And so, The Winter of the Ballad, which I took such pains to introduce in my previous post, experiences a sudden thaw. Spring has sprung, and has brought with it a perky piece of piano-pop.
Side Saddle, by Russ Conway (his 1st of two #1s)
4 weeks, from 27th March – 24th April 1959
Upon a first listen of this latest chart-topping record, two questions spring immediately to mind: What is this? And why did it spend a whole month at the top of the charts? It’s an instrumental, Mr. Russ Conway tinkling away at his piano, and… that’s about it. It’s got a melody (of sorts), which plods along without going anywhere very far, and then it ends, in under two minutes.
The obvious comparison to draw here is with Winifred Atwell, who has already claimed two UK chart-topping singles with records sounding very similar to this. But Atwell at least had a kind of frantic energy about her piano-playing – you could picture her bashing out the hits with a smile and a bead of sweat rolling down her temple. Whereas you can only imagine Conway plodding his way through ‘Side Saddle’ with a cheesy grin-slash-wink combo. The other piano-led #1 single which springs to mind at this time is, of course, ‘Great Balls of Fire’. But to compare that record to this record is, to my mind, heresy of the highest order. There is a slight concession to rock ‘n’ roll here, in that someone in the background is tickling a drum kit in time to Conway’s piano, but that’s strictly it.
It’s a strange chart-topping record, this. At best I’d describe it as incidental music, or silent movie music: you can imagine it going down quite well as an accompaniment to Buster Keaton running down a railroad track. It is very 1932. Which means we have to pose a 3rd question: Why now? Why did this curio of a record zoom to the top of the charts in the spring of 1959? My research has thrown up no answers. It wasn’t an old song; it was written and released in ’59, apparently recorded for a TV adaptation of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ – which at least helps explain the olde-worlde feel of the song. There’s no clue as to how the melody concerns a horse-riding style popular with posh old ladies. According to Wiki “the song was a staple of the BBC’s ‘Housewives Choice’ radio programme”, which perhaps says more than anything I could ever write.
Due to summer holiday commitments, this is the first time in over a fortnight that I have sat down to write one of these posts. In that time, I’ve listened to very little music, and the music I have heard has been radio-friendly, modern pop. Perhaps ‘Side Saddle’, then, is suffering from being the oldest record I’ve heard for a while. Perhaps if I were in the swing of things – in my mid-season form of writing a post every couple of days – it wouldn’t stand out so much. But then again… maybe not. I fear that, whatever way you look at it, this track is simply a relic. And, glancing down my list o’ number one singles… Oh, goody. There’s more to come from our Russ in very short order.
One final thing of note… If you click on the video below and discover a hitherto unrevealed love of bland, piano-based background Muzak, Spotify has the most extensive collection of Russ Conway back-catalogue ever seen. Like, seriously. There must be fifty-odd albums on there. Knock yourselves out!