Every 50s Number 1

The Intro

So, my first decade of number 1s is finished, 94 songs and seven months later. When I decided to review every UK number 1, I considered taking a random approach, but I decided starting right from the beginning would give me a wider knowledge of the progression of pop and pop culture in the UK. I did find the idea of kicking off with the 50s a potentially arduous task, however. Although there are exceptions, my interest in music tends to really start in 1963 with The Beatles’ first album, and I know I’m not alone in feeling like that. I feared starting with the 50s would put some readers off. Also, it’s the decade that’s as far out of my comfort zone as I’m going to get with this mammoth blog task I’ve set myself.

Except maybe it isn’t.

The older I get (38 currently), I feel I’m going to really struggle with the 2010s. Don’t understand the kids of today, cannot stand autotune, etc… Anyway, I find myself getting more out of the 50s far more than I initially expected. It’s still music I find myself respecting rather than enjoying, and there haven’t been many I’ll be downloading for future listens I have to confess, but it has been a fascinating journey, and I’m surprised at how much music changed from 1952 to 1959.

Before I finish with the decade and move on to the swinging 60s, I decided it would be nice to (kind-of) repeat the task I set myself in December. Back then I listened to every Christmas number 1 in order, in one session, and decided on a best and worst for each decade, before coming up with an overall best and worst. That blog seemed to generate a lot of interest, so I thought I’d do the same with the 50s. I decided against listening to all 94 songs in one go, that seemed a little bit much, so I decided to take it a year at a time.

1952/53

Where it all began. As Al Martino’s Here in My Heart was the only number 1 of 1952, I’ve lumped it in with 1953. It’s neither the best nor worst of what followed. In general, the record-buying public will still in thrall of string-laden love songs, often melancholy, overwrought ballads, with the emphasis on how well the singer could hold a note. Form over content. Not the kind of music that floats my boat, really. It was less than ten years since World War Two, and music fans still liked to wade through syrupy songs of missing loved ones abroad. In 1953’s defence, though, at least it had a healthy amount of female singers topping the charts. Once rock’n’roll takes hold, they largely disappeared bar a few exceptions. There’s some strange novelty songs in there that you wouldn’t think of as chart-toppers – see (How Much is) That Doggie in the Window? and the un-PC She Wears Red Feathers. Frankie Laine dominated that year.

The Best:

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Kay Starr – Comes A-Long A-Love: Only three tracks in and already there were elements of a rock’n’roll sound mixed in with jazz. This took me by surprise, and it was more than welcome. Kay Starr’s strong vocal mixed with a breezy tune had a vital element missing from other songs that year – fun.

The Worst:

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David Whitfield with Stanley Black & His Orchestra – Answer Me: This is the decade at its least appealing to me. It’s so leaden and dreary. Whitfield’s vocals are too affected and operatic. The Frankie Laine version was better, but not by much, as it’s a pretty poor song anyway.

1954

Generally more of the same, but of a higher standard. Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and even Vera Lynn all make appearances, but they’re not their finest works. Rosemary Clooney’s jolly old knees-up about death, This Ole House is one of the highlights. A couple of instrumentals make it big, one good (Winifred Atwell’s Let’s Have Another Party), one not so good (Eddie Calvert’s Oh Mein Papa)

The Best:

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Johnnie Ray – Such a Night: Mr Emotion was probably the revelation of the decade for me. Previously I only knew him for his namecheck in Come On Eileen, and that Morrissey used to wear hearing aid in tribute to him.  I referred to him as the ‘prototype eccentric rock’n’roll star’, and his three number 1s were all unique forerunners of the music that was to follow. This one in particular must have sounded pretty racy at the time, and contained the first hint of sex, one of pop’s key ingredients.

The Worst:

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The Stargazers with Syd Dean & His Orchestra –  I See the Moon: This is genuinely offensive to my ears. At the time it was considered a comedy song. Praise be that comedy has moved on from ‘funny’ voices. It’s the audio equivalent of Colin Hunt from The Fast Show. When I first heard this I said the Stargazers sounded pissed-up and tone deaf. Nothing has happened to change my mind. Six weeks at the top of the charts?!

1955

The year of mambo, and Bill Haley. Perez ‘Prez’ Prado rules the roost when it comes to the former, with his version of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White beating Eddie Calvert’s safer cover. Rosemary Clooney’s Mambo Italiano may not be the real deal but it’s a fun spoof. Tony Bennett makes his one and only appearance to date, and Slim Whitman’s haunting Rose Marie makes a big impact.

The Best:

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Bill Haley & His Comets – Rock Around the Clock: Tempting as it might be to go against the grain here and pick something less predictable, I can’t. Yes it must be nigh-on impossible to hear this and imagine the impact the decade’s best-seller made at the time, and it sounds safe now, but it’s still catchy as hell, and for me, it’s all about that guitar solo.

The Worst:

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Jimmy Young with Bob Sharples & His Music – Unchained Melody: Another one of the most famous songs of all time, but this is nowhere near as good as The Righteous Brothers version. It’s not even as good as Robson & Jerome’s. The blame doesn’t entirely lie with poor Jimmy Young, as the production is all over the place, but he really doesn’t help matters, lurching from barely trying to bellowing within seconds.

1956

Several strong singles this year, mainly Tennessee Ernie Ford’s tough ode to the working man, Sixteen Tons, and Johnnie Ray’s melancholic Christmas number 1, Just Walkin’ in the Rain, featuring an unforgettable whistling refrain. Elvis has arrived, but the UK has to make do with Pat Boone at the top instead with I’ll Be Home. Dean Martin makes his only appearance, and Doris Day returns with signature tune Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).

The Best:

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The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon – Why Do Fools Fall in Love: The first doo-wop song to make it to the top. The Teenagers one and only big hit was so influential on later soul and funk bands, and still sounds good to this day. Such a shame the band, and particularly Lymon, fell apart so soon.

The Worst:

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Anne Shelton with Wally Stott & His Orchestra – Lay Down Your Arms: Shudder. I disliked this song even more the second time around. I’m all for strong women, but Shelton needs to calm down a bit. Her poor lover must be terrified.

1957

The year skiffle hit the top of the charts. Lonnie Donegan’s three number 1 songs left an indelible mark on music, even if it took some time for its impact to become apparent. 1957 is the strongest year for number 1s to date, and rock’n’roll is now dominant. Even the most old-fashioned song, Frankie Vaughan’s The Garden of Eden, sounds good. Legends such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly make their first appearances, and the former’s cultural impact becomes apparent, with Tommy Steele and Andy Williams impersonating him, to an occasionally embarrassing degree.

The Best:

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Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group – Cumberland Gap: I used to think skiffle was a rather laughably quaint genre played on cheap, silly instruments. It’s only by listening to what came before Lonnie Donegan that I now understand and appreciate its true effect – to me it’s now almost as important as punk. The hardest part of choosing the best of this year was picking between this and Donegan’s Gamblin’ Man, with it’s fiery ending, but Cumberland Gap came first and sounded like nothing I’d listened to up to that point.

The Worst:

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Guy Mitchell with Jimmy Carroll – Rock-a-Billy: Cheeky chappie Mitchell’s fourth and final chart-topper is mean-spirited and has the laziest chorus of any number 1 so far. A shame, as his previous single at the start of the year, Singing the Blues, proved he could actually be a dab hand at this new pop sound.

1958

Elvis was really on form with his second number 1 – Jailhouse Rock narrowly misses out on my favourite of this year and could have easily won in another year. Burt Bacharach and Hal David made their mark with two concurrent number 1s for Michael Holliday and Perry Como. Connie Francis finally returned a female artist to the top with a versatile selection of solid tunes – her Stupid Cupid introduced Neil Sedaka to the charts. The Everly Brothers made an excellent debut with the year’s highest seller, All I Have to Do is Dream, and Hoots Mon by Lord Rockingham’s XI was the finest novelty number 1 of the decade.

The Best:

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Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of Fire: Direct, simplistic, fun, horny and mad, this just edges past Jailhouse Rock for me and got 1958 off to a great start. As far removed from some of the dreary monotony of 1953 as it’s possible to get in the same decade.

The Worst:

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Vic Damone – On the Street Where You Live: I feel bad for doing this when Vic Damone has so recently passed away, but it really does stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of 1958’s list. It sounds like it belongs in 1954. Sorry, Vic. RIP.

1959

Buddy Holly’s untimely death made It Doesn’t Matter Anymore the first posthumous chart-topper, and was a big influence on Adam Faith’s first number 1, What Do You Want?. Elvis was away in the army, and his singles output quality began to slip with A Fool Such as I/I Need Your Love Tonight. Rock’n’roll went all dreamy and teenage-orientated, with Jerry Keller’s one-hit wonder Here Comes Summer and Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover, before Darin used his success to take an interesting career change. Cliff Richard made his first of many appearances, with Living Doll the year’s best-seller, and Shirley Bassey made her debut at number 1. The decade ended with Emile Ford and the Checkmates’ solid What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?.

The Best:

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Bobby Darin – Mack the KnifeA fascinating diversion from his previous number 1, Darin resisted scaring his young fans away with this swinging celebration of a serial killer, but Atlantic Records pushed for it anyway. It’s likely the fans ignored the lyrics and chose to be swept away by his cool vocals and the power and punch of the backing band. Suddenly pop was taking a dark turn, if you listened closely enough. Much covered, but probably never bettered.

The Worst:

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Russ Conway – Side Saddle: This one totally baffled me when I wrote my blog, and while I found it slightly better the second time around, I still can’t quite believe this was such a success, but context is everything, I guess. Nonetheless, it’s still the weakest number 1 of the year.

The Best 50s Number 1 Ever is…

Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of FireDeciding on the best single proved to be much tougher than I first thought. It was very difficult to decide between this and Cumberland Gap, and Mack the Knife wasn’t far behind, either. Both songs shook up the music world, but in different ways. The winner is so ensconced in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine how it must have sounded as new, whereas I came in to Cumberland Gap completely fresh. If this decision was based on which single is most important, I’d have to award it to Cumberland Gap, as the influence of skiffle was so important on the following decade. It proved you didn’t have to have the voice of an opera singer to be at number 1, you didn’t have to have an orchestra backing you, and you didn’t even have to play expensive instruments. You could just make an all-mighty racket.

However, as impressed as I was by it, in the end this decision should also be based on personal enjoyment, as well as influence, mass appeal, inventiveness… and Great Balls of Fire has all of these. And despite me knowing it so well, it still managed to sound new and exciting, even after all this time. Plus, as great as Cumberland Gap sounds compared to most of the competition, in a way I had heard it before with the very similar and better known Rock Island Line. So congratulations, Jerry Lee Lewis. Despite being one of pop music’s first controversial figures, and therefore your brief period in the charts, you’ve managed to top Elvis and many other 50s legends, and Great Balls of Fire is one hell of a tune. You ripped up the rulebook when it came to the piano, and you showed the way pop was heading when it came to showmanship on the stage. And your best work was later used to sell cheese. But that’s record companies for you.

The Worst 50s Number 1 Ever is…

The Stargazers with Syd Dean & His Orchestra – I See the MoonNo contest. Reviewing every number 1 of the 50s was at times trying, and I knew it would be, but nothing prepared me for this. Don’t get me wrong, unlike many ‘serious music’ obsessives, there is a small place in my heart for comedy and novelty songs as genres, if they’re done right. And as I said above, context is everything. But I See the Moon is genuinely painful to listen to. I don’t get the joke, unless the joke is ‘Listen to how awful we sound’, in which case, the joke isn’t funny. In a decade with so number 1s that would be unimaginable now, I See the Moon is beyond comprehension to my poor ears.

The Outro

While I’m keen to get onto the number 1s of the 60s, and I originally saw reviewing the 50s tracks as a necessary evil in order to make it to the next batch, I am sorry to see it go. I’ve learnt a lot, about the social history as well as the music of the time, and it’s been a fascinating look at pop’s baby steps. Next, the decade of The Beatles, the Stones, Swinging London, the return of Labour to government, psychedelia, colour TV, British pop dominating at home and abroad… I can’t wait and I hope you can’t too.

Blogs on every 50s number 1 are available to view via the Archive section.

74. The Kalin Twins – When (1958)

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The Everly Brothers’ All I Have to Do is Dream/Claudette outsold every other single in 1958, but after seven weeks, Don and Phil were usurped by another brotherly double act.

The Kalin Twins, known to fans as Hal and Herbie, saw out most of the rest of the summer with five weeks at the top thanks to their one-hit wonder When.

Harold and Herbert were born in Port Jervis, New York on 16 February 1934. They were discovered by Clint Ballard, Jr, who among other things wrote number 1s Good Timin for Jimmy Jones and I’m Alive for The Hollies.

Their management hoped that twin brothers with Elvis-style quiffs would appeal to the youth, but were struggling to find decent material for them to record, until they came across When, written by Paul Evans and Jack Reardon. The Everly Brothers had already turned the song down, and producer Jack Pleis also rejected it, but was overruled. Evans went on to write for big stars like Elvis, and had recording success of his own.

I feel as though I’ve heard When before, but can’t be sure. It could be because it sounds so similar to so many uptempo hits of the time – particularly Runaround Sue, off the top of my head. That’s not necessarily a criticism – the song has a summery charm and energy (the castanets are a nice touch), and it’s easy to imagine teens in a dancehall going wild and dancing to this at the time. Despite five weeks at number 1 though, it seems to be largely forgotten now.

The Kalin Twins toured the UK with Cliff Richard as their support. However, they couldn’t follow up When. Hal and Herbie decided to pursue college degrees, and didn’t perform again until a mutual friend persuaded them to play his new nightclub in 1977.

They would occasionally perform with their younger brother, Jack, as The Kalin Brothers, but disappeared from public view again until 1989, when Cliff Richard returned the favour and asked them to support him as part of a televised concert from Wembley Stadium.

The twins would tour the cabaret circuit, now sporting beards, but sadly on 24 August 2005, Hal died of injuries from a car accident, and on 21 July 2006, Herbie died of a heart attack.

Written by: Jack Reardon & Paul Evans

Producer: Jack Pleis

Weeks at number 1: 5 (22 August-25 September)

Births:

Comedian Lenny Henry – 29 August
Comedian Bobby Davro – 13 September
Model Linda Lusardi – 18 September
Radio presenter Simon Mayo – 21 September

Deaths:

Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams – 26 August

Meanwhile…

29 August: Move It, the debut single of a young act named Cliff Richard and The Drifters, was released. Eventually reaching number two in the charts, it is widely considered to be one of the first true rock’n’roll singles released by an act from this country. With his heart-throb appearance, and permanent scowl, it’s hard to imagine now, but Richard was considered to be a dangerous threat with his rebellious demeanour, and overtook Tommy Steele as the UK’s answer to Elvis Presley. The Drifters were in danger of getting into trouble with the US group of the same name, but that’s another story for another time.

30 August: Riots broke out in Notting Hill. An argument between Jamaican Raymond Morrison and his Swedish wife Majbritt resulted in fights between hundreds of Teddy Boys and West Indians. The riots lasted until 5 September.

1 September: The first Cod War between the UK and Iceland began.

73. The Everly Brothers with Orchestra conducted by Archie Bleyer – All I Have to Do is Dream/Claudette (1958)

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The first of four number 1s for the country-influenced rock’n’roll duo in this country, and the best-selling single of 1958. All I Have to Do is Dream/Claudette enjoyed a seven-week run at the top of the charts and established The Everly Brothers as one of the biggest and most influential acts of the next few years.

Isaac Donald ‘Don’ Everly was born in Brownie, Muhlenberg County, Kentucky on 1 February 1937, and Phillip Jason ‘Phil’ Everly arrived on 19 January 1939 in Chicago, Illinois.

Born into a musical family, their father Ike was a guitarist and mother Margaret a singer. They sang as the Everly Family on the radio in the mid-1940s, with the boys known as ‘Little Donny’ and ‘Baby Boy Phil’. In 1955 the brothers moved to Nashville, Tennessee. By this point, their musical prowess already had an important fan – family friend Chet Atkins, a record producer and songwriter.

Atkins used his contacts to get Don and Phil a record deal, and their first single, Bye Bye Love (covered by Simon & Garfunkel as the last track on Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970) was a smash-hit, selling over a million and reaching number six over here.

They continued to work with its songwriters, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant (Bryant’s solo work, Hey Joe, performed by Frankie Laine, had been a UK number 1 in 1953), releasing Wake Up Little Susie, which reached number 2, before working on All I Have to Do is Dream, which was by Boudleaux alone, and allegedly written in only 15 minutes.

Opening with the lush jangle of Chet Atkins on guitar, All I Have to Do is Dream begins straight away with that memorable chorus, a trick later used by ABBA and Stock, Aitken & Waterman to pull the listener in. If that jangle doesn’t grab you (and if it doesn’t, what’s wrong with you?), the vocals will. Don and Phil’s unique harmonies still sound sublime today. The only misfire is the dated, corny lyric:

‘Only trouble is, gee whiz,
I’m dreamin’ my life away’

Fortunately before you have time to dwell on that too much you’re back into the chorus. This is the sound of the Everly Brothers and Boudleaux Bryant at their best. According to Phil, the acetate featuring Boudleaux on vocals would have been a hit anyway, such was the beauty of the song. Maybe so, but it’s his and brother Don’s voices, and Atkins’ guitar work, that make All I Have to Do is Dream a classic.

The other song, Claudette, hasn’t aged as well, but it’s a decent enough uptempo acoustic track, written by Roy Orbison and named after his first wife. As a B-side, however, it would certainly have been better than average, and as it helped propel ‘The Big O’ to success and helped buy him a cadillac, then it’s alright by me.

The Everly Brothers tied at number 1 for their first week with Vic Damone’s On the Street Where You Live, but went on to spend most of the summer at the top.

Written by:
All I Have to Do is Dream: Boudleaux Bryant/Claudette: Roy Orbison 

Producer: Archie Bleyer

Weeks at number 1: 7 (4 July-21 August)*BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Comedian Jennifer Saunders – 6 July
Singer-songwriter Kate Bush – 30 July
Athlete Daley Thompson – 30 July
Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson – 7 August
Labour MP Rosie Winterton – 10 August
Singer Feargal Sharkey – 13 August
Politician Philip Dunne – 14 August 

Deaths:

Campaigner Margaret Haig Thomas, 2nd Viscountess Rhondda – 20 July 

Meanwhile…

10 July: The first parking meters were installed.

18-26 July: The British Empire and Commonwealth Games were held in Cardiff.

26 July: The Queen gave her eldest son Charles the customary title of Prince of Wales, and the presentation of débutantes to the royal court were abolished.

1 August: Carry On Sergeant, the first of the Carry On films, premiered. Different in tone from the bawdy humour that was to come, it featured Bob Monkhouse and the first star of Doctor Who, William Hartnell.

13. Frankie Laine with Paul Weston & His Orchestra – Hey Joe (1953)

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Frankie Laine dominated the singles chart in 1953 in a way nobody else has since. His record-breaking dominance with I Believe was proof of this enough, but there was more to come.

On 23 October, his cover of Hey Joe ended the dominance of Guy Mitchell’s Look at That Girl. A week later, his next number 1, Answer Me, entered the charts. With four songs in a chart that only consisted of 12 singles back then, it’s doubtful that anyone else will ever have a third of all songs in the chart in any given week ever again. Although Ed Sheeran seems to be trying his best.

Sadly, Hey Joe isn’t the legendary track covered by, among others, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It was a country music track written by Boudleaux Bryant for Carl Smith, and had been a bestseller on the US country music chart for eight weeks. It was Bryant’s first notable achievement, and four years later he and his wife Felice would begin a run of hits for The Everly Brothers, including Bye Bye Love and All I Have to Do Is Dream. Hey Joe does not live up to those classics.

Frankie Laine’s cover, backed by Paul Weston & His Orchestra, certainly tries its best, and obviously its success suggests it worked with record buyers back then. Like Look at That Girl, it features a quite effective guitar solo, and the brass works well, but the lyrics are nauseating. Some cowboy is jealous of Joe’s gal, and he’s decided he’s going to take her for his own.

‘Hey Joe
She’s got skin that’s creamy dreamy
Eyes that look so lovey dovey
Lips as red as cherry berry wine’

Ugh. By the end of the song, he’s telling Joe that, though they might be friends to the end, the end is nigh as his passion for her is all-consuming. If Joe had any sense he’d shoot this annoying ex-friend first while he’s describing her in that patronising way of his. Although Laine characteristically performs the tune with gusto, his vocal styling makes it worse, stretching certain words out past the point of no return. No doubt though, the popularity of westerns in the 50s, and Laine, meant Hey Joe was bound to do well.

Written by: Boudleaux Bryant

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 2 (23 October-5 November)

Births:

Actor Peter Firth – 27 October

Meanwhile…

2 November: The Samaritans phone counselling service began. Vicar Chad Varah officially set it up in London, was inspired years earlier while at a funeral for a 14-year-old girl who had committed suicide in the belief she had an STD. She was in fact only menstruating. This troubled Varah to the extent he advertised for volunteers at his church to help people contemplating suicide, and The Daily Mirror came up with the name for the fledgling support group in their headline a month later for an article highlighting Varah’s work. Varah stayed with the Samaritans until 2004.