We’ve had several acts on the blog now that started out on ITV talent show Opportunity Knocks, including Middle of the Road and Paper Lace, but here was the first and only number 1 by a band who rose to fame via New Faces. This series, produced by ATV for ITV, began in 1973 with presenter Derek Hobson introducing acts who would perform for four judges. Among those, and most notorious, was the sardonic Tony Hatch, the 70s version of Simon Cowell. But one act he did take a shine to were Mancunian group Sweet Sensation.
This eight-piece were formed in 1971, consisting of lead vocalist Marcel King, Junior Daye, Vincent James and St Clair Palmer on backing vocals, plus Barry Johnson on bass, Roy Flowers on drums, Gary Shaugnessy on guitar and Leroy Smith on keyboards. Sweet Sensation were Manchester’s answer to the ‘Philly sound’, and by the time of their appearance on New Faces in 1974, this lush soul was growing ever more popular in the UK.
It’s worth noting that glam rock had been a totally white phenomenon, and now it was on the wane, soul and eventually disco were filling the gap. There were many more black acts at number 1 in 1974 then there had been for some time. And there hadn’t been a black British group at number 1 since The Equals in 1968. King was only 14 when they formed, making Sweet Sensation comparable to The Jackson Five due to his youthful falsetto. However, only King and Shaugnessy hailed from Manchester, the rest were from Kingston, Jamiaca, apart from Palmer, who was from St Kitts.
Hatch had prior number 1 success numerous times, with his wife Jackie Trent, among others, so Sweet Sensation landed on their feet when the well-connected producer took them under his wing and getting them a record deal with Pye in 1974. However, despite his patronage, debut single Snowfire tanked. They went back to the drawing board and enlisted David Parton to write Sad Sweet Dreamer, which featured Hatch and Trent on vocals too.
It’s a fair approximation of Gamble & Huff’s masterful work, and tracks by The Stylistics, but it feels a bit stiff, low budget and ‘British’ by comparison. King’s falsetto is appealing and it’s ironic to hear a teen singing about putting things down to experience, but it feels more like a song to fill a gap for a week than a deserved number 1, which was exactly what it was really. One of the least memorable chart-toppers of the year, but by no means a bad song.
Sweet Sensation had found a winning formula but it proved short-lived. However, the follow-up Purely By Coincidence reached number 11 in 1975. Sad Sweet Dreamer was a good enough impersonation of Philly soul for the US too – it reached number 14 there. But that was pretty much it for the band. King left in 1975 and was replaced by Recardo “Rikki” Patrick. Their debut album, named after their number 1, did badly, and no more singles charted. In 1977 they took part in A Song for Europe but came eighth with You’re My Sweet Sensation. Pye dropped them and they split soon after.
In 1984, King tried to begin a solo career, and released Reach for Love on Factory Records. It was produced by New Order’s Bernard Sumner, and is considered a lost electro-soul classic now. It’s a great production from Sumner, and King’s voice is beautiful. Shaun Ryder of Happy Mondays apparently reckons it’s Factory’s best single, and ripped it off on Black Grape’s Get Higher in 1997.
Sadly, King didn’t become a solo star and died of a brain haemorrhage in 1995, aged only 38. His former bandmate Johnson was also on Factory via the early underground dance outfit Quando Quango. Smith died in 2009 and James in 2019.
Written by: David Parton
Producers: Tony Hatch & David Parton
Weeks at number 1: 1 (19-25 October)
Islamic terrorist Mohammad Sidique Khan – 20 October
19 October: Conservative MP Keith Joseph makes a controversial speech in Edgbaston on the cycle of deprivation that effectively rules him out of high office. He left the leadership contest to replace Edward Heath and instead became one of Margaret Thatcher’s biggest supporters.
22 October: The IRA threw a bomb into an empty dining room in London’s Brook’s club.