24. Vera Lynn with Frank Weir, His Saxophone, His Orchestra & Chorus – My Son, My Son (1954)

‘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)

Meanwhile…

13 November: Great Britain defeated France at the Parc des Princes in Paris to win the first ever Rugby League World Cup final.

 

23. Don Cornell with Orchestra directed by Jerry Carr – Hold My Hand (1954)

Don_Cornell_1963.JPG

Frank Sinatra’s three-week stint at number 1 with Three Coins in the Fountain came to an end when he was replaced by another crooner. Don Cornell (born Luigi Francisco Varlaro on 21 April 1919) was a super-smooth baritone singer from the Bronx.

He had been a singing waiter, until a fight with someone over a racist remark caught the eye (not literally) of a boxing promoter. Varlaro won 20professional fights, but decided to walk away when asked to throw a fight for money. Sounds like a pretty decent guy, all in all.

He became a guitarist but his bandleader Sammy Kaye decided to promote him to front-man and introduced him one night as Don Cornell, without giving him prior knowledge.

Fast forward a few years and Cornell was now doing well as a solo artist. In 1952 he had a hit with I, which, weirdly, was the only song title made up of a single character until Prince’s 7 in 1992.

Hold My Hand had been written by Jack Lawrence and Richard Myers and featured in the romantic comedy Susan Slept Here (1954), starring Dick Powell in his final role, alongside Debbie Reynolds.

The song suffers in comparison to Sinatra’s. Although Three Coins in the Fountain isn’t Ol’ Blue Eyes best, his voice has aged better than Cornell’s, which now sounds a bit too polished. Having said that, the orchestra improves it, with little flourishes to keep the ears interested. I’ve heard worse.

Although record buyers decided they preferred it to Three Coins in the Fountain, Hold My Hand lost out to it in the Best Original Song nominations at the following Academy Awards ceremony. It only went to number two in the US, but stayed on top in the UK for four weeks, and then a further week after Vera Lynn had her fortnight of glory with My Son, My Son.

In another example of how God-fearing we still were back then, (see David Whitfield’s Answer Me), the BBC considered banning Hold My Hand for the opening line, the apparently blasphemous ‘So this the kingdom of Heaven’. Cornell agreed to record this again and change it to ‘So this the wonder of Heaven’. Laughable, really.

Cornell’s success tailed off in the UK, though he still performed well in America, and in 1963 he became one of the first stars to be included in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He died in 2004 from emphysema and diabetes on 23 February 2004, aged 84.

Written by: Jack Lawrence & Richard Myers

Producer: Bob Thiele

Weeks at number 1: 5 (8 October-5 November, 19-25 November)

Births:

Singer Adam Ant – 3 November

Meanwhile…

13 October: Chris Chataway broke the 5000m world record.

19 October: Britain agreed to end its occupation of the Suez Canal. Colonel Gamel Abdul Nasser had recently come into power in Egypt, and both sides agreed that British troops would be withdrawn in 1956. It didn’t quite work out like that…

2 November: The radio premiere of Hancock’s Half Hour. One of the most influential comedies of all time, it was written by Alan Galton and Ray Simpson, and introduced the world to troubled comedian Tony Hancock, playing an exaggerated version of himself.