53. Guy Mitchell with Ray Conniff & His Orchestra – Singing the Blues (1957)

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1957 began with political change. Prime Minister Anthony Eden had struggled at the end of 1956 to recover from the debacle of Suez, and perhaps because of this he had suffered ill health. His doctors advised him to quit if he wanted to carry on living, and so he resigned on 9 January. A day later, with no formal process in place at the time, the Conservative Party decided he would be succeeded by then-Chancellor Harold Macmillan. The political situation was so rocky at the time that Macmillan told the Queen he could not promise the government would last longer than six weeks.

The first new number 1 of the year had been in place since 4 January. For the third time, the happy-go-lucky popular crooner Guy Mitchell was back at the top with his version of Singing the Blues. Previously recorded by country star Marty Robbins, it had been written by Mervin Endsley, a musician who had contracted polio at the age of three and had been in a wheelchair ever since. From the age of 11 he spent three years in the unfortunately-named Crippled Children’s Hospital in Memphis. While there he became a huge country music fan and taught himself the guitar. He had written Singing the Blues in 1954 and taken it to Nashville in the hope of getting a hit. And a hit is what he got, several times over.

I wasn’t too flattering about Mitchell’s 1953 number 1s – She Wears Red Feathers and Look at That Girl – but Singing the Blues is a cut above both of them. Produced once more by Mitch Miller (who had given Mitchell his stage name – his real name was Albert George Cernik), Mitchell is in his element here. The country element is hard to detect – this version of Singing the Blues sounds more like the older generation trying to harness rock’n’roll and put their own, safer, stamp on it. And unlike Kay Starr on (The) Rock and Roll Waltz, Mitchell and Miller pull it off. That’s largely down to the song itself, a winning tune set to effectively downbeat lyrics, rather than a naff novelty song with a new genre awkwardly shoved into it.

Mitchell, from the evidence I’ve heard, couldn’t sing a sad song if he tried, and he certainly doesn’t try here. Somehow though, it all gels, with Mitchell turning it into a cheeky come-on over a chirpy backing of whistling, ukulele and backing harmonies. He’s hoping to charm his ex into coming back. And listeners kept coming back to Singing the Blues – his version made it to number 1 for two more week-long stints, making him one of only four acts to have the same number 1 on three separate occasions. The other artists are Frankie Laine with I Believe, Pharrell Williams with Happy and What Do You Mean? by Justin Bieber. At the same time as the Mitchell and Robbins versions were released, they found themselves competing with a third, by up-and-coming rock’n’roller Tommy Steele. More on that next time…

Written by: Melvin Endsley

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 3 (4-10 January, 18-24 January & 1-7 February)

Births:

Astronaut Michael Foale – 6 January
Journalist Francis Wheen -22 January
Comedian Adrian Edmondson – 24 January 

52. Johnnie Ray – Just Walkin’ in the Rain (1956)

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Between 22 November and 8 December, 1956, the Olympics took place in Melbourne, Australia.  Great Britain and Northern Ireland won six gold, seven silver and 11 bronze medals. Meanwhile, petrol rationing became introduced on 29 November due to petrol blockades caused by the disastrous Suez Crisis, and on 23 December, the British and French troops withdrew from Suez after pressure from the UN and US. On 19 December, Dr John Bodkin Adams was arrested for the murder of patient Edith Alice Morrell. On a lighter note, Christmas Day marked the start of PG Tips long-running advertising campaign starring talking chimps, with the voices provided by Peter Sellers.

The best-selling single in the UK during this period was Johnnie Ray’s memorable Just Walkin’ in the Rain. This was his second number 1, after the lusty Such a Night in 1954. The song had an interesting genesis: it had been written in 1952 by Johnny Bragg and Robert Riley. They weren’t a songwriting duo – they were prisoners at Tennessee State Prison in Nashville. The pair were walking across the prison courtyard on a miserable rainy day, when allegedly Bragg remarked, ‘Here we are just walking in the rain, and wondering what the girls are doing’. Riley suggested this wold be the good basis for a song, and within minutes Bragg composed a couple of verses. However, he couldn’t read or write, so he asked Riley to write down the lyrics in exchange for a songwriting credit.

One of the better number 1s of the era, at first Ray wasn’t keen on Just Walkin’ in the Rain, but producer extraordinaire Mitch Miller persuaded him to give it a go. With his reputation for songs of heartbreak, Ray was an ideal candidate for a cover, and Miller was proven right. Backed by the Ray Conniff Singers and a mystery whistler (one of the most memorable aspects of the tune), Ray’s version perfectly captures the almost cosy melancholy at the heart of the song. Yes, he’s forlorn and lovesick, but you get the feeling he’s kind-of enjoying feeling sorry for himself. No wonder Morrissey became such a fan – was this track the source of inspiration for Well I Wonder by the Smiths? Well, I wonder. Ray is in fine voice too, and makes the song so much more effective than your average crooner would. It reminds me of the infamous ‘You’re Never Alone with a Strand’ ad campaign of 1959, in which a solitary man walks the wet streets, lighting a Strand cigarette to cheer himself up. The ads were soon dropped due to creating an association of Strand with sad, lonely men. Just Walkin’ in the Rain would have provided a fitting soundtrack.

Despite the cultural shift that rock’n’roll brought about, the number 1s of 1956 were still on the conservative side. Music’s popularity was increasing with the rise of the teenager – the top 20 had expanded to a top 30, and singles by Elvis Presley and Lonnie Donegan threatened to hold the top spot, but were kept away by safer choices by the older generation. Come 1957, however, several big names finally made it to pole position, in a year that was made up of entirely male number 1 singles.

Written by: Johnny Bragg & Robert Riley

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 7 (16 November 1956-3 January 1957)

Births:

The KLF member Jimmy Caughty – 19 December
Iron Maiden guitarist Dave Murray – 23 December
Violinist Nigel Kennedy – 28 December 

Deaths:

Artist Nina Hamnett – 16 December

51. Frankie Laine with Percy Faith & His Orchestra – A Woman in Love (1956)

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Only eleven years after the end of World War Two, the United Kingdom’s reputation as a superpower took a battering that it never really recovered from. Suez. Nasser’s plans to nationalise the Suez Canal company had shocked the UK and France, and plans began to remove him, partly to protect what was left of the British Empire. After meeting with President Eisenhower, Chancellor Harold Macmillan misread the situation and believed the US would not stand in their way. In fact, Eisenhower was insisting on a peaceful solution.

On 24 October, the UK, France and Israel agreed in secret that Israel would invade Sinai. Then, the UK and France would heroically intervene, and engineer the situation so that Nasser could not nationalise the company. Pretty shameful, sneaky stuff. The Israelis attacked on 29 October, expecting retaliation, Nasser’s army instead withdrew. On 5 November the Anglo-French assault began, soon overwhelming the Egyptian army. By 6 November, the UN insisted on a ceasefire, and Eisenhower was furious. There had also been a backlash in the UK, and the consensus now was that Prime Minister Anthony Eden should have acted in the summer before public opinion had turned. Before replacing Winston Churchill, Eden had a reputation as a man of peace. By going to war, and subsequently claiming the meeting between the UK, France and Israel had never taken place, Eden’s reputation was permanently damaged, and parallels were later drawn between him and Tony Blair. By mid-November, newspapers began demanding his resignation.

Throughout the short-lived but infamous conflict, the UK’s number 1 single was Frankie Laine’s cover of A Woman in Love. It had been written by Frank Loesser for the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls. The Four Aces had some success with their version in the US, but the golden touch of Laine surpassed this in the UK. It became his fourth and final number 1 on these shores (a record at this point), after I Believe, Hey Joe and Answer Me, all back in 1953.

As usual, Laine gives it his all, over a tango drumbeat and parping, swinging brass, but I’m already struggling to remember the tune two minutes after hearing it and it’s left me rather cold. Frankie is insistent that the woman he’s bellowing at is in love with him as it’s all in her eyes. I’m not sure shouting this at her is the right way to go about persuading her, though.

Laine had many more years of good fortune, on TV, record and film. Although not personally a fan, he is now considered somewhat a bridge from the pop of old to rock’n’roll, not so much because of his style, but the way he expressed his voice, putting more soul into his performances than your average swinger of the time. He was also one of the first white performers to cover black artists. His reputation as a social activist is impressive – he was the first white artist to appear on Nat King Cole’s TV show when he was unable to get a sponsor, purely because he was black. He later performed for free for supporters of Martin Luther King, and devoted a large amount of his time to the Salvation Army and homeless charities. His final recording, Taps/My Buddy, was dedicated to the firefighters who helped during the 9/11 terrorist attack, and he insisted all profits went directly to them. Frankie Laine died of heart failure on 6 February, 2007, aged 93, his ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

Written by: Frank Loesser

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 4 (19 October-15 November)

Births:

Director Danny Boyle – 20 October
Singer Hazell Dean – 27 October
Actress Juliet Stevenson – 30 October
Screenwriter Richard Curtis – 8 November 

50. Anne Shelton with Wally Stott & His Orchestra – Lay Down Your Arms (1956)

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On 15 October, the RAF officially retired the last Lancaster bomber. Along with the Spitfire, the plane was synonymous with World War 2. Yet another sign that the country was moving on from the war. You wouldn’t think that by looking at the number one single of the time, however. 

Lay Down Your Arms was a Swedish song, originally called Anne-Caroline, by Åke Gerhard and Leon Landgren, but the English lyrics were from Paddy Roberts, who had written Softly, Softly, a 1955 number one for Ruby Murray. It was a boisterous military march-themed love song, in which the protagonist is telling her soldier boyfriend that the conflict is over, so he needs to get himself home, lay down his arms and surrender to hers. Clever, eh?

The perfect person to sing a throwback to the war songs of the 1940s was Forces Sweetheart Anne Shelton. She had performed at military bases during the war, and had perhaps avoided death when she was forced to turn down the opportunity to work with Glenn Miller due to prior commitments. This was the tour in which Miller died in a plane crash. Shelton had been the first British artist to record one of the most famous songs of the war, Lili Marlene.

It’s hard to fathom why this got to number one when it did. A month later, after the embarrassment of the Suez Crisis, would be more understandable. At the end of 1956, the UK probably needed to be reminded of a time in which they were the heroes in a war. I can only imagine the older generation were going out in droves and buying this because they preferred it to the new rock’n’roll sounds that were loved by the youth. It’s not terrible, the melody is memorable and I’ve had it swimming round my head since listening to it, but it’s no Rock Island Line or Why Do Fools Fall in Love. Shelton’s vocal is overbearing – I feel sorry for her soldier boy as she sounds like a terrifying lover. He’d probably be safer back on the beach at Normandy. The most noteworthy element of the song is the fact troubled genius Joe Meek was the engineer, learning his trade before becoming a famous producer a few years later. Shelton had a few more hits and attempts at entering Eurovision. As the decades went by she was often brought out for war anniversaries and ceremonies. She died in 1994 of a heart attack, aged 70.

Written by: Åke Gerhard & Leon Landgren/Paddy Roberts (English lyrics)

Producer: Johnny Franz

Weeks at number 1: 4 (21 September-18 October)

Births:

Athlete Sebastian Coe – 29 September 

Deaths:

Scientist Frederick Soddy – 22 September 

48. The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon – Why Do Fools Fall in Love

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On 22 July, music newspaper Record Mirror published the first ever UK Albums Chart. They had their own version of the singles chart, but it is the New Musical Express charts that I use for this blog, as these are the ones recognised by the Official Charts Company as canon until 1960. The first album at number 1 was Frank Sinatra’s classic Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!. 26 July saw the beginning of the Suez crisis, when Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser shocked the British government by announcing the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. Initially, Anthony Eden believed he had the country’s support in taking military action, and Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell agreed, but in the following weeks he took a more cautious tone.

Meanwhile, the number 1 single in the UK was a breath of fresh air following a few lacklustre affairs. The Teenagers with Frankie Lymon became the youngest act to date to rule the roost, with the classic rock’n’roll and doo-wop number Why Do Fools Fall in Love. At the tender age of 12, New Yorker Frankie Lymon was working as a grocery boy to help his struggling family. He became friends with a doo-wop group known as the Coup de Villes – lead singer Herman Santiago, Joe Negroni, Jimmy Merchant and Sherman Games. There are several versions of who came up with the song, and indeed several court battles have ensued over publishing rights, but a neighbour of the Premiers, as they were known in 1955, handed the group some love letters written by his girlfriend, to use as inspiration. By the time they had their audition with tough producer George Goldner, they were known as The Teenagers. Santiago was either ill, or late, but whatever the reason, Frankie Lymon had a crack at the lead, and the group recorded trheir biggest single and one of rock’n’roll’s most memorable hits. Why Do Fools Fall in Love influenced the Jackson 5 and spawned the girl-group sound, as well as hundreds of imitators. And Lymon was barely a teenager.

For a song recorded such a long time ago, Why Do Fools Fall in Love still sounds fresh. It’s bursting with youthful energy, and a large part of that is down to Lymon’s lead vocal. This was pure rock’n’roll but filtered through the innocence of such a young group with little experience of the world. And the saxophone break is a blast. The song charted highly in the US, but performed even better in the UK. And then, before their career had barely begun, things began to fall apart.

Tensions understandably began to surface when the next single was credited to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Early in 1957, Goldner began pushing Lymon as a solo act, and his departure was made official by September. The Teenagers went through a string of replacement singers, to little success, and Lymon’s career went into freefall. They reunited briefly in 1965 but it didn’t last. He had become addicted to heroin at the age of 15, and died of an overdose in 1968 at his grandma’s house, aged only 25. A tragic victim of the often cruel music industry.

Written by: Frankie Lymon & Morris Levy

Producer: Richard Barrett

Weeks at number 1: 3 (20 July-9 August)

Births:

Sculptor Andy Goldsworthy – 26 July
Madness guitarist Chris Foreman – 8 August