246. Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich – The Legend of Xanadu (1968)

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Somewhat lost almong the crowd of well-remembered 1960s groups, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich were, despite their silly name, one very popular outfit, with many top ten hits in the latter half of the decade. After three years of hits they finally reached number 1 on 20 March with The Legend of Xanadu, knocking Cinderella Rockefeller from the top, which must have been a relief to anyone with any sense.

The quintet formed in 1961 in Salisbury, Wiltshire from the ashes of Ronnie Blonde and the Beatnicks. David John Harman had been a policeman after leaving school, and was the first on the scene in April 1960 when Eddie Cochran was killed in a car crash (see Three Steps to Heaven). Cochran’s Gretsch guitar was impounded at his police station, and he started learning to play guitar on it over several nights. He had been friends with bassist Trevor Davies, and rhythm guitarist John Dymond and lead guitarist Ian Amey since school. Harman teamed up with them in the Beatnicks and when Blonde missed a gig, he filled in on vocals. Eventually he took over permanently and the group became Dave Dee & the Bostons. By this time Michael Wilson had become their drummer and the line-up was complete.

Struggling to make ends meet, they began performing in Hamburg at the same clubs as the Beatles, and lengthy (sometimes 12-hour) sets turned the boys into a tight unit, playing rock’n’roll with intricate four-part harmonies. In 1964 they returned to England and took on a summer season at Butlins in Clacton-on-Sea. One night they supported the Honeycombs in Swindon. The Honeycombs had just been at number 1 with the proto-punk Have I the Right?, written by Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley and produced by Joe Meek. Howard and Blaikley managed the Honeycombs and Blaikley watched the support act that night. Suitably impressed, he and Howard took them under their wing and arranged a session with Meek.

It was they that changed the group’s name. They wanted their new group to stand out from all the other beat groups storming the charts, and so decided to simply name them after each member’s nickname. Harman was already Dave Dee. Davies became Dozy (apparently because he once ate the wrapper of a chocolate bar instead of the chocolate, after throwing the bar away…), Dymond was Beaky, Wilson was Mick and Amey became Tich.

The band clashed with Meek and his unusual recording techniques, and the sessions ended with the volatile producer throwing coffee all over his studio and storming off to his room. Although dejected, they soon signed with Fontana Records, and Howard and Blaikely chose to continue to write their material.

It was a slow start, with their initial two singles failing to chart, but third 7-inch You Make It Move reached number 26, and then Hold Tight!, from their eponymous debut album in 1966, climbed all the way to number four. Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich were now pop stars, and later that year, they narrowly missed out on the top spot with their most memorable hit, Bend It! ( they were very fond of exclamation marks in their song titles). Racy for its time, its notoriety helped it sell extremely well, but it couldn’t stop Jim Reeves’ Distant Drums and stalled at number two.

It wasn’t just their name that made Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich unique among the throng. They were, dare I say it, rather zany, and took the pop game less seriously then many of their peers. Want an example? The name of their second album in 1966 was If Music Be the Food of Love… Then Prepare for Indigestion.

Their fame continued, and not just in the UK. Over the years they scored three number 1s in New Zealand, and were also big in Canada and Australia. 1967 wasn’t quite as successful a year, but third album What’s in a Name and singles Okay! and Zabadak! reached the upper echelons of the charts.

And then came The Legend of Xanadu in 1968. At the time there was a fashion for bubblegum, eccentric songs (you’ve only got to look in the Archive to glance at the number 1s so far in this year), and the timing was right.

The Legend of Xanadu is regarded as rather a lost classic these days, but I was a little disappointed. It could be due to the misleading title, which led me to expect a psychedelic pop tune. And no, it’s got nothing to do with Xanadu by Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra either. It’s actually a novelty western love song, featuring flamenco guitar, the sound of a whip cracking and a brass refrain reminiscent of the theme from The Magnificent Seven (1960). Dave Dee and co play it straight however, and there’s even a spoken word section near the end. I do admire the energy in the production and performance (recorded in half an hour apparently), but it didn’t leave too much of an impression on me.

Later that year they released fourth album If No One Sang, which featured their number 1 single. Their last 7-inch in 1968 was the ambitious The Wreck of the Antoinette, where the band aped the Beach Boys singing about a sunken vessel and Dozy recited Shakespeare in the intro. However, they were starting to feel like their sound was becoming too complex and that they were merely a vehicle for Howard and Blaiklely’s wild ideas and producer Steve Rowland’s glossy experiments.

By 1969 Dave Dee felt like the public were tiring of the quintet, and he was right, as their chart positions became steadily lower. That summer he chose to go solo. The rest of the band continued, under the less unweildy but also less memorable name D,B,M and T. They never reached the heights they had scaled in the 60s and split in 1972. Dee went on to become a producer, reuniting with his bandmates in 1974 and 1983.

They reformed the original line-up for the last time in the 90s. By then, Dee was also a Justice of the Peace. Sadly he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer in 2001, and succumbed in 2009 aged 67. In 2014 Tich retired and the band carried on, confusingly with new members assuming the nicknames of past members, with names like Mick III, making them sound like royalty. Dozy died in 2015 after a short illness, leaving Beaky, who had returned in 2013, as sole surviving member.

Written by: Ken Howard & Alan Blaikley

Producer: Steve Rowland

Weeks at number 1: 1 (20-26 March)

Births:

Footballer Paul Merson – 20 March
Actor Jaye Davidson – 21 March
Blur singer Damon Albarn – 23 March
Cricketer Mike Atherton – 23 March
Chess player Chris Ward – 26 March 

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 

 

224. Jim Reeves – Distant Drums (1966)

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At 9.15am on 21 October in the mining village of Aberfan in Glamorgan, South Wales, pupils at Pantglas Junior School were just beginning their lessons. A large colliery spoil tip, high up on a mountain slope behind the village, suddenly turned into a slurry due to a period of heavy rain beforehand. Within five minutes, the slurry had engulfed the school, along with nearby houses and a farm. This tragic event resulted in the horrific deaths of 116 children and 28 adults. The TV footage of the incident makes for surreal, grim viewing.

That autumn had seen the singles chart ruled for 5 weeks by a man who had died two years previous. American country singer-songwriter Jim Reeves ruled over the charts with Distant Drums in the same surprising way that Ken Dodd had a year previous with Tears. Amid all the amazing, pioneering music coming thick and fast, the charts were suddenly owned by the old folk once more.

‘Gentleman Jim’ had been born in Galloway, Texas in August 1923. Known as Travis during his childhood, he loved to play baseball and spent three years in minor leagues before severing his sciatic nerve. As a sufferer of sciatica myself, I can only imagine this must have been really bloody painful.

Reeves avoided World War Two when he failed his physical exam in 1943, and so he began working as a radio announcer. A fan of popular singers like Frank Sinatra, Jimmie Rodgers and Bing Crosby, he would sometimes sing live in-between songs, and began to see a career in it.

By the early 1950s Reeves was doing well in the US charts. Bimbo reached number 1 in the country chart in 1954. His first and only album release for Abbott Records, Jim Reeves Sings, came in November 1955. By that point he had signed a ten-year deal with RCA Victor with Steve Sholes. That same year, Sholes signed Elvis Presley.

Like every other country and western performer of the era, Reeves’ earliest recordings had him adopting a loud, rather cliched Texan style, but over time he developed his trademark style, a smooth, warm and gentle baritone, his lips nearly touching the mic as he crooned. RCA executives thought this was a bad idea, but Reeves was lucky to have producer Chet Atkins on his side. The first example of this new approach, Four Walls, was a commercial hit for Reeves in 1957. Soon, other artists were adopting the same approach, and this gentle approach, together with lush arrangements, became known as the Nashville Sound.

As the 60s began Reeves scored big in the pop and country charts with He’ll Have to Go. From here on in his stature grew enormously worldwide, eclipsing his fame in the US, even. He was more popular than label mate Elvis in South Africa. Among his hits in the UK in 1963 was Welcome to My World, used in recent years in adverts for Thomson Holidays.

In an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come, the singer’s final session for RCA resulted in three songs – Make the World Go Away, Missing You and Is It Really Over? With tape left over, they cut one more track – I Can’t Stop Loving You, which had been a number 1 for Ray Charles in 1962.

On 31 July Reeves and his manager Dean Manuel (also the pianist in Reeves’ backing group, the Blue Boys) were flying over Brentwood, Tennessee when they encountered a violent thunderstorm. Two days later, after intense searching by friends including Marty Robbins, the wreckage was found, and by the afternoon, Gentleman Jim’s death was announced publicly.

Material by Reeves continued to be released after his untimely death, aged 40. Distant Drums was a song by country singer and dancer Cindy Walker. It had been recorded by Roy Orbison in 1963, but it is Reeves’ version that is remembered best.

So just how did Distant Drums not only make it to number 1, but hold court for five weeks? It’s really hard to say. It seems RCA had chosen to release it due to creeping anti-war sentiment over the situation in Vietnam, but I’m not sure you could describe it as an explicit protest song. Even if it was, surely there were more commercial examples of such a thing out there? The fact he was two years dead already means it wasn’t due to the strength of feeling after he was gone, either.

To be fair to Reeves, he never intended it as a single – it was merely meant as a demo, and had been tarted up with an orchestral backing. But lord, is it dull. I’m no country fan anyway, but it’s a B-side or album track at best. I’ve read that perhaps so many young bands were jockeying for the top spot at the time, Reeves’ single split the vote, but who knows? It’s another one of those chart mysteries.

On the final day of Distant Drums‘ number 1 reign, former chart-topper Alma Cogan, whose Dreamboat was number 1 in 1955, died of ovarian cancer aged only 34.

Written by: Cindy Walker

Producer: Chet Atkins

Weeks at number 1: 5 (22 September-26 October)

Births:

Prime Minister David Cameron – 9 October 
Footballer Tony Adams – 10 October

Deaths:

Singer Alma Cogan – 26 October