Before we begin our next post, can I take a moment to praise the year that has just been? The year that this next #1 single will bring to a close. I know it isn’t time for a recap, but 1961 has been an unprecedented year in terms of the breadth and depth of its chart-toppers.
The twenty-one number ones from this year have taken us from gloriously pure pop (Johnny Tillotson, Helen Shapiro) through to tongue-in-cheek pastiche jazz (The Temperance Seven), from doo-wop (The Marcels) to pure rock (The Everly Brother’s ‘Temptation’), from the sublime (‘Runaway’) to the ridiculous (‘Wooden Heart’). There’s been room for piano instrumentals from Floyd Cramer, guitar instrumentals from The Shadows and showtunes from Shirley Bassey. There’ve been a couple of crooners – Frankie Vaughan and Eden Kane – and we’ve even found time for two ‘death-discs’ and a spot of collegiate folk. We’ve also had glimpses into the future with electronic solos on the Musitron and Joe Meek twiddling his dials. And the fact that all this has managed to shine through in a year utterly dominated by The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and his eighteen weeks at the top, is just superb. 1961, I take my hat off to you. My favourite chart year so far, by miles.
And to finish the year off we have room for one more. An absolute classic…
Moon River, by Danny Williams (his 1st and only #1)
2 weeks, from 28th December 1961 – 11th January 1962
Moon river, Wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style someday… Oh dream maker, You heart breaker… Wherever you’re going, I’m going your way… It’s a song, and a voice, drenched in a romantic echo – an evocative song, that really does lull you into imagining that you’re drifting down a river, water flat as glass, the moon a white diamond in the sky… I’d say that it’s the atmosphere that pervades this whole song – that haunting melody, rather than the lyric – which has made this such a famous record.
Because, for perhaps the first time in the entire countdown, I’m not terribly sure what the actual lyrics of this song are about. Two drifters, Off to see the world… OK, I can picture that. We’re after the same rainbow’s end, Waiting round the bend… And I get that they’re floating downriver to some unspecified destination. My Huckleberry friend… Which I’m guessing is a reference to one of literature’s most famous river-floaters, Huck Finn. Moon river, And me…
OK, in actual fact I do get what the song’s about. But – it is still pretty abstract, very poetic, in a way that, say, your average Elvis song isn’t. It’s also got an air of old-Americana that to me, as a small-town Scot, sounds very alluring and exotic. When the backing singers take-over for the final verse it sends a shiver down your spine. This is a standard – a song that could have been a hit in any era.
‘Moon River’ is, of course, from the film adaptation of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, sung originally by Audrey Hepburn, sat in a window, plucking at her guitar. But in 1961-’62, there were a lot of versions of ‘Moon River’ to choose from – you could have had the instrumental version by the song’s composer Henry Mancini, Jerry Butler’s version – which was the first one to hit the charts, the definitive version from Andy Williams… This Danny Williams version, which claimed a fortnight at the top in the UK, is pretty far down the list. Williams was a South-African born crooner who didn’t do an awful lot more, in terms of chart hits, than cover this song.
I have to admit: I like this song, I respect it, I admire it… But I can’t bring myself to love it. It’s beautiful; but it’s not a warm beauty. It most reminds me of Tony Bennett’s 1955 #1, ‘Stranger in Paradise’, which had similarly flowery lyrics and dwelt on similarly abstract themes. Also, it’s been a while since I saw it but I really have no idea what the song’s relevance is to a movie about a party-hopping socialite in New York.
Maybe we’re not meant to understand. Maybe we should just stand back and appreciate ‘Moon River’ for what it is – a piece of art too valuable for plebs like me. And as we stand there, lulled by its haunting strains, we can look ahead to 1962, and hope for as much variety and innovation as we had in the year just past…