31. ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra

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Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 29th April to 13th May 1955

What a way to kick off the next thirty!

I’ve given instrumentals a hard time so far in this rundown. The lack of any lyrics creates a barrier, for me, between the song and the listener. You can listen to a Mantovani record and think “Isn’t that a nice melody”, but the fact that there are no words to tie it to a particular feeling or experience in your life means that the record is that step further removed from you. Like a film beautifully acted but in a language you cannot understand.

Having said all that… I’m going to prove myself massively wrong with this post. The fourth instrumental to top the UK Singles chart is also, by far, the sexiest record to top said singles charts. And there are no words. Well – there are no words aside from ‘Huh!’, ‘Hah!’ and ‘Oooh’. Which is a large part of this track’s said sexiness.

Following on from ‘Mambo Italiano’ (which wasn’t really a mambo, but hey), the UK was clearly in some sort of Latin fever in early 1955. Though perhaps not, as a quick glance at the chart for the week Perez ‘Prez’ hit the top shows only one other record that sounds vaguely Latino… A different version of ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’ (which we’ll meet very soon at the top of the charts). But, for the purposes of this narrative, let’s say that the UK – finally casting off the shackles of rationing and wartime rubble – wanted to shake some booty and, while perhaps not quite ready for straight up rock ‘n’ roll, turned to some equally raunchy mambo. Further evidence towards my idea that rock ‘n’ roll didn’t just arrive with ‘Rock Around the Clock’ – it was slowly filtering in through Rosemary Clooney’s giggle, Winifred Atwell’s boogie and Johnnie Ray’s yelps. And Perez ‘Prez’ Prado’s trumpet.

Except the trumpet that makes this record isn’t being played by the man on the credits. We’ll get to that in a second. First – this record has perhaps the most intense intro we’ve heard yet. Basically it’s BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM on a load of trumpets and cymbals, before the rhythm kicks in. The lead trumpet was played by a man called Billy Regis, who absolutely makes this record by drawing out one note in particular over and over again, by sliding it down then up in a manner that sounds a little bit drunk, a little bit woozy, and that, most importantly, would allow a couple in a Southend ballroom to draw that little bit closer for a second, before the main melody jumped back in.

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Prado was more of a conductor, I guess, and it is his ‘Huhs’ and ‘Hahs’ that can be heard as he exerts his charges to squeeze every drop of sexiness from their instruments (that sounded ruder than I intended – you know what I mean). There are also some other trumpets (I guess they are trumpets) playing notes so low that it’s almost obscene. I recognise them from Lou Bega’s classic cover of ‘Mambo No.5’, from another golden age of Latin music in the UK charts, which we won’t be getting to for a long, long time. Incidentally, Perez Prado recorded the original version of that song, too.

But the final word has to go to Billy Regis, whose trumpet ends the record. He reimagines the bombastic ending – from which so many earlier chart-toppers have suffered – and it works so much better without lyrics. THIS IS THE END OF THE SONG becomes DOOO DOOO (pause) DOOOOOOOOO, and it again allows Janet and John from Southend to draw close and to feel one another’s bodies, taught and trembling from two and a half minutes of intense mambo.

‘Huh!’ and, indeed, ‘Hah!’

30. ‘Give Me Your Word’, by Tennessee Ernie Ford

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Give Me Your Word, by Tennessee Ernie Ford (his 1st of two #1s)

7 weeks, from 11th Mar to 29th Apr 1955

Before we get down to analysing this next chart-topper, let’s just take a second to appreciate the name of the artist that recorded it. Tennessee Ernie Ford… I wonder what kind of music he might make? (*cough* country and western *cough*)

But, no. While he has the voice for a C&W hit, this isn’t the song. He drawls ‘all’ into ‘aawl’ and ‘wants’ into ‘waaonts’, yet from this second this record cracks into gear, with soaring strings and a dramatic piano, we know we ain’t gettin’ a country lament – no tumbleweeds nor howlin’ coyotes. This is a song that means business.

It’s basically a marriage proposal – a lot of talk of vows, of being beside him, of words being given for ever and always. And, to be fair, you probably wouldn’t say ‘no’ to Tennessee: he has a deep sonorous voice, the voice of a man who can chop trees and wrestle cattle. Rough hands but a warm heart, that kind of thing. The only time the voice lets him down is at the very end, when a song of this gravitas needs a slightly more powerful, and slightly less Pingu sounding finish.

And is it just me, or are these chart toppers starting to get sexier? Ruby Murray was all about softly, breathlessly, touching lips and now Mr. Ford carries on the theme. Give me your lips, he drawls, and let your lips remain. Remain where, you might ask? It’s hardly Prince at his raunchiest; but it certainly isn’t something Eddie Fisher would have sung about either.

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Looking at pictures of Tennessee Ernie, he looks somewhat like you would expect. Perhaps not as rugged as his voice makes him sound, but he has a natty little moustache, and clearly liked to play up his cowboy credentials, with plenty of Stetson ‘n’ rodeo-tassels popping up on a Google image search. He was really born in Tennessee, too.

But, for a song that starts of with grand intent, this is actually pretty dull. Or at least average. File it along with ‘Answer Me’ and ‘Cara Mia’ – songs that were huge, and clearly got people all weepy in their day, but whose melodramatic lyrics and OTT melodies have lost their resonance over time.

29. ‘Softly, Softly’, by Ruby Murray

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Softly Softly, by Ruby Murray (her 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 18th Feb to 11th Mar 1955

Aaaah…

That wasn’t a cry of anguish you just heard; more an exhalation of boredom. Or an extended pause while I tried to think of something to stop this from being my shortest post yet.

But maybe it should be a short post. Ruby Murray, claiming the twenty-ninth UK #1 with a perfectly forgettable song. It’s basically an amalgamation of what’s gone before: the string intro to ‘Secret Love’, Mantovani’s violins, Eddie Fisher’s ethereal backing singers, plus a sprinkle of Kitty Kallen and a half-teaspoonful of Kay Starr… Almost as if someone was using an algorithm specifically designed to write a mid-1950s chart hit. However they did it; it worked – ‘Softly Softly’ logged a very respectable three weeks at the top.

Softly, softly, Miss Murray purrs, come to me, touch my lips, so tenderly… The lyrics are all about kissing and caressing, about her lover taking his time to open up her heart. But it’s not a sexy song at all. It’s a bit nursery ryhme-ish, and a bit dull after ‘Mambo Italiano’.

Murray has a nice enough voice and, notably, this is the second example, after Dickie Valentine, of a British singer trying to sound like an American. She breathes and tickles the lines in a way that Vera Lynn most certainly would not have approved of. Actually, Ruby Murray was from Belfast and, by my reckoning, this makes her the first in a very long line of Irish crooners to have topped the UK Singles Chart.

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Ruby Murray is also (and this is the only thing that I knew about her prior to writing this post) cockney rhyming slang for curry. As in: It’s Friday night, we’re off dahn the Taj Mahal for a cheeky little Ruby Murray, innit. She is therefore the second chart topping artist so far, after Mantovani, to have remained enshrined in the public consciousness less for her music and more for the way her surname sounds. But her music was very popular. Though this was her sole #1, she recorded eight further Top 10 hits between 1954-59. Only two of her releases failed to make the Top 10, actually. I guess it’s a bit of a shame that she’s now remembered solely for having a name that rhymes with curry.

I’m pretty sure I could go out on a limb and declare that I’m the only person in the world who has listened to a Ruby Murray song today. ‘Softly Softly’ is by far her most listened to song on Spotify, at 104,676 plays. A quick bit of maths, dividing that number by the 70 million total users on Spotify, gives you 0.00014 plays of ‘Softly Softly’ per user. And that’s after I’ve played it five times in the past half hour.

Still – it is pretty amazing that every single one of these prehistoric chart toppers is available nowadays at the click of a button. Had I tried to do this blog a decade or so earlier I would have had to rely on wading through weird re-recordings on YouTube, or to opening my laptop up to all sorts of viruses on Pirate Bay. Had I attempted this twenty or thirty years ago (before blogging existed, I know, but bear with me) I’d have had to spend a fortune in ‘Sounds of the 50s’ compilations. These are enlightened times in which we live. And there, that wasn’t such a short post after all.

28. ‘Mambo Italiano’, by Rosemary Clooney & The Mellomen

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Mambo Italiano, by Rosemary Clooney (her 2nd of two #1s) & the Mellomen

1 week, from 14th to 21st Jan / 2 Weeks, from 4th to 18th Feb 1955 (3 weeks total)

Just like that, Rosemary Clooney’s pops up again. She had two number ones, within a couple of months, and then she was done. (I’m being a little disingenuous here – she was a chart force for several years – but we are only concerning ourselves with number ones hits here, no room for second best).

And good old Rosie – her time at the top may have been fleeting, but at least she had a bit of fun while she was there. This is an even more frenzied bop than ‘This Ole House’. We start out with a bit of nonsense about a girl going back to Napoli, because she misses the scenery. And then… Hey Mambo!

On first listen I thought she was really singing in Italian, but she is just listing food: Hey mambo… try an enchilada with the fish bacalla and other cod-Italian phrases. Something something mozzarella, something something Calabrese… I think there’s a Como se dice in there. To be honest, Miss Clooney doesn’t know como se dice very much at all. And anyway, that’s Spanish. But it’s OK – you can’t help but want to dance to this. For the solo, the bouncy piano from ‘This Ole House’ returns, and it ends with a brilliant That’s Nice! OOH! As for ‘The Mellomen’… who knows? They do little more than your average ’50s backing singers – a few ‘Hey Mambo’s here and there – so I’m not sure why they got a credit. But, just like that, they have a UK Number One single.

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If this were released today, people might pick up on the gibberish mix of English and Italian, and the picture it paints of Italian-Americans, and they may perhaps view it in an unfavourable light. Remember how Justin Bieber got in trouble for singing about Doritos to the tune of ‘Despacito’? But actually, this is a song about a girl returning to a native land where she now feels confused and out of touch. The lyrics are meant to be mumbo-jumbo. We’re not meant to understand them… Kinda clever when you think about it.

The song also features the line: If you gonna be a square, you ain’t a-gonna go nowhere, ‘Square’, as far as I’m concerned, is the archetypal ’50s slang word: Be there or be square… You’re so square, baby I don’t care… So, while this is a mambo record, sung by an easy-listening singer-slash-actress, this is rock ‘n’ roll. It may be fun and funky, but it just about manages to retain an air of cool around all the silliness. While we were waiting for Bill Haley to come along and kick-off things off, the ideals and attitudes, if not the actual sounds, of rock ‘n’ roll were being sneaked in right under our noses.

As with her previous chart topper, I knew this song already. Most people do. I have vague memories of a late-90s remix. Plus, Miss Clooney is remembered nowadays as the aunt of housewives’ heartthrob George Clooney. But – remixes and celebrity descendants aside – we should all take a minute to appreciate her for the few weeks, in late ’54/early ’55, when she slapped a good dollop of fun into an otherwise pretty staid and stuffy UK singles chart.

27. ‘The Finger of Suspicion’, by Dickie Valentine with The Stargazers

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The Finger of Suspicion, by Dickie Valentine (his first of two #1s) with the Stargazers (their 3rd of 3 #1s)

1 week, from 7th to 14th Jan / 2 Weeks, from 21st Jan to 4th Feb 1955 (3 weeks total)

We race on into 1955 with a song that sounds like it could be very interesting. The Finger of Suspicion! Dickie Valentine calls out his unfaithful love. He knows what she did! And he’ll stand for it no longer!

Except, no. This isn’t an era of surprises, of shocks… of excitement (with a few notable exceptions). This is a cloying little love song, putting the ‘easy’ into easy-listening. The crimes for which the accusing finger points are things like stealing a beat or two from the singer’s heart, robbing him of sleep etc. etc… All very smooth, Dickie, but the title promised so much more.

Musically it’s right down the middle of the road. Not too dull; but far from thrilling. There are snatches of film-noir soundtrack between the verses, and an extremely sedate guitar-cum-trumpet solo. Peak pre-rock!

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the song – and perhaps I’m clutching at straws here – is that Dickie Valentine is a Brit who sings like an American. Bear with me… So far in the British chart-toppers corner we’ve had folks such as David Whitfield, Vera Lynn, and Eddie Calvert. All very proper, all very sedate, all very… pleasant. They’ve sang their number one hits in a restrained, decidedly British fashion. Calvert even played his trumpet in a restrained, decidedly British fashion. Whilst the Americans – the Frankie Laines, the Guy Mitchells, the Rosemary Clooneys – have all had a bit of a swagger about them. And Valentine, here, has clearly learned from them. He doesn’t have the greatest voice, but it’s a bit louche, and slightly knowing. He sounds like he’s having a good time singing this song. Even the name, Dickie Valentine, sounds fun and stagey (his real name was the far more prosaic Richard Maxwell). We are witnessing the birth of the British pop star here, the first in a long line of cheeky, yet loveable faces that ranges from Cliff to Olly Murs, via Rod Stewart and Robbie Williams. It’s a moment of some significance.

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Almost as interesting is the manner in which Valentine ends the song. It seems that we are set up for the big, overly-dramatic finish so beloved of this era’s biggest stars. The finger of suspicion – dum dum dum dum dum dum – you’re ready for it, no matter the fact that it won’t suit the song – and then we get an ever so gentle points… at… you… Expectations well and truly subverted.

We are, of course, meeting The Stargazers again as well. Their first chart-topper was dire, their second was bizarre, and their final one is this standard little ditty. In truth, they barely feature here, save for a few backing lines. You wouldn’t even know they were involved if they weren’t credited. When this hit the top they became the act with the most UK Number Ones – joint with Frankie Laine. Best leave them there. They won’t hold onto this record for long, and will soon fade into the mists of chart history as an act very much of their time.