131. Danny Williams – Moon River (1961)

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Christmas week 1961 was a particularly cold and frosty affair, with some northern and Scottish areas seeing snowfall. The snow increased in the run-up to the new year, and was heavy at times. By this point, Frankie Vaughan’s histrionics on Tower of Strength may have been wearing thin, and record buyers wanted something warm and comforting. What better than Moon River?

Henry Mancini was the man behind the music, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. The song was written for romantic comedy classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring Audrey Hepburn, which had been released in October. An instrumental version is heard as the film opens, but Hepburn sings it as Holly Golightly in the movie, strumming away at a guitar while sat outside her apartment, watched over by Paul ‘Fred’ Varjak (George Peppard).

Such beautiful music needed lyrics of similar quality, so Mancini and Mercer were well-matched. In Moon River, Mercer is recalling his childhood in Savannah, Georgia. The ‘huckleberry friend’, which some find troublesome, refers to picking huckleberries in the summer, although it is also used deliberately to bring to mind Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn. Despite the song’s classic status now, Paramount Pictures executive Martin Rackin suggested the song should be removed from Breakfast at Tiffany’s following a lukewarm preview. Hepburn was livid, and Rackin relented.

Eventually becoming one of the most covered songs of all time, several versions were available as singles when 1961 drew to a close. Soul star Jerry Butler hit the US charts first, with an instrumental version by Mancini, with orchestra and chorus, close behind, but it was South African-born singer Danny Williams that made Moon River the UK’s Christmas number 1.

Williams was born in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape on 17 January 1942. He grew up under apartheid, performing his first solo with a church choir at the age of six. He won a talent contest aged 14 and joined the touring show Golden City Dixies. The show travelled to London in 1959, where Williams impressed EMI’s Norman Newell, who signed him to the HMV label. He was reticent to record Moon River at first, partly due to the ‘huckleberry friend’ lyric, but he changed his mind after seeing the film.

I think you could potentially argue that it’s impossible to record a bad version of Moon River, and Williams certainly didn’t. Featuring lush strings and his smooth voice (he became known as ‘Britain’s Johnny Mathis), it’s a beautiful way to bring 1961 to a close, after such an unpredictable, often uneven year for number 1s. Were it not for another singer sharing his surname, this would possibly be the definitive version.

Yet the man most people identify with the song never actually released Moon River as a single, meaning Andy Williams’ sole number 1 was the Elvis Presley rip-off Butterfly in 1957. He became forever known for the song after it made it onto his 1962 album Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes, and he also performed it at the Oscars, where it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Danny Williams’s success led to his appearance in Michael Winner’s film Play it Cool (1962) alongside Billy Fury. The same year, he scored another top 10 hit with The Wonderful World of the Young. In 1963 he supported fellow number 1 artist Helen Shapiro on a nationwide tour. Other support acts included The Beatles. Like so many others, their subsequent rise meant his career was all but over, and he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1968, before being declared bankrupt two years later.

In 1994 he took part in a Nat ‘King’ Cole tribute show. Williams always took pride in knowing that Cole declined to record Moon River because he considered Williams’ cover to be perfect. Following the collapse of apartheid he returned to South Africa several times but always considered the UK his home. He died aged 63 on 6 December 2005 of lung cancer.

Moon River is a standard now. One of the most interesting versions for me is the nine-minute-plus version Morrissey recorded as the B-side to Hold on to Your Friends in 1994. He always saw a haunting sadness in the lyrics, and felt the happiness it promised was always out of reach. He changed some of the lyrics to make it bleaker and added the sound of a woman sobbing. Perhaps she was a fan that could see into his future as a right-wing nutjob?

Written by: Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer

Producer: Norman Newell

Weeks at number 1: 2 (28 December 1961-10 January 1962) 

Births:

The Jesus and Mary Chain singer Jim Reid – 29 December
Javelin thrower Sharon Gibson – 31 December 
Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie – 4 January 

Meanwhile…

2 January 1962: The first episode of drama series Z-Cars was broadcast on the BBC. The show became famous for its realistic portrayal of the force and ran until 1978.

5 January: The album My Bonnie by Tony Sheridan and The Beat Brothers was released. The brothers in question were in fact The Beatles – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best.

128. Helen Shapiro – Walkin’ Back to Happiness (1961)

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In a week of stormy weather, young husky-voiced starlet Helen Shapiro achieved her second chart-topper of the year. She had only been 14 when You Don’t Know became her first. As impressive and mature as her voice sounded, I bemoaned the lack of youthful energy on display in that track. Her songwriters, John Schroeder and Mike Hawking rectified this on Walkin’ Back to Happiness, one of the better-known songs of the early 60s.

With a personality to match her voice, the precocious Shapiro didn’t want to record this new single as she found it too corny. Those backing vocals certainly are an acquired taste, and she fell into the ‘good God they’re a bit much’ category. Shapiro was a blues and jazz fan, and preferred the B-side Kiss and Run. Still only 14 when recorded, by the time Walkin’ Back to Happiness was released in September, she had reached the grand old age of 15.

Those backing vocals, arranged by Norrie Paramor, are definitely irritating, and I totally get Shapiro’s point. They’re a step too far in the opposite direction and suggest she is a childish, helium-pitched girly singer, which is far from the truth. Having said that, Walkin’ Back to Happiness is much better than You Don’t Know. It bounces along with an effervescence often sorely lacking in the singles of 1961, and is the kind of pop song the likes of Sandie Shaw would make popular a few years later – I was surprised to see this had been released in 1961. And as annoying as the backing vocals are, they are a memorable hook, and they’re stuck in my head, so they were key to the track’s mass appeal. Getting back together with your love must have been quite an unusual subject matter in 1961, too, and it does a good job of getting that euphoria across. I’d imagine.

Shapiro’s next two singles, Tell Me What He Said and Little Miss Lonely, made the top 10 in 1962. In the same year she also branched out into films, starring as herself alongside Billy Fury in Play it Cool and the female lead in Richard Lester’s It’s Trad, Dad!, which also starred fellow number 1 artist Craig Douglas.

In February 1963 she embarked on a UK tour, and among the support acts were The Beatles. This was the first time they had taken part in a nationwide tour. In between the tour, they broke away to record their debut album, Please Please Me. Among the songs was Misery, which Lennon and McCartney had written with Shapiro in mind. She later claimed her label turned the song down on her behalf, and she would have loved to record it. John, George and Ringo even appeared alongside her on Ready, Steady, Go when she lip-synched to Look Who it Is. It doesn’t show John and George in the best light though…

Despite the connection with the Fab Four though, she was beginning to look old before her time, and was eclipsed by other female singers including Shaw, Cilla Black and Lulu. Had EMI allowed her to record Misery, perhaps things would have turned out different. She was reduced to appearances on the cabaret circuit, before announcing her retirement from touring.

However, she returned to entertainment eventually, with a role in Oliver! and was one of the main characters in the ill-fated ITV soap Albion Market in the 80s. She made her music comeback as a jazz singer, performing with Humphrey Lyttelton and his band, until she retired once more in 2002. She has, however, been known to appear on radio from time to time.

Walkin’ Back to Happiness was the last number 1 by a female singer for a long time. Apart from Wendy Richards’ role in the awful Come Outside in 1962, there wouldn’t be another woman at number 1 until Cilla Black in February 1964. Black, of course, made full use of her connection with The Beatles.

Written by: John Schroeder & Mike Hawker

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 3 (19 October-8 November)

Births:

Footballer Ian Rush – 20 October
Radio DJ Pat Sharp – 25 October 

Meanwhile…

25 October: The first edition of satirical magazine Private Eye went on sale in London, planting the seed of the forthcoming satire boom.

123. Helen Shapiro – You Don’t Know (1961)

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With this single, Helen Shapiro became the youngest female number 1 artist. Aged only 14, but blessed with a smoky, mature voice beyond her years, she enjoyed two chart-toppers in 1961.

Helen Kate Shaipro had been born in London’s Bethnal Green on 28 September 1946, and her pre-fame years were spent growing up in Clapton. She was too poor to own a record player, but learnt to play the ukelele, and her unusually deep voice earned her the nickname ‘Foghorn’. A precocious talent, Shapiro became the singer of Susie and The Hula Hoops at the age of 10. Mark Feld was the group’s guitarist, still years away from changing his name to Marc Bolan.

When she reached 13 she began lessons at The Maurice Burman School of Modern Pop Singing, based in London’s Baker Street. The school was famous for having produced Alma Cogan, who had reached number 1 with Dreamboat in 1955. Burman was so astounded by Shapiro’s voice, he waived his tuition fee, and brought her to the attention of the UK’s top producer of the time, Norrie Paramor. The EMI hit-maker refused to believe she had only turned 14, until she visited his office and sang St Louis Blues at him.

Only a few weeks later she cut her first single, the ironically-named Please Don’t Treat Me Like a Child, which reached number three after her appearance on ITV’s new pop music show Thank Your Lucky Stars. The song’s writers, John Schroeder and Mike Hawker, teamed up again for this follow-up.

Were it not for the novelty of a teenager sounding wise beyond her years, I’m not sure You Don’t Know would have done as well as it did. Shapiro’s voice is very impressive, and you can see why she caused such a fuss at the time, but the song is too stately and rather dull, ultimately going nowhere. It’s all very well to sound mature, but the team behind her would have done better to try and capture her youthful energy at the same time – something they would achieve with her follow-up single later in the year.

Written by: John Schroeder & Mike Hawker

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 3 (10-30 August)

Births:

Felt singer-songwriter Lawrence – 12 August 
Actress Saskia Reeves – 16 August
Tears for Fears singer Roland Orzabal – 22 August 

Meanwhile…

10 August: Britain applied for membership to join the European Economic Community.

16 August: John Harte’s theatrical adaptation of DH Lawrence’s controversial Lady Chatterley’s Lover opened at London’s Arts Theatre. It was the only version to be staged until a second version in 2016.

23 August, police launched a manhunt into the A6 murder. This brutal attack resulted in the murder of scientist Michael Gregsten, who was shot dead, and his mistress, Valerie Storie, was raped and shot five times, leaving her paralysed.

25 August: Birmingham police launched a murder inquiry when the body of missing teenager Jacqueline Thomas was found on an allotment. It was 2007 before Anthony Hall was charged with her murder.