What a strange year of number 1s we have lined up for 1968. We have the good, the bad, and even The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The Beatles were still at number 1 for most of January with their Christmas chart-topper, Hello, Goodbye, before finally running out of steam. They were replaced by Lancashire-born jazz cat Georgie Fame and his third and last number 1, The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.
Before hearing this track I assumed it would be taken from the soundtrack to the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. I was wrong, but that didn’t surprise me, as not only have I never seen the film, I don’t actually know much about the subject matter either.
Arthur Penn’s multi-Academy Award-winning landmark crime biography detailed the rise and fall of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Burrow. In the Great Depression of the 30s, the duo captured the imagination of the US on a two-year crime spree. Although the romantic image of the duo as Robin Hood-style characters has endured, the reality is their many bungled robberies resulted in innocent people being killed. The movie is considered one of the first films of the New Hollywood era, prompting more filmmakers to show sex and violence in their work. At the time, the duo’s death was considered a truly shocking end to a Hollywood movie.
Songwriters Mitch Murray (the man behind both Gerry and the Pacemakers number 1s – How Do You Do It? and I Like It) and Peter Callander saw the film and felt inspired to write a 30s-style jazz spoof telling the tale of the duo. Georgie Fame, who had enjoyed two number 1s with The Blue Flames (Yeh Yeh and Get Away) was the perfect artist to record their new track.
Since Get Away topped the charts, the band had enjoyed two further top 20 hits with Sunny and Sitting in the Park. They released one more album, Sweet Thing in 1966, before Fame chose to sign with CBS Records and go solo. The Blue Flames disbanded, and drummer Mitch Mitchell became a third of The Jimi Hendrix Experience soon after. Fame released his first solo album Sound Venture later that year. His first two solo singles failed to chart, but The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, released in 1967, became number 1, and was his only top ten hit in the US.
This quirky, rickety little track certainly gets 1968 off to a weird start. It may not have been in the film, but without it, there’s no way Fame would have outsold The Beatles. It’s not without its charm, and I always enjoy a Georgie Fame vocal, but by reducing the story of Bonnie and Clyde to a bit of fun, it’s nothing more than a throwaway novelty track.
It’s quite a sparse recording, featuring mainly Fame and a banjo, but there’s some brass too, plus sound affects, including the sound of gunfire as it reaches its climax. I think we’re supposed to go ‘Awww!’ when Fame sings ‘Bonnie and Clyde/They lived a lot together/And finally together/They died’, which is going a bit easy on bankrobbing murderers really. I’m now trying to imagine other inappropriate tunes, such as The Ballad of Fred and Rose West, or Peter Sutcliffe’s Sad Sad Song.
Fame’s hits began to dry up soon after, but Somebody Stole My Thunder in 1970 is a strong shot of R’n’B. He formed a partnership with organist Alan Price, formerly of The Animals, and they had a hit with Rosetta in 1971, but they split two years later. Much of the early 70s was spent writing jingles for television and radio, and making the soundtrack for the Till Death Us Do Part big-screen spin-off, The Alf Garnett Saga (1972). In 1974 he reformed The Blue Flames, but by the 80s he was back in the advert industry.
In 1989 he began working with cantankerous Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison as his producer and performing in his live band, as well as recording their collaborative LP, How Long Has This Been Going On in 1996. This partnership lasted until 1998, with occasional work together ever since.
Fame suffered tragedy in 1993 when his wife, Nicolette Powell, jumped off the Clifton Suspension Bridge to her death. They had married in 1972 after having a baby while she was still married to Alistair Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 9th Marquess of Londonderry. When tests proved the baby was theirs, the Marchioness had divorced him for Fame. Suffering from depression, Powell had left a suicide note in which she said she had no purpose in life now their children had grown up.
In 1998 Fame also became a founding member of former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, with whom he worked for a couple of years before going it alone again. He has released albums ever since and has performed at Glastonbury Festival. His live band sometimes includes his two sons Tristan and James. What a shame Nicolette didn’t live to enjoy their performances.
Written by: Mitch Murray & Peter Callander
Producer: Mike Smith
Weeks at number 1: 1 (24-30 January)
Journalist Matthew d’Ancona – 27 January
Rapper Tricky – 27 January
Spymaster Maxwell Knight – 27 January