270. The Beatles with Billy Preston – Get Back (1969)

British Leyland Motor Corporation launched Britain’s first hatchback car on 24 April. The Austin Maxi was designed to compete with family saloons like the Ford Cortina. It was also the day on which the final episode of the long-running BBC Radio drama Mrs Dales Diary was broadcast.

It was also a big week in football, as Manchester City won the FA Cup on 26 April with a 1-0 win over Leicester City at Wembley. Two days later, Leeds United won the Football league First Division title for the first time.

The famed ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II embarked on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 2 May. And 29 May saw the release of one of my favourite movies of all time (I’m not even kidding) – Carry On Camping. It became the biggest film at the box office of 1969.

All these events transpired during the six-week run at the top for Get Back. Hard to believe it but I’m nearly at the end of the Beatles’ career. This 16th number 1 was the last to feature John, Paul, George and Ringo together – plus one extra. For the first time, they gave equal billing to another musician – keyboardist Billy Preston.

The Beatles’ eponymous double LP hadn’t made the same cultural impact as Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band upon its release, but it was a wonder it had even been finished, as the sessions had been tense, with Harrison and Starr walking out at separate points. McCartney searched for a new project to keep them afloat.

In January 1969, the same month that the Yellow Submarine album was released, they regrouped. Macca suggested they continue down the back-to-basics road they started on the previous year, but with a twist. They would record an album of new material, rehearse it, then perform it in front of a live audience. The results would be made into an album and TV special called Beatles at Work. They hired Michael Lindsay-Hogg to film them rehearsing at Twickenham Studios that month.

What followed did nothing for inter-band relations. Lennon and Harrison later described the rehearsals as the lowest point the band ever experienced. Harrison, irritated by both Lennon and McCartney in particular, who was captured on camera patronising the guitarist, walked out. He returned five days later, but issued an ultimatum. They must abandon the idea of a live performance, and concentrate on getting the album, by that point known as Get Back, finished, and then use the songs for the TV show. He also wanted out of Twickenham, a cold location that did nothing for the frosty atmosphere amongst the Fab Four (and of course Yoko Ono). The Beatles decided they would relocate to the newly completed Apple Studios and use Lindsay-Hogg’s footage to make a new documentary film.

Among the many songs rehearsed that January was Get Back, intended to be the project’s title track. It originated from a jam session during rehearsals on 7 January. McCartney played with the lyric to a George Harrison tune from 1968. Sour Milk Sea was originally planned for The Beatles but surfaced as a single by Jackie Lomax on Apple Records instead, with bass from McCartney. It featured the lyric ‘Get back to where you should be’.

Two days later McCartney brought a more developed version of Get Back to rehearsals, with the ‘Sweet Loretta Martin’ wordplay pretty much complete. He had also come up with some controversial lyrics that would surface on bootlegs over the years. Paul decided to use the song to satirise the views of people like right-wing politician Enoch Powell’s views on immigration.

While ‘Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs’ may fit the tune of Get Back perfectly, the Beatles were wise in scrapping this approach. It’s likely not everybody would have got where they were coming from… It also didn’t help that McCartney would look at Ono whenever he sang ‘Get back to where you once belong’, according to Lennon.

Immigration was clearly on their minds, as they also worked on another right-wing satire at the same time, usually referred to as Commonwealth. Again, it’s a good thing this was dropped, and it was musically inferior to Get Back.

Bootleg recordings dating from 23 January reveal a conversation between McCartney and Harrison inbetween trying to whip their next single into shape. McCartney explains it was supposed to be a protest song, but the group then decide that the third verse, featuring the ‘Pakistani’ line, should be dropped.

Instead, the song evolved from an angry rock song to a softer, bluesy sound, no doubt helped along by the ‘fifth Beatle’, who had joined the group the previous day. Enter Billy Preston, who Harrison had invited to proceedings to try and bring an end to the bickering. He wisely assumed a relative stranger among them would put everyone on their best behaviour and give them a kick up the arse. He was right.

Billy Preston, born in September 1946 in Houston, Texas, had been a child prodigy. Self-taught, he never recieved a single piano lesson. He first met the Beatles aged 16 in 1962, when he was playing in the singer’s backing band at a Liverpool show that the Fab Four opened. When Harrison had left the January rehearsals, he had gone to a Ray Charles gig, in which Preston performed on the organ.

On 27 January the Beatles and Preston made a concerted effort to finish the song, which now featured a false ending and a coda. Take 11 was picked, but it had come to an abrupt end, so they returned to the studio the next day to work on the ending. When McCartney and Glyn Johns came to turn the performances into a single, they opted to go against the ‘as nature intended’ vibe of the project, and tacked on a coda from 28 January to Take 11. But they were right to do so, and did it so well, you’d never know, really. Unusually, the single features Lennon on lead guitar over Harrison on rhythm, as Lennon stepped up during Harrison’s absence.

Before it had even been released, Get Back had earned its place in Beatles folklore, for it was the last song they ever played together live. After much toing and froing about how the project would end, they finally agreed to be filmed performing on the roof of Apple Studios with Billy Preston. They opened the short concert with two takes, and then closed the set with one last version, featuring ad-libs from McCartney referring to the police ascending to the roof to shut the gig down (available on Anthology 3). The set ended with Lennon’s famous, ironic quote ‘I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.’ Phil Spector would add this to the end of the version that made it to Let It Be.

Although it was a wise decision to remove that third verse of Get Back, it does rob the song of any bite it had. Reduced to two verses that don’t really mean anything, it needs to be musically interesting, and it’s not too good at that really. It chugs along pleasantly enough, and Preston’s solo adds some soul to proceedings, but it’s far from their greatest single and none of the actual band get to do anything very exciting.

It’s not a return to the Beatles’ roots either, which was how it was marketed. Get Back is the sound of the Beatles following the curve, rather than being ahead of it. It is in fact, the boogie sound of US blues rockers Canned Heat, with McCartney even stealing the distinctive vocal stylings of Alan Wilson. But before I make it sound like I hate Get Back, I don’t. As a throwaway bit of fun, it’s perfectly fine. The single version does a good job of sounding both rough and ready and polished at the same time, thanks to the reverb added to the mix. It’s superior to the Let It Be version. But it’s clear to see that at this point, the Beatles were struggling to keep the magic going.

Released with Lennon’s Don’t Le Me Down as its B-side (which is better if you ask me), also featuring Preston, Get Back was Paul McCartney’s fourth A-side in a row. It was also the last of their singles to be released in mono.

And what became of Billy Preston? Quite a lot. He worked with the Beatles again, playing uncredited on superior tracks I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and Something. In the same year he signed with Apple Records and released his fourth album, That’s the Way God Planned It. Produced by Harrison, the title track was also a hit.

Following the split of the Beatles in 1970, Preston continued to work with his friend, and became the first person to release a version of Harrison’s solo number 1, My Sweet Lord. He also featured on Harrison’s triple album All Things Must Pass that year. Not only that… remember Stephen Still’s excellent single Love the One You’re With? That title came from a saying of Preston’s.

In 1971 he left Apple to join A&M Records, and in addition to his own work selling well, he worked on many Rolling Stones albums, including Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. and was their primary touring keyboardist from 1973 to 1977. In 1974 he co-wrote and released the first version of You Are So Beautiful, a soul classic later made famous by Joe Cocker.

Preston worked with Motown in the early 80s, then concentrated on session work for artists including Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston. Drug issues curtailed his career but he resurfaced in the 90s, playing with, among others, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and the Band.

Following Harrison’s death in 2001, his friend performed three songs at the 2002 Concert for George at the Royal Albert Hall. Also in 2002, Preston played piano on Johnny Cash’s album American IV: The Man Comes Around. Towards the end of his life he appeared on American Idol and worked with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Neil Diamond. His last live performance saw him promote the re-release of the 1972 documentary The Concert for Bangladesh. On his last song on stage he performed Harrison’s Isn’t It a Pity with Harrison’s son Dhani and Starr.

Soon after, Preston suffered pericarditis and fell into a coma. He had been struggling with kidney disease and his drug issues (which many feel stemmed from problems due to being abused as a child and later hiding his sexuality) had returned. He died in June 2006, aged 59.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 6 (23 April-3 June)

Births:

Actress Kate Hardie – 26 April
Television presenter Tess Daly – 27 April
Actor Cy Chadwick – 2 June

Deaths:

Writer Sir Osbert Sitwell – 4 May
Civil Engineer Sir Owen Williams -23 May

249. Louis Armstrong – What a Wonderful World/Cabaret (1968)

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Spring 1968: The Abortion Act 1967 came into effect on 27 April. legalising abortion on a number of grounds, with free provision through the National Health Service. On 3 May, Mr Frederick West, aged 45 and definitely not serial killer Fred West, became Britain’s first heart transplant patient. Five days later, the Kray Twins, Ronnie and Reggie, 34, were among 18 men arrested in dawn raids throughout London. The Krays stood accused of several crimes, including fraud, blackmail, assault and murder.

In sporting news, Manchester City won the Football League First Division title on 11 May, and a week later, West Bromwich Albion defeated Everton at Wembley Stadium to win the FA Cup for the fifth time.

At number 1 that fortnight was one of 1968’s best-sellers. Jazz legend Louis Armstrong, 66, became the oldest man to have a number 1 single with the slushy, swinging double A-side What a Wonderful World/Cabaret. ‘Satchmo’ held the record until 2009, when Tom Jones took part in the Comic Relief single Islands in the Stream.

Born 4 August 1901 in New Orleans (this date was only discovered in the 1980s), Armstrong was raised by his grandmother until he was five, when he was then returned to his mother, his father having left the family. He had a rough childhood, raised in an area known as The Battlefield. At the age of seven he was doing odd jobs for a Lithuanian Jewish family called the Karnoffskys. Seeing how they were subject to persecution like his fellow blacks, he began wearing a Star of David in solidarity, which he wore for the rest of his life.

He would hear jazz music playing in the local brothels and dance halls, and began playing a tin horn until Morris Karnoffsky gave him an advance for a cornet. Armstrong dropped out of school aged 11, and would begin performing with a group of boys who sang in the street for money. He was arrested for firing a blank from his stepfather’s gun and sent to detention at the Coloured Waif’s home. It was a tough way of life at the home, but Armstrong found time to develop his musical skills and began playing in a band. He was released in 1914, and would find work performing on riverboats around New Orleans.

By the time he was 20, Armstrong had taken giant leaps musically, having learnt to read music. He was performing extended trumpet solos, and had begun to sing too. Satchmo moved to Chicago in 1922 to perform with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Although race relations were poor in the city, he found plenty of work, and was finally living in an apartment with his own bath. A year later the band made their first recordings, but in 1924, Armstrong was persuaded by his future wife Lil Hardin to broaden his horizons and smarten up.

By 1925 he was working for his new wife in the Lil Hardin Armstong Band, before forming his own group. Soon, Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five were releasing music, and his easygoing, charming style was developing. Heebie Jeebies, released in 1926, was one of the first recordings to feature scat singing, and Potato Head Blues was a hit in 1927. That same year, his band expanded and became the Hot Seven.

By 1929 he was seperated from his wife and living in New York, where he recorded his biggest hit to date, a cover of Ain’t Misbehavin’. In the 30s he would record his vocals with an RCA ribbon microphone, which added extra warmth to his voice and made him one of the first crooners, his version of Lazy River becoming one of Bing Crosby’s favourite songs.

The Great Depression had a sizeable impact on jazz, but Satchmo could afford to continue. He moved to Los Angeles and drew the Hollywood crowd to his performances. In 1931 he starred in his first film, Ex-Flame, and was also convicted of marijuana posession, but he recieved a suspended sentence. His woes grew, with the Mob on his back, eventually causing him to flee to Europe, Upon his return he hired a tougher manager to sort out his varied money problems, but he began struggling to play the trumpet, and so increased his vocals instead and starred in further movies, including Bing Crosby’s Pennies from Heaven in 1936.

By 1943, the trumpeter and singer was settled permanently in Queens, New York with his fourth wife, Lucille. Taking advantage of a revival in 20s-style jazz, he formed Louis Armstrong and His All Stars. He became the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time in 1949.

In the 50s, Armstrong was a globetrotting, iconic figure, but he was no longer cutting-edge, and he bristled at the new generation of jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Health issues began, and exacerbated by a gruelling touring schedule, he suffered a heart attack in Italy in 1959.

Armstrong took the hint and slowed down. He didn’t set foot in a recording studio between 1962 and 1964, when he recorded one of his biggest sellers, Hello, Dolly!. Aged 62, he usurped the Beatles and became number 1 in the US. However, his health problems were worsening by the time he recorded What a Wonderful World in 1967.

Allegedly written with Tony Bennett in mind, who turned it down, this ballad was by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss. Thiele was a writer and producer, whose previous credits included working with Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins. He had also produced Don Cornell’s 1954 number 1, Hold My Hand. Weiss was an arranger and songwriter who had co-written hits including Lullaby of Birdland, The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Can’t Help Falling in Love.

Armstrong and the orchestra began recording at 2am following a gig in Las Vegas. He had recently signed with ABC Records, and their president, Larry Newton showed up to record Satchmo in action. Hoping for a repeat of the success of Hello, Dolly!, Newton was dismayed to hear the slow, saccharine song they were working on. So much so, in fact, he tried to stop the session, and found himself locked out of the studio as a result. The production overran until 6am, due to Newton and interference from nearby freight train whistles, but Armstrong merely laughed it all off, and in order to ensure the orchestra were paid for the overtime, he inisisted he was only paid $250. What a guy.

I love What a Wonderful World. Yes, it’s sentimental, and the dewey-eyed optimism should grate on me, and to be honest it does if I hear anyone else perform it. It’s all down to Louis Armstrong, really. Nearing the end of his life, he gives the track real gravitas. How can you not love that warm, rasping voice of his, set amongst such lush orchestration? Released during Vietnam and student protests, it served as a beacon of hope and a warning that humans needed to stop and think about what they were doing to the world. It’s a shame they didn’t stop for long enough to do anything about it. Its formidable chart success may lie in the fact Satchmo was able to unite the generations – the old guard would love a nice ballad from one of the biggest stars of their past, and the hippies could warm to the song’s message. However, upon its original release, it got nowhere in the US, due to the idiotic Newton refusing to promote it.

What a Wonderful World has nonetheless endured over the years, featuring in countless films, TV series and adverts over the years, often used as a stark reminder of what was happening to the planet, or in an ironic sense to highlight the horrors humans are capable of. Whenever it’s used, be it at the end of the radio and TV series’ of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, or during the comedy drama Good Morning, Vietnam (1988), it always resonates. It would return to number 1 in December 2007, in a ‘beyond the grave’ duet between Eva Cassidy and Katie Melua.

Louis Armstrong’s version of Cabaret has been largely forgotten due to the legacy of What a Wonderful World. Written by John Cander and Fred Ebb, it comes from the 1966 musical of the same name. It’s performed by the character Sally Bowles (later played by Liza Minnelli in the 1972 big-screen adaptation), and is meant as a bittersweet comment on the fact Bowleswants to stay in Nazi Germany but her lover is insisting she return to America to raise their daughter. Unlike the more famous track on this single, Armstrong eschews the song’s central message and instead performs it as a standard swinging jazz rendition. It’s nice enough, but you can see why it’s not as famous as the flip side.

By the time Louis Armstrong was at number 1 in the UK charts, he likely knew he wasn’t long for this world. He was forced to stop touring due to heart and kidney problems and spent most of 1969 at home, with no public appearances. He did however record the classic and sadly ironic We Have All the Time in the World for the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which also charted upon its rerelease in 1994. By 1970 his doctors said he was fit enough to perform live, but he had another heart attack while on a world tour, and took two months out. Against medical advice, he took part in a two-week residency in Manhattan. At the end he suffered another heart attack. And yet, he still couldn’t imagine not performing, and continued to practise in the hope he could get back on the road.

He died of another heart attack while asleep on 6 July 1971, a month before turning 70. His list of honorary pallbearers reads like a who’s who of 20th-century jazz and entertanment stars – Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, David Frost, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and Peggy Lee, among others.

The popular image of Louis Armstrong as a cuddly teddy bear figure, beaming away on stage while he wipes away the sweat, has helped him be remembered long after many of his contemporaries. Jazz purists may scoff at this, and argue it takes away from his music, or even means he overshadows other important figures. And they may see What a Wonderful World as an aberration. But you don’t have to be an expert on jazz to love Satchmo. I showed my seven-year-old daughter a clip of a frail Armstrong performing his number 1 on a TV show in the 70s, and while she laughed at his eccentricities at first, she loved the song’s message, just like I had all those years ago. And its only a small part of an awesome legacy.

Written by: What a Wonderful World: Bob Thiele (credited as George Douglas) & George David Weiss/Cabaret: John Cander & Fred Ebb

Producer: Bob Thiele

Weeks at number 1: 4 (24 April-21 May)

Births:

Take That singer Howard Donald – 28 April
Comedian Julian Barratt – 4 May
Artist Rachel Jordan – 8 May
Politician Ruth Kelly – 9 May
Wrestler William Regal – 10 May
Comedian Catherine Tate – 12 May

Deaths:

Politician Ness Edwards – 3 May
Race car driver Mike Spence – 7 May 

 

46. Ronnie Hilton with Choir and Orchestra conducted by Frank Cordell – No Other Love (1956)

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May 1956: Manchester City won the FA Cup with a 3-1 victory over Birmingham City at Wembley Stadium on 5 May. Amazingly, their goalkeeper Bert Trautmann played the last 15 minutes of the game with a broken neck. Ouch. Two days later, the Minister of Health Robin Turton showed just as much regard for health by rejecting a call for the government to lead an anti-smoking campaign, arguing that no ill-effects had yet to be proven. The following day, John Osbrne’s play Look Back in Anger was first performed, at the Royal Court Theatre. Actor Alan Bates was described in the theatre’s press release as an ‘angry young man’, a term that would soon become famous.

For most of that month, and into June, Hull-born singer Ronnie Hilton enjoyed a six-week stay at number one with No Other Love. Only two years earlier his name was Adrian Hill and he had been an engineer in a factory in Leeds. Hilton found fame with his covers of popular American songs of the era. No Other Love was taken from the 1953 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Me and Juliet, and had been a US number 1 that year for Perry Como. Hilton’s version contained more ‘oomph’ than Como’s, who, as always, was content to play it cool.

It’s serviceable enough, a standard ballad of the era. Clearly, the older generation still loved these romantic ballads and weren’t going to be swayed by the rogue pelvis of Elvis Presley, whose debut album had been released a few months previous. However, by the time No Other Love had dropped from the charts, Presley had managed three hit singles. Rock’n’roll wasn’t going away. The following year, Hilton failed in his attempt to represent the UK in the inaugural Eurovision Song Contest. In 1959, Hilton’s last chart hit for some time was The Wonder of You, which Presley took to number one in 1970. Hilton later found fame presenting BBC Radio 2’s nostalgic Sounds of the Fifties. He died of a stroke in 2001, aged 75.

Written by: Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II

Producer: Wally Ridley

Weeks at number 1: 6 (4 May-14 June)

Births:

Dramatist John Godber – 18 May 

Deaths:

Magician Austin Osman Spare – 17 May
Theatre critic Max Beerbohm – 20 May