Cover Versions of #1s – The Sugarhill Gang & Shirley Bassey

Our next couple of covers… Aren’t really cover versions at all. More re-imaginings of #1 hits…

‘Apache (Jump On It)’, by The Sugarhill Gang – #53 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982

(Originally a #1 in August 1960, for The Shadows)

The instrumental ‘Apache’ has passed through as many hands as an old five pound note. Originally recorded by Bert Weedon, it was then released to great acclaim by The Shadows – resulting in their first solo chart-topper. In the US, meanwhile, the version that hit big was by Danish guitarist Jørgen Ingmann in 1961, making #2. Skip forward a few years, the Edgar Broughton Band took the guitars and chopped them up with some Captain Beefheart to create this. And then, the Incredible Bongo Band did this:

Their über-funky version became a touchstone of early hip-hop, sampled by LL Cool J, The Roots, and The Sugarhill Gang, the band that had scored the first big rap hit: ‘Rapper’s Delight’, a #3 in 1979. In the space of twenty two years, then, ‘Apache’ had gone from atmospheric instrumental to raucous hip hop, featuring lines like: Custer, Jump on it, Jump on it… and To all you girls that wanna join my tribe, Just move to my rhythm and feel my vibe…

‘As I Love You, by Shirley Basseyalbum track from 1969

(Originally a #1 in February 1959, for Shirley Bassey)

No, not a typo… This one isn’t a straightforward cover version, either. Ms. Bassey is covering herself. Well, if anyone can, it’s her. For her 1969 album, ‘Does Anybody Miss Me’, Dame Shirley re-recorded her first #1 hit from a decade earlier. I actually discovered the remake first, and had started to write my post on it before sensing something was wrong. The 1969 version is light, fun, playful… very ‘swinging sixties’. I thought it sounded ahead of it’s time for 1959. Alas, I was right. It was ten years off. The 1959 version that I had to write my original post on is slower, weightier, and nowhere near as playful. Bassey belts it out as only she can… but it’s very old-fashioned. Give me the later version any day!

A couple more tomorrow!


125. ‘Reach For the Stars’ / ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, by Shirley Bassey

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s time to welcome back on stage a member of British pop royalty. Dame Shirley, of Bassey, claiming her rightful place atop the UK charts…


Reach for the Stars / Climb Ev’ry Mountain, by Shirley Bassey (her 2nd and final #1)

1 week, from 21st – 28th September 1961

Except, despite being singer of huge repute, a diva with a seven-decade long career in the upper echelons of British popular culture, the singles charts never were Shirley Bassey’s natural stomping ground. This is only her second number one – and it’s her last! She’s had five weeks in total at the top of the listings, and only ever had twelve top ten hits in her whole career… Compare that to the titans of the UK Singles Charts – Elvis, Cliff, The Beatles, Madonna – and that ain’t nothing.

But perhaps it’s not so surprising when, amid the teeny-bopper pop and the rock ‘n’ roll that was shaping the sound of the early sixties, she was releasing discs like this. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that this record got to #1 at all… The first song, ‘Reach for the Stars’, sounds out of place the second the soaring intro kicks in.

I reach for the stars, When I reach for your love, For so far above me, You always will be… It’s a song about adoring someone, about loving them completely… When you come to my arms, In that moment divine, All the stars in the sky, Are mine… It’s not a song about longing, or about a love unrequited. It’s a song about being utterly besotted with someone. (A song that might terrify you slightly if it were about you…)

The lyrics are all about stars and clouds, and the sky, and Dame Shirley sings it as if making sure that she’ll be heard up there in the firmament. The last chorus and verse are absolutely belted out, while the way she packs around four different notes into that last sky-y-y is spine-tingling, as is the way she drags the final all mine…! out to within an inch of its life. In terms of pure singing technique, this is one of the very best-sung chart-toppers so far.


You might, then, expect the flip-side of this disc to be a subtler affair – yin and yang, and all that. But nope. That’s not how this Dame plays. On ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, she cranks the operatics up even further… Climb ev’ry mountain, Search high and low, Follow ev’ry bye-way, Ev’ry path you know… (on a song that’s already pretty old-fashioned, that Victorian apostrophe in ‘ev’ry’ is just the icing on the cake)… She’s following rainbows, fording streams, doing all these things in search of her dream. It’s a motivational number, lyrically very simple, about never giving up.

Before writing this, I wasn’t familiar with either of these songs – but I had strong suspicions from the first listen that ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ was a piece of musical theatre (the David Whitfield-esque backing singers are a dead giveaway). But I was astounded to learn that this song wasn’t just from any old two-bit musical – it’s from the bloody ‘Sound of Music’! How did that pass me by? Admittedly I’ve managed to go through thirty-three years on this earth without ever seeing said movie, but I’ve picked up a lot through pop-culture osmosis – the Von Trapps, nuns and Nazis, ‘The Hills are Alive..’ ‘Doe, a Deer…’, the one about the flowers… ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, though…? No idea. You learn something new every day.

This song ends with a bang every bit as big as ‘Reach for the Stars’. Perhaps too big a bang. While on the former song Bassey stayed the right side of bombastic; here she over-eggs the pudding. The recording crackles as she launches into the final Till you find your dream…, the equipment clearly unable to cope with Shirley’s lung-power. The woman could sing, and still can. Aged eighty-one, she still regularly appears at Royal Variety performances, at the Queen’s garden parties and on her own TV specials – 2011’s ‘Shirley’ for example (no surname required, clearly). As we leave her here, in September 1961, her most famous songs still lie ahead – ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, ‘Big Spender’ and so on – while her biggest hits have come and gone – this and ‘As I Love You’ almost forgotten in 2019.

It’s slightly sad to wave such a premature goodbye to Dame Shirley. But this disc is a real outlier in the charts of ’61 and, as I wrote at the start, perhaps offers an insight as to why she never really set the singles charts alight. These are two superbly sung and gorgeously orchestrated ballads, but they aren’t indicative of the general trends in popular music at this time. They do, however, add the eclectic mix of chart-toppers that we’ve enjoyed in 1961 –long may that continue.

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention that this double ‘A’-side lives on in a much more recent song… S Club 7’s smash-hit from 2000, ‘Reach’, which incorporates the titles of both these songs into its chorus; but whose bubble-gum pop cheesiness couldn’t be further from Dame Shirley’s ear-drum shattering balladry. Anyway, I’m happy I got to link to an S Club song several decades earlier than I thought I would (what an utter guilty pleasure that one is…) Onwards!


81. ‘As I Love You’, by Shirley Bassey

And so – as happens every once in a while on this countdown – we meet a legend. A British legend, at least. And not ‘British Legend’ as in Robin Hood or Merlin or anything like that. No, no, no. I mean ‘British Living Legend’ – as in Barbara Windsor, or David Attenborough, or Sir Clifford of Richard. People so woven in to the very fabric of British life – of Saturday evenings on ITV and audiences with the Queen – that everybody upon everybody upon everybody knows them.


As I Love You, by Shirley Bassey (her 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 20th February – 20th March 1959

Dame Shirley Bassey is one of these people (she is a Dame after all), and the foundations of her ‘National Treasure’ status were laid right here: in the singles charts of the late 1950s, and in this polished and expertly sung record. It’s a very good song: a grown-up ballad of a pop song. But, and after that big old build up I feel a bit bad writing this… I’m not really feeling it.

It starts with a flourish, and then: I will love you, As I love you, All my life… Ev’ry moment spent with you, Makes me more content with you… She loves a guy. Loves him a lot! Ev’ry single, Touch and tingle, I adore… Ev’ry kiss from you to me, Always seems so new to me… Each one warmer, Than the one before… It’s a love song in the very purest sense – in that it’s a song about being utterly in love. Which is nice, I suppose. There’s certainly a real sparkle in her voice, with just the cutest whiff of a Welsh accent, and if the quality of her singing were being judged by a panel then she might just sweep the board. And the ending… My that ending. She gives it everything, and then some. AND MOOOORRRREEEE…. It’s another real throwback of a record, following hot on the heels of Jane Morgan’s – albeit somewhat jazzier – ‘The Day the Rains Came’.


Why, then, am I struggling to like this song? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve failed to really ‘get’ one of the many old-time ballads that we’ve featured thus far. ‘Stranger in Paradise’, ‘Secret Love’ and ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’ were all records that somewhat passed me by, and that’s before we get to the God-awful Eddie Fisher and David Whitfield efforts. ‘As I Love You’ is nowhere near as terrifying as anything by either of those chaps, but I’ll have to file it under ‘Can appreciate; Can’t enjoy.’

The situation isn’t helped by the fact that I originally found a version of ‘As I Love You’ that was much jazzier, much snazzier, and sung at a much higher tempo. I was all prepared to write a post championing it as one of the best tracks so far – it really was that good. It sounded so modern that I was going to announce it as the first ‘1960s Number One’. But something nagged at me as I listened. Something sounded too good to be true… And it was. The version I had been listening to – click here for a listen, it’s good isn’t it? – was a re-recording from, I’m guessing, the late sixties / early seventies. Sigh.

But! We shouldn’t judge a record by what it is not. ‘As I Love You’ is the first chart topper by Dame Shirley of Bassey, the foremost British female voice of the past half-century, the yin to Sir Cliff’s yang (and note that she got to the top a good few months before Cliff ever did). She will only get one (one!) more chart-topper and I will perhaps shock you when I reveal that it is neither ‘Goldfinger’ (#21), nor ‘Big Spender’ (#21) nor ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (#38!), but something else entirely. Stay tuned.

It is also the very first Welsh #1, meaning that we finally complete our ‘British Isles Chart-Toppers Map’ by adding Dame Shirley to hits from The Stargazers (England), Ruby Murray (Northern Ireland) and Lonnie Donegan (Scotland). So – this record is many things. And yet… It could have been, and later was, so much more!