38. ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’, by The Johnston Brothers

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Hernando’s Hideaway, by The Johnston Brothers (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 11th to 25th November 1955

It’s starting to feel like, rather than passing comment on each UK #1 single, I’m actually reviewing a soundtrack album. The soundtrack album to a very cheesy Western. ‘Rose Marie’ was the big ballad, ‘The Man from Laramie’ was the theme song, and now ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ is…

What exactly is this? It’s hard to tell. Gone are the days when you could file pretty much every UK #1 under ‘overwrought ballad’ or ‘perky novelty. It’s another song that tells a story, about a drinking den – a dark secluded place, a place where no-one knows your face – and, again, has lyrics so obscure and specific that it must be from a film, or musical… There are silhouettes, and castanets, glasses of wine, and fast embraces. Hernando’s may actually be (whisper it!) more than just a bar…

Two lines in particular really set the scene: Just knock three times and whisper low, That you and I were sent by Joe, Then strike a match and you will know, You’re in Hernando’s Hideaway! It’s a very quirky song. And I mean that in the best possible way: the first forty seconds, for example, consist simply of voices and castanets. Then the violins kick in and we’re into a swaying, sweeping tango. Whereas ‘The Man from Laramie’ just sounded silly away from the context of the film; this song actually makes me want to watch whatever film or musical that it’s from.

And I could resist no longer – I had to Google and find out just where this funny little song originated. And it was indeed a show tune! (I’ve still got the knack!) A show tune from ‘The Pajama Game’: a musical about – wait for it – labour disputes in a pyjama factory… Seriously. It opened on Broadway in ’54, in the West End a year later, and thus explains the popularity of this track in the autumn of 1955. And when I say ‘popularity’, I mean ‘popularity’. Wikipedia lists 33 (thirty-three!) different recordings of the song. Contemporaneous to the Johnston Brother’s hit were versions from our friends Alma Cogan, Johnnie Ray and Mantovani, as well as versions yet to come from stars as varied as Ella Fitzgerald and The Everly Brothers.

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And what of the Johnston Brothers themselves? I had an image of identical twins, sharp suited and shiny-teethed. Bob and Billy Johnston, perhaps. Except, there were actually four members in the band – only one of whom was called Johnston. Johnny Johnston (great name!) formed the band and gave them their title. As the picture shows, they don’t look especially sharp or glossy (they were British, after all), and they faded away after a handful of hits.

‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ is proving to be one of those songs that improves with every listen. At first it was a curiosity; now I’m rather taken with the bizarreness of it. It is, I can say with complete confidence, the strangest UK #1 since The Stargazers hit the top with their barroom sing-along ‘I See the Moon’. Actually, 1955 has proven to be quite the eclectic year for chart-topping singles – the crazed sway of ‘Mambo Italiano’, the raunchy trumpets of Perez Prado, the lone-star yodelling of Slim Whitman. It hasn’t always been great, but at least it’s been interesting. Which wasn’t something we were saying back when David Whitfield and Frankie Laine were out-snoozing each other with their soporific ballads. 1955 has also been the year of the soundtrack hit, with this being the 6th chart-topper to emerge from a film or musical. Given that, as I write this, the UK Charts are filled with songs from ‘The Greatest Showman’ soundtrack, there’s a nice symmetry here. In some ways the charts of 2018 are unrecognisable from those topped by the Johnston Brothers; in other ways very little has changed.

Anyway, if this last bit has sounded like a round-up of sorts, well, it was kind of unavoidable. This has been the 38th UK Number One; and the end of an era. The ‘pre-rock’ era, that is…

9 thoughts on “38. ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’, by The Johnston Brothers

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  9. Reblogged this on Citizens and commented:
    Anyone else remember Harnando’s Hideaway? Us kids used to sing it with different words – “There was a man from outer space, who wore a mask about his face, the mask was filled with poisonous gas …”

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