79. Jane Morgan – The Day the Rains Came (1959)

The new year began with no change at the top for some time, as Conway Twitty’s It’s Only Make Believe kept its grip at number 1. This finally changed on 23 January when US singer Jane Morgan toppled him with her version of The Day the Rains Came.

This was a cover of a French song, Le Jour où la Pluie Viendra, written by lyricist Pierre Delanoë and singer and composer Gilbert Bécaud. The duo were responsible for some of France’s biggest hits of the time, but this was their first to be translated into English and become well-known. The lyrics to The Day the Rains Came were by Carl Sigman, who had a formidable reputation for adapting music from overseas and turning them into UK hits (see Answer Me and It’s All in the Game, number 1s in 1953 and 1958 respectively).

Jane Morgan was a beautiful bilingual singer who performed in English and French, and was the perfect performer for this new version. She even threw in the French version on the B-side.

Morgan was born Florence Catherine Currier on 3 May 1942 in Newton, Massachusetts. Born into a talented musical family, at the age of five she was taking piano lessons and singing. Her mother taught her Italian and French. As she grew older she was accepted into New York’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music, and intended to become an opera singer. To pay her way she began singing in nightclubs. Orchestra leader Art Mooney hired her, and came up with her stage name Jane Morgan from two of his other singers, Janie Ford and Marian Morgan.

Morgan’s knowledge of French came in handy when bandleader Bernard Hilda hired her to perform two shows a night at his new club near the Eiffel Tower in 1948. She began with US songs but quickly took to performing French songs as her language skills improved, and soon the audiences were flocking to her gigs. By 1949 she had her own television show in France, and later she moved between Europe, Canada and back to her own country, in the hope of becoming more famous, but agents feared her skills were too specialised.

Eventually she was signed to the fledgling Kapp Records and released her debut album, appropriately named The American Girl from Paris. Her cover of Fascination was released in 1957 and remained in the charts for over six months, and it became her signature song.

The Day the Rains Came was one of those throwbacks to the pop sound of several years previous. My initial thoughts were of how similar it sounds to previous number 1, The Garden of Eden, by Frankie Vaughan, which sounded old-fashioned when it hit the top in 1957. This isn’t a criticism, as that was a serviceable enough tune and so is this.

Usually in love songs, rain is used as a metaphor for loss, but Sigman’s lyrics take a different approach, comparing the beauty of rainfall bringing plants to life with the wonder of a developing romance:

‘The day that the rains came down
Buds were born, love was born
As the young buds will grow
So our young love will grow
Love, sweet love’

Morgan’s vocals are decent enough – she hits all the right notes, but ultimately there’s nothing about the song, lyrics or performance to lift this above average. January has often historically been a quiet month for new number 1s after the madness of Christmas – it seems The Day the Rains Came may be an early example of this phenomenon. Nonetheless it brightened up that last week of the first month of 1959, in which the most dense fog to hit the country in seven years caused havoc.

Morgan carried on releasing music into the 70s, and appeared on numerous TV shows over the years. She has also performed for five US presidents –  John F Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush. Unlike many stars of the era she is still alive, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2011.

Written by: Pierre Delanoë & Gilbert Bécaud/Carl Sigman (English lyrics)

Producer: Vic Schoen

Weeks at number 1: 1 (23-29 January)

60. Johnnie Ray – Yes Tonight Josephine (1957)

‘Mr Emotion’ Johnnie Ray’s third and final UK number 1 toppled the Andy Williams hit, Butterfly.

Yes Tonight Josephine had been written by Winfield Scott, who later co-wrote Return to Sender for Elvis Presley (along with Otis Blackwell), and Dorothy Goodman, of which I know nothing. Unlike lots of Ray’s material, this is a bouncy, upbeat number, along the lines of Ray’s first number 1, 1954’s Such a Night. Once again, Mitch Miller was in charge of production. Although he certainly had the magic touch back then, and helped make Ray the Christmas number 1 in 1956 with Just Walkin’ in the Rain, I think on this occasion Ray could have done better.

Yes Tonight Josephine isn’t a bad song. Ray, as always, performs well. But it’s ruined by some bizarre backing vocals that smother the song and make it too laughable to enjoy fully.

‘(Yip yip way bop de boom ditty boom ditty)
(Yip yip way bop de boom)’

I think they’re supposed to represent Ray’s anticipation of his upcoming night with Josephine, but they come across like a man with Tourette’s. Miller was straying too far into novelty song territory. Understandable, as that was his comfort zone.

Sadly, Ray’s career declined after this, and with that, his personal problems increased. He was arrested again in 1959 for soliciting an undercover officer, and went to trial but was found not guilty. In 1960 he was hospitalised with tuberculosis, and this caused him to give up alcohol. When he eventually appeared on local television in Chicago in 1966, he looked emaciated. A doctor told Ray in 1969 that he was well enough to drink an occasional glass of wine. For someone with an addiction to alcohol, this was never going to end well. He became an alcoholic once more and the music took a permanent back seat.

Johnnie Ray died of liver failure on 24 February 1990, aged 63. It was a tragic but inevitable end for a tortured soul. Had Ray been around in more enlightened times, his sexuality wouldn’t have been an issue and he may have been happier. At the same time, his troubles helped make him so distinctive, intense and influential.

Written by: Winfield Scott & Dorothy Goodman

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 3 (7-27 June)

Births:

Broadcaster Danny Baker – 22 June

Deaths:

Author Malcolm Lowry – 27 June

Meanwhile…

13 June 195: A bus collided with a queue of people waiting at an Oxford Street bus stop, killing eight.

27 June: The Medical Research Council issued a report that revealed there was evidence to support a link between smoking and lung cancer. 

51. Frankie Laine with Percy Faith & His Orchestra – A Woman in Love (1956)

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Throughout the short-lived but infamous Suez conflict (see below), the UK’s number 1 single was Frankie Laine’s fourth and final number 1 – this cover of A Woman in Love.

It had been written by Frank Loesser for the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls. The Four Aces had some success with their version in the US, but the golden touch of Laine surpassed this in the UK.

Despite all his UK previous number 1s happening in 1953, the hits had continued. 1954 saw six top 10 singles and three more in 1955, including Cool Water which stalled at number two.

As usual, Laine gives it his all here, over a tango drumbeat and parping, swinging brass, but I’m already struggling to remember the tune two minutes after hearing it and it’s left me rather cold. Laine is insistent that the woman he’s bellowing at is in love with him as it’s clear in her eyes. I’m not sure shouting this at her is the right way to go about persuading her, though.

Laine had many more years of good fortune ahead. He famously sang the theme to western TV series Rawhide, which began in 1959, and showed he had a sense of humour by doing the same for Mel Brooks’ spoof Blazing Saddles in 1974, which won him an Oscar nomination.

He is now considered somewhat a bridge from the pop of old to rock’n’roll, not so much because of his style, but the way he expressed his voice, putting more soul into his performances than your average swinger of the time.

He was also one of the first white performers to cover black artists. His reputation as a social activist is impressive – he was the first white artist to appear on Nat King Cole’s TV show when he was unable to get a sponsor, purely because he was black. He later performed for free for supporters of Martin Luther King, and devoted a large amount of his time to the Salvation Army and homeless charities.

His final recording, Taps/My Buddy, was dedicated to the firefighters who helped during the 9/11 terrorist attack, and he insisted all profits went directly to them.

Frankie Laine died of heart failure on 6 February 2007, aged 93, his ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

Written by: Frank Loesser

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 4 (19 October-15 November)

Births:

Director Danny Boyle – 20 October
Singer Hazell Dean – 27 October
Actress Juliet Stevenson – 30 October
Screenwriter Richard Curtis – 8 November 

Meanwhile…

Only eleven years after the end of World War Two, the United Kingdom’s reputation as a superpower took a battering that it never really recovered from. Suez. Nasser’s plans to nationalise the Suez Canal company had shocked the UK and France, and plans began to remove him, partly to protect what was left of the British Empire. After meeting with President Eisenhower, Chancellor Harold Macmillan misread the situation and believed the US would not stand in their way. In fact, Eisenhower was insisting on a peaceful solution.

24 October: The UK, France and Israel agreed in secret that Israel would invade Sinai. Then, the UK and France would heroically intervene, and engineer the situation so that Nasser could not nationalise the company. Pretty shameful, sneaky stuff.

29 October: The Israelis attacked expecting retaliation, Nasser’s army instead withdrew.

5 November: The Anglo-French assault began, soon overwhelming the Egyptian army.

6 November. The UN insisted on a ceasefire, and Eisenhower was furious.

There had also been a backlash in the UK, and the consensus now was that Prime Minister Anthony Eden should have acted in the summer before public opinion had turned. Before replacing Winston Churchill, Eden had a reputation as a man of peace. By going to war, and subsequently claiming the meeting between the UK, France and Israel had never taken place, Eden’s reputation was permanently damaged, and parallels were later drawn between him and Tony Blair. By mid-November, newspapers began demanding his resignation.

50. Anne Shelton with Wally Stott & His Orchestra – Lay Down Your Arms (1956)

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On 15 October, the RAF officially retired the last Lancaster bomber. Along with the Spitfire, the plane was synonymous with World War 2. Yet another sign that the country was moving on from the war. You wouldn’t think that by looking at the number one single of the time, however. 

Lay Down Your Arms was a Swedish song, originally called Anne-Caroline, by Åke Gerhard and Leon Landgren, but the English lyrics were from Paddy Roberts, who had written Softly, Softly, a 1955 number 1 for Ruby Murray. It was a boisterous military march-themed love song, in which the protagonist is telling her soldier boyfriend that the conflict is over, so he needs to get himself home, lay down his arms and surrender to hers. Clever, eh?

The perfect person to sing a throwback to the war songs of the 40s was Forces Sweetheart Anne Shelton. Born Patricia Jacqueline Sibley in Dulwich, South London on 10 November 1923, she had begun singing on BBC radio show Monday Night at Eight at the age of 12. She had a recording contract at 15, and avoided being evacuated during World War Two by performing with dance-band leader Albert Ambrose.

Changing her name to Anne Shelton, she performed at military bases during the war, and had possibly avoided death when she was forced to turn down the opportunity to work with Glenn Miller due to prior commitments (this was the tour in which Miller died in a plane crash). She had been the first British artist to record one of the most famous songs of the war, Lili Marlene.

After the conflict ended, she became the first Brit to tour the entire US, coast to coast, which took a year. As the years passed she found it difficult to maintain her success with the songs of the 40s, and looked to war-themed material instead, such as Lay Down Your Arms.

It’s hard to fathom why this got to number 1 as far as the timing goes, let alone the quality. A month later, after the embarrassment of the Suez Crisis, would be more understandable. I can only imagine the older generation were going out in droves and buying this because they preferred it to the new rock’n’roll sounds that were loved by the youth. It’s not terrible, the melody is memorable and I’ve had it swimming round my head since listening to it, but it’s no Rock Island Line or Why Do Fools Fall in Love.

Shelton’s vocal is overbearing – I feel sorry for her soldier boy as she sounds like a terrifying lover. He’d probably be safer back on the beach at Normandy.

The most noteworthy element of the song is the fact troubled genius Joe Meek was the engineer, learning his trade before becoming a famous producer a few years later.

Shelton had a few more hits, including Sailor, which went into the top 10 in 1961 but couldn’t beat Petula Clark‘s number 1 version.  She also made two attempts at entering Eurovision.

As the decades went by she was often brought out for war anniversaries and ceremonies, much like Vera Lynn. She died on 31 July 1994 of a heart attack, aged 70.

Written by: Åke Gerhard & Leon Landgren/Paddy Roberts (English lyrics)

Producer: Johnny Franz

Weeks at number 1: 4 (21 September-18 October)

Births:

Athlete Sebastian Coe – 29 September 

Deaths:

Scientist Frederick Soddy – 22 September 

45. Winifred Atwell & Her ‘Other’ Piano – The Poor People of Paris (1956)

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The Dream Weavers’ It’s Almost Tomorrow was knocked off the number 1 spot for the second and final time by Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell, scoring her second and final number 1 with her cover of The Poor People of Paris.  Her fast-paced piano-playing and charming personality had seen her at number 1 during Christmas 1954 with Let’s Have Another Party, scoring a number three hit in 1955 with Let’s Have a Ding Dong. and then this track, all ploughing the same furrow. Why change a winning formula though?

La goualante du pauvre Jean, as the song was called in France, translates into The Ballad of Poor John in English. Marguerite Monnot, one of Edith Piath’s top songwriters, had written the original music, with words by René Rouzaud. However, US songwriter Jack Lawrence wrote the English lyrics, and misinterpreted the French title, which is why the two differ so much. None of this really matters here though, as Atwell’s cover was instrumental.

Atwell, as usual, plays the song as if her life depends on it. It’s so frenetic, I accidentally pressed play on two separate clips at once and felt a nervous breakdown coming on. While this style of playing is considerably dated now, it still has a certain charm, and anything with a bit of life to it impresses in these early days of the chart.

The main reason it appeals to me, however, is because I immediately recognised it as having featured in 90s Channel 4 comedy show Vic Reeves Big Night Out, a show that changed my life (no exaggeration). In the show, Bob Mortimer’s character Man with the Stick sings a slowed-down version, all about his ill-fated works holiday with ‘good-laugh’ Terry. Here it is in all its glory.

Atwell’s career continued to skyrocket. She had her own television series and performed to millions. She was loved by the Queen, who even requested she perform at a private party to keep spirits up during the Suez Crisis. Sadly, her race was an issue in the Deep South, which meant she never repeated her success in the US.

There was insight and intelligence behind Atwell’s fun-loving public persona, and at heart she was shy, eloquent and intellectual. She claimed her own life was untouched by racism, and considered herself lucky to be so loved. But after buying an apartment in Sydney and while touring the country in 1962, she spoke out about the plight of the Australian Aborigines.

Atwell suffered a stroke in 1980 and announced her retirement on TV the following year. Sadly, her house was destroyed by an electrical fire in 1983, and while staying with friends she died of a heart attack on 28 February.

It would be wrong to dismiss Atwell as a throwaway from a bygone age – her piano skills had a surprising impact on the world of progressive rock, with both Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman citing her as an influence.

Written by: Marguerite Monnot

Producer: Hugh Mendl

Weeks at number 1: 3 (13 April – 3 May)

Births:

Tennis player Sue Barker – 19 April
Actress Koo Stark – 26 April 

Meanwhile…

17 April: Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan announced in his Budget speech the launch of Premium Bonds, to go on sale on 1 November, with £1,000 prize available in the first draw, taking place in June 1957.

20 April: Jazz maestro (and eventual presenter of Radio 4’s comedy panel game I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue) Humphrey Lyttelton and his band recorded Bad Penny Blues with then little-known sound engineer Joe Meek. It became the first British jazz record to get into the top 20, and the inspiration for The Beatles’ Lady Madonna in 1968.

44. Kay Starr with Hugo Winterhalter’s Orchestra & Chorus – (The) Rock and Roll Waltz (1956)

US jazz singer Kay Starr was the third person to have a UK number 1 back in 1953, and had added some much needed light relief after the previous two chart-toppers with the poppy Comes A-Long A-Love.

Starr was ahead of her time and one of the main influences for the early rock’n’roll acts. So she must have seemed a natural choice when the older generation decided to have a stab at this new genre that Bill Haley & His Comets had got so many teenagers all fired up over. ‘Just imagine the crossover appeal such a song could have!’, writers Shorty Allen and Roy Alfred must have thought. ‘We’ll stick the genre in the title, get Kay Starr to sing it, and the teens AND their parents will go out and buy it!’

And while it seems that was the case (after all, (The) Rock and Roll Waltz did knock It’s Almost Tomorrow off the top for a week) it’s a big missed opportunity.

For a start, apart from perhaps the bass, this tune is sadly lacking in both rock and roll. It’s just a cheesy novelty waltz. Starr sings of coming home late one night after a date, to hear a ‘jump tune’ coming from the front room. What the hell are her parents doing in there? Oh, don’t worry, the silly buggers are just trying to waltz to one of Starr’s rock’n’roll records! The chorus is exceedingly naff:

‘A-one, two, and then rock
A-one, two, and then roll
They did the rock and roll waltz
A-rock, two, three, a-roll, two, three
It looked so cute to me
I love the rock and roll waltz’

Apparently Starr wasn’t a fan of (The) Rock and Roll Waltz either,but gave it a bash anyway, and it paid dividends, so who am I to criticise?

It was her final hit in the UK, as rock’n’roll continued to grow, with no further charting singles. She left Capitol Records in 1966 and from then on worked with smaller independent labels, recording mostly jazz and country material.

In addition to performing in revue-style tours, Starr duetted with Tony Bennett on his 2001 album Playin’ with My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues.

Starr died from complications of Alzheimer’s on 3 November 2016, aged 94. Despite her second number one, she will be remembered as an important part of the genesis of rock’n’roll.

Written by: Shorty Allen & Roy Alfred

Producer: Joe Carlton

Weeks at number 1: 1 (30 March-5 April)

Deaths:

Writer Edmund Clerihew Bentley – 30 March  

 

40. Dickie Valentine with Johnny Douglas & His Orchestra – Christmas Alphabet (1955)

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As winter 1955 dawned, Rock Around the Clock-mania had set in, and Bill Haley & His Comets were finally enjoying their stint at number 1. Although this was a seismic event in music, it would be wrong to think that from then on, the UK number 1s were constantly rock’n’roll numbers. Teenagers, as they had recently been named, still only represented a portion of the record-buying market. There were still a lot of older folk who were more than happy with the status quo, who liked  nice crooners singing something warm and cosy, and especially with the dark nights drawing in, etc.

Smooth singer Dickie Valentine had enjoyed a very successful year, with his collaboration with The Stargazers, Finger of Suspicion, topping the charts back in January, followed by three top 10 hits. He then topped and tailed 1955’s singles chart by cottoning on to an idea that would serve artists well for years to come – if you want a number 1 at Christmas time, why not do a song about Christmas time?

Christmas Alphabet had been written by Buddy Kaye and Jules Loman the previous year, and was performed by US singing trio The McGuire Sisters. Kaye liked his alphabet songs – he’d written ‘A’ You’re Adorable (The Alphabet Song) back in 1949 for Perry Como, although these days it’s probably best known as featuring in Angela Rippon’s guest spot on Morecambe & Wise’s Christmas special in 1976. Valentine’s version of Christmas Alphabet became the more famous version, and the oldies won out, knocking Haley from his lofty perch and making it the first explicitly-festive Christmas number 1.

It’s based around a very simple idea. Valentine just lists seasonal stuff around each letter that makes up the word ‘Christmas’. He runs through it twice, to make sure it’s all sunk in, and that’s it, job done. Some of the rhyming is tenuous though…

‘S is for the Santa who makes every kid his pet,
Be good and he’ll bring you everything in your Christmas alphabet!’

Erm, sorry, what? Santa makes every kid his pet? It’s news to me. Disturbing news, at that.

Although by this stage of my blog I’ve been longing for rock’n’roll to come along and shake things up, I have to confess that I don’t mind Christmas Alphabet. Reason being, I’m a sucker for a Christmas song. Especially older ones. Christmas is of course, a time for feeling all cosy and warm, if you’re lucky enough to have that option. 50s music is often perfect at encapsulating that. So I’m quite surprised, especially considering its historical importance, that Christmas Alphabet seems to have been forgotten about. You never hear it in shops, and it’s never on compilations. John Lewis are unlikely to get someone to make one of those annoying, wet, folky covers and stick it on an advert, either. It might be a slight little number, but it deserves to be remembered.

You could say the same about Valentine himself. Despite being adored at the time (he won New Musical Express’s best male vocalist category from 1953-57), he’s been largely forgotten.

His popularity waned in the next decade, despite two TV series (one with Peter Sellers) and he met a tragic end on 6 May 1971. Aged only 41, he was driving to a gig in Wales with bandmates at over 90mph in the early hours of the morning, when he lost control of the vehicle on a bend, killing the three of them.

Written by: Buddy Kaye & Jules Loman

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 3 (16 December-5 January 1956)

Births:

Poet Carol Ann Duffy – 23 December

Meanwhile…

20 December: Cardiff becomes the official capital of Wales.

New Year’s Day: Possession of heroin becomes fully criminalised.

4 January: As 1956 began, it became apparent that the Prime Minister Anthony Eden had plunged in the polls, which seemed surprising following the Conservatives’ solid victory in the election the previous year. Whether Labour had received a bounce off the back of electing their new leader, Hugh Gaitskell, remained to be seen.