8. ‘(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window’, by Lita Roza

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(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…

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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.

7. ‘Broken Wings’, by The Stargazers

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Broken Wings, by The Stargazers (their 1st of three #1s)

1 week, from 10th to 17th April 1953

And so, in one fell swoop, we have our first ever British chart-toppers! And our first ever group! Hurrah! Now, if only there was something interesting to write about this landmark hit…

Unfortunately, there isn’t. This is dull. Dull, dull, dull… To think of all the British acts – all the huge, legendary acts – that we will go on to cover in this countdown. And it all begins with this. From every little acorn, as they say. I’m sorry, though. If this acorn were drinking alone at a bar, you’d give it a very wide berth. He would more than likely be suicidal, and wanting to tell you all about his ex-wife’s newer, younger, less-balding husband. This is slow. This is hymnal. Nay, this is a dirge.

Picture an old, run-down working man’s club. In Doncaster, perhaps. A couple of wrinkled geezers sup their ale in the corner. A door opens, and a band steps onstage. No one claps. Someone coughs. A lonely Hammond organ strikes up. The drummer picks out the simplest rhythm imaginable. The Stargazers, with their hit song ‘Broken Wings’.

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With broken wings, no bird can fly… The premise of the song is that your lover’s infidelities leave you broken: broken-hearted, broken-winged, just… broken. The singers don’t sound like they’re enjoying themselves at all. They sound broken. There in your eyes, I saw lies in disguise, you broke my heart in two… And then, just as you think it cannot get any sadder, a desolate trumpet parps out a miserable little solo. The saddest solo ever. Remember when I was asking for heartbreak, when all these glossy American singers were singing about love lifting you up, stars getting in your eyes, and bluebirds? I regret it now.

Looking back at the previous six number ones, I can see why they were all chart-toppers. Whether they were good (Kay Starr, Perry Como), silly (Guy Mitchell) or simply over the top (Al Martino) they all sounded like big hits. This doesn’t. How this became the biggest selling single for a week in April 1953 I simply can’t understand.

But then, I wasn’t around then. These were days of smog and rationing and fears that the commies were going to start yet another world war. People needed some escapism, no? And they did so mainly through buying glamorous songs by sexy US stars. But every once in a while, being British, they needed to indulge their miserable sides, and buy a record that sounded like their grandparents, or Clement Attlee, or that lonely old guy down the pub.

So the Stargazers obliged with this morose anthem. Featuring a Hammond organ. And is there anything more British than that?

6. ‘She Wears Red Feathers’, by Guy Mitchell

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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.)

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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…

5. ‘Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes’, by Perry Como with The Ramblers

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Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyesby Perry Como with the Ramblers (Como’s 1st of two #1s)

5 weeks, from 6th February to 12th March 1953

One of my biggest chart bugbears, back when I started chart-watching, was one-week number ones. In the late ’90s and early ’00s it seemed like there were a never ending parade of songs waiting to shoot straight in at number one, only to be replaced by another brand new song a week later, as if record companies had worked it all out beforehand in some sort of dastardly pact. And I assumed that it never used to be that way, that ye olden charts were creaky, slow moving things where records languished at the top for weeks and months. Which is true to an extent – Al Martino had nine weeks, and wasn’t alone in having that length of stay, while later in 1953 we’ll reach the song which still holds the record for most weeks at number one…

But what we have here is a fourth new chart topper in as many weeks. It turns out that the record buying public of the pre-rock era were just as fickle as those in 1999! Perry Como, though, did halt the turnover and kept this jaunty little tune at the top for a month and a bit. That’s star quality shining through.

This track is a welcome relief after it’s overwrought predecessor. Perky guitars, a lively brass section, and tongue-twister lyrics: Love blooms at night in daylight it dies don’t let the stars get in your eyes or keep your heart from me for some day I’ll return and you know you’re the only one I’ll ever love delivered in just the one breath. This seems to have been a thing, a gimmick almost (at least it seems gimmicky to modern ears), as Kay Starr was at it in ‘Comes A-Long A-Love’. It’s not vocal gymnastics of the Mariah Carey kind; more lyrical gymnastics, if such a thing can exist.

We’ve also heard similar lyrics already in this countdown, in that Como is telling his sweetheart not to forget about them, or to stray, while away. The best bit of it all, though, is the trumpet solo. At least I think they’re trumpets; I really can’t tell one brass instrument from the other. Anyway, they put me in mind of the oompah band at a German Bierfest.

The one downside to the song is the backing singers, The Ramblers. They’re just a bit… barbershop, in that they are basically there to repeat verbatim the line that Como just sang. In case some one missed it? I don’t know. And their one bit of improvisation is to sing what sounds like pa-pa-papaya between lines. Are they imitating the trumpets? Is it just gibberish? Are they actually singing about papayas?

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Perry Como (American! Died aged 88! The run continues!) is the biggest name to top the chart so far. I’d say, at least. Both of the female chart toppers were new to me, Al Martino was known to me solely as the singer of the first ever UK #1, and Eddie Fisher had entered my consciousness due to his ladykilling (the romantic type of ladykilling, that is). Perry Como was a big star and I could have named his biggest hit (‘Magic Moments’, fact fans) without looking it up. And after looking up his discography it’s clear that if the the charts had begun earlier he would have racked up a load more hits – he was scoring US #1s throughout the ’40s. Now, in 2018, he’s no longer a household name, a Sinatra or Presley, I wouldn’t have thought. Very few of these stars from sixty-odd years ago are, I suppose.

4. ‘Outside of Heaven’, by Eddie Fisher

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Outside of Heaven, by Eddie Fisher (his 1st of two #1s)

1 week, from 30th January to 6th February 1953

We wanted heartbreak, and boy do we get it here…

Eddie Fisher passes by the house where his sweetheart lives, and stands outside the church where she is getting married. He is ‘outside of heaven’ – literally, if you count a church as the place where God resides, and metaphorically, as his version of heaven would be at the dining room table eating his wife’s stew. Kinda clever, when you think about it.

This is what I imagined the pre-rock number ones to sound like. And I don’t like it very much. The sultry Jo Stafford and the saucy Kay Starr give way, for a week, to some very over the top moping. I pass your house, with misty eyes, there stands the gate to paradise, but you don’t hear the heart that cries, outside of heaven… Or if that’s not melodramatic enough for you: On your wedding day, I stood in the crowd, I could hardly keep, from crying out loud… It’s comparable to ‘Here in My Heart’, as it’s operatic and dramatic, like it could be the closing song in the first act of a Rogers & Hammerstein. But whereas Al Martino sang with enough power to carry the day, Fisher doesn’t have the voice. The ending especially – why was I meant, to walk alone, outside of heaven…? makes your hairs stand on end, and not in a good way. In the song’s favour, as far as I’m concerned, is that it does feature a guitar solo – the first #1 to do so. However, it’s possibly one of the least dynamic solos ever recorded – it sounds like the guitarist is scared to get his instrument too worked up, as if it might bite.

So, a pause, to take stock… If the first four chart toppers are anything to go by, female artists in early 1953 were allowed to be fun, playful, even a little bit sexy. But the record buying public wanted stoically heartbroken men: sad and lonely and not afraid to sing about it. Very loudly.

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Perhaps this song is even more of a disappointment as I had heard of Eddie Fisher, and his reputation as something of a shagger. He was married five times – to Debbie Reynolds (with whom he fathered Carrie Fisher) and Elizabeth Taylor (he was husband number four of eight for her) amongst others. Taylor was Reynold’s close friend, and he married her not long after her previous husband had died in an air crash. Juicy stuff… So maybe I had hoped he’d be singing something a little funkier, a little more rousing, than this. But – and this is a big but that should be applied to many of the acts in this list – BUT, songs that are most successful in the charts are not always the most representative of an artist’s entire oeuvre (cf. Chuck Berry, 1972). Perhaps I’m being unfair on Eddie. He has one further number one coming up soon – let’s hope it’s a balls-to-the-wall rocker.

A couple more observations: Eddie Fisher was, again, an American. We still await our first ever British #1. And he lived to the ripe old age of eighty-two, passing away just seven years ago. Who will be the first chart topper to die tragically young…?