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 1950s he made his first move into showbusiness working as a Butlins 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 ten 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 ten 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 

204. Ken Dodd – Tears (1965)

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7 October 1965. A 27-year-old stock clerk named Ian Brady was charged with the murder of 17-year-old apprentice electrician Edward Evans the night before. Myra Hindley’s brother-in-law David Smith had witnessed Brady striking Evans with the flat of an axe and then strangling him with electrical cord. Smith had been friends with Brady for a while, but when he told his wife Maureen Hindley what he had seen, she told him to ring the police. The arrest led British Transport Police to discover suitcases belonging to Brady at Manchester Central railway station. Inside one of them were incriminating, disturbing photos of a young girl, as well as a tape of her voice pleading for help. Myra Hindley was arrested on 11 October and both she and Brady were charged with Evans’ murder. Police searches led them to believe that the duo were responsible for the murders of several children reported missing in the Manchester area over the last few years, and on 16 October, the body of ten-year-old Lesley Ann Downey was found on Saddleworth Moor.

As news reports pieced together the horrific story of the Moors Murderers, Brady and Hindley were charged with Downey’s murder on 21 October. Three days later police found the decomposed body of 12-year-old John Kilbride, who had been missing since November 1963. Brady and Hindley were charged in court with the murders of Evans, Downey and Kilbride on 29 October.

As this terrible story unfolded that October, an unlikely chart star was at number 1. Comedian Ken Dodd’s Tears’ reign of the singles chart lasted a mind-boggling five weeks. Not only that, it was the best-selling single of 1965 – a year featuring some of the greatest number 1s there has ever been. How did this happen?

Kenneth Arthur Dodd was born 8 November 1927 in Knotty Ash, Liverpool. He sang in the local church choir, and at 14 he left school to work for his father as a coal merchant. Despite this, he was in love with the idea of being an entertainer, and his father bought him a ventriloquist’s dummy, which he named Charlie Brown. Dodd began his showbiz career performing at the local orphanage. His trademark bucked teeth came about as a result of Dodd being dared by his friends to ride his bike with his eyes closed.

His big break came in 1954 when he turned professional at the age of 26. He performed as Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty, Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter at the Nottingham Empire. It’s fair to say his eccentric humour was already well in place by this point. He gained top billing for the first time in Blackpool in 1958. With his unusual appearance, quickfire one-liners, and lengthy performances, he became a big star. Over the years his tales of the Diddy Men, jam butty mines and Knotty Ash (where he lived all his life) made him a true family entertainer. His shows became so long he even entered the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s longest joke-telling session – 1,500 jokes in three-and-a-half hours.

His sets would also feature songs. Dodd was no great shakes as a singer, but he wasn’t bad either, and off the back of his fame he started releasing singles, his first being Love is Like a Violin in 1960. It went to number eight, but for the next few years his records only made it into the top 30, including Happiness, which became his signature song. Which makes it unlikely that anyone including Dodd would have expected Tears to do as well it did. Originally called Tears for Souvenirs, the words were by Frank Capano and music by Frank Uhr. Recorded by Rudy Vallee in 1929, it was based on Delilah’s aria Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix (Softly awakes my heart) from Act II of Camille Saint-Saëns’s opera 1877 opera Samson and Delilah.

Dodd’s performance on Tears, like most of his singles, is played straight, and yes, he sings it well enough, although it’s a very mannered performance, with every line pronounced to perfection. But it’s not even Dodd’s best single – Happiness is more memorable (it’s the only other one I’ve heard and I can’t say I’m in a hurry to hear any others). It’s a throwback to the pop singles of the early-to-mid-1950s. As the crimes of the Moors Murderers came to light, I’d imagine that the British public, whether subconsciously or not, chose to a very safe song to listen to that was reminiscent of more innocent times. This can’t be proved though, and it still doesn’t explain exactly how big this song was. In addition to being the best seller of 1965, Tears was the third biggest single of the 60s and the only one in the top five that wasn’t by fellow scousers, the Beatles. In 2017 it was revealed as the 39th biggest single of all time. Incredible statistics for such a random, average track. Basically, I don’t know why it was so popular. It’s yet another example of the weird and wonderful world of the UK singles chart. My only prior knowledge of it came from a snippet being sang in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s I’m Bored in 1967.

Dodd’s music career peaked in the mid-60s, with further top ten entries for The River (Le Colline Sono In Fioro) and Promises. Occasionally he branched out into straight acting, in theatre (a production of Twelfth Night in 1971), TV (Doctor Who in 1987) and cinema (Kenneth Branagh’s version of Hamlet in 1996). I remember finding Dodd funny as a child and wondering what the tax evasion case of 1989 was all about. I didn’t like the idea of such an odd man as Dodd behind bars, but he was acquitted and the media spotlight didn’t hurt his career.

Dodd was a national treasure and one of the last great British eccentrics. Over the years he recieved an OBE, was knighted and received award after award. Behind the laughter, like with so many comics, there was sadness. Dodd was in a relationship with Anita Boutin from 1955 until she died of a brain tumour in 1977. A year later he fell in love with Anne Jones, and they married on 9 March 2018, two days before he died. They had wanted children but were unable, and the details of his tax evasion had included failed rounds of IVF. When they wed, Dodd had just been released from hopsital, where he had been for six weeks due to a chest infection.

Ken Dodd died in his childhood home in Knotty Ash on 11 March this year, aged 90. The showbiz world mourned the loss of a beloved figure.

Although the Moors Murders were the biggest story in the autumn of 1965, the news wasn’t all so horrific. On 30 September the first episode of ATV’s much-loved puppet series Thunderbirds aired on ITV, and 18 October saw The Magic Roundabout premiered on BBC One. On 8 October the iconic Post Office Tower opened in Londond, remaining the capital’s tallest building until 1980.

The drama in Rhodesia continued, with African countries demanding on 22 October that the UK use force to prevent it from declaring unilateral independence. Two days later, Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations Arthur Bottomley travelled there to negotiate with their Prime Minster Ian Smith.

Written by: Billy Uhr & Frank Capano

Producer: Norman Newell

Weeks at number 1: 5 (30 September-3 November) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Comedian Steve Coogan – 14 October
Actor Stephen Tompkinson – 15 October
Disc jockey Steve Lamacq – 16 October
Bush singer Gavin Rossdale – 30 October 

131. Danny Williams – Moon River (1961)

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Christmas week 1961 was a particularly cold and frosty affair, with some northern and Scottish areas seeing snowfall. The snow increased in the run-up to the new year, and was heavy at times. By this point, Frankie Vaughan’s histrionics on Tower of Strength may have been wearing thin, and record buyers wanted something warm and comforting. What better than Moon River?

Henry Mancini was the man behind the music, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. The song was written for romantic comedy classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring Audrey Hepburn, which had been released in October. An instrumental version is heard as the film opens, but Hepburn sings it as Holly Golightly in the movie, strumming away at a guitar while sat outside her apartment, watched over by Paul ‘Fred’ Varjak (George Peppard).

Such beautiful music needed lyrics of similar quality, so Mancini and Mercer were well-matched. In Moon River, Mercer is recalling his childhood in Savannah, Georgia. The ‘huckleberry friend’, which some find troublesome, refers to picking huckleberries in the summer, although it is also used deliberately to bring to mind Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn. Despite the song’s classic status now, Paramount Pictures executive Martin Rackin suggested the song should be removed from Breakfast at Tiffany’s following a lukewarm preview. Hepburn was livid, and Rackin relented.

Eventually becoming one of the most covered songs of all time, several versions were available as singles when 1961 drew to a close. Soul star Jerry Butler hit the US charts first, with an instrumental version by Mancini, with orchestra and chorus, close behind, but it was South African-born singer Danny Williams that made Moon River the UK’s Christmas number 1.

Williams was born in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape in 1942. He grew up under apartheid, performing his first solo with a church choir at the age of six. He won a talent contest aged 14 and joined the touring show Golden City Dixies. The show travelled to London in 1959, where Williams impressed EMI’s Norman Newell, who signed him to the HMV label. He was reticent to record Moon River at first, partly due to the ‘huckleberry friend’ lyric, but he changed his mind after seeing the film.

I think you could potentially argue that it’s impossible to record a bad version of Moon River, and Williams certainly didn’t. Featuring lush strings and his smooth voice (he became known as ‘Britain’s Johnny Mathis), it’s a beautiful way to bring 1961 to a close, after such an unpredictable, often uneven year for number 1s. Were it not for another singer sharing his surname, this would possibly be the definitive version. Yet the man most people identify with the song never actually released Moon River as a single, meaning Andy Williams’ sole number 1 was the Elvis Presley rip-off Butterfly in 1957. He became forever known for the song after it made it onto his 1962 album Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes, and he also performed it at the Oscars, where it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Danny Williams’s success led to his appearance in Michael Winner’s film Play it Cool (1962) alongside Billy Fury. In 1963 he supported fellow number 1 artist Helen Shapiro on a nationwide tour. Other support acts included the Beatles. Like so many others, their subsequent rise meant his career was all but over, and he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1968, before being declared bankrupt two years later. In 1994 he took part in a Nat ‘King’ Cole tribute show. Williams always took pride in knowing that Cole declined to record Moon River because he considered Williams’ cover to be perfect. Following the collapse of apartheid he returned to South Africa several times but always considered the UK his home. He died aged 63 in December 2005 of lung cancer.

Moon River is a standard now. One of the most interesting versions for me is the nine-minute-plus version Morrissey recorded as the B-side to Hold on to Your Friends in 1994. He always saw a haunting sadness in the lyrics, and felt the happiness it promised was always out of reach. He changed some of the lyrics to make it bleaker and added the sound of a woman sobbing. Perhaps she was a fan that could see into his future as a right-wing nutjob?

While Williams’ version ruled the charts, 1962 began. The first episode of drama series Z-Cars was broadcast on the BBC on 2 January. The show became famous for its realistic portrayal of the force and ran until 1978. Three days later the album My Bonnie by Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers was released. The brothers in question were in fact the Beatles – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best. By the end of 1962, the line-up had changed and they had released their first single, Love Me Do. Beatlemania was coming ever closer.

Written by: Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer

Producer: Norman Newell

Weeks at number 1: 2 (28 December 1961-10 January 1962) 

Births:

The Jesus and Mary Chain singer Jim Reid – 29 December
Javelin thrower Sharon Gibson – 31 December 
Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie – 4 January 

125. Shirley Bassey with Geoff Love & His Orchestra – Reach for the Stars/Climb Ev’ry Mountain (1961)

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It had been over two years since Shirley Bassey became the first Welsh singer to score a number 1 with As I Love You, but her career was still going strong. A few months later she had signed with EMI’s Columbia. She narrowly missed out on the top spot in 1960 with her recording of As Long As He Needs Me from Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, and in November of that year she made her US television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. 1961 single You’ll Never Know also did well, but it was a double-bill of ballads that took her back to the top for the second and (to date) final time. Although largely forgotten about now, one has to wonder if Cathy Dennis and Andrew Todd, co-writers of S Club 7’s Reach, were fans of these tracks. Have another look at the titles…

Reach for the Stars had been written by Austrian singer-songwriter Udo Jürgens, with English lyrics from Bassey’s producer, Norman Newell. Jürgens went on to win the Eurovision Song Contest on his third attempt in 1966 with Merci, Chérie. As I stated in my previous Blassey blog, I’m really not a fan of her voice, so she has to be performing a strong song for me to be able to enjoy her. This is not a strong song. It’s turgid, soppy and completely forgettable. Bassey has not only put her lover on a pedestal, she’s turned him into a God-like figure. And that bellow at the end really hurt my ears, as is usually the case with Bassey. Ah well, maybe things will improve with Climb Ev’ry Mountain.

Things didn’t improve with Climb Ev’ry Mountain. If anything, it’s more forgettable and drawn out than Reach for the Stars. It could be that this single did so well because this track came from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music. It is sung by the character Mother Abbess at the end of the first act, and is intended to encourage people to follow their dreams. As I like The Sound of Music about as much as I enjoy Bassey’s bellow, I only felt encouraged to take my earphones out early.

Reach for the Stars/Climb Ev’ry Mountain only had a week at number 1 before previous number 1, Johnny Remember Me returned to the top. Obviously, Bassey remained a big star, and is now considered a living legend. Her first James Bond theme, 1965’s Goldfinger (with lyrics co-written by previous number 1 artist Anthony Newley), is rightly considered one of the best, and even I can appreciate that one. Despite her fame in the UK, this track has been her only recorded hit in the US, despite her sell-out live shows. Around this time, her UK hits started to drop too. Big Spender is considered one of her best tracks (especially by me), yet didn’t even make the top 20 in 1967. Her cover of Something by the Beatles marked a resurgence as the 1970s began, and she recorded two further Bond themes, Diamonds are Forever (1971) and Moonraker (1979).

Bassey semi-retired in the 80s, but did wonders for her image when she worked with big beat duo the Propellerheads on their retro 60s-styled single History Repeating in 1997. This track was everywhere at the time, and might actually be where my dislike of her voice originated! She turned 60 that year, and a series of high-profile concerts followed. Beloved by the Royal family, she performed at the Duke of Edinburgh’s 80th birthday in 2001 and the Queen’s 50th Jubilee a year later (and again at her 60th in 2012). 2006 saw the Welsh songstress cover Pink’s Get the Party Started for Marks & Spencer’s Christmas ad campaign. This proved to be highly irritating for me. In 2007 her single The Living Tree entered the charts, meaning that Bassey held the record for the longest span of top 40 hits in the history of the UK charts. Stars including Manic Street Preachers, Pet Shop Boys and Gary Barlow write tracks for her 2009 album, The Performance. Comedian David Walliams presented an hour-long special devoted to her in December 2016.

Whatever my opinions on Shirley Bassey’s singing, there’s a lot to like about her. From humble beginnings, she fought against poverty, racism and sexism to become a national treasure, and has maintained her down-to-earth character. There didn’t seem to be much room in the charts back then for strong, sexy women, but Bassey was one of the exceptions.

Written by:
Reach for the Stars: Udo Jürgens/Climb Ev’ry Mountain: Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II

Producer: Norman Newell

Weeks at number 1: 1 (21-27 September)

Births:

Politician Liam Fox – 22 September 
Novelist Will Self – 26 September

86. Russ Conway – Roulette (1959)

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So here I am, still trying to get my head around a pop culture that is at times completely alien to me, wondering how pianist Russ Conway’s instrumentalSide Saddle got to number 1 when surrounded by the likes of songs by Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, and now I have to review his second number 1, which actually knocked Elvis from the top. As I said in my blog for A Fool Such As I/I Need Your Love Tonight, these tracks were fairly throwaway by Elvis’s standards, but still…

Roulette sounds like a throwaway from Conway, who, probably astounded by Side Saddle‘s success, understandably thought he could just repeat the formula. And it worked. Actually, Roulette is better than his best-selling number 1, as the tune is a little catchier – after all, it was made to order, whereas Side Saddle was only ever meant to be incidental music. I could imagine it sounding appropriate in an old-fashioned London pub or strolling along Blackpool’s beach. I’m struggling to find any other use for it though.

I shouldn’t be so hard on Russ Conway. He clearly was very good at what he did, with further hits and TV shows, in his lifetime he sold over 30 million records, which gave him a lifestyle of mansions, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces. However, he suffered for his art. He became blighted by ill health, although smoking 80 cigarettes a day and drinking a lot won’t have helped. In 1963 he suffered a nervous breakdown, and then fell and fractured his hip, which left him paralysed for three days. Two years later he suffered his first stroke, aged only 38. For several years he was unable to play, and was prescribed anti-depressants to help him cope with these issues and his own self-doubt in his abilities. Many believe his hidden homosexuality was also a considerable factor in his depression. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in the late-1980s and founded the Russ Conway Cancer Fund in 1990. Despite this he battled on, and even lost part of a second finger after getting it stuck in the door of his Rolls-Royce. It still didn’t stop him playing though, and it wasn’t until 2000 that he finally succumbed to cancer, aged 75.

Written by: Trevor Stanford

Producer: Norman Newell

Weeks at number 1: 2 (19 June-2 July)

Births:

Chef Sophie Grigson – 19 June
Inspiral Carpets keyboardist Clint Boon – 27 June 

83. Russ Conway – Side Saddle (1959)

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By the spring of 1959 it had been three years since Winifred Atwell had last topped the charts, with The Poor People of Paris. Despite the changes in musical tastes since then, there was still a market for jolly old honky tonk instrumentals that you could have a jolly good knees-up to. Who could fill that gap? Step forward, Russ Conway.

Born Trevor Stanford (the name his self-penned songs would be credited to) in 1925, his mother had been a pianist but died when he was only 14. His two brothers had formal musical education, but no real talent to speak of, whereas Conway was the opposite. He served in the Navy during World War Two, where he was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal for ‘gallantry and devotion to duty’. During the war his many health problems began, which saw him discharged due to a stomach ulcer. During his service he had lost one of the tips of a finger in an accident with a bread-slicer, but that didn’t stop him taking his friend’s advice, and upon his return, he agreed to stand in for a holidaying club pianist. He then began performing in pubs and clubs, before being spotted by the choreographer Irving Davies. He signed to EMI’s Colombia label, where he would play piano for stars including Gracie Fields. Eventually Conway made it on to the Billy Cotton Band Show, and it was Cotton who was instrumental in persuading Conway to loosen up and develop the style that made him a solo star. His first solo single, Party Pops, was released in 1957, and was a medley in the vein of Atwell’s 1954 Christmas number 1, Let’s Have Another Party. However, it was by composing that he made his breakthrough. When writing a score for a TV musical version of Beauty and the Beast, Conway was asked at the last minute to write a tune for a ballroom scene. He hastily came up with one and called it Side Saddle.

This has to be one of the strangest number 1 singles so far. I’m really struggling to grasp how it happened. At least with Atwell, her number 1s were covers of familiar tunes played at a manic pace. I’ve now listened to Side Saddle several times and I can’t remember the tune, let alone work out how it spent a month at the top. It has a certain quaint charm I guess and will have reminded the oldies of the time of their youth, perhaps. That’s the best I can manage, I’m afraid.

During Side Saddle‘s stint at number 1, an early CND rally took place in Trafalgar Square on 30 March that saw 20,000 demonstrators attend, and on 2 April, United Dairies merged with Cow & Gate to become Unigate. You might say, ‘So what?’, and it’s before my time too, but Unigate are fondly remembered for their ‘Watch out there’s a Humphrey about’ adverts in the 1970s… My mind is wandering… can we have a number 1 I can understand next, please?

Written by: Trevor Stanford 

Producer: Norman Newell

Weeks at number 1: 4 (27 March-23 April)

Births:

Actress Emma Thompson – 15 April
Painter Peter Doig – 17 April
The Cure singer Robert Smith – 21 April