Songs That Should Have Been #1… ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, by Elvis Presley

The Stargazers, Don Cornell, The Johnston Brothers, The Dream Weavers, Jerry Keller…? Nope, me neither. But they’ve all had the honour of topping the UK singles chart.

How well a single performs in the charts can be influenced by various things… promotion, star power, tastes and trends, time of year… pure luck. And that most fickle, unpredictable of  factors: the general public. Do enough of them like your song to make it a smash? Or will they ignore it, and let it fall by the wayside?

I’m taking a short break from the regular countdown to feature five discs that really should have topped the charts. Be it for their long-reaching influence, their enduring popularity or for the simple fact that, had they peaked a week earlier or later, they might have made it. (I’ll only be covering songs released before 1964, as that’s where I’m up to on the usual countdown.)

Next up…

Well since my baby left me…

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Heartbreak Hotel, by Elvis Presley

 reached #2 in June 1956

OK, OK, I know. Elvis doesn’t need any more number one singles. He’s had plenty. Back on my regular countdown, of actual #1s, we’re in 1964 and The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is on fourteen (14!)

But… His dominance of the charts in the early 1960s is why I wish that this disc could have made the top. He had some brilliant, classic #1s – don’t get me wrong – but he also dragged a lot of crap to the top just through the power of his name. If only we could swap ‘Good Luck Charm’, or ‘Rock-A-Hula Baby’, or ‘Wooden Heart’, for this burst of primal energy.

This was Elvis the hip-swiveller, Elvis as Moral Panic, Elvis the Pelvis edited from the waist down… And it’s a really clever song, too. A broken heart imagined as a real place – a hotel where broken-hearted lovers cry in the gloom, and the desk-clerks are all dressed in black. It was inspired by a real-life suicide, which is some heavy shit for a pop song in 1956 (for comparison, it was kept off the top-spot in Britain by the banal, saccharine stylings of Pat Boone, with ‘I’ll Be Home’.) And when that guitar solo kicks in… Oh boy. The King was most definitely in the building.

48. ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’, by The Teenagers ft. Frankie Lymon

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Why Do Fools Fall in Love, by The Teenagers ft. Frankie Lymon (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 20th July to 10th August 1956

Ah-doo-ma-da-doo-ma-da-doo-ma-doo-doo-doo…

The perfect antidote to our recent, saccharine-heavy chart toppers.

Ooh-wa-ooh-wa-wa…

This is one of the very few songs we’ve covered so far that I don’t think I need to really describe. Surely everyone knows this?

Why do birds si-ing, so gay? And lovers await the break of day? Why do they fall in love?

It’s a breathless, relentless song: two minutes twenty seconds packed with vocal harmonies, scattish drums and a brilliantly aggressive saxophone solo. There are certain records that simply had to have topped the charts, so seismic are they in shaping the history of pop music. This is one of them. It’s a great record. A classic. I love it.

But… That’s not good enough. I can’t leave it there – the shortest post yet. Let’s do this track justice. Why is it such a classic?

Firstly, Frankie Lymon’s voice. One of the things I know about this track, without doing any research, is that Lymon was just thirteen when he recorded this song. His voice is perfect. Not technically perfect, mind: it cracks and breaks a couple of times. But perfect for a song about first love, about being in love and getting rejected and, rather than wallowing in self-pity and whining about how you’ll wait for ever and a day for your loved one (c.f pretty much every male-led #1 thus far), it’s about shrugging your shoulders and realising what a fool you’ve been. It’s a wonderfully cynical record. Lymon sounds just like a heart-broken teenage boy, full of hurt and bravado. Because he was.

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Which brings us onto the second reason. This is a song for teenagers, by teenagers. Literally: it’s by ‘The Teenagers’. Lymon was the youngest of the five, but none of the others were any older than sixteen when this song hit the top spot. Bill Haley, on the other hand, was thirty. This is the next big step in rock ‘n’ roll’s evolution. While this is strictly a doo-wop record, I make it the 4th rock ‘n’ roll record to top the charts. And I’m being pretty generous in making it four. But, interestingly, the four tracks have all been lyrically very distinct. Bear with me. ‘Such a Night’ was all about sex, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ about partying (and maybe a little bit of sex), ‘Rock And Roll Waltz’ about uncool parents and now ‘Why Do Fools…’ gives us hormonal heartbreak. We just need a song about vomiting all over a friend’s back garden at a house party to get the full set.

Reason number three? This is the first song I’ve covered on this blog, I believe – and bear in mind that we are forty-eight songs in now – in which you can’t make out all the words. The line I quoted back at the start? I had to check the lyrics online. I thought it went And lovers who wait to play all day… And the line: Why does my heart skip a crazy beat? Before I know it will reach defeat… I always thought it was… it will re-tweet tweet… Whatever that might have meant in 1956. A basic cornerstone of rock music is slurred lyrics that you can’t immediately understand and which, more importantly, annoy your parents because they’re not sung PROPERLY!

The fourth, and final, reason…? Well, it’s just a great song. A summer smash. It oozes New York city: steam, water spraying from a sidewalk valve, the sun blasting down, the Jets and the Sharks… I dunno. I grew up in small town Scotland. I first really got to know this song after buying an old second-hand CD compilation called ‘Don’t Stop, Doo-Wop’. It was brilliant; twenty-odd fifties and sixties doo-wop tracks, a few more of which will feature in this countdown. I wish I knew what I’d done with it.

Unfortunately, this will be The Teenagers one and only appearance here. Not that they were one-hit wonders, though, as they followed this classic up with the excellently titled ‘I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent’.

Even more unfortunately – tragically, in fact – Frankie Lymon trod a very rock ‘n’ roll path following this early success. By 1957 he had struck out on his own, away from The Teenagers. Aged 15, however, he was also a heroin addict and a lover to women twice his age. His career was ended by this addiction, and by the simple fact of his voice breaking. He lost his only child when she was just two days old. He died of an overdose, in 1968, at the horribly young age of twenty-five, on his grandmother’s bathroom floor. I mean… That’s a grim tale. As trite as it sounds though, what better way to remember him than as a fresh-faced, fresh voiced kid singing about fools in love?

One more time then: Ooh-wa-ooh-wa-wa…

47. ‘I’ll Be Home’, by Pat Boone

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I’ll Be Home, by Pat Boone (his 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 15th June to 20th July 1956

Having just read back through my last post – poor old Ronnie Hilton – I feel I’ve been a bit harsh recently. So I’ve decided: I need to approach these records with emptier ears, by dropping all my modern inclinations and pre-conceptions and by just listening to the records. By realising the difference between a record that is bad, and one that I simply dislike. By being – and this is going to be an immense struggle for someone like me – less judgemental. Here goes…

I’ll be home… My darling… Please wait for me… We’ll stroll along together… Once more our love will be free… A piano plinks, a guitar strums, the backing singers hum. This is possibly the gentlest number one yet. And Pat Boone? Well, there’s only one word for what he’s doing. He is crooning. He is crooning the hell out of this record. This is dictionary-definition crooning

This is a post-pre rock/pre-rock n roll ballad, if you get what I mean. File it alongside ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’ from a few posts ago. The lyrics are a little more youth-orientated (some lines about meeting at the corner drug store on a Saturday) and the chord progressions are that of a modern pop song. I do quite like what he does with the words moo-ooo-ooon light and toge-e-e-ther, and the abrupt pause after the line My mind’s made up… There’s a playful hint to the song. But it’s way too saccharine. It reminds me of that ‘Father Ted’ episode, where Mrs Doyle wins a competition to meet a Daniel O’Donnell-esque singer (Eoin McLove – I’ve just checked). Eoin McLove would definitely have sung this song.

There’s also – abruptly and brilliantly – a spoken word section. Oh yes. Midway through, Boone draws up to the mic, and talks directly to us, making this the first in a niche group of #1 hits, along with classics such as ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’, and ‘Never Ever’ by All Saints. Darling, as I write this letter, here’s hoping you’re thinking of me… His love shouldn’t worry, he’ll be home soon (HOW MANY MORE of these male-led hits are going to be about pining for your loved one?? I get that these were days of war in Korea and of National Service but still – I doubt we’ll ever see a more dominant lyrical theme in any other era!) I’ll be home, to start serving you… That’s nice. It’s a nice (ish) song. There. Maybe not worth a 5 week stay at the top, but hey. I managed a critique without writing anything too biting. Well done me. But, wait a second…

A sinister under-belly requires tickling. You see, this particular song is an example of something that went on a lot in the fifties. Pat Boone, Frankie Laine, Elvis et al got rich and famous by recording songs written and originally recorded by black artists. Because they were white an’ wholesome, their records sold more. It was a big thing in the US; less in the UK (see Winifred Atwell and the record that succeeded this one at the top). ‘I’ll Be Home’ was originally recorded by The Flamingoes, a black doo-wop group. The B-side was a whitewashed cover of ‘Tutti Frutti.’ A sign of the times, but not great.

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And the plot thickens further. Before this, I’d heard of Pat Boone for two reasons. One, was a line in a Snoop Dogg song (‘Beautiful’) where he claims a girl is too good and wants to stay home listening to Pat Boone, of all people. Two – Mr Boone (who’s still alive, aged eighty-three) is an ultra-conservative Christian. A proper Fox News, evangelising, pray-the-gay-away kind of Christian. I knew this, somehow, but didn’t know quite how bad it was. And it’s bad. Here are some of his greatest hits – all from Wikipedia, take from that what you will – which have nothing to do with his sole chart topping hit in 1956, but sure are amusing (make that terrifying):

A) He refused to star in a film with a star as sexy as Marilyn Monroe, as it would have compromised his beliefs. B) He has compared liberalism to cancer. C) He has compared gay rights activism to Islamic terrorism, and has campaigned against Democratic candidates with the claim that they want to turn Kentucky into San Francisco. D) He loves war, and has claimed that any opponents of the Vietnam War, and both Iraq wars, neither loved their country nor respect their elders. E) He – perhaps inevitably – believes that Barack Obama shouldn’t have served as President, due to his fluency in Arabic and his love for the Koran… Suddenly, all that money and recognition he stole off black artists in the ’50s starts to look even more sinister, no?

Hilariously, he was kicked off a Gospel Music show he hosted in 1997 after releasing an album of heavy metal and hard rock covers, including ‘Smoke on the Water’, ‘Paradise City’ and, oh yes, ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’. Tragically this album doesn’t seem to be on Spotify, but I’m including the link to his version of ‘Enter Sandman’ here. You have been warned…

I could go on but don’t have all day, and that did go slightly off topic. Apologies. Basically, Pat Boone, it was nice meeting you. You sound a bit mental. Onwards.

46. ‘No Other Love’, by Ronnie Hilton

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No Other Love, by Ronnie Hilton (his 1st and only #1)

6 weeks, from 4th May to 15th June 1956

Through writing these blog posts, I’m becoming a strong believer in nominative determinism. I.e. through looking at the name of the recording artist one can anticipate what the song will sound like. Not that anyone’s been called Sax Jazzington, or anything silly like that. More like how Kay Starr sounds fun and flirty, Slim Whitman sounds grizzled and lonesome, Jimmy Young sounds… normal, and a little dull. I feel that Ronnie Hilton should fall into the latter category.

And, lo and behold, he does. It starts dramatically enough, though: a burst of cymbals, then another, then another… Then it feels like a step back in time, to the dark days of *shudder* David Whitfield. It’s semi-operatic, its over the top, it’s not a particularly easy listen. Hilton’s voice is overwrought. It’s a powerful voice, a technically very good voice, the sort of voice that your gran would have approved of; but it’s too much. It’s probably no worse than the Whitfield, Laine days of a couple years back, but it already sounds very dated coming so soon after more progressive-sounding records by Bill Haley, Alma Cogan and even Dean Martin.

Lyrically too, this is a song that’s been done before. No other love have I… Into your arms I’ll fly… Waiting to hear you say… ‘No other love have I’. He’s a little lovelorn, is Mr Hilton. I’ve mentioned it before, but why is it the girls that have all the fun in these early chart toppers? With a few exceptions (Vera Lynn, cough cough) they get to be perky and flirty while the men stay at home and stoically wait for their love to be fulfilled.

One thing I was certain of, without doing any kind of research, is that Ronnie Hilton was British. His voice has that properness, that stoicism, void of any kind of vulgar, American swagger. One other thing that I was pretty certain of, again before delving into Wikipedia and around, is that ‘No Other Love’ must have been from a soundtrack, such is its unnervingly bombastic approach to what is an otherwise very basic love song. And yes, it’s a Rogers & Hammerstein number, from their 1953 show ‘Me and Juliet’.

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Actually, the most surprising thing I could uncover about Ronnie Hilton – this is his only appearance at the top so let’s give him a moment in the sun – is that ‘Ronnie Hilton’ was his stage name. He was born Adrian Hill. Let that sink in for a second: he, or somebody advising him, thought Adrian Hill was a little too boring, a little too staid, and that ‘Ronnie Hilton’ would get the girls swooning. I think that just sums him, this song, and this whole pre-rock era up… If you’re going to change your name in an attempt to gain fame and glory for God’s sake try to come up with something slightly sexy. No?

And – perhaps just as interestingly – Hilton recorded a fairly successful (in the UK at least) version of ‘The Wonder of You’, eleven years before Elvis Presley made it a standard. But… listen to Hilton’s version, then Presley’s version, and it becomes clear why the latter was one of the most famous voices, and personalities, of the 20th Century and the former wasn’t.

I’m being a little down on Ronnie Hilton, really, so let’s give him a break and end with something completely unrelated. Something that just occurred to me as I wrote the intro to this post. The only reason that my nominative determinism theory works is because I have heard so few of these early number one hits. I write the title down, search them out on Spotify, and take a step into the unknown. But, looking down the list of UK #1s through the remainder of 1956, through ’57 and ’58, this is going to become less and less of a thing. I know several of the next twenty or thirty records. Soon I’ll know the majority of them. Of course, every so often, even as we get to the eighties and nineties, there will be songs I simply have never heard before (I have no idea how ‘Doop’, by Doop, goes for example – and it had 3 weeks at the top in 1994) but, on the whole, we are slowly stepping out of the mist and onto firmer, better known ground.

44. ‘Rock and Roll Waltz’, by Kay Starr

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Rock and Roll Waltz, by Kay Starr (her 2nd of two #1s)

1 week, from 30th March to 6th April 1956

You remember how, in my last post, I single-handedly invented a new era in popular music – ‘The Post-Pre-Rock Age? You do? Excellent.

Well, the 44th UK #1 single perfectly encapsulates this brave new age. The Rock and Roll (New! Exciting! Sexy!) Waltz (Old! Boring! Not very sexy!) And it’s a fun little record. A record that tells a story:

One night I was late, came home from a date, slipped out of my shoes at the door…          Then from the front room, I heard a jump-tune, I looked in and here’s what I saw…

What is it that she sees…? Well…

There in the night, was a wonderful scene… Mom was dancing with dad, to my record machine… And while they danced only one thing was wrong… They were trying to waltz to a rock and roll song!

Mum! Dad! You silly old squares! All the cool cats know you can’t waltz to a rock ‘n’ roll song!

This, lyrically at least, is rock and roll. Old people not getting this hip new music. Young people rejecting the music of their parents. The chorus is a simple cluster of catchphrases: 1, 2 and then rock… 1, 2 and then roll… It’s good for your soul… It’s old but it’s new… And what is rock ‘n’ roll but a load of nonsensical catchphrases? 1, 2, 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock rock… Whop Bop a Loo Bop a Whop Bam Boo… Goodness! Gracious! Great Balls of Fire!

Musically, though, this isn’t rock ‘n’ roll. There are no guitars, there’s a slightly waltzy rhythm, a boogie-woogie bass and a great big jazzy swing. It’s fun, it’s perky and you can certainly dance to it, but it ain’t rock. It’s a novelty, and Kay Starr sings it in manner that suggests she knows exactly what a piece of throwaway fluff it is.

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I mentioned in her last entry, the flirty and fun ‘Comes A-Long A-Love’, that Starr has a magnetic voice. You can tell that ‘Rock and Roll Waltz’ isn’t perhaps the type of record that she’s used to singing – it’s easy to imagine that she wasn’t impressed by the suggestion that she move away from her usual style – but she sells it with warmth and with playfulness. It feels like a long time since I wrote about ‘Comes A-Long A-Love’, and I suppose three years and two months is quite a long gap to have between your two number one hits. Two number ones – the 3rd and the 44th in UK chart history – both spending a solitary week at the top. And both very different records. I’m glad that writing this countdown introduced me to Ms Starr, though, and it’s a shame that we won’t be hearing from her again.

One final thing about this record, though, is very rock ‘n’ roll. At least ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ in a 1956 sense. The song may be a story told through the eyes of a teenager; but Kay Starr certainly wasn’t one. She was, in fact, coming up for thirty-four when this song hit the top spot. As was the similarly decrepit Bill Haley as he rocked around the clock. This new style of music may have been for teenagers, but it wasn’t being recorded by teenagers just yet.

And to finish on a personal note – this was number one on the day my dad was born. Fitting, perhaps, that it’s a song about two uncool parents attempting to dance around their living room. Or not, seeing as my father has never danced a step in his life, I don’t think. Still, it’s not a bad song to have as your birthday #1. OK, it’s a strange little number that nobody has actually listened to for many years; but there are far, far worse songs to have been born under…

43. ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers

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It’s Almost Tomorrow, by The Dream Weavers (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 16th – 30th March / 1 week, from 6th – 13th April 1956 (3 weeks total)

Perhaps it’s time to christen a brand new era in popular music. I’ll call it: the ‘post-pre-rock age’! We’ve had the first wave of the rock ‘n’ roll explosion – the very first rock ‘n’ roll number one – but the waves have receded and we are stood on soggy sand waiting for them to return. And they will, they will… Just not yet.

What I mean is that, to all intents and purposes, we are still in the pre-rock age but that the rules have changed ever so slightly. Of course, the very top of the charts is never where you look for music’s cutting edge. You get to the top of the pop charts by being, well, popular, and by appealing to the largest number of people. But… even if you look at the Top 20 from the week in March ’56 that this latest song hit #1, there are very few records that stand out as being rock songs: Bill Haley is at #7 with ‘See You Later Alligator’, Lonnie Donegan is at #9 with ‘Rock Island Line’ (a skiffle track, admittedly, but still) and there’s a song called ‘Pickin’ a Chicken’ by Eve Boswell which sounds like a rock song involving a funky dance move (a la ‘The Twist’) but is actually just a pretty dull song about having a picnic. The rest is Sinatra, Jimmy Young, Slim Whitman

And, as with ‘Memories Are Made of This’ which preceded it, ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’ has elements of rock ‘n’ roll in it – enough, perhaps, to attract the youngsters but not enough to put off the old folks. Thus the gap between the worlds of Eddie Fisher and Elvis is deftly bridged.

Anyway, to the song. And after that big build-up, all that stuff about it being a brand new era in popular music, ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’ is a bit dull. The idea behind it is that the singer’s sweetheart is falling out of love with him, and that she will leave him ‘tomorrow’. And yet he hopes it will be otherwise… My dearest, my darling, tomorrow is near, The clouds will bring showers of sadness, I fear… ‘Emotions As Weather’ – the first chapter in ‘Cheesy Love Songs 101’. It’s almost tomorrow, but what can I do? Your kisses all tell me that, your love is untrue…

It’s a bit cloying, what with its backing singers and plinky-plonky pianos. A bit of a nursery rhyme, too – I can’t decide if it sounds more like ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ or ‘Away in a Manger’. And again, it’s another very simple #1. The production is very rich – the piano and backing singers turned up to 11 – but there isn’t much there. And, unfortunately, there’s a bit of a THIS IS THE END OF THE SONG ending: You’ll always be miiiiiiiiiiiine!

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But, in the ‘pros’ column there is a rather wonderful key-change – a very rock ‘n’ roll touch. I’m a big fan of a well constructed key-change. I can’t resist them. Who can? Its inbuilt in most people, I think. A Pavlovian reaction. And this is not just a key change, but a mid-note key change… Your love is untruuuu *key change* uuuueeeee. I’m not going to lie – it did give me a mild covering of goose bumps the first time I heard it. But that’s far and away the best thing about this song. A song which we could brand the very first rock ballad to hit the top of the UK Singles Chart, if it didn’t feel a bit of a waste to use up such an honorific title on such an average record.

This is The Dream Weavers only appearance in this countdown, and in the charts. They were big ol’ one hit wonders, you see. Though we should give them a shout out for being one of the few acts so far to have hit the top with an original composition. The Dream Weavers consisted of two high school friends – Gene Adkinson and Wade Buff (great name!) – and a rotating cast of back-up singers. Adkinson and Buff wrote ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’ themselves, and so are pretty unique among the forty-two songs that we’ve written about previously.

And we’ll leave it there for now. A simple love song – all key changes and not an orchestra in sight – but with familiarly mopey lyrics about rain and heartache, as well as a silly, bombastic ending. One leg in the new world; one leg stuck firmly in the past.

42. ‘Memories Are Made of This’, by Dean Martin

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Memories are Made of This, by Dean Martin (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 17th February to 16th March 1956

Sweet sweet mem’ries you gave to me…

This is one of those #1s that fall into the ‘I can sing a line or two before listening to it’ category. See also ‘That Doggie in the Window’ and ‘This Ole House’. At first I thought I might have sung this in my days as a primary school choirboy. But then, after listening more closely, I realised that the lyrics are perhaps a bit rich for a group of eight year olds.

Take one fresh and tender kiss, add one stolen night of bliss…

So, yeah… Then I got to thinking that the intro sounds a lot like the intro to ‘King of the Road’ – that sliding da dum dum dum guitar – which I definitely did sing in my primary school choir. So maybe that’s what I was thinking of.

Anyway. I wrote in the last post that we were having a bit of a minimalist phase in terms of our chart topping records, after the bombast of ’53 and ’54, and this track follows suit. There’s a guitar, some backing singers, and Dean Martin. It’s nice.

Lyrically, the song describes the ‘recipe’ for a happy life. Lots of ‘taking’, ‘adding’ and ‘folding’. With His blessings from above, Serve it generously with love… Which is fine. It actually reminds me a bit of ‘Christmas Alphabet’, in a way – another pop song as step by step guide. It is, though, a metaphor which can only go so far. The lines: Then add the wedding bells, One house where lovers dwell, Three little kids for the flavour… Stir carefully through the days, See how the flavour stays… Are either a little too saccharine, or a little too cannibalistic, to really work.

These lines, however, come during the middle-eight in which – and I may be going out on a limb here but bear with me – we have a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll chord progression. I am completely incapable of describing it in words, having no musical ability on which to base my idea, so you’ll just have to take a listen below to see what I mean. The very fact that this is a Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Middle Eight Verse Chorus (Ok, the chorus is one line, but still) kind of song is interesting in itself. It’s by no means a ‘rock’ song; but there’s a whiff of something there.

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And it’s another one of those occasions in which we tick off a musical legend’s sole moment at the top of the UK charts. Vera Lynn’s had her moment, Tony Bennett’s had his, now it’s Dean’s turn. It just seems right that he got there at least once. To be honest, I know very few concrete facts about about Dean Martin – I tend to get all the rat-pack type singers muddled up together – but I see that he sang songs that are probably more famous than he now is: ‘Volare’, ‘That’s Amore’, ‘Sway’… In fact, it seems safe to say that ‘Memories Are Made of This’ is Dean Martin’s most famous song in which he wasn’t hamming up his eye-talian side. It sounds like I imagine all Dean Martin records to sound like: laidback, slightly louche, very nonchalant… He sounds as if he’s phoning it in, to an extent, but that just adds to the appeal. ‘The King of Cool’, indeed.