249. Louis Armstrong (Orchestra & Chorus directed by Tommy Goodman)/Louis Armstrong & His All Stars – What a Wonderful World/Cabaret (1968)

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Jazz legend Louis Armstrong, 66, became the oldest man to have a number 1 single with the slushy, swinging double A-side What a Wonderful World/Cabaret. ‘Satchmo’ held the record until 2009, when Tom Jones took part in the Comic Relief single Islands in the Stream.

Born 4 August 1901 in New Orleans (this date was only discovered in the 80s), Armstrong was raised by his grandmother until he was five, when he was then returned to his mother, his father having left the family. He had a rough childhood, raised in an area known as The Battlefield. At the age of seven he was doing odd jobs for a Lithuanian Jewish family called the Karnoffskys. Seeing how they were subject to persecution like his fellow blacks, he began wearing a Star of David in solidarity, which he wore for the rest of his life.

He would hear jazz music playing in the local brothels and dance halls, and began playing a tin horn until Morris Karnoffsky gave him an advance for a cornet. Armstrong dropped out of school aged 11, and would begin performing with a group of boys who sang in the street for money. He was arrested for firing a blank from his stepfather’s gun and sent to detention at the Coloured Waif’s home. It was a tough way of life at the home, but Armstrong found time to develop his musical skills and began playing in a band. He was released in 1914, and would find work performing on riverboats around New Orleans.

By the time he was 20, Armstrong had taken giant leaps musically, having learnt to read music. He was performing extended trumpet solos, and had begun to sing too. Satchmo moved to Chicago in 1922 to perform with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Although race relations were poor in the city, he found plenty of work, and was finally living in an apartment with his own bath. A year later the band made their first recordings, but in 1924, Armstrong was persuaded by his future wife Lil Hardin to broaden his horizons and smarten up.

By 1925 he was working for his new wife in the Lil Hardin Armstong Band, before forming his own group. Soon, Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five were releasing music, and his easygoing, charming style was developing. Heebie Jeebies, released in 1926, was one of the first recordings to feature scat singing, and Potato Head Blues was a hit in 1927. That same year, his band expanded and became The Hot Seven.

By 1929 he was seperated from his wife and living in New York, where he recorded his biggest hit to date, a cover of Ain’t Misbehavin’. In the 30s he would record his vocals with an RCA ribbon microphone, which added extra warmth to his voice and made him one of the first crooners, his version of Lazy River becoming one of Bing Crosby’s favourite songs.

The Great Depression had a sizeable impact on jazz, but Satchmo could afford to continue. He moved to Los Angeles and drew the Hollywood crowd to his performances. In 1931 he starred in his first film, Ex-Flame, and was also convicted of marijuana posession, but he recieved a suspended sentence. His woes grew, with the Mob on his back, eventually causing him to flee to Europe, Upon his return he hired a tougher manager to sort out his varied money problems, but he began struggling to play the trumpet, and so increased his vocals instead and starred in further movies, including Bing Crosby’s Pennies from Heaven in 1936.

By 1943, the trumpeter and singer was settled permanently in Queens, New York with his fourth wife, Lucille. Taking advantage of a revival in 20s-style jazz, he formed Louis Armstrong and His All Stars. He became the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time in 1949.

In the 50s, Armstrong was a globetrotting, iconic figure, but he was no longer cutting-edge, and he bristled at the new generation of jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Health issues began, and exacerbated by a gruelling touring schedule, he suffered a heart attack in Italy in 1959.

Armstrong took the hint and slowed down. He didn’t set foot in a recording studio between 1962 and 1964, when he recorded one of his biggest sellers, Hello, Dolly!. Aged 62, he usurped The Beatles and became number 1 in the US. However, his health problems were worsening by the time he recorded What a Wonderful World in 1967.

Allegedly written with Tony Bennett in mind, who turned it down, this ballad was by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss. Thiele was a writer and producer, whose previous credits included working with Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins. He had also produced Don Cornell’s 1954 number 1, Hold My Hand. Weiss was an arranger and songwriter who had co-written hits including Lullaby of Birdland, The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Can’t Help Falling in Love.

Armstrong and the orchestra began recording at 2am following a gig in Las Vegas. He had recently signed with ABC Records, and their president, Larry Newton showed up to record Satchmo in action. Hoping for a repeat of the success of Hello, Dolly!, Newton was dismayed to hear the slow, saccharine song they were working on. So much so, in fact, he tried to stop the session, and found himself locked out of the studio as a result. The production overran until 6am, due to Newton and interference from nearby freight train whistles, but Armstrong merely laughed it all off, and in order to ensure the orchestra were paid for the overtime, he inisisted he was only paid $250. What a guy.

I love What a Wonderful World. Yes, it’s sentimental, and the dewey-eyed optimism should grate on me, and to be honest it does if I hear anyone else perform it. It’s all down to Louis Armstrong, really. Nearing the end of his life, he gives the track real gravitas. How can you not love that warm, rasping voice of his, set amongst such lush orchestration? Released during Vietnam and student protests, it served as a beacon of hope and a warning that humans needed to stop and think about what they were doing to the world. It’s a shame they didn’t stop for long enough to do anything about it. Its formidable chart success may lie in the fact Satchmo was able to unite the generations – the old guard would love a nice ballad from one of the biggest stars of their past, and the hippies could warm to the song’s message. However, upon its original release, it got nowhere in the US, due to the idiotic Newton refusing to promote it.

What a Wonderful World has nonetheless endured over the years, featuring in countless films, TV series and adverts over the years, often used as a stark reminder of what was happening to the planet, or in an ironic sense to highlight the horrors humans are capable of. Whenever it’s used, be it at the end of the radio and TV series’ of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, or during the comedy drama Good Morning, Vietnam (1988), it always resonates. It would return to number 1 in December 2007, in a ‘beyond the grave’ duet between Eva Cassidy and Katie Melua.

Louis Armstrong’s version of Cabaret has been largely forgotten due to the legacy of What a Wonderful World. Written by John Cander and Fred Ebb, it comes from the 1966 musical of the same name. It’s performed by the character Sally Bowles (later played by Liza Minnelli in the 1972 big-screen adaptation), and is meant as a bittersweet comment on the fact Bowleswants to stay in Nazi Germany but her lover is insisting she return to America to raise their daughter. Unlike the more famous track on this single, Armstrong eschews the song’s central message and instead performs it as a standard swinging jazz rendition. It’s nice enough, but you can see why it’s not as famous as the flip side.

By the time Louis Armstrong was at number 1 in the UK charts, he likely knew he wasn’t long for this world. He was forced to stop touring due to heart and kidney problems and spent most of 1969 at home, with no public appearances. He did however record the classic and sadly ironic We Have All the Time in the World for the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which also charted upon its rerelease in 1994. By 1970 his doctors said he was fit enough to perform live, but he had another heart attack while on a world tour, and took two months out. Against medical advice, he took part in a two-week residency in Manhattan. At the end he suffered another heart attack. And yet, he still couldn’t imagine not performing, and continued to practise in the hope he could get back on the road.

He died of another heart attack while asleep on 6 July 1971, a month before turning 70. His list of honorary pallbearers reads like a who’s who of 20th-century jazz and entertanment stars – Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, David Frost, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and Peggy Lee, among others.

The popular image of Louis Armstrong as a cuddly teddy bear figure, beaming away on stage while he wipes away the sweat, has helped him be remembered long after many of his contemporaries. Jazz purists may scoff at this, and argue it takes away from his music, or even means he overshadows other important figures. And they may see What a Wonderful World as an aberration. But you don’t have to be an expert on jazz to love Satchmo. I showed my seven-year-old daughter a clip of a frail Armstrong performing his number 1 on a TV show in the 70s, and while she laughed at his eccentricities at first, she loved the song’s message, just like I had all those years ago. And its only a small part of an awesome legacy.

Written by: What a Wonderful World: Bob Thiele (credited as George Douglas) & George David Weiss/Cabaret: John Cander & Fred Ebb

Producer: Bob Thiele

Weeks at number 1: 4 (24 April-21 May)

Births:

Take That singer Howard Donald – 28 April
Comedian Julian Barratt – 4 May
Artist Rachel Jordan – 8 May
Labour MP Ruth Kelly – 9 May
Wrestler William Regal – 10 May
Comedian Catherine Tate – 12 May

Deaths:

Welsh Labour MP Ness Edwards – 3 May
Race car driver Mike Spence – 7 May 

Meanwhile…

27 April: The Abortion Act 1967 came into effect, legalising abortion on a number of grounds, with free provision through the National Health Service.

3 May: Mr Frederick West, aged 45 and definitely not serial killer Fred West, became Britain’s first heart transplant patient.

8 May: The Kray Twins, Ronnie and Reggie, 34, were among 18 men arrested in dawn raids throughout London. The Krays stood accused of several crimes, including fraud, blackmail, assault and murder.

11 May: Manchester City won the Football League First Division title.

18 May: West Bromwich Albion defeated Everton at Wembley Stadium to win the FA Cup for the fifth time.

242. Georgie Fame – The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde (1968)

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What a strange year of number 1s we have lined up for 1968. We have the good, the bad, and even The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Beatles were still at number 1 for most of January with their Christmas chart-topper, Hello, Goodbye, before finally running out of steam. They were replaced by Lancashire-born jazz cat Georgie Fame and his third and last number 1, The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.

Before hearing this track I assumed it would be taken from the soundtrack to the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. I was wrong, but that didn’t surprise me, as not only have I never seen the film, I don’t actually know much about the subject matter either.

Arthur Penn’s multi-Academy Award-winning landmark crime biography detailed the rise and fall of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Burrow. In the Great Depression of the 30s, the duo captured the imagination of the US on a two-year crime spree. Although the romantic image of the duo as Robin Hood-style characters has endured, the reality is their many bungled robberies resulted in innocent people being killed. The movie is considered one of the first films of the New Hollywood era, prompting more filmmakers to show sex and violence in their work. At the time, the duo’s death was considered a truly shocking end to a Hollywood movie.

Songwriters Mitch Murray (the man behind both Gerry and the Pacemakers number 1s – How Do You Do It? and I Like It) and Peter Callander saw the film and felt inspired to write a 30s-style jazz spoof telling the tale of the duo. Georgie Fame, who had enjoyed two number 1s with The Blue Flames (Yeh Yeh and Get Away) was the perfect artist to record their new track.

Since Get Away topped the charts, the band had enjoyed two further top 20 hits with Sunny and Sitting in the Park. They released one more album, Sweet Thing in 1966, before Fame chose to sign with CBS Records and go solo. The Blue Flames disbanded, and drummer Mitch Mitchell became a third of The Jimi Hendrix Experience soon after. Fame released his first solo album Sound Venture later that year. His first two solo singles failed to chart, but The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, released in 1967, became number 1, and was his only top ten hit in the US.

This quirky, rickety little track certainly gets 1968 off to a weird start. It may not have been in the film, but without it, there’s no way Fame would have outsold The Beatles. It’s not without its charm, and I always enjoy a Georgie Fame vocal, but by reducing the story of Bonnie and Clyde to a bit of fun, it’s nothing more than a throwaway novelty track.

It’s quite a sparse recording, featuring mainly Fame and a banjo, but there’s some brass too, plus sound affects, including the sound of gunfire as it reaches its climax. I think we’re supposed to go ‘Awww!’ when Fame sings ‘Bonnie and Clyde/They lived a lot together/And finally together/They died’, which is going a bit easy on bankrobbing murderers really. I’m now trying to imagine other inappropriate tunes, such as The Ballad of Fred and Rose West, or Peter Sutcliffe’s Sad Sad Song.

Fame’s hits began to dry up soon after, but Somebody Stole My Thunder in 1970 is a strong shot of R’n’B. He formed a partnership with organist Alan Price, formerly of The Animals, and they had a hit with Rosetta in 1971, but they split two years later. Much of the early 70s was spent writing jingles for television and radio, and making the soundtrack for the Till Death Us Do Part big-screen spin-off, The Alf Garnett Saga (1972). In 1974 he reformed The Blue Flames, but by the 80s he was back in the advert industry.

In 1989 he began working with cantankerous Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison as his producer and performing in his live band, as well as recording their collaborative LP, How Long Has This Been Going On in 1996. This partnership lasted until 1998, with occasional work together ever since.

Fame suffered tragedy in 1993 when his wife, Nicolette Powell, jumped off the Clifton Suspension Bridge to her death. They had married in 1972 after having a baby while she was still married to Alistair Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 9th Marquess of Londonderry. When tests proved the baby was theirs, the Marchioness had divorced him for Fame. Suffering from depression, Powell had left a suicide note in which she said she had no purpose in life now their children had grown up.

In 1998 Fame also became a founding member of former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, with whom he worked for a couple of years before going it alone again. He has released albums ever since and has performed at Glastonbury Festival. His live band sometimes includes his two sons Tristan and James. What a shame Nicolette didn’t live to enjoy their performances.

Written by: Mitch Murray & Peter Callander

Producer: Mike Smith

Weeks at number 1: 1 (24-30 January)

Births:

Journalist Matthew d’Ancona – 27 January
Rapper Tricky – 27 January

Deaths:

Spymaster Maxwell Knight – 27 January 

184. Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames – Yeh Yeh (1965)

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It would be impossible to describe the first new number 1 of 1965 without using the word ‘groovy’. In fact, that very word did appear in Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames’ version of Yeh Yeh. These two-plus minutes are the world of Austin Powers, for real.

Fame was born Clive Powell in Leigh, Lancashire on 26 June 1943. He fell in love with the piano from a young age, and as a teenager he performed with various groups in and around Manchester. His influences included the rock’n’roll pianists of the time, such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino.

In 1959 the Powell family moved to London, and Clive was discovered by Lionel Bart, who found fame that year as the writer of Living Doll. Bart took the 16-year-old to meet Larry Parnes, whose ever-expanding roster of Brit rock’n’rollers included Billy Fury, Johnny Gentle, Marty Wilde and Lenny Lovely. I might be making one of those up. Parnes was happy to take him on, but Powell didn’t like the idea of being dubbed ‘Georgie Fame’. Unfortunately for him he had to like it or lump it.

In the summer of 1961 Fame became a member of Fury’s backing group, The Blue Flames, who consisted of guitarist Colin Green, bassist Tex Makins, drummer Red Reece and saxophonist Mick Eve. Fury let the group go at the end of that year, complaining they were too jazzy, and The Tornados replaced them (before their number 1 smash Telstar).

Fame graduated to the frontman position in May 1962, and further line-up changes took place. Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames moved away from a pure rock’n’roll sound and began drawing on jazz, R’n’B and even ska.

By the end of 1962 they had a residency at the Flamingo, a jazz club in London’s West End. The US servicemen that were regulars at the club helped open Fame up to new sounds by lending him their records. At around this time he also fell in love with the sound of the Hammond organ, which was rare in the UK at the time. This was thanks to hearing Booker T & the MG’s classic Green Onions.

In 1963 they signed with EMI Columbia, and the following year they released their first album, Rhythm and Blues at the Flamingo, produced by Ian Samwell, who had been an original member of The Shadows (then called The Drifters). It was a flop and so were their first three singles. After further line-up changes (including a brief spell from Jimmie Nicol behind the drumkit – Nicol famously filled in for an ill Ringo Starr while the Beatles were touring), they released their second album, Fame at Last. The perfect album name.

Among their repertoire at the time was the Latin-flavoured jazz instrumental Yeh Yeh, written by Rodgers Grant and Pat Patrick and recorded by Afro-Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría in 1963. Shortly after, lyrics were added by Jon Hendricks of the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

The ubiquity of Fame’s verson, thanks to numerous adverts and TV shows over the years haven’t dulled my appreciation. It may sound a bit smug and self-consciously hip, but it’s a great time capsule of the swinging 60s, and a nicely robust production. Lyrically, it’s not far off the Beatles’ I Feel Fine, which it had knocked from the top after its five-week stint over Christmas. I particularly like the way the tune changes and the coolness changes into joy when Fame sings ‘We’ll play a melody/And turn the lights down low/So that I can’t see’. Nicely done.

Two more number 1s for Fame, with and without The Blue Flames, were to follow,. With this, Fame got perhaps the greatest year for number 1 singles off to a pretty cool start.

Written by: Rodgers Grant, Pat Patrick & Jon Hendricks

Producer: Tony Palmer

Weeks at number 1: 2 (14-27 January)

Births:

Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – 14 January
Rapper Slick Rick – 14 January
Actor James Nesbitt – 15 January
Countess of Wessex Sophie Rhys-Jones – 20 January
Scottish actor Alan Cumming – 27 January

Deaths:

Politician Winston Churchill – 24 January 

Meanwhile…

15 January: Newspapers reported Sir Winston Churchill was seriously ill after suffering a stroke.

24 January: Churchill passed away in his sleep at home, 70 years to the day his father had died. The country was in mourning, and prepared for a state funeral, the first time a ‘commoner’ had received one in the 20th century.