She Wears Red Feathers, by Guy Mitchell (his 1st of four #1s)
4 weeks, from 12th March to 10th April 1953
Oh my… I’m not sure where to begin with this one. The 6th UK number one kicks off with a cod-Arabian nights, we’re entering the harem kind of intro, and then… well, perhaps the lyrics will best describe just what territory we’re in here:
She wears red feathers and a hooly-hooly skirt, She lives on just cokey-nuts and fish from the sea, A rose in her hair, a gleam in her eyes, And love in her heart for me.
Why is ‘she’ wearing red feathers and a hula skirt? Well… See, the singer is the respectable employee of a bank who, disenchanted with his humdrum life, goes to musical reviews of an evening. At one such performance he spies a pearl of a native girl and the very next day sets sail to find her. Again, the lyrics are best quoted verbatim:
Goodbye to the London bank, I started in a-sailin’, The fourteenth day from Mandalay I spied her from the railin’, She knew I was on my way, waited, and was true, She said “You son of an Englishman, I’ve dreamed each night of you.”
Through what feat of clairvoyance the exotic girl knows he is coming isn’t explained. But they fall in love, and wed, and I quote: An elephant brought her in, placed her by my side, While six baboons got out bassoons and played “Here Comes the Bride.” It’s all a bit… Well, I suppose it was 1953. In the words of everybody’s slightly racist uncle: ‘You couldn’t get away with it these days, that’s for sure.’
Inaccurate racial stereotyping played for laughs aside, this is a cloying song that does what all horribly catchy songs do i.e. lodges itself in your brain from the first listen. It’s jaunty to the point of being wildly irritating, with someone going crazy on a flute and a xylophone at the end of every line. Compared with the handful of number ones that have preceded it, this sounds really old fashioned – something from a 1920s music hall, along with ‘Roll Out the Barrel’. Looking it up, I did wonder if it was a cover of an old standard, but nope: it was written for and recorded by Guy Mitchell. It’s clearly a novelty, so I suppose it does provide us with another chart debut: the first in a long line of songs to reach the top by being funny, or annoying, rather than any good. You can enjoy it in all its music-hall glory here, though. (Note that this is not the version that topped the charts – the video for that lies at the foot of this post.)
By the end of the song, the singer has returned to London with his bride, and all his former co-workers stare in wonder and amusement as this foreign beauty sips her tea just like them! I don’t want to sound all woke and millennial and right on but… Jesus.
Anyway, at the very end of the song – and this is something that Perry Como did in ‘Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes’ too – Mitchell completely changes tack from the laid-back, knowing manner in which he’s delivered the previous two minutes and fifty seconds and ends with a huge, faux-operatic repeat of the final line. It jars, and seems to serve no other purpose than announcing THIS IS THE END OF THE SONG! It was the style of the time, I suppose.
Like Perry Como, Guy Mitchell was a big star, and continued to be a big star throughout the 1950s. We’ll meet him again before long; his biggest hits yet to come. And we’re yet to meet our first one hit wonder, with all the artists featured thus far enjoying some form of extended success. As I wrote with Como, it wasn’t as if people woke up one morning in November 1952 and decided to start buying 45s. Therefore, it’s slightly harder to judge the success and popularity of these early artists whose ‘debut’ hits are chart debuts rather than career debuts. Things will become clearer as we delve deeper into chart history…