111. ‘Poetry in Motion’, by Johnny Tillotson

And so we stride into 1961, with a strong whiff of Roquefort in the air… Or is it Camembert? It’s some kind of cheese, at least.

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Poetry in Motion, by Johnny Tillotson (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 12th – 26th January 1961

It starts with one heck of an intro: When I see my bay-ay-by… (Sax-sax-sax-sax) What do I see…? (Sax-sax-sax-sax) Po-e-try… (Sax-sax-sax-sax) Poetry in… Motion! Enter the drums, and a swinging little rhythm. Poetry in motion, Walkin’ by my side, Her lovely locomotion, Keeps my eyes open wide… Yes, Johnny’s watching his girl (at least I assume she’s his girl – she could be a complete stranger) walking down the street. He loves every movement, there’s nothing he would change – She doesn’t need improvement, She’s much too nice to rearrange!

This is a proper jukebox record: redolent of milkshakes and sock-hops, of the T-Birds and the Pink Ladies (it would slot right into the ‘Grease’ soundtrack), the sort of song that’s played on a loop in Frankie & Benny’s and that might have been covered by Showaddywaddy (it wasn’t, alas – Mud got there first). I’d place it right up there with ‘Diana’ and ‘When’ as one of the purest slices of pop to hit #1 so far. It’s cheesier than a Quattro Formaggio with extra Parmesan; and I love it.

But wait, I hear you cry. You called out the last chart-topper, Cliff’s ‘I Love You’ for being basic and simple and cheesy! What gives? Well, dear reader, ‘tis all in the delivery. While Cliff sleepwalked his way through his offering; Johnny Tillotson and his band give it some oomph. For a start, he belts out pretty much every word, nay every syllable, and every woah-woah-woah, as if his life depends on it. Check out the way he sings mo-shun or po-shun, or the way he adds at least three extra syllables to ‘re-ee-ah-ra-ay-nge!’ Tillotson was barely out of his teens when he recorded ‘Poetry in Motion’, and it’s a disc dripping in boyish enthusiasm. You can really imagine him following this girl down the street, cartoon love-hearts in his eyes, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth…

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He sings it as if he knows it’s going to be his one shot at stardom. Perhaps that’s it! While ‘I Love You’ was Cliff’s fourth #1 in barely over a year, and already his umpteenth hit, maybe Johnny Tillotson knew this was his big chance, his golden ticket. If he did, then he certainly grabbed it: ‘Poetry..’ hit the top in the UK and #2 in America, where it was the first of four Top 10s for him. Over the Atlantic he can lay legitimate claim to being a one-hit wonder, his next biggest song (the wonderfully titled ‘Send Me the Pillow You Dream On’) only reaching #21.

And, if all that weren’t enough to convince you that this is a forgotten pop classic; then let us reflect on the fact that this is a two and a half minute, chart-topping homage to a woman’s arse. If that’s not something to celebrate, then what is? Poetry in motion, All that I adore, No number nine love potion, Could make me love her more… (A little Easter-egg for you there: a sly reference to another hit song – The Clovers ‘Love Potion No. 9’ – from a couple of years earlier).

Johnny Tillotson continues to write and perform in his native Florida, and is in fact an inductee to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, no less. He’s had hits and concerts all over the world – Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand…. In Britain, however, he’s best remembered for ‘Poetry in Motion’, the record that brought a spot of Florida sun to a dank January. And I can think of far worse ways to be remembered than for this cheesy little gem of a chart-topper.

8 thoughts on “111. ‘Poetry in Motion’, by Johnny Tillotson

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