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 1950s 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 so far. 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 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. I think I’d rather be at war than with Shelton.

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 57 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 Everley 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.

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 one 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 1940s was Forces Sweetheart Anne Shelton. She had performed at military bases during the war, and had perhaps 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. Shelton had been the first British artist to record one of the most famous songs of the war, Lili Marlene.

It’s hard to fathom why this got to number one when it did. A month later, after the embarrassment of the Suez Crisis, would be more understandable. At the end of 1956, the UK probably needed to be reminded of a time in which they were the heroes in a war. 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 and attempts at entering Eurovision. As the decades went by she was often brought out for war anniversaries and ceremonies. She died in 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 

49. Doris Day – Whatever Will Be, Will Be (1956)

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From 9 August until 9 September, the seminal art exhibition This Is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery featured, among others, Richard Hamilton’s collage Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, It is now considered to be one of the earliest examples of pop art, a decade before the movement really became popular. Hamilton later went on to design the sleeve for The Beatles in 1968.

One day later, a very 50s-sounding song, and one of the most enduring of the era, knocked Who Do Fools Fall in Love from number one. Whatever Will Be, Will Be (usually now known as Que Sera, Sera) has long since surpassed its original use, which was as a vehicle for Doris Day in the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Man Who Knew too Much. Songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans specialised in writing songs for films, and really hit gold here. It may be sugar-coated (courtesy of perpetually squeaky-clean Doris), like most 50s pop, but the cheeriness belies there’s something lyrically deeper going on – often a key ingredient in some of the best pop music.

‘Que sera, sera’ doesn’t actually mean anything. Livingston and Evans created it from a mix of Spanish and Italian. The Italian phrase ‘Che sarà sarà’ (translated as ‘what will be, will be’) is carved into a wall in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), and the two songwriters decided to add some Spanish to the phrase due to the language’s popularity, and probably because it rolled off the tongue easier.

Although Doris Day’s voice leaves some people cold, and is the sort of thing I’d normally run a mile from, I can’t fault her performance here, just like I couldn’t for her previous number one, Secret Love. Although, indeed, ‘the future’s not ours to see’, it’s turned out alright for Day, as by the end she has children of her own, and they in turn are asking her about their future. Yet despite the joy in Day’s voice as the song ends, who knows how the children will turn out? What will be, will be, after all, and the message somewhat pricks the positivity in the production and performance.

Whatever Will Be, Will Be is now a standard, and it would be impossible to name all the cover versions. My personal favourite has to be Sly & the Family Stone’s suitably strung-out recording from his 1973 album Fresh. Stone had a very tough future ahead of him at that point. I also can’t let this blog pass by without mentioning a memorable advert from my childhood, in which the song was rewritten to sell McCain Steakhouse Grills. As you can see here, the new version was sang by a group of hungry builders in a van, and ends with the chorus changed to ‘We hope it’s chips, it’s chips!’ God knows what Doris Day would have thought of it.

Like Secret Love before it, the song won an Oscar for Best Original Song. It became something of a millstone around Day’s neck, as it became the theme tune to her sitcom The Doris Day Show in 1968, which she didn’t enjoy making. By this point her film career was stalling, and she was seen as a symbol of a bygone age. Since the sitcom’s end in the 70s, Day has lived a quieter life, but did release her first album in years in 2011, aged 89. These days, she runs several animal welfare organisations, using her celebrity status to raise awareness. A symbol of more innocent times, Doris Day is no doubt a living legend.

During her second and final stint at number 1, Scotland Yard began investigating society doctor John Bodkin Adams. Between 1946 and 1956, more than 160 of his patients died in suspicious circumstances. On 10 September, French Prime Minister Guy Mollet visited London and proposed that France should merge with the United Kingdom. The idea was rejected by Anthony Eden. And on 12 September, Manchester United became the first English team to compete in the European Cup, beating RSC Anderlecht 2–0 in the first leg of the preliminary round.

UPDATE (13/5/19): Well, even living legends die eventually, sadly. The showbiz world mourned today when Doris Day passed away from pneumonia, aged 97.

Written by: Jay Livingston & Ray Evans

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 6 (10 August-20 September)

Births:

Actress Kim Cattrall – 21 August
Footballer Ray Wilkins – 14 September
Actor Tim McInnerny – 18 September

48. The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon – Why Do Fools Fall in Love

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On 22 July, music newspaper Record Mirror published the first ever UK Albums Chart. They had their own version of the singles chart, but it is the New Musical Express charts that I use for this blog, as these are the ones recognised by the Official Charts Company as canon until 1960. The first album at number 1 was Frank Sinatra’s classic Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!. 26 July saw the beginning of the Suez crisis, when Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser shocked the British government by announcing the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. Initially, Anthony Eden believed he had the country’s support in taking military action, and Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell agreed, but in the following weeks he took a more cautious tone.

Meanwhile, the number 1 single in the UK was a breath of fresh air following a few lacklustre affairs. The Teenagers with Frankie Lymon became the youngest act to date to rule the roost, with the classic rock’n’roll and doo-wop number Why Do Fools Fall in Love. At the tender age of 12, New Yorker Frankie Lymon was working as a grocery boy to help his struggling family. He became friends with a doo-wop group known as the Coup de Villes – lead singer Herman Santiago, Joe Negroni, Jimmy Merchant and Sherman Games. There are several versions of who came up with the song, and indeed several court battles have ensued over publishing rights, but a neighbour of the Premiers, as they were known in 1955, handed the group some love letters written by his girlfriend, to use as inspiration. By the time they had their audition with tough producer George Goldner, they were known as The Teenagers. Santiago was either ill, or late, but whatever the reason, Frankie Lymon had a crack at the lead, and the group recorded trheir biggest single and one of rock’n’roll’s most memorable hits. Why Do Fools Fall in Love influenced the Jackson 5 and spawned the girl-group sound, as well as hundreds of imitators. And Lymon was barely a teenager.

For a song recorded such a long time ago, Why Do Fools Fall in Love still sounds fresh. It’s bursting with youthful energy, and a large part of that is down to Lymon’s lead vocal. This was pure rock’n’roll but filtered through the innocence of such a young group with little experience of the world. And the saxophone break is a blast. The song charted highly in the US, but performed even better in the UK. And then, before their career had barely begun, things began to fall apart.

Tensions understandably began to surface when the next single was credited to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Early in 1957, Goldner began pushing Lymon as a solo act, and his departure was made official by September. The Teenagers went through a string of replacement singers, to little success, and Lymon’s career went into freefall. They reunited briefly in 1965 but it didn’t last. He had become addicted to heroin at the age of 15, and died of an overdose in 1968 at his grandma’s house, aged only 25. A tragic victim of the often cruel music industry.

Written by: Frankie Lymon & Morris Levy

Producer: Richard Barrett

Weeks at number 1: 3 (20 July-9 August)

Births:

Sculptor Andy Goldsworthy – 26 July
Madness guitarist Chris Foreman – 8 August