90. ‘Here Comes Summer’, by Jerry Keller

Number ninety! If this was Bingo we’d be top of the shop. And to celebrate this milestone – a record I’d never ever heard before.

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Here Comes Summer, by Jerry Keller (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 9th – 16th October 1959

I’ve mentioned this a couple of times now, but what was quite common back when I started this blog is now pretty rare. I know more and more of these songs as we push on through the first flushes of rock ‘n’ roll and into the canon of pop and rock. So it’s quite nice to come across a disc that I have truly never heard of. ‘Here Comes Summer’? Nope. Jerry Keller? Who’s he?

Well, I think he may be related to Cliff. Cliff’s long lost American cousin, perhaps? I take it all back – what I said in my last post, and before, about US singers being intrinsically cooler than their British counterparts. Because this is a twee little number.

First things first – I quite like the riff that underpins this song. Though I’m not sure it counts as a riff, more of a chug. It’s kind of a proto-Beach Boys, gentle surf-rock lilt. If that makes any sense. And towards the end an organ comes in for emphasis, which is pretty nice. The backing singers are very ‘pre-rock’, but Jerry Keller himself is very clean-cut rock ‘n’ roll. And beyond all that… we have the lyrics.

Here comes summer… do-do-do-do… School is out, Oh happy day… It’s the summer holidays, and Jerry couldn’t be happier. He’s got lots of plans: hanging out with his girl, hanging out with his buddies… We’ll go swimming every day, Oh let the sun shine bright, On my happy summer home…

What follows are lyrics about his flat-top (which I always thought was a type of open-top car – turns out it’s a short back and sides!), drive-in movies, (double features – more time to hold her tight!), sittin’ by the lake and meetin’ the gang at Joe’s Café. It is a song that drips images of milkshakes, preppy sweaters, ball-games and sock-hops on to the floor of the juke-joint until we are ready to drown in all the cuteness.

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I guess, like so many of the cheesy sounding US-recorded hits that have topped the charts before this (I’m looking at you ‘Diana’, ‘When’, and ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’) it appealed because it sounded really exotic to British schoolkids in, say, Scunthorpe, whose dads still had an Anderson shelter in the garden and whose mums were still darning tights.

The song finishes on a romantic note. Jerry has high hopes for him and his girl: If she’s willing, We’ll go steady right away… (Aww..) And then, with a Here comes summer time at last… we reach an abrupt end. Summer is over. And summer was truly over when this reached the top of the UK charts. On the 9th of October. When the schools had been back for well over a month…

This is a perfectly harmless, kind of cute little song that zips along nicely for a couple of minutes. Beyond that I’m not sure it has much of a wider significance. There are strong notes of earlier, preppy-rock (a new genre I’ve just invented) #1s such as The Dream Weavers ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’ and Tab Hunter’s ‘Young Love’. Looming largest of all, though, is good old Pat Boone who, if Wiki is to be believed, was Keller’s friend from church and introduced him to his manager.

Jerry Keller is a one-hit wonder in the purest sense, in that he had had zero previous chart hits – in either the US or the UK – and would go on to have zero more. A 100% strike-rate for him, then. Well done! He’s still alive – aged eighty-one – and was apparently the go-to guy for TV jingles in the ‘70s and ‘80s! Well there ya go. Next up – a recap!

89. ‘Only Sixteen’, by Craig Douglas

Following on from Cliff, it’s another British rock ‘n’ roll disc taking up a considerable residency at the top of the UK Singles chart. Unlike Sir Cliff, the singer is completely unknown to me…

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Only Sixteen, by Craig Douglas (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 11th September – 9th October 1959

But first, a question. Why, oh why, couldn’t British rock ‘n’ roll acts of the 1950s take themselves seriously? Why does every rock ‘n’ roll chart topper from a British artist have the whiff – nay, the stench – of the Victorian music hall, of Skegness pier about it? Why weren’t we cool?

I make Craig Douglas the 5th UK-born rock ‘n’ roll chart topper, and the four previous – Tommy Steele, Lonnie Donegan, Lord Rockingham’s XI and Cliff – have made the top by blending simple rock melodies with a lot of silliness. OK, ‘Hoots Mon’ was a novelty record so we can perhaps let Lord Rockingham’s XI off. Lonnie Donegan was a pioneer in terms of his sound but old-fashioned when coming out with lyrics like ‘two old ladies sitting in the sand, each on wishing that the other was a man’. Tommy Steele camped ‘Singing the Blues’ right up, while ‘Living Doll’ was barely more than a nursery rhyme. (A very creepy nursery rhyme, but still). And you can trace this theme – this current of candyfloss that runs through our British hit singles – way back into the pre-rock days. The US was giving us ‘I Believe’; while the UK was replying with ‘I See the Moon’.

I suppose the big question is… (and I’m deliberately excluding women like Ruby Murray and Shirley Bassey as, while British and while quite classy, they definitely weren’t rock) what will be the first truly cool, suave and sophisticated British recorded rock ‘n’ roll record? Well, I can reveal… It’s not ‘Only Sixteen.’

This is more jauntiness, more end-of-the-pier winking and gurning. There’s whistling, and a guitar plucked so precisely that I think it might be a banjo. She was only sixteen, Only sixteen, I loved her so… Douglas’s voice is slightly shrill, quite posh and, to be honest, fairly average. It doesn’t quite fit the song. It sounds a bit like the dreaded David Whitfield, but a David Whitfield who’s debasing himself in an attempt to sing rock ‘n’ roll…

We’d laugh and we’d sing, And do the little things, That made my heart glow… Craig had a fling with a lass; but it didn’t last. She was too young to fall in love, I was too young to know… So far, so ‘Jackie Magazine’. Then comes the punchline: Why did I give my heart so fast, It never will happen again, I was a mere lad of sixteen, I’ve aged a year since then… Oh! Hahaha – he thinks he’s all grown up. At seventeen! The folly of youth.

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Yeah, it’s a cute line and all, but I don’t think it’s quite enough to build a whole song around. Plus, with that voice, I’m having trouble imagining that Craig Douglas was seventeen when he recorded this. *Plot twist* He was! But come on – look at that picture. That lad of sixteen must have had one hell of a paper round. And while we’re at it – Craig Douglas just isn’t the name of a chart-topping star. Craig Douglas lives next door to you, and is someone you avoid making conversation with on your way to the car in the morning.

I think we should just file this under ‘Of It’s Time’ and be done with it. ‘Only Sixteen’ isn’t a terrible record – it’s quite pleasant, really – but it won’t live with you long after hearing it. Craig Douglas is still with us, however – aged seventy-seven – and still tours, though his recording career didn’t last the Beatles-led cull of ’63.

To finish, and to illustrate my point about US singers being that much cooler than their British counterparts, just listen to Sam Cooke’s version of this song. It’s technically the original, though they were released around the same time, and has exactly the same melody and lyrics… But, you see what I mean? I think I may have finally put my finger on just what the difference is, though: the huge gulf in coolness between British and American stars. The Sam Cooke version, you see, doesn’t have Any. Bloody. Whistling!

88. ‘Living Doll’, by Cliff Richard & The Drifters

In which we meet the pre-eminent British popular singer of the day. And the next day. And the next. Next. Next. Basically, there will be no escaping Cliff for the following forty years…

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Living Doll, by Cliff Richard & The Drifters (Cliff’s 1st of fourteen #1s / The Drifters – AKA The Shadows – 1st of twelve #1s)

6 weeks, from 31st July – 11th September 1959

In the intro to my post on Shirley Bassey’s debut #1 I gave it the big fanfare about living legends and national treasures and so on. And let’s be honest, the same applies ten times over for Sir Clifford of Richard. He will go on to utterly dominate UK pop music, remaining a genuine chart presence well into the 2000s, even if he is probably more famous today for singing during the rain at Wimbledon and for suing the BBC over the way they covered allegations of… (REDACTED).

Let’s get to the music shall we? ‘Living Doll’ begins with a natty little bass intro, and then… Well it’s rock ‘n’ roll; but not as we know it. I’ve mentioned many a time the idea of ‘US’ Vs ‘UK’ rock ‘n’ roll: British singers taking on the Yanks at their own game and slowly getting better at it. Let’s be honest, the odds were stacked against the Brits with Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Johnnie Ray et al against Lonnie Donegan and, um, Tommy Steele. And with the arrival of ‘The British Elvis’ AKA Cool Cliff, you might think that this is the moment for Britain to really grab the rock ‘n’ roll flag for herself!

Except, no. ‘Living Doll’ is an extremely lightweight record. A couple of acoustic guitars. Cliff’s simpering vocals. And that’s about it. Got myself a cryin’, walkin’, sleepin’, talkin’, living doll… Got to do my best to please her, Just cos she’s a living doll… This is a song that I could have sung a few lines from – most Brits could, no? – without ever having listened to it properly. And it’s a song that doesn’t do well under more intense scrutiny.

Yes it sounds cheesy and flimsy with a whiff of George Formby in the background. But beyond all that there’s the problem of the lyrics… In the previous chart-topper, Bobby Darin was giving us a ‘girl as dream’ narrative. Here Cliff is giving us ‘girl as doll’, and taking it very literally: Well take a look at her hair, It’s real and if you don’t believe what I say just feel… Pretty creepy… Gonna lock her up in a trunk, So no big hunk, Can steal her away from me… Eww. That’s taking a metaphor way too far and then some. She’s either literally a doll with which Cliff is romancing… Or an extremely submissive young lady over whom Cliff is aggressively over-protective. Either way…

The best bit of the song, by far, is the dreamy guitar solo which by the standards of the time is pretty long, loose and groovy. That, of course, is provided courtesy of Cliff’s long time backing band The Sha… No, wait. The Drifters. It’s actually quite simple: The Drifters were The Shadows until the US Vocal group of the same name (Ben E. King and co.) threatened legal action. They appeared as The Drifters on Cliff’s first five or so hit singles; this was their sole chart-topper before the name change.

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It’s pretty easy, almost a cliché, to get stuck into Cliff as an uncool, God-bothering, 2nd rate Elvis impersonator. And I’d try to avoid doing so at all costs… If his debut #1 record didn’t kind of prove all the accusations correct. He was clearly trying to sound like Elvis. He was clearly trying to look like Elvis (just look at that quiff!). And this record is him selling out just like Elvis did. Except Elvis got a good few years of genuine rocking ‘n’ rolling in before the movie studios, the army and the burgers came a-calling. Cliff got one album. (Do give ‘Rock on With Cliff Richard’ a listen, though – it’s got some decent tracks on it.)

Anyway, that’s one down for Cliff; just thirteen more UK #1 Singles to go…

87. ‘Dream Lover’, by Bobby Darin

Now this is more like it. This is a chart-topping single!

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Dream Lover, by Bobby Darin (his 1st of two  #1s)

4 weeks, from 3rd – 31st July 1959

It’s been a while since I listened to this song, or to any Bobby Darin songs, but slipping the needle to hear ‘Dream Lover’ is like slipping into a silk dressing gown and settling down by the fire: Every night I hope and pray, A dream lover will come my way, A girl to hold in my arms, And know the magic of her charms…

We get not one but two groups of backing singers: girls for the ‘oohs’ and boys for the ‘wadda waddas’. We get strings and we get some oh-so-fifties staccato guitars. In fact, I’d put this up there with ‘Diana’ and ‘When’ as the most fifties, most rock ‘n’ rolly, doo-woppy #1 yet. But ‘Dream Lover’ is a much better song than either of those.

And that’s down to Bobby Darin. His voice is as crisp and as clear as a bell, and he lends the song a sort of… gravitas, that places it a cut above pure teeny-bopper fluff. He sounds older than his twenty-three years, and sounds suave where Paul Anka and the Kalin Twins sounded puppyish. Does this then represent the pinnacle of late fifties rock ‘n’ roll-as-pop? Maybe something to consider in our upcoming re-cap.

For all that, it’s a simple song. The singer wants a dream lover, so he doesn’t have to dream alone. Someday, I don’t know how, I hope she’ll hear my plea, Some way, I don’t know, She’ll bring her love to me… The listener knows where the song is going, but is more than happy to be taken along for the ride.

I don’t want to really write any more about this record. I want to leave it there. Minimalist. This is where easy-listening and pop collide to create a seriously classy song. And we’ll be hearing from Bobby D again very soon, so we can delve into his backstory then. For now, just sit back, relax, and enjoy.

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There are two little things of note, though, that we should point out here. I mentioned in my post on ‘Hoots Mon’, back in November ’58, that the production on these chart-topping singles was getting more substantial, beefier. And I have to admit that on ‘Dream Lover’, and to a lesser extent on ‘When’, I’m getting a hint of the ‘Wall of Sound’ technique – Phil Spector and all that – which will be all the rage in three or four years. Listen to the crashing symbols that precede the final verse and chorus here, and you’ll see what I mean. Interestingly, this song was engineered by Tom Dowd, a pioneer of multi-track recording. So there could be something in that…

And finally, while this is a wonderful record more than worthy of a month atop the UK Singles Charts… something has been nagging at me for a while now. Are our #1 singles growing more and more lyrically banal? Let’s explore. Drag your minds back to the dark and smoggy days of pre-rock and yes, song lyrics were probably pondering weightier issues: I believe for every drop of rain that falls, A flower grows… Or Three coins in the fountain, Which one will the fountain bless…? Or I saw her face and ascended out of the common place, into the rare, somewhere in space… from ‘Brainiest #1 Yet’ ‘Stranger in Paradise’. Or they at least talked of love in slightly flowerier, more abstract terms. And there haven’t been any out-of-place, soundtrack songs like ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ or ‘The Man from Laramie’ with lyrics about sharp-shooters and speakeasies hitting the stop spot recently.

In 1958-9, while there are anomalies like ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ and ‘The Day the Rains Came’, it’s mainly all Dream lover, where are you…? All I have to do is dream… And Goodness gracious great balls of fire…! Simple, immediate stuff. Is this a bad thing? Rock ‘n’ roll may have dumbed things down a bit, but its brought an immediacy to our chart-topping hits. Everyone can relate to someone sitting at home wishing for a dream lover. Not everyone can relate to She wears red feathers and a huly-huly skirt… I’m all for it really. And that’s probably a good thing, as our next #1 takes simple to the next level.

86. ‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway

I think we’ve heard this record before… ‘Roulette’ may, in fact, be identical to Russ Conway’s first number one. Or it may sound completely different. Who knows? Who even cares?

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Roulette, by Russ Conway (his 2nd of two  #1s)

2 weeks, from 19th June – 3rd July 1959

Actually, they do sound the same. Same perky piano, same lightly strummed guitar as accompaniment. In fact, to illustrate my point, let me quote verbatim from my post on ‘Side Saddle’ (which was #1 barely two months before):

“Upon first listen of this latest chart-topping record, two questions spring immediately to mind: What is this? And why did it spend a whole month at the top of the charts? It’s an instrumental, Mr. Russ Conway tinkling away at his piano, and… that’s about it. It’s got a melody, which plods along pleasantly enough without going anywhere very far, and then it ends, in under two minutes.”

Swap ‘whole month’ for ‘two weeks’- and ‘pleasantly’ for ‘irritatingly’ because that’s the mood I’m in today – but you’re still pretty much there. This record is equally short, similarly jaunty, and is still searching for a tune that never quite seems to materialise. And why ‘Roulette’? Is it because the cascading notes that tumble at intervals throughout the song sound like a rolling roulette wheel? Or is that me putting way too much though in?

I think I hate this more than I did Conway’s first #1. It was bland; this is criminally perky and is played in an irritatingly high key. Plus those little flourishes at the end of every second note are starting to make me feel a little sick. Way, way back in one of my early posts I claimed the idea of the ‘shadow number one’ – the chart topping record that only gets there due to the reflected glow of a preceding hit. Frankie Laine had one when ‘Hey Joe’ followed the chart-humping ‘I Believe’. Rosemary Clooney had one with ‘Mambo Italiano’ hot on the heels of ‘This Ole House’ (though ‘Mambo…’ was probably the bigger record). Guy Mitchell had one in ‘Rock-A-Billy’ after his huge hit ‘Singing the Blues’. And now we have to suffer a second dose of Russ Conway because grannies across the land liked ‘Side Saddle’, and probably thought he looked like a nice boy.

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In fact, for a ‘nice boy’ Conway led a fairly troubled life. Let’s face it, anyone who records songs of such fake jollity and forced perkiness is going to be a little screwed-up inside… Alcoholism, crippling self-doubt, a reliance on anti-depressants, an eighty (80!) a day cigarette habit – all of which can probably be attributed to his being gay but having to keep it hidden for fear of losing everything (shades of Johnnie Ray there). Unlike Ray, however, Conway remained fairly popular throughout his career, and was still performing publicly just two weeks before he died in 2000. He had actually sliced the tip of a finger off during the war, so it’s pretty impressive that he could play the piano at all I suppose.

God, I have been a little harsh on ole Russ here, haven’t I? I just had a quick listen to some of the other hits from his late fifties heyday – the likes of ‘China Tea’ and ‘Party Pops’ – in an attempt to redeem his chart career. But. I’m sorry to confirm that they ALL. SOUND. THE BLOODY. SAME! In desperation I tried to look for some clue as to the inspiration for ‘Roulette’, but the Wiki entry is one line long and there ain’t much else out there. What little I could find all seemed to prefer this disc to ‘Side Saddle’ (come on, people!) But then I found this, and I started with a quote so I’ll end with one too.

Thanks to the guy(s) at fiftiesnumberones.blogspot.com – which I will wholeheartedly recommend as long as you promise to still read my blog – for their brilliant description of ‘Roulette’ as an ice-cream van jingle… “albeit an ice cream van plying its trade around the dusk tinged streets of a council estate on a late October evening. In the rain.”

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End post

85. ‘A Fool Such As I’ / ‘I Need Your Love Tonight’, by Elvis Presley

The King is back in the building. Buddy Holly replaced at the top by Elvis himself. What halcyon days!

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A Fool Such as I / I Need Your Love Tonight, by Elvis Presley (his 4th of twenty-one #1s)

5 weeks, from 15th May – 19th June 1959

One of these songs I’ve known for a very long time – since I got my first Elvis ‘Best Of’ way back when –so let’s start there. Now and then, There’s a fool, Such as I… I used to think that the scarily deep baritone that opens and closes this record was Elvis himself. It wasn’t, unfortunately. A chap called Ray Walker provided the voice, and it makes this whole track.

I really like this song. At least… I thought I did. I had it marked as one of my favourite ‘fifties-Elvis’ numbers, better than the silliness of ‘Teddy Bear’ or the mumbling verses of ‘King Creole’. Listening back to it now, though, I’m not so sure. The way Elvis sings it – he’s slightly restrained, slightly clipped… The vocals are weirdly ‘posh’, if you can imagine what I mean. There’s none of the growl he was giving us on ‘Jailhouse Rock’, and none of the saucy wink from ‘One Night’. It seems to me, listening to the song fresh after such a long absence, that Elvis might have been phoning it in here.

‘A Fool Such as I’ had been recorded before – back in the depths of the pre-rock era (AKA 1952), so perhaps Elvis had the original in the back of his mind as he enunciated, giving birth to the previously undiscovered Plummy Elvis. And while obviously everyone knows that Elvis phoned in pretty much everything he did between 1961 and ’68, it’s distressing to think that Elvis’s ‘phoning it in’ period might have started as early as 1959!

Still, the solo swings like I remember. And, to be fair, Elvis does let loose a little in the final verse. I’m a fool, But I love you dear, Until the day I die… And he just about redeems the whole thing by belting these lines out towards the end. He should, though, have been very grateful to Mr. Walker for his deep voice and to whoever was playing the guitar. They definitely helped paper over the cracks.

This record, and in fact all of Elvis’s early chart-toppers, are sometimes co-credited to The Jordanaires, AKA his backing singers. They also pick up some of the slack here (though I can’t remember even noticing them on songs like ‘All Shook Up’.) The Official Charts company don’t recognise them, however, so I won’t. But they’re there on the vinyl above, if you squint hard enough. I suppose it’s a case similar to the days when every record was ‘accompanied’ by an orchestra. I mentioned in a post a while back how the conductors of these orchestras had been airbrushed out of history, and it seems to be happening with backing groups now too.

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On then to the song I don’t know so well. Tell the truth I’d never heard this before and, when I saw that it was called ‘I Need Your Love Tonight’, I feared the worst. Maudlin ballad ahoy! But no…

The piano comes blasting in, rolling like a runaway train. And Elvis? Well, he needs your love tonight. And not in a mopey, crooning-in-the-window-at-the-moon kind of way (as we recently heard in Connie Francis’s flip-side ‘Carolina Moon’). No siree. I’ve been waiting just for tonight, To do some lovin’ and hold you tight, Don’t tell me baby you needa go, I got the Hi-Fi high and the lights down low…

This is fun stuff. This is rock ‘n’ roll. This possibly should have been the lead track. And Elvis does sound like he’s having a little more fun here. I count an ‘Oh-oh’, an ‘Uh-uh’, an ‘Ooh-ooh’, an ‘Oh Gee’, a ‘Wowee’, a ‘Wow’, and a ‘Pow-Pow’ among the lyrics. There’s even a bit of a rhumba during the bridge. But it really is the flip-side of ‘A Fool Such as I’ – they were well-placed together – as in the former he is lamenting the woman he loved while in this he’s pulled himself together and is promising her a night she won’t forget. G’wan yourself Elvis!

I still, though, get the faintest tang of him phoning it in here, even on this little rocker. I may be wrong – I may be listening for something that just isn’t there – but I can’t help but feel like I’m getting a whiff. He still isn’t quite going for it in the same way he did just a few months ago on ‘I Got Stung.’

As a little aside, ‘I Need Your Love Tonight’ is listed several times on Spotify as being ‘Live’, though there is nothing in the recording to suggest that it was performed in front of an audience. The link below is, to the very best of my knowledge, the version that topped the UK charts in the spring of ’59.

This #1 pulls Mr. Presley level with Guy Mitchell and Frankie Laine as the acts with the most UK chart-toppers. They all have four, though Frankie Laine is still well out in front in terms of weeks-at-number-one (Elvis has eighteen weeks from four #1s; Frankie Laine got that many just from ‘I Believe’). And if you think that this means Elvis will be boosting ahead any time soon you’d be wrong – we won’t be seeing him again for well over a year.

Thus, we bid farewell to rock ‘n’ roll Elvis. It’s been nice meeting him, or rather rediscovering him. He’s off into the army now; and when we hear from him next it will be with something rather different.

84. ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’, by Buddy Holly

First, a bit of history… On February 2nd 1959, a group of popular rock ‘n’ roll stars played a show in Clear Lake, Iowa, as part of ‘The Winter Dance Party’ tour. In order to avoid a long, cold bus journey to their next concert in Moorhead, Minnesota, some of the musicians chartered a plane. Though the weather that night was poor, the visibility terrible and the pilot unqualified to fly using only instruments, they took off regardless and minutes after take-off, just gone 1am on the morning of the 3rd, the plane slammed into a cornfield. All four aboard were killed instantly. They were the pilot Roger Peterson, J.P. Richardson (AKA The Big Bopper), Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly.

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It Doesn’t Matter Anymore, by Buddy Holly (his 1st and only solo #1)

3 weeks, from 24th April – 15th May 1959

All of which means that the eighty-fourth UK #1 single is the first ever to do so posthumously. Released a couple of weeks after Holly’s death, and hitting the top a full two months later, ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ gives The Father of Modern Pop Music (I know, I know, I’ve literally just made this title up; but I dare you to challenge me on it!) one final hurrah. Would it have topped the listings anyway – given that Holly was only twenty-two when he died and at the peak of his powers? Maybe… The manner in which it meandered up the charts suggests that this wasn’t some flash in the pan reaction to his death, while the peak positions of his previous two singles (#17 and #30) beg to suggest otherwise.

To the song… Some people make a lot of the rather nihilistic title as being somehow appropriate in the wake of his death. But it wasn’t suicide; so that’s always seemed a slightly strange angle to view this record from. No, this is a song about a break up: There you go and baby, Here am I, Well you’ve left me here, So I could sit and cry, We-ell golly-gee, What have you done to me, Well I guess it doesn’t matter anymore… His girl’s up and left him, but Buddy’s putting on a brave face: There’s no use in me a-cryin’, I’ve done everything and now I’m sick of tryin’, I’ve thrown away my nights, And wasted all my days over you…

The lines come thick and fast, the song rattles to a conclusion in a mere two minutes, and in the end BH has decided to shrug it off and move on: You go your way and, I’ll go mine, Now and forever till the end of time, I’ll find, Somebody new and baby, We’ll say we’re through, And you won’t matter anymore…

And it’s not what you would immediately imagine a Buddy Holly record to sound like. The only instruments here are violins and a lightly-tickled guitar – far removed from his more recognisable rock ‘n’ roll hits like ‘Oh Boy!’ and ‘Rave On’. Plus, despite all his fame as a songwriter and composer, this record was actually written by our friend Paul Anka.

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Despite the minimalist instrumental accompaniment and the fact that he didn’t write it, Holly still makes this record his own. Because? That voice. In the space of two minutes he finds room for all the tricks in his repertoire. Hiccups (…over you-ou-ou-ou-Ah-hoo…), snarls, times when his voice has a deep, gloopy quality and times when it is light as a feather. For all his talents as a guitarist and composer, Mr. Holly was a pretty decent singer too. And in the context of Buddy Holly’s solo songs, away from The Crickets, this slips in nicely along with other non-guitar led tracks such as ‘Everyday’, ‘Raining in My Heart’, and ‘True Love Ways’ (I know I’m going a bit link-heavy, but really everyone should take a moment out of their days to appreciate What Buddy Did For Us. Not for nothing did acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones start out by playing covers of his songs…)

You could also argue that this is, as well as being the first posthumous #1, the first ‘popular band member gone solo’ chart-topper. OK, ok, this was nowhere near Buddy Holly’s first single release as a solo-act but still… The fact that he did it paved the way for, let me see… Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, George Michael, Sting, Robbie, Geri, Zayn and many, many more.

But to finish, let’s go back to the night of February 2nd, 1959. The Day the Music Died. Some of the tales are semi (or perhaps completely) legendary. The fact that Holly only commissioned the plane because his drummer had caught frostbite on the freezing tour bus. That the Big Bopper only took a seat on the plane because he had the flu and wanted to get a good night’s sleep. (Let me include a link here to his biggest hit ‘Chantilly Lace’, featuring the filthiest laugh ever captured on record). Ritchie Valens won his seat on the plane in a coin toss with Holly’s guitarist Tommy Allsop. Allegedly – and I so hope that this is all true – Valens claimed it was the first thing he’d ever won, while Allsop went on to open a restaurant called ‘Heads Up’ (he’d called tails…) It was all immortalised in song by Don McLean some twelve years later. We won’t be meeting his version of ‘American Pie’ in this countdown, unfortunately, but we will be meeting the Madonna version. Which will be fun.

Anyway, let me leave you with one final link. Proof, perhaps, of Buddy Holly’s magic. Not only did he write gorgeous, timeless and immeasurably influential songs, but thirty five years after his death all Weezer had to do was stick his name on a song and they were blessed with a classic of their own.

83. ‘Side Saddle’, by Russ Conway

And so, The Winter of the Ballad, which I took such pains to introduce in my previous post, experiences a sudden thaw. Spring has sprung, and has brought with it a perky piece of piano-pop.

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Side Saddle, by Russ Conway (his 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 27th March – 24th April 1959

Upon a first listen of this latest chart-topping record, two questions spring immediately to mind: What is this? And why did it spend a whole month at the top of the charts? It’s an instrumental, Mr. Russ Conway tinkling away at his piano, and… that’s about it. It’s got a melody (of sorts), which plods along without going anywhere very far, and then it ends, in under two minutes.

The obvious comparison to draw here is with Winifred Atwell, who has already claimed two UK chart-topping singles with records sounding very similar to this. But Atwell at least had a kind of frantic energy about her piano-playing – you could picture her bashing out the hits with a smile and a bead of sweat rolling down her temple. Whereas you can only imagine Conway plodding his way through ‘Side Saddle’ with a cheesy grin-slash-wink combo. The other piano-led #1 single which springs to mind at this time is, of course, ‘Great Balls of Fire’. But to compare that record to this record is, to my mind, heresy of the highest order. There is a slight concession to rock ‘n’ roll here, in that someone in the background is tickling a drum kit in time to Conway’s piano, but that’s strictly it.

It’s a strange chart-topping record, this. At best I’d describe it as incidental music, or silent movie music: you can imagine it going down quite well as an accompaniment to Buster Keaton running down a railroad track. It is very 1932. Which means we have to pose a 3rd question: Why now? Why did this curio of a record zoom to the top of the charts in the spring of 1959? My research has thrown up no answers. It wasn’t an old song; it was written and released in ’59, apparently recorded for a TV adaptation of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ – which at least helps explain the olde-worlde feel of the song. There’s no clue as to how the melody concerns a horse-riding style popular with posh old ladies. According to Wiki “the song was a staple of the BBC’s ‘Housewives Choice’ radio programme”, which perhaps says more than anything I could ever write.

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Due to summer holiday commitments, this is the first time in over a fortnight that I have sat down to write one of these posts. In that time, I’ve listened to very little music, and the music I have heard has been radio-friendly, modern pop. Perhaps ‘Side Saddle’, then, is suffering from being the oldest record I’ve heard for a while. Perhaps if I were in the swing of things – in my mid-season form of writing a post every couple of days – it wouldn’t stand out so much. But then again… maybe not. I fear that, whatever way you look at it, this track is simply a relic. And, glancing down my list o’ number one singles… Oh, goody. There’s more to come from our Russ in very short order.

One final thing of note… If you click on the video below and discover a hitherto unrevealed love of bland, piano-based background Muzak, Spotify has the most extensive collection of Russ Conway back-catalogue ever seen. Like, seriously. There must be fifty-odd albums on there. Knock yourselves out!

82. ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, by The Platters

I feel it is time to make one of my semi-regular proclamations about just where we are in popular music history. Remember back in March ’56 when I announced the beginning of the ‘The Post-Pre-Rock Age’ (i.e. after the pre-rock era but before the rock era had really got going)? Or when we killed off the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll in early ’57? Or when we passed through the ‘Age of Whistling’ a year or so ago? Well… What with The Platters’ stately ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ now grabbing a week at the top, all but one of 1959’s four chart-toppers have been ballads.

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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by The Platters (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 20th – 27th March 1959

Elvis aside, we’ve had Jane Morgan’s ‘The Day the Rains Came’ (very jazzy, but still what I’d class as a ballad) and Shirley Bassey’s ‘As I Love You’, plus Conway Twitty’s ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ from the tail-end of last year further slowing things down at the top, and this record does nothing to change the tempo. I’m not sure that this four-month stretch qualifies as an ‘Age’ or an ‘Era’, but I feel confident enough in christening it ‘The Winter of the Ballad’.

I’ve been a bit harsh on ballads recently. I didn’t hate either the Jane Morgan or the Shirley Bassey efforts, but they did rather pass by without grabbing me. I think it’s because, while you can chuck a load of guitars and drums at a rock song and usually come out with something passable, ballads are a lot more delicate. They can be great, or they can go really, really wrong. Lay the strings on a bit thick, let the singer go a little too wild with the vocal gymnastics, or have the writers get too schmaltzy with the lyrics, and you’ve got a mess on your hands. But this… now this is a ballad that gets it RIGHT.

It starts slowly. No dramatic swirl of violins or crashing cymbals. Just a piano, and a voice. They… Ask me how I knew, My true love was true, Oh…. I of course replied, Something here inside, Cannot be denied… The singer is sure that his woman loves him; his friends are less convinced. The singer scoffs. But…

Yet today, My love has flown away, I am without… My… Love… His friends – who sound like dicks, by the way – laugh at him and his misplaced confidence. His reply? I smile and say, When a lovely flame dies, Smoke gets in your eyes…

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What’s the difference then, between this ballad and the one it replaced at #1: ‘As I Love You’? If pressed, I’d have to say the lyrics. While Shirley Bassey was singing – albeit very beautifully – some trite lines about the thrill of being in love; this song employs some great imagery. Your heart’s on fire – smoke gets in your eyes and stops you from seeing clearly. The flame is extinguished; smoke gets in your eyes and makes you cry…

Still, though, there is a big, bombastic ending – the title of the song belted out at the top of the singer’s voice – which spoils things slightly. I just have to accept that it was the style of the time. It’s a great song, however; a classy song. A classy classic. And a ‘classic’ it truly is, having first been recorded back in 1933. It seems to have been something of a tactic in the late fifties – getting modern singers to record updated versions of songs from the twenties and thirties (Connie Francis did it on ‘Who’s Sorry Now’ and ‘Carolina Moon’, while Tommy Edwards borrowed an old melody for ‘It’s All in the Game’) to lure in both the kids and their parents.

This is The Platters’ one and only appearance at the top of the UK charts, but that does their reputation something of an injustice. They had had several Top 10 hits before this, and were the foremost vocal group in the US – quite an achievement considering that they were five black guys and a girl, and that this is the 1950s we’re talking about. They are still rolling on to this day, albeit with enough line-up changes to make The Sugababes look steady (Wiki lists ten past members).

Unlike the earlier tear-jerkers that have made up this ‘Winter of the Ballad’, I had heard this one before. I’m sure most people will have. It’s one of those songs that have become part of life’s backing track. And to know a song without knowing how you know it – as I’ve said before – is a sure-fire sign that said song is a stone-cold classic.

81. ‘As I Love You’, by Shirley Bassey

And so – as happens every once in a while on this countdown – we meet a legend. A British legend, at least. And not ‘British Legend’ as in Robin Hood or Merlin or anything like that. No, no, no. I mean ‘British Living Legend’ – as in Barbara Windsor, or David Attenborough, or Sir Clifford of Richard. People so woven in to the very fabric of British life – of Saturday evenings on ITV and audiences with the Queen – that everybody upon everybody upon everybody knows them.

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As I Love You, by Shirley Bassey (her 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 20th February – 20th March 1959

Dame Shirley Bassey is one of these people (she is a Dame after all), and the foundations of her ‘National Treasure’ status were laid right here: in the singles charts of the late 1950s, and in this polished and expertly sung record. It’s a very good song: a grown-up ballad of a pop song. But, and after that big old build up I feel a bit bad writing this… I’m not really feeling it.

It starts with a flourish, and then: I will love you, As I love you, All my life… Ev’ry moment spent with you, Makes me more content with you… She loves a guy. Loves him a lot! Ev’ry single, Touch and tingle, I adore… Ev’ry kiss from you to me, Always seems so new to me… Each one warmer, Than the one before… It’s a love song in the very purest sense – in that it’s a song about being utterly in love. Which is nice, I suppose. There’s certainly a real sparkle in her voice, with just the cutest whiff of a Welsh accent, and if the quality of her singing were being judged by a panel then she might just sweep the board. And the ending… My that ending. She gives it everything, and then some. AND MOOOORRRREEEE…. It’s another real throwback of a record, following hot on the heels of Jane Morgan’s – albeit somewhat jazzier – ‘The Day the Rains Came’.

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Why, then, am I struggling to like this song? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve failed to really ‘get’ one of the many old-time ballads that we’ve featured thus far. ‘Stranger in Paradise’, ‘Secret Love’ and ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’ were all records that somewhat passed me by, and that’s before we get to the God-awful Eddie Fisher and David Whitfield efforts. ‘As I Love You’ is nowhere near as terrifying as anything by either of those chaps, but I’ll have to file it under ‘Can appreciate; Can’t enjoy.’

The situation isn’t helped by the fact that I originally found a version of ‘As I Love You’ that was much jazzier, much snazzier, and sung at a much higher tempo. I was all prepared to write a post championing it as one of the best tracks so far – it really was that good. It sounded so modern that I was going to announce it as the first ‘1960s Number One’. But something nagged at me as I listened. Something sounded too good to be true… And it was. The version I had been listening to – click here for a listen, it’s good isn’t it? – was a re-recording from, I’m guessing, the late sixties / early seventies. Sigh.

But! We shouldn’t judge a record by what it is not. ‘As I Love You’ is the first chart topper by Dame Shirley of Bassey, the foremost British female voice of the past half-century, the yin to Sir Cliff’s yang (and note that she got to the top a good few months before Cliff ever did). She will only get one (one!) more chart-topper and I will perhaps shock you when I reveal that it is neither ‘Goldfinger’ (#21), nor ‘Big Spender’ (#21) nor ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (#38!), but something else entirely. Stay tuned.

It is also the very first Welsh #1, meaning that we finally complete our ‘British Isles Chart-Toppers Map’ by adding Dame Shirley to hits from The Stargazers (England), Ruby Murray (Northern Ireland) and Lonnie Donegan (Scotland). So – this record is many things. And yet… It could have been, and later was, so much more!