Yee-Hah! I hoped, back when Tennessee Ernie Ford was topping the charts with ‘Give Me Your Word’, that we might be seeing our first Country and Western #1. Well, Ernie didn’t quite live up to his name but we didn’t have to wait long. This is country with a capital C O U N T R and Y.
Slim Whitman stands alone on the prairie. The setting sun casts an orange glow across this horizon. Cacti spread their long shadows over the dirty ground. A tumbleweed bounces lazily by. Slim picks up his spittoon, clears his throat, and begins… Oh Rose, my Rose Marie… I love you… I’m always dreaming of you…
It’s an atmospheric record, I’ll grant you that. Just a piano, a simple rhythm and that weird noise which is the epitome of old, Nashville C&W: strange and echoing, made either by guitars submerged in water or sped up recordings of whale noises. You’ll know it as soon as you hear it.
Anyway, Slim can’t forget Rose Marie, and even wishes he’d never met her. Then he hums as he thinks of her. It’s quite effective. You really can picture him wandering plaintively past hail bays and broken barn doors, as the light finally fades.
There are definitely some pros to this 36th UK chart topper: it is quite an understated ballad, lacking the OTT grandstanding of some of its predecessors, while there are definitely some ‘rockier’ elements to the song too in the twangy guitars and the piano riff. But there are definitely some cons too: Whitman’s voice comes far too close to yodelling for my liking (My Ro-OOse Marie), for example. Some nice touches; some things jar.
I was planning to write something indignant about this record spending 11 (Eleven!) consecutive weeks at the top – setting a record that would last for thirty-six years. But the more I listen to it, the more ‘Rose Marie’ is getting under my skin. It’s simple, it’s heartfelt, it’s kinda cute. There’s another fade, rather than a bombastic finale: a long drawn out note and a piano refrain.
It’s not a bad way to claim your sole chart-topper – double figures then out – though Slim Whitman did have a handful of other hits. Pictures of him show a very dapper looking pseudo-cowboy with a natty little moustache. It almost goes without saying, by now, that he lived to a ripe old age: dying at ninety in 2013. ‘Rose Marie’ itself (herself?) dates from far earlier than 1955 – from a 1924 opera of the same name, written by none other than Oscar Hammerstein II. And that, fact fans, is that.
This is more like it! This is a pop song – a pop song as we would recognise one today. In our countdown so far I would count perhaps only Guy Mitchell’s ‘Look at that Girl’, and now this, as examples of The Modern Pop Song. No orchestras, no silly declarations of love, no grandstand finishes… Just a quick beat, a doo-doo-doo, and some lyrics about how in love the singer is.
I know this song quite well, and have it in regular rotation in my Spotify library, though I’m not sure how or why. I know next to nothing about Alma Cogan and, as you may have been able to tell from previous posts, I haven’t explored this era in popular music very extensively at all. It must have popped up as a suggestion – Spotify does love a suggestion – and I must have liked it enough to save it.
Anyway, know it I do. In fact, I don’t just know it – I love it! Cogan has this little flip in her voice at the start of every line, which makes her sound like an excitable school girl. And, for this song it really works. She’s got a crush, you see: You dreamboat, you loveable dreamboat, the kisses you gave me, set my dreams afloat… She’s besotted, and would follow the object of her desire anywhere – she would sail the seven seas, in fact: even if you told me to go and paddle my own canoe (I can’t help but think that sounds like a euphemism – ‘Just off to paddle my canoe darling, don’t wait up’).
There isn’t much else to ‘Dreamboat’ -it’s a fun little ditty. Cogan sings it well, with the perfect pronunciation we’ve come to expect but also with a light, playful touch that’s been missing from many of the number ones thus far. She sounds like she’s having a ball, as if she has a big, broad smile on her face while belting it out. Again, it’s a female singer having a good time. Contrast this with the song it replaced at the top – Jimmy Young’s painfully earnest take on ‘Unchained Melody’. Even in 1955 girls were having all the fun. It’s a noticeably shorter record than all the previous chart toppers as well, clocking in at well under two minutes, and that’s one of the most important things to consider when writing a brilliant pop song: make sure that it doesn’t outstay its welcome!
It’s a shame, I think, that this is Alma Cogan’s only song on this countdown. I like the cut of her gib. She was another young, British-born singer who, along with Ruby Murray and Dickie Valentine earlier in 1955, was dragging popular music away from old crusties like Vera Lynn and David Whitfield and towards the teenagers, towards rock ‘n’ roll. This is a song, essentially, about a hunk and his sweet kisses.
A quick look at Cogan’s Wiki throws up a colourful picture: the highest paid female star of the late ’50s, serial winner of the NME Outstanding British Female Singer award, and perennial visitor to the Top 10. Parties with Princess Margaret, Cary Grant and Noel Coward. An affair with a young John Lennon just as the Beatles were shooting to fame. And then dead at the tragically young age of thirty-four…
A life well lived, though cut far too short. I have a feeling that I’ll miss her even more – this ‘Girl with the Giggle’ – when we return to the bog-standard, plodding ‘pre-rock’ songs that I fear are still to clock up the charts, before rock truly lands.
We’ve flirted with legend so far. Sinatra and Doris Day have hit the top, but not with any of their most famous recordings. Frankie Laine has set an unbeatable chart record with a song that will be unmistakeable to people of a certain age. And there have been other chart toppers that people might be able to sing a couple of lines from. But everyone, and I repeat everyone, knows ‘Unchained Melody’.
But not everyone will know this version. 4 (Four!) versions of ‘Unchained Melody’ have hit top spot in the UK charts – take a bow The Righteous Brothers, Robson & Jerome, and Gareth Gates, we shall hear from you anon. With these versions – the former especially – ingrained in popular culture, Jimmy Young’s version is a strange listen.
The tempo is faster, for a start. Then there are the Spanish guitars, when we are used to it being a piano led song. And then there is the clipped, British delivery. No glossy, American vocals here. Young’s voice is deep, sonorous even. It’s technically a good voice. But there is more than a whiff of David Whitfield about it, especially when he belts out the line Are you still MIIIIIIINE?
He still needs your love, and would like God to speed your love to him. It is the same song, but it’s not. I think that were this a more forgotten hit – a ‘Give Me Your Word’ for example -it might simply file in amongst all the other stiff, slightly overwrought, pre-rock ballads that we have sat through so far. But, unfortunately for Jimmy Young, people took this song and turned it into one of the most instantly recognisable pieces of popular music ever recorded. And his version, while still not the original (there were, inevitably, four other versions in the chart during the summer of ’55), now sounds very dated next to the more modern interpretations.
Interestingly, though, as we study the evolution of the number one record through time, we have a first here. At least, I think it’s a first (I can’t be bothered going back and listening to all the previous thirty-three). So many of these hits have favoured a bombastic THIS IS THE END OF THE SONG approach to the final chorus (to be referred to from now on as a TITEOES ending). And what song would have better suited this kind of OTT climax than ‘Unchained Melody’? But no. What we have here is Young singing the last line – God speed your love to me – the final note being held, the guitars strumming and a fade. A fade! And it works pretty well. It is, ironically – considering the time in which it was recorded – the most understated ending out of the four chart topping versions.
Why, though, is it called ‘Unchained Melody’ when the lyrics make no reference to being ‘unchained’? Is it because the singer is unchaining his heart, and pouring out his feelings to the one he loves? That would be a sensible guess, but no. We might as well address this here, though I am aware that I will have sod all to write about by the time we stumble across the Gareth Gates version. The song is from a film called ‘Unchained’, and is therefore the melody from ‘Unchained’. Kind of like Mantovani’s ‘Song from Moulin Rouge’. Simple. The film has been forgotten, but it lingers on in the title of a world-famous love song. And, it keeps up our run of film soundtrack #1s – four in a row, and counting. Of course, ‘Unchained Melody’ is also very well known for being in an ultra famous scene from another movie: ‘Ghost’. Which is turning this all very meta – kind of like the play within a play. Or not. I think I should stop writing soon.
But I can’t finish without mentioning the man who has played barely a supporting role in this post so far: Jimmy Young himself. I’ve not so far been able to relate many of these early chart toppers to life events, experiences, or memories… But I do have a special place in my heart for Jimmy Young.
He was known by most as a Radio 2 DJ, rather than a singer. My parents love a bit of Radio 2 – as parents tend to do – and while I did put in some half-hearted protests for Radio 1, or even a commercial station (Shock! Horror!), I didn’t actually mind long car journeys with Steve Wright or Wogan or whoever. But I hated the two hours over lunch when Jimmy Young came on to talk about, ugh, politics, the world, society and the issues of the day. Then I would really protest, and my parents would usually concede to putting ‘ABBA Gold’ on for a bit.
Young just came across as a crusty old man, who thought youngsters didn’t know how easy they had it, who was definitely in favour of bringing back National Service, maybe even hanging… This is obviously all complete speculation on my part (though I see now that he had a column in the Daily Express – draw your own conclusions there…) and he’s dead so I shouldn’t be too rude. He did talk an awful lot, though. And yet I look back on those days fondly now, sitting in a car on our way to a fortnight in, I don’t know, Devon, listening to an old man chuntering on – an old man I had no idea had been a chart-topping singer.
Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, by Eddie Calvert (his 2nd of two #1s)
4 weeks, from 27th May to 24th June 1955
And so, for the second time in chart history, two versions of the same song take their turn at the top. It’s not quite as dramatic as David Whitfield and Frankie Laine replacing one another with ‘Answer Me’ back in November 1953 (and then completing the ’50s chart bingo board by tying for the number one slot), but still.
You do have to wonder, once again, why people needed multiple versions of the same song. Was it a case of people buying every version of ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’ going because they really loved the song? Or was it Team Perez Vs Team Eddie? As far as I’m concerned, there should only have been one winner…
This is the knock-off version, the Poundland version, the 2-bit ringtone version… you get the idea. It is the same tune: the same notes and rhythm without any of the oomph of Prado’s version. Calvert is trying all the same tricks, even doing the same drawn-out, low then high, note that Billy Regis did to such giddy effect on the original. (I know they are contemporaneous, but the Prado version will from now on be ‘the original’ to me) Even Calvert’s trumpet sounds different, reedy, not up to the task. Why on earth this lasted twice as long at number one is a mystery.
But… maybe it shouldn’t be. Calvert was British, for a start, not some moustachioed Cuban. And everything about this record that I’m filing in the ‘Against’ column – the fact that it’s a bit restrained, a bit stiff, a bit less raunchy – probably actually explains this version’s greater success. Calvert was from Preston, and he certainly did not go ‘Huh!’, ‘Ooh!’ and ‘Aah!’ during his records. Respectable households could drop this disc on to the gramophone after Sunday lunch safe in the knowledge that grandma wouldn’t be requiring the smelling salts.
There is a section, towards the end of this version, in which Calvert goes a little wild and takes it away from Prado’s version, which is commendable, but no. The ending of this version, in particular, is a complete damp squib. It’s not an awful #1 – a good tune is a good tune – but Perez Prado just did so much more with it. We won’t be hearing from Eddie Calvert again in this countdown, I’m not terribly sad to say. He burned brightly, but briefly, and didn’t have an awful lot of singles chart success beyond 1955.
It’s worth also noting here that we are in the midst of a film/musical soundtrack run here: two versions of ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, which featured in the Jane Russell movie ‘Underwater!’, as well as Tony Bennett’s Broadway hit ‘Stranger in Paradise’ sandwiched between. I suppose it would be hard to downplay the role cinemas had in influencing music buying tastes in the 1950s. Very few people owned a TV set, radio barely played any chart music… Films were one of the few places where people could actually hear current, popular music. Get your song in a film and hey presto! And it’s a trick that still works to this day.
A quick recap, as we hit thirty. Thirty number ones in a little under two and a half years. The prehistoric chart toppers.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about these super old #1s has been that very few of them have sounded terrible to my 21st Century ears. With the notable exceptions of David Whitfield (sorry David, but nope) and Vera Lynn (who already was from another era), they haven’t sounded too old-fashioned.
Whether I’d want to listen to that many of them ever again is another matter, however. Our very first chart-topper was the bombastic and ever-so earnest ‘Here in My Heart’, and it kind of set the template for a lot of what followed. Frankie Laine, Eddie Fisher and Tennessee Ernie Ford have spent the best part of a year at the top, in total, with overwrought and slightly silly sounding declarations of love and faithfulness. Even swingin’ Sinatra was guilty with his dull first number one ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’. Still, you have to admire their honesty. They were putting it all out there – hearts on sleeves.
It has actually been the ladies who have brought the glamour and, dare we say, the sexiness to the party. Jo Stafford, Kay Starr and Kitty Kallen all hit the top with fun, laidback slithers of fifties jazz-pop. Recently, Rosemary Clooney has taken it to another level with her breezy giggle and girl-band fervour on ‘This Ole House’ and ‘Mambo Italiano’.
And then there have been the anomalies (for what would a record chart be without those songs that make you go ‘What the actual…?’) Stand up and take a bow ‘I See the Moon’, by the Stargazers, for taking the newly conceived, first time ever, ‘WTAF’ prize.
I’m also going to christen an award for the most forgettable of the past 30 chart toppers – the not terrible but not great – the tracks that I’ve already forgotten existed… The ‘Meh’ Award. Honourable mentions for ‘Softly, Softly’ by Ruby Murray, and ‘Give Me Your Word’, the two most recent number ones, but… Take a bow, Don Cornell, with your perfectly average ‘Hold My Hand’. It really was a… Well, I’ve forgotten what it was. Which is why it won.
I’ve also made a lot of the difference so far between the UK recorded hits and those by US artists. And this is perhaps the most obvious, socio-economic, ‘lets get serious for a minute here’ point to be made from looking at the ‘pre-rock’ charts. That the US stars just had that extra level of glamour, of confidence, of razzmatazz, compared to the stuffier and more staid UK stars. And, yep, in the early ’50s the US was the daddy. Relatively undamaged by war (casualties aside), economy booming, disposable income growing; while Brits were still queuing for butter and nylons, and living in prefab houses. This clearly comes through in the records we’ve heard: compare and contrast Guy Mitchell’s swagger with David Whitfield’s clipped, repressed delivery; compare even the most basic, 1954-by-numbers song from Doris Day with old Vera Lynn (sorry to keep picking on you, Vera…) But, as I noted recently, by early ’55 things were starting to shift: Dickie Valentine and Ruby Murray were two young British singers who hit the top while sounding like Americans.
Anyway, I’ll conclude each of these round-ups by choosing the very best and very worst of the past 30 so…
Let’s start with the worst. I’ve given Vera Lynn a hard enough time, so I won’t choose ‘My Son, My Son’. And the Stargazers first number one ‘Broken Wings’ was pretty morose, but in some ways it was shit in a specifically British way – all Hammond organs and posh vocals – that it was kind of endearing. Nope, the first award for ‘Worst #1’ goes to… ‘Cara Mia’ by David Whitfield and Mantovani’s orchestra, for dragging popular music back to the 1890s. 10 weeks at the top isn’t any sort of vindication, either.
Let’s end on a high, though. The best ones – and there are more good #1s to choose from than there are terrible #1s, believe it or not. Honourable mentions for Perry Como and his ‘papayas’, for ‘I Believe’ as the record-setting juggernaut that it was… But my top 3 are: ‘Mambo Italiano’, by Rosemary Clooney’, for perfectly straddling the line between cool and crazy. ‘Look at that Girl’ by Guy Mitchell, for being the most perfectly conceived pop song that we’ve heard so far (these are ‘pop’ charts after all). And the winner is, the best chart topper from this bunch of early, early hits… *fanfare*… ‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray, for being two minutes of SEX on vinyl (gay sex, no less), and for all the pearls that would have been clutched by concerned mothers when their sons and daughters dropped that record onto their turntables. Here’s to more of that sort of thing in the next 30 UK #1s!
Give Me Your Word, by Tennessee Ernie Ford (his 1st of two #1s)
7 weeks, from 11th Mar to 29th Apr 1955
Before we get down to analysing this next chart-topper, let’s just take a second to appreciate the name of the artist that recorded it. Tennessee Ernie Ford… I wonder what kind of music he might make? (*cough* country and western *cough*)
But, no. While he has the voice for a C&W hit, this isn’t the song. He drawls ‘all’ into ‘aawl’ and ‘wants’ into ‘waaonts’, yet from this second this record cracks into gear, with soaring strings and a dramatic piano, we know we ain’t gettin’ a country lament – no tumbleweeds nor howlin’ coyotes. This is a song that means business.
It’s basically a marriage proposal – a lot of talk of vows, of being beside him, of words being given for ever and always. And, to be fair, you probably wouldn’t say ‘no’ to Tennessee: he has a deep sonorous voice, the voice of a man who can chop trees and wrestle cattle. Rough hands but a warm heart, that kind of thing. The only time the voice lets him down is at the very end, when a song of this gravitas needs a slightly more powerful, and slightly less Pingu sounding finish.
And is it just me, or are these chart toppers starting to get sexier? Ruby Murray was all about softly, breathlessly, touching lips and now Mr. Ford carries on the theme. Give me your lips, he drawls, and let your lips remain. Remain where, you might ask? It’s hardly Prince at his raunchiest; but it certainly isn’t something Eddie Fisher would have sung about either.
Looking at pictures of Tennessee Ernie, he looks somewhat like you would expect. Perhaps not as rugged as his voice makes him sound, but he has a natty little moustache, and clearly liked to play up his cowboy credentials, with plenty of Stetson ‘n’ rodeo-tassels popping up on a Google image search. He was really born in Tennessee, too.
But, for a song that starts of with grand intent, this is actually pretty dull. Or at least average. File it along with ‘Answer Me’ and ‘Cara Mia’ – songs that were huge, and clearly got people all weepy in their day, but whose melodramatic lyrics and OTT melodies have lost their resonance over time.
Softly Softly, by Ruby Murray (her 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 18th Feb to 11th Mar 1955
That wasn’t a cry of anguish you just heard; more an exhalation of boredom. Or an extended pause while I tried to think of something to stop this from being my shortest post yet.
But maybe it should be a short post. Ruby Murray, claiming the twenty-ninth UK #1 with a perfectly forgettable song. It’s basically an amalgamation of what’s gone before: the string intro to ‘Secret Love’, Mantovani’s violins, Eddie Fisher’s ethereal backing singers, plus a sprinkle of Kitty Kallen and a half-teaspoonful of Kay Starr… Almost as if someone was using an algorithm specifically designed to write a mid-1950s chart hit. However they did it; it worked – ‘Softly Softly’ logged a very respectable three weeks at the top.
Softly, softly, Miss Murray purrs, come to me, touch my lips, so tenderly… The lyrics are all about kissing and caressing, about her lover taking his time to open up her heart. But it’s not a sexy song at all. It’s a bit nursery ryhme-ish, and a bit dull after ‘Mambo Italiano’.
Murray has a nice enough voice and, notably, this is the second example, after Dickie Valentine, of a British singer trying to sound like an American. She breathes and tickles the lines in a way that Vera Lynn most certainly would not have approved of. Actually, Ruby Murray was from Belfast and, by my reckoning, this makes her the first in a very long line of Irish crooners to have topped the UK Singles Chart.
Ruby Murray is also (and this is the only thing that I knew about her prior to writing this post) cockney rhyming slang for curry. As in: It’s Friday night, we’re off dahn the Taj Mahal for a cheeky little Ruby Murray, innit. She is therefore the second chart topping artist so far, after Mantovani, to have remained enshrined in the public consciousness less for her music and more for the way her surname sounds. But her music was very popular. Though this was her sole #1, she recorded eight further Top 10 hits between 1954-59. Only two of her releases failed to make the Top 10, actually. I guess it’s a bit of a shame that she’s now remembered solely for having a name that rhymes with curry.
I’m pretty sure I could go out on a limb and declare that I’m the only person in the world who has listened to a Ruby Murray song today. ‘Softly Softly’ is by far her most listened to song on Spotify, at 104,676 plays. A quick bit of maths, dividing that number by the 70 million total users on Spotify, gives you 0.00014 plays of ‘Softly Softly’ per user. And that’s after I’ve played it five times in the past half hour.
Still – it is pretty amazing that every single one of these prehistoric chart toppers is available nowadays at the click of a button. Had I tried to do this blog a decade or so earlier I would have had to rely on wading through weird re-recordings on YouTube, or to opening my laptop up to all sorts of viruses on Pirate Bay. Had I attempted this twenty or thirty years ago (before blogging existed, I know, but bear with me) I’d have had to spend a fortune in ‘Sounds of the 50s’ compilations. These are enlightened times in which we live. And there, that wasn’t such a short post after all.
Mambo Italiano, by Rosemary Clooney (her 2nd of two #1s) & the Mellomen
1 week, from 14th to 21st Jan / 2 Weeks, from 4th to 18th Feb 1955 (3 weeks total)
Just like that, Rosemary Clooney’s pops up again. She had two number ones, within a couple of months, and then she was done. (I’m being a little disingenuous here – she was a chart force for several years – but we are only concerning ourselves with number ones hits here, no room for second best).
And good old Rosie – her time at the top may have been fleeting, but at least she had a bit of fun while she was there. This is an even more frenzied bop than ‘This Ole House’. We start out with a bit of nonsense about a girl going back to Napoli, because she misses the scenery. And then… Hey Mambo!
On first listen I thought she was really singing in Italian, but she is just listing food: Hey mambo… try an enchilada with the fish bacalla and other cod-Italian phrases. Something something mozzarella, something something Calabrese… I think there’s a Como se dice in there. To be honest, Miss Clooney doesn’t know como se dice very much at all. And anyway, that’s Spanish. But it’s OK – you can’t help but want to dance to this. For the solo, the bouncy piano from ‘This Ole House’ returns, and it ends with a brilliant That’s Nice! OOH! As for ‘The Mellomen’… who knows? They do little more than your average ’50s backing singers – a few ‘Hey Mambo’s here and there – so I’m not sure why they got a credit. But, just like that, they have a UK Number One single.
If this were released today, people might pick up on the gibberish mix of English and Italian, and the picture it paints of Italian-Americans, and they may perhaps view it in an unfavourable light. Remember how Justin Bieber got in trouble for singing about Doritos to the tune of ‘Despacito’? But actually, this is a song about a girl returning to a native land where she now feels confused and out of touch. The lyrics are meant to be mumbo-jumbo. We’re not meant to understand them… Kinda clever when you think about it.
The song also features the line: If you gonna be a square, you ain’t a-gonna go nowhere, ‘Square’, as far as I’m concerned, is the archetypal ’50s slang word: Be there or be square…You’re so square, baby I don’t care… So, while this is a mambo record, sung by an easy-listening singer-slash-actress, this is rock ‘n’ roll. It may be fun and funky, but it just about manages to retain an air of cool around all the silliness. While we were waiting for Bill Haley to come along and kick-off things off, the ideals and attitudes, if not the actual sounds, of rock ‘n’ roll were being sneaked in right under our noses.
As with her previous chart topper, I knew this song already. Most people do. I have vague memories of a late-90s remix. Plus, Miss Clooney is remembered nowadays as the aunt of housewives’ heartthrob George Clooney. But – remixes and celebrity descendants aside – we should all take a minute to appreciate her for the few weeks, in late ’54/early ’55, when she slapped a good dollop of fun into an otherwise pretty staid and stuffy UK singles chart.
The Finger of Suspicion, by Dickie Valentine (his first of two #1s) with the Stargazers (their 3rd of 3 #1s)
1 week, from 7th to 14th Jan / 2 Weeks, from 21st Jan to 4th Feb 1955 (3 weeks total)
We race on into 1955 with a song that sounds like it could be very interesting. The Finger of Suspicion! Dickie Valentine calls out his unfaithful love. He knows what she did! And he’ll stand for it no longer!
Except, no. This isn’t an era of surprises, of shocks… of excitement (with a few notable exceptions). This is a cloying little love song, putting the ‘easy’ into easy-listening. The crimes for which the accusing finger points are things like stealing a beat or two from the singer’s heart, robbing him of sleep etc. etc… All very smooth, Dickie, but the title promised so much more.
Musically it’s right down the middle of the road. Not too dull; but far from thrilling. There are snatches of film-noir soundtrack between the verses, and an extremely sedate guitar-cum-trumpet solo. Peak pre-rock!
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the song – and perhaps I’m clutching at straws here – is that Dickie Valentine is a Brit who sings like an American. Bear with me… So far in the British chart-toppers corner we’ve had folks such as David Whitfield, Vera Lynn, and Eddie Calvert. All very proper, all very sedate, all very… pleasant. They’ve sang their number one hits in a restrained, decidedly British fashion. Calvert even played his trumpet in a restrained, decidedly British fashion. Whilst the Americans – the Frankie Laines, the Guy Mitchells, the Rosemary Clooneys – have all had a bit of a swagger about them. And Valentine, here, has clearly learned from them. He doesn’t have the greatest voice, but it’s a bit louche, and slightly knowing. He sounds like he’s having a good time singing this song. Even the name, Dickie Valentine, sounds fun and stagey (his real name was the far more prosaic Richard Maxwell). We are witnessing the birth of the British pop star here, the first in a long line of cheeky, yet loveable faces that ranges from Cliff to Olly Murs, via Rod Stewart and Robbie Williams. It’s a moment of some significance.
Almost as interesting is the manner in which Valentine ends the song. It seems that we are set up for the big, overly-dramatic finish so beloved of this era’s biggest stars. The finger of suspicion – dum dum dum dum dum dum – you’re ready for it, no matter the fact that it won’t suit the song – and then we get an ever so gentle points… at… you… Expectations well and truly subverted.
We are, of course, meeting The Stargazers again as well. Their first chart-topper was dire, their second was bizarre, and their final one is this standard little ditty. In truth, they barely feature here, save for a few backing lines. You wouldn’t even know they were involved if they weren’t credited. When this hit the top they became the act with the most UK Number Ones – joint with Frankie Laine. Best leave them there. They won’t hold onto this record for long, and will soon fade into the mists of chart history as an act very much of their time.
Let’s Have Another Party, by Winifred Atwell (her first of two #1s)
5 weeks, from 3rd Dec. 1954 to 7th Jan. 1955
I wrote in the intro to my last post that Rosemary Clooney was finally getting our pulses racing – or our toes tapping, at least – and here comes Winifred Atwell to keep up the momentum.
It’s another piano-led song. Well, I say ‘piano-led’; it’s nothing but piano. Winnie and her piano, bashing out a selection of boogie-woogie and ragtime standards in extremely short order. According to Wikipedia we are getting classics such as ‘Broken Doll’, ‘Lily of Laguna’ and the ‘Sheik of Araby’ served up with a verse here, a snatch of chorus there, then on to the next one. I don’t recognise any of the featured tunes – though I’m pretty sure one of them was played by an ice-cream van in days of childhood yore.
It’s jaunty enough, but the effect of squeezing so many different tunes into a couple of minutes means it’s a bit of an odd listen. They’re all played in the same ragtime tempo, so there are no segues: it’s straight from one song into another with no time to draw breath, before we screech to a halt with dum-didley-dum-dum… dum-dum. But hey, it’s the first medley to top the charts, and off the top of my head, I’m not sure if there will be another one until Jive Bunny in thirty-five years’ time. On Spotify, the track is listed as having a Part I and Part II, the former being all of these old hits strung together while the latter is a much-more sedate number, even featuring a bit of guitar. I think, though I’m unable to confirm, that only the first part counts as the record that hit #1. Maybe Part II was the B-side.
Anyway, all of this nonsense about which part is blah blah blah pales wildly into insignificance when it is revealed that Ms. Atwell was… black! Born in Trinidad & Tobago, before moving to the States and then to London, she becomes, a little over two years into their existence, the first black artist to hit the top of the charts. It’s a big moment, and worth taking a moment to reflect on this happening at a time when, say, landlords could stick a ‘No Blacks’ sign in their windows with impunity and, in the USA at least, Winifred Atwell wouldn’t have been allowed on the same public transport as her fellow chart-toppers. Just because this is the frothiest of throw-away records shouldn’t render it any less significant.
In fact, it’s almost ironic that she achieved this historic landmark with a medley full of old music-hall hits. The sort of hits that were big in even less enlightened times. The sort that might have been sung by men in black-face, to howls of laughter (seriously, Google ‘Lily of Laguna’ to see just what kind of song it is…) In a way, she is reclaiming them, and making them popular on her own terms.
And with that, I’ll descend from my high-horse, and conclude by saying that we will be hearing from Winfred Atwell again soon. She was huge in the early to mid-1950s (played for the Queen, didn’t you know!), and definitely seemed to have a winning formula. Hey, if it ain’t broke… ‘Let’s Have Another Party’ was the follow-up (somewhat inevitably) to ‘Let’s Have a Party’, and was followed up by another medley, the wonderfully titled ‘Let’s Have a Ding-Dong’. All good, (very) old-fashioned fun!