318. Rod Stewart – You Wear It Well (1972)

‘Rod the Mod’, after years of striving, became a solo superstar off the back of Maggie May in 1971. And his group Faces did well out of it too, releasing third album A Nod Is as Good as a Wink… To a Blind Horse later that year and scoring a hit with the raucous Stay With Me. But there was some tension among the band, despite them helping out on Stewart’s next solo album Never a Dull Moment, that he was concentrating a little too much on his own career.

Featuring covers of Jimi Hendrix and Sam Cooke as well as songs co-written with Ronnie Wood and Martin Quittenton, his fourth solo LP was released in July 1972, and You Wear It Well was singled out the following month.

It’s a sequel of sorts to Maggie May, also co-written by Stewart and Quittenton, in which the singer, now in Minnesota, is writing to a lover. Something went wrong along the way and he ‘blew it without even trying’, and he doesn’t know if she’ll ever even get his song/note, but he’s offloading anyway. The tone of the song is so similar, both lyrically and musically (the drumming at the start is surely a deliberate nod?) it seems very likely to be for Maggie to me, especially when you consider the references to age and ‘radical views’ (see my Maggie May blog for more on the origins of that song)

As with Maggie May, Stewart is very good at telling a story and creating compelling characters. I don’t know what went wrong, but Stewart was clearly a great songwriter back then. His style was intelligent and impressive and it’s not easy to tell such vivid stories in pop songs. You can forgive him his innate laddishness when there’s such wit on display.

Unfortunately, it’s so similar to his previous number 1, you can’t help but compare, and despite a nice backing from the other Faces, it’s not as strong a song, and it’s lacking the bright sound of the mandolin. Nothing wrong with a song lacking a chorus, it’s a brave move, but this time around, it’s missing it.

By the time Stewart had his third number 1 in 1975, he had changed record labels, moved to Los Angeles, and Faces had split.

Written by: Rod Stewart & Martin Quittenton

Producer: Rod Stewart

Weeks at number 1: 1 (2-8 September)

Births:

Actor Idris Elba – 6 September

Every UK Number 1: The 50s – Out Now on Kindle!

Today sees the release of my first book! Every UK Number 1: The 50s is available on Amazon’s Kindle Store at £3.99 here. Members of Kindle Unlimited are able to read for free via their monthly subscriptions. If you’re into vintage music, pop culture and social history, it would make for great lockdown reading. Hope you enjoy!

The UK singles chart is the soundtrack to our lives and a barometer of the nation’s mood and tastes. And ever since 1952, the battle for the number one spot has had us all talking as well as dancing. 

In this fascinating spin-off from everyuknumber1.com, as seen in the Daily Mirror, music journalist Rob Barker comprehensively reviews all the best-sellers of the Fifties, delving into the wild lives of the artists and the real stories and secrets behind the hits. He also counts down the influential events that shaped them, as we moved from rations to never having it so good.

Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Cliff Richard were among those who transformed the lives of young people throughout Britain, and taught a country battered by war how to have fun again. 

Find out which chart topper was written by an illiterate rapist who formed his own prison band. Learn about the strange early days of the charts, which led to the number one spot being held by two acts at the same time, with different versions of the same banned song. Who was the first woman to top the charts? And which hitmaker lives on as Cockney rhyming slang? 

Every UK Number 1: The 50s has all the answers on the decade in which pop took its first steps, before rock’n’roll shouldered in and left the baby boomers all shook up. 

304. The Tams – Hey Girl, Don't Bother Me (1971)

I first became aware of this unexpected number 1 when watching a vintage edition of Top of the Pops a few years ago, and it really stumped me. How did this old-fashioned minor soul track, performed by a bunch of old men in strange outfits, do so well in 1971? Since then, I’ve discovered Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me had first been released in the US in 1964. It topped the charts seven years later thanks to its popularity with the northern soul scene. It is in fact the only number 1 linked with the movement.

The phrase ‘northern soul’ first began to be heard in 1968 in journalist Dave Godin’s Covent Garden record shop Soul City. It went public proper in 1970 thanks to his weekly column in Blues & Soul magazine. He had noticed that football fans from the north who visited his shop while following their team weren’t interested in the developing funk sound and instead still loved the more pop side of soul from the mid-60s.

In the late-60s, soul fans from all over the country flocked to the Twisted Wheel in Manchester to attend all-nighters, but in January 1971, its burgeoning reputation as a drug haven resulted in the venue closing down. Fortunately, the movement had grown across the north by this point. By the time of this number 1, the main two northern soul clubs were the Golden Torch in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent (Peter Stringfellow used to DJ there) and Blackpool Mecca.

The Tams originated in Atlanta, Georgia back in 1960, taking their name from their trademark tam o’shanter hats they would wear on stage. Founder members were the Pope brothers, lead singer Joe, and Charles, plus Robert Lee Smith, Horace Key and Floyd Ashton (who left in 1963).

Their first single of note was Untie Me, a Joe South song, which reached the Billboard R&B chart in 1962. Two years later was the high watermark of their original recording career, with modest US hits including What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am) and Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me, neither of which charted in the UK. Both were written by Ray Whitley.

Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me is built around the song’s title, sung repeatedly by the backing singers, while Joe (who does have a sweet, distinctive voice) tries and fails to convince the listener that he wants no part of this girl, as he’s been warned she’s bad news. He doesn’t want to be added to ‘her list’ of tossed-aside lovers, but, well, she does ‘look so fine’… you get the drift. The main hook does stick around in your head for a while, but this sounds quite old-fashioned even for 1964, and must be up there with the most unlikely number 1s of all time.

It’s likely The Tams’ popularity among northern soul lovers was originally down to Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy, a much better track, that charted in the US in 1968 and on these shores in 1970. Unlike their number 1, here’s a song you can actually dance to, which is what I thought northern soul was primarily about?

Nobody looks more surprised at The Tams appearing on Top of the Pops to promote Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me than the group themselves, as you can see in the clip above. It’s quite endearing watching them sticking out like sore thumbs, with Key in the middle actually looking quite scared. In fact, with about a minute of the performance left to go, he disappears, and they carry on without him!

That was it for The Tams and the UK charts, until 1987. They reached number 21 with… wait for it… There Ain’t Nothing Like Shaggin’! There’s no way of knowing if they were aware of what a ‘shag’ is in the UK (it actually refers to a dance called the Carolina shag) but the lyrics are very funny either way. The BBC understandably banned it, but as is often the case, the notoriety probably helped its sales. It also featured in the 1989 comedy Shag, starring Bridget Fonda. Their last charting single in the UK was 1988’s My Baby Sure Can Shag.

The Tams continue to perform to this day. When Joe died in 1996, Charles took over lead vocals, but he passed away in 2013. Key died in 1995, which leaves Smith as the sole original member.

Northern soul grew in popularity throughout the 70s, with Wigan Casino becoming one of the most notable venues from 1973 onwards. Although the movement waned with its closure in the 80s, it still has a healthy following decades later.

Written by: Ray Whitley

Producer: Bill Lowery

Weeks at number 1: 3 (18 September-8 October)

Births:

Set designer Es Devlin – 24 September
Actress Jessie Wallace – 25 September
Actress Liza Walker – 28 September
Actor Mackenzie Crook – 29 September
Conservative Lord Chancellor David Gauke – 8 October

Meanwhile…

21 September: BBC Two music series The Old Grey Whistle Test, which ran well into the 80s, was transmitted for the first time.

24 September: Following revelations made by a KGB defector, Britain expelled 90 Russian diplomats for spying. 15 were not allowed to return.

1 October: The CAT scan, invented by Godfrey Hounsfield, was used for the first time on a patient at a hospital in Wimbledon.

303. Diana Ross – I'm Still Waiting (1971)

How much power did Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn have in 1971? Quite a lot it seems, as it’s thanks to him that Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep topped the charts, and only a few months later he persuaded EMI (who distributed for Motown in the UK) to release this album track by the former Supremes singer as a single. It went on to become Diana Ross’s first solo number 1.

I covered The Supremes when I reviewed their 1964 number 1 Baby Love, but Ross’s life deserves a closer look. She was born in Detroit, Michigan on 26 March 1944. Her mother actually named her Diane, but a clerical error resulted in ‘Diana’ appearing on her birth certificate. She was billed as Diane Ross on early Supremes records. Growing up, Ross had Smokey Robinson and Aretha Frankin among her neighbours.

On the day she turned 14 in 1958, the Ross’s moved to the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects. She had ambitions to be a fashion designer and took several classes, in addition to modelling and hairdressing for neighbours. A year later, she joined Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Betty McGlown in The Primettes, the sister group of The Primes.

Thanks to Robinson, The Primettes auditioned for Motown in 1960. Berry Gordy Jr recalled being blown away by Ross’s voice in his autobiography, but he felt they were too young. In these early years, Ross would be responsible for the group’s look, serving as hair stylist, costume design and make-up artist.

In 1961, with McGlown gone and Barbara Martin in, Gordy signed The Primettes on the condition they change their name. Ballard chose ‘The Supremes’, and Ross was worried it made them sound like a male group, but as we know, The Supremes they became, and from 1963 onwards, reduced to a trio without Martin, they became one of the most successful groups in history. They scored their sole UK number 1 with Baby Love, but had many more in the US.

From around 1966 and for the next few years Gordy began pushing for Ross to take centre stage. He had considered getting her to go solo, but deciding the timing was wrong he settled on renaming them Diana Ross & the Supremes instead. Ballard was fired and replaced with Cindy Birdsong, and Ross would often be the only Supreme to actually feature on recordings, backed by session singers like The Andantes. The pressure resulted in Ross developing anorexia, and she collapsed on stage during a 1967 performance, and had to be hospitalised for exhaustion.

Nevertheless, Gordy continued to shine the spotlight on Ross, having her perform solo in 1968 TV specials by The Supremes. The following year he decided the time was right, and it was announced she was leaving the group. Someday We’ll Be Together became Ross’s swansong, and the single was the final US number 1 of the 60s. She made her final appearance as a Supreme in January 1970.

It was only four months later that her eponymous debut solo LP was released, and it featured her cover of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (originally recorded by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell), which climbed to number six in the UK and was number 1 in the US.

November 1970 saw the rush-release of her second album, Everything Is Everything. Deke Richards was commissioned to make the LP more pop than her debut, and it featured two Beatles covers (Come Together and The Long and Winding Road), as well as a sad ballad by Richards himself – I’m Still Waiting. No singles were released from it, initially, with Motown choosing to mine her next album, Surrender, released in the summer of 1971. Unusually, both Remember Me and the title track performed better on these shores than America, both reaching the top 10.

Blackburn, then in charge of the Radio 1 breakfast show, was a huge fan of Ross, and he loved I’m Still Waiting. He promised Motown/EMI that if it was made a single, he would make it his ‘Record of the Week’ and play it every morning for five days. Both sides kept their end of the arrangement, and the hype saw it reach number 1. It was Motown’s biggest-selling single in the UK until Three Times a Lady by the Commodores in 1978.

I’m baffled as to why this is the case. For me, I’m Still Waiting should have remained an album track. It’s dated, melodramatic and rather unmemorable.

Ross sings from the point of view of a woman who met the love of her life when she was five and he was 10. He would tease her, as boys do, but she loved him. Then he had to move away, and told her not to wait for him, but for love. But Ross couldn’t forget him, and nobody else compares.

Nice sentiment, but it could have been so much better. It has a slick production, but the tune is certainly not up there with the classics of The Supremes. Ross isn’t known for displaying too much emotion in her singing, which is probably a good thing in such a sentimental song, but I find it hard to believe in the performance. I much prefer her next number 1, Chain Reaction, which came 15 years later in 1986.

Written & produced by: Deke Richards

Weeks at number 1: 4 (21 August-17 September)

Births:

Actress Gaynor Faye – 26 August
Business executive Nicola Mendelsohn – 29 August
TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp – 31 August
Conservative MP Daniel Hannan – 1 September
TV presenter Lisa Snowdon – 2 September
Actress Louise Lombard – 13 September
Fashion designer Stella McCartney – 13 September
Labour MP Parmjit Dhanda – 17 September

Deaths:

Travel writer Peter Fleming – 30 August

Meanwhile…

1 September: The end of an era, as the pre-decimal penny and three-pence ceased to be legal tender.

3 September: Qatar became independent from the UK.

7 September: Three years after the beginnings of The Troubles, the death toll reached 100 with the death of 14-year-old Annette McGavigan, who was fatally wounded by a gunshot in crossfire between British soldiers and the IRA. There would be many more deaths still to come.

9 September: British Ambassador Geoffrey Jackson was freed after being held captive for eight months by extreme left-wing guerrillas Tupamaros in Uruguay.

291. Freda Payne – Band of Gold (1970)

Multi-talented American singer Freda Payne enjoyed an impressive six weeks at number 1 with this soul track, featuring noteworthy lyrics that have been much misunderstood over the years due to cuts made before its release.

Freda Charcillia Payne was born in Detroit, Michigan on 19 September 1942. Her younger sister was Scherrie, who became the final lead singer of The Supremes in time. Growing up, the elder Payne enjoyed female jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, which would later have an impact on her singing style. She attended the Detroit Institute of Musical Arts as a teenager, and also recorded jingles for the radio, as well as taking part and winning various talent shows.

In the early 60s Payne toured as a jazz singer with big names such as Quincy Jones and Bill Cosby, leading to her debut album in 1963, After the Lights Go Down Low and Much More!!! for Impulse! Clearly, exclamation marks were popular back then. Three years later came the follow-up How Do You Say I Don’t Love You Anymore for MGM Records, and TV appearances on various chat shows.

Payne spent the next few years dipping her toes into acting, until 1969 when she was contacted by old friends and hitmakers Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr. Holland-Dozier-Holland had left Motown in 1968 and formed their own label, Invictus, also home to Chairmen of the Board and the first Parliament album, Osmium. Her first single for Invictus was the long-forgotten Unhooked Generation. Holland-Dozier-Holland then offered her Band of Gold, which they’d written with Ron Dunbar, but due to their dispute with Motown, they were forced to use the pseudonym Edyth Wayne in the credits.

Band of Gold touched on an unusually adult theme for its time. It’s about a recently wed woman, already separated from her husband, due to their honeymoon going awry. They ended up sleeping in separate rooms, with her hoping he would return and try to make love to her once more.

So, what went wrong? The ambiguous lyrics have been open to interpretation – her husband must surely be impotent, or gay? Over the years, Band of Gold became popular in the gay community thanks to the latter theory, one that was borne out by an interview Lamont Dozier did for Songfacts (songfacts.com), where he confirmed the husband loved his new wife, but was unable to get it up as he was a secret homosexual.

But according to Dunbar, the original version of Band of Gold explains exactly what the issue was. The first verse originally ended with ‘And the memories of our wedding day, and the night I turned you away.’ The original bridge also said ‘Each night, I lie awake and I tell myself, the vows we made gave you the right, to have a love each night’. Apparently, Payne has also said she didn’t want to record Band of Gold because she felt too old to come across like a naive, virginal teenager. So there we have it – the poor guy, believed to have been unable to get it up for all these years, was given the cold shoulder from his new wife, and walked out. A messy start for the poor newlyweds, and we’ll never know if they ironed out their differences.

I was surprised upon first listen to hear this was number 1 for so long. Not because it isn’t decent – it is, but it took a few listens to make an impact on me. It helps if you pay attention to the lyrics, which I didn’t at first, and I assumed it was about a guy cheating on his bride, or something along those lines. Payne performs it well, sounding indignant (which also helped create the confusion – she sounds like she’s been let down between the sheets) and hurt at the same time. The stomping rhythm is very Motown, and the tune gets under the skin eventually.

I also like the electric sitar, played by session guitarist Dennis Coffey, who also played on Edwin Starr’s War, among others. Lead guitar comes from Ray Parker Jr, that’s right, the man behind the theme to Ghostbusters in 1984. The backing vocals were performed by Scherrie, Pamela Vincent, Joyce Vincent Wilson and Telma Hopkins. Wilson and Hopkins would soon be members of Dawn, number 1 artists with Tony Orlando in 1971 and 1973.

Band of Gold had a formidable run, and reached number three in the US, but Payne couldn’t get anywhere near repeating the feat. Deeper and Deeper, released at the end of the year, reached number 33 in the UK, but none of her singles reached the top 40 after that. However, Bring the Boys Home, her anti-Vietnam War single, did well in her home country in 1971

Payne left Invictus in 1973, and signed with Capitol Records in 1977, releasing three disco albums between then and 1979. Hot was her final LP for 16 years.

Sensing her music career was stalling, Payne concentrated on acting in the 80s. She also briefly hosted her own talk show in 1981, Today’s Black Woman. Only one single was spawned in this decade – In Motion, in 1982.

In 1995 Payne recorded a comedy album, called, bizarrely Freda Payne Sings the (Unauthorized) I Hate Barney Songbook: A Parody. Was she not a fan of the purple dinosaur? The following year came the festive  Christmas With Freda and Friends, featuring a duet with her sister.

The new millennium began with the soul singer appearing on the big screen alongside comedian Eddie Murphy in Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000). She’s been releasing music sporadically ever since, and recorded Saving a Life, a duet with Cliff Richard, in 2011, which led to her supporting him on a UK tour. Her last album to date is Come Back To Me Love in 2014 – was this a message for Darlene?

Band of Gold is a curious number 1, sounding rather like a forerunner to disco and yet very much old-school Motown at the same time. Rather a bridge between what had passed and what was to come. It’s been covered several times since, by stars including Belinda Carlisle, but nobody has matched Payne’s original.

Written by: Edyth Wayne & Ron Dunbar

Producer: Brian Holland & Lamont Dozier

Weeks at number 1: 6 (19 September-30 October)

Births:

Actress Emily Lloyd – 29 September

Footballer Richard Hancox – 4 October

Footballer Jason Cousins – 4 October

SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh – 5 October

Olympic rower Sir Matthew Pinsent – 10 October

Footballer Andy Marriott – 11 October

Meanwhile…

19 September: The first Glastonbury Festival was held. Then known as the Worthy Farm Pop Festival, farmer Michael Eavis had been inspired after attending a blues festival at the Bath & West Showground. 1500 watched Tyrannosaurus Rex headline after The Kinks pulled out.

3 October: Tony Densham, driving the ‘Commuter’ dragster, set a British land speed record at Elvington, Yorkshire, averaging 207.6 mph over the flying kilometre course.

5 October: BBC Radio 4 first broadcast the consumer affairs magazine programme You and Yours, a mainstay to this day.

15 October: The new Conservative government created the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment.
Also this day, Thames sailing barge Cambria, the last vessel trading under sail alone in British waters, loaded her last freight, at Tilbury.

19 October: British Petroleum announced it had found a large oil field in the North Sea.

23 October: The Mark III Ford Cortina went on sale.

290. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles – The Tears of a Clown (1970)

Much like Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine in 1969, The Tears of a Clown was an album track by Motown legends, several years old, that could have easily languished as a forgotten album track, but is now considered a soul classic.

William Robinson Jr was born 19 February 1940 in Detroit, Michigan. It was his uncle Claude that gave him the nickname ‘Smokey Joe’ while he was still young. He was a clever child, and sporty, but he really loved music. In a 2007 interview with CBS Robinson revealed he and Aretha Franklin lived only a few doors down from each other, and he had known her since she was five.

Robinson formed a doo-wop group called The Five Chimes in 1955, which included schoolfriends Ronald White and Pete Moore. They changed their name two years later to The Matadors. The line-up then consisted of Robinson, White, Moore and cousins Bobby and Claudette Rogers (who Robinson married in 1959) .

The Matadors auditioned for Brunswick Records but failed. However, among those watching was songwriter Berry Gordy Jr, who was impressed with Robinson’s voice in particular. Gordy recorded what was to become their debut single around the time they settled on The Miracles as their name. Got a Job was given to End Records to distribute – Gordy made the princely sum of $3.19 for his production, and Robinson suggested he start his own record label. Which he did, in 1959, and he called it Tamla Records. Bad Girl became their first single to chart in the US, and around this time guitarist Marv Tarplin, fresh from playing with The Primettes (later The Supremes) joined Robinson and co to form the classic line-up.

The Miracles’ first hit came in 1960, when Shop Around reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on the R’n’B chart. It was only modest successes on Motown Records after that until the classic You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me in 1962. The group’s brand of bittersweet, smooth soul, with Robinson’s beautiful voice, made them Motown’s top-selling act and earned them rave reviews for their live performances, which helped them become known as ‘The Showstoppers’.

But The Miracles were so talented, they all helped write some of Motown’s greatest songs sung by other groups. I’m talking soul classics such as The Way You Do the Things You Do and My Girl for The Temptations and My Guy by Mary Wells. Most other Motown acts had their songs written by staff songwriters, but The Miracles mostly recorded their own.

Around 1964, Robinson was made vice president of Motown, and other members of The Miracles took jobs within the label. Unfortunately, Smokey and Claudette made plans to start a family, but the intense touring schedule was believed to contribute to several miscarriages by Claudette, and in 1965 she quit touring, TV and and publicity photos, despite continuing to record until 1972.

That same year they finally made their way into the UK singles chart with one of Motown’s best songs, The Tracks of My Tears, from the album Going to a Go-Go, reaching number nine. From this album onwards they became known as Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. In 1966 (Come Round Here) I’m the One You Need reached number 13.

At that year’s Motown Christmas Party, Robinson was approached by fellow label legend Stevie Wonder with a backing track he had come up with along with his producer Hank Cosby. Wonder wondered (sorry) if Robinson wanted to work on it, as he was stumped for any lyrics. After a few days, Robinson felt inspired to come up with something circus-themed to match the distinctive opening, and went back to the clown in the opera Pagliacci, who puts on a show for his audience while crying on the inside. He had used this before in the 1964 song My Smile Is Just A Frown (Turned Upside Down), written for Carolyn Crawford. Weirdly, Little Stevie Wonder covered (I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over, which also referenced Pagliacci, on his album Tribute to Uncle Ray in 1962.

For that famous circus-like opening, they hired Charles Sirard from The Detroit Symphony Orchestra to play the bassoon, which is the low burbling sound beneath the piccolo by Jim Horn. Horn would also feature on albums by The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys.

The Tears of a Clown became the closing track on Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ 1967 album Make It Happen. And, unbelievably, there it stayed for three years. In the meantime I Second That Emotion was a top 30 hit on these shores that year, but then the UK hits dried up once more.

By 1969, Robinson was ready to quit the group and concentrate on his role as Motown vice president and be at home more for Claudette, as they had finally started a family. But all that was to change in 1970, when the frustrated British division of Motown asked Karen Spreadbury, head of a Motown fan club here, to pick a song they could release as a single, and she chose The Tears of a Clown.

Motown may be a legendary label, and for good reason, but you do have to wonder about how many hits they let slip through the net when you look at the stories behind The Tears of a Clown and I Heard It Through the Grapevine. Perhaps Gordy (and Wonder, before he became more experimental) found that opening too weird, without realising its exactly that which draws the listener in to begin with. But Robinson was such an expert songsmith he’s able to keep up the momentum, with his always wonderful, soaring vocal and great lyrics.

The idea of a song about a man masking his pain had been done plenty of times before, including by Robinson himself on The Tracks of My Tears. However, I’d argue Robinson’s lyrics here make The Tears of a Clown the definitive example. I particularly like ‘But don’t let my glad expression/Give you the wrong impression’ and the chorus. Robinson is a man on top of his game here. A sad song about heartbreak that’s uplifting and you can dance to it. Oh, and of course, Robinson’s voice. What’s not to love?

The renewed interest in Smokey Robinson and The Miracles meant The Tears of a Clown was then released in the US, albeit in a new mix. It reached number 1 in their home country too.This double success persuaded Robinson to stay on as lead singer for longer. They had their own TV special in the US, The Smokey Robinson Show, also starring The Supremes, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder. One more hit, 1971’s I Don’t Blame You at All followed, and then Robinson decided it was time to go in 1972, introducing Billy Griffin as his replacement. Their final album together was Flying High Together, including the ironic single We’ve Come Too Far To End It Now. Claudette chose to retire entirely from the group too, and within a year Tarplin had gone.

Their first releases in 1973 landed without trace, but they scored a 1974 US hit with funk song Do It Baby. And then in 1976 came the great disco smash Love Machine – Part 1, which was a US number 1 and reached number three in the UK. Despite this, The Miracles left Motown and signed with Columbia Records in 1977, but the hits dried up again, and they split in 1978.

In 1980 The New Miracles were formed and lasted three years. Then in 1983 the Robinsons, Moore, Tarplin and Rogers reunited to perform a medley on the TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.

In 1993 White, Rogers and New Miracles member Dave Finley reformed The Miracles with former Shalamar singer Sydney Justin. Sadly White died in 1995. The group continued to perform until 2011, with even Claudette returning to the fold (now divorced from Smokey), but age caught up with some of the longest-serving members. Tarplin died in 2011, then Rogers in 2013, then Moore in 2017.

Smokey Robinson went on to have a solo UK number 1 in 1981 with Being With You, so I’ll cover his solo career and the controversy with his entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in due course.

The Tears of a Clown has been covered time and time again, and the most notable version is Tears of a Clown, a well-deserved number six hit for ska and new wave group The Beat in 1979.

Written by: Hank Cosby, Smokey Robinson & Stevie Wonder

Producers: Hank Cosby & Smokey Robinson

Weeks at number 1: 1 (12-18 September)

Births:

Cricketer Darren Gough – 18 September

Meanwhile…

18 September: US rock star and guitar god Jimi Hendrix, died in London from a suspected drug-induced heart attack, aged only 27.

268. Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1969)

Ruling the charts after four weeks of Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? was a stone-cold soul classic. I Heard It Through the Grapevine by Motown legend Marvin Gaye was one of label’s greatest, and yet boss Berry Gordy, usually so sharp at spotting hits, just couldn’t see it.

Gaye was born Marvin Pent Gay Jr on 2 April 1939 in Washington DC. The Gays had it tough, and he was raised in Public Housing Project the Fairfax Apartments in the Southwest Waterfront neighbourhood. Most buildings lacked electricity and running water.

Gay developed a love of singing from the tender age of four, where he would perform in church while his father backed him on piano, and he was encouraged at school to pursue a singing career after singing in a school play when he was 11.

Sadly, poverty wasn’t Gay’s only problem, as his father ruled with an iron fist, and would often subject Marvin to beatings, which went on well into his teenage years, and of course ultimately led to a tragic end.

In the early 50s the Gays moved to DC’s Capitol View neighbourhood, where Marvin would stay until 1962. He joined a glee club in junior high, and then several doo top groups. As his relationship with Marvin Sr grew worse, he dropped out of high school and joined the United States Air Force. Gay’s relationship with his father clearly affected his dealings with authority figures, and he clashed with his sergeant.

Back in in DC, Gay formed The Marquees. They worked alongside none other than Bo Diddley, who helped them get signed and wrote their only single, Wyatt Earp. Although they were soon dropped, it inspired Gay to start writing. They changed their name to Harvey and the New Moonglows, and Gay recorded his first lead vocal in 1959. They also backed Chuck Berry on Back in the USA.

In 1960 Gaye became a session drummer for Tri-Phi Records, but that Christmas he performed at Berry Gordy’s house and earned himself a contract with Motown subsidiary Tamla. Before the release of his first single, Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide, in May 1961, he decided to add the ‘e’ to the end of his surname, to stop jokes about his sexuality and distance himself from his estranged father.

His single and album, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye failed to make an impression, but 1962 was an important year for the struggling singer, with second album That Stubborn Kind of Fellow featuring three hit singles. The next few years saw his star rise, with singles such as How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) in 1964.

Gaye became well known for his duets. He had made an album with Mary Wells, and early in 1967 It Takes Two with Kim Weston became one of his most famous songs. But he gelled best with Tami Terrell, recording classics including Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Gaye suffered with shyness on stage, and helped to bring him out of his shell. Unfortunately, that October she collapsed in his arms on stage, and it was discovered she had a brain tumour. Although she continued to record, it spelled the end of her live career. Gaye was devastated, and became disillusioned with the music industry.

It had been in February that year that Gaye had recorded I Heard It Through the Grapevine. The song had been started by Motown’s Barrett Strong, writer of Money (That’s What I Want), in 1966. He had heard the phrase ‘I heard it through the grapevine’ in Chicago. Its origins came from black slaves during the Civil War, who had developed their own human telegraph system relay messages – the ‘grapevine’.

Working with producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield, they developed their classic tune of suspicion and betrayal. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles recorded it first, but Gordy vetoed its release as a single (it eventually surfaced as an album track in 1968).

Gaye’s recording followed, but wasn’t straightforward either. With Paul Riser on board arranging the strings played by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the track also featured The Funk Brothers and The Andantes supplied backing vocals. Production took two months, and an argument ensued between Gaye and Whitfield when the producer told the singer to try in a higher key than his normal range.

As the whole world now knows, Whitfield was right. Gaye’s performance, taken out of his already formidable comfort zone, really hits the point home. The singer has been hit with an emotional bombshell. He feels disbelief. He is wounded, angry, paranoid, confused. Gaye’s performance is the reason his version is remembered long after Robinson’s. If aliens landed tomorrow and asked me what soul music was, I’d play them this. And that intro is simply one of the coolest in soul and pop.

And yet, Gordy still couldn’t see it. Once more, he refused to allow it to become a single, but it did make it onto Gaye’s album Into the Groove in 1968. In the meantime, Motown’s head honcho did allow Gladys Knight & The Pips to release theirs as a 7″. And fair enough really, as it’s excellent in its own way. Inspired by Aretha Franklyn’s Respect, Whitfield sped things up, added some funk, and Knight sang it with real anger. In contrast to Gaye, Knight is really pissed off, and her man is going to rue the day he messed with her. Leftside Wobble’s techno update in 2011, Grapevine Boogie, is a real banger.

Gaye’s version began to be heard on the radio, and eventually Gordy relented. In 1968, to his surprise, it went to number 1 in the US, and propelled Gaye to superstardom. The UK is just one of many other countries in which it subsequently hit the top spot. In the Groove was even renamed I Heard It Through the Grapevine!. And yet, Gaye was still reeling from Terrell’s condition. She died from brain cancer in 1970.

Follwing a battle with depression, he returned that year with a new, politicised approach. Gordy didn’t want the single What’s Going On released, considering it too controversial. This time Gaye didn’t back down, and after going on strike, he won out. It was a huge hit in 1971, and the album of the same name is a landmark in music.

Despite signing a lucrative deal to remain on Motown, Gaye’s outspoken political views caused further ructions with Gordy. He was forced to shelve the 1972 album You’re the Man, which was finally released earleir this year. The carnal classic song of sensuality Let’s Get It On became his second US chart-topper in 1973. For me, I Want You, the title track of his 1976 album, is just as hot, if not better.

As 1975 drew to a close, Gaye was mired in lawsuits with former bandmates and he was going through a divorce with his first wife Anna, elder sister of Berry Gordy. Disco was big, and he was under pressure to adopt the sound. He responded with Got to Give It Up, a funky floorfiller with a supersmooth falsetto from Gaye. It went to number 1 in the US in 1977, and if you want to hear its influence on 21st-century pop, just listen to 2013 number 1 Blurred Lines.

As the 70s came to an end, Gaye’s personal problems had become too much again. He had money problems and was battling addiction to cocaine. He owed so much in taxes he feared a prison sentence, so he relocated to London following a European tour in 1980. While working on a new album, the master tapes were stolen and were given to Motown. Gaye was furious when the sessions surfaced in January 1981, edited and remixed without his knowledge, as (Far Cry). His time at Motown was over.

Relocating to Ostend in Belgium, Gaye quit the drugs, returned to the church, and was reborn. He signed with CBS in 1982, and released Sexual Healing. Another steamy, sexy classic, but with an updated sound (check out that 808), it became his biggest-selling hit ever, earned him two Grammy Awards, and the album it spawned from, Midnight Love, was also huge. It would be his last recorded work.

In 1983 he made his last TV appearances, most notably on the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever special. But his return to making hits brought back old problems, and his drug issues resurfaced. He was becoming increasingly paranoid, and that summer he returned to live with his parents. It would be a fatal choice.

The world was left stunned on 1 April 1984 when the news came out that Marvin Gaye had been shot dead by his own father. He was only 44. Years of bad blood had come to a head and ended in the worst possible way. Marvin had intervened in an argument between his mother and father, and Marvin Gaye Sr shot his own son twice. He was initially charged with murder but his sentence was reduced to voluntary manslaughter when it was discovered he had, of all things, a brain tumour. He died in a nursing home in 1998.

It’s likely my first exposure to I Heard It Through the Grapevine was in 1985, when Gaye’s version was copied and used in a Levi’s advert. One of the most famous commercials of the decade, it made Nick Kamen, the man who strips down to his boxers, into a star. It also propelled Gaye to number eight in the singles chart. Carling Black Label spoofed the ad the following year, which starred Steve Frost and Mark Arden.

Gaye’s life reads like the script of a Hollywood blockbuster, without the fairytale ending. But scrape away all the personal problems and you’re left with that versatile, beautiful voice. He was soul music.

Written by: Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong

Producer: Norman Whitfield

Weeks at number 1: 3 (26 March-15 April)

Births:

Sporting executive Karren Brady – 4 April

Meanwhile…

29 March: Eurovision 1969 took place, and the UK, represented by Lulu with the song Boom Bang-a-Bang, shared first place with not one, not two, but three countries – France, the Netherlands and host nation Spain.

April Fool’s Day: The Hawker Siddeley Harrier (‘Jump Jet’) entered service with the RAF.

9 April: Sikh busmen in Wolverhampton won the right to wear their turbans while on duty.

260. Joe Cocker – With a Little Help from My Friends (1968)

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Following six weeks at number 1, Mary Hopkin’s Those Were the Days was finally forced down the charts by the third chart-topper in a row with a Beatles connection. There are millions of covers of Beatles songs, but Sheffield singer Joe Cocker’s take on With a Little Help from My Friends still ranks as one of the more famous ones.

John Cocker was born in Crookes, a town in the South Yorkshire city, on 20 May 1944. The origins of his nickname and future stage name are unclear due to differing family stories – Joe was either a local window cleaner or it stemmed from a childhood game he would play called Cowboy Joe.

As a boy he loved soul and skiffle, with Ray Charles and Lonnie Donegan among his heroes. He got the bug for performing when he made his stage debut aged just 12, after being invited up by his older brother Victor to perform with his skiffle group. At the age of 16 in 1960 he formed his first group, The Cavaliers, with three friends. A year later they split up and Cocker left school to become an apprentice gasfitter for the East Midlands Gas Board. But he wasn’t going to give up on his music dreams.

In 1961 he took on the stage name Vance Arnold and with The Avengers as his backing group, they would perform soul and blues covers in the pubs of Sheffield. In 1963 they supported The Rolling Stones at the City Hall, but with the big time beckoning, they split up and he decided to venture forth solo as Joe Cocker.

Cocker’s first single was released in 1964, and with Beatlemania in full effect, he hoped his cover of I’ll Cry Instead, with Jimmy Page and Big Jim Sullivan on guitars, would get him attention, but despite a pretty decent stab at it, it wasn’t that different from the original, which wasn’t one of Lennon and McCartney’s better songs, and it flopped. The raw vocal theatrics were in their formative stages, listening back. He showed promise, but was disheartened by the setback. Other than a short-lived new group, Joe Cocker’s Blues Band, he disappeared from music for a while.

In 1966 he returned with his new group, The Grease Band. Performing once more in local pubs, he got the attention of Denny Cordell, producer for Procol Harum, The Moody Blues and Georgie Fame. The singer went down to London and recorded a new single, Marjorine. The Grease Band was quickly dissolved. When it came to recording his next Beatles cover, somebody took the decision to adopt a very different approach, and it paid off big time.

As the whole world knows, the original With a Little Help from My Friends was track two on The Beatles’ psychedelic opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ringo Starr, never the world’s greatest singer, would often get a country-western or novelty track on their albums in which to showcase his vocal talent… but Lennon and McCartney were clever this time around, using Starr’s charm and his poor singing skills to their advantage. Originally it was called Bad Finger Boogie, as Lennon composed the basic tune with his middle finger after damaging his forefinger (the band Badfinger took their name from this). The finished product, a (by 1967) rare joint effort between its songwriters, was a charming pop ditty that captured the spirit of the times. When it came to recording his version, this time Cocker took The Beatles into a different realm.

For me, if you’re going to cover a song, you should try and add something different, otherwise, why bother? It’s clear from the solemn opening organ that this is a very different beast. We then get some stinging guitar from future Led Zeppelin member Jimmy Page. Before starting this blog, I had no idea how many number 1s Page had featured on during his time as a session musician. It then settles down before star of the show Cocker starts showcasing his raspy, guttural singing, with backing vocals from Sue and Sunny, who later became members of Brotherhood of Man. Stretching out for just over five minutes, it’s the third lengthy number 1 in a row, and ends with the band and singer in an intense display of passion.

Cocker’s soul-rock version seems to divide opinion. I can understand critics who dislike this number 1, who don’t like the histrionics and earnestness and prefer the original. It’s horses for courses really, and I’ve room in my heart for both, they’re so different.

With a Little Help from My Friends catapulted Cocker to stardom. Although it was only number 1 for a week, it was a strong chart presence for much longer. Cocker put together a new version of The Grease Band to back him, which featured Henry McCullogh from Spooky Tooth, later to briefly be a member of Wings.

1969 began with Cocker’s first tour of the US, with his debut album, also called With a Little Help from My Friends released at the same time. He made his mark with his appearance at Woodstock Festival that August. The image of him swaying spasmodically, lost in the music in his tie-dye t-shirt and playing air guitar, is truly iconic.

Straight after Woodstock his second album, Joe Cocker! featured further Beatles covers Something and She Came in Through the Bathroom Window. As the 70s began he broke up the Grease Band and formed a much larger group. More than 20 musicians became known as Mad Dogs & Englishmen, and adopted a heavier, bluesier sound. As they toured the US, the riotous parties that ensued took their toll, and despite his first US top ten success with a cover of The Letter, Cocker became an alcoholic. Knowing things were getting out of hand, he took a few years off.

Unfortunately his hellraising ways returned in 1972. He was arrested for marijuana possession in Adelaide and only a day later in Melbourne he recieved assault charges for a hotel brawl. Cocker was given 48 hours to leave the country. He added heroin to his list of vices, and although he was able to quit it, his alcohol intake worsened and by 1974 he was throwing up on stage. And yet he was still drawing crowds, and his cover of Billy Preston’s You Are So Beautiful became one of his most famous hits. Drink and money problems would be constant thorns in his side for the rest of the decade. He ended the 70s on a ‘Woodstock in Europe’ tour to celebrate its tenth anniversary.

The early 80s saw a comeback, however, thanks in large part to Up Where We Belong, his power ballad duet with Jennifer Warnes for the romantic drama An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). It was his first UK top 10 hit in 13 years, a number 1 in the US, and it also garnered Academy and Grammy Awards. Cocker continued to succeed with movie soundtrack work – his cover of You Can Leave Your Hat On, used in the striptease scene of 1986 adult drama 9½ Weeks, earned him another Grammy nomination. The title track of his 1987 album, Unchain My Heart, was also a hit.

In the 90s he featured on the hit soundtrack to romantic drama The Bodyguard (1992) and was one of the few acts from the Woodstock Festival to perform at Woodstock ’94.

At the Golden Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace in 2002 he performed his number 1 with Phil Collins on drums and Brian May playing guitar. Cocker then starred in minor roles in the Beatles-inspired musical Across the Universe in 2007. His last album, Fire It Up, was released in 2012. Sadly, years of drinking and heavy smoking finally caught up with the Sheffield star in 2014, and Cocker died from lung cancer on 22 December, aged 70.

To children growing up in the 80s and 90s like me, With a Little Help from My Friends may have a special place in their hearts because of its use as the theme tune to US coming-of-age TV series The Wonder Years. The song has been number 1 twice since, with versions by Wet Wet Wet in 1988 and Sam & Mark in 2004. Both adopted The Beatles approach, and neither are a patch on Cocker’s vocal tour-de-force.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 1 (6-12 November)

Births:

Singer Steve Brookstein – 10 November

258. The Beatles – Hey Jude (1968)

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February 1968: The Beatles travelled to Rishikesh in northern India to take part in a Transcendental Meditation course under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Without Epstein to keep them under control, John, Paul, George and Ringo were struggling to stay together since McCartney had attempted to take the reins. Drugs were also having an impact. Perhaps spirituality could help?

It did and it didn’t. They were supposed to stay for three months, but Starr was the first to leave, after 10 days. He likened it to Butlin’s. McCartney left after a month. Lennon and Harrison, who had been the first to try acid, were more open-minded, and of course Harrison was deeply interested in India. However, they both left a month later upon hearing the Maharishi was trying it on with female members of their entourage. Lennon, desperate for a father figure, was particularly hurt, immortalising the experience in Sexy Sadie.

But India had helped unlock the group’s creativity, to the extent they started work on their eponymous double album that May. Upon their return, they also announced the creation of Apple Records. Apple Corps Ltd was originally conceived after the death of Epstein, with their film Magical Mystery Tour its initial release under Apple Films. Their shop, Apple Boutique, opened in December 1967, but was gone by the following June. The failure was prophetic. The Beatles were overreaching. They were the greatest band of all time, but they weren’t businessmen. Far from bringing them closer together, Apple Records helped quicken the end, behind the scenes. The press conference implied that the new label would create a utopia, where anyone could send in their music, and although it was by far the most successful part of the empire, this was largely because of the music of the Beatles.

Many believe Hey Jude was the debut release on Apple Records. ‘Apple 1’ was a single pressing of Frank Sinatra singing Maureen Is a Champ to the tune of The Lady Is a Tramp. It was a surprise gift for Starr to his wife Maureen for her 21st, apparently. The confusion arose from Hey Jude‘s marketing as one of the ‘First Four’ singles on the label.

It was clear from the start that Paul McCartney was aware of just how popular his new ballad would be. Originally called Hey Jules, he has always said it was written in sympathy for Julian Lennon. His father had left his mother for the artist Yoko Ono in May, and McCartney thought it could help heal wounds. Cynthia was touched by the gesture when McCartney played it for them in a surprise visit. McCartney had already changed the name from ‘Jules’ to ‘Jude’, but there was no doubt to its meaning.

Macca would perform his latest composition at any given opportunity, including while producing The Bonzo Dog Band’s I’m the Urban Spaceman under the pseudonym Apollo C  Vermouth. Lennon, who had often struggled with McCartney’s choices for singles over the past few years, loved the song – in part because he thought it was actually written for him, ironically as a message to move on and stick with Ono. Paul also later said that he felt Hey Jude was perhaps aimed subconsciously at himself – his relationship with Jane Asher was nearly over. He had begun an affair with Linda Eastman, and was also involved with Frankie Schwartz.

That’s the beauty of Hey Jude. It’s essential message, that love hurts, but it’s worth the struggle, so chin-up, can be applied to anyone. It helps to know you’re not alone.

Famously, when the song was first presented to John and Yoko when they visited Paul on 26 July, he told them he would fix the line ‘the movement you need is on your shoulder’, John replied, ‘You won’t you know. That’s the best line in the song’.

The Beatles first rehearsed the song three days later at Abbey Road over two nights. Recordings prove that despite the animosity within the group, they could still get on and produce magic when working on the right material. However the mood did sour when Paul refused to let George play a guitar line as a response to the vocal.

They entered Trident Studios to record the master track on 31 July, after hearing it was equipped with an eight-track console rather than the standard four. The basic track featured McCartney on piano and lead vocal, Lennon on acoustic guitar, Harrison on electric guitar and Starr on drums. On 1 August they overdubbed McCartney’s bass, backing vocals from Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, and tambourine by Starr.

At some point they had decided the song was to feature that legendary lengthy coda that spawned a thousand imitations, and beefed it up with a 36-piece orchestra. All but one member of the orchestra joined in with singing and clapping on the record, which was deliberately faded out slowly until the record was allegedly deliberately made to last one second longer than Richard Harris’s MacArthur Park. For 25 years, Hey Jude was the lengthiest number 1 single. Meat Loaf’s I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That), released in 1993, ran for 7:52. If you simply can’t get enough of Hey Jude, the mono version lasts that little bit longer.

Depending on whether you can hear the accidental swearing in tTe Kinks’ You Really Got Me (I can’t), Hey Jude is also the first number 1 to feature audible swearing. At around 2:57, listen with headphones and you hear a ‘Woah!’ followed by ‘Fucking hell!’. For a few years now I assumed this was Lennon, and some sources claim it was a result of him listening to a playback and the volume being too loud on his headphones. But according to Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, the swearing is from McCartney who had hit a bum note. Lennon persuaded him to keep it in, insisting nobody would ever know but those in the studio. Once you’ve heard the swearing, you’ll never miss it again.

Hey Jude is one of the greatest singles of all time. I won’t be persuaded otherwise by naysayers in recent years, who’ve scoffed at the fact it’s rolled out by McCartney at the Olympics and seemingly every big UK celebration. Overfamilarity hasn’t dulled its beauty for me. As I’ve said above, it’s a beautiful, sincere message from McCartney, and it’s sung with real tenderness until the coda.

Some scoff at the coda, calling it overblown, and laugh at McCartney’s soulful interjections during the chant. They’re wrong. I recall reading somewhere a review of the song that suggested the moment the orchestra represents the moment that Jude realises the singer is right, a sort-of ‘eureka’ moment. I love that idea, and if you go along with that, it makes McCartney’s excited performance perfectly appropriate. He’s chuffed that Jude has got the message, and is thrilled for him.

You can’t blame Hey Jude for all the substandard rip-offs that followed in its wake, either. And to be fair, it was also responsible for some really good rip-offs, eg David Bowie’s Memory of a Free Festival a year later. It has been misused over the years, adopted by other singers/bands as a cheap way of lengthening their set (Robbie Williams at Glastonbury in 1998, for example), but when heard at the right time, in the right atmosphere, it can bring a tear to the eye, or make you feel pure ecstasy (the writer himself at Glastonbury in 2004, for example).

Hey Jude was released on 26 August. As mentioned earlier, it was one of the initial four Apple singles released to the public. The other three were Mary Hopkins’ Those Were the Days (produced by McCartney) which would knock the Beatles from the top spot), Jackie Lomax’s Sour Milk Sea (written and produced by Harrison) and Thingumybob by the Black Dyke Mills Band (produced by McCartney).

Michael Lindsay-Hogg was hired to film videos for the single and the B-side Revolution (for some reason, they were a double-A-side in the US, but not here). Together, they worked on a mock-live performance, where the Beatles performed to a backing track with live orchestra and vocals, as they reached the coda, the audience invade the stage and envelop the group, creating a beautiful image of band and fans as one. An enduring image, but as false as John, Paul, George and Ringo pretending they were still a cohesive unit. The Beatles were growing up and outgrowing each other.

But in September 1968, they were back on top with the best-selling single of 1968, and four out of the next five number 1s were linked to the Fab Four. After the commercial misfire of Magical Mystery Tour the year before, they ruled the world once more.

As for Hey Jude, I predict that unfortunately it’ll take the death of Paul McCartney for popular opinion to turn round and for it to be recognised as the classic it undoubtedly is, and for its writer to be recognised as a true genius alongside John Lennon.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 2 (11-24 September) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Conservative MP Grant Shapps – 14 September
Television presenter Philippa Forrester – 20 September 

Deaths:

Scottish golfer Tommy Armour – 12 September 

Meanwhile…

15 September: The Great Flood of 1968 brought exceptionally heavy rain and thunderstorms to the south east of England.

16 September: The following day, the General Post Office divided post into first-class and second-class services for the first time.

257. The Bee Gees (Accompaniment directed by Bill Shepherd) – I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You (1968)

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Since the success of Massachusetts (The Lights Went Out in), the Gibb brothers (and co) had continued work on their second album to be released internationally. Horizontal, which hit the shops in February 1968, featured their first number 1, and another hit, World. Guitarist Vince Melouney and drummer Colin Petersen had an increased influence this time around, meaning Horizontal was heavier and darker than the very-1967 Bee Gees 1st.

From there, The Bee Gees made their first appearance on US television and toured the world. They also turned down the opportunity to write and perform the soundtrack for Joe Massot’s psychedelic Wonderwall (1968), which was eventually taken on by George Harrison.

Their single, Words, became one of the most famous Bee Gees ballads, but follow-up Jumbo/The Singer Sang His Song only reached number 25 – their worst chart performance up to that point. But the band were recording like their lives depended on it – in June they finished recording their next album, Idea, and the following month they set to work on Odessa. Despite this purple patch, tensions were growing.

On 12 July, during early sessions for Odessa, they set to work on their next number 1 song. It’s believed that Robin wrote the lyrics for I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You ‘on the spot’, with the music coming jointly from him and his brothers. Robin decided to write from the viewpoint of a man on Death Row that had murdered his wife’s lover, who was determined that the prison chaplain send a final message to her.

This urgent slice of blue-eyed soul ditches the gentle psych-folk of Massachussets (The Lights Went Out in) and is more like their other early classic, To Love Somebody. Thematically of course, it’s similar to Tom Jones’s Green, Green Grass of Home – but better. Perhaps it’s the fact that the singer committed a crime of passion due to his wife’s affair, but it’s so much easier to identify with and feel sympathy for this character than Tom when you compare the two.

I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You is never included in lists of Bee Gees classics, but I really love it. It’s rather earnest, and melodramatic, but all the better for it. Originally it was intended for soul singer Percy Sledge, who did cover it. The pleading, plaintive vocals hit the spot, as always with the Gibbs (co-producer and manager Robert Stigwood had called the singers back to the studio that night to record the three-part harmonies), and the chorus is really addictive. The bass is especially good, courtesy of Maurice, who at the time was a huge admirer of Paul McCartney’s style, and it’s also him on the mellotron, which makes the chorus even more memorable.

Confusingly, there are five versions, all made from a single recording, in stereo, mono, played at different speeds, with different fade-outs, and percussion and strings sounds at varying volume. The percussion is a little off-putting actually, when too high, as it sounds like a CD track that’s stuttering. The mono single version has it all about right, though.

The Bee Gees also recorded a video, which you can see above, featuring the group performing in a white room on a revolving platform. Simple but effective, unlike Barry’s all-in-one black blouse.

Released just before Idea, but not included on the UK version of the album, I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You only spent a week at number 1 before Hey Jude took over. In the US, it became their first top 10 hit. But things soon turned sour. Since 1967 they had been seen superstars, and potential rivals to The Beatles. As we know, however, the wilderness years beckoned. Melouney and Petersen wouId soon quit, and then Robin would briefly leave. It would be a full decade before they had another number 1 single.

Written by: Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb

Producer: Robert Stigwood & The Bee Gees

Weeks at number 1: 1 (4-10 September)

Births:

Anti-war activist Anas Altikriti – 9 September
Actress Julia Sawalha – 9 September

Deaths:

Golfer Tommy Armour – 12 September

Meanwhile…

8 September: British tennis player Virginia Wade made headlines when she defeated Billie Jean King to win the US Open Women’s Singles event. It was her first Grand Slam singles title and her only one at the US Open.