253. Des O’Connor – I Pretend (1968)

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And the 1968 award for ‘Really? He got to number 1?’ Shock and Awe Award goes to… Des O’Connor! Yes, the veteran light entertainment star, now 87, spent an incredible 36 weeks in the charts, and one of those weeks at number 1, with the ballad I Pretend.

Desmond Bernard O’Connor was born 12 January 1932 in Stepney, East London, to a Jewish mother and Irish father. During World War Two he was evacuated to Northampton. He was briefly a footballer with Northampton Town, and also worked as a shoe salesman after completing National Service with the Royal Air Force.

In the 50s he made his first move into showbusiness working as a Butlin’s redcoat, and began performing at theatres up and down the country, with a bit of singing, bit of comedy, and basically just being all-round nice-guy Des. He even toured with Buddy Holly in 1958. Allegedly, Holly wasn’t impressed with his variety act though.

Des got his big break in 1963 with ATV’s The Des O’Connor Show, which ran for 10 years. Established as one of TV’s biggest stars, he released his debut single in 1967. Flower power may have been the cool youth movement of the time, but Des was in good company that year, with smooth easy listening singer Engelbert Humperdinck ending up the year’s biggest sensation. Des’s cover of the 1948 hit Careless Hands rocketed to number six, marking the start of a pop career that would be mocked affectionately throughout the 70s by his friends and colleagues Morecambe and Wise.

O’Connor may have been considered very square by the hippies, but the follow-up I Pretend was one of 1968’s biggest sellers. Its writers, Barry Mason and the late Les Reed, had been responsible for Humperdinck’s second number 1, The Last Waltz, and Des’s song treads familiar ground.

And what turgid, tepid ground it is. I Pretend is a weaker song than The Last Waltz, and is the weakest number 1 of 1968 so far – that’s right, it’s even worse than Cinderella Rockefeller, which at least that had some semblance of a tune, horrid though it was. Des has lost his loved one, and he can’t think why. She might have ran off with another man, but he doesn’t know for sure… you’ve lost interest already, haven’t you? The problem is, Des isn’t bothered either. I know his act is to play up the easygoing, smiling everyman schtick, but a bit of conviction might have helped. A more appropriate title might have been I Pretend to Give a Shit. Problem is, he’s not even trying to pretend.

It’s worth mentioning that production came from Norman Newell. No stranger to number 1 singles, he was the man behind Russ Conway’s Side Saddle and Roulette, Shirley Bassey’s Reach for the Stars/Climb Ev’ry Mountain, and most famously, Ken Dodd’s Tears. None of these singles are any good, however.

But nevermind. I like Des, and so does everyone else. He’s impossible to get angry about, really, bless him. His chart hits continued until 1970, with intriguing titles including 1-2-3 O’Leary and Dick-A-Dum-Dum. When The Des O’Connor Show ended he presented Des O’Connor Entertains from 1974 to 1976, with the focus purely on him as he took his live show to ITV. In 1977 he began hosting Des O’Connor Tonight, which began on BBC Two but moved to ITV, and lasted until 2002 – an incredible run in which he chatted to some of the biggest stars in entertainment.

Des returned to the charts again in 1986 when he and expert whistler Roger Whittaker went to number 10 with their version of The Skye Boat Song. Des would be the butt of many jokes once more, except it was alternative comedians now doing the pisstaking, with a little more menace than Morecambe and Wise, but Des carried on regardless. The ribbing even went mainstream once more, as family comedian Russ Abbott starred in a memorable series of adverts for Castella cigars in which Des’s singing was ridiculed. Here’s the most famous one. I’m sure Des showed he could still take a joke by appearing in one, but the memory is very hazy.

Between 1992 and 1998, Des presented ITV game show Take Your Pick, and following the end of Des O’Connor Tonight he moved into weekday daytime TV, co-presenting Today with Des and Mel alongside Melanie Sykes. Popular with old folk and lazy students, they did have a good rapport, but they were axed in 2006. In 2007 O’Connor took over as presenter on long-running Channel 4 quiz Countdown from Des Lynam, but left only a year later.

By then in his 70s, Des’s TV work understandably tailed off, with the odd guest appearances here and there, including an enjoyable appearance on Harry Hill’s Alien Fun Capsule in 2017. He sparked concerns that year when he was pictured looking frail while fighting a stomach bug, but he’s back to looking surprisingly well for such an old chap, and is currently touring the country with Jimmy Tarbuck. Long may he continue – as long as he stays away from the recording studio.

Written by: Barry Mason & Les Reed

Producer: Norman Newell

Weeks at number 1: 1 (24-30 July)

Births:

Actress Olivia Williams – 26 July 

82. The Platters – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (1959)

Although originally written in 1933 by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach (co-writer of Rose Marie, which was a huge hit for Slim Whitman in 1955) for the musical Roberta, the 1959 number 1 version of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by The Platters is widely considered to be the definitive version, and was the highest-selling, spending a week at the top of the charts.

The Platters had formed in Los Angeles in 1952. Originally the line-up consisted of Alex Hodge, Cornell Gunter, David Lynch, Joe Jefferson, Gaynel Hodge and Herb Reed, who came up with their name. Several line-up changes occurred, most notably the addition of a female vocalist, Zola Taylor. Taken under the wing of entrepreneur Buck Ram, they were eventually signed, but only as part of a deal in which the Mercury Records took on The Penguins, the act they really wanted. The Penguins never scored a hit once signed.

The first track they recorded with Mercury was Ram’s haunting Only You (And You Alone). It had been rejected by Federal Records, but the group were convinced it could be a hit, and they were right. Also in the summer of 1955, follow-up The Great Pretender performed even better. The Platters appeared in the 1956 film, Rock Around the Clock, performing both tracks, which are now considered classics. A string of further hits followed, and the group hit upon the notion of recording old standards. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was a natural choice, a tortured slice of soul about the way love can make you blind.

There was some controversy upon the song’s release, as Kern’s widow claimed Jerome would have balked at his composition becoming a rock’n’roll number. She even threatened legal action to prevent its distribution. Harbach, on the other hand, congratulated Ram and The Platters in covering his song ‘with taste’, according to Ram himself. Harbach was right and Kern’s widow seems to have been some sort of over-the-top idiot. To react the way she did, you’d think the Sex Pistols had covered it.

The Platters’ version is respectful to the original, and an interesting bridge between rock’n’roll and the soul music that would later follow, and Reed’s lead vocal is particularly effective. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes hit number 1 both in the US and the UK, where despite only spending a week at the top, it spent 20 weeks in total in the top 30.

1959 saw The Platters at their peak, before the four male members were arrested on drug and prostitution charges. Nobody was convicted, but it caused irreparable damage to their reputation in the US. From then on it was downhill all the way, as members were sacked and formed their own versions of the group. Buck Ram also formed his own version, so there are now probably more members or ex-members of The Platters in the world then there are people who have never claimed to be a Platter.

Ironically, when I think of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, I think of Shirley Bassey performing it on The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show in 1971. It was Bassey’s As I Love You that the Platters had usurped. Despite not being a fan of hers, she gave an excellently-timed comic performance alongside Eric and Ernie, gamely soldiering on as the scenery collapsed all around her.

Written by: Jerome Kern & Otto Harbach

Producer: Buck Ram

Weeks at number 1: 1 (20-27 March)

Births:

Actor Steve McFadden – 20 March
Boxer Colin Jones – 21 March