78. Conway Twitty – It’s Only Make Believe (1958)

On Christmas Eve 1958, the south of England was covered by a blanket of thick fog. BOAC Bristol Brittania 312 had left Heathrow on a test flight. After completion, the crew requested to land at Hurn Airport instead, probably due to the poor conditions. Three minutes later, the plane hit a ploughed field, bringing down telephone lines and trees. All seven passengers were killed, and two of the five crew also died.

The Christmas number 1 that year was Conway Twitty’s It’s Only Make Believe. Much like Andy Williams, Twitty was somewhat of an Elvis copyist to begin with, before developing his own style. Yet sounding like Elvis is what garnered him a number 1 single (Butterfly by Andy Williams was nothing like his later work but his sole number 1). Twitty had been born Harold Lloyd Jenkins in 1933 in Coahoma County, Mississippi. The family moved to Helena Arkansas when he was ten years old, where he formed his first group, the Phillips County Ramblers. He later served in the Far East where his new group, the Cimmerons, would entertain his fellow troops. After his return, he heard Presley’s Mystery Train and became determined to follow in his footsteps, travelling to Sun Studios in the process.

Depending on which story you believe, he either took the name Conway Twitty from a map (Conway is in Arkansas and Twitty is in Texas), or he stole it from a man who his manager served with in the army, upon his suggestion. He switched from Sun Records to MGM Records and began releasing singles. It’s Only Make Believe had been quickly written by Twitty and his drummer Jack Nance between sets at the Flamingo Lounge in Hamilton. Taking a whole year to climb the charts, it reached number 1 in the US and and subsequently 21 other countries. To begin with, some listeners assumed the performer was Elvis, recording under a pseudonym, the vocal was so similar.

I didn’t cover It’s Only Make Believe during my blog on my mammoth listen to every Christmas number 1, here, but I was impressed by the intensity of the performance, and even more so since then. As the song began, I was ready to dismiss it as a sub-standard Elvis ballad rip-off like Pat Boone’s I’ll Be Home. However, as Twitty proclaims his wish that his lover felt as strongly as he did, he moves out of the croon and really lets rip, and it’s a great vocal performance. He sounds genuinely pained by the time he reaches the song’s title at the end of each verse. I still think it’s a shame Lord Rockingham’s XI’s Hoots Mon didn’t stay at number 1 for another week to become the festive chart-topper, though.

Twitty failed to set the charts alight again for some time, until he decided to move from rock’n’roll to country music in 1965. Country radio stations were sceptical at first, but Twitty seemed genuine, and his career took off once more. His biggest country hit became Hello Darlin’ in 1970, but he maintained his country chart success until 1990, and achieved an incredible 55 number 1s in total. On 4 June 1993 he collapsed on stage in Missouri and subsequently died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm the following day. He was 59.

1958’s number 1 singles definitely showed rock’n’roll taking control of the record-buying market. A number of future classics hit the top, and the easy listening ballads largely took a back seat. Unfortunately, so did the female artists, as once again, with the exception of Connie Francis, the top of the charts was dominated by men.

It’s Only Make Believe stayed at number 1 well into 1959. During that time, Tyne Tees Television, the ITV franchise for the north east, began transmission on 15 January, and a week later, racing driver Mike Hawthorn died after his car hit a tree on the A3.

Written by: Jack Nance & Conway Twitty

Producer: Jim Vinneau

Weeks at number 1: 5 (19 December 1958-22 January 1959)

Births:

Singer Sade Adu – 16 January 

Deaths

Racing driver Mike Hawthorn – 22 January

70. Marvin Rainwater – Whole Lotta Woman (1958)

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On 30 April 1958, the Life Peerages Act allowed the creation of life peers who could sit in the House of Lords. As women could become life peers, the act made it possible for women to sit in the House of Lords for the first time. On the same day, the musical My Fair Lady opened at Drury Lane Theatre in London, starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. Three days later, Bolton Wanderers won the FA Cup for the fourth time with a 2-0 victory over Manchester United, a club still reeling from the Munich Air Disaster.

Enjoying a three-week stint at number 1 at the time, Marvin Rainwater’s Whole Lotta Woman was a self-penned primitive rockabilly tune. Born in Wichita, Kansas in July 1925, Rainwater had studied classical piano as a child, but he lost part of his right thumb in an accident as a teenager. He trained to be a vet, but after his stint in the Navy during World War Two, he decided to try the guitar. Claiming to be 25 percent Cherokee, he cut a unique figure when he began wearing his trademark buckskin jacket and headband on stage, and writing his own songs. He won the TV talent show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in 1955, and from there a recording contract with MGM swiftly followed. Combining country and western with the emerging rockabilly sound, and with an imposing physique and unique, craggy good looks, Rainwater had natural star quality, and scored hits with Gonna Find Me a Bluebird and The Majesty of Love, a duet with future number 1 artist Connie Francis.

Whole Lotta Woman is a primitive rocker with simple, sexually-charged lyrics that only just made it past censorship (the BBC let it go, some of the US broadcasters wouldn’t touch it). The most interesting aspect of the recording is probably Rainwater’s raucous, double-tracked vocals, and the duelling electric guitar and piano instrumental break. Not bad, but it suffers coming after a run of interesting, more famous chart-toppers.

Rainwater’s follow-up, I Dig You Baby, made the top 20, but he failed to repeat his early flourish of success. He began recording material with his younger sister, Patty, but around this time he developed ongoing throat problems. His voice suffered, and MGM let him go. He went into semi-retirement to rest his voice, recording sporadically for other labels. Changing tastes and lack of momentum caused his career to stall, and eventually he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He recovered from this, but his career didn’t. Sadly, his final recording sessions remain unissued due to the dire state of his voice, and by then he was living in a caravan with his family on wasteland in Minnesota. He died of heart failure in 2013, aged 88. His guitar-playing had inspired many however – back in Rainwater’s glory days, a teenage guitarist called Brian Rankin was waiting in the shadows to make his mark on rock’n’roll, and he was quite the fan. He even changed his name to Hank Marvin.

Written by: Marvin Rainwater

Producer: Jim Vinneau

Weeks at number 1: 3 (25 April-15 May)

Births:

Singer Fish – 25 April
Presenter Sandi Toksvig – 3 May 

Deaths:

Cricketer Frank Foster – 3 May