3. ‘Comes A-Long A-Love’, by Kay Starr

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Comes A-Long A-Love, by Kay Starr (her 1st of two #1s)

1 week, from 23rd to 30th January 1953

Snazzy! And jazzy! I really thought – and more fool me – that these pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll hits would be dull, twee, chaste… one step up the danceability chart from hymns, basically. How wrong I was. It wasn’t all bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover.

Though bluebirds do feature in this song, they do so as a symbol of being in love and suddenly becoming aware of the world around you. Birds! Flowers! The sun! Comes A-Long A-Love suddenly though you never sang you’re always singing… Comes A-Long A-Love suddenly chimes you never heard begin a-ringing… The lyrical message being that falling in love will make you a better, livelier person.

Kay Starr’s voice is in complete contrast to the Jo Stafford record that went before. It’s husky, then sing-songy, she pauses where you least expect it and then rushes through tongue twister lines phrases like petty little things no longer phase you, which I’ll bet you can’t say five times fast. You might even say she’s flirting with the listener… And, yes, a quick search shows Ms. Starr was quite the little minx (that’s what they called them in those days). Those eyebrows! What didn’t they suggest! This song could be seen as a challenge – she’s daring you not to fall in love with her.

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But again, it’s another song that paints love in a positive light. Three number ones in and nobody’s had their heart broken… Even lonely old Al Martino was hopeful that his lover would say ‘yes’. That’s something I’m going to look out for: the first ever reference to heartbreak in a UK number one hit. And, again, Kay Starr enunciates so damn well. This isn’t an easy song to sing, but she makes it sound like she’s ad-libbing her way through it. I’ve got to hand it to these old-timers, before the days of auto-tune, because they really could sing. Gran was right all along…

Some bits do jar, slightly. Starr uses ‘Mister’, and ‘Brother’, in a way that you wouldn’t these days. And the aforementioned reference to being in love and seeing bluebirds is a bit of a Disneyfied image. It must have been easy for songwriters, at the birth of modern pop music – love is great, you see bluebirds, do-bee-do – before people discovered cynicism. So far, though, all three number ones have been recorded by American artists. Perhaps that explains the saccharine sentiments! As everyone knows, Americans are sickeningly positive. How brilliant would it be, then, if the first UK recorded #1 turned out to be a piece of proto-Morrissey miserabilism…

One final thing I’ve noticed, while looking up these first three UK chart toppers, is how long they all lived. Jo Stafford died in 2008, aged ninety. Al Martino died in 2009 at eighty-two. Kay Starr died in November 2016, having reached a grand old innings of ninety-four. That means two of them outlived Michael Jackson, who wouldn’t have his first number one hit for another twenty-eight years. They were made of sterner stuff in those days, mind.

2. ‘You Belong to Me’, by Jo Stafford

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You Belong to Me, by Jo Stafford (her 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 16th to 23rd January 1953

On first listen, this sounds like the music that used to play between scenes in Dad’s Army. January 1953 was less than eight years after the end of World War II, I suppose, but this song just sounds so old. On the other side of the coin – this was less than fifteen years before Sgt Peppers! It’s genuinely amazing to think of how much popular music changed in such a short time.

However, without wanting to go off down that road just yet – this is a fairly nice, sedate little after-hours number. In complete contrast to the first chart topper, this is a track that holds back. A guitar strums, and some saxophones (trumpets?) flutter between the lines. Imagine a smoky club, little tables, couples whispering sweet nothings, gangsters and their molls quaffing champagne in the booths that line the walls. Though a quick image search of Jo Stafford brings up some fairly prim and proper pictures of her in buttoned-up blouses. None of her draped across a piano for the benefit of rowdy mobsters, unfortunately.

The premise of the song is that, no matter where her lover travels – the pyramids along the Nile, the market place in old Algiers, the jungle wet with rain – he should remember that he belongs to her and that, naturally, she will be alone and pining until his return. This being 1953, I’m guessing that he’s travelling the world as part of the military, rather than simply on a jolly, and that might explain the song’s popularity in the day’s of National Service, and the Korean War.

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Despite the song’s understated quality and the jazz-bar feel, though, Stafford is still enunciating the lyrics like she’s being graded on her diction. That’s what is immediately standing out as I listen to these early number ones. Sure they sound dated, and they have a simplistic take on romance (think about it, how many modern pop songs are about simply being in love, requited or otherwise?) but what comes across most is how clear the lyrics are. Rock and roll must’ve ruined the way folks sang!

While this was a one-week number one, the song actually hung in doggedly at number two for the whole of Al Martino’s run at the top. It could have all been so different! But at least Jo can hold claim to being the first ever female singer to top the UK charts, though she never did so again.

1. ‘Here In My Heart’, by Al Martino

Picture the scene. It’s November 1952. It’s cold. Smoggy. A real pea-souper. You’ve just popped down to Smiths and bought a copy of New Musical Express, the hot music magazine that’s been hitting newsstands these past few months.

What’s this? A chart? Of the top selling singles in the country? There’s Nat King Cole, and Rosemary Clooney. Bing Crosby’s at number four. Vera Lynn has three songs in the top ten! (And people say the charts these days are dominated by a few big names…)

You think it’d be a cracking idea to pass by the record store on your way home and pick up the number one record on this chart, which you’ve never heard before, but by golly you’ll have to watch your step. How you wish they’d hurry up and sort out all the piles of rubble in the street, it’s been seven blinking years since VE day!

Back home, you pull the record from it’s sleeve. ‘Here in my Heart’, by Al Martino. Some new crooner from the States. His first disc, apparently. The needle crackles and pops.

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Here in My Heart, by Al Martino (his 1st and only #1)

9 weeks, from 14th November 1952 to 16th January 1953

Al Martino had no idea, I presume, that his debut single was going to be the first ever UK Number One. I assume that the NME hadn’t been advertising it for weeks: 12 records wanted for the first ever record retailers chart! Can you be the Top-Seller!? Can anyone stop Vera Lynn??

But ‘Here in my Heart’ is the perfect song to have topped the first ever chart. From the minute the intro kicks in, it’s clear that this is a song not ready to settle for second place. A ten second crescendo peaks with Al belting out the title… Here in his heart, he’s lonely…

It’s old-fashioned, sure, but that doesn’t make it unlistenable. The strings (or, rather, the full-blown orchestra) aren’t that far removed from an Adele or a Sam Smith record. The strangest thing about it is actually Martino’s voice. He enunciates every syllable in a way that you just don’t hear anymore, outside musical theatre. Surely, you know, I need your love, so badly… And the way in which, at the start of the song at least, he delivers the second half of each line in a much subtler way, compared to the bombastic first halves, is quite effective. I can imagine my Gran (God rest her) praising the record as one in which you can actually make out the words. Unlike any record released post 1967. Incidentally, my Gran would have been nineteen when this record hit number one. We are talking here about a seriously long time ago.

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Looking at pictures of Al Martino in the 1950s, he looks like a standard Italian-American, rat-pack crooner. Louche, grinning, eyes that suggest he’s done a bit of living… But whereas Sinatra, Davis, et al delivered their lines with the minimum of fuss, Martino is going for it here. Nothing is left on the bench. If he belted out the closing line – Please be mine, and stay here… in… my…………… heart ‘neath his lover’s window, she would have no choice but to shout ‘Oh yes, Al. Yes!’

I’d never really heard of Al Martino, beyond it being the name of the guy who had the first ever UK Number One. But, to give him his due, ‘Here in My Heart’ still holds record for the joint-seventh longest stay at the top of the UK charts. Plus, he starred in both The Godfather and The Godfather Part III (singing the theme for the former), and had a huge hit in the mid-70s with ‘Spanish Eyes’ – one of those songs that you think you’ve never heard until you hear it. And one which holds a special place in my heart as the second ever song I mastered on the keyboard (and by ‘mastered’, I mean I made it sound vaguely recognisable), aged eleven. The first ever song I mastered was Rock Around the Clock, the guitars and drums of which sound a world away from this, the first ever UK chart topper.

Intro

Join me as I listen to every UK Number 1 single since the charts began. Each and every song to have claimed the top spot since 1952: classics, novelties, long-forgotten hits, one-week wonders and pole-position hogging juggernauts…

I’ve been a chart geek since I was eleven or twelve – recording the rundown to tape on a Sunday afternoon, writing down the top ten, top twenty, even the top forty in a secret notebook when I should have been outside doing something better with my time. But the one position that fascinated me more than any other was, naturally, the Number One spot. Fair enough, really. It’s the pinnacle. It’s validation. Every Friday, and before that every Sunday, and before that every Tuesday, the most popular song the past week is announced and you cannot argue with the results. You might hate a particular song, you might think it’s the worst abomination ever committed to vinyl, or cassette, or CD, or compressed into an MP3 format, but you cannot argue its popularity.

And I know my charts – the artist with most #1s, the artist with the second most #1s, the song with the longest stay at #1, the song with the longest non-consecutive stay at #1, the biggest ever sales at #1, the lowest ever sales at #1, the shortest #1 by length, the longest #1 by length… I got it all down.

But, I realised: I know the titles, and the lengths, and the weeks at the top, of songs that I’ve never actually heard. And so, this blog was born. I will listen to every single UK Number 1 single, from the first published chart to the present day, and write about them. Simple.

Enjoy