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 1950s 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 so far. 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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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 Whatever Will Be, Will Be.

The Best:

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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:

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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. I think I’d rather be at war than with Shelton.

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:

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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 57 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:

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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 Everley 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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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

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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 of course 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 classy, tortured song 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 later arrested on drug and prostitution charges alter that year. 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 

66. Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of Fire (1958)

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1958’s charts began with a bang like never before. The simplicity and energy that rock’n’roll brought to popular music is perhaps never better showcased than in this song – one of the best number 1s of the decade, if not, THE best. The only number 1 with an intro to rival it to date had been Rock Around the Clock, but Great Balls of Fire has aged better. Not only did conflicted wildman Jerry Lee Lewis bring the piano to the forefront for the first time, attacking it with the same reckless abandon that Jimi Hendrix later did with the guitar, he also made the subject of sex overt. Yes, there had been hints creeping in, but Great Balls of Fire is pure lust – a subject matter that Lewis wrestled with, and proved to be his downfall.

Lewis was born into a poor family living in Ferriday, Concordia ParishLouisiana in 1935. He loved playing the piano from an early age, so much so that his parents mortgaged their farm to buy him one. He became influenced by fellow musical family members, The Great American Songbook and Hank Williams. In an early sign of Lewis’s waywardness, his mother enrolled him in Southwest Bible Institute, where she hoped he would begin performing evangelical numbers. Lewis was expelled for playing boogie-woogie versions. Rock’n’roll was growing in popularity, and was the perfect home for Lewis, who travelled to Memphis Tennessee to audition for Sun Records, home to Elvis Presley, in November 1956. He passed and began recording his own material as well as assisting greats such as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Recordings exist of the three of them jamming with Elvis from that December. Two months later, Lewis recorded his classic version of Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On, which rightly shot him to fame. His raucous live performances were also making him a force to be reckoned with. He had originally knocked his piano bench over by mistake, but the audience loved it, so it set Lewis free to run riot on his instrument, pounding the keys, climbing on top of it and totally changing the image of pianists forever.

Great Balls of Fire had originally been written by singer-songwriter Jack Hammer. He had submitted it to Paul Case, who was working on the music film Jamboree (1957). Case didn’t like the song, but loved the title. He went to Otis Blackwell, an established hitmaker who had written Elvis’s All Shook Up, and struck a deal whereby he and Hammer would split the royalties. Despite Lewis’s burgeoning reputation as a hellraiser, he was a devout Christian, and he struggled with the premise of this next single, which was as racy as music got back then. Initially, he refused to perform it, asking Sun Records boss Sam Phillips, ‘How can the devil save souls?’ However, as the recording session went on, alcohol, and subsequently the devil, won out. Not only did he loosen up enough to take control of the number, leering away at the vocals and treating his piano like a whore, he is heard on bootleg tapes saying ‘I would like to eat a little pussy if I had some’. Quite the turnaround…

Nobody, not even Elvis, would have been able to make Great Balls of Fire the way Lewis did. It fitted his wild image like a glove. Unfortunately, Lewis’s reckless ways may have helped make him, but they also broke him. Four months after he hit number 1 in the UK, he toured the country. Three concerts in, a reporter discovered that Lewis’s third wife (he was only 22) was Myra Gale Brown – his first cousin, once removed. This was newsworthy enough, but Myra was only 13. Shocking stuff, obviously, and Lewis’s career never recovered.

I have to admit to being puzzled by Lewis’s marriage scandal. The 1950s are always remembered as a time of conservatism, yet, and I may be betraying some ignorance of the law back then, how come he wasn’t imprisoned? How come Sun Records kept him on? In today’s climate, post-Weinstein and Savile, Jerry Lee Lewis would have been completely finished, and deservedly so. He’s still recording songs to this day, and still trades on his bad-boy image (his 2010 album was called Mean Old Man).

I’d always liked Great Balls of Fire, but listening to it for this blog, in the context of other 1950s number 1s, made me respect it even more. It’s truly pioneering. And yet, it also raised (and not for the last time) the decidedly dodgy subject of enjoying art by morally questionable artists. Gary Glitter also had number 1s, and is reviled, as well he should be, yet other musicians with a dubious sexual history are still considered heroes. Where should we draw the line? I’m not sure I have the answer.

Written by: Otis Blackwell & Jack Hammer

Producer: Sam Phillips

Weeks at number 1: 2 (10-23 January)

57. Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group – Cumberland Gap (1957)

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It’s only now that I finally get just why skiffle was so influential. There had been no number 1 like Cumberland Gap before. At forty seconds in when Lonnie Donegan moves the song up a gear and it enters a breakneck speed, going so fast that he becomes breathless, you see why a genre that was fashionable for such a brief time inspired a generation of great musicians. It has been argued that Cumberland Gap was the first punk number 1, and it’s a very strong argument. This is a million miles away from Here in my Heart.

Lonnie Donegan was born Anthony James Donegan in Bridgeton, Glasgow in 1931. He bought his first guitar at 14, as World War Two came to an end. He took a keen interest in jazz, folk, country and blues. Trad jazz bandleader Chris Barber had heard he was good on the banjo and asked him for an audition. Donegan had never played a banjo, but bought one and passed the audition anyway. In 1952 he formed his own band, the Tony Donegan Jazzband, and after opening for blues musician Lonnie Johnson, Donegan took his first name in tribute. By 1953, he was in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen with Barber. During the intervals of their shows, Donegan took to providing a ‘skiffle break’. The name derived from a New Orleans term for house parties that were organised to pay the rent. These interludes soon had the crowd more excited than the main sets. Donegan, with backing from a tea-chest bass and washboard from other band members, would play storming renditions of old blues songs by Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. It’s very likely that Cumberland Gap was among this material. It was only a matter of time before Donegan broke free and went solo.

Easily the oldest song to reach number 1 to date, Cumberland Gap‘s origins are shrouded in mystery. It’s an Appalachian folk tune that likely dates back to the latter half of the 19th century, but I’d put money on it being Woody Guthrie’s recording that Donegan was aware of. Originally concerning a mountain pass at the juncture of Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky used by migrants in the 18th century, Donegan has fun with the lyric, referring to the county in northwest England instead and claiming the Gap is ‘Fifteen miles from Middlesborough’.

Despite Rock Island Line coming first, and being understandably perhaps the most famous skiffle song ever, I think I prefer Cumberland Gap, maybe because of the fact I’ve been comparing it to number 1s that came before, which can only amplify how good it is, or perhaps due to the wordplay. There’s not a lot of difference between the two, which is why skiffle didn’t last long, but that doesn’t really matter. Both songs create an almighty racket on such basic instruments, don’t outstay their welcome, and show so much other material from the time as being out-of-date and too restrained. And it still sounds fresh, unlike Rock Around the Clock. You can see why Bill Haley soon started to look old-fashioned, and Donegan’s DIY ethic was bound to become more inspiring. Skiffle’s inspiring qualities were instant. By this point, John Lennon had formed the Quarrymen, and during Donegan’s next run at the top, Paul McCartney joined the group.

During Cumberland Gap‘s impressive five-week stint at number 1, John Bodkin Adams shocked the nation by being found not guilty in court on 15 April. It is still believed that Adams was a forerunner of Dr Harold Shipman, and may have killed over a hundred patients, but that political interference caused him to be set free. On 20 April, Manchester United retained the First Division title in the Football League, but lost against Aston Villa in the FA Cup final on 4 May, narrowly missing out on becoming the first team to win the double that century. On 24 April the BBC broadcast astronomy series The Sky at Night, with the legendary Patrick Moore at the helm right from the start.

Written by: Traditional

Producer: Alan A Freeman

Weeks at number 1: 5 (12 April-16 May)

Births:

Author Nick Hornby – 17 April
Cricketer Graeme Fowler – 20 April
Actor Daniel Day-Lewis – 29 April
Comedian Jo Brand – 3 May
Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious – 10 May

54. Tommy Steele & the Steelmen – Singing the Blues (1957)

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Guy Mitchell only enjoyed a week at the top of the charts with Singing the Blues before record buyers decided they preferred Tommy Steele’s version, This bizarre turn of events had happened before in December 1953, when Frankie Laine‘s version of Answer Me knocked David Whitfield‘s from the top.

Tommy Steele was enjoying immense popularity at the time, and is considered by many to be Britain’s first rock’n’roll star. Born Thomas William Hicks in 1936, he had been a merchant seaman, and sang and played guitar and banjo in London coffee houses in his spare time. He fell in love with rock’n’roll when a ship he worked on docked in Norfolk, Virginia in the US and he heard Buddy Holly on the radio. He and his group, the Steelmen scored their first hit with Rock with the Caveman in 1956, reaching number 13. It was a rip-off of Rock Around the Clock, but a pretty good one. It was beginning to become common practise for British singers to record covers of songs that were going down well in the US, and release them over here before the imports became better known. Although his version of Singing the Blues hadn’t beaten Mitchell’s to the top spot, it had knocked it down after only a week.

By this point, Elvis-mania had well and truly gripped the nation, and Tommy Steele decided to ape him for his version. Clearly this worked at the time, but his affectation is so obvious now as to sound laughable. His slurring of the opening line is way too over-the-top, and makes Pat Boone sound much more authentic at ripping the King off. Thankfully Steele settles down and things pick up when he drops the impression, but the Steelmen’s backing is almost identical to Mitchell’s, right down to the whistling, so inevitably you compare the two, and when you do, Steele is the loser. Mitchell was a veteran by this point, and sounds relaxed and at home with the material. So, Steele had succeeded in beating Presley to a UK number 1 single, and won the initial battle with Mitchell, but was only in pole position for a week before everybody decided they’d actually preferred Mitchell’s version, which went back to the top for its second of three stints. Perhaps he should have laid off the Elvis impressions and stuck to sounding like Bill Haley & His Comets.

Steele continued to enjoy great fame, however, and his debut album, The Tommy Steele Story, became the first number 1 album by a UK act later that year. Also in 1957, he found himself competing against Mitchell once more, as they both covered Mervin Endley’s sequel, Knee Deep in the Blues. Neither version fared as well, though. He went solo in 1958, and continued with his music until the rise of the Beatles, before wisely concentrating on his film and theatre career, and is still loved by fans from his youth.

Symbolically, as Steele enjoyed his only number 1 to date, the Cavern Club, then for jazz aficionados before later becoming home to the Beatles as they went stratospheric, opened its doors for the first time.

Written by: Melvin Endsley

Producer: Hugh Mendl

Weeks at number 1: 1 (11-17 January)

41. Tennessee Ernie Ford with Orchestra conducted by Jack Fascinato – Sixteen Tons (1956)

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Interest in Dickie Valentine’s Christmas Alphabet understandably died down after the holidays, and the first new number 1 of the year was Rock Around the Clock, enjoying its second run at the top, before being usurped by a rather unique single.

Sixteen Tons had originally been written and recorded by country singer-songwriter Merle Travis back in 1946. Travis’s songs often spoke of the hardships of workers in the US as he came from a mining family in Kentucky. His brother once wrote him a letter with the line ‘You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt’. His father was also fond of saying ‘I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store’. Back then, miners were paid with credit vouchers that they could use to buy goods at the company store. Travis had the beginnings of a very catchy chorus . He came up with a song whose humour is as black as the dirt in the miners’ fingernails, and Tennessee Ernie Ford was listening. 10 years later, his cover became his second UK number 1 single in less than a year.

Sixteen Tons is so much better than Give Me Your Word. His previous number 1 was a mediocre ballad that could have recorded by anyone. It’s hard to think who could perform Sixteen Tons as well as Ford. The sparse arrangement features his deep, booming voice and finger-clicking to begin with, followed by a clarinet backing him up, Ford speaks not only for US workers, but any slave to the man. In the gloomy winter months of 1956, no doubt UK miners could find solace in such a song. The mining references may root the song firmly in the past, but anyone who finds themselves slaving away just to get by can identify.  And it helps that it’s as catchy as hell.

Selling millions upon millions, Sixteen Tons became Ford’s signature song, and earned him his own TV show, which ran for five years.

Unfortunately, he and his first wife Betty had alcohol problems, and while he managed during his career peak, by the 70s his love of whiskey was taking its toll.

Betty died in 1989 but even this couldn’t curtail his drinking, and he remarried less than four months later. Ford died of liver failure on 17 October 1991 – 36 years to the day of the first release of Sixteen Tons. However, he left behind the definitive version of a song that truly resonates.

Written by: Merle Travis

Producer: Lee Gillette

Weeks at number 1: 2 (20 January-16 February)

Births:

Sex Pistols Singer John Lydon – 31 January
Actor Philip Franks – 2 January
New Order bassist Peter Hook – 13 February

Deaths:

Author AA Milne – 31 January 

Meanwhile…

24 January: Plans were announced for the building of thousands of new homes in the Barbican area of London, which had been devastated by Luftwaffe bombings in World War Two.

40. Dickie Valentine with Johnny Douglas & His Orchestra – Christmas Alphabet (1955)

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As winter 1955 dawned, Rock Around the Clock-mania had set in, and Bill Haley & His Comets were finally enjoying their stint at number 1. Although this was a seismic event in music, it would be wrong to think that from then on, the UK number 1s were constantly rock’n’roll numbers. Teenagers, as they had recently been named, still only represented a portion of the record-buying market. There were still a lot of older folk who were more than happy with the status quo, who liked  nice crooners singing something warm and cosy, and especially with the dark nights drawing in, etc.

Smooth singer Dickie Valentine had enjoyed a very successful year, with his collaboration with The Stargazers, Finger of Suspicion, topping the charts back in January, followed by three top 10 hits. He then topped and tailed 1955’s singles chart by cottoning on to an idea that would serve artists well for years to come – if you want a number 1 at Christmas time, why not do a song about Christmas time?

Christmas Alphabet had been written by Buddy Kaye and Jules Loman the previous year, and was performed by US singing trio The McGuire Sisters. Kaye liked his alphabet songs – he’d written ‘A’ You’re Adorable (The Alphabet Song) back in 1949 for Perry Como, although these days it’s probably best known as featuring in Angela Rippon’s guest spot on Morecambe & Wise’s Christmas special in 1976. Valentine’s version of Christmas Alphabet became the more famous version, and the oldies won out, knocking Haley from his lofty perch and making it the first explicitly-festive Christmas number 1.

It’s based around a very simple idea. Valentine just lists seasonal stuff around each letter that makes up the word ‘Christmas’. He runs through it twice, to make sure it’s all sunk in, and that’s it, job done. Some of the rhyming is tenuous though…

‘S is for the Santa who makes every kid his pet,
Be good and he’ll bring you everything in your Christmas alphabet!’

Erm, sorry, what? Santa makes every kid his pet? It’s news to me. Disturbing news, at that.

Although by this stage of my blog I’ve been longing for rock’n’roll to come along and shake things up, I have to confess that I don’t mind Christmas Alphabet. Reason being, I’m a sucker for a Christmas song. Especially older ones. Christmas is of course, a time for feeling all cosy and warm, if you’re lucky enough to have that option. 50s music is often perfect at encapsulating that. So I’m quite surprised, especially considering its historical importance, that Christmas Alphabet seems to have been forgotten about. You never hear it in shops, and it’s never on compilations. John Lewis are unlikely to get someone to make one of those annoying, wet, folky covers and stick it on an advert, either. It might be a slight little number, but it deserves to be remembered.

You could say the same about Valentine himself. Despite being adored at the time (he won New Musical Express’s best male vocalist category from 1953-57), he’s been largely forgotten.

His popularity waned in the next decade, despite two TV series (one with Peter Sellers) and he met a tragic end on 6 May 1971. Aged only 41, he was driving to a gig in Wales with bandmates at over 90mph in the early hours of the morning, when he lost control of the vehicle on a bend, killing the three of them.

Written by: Buddy Kaye & Jules Loman

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 3 (16 December-5 January 1956)

Births:

Poet Carol Ann Duffy – 23 December

Meanwhile…

20 December: Cardiff becomes the official capital of Wales.

New Year’s Day: Possession of heroin becomes fully criminalised.

4 January: As 1956 began, it became apparent that the Prime Minister Anthony Eden had plunged in the polls, which seemed surprising following the Conservatives’ solid victory in the election the previous year. Whether Labour had received a bounce off the back of electing their new leader, Hugh Gaitskell, remained to be seen.