65. ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, by Harry Belafonte


Mary’s Boy Child, by Harry Belafonte (his 1st and only #1)

7 weeks, from 22nd November 1957 – 10th January 1958

Must we?

Maybe it’s because we are approaching mid-summer as I sit down to this, but I am really not in the mood to write a post about a Christmas song… Especially a song as dull as this one.

You surely all know it: Long time ago, In Bethlehem, So the Holy Bible says… Mary had a baby – one Jesus H. Christ – and the herald angels sang. The shepherds saw a star. Man will live for ever more… So on and so forth…

I am potentially the most-irreligious person going and so, to avoid offending any sensibilities, I will refrain from any cynical interpretations of these lyrics. Plus, Harry Belafonte is a titan, both of pop music and of the Civil Rights Movement, and to belittle this song (his only appearance at the top of the UK charts) would be to belittle the seventy-year career of a ninety-one-year-old man, who has achieved more in life than most of us could ever hope to.

Actually, talking of the Civil Rights Movement, the most notable thing about this record is how black it is. And how Harry Belafonte becomes, five years after its inception, the first man of colour to top the UK singles chart. And considering the sheer number of black male artists who have topped the charts – some of the biggest names in popular music history – that’s a pretty cool trail to blaze. He’s of course not the very first black artist to reach the top… So far we’ve had Winifred Atwell playing old-fashioned, white, music hall tunes on her piano, and The Teenagers with Frankie Lymon giving us a good dollop of Doo-Wop. And that’s been it. The charts are still very white. But here, Belafonte sings in a Jamaican patois (a heavily diluted patois, but still). And lines like: While shepherds watch their flock by night, Them see a shining star… are almost subversive in their flaunting of proper grammar! This is technically a Calypso record, but I struggle to hear anything particularly Calypso-ish about the strings and violins that swirl around Belafonte’s voice.


Let’s treat this is an interlude, then – a moment’s respite from the advancing march of rock ‘n’ roll. The songs that top the charts at Christmas time are rarely reflective of current tastes (cough Cliff Richard cough cough Bob the Builder). Normal service will be resumed presently. Though to call this record’s stint at the top a ‘moment’ is a slight under-exaggeration (what is the opposite of an exaggeration?) It stayed there for seven weeks – hitting the top spot as early as the second last week in November! People clearly loved it.

Searching out the right version of this song has been a bit tough. Belafonte recorded various live versions, and an extended version in the early-60s, though the link below should be the song that topped the charts for Christmas ’57. But if you asked me what the best version of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ is, I’d have to say Boney M’s!


64. ‘That’ll Be the Day’, by The Crickets

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That’ll Be the Day, by The Crickets (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 1st – 22nd November 1957

That intro…

I wish I could describe it, or transcribe the notes onto the page, and somehow do it justice. But I can’t. It kind of rolls, kind of cascades, and kind of jangles. And yet does none of those things. Just click on the video link below and listen for yourselves, if you aren’t already familiar with one of the seminal moments in pop music history.

I’ve been using that word a lot recently: ‘seminal’. Maybe I’ve been over using it. But it’s just so easy to stick in as I go. Pretty much every second record we come across at the moment is ‘seminal’. And, to be fair, they’ve had enough time to become so. We are listening to songs that topped the charts sixty-one years ago. That’s more than enough time to become ingrained and cemented – and in some cases mummified – in the popular psyche. And I suppose this is why it’s so common to compare old music favourably to its modern counterparts, because we grow up with these totems of musical history – the Elvis’s, the Holly’s, the ‘Rock Around the Clocks’ – and current pop stars are easy to cast as Johnny-come-lately copycats. But who knows? As I write this post the current UK #1 single is ‘Shotgun’, by George Ezra. And there’s every chance that that will be just as revered as ‘That’ll Be the Day’ in sixty-one years’ time. Every chance…

Anyway – to the record. That intro draws us into a song about – on first listen – a guy who hopes his love’ll never leave ‘im. Well, that’ll be the day when you say goodbye, That’ll be the day when you make me cry, You say you’re gonna leave, You know it’s a lie, Cos that’ll be the day-y-y, When I die… Except, wait a sec. He isn’t blindly hoping his girl sticks around; he’s pretty confident about it. He ‘knows it’s a lie’. You sit and hold me, And you tell me boldly, That some day I’ll be blue… Nope, Buddy says. That’ll be the day! The song title is actually a challenge: challenging his girl to even think about breaking up with him. Compare lyrics – if you dare – with Eddie Fisher’s ‘Outside of Heaven’, from way back in January 1953, to see just how far pop music has come in under five years. This is an arrogant record, a sexy record. This is rock ‘n’ roll!


Buddy Holly’s voice dances and flirts – plays, almost – with the listener. He coos, he pauses, he growls. I mentioned in my last recap that the rock ‘n’ roll records which we’ve featured so far have focused on the singer, rather than the band. Not here. The Crickets play tightly, but also very loosely. There’s a great, rough-around-the-edges feel to this record that contrasts greatly with the polished cheese of Paul Anka’s ‘Diana’, whose bumper run at the top this track ended. We have a solo, which is just as jangly as the intro, and I love the drums – especially in the second verse and final chorus: When Cupid shot his dart, He shot it at ya heart, So if we ever part, Then I’ll leave you… BA DOOM DOOM!

I’m going to term this period in music as the ‘2nd Wave of Rock ‘n’ Roll.’ We’ve had Elvis, now we’ve had Buddy. Whereas as earlier it was the oldies jumping on the rock ‘n’ roll bandwagon – your Kay Starr’s, your Johnnie Ray’s and your Guy Mitchell’s – now we are getting kids who have been weaned on rock, who’ve grown up and formed their bands knowing nothing but this cool new music. And ‘That’ll Be the Day’ is the perfect poster-song for this new movement – four kids from Texas playing their own songs, fast and loose.

As with Elvis, I know the music of Buddy Holly pretty well. When I was about twenty I – as everyone really should – bought his Greatest Hits and took it home to hear how modern pop music was invented. And I’d love to wax lyrical on him, but I’ll hold back for the simple fact that we’ll be hearing from him again soon. He’ll be dead by that time, but he will at least have one last hurrah at the top of the UK Singles charts (he should have had around twenty hurrahs, but that’s a story for another day…) The Crickets, though, will not be back at the top of the charts again and so I would recommend that you go away and listen to, in no particular order, ‘Oh Boy!’, ‘Maybe Baby’, ‘Not Fade Away’ and ‘It’s So Easy’. And anybody who thinks I’m exaggerating when I say that so much of modern pop lies in the two minutes twenty seconds of this record should listen to the ‘ooh-hoos’ Holly delivers at the end. The Beatles spent their first two years ripping that trick off.

It is nice, though, that so many of the major rock ‘n’ rollers of the 1950s are getting a moment in the sun (i.e. the chance to feature in this countdown). The Crickets just now, while Buddy Holly will also get a solo turn. Bill Haley’s been. Jerry Lee is up soon. Chuck Berry will get there eventually (how I am looking forward to writing about that particular number one!) There are some glaring omissions, though: no Little Richard, no Fats Domino, no Gene Vincent… The chart Fates can be cruel.

They wouldn’t have dared, however, keep a record as immense as ‘That’ll Be the Day’ from the top.

63. ‘Diana’, by Paul Anka


Diana, by Paul Anka (his 1st and only #1)

9 weeks, from 30th August – 1st November 1957

In which we encounter the best opening line in pop music history. Or is it the worst? I can’t really tell…

Paul loves Diana, and has written a song for her. How does he begin said paean to his one true love? What is his grand opening declaration? It’s: I’m so young and you’re so old, This my darling I’ve been told…

Phew! I’ll bet there was no holding Diana back after she heard that. And the lyrics that follow aren’t much better. You and I will be as free, As the birds up in the trees… I love you with all my heart, And I hope that we will never part… Hold me darling, Hold me tight, Squeeze me darling with all your might… (If I could add a puking emoji right here, I would) This is pure pop-song-as-love-letter-written-by-fifteen-year-old. Elsewhere ‘me’ is rhymed with ‘see’, ‘my lover’ with ‘no other’ and ‘arms’ with ‘charms’… It’s by far the tritest, most banal, utterly cheesiest song we’ve met in this countdown.

But wait… It turns out that this song, which sounds like it was written by a randy fifteen-year-old, was written by… a randy fifteen-year-old! (OK, Paul Anka was sixteen when it was recorded and seventeen by the time it hit #1, but for the purposes of this next paragraph lets imagine he wrote it in his bedroom, aged fifteen). See, Paul had a crush on a girl at church, called Diana, and was thus inspired to write a song entitled ‘Diana’. Simple! Quite how old ‘so old’ is I can’t find any info on. She was probably only nineteen, but part of me really hopes Diana was a forty-five-year-old cougar.


Musically this record is super-diluted rock ‘n’ roll. It sounds like a pastiche of rock ‘n’ roll as recorded for the ‘Grease’ soundtrack. There’s a cheesy sax riff and some ‘doobeedoobees’ from the backing singers. Actually, to refer to this as a ‘rock’ song sounds ridiculous – I take back that last sentence. This is pure, bubblegum pop – a genre we haven’t seen too much of so far (strangely enough for the pop charts) – and I’d put it along with ‘Dreamboat’ and ‘Look at That Girl’, and perhaps ‘Butterfly’, as the purest ‘pop’ chart-toppers thus far.

Earlier I described Guy Mitchell’s ‘Rock-A-Billy’ as a sherbet dib-dab of a song – a song that you can’t resist despite knowing that it cannot be good for you. Well, if that was a sherbet dib-dab, then listening to ‘Diana’ is like drowning in a swimming pool filled with Coca-Cola. And, just as with ‘Rock-A-Billy’, as much as you want to dislike this utter cheese-fest it worms its way in and doesn’t let go. You’ll be belting it out in the shower after a couple of listens, trust me. Then again, I am a sucker for a catchy hook and a silly-but-simple lyric. It’s harder than you think to write a song like this, I’ve heard…

Anka’s voice is pretty strong too – it simultaneously sounds like the voice of a fifteen-year-old, and that of a middle-aged bloke. And by the time he belts out the champagne line: OOOOH, pleeeeeaaasseee stay-eee by me… Diana… you’re won over. Actually, the way he lowers his voice to sing her name does indeed sound like a kid trying to impress an older woman. It’s quite clever, in a way. Anka won’t have any more #1s, but when you’re debut single hits the top and stays there for nine weeks do you really need any more? He’s had a long chart career but is perhaps more famous as a songwriter, having written ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ for Buddy Holly and ‘She’s a Lady’ for Tom Jones. Oh, and ‘My Way.’ So he did alright for himself in the end.

To end, it’s perhaps worth noting how quickly rock ‘n’ roll has diversified since Bill Haley announced its arrival at the top of the charts. In quick succession we’ve had the raw, proto-punk of Lonnie Donegan, a low-key and slightly tropical sounding debut for Elvis Presley, and now this. After a run of very samey sounding #1s, we are getting a little more variety at the top. And I’m excited to hear what will come next!

62. ‘All Shook Up’, by Elvis Presley


All Shook Up, by Elvis Presley (his 1st of twenty-one #1s)

7 weeks, from 12th July – 30th August 1957

And so it begins…

Between the 12th July 1957 and the 6th February 2005, Elvis Presley will score 21 UK #1 singles… (The most any artist we’ve met so far has managed is four). He will spend 80 weeks at #1, 386 weeks in the Top 10, 1062 weeks in the Top 40, 1304 weeks in the Top 75… And that’s before we get started on the albums chart… Elvis won’t just dominate the UK charts; he’ll hump their brains out.

I feel like whatever way I introduce the ultimate pop star (rock star, performer, King of Whatever) it won’t be enough. I’ve already struggled to set the scene for Sinatra, and I’m sure I’ll struggle similarly when it comes to The Beatles, Michael Jackson and co. Best thing is, I think, to just jump straight into the song.

‘All Shook Up’ is actually a fairly low key start for Elvis. There’s a roly-poly riff, a little Hawaiian guitar and someone slapping on a cardboard box (?). There’s no solo, no change of pace, and it’s over inside two minutes. Although I knew what to expect from this song, it does sound a little underwhelming as the record that announced ELVIS PRESLEY’S!! ARRIVAL at the top of the charts. (Of course, this was far from being his debut single – it was Presley’s 7th Top Ten appearance – and I can’t help feeling that some of the singles that went before, such as ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Hound Dog’ or ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, would have made much more of a statement as his first #1).

What the minimalist production does do, however, is show off Elvis’s voice to perfection. We’ve got the now iconic I’m all shook up – uh huh huh… which impersonators will be doing dodgy copies of until the end of time. We’ve also got the beautiful moment at the end of either verse (not that this song really has ‘verses’, but still) when the instruments pause and we are left with nothin’ but Elvis: My heart beats so an’ it scares a-me to death…

My favourite bit of the whole song, though, comes towards the end. And it’s not a lyric or a guitar lick or anything like that. For a song that’s about the feeling of being in love, and of being all shaken up from falling in love, the lyrics are quite tame. Lots of knees shakin’ and tongues gettin’ tied and so on. But just before the second last I’m all shook up, in a moment of silence, Elvis lets out a little grunt – a tiny little orgasmic sigh – and in that moment we catch the merest whiff of the scandalous Elvis: the Elvis that was causing a moral panic, ‘Elvis the Pelvis’ who couldn’t be shown from below the waist on TV.


I suppose I should state from the beginning that I know every one of Elvis’s chart-toppers very well. There will be no surprises as far as he’s concerned. I bought my first Greatest Hits when I was around sixteen and never looked back and, while I don’t listen to him as often as I used to, he’s been a pretty constant part of my life’s soundtrack for near twenty years. But it will be interesting to listen to these records in a more critical way, to dissect them as the little pieces of history that they are.

Of course, there’s the well-trodden argument that even by 1957 Elvis had sold-out. Purists will tell you that he recorded all his best, his rawest and most compelling singles, during the Sun years, before he signed to RCA. And there’s some truth to that. There’s also some (a lot?) of truth to the notion that he recorded some utter drivel in the 1960s. But it would be criminal to discount the late-50s singles – utter cornerstones of pop music the lot of them – many of which we will be encountering on this countdown erelong. And ‘All Shook Up’ – while it has never been one of my favourites – deserves its place amongst them…


61. ‘Gamblin’ Man’ / ‘Puttin’ on the Style’, by Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group

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Gamblin’ Man / Puttin’ on the Style, by Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group (their 2nd of three #1s)

2 weeks, from 28th June – 12th July 1957

Kicking off Part III, we come across our first double ‘A’ -side. What to do here…?

To be honest, what with me being a bit young to remember the days when vinyl was the only way to consume music rather than the expensive self-indulgence it is now, I’ve never really understood the concept of a double ‘A’-side. Who decided that the ‘B’-side on a particular record was suddenly the equal of the main single? The artist? The record label? The DJs?

Double ‘A’-sides were still a ‘thing’ long into the 2000s. The final chart topping double ‘A’ was ‘Baby’s Coming Back / Transylvania’ by McFly in 2007, while I vaguely remember Oasis – with the sort of absurd bravado that Oasis did so well – releasing a triple ‘A’-side circa 2002. So it is something we’ll encounter pretty often on this countdown.

I suppose the only thing to do here is to give each song equal weighting, while trying to keep the post down to the usual length. Wish me luck…

‘Gamblin’ Man’ sees Lonnie Donegan giving us more ‘Muricana a la his last chart-topper, ‘Cumberland Gap’. He’s gambled down in Washington, and he’s gambled up in Maine… It gets off to a slow start, and never quite reaches the frenzied levels of ‘Cumberland Gap’, but it’s still another decent slice of up-tempo skiffle.

It turns out that the ladies love the Gamblin’ Man, while parents are less keen… She said Oh mother, mother, I’m in love with a gamblin’ man…  She said Oh daughter, daughter, How could you treat me so, And with that gambler go… Then we get to the solo, and one of my favourite things in the world happens: Donegan announces the guitarist with an ‘How ’bout Jimmy!’ Jimmy then does the business. In my opinion, every guitar solo should be ‘announced’ by the lead singer and, again in my opinion, the best example of this comes in Poison’s ‘Talk Dirty to Me’, when Bret Michaels screams ‘CC, pick up that guitar and a-talk to me!’

Anyways, back to 1957. The end of the song sees the line I’m a gamblin’ man man man… repeated many times until it becomes something of a rhythmic, almost hypnotic, chant. And then it finishes and lots of people cheer. Oh! I’ve been listening to a live version… Was this, then, the version that topped the charts? Quick check… Wiki says ‘Yes.’ It was recorded at the London Palladium. It speaks volumes about either the quality of Donegan and his band’s performance, or the generally poor quality of recording equipment used in every previous chart-topper, that I didn’t notice it was live until the cheers came in at the end. But it’s our very first live-recorded #1, as well as our very first double ‘A’-side. We’re pushing boundaries here, people!


‘Puttin’ on the Style’ is a mellower number altogether. Is that a banjo I hear before me? The lyrics concern kids putting on an act to impress others: girls giggling and flirting, boys driving around in ‘hot-rod’ cars (with driving gloves borrowed from their fathers). Very rock ‘n’ roll. But it’s a simple song: a ditty, a nursery rhyme even. I mentioned in the entry on ‘Cumberland Gap’ that Donegan had merged US rockabilly with the UK music halls, and this song is very heavy on the latter: Puttin’ on the agony, Puttin’ on the style, That’s what all the young folks are doin’ all the while… But Lonnie isn’t one to judge: And as I look around me, I sometimes have to smile, Seein’ all the young folks, Puttin on the style…

The final verse is the most interesting one. Attention turns to a preacher scaring the bejesus out of his congregation with tales of ol’ Nick and the fiery pits. Now you might think it’s Satan, Comin’ down the aisle, But it’s only our poor preacher boy, Who’s puttin’ on the style… Irreligious? Controversial for 1957? I’m sure the BBC wouldn’t have playlisted it, but there doesn’t seem to be any record of an uproar. What with that, and the mild glorification of gambling on the flip-side, times were certainly changing.

‘Puttin’ on the Style’ is another live-recording, and the crowd roar appreciatively come the end. As with ‘Cumberland Gap’, I love that this topped the charts; but I don’t love the song(s). I love that it’s rock ‘n’ roll, that there’s an irreverent, slightly anarchic edge to the songs, and that it’s a thoroughly British interpretation of this new style of music. But Donegan’s voice is just a bit irritating. Nasal and whiny…

He’ll be back at the top of the charts, but not for a while yet, so we’ll leave him here at the forefront of the rock vanguard. It will be interesting to see how he sounds when his next #1 comes along, in an altogether different decade!

60. ‘Yes Tonight, Josephine’, by Johnnie Ray

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Yes Tonight, Josephine, by Johnnie Ray (his 3rd and final #1)

3 weeks, from 7th – 28th June 1957

We’re picking up pace again with the 60th #1, after an ever-so-slight respite under the poppier grooves of Andy William’s ‘Butterfly’, as Johnnie Ray takes us a-rockin’ and a-rollin’ on his final (sob!) chart topper.

Promise me your lips are mine, Josephine tonight’s the time, I will squeeze and hold you tight, Pack each kiss with dynamite…

This is pure rock ‘n’ roll territory – squeezing (!) holding (!), dynamite kisses (!). I noted way back when, during the post on Ray’s first #1, ‘Such a Night’, that the raunchy lyrics and suggestive groaning would have been outrageous, and shocking, for the time. That was only three years ago – in May 1954 – but it already seems a long way off. By the summer of ’57, rock ‘n’ roll was here to stay and lyrics about ‘tonight being the night’ were very much par for the course.

Everything, Josephine, will be alright… I’m gonna give my lips to you, Don’t ask me if I want you ‘cos you know I do… Yes tonight, Josephine! Yes, tonight! Little imagination is required to imagine what will be happening ‘tonight’. Not a quiet game of Canasta, that’s for sure.

The rest of the lyrics are rather throwaway: I’ll be Jack and you’ll be Jill, I have loved you from the start, Kiss me quick – knock me out… I used the term ‘basic’ for the previous number one and I’m reluctant to use it again here BUT, as much as I love Johnnie Ray, this isn’t his most innovative recording. It’s fun, perky and a very worthy attempt at jumping on the rock ‘n’ roll bandwagon, but it’s not in the same league as ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain’, which in turn was a step down from the seminal ‘Such a Night.’


Ray, too, sings it like he is aware of this. He doesn’t give it quite the same oomph as his earlier chart toppers. And while I know I mention it every time our Johnnie comes up… he was, after all, gay. And, if you are as gay as the day, then you aren’t going to put as much into a song about a ‘Josephine’ as you would into a song about a ‘Jonathan’, are you? Maybe that’s got something to do with Ray’s somewhat detached performance here? Or maybe he knew it just wasn’t as good a song…?

The best thing here, by far, is the backing singers. Backing singers have played a huge part in the history of the UK’s earliest chart topping singles; much more of a role than they play these days (does anyone have backing singers anymore?) Anyway, whereas most backing singers have been there for some oohs, aahs and the occasional bum-de-dum, Ray’s backers give us a – wait for it: Yip-yip-way-pa-de-boom-diddy-boom-diddy! At least, I think that’s what they’re giving us. There’s no way to be completely sure. But it’s utterly glorious.

If we include ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain’ and ‘Yes Tonight, Josephine’, then we have now had nine consecutive chart-toppers which have all been variations on a rock ‘n’ roll theme. Never before have we seen such consistency in terms of the genre and style of our number one hits. Plus, they have all been recorded by male soloists and they have all been pretty much the same length: the trusty 2.5-minute pop single has suddenly appeared over the past few months. Plus, if we extend the reach to include Frankie Laine’s ‘A Woman in Love’ – which wasn’t a rock song – then I cannot think of ten chart-toppers I have enjoyed discovering and listening to as much these most recent discs. A Magic 10! I know I’ve called out the more recent ones for being a little basic, and Tab Hunter’s ‘Young Love’ was super-soppy; but when I think back to the depths of the pre-rock days I’d be lying if I said I’m not glad they’re long behind us! As this is the 60th #1, a recap will be up next, so I don’t want to go into much more detail than this – suffice to say that, glancing ahead, the run of rockers is set to continue for a while and – to be honest – long may it last!

I’ll end, then, by giving Johnnie Ray a big send-off. Out of all the artists we’ve covered on this countdown, he’s the one I knew the best and had already listened to extensively. He’s great, and it’s a crime that he never gets included in the list of the great early rock ‘n’ rollers. Beyond the three songs that made it to the top of the UK Charts I’d strongly suggest clicking on the links below and enjoying: his huge breakthrough hit ‘Cry’, ‘Let’s Walk That-a-Way’ – a sparkly duet with Doris Day, his cover of ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’, and ‘You Don’t Owe Me a Thing’ – a track released in between his final two chart-toppers, during this glorious spring of rock ‘n’ roll.

His popularity waned dramatically from 1959 onwards, especially in his native US and, while the same fate befell many stars of the forties and fifties once Elvis and then The Beatles had come along, it also had a lot to do with Ray’s homosexuality becoming more and more of an open secret-slash-scandal. He was also an alcoholic, and his addiction spiralled during the leaner years. He died in 1990. Our friend Kay Starr spoke at his funeral, while Tony Bennett described him as the ‘Father of Rock and Roll’. I couldn’t agree more.

59. ‘Butterfly’, by Andy Williams


Butterfly, by Andy Williams (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 24th May – 7th June 1957

Our latest chart topping single has it all: handclaps, finger-clicks, whistling, lots of bum-bum-bums and doo-waas from the backing singers… the whole shebang! The perky guitars and drums that have accompanied us over the past half-dozen #1s also remain. It’s a little gentler than ‘Cumberland Gap’ and a little poppier than ‘Rock-A-Billy’, but ‘Butterfly’ is undeniably a rock ‘n’ roll record.

The lyrics compare a girl to a butterfly because, well, she likes ‘flying around’ – if you catch my drift… You tell me you love me, You say you’ll be true, Then you fly around, With somebody new, But I’m crazy about you, You butterfly…

We’ve had lots (and lots) of references to unrequited love in the previous fifty-eight number ones, but the girls in songs like ‘Answer Me’ were simply described as being hard to get, as untouchable angels, paragons of female virtue. This is the first time we’ve had a girl described as something of a floozy. And Andy Williams, try as he might, can’t get over her: I knew from the first time I kissed you, That you were the troublin’ kind, Cos the honey that drips, From your sweet lips, One taste and I’m outta my mind…

But, he doesn’t plan on waiting. Male singers stoically waiting around for their love to notice them hasn’t been in vogue since mid-’55. No, no, no – that ain’t cool no more! These days they either wallow – see ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain’ – or they take action – see Mr. Williams here: I love you so much, I know what I’ll do, I’m clippin’ your wings, Your flyin’ is through… That’s a slightly sinister metaphor, isn’t it? ‘Clipping’ his girlfriend’s ‘wings’… But hey, you could get away with that sort of thing in 1957.


Andy William’s has a slightly softer voice than some of the male singers we’ve been hearing from recently, and this softens the song’s impact a little. You can imagine a singer with a real rasp in his voice turning ‘Butterfly’ into a proper rocker. As it is, it’s a fine little track that doesn’t outstay its welcome, but it’s a little… basic? Six months into the rock ‘n’ roll revolution and songwriters/performers are perhaps already resting on their laurels, churning out production-line hits.

Or maybe that’s a bit harsh. Williams is much better known – to me at least – for more easy-listening, cocktail lounge records such as ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, ‘Music to Watch Girls By’ and ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ (one of those songs that drives you a little bit mental in shopping centres every Christmas.) He didn’t stick with the rock ‘n’ roll for long, it seems, which was probably a wise decision as it prevented him from being tarred with that particular brush, and allowed his chart career to extend well into the 1970s.

But ‘Butterfly’ was his sole UK chart topper. Like Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Bill Haley et al before him, he ticks ‘Get a UK Number One’ off his to-do list pretty early on in his career. And, as with those other luminaries, it seems only right that he had his moment at the top. He’s undeniably a legend of popular music, whose recordings remain admired today. Case in point: a decade ago I spent six months teaching in Thailand, and one of the most popular songs when my Thai colleagues dug the karaoke machine out – which was very, very often – was ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’. I somehow doubt they’d heard of ‘Butterfly’, though. Which is a shame, I suppose.

58. ‘Rock-A-Billy’, by Guy Mitchell

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Rock-a-Billy, by Guy Mitchell (his 4th and final #1)

1 week, from 17th – 24th May 1957

Part 58, in which Guy Mitchell scores his latest UK #1 single with a rockabilly record entitled… ‘Rock-a-Billy.’ Imagine if Eminem were to release a song called ‘Rap’, or Ed Sheeran were to record one called ‘Bland Shite’ – that’s where we are right now. This is a record that does exactly what it says on the tin.

It’s another fast-paced chart topper – not quite as frantic as ‘Cumberland Gap’, but then what is? – that rolls along on jaunty guitars and a Winifred Atwell-esque piano. While lyrically it takes the term ‘generic’ to new levels. This is a song about a man and his love for rock ‘n’ roll music, to which the chorus goes:

Rockabilly, rockabilly, rockabilly, rock… Rockabilly, rockabilly, rock, rock, rock… Rockabilly, rockabilly, rockabilly, rock… Rockabilly, rockabilly… Rock! Rock!

Anyone who claims that modern pop is dumbed-down nonsense; point them in the direction of this record. The verses aren’t much more highbrow. There’s some silliness about the history of rockabilly music – it came from Tennessee, spread on out to the lone prairie – and then a lot of advice on how to dance to this crazy new music:

From the moment that you feel this crazy beat, You gotta lose control of your two left feet, Give me mountain juice, Turn me loose, Leave me wave my arms about…

It’s the latest song in a growing list where I’ve had to look the lyrics up online, rather than transcribe them by simply listening to them, as Guy Mitchell does a good bit of growling and slurring. (Actually, if you listen to his first chart-topper, back in 1953, and now this, Mitchell’s voice does have a harder edge – perhaps he was altering it to fit the style of the time? Or maybe he was just getting older?) Plus… is that reference to ‘mountain juice’ the first mention of alcohol, of drugs, of any kind of intoxicant in a UK Number One Single? I think it might just be… We truly are rockin’ and rollin’!

However, although I’m bandying terms like ‘generic’ and ‘silliness’ around, I wouldn’t want anyone to think for a second that I don’t like this song. It’s great. It’s dumb. It’s fun. I like it like how I like sherbet dib-dabs: I know there are ‘better’ foodstuffs to shove down my gullet, but I know I wouldn’t enjoy them half as much. It is a song that I dare anyone to dislike, a song that’s programmed to hit all the most primal happiness receptors in your brain. It’s got four key-changes, for God’s sake! The best bit of all is the bridge, which strangely comes right at the end, and which is positively life-affirming: You know what rockabilly’s all about, You know it’s gonna make you sing and shout, You know you’re gonna act like a crazy fool, Who cares? It’s cool! Yes, dance people! Dance like no one’s watching. Guy says so!


We have to bid farewell to Mr. Mitchell here, following this short encore at the top of the charts. And I have to admit that I’ll miss searching for pictures of his handsome face to add to these posts. His first chart-topper was… interesting, but the subsequent three – ‘Look at That Girl’, ‘Singing the Blues’ and now this – can legitimately go down as classics of the early rock ‘n’ roll/pop crossover. Few, if any, artists can claim to have been as consistently popular throughout the 1950s as Guy Mitchell: he had his first US Top 10 single in 1950 and his last in 1959. And we leave him here as the man with the joint most UK #1s, a record which he’ll hold for a couple more years.

Anyway, I’m on my seventh listen of ‘Rock-a-Billy’ as I type this sentence, and with every listen I like it more. I’d better stop before I begin claiming that it’s the best song ever recorded. One final thought, though: it’s telling that the biggest stars of this fledgling ‘rock age’, at least in UK chart terms, were Guy Mitchell and Johnnie Ray – two already very established artists who jumped on the rockin’ bandwagon and started scoring huge hits once again. A case of mass-appeal, perhaps? The kids liked the cool new music, while mum and dad trusted good ol’ Guy to keep it respectable? More respectable than arrivistes like Elvis, Chuck and Little Richard at least? Not that this will last long, but still. An interesting mini-era in rock music: the oldies outselling the upstarts.

57. ‘Cumberland Gap’, by Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group


Cumberland Gap, by Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group (their 1st of three #1s)

5 weeks, from 12th April – 17th May 1957

I take it all back, what I said in my last post: we are rockin’ and a-rollin’ again. In a very British kind of way. With a very American song.

I’ll explain all that in a minute, but let me start by mentioning the fact that this is a blistering little record. Two minutes of lean, mean, frantic rock. Or more specifically, skiffle. For which read: ‘British Rock ‘n’ Roll’. I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll no doubt mention it again, but this is the best thing about a countdown of records based on sales alone: that songs like ‘Cumberland Gap’ can follow on from songs like ‘Young Love’. One follows the other, like night follows day; polar opposites of one another but somehow eternally linked.

The guitar starts lightly, then grows, along with the bass and the drums, before Lonnie Donegan’s voice comes in. Singing about something called ‘the Cumberland Gap’. I say ‘something’, because whatever it is isn’t immediately clear from all his squealing and squawking: Well the Cumberland Gap, Cumberland Gap, Fifteen miles on the Cumberland Gap… The Cumberland Gap, Ain’t nowhere, Fifteen miles from Middleburgh…

Note that it’s Middleburgh, not Middlesbrough. We’re in the US, here – with all the yee-hahs and yodels that that entails. But then we take a strange turn, and it all goes a bit East-End music-hall: Well I got a girl, Six feet tall, Sleeps in the kitchen with her feet in the hall… Two old ladies, Sittin’ in the sand, Each one wishin’ that the other was a man…

What this girl and these old women have to do with the ‘Cumberland Gap’ isn’t expanded upon, and Donegan doesn’t hang around either. The lyrics are replaced by straight up screams and a frenetic solo. The song ends with a verse that is just da-dee-dee-dees and a mumbled something about how much he loves ya baby, and then the song title is repeated several times – loud, then quiet, then VERY LOUD and then boom. Done. Phew! You can see why some learned types have referred to this as the first ever punk record.


I have to admit – I’m not sure that I love this record. It’s a bit much. But I do love that it spent five weeks at the top of the UK Singles Charts in the spring of 1957. That the public’s taste in music had evolved enough to allow a song which is essentially a lot of screaming and mumbling such an extended moment in the sun. And I take back what I said about rock being dead, deader than dead. It’s obviously not. I overreacted.

Before I finish, I had to find out what in God’s name the Cumberland Gap actually is. Turns out it’s a mountain pass, located at the convergence of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, which allowed old American frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone to pass across the Appalachian Mountains and conquer the wilderness that was The Wild West. Add this, then, to the list, alongside ‘The Man from Laramie’, ‘Hey Joe’, Slim Whitman and Tennessee Ernie Ford, as the latest piece of Americana to find a place at the top of the charts. Was it exoticism? Was it envy? Why were we so obsessed with America? Perhaps we still are.

However, knowing what the Cumberland Gap is has gone no distance in helping me work out what the hell this song is about. As a song it had been around since at least the mid-to-late 19th Century as a folk ditty. Wikipedia mentions lyrics about ‘taking naps’ in the Cumberland Gap, and ‘raising hell’ in the Cumberland Gap, but nothing about six-feet tall women. Perhaps Donegan added those verses himself, and in doing so created the perfect fusion of American rockabilly and British silliness.

We’ll hear from Lonnie Donegan again, and soon. So I won’t delve too deeply into his back-story. ‘Cumberland Gap’ was only his fourth hit single in a chart career that would stretch deep into the sixties and which would bring great success. It is worth noting, though, that he was born in Glasgow and so, after having had an Italian, a Cuban, a Trinidadian and tons of Americans already top the charts, the 57th UK #1 single goes to a Scot.

56. ‘Young Love’, by Tab Hunter

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Young Love, by Tab Hunter (his 1st and only #1)

7 weeks, from 22nd February – 12th April 1957

I’ve been bigging up the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll to the top of the UK charts for so long – especially back when we were plodding through all those dreary, brow-furrowingly earnest pre-rock ballads – that this next statement goes against every instinct I have…

By the time it got to the top of the UK charts, rock ‘n’ roll was over. Finished. Defunct. Obsolete.

I recently claimed that the rock era began on 11th January 1957, when bona fide teen-idol Tommy Steele sneered his way to a week at the top. I’m now claiming that the rock era ended on 22nd February 1957, when this limp little record grabbed a scandalous seven weeks at the top.

Because, by God this is bland! That this made it into the record books before Elvis, before Buddy Holly, before Jerry Lee and all the rest doesn’t make sense. It is a rock ‘n’ roll record – there’s a guitar riff and solo, drums, oohs and aahs and all the rest. Plus, the lyrics are all about two kids falling in love for the first time. And it’s called ‘Young Love’!

They say for every boy and girl there’s just one love in this whole world, And I-I-I know I’ve found mine… Young love, First love, Filled with true devotion…

But it’s delivered in such a soppy way that I refuse to acknowledge this as any kind of rock and/or roll. Tab Hunter’s voice is deep and sonorous, but in pictures he looks like the all-American boy next door: rosy-cheeks, blonde curls, blue eyes, church on Sundays, part-time job in the gas station. Your mum would have liked him as much as she would have disliked Tommy Steele. I can imagine a young Cliff Richard taking notes as he planned his assault on stardom a couple of years later (and there are a lot of similarities between Hunters voice here and Cliff’s on, say, ‘Living Doll’). And note the role-reversal – now it’s the Americans giving us staid and boring while the Brits grin and wink! Fittingly, this was #1 on the day my mum was born. I say ‘fittingly’, because she has just about the blandest taste in music going (and is a huge fan of Sir Clifford of Richard).


And that’s about it. The shortest entry yet. At least, that was going to be it… Until I did my customary Wikipedia-based research about Tab Hunter. Turns out this American-as-apple-pie captain-of-the-school-football-team was – dum dum dum – gay! Is gay, he’s still alive, aged eighty-six. He had to cover it up for most of his career, obviously, and had fake flings with Debbie Reynolds and Natalie Wood among others to throw the newspapers off the scent. Which adds a bittersweet layer to his one and only UK chart topping single, and the lines about boys and girls falling in love.

I’ve listened to ‘Young Love’ several times now, trying to find something to like about – I usually love me a bit of rock ‘n’ roll – but I can’t do it. It’s insipid. And so that’s it. Rock is dead. If it ever existed. Obviously, the top of the pop charts is never the place to look for cutting edge music, but I’m surprised there wasn’t a bit more of an explosion, with some real rockers, before the sell-out began. Or maybe I should just accept that lines were always blurred, that rockabilly merged with blues which had merged with jazz which had merged with the music of the cotton fields to create rock ‘n’ roll over several decades, and not in an afternoon. No more attempting to pinpoint the birth of a musical movement to a particular record.

Anyway, in my next post… The moment skiffle was born!

(Edit: Tab Hunter sadly passed away shortly after this post was published. The Guardian published this obituary, touching on some of the themes mentioned above.)