230. Engelbert Humperdinck – Release Me (1967)

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Spring, 1967 saw one man sitting atop the charts. For seven weeks Engelbert Humperdinck was number 1 with Release Me. It was the year’s biggest seller, and famously, was the first song to prevent the Beatles from reaching number 1 since 1963. But before I go into that, what else was happening in the UK over those six weeks?

On 4 March the first North Sea gas was pumped ashore at Easington, East Riding. That same day, Queens Park Rangers became the first Third Division side to win the League Cup when they beat West Bromwich Albion 3-2 at Wembley Stadium. Supertanker SS Torrey Canyon ran aground between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles, creating the biggest oil spill in the world at the time, and it remains the biggest in UK history. At the Astoria Theatre in Finsbury Park, London on 31 March, guitar legend Jimi Hendrix set fire to his instrument for the first time. He was taken to hospital afterwards for burns to his hands. As he had superhuman axeman powers, it didn’t put him off doing it time and time again.

Norwell Roberts made history on 3 April, becoming the first black officer for the Metropolitan Police Service. Five days later the Grand National was won by 100-1 outsider Foinavon, and Sandie Shaw became the first singer to have an English-language entry win the Eurovision Song Contest, with Puppet on a String. It would soon become her third and final number 1. And as Humperdinck’s reign finally began to end, Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead received it’s premier at the Old Vic in London.

So, Release Me. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me after blogging so many hits of the time, but it wasn’t Humperdinck’s song originally. It was first written in 1949 by country music singer-songwriters Eddie Harris and Robert Yount, with James Pebworth also receiving a confusing third of the royalties. Confusing, because over the years he used several different pseudonyms that often cropped up on various versions, sometimes even two at once. Harris recorded the first version, but it was Ray Price who made it a hit for the first time in 1954. Then along came Humperdinck. Who was this bizarrely named singer?

It won’t come as a surprise to find out it’s not his real name. He was born Arnold George Dorsey in May 1936. One of ten children, he spent his first decade living in Madras, British India (now Chennai), before the Dorseys moved to the less exotic Leicester. Interested in music from a young age, he learnt the saxophone and would play it in nightclubs, and apparently didn’t attempt to sing live until he was 17, when his friends persuaded him to enter a pub contest. His impression of Jerry Lee Lewis earned him the name Gerry Dorsey, which he used for nearly a decade.

Dorsey’s career was interrupted by National Service, and he made his first recordings after being discharged with Decca Records in 1958. He failed to make his mark.

That all changed in 1965 when he teamed up with his old roommate Gordon Mills. Mills was Tom Jones’s manager, and was the one who came up with his name change. He reckoned he could do the same for Dorsey, and suggested ‘Engelbert Humperdinck’. Humperdinck was a German composer in the 19th century, and among his works was Hansel and Gretel. Quite why Mills thought this would be a reasonable name is unknown to me. At least ‘Tom Jones’ had been in the public eye at the time, having been the name of a big film.

Humperdinck signed a new contract with Decca under his new stage name, and things picked up when he started to do well in Europe, entering the Knokke song contest and having a hit in Belgium with Dommage, Dommage. Around this time he visited German songwriter Bert Kaempfert, and became keen on Strangers in the Night. He recorded it and wanted it released as a single, but Frank Sinatra got there first.

Fortune finally smiled on Humperdinck when Dickie Valentine fell ill and had to miss an appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. He sang Release Me, and had rave reviews. Soon, his recording was at the top of the charts, and it held firm.

I thought that overfamiliarity with Release Me would make listening to it a waste of time, but there were a couple of surprises. For one, it was a lot slower than I remembered, but I think my brain had somehow replaced it with the version used on BBC Two Nineties comedy The Fast Show – a version which at least had some flair. Humperdinck’s version isn’t half dreary to begin with. Charles Blackwell’s production makes it all sound a little too slick, and doesn’t really give off the impression that Humperdinck is dying to move on from his partner (hard to believe it was produced by the man behind Come Outside). But I have to admit I was impressed with his singing in the latter half. He has a great voice, you have to give him that, and he does sound pretty anguished during that final run through the chorus. Apparently Humperdinck didn’t like being referred to as a crooner, because he felt his range was better than that, and I wouldn’t argue with him.

I can’t dislike Release Me as much as many Beatles fans do. Obviously it didn’t deserve to keep Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever from number 1, but it’s by far the worst number 1 I’ve heard, and there’s far worse to come. I like the lyrics too. Although the track is nearly 20 years old by this point, I can’t imagine it was easy to come by songs that hinted at separation and divorce back then. You’re only hearing one side of the argument, true, but you can’t help feeling some degree of empathy.

But, like Tears and Distant Drums in the two years previous, just why did this become so huge? And why does the list of 1967 number 1s feature lots of lengthy stints at the top, and from safer material than the previous few years? I think, perhaps, that things got a little too weird for many record buyers, and particularly the older ones. Whereas many of the number 1s of 1965 and 1966 still had commercial appeal, even if they were breaking new ground too. And so there was a return to the safe, slick world of easy listening and light-entertainment-style pop. Humperdinck was also a heart-throb, unlike Ken Dodd and Jim Reeves, so that will have helped him somewhat as well.

It wasn’t just Release Me that had a lasting impact – even the B-side left its mark. Ten Guitars was so popular in New Zealand, it’s considered the unofficial national anthem.

And so, as some of the greatest rock bands of all time prepared to release albums that would go down in history as 20th-century classics, an amusingly-named warbler who had struggled for years was the biggest singer in the UK with an easy listening cover of an old country song. And he had another chart-topper before the year was out, too.

Written by: Eddie Miller, James Pebworth & Robert Yount

Producer: Charles Blackwell

Weeks at number 1: 6 (2 March-12 April) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson – 4 March
Scottish actor John Barrowman – 11 March
Race walker Lisa Langford – 15 March
Lush singer Miki Berenyi – 18 March
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah – 24 March
Presenter Helen Chamberlain – 2 April

Deaths:

Author John Haden Bradley – 6 March 

 

227. Tom Jones – Green, Green Grass of Home (1966)

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December 1966: Harry Roberts, John Whitney and John Duddy are sentenced to life for killing three policemen in August on 12 December. Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith were in the news throughout the month as they attempted to negotiate the whole independence saga. On 20 December Wilson withdrew all offers and announced that he will only consider independence when a black majority government is installed in Rhodesia. Two days later, a steadfast Smith announced he already considered the country a republic. New Year’s Eve saw thieves steal millions of pounds worth of paintings from Dulwich Art Gallery in London.

And so, after such a stellar year of chart action, we’re back at the Christmas number 1. For the first time since 1962, it isn’t the Beatles, who were working on Strawberry Fields Forever. Holding court as the top of the pops for the whole month, and most of January, was 1966’s best-selling single – Tom Jones’s cover of Green, Green Grass of Home.

Since his last number 1, the storming It’s Not Unusual in 1965, Jones’s popularity had slipped somewhat. Granted, his theme to What’s New Pussycat?, by Bacharach and David, did well, but his theme to the James Bond movie Thunderball wasn’t so popular. His manager Gordon Mills decided a new approach was needed, and steered Jones towards using that deep voice to become a light entertainment-style crooner.

Green, Green Grass of Home had been written by Claude ‘Curly’ Puttman, Jr, and was first made popular by flamboyant country star Porter Wagoner in 1965. Later that year, controversial rock’n’roller Jerry Lee Lewis recorded a version for his album Country Songs for Country Folks, and it was this version that made Tom Jones decide to give it a crack himself. His producer Peter Sullivan weren’t so sure – country wasn’t what they had in mind for Jones, so Les Reed, who had written It’s Not Unusual, arranged the track and took it in an easy listening direction.

Jones recalled in an interview for The Mail on Sunday in 2011 that Lewis was on a UK tour just before the single’s release, and met with Jones. He was bowled over by this new pop version, and told Jones he had a hit on his hands.

It’s an odd one, really. Green, Green Grass of Home is still considered one of Tom Jones’s best songs, and yet it leaves me rather cold. The arrangement is rather dated now, particularly when compared to the previous number 1, Good Vibrations. I think the Beach Boys classic would have made for a much more appropriate song to round the year off. But there’s no accounting for taste. Which leads me onto my next point.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m against the death penalty, but it’s hard to feel sorry for the singer once you know the twist – that he’s behind bars and reminiscing on his hometown before he is hanged. The likelihood here is that this man has done something terrible. An odd choice for Christmas number 1, all in all. I hate the ‘Mary/cherries’ rhyme as well.

Green, Green Grass of Home is a sign of what happens to the charts in 1967. After all this energy, vigour and innovation, things go somewhat downhill. 1967 was a great year for albums, and I used to think that once we got full-blown into the ‘flower power’ era, there would be some wonderful single number 1s. There’s far fewer than I hoped, and more often than not, the fashion sways back towards MOR.

Also that year, Tom Jones performed in Las Vegas for the first time. Like his friend Elvis Presley in the 1970s, his recording output suffered as his live act grew more flamboyant, and it was here he cultivated the sweaty, open shirt image that would make him a figure of fun over the years. There were still hits from time to time though, such as Delilah in 1968. From 1969 to 1971 he presented his own variety show on ITV called This Is Tom Jones. The year it ended he recorded one of my favourite Jones tracks, She’s a Lady, written by Paul Anka and later used to great effect in Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (1998).

By the mid-70s his career had declined and he tried to get more film and TV work, but by the early 80s he was recording country material that failed to chart. The first of his many comebacks came in 1987 when A Boy From Nowhere made it to number two. Then the following year he teamed up with Art of Noise for a smash-hit cover of Prince’s Kiss. Unfortunately, someone missed the point of the original, and changed the lyrics from ‘Women, not girls rule my world’ to ‘Women and girls rule my world’, which sounds a bit seedy to me.

In 1992 he kickstarted the idea of ‘legends’ appearing at Glastonbury Festival, and had cameos on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Simpsons the following year. Also in 1993 he was back in the charts with If I Only Knew. I personally find this track hilarious for its opening, in which Jones’s bellow is used to headache-inducing levels. It’s hard not to enjoy it though. 1996 saw him cameo in Tim Burton’s sci-fi comedy movie Mars Attacks. He rounded off the millenium with Reload, an enormously successful collection of covers featuring the stars of the time.

It was around then I got a bit sick of Tom Jones. That bellow was everywhere, from the dodgy duet It’s Cold Outside with Matthews (which takes on new levels of meaning when you read he allegedly banged her over the mixing desk during the recording) to the especially irritating version of Mama Told Me Not to Come with Stereophonics. The biggest hit, Sex Bomb, with Mousse T, long outstayed its welcome. But the Queen loved him and he was given an OBE that year, before being knighted in 2006.

He’s never really gone away since the success of Reload, and is now a national treasure. There’s one more number 1 with which he’s involved, from 2009, so I’ll return to his story then.

Next time then, 1967. Until 18 January though, Green, Green Grass of Home reigned at number 1. So what was happening in the news then? On New Year’s Day, the Queen decided to commemorate England’s World Cup achievement by making manager Alf Ramsey a Sir, and also awarded captain Bobby Moore with an OBE.

3 January saw stop-motion children’s TV favourite Trumpton begin on BBC One, and four days later another classic TV series began on BBC Two – The Forstyte Saga.

On 4 January, motorboat racer Donald Campbell was tragically killed while trying to break his own water speed record attempt on Coniston Water in the Lake District. Footage shows his Bluebird K7 and smash into the water. His body wasn’t found until 2001.

And in the world of politics, the UK entered the first round of negotiations for European Economic Community Membership on 15 January. Three days later, the flamboyant Jeremy Thorpe replaced Jo Grimond as leader of the Liberal Party. He was a popular leader and increased the party’s voting stastics, but controversy would end his leadership early.

Written by: Curly Putman

Producer: Peter Sullivan

Weeks at number 1: 7 (1 December 1966-18 January 1967) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Footballer Dennis Wise – 16 December
Rugby player Martin Bayfield – 21 December
Rugby league player Martin Offiah – 29 December
Comedian Mark Lamarr – 7 January
Actress Emily Watson – 14 January

Deaths:

Land and water speed record breaker Donald Campbell – 4 January 

 

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

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1965 began with the death of one of the 20th century’s most notable figures. On 15 January, newspapers reported Sir Winston Churchill was seriously ill after suffering a stroke. The 90-year-old’s time had come. 24 January saw Churchill pass 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.

At number 1 that fortnight was an entirely inappropriate party song, that it would be impossible to describe 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 back in 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 purely rock’n’roll 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-satisfied, even self-consciously hip, but it’s a great time capsule of the swinging 60s, and it’s 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, all in all.

Two more number 1s for Fame, with and without the Blue Flames, were to follow, and perhaps the greatest year for number 1 singles had begun.

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 

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 1950s 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 so far. 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 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. I think I’d rather be at war than with Shelton.

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 57 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 Everley 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.

66. Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of Fire (1958)

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1958’s charts began with a bang. The simplicity and energy that rock’n’roll brought to popular music is perhaps never better showcased than in this song – one of the best number 1s of the decade, if not, THE best. The only number 1 with an intro to rival it to date had been Rock Around the Clock, but Great Balls of Fire has aged better. Not only did conflicted wildman Jerry Lee Lewis bring the piano to the forefront for the first time, attacking it with the same reckless abandon that Jimi Hendrix later did with the guitar, he also made the subject of sex overt. Yes, there had been hints creeping in, but Great Balls of Fire is pure lust – a subject matter that Lewis wrestled with, that proved to be his downfall.

Lewis was born into a poor family living in Ferriday, Concordia ParishLouisiana on 29 September 1935. He loved playing the piano from an early age, so much so that his parents mortgaged their farm to buy him one. He became influenced by fellow musical family members, The Great American Songbook and Hank Williams. In an early sign of Lewis’s waywardness, his mother enrolled him in Southwest Bible Institute, where she hoped he would begin performing evangelical numbers. Lewis was expelled for playing boogie-woogie versions.

Rock’n’roll was growing in popularity, and was the perfect home for Lewis, who travelled to Memphis Tennessee to audition for Sun Records in November 1956. He passed and began recording his own material as well as assisting greats such as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Recordings exist of the three of them jamming with Elvis from that December. Two months later, Lewis recorded his classic version of Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On, which rightly shot him to fame.

His raucous live performances were also making him a force to be reckoned with. He had originally knocked his piano bench over by mistake, but the audience loved it, so it set Lewis free to run riot on his instrument, pounding the keys, climbing on top of it and changing the image of pianists forever.

Great Balls of Fire had originally been written by singer-songwriter Jack Hammer. He had submitted it to Paul Case, who was working on the music film Jamboree (1957). Case didn’t like the song, but loved the title. He went to Otis Blackwell, an established hitmaker who had written Elvis’s All Shook Up, and struck a deal whereby he and Hammer would split the royalties.

Despite Lewis’s burgeoning reputation as a hellraiser, he was a devout Christian, and he struggled with the premise of this next single, which was as racy as music got back then. Initially, he refused to perform it, asking Sun Records boss Sam Phillips, ‘How can the devil save souls?’ However, as the recording session went on, alcohol, and subsequently the devil, won out. Not only did he loosen up enough to take control of the number, leering away at the vocals and treating his piano like a whore, he is heard on bootleg tapes saying ‘I would like to eat a little pussy if I had some’. Quite the turnaround…

Nobody, not even Elvis, would have been able to make Great Balls of Fire the way Lewis did. It fitted his wild image like a glove. It’s a spontaneous, breathless performance that wipes the floor with so much of what came before. He’s a wrecking ball, a force of nature. Unfortunately, Lewis’s reckless ways may have helped make him, but they also broke him.

Four months after he hit number 1 in the UK, he toured the country. Three concerts in, a reporter discovered that Lewis’s third wife (he was only 22) was Myra Gale Brown – his first cousin, once removed. This was newsworthy enough, but Myra was only 13. Shocking stuff, obviously, and Lewis’s career never recovered. Breathless and High School Confidential also entered the top 20 that year, but it was three years before he had a UK hit again – a cover of Ray Charles’ What’d I Say. It would be his last.

Three years later, Lewis recorded the acclaimed live album Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, with Surrey band The Nashville Teens. It proved that he was still very much firing on all cylinders.

In 1968, ‘The Killer’ made the switch to country music, and it proved a shrewd move, as he enjoyed considerable success, if not quite the impact of his rock’n’roll days. In 1973 he played the Grand Ole Opry for the only time to date.

A year later, and only eight months before Elvis’s death, Lewis was arrested outside Graceland after drunkenly driving to visit him while in possession of a loaded gun. He maintains he had no intention to hurt him.

1986 saw Lewis become one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was back in the public eye in 1989 thanks to the biopic Great Balls of Fire!, with Dennis Quaid starring as the wildman. Surfing a wave of nostalgia, he had a new song in the film Dick Tracy, the following year.

I have to admit to being puzzled by Lewis’s marriage scandal. The 50s are always remembered as a time of conservatism, yet, and I may be betraying some ignorance of the law back then, how come he wasn’t imprisoned? How come Sun Records kept him on? In today’s climate, post-Weinstein and Savile, Jerry Lee Lewis would have been completely finished, and deservedly so. He’s still recording, and trades on his bad-boy image (his 2010 album was called Mean Old Man).

I’d always liked Great Balls of Fire, but listening to it for this blog, in the context of other 1950s number 1s, made me respect it even more. It’s truly pioneering. And yet, it also raised (and not for the last time) the decidedly dodgy subject of enjoying art by morally questionable artists. Gary Glitter also had number 1s, and is reviled, as well he should be, yet other musicians with a dubious sexual history are still considered heroes. Where should we draw the line? I’m not sure I have the answer.

Written by: Otis Blackwell & Jack Hammer

Producer: Sam Phillips

Weeks at number 1: 2 (10-23 January)