37. ‘The Man from Laramie’, by Jimmy Young

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The Man from Laramie, by Jimmy Young (his 2nd of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 14th October to 11th November 1955

He’s back. Like Rosemary Clooney earlier in 1955, Jimmy Young grabs two chart-toppers – his only two chart toppers – in pretty short order. Burning briefly but brightly.

Back in the autumn of ’53, when Frankie Laine was pounding the charts with hit after hit, I introduced the concept of the ‘shadow hit’ – the song that does well because it follows on from a massive hit record. Laine spent 18 weeks at number one with ‘I Believe’ before the somewhat less memorable ‘Hey Joe’ grabbed a fortnight in its wake. Well, we have our second ‘shadow number-one’ right here. As much as I struggled to appreciate Jimmy Young’s interpretation of ‘Unchained Melody’, I cannot argue that it isn’t a classic and a 20th Century standard. ‘The Man from Laramie’, however…

It’s a song that tells a story. The story of a man. The man from Laramie. The man with the peaceful turn of mind, kinda sociable and friendly, friendly as any man could be… BUT underestimate him at your peril. For you never saw a man outdraw – the Man from Laramie! The ladies loved him, everyone admired him, danger was this man’s speciality… You get the picture.

Musically this is very watered down, music-hall Country & Western (BBC C&W, perhaps?) compared to the record it replaced at the top. The music itself is nothing more than an irritatingly simple rhythm picked out on a guitar. It’s all about the lyrics. And lyrically we are deep in the Wild West. Shoot-outs at noon, a fearless stranger with notches on his gun…

It’s a strange song. At least, it’s a strange song to have topped the sales charts for a whole month. The lyrics are so incredibly specific that they would only really make sense if they were from a musical or a movie (*Googles frantically*) And yes – ‘The Man from Laramie’ was indeed a film, a Western (obviously) starring James Stewart and this was the theme song. Our old friend Al Martino recorded – and only reached #19 – with his version. Jimmy reined supreme.

Out of interest, I gave the Martino version a listen. And while it’s the same cheesy song, with lyrics about shoot-outs blah blah blah that just sound weird away from the context of the movie, it sounds more professional, more polished, classier… better! I’ve mentioned it before – and I’ll doubtless mention it again – but this really has been a dominant theme among these early number ones. Americans really were doing it better. Why did they sound so cool, while the Brits still sounded so uptight and stuffy? Don’t believe me? Here’s a link to the Al Martino version. Compare and contrast it with the video below.

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I don’t need to go over again how I endured hours of Jimmy Young on the radio during my formative years (read all about it in the ‘Unchained Melody’ post). The hits dried up soon after he claimed these two chart-toppers and by the sixties he had moved into broadcasting where he remained popular and well-respected for four decades. I can’t help feeling, though, that he was someone who resented newer, more successful pop stars. I bet he loved complaining that you couldn’t make out a word Mick Jagger was singing. That music was so much better in his day. That kids these days didn’t know they were alive. He just had that air about him… (God, I clearly still have issues regarding those long car journeys that need working through.)

Anyway, if you enjoyed this latest chart-topper, this strange, time-capsule of a song with lyrical references to a movie that nobody has watched for decades, then you are in luck. Hang around for the 38th UK #1, coming shortly.

36. ‘Rose Marie’, by Slim Whitman

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Rose Marie, by Slim Whitman (his 1st and only #1)

11 weeks, from 29th July to 14th October 1955

Yee-Hah! I hoped, back when Tennessee Ernie Ford was topping the charts with ‘Give Me Your Word’, that we might be seeing our first Country and Western #1. Well, Ernie didn’t quite live up to his name but we didn’t have to wait long. This is country with a capital C O U N T R and Y.

Slim Whitman stands alone on the prairie. The setting sun casts an orange glow across this horizon. Cacti spread their long shadows over the dirty ground. A tumbleweed bounces lazily by. Slim picks up his spittoon, clears his throat, and begins… Oh Rose, my Rose Marie… I love you… I’m always dreaming of you…

It’s an atmospheric record, I’ll grant you that. Just a piano, a simple rhythm and that weird noise which is the epitome of old, Nashville C&W: strange and echoing, made either by guitars submerged in water or sped up recordings of whale noises. You’ll know it as soon as you hear it.

Anyway, Slim can’t forget Rose Marie, and even wishes he’d never met her. Then he hums as he thinks of her. It’s quite effective. You really can picture him wandering plaintively past hail bays and broken barn doors, as the light finally fades.

There are definitely some pros to this 36th UK chart topper: it is quite an understated ballad, lacking the OTT grandstanding of some of its predecessors, while there are definitely some ‘rockier’ elements to the song too in the twangy guitars and the piano riff. But there are definitely some cons too: Whitman’s voice comes far too close to yodelling for my liking (My Ro-OOse Marie), for example. Some nice touches; some things jar.

I was planning to write something indignant about this record spending 11 (Eleven!) consecutive weeks at the top – setting a record that would last for thirty-six years. But the more I listen to it, the more ‘Rose Marie’ is getting under my skin. It’s simple, it’s heartfelt, it’s kinda cute. There’s another fade, rather than a bombastic finale: a long drawn out note and a piano refrain.

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It’s not a bad way to claim your sole chart-topper – double figures then out – though Slim Whitman did have a handful of other hits. Pictures of him show a very dapper looking pseudo-cowboy with a natty little moustache. It almost goes without saying, by now, that he lived to a ripe old age: dying at ninety in 2013. ‘Rose Marie’ itself (herself?) dates from far earlier than 1955 – from a 1924 opera of the same name, written by none other than Oscar Hammerstein II. And that, fact fans, is that.

35. ‘Dreamboat’, by Alma Cogan

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Dreamboat, by Alma Cogan (her 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 15th to 29th July 1955

This is more like it! This is a pop song – a pop song as we would recognise one today. In our countdown so far I would count perhaps only Guy Mitchell’s ‘Look at that Girl’, and now this, as examples of The Modern Pop Song. No orchestras, no silly declarations of love, no grandstand finishes… Just a quick beat, a doo-doo-doo, and some lyrics about how in love the singer is.

I know this song quite well, and have it in regular rotation in my Spotify library, though I’m not sure how or why. I know next to nothing about Alma Cogan and, as you may have been able to tell from previous posts, I haven’t explored this era in popular music very extensively at all. It must have popped up as a suggestion – Spotify does love a suggestion – and I must have liked it enough to save it.

Anyway, know it I do. In fact, I don’t just know it – I love it! Cogan has this little flip in her voice at the start of every line, which makes her sound like an excitable school girl. And, for this song it really works. She’s got a crush, you see: You dreamboat, you loveable dreamboat, the kisses you gave me, set my dreams afloat… She’s besotted, and would follow the object of her desire anywhere – she would sail the seven seas, in fact: even if you told me to go and paddle my own canoe (I can’t help but think that sounds like a euphemism – ‘Just off to paddle my canoe darling, don’t wait up’).

There isn’t much else to ‘Dreamboat’ -it’s a fun little ditty. Cogan sings it well, with the perfect pronunciation we’ve come to expect but also with a light, playful touch that’s been missing from many of the number ones thus far. She sounds like she’s having a ball, as if she has a big, broad smile on her face while belting it out. Again, it’s a female singer having a good time. Contrast this with the song it replaced at the top – Jimmy Young’s painfully earnest take on ‘Unchained Melody’. Even in 1955 girls were having all the fun. It’s a noticeably shorter record than all the previous chart toppers as well, clocking in at well under two minutes, and that’s one of the most important things to consider when writing a brilliant pop song: make sure that it doesn’t outstay its welcome!

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It’s a shame, I think, that this is Alma Cogan’s only song on this countdown. I like the cut of her gib. She was another young, British-born singer who, along with Ruby Murray and Dickie Valentine earlier in 1955, was dragging popular music away from old crusties like Vera Lynn and David Whitfield and towards the teenagers, towards rock ‘n’ roll. This is a song, essentially, about a hunk and his sweet kisses.

A quick look at Cogan’s Wiki throws up a colourful picture: the highest paid female star of the late ’50s, serial winner of the NME Outstanding British Female Singer award, and perennial visitor to the Top 10. Parties with Princess Margaret, Cary Grant and Noel Coward. An affair with a young John Lennon just as the Beatles were shooting to fame. And then dead at the tragically young age of thirty-four…

A life well lived, though cut far too short. I have a feeling that I’ll miss her even more – this ‘Girl with the Giggle’ – when we return to the bog-standard, plodding ‘pre-rock’ songs that I fear are still to clock up the charts, before rock truly lands.

34. ‘Unchained Melody’, by Jimmy Young

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Unchained Melody, by Jimmy Young (his 1st of two #1s)

3 weeks, from 24th June to 15th July 1955

Forget ‘I Believe’, discard ‘How Much is that Doggie’, don’t mention ‘Mambo Italiano’… For the first time in this countdown, we have a song that everyone knows.

We’ve flirted with legend so far. Sinatra and Doris Day have hit the top, but not with any of their most famous recordings. Frankie Laine has set an unbeatable chart record with a song that will be unmistakeable to people of a certain age. And there have been other chart toppers that people might be able to sing a couple of lines from. But everyone, and I repeat everyone, knows ‘Unchained Melody’.

But not everyone will know this version. 4 (Four!) versions of ‘Unchained Melody’ have hit top spot in the UK charts – take a bow The Righteous Brothers, Robson & Jerome, and Gareth Gates, we shall hear from you anon. With these versions – the former especially – ingrained in popular culture, Jimmy Young’s version is a strange listen.

The tempo is faster, for a start. Then there are the Spanish guitars, when we are used to it being a piano led song. And then there is the clipped, British delivery. No glossy, American vocals here. Young’s voice is deep, sonorous even. It’s technically a good voice. But there is more than a whiff of David Whitfield about it, especially when he belts out the line Are you still MIIIIIIINE?

He still needs your love, and would like God to speed your love to him. It is the same song, but it’s not. I think that were this a more forgotten hit – a ‘Give Me Your Word’ for example -it might simply file in amongst all the other stiff, slightly overwrought, pre-rock ballads that we have sat through so far. But, unfortunately for Jimmy Young, people took this song and turned it into one of the most instantly recognisable pieces of popular music ever recorded. And his version, while still not the original (there were, inevitably, four other versions in the chart during the summer of ’55), now sounds very dated next to the more modern interpretations.

Interestingly, though, as we study the evolution of the number one record through time, we have a first here. At least, I think it’s a first (I can’t be bothered going back and listening to all the previous thirty-three). So many of these hits have favoured a bombastic THIS IS THE END OF THE SONG approach to the final chorus (to be referred to from now on as a TITEOES ending). And what song would have better suited this kind of OTT climax than ‘Unchained Melody’? But no. What we have here is Young singing the last line – God speed your love to me – the final note being held, the guitars strumming and a fade. A fade! And it works pretty well. It is, ironically – considering the time in which it was recorded – the most understated ending out of the four chart topping versions.

Why, though, is it called ‘Unchained Melody’ when the lyrics make no reference to being ‘unchained’? Is it because the singer is unchaining his heart, and pouring out his feelings to the one he loves? That would be a sensible guess, but no. We might as well address this here, though I am aware that I will have sod all to write about by the time we stumble across the Gareth Gates version. The song is from a film called ‘Unchained’, and is therefore the melody from ‘Unchained’. Kind of like Mantovani’s ‘Song from Moulin Rouge’. Simple. The film has been forgotten, but it lingers on in the title of a world-famous love song. And, it keeps up our run of film soundtrack #1s – four in a row, and counting. Of course, ‘Unchained Melody’ is also very well known for being in an ultra famous scene from another movie: ‘Ghost’. Which is turning this all very meta – kind of like the play within a play. Or not. I think I should stop writing soon.

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But I can’t finish without mentioning the man who has played barely a supporting role in this post so far: Jimmy Young himself. I’ve not so far been able to relate many of these early chart toppers to life events, experiences, or memories… But I do have a special place in my heart for Jimmy Young.

He was known by most as a Radio 2 DJ, rather than a singer. My parents love a bit of Radio 2 – as parents tend to do – and while I did put in some half-hearted protests for Radio 1, or even a commercial station (Shock! Horror!), I didn’t actually mind long car journeys with Steve Wright or Wogan or whoever. But I hated the two hours over lunch when Jimmy Young came on to talk about, ugh, politics, the world, society and the issues of the day. Then I would really protest, and my parents would usually concede to putting ‘ABBA Gold’ on for a bit.

Young just came across as a crusty old man, who thought youngsters didn’t know how easy they had it, who was definitely in favour of bringing back National Service, maybe even hanging… This is obviously all complete speculation on my part (though I see now that he had a column in the Daily Express – draw your own conclusions there…) and he’s dead so I shouldn’t be too rude. He did talk an awful lot, though. And yet I look back on those days fondly now, sitting in a car on our way to a fortnight in, I don’t know, Devon, listening to an old man chuntering on – an old man I had no idea had been a chart-topping singer.

33. ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Eddie Calvert

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Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, by Eddie Calvert (his 2nd of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 27th May to 24th June 1955

And so, for the second time in chart history, two versions of the same song take their turn at the top. It’s not quite as dramatic as David Whitfield and Frankie Laine replacing one another with ‘Answer Me’ back in November 1953 (and then completing the ’50s chart bingo board by tying for the number one slot), but still.

You do have to wonder, once again, why people needed multiple versions of the same song. Was it a case of people buying every version of ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’ going because they really loved the song? Or was it Team Perez Vs Team Eddie? As far as I’m concerned, there should only have been one winner…

This is the knock-off version, the Poundland version, the 2-bit ringtone version… you get the idea. It is the same tune: the same notes and rhythm without any of the oomph of Prado’s version. Calvert is trying all the same tricks, even doing the same drawn-out, low then high, note that Billy Regis did to such giddy effect on the original. (I know they are contemporaneous, but the Prado version will from now on be ‘the original’ to me) Even Calvert’s trumpet sounds different, reedy, not up to the task. Why on earth this lasted twice as long at number one is a mystery.

But… maybe it shouldn’t be. Calvert was British, for a start, not some moustachioed Cuban. And everything about this record that I’m filing in the ‘Against’ column – the fact that it’s a bit restrained, a bit stiff, a bit less raunchy – probably actually explains this version’s greater success. Calvert was from Preston, and he certainly did not go ‘Huh!’, ‘Ooh!’ and ‘Aah!’ during his records. Respectable households could drop this disc on to the gramophone after Sunday lunch safe in the knowledge that grandma wouldn’t be requiring the smelling salts.

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There is a section, towards the end of this version, in which Calvert goes a little wild and takes it away from Prado’s version, which is commendable, but no. The ending of this version, in particular, is a complete damp squib. It’s not an awful #1 – a good tune is a good tune – but Perez Prado just did so much more with it. We won’t be hearing from Eddie Calvert again in this countdown, I’m not terribly sad to say. He burned brightly, but briefly, and didn’t have an awful lot of singles chart success beyond 1955.

It’s worth also noting here that we are in the midst of a film/musical soundtrack run here: two versions of ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, which featured in the Jane Russell movie ‘Underwater!’, as well as Tony Bennett’s Broadway hit ‘Stranger in Paradise’ sandwiched between. I suppose it would be hard to downplay the role cinemas had in influencing music buying tastes in the 1950s. Very few people owned a TV set, radio barely played any chart music… Films were one of the few places where people could actually hear current, popular music. Get your song in a film and hey presto! And it’s a trick that still works to this day.

32. ‘Stranger in Paradise’, by Tony Bennett

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Stranger in Paradise, by Tony Bennett (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 13th to 27th May 1955

I don’t know this song, or do I?

The opening melody sounds very familiar – familiar in a film score-ish, symphonic way. The sort of music you might here in a lift, or on a held call. Then the lyrics kick in and I’m not so sure I do know this song after all. But that melody… Are we listening to the first ever sample to top the charts? I didn’t think that was a thing until the late ’80s.

Take my hand, Tony croons. I’m a stranger in paradise… Lost in a wonderland… Starry eyed… The lyrics are all standard-issue mid-fifties. At first. Then things take an interesting turn. The singer is in love, unrequited, and can but stare from afar at his love. He is a mortal, and his love is an angel. He saw her face and ascended out of the common place, into the rare, somewhere in space… He hangs suspended, until he knows his love cares, and that she will answer his fervent prayer. It’s all quite cerebral. Probably the most complex song, lyrically, to have topped the charts so far.

It’s a well-constructed, immaculately sung, beautifully polished record. It’s no throwaway flash in the pan, yet to me it lacks something. Perhaps it just can’t step out from the shadow of the raunchy mambo that preceded it. File it under ‘Pleasant, But Dull’ – a record that I can understand others enjoying, but that I fail to really get myself. But boy, did others enjoy this record back in the spring of 1955! In the week that Mr. Bennett ‘ascended’ to the top, there were no fewer than five other versions of ‘Stranger in Paradise’ in the singles chart (by now a Top 20). The Four Aces, Bing Crosby, Tony Martin and Don Cornell all had a go. Eddie Calvert even parped a version out on his trumpet.

This is something that I fail to grasp about these early charts… While multiple hits by the same artist clogging up the charts (Sheeran! Bieber!) can be frustrating, it is ultimately an indicator of their popularity. But who needs six versions of the same bloody song? It’s not as if one version was ska, one version death metal – I’m confident that the Don Cornell version sounds pretty much like all the others. Anyway, Tony Bennett won the ‘Stranger in Paradise’ race, and it at least meant that a musical legend ticked a UK #1 off his bucket list. A still active legend too. He recently hit ninety, and released his most recent studio album in 2015. The year before that he released a duets album with Lady Gaga. And so, though we are wading through the mists of time (chart-history wise), we have a direct link here to the modern day. That’s quite cool.

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I was about to leave it there, but I still had a nagging feeling that there was more to this song than I had realised. I know that melody – doo doo doo dooby dooby doo – and the lyrics are a little bit too weird to exist only for the benefit of this one hit record. And so it emerges… ‘Stranger in Paradise’ is from the musical ‘Kismet’, which is in turn adapted from the music of 19th Century Russian composer Alexander Borodin. Hence the outré lyrics, hence the familiar melody…

I want to like this song: it’s music for grown-ups. But I also want to read all seven volumes of ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ and learn Italian. Some things just aren’t going to happen.

31. ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra

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Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 29th April to 13th May 1955

What a way to kick off the next thirty!

I’ve given instrumentals a hard time so far in this rundown. The lack of any lyrics creates a barrier, for me, between the song and the listener. You can listen to a Mantovani record and think “Isn’t that a nice melody”, but the fact that there are no words to tie it to a particular feeling or experience in your life means that the record is that step further removed from you. Like a film beautifully acted but in a language you cannot understand.

Having said all that… I’m going to prove myself massively wrong with this post. The fourth instrumental to top the UK Singles chart is also, by far, the sexiest record to top said singles charts. And there are no words. Well – there are no words aside from ‘Huh!’, ‘Hah!’ and ‘Oooh’. Which is a large part of this track’s said sexiness.

Following on from ‘Mambo Italiano’ (which wasn’t really a mambo, but hey), the UK was clearly in some sort of Latin fever in early 1955. Though perhaps not, as a quick glance at the chart for the week Perez ‘Prez’ hit the top shows only one other record that sounds vaguely Latino… A different version of ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’ (which we’ll meet very soon at the top of the charts). But, for the purposes of this narrative, let’s say that the UK – finally casting off the shackles of rationing and wartime rubble – wanted to shake some booty and, while perhaps not quite ready for straight up rock ‘n’ roll, turned to some equally raunchy mambo. Further evidence towards my idea that rock ‘n’ roll didn’t just arrive with ‘Rock Around the Clock’ – it was slowly filtering in through Rosemary Clooney’s giggle, Winifred Atwell’s boogie and Johnnie Ray’s yelps. And Perez ‘Prez’ Prado’s trumpet.

Except the trumpet that makes this record isn’t being played by the man on the credits. We’ll get to that in a second. First – this record has perhaps the most intense intro we’ve heard yet. Basically it’s BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM on a load of trumpets and cymbals, before the rhythm kicks in. The lead trumpet was played by a man called Billy Regis, who absolutely makes this record by drawing out one note in particular over and over again, by sliding it down then up in a manner that sounds a little bit drunk, a little bit woozy, and that, most importantly, would allow a couple in a Southend ballroom to draw that little bit closer for a second, before the main melody jumped back in.

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Prado was more of a conductor, I guess, and it is his ‘Huhs’ and ‘Hahs’ that can be heard as he exerts his charges to squeeze every drop of sexiness from their instruments (that sounded ruder than I intended – you know what I mean). There are also some other trumpets (I guess they are trumpets) playing notes so low that it’s almost obscene. I recognise them from Lou Bega’s classic cover of ‘Mambo No.5’, from another golden age of Latin music in the UK charts, which we won’t be getting to for a long, long time. Incidentally, Perez Prado recorded the original version of that song, too.

But the final word has to go to Billy Regis, whose trumpet ends the record. He reimagines the bombastic ending – from which so many earlier chart-toppers have suffered – and it works so much better without lyrics. THIS IS THE END OF THE SONG becomes DOOO DOOO (pause) DOOOOOOOOO, and it again allows Janet and John from Southend to draw close and to feel one another’s bodies, taught and trembling from two and a half minutes of intense mambo.

‘Huh!’ and, indeed, ‘Hah!’

Recap: #1 – #30

A quick recap, as we hit thirty. Thirty number ones in a little under two and a half years. The prehistoric chart toppers.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about these super old #1s has been that very few of them have sounded terrible to my 21st Century ears. With the notable exceptions of David Whitfield (sorry David, but nope) and Vera Lynn (who already was from another era), they haven’t sounded too old-fashioned.

Whether I’d want to listen to that many of them ever again is another matter, however. Our very first chart-topper was the bombastic and ever-so earnest ‘Here in My Heart’, and it kind of set the template for a lot of what followed. Frankie Laine, Eddie Fisher and Tennessee Ernie Ford have spent the best part of a year at the top, in total, with overwrought and slightly silly sounding declarations of love and faithfulness. Even swingin’ Sinatra was guilty with his dull first number one ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’. Still, you have to admire their honesty. They were putting it all out there – hearts on sleeves.

It has actually been the ladies who have brought the glamour and, dare we say, the sexiness to the party. Jo Stafford, Kay Starr and Kitty Kallen all hit the top with fun, laidback slithers of fifties jazz-pop. Recently, Rosemary Clooney has taken it to another level with her breezy giggle and girl-band fervour on ‘This Ole House’ and ‘Mambo Italiano’.

And then there have been the anomalies (for what would a record chart be without those songs that make you go ‘What the actual…?’) Stand up and take a bow ‘I See the Moon’, by the Stargazers, for taking the newly conceived, first time ever, ‘WTAF’ prize.

I’m also going to christen an award for the most forgettable of the past 30 chart toppers – the not terrible but not great – the tracks that I’ve already forgotten existed… The ‘Meh’ Award. Honourable mentions for ‘Softly, Softly’ by Ruby Murray, and ‘Give Me Your Word’, the two most recent number ones, but… Take a bow, Don Cornell, with your perfectly average ‘Hold My Hand’. It really was a… Well, I’ve forgotten what it was. Which is why it won.

I’ve also made a lot of the difference so far between the UK recorded hits and those by US artists. And this is perhaps the most obvious, socio-economic, ‘lets get serious for a minute here’ point to be made from looking at the ‘pre-rock’ charts. That the US stars just had that extra level of glamour, of confidence, of razzmatazz, compared to the stuffier and more staid UK stars. And, yep, in the early ’50s the US was the daddy. Relatively undamaged by war (casualties aside), economy booming, disposable income growing; while Brits were still queuing for butter and nylons, and living in prefab houses. This clearly comes through in the records we’ve heard: compare and contrast Guy Mitchell’s swagger with David Whitfield’s clipped, repressed delivery; compare even the most basic, 1954-by-numbers song from Doris Day with old Vera Lynn (sorry to keep picking on you, Vera…) But, as I noted recently, by early ’55 things were starting to shift: Dickie Valentine and Ruby Murray were two young British singers who hit the top while sounding like Americans.

Anyway, I’ll conclude each of these round-ups by choosing the very best and very worst of the past 30 so…

Let’s start with the worst. I’ve given Vera Lynn a hard enough time, so I won’t choose ‘My Son, My Son’. And the Stargazers first number one ‘Broken Wings’ was pretty morose, but in some ways it was shit in a specifically British way – all Hammond organs and posh vocals – that it was kind of endearing. Nope, the first award for ‘Worst #1’ goes to… ‘Cara Mia’ by David Whitfield and Mantovani’s orchestra, for dragging popular music back to the 1890s. 10 weeks at the top isn’t any sort of vindication, either.

Let’s end on a high, though. The best ones – and there are more good #1s to choose from than there are terrible #1s, believe it or not. Honourable mentions for Perry Como and his ‘papayas’, for ‘I Believe’ as the record-setting juggernaut that it was… But my top 3 are: ‘Mambo Italiano’, by Rosemary Clooney’, for perfectly straddling the line between cool and crazy. ‘Look at that Girl’ by Guy Mitchell, for being the most perfectly conceived pop song that we’ve heard so far (these are ‘pop’ charts after all). And the winner is, the best chart topper from this bunch of early, early hits… *fanfare*… ‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray, for being two minutes of SEX on vinyl (gay sex, no less), and for all the pearls that would have been clutched by concerned mothers when their sons and daughters dropped that record onto their turntables. Here’s to more of that sort of thing in the next 30 UK #1s!

On with the show…

30. ‘Give Me Your Word’, by Tennessee Ernie Ford

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Give Me Your Word, by Tennessee Ernie Ford (his 1st of two #1s)

7 weeks, from 11th Mar to 29th Apr 1955

Before we get down to analysing this next chart-topper, let’s just take a second to appreciate the name of the artist that recorded it. Tennessee Ernie Ford… I wonder what kind of music he might make? (*cough* country and western *cough*)

But, no. While he has the voice for a C&W hit, this isn’t the song. He drawls ‘all’ into ‘aawl’ and ‘wants’ into ‘waaonts’, yet from this second this record cracks into gear, with soaring strings and a dramatic piano, we know we ain’t gettin’ a country lament – no tumbleweeds nor howlin’ coyotes. This is a song that means business.

It’s basically a marriage proposal – a lot of talk of vows, of being beside him, of words being given for ever and always. And, to be fair, you probably wouldn’t say ‘no’ to Tennessee: he has a deep sonorous voice, the voice of a man who can chop trees and wrestle cattle. Rough hands but a warm heart, that kind of thing. The only time the voice lets him down is at the very end, when a song of this gravitas needs a slightly more powerful, and slightly less Pingu sounding finish.

And is it just me, or are these chart toppers starting to get sexier? Ruby Murray was all about softly, breathlessly, touching lips and now Mr. Ford carries on the theme. Give me your lips, he drawls, and let your lips remain. Remain where, you might ask? It’s hardly Prince at his raunchiest; but it certainly isn’t something Eddie Fisher would have sung about either.

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Looking at pictures of Tennessee Ernie, he looks somewhat like you would expect. Perhaps not as rugged as his voice makes him sound, but he has a natty little moustache, and clearly liked to play up his cowboy credentials, with plenty of Stetson ‘n’ rodeo-tassels popping up on a Google image search. He was really born in Tennessee, too.

But, for a song that starts of with grand intent, this is actually pretty dull. Or at least average. File it along with ‘Answer Me’ and ‘Cara Mia’ – songs that were huge, and clearly got people all weepy in their day, but whose melodramatic lyrics and OTT melodies have lost their resonance over time.

29. ‘Softly, Softly’, by Ruby Murray

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Softly Softly, by Ruby Murray (her 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 18th Feb to 11th Mar 1955

Aaaah…

That wasn’t a cry of anguish you just heard; more an exhalation of boredom. Or an extended pause while I tried to think of something to stop this from being my shortest post yet.

But maybe it should be a short post. Ruby Murray, claiming the twenty-ninth UK #1 with a perfectly forgettable song. It’s basically an amalgamation of what’s gone before: the string intro to ‘Secret Love’, Mantovani’s violins, Eddie Fisher’s ethereal backing singers, plus a sprinkle of Kitty Kallen and a half-teaspoonful of Kay Starr… Almost as if someone was using an algorithm specifically designed to write a mid-1950s chart hit. However they did it; it worked – ‘Softly Softly’ logged a very respectable three weeks at the top.

Softly, softly, Miss Murray purrs, come to me, touch my lips, so tenderly… The lyrics are all about kissing and caressing, about her lover taking his time to open up her heart. But it’s not a sexy song at all. It’s a bit nursery ryhme-ish, and a bit dull after ‘Mambo Italiano’.

Murray has a nice enough voice and, notably, this is the second example, after Dickie Valentine, of a British singer trying to sound like an American. She breathes and tickles the lines in a way that Vera Lynn most certainly would not have approved of. Actually, Ruby Murray was from Belfast and, by my reckoning, this makes her the first in a very long line of Irish crooners to have topped the UK Singles Chart.

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Ruby Murray is also (and this is the only thing that I knew about her prior to writing this post) cockney rhyming slang for curry. As in: It’s Friday night, we’re off dahn the Taj Mahal for a cheeky little Ruby Murray, innit. She is therefore the second chart topping artist so far, after Mantovani, to have remained enshrined in the public consciousness less for her music and more for the way her surname sounds. But her music was very popular. Though this was her sole #1, she recorded eight further Top 10 hits between 1954-59. Only two of her releases failed to make the Top 10, actually. I guess it’s a bit of a shame that she’s now remembered solely for having a name that rhymes with curry.

I’m pretty sure I could go out on a limb and declare that I’m the only person in the world who has listened to a Ruby Murray song today. ‘Softly Softly’ is by far her most listened to song on Spotify, at 104,676 plays. A quick bit of maths, dividing that number by the 70 million total users on Spotify, gives you 0.00014 plays of ‘Softly Softly’ per user. And that’s after I’ve played it five times in the past half hour.

Still – it is pretty amazing that every single one of these prehistoric chart toppers is available nowadays at the click of a button. Had I tried to do this blog a decade or so earlier I would have had to rely on wading through weird re-recordings on YouTube, or to opening my laptop up to all sorts of viruses on Pirate Bay. Had I attempted this twenty or thirty years ago (before blogging existed, I know, but bear with me) I’d have had to spend a fortune in ‘Sounds of the 50s’ compilations. These are enlightened times in which we live. And there, that wasn’t such a short post after all.