224. Jim Reeves – Distant Drums (1966)

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At 9.15am on 21 October in the mining village of Aberfan in Glamorgan, South Wales, pupils at Pantglas Junior School were just beginning their lessons. A large colliery spoil tip, high up on a mountain slope behind the village, suddenly turned into a slurry due to a period of heavy rain beforehand. Within five minutes, the slurry had engulfed the school, along with nearby houses and a farm. This tragic event resulted in the horrific deaths of 116 children and 28 adults. The TV footage of the incident makes for surreal, grim viewing.

That autumn had seen the singles chart ruled for 5 weeks by a man who had died two years previous. American country singer-songwriter Jim Reeves ruled over the charts with Distant Drums in the same surprising way that Ken Dodd had a year previous with Tears. Amid all the amazing, pioneering music coming thick and fast, the charts were suddenly owned by the old folk once more.

‘Gentleman Jim’ had been born in Galloway, Texas in August 1923. Known as Travis during his childhood, he loved to play baseball and spent three years in minor leagues before severing his sciatic nerve. As a sufferer of sciatica myself, I can only imagine this must have been really bloody painful.

Reeves avoided World War Two when he failed his physical exam in 1943, and so he began working as a radio announcer. A fan of popular singers like Frank Sinatra, Jimmie Rodgers and Bing Crosby, he would sometimes sing live in-between songs, and began to see a career in it.

By the early 1950s Reeves was doing well in the US charts. Bimbo reached number 1 in the country chart in 1954. His first and only album release for Abbott Records, Jim Reeves Sings, came in November 1955. By that point he had signed a ten-year deal with RCA Victor with Steve Sholes. That same year, Sholes signed Elvis Presley.

Like every other country and western performer of the era, Reeves’ earliest recordings had him adopting a loud, rather cliched Texan style, but over time he developed his trademark style, a smooth, warm and gentle baritone, his lips nearly touching the mic as he crooned. RCA executives thought this was a bad idea, but Reeves was lucky to have producer Chet Atkins on his side. The first example of this new approach, Four Walls, was a commercial hit for Reeves in 1957. Soon, other artists were adopting the same approach, and this gentle approach, together with lush arrangements, became known as the Nashville Sound.

As the 60s began Reeves scored big in the pop and country charts with He’ll Have to Go. From here on in his stature grew enormously worldwide, eclipsing his fame in the US, even. He was more popular than label mate Elvis in South Africa. Among his hits in the UK in 1963 was Welcome to My World, used in recent years in adverts for Thomson Holidays.

In an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come, the singer’s final session for RCA resulted in three songs – Make the World Go Away, Missing You and Is It Really Over? With tape left over, they cut one more track – I Can’t Stop Loving You, which had been a number 1 for Ray Charles in 1962.

On 31 July Reeves and his manager Dean Manuel (also the pianist in Reeves’ backing group, the Blue Boys) were flying over Brentwood, Tennessee when they encountered a violent thunderstorm. Two days later, after intense searching by friends including Marty Robbins, the wreckage was found, and by the afternoon, Gentleman Jim’s death was announced publicly.

Material by Reeves continued to be released after his untimely death, aged 40. Distant Drums was a song by country singer and dancer Cindy Walker. It had been recorded by Roy Orbison in 1963, but it is Reeves’ version that is remembered best.

So just how did Distant Drums not only make it to number 1, but hold court for five weeks? It’s really hard to say. It seems RCA had chosen to release it due to creeping anti-war sentiment over the situation in Vietnam, but I’m not sure you could describe it as an explicit protest song. Even if it was, surely there were more commercial examples of such a thing out there? The fact he was two years dead already means it wasn’t due to the strength of feeling after he was gone, either.

To be fair to Reeves, he never intended it as a single – it was merely meant as a demo, and had been tarted up with an orchestral backing. But lord, is it dull. I’m no country fan anyway, but it’s a B-side or album track at best. I’ve read that perhaps so many young bands were jockeying for the top spot at the time, Reeves’ single split the vote, but who knows? It’s another one of those chart mysteries.

On the final day of Distant Drums‘ number 1 reign, former chart-topper Alma Cogan, whose Dreamboat was number 1 in 1955, died of ovarian cancer aged only 34.

Written by: Cindy Walker

Producer: Chet Atkins

Weeks at number 1: 5 (22 September-26 October)

Births:

Prime Minister David Cameron – 9 October 
Footballer Tony Adams – 10 October

Deaths:

Singer Alma Cogan – 26 October 

68. Michael Holliday – The Story of My Life (1958)

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Jailhouse Rock ran out of steam after three weeks at the top, and after two barnstormers, the number 1 spot was taken by this pleasant easy listening ditty – the first bestseller from the legendary partnership of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, whose prolific work-rate saw them create many pop classics of the 1950s and particularly the 60s.

Bacharach had spent his teenage years enthralled with jazz, and went on to study music. After a tour of duty he became Vic Damone’s (who had a number 1 later in 1958 with On the Street Where You Live) pianist and conductor. Bacharach later worked with Marlene Dietrich, before meeting lyricist and former journalist Hal David at the Brill Building. US country star Marty Robbins initially recorded The Story of My Life in 1957, but it was Michael Holliday’s cover that became famous on these shores.

Holliday was born Norman Alexander Milne in Liverpool in 1924. His music career began when he won a local talent contest. He joined the navy and won another contest, this time in New York, inspiring him to turn professional. Before leaving the navy, however, he found time to smuggle obscure jazz records back home, where they were sold by Elvis Costello’s mother. Holliday made his TV debut in the summer of 1955, and he soon found himself with a record deal, and with his screen idol looks and voice comparable to Bing Crosby, he enjoyed moderate success, before this, his first of two number 1s. Before it all went wrong for him.

I’ve always admired Bacharach and David’s work, and even though a lot of easy listening music leaves me cold, there’s usually enough in their songs to keep me interested. The Story of My Life is slushy and somewhat of a throwback to earlier number 1s, but I can’t help but enjoy the whistling and sentimental lyrics. And Holliday performs it well. A pretty good start for the duo, with another chart-topper to follow.

Sadly as The Story of My Life‘s fortnight at the top was drawing to a close, another of Busby’s Babes died as a result of the Munich Air Disaster. Manchester United’s Duncan Edwards was only 21, and was considered by many to be the finest footballer in England. He passed away on 21 February. Six days later, the 23rd and final victim was claimed when co-pilot Kenneth Rayment died in hospital.

Written by: Burt Bacharach & Hal David

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 2 (14-27 February)

Births:

Actor James Wilby – 20 February 

Deaths:

Footballer Duncan Edwards – 21 February

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

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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 on 9 January. 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.

The first new number 1 of the year had been in place since 4 January. For the third time, the happy-go-lucky popular crooner Guy Mitchell was back at the top 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 (who had given Mitchell his stage name – his real name was Albert George Cernik), 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. And 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 four acts to have the same number 1 on three separate occasions. The other artists are Frankie Laine with I Believe, Pharrell Williams with Happy and What Do You Mean? by 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