Such A Night, by Johnnie Ray (his 1st of three #1s)
1 week, from 30th April to 7th May 1954
For the first time since beginning this blog, we arrive at a song that I know. And I don’t mean ‘know’ in the way I’d heard ‘Secret Love’ without realising, or in the way I knew ‘I Believe’ because of it’s chart domination. I know this song, I actively listen to it, and I love Johnnie Ray.
It’s a jaunty (that word again), quick-tempo song with a simple enough riff and some ‘ooby dooby’s in the background. Nothing too unusual there. But what makes it, and elevates it to a classic, are Ray’s vocals. Like Doris Day before him there’s an effortlessness to his voice that draws you in and yanks you along. But his voice is nothing like the clean-cut, honeyed tones of Miss Day. ‘Such a Night’ isn’t being sung here – it’s being ridden, it’s being humped… it’s being performed.
Ray has help in this performance from some seriously risqué lyrics. This is the story – and let’s remind ourselves that we are writing here about a record that topped the charts in April 1954 – of a one-night stand.
It was a night, Ooh what a night it was, It really was, Such a night… It was a kiss, Ooh what a kiss it was, It really was, Such a kiss…. Just the thought of her lips, Sets me afire, I reminisce and I’m filled with desire…
This is pretty saucy stuff right here. It starts out as a kiss in the moonlight, but suddenly…
Came the dawn, And my heart and her love and the night was gone… But I’ll never forget that kiss in the moonlight, Ooh, such a kiss, Ooh, such a night!
It’s clever really. Obviously they couldn’t go writing a song with lyrics that touched on anything more than kissing, but are we really meant to believe that they just kissed all the way till sunrise? By the end, given the way Ray is ooh-ing and aah-ing, the answer is pretty obvious. Ain’t no kiss ever that good. The BBC, and various radio stations across the world, responded by banning the record. The first example, then, of a song’s infamy equalling a #1 hit? See also: Serge Gainsbourg, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, anything by Eminem…
But wait, it gets even better. While the song is about a woman, and all the pronouns female, Johnnie Ray was gay. Those are gay ‘oohs’ and ‘aaahs’ and ‘mmms’, sitting at the top of the UK Singles Chart. In 1954. When that sort of thing was very much illegal, and gay men were being hunted, prosecuted and made to choose between jail or chemical castration. Now, that is something.
This is rock ‘n’ roll. OK, the music here is more jazzy, swing, whatever, but I am putting it out there that this is the first rock ‘n’ roll record to ever make the top of the charts. This is rock ‘n’ roll in all but name, surely? That’s what makes this idea of the pre-rock era so difficult to figure out, why it’s so hard to label this strange era in popular music.
Johnnie Ray will go on to hit the top spot a couple more times, so I will wait until then to write more about just how amazing he was, and how it’s a crime that he doesn’t sit alongside Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly et al in the pantheon of ’50s music greats (*spoiler alert* him being gay might have had a lot to do with this.) I will, though, take the chance to recommend Elvis’s own version of ‘Such a Night’, recorded several years later. Remember a few posts ago, when I said that drums rarely define a record? Well, the King’s version of this record is one of the exceptions.
But, for now, let’s end by simply being thankful that this gloriously raunchy track sneaked a week at #1, ghosting in amongst all the schmaltzy easy-listening that preceded and followed it. Ooh. Aah. Mmm. Yes!