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 

117. Floyd Cramer – On the Rebound (1961)

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Number 1 for a week in May, On the Rebound saw a much-demanded session musician step out into the spotlight and become a star in his own right. Pianist Floyd Cramer was one of the key architects of the ‘Nashville sound’, a sophisticated version of country music that had originated in the mid-1950s.

Cramer had been born in Shreveport, Louisiana in October 1933. He grew up in the small town of Huttig, Arkansas, where he taught himself to play the piano after his parents bought him one for his fifth birthday. After graduating, he returned to Louisiana and found work at radio station KWKH, where he began backing honky tonk stars and even toured with Hank Williams. Despite making his name as a session musician, he actually recorded his first solo single, Dancin’ Diane, in 1953. Two years later, he found himself touring with an up-and-coming singer named Elvis Presley. 1955 proved an important year for Cramer, as he finally moved to Nashville at the instigation of one of the Nashville sound’s figureheads, songwriter and producer Chet Atkins. Over the next few years, Cramer, along with Atkins, Owen Bradley, Harold Bradley, Fred Carter and the Jordanaires, worked with some of American music’s most influential stars, including UK number 1 artists Elvis, Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers.

Key to Cramer’s success was the ‘slip note’ style of playing he developed, in which he would often hit out-of-key notes before sliding into the right one, which created a kind of slurring sound that fitted perfectly with the country music he was working on. Cramer first used ‘slip note’ at a session for Hank Locklin’s Please Help Me, I’m Falling, when Atkins asked Cramer to copy Don Robertson’s playing on the demo. However, it was Cramer that ran with this style and made it his own. In 1960 he had a hit with the memorable instrumental Last Date, which peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100. Ironically, he was kept from the top spot by Presley’s Are You Lonesome Tonight?, on which he had also played. Last Date was later covered by REM, among others. A year later, the self-penned title track of his new album On the Rebound, also narrowly missed out on topping the US charts, but it did the business in the UK.

I was surprised just how much I enjoyed this track. I was half expecting something along the lines of Russ Conway’s number 1s, Side Saddle and Roulette, but On the Rebound really is a cut above. With instrumentals, you either need a really good central riff, or enough elements to keep the listener interested, and this track does both. It’s laden with hooks, punchy, and sounds pretty modern, thanks to Atkins’ production, with Cramer’s skills impressing over stirring string stabs. There’s been a lot of disappointing number 1s so far in 1961. This is one of the better ones.

Floyd Cramer continued to release his own work alongside session performances, often covering the hits of the time. From 1965 to 1974 he annually recorded an album of the year’s hits, titled The Class of… As a fan of the Monkees, I wouldn’t mind hearing Floyd Cramer Plays the Monkees, from 1967, or maybe Floyd Cramer and the Keyboard Kick Band from ten years later, in which Cramer played eight different keyboards. His final chart hit was his own version of the theme to US soap opera Dallas in 1980. Cramer died of lung cancer on New Year’s Eve 1997, aged 64.

Written by: Floyd Cramer

Producer: Chet Atkins

Weeks at number 1: 1 (18-24 May)

113. Petula Clark – Sailor (1961)

Two whole years since a female artist had last got to number 1 (Shirley Bassey, with As I Love You), Petula Clark finally broke the drought with Sailor. Long before her most famous hit, Downtown (which never got to number 1), Clark had been a child star. She was born Sally Olwen Clark on 15 November 1932, at Longsgrove Hospital in Epsom, Surrey. Both her parents were nurses there, and it was her father who later came up with her stage name, Petula. During World War Two, she lived with her sister at her grandparents home in South Wales. It was a small, very modest house, with no electricity or running water. Her grandparents spoke little English, so she learnt Welsh. She became a singer in the chapel choir, and discovered a talent for impersonating artists such as Vera Lynn. She first began performing publicly aged only seven, in 1939.

Clark’s big break came about during World War Two, by accident. In 1942, she attended a BBC radio broadcast with her father, and they intended to post a message to her uncle, serving overseas, but the air raid sirens began and the recording delayed. The producer asked for someone to help calm the attendants, and Clark sang Mighty Lak’ a Rose. It went down so well, she was asked to do so again when the broadcast went out, and suddenly Clark was touring and entertaining the troops, as well as King George VI and Sir Winston Churchill. She even became a mascot for the army, her face plastered on tanks for good luck. Clark garnered a number of film appearances during the rest of the decade, appearing alongside fellow child star and future two-time number 1 artist Anthony Newley in Vice Versa (1948). There was also Petula Clark, her television series for the BBC. As the 1940s wound up, Clark teamed up with producer Alan A Freeman to record a number of international hits, including The Little Shoemaker in 1954. However, she was struggling to shed her image of the child star-turned-adolescent, and wanted to be recognised as a more mature performer. She was able to achieve this away from the UK, becoming popular in France and Belgium. performing alongside Sacha Distel. By the time she came to record Sailor, she was approaching her thirties, and was based in Paris.

The track was an English language version of the 1959 German song, Seemann (Deine Heimat ist das Meer) by Werner Scharfenberger and Fini Busch, which had been a hit for Lolita. In the original, Lolita is aware of her lover’s desire to travel, but Normal Newell (who had produced Russ Conway’s number 1s, Side Saddle and Roulette) had been tasked with writing English lyrics, and he hurriedly turned it into a plea for the sailor to come home, taking only ten minutes to write his version. Sailor had been brought to Clark’s attention by Tony Hatch, who assisted with the production, on this, their first collaboration. It was Hatch that later penned Downtown, and they had many hits together. He also wrote the theme to Crossroads in 1964, and went on to write several other soap opera themes with his wife Jackie Trent, including Emmerdale Farm and Neighbours.

It’s a shame Hatch didn’t get to write something for Clark sooner really, as Sailor is an outdated, old-fashioned ballad playing on people’s memories of World War Two. The orchestra and backing singers make it sound like it could be from the charts of 1953. Also, it certainly shows that Newell knocked off the lyrics so quickly, as there’s not many to comment on (for some reason, Newell was credited as David West) and they’re rather hackneyed and cliched. What it does have going for it, though, is some fine, atmospheric harmonica, courtesy of Harry Pitch.

I can see why Clark was keen to cover Sailor, as it makes her sound older than her years, so it could have helped her shake off her old image – but then again, perhaps not, because of the war connection to the words. It’s no surprise that Clark’s song competed against a version by Anne Shelton, who was also a star during the war, and had scored a number 1 back in 1956 with the awful Lay Down Your Arms. Whatever Petula Clark’s reasons, it worked and her version spent a week at number 1. Shelton’s also made it to the top ten, but it marked the end of her successful career.

It would be six years before Clark’s next number 1, and I’ll talk about her more in depth when we get to 1967, but it’s interesting to note that as I write this, it was 50 years ago this week that Clark made history alongside Harry Belafonte. He was a guest on her US TV special, Petula, and during the show they performed an anti-war duet. At one point, Clark touched Belafonte’s arm, and this marked the ever time a white woman and black man had physical contact on TV. Ridiculously, in some areas this caused a furore, and one of the advertising managers threatened to resign if the moment was transmitted. What a prick.

Written by: Werner Scharfenberger & Fini Busch/David West (English lyrics)

Producer: Alan A Freeman

Weeks at number 1: 1 (23 February-1 March)

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