Roy Orbison: Best of the Rest

December 6th marks the 34th anniversary of Roy Orbison’s death, at the tragically young age of fifty-two. The ‘Big O’ stood apart from other early rock ‘n’ rollers, with his sombre stage persona, his vulnerable, melancholy songs, and his semi-operatic voice.

After his hit-making days ended in the mid-to-late sixties, a decade in the wilderness beckoned. Personal tragedies also unfolded – the deaths of his wife and his two eldest sons in a car crash and house fire respectively. The eighties saw a rediscovery of his work, with hit covers of his songs by Don McClean and Van Halen, and the formation of The Traveling Wilburys supergroup in 1988, alongside Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Tom Petty. On the cusp of a triumphant comeback, Orbison died from a heart attack on December 6th 1988.

I’ve already written about his three chart-toppers (‘Only the Lonely’, ‘It’s Over’ and ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’) – classics the lot of them – and so to mark this day I’ll cover his five next-biggest UK hits…

‘In Dreams’ – #6 in 1963

A candy-coloured clown they call the Sandman, Tiptoes to my room every night… Only Roy Orbison could give a lyric so ridiculous-and-yet-terrifying the weight that it deserves. He dreams of his ex-lover then wakes, bathed in sweat, and alone. (Of course he’s alone – it’s a Roy Orbison song.) It’s got the same build-up as one of The Big ‘O’s very best songs, ‘Running Scared’, which barely scraped into the Top 10. ‘In Dreams’ is not quite as good, but builds to a fine crescendo. Roy, as was his way, hits a note that most humans are incapable of imagining, let along singing. ‘In Dreams’ was used to famous effect in David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’, a move that initially shocked Orbison but one that he came to accept after seeing the film several times (and perhaps, if we’re being cynical, seeing the publicity it brought his music…)

‘Too Soon to Know’ – #3 in 1966

A country cover that, I must admit, I’d never heard before. And yet it’s one of his biggest UK hits. It must have sounded quite unfashionable in the swinging charts of 1966 and yet… When was Roy Orbison ever truly in fashion? Or out of fashion, for that matter? He ploughed his own, spectacular furrow. It’s sweet, but lacking the oomph of Roy’s biggest and best hits.

‘Blue Bayou’ – #3 in 1963

Another bit of country-pop, with a cool bassline. And with Orbison’s angelic tones in the chorus, this is no normal country tune. No matter what genre he turned his hand to – country, pop, rock ‘n’ roll – he couldn’t help doing it a bit different. As a kid, I had no idea what a bayou was, but always thought it sounded nice: where you sleep all day, and the catfish play… I’m still not one-hundred percent certain what a bayou is, but I’d definitely like to hang out there…

‘You Got It’ – #3 in 1989

The comeback hit that never was. Well, it was a hit – one of his biggest – but Roy wasn’t around to enjoy his return to the top end of the charts. And ‘You Got It’ is almost the perfect comeback – a slight updating of Orbison’s sound, with some help from Jeff Lynne, but still a record that could easily slip in amongst his classics from the early sixties. The video above was filmed just a few weeks before his untimely death. It feels churlish to wonder if it would have been such a big hit had he not died… Maybe it would, as it’s a great song.

‘Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)’ – #2 in 1962

Interesting that this rockabilly ditty is Roy Orbison’s biggest non-#1. It’s nice enough: a repetitive refrain that turns into a sort of mantra as the song progresses, and it builds to a crescendo as all the best Orbison songs do. But it’s not an all time classic. Not a ‘Crying’, a ‘Running Scared’ or a ‘Blue Angel’ (my personal favourite). The video above is worth a look if not for the song then for the spectacularly uninterested audience. What did he say just before launching into the song…?

Roy Orbison, then. One of the most original chart stars going, with one of the very best voices.

Roy Orbison, April 26th 1936 – December 6th 1988

595. ‘La Bamba’, by Los Lobos

We’re hitting a bit of a latin groove in the summer of ’87. After Madonna’s two ‘¿hablas español?’ chart-toppers, here are some actual Mexicans…

La Bamba, by Los Lobos (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 26th July – 9th August 1987

OK. Los Lobos (The Wolves) are from California, but they’re of Mexican heritage, and sound to these untrained ears like the real deal. This is a nice, insanely catchy, interlude at the top of the charts – not just because it’s something a little different, but also because actual guitar-led number one singles were rarer than hens’ teeth in the mid-1980s.

It’s also not often that we get a fully foreign-language record at the top, either. In my initial notes on this, I wrote that it was only the 3rd of the decade. Now I’m struggling to think what the other two were… There’s Julio Iglesias’s similarly Spanish smoothy ‘Begin the Beguine’ (which, to be fair, has a couple of lines of English). Oh yes, and how could I forget Falco’s ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ which, title aside, was fully auf Deutsch.

What is a ‘Bamba’, I’m wondering? It’s not a thing, as such… More of a dance. There’s no direct translation, but the verb bombolear means to shake, or wobble, and so a derivative dance would presumably have a bit of hip wiggling. Put the rest of the Spanish lyrics through a translator, and it turns out to be a bit of a nonsense tune: To dance ‘La Bamba’, You need a bit of grace… I’m not a sailor, I’m a captain… Bam-ba, Bamba…

‘La Bamba’ was originally a hit for Ritchie Valens, and the Los Lobos version featured in a biopic released at the same time as the hit record. Which taps into another emerging theme of 1987: soundtrack hits. ‘Stand by Me’, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, ‘Who’s That Girl’, now this, have all made top-spot at least in part thanks to movies. The Valens film told the story of the first Latino rock ‘n’ roll star, whose rise to fame ended in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper when he was just seventeen.

‘La Bamba’ has a much longer history, though. It’s a Mexican folk song, of the son jarocho school, meaning that its roots stretch back centuries and that this is actually a pretty unique and culturally significant chart-topper. The earliest recording of ‘La Bamba’ is from the ‘30s. Valens took a song he presumably knew from childhood and gave it a rock ‘n’ roll twist… And it eventually ended up on top of the British charts some thirty years later, sandwiched between Madonna and Michael Jackson. The instrumental fade-out in particular sounds very authentically Mexican, though I think that was cut from the single edit.

Los Lobos had been around since the 1970s, and remain around today – having just released an album last year. This cover was by far their biggest hit, though, and what a hit: a #1 from the USA to New Zealand, via the UK, France and seemingly everywhere in-between. And, like I said in the intro, it’s been a refreshing change of pace. Up next, though, we’re back with the eighties big-hitters. The biggest of hitters: MJ himself.

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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

582. ‘Reet Petite (The Sweetest Girl in Town)’, by Jackie Wilson

The 1986 Christmas #1, then. And, giving Paul Heaton a run for his ‘best vocals of the year’ money, in comes Jackie Wilson. The late Jackie Wilson. With a song recorded over thirty years before…

Reet Petite (The Sweetest Girl in Town), by Jackie Wilson (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 21st December 1986 – 18th January 1987

One thing you’ve probably noticed if you’ve been following our chart-topping journey for a while is that when it comes to Christmas hits, all logic goes out the window (often along with taste and decency). Think ‘Lily the Pink’, ‘Two Little Boys’, ‘Ernie’, and ‘Long Haired Lover from Liverpool’… Think, if you can bear it, of ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’. Think, too, of the festive horrors still to come…

Luckily for us, though, while the appearance of ‘Reet Petite’ at Christmas #1 is clearly a novelty, this isn’t a saccharine twee-fest, or a misguided attempt at humour. Rather it’s simply a stonking, barnstorming, a-whooping and a-hollering classic re-release. It’s got nothing to do with Christmas, nothing to do with peace, love, or the blessed infant; it’s simply an ode to an ‘A’-grade hottie…

She’s so fine, fine, fine, So fine, fa-fa-fa fine… yelps Wilson… She’s alright, She’s got just what it takes… She fills her clothes, from head to toes, as well as being a tutti frutti and a bathing beauty. I don’t know about you, but I’m imagining a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop. While the lyrics may be largely nonsensical, and often just exclamations stitched together into pidgin sentences, Wilson sells them with his trademark energy.

Is it a bit much? Maybe. Does it verge on gimmicky when he rolls his ‘r’s on the title line? Perhaps. But who cares when it’s just so darn exuberant, when it’s bursting at the seams with such fun. Wilson competes with the brassy horns, that are just as much the lead instrument as his voice is, and that constantly threaten to outdo him while never quite managing.

So, ‘Reet Petite’ is a great song, and a welcome addition to the Christmas Number One pantheon. Back in 1957, when it was Wilson’s first single after leaving his vocal group The Dominoes, it had made #6. It was re-released thirty years on after demand had grown following the screening of a clay animation video for the song on a BBC 2 documentary. I’ve included the 1987 video below… I don’t know if I’ve been spoiled by the Aardman standard of clay-mation in the 90s and ‘00s, but it’s a bit… odd. Slightly terrifying in places, too. Clearly you had to have been there.

Sadly, by the time Jackie Wilson scored his one and only UK chart-topper he had been dead for three years. He’d seen out his final years semi-comatose in a nursing home, after suffering an on-stage heart attack in 1975, and his star had fallen so far that he was initially buried in an unmarked grave. All of which makes his posthumous return to the charts, which coincided with his body being moved to a proper mausoleum, even more bittersweet.

This will kick off a strange era of re-releases, from adverts, movies and TV shows, several of which will go to #1 in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. But, here and now, 1986 comes to end. And a strange end it’s been: from hair metal, to indie lads, to a doo-wop classic. We head into the late-eighties next, with another abrupt change in direction…

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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…

493. ‘Oh Julie’, by Shakin’ Stevens

Shaky’s back, the biggest selling British artist of the decade (!), with his third chart-topper in less than a year.

Oh Julie, by Shakin’ Stevens (his 3rd of four #1s)

1 week, 24th – 31st January 1982

While his first two #1s lent heavily (and happily) on the sounds of the 1950s, his third lends very heavily on the sounds of a German Bierfest. As, for better or for worse, there is a lot of accordion involved here. (Though according to folks who know better than me – i.e. Wikipedia – it is more Cajun than German. Just FYI)

It’s another short and sweet slice of retro rockabilly but, compared to ‘This Ole House’ and ‘Green Door’, Stevens has lost his edge. (Whatever ‘edge’ Shakin’ Stevens ever had – these things are all relative!) It’s very middle of the road, very schlager – which fits with the Bierfest vibe, I suppose – and just a little bit safe. He’s coasting here. Again, I’m not claiming that ‘Green Door’ was punk, or anything, but it was a fun moment of rock ‘n’ roll revival at the top of the charts. This isn’t.

‘Oh Julie’ improves after the midway point, when the guitars start to drown out the accordions and it starts to show the charms of his earlier hits. But it’s not quite enough. And again, Shaky gives it his all. He sells it like the seasoned pro he is. I’m getting Elvis, of course, and Orbison, but most of all Jerry Lee Lewis in this one. The way he oooohs, and then yelps the line honey don’t leave me alone… Pure Killer.

I had assumed that this must have been a cover of an oldie, as his first two #1s were, but no. It’s a Shaky original, and it is impressive how authentic this record sounds. I can’t hate it: it’s catchy, it’s well-performed, it’s thankfully short. But nor can I love it. And I feel this is another type of January hit… ‘The Land of Make Believe’ was a Christmas leftover that belatedly made the top; this is an early in the year release that, perhaps, sneaked a week at #1 without too much competition. Of course, stick a girl’s name in a song and you’ll always sell a few more copies – Julie joins Annie, Clair, Maggie May, Rosemary, Juliet, and quite a few others, in having a song written just for her.

I have no proof for these cynical theories, though. My apologies to Shaky if this turns out to have been his biggest-selling hit (apart from, you know, that other one). Either way, ‘Oh Julie’ was a hit across Europe. Stevens went on scoring Top 10 hits throughout the early to mid-eighties, but it’ll be a little while before he’s back with his final chart-topper. A song that British readers, at least, may have heard once or twice before…

483. ‘Green Door’, by Shakin’ Stevens

Proving that the British public can only remain serious for so long (three weeks, to be precise) here is Shakin’ Stevens knocking The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ off the top with another slice of old-style rockin’ and rollin’…

Green Door, by Shakin’ Stevens (his 2nd of four #1s)

4 weeks, 26th July – 23rd August 1981

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ was obviously the motto pinned to the wall of Shaky’s recording studio. He takes the fun rockabilly of ‘This Ole House’, and ups both the fun and the rockabilly. A boogie-woogie piano and some clicking fingers lead us in to a tale of mystery and intrigue… Just what is behind the green door?

There’s an old piano and they’re playin’ hot, Behind the green door… Is it a bar? Don’t know what they’re doin’ but they laugh a lot, Behind the green door… Is it more than a bar…? A speakeasy? A strip-club? A brothel?? And why does it sound like the door leads directly off from Shaky’s bedroom, as he lies awake all night…?

It’s not a record that holds up much under scrutiny. But, you suspect, that was never the point. This wasn’t written with an eye on it being dissected in literature classes. The grannies and the kids ran out and bought Stevens’s first #1 in their droves, and this is aimed at the same crowd. And I personally can’t say no to some good ol’ fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, especially in an era where traditional ‘guitar’ music was in short supply at the top of the charts. There’s a great, twangy solo too, which ends in a note for note replica of the solo from ‘That’ll Be the Day’.

Shaky tries his best to get in to this here club, but has the door slammed in his face each time. I do like the hospitality’s thin there… line. It’s never specified why he isn’t allowed in – maybe the singer’s just got a baby face? I can sympathise, having spent most of 2002-03 trying, and largely failing, to get into nightclubs with a fake I.D. Wikipedia lists the song’s possible inspirations as including a Chicago speakeasy, London’s first lesbian bar, and a short story by H.G. Wells, among others.

‘Green Door’ is a cover – it had to be, right? – of a 1956 US #1 originally recorded in fairly pre-rock fashion by Jim Lowe. Frankie Vaughan took a fun big-band version to #2 over here. But I like Shakin’ Stevens’ version just as much. It rocks. And I don’t mean in a karaoke-ish, Elvis-impersonating way. It rocks, in a way that I wish more of the mid-seventies rock ‘n’ roll revival hits from the likes of Mud, Showaddywaddy and Alvin Stardust did. It still sounds completely out of place, considering ‘Ghost Town’ before, and the record coming up next, but who cares? Variety is, as they say, the spice of life, and in 1981 Shaky was bringing it to the top of the charts. He was in the middle of a red-hot streak here, and will be back in pole position again soon.

477. ‘This Ole House’, by Shakin’ Stevens

How to explain Shakin’ Stevens, to readers from foreign shores, or to readers not old enough to have experienced him in real time…?

This Ole House, by Shakin’ Stevens (his 1st of four #1s)

3 weeks, 22nd March – 12th April 1981

The twanging rockabilly in this take on ‘This Ole House’ sounds completely out of place in early 1981, after two years of sharp, spiky new-wave, and just before the New Romantics came along. Stevens’ delivery too – all energy and cheesy grins – is an outlier in this too-cool-for-school world. But while this is an unlikely hit record, it’s not unwelcome.

I can never say no to some old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. The production may be glossier, the guitars coming through in a warm stereo, but this is a step back to the 1950s. Is it better than Rosemary Clooney’s original, from way back in 1954…? No, probably not. But it is equally manic. That had an out of control honky-tonk piano, Shaky’s take has a distorted guitar solo: this version’s only concession to modern sounds.

He sounds like he’s having a lot of fun singing this – a song stuffed with nonsense lyrics about fixing shingles and mending window-panes – and because of this it is very hard not to have fun while you listen. The hipsters may have rolled their eyes, and turned their Ultravox records up, but the grannies and the kids clearly lapped it up. Just think… The young ones who bought Clooney’s version would have been hitting fifty by now. We have covered a lot of ground here!

I did wonder if this might have been Shakin’ Stevens debut: a smash hit from nowhere, perhaps after winning a TV talent show. But I couldn’t have been more wrong – he had been plugging away for well over a decade, releasing singles in the UK and Europe throughout the ‘70s. Born in Cardiff, he’d been a milkman, before forming his band The Sunsets. They’d supported The Rolling Stones of all people, in 1969. By the mid-seventies he was impersonating Elvis in the West End before finally scoring a minor chart hit with ‘Hot Dog’ in early 1980.

After that the rise was meteoric, and it’s hard to begrudge someone who’s waited that long and worked so hard for success. But. This still doesn’t explain why this Welsh Elvis finally became one of the biggest stars in the land… Maybe the rock ‘n’ roll revival that was gave us Showaddywaddy and Mud a few years back never truly went away? Maybe he was the chart-friendly face of the post-punk rockabilly scene? Or maybe it’s another ‘Shaddap You Face’: some light-relief after weeks of mourning John Lennon? I don’t know.

One thing’s for sure – if this cover of a near thirty-year-old song was a one-hit wonder then it would make perfect sense. A flash in the pan, a moment of frivolity. Except, it’s the first of four chart-toppers for a thirty-something ex-Elvis impersonator, who was on his way to becoming the biggest-selling British singles artist of the decade. More from Shaky, then, very soon…

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: ‘Are You Sure?’, by The Allisons

Part II of this week’s runners-up feature, and the random date generator throws up one of the longest-running #2s in chart history…

‘Are You Sure?’, by The Allisons

#2 for 6 weeks, from 9th-23rd Mar / 30th Mar–27th Apr 1961 (behind ‘Walk Right Back’ / ‘Ebony Eyes’ and ‘Wooden Heart’)

Six weeks, over the course of two months, is a long and very unlucky amount of time to be marooned in second place, but it will happen if you’re up against two of pop music’s most famous acts.

This is a slice of early-sixties pop that probably sounded a little old-fashioned even when it hit the charts. The staccato strings and jaunty pace ape Adam Faith‘s hits, which in turn borrowed heavily from Buddy Holly’s posthumous chart-topper ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’. The Allisons are also clearly going for an Everly Brothers vibe, but when you listen to the Brothers’ record that kept this off the top then there’s no contest. It’s pleasant enough, and over in a trice; but it’s a reminder of why The Beatles couldn’t come fast enough…

Goodbye, Farewell, I’m not sure what to do… Compare and contrast the well-mannered harmonising here with the Greek-stomping hit I featured yesterday, ‘Bend It!’. Only five and a half years separate these two songs, but they just so happen to have been the most fertile five years in pop music history.

The Allisons were, perhaps surprisingly, not actual brothers. Bob Day and John Alford were simply marketed that way. And this record has a particular claim to fame, perhaps even more important than its long run at number two… It was the first big British Eurovision hit single. The Allisons represented the UK at the 1961 contest, finishing in second place. It’s fairly middling as Eurovision singles go: not the best, but far from being the worst… Yet it was the duo’s only real hit, though they would continue performing for many years afterwards.

Next up, tomorrow, and we’re going even further back in time…