229. Petula Clark – This Is My Song (1967)

1376a1e3ee1b9238b057f177593f5136As winter 1967 drew to a close, Britain’s second Polaris nuclear submarine HMS Renown was launched at Birkenhead on 25 February. The following day, non-league footballer Tony Allden died in a freak accident. While playing for Birmingham-based Highgate United, he was struck by a bolt of lightning. Three other players were also hit, but somehow survived. The day after, Britain’s hopes for entry into the EEC were given support by the Dutch government.  1 March saw the opening of popular concert venue Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.

Ruling the singles chart, for the first time in six years, was one of the biggest female singers of the decade, Petula Clark. The music scene had changed several times over since Sailor was number 1, but Clark had soldiered on throughout. Her follow-ups, Romeo and My Friend the Sea, entered the top ten later that year. Being multilingual, she had hits in France with Ya Ya Twist and Chariot during 1962. Around this time she was also given the song Un Enfant by Jacques Brel – one of the few artists to have the honour.

By the time we reach 1964, she had moved into soundtracks, having moderate success with A Couteaux Tirés, in which she also starred, and was on This Is Your Life for the first of three appearances. At her home in France she recieved a visit from her composer Tony Hatch. Having recently been to New York, he played Clark some chords from an incomplete song he was working on. She was very keen, and said if he could come up with some lyrics as good as the melody, she’d record it. That song was Downtown. Her most famous track, a sophisticated slice of classic 1960s pop, was a hit all over the world, and reached number 1 in the US, but missed out on the Christmas number 1 here due to I Feel Fine by the Beatles.

She was now an established star in the US, but back at home she had varying degrees of success. However, My Love reached number four in 1965, and I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love was number six in 1966. As 1967 began, fortune smiled on Clark once more,

In 1966, legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin was making A Countess from Hong Kong (1967). Starring Marlon Brando, it was the final film that Chaplin, wrote, directed, produced and scored. However his plan to have Al Jolson singing This Is My Song had hit a snag. Jolson had died in 1950 – a fact Chaplin refused to believe until somebody showed him a photo of his gravestone. Who could replace him? Chaplin remembered that Clark had a house near him in Switzerland. Neither Clark nor Hatch wanted to record it. They understandably found the lyrics simplistic and old-fashioned. To be fair to Chaplin, this was deliberate. The movie was a throwback to the 30s, hence him wanting Jolson to record it. Hatch declined but Clark eventually relented, recording it in English, French, German and Italian. She had asked Chaplin to consider some new English lyrics, but he refused. To her horror, she discovered Pye Records were going to release it as a single. The last thing she expected was to reach number 1.

And nor can you blame her. Poor Clark, she didn’t like either of her number 1s, and neither do I, really. They’re nowhere near the quality of Downtown. Opening with what sound like mandolins, This Is My Song features, like so many other 60s number 1s, members of the Wrecking Crew as the band. Her twin vocals are strong, but combined they’re too warbly. The words are indeed forgettable – the intro rhymes ‘light’ with ‘bright’ and ‘blue’ with ‘you’. The whole thing sounds rather laboured, like nobody’s heart was really in it. It was dated then and is even more so now. It’s a curio really, rarely heard and only famous now because Chaplin was the writer. Also, am I the only person that hears a similarity between this and the 1982 Christmas number 1, Save Your Love?

Interestingly, Harry Secombe recorded a version at the same time, which reached number two in the charts, before Clark overtook him. He had to re-record his singing because he kept bursting into laughter at how bad the lyrics were.

In 1968 Clark and singer Harry Belafonte caused controversy by becoming the first black man and white woman to make physical contact on television, four days after the death of Martin Luther King. For further info, see Sailor further up the page. Also that year she moved back into acting, appearing in Finian’s Rainbow alongside Fred Astaire. She was nominated for a Golden Globe and was Astaire’s final on-screen partner. The following year she appeared alongside Peter O’Toole in Goodbye, Mr Chips. She also ended up singing backing vocals on John Lennon’s debut solo single. Clarke had visited him during a bed-in with Yoko Ono and before long she was among the singers on Plastic Ono Band’s Give Peace a Chance.

In the early-to-mid-70s she had considerable success with her music and TV appearances on both sides of the Atlantic, but by the middle of the decade she scaled back her career to concentrate on her family. Her children urged her to return to the stage, which she had avoided since 1954. In 1981 she starred as Maria Von Trapp in the West End production of The Sound of Music. She was so good in the role, the real-life Von Trapp proclaimed her to be the best version ever. Her theatre work continued throughout the 80s, along with an updated version of Downtown in 1988.

Ten years later Clark was made a CBE, and in 2000 she toured a one-woman show around the globe, performing songs and anecdotes. 2006 saw the transmission of a BBC Four documentary, Petula Clark: Blue Lady, and in 2013 she released the album Lost in You, featuring a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy and yet another version of Downtown. Her latest English-language album was 2017’s Living for Today, and only last year she released the French-Canadian album Vu d’ici. Now 86, she shows no signs of slowing down.

Written by: Charlie Chaplin

Producer: Ernie Freeman

Weeks at number 1: 2 (16 February-1 March) 

Births:

Politician Ed Balls – 25 February

Designer Jonathan Ive – 27 February 

172. The Animals – The House of the Rising Sun (1964)

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It may have only spent a week at number 1, but the Animals’ The House of the Rising Sun‘s impact was huge. It ushered in a new genre, folk rock, inspired Bob Dylan to go electric, and proved a hit single could be twice as long as was expected.

The origins of this traditional folk tale, whose author is unknown, date back hundreds of years. It shares a similar theme to the 16th-century ballad The Unfortunate Rake. Originally, the song was written from the perspective of a prostitute who worked at a brothel called the Rising Sun, with the oldest published lyrics (from 1925) beginning:

‘There is a house in New Orleans, it’s called the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl
Great God, and I for one’

The earliest recording, known as Rising Sun Blues, was performed by Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster in 1928. Later versions came from Woody Guthrie in 1941, Lead Belly in 1944 and 1948 (entitled In New Orleans and The House of the Rising Sun respectively), Joan Baez in 1960 and Nina Simone in 1962.

The version by the Animals most closely resembles Bob Dylan’s cover for his eponymous debut album in 1962. This is the first and certainly not the last time we’ll encounter Robert Zimmerman, who has never scored his own number 1 but whose songs have topped the charts several times over the years. However, Dylan had swiped his arrangement too, from fellow folk revivalist Dave Van Ronk. An unusually sheepish Dylan asked Ronk if he was okay with him recording it, and Van Ronk asked him to hold off as he was about to go into the studio to record it himself. Dylan then admitted he had already recorded it.

The Animals formed when singer Eric Burdon joined the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo, who had been a unit since 1958. Making up the rest of the band were Alan Price on organ and keyboards, Hilton Valentine on guitar, Bryan ‘Chas’ Chandler on bass and John Steel on drums. It’s usually believed that their new name came from their wild stage act, but in 2013 Burdon claimed they used their name by way of tribute to a mutual friend known as ‘Animal’ Hogg. They moved to London in 1964 in the wake of Beatlemania to get signed, and subsequently did, to EMI Columbia. They specialised in heavy versions of R’n’B numbers, and their first single, Baby Let Me Take You Home narrowly missed out on the top 20. According to Burdon, the Animals first heard The House of the Rising Sun in a Newcastle club, sung by Northumbrian folk singer Johnny Handle. They were touring with Chuck Berry, and were searching for a number to close their sets with that would make them stand out from other groups. It’s doubtful they realised they had stumbled upon their sole chart-topper.

Producer Mickie Most certainly didn’t realise. Most made a name for himself as a producer of  many hit singles over the 1960s and 70s, and clearly had an ear for a good tune. And really, who could blame him for thinking The House of the Rising Sun was too long and not commercial enough?

It took only 15 minutes and one take in a tiny studio to record one of the decade’s most memorable number 1s. Valentine’s spine-tingling arpeggio intro, in which he plays Dylan’s chord sequence but on an electric guitar, is one of the greatest openings to a song of all time. Then Burdon’s deep growl begins, and the rest is history. Some have argued that the lyric change to make it about a man with a gambling addiction make the theme of the song less interesting, and they have a point, but really, all should be forgiven during this tour de force.

No number 1 had ever stayed stuck in one groove before, and certainly not for over four minutes (previously the record for the longest duration for a number 1 belonged to Harry Belafonte’s Mary’s Boy Child in 1957; the Animals would hold the record until the Beatles’ Hey Jude in 1968). The feeling is hypnotic and relentless, particularly during the second half when the band take it up a notch and Price goes to town on his Vox Continental. I can imagine the impact of hearing this back then must have been similar to the birth of skiffle, where Lonnie Donegan had plundered old tunes and added an intensity that had rarely been heard up to that point. By the time they had finished, Most was a believer. Despite the fact the whole band contributed to the arrangement, there was only room for one name on the record label, and as Alan Price’s forename was first alphabetically, he got the credit. This would later cause resentment, as Valentine understandably thought he should receive royalties for his part.

Two months after hitting pole position in the UK charts, The House of the Rising Sun spent three weeks at number 1 in the US, becoming the first bestseller during the British Invasion to be unconnected to the Beatles. Upon hearing it on his car radio, Bob Dylan immediately stopped driving, got out and banged on the bonnet. He was blown away, and a seed had been planted.

The Animals went on to have more great hits, including We Gotta Get Out of This Place and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. In May 1965 Alan Price left to go solo, citing personal and musical differences and a reluctance to fly while on tour. He formed the Alan Price Set, whose highlights include Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear. Dave Rowberry became his replacement, but by the end of the year the group were already falling apart. The history books are full of bands who got a raw deal due to mismanagement, but the Animals had suffered more than most. In 1966 Burdon formed a new backing group and they became known as Eric Burdon & the Animals, adopting a harder psychedelic sound and relocating to California. He also later formed the funk band War in the following decade. Meanwhile, Chas Chandler became Jimi Hendrix’s manager and producer and was an integral part of his success, before doing the same with Slade in the 70s. The original line-up of the Animals reformed in 1968, 1975 and 1983, and several different versions of the band using that name have existed over the years.

The Animals stood out in 1964 for refusing to play the game and adopt the Merseybeat approach. They didn’t turn on the charm, and they didn’t smile for the cameras. Another group were rising up the charts, and their fame would soon eclipse that of the Animals. The Rolling Stones were about to have their first number 1.

Written by: Traditional (arranged by Alan Price)

Producer: Mickie Most

Weeks at number 1: 1 (9-15 July)

Births:

Pocket cartoonist Matt Pritchett – 14 July

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

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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, however, 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 theatre, 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)

Of course, 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. And 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.

Harry Belafonte’s success continued for a while. In 1959 he became the first African American to win an Emmy. A young Bob Dylan played harmonica on his 1962 album Midnight Special. As the 1960s 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. His humanitarian work increased; he helped organise the 1985 charity single 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.

Train crashes seemed to happen a lot in the 1950s, and unfortunately on 4 December another big one occurred. 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 Lewisham rail crash left 90 dead.

As the nation tucked into their Christmas dinners on 25 December, 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.

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