245. Esther and Abi Ofarim – Cinderella Rockefeller (1968)

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Spring began with the introduction of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 on 1 March. Reducing the right of entry for immigrants from the British Commonwealth to the UK, I’m sure it will have made Enoch Powell a happy man. The following day, coal mining in the Black Country, which had played a big part in the Industrial Revolution, came to an end after some 300 years with the closure of Baggeridge Colliery near Sedgley.

Ten days later on 12 March, Mauritius gained independence from British rule, and three days later the Foreign Secretary George Brown resigned from his post. One of the most colourful Labour MPs of the decade, Brown had a big drink problem, and following his resignation, Private Eye coined the phrase ‘tired and emotional’ to hint at his alcoholism. 17 March saw a demonstration in Grosvenor Square, London against the Vietnam War. The protest became violent, leading to 91 police injured and 200 demonstrators arrested.

What was the soundtrack to these tense times in? Surely something like Street Fighting Man by the Rolling Stones? No, it was this weird little one-hit wonder – Cinderella Rockefeller, by Israeli husband-and-wife Esther and Abi Ofarim.

Esther Zaied was born in Safed in 1941 to a Syrian Jewish family. She was performing as a child, and loved singing Hebrew and international folk songs. In 1958, she met musician and dancer Abi. Born Abraham Reichstadt in what is now Israel in 1937, he was also a precocious talent, attending ballet school at 12 and owner of his own dance studio at 18. The duo married in either 1958 or 1961 depending on where you look, and were performing as Esther and Abi Ofarim from 1959 onwards. At the same time, Esther would perform solo and won the Song Festival in Tel Aviv in 1961.

Two years later she entered Eurovision, representing Switzerland with the French song T’en vas pas. As the competition drew to a close, Esther looked to be the winner, but due to a last-minute change in the scores from Norway, she lost out to Denmark.

After this disappointment, their career as a duo went from strength to strength in Germany. They had their first hit in 1966 with Noch einen Tanz, and the following year their biggest hit in that country, Morning of My Life, which was written by Barry Gibb as In the Morning, which the Bee Gees had recorded before moving to the UK.

Later that year they recorded Cinderella Rockefella. This bizarre novelty song had been written by US Grammy award-winning classical guitarist Mason Williams and folk singer Nancy Ames, known in America at the time for being a regular on their version of That Was the Week That Was. Together they had written the theme to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

What fresh hell is this? Cinderella Rockefella comes across as a demented version of I Got You Babe, set to the theme of sitcom Steptoe and Son. I was aware of the tune beforehand but assumed it was sung by, I don’t know, perhaps a pair of old comics or actors. So it came as a shock to see it was actually a young Israeli married couple who resembled models. It is, as far as I’m aware, the only song by Israelis to reach the top, and it’s the first to feature yodelling since the days of Frank Ifield in 1963.

I do normally love the more unusual, eccentric side of pop, and I don’t actually mind the rickety 20s-30s-tinged Cinderella Rockefella to begin with. But after 30 seconds or so Esther’s shrill yodel in particular becomes a little bit like some kind of torture, and Abi’s almost as awful in his smugness. The lyrics are awful. And yet, you will end up with that mad bastard of a tune in your head for some time afterwards. So there you go, proof that the late 60s may have been a great time for music, but the charts were still prone to irritatingly catchy weird stuff at times.

Apparently Cinderella Rockefeller was the final song played on Radio Caroline. What an awful way to go out. Williams recorded his own version of the duet he co-wrote later in 1968 with Jennifer Warren. Warren was later very well known for duets, too – as Jennifer Warnes, she recorded Up Where We Belong with Joe Cocker, and (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life with Bill Medley, for An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Dirty Dancing (1987) respectively.

As for Esther and Abi Ofarim, well, they recorded the promo you can see above, in which they parade the streets of London, one glammed up and one in top hat and tails. Their song topped the charts elsewhere too, and they toured the world in 1969. However, they divorced in Germany in 1970, and inevitably the musical partnership was over too.

After going their separate ways, Esther ended up performing on the late Scott Walker’s 1970 album ‘Til the Band Comes In (their manager, Ady Semel was also Walker’s, and he wrote lyrics for the album). Semel even talked up the idea of the duo becoming more permanent, but nothing came of it. She recorded an eponymous solo album of folk songs with orchestral arrangements in 1972. Since then, she has disappeared into obscurity, but there are videos out there if a beaming Esther performing in Hamburg in 2017.

Abi continued in music too, but developed alcohol and drug problems. He also became a manager through his company PROM, and, somewhat bizarrely, managed one of the greatest groups of all time, Can, before he was sacked in the early 70s. He mounted legal challenges but they ended badly for him. In 1979 he was arrested for posession of drugs and suspected tax evasion and sentenced to a year on probation. Abi documented his issues in his autobiography Der Preis der wilden Jahre (The Price of the Wild Years) in 1982.

In 2009 he released his first album in 27 years, Too Much of Something, with his long flowing locks on the cover, he looked rather like Iggy Pop with a tan. Five years later he began running Jugendzentrum für Senioren (Youth Center for Elderly People) in Munich to help lonely old people. Abi Ofarim died in May 2018, aged 80.

Written by: Mason Williams & Nancy Ames

Producers: Abi Ofarim & Chaim Semel

Weeks at number 1: 3 (28 February-19 March)

Births:

Actor Daniel Craig – 2 March
Actress Patsy Kensit – 4 March
Politician Theresa Villiers – 5 March
Politician Paul Marsden – 18 March 

203. The Walker Brothers – Make It Easy on Yourself (1965)

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Long before Scott Walker was ordering a percussionist to punch a side of pork, he was a 1960s pop idol with his pretend siblings. The Walker Brothers first found fame with this first of two number 1s, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Make It Easy On Yourself.

John Maus, born in New York in 1943, was a child television star. In the late 50s he was friends with Ritchie Valens, and following the La Bamba hitmaker’s tragic death, he was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral. Later, he befriended future Beach Boys David Marks and Dennis and Carl Wilson, and he helped teach them how to play the guitar. He formed a musical partnership with his sister, and they were known as the acoustic duo John and Judy. In 1961, they met Scott Engel.

Engel, born in Hamilton, Ohio in 1943, had also been a child actor and singer, and in the late 50s he was marketed as a teen idol, with Eddie Fisher (one of the first number 1 stars in the UK) pushing him for stardom. Engel had intellectual tastes from an early age, and loved progressive jazz, Beat poetry and European cinema. When he met John Maus he was in the instrumental group the Routers.

Engel and Maus briefly backed John’s sister and they became Judy and the Gents. Somewhere around this time, the 17-year-old Maus got hold of an ID card for John Walker, enabling him to perform in clubs while underage. The name stuck, and he was sick of people getting his surname wrong anyway. After breaking away from Judy Maus, Engel and Walker were briefly part of the Surfaris, the group that had recorded Wipeout in 1963. At least, they were part of the touring group, none of whom recorded their singles.

In 1964, they decided to work together as the Walker Brothers Trio, with Al ‘Tiny’ Schneider on drums. Walker was lead vocalist and guitarist and Engel was bassist and provided harmony vocals. At some point Schneider left and they continued as a duo before meeting new drummer Gary Leeds. All three were photogenic and soon ended up on TV shows including Shindig. They signed with Mercury Records and recorded their debut single, Pretty Girls Everywhere. It was Maus’ idea they should all take the surname Walker, and I still find it odd that Engel continues to go by the name Scott Walker after all these years. I guess he must still have a soft spot for his time as a pop star.

Gary Walker had recently toured the UK with PJ Proby, and convinced John and Scott that the Walker Brothers should try their luck as pop stars on these shores. It was his father that financed their first trip early in 1965. Their first single barely scraped into the charts, but they had better luck with Love Her. This follow-up featured Scott on lead vocal, and upon its success, Scott began moving into the lead spot in the trio.

They found an ideal producer in Johnny Franz. He was one of the top UK producers of the 50s and 60s, and by this point had produced six UK number 1s, from Winifred Atwell’s Let’s Have Another Party in 1954 to Juliet by the Four Pennies in 1964. Franz was very effective at lavishly orchestrated 60s pop, which made him a natural choice to produce a Bacharach and David song. Make It Easy on Yourself was a decent slab of break-up melodrama from the genius duo, and became the songwriters’ sixth UK number 1. It had first been a hit in 1962 for Jerry Butler, based on a demo from Dionne Warwick.

Make It Easy on Yourself comes out on the losing side when compared to that other big heartbreak song of 1965, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. Nobody does the Wall of Sound better than the creator, Phil Spector. Having said that, the Walker Brothers and Franz put in a decent try. The track opens with a wordless version of the chorus, and that first line, ‘Breaking up is so very hard to do’, set to Scott’s smooth baritone, sets things off nicely. It can’t keep the momentum going though, and the verses don’t have the tension and drama of the Righteous Brothers’ number 1. How many songs do, though? Oh, this song also features legendary session drummer Clem Cattini, who took part in a frankly ridiculously long list of UK number 1s over the years, the most recent of which had been the Bachelors’ snore-fest Diane in 1964.

Scott’s vocal is perhaps a little too polished and mannered to carry off the emotion… unless this is a deliberate ploy to make the protagonist sound in denial. You can easily imagine several other singers’ releasing this, such as Cilla Black, which means the Walker Brothers, in particular Scott, were still too green to put their own stamp on their releases. Their next number 1 was a big improvement.

Written by: Burt Bacharach & Hal David

Producer: Johnny Franz

Weeks at number 1: 1 (23-29 September)

Births:

Olympic athelete Phylis Smith – 29 September