72. Vic Damone – On the Street Where You Live (1958)

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The old-school swingers may have been on the wane, but they didn’t go down without a fight. Vic Damone’s On the Street Where You Live dates back to 1956. Written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner for the musical My Fair Lady, the show had enjoyed two years of huge stateside success and had recently opened in London, causing the single to surge up the charts. Ironic really, considering Loewe wasn’t happy with the tune and had wanted it removing before the musical was released.

It was the last number 1 produced by Mitch Miller, who had been responsible for many chart-toppers – Guy Mitchell’s She Wears Red FeathersLook at That Girl and Singing the Blues, Johnnie Ray’s Such a Night, Just Walkin’ in the Rain and Yes Tonight Josephine, and Rosemary Clooney with the Mellomen’s  Mambo Italiano. Mitchell hated rock’n’roll, probably because he knew his demand as a producer would drop.

He remains a divisive figure, for relying on novelty songs and adding gimmicks to records, and artists including Frank Sinatra resented some of his methods. There’s no denying his hit rate though, and his influence would remain. Miller helped conceive the idea of sound effects and soundscapes. Without Miller, there may not have been a George Martin, and without George Martin, there may not have been a Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Despite numerous versions of On the Street Where You Live, Damone’s remains the most popular. He was born Vito Rocco Farinola in Brooklyn, New York on 12 June 1928 to Italian emigrants.

Like so many others, he was inspired by Sinatra to become a singer. He dropped out of high school when his father was injured at work, and worked as an usher elevator operator at the Paramount Theatre in Manhattan. One day he met Perry Como, and seizing his opportunity, he stopped the elevator between floors and sang for him. Como was impressed and referred him to a local bandleader. From there, he went on to appear on and win an edition of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in 1947, which was later used as a springboard for stardom by Marvin Rainwater and Connie Francis, who had also had number 1s in 1958.

Damone had a number of hits, and also began appearing in films, before going into the army, where he served with Johnny Cash.

Despite being written in 1956, Damone’s On the Street Where You Live sounds even older, and harks back to the first number 1, Al Martino’s Here in My Heart. Damone bellows out the vocals over a grand backing. Not much of a fan of musicals, the only part of this song I actually recognised was the famous opening couplet

‘I have often walked down this street before
But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before’

I think my dad liked to sing it when I was growing up, although I may be confusing this with any number of songs my dad likes to occasionally burst into.

I have to confess though that this song leaves me cold. Like many love songs in musicals, it lays on the sentiment way too thick, and after so many progressive number 1s this felt like a big, unnecessary step back. On the Street Where You Live enjoyed a fortnight at the top, but shared its second week with The Everly Brothers’ double A-side All I Have to Do Is Dream/Claudette.

Damone’s music, film and television careers continued into the 70s, when bankruptcy caused him to take up residency in Las Vegas. He was offered the role of Johnny Fontane in The Godfather (1972) but turned it down, and Al Martino accepted it instead.

Damone retired after suffering a stroke in 2002, the same year he released his final album.

He had some dodgy connections in his time. In his autobiography he revealed he was once dangled out of a hotel window by a Mafia member after breaking off his relationship with the thug’s daughter for insulting Damone’s mother. His life was allegedly spared when New York mob boss Frank Costello ruled in his favour. Damone’s daughter also once recalled that a bookie showed up insisting that Damone owed him a lot of money. The singer phoned Sinatra and asked him to intervene, but when ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ arrived on the scene, the bookie showed him a secret sign, which meant Sinatra had to keep out of it. Damone had to pay it all back.

By far Damone’s dodgiest connection, however, was President Trump, who counted him as a close friend. In May 2016, Trump offered to be a character witness for the singer during a legal battle with his stepdaughters.

Damone died of complications from a respiratory illness on 11 Feb 2018. He was 89.

Written by: Frederick Loewe & Alan Jay Lerner

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 2 (27 June-10 July)

Births:

Racewalker Les Morton – 1 July 

Deaths:

Poet Alfred Noyes – 28 June

53. Guy Mitchell with Ray Conniff & His Orchestra – Singing the Blues (1957)

1957 began with happy-go-lucky crooner Guy Mitchell at the top for the third time, with his version of Singing the Blues.

Previously recorded by country star Marty Robbins, it had been written by Mervin Endsley, a musician who had contracted polio at the age of three and had been in a wheelchair ever since. From the age of 11 he spent three years in the unfortunately-named Crippled Children’s Hospital in Memphis. While there he became a huge country music fan and taught himself the guitar. He had written Singing the Blues in 1954 and taken it to Nashville in the hope of getting a hit. And a hit is what he got, several times over.

I wasn’t too flattering about Mitchell’s 1953 number 1s – She Wears Red Feathers and Look at That Girl – but Singing the Blues is a cut above both of them.

Produced once more by Mitch Miller, Mitchell is in his element here. The country element is hard to detect – this version of Singing the Blues sounds more like the older generation trying to harness rock’n’roll and put their own, safer, stamp on it. Unlike Kay Starr on (The) Rock and Roll Waltz, Mitchell and Miller pull it off. That’s largely down to the song itself, a winning tune set to effectively downbeat lyrics, rather than a naff novelty song with a new genre awkwardly shoved into it.

Mitchell, from the evidence I’ve heard, couldn’t sing a sad song if he tried, and he certainly doesn’t try here. Somehow though, it all gels, with Mitchell turning it into a cheeky come-on over a chirpy backing of whistling, ukulele and backing harmonies. He’s hoping to charm his ex into coming back.

And listeners kept coming back to Singing the Blues – his version made it to number 1 for two more week-long stints, making him one of only five acts to have the same number 1 on three separate occasions. The other artists are Frankie Laine with I Believe, Pharrell Williams with Happy, What Do You Mean? by Justin Bieber and Despacito (Remix) by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber.

At the same time as the Mitchell and Robbins versions were released, they found themselves competing with a third, by up-and-coming rock’n’roller Tommy Steele. More on that next time…

Written by: Melvin Endsley

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 3 (4-10 January, 18-24 January & 1-7 February)

Births:

Astronaut Michael Foale – 6 January
Journalist Francis Wheen -22 January
Comedian Adrian Edmondson – 24 January 

Meanwhile…

9 January: 1957 began with political change. Prime Minister Anthony Eden had struggled at the end of 1956 to recover from the debacle of Suez, and perhaps because of this he had suffered ill health. His doctors advised him to quit if he wanted to carry on living, and so he resigned. A day later, with no formal process in place at the time, the Conservative Party decided he would be succeeded by then-Chancellor Harold Macmillan. The political situation was so rocky at the time that Macmillan told the Queen he could not promise the government would last longer than six weeks.

28. Rosemary Clooney with The Mellomen – Mambo Italiano (1955)

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A lot of writers will tell you that sometimes their best work comes when they’re hard-pushed to meet a deadline. This is how Bob Merrill came up with Mambo Italiano. He was already a renowned hitmaker. Indeed, this became his fourth UK number 1, after She Wears Red Feathers, (How Much is That) Doggie in the Window? and Look at That Girl. Merrill was looking for a way to cash in on the craze for mambo music in New York in 1954, and considered Rosemary Clooney the best artist for the job. The problem was, he couldn’t think of a tune and he was running out of time, until one night he was eating in an Italian restaurant and it came to him. He quickly scribbled his idea on a napkin, rang the studio from the restaurant payphone and dictated the whole thing to producer Mitch Miller and the studio pianist.

Whether this explains the fact the lyrics are often either lazy, stereotypical Italian (basically, any Italian word an American would have known, and some Spanish as well) or actual gibberish, I’m not sure. let’s face it, Merrill had written borderline offensive songs before (She Wears Red Feathers), and been very successful with it. In less enlightened times, who was going to stop him? He gets away with it on Mambo Italiano for two reasons. One, the tune is so catchy. Two, Rosemary Clooney’s performance.

Clooney throws herself into the song completely, and does a very good impersonation of an Italian despite her Irish-American upbringing. This is in part due to the many Italian musicians she worked with. She’s the embodiment of the lusty temptress, and she even throws in some feral growling at times. It’s easily the sexiest number one yet. With this and This Ole House, that’s two good number 1s in a row from Clooney.

Mambo Italiano has been covered many times since, with Dean Martin’s being probably the most notable. Martin was Italian-American and didn’t seem to have a problem with the song. In fact, neither did Italy, as it became popular there in 1956 thanks to a cover by Carla Boni. I guess as far as national stereotypes go, ‘those Italians are always horny and we like their food’ is one of the better ones.

Mambo Italiano knocked Dickie Valentine’s Finger of Suspicion off the top spot for a week, before Valentine took over again for another fortnight. A further two-week stint followed for Clooney, and then her time at number 1 was over.

She continued to have television and music success for many years though, with two variety series in the US in 1956-57. She would often appear with Bing Crosby on TV too.

Clooney would struggle throughout her life, suffering several nervous breakdowns, depression, prescription drug addiction, two divorces to actor José Ferrer and money problems.

Unlike many stars from her era, she continued to record and act through the decades. In 1995 she appeared alongside her nephew George in US drama hit ER, which earned her an Emmy nomination.

Clooney was a long-time smoker though, and despite surgery to remove lung cancer, she died on 29 June 2002, aged 74.

Who were The Mellomen, who were credited alongside her on this track? They were a very popular singing quartet, that’s who. At this time they consisted of Thurl Ravenscroft (also the voice of Tony the Tiger, who helped out Clooney on This Ole House), Max Smith, Bill Lee and Bob Hamlin. They went under several guises through the years, and together, and separately, they recorded with Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby and Doris Day, as well as providing voices for Disney films including Alice in Wonderland (1951) and The Jungle Book (1967).

Written by: Bob Merrill

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 3 (14-20 January, 4-17 February)

19. Johnnie Ray – Such a Night (1954)

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‘Poor old Johnnie Ray sounded sad upon the radio
He moved a million hearts in mono.’

Immortalised in the video and opening line of Come On Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners,  it’s a shame that it seems to be what US singer and songwriter Johnnie Ray is best known for these days.

As great a song as it is, he deserves better. In many ways the prototype eccentric rock’n’roll star, he was troubled, overtly sexual and most of all, different. He wasn’t a cardigan crooner or your typical teen idol, but for a time he was just as popular. Ray was a big influence on Elvis Presley, who later covered this song, and Morrissey wore a hearing aid in the early years of The Smiths in tribute.

Born 10 January 1927, John Alvin Ray was raised in Dallas, Oregon. The Rays lived briefly on a farm, and at the age of three, he began playing piano. At 12, he was singing in the church choir.

Aged 13 and living in Portland, Oregon, Ray became deaf in his left ear following an accident at the Boy Scouts, which is why he was known for wearing a hearing aid in concert. He also later explained the incident had a profound impact on his unique performance style.

Ray was one of the first, if not the first star to show you could turn your weaknesses into your greatest strengths. He was influenced by, among others, Kay Starr, whose jazzy, rhythmic singing on previous number 1, Comes A-Long A-Love was one of the earliest signals of rock’n’roll to make the charts.

At 15 Ray was singing on a local radio station, and performing in comedy and theatre shows. Later, he moved to Detroit, Michigan, and gained a cult following for his live performances. He signed his first record deal in 1951.

In 1952 Ray became famous for the first of several appearances on US TV’s Toast of the Town (which became The Ed Sullivan Show three years later). Soon after the double-A side Cry/The Little White Cloud That Cried made him a teen idol. On 30 April, his cover of Such a Night became his first UK number 1.

Such a Night had originally been a hit for soul group The Drifters. It was songwriter Lincoln Chase’s first big hit, and caused some controversy by being a bit too racy. Ray had no qualms about not only covering it, but making it sound positively filthy by the usual standards of the day. The lyrics and rhymes are very basic, but it’s all about the delivery with this song, produced by hitmaker Mitch Miller. Ray doesn’t hold back, he grunts and groans, and makes it clear he’s not just talking about kissing his girl.

Sex had made its way to the top of the charts (the nudge-nudge wink-wink of Guy Mitchell’s Look at That Girl barely compares) for the first time, and already the likes of Frankie Laine started to look old-fashioned by comparison. Ray would do better, but rock’n’roll doesn’t seem so far away anymore.

Written by: Lincoln Chase

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 1 (30 April-6 May)

Deaths:

Journalist JC Forbes – 6 May

Meanwhile…

6 May: Athlete Roger Bannister made history, becoming the first person to break the four-minute mile.

12. Guy Mitchell – Look at That Girl (1953)

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The majority of number 1 singles so far have been a bit on the serious side, with maudlin ballads often ruling the roost. Finally, after Frankie Laine’s I Believe‘s final three-week stint at the top (making a record-breaking total of 18), cheeky chap Guy Mitchell was back. Thankfully, this time he’s avoiding the slight racism of She Wears Red Feathers, too.

Bob Merrill, one of the era’s chief hitmakers, totted up a third number 1 songwriting credit here, after also being responsible for Mitchell’s She Wears Red Feathers and Lita Roza’s (How Much is) That Doggie in the Window?. With producing supremo Mitch Mitchell also back on board, Look at That Girl went to number 1 on 11 September and stayed there for an impressive six weeks.

Less impressive is the song itself. Yes, finally something a bit more light-hearted, but despite the bounciness of the tune and Mitchell giving it his all, it’s easily forgotten. A few things are of note though. Firstly, the lyrics are almost saucy, certainly if you compare them to previous number ones, although that’s not saying much.

‘Look at that girl, you see what I see
Oh look at that girl, she’s walking straight to me
That’s right, last night I held her tight
Ho ho it happens all the time
I look at that girl, and I can’t believe she’s mine’

Mitchell, you dirty dog! This is explicit, by 1953 standards. Also, Look at That Girl features two elements that would become pop staples in years to come, and haven’t featured in number ones yet. Handclaps! And, best of all, a guitar solo!

Obvious ingredients to pop tunes yet they sounded almost shocking when I first heard this, after what had come before. It was an unusual piece for Mitchell as well, who was more used to performing novelty songs. Just like She Wears Red Feathers, Look at That Girl was also more successful in the UK than the US. It didn’t even chart there, and it marked the end of the success for Mitchell, Merrill and Miller as a trio together. With names like that, perhaps they should have become a law firm.

Written by: Bob Merrill

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 6 (11 September-22 October)

Births

Comedian Les Dennis – 12 October
Labour MP Peter Mandelson – 21 October

Deaths:

Physicist Lewis Fry Richardson – 30 September

Meanwhile…

26 September: The government had sweet news when they ended post-war sugar rationing. Slowly, but surely, the UK was sweeping off the post-war malaise.