84. ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’, by Buddy Holly

First, a bit of history… On February 2nd 1959, a group of popular rock ‘n’ roll stars played a show in Clear Lake, Iowa, as part of ‘The Winter Dance Party’ tour. In order to avoid a long, cold bus journey to their next concert in Moorhead, Minnesota, some of the musicians chartered a plane. Though the weather that night was poor, the visibility terrible and the pilot unqualified to fly using only instruments, they took off regardless and minutes after take-off, just gone 1am on the morning of the 3rd, the plane slammed into a cornfield. All four aboard were killed instantly. They were the pilot Roger Peterson, J.P. Richardson (AKA The Big Bopper), Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly.

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It Doesn’t Matter Anymore, by Buddy Holly (his 1st and only solo #1)

3 weeks, from 24th April – 15th May 1959

All of which means that the eighty-fourth UK #1 single is the first ever to do so posthumously. Released a couple of weeks after Holly’s death, and hitting the top a full two months later, ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ gives The Father of Modern Pop Music (I know, I know, I’ve literally just made this title up; but I dare you to challenge me on it!) one final hurrah. Would it have topped the listings anyway – given that Holly was only twenty-two when he died and at the peak of his powers? Maybe… The manner in which it meandered up the charts suggests that this wasn’t some flash in the pan reaction to his death, while the peak positions of his previous two singles (#17 and #30) beg to suggest otherwise.

To the song… Some people make a lot of the rather nihilistic title as being somehow appropriate in the wake of his death. But it wasn’t suicide; so that’s always seemed a slightly strange angle to view this record from. No, this is a song about a break up: There you go and baby, Here am I, Well you’ve left me here, So I could sit and cry, We-ell golly-gee, What have you done to me, Well I guess it doesn’t matter anymore… His girl’s up and left him, but Buddy’s putting on a brave face: There’s no use in me a-cryin’, I’ve done everything and now I’m sick of tryin’, I’ve thrown away my nights, And wasted all my days over you…

The lines come thick and fast, the song rattles to a conclusion in a mere two minutes, and in the end BH has decided to shrug it off and move on: You go your way and, I’ll go mine, Now and forever till the end of time, I’ll find, Somebody new and baby, We’ll say we’re through, And you won’t matter anymore…

And it’s not what you would immediately imagine a Buddy Holly record to sound like. The only instruments here are violins and a lightly-tickled guitar – far removed from his more recognisable rock ‘n’ roll hits like ‘Oh Boy!’ and ‘Rave On’. Plus, despite all his fame as a songwriter and composer, this record was actually written by our friend Paul Anka.

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Despite the minimalist instrumental accompaniment and the fact that he didn’t write it, Holly still makes this record his own. Because? That voice. In the space of two minutes he finds room for all the tricks in his repertoire. Hiccups (…over you-ou-ou-ou-Ah-hoo…), snarls, times when his voice has a deep, gloopy quality and times when it is light as a feather. For all his talents as a guitarist and composer, Mr. Holly was a pretty decent singer too. And in the context of Buddy Holly’s solo songs, away from The Crickets, this slips in nicely along with other non-guitar led tracks such as ‘Everyday’, ‘Raining in My Heart’, and ‘True Love Ways’ (I know I’m going a bit link-heavy, but really everyone should take a moment out of their days to appreciate What Buddy Did For Us. Not for nothing did acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones start out by playing covers of his songs…)

You could also argue that this is, as well as being the first posthumous #1, the first ‘popular band member gone solo’ chart-topper. OK, ok, this was nowhere near Buddy Holly’s first single release as a solo-act but still… The fact that he did it paved the way for, let me see… Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, George Michael, Sting, Robbie, Geri, Zayn and many, many more.

But to finish, let’s go back to the night of February 2nd, 1959. The Day the Music Died. Some of the tales are semi (or perhaps completely) legendary. The fact that Holly only commissioned the plane because his drummer had caught frostbite on the freezing tour bus. That the Big Bopper only took a seat on the plane because he had the flu and wanted to get a good night’s sleep. (Let me include a link here to his biggest hit ‘Chantilly Lace’, featuring the filthiest laugh ever captured on record). Ritchie Valens won his seat on the plane in a coin toss with Holly’s guitarist Tommy Allsop. Allegedly – and I so hope that this is all true – Valens claimed it was the first thing he’d ever won, while Allsop went on to open a restaurant called ‘Heads Up’ (he’d called tails…) It was all immortalised in song by Don McLean some twelve years later. We won’t be meeting his version of ‘American Pie’ in this countdown, unfortunately, but we will be meeting the Madonna version. Which will be fun.

Anyway, let me leave you with one final link. Proof, perhaps, of Buddy Holly’s magic. Not only did he write gorgeous, timeless and immeasurably influential songs, but thirty five years after his death all Weezer had to do was stick his name on a song and they were blessed with a classic of their own.

83. ‘Side Saddle’, by Russ Conway

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.

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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.

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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!

82. ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, by The Platters

I feel it is time to make one of my semi-regular proclamations about just where we are in popular music history. Remember back in March ’56 when I announced the beginning of the ‘The Post-Pre-Rock Age’ (i.e. after the pre-rock era but before the rock era had really got going)? Or when we killed off the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll in early ’57? Or when we passed through the ‘Age of Whistling’ a year or so ago? Well… What with The Platters’ stately ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ now grabbing a week at the top, all but one of 1959’s four chart-toppers have been ballads.

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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by The Platters (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 20th – 27th March 1959

Elvis aside, we’ve had Jane Morgan’s ‘The Day the Rains Came’ (very jazzy, but still what I’d class as a ballad) and Shirley Bassey’s ‘As I Love You’, plus Conway Twitty’s ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ from the tail-end of last year further slowing things down at the top, and this record does nothing to change the tempo. I’m not sure that this four-month stretch qualifies as an ‘Age’ or an ‘Era’, but I feel confident enough in christening it ‘The Winter of the Ballad’.

I’ve been a bit harsh on ballads recently. I didn’t hate either the Jane Morgan or the Shirley Bassey efforts, but they did rather pass by without grabbing me. I think it’s because, while you can chuck a load of guitars and drums at a rock song and usually come out with something passable, ballads are a lot more delicate. They can be great, or they can go really, really wrong. Lay the strings on a bit thick, let the singer go a little too wild with the vocal gymnastics, or have the writers get too schmaltzy with the lyrics, and you’ve got a mess on your hands. But this… now this is a ballad that gets it RIGHT.

It starts slowly. No dramatic swirl of violins or crashing cymbals. Just a piano, and a voice. They… Ask me how I knew, My true love was true, Oh…. I of course replied, Something here inside, Cannot be denied… The singer is sure that his woman loves him; his friends are less convinced. The singer scoffs. But…

Yet today, My love has flown away, I am without… My… Love… His friends – who sound like dicks, by the way – laugh at him and his misplaced confidence. His reply? I smile and say, When a lovely flame dies, Smoke gets in your eyes…

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What’s the difference then, between this ballad and the one it replaced at #1: ‘As I Love You’? If pressed, I’d have to say the lyrics. While Shirley Bassey was singing – albeit very beautifully – some trite lines about the thrill of being in love; this song employs some great imagery. Your heart’s on fire – smoke gets in your eyes and stops you from seeing clearly. The flame is extinguished; smoke gets in your eyes and makes you cry…

Still, though, there is a big, bombastic ending – the title of the song belted out at the top of the singer’s voice – which spoils things slightly. I just have to accept that it was the style of the time. It’s a great song, however; a classy song. A classy classic. And a ‘classic’ it truly is, having first been recorded back in 1933. It seems to have been something of a tactic in the late fifties – getting modern singers to record updated versions of songs from the twenties and thirties (Connie Francis did it on ‘Who’s Sorry Now’ and ‘Carolina Moon’, while Tommy Edwards borrowed an old melody for ‘It’s All in the Game’) to lure in both the kids and their parents.

This is The Platters’ one and only appearance at the top of the UK charts, but that does their reputation something of an injustice. They had had several Top 10 hits before this, and were the foremost vocal group in the US – quite an achievement considering that they were five black guys and a girl, and that this is the 1950s we’re talking about. They are still rolling on to this day, albeit with enough line-up changes to make The Sugababes look steady (Wiki lists ten past members).

Unlike the earlier tear-jerkers that have made up this ‘Winter of the Ballad’, I had heard this one before. I’m sure most people will have. It’s one of those songs that have become part of life’s backing track. And to know a song without knowing how you know it – as I’ve said before – is a sure-fire sign that said song is a stone-cold classic.

81. ‘As I Love You’, by Shirley Bassey

And so – as happens every once in a while on this countdown – we meet a legend. A British legend, at least. And not ‘British Legend’ as in Robin Hood or Merlin or anything like that. No, no, no. I mean ‘British Living Legend’ – as in Barbara Windsor, or David Attenborough, or Sir Clifford of Richard. People so woven in to the very fabric of British life – of Saturday evenings on ITV and audiences with the Queen – that everybody upon everybody upon everybody knows them.

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As I Love You, by Shirley Bassey (her 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 20th February – 20th March 1959

Dame Shirley Bassey is one of these people (she is a Dame after all), and the foundations of her ‘National Treasure’ status were laid right here: in the singles charts of the late 1950s, and in this polished and expertly sung record. It’s a very good song: a grown-up ballad of a pop song. But, and after that big old build up I feel a bit bad writing this… I’m not really feeling it.

It starts with a flourish, and then: I will love you, As I love you, All my life… Ev’ry moment spent with you, Makes me more content with you… She loves a guy. Loves him a lot! Ev’ry single, Touch and tingle, I adore… Ev’ry kiss from you to me, Always seems so new to me… Each one warmer, Than the one before… It’s a love song in the very purest sense – in that it’s a song about being utterly in love. Which is nice, I suppose. There’s certainly a real sparkle in her voice, with just the cutest whiff of a Welsh accent, and if the quality of her singing were being judged by a panel then she might just sweep the board. And the ending… My that ending. She gives it everything, and then some. AND MOOOORRRREEEE…. It’s another real throwback of a record, following hot on the heels of Jane Morgan’s – albeit somewhat jazzier – ‘The Day the Rains Came’.

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Why, then, am I struggling to like this song? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve failed to really ‘get’ one of the many old-time ballads that we’ve featured thus far. ‘Stranger in Paradise’, ‘Secret Love’ and ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’ were all records that somewhat passed me by, and that’s before we get to the God-awful Eddie Fisher and David Whitfield efforts. ‘As I Love You’ is nowhere near as terrifying as anything by either of those chaps, but I’ll have to file it under ‘Can appreciate; Can’t enjoy.’

The situation isn’t helped by the fact that I originally found a version of ‘As I Love You’ that was much jazzier, much snazzier, and sung at a much higher tempo. I was all prepared to write a post championing it as one of the best tracks so far – it really was that good. It sounded so modern that I was going to announce it as the first ‘1960s Number One’. But something nagged at me as I listened. Something sounded too good to be true… And it was. The version I had been listening to – click here for a listen, it’s good isn’t it? – was a re-recording from, I’m guessing, the late sixties / early seventies. Sigh.

But! We shouldn’t judge a record by what it is not. ‘As I Love You’ is the first chart topper by Dame Shirley of Bassey, the foremost British female voice of the past half-century, the yin to Sir Cliff’s yang (and note that she got to the top a good few months before Cliff ever did). She will only get one (one!) more chart-topper and I will perhaps shock you when I reveal that it is neither ‘Goldfinger’ (#21), nor ‘Big Spender’ (#21) nor ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (#38!), but something else entirely. Stay tuned.

It is also the very first Welsh #1, meaning that we finally complete our ‘British Isles Chart-Toppers Map’ by adding Dame Shirley to hits from The Stargazers (England), Ruby Murray (Northern Ireland) and Lonnie Donegan (Scotland). So – this record is many things. And yet… It could have been, and later was, so much more!

80. ‘One Night’ / ‘I Got Stung’, by Elvis Presley

Elvis would like a night with you. One night, with you, Is what I’m now prayin’ for, The things that we two can plan, Would make my dreams come true… How could you resist?

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One Night / I Got Stung, by Elvis Presley (his 3rd of twenty-one #1s)

3 weeks, from 30th January – 20th February 1959

I bemoaned the fact that our last #1 promised raunch but failed to deliver. Here, though… Well, Elvis doesn’t let us down. We’re calling out names, demanding helping hands, and worrying about a love that’s ‘too strong to hide’ (Oo-er. Does he mean he can’t hide his feelings; or a more physical manifestation of his amour…?) Lyrically, this is a cousin of Johnnie Ray’s barnstorming ‘Such a Night’, with the listener left in no doubt about what the singer intends to do all night. Except Johnnie had had his night and was wallowing in the memory; Elvis is still waiting and praying.

The highlight of this song is the bridge, where Elvis really lets loose: Always lived, A very quiet life, I ain’t never, Did no wrong… Now I know, That a life without you, Has been too lonely too long… It’s such an accepted fact – that Elvis Presley had a great voice – that you take it for granted. And if you picture him in his later years, when his throat was all clogged up with junk food and prescription drugs, you might wonder if he really did have that wonderful a voice. But listening to those lines, the way he snarls and howls, you realise that he was indeed a very fine singer. Listening to him like this, amongst his 1950s contemporaries, he really does stand out. He sounds like a modern rock star, while his peers often still sound clipped and plummy. His only true rival in the voice stakes, from the eighty numbers ones we’re covered so far, is the aforementioned Mr. Johnnie Ray.

Beyond the voice, however, this is a pretty simple record. A guitar, a bass and some drums. I haven’t really listened to it in years, and had misremembered it as being rockier, somewhat heavier. It’s something I’ve mentioned already, how these ancient records sound much more lightweight than you expect – probably thanks to bass heavy, headphone filling modern pop.

And ‘One Night’ brings to an end our mini-run of ‘one’-hit wonders topping the charts. Because, frankly, Elvis Presley is the polar opposite of a one-hit wonder. He’s the most-hits wonder, this being his 3rd of twenty-odd number ones. Actually, ‘One Night’ was also his 20th number one single, what with it hitting the top on re-release in 2005. It’s nice to think – lazy sod that I am – that I can just copy/paste this whole post when we arrive at January 2005. Which should be sometime in 2027, if I keep up my current pace… I’ll be in my forties… That’s not a daunting thought at all…

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To the other song, then, on this double ‘A’ disc: ‘I Got Stung’. I complained when covering Connie Francis’s recent double ‘A’-side that the insipid flip side (‘Carolina Moon’) failed to in any way live up to the corking ‘Stupid Cupid’. No such worries here, though. Elvis ain’t takin’ it easy…It begins with an exclamation: Holy smokes and snakes alive I never thought this could happen to me! Hello! Yes! We’re awake!

I know my Elvis, but I wasn’t so familiar with this little rocker. It’s simple enough: girl as honey bee; guy gets stung. There’s a rollicking piano, a chugging rhythm (the bass here being really deep and pretty scuzzy), lots of uh-huh-huhs and oh yeahs. This is what you might imagine an Elvis record sounding like if you had never really listened to him before.

Well now don’t think I’m complainin’, I’m mighty pleased we met, But you gimme, One little peck on the back o’ my neck, And I break out in a cold, cold sweat… There’s a great balance in these words – they’re down-home American enough without ever sounding corny. I’d transcribe more of them if I could, but El is mumbling away here. They’re possibly the most difficult-to-make-out lyrics we’ve met so far on this countdown. And it’s also the shortest record we’ve encountered: he races through several verses, bridges and choruses in a little under one minute fifty.

And so – Holy smokes and snakes alive! – our third meeting with The King careers to an abrupt end. Uh-huh-huh! Yeah! Done. Our night with Elvis is over. He might call you again; but he probably won’t…

79. ‘The Day the Rains Came’, by Jane Morgan

So what do we have here, then, for the first #1 of 1959? Well, the intro is promising: trumpets, saxophones…? Some kind of brass section at least. Ba-da-da-da-da-da-da…Bum-bum-bum… I would describe it as an intro you could strip to, if that weren’t being slightly tasteless.

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The Day the Rains Came, by Jane Morgan (her 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 23rd – 30th January 1959

Does the rest of the song live up to this saucy promise? Well, no. Not if you truly were expecting some kind of chanson d’amour. The title kind of gives that much away. It’s a song about rain, flowers, and crop cycles: The day that the rains came down, Mother Earth smiled again… Now the lilacs could bloom, Now the fields could grow greener… Further lyrics follow about buds being born and rivers swelling.

It’s an extended metaphor of a song – all the nature that is blooming is mirrored in the love blooming between the singer and her beau. As the young buds will grow… So our young love will grow… Love sweet love… Morgan’s voice is prim and clipped, harking back to the era of Doris Day and Vera Lynn. She sings it crisply, and properly, but it does come across as rather old-fashioned. She’s no Connie Francis, that’s for sure.

It’s reminiscent in many ways of singers like Jo Stafford and Kitty Kallen, jazz-pop from the very earliest days of the chart. Listen to the bridge in particular, the lines that begin: A robin sang a song of love, A willow tree reached out to the heavens… and tell me that it doesn’t reek of 1954. And the ending… Oh the ending. Ms. Morgan absolutely belts it out – Raaaaiiiiinnn Sweeeeet Raaaaaaaaaaiiiiiinnnnnn! – in a way that nobody else on a chart topping record has done for years. Is this perhaps our first throwback record? The first chart-topper that is intentionally harking back to days gone by, years before acts like Showaddywaddy, Shakin’ Stevens and, erm, Oasis? It certainly wasn’t an old song, having been written, originally in French, and recorded in 1958.

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I don’t dislike this record. The instrumentation is great, with a real swagger to the drums and brass. It’s just a shame that the lyrics are so wishy-washy. It’s technically ‘The Day the Rains Came Pt I’, as Part II is the same song sang by Morgan in the original French. Which is better to listen to, in a way (as long as you don’t understand French), as you can imagine that she is singing the saucy lyrics that the music is crying out for.

This may also be the first occurrence in the UK singles charts of a ‘January Number One’ – a record that takes advantage of the usual post-Christmas drop in sales to sneak a week or two at the top. It was a regular thing from the seventies through to the nineties, and can still happen today – see Eminem’s ‘River’ from January this year. And I’ve mentioned before how much I admire a good ‘one song-one week’ chart-topping record. Jane Morgan hadn’t troubled the upper reaches of the UK charts, let alone the number one spot, before this and wouldn’t do so again. And – following on from Tommy Edwards, Lord Rockingham’s XI and Conway Twitty – I make her the fourth consecutive one (ish) -hit wonder chart topper!

To conclude, then. This is a nice enough diversion, a snazzy little jazz pop number; but one which sounds pretty out of place as the first #1 of 1959. Let’s get back on track, shall we…