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.

55. ‘The Garden of Eden’, by Frankie Vaughan

Before I begin my next post in this countdown, I would just like to address something. The elephant in the room, if you will. As I mentioned back when writing about Guy Mitchell’s ‘Singing the Blues’, one of its weeks in the top spot was shared with the record that’s up next: Frankie Vaughan’s ‘The Garden of Eden’. It’s the second time we’ve encountered this situation, and it won’t be the last. Which begs the question… How did records end up sharing the top spot with such regularity in the 1950s? Well, the answer’s pretty simple. But it kind of whips the rug away from under this whole countdown. You see, the charts back in the early days of their existence simply weren’t very accurate.

Way back in my intro I mentioned that the concept of a ‘singles chart’ was introduced in November 1952 by the NME. And the UK Singles Charts company has since incorporated this chart into the ‘official’ chart – even though such a thing didn’t exist at the time. There were various other charts published every week in the 1950s: the Melody Maker chart, the Record Mirror chart, the Record Retailer chart… and the NME chart, which is recognised as the most comprehensive. But not completely comprehensive. There are still many bones of contention. Which I won’t go into here – they can be easily searched for online.

The number of record stores surveyed by the NME for their chart was surprisingly low and the methods very old fashioned compared to the instant downloading and streaming databases used in 2018 – they basically called up a bunch of record stores and asked them to keep a record of what they were selling. The first chart – topped by the record we met in my earliest post, Al Martino’s ‘Here in My Heart’ – was compiled using data from only 20 (twenty!) major record stores. And thus, every so often, because they were working from such a small sample, there were ties. David Whitfield and Frankie Laine in 1953, Guy Mitchell and Frankie Vaughan in 1957… In 1960, the Record Retailer Chart became the UK Chart Company’s chart of choice and there were no further ‘joint’ number ones (though there were still several contested number ones). Then in 1969 the British Market Research Bureau took over chart-compiling duties and steadied the boat further, while in 1982 chart compilation went digital. Since then, it’s been on the straight and narrow. 100% reliable.

So, while it may be distressing to some to discover the records that you have read about during this countdown may not actually have been the best selling records in a particular week, I thought it was only correct that I address the issue. And with that, today’s sermon is brought to a close. On with the next (presumed?) Number One Single!


The Garden of Eden, by Frankie Vaughan (his 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 25th January – 22nd February 1957 (including 1 week joint with Guy Mitchell from 1st – 8th February 1957)

So I press play on this record, ‘The Garden of Eden’ by Frankie Vaughan, and pretty soon I get to thinking that, from ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain’ to this, I don’t think we’ve encountered such a run of similar-sounding songs. Here we have yet another male singer, with yet another performance involving guitar and vocals and not much else. I’m gearing up for another recap, so I don’t want to get too introspective right now, but it seems like we are settling into a groove which – glancing ahead at what’s to come – might last for a while yet.

I am not left thinking this for too long, however. This record is slightly deceiving. It does start off with a simple guitar strum, and with understated backing singers, but halfway through someone flicks a switch. We get trumpets, and a cymbal clash. Things escalate pretty quickly. The drums go up several notches, and suddenly the vocals are accompanied by a full-on big-band swing section. It’s a never ending crescendo, a key-change drawn out for two and a half minutes, and I like it! You can imagine this being performed on TV, the curtain opening to show Frankie Vaughan alone on stage. Then, as the song progresses, the lights draw further and further back to reveal, by the end, the full-blown orchestra that are bringing us to climax. It’s not rock ‘n’ roll, in terms of the sound, but it is in terms of the frenzied tempo.

Lyrically we are in somewhat stranger territory too. Recent number ones have been lovelorn, and wry. This is… well to tell the truth I’m not entirely sure what this is: When you walk in the garden, The garden of Eden, With a beautiful woman, And you know how you care… And a voice in the garden, The garden of Eden, Tells you she is forbidden, Can you leave her there?

It goes on… When you’re yearning for loving, And she touches your hand, Can you leave her to heaven, And obey the command, Can you walk from the garden, Does your heart understand?

It’s a parable, maybe. Resist temptation? Don’t resist temptation? I don’t really know what it’s about even after several listens. My best bet is that this is Vaughan explaining his behaviour to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. “Yes, m’lord, I should have resisted the advances of that beautiful woman but, to be honest, she was far too hot…”


Without knowing any of this track’s backstory, I imagine it must have been pretty risqué to have had this many religious references in a pop song back in early 1957. Remember how, back in 1953, Frankie Laine and David Mitchell had remove the ‘My Lord’ from the title of their versions of ‘Answer Me’? But I can’t find mention of any controversy online. So that’s that.

Also of note is the fact that, once again, it’s a British artist doing the rockin’ and a rollin’. Vaughan was a Liverpudlian for whom this appearance at the top of the UK charts was the culmination of a few years of growing success – he was voted ‘Showbusiness Personality of the Year’ in 1956, and was one of the biggest stars of the late fifties. Pictures show him in dickie-bows and top-hats, so we know what kind of territory we’re in. And we will meet Mr. Vaughan again, in a few years, though I feel he has been somewhat forgotten over time, considering how famous he once was.

54. ‘Singing the Blues’, by Tommy Steele and The Steelmen


Singing the Blues, by Tommy Steele & The Steelmen (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 11th – 18th January 1957

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing this countdown, from listening to all these number ones of old, it’s that the ‘pre-rock’ era is a very hard thing to pin down. What was it? What did it sound like? Who were its biggest stars? And… when did it end?

Did it end in November 1955, when ‘Rock Around the Clock’ brought a teenaged frenzy to the top spot? Not really – that was a bit of a false dawn. Did it end in April ’56, when ‘Rock n Roll Waltz’ reached #1? Not really – the only thing rock ‘n’ roll about that song was the title. Was it when The Teenagers claimed a chart topper last summer? Not really – they may have been kids, but they were doo-woppin’ rather than rockin’.

So, I’m about to stick my neck out and make a bold claim. Are you ready? The 11th January 1957 marks the end of the ‘pre-rock’ era and the beginning of the ‘rock n roll’ era. In the UK at least. I can’t speak for anywhere else.

Why the 11th January 1957? Well, it’s when one Tommy Steele and his band The Steelmen (see what he did there?) hit the top spot with their version of ‘Singing the Blues’. Steele was the UK’s first rock ‘n’ roller, the pre-Cliff Richard if you will, and he grabbed this song away from Guy Mitchell’s nice-enough-but-somewhat-bland version, gave it a good shake and a slap, and ushered in a new era.

Not that you’d notice straight away. The song starts with the same plinky-plonky guitar and the same twee ba bum bum bums from the backing singers. And the trumpets and hand claps added to this version give it a slightly camp, Butlins-esque air. No, the one thing that makes this record rock is Steele himself: We-hell.. a-never felt…m’re like singin’ the blues… cos I never thought Ivrlose… yr love… dear

I’m not having a fit as I type – that’s really how he sings: like the last old man crawling out the pub. He’s slurring. He goes quiet, then loud, then quick, then slow. He sounds snotty, and bratty. When he delivers the lines The moon and stars no longer shine… The dream is gone I thought was mine… There’s nothin’ left for me t’ do, than cry-y-y OVER YEEW he starts off sounding quite posh and proper but ends the lines dripping in insincerity. He sounds like he’s taking the piss. You can picture him sneering and gyrating. It’s a world away from previous British male chart-toppers like David Whitfield, even Dickie Valentine. I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to say he sounds like a cross between David Bowie and Johnny Rotten. Seriously.


And had I been a fifteen-year-old girl – Susan, let’s call me – sitting in the gloom and cold of January 1957, my heart would have gone a-flutter when this record dropped onto the turntable. Steele sounds like a bad boy; the sort that flicks ink-blots at the teacher and smokes behind the gym. He sounds much younger than Guy Mitchell while singing the same lyrics (Steele was twenty, Mitchell was thirty when they had their turns at #1) Susan’s mum would definitely have preferred Mitchell’s version. Her dad would probably have grumbled something about Steele needing a good stint in the army.

And so that’s it. In the two minutes twenty seconds it takes Tommy Steele to rattle through his version of ‘Singing the Blues’, we cross the Rubicon. There’s no going back from here. Steele’s star shone brightly and briefly – we won’t be hearing from him again beyond this solitary week at the top – but he did what he had to do, and changed the face of British popular music forever.