184. Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames – Yeh Yeh (1965)

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1965 began with the death of one of the 20th century’s most notable figures. On 15 January, newspapers reported Sir Winston Churchill was seriously ill after suffering a stroke. The 90-year-old’s time had come. 24 January saw Churchill pass away in his sleep at home, 70 years to the day his father had died. The country was in mourning, and prepared for a state funeral, the first time a ‘commoner’ had received one in the 20th century.

At number 1 that fortnight was an entirely inappropriate party song, that it would be impossible to describe without using the word ‘groovy’. In fact, that very word did appear in Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames’ version of Yeh Yeh. These two-plus minutes are the world of Austin Powers, for real.

Fame was born Clive Powell in Leigh, Lancashire back in June 1943. He fell in love with the piano from a young age, and as a teenager he performed with various groups in and around Manchester. His influences included the rock’n’roll pianists of the time, such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. In 1959 the Powell family moved to London, and Clive was discovered by Lionel Bart, who found fame that year as the writer of Living Doll. Bart took the 16-year-old to meet Larry Parnes, whose ever-expanding roster of Brit rock’n’rollers included Billy Fury, Johnny Gentle, Marty Wilde and Lenny Lovely. I might be making one of those up. Parnes was happy to take him on, but Powell didn’t like the idea of being dubbed ‘Georgie Fame’. Unfortunately for him he had to like it or lump it.

In the summer of 1961 Fame became a member of Fury’s backing group, the Blue Flames, who consisted of guitarist Colin Green, bassist Tex Makins, drummer Red Reece and saxophonist Mick Eve. Fury let the group go at the end of that year, complaining they were too jazzy, and the Tornados replaced them (before their number 1 smash Telstar). Fame graduated to the frontman position in May 1962, and further line-up changes took place. Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames moved away from purely rock’n’roll and began drawing on jazz, R’n’B and even ska. By the end of 1962 they had a residency at the Flamingo, a jazz club in London’s West End. The US servicemen that were regulars at the club helped open Fame up to new sounds by lending him their records. At around this time he also fell in love with the sound of the Hammond organ, which was rare in the UK at the time. This was thanks to hearing Booker T & the MG’s classic Green Onions. In 1963 they signed with EMI Columbia, and the following year they released their first album, Rhythm and Blues at the Flamingo, produced by Ian Samwell, who had been an original member of the Shadows (then called the Drifters). It was a flop and so were their first three singles. After further line-up changes (including a brief spell from Jimmie Nicol behind the drumkit. Nicol famously filled in for an ill Ringo Starr while the Beatles were touring), they released their second album, Fame at Last. The perfect album name.

Among their repertoire at the time was the Latin-flavoured jazz instrumental Yeh Yeh, written by Rodgers Grant and Pat Patrick and recorded by Afro-Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría in 1963. Shortly after, lyrics were added by Jon Hendricks of the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

The ubiquity of Fame’s verson, thanks to numerous adverts and TV shows over the years haven’t dulled my appreciation. It may sound a bit smug and self-satisfied, even self-consciously hip, but it’s a great time capsule of the swinging 60s, and it’s a nicely robust production. Lyrically, it’s not far off the Beatles’ I Feel Fine, which it had knocked from the top after its five-week stint over Christmas. I particularly like the way the tune changes and the coolness changes into joy when Fame sings ‘We’ll play a melody/And turn the lights down low/So that I can’t see’. Nicely done, all in all.

Two more number 1s for Fame, with and without the Blue Flames, were to follow, and perhaps the greatest year for number 1 singles had begun.

Written by: Rodgers Grant, Pat Patrick & Jon Hendricks

Producer: Tony Palmer

Weeks at number 1: 2 (14-27 January)

Births:

Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – 14 January
Rapper Slick Rick – 14 January
Actor James Nesbitt – 15 January
Countess of Wessex Sophie Rhys-Jones – 20 January
Scottish actor Alan Cumming – 27 January

Deaths:

Politician Winston Churchill – 24 January 

176. The Honeycombs – Have I the Right? (1964)

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Maverick pioneering producer Joe Meek was responsible for three excellent number 1s over the first half of the 1960s – the gothic melodrama of Johnny Remember Me by John Leyton in 1961 and the futuristic ecstasy of Telstar by the Tornados in 1962. I’d always assumed that his death had happened before the onset of Beatlemania (a band he’d turned down), but here we are in 1964 with his final chart-topper, the primitive punch of Have I the Right? by the Honeycombs.

Since the onset of Merseybeat, Meek continued to do well, producing further hits for the Tornados, Mike Berry and Heinz throughout 1963. In early 1964 he was scheduled to have a new beat group in for audition known as the Sheratons. They were formed in November 1963 by hairdresser Martin Murray, who played rhythm guitar. Years before the White Stripes and even the Velvet Underground, they stood out as their drummer was Honey Lantree, who had been Murray’s salon assistant. Her brother John took up the bass, and his friends Dennis D’Ell and Alan Ward became the singer and lead guitarist respectively. In the audience for one of their gigs in February were the rookie songwriting duo Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley. Meek was impressed with Have I the Right? and as usual, he got the band into his apartment at 304 Holloway Road, Islington to record it as a single.

I thought Have I the Right? was going to be a completely new song for me, but I did recognise the chorus. It doesn’t feature the song title, and that threw me. What also threw me was just how brilliant it sounds in the context of any number 1s I’d heard up to this point. Yet again Meek astounded me, and this time it was due to the lo-fi recording. This is one of the most basic number 1s to date, and is almost punk-like in its simplicity and raw energy. D’Ell is a great singer, I particularly love that guttural growl as he reaches the chorus for the last time. And what a chorus! That amazing pounding beat you hear was achieved by not only Lantree’s drumming, but by band members stamping on the wooden stairs to Meek’s studio. The genius fixed five microphones to his banisters with bicycle clips, and someone beat a tambourine directly into a mic. What a brilliantly simple but effective recording.

The single was released in June by Pye Records. The label renamed the Sheratons as the Honeycombs, a pretty witty pun on their drummer’s nickname and previous occupation. It took a while to climb the charts, but eventually overtook Manfred Mann’s Do Wah Diddy Diddy and spent a fortnight at number 1 before being overtaken by the similarly groundbreaking You Really Got Me by the Kinks. Meek had done it again, but it was downhill all the way now.

Howard and Blaikley became managers of the Honeycombs and wrote their next two singles, but they couldn’t repeat their success. Their fourth single, Something Better Beginning, was by Ray Davies of the Kinks, but this too was a relative failure. By November Murray had left the group to be replaced by Peter Pye. Lantree sang on some later material, and when they performed the tracks live she was replaced on drums by Viv Prince from the Pretty Things. In April 1966 D’Ell, Ward and Pye all left the group, and a new version of the Honeycombs were formed, but they broke up in 1967. The 90s saw several different versions of the group touring the cabaret circuit. D’Ell succumbed to cancer in 2005, aged 62.

Howard and Blaikley would go on to become an acclaimed songwriting team, with a further number 1 under their belts, namely The Legend of Xanadu by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich in 1968.

Of course, Meek’s life ended in tragedy. The mental issues that had always troubled him worsened, and the legal battle for Telstar‘s royalties left him out of pocket. His preoccupation with the spirit world deepened. A closet homosexual, he was implicated by association in an awful crime. In January 1967 the remains of a 17-year-old Bernard Oliver were found in two suitcases. Meek became implicated in ‘the Suitcase Murder’. Rumours were he had either recorded for him or was a tape-stacker in Meek’s studio. The crime was never solved, and although apparently Meek was innocent, the fear of being questioned (police had stated they would interview every known homosexual in London) tipped him over the edge. On 2 February he burst into a friend’s house dressed entirely in black and claimed he was possessed. The following day was the 18th anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death, an incident that Meek was obsessed with. During an argument with his landlady, Meek became enraged, grabbed the shotgun he had confiscated from Tornados bassist Heinz Burt, and murdered her. He then turned the gun on himself. Three weeks later, the court ruled in favour of Joe Meek receiving the royalties to his biggest hit Telstar. He would have been financially saved.

UPDATE (1/1/19): Honey Lantree, real name Anne Coxall, died on 23 December 2018. She was 75.

Written by: Ken Howard & Alan Blaikley

Producer: Joe Meek

Weeks at number 1: 2 (27 August-9 September)

141. The Tornados – Telstar (1962)

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It must have sounded to many like their record players or radios were malfunctioning at first. Telstar slowly fades in like no number 1 had ever done, to the sound of white noise, conjuring up images of the satellite the song was named after, before the clavioline begins and the tune gallops into life. Joe Meek’s imaginative masterpiece was a futuristic, optimistic anthem promising (like popular culture did so much at the time) a bright space-age future. But for its creator, it ultimately resulted in his life spiralling out of control, leading to murder and suicide.

Meek was obsessed with technology, so the launch of the Telstar communications satellite was a natural source of inspiration for him. He had become intrigued by the sound of the clavioline on the Dave Cortez hit The Happy Organ, and must have felt the instrument would help his new instrumental sound suitably space age. He gave the song to his group the Tornados, who formed in 1960, before providing backing for rock’n’roller Billy Fury. Like the Shadows with Cliff Richard, they also recorded instrumentals under their own name. In 1962 the group consisted of Clem Cattini on drums, who had already recorded several number 1s and would go on to perform more than anyone else, George Bellamy on rhythm guitar (father of Muse frontman Matt Bellamy, and very possibly an influence on that band), bassist Heinz Burt, lead guitarist Alan Caddy and Norman Hale on keyboards.  Meek produced Telstar in his usual (or unusual) way, recording the bulk of the track with the band in his flat. After laying down the main instruments, his associate Geoff Goddard, who had written Meek’s previous number 1, Johnny Remember Me added the clavioline that made the tune so unique, Meek was then in his element, adding the effects that were his signature. That sound of a spacecraft taking off at the beginning is in fact his toilet flushing, in reverse. Meek was achieving backwards effects four years before George Martin and the Beatles were experimenting along similar lines. Deciding that this new song needed something to help bring it to a climax, he hit upon the idea of adding a wordless vocal to mirror the clavioline, which Goddard also provided. The Tornados thought this was a bad idea, and you can’t blame them, as such a technique wasn’t well known at the time. Who’d heard of an instrumental with singing on it? At some point, the group also filmed a primitive video, with film clips of astronauts interspersed with the Tornados playing along. So much for Bohemian Rhapsody being the first music video.

Ever since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, the US became obsessed with the space age, and sure enough the UK followed suit. Telstar tapped into this feeling like no other song had even attempted at that point. Listening to this joyous sound, record buyers must have felt the future was now, and that it would only be a matter of time before they or their children would be living on the moon. 56 years later, it’s truly remarkable that such a song could come from the troubled mind of a schizophrenic in his independent home studio. The charts had come a long way since Al Martino’s Here in My Heart, nearly ten years previous.

Telstar was one of the biggest-selling singles of the year and became the first US number 1 to come from a UK group. Capitalising on its success, Meek produced a new version, with lyrics, entitled Magic Star, sung by Kenny Hollywood, but the lyrics took away some of the song’s mystery. Sadly, the original single was caught up in a legal battle when French composer Jean Ledrut accused Meek of plagiarising La Marche d’Austerlitz, a part of a score he had composed for the 1960 film Auschwitz. Meek claimed to have never seen the film (it hadn’t been released in the UK at this point), but the lawsuit prevented him from receiving any royalties for his biggest hit. Come 1967, this would have fatal repercussions.

In 1963, with Beatlemania on the rise (Meek had turned down the chance to work with the Fab Four), instrumental groups were losing ground, and the Tornados began to fall apart. This was in part due to Meek’s growing obsession with the bassist Heinz, who he had convinced he could make a solo star. Unfortunately, Heinz couldn’t sing, and the vocals on his solo debut were over-dubbed. Audiences weren’t keen, and poor Heinz would be attacked on stage, with beans thrown over him (Heinz Baked Beans, y’see). Eventually Heinz and Meek fell out, with Heinz leaving behind a shotgun… In 1965 Clem Cattini left the Tornados to go on to a safer and hugely successful career as a session drummer, and the band were left with no original members. In 66, the band made history again, releasing the first openly gay song, Do You Come Here Often? as a B-side The organ-led instrumental featured a casual conversation between two seemingly-homosexual men. The Tornados would do what countless 60s bands went on to do, namely reforming in a million different line-ups, and recorded various versions of Telstar. The original will always be the best. It was also one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite songs, but don’t let that put you off.

The day after Telstar reached number 1, the public were served notice that soon the worlds of music and cinema would be changed dramatically, heralding the start of the 60s, two years after they’d actually began. 5 October saw the release of the first James Bomd film, Dr No, starring Sean Connery, and the Beatles first single in their own right, Love Me Do, was also released.

Written & produced by: Joe Meek

Weeks at number 1: 5 (4 October-7 November)

Births:

Presenter Caron Keating – 5 October 
Actress Nicola Bryant – 11 October 
Artist Naive John – 18 October 
Comedian Boothby Graffoe – 20 October – t
Presenter Nick Hancock – 25 October 
Actor Cary Elwes – 26 October

Deaths:

Activist Hugh Franklin – 21 October
Journalist Percy Cudlipp – 5 November 

139. Frank Ifield – I Remember You (1962)

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The brightest new star in 1962 was English-born Australian easy listening and country singer Frank Ifield. He was famous for incorporating yodelling into his songs, and was the last pre-Beatles chart sensation, scoring four number 1s in 62 and 63, and becoming the first UK-based performer to score three number 1s in a row. His first chart-topper, I Remember You, was also 62’s biggest-selling single, in a year of huge-sellers. By the middle of the decade he had already been largely forgotten.

Ifield was born in 1937 in Coundon, Warwickshire. His parents were Australian, and his father had created the Ifield pump, a device used in fuel systems for jet aircraft. In the mid-1940s they emigrated to rural Dural (now there’s a rhyme), near Sydney. Young Frank became a fan of country music, in particular Hank Snow, who was nicknamed the Yodelling Ranger. In his teens he decided to drop out of school to concentrate on a full-time singing career, and he quickly became popular through radio appearances. He signed to EMI Australia in 1953 and had a few hits, and then progressed to presenting his own television show, Campfire Favourites. With Australia sort-of conquered, he returned to the UK in 1959, and hit the top 30 the following year with Lucky Star (not the Madonna song).

Ifield released more singles, but Lucky Star was beginning to look like a one-off success, until I Remember You became massive. It dated back to 1941, with music by victor Shertzinger and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, who had written 1961’s Christmas number 1 Moon River. The original singer was Dorothy Lamour in the 1942 musical The Fleet’s In, which Schertzinger directed. The lyrics apparently spoke of Mercer’s love for Judy Garland, and he gave it to her the day after she married David Rose, which adds a bittersweet edge to the happy-go-lucky Ifield version.

So why did Ifield become so successful? I’m afraid this is another one of those mysteries lost in the midst of time.Perhaps Brits just used to like a bit of yodelling. After all, Slim Whitman’s Rose Marie was both yodel-packed and enjoyed 11 weeks at the top in 1955. I Remember You is actually quite charming in an endearingly quaint way. Unlike Britain’s other superstar Cliff, who’s songs are often plain dull, Ifield relishes his chance to shine, and I’m a sucker for a harmonica – as were the Fab Four – Lennon later claimed this song was the inspiration for including one on their early tracks. But if the Beatles hadn’t happened, is this really the direction music would have gone in?

I Remember You got settled in nicely at number 1 and didn’t budge for seven weeks. During that time, Jamaica became independent on 6 August, with Trinidad and Tobago close behind on the 31st. 17 August was the release date for the Tornados’ innovative future number 1 Telstar. The following day, the Beatles played their first gig with the line-up that changed everything. Pete Best had been usurped and Ringo Starr was now behind the drums. Five days later, Lennon married Cynthia Powell at a register office in Mount Pleasant, Liverpool. 1 September saw Channel Television, the ITV franchise for the Channel Islands, go on air; and the next day, Glasgow’s trams ran for the last time, leaving Blackpool tramway the only one left in Britain.

Written by: Victor Scherzinger & Johnny Mercer

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 7 (26 July-12 September) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Journalist John Micklethwait – 11 August 
Actress Sophie Aldred – 20 August 
Actor Peter Wingfield – 5 September

Deaths:

Poet Richard Aldington – 27 July