107. Ricky Valance with Accompaniment directed by Frank Barber – Tell Laura I Love Her (1960)

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Ricky Valance became the first Welsh male artist to hit the number 1 spot, with one of the more famous teenage tragedy songs of the early 60s, Tell Laura I Love Her.

This genre had been growing in popularity from the mid-to-late 50s, melding rock’n’roll with the stories normally told in folk ballads. The first notable example of these songs was Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots, sang by The Cheers. This song grew in popularity following James Dean’s death in a car accident in 1955.

However, the first teenage tragedy song to hit number 1 in the UK came much later, in March 1960. Johnny Preston’s Running Bear had been an unusual track, telling the tale of the doomed romance of two Indians, complete with politically incorrect Indian chanting from George Jones and JP ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson (who had written the track before his untimely death in 1959). Tell Laura I Love Her had been written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh. Barry went on to write or co-write some of the biggest songs of the 60s, including Do Wah Diddy Diddy, Be My Baby, River Deep – Mountain High and Sugar Sugar.

Tell Laura I Love Her had been a big hit in the US for Ray Peterson, but Decca Records refused to release it in the UK, considering it ‘tasteless and vulgar’. 20,000 copies that had already been made were destroyed. An over-the-top reaction, no doubt, but for many, the permissive 60s were yet to actually happen. The BBC were also loathe to play these ‘death discs’, but the Beeb had banned songs before, and it hadn’t stopped them reaching number 1 (see David Whitfield and Frankie Laine‘s versions of Answer Me). Not that this song was particularly vulgar, anyway. So when EMI Columbia offered the track to their new signing, Ricky Valance, he seized the opportunity, and with hit-making producer Norrie Paramore involved, the number 1 spot became his.

Valance had been born David Spencer on 10 April 1939 in Ynysddu, Monmouthshire, Wales. He had joined the RAF aged 17, before going on to perform in clubs, and subsequently getting noticed by an A&R representative for EMI. With his sweet voice and good looks, Valance was a great choice for the label.

Tell Laura I Love Her tells the tragic tale of teenagers Tommy and Laura. Tommy wants to marry Laura, and decides to enter a stock car race, with the hope of using the prize money to buy her a wedding ring. However, the race goes horribly wrong, and Tommy is killed when his car overturns and sets alight. Lyricist Barry was a big fan of cowboy culture and originally Tommy entered a rodeo, but RCA had insisted it became a stock car to make it more in keeping with the present fashions, which was probably a wise move.

The song doesn’t get off to a great start, as the verses are rather functional and dull, and the ‘bom-bom-bom-bom’ backing vocal really ruins the mood. The chorus is great, though. Memorable and sad, it lifts an otherwise average song, and Valance’s tender voice fits it like a glove. The lyrics might seem hokey now, but that’s par for the course with this sub-genre. It pales in comparison to recent classics such as Shakin’ All Over and Apache, though.

Tell Laura I Love Her sold over a million in 1960. Although it was his only UK number 1, Movin’ Away went to the top in Australia and Scandinavia. A year later, Valance entered A Song for Europe, but only made it to third place. His name soon slipped from  the public eye, but he continued to perform on the cabaret and nostalgia circuit. Following severe depression and a nervous breakdown he became a born-again Christian, and continued to release music until his death on 12 June 2020, aged 81. He was suffering from dementia.

Written by: Jeff Barry & Ben Raleigh

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 3 (29 September-19 October)

Meanwhile…

1 October: Nigeria was the latest country to gain its independence from the UK.

7 October: As the summer of 1960 turned to Autumn, heavy rainfall caused severe flooding in the valley of the River Exe and surrounding areas of Devon. On this date, flooding took place in Horncastle, Lincolnshire. To this day (26 March 2018), it still holds the UK record for the highest 180-min total rainfall at 178mm.

8 October: The Sheffield Tramway closed, leaving Blackpool as the only place in England using electric trams.

17 October The daily News Chronicle stopped publishing, becoming absorbed into the Daily Mail.

98. Johnny Preston – Running Bear (1960)

This number 1 is one strange beast. Breaking an unusually lengthy spell of UK artists at the top (five months) was US rockabilly singer Johnny Preston with an un-PC novelty-teenage death song (these ‘death discs’ were becoming ever more popular) about the forbidden love of two Indians from warring tribes. Sounds interesting, yes?

Preston, of Cajun and German descent, had been born John Preston Courville on 18 August 1939. After entering singing contests in high school, he formed his first band, The Shades, who caught the eye of JP Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, of Chantilly Lace fame. In 1958 they went into the studio with future country legend George Jones and saxophonist Link Davis to record Richardson’s bizarre song, Running Bear.

Certainly one of the weirder number 1s to date, Running Bear begins with cheers before settling down into comedy stereotypical Indian ‘ocka chunka’ chanting from The Big Bopper and Jones, creating the rhythm of the verses, as Preston tells the tragic tale of the star-crossed lovers. It’s actually a good rhythm they create, but tacky and tasteless to modern ears.

The story is that Running Bear and Little White Dove love each other, but their two tribes hate each other, and as we all know, when two tribes go to war, one is all that you can score. Not only that, there’s a bloody big river separating them. This being the case, I’m not sure of the origins of their love, or how these tribes are managing to do battle, but hey, this isn’t a concept album, you can’t expect the full story I guess. As the verses shift into the chorus, Running Bear changes into your average rock’n’roll track, and the return to the verses afterwards sounds a bit clunky. Before you know it, they’ve decided to meet in the river, have a kiss and drown. And that’s it! I think it’s supposed to come across as romantic, but can’t help seeming a bit stupid. What a way to go.

You couldn’t get away with Running Bear now of course, but it’s not as offensive a number 1 as Guy Mitchell’s She Wears Red Feathers. It’s just outdated, and odd, all in all. The musicians seem to be having a good time, and some of that enthusiasm comes across, at least.

Of course, The Big Bopper died alongside Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in a plane on 3 February 1959, so he never got to see Running Bear become number 1 in the US and subsequently the UK. Due to Richardson’s death, the song got caught up in legal issues, causing its release to be delayed. Perhaps its posthumous release is the reason it did so well, although Richardson isn’t credited as the artist, so how many people would have been aware of the connection? Perhaps it’s just that cowboys and indians were still very popular, and teenage death songs were about to become big. Or maybe it’s just one of those many unsolved mysteries where it’s impossible to work out how a song made it to the top.

The rest of Johnny Preston’s life is fairly mysterious too. His follow-up single, Cradle of Love nearly repeated Running Bear’s success, hitting the top ten in the US and UK. Another release, the rocking Leave My Kitten Alone, was later covered by the Beatles, and is perhaps the best unreleased track of their early years, with Lennon in fine shouty voice. It eventually surfaced on Anthology 1 in 1995. Preston was entered into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and performed on the nostalgia circuit, but eventually retired. He died of heart failure on 4 March, 2011, aged 71.

I can’t imagine why anyone would cover this track, but when I discovered Tom Jones had recorded a funk version in 1973, I had to have a listen. And you know what, it’s actually pretty good! Take a look at this insane clip from a TV special, with crazy dancing and camerawork. Tom should have got his funk on more often.

Written by: JP Richardson

Producer: Bill Hall

Weeks at number 1: 2 (17-30 March)

Births:

Artist Grayson Perry – 24 March

Meanwhile…

26 March: The Grand National was televised for the first time, with Merryman II becoming winner.

28 March: Tragedy struck in Glasgow when a warehouse fire broke out on Cheapside Street. Over a million gallons of whiskey and rum burned out of control for hours. 19 fire-servicemen were killed, making the incident the worst fire services disaster in peacetime, up to that point.