261. Hugo Montenegro – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1968)

hugo-montenegro-1_v1000.jpg

On 18 November, a warehouse fire on James Watt Street in Glasgow kills 22 office workers in the offices of upholstery factory B Stern Ltd. Only four people in the building managed to escape.

26 November saw the Race Relations Act passed, which made it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services to people in Britain due to their ethnic background. And four days later the Trade Descriptions Act came into force, bringing an end (officially anyway) to shops and traders describing goods in a misleading way.

1968, particularly the first half, had seen some unusual number 1s. As the year drew to a close, things got weird again. Enjoying a full month at the pole position of the singles chart was American orchestra leader and soundtrack composer Hugo Montenegro, with his remake of the theme to Sergio Leone’s 1966 Spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

This film was the final part of Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, following A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, and starred Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name once more. Despite initial scepticism from the critics, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is now considered one of the greatest examples of the genre of all time. I have to confess I haven’t seen any of the trilogy. Westerns aren’t really my bag. But of course, I know the theme to this movie.

As with the other two parts of the trilogy, the score came from Italian composer Ennio Morricone. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (main title) was conducted by Bruno Nicolai. Simply put, it’s one of the most iconic pieces of film music ever, and features at the start of the movie. Largely in part to the theme, Morricone’s soundtrack album was a bestseller. But how did a remake become a number 1 single, two years after the film’s release, and who was Hugo Montenegro?

Montenegro had been born in New York City in September 1925. He served in the US Navy for two years, but was mostly arranging the Newport Naval Base band in Newport, Rhode Island. When World War 2 ended he studied composition at Manhattan College.

By the mid-50s he was directing, conducting and arranging orchestras for record labels, and he directed the Glen-Spice Orchestra on the first release by future pop star hearthrob Dion in 1957.

In the early 60s he found work with RCA Victor producing albums of cover versions of themes from films and TV series, including spy themes and westerns, which is what led to his version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It might sound quaint now, but these kind of albums were popular for decades. I can remember several in our family well into the 80s, featuring the themes of Superman, Star Wars, all the blockbusters of the time.

Montenegro’s version of Morricone’s classic was very similar to the classic original. It was recorded live in one day and featured, among others, Art Smith on ocarina, Art Morgan on harmonica, Elliot Fisher on electric violin, Manny Klein on piccolo trumpet and Muzzy Marcellino provided the whistling.

Despite the popularity of the soundtrack remake back then, it’s still an odd choice for a number 1 single. Having said that, you can’t deny the brilliance of the original, all that ominous forboding, the danger, the intrigue, wrapped up in a brilliant melody and sounding so unusual.

I realise I stated in my previous blog for With a Little Help from My Friends that if you’re going to make a cover, you need to make it different. And yet I enjoyed this facsimile. There’s very little difference, it’s just been made slightly more pop friendly, with light acoustic guitar and the danger slightly turned down. But it doesn’t sound tacky like many of these remakes used to do (ever heard anything from those Top of the Pops albums of the 70s?).

Montegro was understandably taken aback at the success of this single in the US and the UK. By making it to number 1 here it became the first instrumental to do so since Foot Tapper by the Shadows in 1963. It’s not strictly speaking an instrumental though – in this version, the random shouts you hear are actually members of the band shouting ‘HU-GO-MONT-EN-EGRO!’.

The composer continued to record remakes, and also composed original scores for films, including the Elvis Presley western Charro! in 1969. He’s also achieved a cult audience in recent years due to his albums that featured the Moog synthesiser, with the kitsch retro-space-age sounds proving influential on a new generation of musicians. On TV, he was famous for his TV themes for US sitcoms I Dream of Jeannie and The Partridge Family.

In the late 70s he was forced to put his career on hold due to his battle with severe emphysema. He died of the disease in February 1981.

Written by: Ennio Morricone

Producer: Hugh Montenegro

Weeks at number 1: 4 (13 November-10 December)

Births:

Footballer Barry Hunter – 18 November
Journalist Andrew Gilligan – 22 November

Deaths:

Writer Mervyn Peake – 17 November
Children’s writer – Enid Blyton – 28 November

242. Georgie Fame – The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde (1968)

Georgie_Fame_(1968).jpg

On with 1968, then, and what a strange year of number 1s it is. We have the good, the bad, and even The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to listen to.

The Beatles were still at number 1 for most of January with their Christmas chart-topper, Hello, Goodbye, before finally running out of steam. They were replaced by Lancashire-born jazz cat Georgie Fame and his third and last number 1, The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.

Before hearing this track I assumed it would be taken from the soundtrack to the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. I was wrong, but that didn’t surprise me, as not only have I never seen the film, I don’t actually know much about the subject matter either.

Arthur Penn’s multi-Academy Award-winning landmark crime biography detailed the rise and fall of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Burrow. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, the duo captured the imagination of the US on a two-year crime spree. Although the romantic image of the duo as Robin Hood-style characters has endured, the reality is their many bungled robberies resulted in innocent people being killed. The movie is considered one of the first films of the New Hollywood era, prompting more filmmakers to show sex and violence in their work. At the time, the duo’s death was considered a truly shocking end to a Hollywood movie.

Songwriters Mitch Murray (the man behind both Gerry and the Pacemakers number 1s – How Do You Do It? and I Like It) and Peter Callander saw the film and felt inspired to write a 30s-style jazz spoof telling the tale of the duo. Georgie Fame, who had enjoyed two number 1s with his backing band the Blue Flames (Yeh Yeh and Get Away) was the perfect artist to record their new track.

Since Get Away topped the charts, the band had enjoyed two further top 20 hits with Sunny and Sitting in the Park. They released one more album, Sweet Thing in 1966, before Fame chose to sign with CBS Records and go solo. The Blue Flames disbanded, and drummer Mitch Mitchell became a third of the Jimi Hendrix Experience soon after. Fame released his first solo album Sound Venture later that year. His first two solo singles failed to chart, but The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, released in 1967, became number 1, and was his only top ten hit in the US.

This quirky, rickety little track certainly gets 1968 off to a weird start. It may not have been in the film, but without it, there’s no way Fame would have outsold the Beatles. It’s not without its charm, and I always enjoy a Georgie Fame vocal, but by reducing the story of Bonnie and Clyde to a bit of fun, it’s nothing more than a throwaway novelty track.

It’s quite a sparse recording, featuring mainly Fame and a banjo, but there’s some brass too, plus sound affects, including the sound of gunfire as it reaches its climax. I think we’re supposed to go ‘Awww!’ when Fame sings ‘Bonnie and Clyde/They lived a lot together/And finally together/They died’, which is going a bit easy on bankrobbing murderers really. I’m now trying to imagine other inappropriate tunes, such as The Ballad of Fred and Rose West, or Peter Sutcliffe’a Sad Sad Song.

Fame’s hits began to dry up soon after, but Somebody Stole My Thunder in 1970 is a strong shot of R’n’B. He formed a partnership with organist Alan Price, formerly of the Animals, and they had a hit with Rosetta in 1971, but they split two years later. Much of the early 70s was spent writing jingles for television and radio, and making the soundtrack for the Till Death Us Do Part big-screen spin-off, The Alf Garnett Saga (1972). In 1974 he reformed the Blue Flames, but by the 80s he was back in the advert industry.

In 1989 he began working with cantankerous Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison as his producer and performing in his live band, as well as recording their collaborative LP, How Long Has This Been Going On in 1996. This partnership lasted until 1998, with occasional work together ever since.

Fame suffered tragedy in 1993 when his wife, Nicolette Powell, jumped off the Clifton Suspension Bridge to her death. They had married in 1972 after having a baby while she was still married to Alistair Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 9th Marquess of Londonderry. When tests proved the baby was theirs, the Marchioness had divorced him for Fame. Suffering from depression, Powell had left a suicide note in which she said she had no purpose in life now their children had grown up.

In 1998 Fame also became a founding member of former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, with whom he worked for a couple of years before going it alone again. He has released albums ever since and has performed at Glastonbury Festival. His live band sometimes includes his two sons Tristan and James. What a shame Nicolette didn’t live to enjoy their performances.

Written by: Mitch Murray & Peter Callander

Producer: Mike Smith

Weeks at number 1: 1 (24-30 January)

Births:

Journalist Matthew d’Ancona – 27 January
Rapper Tricky – 27 January

Deaths:

Spymaster Maxwell Knight – 27 January