Remembering Jerry Lee Lewis

Last time I did a ‘Remembering’ post, it was on the universally loved and cherished Olivia Newton-John, about whom nobody had a bad word to say. Jerry Lee Lewis, though…

We’ve met some wrong ‘uns in our journey through the chart-toppers of yore. Bad types with equally bad music (Rolf Harris), bad types with music that I couldn’t help but enjoy (Gary Glitter). Jerry Lee Lewis was possibly that baddest of them all. ‘The Killer’, so named because he had allegedly tried to strangle a teacher at his high school – or so he said – lived a life that would make your average, run-of-the-mill criminal blush. Drug arrests, assault arrests, two wives dead in suspicious circumstances and – the one that effectively ended his mainstream chart career before it had truly started – a marriage to his thirteen year-old cousin.

He was, in his own words, an unrepentant hillbilly. Unpleasant and aggressive towards his fans, his family, journalists, and other musicians. (When he met John Lennon, he did so after berating the Beatles and their peers as ‘shit’ from the stage. Lennon, legend has it, still kneeled down to kiss Lewis’s feet.) Why then, does he seem to have gotten away with it? Any current artist who did a quarter of the things Jerry Lee allegedly did would have been cancelled into the dust. Is it because it was all so long ago? Is it because people were more able to seperate art from artist? Or is it because he was just so good?

For, no matter how terrible a person he was, he is rock and roll royalty. One of the five deities: Chuck, Elvis, Buddy, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee. Elvis used his voice (and his body), Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry their guitars. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard had their pianos, which put them at an immediate disadvantage, as pianos are not hugely conducive to rocking and rolling. Pianos are for classical music, for Beethoven and Mozart, for respectable ladies’ front rooms. You have to sit down to play them, and sitting down is the antithesis of rock ‘n’ roll.

So you have to do what Jerry Lee, and Little Richard did. Pound the keys, assault the keys, stamp on them, jump on them… Set the goddamn piano on fire if you have to. (Which Lewis allegedly did when angry at being lower down a bill than Chuck Berry. ‘Follow that, boy’, he said as he left the stage.) Which leads to Jerry Lee’s one and only British chart-topper: ‘Great Balls of Fire’.

Quite often, as with many genres, by the time rock ‘n’ roll made it to the top of the charts it had been diluted. Elvis’s first #1 was the smooth ‘All Shook Up’. Buddy Holly had one chart-topping rocker: ‘That’ll Be the Day’. Berry had to wait until the nonsense that is ‘My Ding-A-Ling’. Little Richard never had one. Which means that ‘Great Balls of Fire’ is probably the purest rock ‘n’ roll chart-topper. It’s unadulteratedly dangerous, and sexy. It has a title that is at once biblical, yet also sexual. Watch the live performance below, probably quite restrained by his standards, and listen to the shrieks form the audience every time he pauses, when he stands, and when he leers at them. The sweat on his brow, the glint in his eye. Anybody capable of that sort of performance was going to have a few skeletons in the closet. He was complicated, unpleasant, the ‘killer’, but he was rock and roll.

Jerry Lee Lewis

September 29th 1935 – October 28th 2022

Random Runners-Up: ‘Move It’, by Cliff Richard & The Drifters

Our final #2 of the week, and it’s back to the fifties. To a man we’ve met plenty of times before on these very pages…

‘Move It’, by Cliff Richard & The Drifters

#2 for 1 week, from 24th-31st Oct 1958, behind ‘Stupid Cupid’ / ‘Carolina Moon’

Cliff Richard, in 1958, was Britain’s answer to Elvis. That’s both true, and unfair. True, because he was young, good-looking, and extravagantly quiffed. And unfair, because nobody comes out well from a comparison with Elvis.

This was Cliff’s debut single, his first of sixty-eight (68!) Top 10 hits in the UK, over the course of fifty years. And if you are of a slightly snide disposition – and aren’t we all, sometimes – one could argue that this was the only true rock ‘n’ roll record from Britain’s great rock ‘n’ roll hope.

And it does rock. The opening refrain is great, reminiscent of Buddy Holly, and the purring, driving riff that succeeds it sounds genuinely exciting, almost punk-ish in its simplicity. In the autumn of 1958, it must have been thrilling to hear this growling out of some jukebox speakers, and knowing that the singer was from a London suburb, rather than Memphis.

The lyrics are pretty nonsensical, as all the best rock ‘n’ roll lyrics are… C’mon pretty baby let’s a-move it and a-groove it… while The Drifters sound the equal of any American group. (They wouldn’t become The Shadows until 1959, by which point they had accompanied Cliff on his first of many easy-listening #1s, ‘Living Doll’.)

The one thing that doesn’t quite sell this for me is Cliff himself… He just sounds a bit too nice. And I don’t know if that’s because I can’t seperate the goody-goody, God-bothering, Centre Court-serenading Cliff Richard from the eighteen-year-old version. Still, imagine Elvis mumbling and grunting his way through this…

As I referred to above, Cliff would go on to enjoy some reasonable success over the ensuing decades… I wonder if anyone who bought ‘Move It’ in October 1958 imagined that this hot young rocker would still be touring and recording in 2022, well into his ninth decade… As uncool as he is, I can’t bring myself to dislike Sir Clifford of Richard: he’s a bona-fide pop legend. I can’t say I’m looking forward to reviewing any of his three remaining #1s, though, but that’s a story for another day…

I hope you’ve enjoyed random runners-up week. The regular countdown will resume over the weekend, picking up in the summer of ’86…

Remembering Lonnie Donegan

Today we remember Britain’s very first rock star. Cliff? Tommy Steele? Marty Wilde? They were but cabaret entertainers giving rock ‘n’ roll a go. Lonnie Donegan? He rocked, well and truly.

I remember listening to his first number one single, and thinking woah. ‘Cumberland Gap’ came in in the spring of 1957, between Tab Hunter’s schmaltzy ‘Young Love’ and Guy Mitchell’s goofy ‘Rock-A-Billy’. It was a short, sharp slap round the face and you can read my original post here. (The live version below is even more ferocious). It’s a traditional American folk song, given the British skiffle treatment, and to my ears it is punk come twenty years early. It was also the first of many times that a Scot has topped the UK charts.

‘Cumberland Gap’ wasn’t Donegan’s breakthrough hit: he’d been scoring Top 10s since 1955, and would amass sixteen of them before his chart career was cut short by the Merseybeat explosion. (Ironically, many of those bands had been hugely influenced by Lonnie and his Skiffle Group. The Beatles began when Paul McCartney joined John Lennon’s skiffle band a few months after ‘Cumberland Gap’ had been at #1.) Here is his first hit: ‘Rock Island Line’, a #8 in the UK and, significantly, a Top 10 in America too.

Born in Glasgow, but raised in the east-end of London, Lonnie Donegan had a background in trad-jazz before moving into the new skiffle movement. His subsequent hits included his 2nd number one, a double-‘A’ side of ‘Gamblin’ Man’ and ‘Putting on the Style’, and the brilliantly named ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight)?’. That hit veered towards the music hall, and it was the same style of hit that gave Donegan his third and final chart-topper, ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’. I don’t think I was as impressed by that record in my original review, as humour is a hard thing to get right in a record, and it doesn’t necessarily age well.

It’s tempting to blame Donegan’s shrinking chart fortunes on the song he released for the 1966 World Cup: ‘World Cup Willie’. (Willie was a lion, and the official mascot for the tournament.) It didn’t chart, but it perhaps spurred England on to their win. (Yes, England won the World Cup in 1966. They still mention it from time to time…) I had never heard it, and was ready to hate it, but it’s actually a bit of a trad-jazz foot-stomper. You can see, though, why skiffle hard-liners felt betrayed by Donegan’s move away from the genre in the sixties.

Despite the hits drying up, Donegan and his band continued to tour throughout the seventies and eighties. This was despite him suffering several heart attacks, one of which killed him on this day in 2002. The Beatles aside, his legacy also lives on through artists like Roger Daltrey, Mark Knopfler and Jack White.

Lonnie Donegan, 29th April 1931 – 3rd November 2002

Random Runners-Up: ‘Cloud Lucky Seven’, by Guy Mitchell

My third randomly selected #2 for the week brings us all the way back to the early weeks of 1954. Before Elvis, before the Beatles, before colour TV and motorways, there was Guy Mitchell…

‘Cloud Lucky Seven’, by Guy Mitchell

#2 for 1 week – 12th – 19th February 1954, behind ‘Oh Mein Papa’

I have a huge soft-spot for Guy Mitchell. Not only did he have a hunky, all-American boy next door vibe going on – see the pic above! – but during the early months of this blog, as I trawled through many overwrought and overblown, and often quite dull, pre-rock #1s, Mr. Mitchell would regularly pop up with something a bit more sprightly.

‘Cloud Lucky Seven’ came right in the middle of Mitchell’s four chart-topping singles, and is a pre-rock hit by-numbers. It’s almost unbearably jaunty, the backing singers sound like drunken relatives at a wedding, and there are horns. Boy, are there horns… It’s a bit jazz, a bit swing, very music-hall, and with no hint at the rock ‘n’ roll revolution that’s just around the corner.

What saves it from sounding ridiculous to modern ears is Guy himself. He isn’t, to be honest, the best technical singer. He’s no Al Martino, or Eddie Fisher, but his voice has a throaty, homely charm. He sounds like he’s having fun, as if he’s well-aware that he’s singing a load of tosh (see also ‘She Wears Red Feathers’) and being paid handsomely to do so.

Lyrically, the song is about love as clouds (that’s another pre-rock trick: love as birds chirping, fluffy clouds, twinkly stars…) Cloud one is where you land when you meet that special someone, while cloud lucky seven is the cloud nearest heaven… Which means… This is actually a song about getting laid?? Those pre-rockers were just as horny as those that came later, they just had to hide it behind bizarre metaphors involving clouds. Which means, as he belts out that there’s one more cloud to go…! it’s not only the best bit of the song; but you can almost hear the knowing wink. Guy, you sly dog, you!

Two more #2s to come…

Remembering The Everly Brothers

I wasn’t going to mark the sad death of Don Everly on Saturday… because I was under the mistaken impression that his brother Phil was still with us. When I realised that Phil had died in 2014 it became clear that they needed a ‘Remembering’.

When you can count The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and Simon & Garfunkel among the many acts you’ve influenced, then you must have had something special going on. (Keith Richards called Don one of the finest ever rhythm guitarists, while John Lennon and Paul McCartney used to pull girls as teenagers by claiming that they were the ‘British Everly Brothers’.) Their country-ish harmonies were a huge part of the rock ‘n’ roll years – go on, listen to them combine on ‘Cathy’s Clown’ below! Being brothers was a blessing – those harmonies – and a curse – they spend decades not recording, or touring, or even talking to one another…

The duo scored four UK number ones between 1958-’61, and I won’t repeat myself by talking about them again. You can read the original posts here:

‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’

‘Cathy’s Clown’

‘Walk Right Back’ / ‘Ebony Eyes’

‘Temptation’

Here are some great, non-chart toppers from the brothers… (Because I’m hastily throwing this together, I won’t follow my usual rules of the songs having to have charted in the UK. Let’s be crazy for an evening!)

‘Bye Bye Love’, 1957

Chosen for self-indulgent reasons… This was one of the very first – and very few – songs I mastered on the keyboard as a child. A simple tune (that’s probably why it was book one, song one of ‘Keyboards for Dummies’) beautifully rendered.

Bird Dog’, 1958

The tale of Johnny: who is the funniest, cheekiest, coolest dude in school – making him a bird – but who is also hitting on the singer’s girl – thus a dog. I picked this over the pair’s other, more-famous tale of high school woe, ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ (which is also great) because this one rocks just that bit more.

‘When Will I Be Loved’, 1960

Some good ol’ fashioned rockabilly. I love the heavy, deliberate guitars, and the insistent, almost tribal drums. They re-recorded it when they moved labels, to RCA, but the original was the one released. The newer version is bluesier – here’s a link.

‘Don’t Blame Me’, 1961

The Everlys loved a ballad… ‘Love Hurts’, ‘Let It Be Me’, ‘Crying in the Rain’… But I picked this cover of a ’30s standard for some of their greatest harmonies, the guitar work (not actually from Don or Phil, but Hank Garland), and the bridge where Don really lets loose…

‘I’m Not Angry’, 1962

Not a hit, I don’t think, coming at the end of their glory days. But how filthy and scratchy is the guitar here, in this tale of pettiness? The boys hope that the girl who just dumped them doesn’t get letters, or phone-calls, that her dress rips and her car won’t start, but they’re not angry… just sad. Whatever…

Remembering Rosemary Clooney

Another short trip back to the earliest days of the charts, when big-lunged men such as Al Martino, David Whitfield and Frankie Laine were dominating the #1 position with earnest declarations of love and faith. Elvis hadn’t arrived yet, Sinatra wasn’t the teen heart-throb of a decade before… The charts needed some sexiness, some fun…

Thank God for the girls, then. Girls like Rosemary Clooney. I’ve already posted on Kay Starr and Winifred Atwell, two contemporaries of Clooney, who brought a jazzy playfulness to their chart-topping records. But Miss Clooney, who scored Britain’s 25th and 28th #1 singles, went a step further, and brought mad-cap craziness to the pop charts.

First up came ‘This Ole House’, in November ’54. A raucous, honky tonk piano-led tale of a rundown house whose elderly inhabitant is waiting to meet the saints… There can have been very few hit songs to reference oiling hinges and fixing shingle… Here she is performing it live, and with slightly more restraint, in the ’80s.

Then just weeks later, she was back with an even better hit. Clooney was of Irish/German extraction, but that didn’t stop her hamming up an invented Italian side. The lyrics are basically nonsense, with nods to Italian, Spanish, Mexican and Neapolitan. (Sample lyric: Hey mambo, no more a-Mozzarella…) Again the energy and playfulness really stood out next to its dully earnest contemporaries. (See also her earlier hit ‘Botch a Me’ if you like the cod-Italian vibes.) ‘Mambo Italiano’ lives on in a way that few pre-rock hits do. It was remixed back into the charts in the early ’00s, and sampled more recently by Lady Gaga and Iggy Azalea.

Rosemary Clooney’s career trajectory was pretty standard for a post-war pop star. From singing with big bands, to a record label, to big hits and on to TV and films – her most famous one probably being ‘White Christmas’ alongside Bing Crosby. What wasn’t so standard was Clooney’s sleeping pill and tranquilliser dependency that developed through the sixties, that ended with her in psychoanalytic therapy for eight years.

She survived, though, came back and continued to record throughout the remainder of her life. Her final performance came just six months before she died of lung cancer in 2002. One of the pall bearers at her funeral was her nephew, George.

Rosemary Clooney, May 23rd 1928 – June 29th 2002

Remembering Winifred Atwell

In my ‘Remembering’ bits, I like to draw people’s attention back to artists from the dawn of the charts, from posts published long before anyone was actually reading this blog. Back we go, then, to 1954…

Winifred Atwell is a significant figure in the British charts as, when she scored her first #1 in late ’54 (a Christmas #1 before that was something worth noticing), she became the first black artist to do so. ‘Let’s Have Another Party’ – a medley of old music hall tunes – stayed at the top for five weeks. It is very of its time, but still a fun listen. You can read my original post here.

Some of the melodies in that record date from the the 1920s, so we are really looking a century back in time from our modern-day vantage point. Anyway, Winifred Atwell had arrived in the UK in 1946, from Trinidad via the USA, and had been accepted into the Royal Academy for Music, where she achieved the highest grades possible. She supported herself by playing boogie-woogie tunes in clubs around London, where she was spotted and signed.

Between 1952 and ’59, she scored fourteen Top 20 hits in the UK, many with wonderful titles such as ‘Flirtation Waltz’ and ‘Let’s Have a Ding-Dong!’ (You could say she was a suggestive performer, in that she released no less than five singles beginning with the word ‘Let’s…’) She did the Royal Variety, where she was invited to play privately for the Queen, who requested ‘Roll Out the Barrel’. (Ma’am does love a good knees-up!) On stage she would often start off by playing classical pieces on a grand piano, before switching to a battered old piano bought in a market for fifty shillings – her ‘other’ piano, which was credited on her records and which travelled the world with her – to bash out some ragtime tunes.

Her 2nd number one, ‘The Poor People of Paris’ is interesting – not because it sounds much different from her first – but because it featured as sound engineer a young Joe Meek, who would go on to produce three seminal sixties #1s (and who I did a post on a year or so back.) In the background, hovering above Winny’s piano, is a high-pitched whine which I thought, and pondered in my original post, might have been a Theramin, but which I have since read was probably a musical saw. Either way, you can hear the embryonic beginnings of ‘Telstar’ here, in the video below:

And this live performance, from a couple of years later, has Atwell banging away on her famous ‘other’ piano (I love her winks at the camera…)

By 1958, when this was filmed, her hit-scoring days were almost over – killed stone-dead, as so many artists’ careers were, by rock ‘n’ roll and then the swinging sixties. Still, Atwell remained a popular figure on TV variety shows and in concert. She moved to Australia, where she was a huge star, and where she lived until her death on this day in 1983. Her final performances, quite sweetly, were on the organ in her parish church.

Despite her music now sounding incredibly quaint, and her dressing like your aunt at a wedding, Winifred Atwell’s legacy lives on. Keith Emerson spoke of her influence on his music, while David Bowie also reminisced about hearing her rags on the radio as a boy. But the biggest example has to be Sir Elton John, who cites Atwell as one of the main reasons behind him wanting to learn piano.

Winifred Atwell, 27th February 1914 – 28th February 1983

Remembering Alma Cogan

I’ve covered 342 #1 singles since starting this blog. Some have been classics, some have been terrible, some have been by the most famous acts in pop music history, some have been by acts unknown to me until that moment… One of the singers I have been happiest to discover on my journey, is the singer of the 35th UK #1 single, Alma Cogan.

Born in East London in 1932, she went from singer-in-residence at a hotel, to the biggest British female star of the fifties. ‘The Girl with the Giggle in Her Voice’ – a nickname she earned after bursting into laughter during an early recording session – with huge frocks and a healthy pair of lungs – to listen to her early hits is to lose yourself in unpretentious pop perfection. Of which ‘Dreamboat’, her one and only chart-topper, is perhaps the perfect example.

(You can read my original post on it here.) Voted Outstanding British Female Singer by NME readers four times between 1956-1960, she scored hits throughout the decade by covering standards such as ‘Mambo Italiano’ and ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love?’, ‘Little Things Mean a Lot’ and ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’. Being a popular singer in the fifties and early sixties meant that she also recorded her fair share of novelties – ‘Never Do a Tango with an Eskimo‘ – and showtunes. But she sings them with such a twinkle in her eyes that you forgive even her cheesiest moments. Here she is, belting out ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ from ‘Oliver!’ (Apparently the part of Nancy was written with Cogan in mind, and she does have a fantastic cockney rasp in her voice, compared to other more stage-school actresses who have played the role.)

The swinging sixties killed off her chart-topping days, as they did to many stars of the fifties. But there is a fascinating coda to Alma Cogan’s career – her friendship with The Beatles…

Cogan’s star was waning and the Fab Four’s was on the rise, but they would still meet at the same TV recordings. She was the first person that Paul played ‘Yesterday’ to, and she allegedly had an affair with John. She also tried to relaunch herself back into the charts by covering some of the bands hits – her ‘Eight Days a Week’ is a particular moment of overblown brilliance.

For whatever reason, she couldn’t seem to reignite her singles career – in the UK at least – and died tragically young from cancer in 1966. She was just thirty-four. Which terrifies me, as I am thirty-four and I have neither enjoyed a decade-long singing career nor had an affair with a Beatle… Just what have I done with my life?

Here’s one of Alma Cogan’s later TV performances – a cover of ‘The Tennessee Waltz’ – as introduced by her (supposed) lover John Lennon. They do flirt quite heavily in this clip, I must say…

And if that doesn’t leave with a smile on your face, then I don’t know what medication to recommend…

Alma Cogan, 19th May 1932 – 26th October 1966

Random Runners-up: ‘Cool Water’, by Frankie Laine with the Mellomen

My special feature for the week is a moment in the sun for the singles that didn’t quite make it to the top. These aren’t particularly long-running, or unlucky #2 singles. They may not even be particularly good… They all simply peaked in the runners-up position.

Today’s random runner-up takes us back a good ol’ while…

‘Cool Water’, by Frankie Laine with the Mellomen

#2 for 3 weeks, behind ‘Rose Marie‘, from 5th – 26th August 1955

Before Slade or T Rex, before the Stones and the Beatles, before even Elvis himself, one man dominated the UK singles chart in its earliest days: Frankie Laine.

In 1953, the first full year of the singles chart, he scored three #1s that lasted at the top for a staggering twenty-eight weeks (!) This record was his 16th Top 20 hit in under 3 years. Everything he recorded turned to chart gold… Which perhaps explains the success of ‘Cool Water.’ It was a hit by default.

Or maybe its been so long since I reviewed a pre-rock single I’ve forgotten how dull most of them were. It’s a song from a Western, about a cowboy lost in the desert, dragging his horse, Dan, along in search of water. Cool, clear, water….

Dan can y’see that big green tree, Where the water’s runnin’ free…? Dan doesn’t answer because it’s just a mirage, and he’s just a horse. It’s very 1955, this song, and it fits right in with the spaghetti-western film-score feel of #1s like ‘The Man From Laramie‘, ‘Give Me Your Word‘, and the 11-week mega chart-topper that held this off top-spot, ‘Rose Marie’.

A few months after this hit #2, ‘Rock Around the Clock‘ would come along and that would be that. Rock ‘n’ roll would be here to stay. Frankie Laine’s chart-topping days would be numbered, although he remained a recording artist into the 1970s. In fact, he would re-record ‘Cool Water’ in 1961, for an album titled ‘Hell Bent for Leather’ (Is it just me, or does that sound more S&M than C&W…?)

Meanwhile, the Mellomen, who provide the actually quite cool deep-voiced Cooool Water… backing vocals, have also appeared on a #1 themselves: Rosemary Clooney’s ‘Mambo Italiano‘ earlier in the same year. A fun, catchy song that reminds us there actually were some great chart-toppers before Bill Haley and Co. came along.

One last #2 coming up tomorrow…

Remembering Vera Lynn

I had decided not to do a post on Dame Vera Lynn, who passed away yesterday, aged 103. She was, after all, representative of an era before the singles chart came into being. Born during WWI (just think about that for a second!), she began singing with dance bands before going on to become the ‘Forces’ Sweetheart’, singing traditional pop songs that kept spirits up among the public and the armed forces during the second world war. Plus, there are plenty of obituaries doing the rounds, by people who know much more about her than me.

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But, she did have a #1 single: ‘My Son, My Son’ in 1954. You can read my original post on that here. (I don’t think I was wildly complimentary about the song, but hey ho.) Plus, she was the first non-American artist to reach #1 on the US Billboard charts, with ‘Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart’, in 1952.

On top of that… I was doing some browsing in the wake of her death, and read some really interesting stories about her. For example, that she played an anti-heroin benefit gig with Hawkwind, organised by Pete Townshend, in the eighties. And that she rocked up to Brighton Pride aged 92, to support the Brighton and Hove Gay Men’s Chorus in another charity performance. And that she sued the British National Party for using her signature tune, ‘We’ll Meet Again’, in an ad campaign. (I suppose part of the reason I was going to avoid this post was because her legacy and her back-catalogue have been hi-jacked by nationalists and Brexiteers in recent years – but clearly Ms Lynn had no time for that nonsense herself.) Here is said signature song:

It would have been a massive #1 in 1939, had the singles chart existed. ‘We’ll Meet Again’ has reappeared in the British charts in recent weeks, after striking a resonant chord with those isolated during the Coronavirus crisis – making Dame Vera by far the oldest person ever to have a hit single.

So in the end I did decide to do a post on Dame Vera Lynn. And you’ve just read it. Normal service will resume tomorrow!

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(Lynn, on a morale-boosting tour in 1942)

Dame Vera Lynn, 20th March 1917 – 18th June 2020