I think we’ve heard this record before… ‘Roulette’ may, in fact, be identical to Russ Conway’s first number one. Or it may sound completely different. Who knows? Who even cares?
Roulette, by Russ Conway (his 2nd of two #1s)
2 weeks, from 19th June – 3rd July 1959
Actually, they do sound the same. Same perky piano, same lightly strummed guitar as accompaniment. In fact, to illustrate my point, let me quote verbatim from my post on ‘Side Saddle’ (which was #1 barely two months before):
“Upon first listen of this latest chart-topping record, two questions spring immediately to mind: What is this? And why did it spend a whole month at the top of the charts? It’s an instrumental, Mr. Russ Conway tinkling away at his piano, and… that’s about it. It’s got a melody, which plods along pleasantly enough without going anywhere very far, and then it ends, in under two minutes.”
Swap ‘whole month’ for ‘two weeks’- and ‘pleasantly’ for ‘irritatingly’ because that’s the mood I’m in today – but you’re still pretty much there. This record is equally short, similarly jaunty, and is still searching for a tune that never quite seems to materialise. And why ‘Roulette’? Is it because the cascading notes that tumble at intervals throughout the song sound like a rolling roulette wheel? Or is that me putting way too much though in?
I think I hate this more than I did Conway’s first #1. It was bland; this is criminally perky and is played in an irritatingly high key. Plus those little flourishes at the end of every second note are starting to make me feel a little sick. Way, way back in one of my early posts I claimed the idea of the ‘shadow number one’ – the chart topping record that only gets there due to the reflected glow of a preceding hit. Frankie Laine had one when ‘Hey Joe’ followed the chart-humping ‘I Believe’. Rosemary Clooney had one with ‘Mambo Italiano’ hot on the heels of ‘This Ole House’ (though ‘Mambo…’ was probably the bigger record). Guy Mitchell had one in ‘Rock-A-Billy’ after his huge hit ‘Singing the Blues’. And now we have to suffer a second dose of Russ Conway because grannies across the land liked ‘Side Saddle’, and probably thought he looked like a nice boy.
In fact, for a ‘nice boy’ Conway led a fairly troubled life. Let’s face it, anyone who records songs of such fake jollity and forced perkiness is going to be a little screwed-up inside… Alcoholism, crippling self-doubt, a reliance on anti-depressants, an eighty (80!) a day cigarette habit – all of which can probably be attributed to his being gay but having to keep it hidden for fear of losing everything (shades of Johnnie Ray there). Unlike Ray, however, Conway remained fairly popular throughout his career, and was still performing publicly just two weeks before he died in 2000. He had actually sliced the tip of a finger off during the war, so it’s pretty impressive that he could play the piano at all I suppose.
God, I have been a little harsh on ole Russ here, haven’t I? I just had a quick listen to some of the other hits from his late fifties heyday – the likes of ‘China Tea’ and ‘Party Pops’ – in an attempt to redeem his chart career. But. I’m sorry to confirm that they ALL. SOUND. THE BLOODY. SAME! In desperation I tried to look for some clue as to the inspiration for ‘Roulette’, but the Wiki entry is one line long and there ain’t much else out there. What little I could find all seemed to prefer this disc to ‘Side Saddle’ (come on, people!) But then I found this, and I started with a quote so I’ll end with one too.
Thanks to the guy(s) at fiftiesnumberones.blogspot.com – which I will wholeheartedly recommend as long as you promise to still read my blog – for their brilliant description of ‘Roulette’ as an ice-cream van jingle… “albeit an ice cream van plying its trade around the dusk tinged streets of a council estate on a late October evening. In the rain.”
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