‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra – The UK Number 1s Blog Anniversary Special

This week marks the 1st anniversary of The UK Number 1s Blog (** Trumpet Fanfare**)! In the past year we’ve covered the period from Nov. ’52 to Nov’ 61, with 129 chart-topping songs featured. We’ve survived pre-rock, rode the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, and are now well on our way towards the swinging sixties… Thanks to everyone who has read, followed, commented and enjoyed.

To celebrate this milestone, I’m going to take a short break from the usual countdown to repost seven songs that I have really enjoyed discovering over the past year. These aren’t necessarily the best songs to have topped the charts – there’ll be no Buddy Holly, Johnnie Ray, Connie Francis, Elvis or The Everly Brothers (follow the links if you want to read about them) – as I’ve been listening to, and loving, those artists for years. This week will be all about the forgotten gems, the hits I’d never heard before, the songs that have slipped through the cracks…

Next up is the one song, out of the 129 covered, that I’m happiest about discovering. Mambo isn’t a style of music that I’m very familiar with, and a trumpet-led instrumental wasn’t the type of record that I expected to blow me away. But, hoo boy, it did. ‘Sexiness’ was in short supply as we plodded through the very earliest UK #1 singles – with the focus on pure and proper romantic declarations from frightfully earnest young singers.  David Whitfield, Eddie Fisher and Vera Lynn I’m looking at you… But ‘Prez’ Prado… well, this disc just oozes sexiness. Listen to that low, low note he hits at strategic moments throughout this song, and try to tell me that it doesn’t put the filthiest thoughts in your mind! I named this as ‘Best Song’ in one of my recaps, and need no excuse to revisit it again here…

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Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 29th April to 13th May 1955

I’ve given instrumentals a hard time so far in this rundown. The lack of any lyrics creates a barrier, for me, between the song and the listener. You can listen to a Mantovani record and think “Isn’t that a nice melody”, but the fact that there are no words to tie it to a particular feeling or experience in your life means that the record is that step further removed from you. Like a film beautifully acted but in a language you cannot understand.

Having said all that… I’m going to prove myself massively wrong with this post. The fourth instrumental to top the UK Singles chart is also, by far, the sexiest record to top said singles charts. And there are no words. Well – there are no words aside from ‘Huh!’, ‘Hah!’ and ‘Oooh’. Which is a large part of this track’s said sexiness.

Following on from ‘Mambo Italiano’ (which wasn’t really a mambo, but hey), the UK was clearly in some sort of Latin fever in early 1955. Though perhaps not, as a quick glance at the chart for the week Perez ‘Prez’ hit the top shows only one other record that sounds vaguely Latino… A different version of ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’ (which we’ll meet very soon at the top of the charts). But, for the purposes of this narrative, let’s say that the UK – finally casting off the shackles of rationing and wartime rubble – wanted to shake some booty and, while perhaps not quite ready for straight up rock ‘n’ roll, turned to some equally raunchy mambo. Further evidence towards my idea that rock ‘n’ roll didn’t just arrive with ‘Rock Around the Clock’ – it was slowly filtering in through Rosemary Clooney’s giggle, Winifred Atwell’s boogie and Johnnie Ray’s yelps. And Perez ‘Prez’ Prado’s trumpet.

Except the trumpet that makes this record isn’t being played by the man on the credits. We’ll get to that in a second. First – this record has perhaps the most intense intro we’ve heard yet. Basically it’s BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM on a load of trumpets and cymbals, before the rhythm kicks in. The lead trumpet was played by a man called Billy Regis, who absolutely makes this record by drawing out one note in particular over and over again, by sliding it down then up in a manner that sounds a little bit drunk, a little bit woozy, and that, most importantly, would allow a couple in a Southend ballroom to draw that little bit closer for a second, before the main melody jumped back in.

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Prado was more of a conductor, I guess, and it is his ‘Huhs’ and ‘Hahs’ that can be heard as he exerts his charges to squeeze every drop of sexiness from their instruments (that sounded ruder than I intended – you know what I mean). There are also some other trumpets (I guess they are trumpets) playing notes so low that it’s almost obscene. I recognise them from Lou Bega’s classic cover of ‘Mambo No.5’, from another golden age of Latin music in the UK charts, which we won’t be getting to for a long, long time. Incidentally, Perez Prado recorded the original version of that song, too.

But the final word has to go to Billy Regis, whose trumpet ends the record. He reimagines the bombastic ending – from which so many earlier chart-toppers have suffered – and it works so much better without lyrics. THIS IS THE END OF THE SONG becomes DOOO DOOO (pause) DOOOOOOOOO, and it again allows Janet and John from Southend to draw close and to feel one another’s bodies, taught and trembling from two and a half minutes of intense mambo.

‘Huh!’ and, indeed, ‘Hah!’

‘Look at That Girl’, by Guy Mitchell – The UK Number 1s Blog Anniversary Special

This week marks the 1st anniversary of The UK Number 1s Blog (** Trumpet Fanfare**)! In the past year we’ve covered the period from Nov. ’52 to Nov’ 61, with 129 chart-topping songs featured. We’ve survived pre-rock, rode the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, and are now well on our way towards the swinging sixties… Thanks to everyone who has read, followed, commented and enjoyed.

To celebrate this milestone, I’m going to take a short break from the usual countdown to repost seven songs that I have really enjoyed discovering over the past year. These aren’t necessarily the best songs to have topped the charts – there’ll be no Buddy Holly, Johnnie Ray, Connie Francis, Elvis or The Everly Brothers (follow the links if you want to read about them) – as I’ve been listening to, and loving, those artists for years. This week will be all about the forgotten gems, the hits I’d never heard before, the songs that have slipped through the cracks…

Song Number Three is by the artist that I’ve ‘discovered’ the most over the past year. I’d heard the name ‘Guy Mitchell’ before, but didn’t know any of his songs. His career was the 1950s – he was a regular in the Top 10 between 1952-’59, with four #1s along the way. ‘Look at That Girl’ was his 2nd, and I’ve picked it as I think it was the 1st ‘modern’ pop song (verse-chorus etc) to top the charts, and it was also the first to feature a guitar solo! Plus, he had a voice every bit as sexy and smooth as Elvis. Enjoy!

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Look at That Girl, by Guy Mitchell (his 2nd of four #1s)

6 weeks, from 11th September to 23rd October 1953

Ladies and Gentlemena, we are finally rocking and rolling. The invasion is here!

Not at first, mind. We begin on familiar territory. We’ve got the jaunty guitars from ‘Don’t Let the Stars…’ and Mitchell’s previous #1, ‘She Wears Red Feathers’ (compared to which this is ten times better!), and some trumpets (or clarinets, or bassoons, whatever…), and Mitchell’s voice still sounds like he thinks he should be singing a comedy number.

Look at that girl, she’s like a dream come true… Ah look at that girl, can blue eyes be so blue…? But this is no simple song of longing. No, Sir. It turns out the girl is already his. We think. With each word my heart just skips, oh if I could kiss those lips… He’s keeping it ambiguous. Maybe they’ve got a thing going. Maybe not.

And as the song goes on – we start to rock. And I don’t mean ROCK (tongue out, fist raised). I mean ‘rock’, like it’s 1953. There are hand-claps. Mm-hmm. And a guitar. Woo! And Mitchell has a little call and response with the backing singers, when they take the lead lyric Look at that girl… and he quips back I don’t believe it they’re making it up! And then there are the lyrics: the kissing, the holding her tight… Pass the smelling salts…

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It sounds to me as if a battle is taking place here, between traditional easy-listening and the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll movement. On the one hand you’ve got the usual twee backing singers and floaty trumpets, parping away at the end of each line; on the other you have the hand claps and the guitar solo. That’s right. Solo. In a symbolic move, the trumpets begin the solo and play it in tandem with the guitar for a couple of bars, before the guitar takes it over completely.

And having said that Mitchell sings the song with a slight giggle in his voice, after the 3rd or 4th listen it works. He’s having a good time. We’re having a good time. He’s a nice singer – he sounds like he could be belting it out if he wanted to, but he doesn’t. The song doesn’t require belting out (That’s something old Eddie Fisher could have learned to look out for…)

If you stick with this blog for long enough, you’ll soon see I’m a sucker for a straight-up, unpretentious pop song. A couple of verses, couple of choruses, a solo and a final verse. Maybe a key change. Then finish. The sort of song that sounds simple but is pretty darn hard to get right. (I say, having never even attempted to write a song in my life). This is one such song. And I like it. It’s my favourite so far.

‘Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes’, by Perry Como with The Ramblers – The UK Number 1s Blog Anniversary Special

This week marks the 1st anniversary of The UK Number 1s Blog (** Trumpet Fanfare**)! In the past year we’ve covered the period from Nov. ’52 to Nov’ 61, with 129 chart-topping songs featured. We’ve survived pre-rock, rode the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, and are now well on our way towards the swinging sixties… Thanks to everyone who has read, followed, commented and enjoyed.

To celebrate this milestone, I’m going to take a short break from the usual countdown to repost seven songs that I have really enjoyed discovering over the past year. These aren’t necessarily the best songs to have topped the charts – there’ll be no Buddy Holly, Johnnie Ray, Connie Francis, Elvis or The Everly Brothers (follow the links if you want to read about them) – as I’ve been listening to, and loving, those artists for years. This week will be all about the forgotten gems, the hits I’d never heard before, the songs that have slipped through the cracks…

Next up is Perry Como, with ‘Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes’ – another song that surprised me with its upbeat tempo (and funky trumpet solo). And like Kay Starr, he was another artist with enough about him to make it out of the pre-rock age alive…

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Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyesby Perry Como with the Ramblers (Como’s 1st of two #1s)

5 weeks, from 6th February to 12th March 1953

One of my biggest chart bugbears, back when I started chart-watching, was one-week number ones. In the late ’90s and early ’00s it seemed like there were a never ending parade of songs waiting to shoot straight in at number one, only to be replaced by another brand new song a week later, as if record companies had worked it all out beforehand in some sort of dastardly pact. And I assumed that it never used to be that way, that ye olden charts were creaky, slow moving things where records languished at the top for weeks and months. Which is true to an extent – Al Martino had nine weeks, and wasn’t alone in having that length of stay, while later in 1953 we’ll reach the song which still holds the record for most weeks at number one…

But what we have here is a fourth new chart topper in as many weeks. It turns out that the record buying public of the pre-rock era were just as fickle as those in 1999! Perry Como, though, did halt the turnover and kept this jaunty little tune at the top for a month and a bit. That’s star quality shining through.

This track is a welcome relief after its overwrought predecessor. Perky guitars, a lively brass section, and tongue-twister lyrics: Love blooms at night in daylight it dies don’t let the stars get in your eyes or keep your heart from me for some day I’ll return and you know you’re the only one I’ll ever love delivered in just the one breath. This seems to have been a thing, a gimmick almost (at least it seems gimmicky to modern ears), as Kay Starr was at it in ‘Comes A-Long A-Love’. It’s not vocal gymnastics of the Mariah Carey kind; more lyrical gymnastics, if such a thing can exist.

We’ve also heard similar lyrics already in this countdown, in that Como is telling his sweetheart not to forget about them, or to stray, while away. The best bit of it all, though, is the trumpet solo. At least I think they’re trumpets; I really can’t tell one brass instrument from the other. Anyway, they put me in mind of the oompah band at a German Bierfest.

The one downside to the song is the backing singers, The Ramblers. They’re just a bit… barbershop, in that they are basically there to repeat verbatim the line that Como just sang. In case some one missed it? I don’t know. And their one bit of improvisation is to sing what sounds like pa-pa-papaya between lines. Are they imitating the trumpets? Is it just gibberish? Are they actually singing about papayas?

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Perry Como (American! Died aged 88! The run continues!) is the biggest name to top the chart so far. I’d say, at least. Both of the female chart toppers were new to me, Al Martino was known to me solely as the singer of the first ever UK #1, and Eddie Fisher had entered my consciousness due to his ladykilling (the romantic type of ladykilling, that is). Perry Como was a big star and I could have named his biggest hit (‘Magic Moments’, fact fans) without looking it up. And after looking up his discography it’s clear that if the the charts had begun earlier he would have racked up a load more hits – he was scoring US #1s throughout the ’40s. Now, in 2018, he’s no longer a household name, a Sinatra or Presley, I wouldn’t have thought. Very few of these stars from sixty-odd years ago are, I suppose.

‘Comes A-Long A-Love’, by Kay Starr – The UK Number 1s Blog Anniversary Special

This week marks the 1st anniversary of The UK Number 1s Blog (** Trumpet Fanfare**)! In the past year we’ve covered the period from Nov. ’52 to Nov’ 61, with 129 chart-topping songs featured. We’ve survived pre-rock, rode the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, and are now well on our way towards the swinging sixties… Thanks to everyone who has read, followed, commented and enjoyed.

To celebrate this milestone, I’m going to take a short break from the usual countdown to repost seven songs that I have really enjoyed discovering over the past year. These aren’t necessarily the best songs to have topped the charts – there’ll be no Buddy Holly, Johnnie Ray, Connie Francis, Elvis or The Everly Brothers (follow the links if you want to read about them) – as I’ve been listening to, and loving, those artists for years. This week will be all about the forgotten gems, the hits I’d never heard before, the songs that have slipped through the cracks…

First up: only the 3rd song ever to top the UK charts, in January 1953, and the song that showed me that the pre-rock years weren’t just going to be a procession of melodramatic ballads and perfectly-pronounced pop. Miss Kay Starr, take it away…

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Comes A-Long A-Love, by Kay Starr (her 1st of two #1s)

1 week, from 23rd to 30th January 1953

Snazzy! And jazzy! I really thought – and more fool me – that these pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll hits would be dull, twee, chaste… one step up the danceability chart from hymns, basically. How wrong I was. It wasn’t all bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover.

Though bluebirds do feature in this song, they do so as a symbol of being in love and suddenly becoming aware of the world around you. Birds! Flowers! The sun! Comes A-Long A-Love suddenly though you never sang you’re always singing… Comes A-Long A-Love suddenly chimes you never heard begin a-ringing… The lyrical message being that falling in love will make you a better, livelier person.

Kay Starr’s voice is in complete contrast to the Jo Stafford record that went before. It’s husky, then sing-songy, she pauses where you least expect it and then rushes through tongue twister lines phrases like petty little things no longer phase you, which I’ll bet you can’t say five times fast. You might even say she’s flirting with the listener… And, yes, a quick search shows Ms. Starr was quite the little minx (that’s what they called them in those days). Those eyebrows! What didn’t they suggest! This song could be seen as a challenge – she’s daring you not to fall in love with her.

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But again, it’s another song that paints love in a positive light. Three number ones in and nobody’s had their heart broken… Even lonely old Al Martino was hopeful that his lover would say ‘yes’. That’s something I’m going to look out for: the first ever reference to heartbreak in a UK number one hit. And, again, Kay Starr enunciates so damn well. This isn’t an easy song to sing, but she makes it sound like she’s ad-libbing her way through it. I’ve got to hand it to these old-timers, before the days of auto-tune, because they really could sing. Gran was right all along…

Some bits do jar, slightly. Starr uses ‘Mister’, and ‘Brother’, in a way that you wouldn’t these days. And the aforementioned reference to being in love and seeing bluebirds is a bit of a Disneyfied image. It must have been easy for songwriters, at the birth of modern pop music – love is great, you see bluebirds, do-bee-do – before people discovered cynicism. So far, though, all three number ones have been recorded by American artists. Perhaps that explains the saccharine sentiments! As everyone knows, Americans are sickeningly positive. How brilliant would it be, then, if the first UK recorded #1 turned out to be a piece of proto-Morrissey miserabilism…

One final thing I’ve noticed, while looking up these first three UK chart toppers, is how long they all lived. Jo Stafford died in 2008, aged ninety. Al Martino died in 2009 at eighty-two. Kay Starr died in November 2016, having reached a grand old innings of ninety-four. That means two of them outlived Michael Jackson, who wouldn’t have his first number one hit for another twenty-eight years. They were made of sterner stuff in those days, mind.

129. ‘Little Sister’ / ‘(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame’, by Elvis Presley

Just when you were thinking that we hadn’t heard from him in a while, along comes Elvis with his 4th (fourth!) number one single of the year. I’m not sure when he was first christened ‘The King’, but this is definitely the period in which his reputation as the biggest-star-that-ever-was-and-ever-will-be was confirmed. I recently stuck him up as the header image on this blog’s homepage because, well, he was the UK singles chart between 1960-62.

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Little Sister / (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame, by Elvis Presley (his 9th of twenty-one #1s)

4 weeks, from 9th November – 7th December 1961

And while a large contributor towards the making of said reputation is the fact that he could release any old shit and watch it soar to the top of the charts (*cough* ‘Wooden Heart’ *cough cough*), this is not such an occasion. Elvis’s 9th #1 is a record worthy of note.

First, though, some housekeeping. To me, ‘His Latest Flame’ is the more famous of these two songs – the ‘main’ side of this particular double ‘A’. It featured on my first ever Elvis Greatest Hits whereas ‘Little Sister’ didn’t. But the Official Charts company lists the latter first, and on the record sleeves of the time ‘Little Sister’ is presented as the main event. Let’s tackle that one first, then, shall we…

It’s not a song that I know at all well, and the first thing that strikes me after pressing play is that they’ve nicked the riff from ‘Shakin’ All Over’. Lil’ sister don’t you… (Diddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-din…) Lil’ sister don’t you… (Diddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-din…) Fair enough, really – it is a peach of a riff. The scuzzy bass is really cool here too. And appropriate, cos this is a scuzzy little song. Elvis, it seems, is chasing two sisters…

Lil’ sister don’t you kiss me once or twice, Then say it’s very nice, And then you run… It’s a ‘dangerous woman’ type of song – the same kind of lyrics we’ve seen crop up recently in ‘Please Don’t Tease’ and ‘Temptation’. But the plot thickens. Lil’ sister don’t you do what your big sister done… Oh Elvis, you dirty, dirty dog.

Big sister, it turns out, ran off with one Jim Dandy while El was buying candy (seriously) at the county show. She’s mean and she’s evil, Like that lil’ ol’ Bo Weevil, Guess I’ll try my luck with you… I mean, yeah. It is 1961, after all. It’s tongue -in-cheek, it’s forgivable.

At least, it’s forgivable until the final verse. That’s where things get creepy, and we begin to wonder at the age-gap between the sisters… Well I used to pull your pig-tails, And pinch your turned up nose, But you’ve been a-growin’, And baby it’s been showin’, From your head down to your toes… And you can tell by the way Elvis lingers over that last line he ain’t just talking about her height.

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Still, dubious verses aside, it’s nice to hear Elvis rocking again after all the ballads and the operatics and the lederhosen that have plagued him since his post-army comeback. And – heavens be praised – he keeps it up on the flip side of the disc with a riff that’s even more recognisable.

Dun-da-dun-da-dun…dun-dun, Dun-da-dun-da-dun…dun-dun… The Bo Diddley riff. Used most famously by Bo Diddley, obviously, but also on rock ‘n’ roll standard ‘Not Fade Away’, and now this. The riff follows us, steady and unchanging, as Elvis unfurls his tale of heartache. A very old friend, Came by today, Cause he was tellin’ everyone in town, Of the love that he’d just found, And Marie’s the name, Of his latest flame… His friend talks and talks of his new found love, of her beautiful eyes and long dark hair – Elvis has to just suck it up and smile. It’s a familiar theme given a nice twist. In hearing of his betrayal second-hand, from ‘a very old friend,’ the sense of heartbreak is heightened.

It peaks in the bridge – the only part of the song that breaks from the Bo Diddley riff: Though I smiled the tears inside were a-burnin’, I wished him luck and then he said goodbye, He was gone but still his words kept returnin’, What else was there for me to do but cry…? You can hear the suppressed heartache in Elvis’s voice. It’s not a song that requires much effort, not his most technically challenging vocal performance; but he sells it. The King sells whatever he’s singing. He could sing the phonebook and sell it.

This is my favourite post-army Elvis #1 so far, on a par with his fifties chart-toppers ‘One Night’ and ‘All Shook Up’. I’m in good company on this, too – ‘(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame’ is a favourite of punk and alternative bands who want to ‘do Elvis’. Even The Smiths (not a band I’ve ever been able to love, but still) covered it in the eighties, with Morrissey claiming it to be his favourite Elvis song, period.

I started this post by mentioning that fact that this was Presley’s fourth chart-topper of 1961. Take a moment to appreciate this, because it’s is an extremely rare feat – four #1s in a calendar year. Cliff never managed it, The Beatles never managed it. The only other act to ever manage it are… (***spoiler alert***)… Westlife. Yep. In 1999. If you extend the idea of a ‘calendar year’ to being any twelve-month period, rather than insisting on January-December, then you can include The Spice Girls in 1996-97 and B*Witched in 1998-99. But… if you do that then you have to mention the fact that Westlife actually managed FIVE chart-toppers between April 1999 and April 2000.

But, without wanting to go all snobby and belittling of the achievements of these nineties popsters, the charts of the late-nineties were a completely different landscape to those of the early sixties: much faster moving, with a much higher turnover of #1s. Westlife’s five chart-toppers spent a total of nine weeks in the top spot. Elvis’s 1961 chart-toppers amounted to a grand total of eighteen weeks.

Plus… If we’re applying the Westlife-rule to Elvis we have to take into account the fact that ‘It’s Now or Never’ hit #1 in November 1960, exactly one year before ‘Little Sister’ / ‘His Latest Flame’. So, five number ones and a whopping twenty-six weeks at the top… Elvis wins! Hurrah! And just to prove he’s The King, the GOAT in the UK Singles Charts – like Lio Messi bending yet another free-kick into the top corner or Roger Federer lifting his umpteenth Wimbledon title – he’ll do it all over again in 1962.

128. ‘Walkin’ Back to Happiness’, by Helen Shapiro

She’s back. Barely two months after a gorgeous slice of teenage angst, ‘You Don’t Know’, made her the youngest ever solo chart topper, our Helen returns to the top of the charts. And this time she’s feeling much perkier.

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Walkin’ Back to Happiness, by Helen Shapiro (her 2nd and final #1)

3 weeks, from 19th October – 9th November 1961

Funny but it’s true, What loneliness can do… OK, it’s not immediately very perky, but bear with it… Since I’ve been away… Wait for it… I have loved you more each day!

And we’re off. This is a pop record that whips along at breakneck speed – the drums, the guitar, the violins, even the backing singers – none of them linger too long over a single note. Carried along, you really can imagine Miss Shapiro skipping gayly through a field of daffodils. Or something. And the hook; what a hook. Walkin’ back to happiness, Whoopa-oh-yeah-yeah…! Add it to the wop-bop-ba-loomas and the rama-lama-ding-dongs of pop music lore. To most people in 2019, Helen Shapiro’s entire career has probably been reduced to this very line. It certainly had been for me before starting this blog.

Contrast if you can the in-your-face optimism of this tune with the moodiness of her first chart-topper. On ‘You Don’t Know’, Helen was languishing in the exquisite pain of loving a boy who never noticed her. She could never tell him. She was condemned to suffer in silence. Here, though… Spread the news I’m on the way, Whoopa-oh-yeah-yeah, All my blues have blown away, Whoopa-oh-yeah-yeah… Technically this song is about someone returning to their lover (I never knew I’d miss you, Now I know what I must do…), but it’s tempting to view it as a riposte to ‘You Don’t Know’ – now she’s head over heels in love. Maybe it’s with the guy who, just two months before, was passing her by in the corridor?

In terms of managing the career of a teen star, her ‘team’ did very well here (she was managed by Norrie Paramour, fifties/early sixties producer du jour – we’ve already heard his work with stars like Cliff and The Shadows, Ruby Murray and Michael Holliday). Shapiro’s two chart-toppers are simultaneously different and yet complimentary. While so many stars have recently followed up big hits with very-similar-sounding hits (Adam Faith, the Everlys, Cliff) it’s refreshing to hear the youngest star of the time return with something completely different. It reminds me of Connie Francis’s double-whammy of ‘Who’s Sorry Now’ and ‘Stupid Cupid’ from a few years back.

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The best bit of this whole affair is the bridge, when Miss Shapiro lets rip with a Walkin’ back to happiness with yo-ou, mm-hmm-hmm… It’s still hard to imagine that someone with a voice this rich and honeyed was just fifteen when she recorded this. Though I do feel that, as good as this record is, her voice has a natural air of melancholy which suited her previous #1 better. That’s me nit-picking, though. This is a pure pop classic – a disc that can’t help but make you smile.

Helen Shapiro’s star burned brightly but briefly. Her two chart-toppers aside, she only had three other Top 10s, and by the mid-sixties she was struggling to make the Top 40 at all. Going by her Greatest Hits, she had a go at all the pop classics of the day: ‘It’s My Party’, ‘A Teenager in Love’, ‘Please Mister Postman’ and the ultimate teeny-bopper anthem ‘Lipstick on your Collar’ (that Mary-Jane, eh). She then moved into acting – both on TV and in the West End – and officially ‘retired’ from showbiz in 2002.

While we’ve had girls with perky pop songs hitting the top of the charts before now – Rosemary Clooney and Connie Francis say ‘Hi!’ – they were both American. Helen Shapiro is British, and can thus be seen as the start of a chain linking us right through the 1960s, taking us past Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw, Lulu and more. Female chart-toppers are few and far between in this decade, and the ones that do pop up tend to do so with some pretty special songs…

127. ‘Michael’, by The Highwaymen

We begin our next chart-topper with a whistle. We haven’t had a whistle-y #1 for a while, maybe not since the ‘Age of Whistling’ back in 1957-’58. And then an oh-so gentle, almost soothing acoustic guitar comes in…

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Michael, by The Highwaymen (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 12th – 19th October 1961

Back in my last post, I asked you to imagine this year, 1961, as a huge variety show, with all manner of artists on the bill. Well, keep that image in mind and picture, as The Shadows wrap up their little Hawaiian interlude, the curtains parting to reveal a forest backdrop, a pile of leaves and upturned logs, a ‘fire’ made from strips of crepe paper and a fan, and five fresh-faced boys – The Highwaymen.

The tune is instantly recognisable, by anyone who’s visited a church, or been a Boy Scout, or attended a Primary School… Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah, Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah… Just when you thought 1961 couldn’t get any more eclectic – we’re getting a hymn!

Fifty percent of this song is that very chorus, repeated over and over, and over. In between, each Highwayman takes turns in singing a single-line verse: Sister help to trim the sails, Hallelujah… The river Jordan is chilly and cold, Hallelujah… The river is deep and the river is wide, Milk and honey on the other side… Hallelujah, Hallelujah and Hallelujah… It ends with the same haunting whistles that kicked us off. And that’s it.

Wiki lists this as ‘Collegiate Folk’, and I am 100% certain that this is the first and only ‘Collegiate Folk’ record to top the UK Singles Charts. It’s a very accurate genre title too, as all five Highwaymen were undergraduate students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Under what circumstances they went from a mere college band to trans-Atlantic chart-toppers is unclear. It really does beg the question…

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…what in seven hells is this doing atop the UK hit parade? If you thought The Temperance Seven or Shirley Bassey’s show-tunes were a bit on the random side then this is completely out of the left-field. At the same time, though, I will at some point have to realise and accept that literally anything can top the singles chart. We’ve had some weird number ones; and there is weirder to come, trust me on that.

And yet… This may be a weird chart-topper; but it’s a very simple, very normal song. Kinda dull. You can understand why Benny Hill, and Mr Blobby, and The Teletubbies – with all their technicolour silliness – have UK #1s more than you can understand this becoming the biggest selling single in the country for one week in the autumn of ’61. The five boys in this band – Dave, Bob, Chan and two Steves – are spectacular in their ordinariness. They look like the sweetest bunch of apple-pie lovin’, church-goin’, all-American boys-next-door. A ‘highwayman’, as far as British readers will be aware, was a 17th-18th century armed robber, which makes it look like an odd choice of band name for such sweet looking lads. Even their voices are – how to put this nicely? – fairly ordinary. But what do I know – maybe their ordinariness is what won people over? They are clearly not trying to be Elvis, or Liberace, or even Cliff, and people do like an everyman with an acoustic guitar…

I have to admit that – as one of the most irreligious people around – I want to hate this record. But I can’t. It’s a nice song. It’s soothing. I’ll put it on next time I can’t sleep. And The Highwaymen didn’t much bother the charts after this. All but one of them returned to their studies after the success died down. But maybe, just maybe, the folk scene that grew so big in the mid-to-late sixties – The Byrds, The Seekers, Peter, Paul and Mary, even Bob Dylan – can perhaps trace a small part of its popularity back to this unlikely smash hit.

Two other things to mention before we’re done… One: that these Highwaymen are in no way related to the Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash supergroup (though they did try to sue them for appropriating their name). And two: the fact that this great African-American gospel hymn was white-washed to such success at the height of the US Civil Rights movement perhaps says something about American society at the time… Something that I am in no way qualified to discuss and will just leave hanging here…

That aside, I’m just excited to see what on earth 1961 will throw up at the top of the UK singles charts next! Pan-pipes? The can-can? Mongolian throat-singing?? Whatever’s coming – bring it on!

126. ‘Kon-Tiki’, by The Shadows

As we continue our slow meander along the highways and bye-ways of 1961 –it does feel that this year is taking a little longer to get through than previous ones – it’s time for a little interlude.

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Kon-Tiki, by The Shadows (their 6th of twelve #1s)

1 week, from 5th – 12th October 1961

Picture, if you possibly can, the year 1961 as a TV variety show. On the bill are some huge, established stars – Elvis, the Everlys, Shirley Bassey – along with some new up and coming teen sensations – Johnny Tillotson, Helen Shapiro – and some quirky little gems – Floyd Cramer and The Temperance Seven. Maybe Cliff – who won’t actually be hitting #1 this year – can be the MC. OK? Well, to this weird mental image you can add the house band, the ones that pop up and play as the curtains drop and the scenery gets shifted. They are, of course, The Shadows.

‘Kon-Tiki’ is another instrumental. A lilting little slice of surf-rock. It’s got cool drum-fills, a nice crunchy, tinny edge to the guitars and a hint of reverb around the main riff. There’s a couple of call and response bits between the lead and the bass, and the ending has some gnarly (did they say ‘gnarly’ in the early sixties?) echo. It’s a decent enough record – I’m not sure that the Shadows made many poor ‘solo’ records – but when it ends less than two minutes in you’re left wondering… Is that it?

It’s far from being one of their bigger hits (I wasn’t particularly familiar with it before starting this post) and it kind of feels like filler. Something thrown together as the guys were jamming. A ‘B’-side, maybe? But hey, what do I know. It was a UK number one single; only the band’s second solo chart-topper.

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The Kon-Tiki was actually a raft used in a 1947 expedition across the Pacific Ocean by the Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl. ‘Kon-Tiki’ was chosen as it was an old name for the Incan sun-god. What all this had to do in inspiring the writing of this perky guitar instrumental is, to be honest, unknown. My best guess is that it sounds kinda tropical, kinda surfy, and could work well as the soundtrack to a sunset luau on the beaches of Hawaii. Compared to ‘Apache’, which really did conjure up images of Indian braves galloping across the plains, ‘Kon-Tiki’ is a little more abstract.

Maybe that’s fine, though. It’s a nice enough tune, a pleasant one-week interlude on our journey through 1961. It reminds us that The Shadows are still around, are still the biggest British band of the time. Maybe it needs no further meaning than that.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, it does feel like we’ve been lingering in 1961 for quite a while now. In actual fact, with twenty-one number one singles, 1961 has by far the most chart-toppers of any year yet covered. But that’s OK. It’s proving a nice place to be. Jazz, rock, showtunes, instrumentals… all genres are welcome here. And, if you thought it’s been eclectic recently; just wait till you hear what’s up next!

125. ‘Reach For the Stars’ / ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, by Shirley Bassey

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s time to welcome back on stage a member of British pop royalty. Dame Shirley, of Bassey, claiming her rightful place atop the UK charts…

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Reach for the Stars / Climb Ev’ry Mountain, by Shirley Bassey (her 2nd and final #1)

1 week, from 21st – 28th September 1961

Except, despite being singer of huge repute, a diva with a seven-decade long career in the upper echelons of British popular culture, the singles charts never were Shirley Bassey’s natural stomping ground. This is only her second number one – and it’s her last! She’s had five weeks in total at the top of the listings, and only ever had twelve top ten hits in her whole career… Compare that to the titans of the UK Singles Charts – Elvis, Cliff, The Beatles, Madonna – and that ain’t nothing.

But perhaps it’s not so surprising when, amid the teeny-bopper pop and the rock ‘n’ roll that was shaping the sound of the early sixties, she was releasing discs like this. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that this record got to #1 at all… The first song, ‘Reach for the Stars’, sounds out of place the second the soaring intro kicks in.

I reach for the stars, When I reach for your love, For so far above me, You always will be… It’s a song about adoring someone, about loving them completely… When you come to my arms, In that moment divine, All the stars in the sky, Are mine… It’s not a song about longing, or about a love unrequited. It’s a song about being utterly besotted with someone. (A song that might terrify you slightly if it were about you…)

The lyrics are all about stars and clouds, and the sky, and Dame Shirley sings it as if making sure that she’ll be heard up there in the firmament. The last chorus and verse are absolutely belted out, while the way she packs around four different notes into that last sky-y-y is spine-tingling, as is the way she drags the final all mine…! out to within an inch of its life. In terms of pure singing technique, this is one of the very best-sung chart-toppers so far.

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You might, then, expect the flip-side of this disc to be a subtler affair – yin and yang, and all that. But nope. That’s not how this Dame plays. On ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, she cranks the operatics up even further… Climb ev’ry mountain, Search high and low, Follow ev’ry bye-way, Ev’ry path you know… (on a song that’s already pretty old-fashioned, that Victorian apostrophe in ‘ev’ry’ is just the icing on the cake)… She’s following rainbows, fording streams, doing all these things in search of her dream. It’s a motivational number, lyrically very simple, about never giving up.

Before writing this, I wasn’t familiar with either of these songs – but I had strong suspicions from the first listen that ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ was a piece of musical theatre (the David Whitfield-esque backing singers are a dead giveaway). But I was astounded to learn that this song wasn’t just from any old two-bit musical – it’s from the bloody ‘Sound of Music’! How did that pass me by? Admittedly I’ve managed to go through thirty-three years on this earth without ever seeing said movie, but I’ve picked up a lot through pop-culture osmosis – the Von Trapps, nuns and Nazis, ‘The Hills are Alive..’ ‘Doe, a Deer…’, the one about the flowers… ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, though…? No idea. You learn something new every day.

This song ends with a bang every bit as big as ‘Reach for the Stars’. Perhaps too big a bang. While on the former song Bassey stayed the right side of bombastic; here she over-eggs the pudding. The recording crackles as she launches into the final Till you find your dream…, the equipment clearly unable to cope with Shirley’s lung-power. The woman could sing, and still can. Aged eighty-one, she still regularly appears at Royal Variety performances, at the Queen’s garden parties and on her own TV specials – 2011’s ‘Shirley’ for example (no surname required, clearly). As we leave her here, in September 1961, her most famous songs still lie ahead – ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, ‘Big Spender’ and so on – while her biggest hits have come and gone – this and ‘As I Love You’ almost forgotten in 2019.

It’s slightly sad to wave such a premature goodbye to Dame Shirley. But this disc is a real outlier in the charts of ’61 and, as I wrote at the start, perhaps offers an insight as to why she never really set the singles charts alight. These are two superbly sung and gorgeously orchestrated ballads, but they aren’t indicative of the general trends in popular music at this time. They do, however, add the eclectic mix of chart-toppers that we’ve enjoyed in 1961 –long may that continue.

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention that this double ‘A’-side lives on in a much more recent song… S Club 7’s smash-hit from 2000, ‘Reach’, which incorporates the titles of both these songs into its chorus; but whose bubble-gum pop cheesiness couldn’t be further from Dame Shirley’s ear-drum shattering balladry. Anyway, I’m happy I got to link to an S Club song several decades earlier than I thought I would (what an utter guilty pleasure that one is…) Onwards!

 

124. ‘Johnny Remember Me’, by John Leyton

If you enjoyed the OTT angst of our previous #1 – Woaah-oo-wooah-oo-woaah… ‘You Don’t Know’ – then you’ll probably love this next one. Probably. Because while Helen Shapiro coyly flirted with melodrama on her hit, this next disc grabs melodrama by the hand and elopes with it.

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Johnny Remember Me, by John Leyton (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 31st August – 21st September / 1 week, from 28th September – 5th October 1961 (4 weeks total)

Picture the scene. A rainy, misty moor. Wind whistling across the heather. A galloping rhythm introduces the recently bereaved John Leyton. I hear the voice of my darlin’, The girl I loved and lost a year ago… Then we hear said voice of his late love… Johhnnnnyyy Remember Meeeee…. straight from the cheapo ghost house at the local carnival. Off the top of my head, this is the first and perhaps only #1 to feature the ‘voice’ of a dead person.

Well it’s hard to believe I know, But I hear her singing in the sighin’ of the treetops, Way above me… I’d like to point out here that moors tend not to have many trees – what with them being bleak and open spaces – but I feel that trying to apply logic to this song might be missing the point. As it progresses I’m on the fence. This is clearly a ridiculous song. But is it good-ridiculous; or bad-ridiculous?

One moment sways it for me: when poor, bereaved John lets rip with a Yes, I’ll always remember…! He doesn’t sound like he particularly wants to keep remembering her; but she does insist on speaking to him from the treetops. Till the day I die, I’ll hear her cry, Jooohhnnnny remember meeee… He goes on, in the final verse, to describe that while he’s sure he’ll find another love, he is equally sure that he’ll never be allowed to forget his first love. She’ll always be there… Joooohhhnnnnyyyy…. I love that. Who knows, maybe the singer is the one who killed her off, and it’s his conscience he can hear in the wind…? It’s like a full Gothic novel in under three minutes, this song.

What to make of all this, then? I can’t file it under ‘Novelties’ – the musicianship is too good, and the lyrics are clearly heartfelt. But at the same time… Who was buying this and taking it seriously? It’s extremely camp – a word that I’ve found myself writing quite a lot in recent entries (‘Surrender’, ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’…) Turns out people in the early-1960s had a much higher tolerance for camp than we do now. Or at least, they clearly didn’t think of this stuff as ‘camp’. They took this song at face value – the BBC banned it, for God’s sake, due to all the references to death – and connected with the sentiment. In the intervening fifty-eight years since ‘Johnny Remember Me’ became a huge hit record, we’ve become a much more cynical, irony-loving people. This song just wouldn’t work in 2019.

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This is, of course, another dreaded Death-Disc! Dun-dun-dun! That oh-so early sixties phenomenon. It joins ‘Running Bear’, ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ and ‘Ebony Eyes’ to become the fourth death disc to hit the top in the UK… But it’ll be the last. And, for what it’s worth, I think this is the best of the four. It’s mad, it’s OTT and then some; but it grabs your attention and doesn’t let go till it’s done. John Leyton was actually an actor by trade, starring at the time in an ITV drama in which he played a rock star. Said rock star sang this song in one episode and, hey presto!, it became a real-life hit. Leyton had very few others in his singing career, but once he returned to acting he did star in one of the most famous British films of all time, ‘The Great Escape’ (you’re humming the theme already, aren’t you?)

Perhaps worthy of more note than Leyton himself is the fact that this disc was produced by Joe Meek, a man who was dragging rock music forward thanks to his innovation in the recording studio. He overdubbed, he sampled, he added lots of echo and reverb, using his recording equipment like an extra instrument. The real stars of this song – the eerie atmosphere and the shrill voice of the ‘dead’ woman – all stem from him, and we’ll hear from Meek again before long in this countdown. Along with Del Shannon’s recent ‘Runaway’, and its use of the Musitron, we’re starting to get a glimpse of the future of pop music as the sixties unfold. What started off as a funny, campy, Halloweenish gimmick of a record is actually pointing the way forward… Listen carefully and you can just about hear it beckoning… Joooohhhnnnnyyyy….