124. John Leyton – Johnny Remember Me (1961)

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With the exception of the Everly Brothers’ Cathy’s Clown and Temptation, we’ve yet to have any number 1 singles that showed any sign of evolution in production techniques. Pop had simplified since the inception of the charts, and most producers simply got the act in a studio and recorded live or as close to as possible, in as few takes as they could. Eccentric genius Joe Meek helped to change all that, and broadened pop’s horizons. And all from a flat above a leather goods shop in Islington.

Meek had been interested in electronics most of his life. Growing up in Newent, Gloucestershire, he filled his parents’ shed with old radios, circuitry and random electronic paraphernalia. He worked as a radar technician during his national service, and then in 1953 he worked for the Midlands Electric Board, using their resources to produce his first record. Meek later became an audio engineer, at first for a radio company, before first making his presence felt in the charts in 1956, upsetting jazz musician Humphrey Lyttelton by compressing the sound of his single Bad Penny Blues. Despite this, it became a hit. He was also involved in Anne Shelton’s number 1, Lay Down Your Arms, but I won’t hold that against him too much (I decided this was the worst number 1 single of 1957, here).

Meek co-founded Triumph Records in 1960, and the company had a top 10 hit with Angela Jones by Michael Cox, but Meek’s fiery temperament combined with distribution issues meant the label lasted less than a year. Soon after he conceived and produced concept album I Hear a New World, years before the term even existed. I first heard this around 13 years ago, and didn’t appreciate it anywhere near as much as I should have. I’ve just re-listened to prepare me for writing about Meek, and while the album (that was shelved for decades) is so primitive as to be amusing in places, it’s also astounding to think such a thing was being worked on as early as 1960. At times the album resembles ambient music, again, decades before the term existed. With the help of financial backing from a fellow eccentric, Major Wilfred Alonzo Banks, he set up his own production company, RGM Sound Limited, and ran it from his flat at 304 Holloway Road. One of Meek’s acts, Geoff Goddard, had tried to become famous under the alias Anton Hollywood (!) but fame eluded him. One night, a haunting song came to Goddard in a dream. He woke with a start and immediately sang it into the tape recorder he kept by his bedside. In an era in which teenage tragedy songs were performing so well, Johnny Remember Me could potentially be a huge hit. This gothic tale of a man haunted by his love’s spirit had a memorably eerie chorus. They just needed Meek to work his magic, and find the right singer.

John Leyton was an Essex-born actor who had worked his way up from bit parts on television and in films to becoming well-known due to his part as Ginger in Granada’s adaptation of Biggles. His good looks even earned him a fan club. Leyton’s manager was Australian-born entrepreneur Robert Stigwood, who went on to manage Cream and the Bee Gees. The Robert Stigwood Organisation, or RSO, eventually went into film production and was responsible for Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here… Stigwood thought Leyton should record a cover of Tell Laura I Love Her with Meek, but Ricky Valance reached number 1 in 1960 with his version, and Leyton’s was withdrawn from sale. Clearly thinking that Leyton could portray the camp drama needed for their own death disc, Meek gave Leyton another shot and recorded Johnny Remember Me with him. Charles Blackwell looked after the arrangement. Leyton later recalled that the kitchen sink production involved Meek actually producing from the kitchen, with him in the sitting room, backing singers in the bathroom and string players upstairs.

With its urgent, galloping rhythm, courtesy of backing band the Outlaws, Johnny Remember Me begins like a theme from a western (a clever touch – this genre was still very popular in the UK), but the lyrics suggest a very British drama, with references to mist and the moors bringing to mind Wuthering Heights. When the ghostly wail of Lissa Grey takes over in the chorus, you’re aware you’re listening to a pretty special song. I’m not sure what the sounds are that Meek conjures up in the instrumental break, but I haven’t heard anything that unusual in a number 1 up to this point. Meek’s production is perfect, managing to sound ghostly without sounding cheesy. British pop had just taken a leap forward, and on a shoestring budget.

Stigwood’s idea to promote Johnny Remember Me was a masterstroke, and will have played a key factor in its success. Leyton had just bagged a role in ITV drama Harpers West One. He played rock star Johnny Saint-Cyr, and in one scene he had to perform in front of adoring female fans. Stigwood suggested he perform his new single, and the plan paid off. Leyton took Johnny Remember Me to number 1 for three weeks, before Shirley Bassey took over, but Leyton then went back to the top for a fourth week.

Leyton’s follow-up, Wild Wind, went to number 2, but the following year his association with Meek and Goddard ended. He took on more acting work to stay busy (including a part in 1963’s The Great Escape), but by the 1980s he had retired from showbusiness. However, in the 90s he began performing on the nostalgia circuit, which he still does to this day, with his backing band the Flames. My parents have seen him, and my dad says he looks ridiculously young despite being 82. As we know, Meek didn’t go on to enjoy a long life, but that’s a story for another time…

Although Meek was gay, in 1961 such matters were still considered something to be ashamed of in mainstream culture. But things were slowly changing. On 31 August the movie Victim was released, and made history as the first film to feature the word ‘homosexual’. The subject matter also came up in A Taste of Honey, a cinematic adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s kitchen sink play, that was released on 14 September. Also that month, a stand collapsed during a match involving Glasgow Rangers at Ibrox Park on 16 September. Three people died and 35 suffered injuries.  The following day, police arrested over 1300 protestors during a CND rally in Trafalgar Square.

Oh, and a brief snatch of Johnny Remember Me made a cameo appearance in Bronski Beat and Marc Almond’s version of I Feel Love in 1985. Quite why they two acts decided to stick the chorus to this in the middle of a medley of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love and Love to Love Your Baby, I do not know, but the video makes for an amusing watch. Enjoy Jimmy Somerville and Marc Almond trying to out-camp each other here.

Written by: Geoff Goddard

Producer: Joe Meek

Weeks at number 1: 4 (31 August-20 September, 28 September-4 October)

Births:

Actor Kevin Kennedy – 7 September
Author Tom Holt – 13 September

Deaths:

Scottish sculptor Sir William Reid Dick – 1 October 

114. The Everly Brothers – Walk Right Back/Ebony Eyes (1961)

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March 1961: On the sixth of the month, influential singer-songwriter, actor, comedian and cheeky ukelele maestro George Formby died of a heart attack, aged 56. Two days later, Edwin Bush is arrested in London for stabbing Elsie May Batten with an antique dagger from the shop in which he worked. He became the first British criminal to be identified using the Identikit system. Five days from then, five members of the Portland Spy Ring go on trial at the Old Bailey, accused of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. A week later, on 20 March, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre changed its name to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and the following day, the Beatles made their first performance at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. The Everly Brothers were occupying the top of the charts for the third time for most of that month, with a double A-side single, Walk Right Back/Ebony Eyes.

Walk Right Back had been written by their friend Sonny Curtis, who had performed with Buddy Holly and joined the Crickets as their vocalist after Holly’s death. He came up with the song while in the army and played it to Don and Phil while on leave. They liked it immediately and said they’d record it, but Curtis had only written one verse so far. He didn’t get the next verse to them in time, so the brothers simply sang the one verse they had, twice. They might have done better to have waited, as Walk Right Back only really works as a neat little guitar lick. It’s far too chirpy for such sad lyrics, and a disappointment after All I Have to Do Is Dream and Cathy’s Clown, but those magic harmonies are still great to hear, and always uplift any song of theirs. Curtis would later do better, when he wrote the classic I Fought the Law.

Ebony Eyes is also a let-down. It was written by the bizarrely-named John D Loudermilk (what does the ‘D’ stand for? Nothing, apparently), who had written for artists including Eddie Cochran. With teenage death songs such as Tell Laura I Love Her all the rage, Ebony Eyes tells the sad story of a young man who lost his fiancée in an airplane crash during stormy conditions. She was on board, Flight 1203, which was lost in skies as dark as his lover’s ebony eyes. It’s a bit hokey and maudlin to my ears, and is made even more so by Don’s ill-advised spoken word performance. The brothers had tried their hand at acting lessons, which he had hated, so why he decided to play the song’s protagonist, I don’t know. Sadly, no version of him bursting into laughter exists as far as I’m aware (see my blog on Elvis Presley’s Are You Lonesome Tonight?). Again, the sublime vocals raise the song above most fare of the time, but this single fails to reach their usual high standards.

Written by:
Walk Right Back: Sonny Curtis/Ebony Eyes: John D Loudermilk

Producer: Wesley Rose

Weeks at number 1: 3 (2-22 March)

Births:

Olympian javelin thrower Fatima Whitbread – 3 March 

Deaths:

Singer George Formby – 6 March
Conductor Thomas Beecham – 8 March 

107. Ricky Valance – Tell Laura I Love Her (1960)

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As the summer of 1960 turned to Autumn, heavy rainfall caused severe flooding in the valley of the River Exe and surrounding areas of Devon, and on 7 October, flooding takes place in Horncastle, Lincolnshire. To this day (26 March 2018), it still holds the UK record for the highest 180-min total rainfall at 178mm. Six days earlier, Nigeria was the latest country to gain its independence from the UK. The Sheffield Tramway closed on 8 October, leaving Blackpool as the only place in England using electric trams, and on 17 October the daily News Chronicle stopped publishing, becoming absorbed into the Daily Mail.

During these three weeks, Ricky Valance became the first Welsh male artist to hit the number 1 spot, with one of the more famous teenage tragedy songs of the early 1960s, Tell Laura I Love Her. This genre had been growing in popularity from the mid-to-late 50s, melding rock’n’roll with the stories normally told in folk ballads. The first notable example of these songs was Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots, sang by the Cheers. This song grew in popularity following James Dean’s death in a car accident in 1955. However, the first teenage tragedy song to hit number 1 in the UK had only happened in March 1960. Johnny Preston’s Running Bear had been an unusual track, telling the tale of the doomed romance of two Indians, complete with politically incorrect Indian chanting from George Jones and JP ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson (who had written the track before his untimely death in 1959). Tell Laura I Love Her had been written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh. Barry went on to write or co-write some of the biggest songs of the 60s, including Do Wah Diddy Diddy, Be My Baby, River Deep – Mountain High and Leader of the Pack.

Tell Laura I Love Her had been a big hit in the US for Ray Peterson, but Decca Records refused to release it in the UK, considering it ‘tasteless and vulgar’. 20,000 copies that had already been made were destroyed. An over-the-top reaction, no doubt, but for many, the permissive 60s were yet to actually happen. The BBC were also loathe to play these ‘death discs’, but the Beeb had banned songs before, and it hadn’t stopped them reaching number 1 (see David Whitfield and Frankie Laine‘s versions of Answer Me). Not that this song was particularly vulgar, anyway. So when EMI Columbia offered the track to their new signing, Ricky Valance, he seized the opportunity, and with hit-making producer Norrie Paramore involved, the number 1 spot became his.

Valance had been born David Spencer in 1939 in Ynysddu, Monmouthshire, Wales. He had joined the RAF aged 17, before going on to perform in clubs, and subsequently getting noticed by an A&R representative for EMI. With his sweet voice and good looks, Valance was a great choice for the label.

Tell Laura I Love Her tells the tragic tale of teenagers Tommy and Laura. Tommy wants to marry Laura, and decides to enter a stock car race, with the hope of using the prize money to buy her a wedding ring. However, the race goes horribly wrong, and Tommy is killed when his car overturns and sets alight. Lyricist Barry was a big fan of cowboy culture and originally Tommy entered a rodeo, but RCA had insisted it became a stock car to make it more in keeping with the present fashions, which was probably a wise move.

The song doesn’t get off to a great start, as the verses are rather functional and dull, and the ‘bom-bom-bom-bom’ backing vocal really ruins the mood. The chorus is great, though. Memorable and sad, it lifts an otherwise average song, and Valance’s tender voice fits it like a glove. The lyrics might seem hokey now, but that’s par for the course with this sub-genre. It pales in comparison to recent classics such as Shakin’ All Over and Apache, though.

Tell Laura I Love Her sold over a million in 1960. Although it was his only UK number 1, Movin’ Away went to the top in Australia and Scandinavia. A year later, Valance entered A Song for Europe, but only made it to third place. His name soon slipped from  the public eye, but he continued to perform on the cabaret and nostalgia circuit. Following severe depression and a nervous breakdown he became a born-again Christian, and still continues to release music.

Written by: Jeff Barry & Ben Raleigh

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 3 (29 September-19 October)

98. Johnny Preston – Running Bear (1960)

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On 26 March 1960, the Grand National was televised for the first time, with Merryman II becoming winner. Two days later, tragedy struck in Glasgow when a warehouse fire broke out on Cheapside Street. Over a million gallons of whiskey and rum burned out of control for hours. 19 fire-servicemen were killed, making the incident the worst fire services disaster in peacetime, up to that point.

The number 1 at the time was one strange beast. Breaking an unusually lengthy spell of UK artists at the top (five months) was US rockabilly singer Johnny Preston with an un-PC novelty-teenage death song (these ‘death discs’ were becoming ever more popular) about the forbidden love of two Indians from warring tribes. Sounds interesting, yes?

Preston, of Cajun and German descent, had been born John Preston Courville in 1939. After entering singing contests in high school, he formed his first band, The Shades, who caught the eye of JP Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, of Chantilly Lace fame. In 1958 they went into the studio with future country legend George Jones and saxophonist Link Davis to record Richardson’s bizarre song, Running Bear.

Certainly one of the weirder number 1s to date, Running Bear begins with cheers before settling down into comedy stereotypical Indian ‘ocka chunka’ chanting from The Big Bopper and Jones, creating the rhythm of the verses, as Preston tells the tragic tale of the star-crossed lovers. It’s actually a good rhythm they create, but tacky and tasteless to modern ears. So, the story is that Running Bear and Little White Dove love each other, but their two tribes hate each other, and as we all know, when two tribes go to war, one is all that you can score. Not only that, there’s a bloody big river separating them. This being the case, I’m not sure of the origins of their love, or how these tribes are managing to do battle, but hey, this isn’t a concept album, you can’t expect the full story I guess. As the verses shift into the chorus, Running Bear changes into your average rock’n’roll track, and the return to the verses afterwards sounds a bit clunky. Before you know it, they’ve decided to meet in the river, have a kiss and drown. And that’s it! I think it’s supposed to come across as romantic, but can’t help seeming a bit stupid. What a way to go. You couldn’t get away with Running Bear now of course, but it’s not as offensive a number 1 as Guy Mitchell’s She Wears Red Feathers. It’s just outdated, and odd, all in all. The musicians seem to be having a good time, and some of that enthusiasm comes across, at least.

Of course, The Big Bopper died alongside Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in a plane on 3 February 1959, so he never got to see Running Bear become number 1 in the US and subsequently the UK. Due to Richardson’s death, the song got caught up in legal issues, causing its release to be delayed. Perhaps its posthumous release is the reason it did so well, although Richardson isn’t credited as the artist, so how many people would have been aware of the connection? Perhaps it’s just that cowboys and indians were still very popular, and teenage death songs were about to become big. Or maybe it’s just one of those many unsolved mysteries where it’s impossible to work out how a song made it to the top.

The rest of Johnny Preston’s life is fairly mysterious too. His follow-up single, Cradle of Love nearly repeated Running Bear’s success, hitting the top ten in the US and UK. Another release, the rocking Leave My Kitten Alone, was later covered by the Beatles, and is perhaps the best unreleased track of their early years, with Lennon in fine shouty voice. It eventually surfaced on Anthology 1 in 1995. He was entered into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and performed on the nostalgia circuit, but eventually retired. He died of heart failure in 2011, aged 71.

I can’t imagine why anyone would cover this track, but when I discovered Tom Jones had recorded a funk version in 1973, I had to have a listen. And you know what, it’s actually pretty good! Take a look at this insane clip from a TV special, with crazy dancing and camerawork. Tom should have got his funk on more often.

Written by: JP Richardson

Producer: Bill Hall

Weeks at number 1: 2 (17-30 March)

Births:

Artist Grayson Perry – 24 March