398. ‘When a Child Is Born (Soleado)’, by Johnny Mathis

For the third time this decade, and for the fifth time in all, the Christmas number one is an actual Christmas song. The previous two, from Slade and Mud, were very seventies, very glam. This one, though, could have been #1 at any point in chart history.

When a Child Is Born (Soleado), by Johnny Mathis (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 19th December 1976 – 9th January 1977

Let’s split this record in two, and start with the good half. It’s got that ‘classic standard’ feel to it, a sweeping melody of the kind that you think you must have always known. When the backing singers come in with the ah-ah-ah-aaahhs it’s quite sweet. Plus, Johnny Mathis sings it like the professional crooner that he is. A ray of hope, Flickers in the sky…

On to the bad bits… And let’s start with those lyrics. It’s all winds of change, silent wishes, brand new morns and rosy hews. It feels churlish to complain about soppy lyrics in a religious, Christmas-themed song. What kind of lyrics is it supposed to have? Except, I’m not religious, and it’s April. So there.

Plus, the production is very floaty, glossy, mid-seventies MOR goop. And there’s a stinker of a spoken section: The world is waiting, Waiting for one child… Black, white… yellow? No-one knows… It is what it is. I’m not going to knock it any more. Mathis means well, and I have fond memories of my late grandmother singing this by the tree after a sherry or three.

I had assumed that ‘When a Child Is Born’ would have been an old, old tune from the mists of time. But the melody, ‘Soleado’, was written for an Italian singer in 1972, while the English lyrics followed a few years later. It’s a skill, I guess, to write a song that sounds so timeless. Johnny Mathis had been around for a lot longer, releasing his first singles in the mid-fifties. He followed this up with ‘Too Much, Too Little, Too Late’, his first US #1 for almost twenty years. Some impressive longevity there. He’s still with us, aged eighty-five, having released his most recent album in 2017.

You will all be thrilled to hear that the 1970s, the decade of the Christmas #1, is not done with the festive tunes just yet. But that is some way off. Up next, we launch head-first into 1977, which marks the singles chart’s quarter century!

Listen to all the #1s from 1976, and from every year before, with this playlist:

312. ‘Amazing Grace’, by The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards

So, um… Our next number one single, from the spring of 1972, is… *checks notes*… a bagpipe instrumental.

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Amazing Grace, by The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 9th April – 14th May 1972

I really don’t think I can write anything interesting about the record itself. It is literally just the well-known hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, played by a military band. There have been plenty of outliers hit the top of the charts before this – singers and styles that have stood out like a sore thumb against the sounds of the time – Russ Conway’s piano, Frank Ifield’s yodelling, traditional ballads from the likes of Ken Dodd and Des O’Connor. None, though, have stood out as much as this.

Why was this a huge, five-week #1 single? There must be a story behind it. ‘Amazing Grace’ had been recorded in a popular version by American folk singer Judy Collins in 1969, whose arrangement the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard copied. Hers was a statement against the Vietnam War, part of the late sixties counter-culture that gave us ‘Woodstock’ and ‘In the Year 2525’. Meanwhile, Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart and Aretha Franklin all recorded their own versions of the hymn in the early to mid-seventies.

Is it that simple, then? A record by some soldiers – albeit not ones directly involved in any conflict – appealing to a public that were seeing images of war on their TV sets every night? I’m not a religious person, but ‘Amazing Grace’ is a spectacular piece of music, one that touches somewhere deep within. It’s one of the best known songs in the English language, and so for it to appear at the top of the charts in some form seems apt, though it was apparently much more popular in American churches than in the UK.

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A bit of history: ‘Amazing Grace’ dates from the 1790s, instantly making it one of the very ‘oldest’ chart-toppers. Its writer, John Newton, had been a slave trader whose ship ran aground in a storm. This caused him to reassess his life, become a clergyman, and write this hymn about his experiences: Amazing grace, How great thou art, That saved a wretch like me… In the 1800s it became an abolitionist anthem and then very popular in African-American churches.

My problem with this record lies not in the religious-ness of it, or that it’s old-fashioned… My problem is with the bagpipes. I am Scottish. Yet I hate the sound of bagpipes. Something went wrong, somewhere, and I malfunctioned. It’s like being a cat that has no interest in pieces of string. Where most people hear a heart-tugging call from the misty glens and shimmering lochs; I just hear a shrill banshee-shriek. Listen to the first five seconds of this record: the drone and then the shriek. It’s not pleasant.

I enjoy it more when the brass section takes over in the second half of the song. But by the end we’re back to the lone piper. Except pipers are never really ‘lone’: they’re ten-a-penny on Edinburgh’s street corners in summer, quite often blasting out dirges like this. In conclusion, then, I’m with the stuffy old Director of Bagpipes at Edinburgh Castle who, when this record hit the charts, summoned the Pipe Major of the Royal Scots for a dressing down. How dare he demean the venerable bagpipe by featuring it on a pop record! Sadly for him, and all bagpipe haters around the world, ‘Amazing Grace’ is not even the biggest hit record of the 1970s to feature the instrument… Sigh.

296. ‘My Sweet Lord’, by George Harrison

I wonder what the odds were on George Harrison being the first Beatle to score a solo chart-topper? You would have assumed it’d be Lennon, who was releasing solo stuff before the Fab Four had even split, then McCartney, with his knack for a pop hook. Then again, George had been getting more of his songs included on their albums from 1968 onwards, and some of the Beatles’ most famous late-era tunes are his – ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Something’, ‘Here Comes the Sun’… So maybe it wasn’t such a surprise when he hit top spot less than a year after his former band’s last hit.

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My Sweet Lord, by George Harrison (his 1st of two #1s)

5 weeks, from 24th January – 28th February 1971

And in the end, it wasn’t even close. We are still seven years from a #1 by Paul, and nearly a decade away from one by John, by which time he’ll be dead. Anyway, to the song… There’s something quite ominous in the opening acoustic chords, contrasting nicely with the goofy, tropical, lead guitar riff.

My sweet lord, Mmm my lord, I really want to see you, Really wanna be with you… His voice sounds great – angelic, but gruff and growly when it needs to be. Really wanna see you lord but it takes so long, My lord… First things first, then – is this a religious song? On the face of it, yes – especially when the hallelujahs come in. And does he want proof of God’s existence or, like Clive Dunn before, is he anticipating death? (George Harrison and Clive Dunn asking the big questions at the top of the charts, who’d’ve though it…)

It’s not your typical pop song – no verse, bridge, chorus here. It’s more of a growing chant, a five-minute long mantra, that ascends through several key changes. Now, you can’t ever go wrong with key changes, but at the same time it’s a song that doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe that’s the intention; but for me it leaves something wanting. ‘My Sweet Lord’ is a song that I loved without really considering why, and I do still really like it, but the more I listen to it the more I wonder if it’s as great as they say…

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Sacrilege? Maybe. Halfway through the Hallelujahs become Hare Krishna’s and other snippets of Vedic prayer. Which answers our earlier question – yes, it is a religious song. Harrison was big into his Hinduism at the time and by combining it with Christian elements he wanted to make a statement on the follies of sectarianism. We all worship the same God at the end of the day, right? (No!, shout all the atheists in the back.)

It ends on a high, like a gospel choir singing it up to the rafters. Among the backing instruments and singers you can hear Ringo, Billy Preston (from ‘Get Back’), and Eric Clapton among others. You might also hear hints of ‘He’s So Fine’ by The Chiffons… Harrison famously lost a copyright case that ruled he had ‘subconsciously copied’ the melody. (I really like this cover by The Belmonts – minus Dion – which splices the two songs together, with lots of added kazoo.)

‘My Sweet Lord’ was on Harrison’s epic triple album ‘All Things Must Pass’ – a shackles-off moment in which he stepped out of Lennon and McCartney’s combined shadow. He would continue to have commercial success throughout the seventies and eighties – by himself, in the supergroup The Travelling Wilburys – and then in the nineties with the two remaining Beatles. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed, though, that this is his ‘1st of two #1s’… The other? A re-release of ‘My Sweet Lord’ just after his death in 2002. Till then then, George…

Follow along with my Spotify playlist.

285. ‘Spirit in the Sky’, by Norman Greenbaum

In my last post, after deciding that I could take no more of Dana’s execrable ‘All Kinds of Everything’, I prayed that the seventies would get going, and soon…

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Spirit in the Sky, by Norman Greenbaum (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 26th April – 10th May 1970

Well here we are. I’d suggest that this might the moment the new decade truly kicks off, with a record facing right towards the future. It all starts with a fuzzy, scuzzy guitar riff, with plenty of echo, as if it’s being recorded from the end of a very long hallway. Then in come the stomping drums, and the catchy handclaps, and you realise that you might be witnessing the first glam rock number one.

When I die, And they lay me to rest, Gonna go to the place that’s the best… Several recent #1s have been concerned with death, dying and the end of the world. But ‘Spirit In the Sky’ puts a more positive spin on it. Going up to the spirit in the sky… Norman Greenbaum has a Calvinist’s assurance that he’s heading straight for heaven.

Never been a sinner, Never sinned, I got a friend in Jesus… He’s definitely confident. But now for the big question… Is this a religious record? Or is he taking the piss? I’d like to see it as a satire of the type of Christian who believes they’ll get to heaven, even though they’ve spent most of their time on earth being a dick.

Plus, it doesn’t sound like a Christian song. It sounds sleazy and dirty, with two long, heavy guitar solos – not something you’d hear on the organ in church. It feels like ages since we’ve had a proper guitar solo at the top of the charts, not since ‘Honky Tonk Women’, last summer. Greenbaum was in fact, Jewish, and had decided to write a ‘gospel’ song just to see if he could. He finished it, he claimed, in fifteen minutes. And, yeah, the lyrics are pretty basic. But that’s probably what’s given this record its longevity – the fact that it could be a one-dimensional religious song just as much as it could be a cynical piss-take. To this day it remains a popular choice for funerals…

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I love that this isn’t a record that rushes. It stretches its two little verses and chorus out over four minutes, with plenty of bluesy riffing and glam-rock stomping, and what sounds like a cash-register opening and closing, opening and closing. It’s also the perfect song for the turn of this new decade, as if the optimism of the summer of love has soured and burned itself out on acid. The sentiment is still there; but the sound has been distorted.

Norman Greenbaum was a blues/folk singer from Massachusetts who burst out of nowhere with this monster hit, and then retreated back into anonymity. He lives these days in California. ‘Spirit In the Sky’ is probably one of pop music’s most famous one-hit wonders, the song that people would go for if they had name such a record.

In fact, ‘Spirit In the Sky’ will have a more successful chart career than its creator. We will meet it two more times at the top of the charts, in an eighties and then a noughties guise. It’s a great song, one that resonates to this day, one that I’ve been aware of since I was very young. And one that stands out even more in this countdown – like a sparkly beacon of light – sandwiched as it is between two truly terrible songs… The second of which is up next.

197. ‘Crying in the Chapel’, by Elvis Presley

Well, well, well. Look who’s back. The man with the most #1 singles ever (then and now), whose every release was once guaranteed several weeks at the top of the British pop charts, assumes his rightful place. Bow down to The King.

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Crying in the Chapel, by Elvis Presley (his 15th of twenty-one #1s)

1 week, from 17th – 24th June / 1 week from 1st – 8th July 1965 (2 weeks total)

He’s taken a break from his ever-diminishing run of lame movie-soundtracks, to get all holy on us. Elvis does gospel. You saw me crying in the chapel, The tears I shed were tears of joy… he croons, over a simple guitar strum – reminiscent of ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ – and a tinkling piano – reminiscent of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’. I know the meaning of contentment, Now I’m happy with the Lord…

This is by far the most overtly religious chart-topper yet. In fact, the only others to have referenced The Almighty and his Gang were ‘Answer Me’, way back in 1953, and ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, from Christmas 1957. But this isn’t a preachy, buttoned-up number. This is Elvis we’re talking about, and he’s in his element. He whispers, he purrs, he croons, while the way he lowers his voice for the …just to sing and, Praise the Lord… line would get even the most pious of nuns a little hot under the collar.

No, Elvis is enjoying himself here. I once read a description – I can’t remember where – of Elvis’s gospel records as being sung as if ‘The King was trying to blow the pearly gates from their hinges’. You can imagine him striding up to God and asking him to make some room on the throne…. But not here. Elvis keeps it low-key on this disc. Actually, his vocals aside, it’s pretty dull. I always skipped this one back when I had his Greatest Hits on heavy rotation.

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But it is in keeping with what has been a very eclectic 1965. We’ve had ballads, country-pop, Latin soul, some cabaret-pop and some Phil Spector Wall of Sound gloss. And now some gospel. While it’s easy to say ‘well, only someone like Elvis could take this to #1’, bear in mind he hasn’t been drowning in hit records recently. This is his first chart-topper for two years; while he won’t reappear again until the 1970s. His recent hits before this one included ‘Bossa Nova Baby’ (#13) and ‘Do the Clam’ (#19). This record got to the top for reasons beyond Elvis’s fading star-power. Maybe it was Christian-power…? Church-goers heading out in force to get what is basically a hymn-in-disguise to the top of the charts? It worked for Cliff in the ‘80s and ‘90s…

It would also be remiss to suggest that Elvis was attempting some kind of reinvention here. He was always, in fairness, a deeply religious man, and had released his first gospel album, ‘His Hand in Mine’, years before. (‘Crying in the Chapel’ was actually recorded way back in 1960, but for some reason never saw the light of day until five years had passed.) He’d go on to release several more before his death, including the seminal ‘How Great Thou Art’ in 1967. Nope, it seems that this was simply one of his few gospel singles that caught on with the general public. It’s a million miles away from the swinging sixties, and you know what, that’s fine for a couple of weeks.

It’s interesting, looking at Elvis’s discography, to see how he seems to have been much more appreciated by British audiences come the mid-sixties. Between ‘Surrender’ in mid-1961, and now, he scored just one Billboard Hot 100 #1 – ‘Good Luck Charm’. Across the Atlantic he racked up seven, including this one. You can’t help but feel that Britain got this the wrong way around – all the early classics, your ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Don’t Be Cruel’, were US chart-toppers. Whereas in the UK we waited until the ‘Rock-a-Hula-Baby’ phase to go truly Elvis-mad. Definitive proof of this, if it were needed, can be found in the fact that the abominable ‘Wooden Heart’, a 6-week UK #1, didn’t see the light of day in the States. The Americans got that one spot on!

Follow along with my Spotify playlist:

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!

65. ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, by Harry Belafonte

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Mary’s Boy Child, by Harry Belafonte (his 1st and only #1)

7 weeks, from 22nd November 1957 – 10th January 1958

Must we?

Maybe it’s because we are approaching mid-summer as I sit down to this, but I am really not in the mood to write a post about a Christmas song… Especially a song as dull as this one.

You surely all know it: Long time ago, In Bethlehem, So the Holy Bible says… Mary had a baby – one Jesus H. Christ – and the herald angels sang. The shepherds saw a star. Man will live for ever more… So on and so forth…

I am potentially the most-irreligious person going and so, to avoid offending any sensibilities, I will refrain from any cynical interpretations of these lyrics. Plus, Harry Belafonte is a titan, both of pop music and of the Civil Rights Movement, and to belittle this song (his only appearance at the top of the UK charts) would be to belittle the seventy-year career of a ninety-one-year-old man, who has achieved more in life than most of us could ever hope to.

Actually, talking of the Civil Rights Movement, the most notable thing about this record is how black it is. And how Harry Belafonte becomes, five years after its inception, the first man of colour to top the UK singles chart. And considering the sheer number of black male artists who have topped the charts – some of the biggest names in popular music history – that’s a pretty cool trail to blaze. He’s of course not the very first black artist to reach the top… So far we’ve had Winifred Atwell playing old-fashioned, white, music hall tunes on her piano, and The Teenagers with Frankie Lymon giving us a good dollop of Doo-Wop. And that’s been it. The charts are still very white. But here, Belafonte sings in a Jamaican patois (a heavily diluted patois, but still). And lines like: While shepherds watch their flock by night, Them see a shining star… are almost subversive in their flaunting of proper grammar! This is technically a Calypso record, but I struggle to hear anything particularly Calypso-ish about the strings and violins that swirl around Belafonte’s voice.

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Let’s treat this is an interlude, then – a moment’s respite from the advancing march of rock ‘n’ roll. The songs that top the charts at Christmas time are rarely reflective of current tastes (cough Cliff Richard cough cough Bob the Builder). Normal service will be resumed presently. Though to call this record’s stint at the top a ‘moment’ is a slight under-exaggeration (what is the opposite of an exaggeration?) It stayed there for seven weeks – hitting the top spot as early as the second last week in November! People clearly loved it.

Searching out the right version of this song has been a bit tough. Belafonte recorded various live versions, and an extended version in the early-60s, though the link below should be the song that topped the charts for Christmas ’57. But if you asked me what the best version of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ is, I’d have to say Boney M’s!