(How Much Is) That Doggy in the Window, by Lita Roza (her 1st and only #1)
1 week, from 17th to 24th April 1953
Before I’ve even played it, I know how this song goes!
This was one of the first pop songs I was ever aware of, actually. I have a vague memory of being two, or three, and hearing this song. Or at least the opening lines: How much is that doggie in the window? The one with the waggly tail… Looking back, I have no idea where I heard it: the TV, a toy, a grandparent… Maybe it was this version that reached number one that I heard; maybe it wasn’t. But still, this is the first song on this countdown that I was able to sing a line from before listening to it. So well done, Lita! You are officialy engrained in British popular culture.
The record sounds pretty much as expected – the same jaunty guitar and flutes that accompanied Guy Mitchell pop up at the end of every line so we know that this is a NOVELTY RECORD! There is also a barking dog, which sounds surprisingly real. Even on my third or fourth listen I can’t tell if it’s a dog with a great sense of timing, or a backing singer, or even Roza herself. In the song, the singer has to take a trip to California, and so wants to buy a dog to keep her sweetheart safe. If he has a dog he won’t be lonesome, and the doggy will have a good home… She’s heard about robbers, you see, and she’s understandably concerned. Other pets won’t do – no bunnies or kitties. Neither does she want a bowl of fish as he can’t take a goldfish for walks…
It’s quite cute, I suppose, and at a lick over two minutes long it doesn’t outstay its welcome. And it provides us with lots of UK chart firsts: first #1 by a British female, first #1 to feature brackets in the title, first #1 to feature a question in the title, first of many #1s to come out of Liverpool, first #1 about a dog…
The strangest thing about the whole song, though, is Roza’s voice. It’s very husky, very sexy – it has a sort of giggle and a wink to it that is completely wasted on this asexual, childish nonsense. And a quick image search throws up lots of pictures of her looking very sultry, very exotic (she had Filipino heritage), and wearing dresses that would turn heads today never mind the early 1950s. So I went one step further and listened to her next biggest UK hit (‘Jimmy Unknown’, #15, three years after this). It’s a world away from ‘How Much is That Doggy?’ – a slow, seductive number to which her voice, all melted caramel, is much more suited.
It turns out that Roza hated this song. And not simply after it turned out to be her biggest hit, a millstone around her neck for the rest of her career. She had to be persuaded to record it in the first place, and only did so on the proviso that she would never have to sing it live. And she never did: “I sang it once, just one take, and vowed I would never sing it again. When it reached number one, there was enormous pressure to perform it but I always refused. It just wasn’t my style.” She lived for a long time too, dying in 2008, aged eighty-two. I have a fabulous image of her sitting in a dusty ball gown, in a dusty parlour, throwing a plate at a lackey who has just brought yet another request for her to perform her biggest hit. ‘Don’t ever mention that awful song again!’ she yells as he runs for cover. The Miss Havisham of UK pop. She even adopts a little girl, and trains her from an early to be a huge singing sensation, but with a secret plan to ensure that this starlet’s first and only hit will be a piece of throwaway tripe… Too far?
Anyway, not wanting to slander the dead too much, but it’s great to get a #1 hit with a tale behind it. And perhaps Ms Roza didn’t really hate the song all that much (or perhaps she just had a very knowing sense of humour) because she left a large chunk of her fortune to stray dogs’ homes.
And it turns out that ‘Doggy’ actually has a much more sinister legacy than that of a throwaway novelty that overshadowed its singer for the rest of her career. It was also…(gasp!)… Margaret Thatcher’s favourite record.