289. ‘The Wonder of You’, by Elvis Presley

Well, look who’s back! Over five years on from his last #1, Elvis is back in the building. What version of Elvis are we on now? We’ve had the ‘Sun’ Records Elvis, Elvis the Pelvis, Army Elvis, Post-Army-Chart-Dominator Elvis, Terrible Movie Soundtrack Elvis…

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The Wonder of You, by Elvis Presley (his 16th of twenty-one #1s)

6 weeks, from 26th July – 6th September 1970

’68 Comeback Special Elvis has been and gone – he didn’t make the top of the charts, though ‘Suspicious Minds’, ‘In the Ghetto’ and ‘If I Can Dream’ were all decent-sized hits. Now we’ve arrived at Vegas Elvis. The jumpsuits, the rhinestones… It’s one of his most distinctive looks, the favoured outfit of the modern Elvis impersonator.

‘The Wonder of You’ sweeps in, the instruments sounding brassy and confident, as if the very fact that they are being played on an Elvis record is giving them an extra decibel. And the man himself can’t wait to get singing, joining in with the intro: Woah-woah-woah-woah… His voice sounds deeper, thicker than when we last heard him, crooning on ‘Crying In the Chapel’.

When no-one else can understand me, When everything I do is wrong… I’m not going to lie, this record is a big bucket of schmaltz… You give me hope and consolation, You give me strength to carry on… But I love it. I especially love giving it a good old belt out in the shower. Elvis has plenty of excellent shower-songs, but this is the ultimate. I guess I’ll never know, The reason why, You love me as you do… That’s the wonder, The wonder of you… Who is the ‘you’ in the title? Priscilla? God? The listener? It works, because any old schmuck can sing it to their loved-one and come away looking cute.

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Completing the ‘Elvis at the MGM’ feel are the crowd noises. Yes, we have our first ‘live’ number one since, I think, Lonnie Donegan a decade ago. They applaud at the start, when The King begins to sing, and they cheer at the end when the song rises to its finale. He never actually recorded ‘The Wonder of You’ in a studio, amazingly. At the very end, as the final note appears over the horizon, Elvis’s voice is faded right back into the mix. It’s a disappointingly muted end, a sign perhaps that his voice was beginning to fade. Of course, the next Elvis (Elvis MK VIII?) will be prescription drugs ‘n’ burgers Elvis.

And, sadly, the next Elvis we’ll meet on this countdown will be The Late Elvis. Yep, this is the last UK chart-topper of his lifetime. ‘The Wonder of You’ had been around for a while, though. It was written in 1959 by one Ray Peterson, and recorded by Ronnie Hilton (remember him, from way back in 1956?) and The Platters. Their versions are fine, though a lot stiffer than this one. Apparently Elvis had asked Peterson’s permission to record the song, and Peterson had replied with an ‘Um, you don’t really need to ask, cause you’re, you know, Elvis…’

Very few acts who scored number ones in the sixties managed to keep their runs going in the sixties. There was a sudden and sharp cut off: The Beatles (to be fair, they split up in 1970), The Stones, The Beach Boys, all the Beat bands… The door slammed down on New Year’s Eve 1969. Except, obviously, these rules didn’t apply to The King. In fact, with his 16th #1 he creates a whole new club: artists who have scored chart-toppers in three different decades. Even now it’s a select club, reserved for big names: Madonna, Michael Jackson (if you count The Jacksons), Eminem, Kylie… and Cliff Richard, who has hit #1 in an outrageous five different decades. Yep, plenty more Cliff to look forward to, coming up right here…

Follow along with the UK #1s Blog Spotify playlist here.

216. ‘Strangers in the Night’, by Frank Sinatra

After the all-out nihilism of ‘Paint It, Black’, it’s time for a slight change of pace. A fifty year old crooner – a legend, even by this point in his career – with a song about the joys of a chance meeting.

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Strangers in the Night, by Frank Sinatra (his 2nd of three #1s)

3 weeks, from 2nd – 23rd June 1966

Soaring strings, a gentle sway, and Ol’ Blue Eyes… Strangers in the night, Exchanging glances, Wond’ring in the night, What were the chances… It’s timeless, traditional pop. A similar, if much classier, version of Ken Dodd’s mega-hit ‘Tears’ from the previous year. A record that might have been #1 in 1946, 56, 66, 76… you get the drift. By this point in his career, a good twenty years since he graduated from teen-idol status, Sinatra was not about to reinvent himself as a folk singer.

Strangers in the night, Two lonely people, We were strangers in the night… And, yes, there’s something in the sweep of the violins and the softness of the horns, that conjures up an image of two people, in New York, entering a darkened bar for last orders… By the end of the song, they’ve been together for years. Things turned out alright, you see, for strangers in the night.

Frank Sinatra is a weird proposition for me. He’s old, too old even for my parents to have listened to him. He released his first single in 1939, and he would be a hundred and four were he still around today. And yet, the songs are there. They reach you anyway, regardless of whether you grew up hearing him. ‘Fly Me to The Moon’, ‘New York, New York’, ‘My Way’… He’s also a weird proposition for me as I’m not convinced that he was all that great a singer. I mean, he obviously was – the way he holds the yooouuuuu before the chorus here is good – but at the same time he talks his way through certain lines. The Ever since that night… line, for example.

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We have heard from Frank before in this countdown – going on twelve years ago, when he took ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’ to the top. Now, twelve years between #1 hits is a long time in any era of the charts; but this gap, straddling rock ‘n’ roll and the beat revolution, is particularly impressive. And this is the Sinatra that everybody knows, the Sinatra that wannabes cover on talent shows… the vast majority of his best known hits come from the sixties. Try naming one of his bobby-soxer hits from the early forties…

I love the pause, before we sweep into the final verse of ‘Strangers in the Night’. It’s cinematic, cocky Sinatra. And then perhaps the most famous bit of this song: do bee do bee dooo, da-da-da-da, yayayaya… So famous that it apparently inspired ‘Scooby Do.’ He sounds like your uncle, drunk at a wedding, forgetting the words… And then it hits you. That’s why Sinatra was, and still is, so popular. Because drunk uncles at weddings can just about pull off an impression!

Sinatra, though, hated this song. He couldn’t stand the record that returned him to the top of the charts after a decade. And he wasn’t ever subtle about it, either. It was ‘a piece of shit’ and ‘the worst fucking song (he’d) ever heard.’ You wonder, then, if the do-bee-do skat is simply him giving up. (Which makes the whole song even more glorious, if you ask me…)

Whatever the reason – the quality of the song, the iconic doo-be-doos, Sinatra’s vehement hatred of it – ‘Strangers in the Night’ became one of his biggest hits, one of his signatures, a song that he would have to bite the bullet on and perform every night for the rest of his life. I’d also suggest that his daughter hitting the tops of charts around the world just a few months earlier wasn’t bad publicity, either. Not that it matters. An artist of Sinatra’s stature needs to feature in this countdown. And I’m glad that he does.

Catch up here:

‘A Woman in Love’, by Frankie Laine – 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 five: the King of Pre-Rock – Mr. Frankie Laine. Laine, along with Guy Mitchell, was the most consistent chart-topper before Elvis came along. His 1st #1 – ‘I Believe’ – still holds the record for most weeks at the top of the charts. ‘A Woman in Love’ was his swan song – one of his last big hits – and I remember thinking, when I wrote this post, that it felt as if it came out of nowhere. The swing and swagger of the big band on this record, and the glint in Laine’s eye as he sang it, were a world away from his earlier, painfully earnest ballads. I can’t say I’m a fan of all his work; but this is a great song…

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

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

Look who’s back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

91. ‘Mack the Knife’, by Bobby Darin

We kick off the next thirty #1s in the October of ’59 – four chart-toppers away from the 1960s! And this… This is a real palate cleanser after the cheesy numbers, the Cliffs and the Jerry Kellers, that immediately preceded it. This is something different.

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Mack the Knife, by Bobby Darin (his 2nd of two #1s)

2 weeks, from 16th – 30th October 1959

It begins with the softest of intros – a tickle of drum, a pluck of bass. Oh the shark, babe, Has such teeth, dear, And it shows them, Pearly white… Bobby Darin is holding back, almost sneaking the lyrics out when we’re not looking. Just a jack-knife, Has ol’ MacHeath, babe, And he keeps it, Out of sight…

The best thing about this song – and there are many great things about this song – is that the lyrics slowly unfold. You are not quite sure what it is that you are listening to, what on earth this record is about, on first listen. The title doesn’t give anything away for a start. Then the first verse alludes to ‘scarlet billows’ and ‘traces of red’. All very mysterious…

Just to make sure, then, that we’re all on the same page – this is a song, a number one selling hit no less, about a hitman. A man, MacHeath, who does murders and stuff. A proper wrong ‘un. The following verses – and this record is nothing but verses, each one ramping up the tempo both in terms of the sound and the sinister lyrics – make it clearer.

Now on the sidewalk, Sunny morning, Uh-huh, Lies a body, Just a-oozin’ life… And: There’s a tugboat, Down by the river don’t ya know, Where a cement bag’s, Just droopin’ down… We’ve got stabbings, and guys swimmin’ with the fishes. A chap that disappears not long after ‘drawin’ out all his hard-earned cash.’ And then there’s the ladies: Jenny Diver, Miss Lotte Lenya and ol’ Lucy Brown. Whether they’re MacHeath’s lovers, or his victims, is left ambiguous.

And ambiguous is a good word with which to describe this latest #1. Superficially, it’s a perky swing number with a quiet start and a loud finish. In recent years, thanks to Robbie Williams and ‘Big Band Week’ on X-Factor, ‘Mack the Knife’ has been somewhat bland-ified. Yet if you sit down and actually listen to the lyrics… They’re dark, man. How great is it, after ‘Here Comes Summer’s saccharine mulch about ‘drive-in movies’ and ‘Joe’s Café’, and Craig Douglas’s paean to puppy love, to have a chart-topper that’s about a vicious murderer. I wonder how it got past the censors of the day? If the opacity of the lyrics, or the old-fashioned big-band swing, helped Darin get away with it.

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It’s a brilliant number one; but also a bizarre one. A song that begs the age-old question: How did this end up on top of the charts? If the success of Darin’s earlier #1 ‘Dream Lover’ led to this, then that’s yet another feather in the earlier song’s cap. Both songs showcase how good a singer Bobby Darin was – one a traditional pop song, the other a brassy swing number. I mean it as a compliment when I say it sounds as if it were recorded live.

‘Mack the Knife’ had a circuitous route to the top of the UK charts. It was written, in German, in 1928, for a musical called ‘Die Dreigroschenoper’. Catchy title. The show was then translated into English and performed as ‘The Threepenny Opera’ in 1933, then resurrected in 1954, and ‘Mack the Knife’ cherry-picked from it for a single by Louis Armstrong in ’56, before Bobby Darin recorded this definitive version two years later.

It ends with a bang, and probably the song’s most famous line: Look out ol’ Macky is back! Which not only draws this swingin’ little record to an end; but also the chart-topping career of Bobby Darin. Which is a shame, as he really was great. I’ve been digging into his back-catalogue since writing the post on ‘Dream Lover’, and would recommend that you give the frothy ‘Splish-Splash’, the cheeky ‘Multiplication’, and the karaoke-classic ‘Beyond the Sea’ a listen. In fact, just delve in and check it all out. That he topped the charts with two such different, but equally brilliant, records -when a lot of his contemporaries were treading the same path again and again – speaks volumes.

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

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

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

Look who’s back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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