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…