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 Rosemary Clooney

Another short trip back to the earliest days of the charts, when big-lunged men such as Al Martino, David Whitfield and Frankie Laine were dominating the #1 position with earnest declarations of love and faith. Elvis hadn’t arrived yet, Sinatra wasn’t the teen heart-throb of a decade before… The charts needed some sexiness, some fun…

Thank God for the girls, then. Girls like Rosemary Clooney. I’ve already posted on Kay Starr and Winifred Atwell, two contemporaries of Clooney, who brought a jazzy playfulness to their chart-topping records. But Miss Clooney, who scored Britain’s 25th and 28th #1 singles, went a step further, and brought mad-cap craziness to the pop charts.

First up came ‘This Ole House’, in November ’54. A raucous, honky tonk piano-led tale of a rundown house whose elderly inhabitant is waiting to meet the saints… There can have been very few hit songs to reference oiling hinges and fixing shingle… Here she is performing it live, and with slightly more restraint, in the ’80s.

Then just weeks later, she was back with an even better hit. Clooney was of Irish/German extraction, but that didn’t stop her hamming up an invented Italian side. The lyrics are basically nonsense, with nods to Italian, Spanish, Mexican and Neapolitan. (Sample lyric: Hey mambo, no more a-Mozzarella…) Again the energy and playfulness really stood out next to its dully earnest contemporaries. (See also her earlier hit ‘Botch a Me’ if you like the cod-Italian vibes.) ‘Mambo Italiano’ lives on in a way that few pre-rock hits do. It was remixed back into the charts in the early ’00s, and sampled more recently by Lady Gaga and Iggy Azalea.

Rosemary Clooney’s career trajectory was pretty standard for a post-war pop star. From singing with big bands, to a record label, to big hits and on to TV and films – her most famous one probably being ‘White Christmas’ alongside Bing Crosby. What wasn’t so standard was Clooney’s sleeping pill and tranquilliser dependency that developed through the sixties, that ended with her in psychoanalytic therapy for eight years.

She survived, though, came back and continued to record throughout the remainder of her life. Her final performance came just six months before she died of lung cancer in 2002. One of the pall bearers at her funeral was her nephew, George.

Rosemary Clooney, May 23rd 1928 – June 29th 2002

25. ‘This Ole House’, by Rosemary Clooney

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This Ole House, by Rosemary Clooney (her first of two #1s)

1 week, from 26th Nov. to 3rd Dec. 1954

Now this is more like it! After an incredibly sedate run of number ones – seriously, nothing since early-May of this year has been enough to get even a toe tapping – we are rocking and a-rolling!

You probably know this song. I certainly knew of it, for a couple of reasons. One is that Shakin’ Stevens revived it in the early ’80s. The other is that I can recall, way back in the mists of time, reading an ‘Oor Wullie’ comic (link provided for non-Scottish readers) in which this song was playing at a party, the words changed to something suitably Scottish (‘This ole house ain’t got no lino’, perhaps). My grandparents kept piles of old ‘Oor Wullie’ annuals lying about, and so have no idea whether it was a new-ish comic strip parodying the Shaky version, or a vintage comic parodying this version. Amazing, isn’t it? Anyone who tries to tell you that the charts don’t matter, and that the songs which make number one don’t form the backdrop to our lives, is very, very wrong. Anyway. You will know this song, I assure you – it’s got a sort of nursery rhyme feel to it and goes a little something like this:

            * raucous piano, or maybe a harpsichord (???) or an organ *

        This ole house once knew his children, This ole house once knew his wife, This ole house was home and comfort as they fought the storms of life, This ole house once rang with laughter, This ole house heard many shouts, Now he trembles in the darkness when the lightnin’ walks about…

Yes, it’s the tale of a lonely old man. Clooney then goes on to detail the repair work that this house needs – the floor, the hinges, the windowpane, even the shingles (I’m pretty confident that this is the only #1 hit to reference shingle). But he needn’t bother, this lonely old man, as he: Ain’t gonna need this house no longer, He’s getting ready to meet the saints…

This is a strange ole song. In a musical landscape of mopey, flowery, boringly chaste love-songs this is a best-selling song about a man sitting in his dilapidated house, waiting for the sweet embrace of death. The piece de resistance is the line: Oh his knees are a-gettin shaky, But he feels no fear or pain, ‘Cause he sees an angel peekin’, Through a broken windowpane…

Like, seriously. WTF? – as they most certainly didn’t say in 1954. I love it. It’s weird, morbid, almost sadistic. It’s quite modern, in a way, the juxtaposition of upbeat music with some with very downbeat, depressing lyrics. It’s interesting, anyway, and a lot better than some of the guff we’ve had to listen to recently. The gulf between this record and ‘My Son, My Son’ – its predecessor at #1 – is what makes a singles chart so interesting. The next chart-topper can always be something completely different.

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Rosemary Clooney’s voice is standard, mid-1950s American. Polished, glossy, accessible. She even throws in a Westlife style key-change after the twangy piano solo which, if I’m not mistaken, is the first we’ve heard in this rundown. I, for my sins, love a good key-change. And we must mention her brilliantly deep-voiced backing singer – with his ain’t a-gonna need this house no longer, ain’t a-gonna need this house no more – who adds an even more bizarre edge to an already pretty bizarre record.

This was Clooney’s first of two number ones, the second of which will be coming up very shortly indeed. And, I can tell you now, it’s another cracker!