Every 50s Number 1

The Intro

So, my first decade of number 1s is finished, 94 songs and seven months later. When I decided to review every UK number 1, I considered taking a random approach, but I decided starting right from the beginning would give me a wider knowledge of the progression of pop and pop culture in the UK. I did find the idea of kicking off with the 50s a potentially arduous task, however. Although there are exceptions, my interest in music tends to really start in 1963 with The Beatles’ first album, and I know I’m not alone in feeling like that. I feared starting with the 50s would put some readers off. Also, it’s the decade that’s as far out of my comfort zone as I’m going to get with this mammoth blog task I’ve set myself.

Except maybe it isn’t.

The older I get (38 currently), I feel I’m going to really struggle with the 2010s. Don’t understand the kids of today, cannot stand autotune, etc… Anyway, I find myself getting more out of the 50s far more than I initially expected. It’s still music I find myself respecting rather than enjoying, and there haven’t been many I’ll be downloading for future listens I have to confess, but it has been a fascinating journey, and I’m surprised at how much music changed from 1952 to 1959.

Before I finish with the decade and move on to the swinging 60s, I decided it would be nice to (kind-of) repeat the task I set myself in December. Back then I listened to every Christmas number 1 in order, in one session, and decided on a best and worst for each decade, before coming up with an overall best and worst. That blog seemed to generate a lot of interest, so I thought I’d do the same with the 50s. I decided against listening to all 94 songs in one go, that seemed a little bit much, so I decided to take it a year at a time.

1952/53

Where it all began. As Al Martino’s Here in My Heart was the only number 1 of 1952, I’ve lumped it in with 1953. It’s neither the best nor worst of what followed. In general, the record-buying public will still in thrall of string-laden love songs, often melancholy, overwrought ballads, with the emphasis on how well the singer could hold a note. Form over content. Not the kind of music that floats my boat, really. It was less than ten years since World War Two, and music fans still liked to wade through syrupy songs of missing loved ones abroad. In 1953’s defence, though, at least it had a healthy amount of female singers topping the charts. Once rock’n’roll takes hold, they largely disappeared bar a few exceptions. There’s some strange novelty songs in there that you wouldn’t think of as chart-toppers – see (How Much is) That Doggie in the Window? and the un-PC She Wears Red Feathers. Frankie Laine dominated that year.

The Best:

maxresdefault.jpg

Kay Starr – Comes A-Long A-Love: Only three tracks in and already there were elements of a rock’n’roll sound mixed in with jazz. This took me by surprise, and it was more than welcome. Kay Starr’s strong vocal mixed with a breezy tune had a vital element missing from other songs that year – fun.

The Worst:

DW4.jpg

David Whitfield with Stanley Black & His Orchestra – Answer Me: This is the decade at its least appealing to me. It’s so leaden and dreary. Whitfield’s vocals are too affected and operatic. The Frankie Laine version was better, but not by much, as it’s a pretty poor song anyway.

1954

Generally more of the same, but of a higher standard. Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and even Vera Lynn all make appearances, but they’re not their finest works. Rosemary Clooney’s jolly old knees-up about death, This Ole House is one of the highlights. A couple of instrumentals make it big, one good (Winifred Atwell’s Let’s Have Another Party), one not so good (Eddie Calvert’s Oh Mein Papa)

The Best:

Johnnie_Ray.jpg

Johnnie Ray – Such a Night: Mr Emotion was probably the revelation of the decade for me. Previously I only knew him for his namecheck in Come On Eileen, and that Morrissey used to wear hearing aid in tribute to him.  I referred to him as the ‘prototype eccentric rock’n’roll star’, and his three number 1s were all unique forerunners of the music that was to follow. This one in particular must have sounded pretty racy at the time, and contained the first hint of sex, one of pop’s key ingredients.

The Worst:

A-1239803-1408994226-1406.jpeg.jpg

The Stargazers with Syd Dean & His Orchestra –  I See the Moon: This is genuinely offensive to my ears. At the time it was considered a comedy song. Praise be that comedy has moved on from ‘funny’ voices. It’s the audio equivalent of Colin Hunt from The Fast Show. When I first heard this I said the Stargazers sounded pissed-up and tone deaf. Nothing has happened to change my mind. Six weeks at the top of the charts?!

1955

The year of mambo, and Bill Haley. Perez ‘Prez’ Prado rules the roost when it comes to the former, with his version of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White beating Eddie Calvert’s safer cover. Rosemary Clooney’s Mambo Italiano may not be the real deal but it’s a fun spoof. Tony Bennett makes his one and only appearance to date, and Slim Whitman’s haunting Rose Marie makes a big impact.

The Best:

bill-haley-and-the-comets-490d0e9cefdde396.jpg

Bill Haley & His Comets – Rock Around the Clock: Tempting as it might be to go against the grain here and pick something less predictable, I can’t. Yes it must be nigh-on impossible to hear this and imagine the impact the decade’s best-seller made at the time, and it sounds safe now, but it’s still catchy as hell, and for me, it’s all about that guitar solo.

The Worst:

bfc67d4f78e4fa884168f3c8a0403f0a.jpg

Jimmy Young with Bob Sharples & His Music – Unchained Melody: Another one of the most famous songs of all time, but this is nowhere near as good as The Righteous Brothers version. It’s not even as good as Robson & Jerome’s. The blame doesn’t entirely lie with poor Jimmy Young, as the production is all over the place, but he really doesn’t help matters, lurching from barely trying to bellowing within seconds.

1956

Several strong singles this year, mainly Tennessee Ernie Ford’s tough ode to the working man, Sixteen Tons, and Johnnie Ray’s melancholic Christmas number 1, Just Walkin’ in the Rain, featuring an unforgettable whistling refrain. Elvis has arrived, but the UK has to make do with Pat Boone at the top instead with I’ll Be Home. Dean Martin makes his only appearance, and Doris Day returns with signature tune Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).

The Best:

frankielymonteens-56d4fa3a5f9b5879cc92ad60.jpg

The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon – Why Do Fools Fall in Love: The first doo-wop song to make it to the top. The Teenagers one and only big hit was so influential on later soul and funk bands, and still sounds good to this day. Such a shame the band, and particularly Lymon, fell apart so soon.

The Worst:

p01hfstz.jpg

Anne Shelton with Wally Stott & His Orchestra – Lay Down Your Arms: Shudder. I disliked this song even more the second time around. I’m all for strong women, but Shelton needs to calm down a bit. Her poor lover must be terrified.

1957

The year skiffle hit the top of the charts. Lonnie Donegan’s three number 1 songs left an indelible mark on music, even if it took some time for its impact to become apparent. 1957 is the strongest year for number 1s to date, and rock’n’roll is now dominant. Even the most old-fashioned song, Frankie Vaughan’s The Garden of Eden, sounds good. Legends such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly make their first appearances, and the former’s cultural impact becomes apparent, with Tommy Steele and Andy Williams impersonating him, to an occasionally embarrassing degree.

The Best:

1680-fitandcrop-614x346.jpg

Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group – Cumberland Gap: I used to think skiffle was a rather laughably quaint genre played on cheap, silly instruments. It’s only by listening to what came before Lonnie Donegan that I now understand and appreciate its true effect – to me it’s now almost as important as punk. The hardest part of choosing the best of this year was picking between this and Donegan’s Gamblin’ Man, with it’s fiery ending, but Cumberland Gap came first and sounded like nothing I’d listened to up to that point.

The Worst:

81mw6dmhIUL._SL1000_.jpg

Guy Mitchell with Jimmy Carroll – Rock-a-Billy: Cheeky chappie Mitchell’s fourth and final chart-topper is mean-spirited and has the laziest chorus of any number 1 so far. A shame, as his previous single at the start of the year, Singing the Blues, proved he could actually be a dab hand at this new pop sound.

1958

Elvis was really on form with his second number 1 – Jailhouse Rock narrowly misses out on my favourite of this year and could have easily won in another year. Burt Bacharach and Hal David made their mark with two concurrent number 1s for Michael Holliday and Perry Como. Connie Francis finally returned a female artist to the top with a versatile selection of solid tunes – her Stupid Cupid introduced Neil Sedaka to the charts. The Everly Brothers made an excellent debut with the year’s highest seller, All I Have to Do is Dream, and Hoots Mon by Lord Rockingham’s XI was the finest novelty number 1 of the decade.

The Best:

Jerry-Lee-Lewis-paino-dressing-room-1958-billboard-650.jpg

Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of Fire: Direct, simplistic, fun, horny and mad, this just edges past Jailhouse Rock for me and got 1958 off to a great start. As far removed from some of the dreary monotony of 1953 as it’s possible to get in the same decade.

The Worst:

5d2b0335f20adf44b950fc59a5647c56v1_max_720x405_b3535db83dc50e27c1bb1392364c95a2.jpg

Vic Damone – On the Street Where You Live: I feel bad for doing this when Vic Damone has so recently passed away, but it really does stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of 1958’s list. It sounds like it belongs in 1954. Sorry, Vic. RIP.

1959

Buddy Holly’s untimely death made It Doesn’t Matter Anymore the first posthumous chart-topper, and was a big influence on Adam Faith’s first number 1, What Do You Want?. Elvis was away in the army, and his singles output quality began to slip with A Fool Such as I/I Need Your Love Tonight. Rock’n’roll went all dreamy and teenage-orientated, with Jerry Keller’s one-hit wonder Here Comes Summer and Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover, before Darin used his success to take an interesting career change. Cliff Richard made his first of many appearances, with Living Doll the year’s best-seller, and Shirley Bassey made her debut at number 1. The decade ended with Emile Ford and the Checkmates’ solid What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?.

The Best:

MI0002749454.jpg

Bobby Darin – Mack the KnifeA fascinating diversion from his previous number 1, Darin resisted scaring his young fans away with this swinging celebration of a serial killer, but Atlantic Records pushed for it anyway. It’s likely the fans ignored the lyrics and chose to be swept away by his cool vocals and the power and punch of the backing band. Suddenly pop was taking a dark turn, if you listened closely enough. Much covered, but probably never bettered.

The Worst:

wp10_wp73147ee2_0f[1]

Russ Conway – Side Saddle: This one totally baffled me when I wrote my blog, and while I found it slightly better the second time around, I still can’t quite believe this was such a success, but context is everything, I guess. Nonetheless, it’s still the weakest number 1 of the year.

The Best 50s Number 1 Ever is…

Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of FireDeciding on the best single proved to be much tougher than I first thought. It was very difficult to decide between this and Cumberland Gap, and Mack the Knife wasn’t far behind, either. Both songs shook up the music world, but in different ways. The winner is so ensconced in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine how it must have sounded as new, whereas I came in to Cumberland Gap completely fresh. If this decision was based on which single is most important, I’d have to award it to Cumberland Gap, as the influence of skiffle was so important on the following decade. It proved you didn’t have to have the voice of an opera singer to be at number 1, you didn’t have to have an orchestra backing you, and you didn’t even have to play expensive instruments. You could just make an all-mighty racket.

However, as impressed as I was by it, in the end this decision should also be based on personal enjoyment, as well as influence, mass appeal, inventiveness… and Great Balls of Fire has all of these. And despite me knowing it so well, it still managed to sound new and exciting, even after all this time. Plus, as great as Cumberland Gap sounds compared to most of the competition, in a way I had heard it before with the very similar and better known Rock Island Line. So congratulations, Jerry Lee Lewis. Despite being one of pop music’s first controversial figures, and therefore your brief period in the charts, you’ve managed to top Elvis and many other 50s legends, and Great Balls of Fire is one hell of a tune. You ripped up the rulebook when it came to the piano, and you showed the way pop was heading when it came to showmanship on the stage. And your best work was later used to sell cheese. But that’s record companies for you.

The Worst 50s Number 1 Ever is…

The Stargazers with Syd Dean & His Orchestra – I See the MoonNo contest. Reviewing every number 1 of the 50s was at times trying, and I knew it would be, but nothing prepared me for this. Don’t get me wrong, unlike many ‘serious music’ obsessives, there is a small place in my heart for comedy and novelty songs as genres, if they’re done right. And as I said above, context is everything. But I See the Moon is genuinely painful to listen to. I don’t get the joke, unless the joke is ‘Listen to how awful we sound’, in which case, the joke isn’t funny. In a decade with so number 1s that would be unimaginable now, I See the Moon is beyond comprehension to my poor ears.

The Outro

While I’m keen to get onto the number 1s of the 60s, and I originally saw reviewing the 50s tracks as a necessary evil in order to make it to the next batch, I am sorry to see it go. I’ve learnt a lot, about the social history as well as the music of the time, and it’s been a fascinating look at pop’s baby steps. Next, the decade of The Beatles, the Stones, Swinging London, the return of Labour to government, psychedelia, colour TV, British pop dominating at home and abroad… I can’t wait and I hope you can’t too.

Blogs on every 50s number 1 are available to view via the Archive section.

33. Eddie Calvert – Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White (1955)

Tony Bennett’s Stranger in Paradise was toppled from number 1 by Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, but it wasn’t Pérez ‘Prez’ Prado’s version of Louiguy’s mambo tune, which had topped the charts only a few weeks previously. This was a cover by popular British trumpeter Eddie Calvert, the ‘Man with the Golden Trumpet’.

Calvert was a big star at the time, and had been number one the year previous with Oh Mein Papa. He was also one of the writers of Vera Lynn’s only chart-topper, My Son, My Son, also in 1954. Back then it was perfectly normal for several versions of the same song to be in the charts at the same time. See David Whitfield and Frankie Laine‘s Answer Me, for instance, which were even both number 1 at the same time for one week.

There’s no denying Eddie Calvert’s ability on his version, but it’s inferior to Prado’s. It’s missing the authenticity of the King of Mambo, and seems a little too mannered. It reminds me of the Strictly Come Dancing band’s covers of songs. The passion has been sucked out. But at the same time, Calvert actually goes off script more than Billy Regis does on Prado’s version, and does some nice little improvised playing in the song’s latter half, so it’s a decent cover. It’s certainly aged better than Oh Mein Papa.

Calvert, like many other 50s stars we’ve already seen, suffered when rock’n’roll and later The Beatles changed the musical landscape. He left the country in 1968, angry at the amount of tax he was paying under Harold Wilson’s Labour government, and moved to Johannesburg. There he remained until he died on 7 August 1978 of a heart attack, aged only 56.

Written by: Louiguy

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 4 (27 May-24 June)

Births:

The Clash drummer Topper Headon – 30 May
Author Val McDermid – 4 June
World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee – 8 June
Footballer Alan Hansen – 13 June
Comedian Paul O’Grady – 14 June

Deaths:

Radium therapist Jacob Moritz Blumberg – 14 June

Meanwhile…

27 May: As predicted by the polls, the Conservatives won the General Election, with their new leader Anthony Eden back in power with a majority of 31 seats, up 17 from Winston Churchill’s success four years previous. Labour’s infighting between the left and right (sound familiar?) had caused them substantial losses. Their leader, Clement Atlee, who had achieved so much after World War Two, was unlikely to make it to a sixth election in a row.

24. Vera Lynn with Frank Weir, His Saxophone, His Orchestra & Chorus – My Son, My Son (1954)

‘Vera, Vera, what has become of you?’ So Roger Waters sang on Pink Floyd’s Vera from 1980 double album The Wall. It may well be partly because I love that album, but at some point I got it into my head that Dame Vera Lynn had died, a long time back. I was shocked upon researching this to find out she turned 100 on 20 March 2017. 100! Well done Vera.

What’s more, ‘the Forces Sweetheart’ achieved an incredible feat that year. She released the compilation Vera Lynn 100, making her the first centenarian performer to have an album in the charts. Amazing really, when you consider that she had three singles in the initial UK top 12 back in 1952 (which was actually a top 15 due to tied positions) – Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart, The Homing Waltz and Forget-Me-Not. The first of those three had also been the first single by a British performer to be number 1 in the US. And now I’m updating this in 2019, Lynn is the oldest living number 1 artist on these shores.

It had taken a long time for Britain to recover from World War Two, so it’s no wonder that Lynn was still in vogue in the mid-50s. However, rationing had just come to an end, so I’m sure this would have been symbolic of a need to finally move on from such traumatic times. Perhaps this is partly why My Son, My Son remains her only number 1 single, and the beginning of her decline in fame. It had been written by Gordon Melville Rees, Bob Howard and trumpeter Eddie Calvert, who had scored a number 1 with Oh Mein Papa back at the start of the year. But how did Vera Lynn become such a national treasure?

Born Vera Margaret Welch in East Ham, Essex on 20 March 1917, she was performing publicly by the age of seven, and it was four years later that she took her grandmother Margaret Lynn’s surname and became Vera Lynn. She made her first radio broadcast with The Joe Loss Orchestra in 1935 and began making her initial recordings with them, plus other big dance band names such as Charlie Kunz.

At the same time, she was recording as a solo artist. Her first release was Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire in 1936 and her first hit came a year later with The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot. But of course she is most famous for the 1939 recording We’ll Meet Again, the most memorable song of World War Two.

Her first solo live performance – by which time she had become the Forces Sweetheart – was 1940, the year of the Blitz. In 1941, Lynn began her own radio programme, Sincerely Yours, where she would perform soldiers’ requests and send messages to overseas troops. A year later came her second most well-known song, The White Cliffs of Dover.

She dedicated her career to the war effort, touring Egypt, India and Burma to lend moral support until Hitler was defeated in 1945. This of course also helped her become better known in other countries, and in 1952 her fame spread to the US. She went to number 1 there with Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart for nine weeks. And two years later came My Son My Son.

I feel bad slating this, but the fact she helped a nation keep sane in the war doesn’t make My Son, My Son any easier to enjoy now. Frank Lee’s production is overblown, with backing vocals from a male voice choir that hurt the ears. The lyrics tap into the spirit of songs like We’ll Meet Again by paying tribute to a mother’s son. You can picture a soldier’s mum singing it in-between sobbing over a letter from her brave boy fighting in another country. It seems trite in this day and age, and possibly to the younger generation back then, keen for something with some energy and spirit. Having said that, it was the all-too-typical-of-the-time Hold My Hand by Don Cornell that knocked Lynn off the top for a second run as bestseller.

My Son My Son was Lynn’s commercial peak, and her decline came soon after, like so many of her ilk, but in the 60s and 70s she had her own BBC variety series and would regularly guest on other shows, including The Royal Variety Performance and Morecambe and Wise’s 1972 Christmas special.

Lynn’s enduring popularity and link to the war effort meant she was a natural to use during anniversary celebrations, and her final performances marked VE Day’s 50th anniversary in 1995 by performing outside Buckingham Palace and later that evening in Hyde Park. A fitting end to a remarkable live career.

It says a lot about Lynn that the fact she had (an admittedly) poor number one is somewhat of an afterthought really during her long career. Who cares when you are known as the person that kept so many soldiers going during terrible times? 

Written by: Gordon Melville Rees, Bob Howard & Eddie Calvert

Producer: Frank Lee

Weeks at number 1: 2 (5-18 November)

Meanwhile…

13 November: Great Britain defeated France at the Parc des Princes in Paris to win the first ever Rugby League World Cup final.

 

17. The Stargazers with Syd Dean & His Orchestra – I See the Moon (1954)

IMG_1639.JPG

If Eddie Calvert’s nine-week run seems odd now, well, I See the Moon having a five-week stint, followed by a further week later on, is just staggering.  It was written by US playwright and composer Meredith Wilson, who later became best known for being the man behind hit Broadway musical The Music Man.

This was the radio comedy group’s second of three number 1s. Broken Wings, was quite a staid, serious affair, but I’d always take that over this, unless I needed to torture someone.

The actual song isn’t too bad, but the production and performance, full of self-consciously wacky noises that harm the ears, are nauseating. The only real selling point is that it offers a curious glimpse into what passed as comedy in 1954. The Stargazers, for some unfathomable reason, decide to sing as though they are pissed-up and tone deaf. Easily the worst number 1 so far.

Hard to believe now but for five weeks this was considered the best song in the country, until Doris Day toppled it with the more deserving Secret Love. Yet somehow I See the Moon went back to number 1 on 23 April. Strange days indeed.

Written by: Meredith Wilson

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 6 (12 March-15 April, 23-29 April)

Births:

Actress Leslie Anne-Down – 17 March

Deaths:

Rugby union international James Peters – 26 March

Meanwhile…

24 March: Following an eight-day trial, The Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Peter Wildeblood and Michael Pitt-Rivers were convicted for ‘conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons’. Sent to prison for being gay, basically. Montagu protested his innocence, and eventually public opinion turned in his favour, and his case is considered one of the main reasons for the reform of the law on homosexuality.

16. Eddie Calvert – Oh Mein Papa (1954)

p01br0dz.jpg

As 1954 began, Frankie Laine was loosening his grip on the charts, and it would be another two years before he topped them for the final time. On 8 January, trumpeter Eddie Calvert, from Preston in Lancashire, took over from Laine with his cover of Oh Mein Papa.

Oh Mein Papa was, as the title suggests, a German song. It was written by Swiss composer Paul Burkhard in 1939 for the musical Der Schwarze Hecht and became his most successful tune. It concerned a young woman remembering the days her father worked as a clown, and these days, you’re most likely to know it from an episode of The Simpsons, in which Krusty the Clown sings it with Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky (Like Father, Like Clown).

Albert Edward Calvert, born 15 March 1922, came from a family who loved brass band music, but he became particularly interested in the trumpet.

After World War Two, he graduated from amateur to professional dance orchestras. Calvert earned the nickname ‘The Man with the Golden Trumpet’ (aren’t they all golden?) after appearing on the TV with the Stanley Black Orchestra, and the name stuck for the rest of his career. He was a BBC radio and TV star by the time he cut his chart-topping version of Oh Mein Papa.

Oh Mein Papa did as well as Frankie Laine’s initial run at the top with I Believe, remaining there for nine weeks. Impressive, and somewhat bizarre, all things considered, but we’re only on 1954 and rock’n’roll was yet to change the world.

Although classed as an instrumental, a choir occasionally sing the song’s title. Other than Calvert’s trumpet, there is an incredibly dated-sounding organ. In the charts at the same time, was a vocal version by previous number 1 artist Eddie Fisher. Despite his previous success, he was unable to beat Calvert here, whereas in the US, the opposite occurred.

Calvert was the first artist to receive a gold disc for an instrumental record. It was also the first number one to be recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios, which was a good few years off becoming the go-to studio for the likes of Cliff Richard and most famously The Beatles.

Written by: Paul Burkhard

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 9 (8 January-11 March)

Births:

Writer Iain Banks – 16 February
Actor Anthony Head – 20 February
Snooker player Willie Thorne – 4 March
Swimmer David Wilkie – 8 March

Deaths

Actor Sydney Greenstreet – 18 January
Royal Navy Captain Ronald Niel Stuart – 8 February

Meanwhile…

12 February: A report was issued by the British Medical Committee suggesting a link between smoking and lung cancer. It would be some time before the music world took any link on board.