86. ‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway

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?

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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.

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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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End post

83. ‘Side Saddle’, by Russ Conway

And so, The Winter of the Ballad, which I took such pains to introduce in my previous post, experiences a sudden thaw. Spring has sprung, and has brought with it a perky piece of piano-pop.

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Side Saddle, by Russ Conway (his 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 27th March – 24th April 1959

Upon a 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 (of sorts), which plods along without going anywhere very far, and then it ends, in under two minutes.

The obvious comparison to draw here is with Winifred Atwell, who has already claimed two UK chart-topping singles with records sounding very similar to this. But Atwell at least had a kind of frantic energy about her piano-playing – you could picture her bashing out the hits with a smile and a bead of sweat rolling down her temple. Whereas you can only imagine Conway plodding his way through ‘Side Saddle’ with a cheesy grin-slash-wink combo. The other piano-led #1 single which springs to mind at this time is, of course, ‘Great Balls of Fire’. But to compare that record to this record is, to my mind, heresy of the highest order. There is a slight concession to rock ‘n’ roll here, in that someone in the background is tickling a drum kit in time to Conway’s piano, but that’s strictly it.

It’s a strange chart-topping record, this. At best I’d describe it as incidental music, or silent movie music: you can imagine it going down quite well as an accompaniment to Buster Keaton running down a railroad track. It is very 1932. Which means we have to pose a 3rd question: Why now? Why did this curio of a record zoom to the top of the charts in the spring of 1959? My research has thrown up no answers. It wasn’t an old song; it was written and released in ’59, apparently recorded for a TV adaptation of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ – which at least helps explain the olde-worlde feel of the song. There’s no clue as to how the melody concerns a horse-riding style popular with posh old ladies. According to Wiki “the song was a staple of the BBC’s ‘Housewives Choice’ radio programme”, which perhaps says more than anything I could ever write.

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Due to summer holiday commitments, this is the first time in over a fortnight that I have sat down to write one of these posts. In that time, I’ve listened to very little music, and the music I have heard has been radio-friendly, modern pop. Perhaps ‘Side Saddle’, then, is suffering from being the oldest record I’ve heard for a while. Perhaps if I were in the swing of things – in my mid-season form of writing a post every couple of days – it wouldn’t stand out so much. But then again… maybe not. I fear that, whatever way you look at it, this track is simply a relic. And, glancing down my list o’ number one singles… Oh, goody. There’s more to come from our Russ in very short order.

One final thing of note… If you click on the video below and discover a hitherto unrevealed love of bland, piano-based background Muzak, Spotify has the most extensive collection of Russ Conway back-catalogue ever seen. Like, seriously. There must be fifty-odd albums on there. Knock yourselves out!