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 

102. Eddie Cochran – Three Steps to Heaven (1960)

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Following Buddy Holly’s death, record labels soon cottoned on to the effectiveness of a posthumous single, with It Doesn’t Matter Anymore hitting the top soon after the infamous plane crash that instantly killed him, JP Richardson (The Big Bopper) and Ritchie Valens in 1959. A year later, Holly’s friend and fellow young rockabilly and rock’n’roll talent Eddie Cochran also died tragically, and soon after, he too reached the number 1 spot.

Cochran was born in October 1938 in Albert Lea, Minnesota. He became hooked on music in his early teens, learning guitar and playing along to country songs he heard on the radio. The family moved to California in 1952, and Cochran soon dropped out of high school to take the risk and become a full-time musician. He formed a duo with Hank Cochran, and they became the Cochran Brothers (they weren’t related). During this time he also began writing material for himself and demoing solo work in studios when he could. Like his future friend Buddy Holly, he was naturally gifted from a young age, and keen to progress musically. Cochran received his big break in 1956, when he was asked to appear in the musical comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield. The rock’n’roll element of the film was originally intended as a satirical subplot, but all it did was speed up the genre’s popularity by bringing rock’n’roll onto the big screen. Eddie Cochran performed Twenty Flight Rock. The performance was so iconic, Paul McCartney later used it as his audition piece to join John Lennon’s Quarrymen (see here). With his film idol looks and a killer track, Cochran was bound for stardom.

The summer of 1958 saw the release of his most famous work. The self-penned Summertime Blues is of course, a classic, perhaps most famously covered by The Who. Further great tracks followed, including C’mon, Everybody (later re-released on the back of its appearance in a Levi’s jeans advert in 1988) and Something Else. Both these tracks were covered by the Sex Pistols, but after Johnny Rotten had departed. Cochran’s interest in getting the best out of recording in a studio was developing, and all his classic tracks featured guitar overdubs to create that unique sound. I wonder how this would have developed had he lived when psychedelia became popular?

Cochran was deeply affected by the deaths of Holly, Richardson and Valens, and recorded Three Stars in tribute to them. He began to have premonitions that he too would die young, and told family and friends that he wanted to spend more time in the studio to avoid suffering a similar fate. However, he needed the money, and pop impresario Larry Parnes made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. At the time, Parnes had quite a stable of homegrown rock’n’roll stars, including Billy Fury, Johnny Gentle (love that name) and Tony Sheridan (who the Beatles later backed, on their recording debut). Cochran accepted the offer to travel to the UK, along with his friend, Gene Vincent, and be the two biggest acts on the tour. Rock’n’roll fans loved the shows, and Cochran has been credited as having introduced the music of Ray Charles to UK audiences, with a blistering performance of What’d I Say.

The final show, at the Bristol Hippodrome, took place on 16 April. Cochran and his fiancée Sharon Sheeley were keen to get back to the US, and he asked for a lift with Johnny Gentle, but his car was full. Instead, the couple, Vincent and tour manager Pat Thompkins opted for a taxi. Travelling through Chippenham, Wiltshire, the speeding taxi blew a tire at a notorious black spot. The driver, George Martin (thankfully not the Beatles producer) lost control, and the car span backwards into a lamppost. Instinctively, Cochran threw himself over Sheeley to protect her, but a door flew open and he was thrown out of the car. Martin, Thompkins and Sheeley were uninjured, and Vincent had broken his collarbone, but Cochran’s head injuries were fatal. Martin was convicted for dangerous driving but had his license returned in 1969, but one of the music world’s most promising stars was gone, aged only 21.

Three Steps to Heaven had been recorded that January, with backing from the Crickets. It has their mark all over it, and is unlike Cochran’s earlier tracks, adopting the prevailing soft-pop sound of the time. Cochran adopts a smooth croon, not unlike Elvis, and the backing vocals bring to mind those of the Jordanaires. The three steps to heaven are to fall in love, get someone to fall in love with you back, and make them feel loved. It hasn’t aged as well as his other hits, but the opening riff is classic Cochran, and David Bowie seems to have been a fan, having come up with something very similar on Hunky Dory‘s Queen Bitch in 1971. The lyrics to Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’ opening track, It’s No Game (No. 1) in 1980 also mention ‘free steps to heaven’. Whether it would have been released as a single had Cohran not died, I’m not sure, but it’s mention of heaven made it a natural choice. Strangely, the song didn’t do nearly as well in his home country. Perhaps the fact the accident took place in the UK made the tragedy hit his British fans harder.

Over the years, Eddie Cochran’s star seems to have diminished, which seems a shame. He was one of the most innovative and influential musicians of the 1950s. In addition to the stars already mentioned, guitar god Jimi Hendrix had Cochran played at his funeral, on his request. After a gig at the Hackney Empire, Cochran allowed a 13-year-old fan to carry his guitar out to a waiting limousine. The boy, Marc Feld, later became Marc Bolan, who was also to later die in a car accident. Following the crash which killed Cochran, his guitar was impounded at the police station, and a local policeman, David Harman, used the instrument to teach himself how to play. Harman went on to become Dave Dee, of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich fame. A memorial plaque was placed at the site of the accident, and was restored on the 50th anniversary in 2010.

Written by: Eddie Cochran & Bob Cochran

Producers: Eddie Cochran & Jerry Capeheart

Weeks at number 1: 2 (23 June-6 July) 

Births:

Erasure songwriter Vince Clarke – 3 July

Deaths:

Tennis player Lottie Dod – 27 June
Politician Aneurin Bevan – 6 July 

84. Buddy Holly – It Doesn’t Matter Anymore (1959)

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Ah. Now, unlike Russ Conway’s Side Saddle, here is a number 1 that I can clearly understand. Buddy Holly’s It Doesn’t Matter Anymore is the first posthumous UK chart-topper. The infamous plane crash had occurred on 3 February that year, and had tragically cut short the lives of Holly and fellow stars Ritchie Valens and JP Richardson, aka The Big Bopper.

Before then, Holly was already well on the way to being a bona fide musical legend. Since the Crickets had their sole number 1 with That’ll Be the Day in late-1957, Holly had achieved success with the group and under his own name, thanks to Peggy Sue, backed with Everyday, and Rave On. In early 1958, he joined the rest of the Crickets to tour the UK and Australia. Later that year he met and fell in love with María Elena Santiago. the romance was swift – he asked her out when they first met, and proposed on their first date. Producer and manager Normal Petty didn’t approve, and asked Holly to keep their wedding quiet to avoid upsetting his fans. She pretended to merely be his secretary, but the damage was done – there was dissension in the ranks, not helped by the other Crickets also having their doubts in trusting Petty with all the money they were earning. Despite money troubles, Holly had various interesting ideas about the direction his career would go, including making an album with Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson. This alone suggests the 1960s could have been a very different decade had Holly not died. He and Santiago settled in Greenwich Village, where he recorded acoustic songs including Crying, Waiting, Hoping. That October saw Holly’s final recording session take place. Four songs were recorded with an 18-piece orchestra, including It Doesn’t Matter Anymore and the B-side Raining in My Heart.

It Doesn’t Matter Anymore had been written by Paul Anka, whose Diana had been number 1 directly before That’ll Be the Day. Still a teenager, Anka was, like Holly, prodigiously talented. Obviously the song’s title became eerily prescient, but it actually concerned the end of a romance. Chirpy pizzicato strings belie the singer’s bitterness at the break-up, as do Holly’s occasional trademark vocal stutters (which can be irritating to modern ears, it has to be said), but it’s lush production hinted at the future direction of pop, and displays Holly’s desire to experiment with his sound. Also, is it just me, or does this sound very similar to John Kongos’s He’s Gonna Step On You Again – later known as Step On by Happy Mondays?

As 1958 drew to a close, Holly parted ways with Petty. Despite the rest of the Crickets’ concerns, they decided to stay with him, so Holly left the band. Due to Petty withholding his royalties, Holly was forced to immediately form a new band (featuring Waylon Jennings) and get out on the road. They began their ‘Winter Dance Party’ tour’, joined by Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, but the tour was beset with problems, with buses breaking down and performers suffering from flu and even frostbite. Tired of being on the road, Holly decided to charter a plane to Fargo, North Dakota. The story goes that the Big Bopper was suffering from flu particularly bad, and asked Jennings if he would consider giving up his seat for him. When Holly found out his bassist wasn’t travelling with him, he quipped ‘Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up’. In a response that was to haunt Jennings for the rest of his life, he replied ‘Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes’. Valens used to be terrified of flying, but asked Holly’s guitarist to toss a coin to decide who got to fly, and Valens won. The plane took off safely in light snow, but five minutes later, contact was lost. The plane had somehow cartwheeled across a frozen field, and Holly, Valens and Richardson had been thrown from the craft, with the pilot caught in the wreckage. All four had died instantly.

The incident shocked the music world, and of course was later immortalised by Don McLean as ‘The Day the Music Died’ in American Pie. Anka kindly gave the royalties of the song to Holly’s widow, who suffered a miscarriage when she was told of her husband’s death. It was the first of many shocking and untimely deaths in the world of rock and pop, and It Doesn’t Matter Anymore showed that posthumous singles offered music fans a way to mourn the heroes they had lost. It also showed record company bosses that it was a great way of making money out of dead artists.

Written by: Paul Anka

Producer: Norman Petty

Weeks at number 1: 3 (24 April-14 May)

Births:

Singer Sheena Easton – 27 April
Comedian Ben Elton – 3 May
Echo & the Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch – 5 May
Director Deborah Warner – 12 May

64. The Crickets – That’ll Be the Day (1957)

By the autumn, 1957 had proved to be an important year in the music charts, but there was more to come. Future My Way songwriter Paul Anka’s Diana was prevented from a 10th week at the top by a new group known as The Crickets, led by the unassuming bespectacled figure Buddy Holly

Born Charles Hardin Holley in Lubbock, Texas in 1936, he was born into a musical family and learned to sing and play guitar at a young age, drawing from diverse influences including gospel and country. It soon became apparent he was very talented, and Holly appeared on local television in 1952. Three years later he was opening for rock’n’roll figureheads Elvis Presley and Bill Haley & His Comets. The following year he recorded an album of rockabilly with his new band, Buddy and the Two Tones for Decca. The album was unsuccessful and Holly wasn’t happy with the sound he achieved with producer Owen Bradley. He decided to head to New Mexico to record demos with Norman Petty. To avoid legal problems, a new name was needed for the group. They considered calling themselves The Beetles, but settled on The Crickets. With Buddy Holly on vocals and lead guitar, rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan, Joe B. Mauldin as bassist and Jerry Allison on drums, their resulting popularity helped define the classic four-piece band line-up. Much happier with the results under Petty, they decided to release the new version of That’ll Be the Day as a single. Although written by Holly and Allison, Petty insisted on a writing credit too.https://youtu.be/RU769ErbfxU

It’s perhaps hard now to understand the impact That’ll Be the Day had in 1957. Much like Elvis and skiffle, it proved so influential, but unlike, say, Lonnie Donegan’s Cumberland Gap, it has aged, and is perhaps more comparable to Elvis’s All Shook Up – a little mannered and safe (the stuttering vocals can irritate), but a sign of great promise to come. It still has some charm however, and the final line ‘That’ll be the day when I die’ is still eerily prescient.

For an all-too-brief time though, the only way was up for Buddy Holly. He began churning out hits, and his name soon got top billing on Crickets material. His horn-rimmed glasses became hugely popular with teenagers, and future music legends John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, and Mick Jagger, to name but a few, were listening intently. Holly had one more number 1 to come, as a solo artist, but sadly he wasn’t around to enjoy it.

During That’ll Be the Day‘s three-week run at the top, on 15 November, flying boat City of Sydney crashed into a disused chalk pit on the Isle of Wight. The Aquila Airways Solent crash was at the time the worst ever air disaster to happen on English soil, killing 45 people.

Written by: Jerry Allison, Buddy Holly & Norman Petty

Producer: Norman Petty

Weeks at number 1: 3 (1-21 November)

Deaths:

Architect William Haywood – 4 November