59. ‘Butterfly’, by Andy Williams

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Butterfly, by Andy Williams (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 24th May – 7th June 1957

Our latest chart topping single has it all: handclaps, finger-clicks, whistling, lots of bum-bum-bums and doo-waas from the backing singers… the whole shebang! The perky guitars and drums that have accompanied us over the past half-dozen #1s also remain. It’s a little gentler than ‘Cumberland Gap’ and a little poppier than ‘Rock-A-Billy’, but ‘Butterfly’ is undeniably a rock ‘n’ roll record.

The lyrics compare a girl to a butterfly because, well, she likes ‘flying around’ – if you catch my drift… You tell me you love me, You say you’ll be true, Then you fly around, With somebody new, But I’m crazy about you, You butterfly…

We’ve had lots (and lots) of references to unrequited love in the previous fifty-eight number ones, but the girls in songs like ‘Answer Me’ were simply described as being hard to get, as untouchable angels, paragons of female virtue. This is the first time we’ve had a girl described as something of a floozy. And Andy Williams, try as he might, can’t get over her: I knew from the first time I kissed you, That you were the troublin’ kind, Cos the honey that drips, From your sweet lips, One taste and I’m outta my mind…

But, he doesn’t plan on waiting. Male singers stoically waiting around for their love to notice them hasn’t been in vogue since mid-’55. No, no, no – that ain’t cool no more! These days they either wallow – see ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain’ – or they take action – see Mr. Williams here: I love you so much, I know what I’ll do, I’m clippin’ your wings, Your flyin’ is through… That’s a slightly sinister metaphor, isn’t it? ‘Clipping’ his girlfriend’s ‘wings’… But hey, you could get away with that sort of thing in 1957.

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Andy William’s has a slightly softer voice than some of the male singers we’ve been hearing from recently, and this softens the song’s impact a little. You can imagine a singer with a real rasp in his voice turning ‘Butterfly’ into a proper rocker. As it is, it’s a fine little track that doesn’t outstay its welcome, but it’s a little… basic? Six months into the rock ‘n’ roll revolution and songwriters/performers are perhaps already resting on their laurels, churning out production-line hits.

Or maybe that’s a bit harsh. Williams is much better known – to me at least – for more easy-listening, cocktail lounge records such as ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, ‘Music to Watch Girls By’ and ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ (one of those songs that drives you a little bit mental in shopping centres every Christmas.) He didn’t stick with the rock ‘n’ roll for long, it seems, which was probably a wise decision as it prevented him from being tarred with that particular brush, and allowed his chart career to extend well into the 1970s.

But ‘Butterfly’ was his sole UK chart topper. Like Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Bill Haley et al before him, he ticks ‘Get a UK Number One’ off his to-do list pretty early on in his career. And, as with those other luminaries, it seems only right that he had his moment at the top. He’s undeniably a legend of popular music, whose recordings remain admired today. Case in point: a decade ago I spent six months teaching in Thailand, and one of the most popular songs when my Thai colleagues dug the karaoke machine out – which was very, very often – was ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’. I somehow doubt they’d heard of ‘Butterfly’, though. Which is a shame, I suppose.

58. ‘Rock-A-Billy’, by Guy Mitchell

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Rock-a-Billy, by Guy Mitchell (his 4th and final #1)

1 week, from 17th – 24th May 1957

Part 58, in which Guy Mitchell scores his latest UK #1 single with a rockabilly record entitled… ‘Rock-a-Billy.’ Imagine if Eminem were to release a song called ‘Rap’, or Ed Sheeran were to record one called ‘Bland Shite’ – that’s where we are right now. This is a record that does exactly what it says on the tin.

It’s another fast-paced chart topper – not quite as frantic as ‘Cumberland Gap’, but then what is? – that rolls along on jaunty guitars and a Winifred Atwell-esque piano. While lyrically it takes the term ‘generic’ to new levels. This is a song about a man and his love for rock ‘n’ roll music, to which the chorus goes:

Rockabilly, rockabilly, rockabilly, rock… Rockabilly, rockabilly, rock, rock, rock… Rockabilly, rockabilly, rockabilly, rock… Rockabilly, rockabilly… Rock! Rock!

Anyone who claims that modern pop is dumbed-down nonsense; point them in the direction of this record. The verses aren’t much more highbrow. There’s some silliness about the history of rockabilly music – it came from Tennessee, spread on out to the lone prairie – and then a lot of advice on how to dance to this crazy new music:

From the moment that you feel this crazy beat, You gotta lose control of your two left feet, Give me mountain juice, Turn me loose, Leave me wave my arms about…

It’s the latest song in a growing list where I’ve had to look the lyrics up online, rather than transcribe them by simply listening to them, as Guy Mitchell does a good bit of growling and slurring. (Actually, if you listen to his first chart-topper, back in 1953, and now this, Mitchell’s voice does have a harder edge – perhaps he was altering it to fit the style of the time? Or maybe he was just getting older?) Plus… is that reference to ‘mountain juice’ the first mention of alcohol, of drugs, of any kind of intoxicant in a UK Number One Single? I think it might just be… We truly are rockin’ and rollin’!

However, although I’m bandying terms like ‘generic’ and ‘silliness’ around, I wouldn’t want anyone to think for a second that I don’t like this song. It’s great. It’s dumb. It’s fun. I like it like how I like sherbet dib-dabs: I know there are ‘better’ foodstuffs to shove down my gullet, but I know I wouldn’t enjoy them half as much. It is a song that I dare anyone to dislike, a song that’s programmed to hit all the most primal happiness receptors in your brain. It’s got four key-changes, for God’s sake! The best bit of all is the bridge, which strangely comes right at the end, and which is positively life-affirming: You know what rockabilly’s all about, You know it’s gonna make you sing and shout, You know you’re gonna act like a crazy fool, Who cares? It’s cool! Yes, dance people! Dance like no one’s watching. Guy says so!

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We have to bid farewell to Mr. Mitchell here, following this short encore at the top of the charts. And I have to admit that I’ll miss searching for pictures of his handsome face to add to these posts. His first chart-topper was… interesting, but the subsequent three – ‘Look at That Girl’, ‘Singing the Blues’ and now this – can legitimately go down as classics of the early rock ‘n’ roll/pop crossover. Few, if any, artists can claim to have been as consistently popular throughout the 1950s as Guy Mitchell: he had his first US Top 10 single in 1950 and his last in 1959. And we leave him here as the man with the joint most UK #1s, a record which he’ll hold for a couple more years.

Anyway, I’m on my seventh listen of ‘Rock-a-Billy’ as I type this sentence, and with every listen I like it more. I’d better stop before I begin claiming that it’s the best song ever recorded. One final thought, though: it’s telling that the biggest stars of this fledgling ‘rock age’, at least in UK chart terms, were Guy Mitchell and Johnnie Ray – two already very established artists who jumped on the rockin’ bandwagon and started scoring huge hits once again. A case of mass-appeal, perhaps? The kids liked the cool new music, while mum and dad trusted good ol’ Guy to keep it respectable? More respectable than arrivistes like Elvis, Chuck and Little Richard at least? Not that this will last long, but still. An interesting mini-era in rock music: the oldies outselling the upstarts.

57. ‘Cumberland Gap’, by Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group

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Cumberland Gap, by Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group (their 1st of three #1s)

5 weeks, from 12th April – 17th May 1957

I take it all back, what I said in my last post: we are rockin’ and a-rollin’ again. In a very British kind of way. With a very American song.

I’ll explain all that in a minute, but let me start by mentioning the fact that this is a blistering little record. Two minutes of lean, mean, frantic rock. Or more specifically, skiffle. For which read: ‘British Rock ‘n’ Roll’. I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll no doubt mention it again, but this is the best thing about a countdown of records based on sales alone: that songs like ‘Cumberland Gap’ can follow on from songs like ‘Young Love’. One follows the other, like night follows day; polar opposites of one another but somehow eternally linked.

The guitar starts lightly, then grows, along with the bass and the drums, before Lonnie Donegan’s voice comes in. Singing about something called ‘the Cumberland Gap’. I say ‘something’, because whatever it is isn’t immediately clear from all his squealing and squawking: Well the Cumberland Gap, Cumberland Gap, Fifteen miles on the Cumberland Gap… The Cumberland Gap, Ain’t nowhere, Fifteen miles from Middleburgh…

Note that it’s Middleburgh, not Middlesbrough. We’re in the US, here – with all the yee-hahs and yodels that that entails. But then we take a strange turn, and it all goes a bit East-End music-hall: Well I got a girl, Six feet tall, Sleeps in the kitchen with her feet in the hall… Two old ladies, Sittin’ in the sand, Each one wishin’ that the other was a man…

What this girl and these old women have to do with the ‘Cumberland Gap’ isn’t expanded upon, and Donegan doesn’t hang around either. The lyrics are replaced by straight up screams and a frenetic solo. The song ends with a verse that is just da-dee-dee-dees and a mumbled something about how much he loves ya baby, and then the song title is repeated several times – loud, then quiet, then VERY LOUD and then boom. Done. Phew! You can see why some learned types have referred to this as the first ever punk record.

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I have to admit – I’m not sure that I love this record. It’s a bit much. But I do love that it spent five weeks at the top of the UK Singles Charts in the spring of 1957. That the public’s taste in music had evolved enough to allow a song which is essentially a lot of screaming and mumbling such an extended moment in the sun. And I take back what I said about rock being dead, deader than dead. It’s obviously not. I overreacted.

Before I finish, I had to find out what in God’s name the Cumberland Gap actually is. Turns out it’s a mountain pass, located at the convergence of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, which allowed old American frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone to pass across the Appalachian Mountains and conquer the wilderness that was The Wild West. Add this, then, to the list, alongside ‘The Man from Laramie’, ‘Hey Joe’, Slim Whitman and Tennessee Ernie Ford, as the latest piece of Americana to find a place at the top of the charts. Was it exoticism? Was it envy? Why were we so obsessed with America? Perhaps we still are.

However, knowing what the Cumberland Gap is has gone no distance in helping me work out what the hell this song is about. As a song it had been around since at least the mid-to-late 19th Century as a folk ditty. Wikipedia mentions lyrics about ‘taking naps’ in the Cumberland Gap, and ‘raising hell’ in the Cumberland Gap, but nothing about six-feet tall women. Perhaps Donegan added those verses himself, and in doing so created the perfect fusion of American rockabilly and British silliness.

We’ll hear from Lonnie Donegan again, and soon. So I won’t delve too deeply into his back-story. ‘Cumberland Gap’ was only his fourth hit single in a chart career that would stretch deep into the sixties and which would bring great success. It is worth noting, though, that he was born in Glasgow and so, after having had an Italian, a Cuban, a Trinidadian and tons of Americans already top the charts, the 57th UK #1 single goes to a Scot.

56. ‘Young Love’, by Tab Hunter

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Young Love, by Tab Hunter (his 1st and only #1)

7 weeks, from 22nd February – 12th April 1957

I’ve been bigging up the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll to the top of the UK charts for so long – especially back when we were plodding through all those dreary, brow-furrowingly earnest pre-rock ballads – that this next statement goes against every instinct I have…

By the time it got to the top of the UK charts, rock ‘n’ roll was over. Finished. Defunct. Obsolete.

I recently claimed that the rock era began on 11th January 1957, when bona fide teen-idol Tommy Steele sneered his way to a week at the top. I’m now claiming that the rock era ended on 22nd February 1957, when this limp little record grabbed a scandalous seven weeks at the top.

Because, by God this is bland! That this made it into the record books before Elvis, before Buddy Holly, before Jerry Lee and all the rest doesn’t make sense. It is a rock ‘n’ roll record – there’s a guitar riff and solo, drums, oohs and aahs and all the rest. Plus, the lyrics are all about two kids falling in love for the first time. And it’s called ‘Young Love’!

They say for every boy and girl there’s just one love in this whole world, And I-I-I know I’ve found mine… Young love, First love, Filled with true devotion…

But it’s delivered in such a soppy way that I refuse to acknowledge this as any kind of rock and/or roll. Tab Hunter’s voice is deep and sonorous, but in pictures he looks like the all-American boy next door: rosy-cheeks, blonde curls, blue eyes, church on Sundays, part-time job in the gas station. Your mum would have liked him as much as she would have disliked Tommy Steele. I can imagine a young Cliff Richard taking notes as he planned his assault on stardom a couple of years later (and there are a lot of similarities between Hunters voice here and Cliff’s on, say, ‘Living Doll’). And note the role-reversal – now it’s the Americans giving us staid and boring while the Brits grin and wink! Fittingly, this was #1 on the day my mum was born. I say ‘fittingly’, because she has just about the blandest taste in music going (and is a huge fan of Sir Clifford of Richard).

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And that’s about it. The shortest entry yet. At least, that was going to be it… Until I did my customary Wikipedia-based research about Tab Hunter. Turns out this American-as-apple-pie captain-of-the-school-football-team was – dum dum dum – gay! Is gay, he’s still alive, aged eighty-six. He had to cover it up for most of his career, obviously, and had fake flings with Debbie Reynolds and Natalie Wood among others to throw the newspapers off the scent. Which adds a bittersweet layer to his one and only UK chart topping single, and the lines about boys and girls falling in love.

I’ve listened to ‘Young Love’ several times now, trying to find something to like about – I usually love me a bit of rock ‘n’ roll – but I can’t do it. It’s insipid. And so that’s it. Rock is dead. If it ever existed. Obviously, the top of the pop charts is never the place to look for cutting edge music, but I’m surprised there wasn’t a bit more of an explosion, with some real rockers, before the sell-out began. Or maybe I should just accept that lines were always blurred, that rockabilly merged with blues which had merged with jazz which had merged with the music of the cotton fields to create rock ‘n’ roll over several decades, and not in an afternoon. No more attempting to pinpoint the birth of a musical movement to a particular record.

Anyway, in my next post… The moment skiffle was born!

(Edit: Tab Hunter sadly passed away shortly after this post was published. The Guardian published this obituary, touching on some of the themes mentioned above.)

55. ‘The Garden of Eden’, by Frankie Vaughan

Before I begin my next post in this countdown, I would just like to address something. The elephant in the room, if you will. As I mentioned back when writing about Guy Mitchell’s ‘Singing the Blues’, one of its weeks in the top spot was shared with the record that’s up next: Frankie Vaughan’s ‘The Garden of Eden’. It’s the second time we’ve encountered this situation, and it won’t be the last. Which begs the question… How did records end up sharing the top spot with such regularity in the 1950s? Well, the answer’s pretty simple. But it kind of whips the rug away from under this whole countdown. You see, the charts back in the early days of their existence simply weren’t very accurate.

Way back in my intro I mentioned that the concept of a ‘singles chart’ was introduced in November 1952 by the NME. And the UK Singles Charts company has since incorporated this chart into the ‘official’ chart – even though such a thing didn’t exist at the time. There were various other charts published every week in the 1950s: the Melody Maker chart, the Record Mirror chart, the Record Retailer chart… and the NME chart, which is recognised as the most comprehensive. But not completely comprehensive. There are still many bones of contention. Which I won’t go into here – they can be easily searched for online.

The number of record stores surveyed by the NME for their chart was surprisingly low and the methods very old fashioned compared to the instant downloading and streaming databases used in 2018 – they basically called up a bunch of record stores and asked them to keep a record of what they were selling. The first chart – topped by the record we met in my earliest post, Al Martino’s ‘Here in My Heart’ – was compiled using data from only 20 (twenty!) major record stores. And thus, every so often, because they were working from such a small sample, there were ties. David Whitfield and Frankie Laine in 1953, Guy Mitchell and Frankie Vaughan in 1957… In 1960, the Record Retailer Chart became the UK Chart Company’s chart of choice and there were no further ‘joint’ number ones (though there were still several contested number ones). Then in 1969 the British Market Research Bureau took over chart-compiling duties and steadied the boat further, while in 1982 chart compilation went digital. Since then, it’s been on the straight and narrow. 100% reliable.

So, while it may be distressing to some to discover the records that you have read about during this countdown may not actually have been the best selling records in a particular week, I thought it was only correct that I address the issue. And with that, today’s sermon is brought to a close. On with the next (presumed?) Number One Single!

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The Garden of Eden, by Frankie Vaughan (his 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 25th January – 22nd February 1957 (including 1 week joint with Guy Mitchell from 1st – 8th February 1957)

So I press play on this record, ‘The Garden of Eden’ by Frankie Vaughan, and pretty soon I get to thinking that, from ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain’ to this, I don’t think we’ve encountered such a run of similar-sounding songs. Here we have yet another male singer, with yet another performance involving guitar and vocals and not much else. I’m gearing up for another recap, so I don’t want to get too introspective right now, but it seems like we are settling into a groove which – glancing ahead at what’s to come – might last for a while yet.

I am not left thinking this for too long, however. This record is slightly deceiving. It does start off with a simple guitar strum, and with understated backing singers, but halfway through someone flicks a switch. We get trumpets, and a cymbal clash. Things escalate pretty quickly. The drums go up several notches, and suddenly the vocals are accompanied by a full-on big-band swing section. It’s a never ending crescendo, a key-change drawn out for two and a half minutes, and I like it! You can imagine this being performed on TV, the curtain opening to show Frankie Vaughan alone on stage. Then, as the song progresses, the lights draw further and further back to reveal, by the end, the full-blown orchestra that are bringing us to climax. It’s not rock ‘n’ roll, in terms of the sound, but it is in terms of the frenzied tempo.

Lyrically we are in somewhat stranger territory too. Recent number ones have been lovelorn, and wry. This is… well to tell the truth I’m not entirely sure what this is: When you walk in the garden, The garden of Eden, With a beautiful woman, And you know how you care… And a voice in the garden, The garden of Eden, Tells you she is forbidden, Can you leave her there?

It goes on… When you’re yearning for loving, And she touches your hand, Can you leave her to heaven, And obey the command, Can you walk from the garden, Does your heart understand?

It’s a parable, maybe. Resist temptation? Don’t resist temptation? I don’t really know what it’s about even after several listens. My best bet is that this is Vaughan explaining his behaviour to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. “Yes, m’lord, I should have resisted the advances of that beautiful woman but, to be honest, she was far too hot…”

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Without knowing any of this track’s backstory, I imagine it must have been pretty risqué to have had this many religious references in a pop song back in early 1957. Remember how, back in 1953, Frankie Laine and David Mitchell had remove the ‘My Lord’ from the title of their versions of ‘Answer Me’? But I can’t find mention of any controversy online. So that’s that.

Also of note is the fact that, once again, it’s a British artist doing the rockin’ and a rollin’. Vaughan was a Liverpudlian for whom this appearance at the top of the UK charts was the culmination of a few years of growing success – he was voted ‘Showbusiness Personality of the Year’ in 1956, and was one of the biggest stars of the late fifties. Pictures show him in dickie-bows and top-hats, so we know what kind of territory we’re in. And we will meet Mr. Vaughan again, in a few years, though I feel he has been somewhat forgotten over time, considering how famous he once was.

54. ‘Singing the Blues’, by Tommy Steele and The Steelmen

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Singing the Blues, by Tommy Steele & The Steelmen (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 11th – 18th January 1957

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing this countdown, from listening to all these number ones of old, it’s that the ‘pre-rock’ era is a very hard thing to pin down. What was it? What did it sound like? Who were its biggest stars? And… when did it end?

Did it end in November 1955, when ‘Rock Around the Clock’ brought a teenaged frenzy to the top spot? Not really – that was a bit of a false dawn. Did it end in April ’56, when ‘Rock n Roll Waltz’ reached #1? Not really – the only thing rock ‘n’ roll about that song was the title. Was it when The Teenagers claimed a chart topper last summer? Not really – they may have been kids, but they were doo-woppin’ rather than rockin’.

So, I’m about to stick my neck out and make a bold claim. Are you ready? The 11th January 1957 marks the end of the ‘pre-rock’ era and the beginning of the ‘rock n roll’ era. In the UK at least. I can’t speak for anywhere else.

Why the 11th January 1957? Well, it’s when one Tommy Steele and his band The Steelmen (see what he did there?) hit the top spot with their version of ‘Singing the Blues’. Steele was the UK’s first rock ‘n’ roller, the pre-Cliff Richard if you will, and he grabbed this song away from Guy Mitchell’s nice-enough-but-somewhat-bland version, gave it a good shake and a slap, and ushered in a new era.

Not that you’d notice straight away. The song starts with the same plinky-plonky guitar and the same twee ba bum bum bums from the backing singers. And the trumpets and hand claps added to this version give it a slightly camp, Butlins-esque air. No, the one thing that makes this record rock is Steele himself: We-hell.. a-never felt…m’re like singin’ the blues… cos I never thought Ivrlose… yr love… dear

I’m not having a fit as I type – that’s really how he sings: like the last old man crawling out the pub. He’s slurring. He goes quiet, then loud, then quick, then slow. He sounds snotty, and bratty. When he delivers the lines The moon and stars no longer shine… The dream is gone I thought was mine… There’s nothin’ left for me t’ do, than cry-y-y OVER YEEW he starts off sounding quite posh and proper but ends the lines dripping in insincerity. He sounds like he’s taking the piss. You can picture him sneering and gyrating. It’s a world away from previous British male chart-toppers like David Whitfield, even Dickie Valentine. I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to say he sounds like a cross between David Bowie and Johnny Rotten. Seriously.

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And had I been a fifteen-year-old girl – Susan, let’s call me – sitting in the gloom and cold of January 1957, my heart would have gone a-flutter when this record dropped onto the turntable. Steele sounds like a bad boy; the sort that flicks ink-blots at the teacher and smokes behind the gym. He sounds much younger than Guy Mitchell while singing the same lyrics (Steele was twenty, Mitchell was thirty when they had their turns at #1) Susan’s mum would definitely have preferred Mitchell’s version. Her dad would probably have grumbled something about Steele needing a good stint in the army.

And so that’s it. In the two minutes twenty seconds it takes Tommy Steele to rattle through his version of ‘Singing the Blues’, we cross the Rubicon. There’s no going back from here. Steele’s star shone brightly and briefly – we won’t be hearing from him again beyond this solitary week at the top – but he did what he had to do, and changed the face of British popular music forever.

53. ‘Singing the Blues’, by Guy Mitchell

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Singing the Blues, by Guy Mitchell (his 3rd of four #1s)

1 week, from 4th – 11th January / 1 week from 18th – 25th January / 1 week joint with Frankie Vaughan, from 1st – 8th February 1957 (3 weeks total)

I feel I should post a warning ahead of this next chart-topper because, for the second song in a row: CONTAINS WHISTLING.

Well I never felt more like singin’ the blues, ‘Cause I never thought that I’d ever lose, Your love dear… Why d’you do me this way?

It’s another long gap between #1s for one of the biggest pre-rock stars – longer than the wait endured by Frankie Laine and Johnnie Ray before him – it’s been almost three and a half years since Mitchell’s second chart-topper ‘Look at That Girl’. It’s quite nice too, in a way, that the three biggest male singers of the early to mid 1950s have lined up for one last hurrah before the new guard swoop in. And it’s understandable that artists like Guy Mitchell and Johnnie Ray experienced – I don’t know if you could call it a ‘resurgence’, as they had remained popular – success at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. I commented on Mitchell’s rock ‘n’ roll edge way back in September 1953, and his voice is just as suited to this rockabilly number.

Like ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain’, this is another simple little record: guitar, backing singers, Guy Mitchell, and some whistling. Whether or not the whistling is Mitchell’s is unconfirmed. A piano pitches in towards the end to give us the big finish.

Lyrically too, this song is very similar to the one it replaced at the top. He’s feeling lonesome thanks to a lost love. And, instead of taking matters into his own hands, or looking for divine inspiration, as earlier chart-topping stars might have done, he’s just going to have a good old wallow in his misery. He’s resigned to his fate. He’ll cry and cry…

The moon and stars no longer shine, The dream is gone I thought was mine, There’s nothing left for me to do, But cr-y-y-y over you…

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I knew this song, vaguely, as a sort of ‘Heartbeat’ compilation album standard, without ever having really listened to it. It’s a nice tune – much jauntier than its subject matter would suggest – and it’s easing us into what looks like a big ol’ run of rock ‘n’ roll hits. In the ‘Guy Mitchell #1s Chart’ I’d put it in second place, behind ‘Look at That Girl’ but well ahead of the reprehensible ‘She Wears Red Feathers’. #2 out of his #1s, if that makes any sense at all.

However, perhaps the most interesting thing about this record is its bizarre chart run. I mean, just look at that title up there… 1 week on, 1 week off, 1 week one, 1 week off, 1 week joint, divorced, beheaded, survived…. It is, I believe, one of only five records in UK chart history to return to #1 more than once. Let me help you to make head and/or tail of this…

Are you sitting comfortably? Guy Mitchell’s ‘Singing the Blues’ spent four weeks on the chart before climbing to the top for a week. It was then replaced by Tommy Steele with – wait for it – a different version of ‘Singing the Blues’. Mitchell then deposed Tommy Steele after just a week and returned to the top. A week after that he was knocked off for a second time by Frankie Vaughan (thankfully not with another version of ‘Singing the Blues’). A week later it returned to the top for a final week, but had to share pole position with Vaughan, who then claimed the #1 position back for himself a week later and Mitchell’s time at the top finally ended. Phew… It’s possibly the messiest five weeks in UK Charts history. And, frankly, getting replaced at the top by a different version of the same song before returning to number one but having to share the top spot is soooo 1950s! It’s all happened before, of course – David Whitfield and Frankie Laine’s versions of ‘Answer Me’ shared #1 in 1953 while two versions of ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez Prado and Eddie Calvert, hit the top in 1955 – but never in such a short space of time. It’s peak 1950s! It’s 1950s AF!

52. ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain’, by Johnnie Ray

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Just Walkin’ in the Rain, by Johnnie Ray (his 2nd of three #1s)

7 weeks, from 16th November 1956 to 4th January 1957

And, just like that, we zoom to the end of 1956. And we are reacquainted with another artist whom we haven’t seen for a while…

The last time we met Johnnie Ray, he was snatching a week at number one with the superb ‘Such a Night’. I voted it as ‘Best Record So Far’ in an earlier recap, it was that good. But that was almost three years ago, in the spring of ’54. Ray stood out like a sore thumb – a groaning, pleading, cavorting thumb – amongst the frightfully proper records that were topping the charts back then. Now we’re in somewhat more relaxed, ever-so-slightly more liberal times, it’s no surprise that Johnnie’s back.

The first thing that hits you, as the needle drops, is the whistling. It’s a whistly record. The first record featuring whistling to top the UK Singles Chart. And it’s another simple record – just Ray’s voice, his backing singers, and a guitar. It crossed my mind that it might be a pastiche of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, as the two songs do bear some similarities. ‘Singin’ in the Rain’s depressed, heartbroken brother perhaps?

Just walkin’ in the rain, Gettin’ soakin’ wet, Torturin’ my heart, By trying to forget…

The way Ray delivers that little ‘by’ is a thing of beauty. He barks it out, angry, heartbroken. You really believe him. As before, his voice makes the whole record. It’s not a regular voice, nor a technically perfect voice, but it is unmistakeable: raspy and croaky – he really does sound like man who’s been up all night, walking in the rain.

Anyway, his walk is a form of water-based therapy, perhaps, as he tries to get over his departed lover. Or maybe it’s water-torture, as there’s a masochistic edge to proceedings: People come to windows, They always stare at me, Shake their heads in sorrow, Sayin’ who can that fool be? He knows they’re watching, but he continues anyway. Lyrically, we are at a crossroads, in terms of male-recorded #1s. These the are self-flagellating lyrics that we have heard many, many times before, about how much pain he is in (see also ‘Here in My Heart’, ‘Outside of Heaven’, ‘Answer Me’, ‘Give Me Your Word’, I could go on…) BUT, unlike in those songs, there is no chance of a positive outcome here. Ray never mentions any hope that his love will return. He’s simply trying to forget. This, then, is more of the sugar-coated cynicism that started creeping into our chart topping records with ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ back in the summer.

By the end of the song, Johnnie is weepin’ and a-wailin’ in superbly melodramatic fashion. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s a crime that he gets looked over in the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll pioneers/superstars. I can’t sing his praises highly enough. This is a great record (not as great as ‘Such a Night’, but still great). Of course, as I also mentioned in his earlier post, his being erased from the History of Pop Music had a lot to do with his homosexuality. And I did notice, the eagle-eared guy that I am, how there are no pronouns in this song. No hint as to the gender of his lost love….

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Johnnie Ray will appear one more time in this countdown – fairly soon, in fact – and so I will stop myself from going on too much about how amazing he was. (Though he was) And to finish I’ll address something that’s been bugging me for a while. At the top of each post I always include a picture of the record I’m going to be writing about. And they all look the bloody same. Black vinyl with a little disc circle of colour in the middle (and even that dash of colour is predictable: Phillips records are always blue, Capitol are black, Decca are navy…) I can never seem to find a picture of the record sleeve and, when I do (the jpg that headers Johnnie Ray’s earlier entry, ‘Such a Night’, for example) they are just as bland as the disc. You may have noticed that I sometimes include a picture that looks like it could be the record sleeve -I’ve included the one for ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain’ above. That’s actually the sheet-music cover, a relic from the days before everyone had gramophones – they would buy the score and learn to play it themselves at home. There were even sheet-music charts before the NME started the record chart upon which this countdown is based. Even more frustratingly, it seems that LPs and EPs did get colourful covers in the 50s; it was only singles that were left to languish in boring, beige paper slips.

Anyway, the point of mentioning this is… I know it looks dull and I wish I could do something about it. I can’t wait for the days when artists and labels actually care about standing out on the shelves, and start including pictures of the band or, shock horror, an artistically though-out design on the cover. Though I fear that may be several years off…

51. ‘A Woman in Love’, by Frankie Laine

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A Woman in Love, by Frankie Laine (his 4th and final #1)

4 weeks, from to 19th October to 16th November 1956

Look who’s back!

Almost three years since we last saw him, Frankie Laine is back at the top of the charts for one final hurrah. And it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that this is something of a re-invention.

I think this is the very first ‘big band’ #1 we’ve seen. It’s from the film version of ‘Guys and Dolls’, and I think it might be a tango, or a foxtrot (I ain’t no dancer). Either way, it begins with a bang, and then it starts swinging. Frankie Laine is a-swingin’.

Your eyes are the eyes of a woman in love, And oh how they give you away… Why try to deny, You’re a woman in love, When I know very well, When I say…

Who is this woman head over heels with? Well, Frankie of course. At least that’s what he thinks: Those eyes are the eyes of a woman in love, And may they gaze ever more into mine…

Contrast these lyrics with Laine’s last chart-topping single from December ’53. ‘Answer Me’ was all about him pleading for a sign that his lover was still, well, in love with him. In ‘A Woman in Love’ he doesn’t need any reassurance, any prayers answered. He knows she’s hot for him. The times they are a-changing.

And then we have one of the best musical interludes that we’ve heard so far in this countdown. The previous chart-toppers haven’t really gone in for solos, but this one does. The whole band gets stuck into a swinging little thirty seconds. There is a lot of swagger in this record. I’m quite enjoying sticking one-word labels on these recent #1s: Pat BooneCrooner, Anne SheltonTwee, Frankie Laine – Swagger! We’ve had an eclectic run of songs hitting the top spot recently, perhaps the most varied run of this countdown so far, but in a way they’ve all been very of their time. Popular music right on the cusp of the rock ‘n’ roll invasion.

The only thing that spoils this record is the finale. Frankie may have re-invented himself, but he still loves a big ending: Crazily, ga-aze, e-ever mo-ore into MIIIIIIINNNNEEE! Every time I hear an ending like that it sounds more and more old-fashioned. I can’t imagine there’ll be many more, though. Surely. But, overall, this is a small complaint. It’s a great song. Laine’s voice is as warm and as listenable as ever. He and Doris Day should have recorded a duet (*edit* they did – ‘Sugarbush’ back in 1952).

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And so we bid farewell to perhaps the biggest of all the pre-rock stars. Four number one singles adding up to 32 (thirty-two!) weeks at the top. That’s pretty darn impressive, and leaves him at 5th place in the all-time list behind only…. I’ll give you a few seconds to guess… Elvis, The Beatles, Cliff and The Shadows. And, actually, I’m harping on about this being a ‘re-invention’ and a ‘comeback’ for Laine, but he hadn’t been anywhere. In the three years between his 3rd and 4th #1s he had still racked up a whole pile of top ten hits. He was huge. ‘A Woman in Love’ would, though, be his penultimate top ten single in the UK.

One final thought… This track made Frankie Laine the artist with the most UK #1s at this point. With four. It’s noticeable that we haven’t yet met an artist who has scored, or will even go on to score, more than four. These early charts were a very egalitarian place – songs only got to the top because they were… I don’t want to say ‘good’ because, well… let’s say: ‘universally popular’. The days of super-star idols, of huge fan-base acts whose every release races to the top of the charts – your Take Thats, Westlifes, Spice Girls – are still not upon us. But they will be sooner than you might think, and their arrival has a lot to do with this new-fangled thing called rock ‘n’ roll.

50. ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, by Anne Shelton

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Lay Down Your Arms, by Anne Shelton (her 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from to 21st September to 19th October 1956

We hit the half-century and meet a genre we haven’t encountered yet… The military march!

A couple of times now I’ve mentioned records that, upon reaching the top of the chart, represent a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ moment. Most famously when David Whitfield took the frightfully stiff ‘Cara Mia’ to the top shortly after Johnnie Ray’s superbly raunchy ‘Such a Night’. But this… This takes it to another level.

*Ah 1, 2, ah 1, 2, 3* Come to the station, Jump from the train, March at the double, Down lover’s lane, Then in the glen, Where the roses entwine, Lay down your arms… And surrender to mine!

Anne Shelton loves a soldier, but he’s been called away on duty. Such is a soldier’s life. He gets some leave but now, after spending all week doing what the Seargent demands, he has to manfully obey his lover’s commands. I feel sorry for him. Anne Shelton sounds pretty high-maintenance.

There is one word for this record… One adjective to do it justice. It is twee. So very twee. I’d brand it as a novelty song, if it weren’t all so very earnest. Shelton sounds like a Girl Guide leader – albeit one on her third sherry of the evening – striding out betwixt the heather, bellowing out the chorus as if summoning her hounds. It’s like a P.G. Wodehouse character, one of Bertie Wooster’s aunts perhaps, has come to life and recorded a hit single.

For the most part Shelton’s pronunciation is immaculate, her ‘t’s clipped and her ‘r’s rolled. Yet at the end of every verse, she gets a little… um… playful. She admonishes her serviceman: You’ve got to do your duty, wherever you may be, And now you’re under orders, To hurry home to me… I can’t describe the way she delivers the last part of that line. It’s not with a giggle, but… It’s like a middle-aged biology teacher flirting with a 6th-form boy on the last day of term.

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It’s a bizarre record. But the more I listen to ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, the more I like it. It’s kooky, in a way. I have no idea why it hit #1 in the autumn of 1956. It sounds as if it should have been a smash in 1941. Perhaps it was the revenge of the old-timers, who saw all these young stars with their shiny teeth and their guitars beginning to clog up the charts, and decided to restore order. But the fact that this was a chart-topper after ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’, and just a few months before the rock ‘n’ roll invasion really took hold, is an example of why the pop charts are such wonderful things. Anything can get to the top as long as enough people want it to.

I, of course, knew nothing about Anne Shelton before coming across this record. It seems she was a bit of a mini-Vera Lynn, in that she was another ‘Forces Sweetheart’ who recorded inspirational songs for troops, and also performed at military bases during the war. But this song was written and recorded for the first time in 1956 – eleven years after the war’s end. Somehow, there was still a demand for this kind of thing. Maybe it struck a chord with people in the days of National Service? I was joking a minute ago, when I suggested the old folks were somehow responding to rock ‘n’ roll by sending some ‘proper’ music up the charts, but maybe there’s some truth in that too.

Or, maybe it’s as simple as the fact that, throughout chart history, every so often an oldie gets through. Louis Armstrong did it. Cher did it. Cliff kept doing it. The grannies unite, everybody else sneaks out to buy it when their mates aren’t looking, and Anne Shelton gets a month on top of the UK singles charts.