289. Elvis Presley – The Wonder of You (1970)

The Wonder of You was Elvis Presley’s 16th and final number 1 in his lifetime. In the five years since his last number 1, Crying in the Chapel (which dated back to 1960), the King’s career had reached the doldrums, before a dramatic comeback. Sadly, though, The Wonder of You marked the beginning of another descent – his last one.

Presley proposed to Priscilla Beaulieu at Christmas 1966, seven years after they had first met, and they married in May 1967. Earlier that year he had released the Grammy-winning gospel album How Great Thou Art, but in October his soundtrack LP to his movie Clambake registered record low sales. The Summer of Love had just passed, flower power was everywhere, and Elvis couldn’t have been more out of fashion.

His manager Colonel Tom Parker made a deal for Presley to appear in a Christmas special on TV in December 1968. The singer was initially sceptical, and he had every reason to be, seemingly forever stuck releasing one dire film after another. However, once he got talking to the show’s director and co-producer Steve Binder, he realised this could be the chance to revitalise a failing career. He was proved right. The 68 comeback special, titled simply Elvis, featured lavish numbers, but everyone remembers the back-to-basic segments, in which he performed in tight leather in front of a small crowd (his first live performances since 1961). It was a return to the Elvis of the 50s, raw and fresh, with buckets of charisma. And he looked cool as fuck. No longer would the King be willing to do whatever he was told by Parker

Elvis kickstarted a purple patch in which the King was seemingly let off Parker’s tight rein, and he went on to record some of the best material of his career, particularly during the sessions for the 1969 album From Elvis in Memphis. The album closed with In the Ghetto, which reached number two on these shores, but was held off the top spot by Thunderclap Newman’s Something in the Air. Criminally, Suspicious Minds, probably my favourite Elvis song, also stalled at number two at the start of 1970 here, despite becoming his final US number 1.

Presley was keen to get back to regular live performances, and just when things were looking up for the new decade, Parker booked him to an initial run of 57 shows over four weeks at the new International Hotel in Las Vegas. Bill Belew, who had struck gold by coming up with the King’s leather look for his comeback, designed his first jumpsuit to wear. His initial Vegas show went down a storm, and Parker booked him a five-year run in which Presley would perform every February and August. The Jordannaires chose not to join him, and longtime collaborators guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer DJ Fontana also declined.

The Wonder of You was a live recording from one of his Vegas gigs of February 1970. It was the first live number 1 since Lonnie Donegan’s My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) in 1960. Thankfully it’s not as bad as that horror show of a song, but they are similar, in that Wonder of You represents the final slide into cabaret for a once vital, dangerous artist.

The song, written by Baker Knight, was originally a top 30 single for US singer Ray Peterson in 1959. It also became a hit for number 1 artists Ronnie Hilton, and The Platters too.

Elvis turns this into an anthem in which he pays tribute to the fans that have stuck by him through thick and thin. It even mentions him by his nickname, albeit inadvertently.
‘And when you smile the world is brighter
You touch my hand and I’m a king
Your kiss to me is worth a fortune
Your love for me is everything’

It’s one big love-in really, a drunken singalong, and the King and crowd alike are all having a whale of a time. But it all feels rather hollow with the knowledge of what was to come. Elvis’s next number 1 came after his death. His Vegas residency had transformed into a bloated drug-addled, depressed, darkly-comic version of the singer here.

Since its time at number 1, The Wonder of You has become associated with football clubs Port Vale, Arsenal and Scottish team Ross County.

Written by: Baker Knight

Weeks at number 1: 6 (1 August-11 September) 

Births:

Footballer Alan Shearer – 13 August
Snooker player Peter Ebdon – 27 August

Deaths:

Footballer Jesse Pennington – 5 September

Meanwhile…

9 August: Police battled with black rioters in Notting Hill, London.

20 August: England may have lost at the World Cup, but there was some good news for team captain Bobby Moore – he was cleared of stealing a bracelet in Colombia just before the tournament had begun.

21 August: The moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party was first established in Northern Ireland. 

26-31 August: The third Isle of Wight Festival took place, with music from Jimi Hendrix, The Who and The Doors. This was the last of the three original festivals there, and was the largest event of its kind for years, with anywhere between 500,000 and 700,000 attending.

9 September: BOAC Flight 775 was hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine after taking off from Bahrain. This was the first time a British plane had been hijacked.

286. England World Cup Squad ’70 – Back Home (1970)

Seems rather fitting that on the day Brexit finally happens, that this blog covers an event from 50 years ago in which this country was embarrassed on the world stage, doesn’t it?

Three weeks before the England football team began their defense of the FIFA World Cup in Mexico, they had their first number 1 single. The jolly, charming anthem Back Home marked the start of a not-often-grand tradition, in which the squad recorded an official, FA-approved song to mark that year’s failed attempt at the World Cup or UEFA European Championship.

Football songs were not a new idea – UK clubs had been recording them for years, and in 1966 skiffle king Lonnie Donegan released World Cup Willie before England’s legendary win. But this was the first (and only time) we were the world champions, and they were going into the tournament with a supposedly superior line-up to 1966 and so it must have been felt we had momentum, and that this should be commemorated.

I’m assuming it was the FA who asked Bill Martin and Phil Coulter to write and produce Back Home. After all, with their two previous number 1s and Eurovision big-hitters, Puppet on a String and Congratulations (plus Coulter was involved in All Kinds of Everything), the duo were more than capable of getting the nation to sing along in a big competition.

And so Alf Ramsey’s boys were assembled to record their vocals. It’s unclear who out of the 22 men picked to represent the country made it on to the recording, but the biggest names in the squad included captain Bobby Moore, goalkeeper Gordon Banks, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst, Nobby Stiles and Emlyn Hughes. Also recorded was the bizarre B-side Cinnamon Stick. It’s not a weird song, it’s a typical mid-60s lightweight pop song about a pretty girl, but lots of footballers singing it together is weird.

I’ve never been a fan of footballers such. I tried, but I was terrible at school, and so I took no interest in clubs. However, I do get swept up in the World Cup and Euros, going right back to Mexico 86, where I can still remember being an upset seven-year-old, as angry as my dad at Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’. I have felt the dizzying highs and terrible lows intensely. I don’t think I have the nervous disposition to cope with the tension more than once every two years. So I do take notice of the official England songs, or at least I used to before they ceased to be. Obviously the best are World in Motion and Three Lions, but I have a soft spot for Back Home.

Opening with the familiar stadium clap-a-long bit (forgive the terrible terminology), Back Home is a lovely, charming postcard from more innocent times, set to a brass band backing, in which our proud, brave boys sing about how the fans will be watching their every move. Here are the world champions, at the top of their game, but rather than boast, they just hope they won’t let their country down. There’s no mention of them winning again (just as well), they just say they’ll give all they’ve got to give. Nice, isn’t it? I’m probably also fond of it because it became the theme tune to BBC2’s mid-90s comedy competition Fantasy Football League, presented by Three Lions singers Frank Skinner and David Baddiel.

The 1970 World Cup began on 31 May, while Back Home was still at number 1. Before England had even played a game they faced a setback when Moore was arrested and released on bail three days previous in Colombia on suspicion of stealing a bracelet.

England were in Group 3, along with Brazil, Romania and Czechoslovakia. They came second in their group, beating the latter two but losing to the mighty (and eventual winners) Brazil, one of the greatest teams of all time, featuring legends including Pelé.

The quarter-finals saw a repeat of the 1966 final, with England facing West Germany on 14 June. It looked like Moore and co would win once more, as they were up 2-0. But Banks was ill and out of the match, and substitute goalie Peter Bonetti let a goal by Frank Beckenbauer through in the 70th minute. And then Charlton was substituted, and Uwe Seeler made it 2-2 in the 81st minute. In extra time, Gerd Müller made it 3-2. It was all over for England.

There would be no more England World Cup songs for 12 years – we didn’t qualify in 1974 or 1978. And it would be 20 years before the England team would make it to number 1 again.

How many years before we’re back in the EU? Less than that, let’s hope.

Written & produced by: Bill Martin & Phil Coulter

Weeks at number 1: 3 (16 May-5 June)

Births:

Journalist Louis Theroux – 20 May
Field hockey player Jason Lee – 21 May
Model Naomi Campbell – 22 May

Meanwhile…

19 May: The government made a £20,000,000 loan available to help save the financially troubled car maker Rolls-Royce.

2 June: Cleddau Bridge, in Pembrokeshire, collapsed during erection. Four people died.

4 June: Tonga became independent from the UK.

127. The Highwaymen – Michael (1961)

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One of the more unexpected number 1s (at least, to modern ears) of 1961 was the result of the folk revival of the late 50s and early 60s. Acts such as The Kingston Trio offered a clean-cut, collegiate take on historical folk songs and presented them to mainstream audiences, and for a time, did very well. One such group were the Highwaymen, who went all the way to number 1 in the UK, US and Germany with Michael, their version of the African-American spiritual, Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.

Michael, Row the Boat Ashore was first recognised during the American Civil War at St Helena Island, one of South Carolina’s Sea Islands. It was sang by former slaves, known as freedmen, whose owners abandoned the island when the Union navy came to enforce a blockade. Abolitionist Charles Pickard Ware had come to supervise plantations on St Helena Island in 1862, and it was he that first wrote the song down in music notation.  It was first published in the influential collection Slave Songs of the United States in 1867, by Ware, his cousin William Francis Allen and Lucy McKim Garrison. According to Allen, the song refers to the River Jordan and the Archangel Michael, who is often referred to as a psychopomp. A psychopomp is an entity whose job it is to guide newly deceased souls to the afterlife.

The lyrics have changed many times over the years, but the most widely known version today came from Tony Saletan, who taught it to folk legend Pete Seeger in 1954, who in turn taught it to The Weavers. The success of this influential quartet, based in Greenwich City, was largely responsible for the folk revival.

The Highwaymen were first formed at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. The five-piece consisted of lead singer and arranger Dave Fisher, who had sang in a doo-wop group at high school, plus Bob Burnett, Steve Butts, Chan Daniels and Steve Trott. I’m not sure the decision on the group’s name was a wise move, because pictures of the freshman quintet suggest the least scary bunch of highwaymen you’d ever be likely to meet.

These Highwaymen do produce a rather sweet, homely sound, though. Beginning and ending with a lonesome whistle from banjo player Butts, it’s a polite, faithful rendition, with some nice harmonies, as well as solo spots for each singer. Some voices pull these bits off better than others, though. I suspect some people who sent this to number 1 may not have been aware of the song’s origins, and may have just bought it because it sounded religious and has a memorable tune. Mandolin player and guitarist Trott, who later became a federal appeals court judge, believed the success of their version came down to the fact that Fisher had added some minor chords that weren’t in the song before.

Other versions of Michael were also around at the time, with Lonnie Donegan reaching number six, also in 1961, and Harry Belafonte in 1962, but it was The Highwaymen’s cover that sold millions. They followed it up with a cover of Lead Belly’s Cotton Fields, which also performed well.

However, most of the group wanted to continue to pursue academic achievements. Trott was the first to depart in 1962, and was replaced by Gil Robbins, the father of actor Tim Robbins. That line-up split in 1964, with only Fisher continuing with music and putting together a new version of the group, before moving to Hollywood to compose and arrange for film and television.

The original line-up, minus Daniels, who had died of pneumonia on 2 August 1975, reunited in 1987 to celebrate their 25th college reunion. In 1990 they threatened legal action against the country music supergroup of  Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, who were also calling themselves The Highwaymen. The suit was dropped when wily old Nelson offered them a slot on stage as a warm-up act.

The group disbanded for good when Fisher died of bone marrow disease in 2010, aged 69. Burnett died a year later, leaving Trott and Butts as the only surviving members. The team behind This is Spinal Tap (1982) made an affectionate spoof of the collegiate folk scene in 2004. A Mighty Wind is well worth a watch.

Written by: Traditional

Producer: Dave Fisher

Weeks at number 1: 1 (12-18 October)

100. Anthony Newley – Do You Mind (1960)

When Anthony Newley scored his second and final number 1, Do You Mind became the 100th chart-topping single. It was the second number 1 to be written by Lionel Bart, following the best-selling single of 1959, Cliff Richard and The Drifters’ Living Doll.

Bart was only a month away from the opening of his musical, Oliver!, which premiered at the New Theatre in the West End on 30 June. The original cast featured Australian comedian Barry Humphries, later to be better known as Dame Edna Everage.

Do You Mind is superior to Newley’s first number 1, Why, but that’s not saying much. Featuring finger clicking and a style that’s not dissimilar from Living Doll, it’s better suited to the cheeky cockney stylings of Newley than the sickly previous single, and once more, you can’t help but imagine the young David Bowie having a go at it. Which is probably what Bowie was trying to achieve with Love You Till Tuesday (and that’s certainly superior to this track).

It’s another love song, basically Newley telling his love  how he’s going to shower her with kisses, make an idol of her etc, but with the added bonus of actually checking she’s alright with all that first. So at least he’s more of a gentleman than Cliff Richard, who prefers to lock his girl up in a trunk so no big hunk can steal her away from him.

These two number 1s were only early stages in the start of a very successful career for Newley. This was the last in a series of chart-toppers by cockneys in early 1960, but Newley began working with several figures from this brief ‘scene’. He formed a very successful songwriting partnership Leslie Bricusse, who had helped write Lonnie Donegan’s awful My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer). The material the duo came up with far surpasses anything they had made up to this point.

Their first musical, Stop the World – I Want to Get Off (1961) featured the multi-award-winning What Kind of Fool Am I? and they became the first British duo to win the Grammy for Song of the Year. In 1964 they wrote the lyrics for Goldfinger, sang by Shirley Bassey for the James Bond film of the same name. John Barry, who had arranged Adam Faith’s two number 1s, What Do You Want? and Poor Me, composed the music. The same year, they also wrote Feeling Good, which became legendary thanks to Nina Simone in 1965.

In 1963 he had married Joan Collins, having already had two wives. They had a son together but split in 1970, remaining friends, and he married again a year later.

In 1971, Newley and Bricusse wrote the music for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, starring the brilliant Gene Wilder. As I’ve stated here before, I’m not much of a fan of musicals, but I’ve always loved this, and if I’m feeling particularly sentimental and I’m watching it with my daughters, Pure Imagination can almost move me to tears, particularly since the death of Gene Wilder. The Candy Man was also later a big hit for Sammy Davis Jr.

Newley had already married twice before his wedding to Joan Collins. A distinctly British character, he couldn’t quite repeat his success abroad, but he did appear on game shows and chat shows in the 70s. Always versatile, he continued to do well with music, film, TV and theatre, but his star did begin to wane.

In 1992 he took the title role in Scrooge: The Musical. This was a stage version of the 1970 film featuring Albert Finney as the miser, with the music by Bricusse. Say what you like but I won’t have anyone tell me that this isn’t the definitive version of A Christmas Carol. There you go, that’s two musicals I’ve admitted loving in one blog. The show ran until 1997, with fellow 50s cockney star Tommy Steele (who had a 1957 number 1 with Singing the Blues) later taking his place.

In 1998 he featured in BBC1’s flagship soap opera EastEnders. He was to become a regular, but ill health took hold. He finally succumbed to cancer on 14 April 1999, aged 67.

Newley’s two number 1s are a poor yardstick to measure him by, really, and there was much more to him than the David Bowie comparison. Hopefully though, not as much as Newley’s own son, Sacha, recently claimed. He made news headlines in late 2017 when he said that his father loved young girls and this is what caused the split between him and Joan Collins. But how young? Sacha called his father a paedophile, causing Collins to issue a public statement strongly denying he ever had any involvement with underage girls.

Written by: Lionel Bart

Producer: Ray Horricks

Weeks at number 1: 1 (28 April-4 May)

Births:

Author Ian Rankin – 28 April

Deaths:

Architect Charles Holden – 1 May

Meanwhile…

3 May: Burnley FC won the Football League First Division title. They defeated Manchester City 2-1, meaning that FA Cup finalists Wolverhampton Wanderers missed out on becoming the first team of the 20th century to win both the league title and the FA Cup.

99. Lonnie Donegan – My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) (1960)

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Following Johnny Preston’s Running Bear, the charts took another strange turn. ‘King of Skiffle’ Lonnie Donegan was back, but skiffle wasn’t. It burnt out not long after his second number 1, Gamblin’ Man/Puttin’ On the Style in 1957. So what style was Donegan putting on now? Sadly, it was music hall.

My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) had its origins in the song My Old Man’s a Fireman (On the Elder Dempster Line), which was a student’s union song in Birmingham before becoming popular with soldiers during World War One. Donegan and his band would perform this on stage, and at some point some foolish A&R man told him he thought it could be a hit. The band adapted it, and once they had enough to work with, decided to record it.

My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) was credited to Donegan and his road manager Peter Buchanan. After its original release, Beverley Thorn also received a credit. Thorn was in fact a pseudonym for Leslie Bricusse, who was soon to enjoy a fruitful writing partnership with Anthony Newley. Why Beverley Thorn? No idea.  The single was recorded live at Gaumont Cinema in Doncaster, Yorkshire, on 20 February, and released a month later, hitting the top very quickly. Why? Again, no idea.

The fact a man responsible for pioneering music like Rock Island Line and Cumberland Gap should become best known for such a dire song is criminal. My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) should have remained a live skit and nothing more. Now obviously, it made him number 1 for a third time, and opened him up to a new audience, but the release shocked hardcore skiffle fans, and did his credibility no good at all. I have to side with the skiffle fans. I’m no purist, and I have plenty of time for comedy songs too, but I can’t hear anything funny here at all. For example:

‘Lonnie: I say, I say, I say!
Les: Huh?
Lonnie: My dustbin’s full of lilies
Les: Well throw ’em away then!
Lonnie: I can’t: Lily’s wearing them’

Clearly music hall still had a place in the 60s. In fact it was still popular into the 80s, judging by the success of the BBC’s The Good Old Days. Also, Donegan released this at exactly the right time, as, with Adam Faith and Anthony Newley scoring two number 1s each, cockney singers were clearly the in thing. But that craze died down very soon, and by 1962, as several of the acts inspired by him began to make waves, Donegan fell out of favour with mainstream audiences, and he turned to producing instead.

In the mid-70s he temporarily reunited with the rest of the Chris Barber Band, but was waylaid by a heart attack in 1976. Two years later, his album Putting On the Style featured re-recordings of his old tracks, with backing from big names such as Ringo Starr, Brian May and Elton John.

By the end of the millennium, Donegan had the reputation of a music legend, appearing at Glastonbury Festival in 1999 and becoming an MBE in 2000. However, he had continued to suffer heart problems, and passed away on 3 November 2002 at the age of 71.

Lonnie Donegan has been one of the revelations of this blog for me. Although highly-regarded at the end of his life, I feel he should be considered more important for his influence on British music. Had it not been for his incendiary recordings and shows in the mid-50s, The Beatles, The Who and Led Zeppelin may not have existed, and we may have been permanently stuck with the safe pop and easy listening that was so popular in 1960. Cumberland Gap was a very close runner-up for the best number 1 of the 50s, as I stated here. It’s best to remember him for that, and look upon My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) as a bad joke that got out of hand.

Written by: Lonnie Donegan, Peter Buchanan & Beverly Thorn

Producers: Alan A Freeman & Michael Barclay

Weeks at number 1: 4 (31 March-27 April)

Births:

Athlete Linford Christie – 2 April
Soprano Jane Eaglen – 4 April
Presenter Jeremy Clarkson – 11 April
Chef Gary Rhodes – 22 April
Duran Duran drummer Roger Taylor – 26 April
Author Ian Rankin – 28 April 

Meanwhile…

1 April: A Mr Bill Griggs of Northampton began marketing Dr Martens boots on 1 April.

8 April: The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had their second son christened as Andrew Albert Christian Edward.

17 April: The music world was shocked when US rock’n’roll star Eddie Cochran, who was touring Britain, was killed in a car crash in Wiltshire. There’ll be more on him in a future blog.

Every 50s Number 1

The Intro

So, my first decade of number 1s is finished, 94 songs and seven months later. When I decided to review every UK number 1, I considered taking a random approach, but I decided starting right from the beginning would give me a wider knowledge of the progression of pop and pop culture in the UK. I did find the idea of kicking off with the 50s a potentially arduous task, however. Although there are exceptions, my interest in music tends to really start in 1963 with The Beatles’ first album, and I know I’m not alone in feeling like that. I feared starting with the 50s would put some readers off. Also, it’s the decade that’s as far out of my comfort zone as I’m going to get with this mammoth blog task I’ve set myself.

Except maybe it isn’t.

The older I get (38 currently), I feel I’m going to really struggle with the 2010s. Don’t understand the kids of today, cannot stand autotune, etc… Anyway, I find myself getting more out of the 50s far more than I initially expected. It’s still music I find myself respecting rather than enjoying, and there haven’t been many I’ll be downloading for future listens I have to confess, but it has been a fascinating journey, and I’m surprised at how much music changed from 1952 to 1959.

Before I finish with the decade and move on to the swinging 60s, I decided it would be nice to (kind-of) repeat the task I set myself in December. Back then I listened to every Christmas number 1 in order, in one session, and decided on a best and worst for each decade, before coming up with an overall best and worst. That blog seemed to generate a lot of interest, so I thought I’d do the same with the 50s. I decided against listening to all 94 songs in one go, that seemed a little bit much, so I decided to take it a year at a time.

1952/53

Where it all began. As Al Martino’s Here in My Heart was the only number 1 of 1952, I’ve lumped it in with 1953. It’s neither the best nor worst of what followed. In general, the record-buying public will still in thrall of string-laden love songs, often melancholy, overwrought ballads, with the emphasis on how well the singer could hold a note. Form over content. Not the kind of music that floats my boat, really. It was less than ten years since World War Two, and music fans still liked to wade through syrupy songs of missing loved ones abroad. In 1953’s defence, though, at least it had a healthy amount of female singers topping the charts. Once rock’n’roll takes hold, they largely disappeared bar a few exceptions. There’s some strange novelty songs in there that you wouldn’t think of as chart-toppers – see (How Much is) That Doggie in the Window? and the un-PC She Wears Red Feathers. Frankie Laine dominated that year.

The Best:

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Kay Starr – Comes A-Long A-Love: Only three tracks in and already there were elements of a rock’n’roll sound mixed in with jazz. This took me by surprise, and it was more than welcome. Kay Starr’s strong vocal mixed with a breezy tune had a vital element missing from other songs that year – fun.

The Worst:

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David Whitfield with Stanley Black & His Orchestra – Answer Me: This is the decade at its least appealing to me. It’s so leaden and dreary. Whitfield’s vocals are too affected and operatic. The Frankie Laine version was better, but not by much, as it’s a pretty poor song anyway.

1954

Generally more of the same, but of a higher standard. Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and even Vera Lynn all make appearances, but they’re not their finest works. Rosemary Clooney’s jolly old knees-up about death, This Ole House is one of the highlights. A couple of instrumentals make it big, one good (Winifred Atwell’s Let’s Have Another Party), one not so good (Eddie Calvert’s Oh Mein Papa)

The Best:

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Johnnie Ray – Such a Night: Mr Emotion was probably the revelation of the decade for me. Previously I only knew him for his namecheck in Come On Eileen, and that Morrissey used to wear hearing aid in tribute to him.  I referred to him as the ‘prototype eccentric rock’n’roll star’, and his three number 1s were all unique forerunners of the music that was to follow. This one in particular must have sounded pretty racy at the time, and contained the first hint of sex, one of pop’s key ingredients.

The Worst:

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The Stargazers with Syd Dean & His Orchestra –  I See the Moon: This is genuinely offensive to my ears. At the time it was considered a comedy song. Praise be that comedy has moved on from ‘funny’ voices. It’s the audio equivalent of Colin Hunt from The Fast Show. When I first heard this I said the Stargazers sounded pissed-up and tone deaf. Nothing has happened to change my mind. Six weeks at the top of the charts?!

1955

The year of mambo, and Bill Haley. Perez ‘Prez’ Prado rules the roost when it comes to the former, with his version of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White beating Eddie Calvert’s safer cover. Rosemary Clooney’s Mambo Italiano may not be the real deal but it’s a fun spoof. Tony Bennett makes his one and only appearance to date, and Slim Whitman’s haunting Rose Marie makes a big impact.

The Best:

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Bill Haley & His Comets – Rock Around the Clock: Tempting as it might be to go against the grain here and pick something less predictable, I can’t. Yes it must be nigh-on impossible to hear this and imagine the impact the decade’s best-seller made at the time, and it sounds safe now, but it’s still catchy as hell, and for me, it’s all about that guitar solo.

The Worst:

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Jimmy Young with Bob Sharples & His Music – Unchained Melody: Another one of the most famous songs of all time, but this is nowhere near as good as The Righteous Brothers version. It’s not even as good as Robson & Jerome’s. The blame doesn’t entirely lie with poor Jimmy Young, as the production is all over the place, but he really doesn’t help matters, lurching from barely trying to bellowing within seconds.

1956

Several strong singles this year, mainly Tennessee Ernie Ford’s tough ode to the working man, Sixteen Tons, and Johnnie Ray’s melancholic Christmas number 1, Just Walkin’ in the Rain, featuring an unforgettable whistling refrain. Elvis has arrived, but the UK has to make do with Pat Boone at the top instead with I’ll Be Home. Dean Martin makes his only appearance, and Doris Day returns with signature tune Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).

The Best:

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The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon – Why Do Fools Fall in Love: The first doo-wop song to make it to the top. The Teenagers one and only big hit was so influential on later soul and funk bands, and still sounds good to this day. Such a shame the band, and particularly Lymon, fell apart so soon.

The Worst:

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Anne Shelton with Wally Stott & His Orchestra – Lay Down Your Arms: Shudder. I disliked this song even more the second time around. I’m all for strong women, but Shelton needs to calm down a bit. Her poor lover must be terrified.

1957

The year skiffle hit the top of the charts. Lonnie Donegan’s three number 1 songs left an indelible mark on music, even if it took some time for its impact to become apparent. 1957 is the strongest year for number 1s to date, and rock’n’roll is now dominant. Even the most old-fashioned song, Frankie Vaughan’s The Garden of Eden, sounds good. Legends such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly make their first appearances, and the former’s cultural impact becomes apparent, with Tommy Steele and Andy Williams impersonating him, to an occasionally embarrassing degree.

The Best:

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Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group – Cumberland Gap: I used to think skiffle was a rather laughably quaint genre played on cheap, silly instruments. It’s only by listening to what came before Lonnie Donegan that I now understand and appreciate its true effect – to me it’s now almost as important as punk. The hardest part of choosing the best of this year was picking between this and Donegan’s Gamblin’ Man, with it’s fiery ending, but Cumberland Gap came first and sounded like nothing I’d listened to up to that point.

The Worst:

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Guy Mitchell with Jimmy Carroll – Rock-a-Billy: Cheeky chappie Mitchell’s fourth and final chart-topper is mean-spirited and has the laziest chorus of any number 1 so far. A shame, as his previous single at the start of the year, Singing the Blues, proved he could actually be a dab hand at this new pop sound.

1958

Elvis was really on form with his second number 1 – Jailhouse Rock narrowly misses out on my favourite of this year and could have easily won in another year. Burt Bacharach and Hal David made their mark with two concurrent number 1s for Michael Holliday and Perry Como. Connie Francis finally returned a female artist to the top with a versatile selection of solid tunes – her Stupid Cupid introduced Neil Sedaka to the charts. The Everly Brothers made an excellent debut with the year’s highest seller, All I Have to Do is Dream, and Hoots Mon by Lord Rockingham’s XI was the finest novelty number 1 of the decade.

The Best:

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Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of Fire: Direct, simplistic, fun, horny and mad, this just edges past Jailhouse Rock for me and got 1958 off to a great start. As far removed from some of the dreary monotony of 1953 as it’s possible to get in the same decade.

The Worst:

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Vic Damone – On the Street Where You Live: I feel bad for doing this when Vic Damone has so recently passed away, but it really does stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of 1958’s list. It sounds like it belongs in 1954. Sorry, Vic. RIP.

1959

Buddy Holly’s untimely death made It Doesn’t Matter Anymore the first posthumous chart-topper, and was a big influence on Adam Faith’s first number 1, What Do You Want?. Elvis was away in the army, and his singles output quality began to slip with A Fool Such as I/I Need Your Love Tonight. Rock’n’roll went all dreamy and teenage-orientated, with Jerry Keller’s one-hit wonder Here Comes Summer and Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover, before Darin used his success to take an interesting career change. Cliff Richard made his first of many appearances, with Living Doll the year’s best-seller, and Shirley Bassey made her debut at number 1. The decade ended with Emile Ford and the Checkmates’ solid What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?.

The Best:

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Bobby Darin – Mack the KnifeA fascinating diversion from his previous number 1, Darin resisted scaring his young fans away with this swinging celebration of a serial killer, but Atlantic Records pushed for it anyway. It’s likely the fans ignored the lyrics and chose to be swept away by his cool vocals and the power and punch of the backing band. Suddenly pop was taking a dark turn, if you listened closely enough. Much covered, but probably never bettered.

The Worst:

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Russ Conway – Side Saddle: This one totally baffled me when I wrote my blog, and while I found it slightly better the second time around, I still can’t quite believe this was such a success, but context is everything, I guess. Nonetheless, it’s still the weakest number 1 of the year.

The Best 50s Number 1 Ever is…

Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of FireDeciding on the best single proved to be much tougher than I first thought. It was very difficult to decide between this and Cumberland Gap, and Mack the Knife wasn’t far behind, either. Both songs shook up the music world, but in different ways. The winner is so ensconced in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine how it must have sounded as new, whereas I came in to Cumberland Gap completely fresh. If this decision was based on which single is most important, I’d have to award it to Cumberland Gap, as the influence of skiffle was so important on the following decade. It proved you didn’t have to have the voice of an opera singer to be at number 1, you didn’t have to have an orchestra backing you, and you didn’t even have to play expensive instruments. You could just make an all-mighty racket.

However, as impressed as I was by it, in the end this decision should also be based on personal enjoyment, as well as influence, mass appeal, inventiveness… and Great Balls of Fire has all of these. And despite me knowing it so well, it still managed to sound new and exciting, even after all this time. Plus, as great as Cumberland Gap sounds compared to most of the competition, in a way I had heard it before with the very similar and better known Rock Island Line. So congratulations, Jerry Lee Lewis. Despite being one of pop music’s first controversial figures, and therefore your brief period in the charts, you’ve managed to top Elvis and many other 50s legends, and Great Balls of Fire is one hell of a tune. You ripped up the rulebook when it came to the piano, and you showed the way pop was heading when it came to showmanship on the stage. And your best work was later used to sell cheese. But that’s record companies for you.

The Worst 50s Number 1 Ever is…

The Stargazers with Syd Dean & His Orchestra – I See the MoonNo contest. Reviewing every number 1 of the 50s was at times trying, and I knew it would be, but nothing prepared me for this. Don’t get me wrong, unlike many ‘serious music’ obsessives, there is a small place in my heart for comedy and novelty songs as genres, if they’re done right. And as I said above, context is everything. But I See the Moon is genuinely painful to listen to. I don’t get the joke, unless the joke is ‘Listen to how awful we sound’, in which case, the joke isn’t funny. In a decade with so number 1s that would be unimaginable now, I See the Moon is beyond comprehension to my poor ears.

The Outro

While I’m keen to get onto the number 1s of the 60s, and I originally saw reviewing the 50s tracks as a necessary evil in order to make it to the next batch, I am sorry to see it go. I’ve learnt a lot, about the social history as well as the music of the time, and it’s been a fascinating look at pop’s baby steps. Next, the decade of The Beatles, the Stones, Swinging London, the return of Labour to government, psychedelia, colour TV, British pop dominating at home and abroad… I can’t wait and I hope you can’t too.

Blogs on every 50s number 1 are available to view via the Archive section.

64. The Crickets – That’ll Be the Day (1957)

By the autumn, 1957 had proved to be an important year in the music charts, but there was more to come. Future My Way songwriter Paul Anka’s Diana was prevented from a 10th week at the top by a new group known as The Crickets, led by the unassuming bespectacled figure Buddy Holly.

Born Charles Hardin Holley in Lubbock, Texas on 7 September 1936, he was born into a musical family and learned to sing at a young age, drawing from diverse influences including gospel and country. The youngest of the Holleys was known by the nickname ‘Buddy’ from childhood.

When his brother Larry returned from service in World War Two he brought a guitar for his brother, and eventually he switched from piano lessons to learn his new instrument. It soon became apparent he was very talented, and Holly appeared on local television in 1952.

Three years later he was opening for rock’n’roll figureheads Elvis Presley and Bill Haley & His Comets. The following year he recorded an album of rockabilly with his new band, Buddy and The Two Tones, for Decca Records. Upon signing with them, his surname was misspelled, and Buddy Holly was born. The album was unsuccessful and Holly wasn’t happy with the sound he achieved with producer Owen Bradley, so he decided to head to New Mexico to record demos with Norman Petty. To avoid legal problems, a new name was needed for the group. They considered calling themselves The Beetles, but settled on The Crickets.

With Buddy Holly on vocals and lead guitar, rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan, Joe B. Mauldin as bassist and Jerry Allison on drums, their resulting popularity helped define the classic four-piece band line-up.

Much happier with the results under Petty, they decided to release the new version of That’ll Be the Day as a single. Although written by Holly and Allison, Petty insisted on a writing credit too.

It’s perhaps hard now to understand the impact That’ll Be the Day had in 1957. Much like Elvis and skiffle, it proved so influential, but unlike, say, Lonnie Donegan’s Cumberland Gap, it has aged, and is perhaps more comparable to Elvis’s All Shook Up – a little mannered and safe (the stuttering vocals can irritate), but a sign of great promise to come. The final line, ‘That’ll be the day when I die’ is still eerily prescient.

For an all-too-brief time though, the only way was up for Buddy Holly. He began churning out hits, and his name soon got top billing over the rest of The Crickets. His horn-rimmed glasses became hugely popular with teenagers, and future music legends John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, and Mick Jagger, to name but a few, were listening intently. Holly had one more number 1 to come, as a solo artist, but sadly he wasn’t around to enjoy it.

Written by: Jerry Allison, Buddy Holly & Norman Petty

Producer: Norman Petty

Weeks at number 1: 3 (1-21 November)

Deaths:

Architect William Haywood – 4 November

Meanwhile…

15 November: Flying boat City of Sydney crashed into a disused chalk pit on the Isle of Wight. The Aquila Airways Solent crash was at the time the worst ever air disaster to happen on English soil, killing 45 people.