253. Des O’Connor – I Pretend (Arranged & Conducted Geoff Love) (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 50s he made his first move into showbusiness working as a Butlin’s 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 10 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 10 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 

125. Shirley Bassey with Geoff Love and His Orchestra – Reach for the Stars/Climb Ev’ry Mountain (1961)

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It had been over two years since Shirley Bassey became the first Welsh singer to score a number 1 with As I Love You, but her career was still going strong.

A few months later she had signed with EMI’s Columbia. She narrowly missed out on the top spot in 1960 with her recording of As Long As He Needs Me from Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, and in November of that year she made her US television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. 1961 single You’ll Never Know also did well, but it was a double-bill of ballads that took her back to the top for the second and (to date) final time.

Although largely forgotten about now, one has to wonder if Cathy Dennis and Andrew Todd, co-writers of S Club 7’s Reach, were fans of these tracks. Have another look at the titles…

Reach for the Stars had been written by Austrian singer-songwriter Udo Jürgens, with English lyrics from Bassey’s producer, Norman Newell. Jürgens went on to win the Eurovision Song Contest on his third attempt in 1966 with Merci, Chérie.

As I stated in my previous Blassey blog, I’m really not a fan of her voice, so she has to be performing a strong song for me to be able to enjoy her. This is not a strong song. It’s turgid, soppy and completely forgettable. Bassey has not only put her lover on a pedestal, she’s turned him into a God-like figure. And that bellow at the end really hurt my ears, as is usually the case with Bassey. Ah well, maybe things will improve with Climb Ev’ry Mountain.

Things didn’t improve with Climb Ev’ry Mountain. If anything, it’s more forgettable and drawn out than Reach for the Stars. It could be that this single did so well because this track came from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music. It is sung by the character Mother Abbess at the end of the first act, and is intended to encourage people to follow their dreams. As I like The Sound of Music about as much as I enjoy Bassey’s bellow, I only felt encouraged to take my earphones out early.

Reach for the Stars/Climb Ev’ry Mountain only had a week at number 1 before previous number 1, Johnny Remember Me returned to the top. Obviously, Bassey remained a big star, and is now considered a living legend.

Her first James Bond theme, 1965’s Goldfinger (with lyrics co-written by previous number 1 artist Anthony Newley), is rightly considered one of the best, and even I can appreciate that one. Despite her fame in the UK, this track has been her only recorded hit in the US, despite her sell-out live shows.

Around this time, her UK hits started to drop too. Big Spender is considered one of her best tracks (especially by me), yet didn’t even make the top 20 in 1967. Her cover of Something by The Beatles marked a resurgence as the 70s began, and she recorded two further Bond themes, Diamonds are Forever (1971) and Moonraker (1979).

Bassey semi-retired in the 80s, but did wonders for her image when she worked with big beat duo the Propellerheads on their retro 60s-styled single History Repeating in 1997. This track was everywhere at the time, and might actually be where my dislike of her voice originated! She turned 60 that year, and a series of high-profile concerts followed. Beloved by the Royal family, she performed at the Duke of Edinburgh’s 80th birthday in 2001 and the Queen’s 50th Jubilee a year later (and again at her 60th in 2012).

2006 saw the Welsh songstress cover Pink’s Get the Party Started for Marks & Spencer’s Christmas ad campaign. This proved to be highly irritating for me. In 2007 her single The Living Tree entered the charts, meaning that Bassey held the record for the longest span of top 40 hits in the history of the UK charts. Stars including Manic Street Preachers, Pet Shop Boys and Gary Barlow wrote tracks for her 2009 album, The Performance. Comedian David Walliams presented an hour-long special devoted to her in December 2016.

Whatever my opinions on Shirley Bassey’s singing, there’s a lot to like about her. From humble beginnings, she fought against poverty, racism and sexism to become a national treasure, and has maintained her down-to-earth character. There didn’t seem to be much room in the charts back then for strong, sexy women, but Bassey was one of the exceptions.

Written by:
Reach for the Stars: Udo Jürgens/Climb Ev’ry Mountain: Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II

Producer: Norman Newell

Weeks at number 1: 1 (21-27 September)

Births:

Conservative MP Liam Fox – 22 September 
Novelist Will Self – 26 September

113. Petula Clark (and Peter Knight Orchestra and Chorus) – 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 40s 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 10 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 co-wrote the 1965 number 1 Where Are You Now (My Love) for future wife Jackie Trent. Later, he wrote the  theme to Crossroads in 1964, and went on to write several other soap opera themes with 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 10, 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)