109. Elvis Presley – It’s Now or Never (1960)

elvis_presley-its_now_or_never_s.jpgAfter two years military service, Elvis Presley was discharged from the US army in March 1960. The story goes that Elvis’s time in Friedberg, West Germany involved mainly parties, girls and drugs. While there, he met Priscilla Beaulieu for the first time, at a party at Elvis’s house. Then only 14, the pair agreed to stay in touch when he left West Germany, but she was convinced they would never meet again.

Elvis had been worried about his music career losing momentum during his time as a GI, but a steady stream of singles had been put aside beforehand, and the number 1s kept coming. However, he was itching to get back to recording, and before the month was out he was back in the studio, rush-releasing a new single, Stuck on You, which hit number 1 in the US (surprisingly, it stalled at number three over here). He then began work on the comeback album, Elvis Is Back! at RCA’s Nashville studio. While stationed in West Germany, he had heard Tony Martin’s 1949 hit There’s No Tomorrow, which was based on the famous Italian tune, O Sole Mio, which had once been recorded by one of Elvis’s heroes, the crooner Mario Lanza. Before Elvis had returned from the army, he told his music publisher Freddy Bienstock he was keen to record a new song based on the melody. Tasked with finding the right songwriters, he returned to his office in New York to find Aaron Schroeder (who had co-written Elvis’s 1959 number 1, I Got Stung) and Wally Gold, who had previously had hit singles while in the group the Four Esquires. The duo made quick work of the task, coming up with It’s Now or Never in half an hour. As usual, Steve Sholes produced, and Bill Porter was the sound engineer. Porter was having a particularly busy but successful time of it, having worked on music by the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison’s Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel), which was usurped from the top by It’s Now or Never. Listening to the two back-to-back, there’s a definite similarity.

It’s Now or Never found Elvis reverting to crooner mode, with his vocal performance closely resembling Mario Lanza’s almost-operatic method of intonation. Elvis is issuing an ultimatum to his lover – act now or lose him for good. He struggled to lift his voice to hit that impressive final note, recording it over and over. Porter told Presley he could easily just splice two takes together, but he insisted on his vocal being all one take, and pulled it off on the next run-through. It’s Now or Never really impressed at the time and was a huge hit, but rights issues in the UK meant its release was delayed for four months. This was no setback however, as the single racked up lots of advance orders. When finally released on 3 November, it went straight to number 1, where it remained for two months, becoming the biggest-selling single of 1960. It is also one of the biggest-selling singles of all time, selling over 25 million worldwide. And it meant the King had now achieved five number 1s – overtaking Frankie Laine and Guy Mitchell, who had four each.

Unfortunately for me and I expect many people of a certain age, It’s Now or Never means only one thing – ice-cream. Walls’ Ice Cream used O Sole Mio for many years on their famous adverts for Cornetto. So for me it’s impossible to hear this Elvis track without picturing a man on a gondolier trying to steal a woman’s ice-cream. It’s also a disturbing irony that disgraced sexual predator and DJ Jimmy Savile selected It’s Now or Never when he appeared on Desert Island Discs.

To celebrate 50 years of his music, It’s Now or Never was among the batch of re-releases of his most popular singles, and it went to number 1 once more for a week on 5 February 2005. In 2017, Priscilla Presley revealed online that this song was Elvis’s favourite among his huge catalogue. Wonder if he liked Cornettos?

On 9 December, the first episode of legendary soap opera Coronation Street aired on ITV. Among the characters introduced in that first show were Ena Sharples, Elsie Tanner and Annie Walker, all of whom became mainstays, alongside Ken Barlow, played by William Roache, who is still in the soap to this day.

Written by: Wally Gold & Aaron Schroeder/Eduardo di Capua (O Sole Mio)

Producer: Steve Sholes

Weeks at number 1: 8 (3 November-28 December) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Actress Tilda Swinton – 5 November
Presenter Jonathan Ross – 17 November
Singer Kim Wilde – 18 November
Fashion designer John Galliano – 28 November
Footballer Gary Lineker – 30 November
Def Leppard bassist Rick Savage – 2 December
Actor Kenneth Branagh – 10 December – Kenneth Branagh
Footballer John Lukic – 11 December
Footballer Chris Waddle – 14 December
Presenter Carol Vorderman – 24 December
Historian Andrew Graham-Dixon – 26 December

Deaths:

Architect Sir Nina Cooper – 22 December 

87. Bobby Darin – Dream Lover (1959)

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Bobby Darin is an interesting character. He was one of, if not the first teen idol to break free of what was expected and forge his own musical path. He was also, like Paul Anka and Buddy Holly, very musically gifted for someone so young.

His private life was also fascinating. Born Walden Robert Cassotto in East Harlem, New York, he was raised by his grandmother, but led to believe she was his mother. His birth mother, Nina, fell pregnant with him out of wedlock aged 17, so rather than the scandal get out, they decided his mother should pretend to be his sister instead. This pretence was kept up until Nina revealed the truth to him in 1968, when he was 32 years old. Darin was understandably devastated. He had become interested in music at a young age, and was able to play the piano, drums and guitar by the time he was a teenager. He excelled at science, but decided to pursue an acting career, before changing his career path again when he met Don Kirshner, who later managed the Monkees.

The duo, who met in a candy store, decided to write advertising jingles and ditties, the first of which was appropriately named Bubblegum Pop. He joined the Brill Building team of songwriters, and wrote songs for Connie Francis. The partnership was unsuccessful (he was there the day Neil Sedaka presented her with her second hit, Stupid Cupid), but they grew close. Unfortunately for Darin, her father, who was looking after her struggling career, did not approve. Darin suggested they elope but she refused. She later said it was the biggest mistake of her life.

Around the time Darin and Kirshner went their separate ways, Darin was taken under the wing of Atlantic Records songwriter and co-founder Ahmet Ertegun. In 1958 he wrote Splish Splash in less than an hour, and it went on to sell over a million. Finally he was a star. In April 1959, he recorded another self-penned composition, Dream Lover, with Ertegun producing alongside another legendary music figure, Jerry Wexler. Neil Sedaka was also there on the piano.

Splish Splash had been simple, knockabout fun, but Dream Lover was a sophisticated teen-pop slice of yearning. Built upon a Latin rhythm, it was successfully designed to make young girls swoon, but with safe enough lyrics to keep potentially angry parents at bay. It’s reminiscent of Tab Hunter’s Young Love, but assured where Hunter’s performance was tentative. The double-meaning of the line ‘I want a dream lover so I don’t have to dream alone’ is inspired, and Darin’s voice is effectively anguished.

If someone was to ask me to name a song that sums up the 1950s, Dream Lover would be one of the first I’d mention. This may be in part due to its use on an advert for Maltesers in the late 80s. Nostalgia for the 50s was of course very big back then, kickstarted as it was by the popularity of the Levis ads. My first exposure to Great Balls of Fire came from an advert for Edam, with the lyrics changed to ‘Goodness gracious great balls of cheese!’… bizarre, really, to turn a song of lust into an ode to cheese… I digress. One thing this blog has given me is a newfound respect for some of the artists that helped develop pop music in the 50s, and for this song, Bobby Darin deserves some of that acclaim. He’d be back later in the year with a very different sound.

During the four-week reign of Dream Lover, postcodes were introduced for the first time, with the experiment taking place in Norwich. This began on 28 July, and a day later, a series of important acts came into law – namely the Mental Health Act, the Obscene Publications Act and Legitimacy Act.

Written by: Bobby Darin

Producer: Ahmet Ertegun

Weeks at number 1: 4 (3-30 July)

Births:

Journalist Julie Burchill – 3 July

Deaths:

Cricketer Charlie Parker – 11 July 

77. Lord Rockingham’s XI – Hoots Mon (1958)

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On 13 September 1958, Oh Boy!, the first all-music show for teenagers began on ITV. Producer Jack Good had previously worked on the BBC’s Six-Five Special, but had wanted to make it music-only. When the BBC declined, he resigned. The show featured top stars and future hit-makers, including Cliff Richard, Shirley Bassey, Conway Twitty and Billy Fury. The show’s house-band were Lord Rockingham’s XI, a group of session musicians led by Harry Robinson, who had also worked on Six-Five Special. Other notable members included Benny Green on saxophone (he later became a Radio 2 presenter) and Hammond organ player Cherry Rainer.

In addition to backing artists on the show, they began recording novelty instrumentals for Decca. First single Fried Onions didn’t chart, but Robinson was on to a winner when he decided they should record a jazz-rock’n’roll hybrid version of traditional Scottish song The Hundred Pipers. The lyrics were ditched and replaced with four terrible over-the-top Scottish dialect outbursts, namely, ‘Och aye’, ‘Hoots mon’, ‘There’s a moose loose aboot this hoose’ and ‘It’s a braw, bricht, moonlicht nicht’. As Robinson was Scottish he decided he should be the one to perform these, risking inciting hatred from his fellow countrymen. All in all, it sounds like a terrible idea, doesn’t it?

It wasn’t. Hoots Mon is an excellent novelty single and I love the fact something like this was once able to make it number 1. The band are having a whale of a time, and it’s infectious, you really can’t help but enjoy it too. It’s also surprisingly heavy sounding for its time. Apparently, the engineer wasn’t happy with the bass and wanted the band to re-record it. Record buyers with lightweight needles even complained that the vinyl would jump, and it became banned in some factories as workers couldn’t stand the noise. It would have made a great Christmas number 1 and nearly was, but Conway Twitty’s It’s Only Make Believe overtook it after three weeks at the top.

Oh Boy! was replaced in 1959 by another Good project, Boy Meets Girls. Lord Rockingham’s XI hadn’t been able to maintain their fame, and also had to settle out of court with the real Lord Rockingham (hang on, there’s a real Lord Rockingham?), so they disbanded at the same time. Robinson moved into arranging and conducting songs for musicals, and subsequently became a noteworthy string arranger for several folk artists of the late 1960s. In particular, his work on Nick Drake’s River Man is sublime and sometimes I think it might be the best use of strings I’ve ever heard in a ‘pop’ song.

I first heard Hoots Mon, like lots of 50s and 60s songs, in an advert. Maynard’s Wine Gums used it in 1993 and rewrote the most famous line, coming up with ‘There’s juice loose aboot this hoose’. A mad caricature of a Scotsman manically chews sweets while items around the house come to life courtesy of Aardman Animations (incidentally, this very track was number 1 when Nick Park was born. Clearly, it was meant to be). If only all adverts were as ridiculous and fun as this. I hope Robinson enjoyed this remake. Sadly he passed away in 1996.

One of my favourite groups of all time, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, reformed in 2006 for an amazing anniversary gig at the London Astoria. One of the live highlights of my life, they decided to carry on for a while, and released an album, Pour l’amour des Chiens in 2007. It was patchy, but one of the highlights was Hawkeye the Gnu (get it?) a reworked version of Hoots Mon, featuring vocals from Stephen Fry. An inspired decision, and I’m only surprised the band never recorded it in their original incarnation.

While Hoots Mon was riding high, The British Electronic Computer Exhibition, the world’s first of its kind, was held at Earl’s Court in London. It ran from 28 November to 4 December. On 30 November, viewers of Armchair Theatre were left puzzled when actor Gareth Jones disappeared inbetween scenes during the play Underground. The drama was broadcast live, and Jones had suffered a fatal heart attack. Bizarrely, his character was supposed to suffer one later in the programme. The rest of the cast were forced to improvise an ending, which I imagine was a bit of a mess. As winter began, the country’s first motorway, the Preston Bypass, was opened by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan on 5 December.

Written and produced by: Harry Robinson 

Weeks at number 1: 3 (28 November-18 December)

Births:

Animator Nick Park – 6 December

Deaths:

Actor Gareth Jones – 30 November