42. Dean Martin – Memories Are Made of This (1956)

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It’s funny how each person’s opinion of legendary artists and their music can differ depending on their age and what stage the artist’s career was at. David Bowie was any number of characters: Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke… but to me Bowie was the grown-up version of the boy from Channel 4’s version of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, who had been so traumatised by flying around with a snowman, he had taken to dicking about empty buildings with a blouse-wearing Mick Jagger in the video to Dancing in the Street. It was around 15 years later before he became one of my favourite artists ever, and I’m still not over his death. Anyway, back to my point. To many, Dean Martin is a bona fide musical icon, and Memories Are Made of This is one of his most popular tracks. But my opinion is clouded by two things: the film The Cannonball Run (1980), and Bisto gravy. More on that later.

As 1956 began, Dean Martin was coming to the end of his ten years as one half of a showbiz duo with Jerry Lewis. He had originally been a nightclub singer before he teamed up with the comedian to become hugely popular. However he was becoming disillusioned with the feeling he was playing second fiddle to Lewis. After all, his own music career was going from strength to strength. That’s Amore, Sway and Mambo Italiano had all been big hits in the previous few years, and Memories Are Made of This had recently topped the Billboard chart. It had been written by Terry Gilkyson, Richard Dehr, and Frank Miller. According to Gilkyson’s daughter, this sweet little number in which a man looks back on his life and loves was simply her father paying tribute to meeting his wife and starting a family. Unusually, the writing trio decided to perform the backing vocals themselves. Calling themselves The Easy Riders, their doo-wop stylings feature throughout the otherwise sparse backing, and are an important ingredient of the song. Whether you like them or not is another matter…

I can’t fault Martin’s performance of Memories Are Made of This. I’m a fan of his voice. I like the way he often sounds like he’s drunk (apparently Martin didn’t drink anywhere near as much as his reputation suggests). The Easy Riders, I can do without. I find the backing vocals irritating and distracting. They’re too catchy. I can understand the song’s popularity, but as mentioned earlier, the associations I have are problematic.

To me, Dean Martin will always be Jamie Blake, the tipsy, priest-impersonating bad guy from the comedy The Cannonball Run, who constantly ridiculed his sidekick, Morris Fenderbaum (Martin’s Rat Pack friend Sammy Davis Jr). When you read how much Davis Jr was picked on by the other Rat Pack members, their roles in the film now leave a sour taste. But I loved that film as a child. So much so, I confess I used to pretend to be Jamie Blake. Me and other kids down my street used to have pretend Cannonball Run-style races on bikes, go-karts and skateboards down my street as a child, and I’d often pretend to be Martin’s character. Strange? Absolutely. But it means I forever think of him as a comedy actor rather than a great singer. I realise this is my problem, though…

This song was then used in a long-running advert for Bisto gravy in the mid-90s, and it ran for so long I got sick to death of it. So when I hear Memories Are Made of This, I can’t help but picture a drunken Dean Martin, in a priest outfit, pouring gravy while singing. Not the memories the writers had in mind.

Memories Are Made of This was Dean Martin’s only UK number 1. Later that year he and Lewis officially split, and refused to speak to each other for 20 years. Martin became a bigger star, in movies, music and television. He became close friends with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack formed at the end of the 50s, and his most famous song, Everybody Loves Somebody was released in 1964. Although his reputation for drinking was a myth, he was a heavy smoker, and was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1993. He rejected surgery and died on Christmas Day 1995. Despite my bizarre recollection of him, Dean Martin was a charming star who touched the hearts of millions. On the day he died the lights of the Las Vegas Strip were dimmed in his honour. His crypt features the lyric ‘Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime’.

Written by: Terry Gilkyson, Richard Dehr & Frank Miller

Producer: Lee Gillette

Weeks at number 1: 4 (17 Feb-15 March)

Births

Author Andrea Levy – 7 March

41. Tennessee Ernie Ford with Orchestra conducted by Jack Fascinato – Sixteen Tons (1956)

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As 1956 began, it became apparent that the Prime Minister Anthony Eden had plunged in the polls, which seemed surprising following the Conservatives’ solid victory in the election the previous year. Whether Labour had received a bounce off the back of electing their new leader, Hugh Gaitskell, remained to be seen. On 24 January, plans were announced for the building of thousands of new homes in the Barbican area of London, which had been devastated by Luftwaffe bombings in World War Two. In the charts, interest in Dickie Valentine’s Christmas Alphabet understandably died down after the holidays, and the first new number one of the year was Rock Around the Clock, enjoying its second run at the top, before being usurped by a truly unique single.

Sixteen Tons had originally been written and recorded by country singer-songwriter Merle Travis back in 1946. Travis’s songs often spoke of the hardships of workers in the US as he came from a mining family in Kentucky. His brother once wrote him a letter with the line ‘You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt’. His father was also fond of saying ‘I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.’. Back then, miners were paid with credit vouchers that they could use to buy goods at the company store. Travis had the beginnings of a very catchy chorus . He came up with a song whose humour is as black as the dirt in the miners’ fingernails, and Tennessee Ernie Ford was listening. Ten years later, his cover became his second UK number 1 single in less than a year.

Sixteen Tons is so much better than Give Me Your Word. His previous number 1 was a mediocre ballad that anyone could have recorded. It’s hard to think who could perform Sixteen Tons as well as Ford. Featuring a sparse arrangement that features his deep, booming voice and finger-clicking to begin with, followed by a clarinet backing him up, Ford speaks not only for US workers, but any slave to the man. In the gloomy winter months of 1956, no doubt UK miners could find solace in such a song. Although the mining references root the song firmly in the past, anyone who finds themselves slaving away just to get by can identify.  And it helps that it’s as catchy as hell.

Selling millions upon millions, Sixteen Tons became Ford’s signature song, and earned him his own TV show, which ran for five years. Unfortunately, he and his first wife Betty had alcohol problems, and while he managed during his career peak, by the 70s his love of whiskey was taking its toll. Betty died in 1989 but even this couldn’t curtail his drinking. He died of liver failure on 17 October 1991 – 36 years to the day of the first release of Sixteen Tons. However, he left behind the definitive version of a song that truly resonates.

Written by: Merle Travis

Producer: Lee Gillette

Weeks at number 1: 2 (20 January-16 February)

Births:

Sex Pistols Singer John Lydon – 31 January
Actor Philip Franks – 2 January
New Order bassist Peter Hook – 13 February

Deaths:

Author AA Milne – 31 January 

30. Tennessee Ernie Ford with Orchestra conducted by Billy May – Give Me Your Word (1955)

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On 30 November 1954, Winston Churchill became the first, and to date, only UK Prime Minister to still be in the job at 80 years old. However, ill health was taking its toll. He had suffered two strokes and was aware he was slowing down physically and mentally. On 5 April 1955, he announced his retirement. Another sign that the country was moving on from World War Two. The following day, his deputy for 15 years, Anthony Eden, became the Prime Minister. Highly regarded as a man of peace, world events would soon tarnish his reputation and have a lasting impact on his legacy.

Meanwhile, in the UK top 20, a very dull song had been holding on to the top spot for some time. Give Me Your Word, by Tennessee Ernie Ford, became number 1 on 11 March. It was written by bandleader George Wyle and lyricist Irving Taylor. It is considered the first country song to top the charts, although it isn’t really. All the ingredients of 1950s romantic, overwrought ballads are present and correct. The only thing remotely ‘country’ about it is the drawl of Tennessee Ernie Ford.

Ford had added ‘Tennessee’ to his name when he became a radio disc jockey during the 1940s, and taken on the character of a wild, crazy hillbilly. Soon he was releasing singles, and doing very well. The Shotgun Boogie was fast-paced boogie-woogie. He also recorded slower-paced duets with the likes of jazz singer Kay Starr, who had been number 1 in 1953 with Comes A-Long A-Love.

How did Give Me Your Word achieve the same feat? Let alone, for seven weeks? This is a mystery, lost in the midsts of time. I’m not much of a country fan, so I may be biased, but like I said above, this isn’t much of a country song. It had been a B-side originally, to River of No Return in 1954. That’s where by rights it should have stayed. It’s no How Soon Is Now? by the Smiths, for example, where the sheer brilliance of the tune demands it to be promoted from the flip side. To be fair to Ford, he made up for this bland, soppy rubbish when Sixteen Tons became his second number 1 in January 1956.

Written by: George Wyle & Irving Taylor

Producer: Lee Gillette

Weeks at number 1: 7 (11 March-29 April) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Poet John Burnside – 19 March
DJ Janice Long – 5 April

Deaths

Bacteriologist Sir Alexander Fleming – 11 March