every UK number 1, I considered taking a random approach, but I decided starting right from the beginning would give me a wider knowledge of the progression of pop and pop culture in the UK. I did find the idea of kicking off with the 50s a potentially arduous task, however. Although there are exceptions, my interest in music tends to really start in 1963 with The Beatles’ first album, and I know I’m not alone in feeling like that. I feared starting with the 50s would put some readers off. Also, it’s the decade that’s as far out of my comfort zone as I’m going to get with this mammoth blog task I’ve set myself.

Except maybe it isn’t.

The older I get (38 currently), I feel I’m going to really struggle with the 2010s. Don’t understand the kids of today, cannot stand autotune, etc… Anyway, I find myself getting more out of the 50s far more than I initially expected. It’s still music I find myself respecting rather than enjoying, and there haven’t been many I’ll be downloading for future listens I have to confess, but it has been a fascinating journey, and I’m surprised at how much music changed from 1952 to 1959.

Before I finish with the decade and move on to the swinging 60s, I decided it would be nice to (kind-of) repeat the task I set myself in December. Back then I listened to every Christmas number 1 in order, in one session, and decided on a best and worst for each decade, before coming up with an overall best and worst. That blog seemed to generate a lot of interest, so I thought I’d do the same with the 50s. I decided against listening to all 94 songs in one go, that seemed a little bit much, so I decided to take it a year at a time.

1952/53

Where it all began. As Al Martino’s Here in My Heart was the only number 1 of 1952, I’ve lumped it in with 1953. It’s neither the best nor worst of what followed. In general, the record-buying public will still in thrall of string-laden love songs, often melancholy, overwrought ballads, with the emphasis on how well the singer could hold a note. Form over content. Not the kind of music that floats my boat, really. It was less than ten years since World War Two, and music fans still liked to wade through syrupy songs of missing loved ones abroad. In 1953’s defence, though, at least it had a healthy amount of female singers topping the charts. Once rock’n’roll takes hold, they largely disappeared bar a few exceptions. There’s some strange novelty songs in there that you wouldn’t think of as chart-toppers – see (How Much is) That Doggie in the Window? and the un-PC She Wears Red Feathers. Frankie Laine dominated that year.

The Best:

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Kay Starr – Comes A-Long A-Love: Only three tracks in and already there were elements of a rock’n’roll sound mixed in with jazz. This took me by surprise, and it was more than welcome. Kay Starr’s strong vocal mixed with a breezy tune had a vital element missing from other songs that year – fun.

The Worst:

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David Whitfield with Stanley Black & His Orchestra – Answer Me: This is the decade at its least appealing to me. It’s so leaden and dreary. Whitfield’s vocals are too affected and operatic. The Frankie Laine version was better, but not by much, as it’s a pretty poor song anyway.

1954

Generally more of the same, but of a higher standard. Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and even Vera Lynn all make appearances, but they’re not their finest works. Rosemary Clooney’s jolly old knees-up about death, This Ole House is one of the highlights. A couple of instrumentals make it big, one good (Winifred Atwell’s Let’s Have Another Party), one not so good (Eddie Calvert’s Oh Mein Papa)

The Best:

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Johnnie Ray – Such a Night: Mr Emotion was probably the revelation of the decade for me. Previously I only knew him for his namecheck in Come On Eileen, and that Morrissey used to wear hearing aid in tribute to him.  I referred to him as the ‘prototype eccentric rock’n’roll star’, and his three number 1s were all unique forerunners of the music that was to follow. This one in particular must have sounded pretty racy at the time, and contained the first hint of sex, one of pop’s key ingredients.

The Worst:

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The Stargazers with Syd Dean & His Orchestra –  I See the Moon: This is genuinely offensive to my ears. At the time it was considered a comedy song. Praise be that comedy has moved on from ‘funny’ voices. It’s the audio equivalent of Colin Hunt from The Fast Show. When I first heard this I said the Stargazers sounded pissed-up and tone deaf. Nothing has happened to change my mind. Six weeks at the top of the charts?!

1955

The year of mambo, and Bill Haley. Perez ‘Prez’ Prado rules the roost when it comes to the former, with his version of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White beating Eddie Calvert’s safer cover. Rosemary Clooney’s Mambo Italiano may not be the real deal but it’s a fun spoof. Tony Bennett makes his one and only appearance to date, and Slim Whitman’s haunting Rose Marie makes a big impact.

The Best:

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Bill Haley & His Comets – Rock Around the Clock: Tempting as it might be to go against the grain here and pick something less predictable, I can’t. Yes it must be nigh-on impossible to hear this and imagine the impact the decade’s best-seller made at the time, and it sounds safe now, but it’s still catchy as hell, and for me, it’s all about that guitar solo.

The Worst:

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Jimmy Young with Bob Sharples & His Music – Unchained Melody: Another one of the most famous songs of all time, but this is nowhere near as good as The Righteous Brothers version. It’s not even as good as Robson & Jerome’s. The blame doesn’t entirely lie with poor Jimmy Young, as the production is all over the place, but he really doesn’t help matters, lurching from barely trying to bellowing within seconds.

1956

Several strong singles this year, mainly Tennessee Ernie Ford’s tough ode to the working man, Sixteen Tons, and Johnnie Ray’s melancholic Christmas number 1, Just Walkin’ in the Rain, featuring an unforgettable whistling refrain. Elvis has arrived, but the UK has to make do with Pat Boone at the top instead with I’ll Be Home. Dean Martin makes his only appearance, and Doris Day returns with signature tune Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).

The Best:

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The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon – Why Do Fools Fall in Love: The first doo-wop song to make it to the top. The Teenagers one and only big hit was so influential on later soul and funk bands, and still sounds good to this day. Such a shame the band, and particularly Lymon, fell apart so soon.

The Worst:

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Anne Shelton with Wally Stott & His Orchestra – Lay Down Your Arms: Shudder. I disliked this song even more the second time around. I’m all for strong women, but Shelton needs to calm down a bit. Her poor lover must be terrified.

1957

The year skiffle hit the top of the charts. Lonnie Donegan’s three number 1 songs left an indelible mark on music, even if it took some time for its impact to become apparent. 1957 is the strongest year for number 1s to date, and rock’n’roll is now dominant. Even the most old-fashioned song, Frankie Vaughan’s The Garden of Eden, sounds good. Legends such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly make their first appearances, and the former’s cultural impact becomes apparent, with Tommy Steele and Andy Williams impersonating him, to an occasionally embarrassing degree.

The Best:

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Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group – Cumberland Gap: I used to think skiffle was a rather laughably quaint genre played on cheap, silly instruments. It’s only by listening to what came before Lonnie Donegan that I now understand and appreciate its true effect – to me it’s now almost as important as punk. The hardest part of choosing the best of this year was picking between this and Donegan’s Gamblin’ Man, with it’s fiery ending, but Cumberland Gap came first and sounded like nothing I’d listened to up to that point.

The Worst:

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Guy Mitchell with Jimmy Carroll – Rock-a-Billy: Cheeky chappie Mitchell’s fourth and final chart-topper is mean-spirited and has the laziest chorus of any number 1 so far. A shame, as his previous single at the start of the year, Singing the Blues, proved he could actually be a dab hand at this new pop sound.

1958

Elvis was really on form with his second number 1 – Jailhouse Rock narrowly misses out on my favourite of this year and could have easily won in another year. Burt Bacharach and Hal David made their mark with two concurrent number 1s for Michael Holliday and Perry Como. Connie Francis finally returned a female artist to the top with a versatile selection of solid tunes – her Stupid Cupid introduced Neil Sedaka to the charts. The Everly Brothers made an excellent debut with the year’s highest seller, All I Have to Do is Dream, and Hoots Mon by Lord Rockingham’s XI was the finest novelty number 1 of the decade.

The Best:

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Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of Fire: Direct, simplistic, fun, horny and mad, this just edges past Jailhouse Rock for me and got 1958 off to a great start. As far removed from some of the dreary monotony of 1953 as it’s possible to get in the same decade.

The Worst:

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Vic Damone – On the Street Where You Live: I feel bad for doing this when Vic Damone has so recently passed away, but it really does stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of 1958’s list. It sounds like it belongs in 1954. Sorry, Vic. RIP.

1959

Buddy Holly’s untimely death made It Doesn’t Matter Anymore the first posthumous chart-topper, and was a big influence on Adam Faith’s first number 1, What Do You Want?. Elvis was away in the army, and his singles output quality began to slip with A Fool Such as I/I Need Your Love Tonight. Rock’n’roll went all dreamy and teenage-orientated, with Jerry Keller’s one-hit wonder Here Comes Summer and Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover, before Darin used his success to take an interesting career change. Cliff Richard made his first of many appearances, with Living Doll the year’s best-seller, and Shirley Bassey made her debut at number 1. The decade ended with Emile Ford and the Checkmates’ solid What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?.

The Best:

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Bobby Darin – Mack the KnifeA fascinating diversion from his previous number 1, Darin resisted scaring his young fans away with this swinging celebration of a serial killer, but Atlantic Records pushed for it anyway. It’s likely the fans ignored the lyrics and chose to be swept away by his cool vocals and the power and punch of the backing band. Suddenly pop was taking a dark turn, if you listened closely enough. Much covered, but probably never bettered.

The Worst:

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Russ Conway – Side Saddle: This one totally baffled me when I wrote my blog, and while I found it slightly better the second time around, I still can’t quite believe this was such a success, but context is everything, I guess. Nonetheless, it’s still the weakest number 1 of the year.

The Best 50s Number 1 Ever is…

Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of FireDeciding on the best single proved to be much tougher than I first thought. It was very difficult to decide between this and Cumberland Gap, and Mack the Knife wasn’t far behind, either. Both songs shook up the music world, but in different ways. The winner is so ensconced in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine how it must have sounded as new, whereas I came in to Cumberland Gap completely fresh. If this decision was based on which single is most important, I’d have to award it to Cumberland Gap, as the influence of skiffle was so important on the following decade. It proved you didn’t have to have the voice of an opera singer to be at number 1, you didn’t have to have an orchestra backing you, and you didn’t even have to play expensive instruments. You could just make an all-mighty racket.

However, as impressed as I was by it, in the end this decision should also be based on personal enjoyment, as well as influence, mass appeal, inventiveness… and Great Balls of Fire has all of these. And despite me knowing it so well, it still managed to sound new and exciting, even after all this time. Plus, as great as Cumberland Gap sounds compared to most of the competition, in a way I had heard it before with the very similar and better known Rock Island Line. So congratulations, Jerry Lee Lewis. Despite being one of pop music’s first controversial figures, and therefore your brief period in the charts, you’ve managed to top Elvis and many other 50s legends, and Great Balls of Fire is one hell of a tune. You ripped up the rulebook when it came to the piano, and you showed the way pop was heading when it came to showmanship on the stage. And your best work was later used to sell cheese. But that’s record companies for you.

The Worst 50s Number 1 Ever is…

The Stargazers with Syd Dean & His Orchestra – I See the MoonNo contest. Reviewing every number 1 of the 50s was at times trying, and I knew it would be, but nothing prepared me for this. Don’t get me wrong, unlike many ‘serious music’ obsessives, there is a small place in my heart for comedy and novelty songs as genres, if they’re done right. And as I said above, context is everything. But I See the Moon is genuinely painful to listen to. I don’t get the joke, unless the joke is ‘Listen to how awful we sound’, in which case, the joke isn’t funny. In a decade with so number 1s that would be unimaginable now, I See the Moon is beyond comprehension to my poor ears.

The Outro

While I’m keen to get onto the number 1s of the 60s, and I originally saw reviewing the 50s tracks as a necessary evil in order to make it to the next batch, I am sorry to see it go. I’ve learnt a lot, about the social history as well as the music of the time, and it’s been a fascinating look at pop’s baby steps. Next, the decade of The Beatles, the Stones, Swinging London, the return of Labour to government, psychedelia, colour TV, British pop dominating at home and abroad… I can’t wait and I hope you can’t too.

Blogs on every 50s number 1 are available to view via the Archive section.

72. Vic Damone – On the Street Where You Live (1958)

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The old-school swingers may have been on the wane, but they didn’t go down without a fight. Vic Damone’s On the Street Where You Live dates back to 1956. Written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner for the musical My Fair Lady, the show had enjoyed two years of huge stateside success and had recently opened in London, causing the single to surge up the charts. Ironic really, considering Loewe wasn’t happy with the tune and had wanted it removing before the musical was released.

It was the last number 1 produced by Mitch Miller, who had been responsible for many chart-toppers – Guy Mitchell’s She Wears Red FeathersLook at That Girl and Singing the Blues, Johnnie Ray’s Such a Night, Just Walkin’ in the Rain and Yes Tonight Josephine, and Rosemary Clooney with the Mellomen’s  Mambo Italiano. Mitchell hated rock’n’roll, probably because he knew his demand as a producer would drop.

He remains a divisive figure, for relying on novelty songs and adding gimmicks to records, and artists including Frank Sinatra resented some of his methods. There’s no denying his hit rate though, and his influence would remain. Miller helped conceive the idea of sound effects and soundscapes. Without Miller, there may not have been a George Martin, and without George Martin, there may not have been a Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Despite numerous versions of On the Street Where You Live, Damone’s remains the most popular. He was born Vito Rocco Farinola in Brooklyn, New York on 12 June 1928 to Italian emigrants.

Like so many others, he was inspired by Sinatra to become a singer. He dropped out of high school when his father was injured at work, and worked as an usher elevator operator at the Paramount Theatre in Manhattan. One day he met Perry Como, and seizing his opportunity, he stopped the elevator between floors and sang for him. Como was impressed and referred him to a local bandleader. From there, he went on to appear on and win an edition of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in 1947, which was later used as a springboard for stardom by Marvin Rainwater and Connie Francis, who had also had number 1s in 1958.

Damone had a number of hits, and also began appearing in films, before going into the army, where he served with Johnny Cash.

Despite being written in 1956, Damone’s On the Street Where You Live sounds even older, and harks back to the first number 1, Al Martino’s Here in My Heart. Damone bellows out the vocals over a grand backing. Not much of a fan of musicals, the only part of this song I actually recognised was the famous opening couplet

‘I have often walked down this street before
But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before’

I think my dad liked to sing it when I was growing up, although I may be confusing this with any number of songs my dad likes to occasionally burst into.

I have to confess though that this song leaves me cold. Like many love songs in musicals, it lays on the sentiment way too thick, and after so many progressive number 1s this felt like a big, unnecessary step back. On the Street Where You Live enjoyed a fortnight at the top, but shared its second week with The Everly Brothers’ double A-side All I Have to Do Is Dream/Claudette.

Damone’s music, film and television careers continued into the 70s, when bankruptcy caused him to take up residency in Las Vegas. He was offered the role of Johnny Fontane in The Godfather (1972) but turned it down, and Al Martino accepted it instead.

Damone retired after suffering a stroke in 2002, the same year he released his final album.

He had some dodgy connections in his time. In his autobiography he revealed he was once dangled out of a hotel window by a Mafia member after breaking off his relationship with the thug’s daughter for insulting Damone’s mother. His life was allegedly spared when New York mob boss Frank Costello ruled in his favour. Damone’s daughter also once recalled that a bookie showed up insisting that Damone owed him a lot of money. The singer phoned Sinatra and asked him to intervene, but when ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ arrived on the scene, the bookie showed him a secret sign, which meant Sinatra had to keep out of it. Damone had to pay it all back.

By far Damone’s dodgiest connection, however, was President Trump, who counted him as a close friend. In May 2016, Trump offered to be a character witness for the singer during a legal battle with his stepdaughters.

Damone died of complications from a respiratory illness on 11 Feb 2018. He was 89.

Written by: Frederick Loewe & Alan Jay Lerner

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 2 (27 June-10 July)

Births:

Racewalker Les Morton – 1 July 

Deaths:

Poet Alfred Noyes – 28 June

65. Harry Belafonte – Mary’s Boy Child (1957)

Each year before 1957 had brought hints of the progression in music and popular culture that rock’n’roll brought about, but these were often few and far between, with the charts still dominated by fluffy, overwrought, orchestrated love songs, often performed by a revolving door of crooners.

1957 had changed all that. By and large, rock’n’roll ruled, with Guy Mitchell and Frankie Vaughan the only crooners to hit the top spot, and even then, Mitchell was aping the new sound. It was also entirely male-dominated. Female singers didn’t get a look in. As winter and Christmas loomed though, record buyers once more turned to something cosier.

Mary’s Boy Child had been written by Jester Hairston a US songwriter, actor and leading expert on Negro spirituals. Originally called He Pone and Chocolate Tea (pone was a type of corn bread), in this form it had nothing to do with Christmas and was a calypso song for a friend’s birthday party. Later, famous film composer Walter Schumann asked Hairston to write a Christmas tune for his choir. Remembering the birthday song, he simply rewrote the lyrics and made them festive-themed, similar to how Slade rewrote a psychedelic song and transformed it into Merry Xmas Everybody. (Incidentally, Mary’s Boy Child was the last explicitly festive Christmas number 1 until Slade in 1973). Harry Belafonte had heard the choir performing the new version and asked if he could cover it.

Belafonte, born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr, was born on 1 March 1927 in Harlem, New York, to parents of Jamaican and Dutch descent. He served in the navy during World War Two, and returned to New York afterwards to work as a janitor’s assistant. A tenant gave him two tickets to the American Negro Theatre, where he instantly fell in love with the stage, and also befriended Sidney Poitier. They were both so poor, they would buy a single ticket for local plays, then trade places between acts, so one could inform the other of what had taken place.

To help pay for his acting classes, Belafonte became a singer. At his very first show, he was backed by the Charlie Parker Band, which included Miles Davis as well as Parker. He began recording in 1949, and his breakthrough came in 1956 with the album Calypso, the first LP in the world to sell over a million copies in a year, and the first to sell that many ever in the UK. Introducing the wider world to calypso music, it featured the hits Banana Boat Song (‘Day-O’) and and Jump in the Line (both of which are great and I got to know them thanks to the 1988 film Beetlejuice)

This is the first Christmas number 1 to get to the same chart position later when covered by another act, namely Boney M in 1978. How does it compare? Well I don’t get the love for Boney M at all, and I particularly don’t like their cover of Mary’s Boy Child, so it’s no competition really.

Belafonte is in fine voice as always, though it’s a shame he didn’t opt for a livelier approach to the song. He’s singing in a calypso rhythm but the music doesn’t really match. Despite this, I’d easily take it over a naff disco-lite version with an extra bit tacked on the end for no reason.

Record-buyers in 1957 loved the religious imagery and cosy string backing, keeping it at number 1 for seven weeks from November, well into January 1958.

In 1959 Belafonte became the first African American to win an Emmy. A young Bob Dylan played harmonica on his 1962 album Midnight Special. As the 60s progressed he became dissatisfied with his film work and the music hits were drying up. By that point he was known as a prominent civil rights activist, and provided great financial help to Martin Luther King. He helped organise marches and bailed King and several other protestors out of jail. Much more personally rewarding than his other careers, I should guess.

Later, Belafonte organised the 1985 charity single and number 1 We Are the World, became a UNICEF ambassador, and a staunch critic of apartheid and US foreign policy. He supported Bernie Sanders in his bid to become US President, and will no doubt be horrified at the current state of his country’s politics.

Written by: Jester Hairston

Producer: Rene Farron

Weeks at number 1: 7 (22 November 1957-9 January 1958)

Births:

Singer Billy Bragg – 20 December

Deaths:

Writer Michael Sadleir – 13 December – Michael Sadleir
Writer Dorothy L. Sayers – 17 December
Composer Eric Coates – 21 December 

Meanwhile…

4 December: At the Lewisham by-pass, in dense fog, an electric train stopped at a signal under a bridge. A steam train crashed into it, causing the bridge to collapse onto the latter. The rail crash left 90 dead.

Christmas Day: Queen Elizabeth II marked the 25th anniversary of the first Christmas broadcast on the radio with the start of a new tradition. For the first time, the speech also featured on television. The Queen made reference to this change, and put older viewers minds at ease by remarking that the age of change was sometimes bewildering, but everyone would be okay if we hung on to ageless ideals and values. However, during the speech some viewers experienced confusion when they overheard an American voice say ‘Joe, I’m gonna grab a quick coffee…’ Apparently, at this time, sunspots often caused freak radio conditions, resulting in US police radio transmissions interfering in UK television broadcasts. I’d imagine that was very bewildering.

58. Guy Mitchell with Jimmy Carroll – Rock-a-Billy (1957)

Following such an influential and exciting number 1 as Lonnie Donegan’s Cumberland Gap, I guess the only way was down. It had only been a few months since easy listening and novelty record star Guy Mitchell had hit the top spot for the third time with Singing the Blues, and here he was again for the last time with Woody Harris and Eddie V. Deane’s Rock-a-Billy.

Rockabilly, an offshoot of rock’n’roll, began to creep into the vocabulary of press releases and reviews in 1956. It derived from a blurring of the genres of rockn’roll and bluegrass, or, to put it more insultingly, ‘hillbilly’ music, as it was often called at the time. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Bill Haley were all producing rockabilly music, and rising rapidly at the time, so why not spoof the genre? Why indeed…

Singing the Blues had, whether intentionally or not, been a successful bridge of genres by Mitchell, covering both his familiar easy listening style and the new rock’n’roll sound. Despite Tommy Steele being considered the more authentic rocker of the two, Steele wound up sounding way too much like Elvis to take seriously, and so Mitchell’s version holds up better. Rock-a-Billy was a bad choice as a follow-up. Well, it wasn’t at the time, it got to number 1, obviously, but the years haven’t been kind to it. It comes across as mean-spirited and the lyrics to the chorus are as unimaginative as it gets. Get a load of this…

‘Rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock
Rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock, rock, rock
Rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock
Rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock, rock’

There was a little more lyrical dexterity in your average rockabilly song at the time. Later on, Mitchell urges the listener to ‘wriggle like a trout’ and then spitefully exclaims:

‘Ya know you’re gonna act like a crazy fool,
Who cares? It’s cool’.

Unfortunately for Mitchell and others of his ilk, lots of people were interested in acting like crazy fools, and following this fourth chart-topper (which made him equal with Frankie Laine for most UK number 1s at that point), his career waned, bar his 1959 cover of Ray Price’s Heartaches by the Number, which despite missing the top spot became perhaps his best-known tune.

Mitchell retired in the 70s, but recorded material sporadically after that and occasionally joined the nostalgia circuit. He died of complications from cancer surgery on 1 July 1999, aged 72.

Written by: Woody Harris & Eddie V. Deane

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 1 (17-23 May)

56. Tab Hunter with Billy Vaughn’s Orchestra & Chorus – Young Love (1957)

The irrepressible Guy Mitchell’s Singing the Blues knocked Frankie Vaughan’s The Garden of Eden back off the top and enjoyed one final week at number 1, before clean-cut Hollywood actor Tab Hunter (how ’50s movie star’ is that name?) sent it back down the charts for good with the earnest pop ballad Young Love.

Born Arthur Andrew Kelm on 11 July 1931 in Manhattan, New York City, his father was abusive, and their parents divorced while he was still young. As Arthur Gelien, he became interested in figure skating.

At 15 he was sacked from the Coast Guard for lying about his age. He met actor Dick Clayton, who suggested his teen idol looks would stand him in good stead should he choose to become an actor. His agent Henry Wilson decided Tab Hunter would be a better name. Sorry to keep bringing it up, but where I come from, a tab hunter is someone who keeps cadging cigarettes…

Anyway, he spent the first half of the 50s getting noticed in a series of film roles, before hitting the big time in World War Two drama Battle Cry (1955). For several years, Hunter was Warner Bros’ most popular male star.

Young Love had been written by Ric Cartey and Carole Joyner. Cartey himself released the original version in late 1956 but got nowhere. Country star Sonny James fared better and made it a big hit, but Tab Hunter went even further. One of the top-selling singles of 1957 in both the UK and US, Warner Bros. were so impressed, they formed Warner Bros. Records as a way of preventing Hunter from releasing his freshly recorded album on a rival label. These days, Warner Bros. Records is one of only three remaining huge music conglomerates.

It’s a very safe, innocent tune, and an early attempt at getting young girls to buy records. Having noticed how rock’n’roll had impacted on teenagers, record companies were beginning to wake up to the younger market. Getting a good-looking film star to perform such a song was the perfect move.

It has a certain charm – more than some of the dross similar acts like the Osmonds churned out in the 70s (in fact Donny Osmond’s inferior cover reached number 1 in 1973), and most 90s teen ballads too. Hunter sounds like a young Morrissey at times. Perhaps an early influence on the miserable racist?

Hunter’s film career continued to shine, but tailed off during the 70s. As I was born in 1979, I have to confess I hadn’t heard of him until now. However, while researching, I was delighted to discover that Hunter played geeky substitute teacher Mr Stewart in Grease 2 (1982). Slated by critics, and hated by many fans of the original, I have a certain fondness for the sequel, as do others I know. Listening again to his big cameo moment, the verses from Reproduction sound very similar to the verses from Young Love. Must have been deliberate.

After decades of rumours, Hunter finally revealed he was gay in his 2005 autobiography. On 8 July 2018, he suffered a cardiac arrest and died, aged 86.

Written by: Ric Cartey & Carole Joyner

Producer: Billy Vaughn

Weeks at number 1: 7 (22 February-11 April)

Births:

Actor Robert Bathurst – 22 February

Deaths:

Artist Wyndham Lewis – 7 March
Linguist Charles Kay Ogden – 21 March

Meanwhile…

6 March: Ghana became independent of the UK.

11 April: The government announced that Singapore would also breaking free of British rule.

1 April, BBC’s current affairs programme Panorama pioneered fake news when they transmitted their infamous April Fools Day hoax, with a feature on spaghetti trees in Switzerland, that you can see here. They have inspired many inferior copies ever since.