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 

 

172. The Animals – The House of the Rising Sun (1964)

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It may have only spent a week at number 1, but the Animals’ The House of the Rising Sun‘s impact was huge. It ushered in a new genre, folk rock, inspired Bob Dylan to go electric, and proved a hit single could be twice as long as was expected.

The origins of this traditional folk tale, whose author is unknown, date back hundreds of years. It shares a similar theme to the 16th-century ballad The Unfortunate Rake. Originally, the song was written from the perspective of a prostitute who worked at a brothel called the Rising Sun, with the oldest published lyrics (from 1925) beginning:

‘There is a house in New Orleans, it’s called the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl
Great God, and I for one’

The earliest recording, known as Rising Sun Blues, was performed by Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster in 1928. Later versions came from Woody Guthrie in 1941, Lead Belly in 1944 and 1948 (entitled In New Orleans and The House of the Rising Sun respectively), Joan Baez in 1960 and Nina Simone in 1962.

The version by the Animals most closely resembles Bob Dylan’s cover for his eponymous debut album in 1962. This is the first and certainly not the last time we’ll encounter Robert Zimmerman, who has never scored his own number 1 but whose songs have topped the charts several times over the years. However, Dylan had swiped his arrangement too, from fellow folk revivalist Dave Van Ronk. An unusually sheepish Dylan asked Ronk if he was okay with him recording it, and Van Ronk asked him to hold off as he was about to go into the studio to record it himself. Dylan then admitted he had already recorded it.

The Animals formed when singer Eric Burdon joined the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo, who had been a unit since 1958. Making up the rest of the band were Alan Price on organ and keyboards, Hilton Valentine on guitar, Bryan ‘Chas’ Chandler on bass and John Steel on drums. It’s usually believed that their new name came from their wild stage act, but in 2013 Burdon claimed they used their name by way of tribute to a mutual friend known as ‘Animal’ Hogg. They moved to London in 1964 in the wake of Beatlemania to get signed, and subsequently did, to EMI Columbia. They specialised in heavy versions of R’n’B numbers, and their first single, Baby Let Me Take You Home narrowly missed out on the top 20. According to Burdon, the Animals first heard The House of the Rising Sun in a Newcastle club, sung by Northumbrian folk singer Johnny Handle. They were touring with Chuck Berry, and were searching for a number to close their sets with that would make them stand out from other groups. It’s doubtful they realised they had stumbled upon their sole chart-topper.

Producer Mickie Most certainly didn’t realise. Most made a name for himself as a producer of  many hit singles over the 1960s and 70s, and clearly had an ear for a good tune. And really, who could blame him for thinking The House of the Rising Sun was too long and not commercial enough?

It took only 15 minutes and one take in a tiny studio to record one of the decade’s most memorable number 1s. Valentine’s spine-tingling arpeggio intro, in which he plays Dylan’s chord sequence but on an electric guitar, is one of the greatest openings to a song of all time. Then Burdon’s deep growl begins, and the rest is history. Some have argued that the lyric change to make it about a man with a gambling addiction make the theme of the song less interesting, and they have a point, but really, all should be forgiven during this tour de force.

No number 1 had ever stayed stuck in one groove before, and certainly not for over four minutes (previously the record for the longest duration for a number 1 belonged to Harry Belafonte’s Mary’s Boy Child in 1957; the Animals would hold the record until the Beatles’ Hey Jude in 1968). The feeling is hypnotic and relentless, particularly during the second half when the band take it up a notch and Price goes to town on his Vox Continental. I can imagine the impact of hearing this back then must have been similar to the birth of skiffle, where Lonnie Donegan had plundered old tunes and added an intensity that had rarely been heard up to that point. By the time they had finished, Most was a believer. Despite the fact the whole band contributed to the arrangement, there was only room for one name on the record label, and as Alan Price’s forename was first alphabetically, he got the credit. This would later cause resentment, as Valentine understandably thought he should receive royalties for his part.

Two months after hitting pole position in the UK charts, The House of the Rising Sun spent three weeks at number 1 in the US, becoming the first bestseller during the British Invasion to be unconnected to the Beatles. Upon hearing it on his car radio, Bob Dylan immediately stopped driving, got out and banged on the bonnet. He was blown away, and a seed had been planted.

The Animals went on to have more great hits, including We Gotta Get Out of This Place and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. In May 1965 Alan Price left to go solo, citing personal and musical differences and a reluctance to fly while on tour. He formed the Alan Price Set, whose highlights include Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear. Dave Rowberry became his replacement, but by the end of the year the group were already falling apart. The history books are full of bands who got a raw deal due to mismanagement, but the Animals had suffered more than most. In 1966 Burdon formed a new backing group and they became known as Eric Burdon & the Animals, adopting a harder psychedelic sound and relocating to California. He also later formed the funk band War in the following decade. Meanwhile, Chas Chandler became Jimi Hendrix’s manager and producer and was an integral part of his success, before doing the same with Slade in the 70s. The original line-up of the Animals reformed in 1968, 1975 and 1983, and several different versions of the band using that name have existed over the years.

The Animals stood out in 1964 for refusing to play the game and adopt the Merseybeat approach. They didn’t turn on the charm, and they didn’t smile for the cameras. Another group were rising up the charts, and their fame would soon eclipse that of the Animals. The Rolling Stones were about to have their first number 1.

Written by: Traditional (arranged by Alan Price)

Producer: Mickie Most

Weeks at number 1: 1 (9-15 July)

Births:

Pocket cartoonist Matt Pritchett – 14 July