Random Runners-up: ‘Cool Water’, by Frankie Laine with the Mellomen

My special feature for the week is a moment in the sun for the singles that didn’t quite make it to the top. These aren’t particularly long-running, or unlucky #2 singles. They may not even be particularly good… They all simply peaked in the runners-up position.

Today’s random runner-up takes us back a good ol’ while…

‘Cool Water’, by Frankie Laine with the Mellomen

#2 for 3 weeks, behind ‘Rose Marie‘, from 5th – 26th August 1955

Before Slade or T Rex, before the Stones and the Beatles, before even Elvis himself, one man dominated the UK singles chart in its earliest days: Frankie Laine.

In 1953, the first full year of the singles chart, he scored three #1s that lasted at the top for a staggering twenty-eight weeks (!) This record was his 16th Top 20 hit in under 3 years. Everything he recorded turned to chart gold… Which perhaps explains the success of ‘Cool Water.’ It was a hit by default.

Or maybe its been so long since I reviewed a pre-rock single I’ve forgotten how dull most of them were. It’s a song from a Western, about a cowboy lost in the desert, dragging his horse, Dan, along in search of water. Cool, clear, water….

Dan can y’see that big green tree, Where the water’s runnin’ free…? Dan doesn’t answer because it’s just a mirage, and he’s just a horse. It’s very 1955, this song, and it fits right in with the spaghetti-western film-score feel of #1s like ‘The Man From Laramie‘, ‘Give Me Your Word‘, and the 11-week mega chart-topper that held this off top-spot, ‘Rose Marie’.

A few months after this hit #2, ‘Rock Around the Clock‘ would come along and that would be that. Rock ‘n’ roll would be here to stay. Frankie Laine’s chart-topping days would be numbered, although he remained a recording artist into the 1970s. In fact, he would re-record ‘Cool Water’ in 1961, for an album titled ‘Hell Bent for Leather’ (Is it just me, or does that sound more S&M than C&W…?)

Meanwhile, the Mellomen, who provide the actually quite cool deep-voiced Cooool Water… backing vocals, have also appeared on a #1 themselves: Rosemary Clooney’s ‘Mambo Italiano‘ earlier in the same year. A fun, catchy song that reminds us there actually were some great chart-toppers before Bill Haley and Co. came along.

One last #2 coming up tomorrow…

‘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!’

40. ‘Christmas Alphabet’, by Dickie Valentine

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Christmas Alphabet, by Dickie Valentine (his 2nd of two #1s)

3 weeks, from 16th December 1955 to 6th January 1956

And so we come across something I never considered when I started this blog: the fact that I will, every so often, have to listen to Christmas songs on repeat. When it most emphatically isn’t Christmas. No matter. ‘Tis a burden I shall bear stoically.

The very first Christmas song to hit #1 in the UK is based around a simple concept – an acrostic poem as hit single. C is for the candy trimmed around the Christmas tree, H is for the happiness with all the family… All the way to the final S which is for Ol’ Santa who makes every kid his pet, Be good and he’ll bring you everything in your Christmas alphabet… Repeat. Done. Note that I am not referring to it as the very first ‘Christmas Number One’, as that wasn’t a ‘thing’ until the ’70s and, technically, Al Martino, Frankie Laine and Winifred Atwell have all already had one.

It’s kind of cute on first listen, but quickly becomes so sugary sweet that you begin to fear diabetes. As I mentioned at the time of his 1st number one, Dickie Valentine still sings like an American crooner (apart from when his ever-so-proper English accent sneaks through in the line about the ‘tree so tawl’). And while this little ditty is a world away from any kind of rock ‘n’ roll – from the record which bookended this song’s stay at the top, for example – he is cementing his image as the first British teen idol.

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A quick look at the career of Mr. Valentine – which we should do now, as we won’t be hearing from him again – proves this to be true. He made his name singing with big bands, then by impersonating singers such as Frankie Laine and Johnnie Ray. His marriage in 1954 caused hysteria among his young fans, though it clearly didn’t kill his career. An image search throws up lots of cheeky grins, often accompanied by a boater-hat and a bow-tie – a definite ‘cheeky-chappie’. He scored the first and last #1s of 1955 but, like so many of these early chart-toppers, his recording career died a death in the ’60s, and he himself died the most rock ‘n’ roll death of all the artists featured so far: in a car crash aged just 41.

To finish, I do have a little anecdote about Dickie Valentine – and it’ll perhaps be my most tenuous link to any of the artists featuring in this rundown. Years ago (we’re talking early high school, here) I had a friend whose family loved going on cruises. I’ve never understood the appeal of cruises myself, but I suppose that’s irrelevant here. My friend mentioned a cruise they’d been on in which each cabin had – for some reason – a live feed of the ship’s ballroom that passengers could tune into any time of the day or night. My friend was watching it one night – disco night – when an old man, unimpressed by the DJs more modern tastes, walked past the camera and shouted ‘Play some Dickie Valentine!’. I have NO IDEA why my friend told me this uninteresting story; or indeed why I have remembered it to this day. I’d never heard of Dickie Valentine at the time; neither, presumably, had my friend. I suppose it is quite a funny name (‘Hur, hur… Dickie…’). But of all the things in life I’d have been better off remembering… The mind is a strange, strange thing.

39. ‘(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock’, by Bill Haley & His Comets

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(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock, by Bill Haley and His Comets (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 25th November to 16th December 1955 / 2 weeks, from 6th to 20th January 1956 (5 weeks total)

This is it. Strap yourselves in! A new era begins right… Now!

1, 2, 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock rock! 5, 6, 7 o’clock, 8 o’clock rock! 9, 10…

You know how it goes. Everyone does! Put your gladrags on, join me hon’…

It is undoubtedly ‘rockier’ than anything that’s gone before. Earlier chart toppers have featured guitars and drums – I’ve been surprised by just how many – but none have used the instruments in this way. The guitars stab at the listener, the double bass twangs and the drums bang out a very frisky rhythm. There are lyrics about dancing (more than just dancing…?) and never going to bed, while there’s also a pretty aggressive saxophone solo.

There are two things to consider here, both of which affect how I approach this seminal record. To my cynical modern ears, first of all, it sounds pretty tame, a bit of a nursery-rhyme, a bit babyish. Sixty-three years have done a lot to blunt its edge. Much in the same way that nobody in 2018 is going to be truly disturbed while watching ‘Psycho’, or truly terrified by ‘The Exorcist’, nobody is quite going to get the visceral thrill that this record must have provided when bored sixteen year olds across the land lowered the needle and heard that gunshot-drum intro.

Of course, ploughing my way through the thirty-eight earlier #1s, through the David Whitfields, the Eddie Calverts and the Vera Lynns, has undoubtedly helped this record to stand out. I can understand why this would have been thrilling to the kids and alarming to their parents. I can picture Aunt Marjorie clutching at her pearls. I get why it was so big; why it was the UK’s 1st million-selling record.

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But. Yes, now for the ‘buts’… There’s the well-trodden argument that ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ in this form was already just weak R&B, diluted for a white audience. And Bill Haley wasn’t exactly a shock-rocker. He was in his thirties by the time ‘Rock Around the Clock’ became a hit – plump and very white, with a weird-looking curl of hair stuck to his forehead. The rest of his Comets were similarly plain.

Plus, there’s the fact that this wasn’t a new song, at least not by the time it hit #1. It had been released almost a year earlier, hitting the lower reaches of the chart. Then it was re-promoted and crawled its way to the top, taking longer than any of this year’s other chart-toppers to get there. It certainly didn’t arrive at the top out of nowhere. And, it goes without saying, this wasn’t the first rock ‘n’ roll hit single. Number one singles don’t tell the whole story of the charts.

And, just to cap off my attempt to single-handedly destroy the reputation of this much-admired record, I’ve always thought The Comet’s follow-up single, ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ was much heavier, much more in the true spirit of ROCK (fists clenched!) with it’s misogynistic references to women, it’s sax-slash-guitar riff, and its genuinely raunchy lyrics: I’m a one-eyed cat, creepin’ in a seafood store (a very abstract innuendo, but think about it…) It was a cover of an even more raucous rhythm and blues hit, but only reached #4. Compare and contrast here.

So, in summary, this wasn’t the first rock ‘n’ roll record, or even the first hit rock ‘n’ roll record. It wasn’t the first release of the song, it hit the top in the UK nearly two years after it’s first recording, and Bill Haley recorded better, heavier rock songs. But… But, but, but. This is the one that everyone remembers. The times they were a-changing. Something has to represent this new musical wave, this spirit of teen rebellion, and this record is it. At least until Elvis comes along.

One final note. Back in the mid-nineties, when I had a short-lived attempt at learning the keyboard, this was one of the very first songs I could play. At least, I could play the intro. Just about. And this, perhaps more than anything, signals that we are in new territory here. I wasn’t learning ‘I Believe’, or ‘Rose Marie’. And yes, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ is a stupidly easy song to play – the intro is the same note played nine times in a row – but it is also a song that everyone knows. The mist is clearing, we are emerging from the pre-rock swamp, and an increasing number of these #1 singles are going to be songs that I, you, people, know.

38. ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’, by The Johnston Brothers

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Hernando’s Hideaway, by The Johnston Brothers (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 11th to 25th November 1955

It’s starting to feel like, rather than passing comment on each UK #1 single, I’m actually reviewing a soundtrack album. The soundtrack album to a very cheesy Western. ‘Rose Marie’ was the big ballad, ‘The Man from Laramie’ was the theme song, and now ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ is…

What exactly is this? It’s hard to tell. Gone are the days when you could file pretty much every UK #1 under ‘overwrought ballad’ or ‘perky novelty. It’s another song that tells a story, about a drinking den – a dark secluded place, a place where no-one knows your face – and, again, has lyrics so obscure and specific that it must be from a film, or musical… There are silhouettes, and castanets, glasses of wine, and fast embraces. Hernando’s may actually be (whisper it!) more than just a bar…

Two lines in particular really set the scene: Just knock three times and whisper low, That you and I were sent by Joe, Then strike a match and you will know, You’re in Hernando’s Hideaway! It’s a very quirky song. And I mean that in the best possible way: the first forty seconds, for example, consist simply of voices and castanets. Then the violins kick in and we’re into a swaying, sweeping tango. Whereas ‘The Man from Laramie’ just sounded silly away from the context of the film; this song actually makes me want to watch whatever film or musical that it’s from.

And I could resist no longer – I had to Google and find out just where this funny little song originated. And it was indeed a show tune! (I’ve still got the knack!) A show tune from ‘The Pajama Game’: a musical about – wait for it – labour disputes in a pyjama factory… Seriously. It opened on Broadway in ’54, in the West End a year later, and thus explains the popularity of this track in the autumn of 1955. And when I say ‘popularity’, I mean ‘popularity’. Wikipedia lists 33 (thirty-three!) different recordings of the song. Contemporaneous to the Johnston Brother’s hit were versions from our friends Alma Cogan, Johnnie Ray and Mantovani, as well as versions yet to come from stars as varied as Ella Fitzgerald and The Everly Brothers.

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And what of the Johnston Brothers themselves? I had an image of identical twins, sharp suited and shiny-teethed. Bob and Billy Johnston, perhaps. Except, there were actually four members in the band – only one of whom was called Johnston. Johnny Johnston (great name!) formed the band and gave them their title. As the picture shows, they don’t look especially sharp or glossy (they were British, after all), and they faded away after a handful of hits.

‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ is proving to be one of those songs that improves with every listen. At first it was a curiosity; now I’m rather taken with the bizarreness of it. It is, I can say with complete confidence, the strangest UK #1 since The Stargazers hit the top with their barroom sing-along ‘I See the Moon’. Actually, 1955 has proven to be quite the eclectic year for chart-topping singles – the crazed sway of ‘Mambo Italiano’, the raunchy trumpets of Perez Prado, the lone-star yodelling of Slim Whitman. It hasn’t always been great, but at least it’s been interesting. Which wasn’t something we were saying back when David Whitfield and Frankie Laine were out-snoozing each other with their soporific ballads. 1955 has also been the year of the soundtrack hit, with this being the 6th chart-topper to emerge from a film or musical. Given that, as I write this, the UK Charts are filled with songs from ‘The Greatest Showman’ soundtrack, there’s a nice symmetry here. In some ways the charts of 2018 are unrecognisable from those topped by the Johnston Brothers; in other ways very little has changed.

Anyway, if this last bit has sounded like a round-up of sorts, well, it was kind of unavoidable. This has been the 38th UK Number One; and the end of an era. The ‘pre-rock’ era, that is…

37. ‘The Man from Laramie’, by Jimmy Young

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The Man from Laramie, by Jimmy Young (his 2nd of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 14th October to 11th November 1955

He’s back. Like Rosemary Clooney earlier in 1955, Jimmy Young grabs two chart-toppers – his only two chart toppers – in pretty short order. Burning briefly but brightly.

Back in the autumn of ’53, when Frankie Laine was pounding the charts with hit after hit, I introduced the concept of the ‘shadow hit’ – the song that does well because it follows on from a massive hit record. Laine spent 18 weeks at number one with ‘I Believe’ before the somewhat less memorable ‘Hey Joe’ grabbed a fortnight in its wake. Well, we have our second ‘shadow number-one’ right here. As much as I struggled to appreciate Jimmy Young’s interpretation of ‘Unchained Melody’, I cannot argue that it isn’t a classic and a 20th Century standard. ‘The Man from Laramie’, however…

It’s a song that tells a story. The story of a man. The man from Laramie. The man with the peaceful turn of mind, kinda sociable and friendly, friendly as any man could be… BUT underestimate him at your peril. For you never saw a man outdraw – the Man from Laramie! The ladies loved him, everyone admired him, danger was this man’s speciality… You get the picture.

Musically this is very watered down, music-hall Country & Western (BBC C&W, perhaps?) compared to the record it replaced at the top. The music itself is nothing more than an irritatingly simple rhythm picked out on a guitar. It’s all about the lyrics. And lyrically we are deep in the Wild West. Shoot-outs at noon, a fearless stranger with notches on his gun…

It’s a strange song. At least, it’s a strange song to have topped the sales charts for a whole month. The lyrics are so incredibly specific that they would only really make sense if they were from a musical or a movie (*Googles frantically*) And yes – ‘The Man from Laramie’ was indeed a film, a Western (obviously) starring James Stewart and this was the theme song. Our old friend Al Martino recorded – and only reached #19 – with his version. Jimmy reined supreme.

Out of interest, I gave the Martino version a listen. And while it’s the same cheesy song, with lyrics about shoot-outs blah blah blah that just sound weird away from the context of the movie, it sounds more professional, more polished, classier… better! I’ve mentioned it before – and I’ll doubtless mention it again – but this really has been a dominant theme among these early number ones. Americans really were doing it better. Why did they sound so cool, while the Brits still sounded so uptight and stuffy? Don’t believe me? Here’s a link to the Al Martino version. Compare and contrast it with the video below.

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I don’t need to go over again how I endured hours of Jimmy Young on the radio during my formative years (read all about it in the ‘Unchained Melody’ post). The hits dried up soon after he claimed these two chart-toppers and by the sixties he had moved into broadcasting where he remained popular and well-respected for four decades. I can’t help feeling, though, that he was someone who resented newer, more successful pop stars. I bet he loved complaining that you couldn’t make out a word Mick Jagger was singing. That music was so much better in his day. That kids these days didn’t know they were alive. He just had that air about him… (God, I clearly still have issues regarding those long car journeys that need working through.)

Anyway, if you enjoyed this latest chart-topper, this strange, time-capsule of a song with lyrical references to a movie that nobody has watched for decades, then you are in luck. Hang around for the 38th UK #1, coming shortly.

36. ‘Rose Marie’, by Slim Whitman

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Rose Marie, by Slim Whitman (his 1st and only #1)

11 weeks, from 29th July to 14th October 1955

Yee-Hah! I hoped, back when Tennessee Ernie Ford was topping the charts with ‘Give Me Your Word’, that we might be seeing our first Country and Western #1. Well, Ernie didn’t quite live up to his name but we didn’t have to wait long. This is country with a capital C O U N T R and Y.

Slim Whitman stands alone on the prairie. The setting sun casts an orange glow across this horizon. Cacti spread their long shadows over the dirty ground. A tumbleweed bounces lazily by. Slim picks up his spittoon, clears his throat, and begins… Oh Rose, my Rose Marie… I love you… I’m always dreaming of you…

It’s an atmospheric record, I’ll grant you that. Just a piano, a simple rhythm and that weird noise which is the epitome of old, Nashville C&W: strange and echoing, made either by guitars submerged in water or sped up recordings of whale noises. You’ll know it as soon as you hear it.

Anyway, Slim can’t forget Rose Marie, and even wishes he’d never met her. Then he hums as he thinks of her. It’s quite effective. You really can picture him wandering plaintively past hail bays and broken barn doors, as the light finally fades.

There are definitely some pros to this 36th UK chart topper: it is quite an understated ballad, lacking the OTT grandstanding of some of its predecessors, while there are definitely some ‘rockier’ elements to the song too in the twangy guitars and the piano riff. But there are definitely some cons too: Whitman’s voice comes far too close to yodelling for my liking (My Ro-OOse Marie), for example. Some nice touches; some things jar.

I was planning to write something indignant about this record spending 11 (Eleven!) consecutive weeks at the top – setting a record that would last for thirty-six years. But the more I listen to it, the more ‘Rose Marie’ is getting under my skin. It’s simple, it’s heartfelt, it’s kinda cute. There’s another fade, rather than a bombastic finale: a long drawn out note and a piano refrain.

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It’s not a bad way to claim your sole chart-topper – double figures then out – though Slim Whitman did have a handful of other hits. Pictures of him show a very dapper looking pseudo-cowboy with a natty little moustache. It almost goes without saying, by now, that he lived to a ripe old age: dying at ninety in 2013. ‘Rose Marie’ itself (herself?) dates from far earlier than 1955 – from a 1924 opera of the same name, written by none other than Oscar Hammerstein II. And that, fact fans, is that.

35. ‘Dreamboat’, by Alma Cogan

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Dreamboat, by Alma Cogan (her 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 15th to 29th July 1955

This is more like it! This is a pop song – a pop song as we would recognise one today. In our countdown so far I would count perhaps only Guy Mitchell’s ‘Look at that Girl’, and now this, as examples of The Modern Pop Song. No orchestras, no silly declarations of love, no grandstand finishes… Just a quick beat, a doo-doo-doo, and some lyrics about how in love the singer is.

I know this song quite well, and have it in regular rotation in my Spotify library, though I’m not sure how or why. I know next to nothing about Alma Cogan and, as you may have been able to tell from previous posts, I haven’t explored this era in popular music very extensively at all. It must have popped up as a suggestion – Spotify does love a suggestion – and I must have liked it enough to save it.

Anyway, know it I do. In fact, I don’t just know it – I love it! Cogan has this little flip in her voice at the start of every line, which makes her sound like an excitable school girl. And, for this song it really works. She’s got a crush, you see: You dreamboat, you loveable dreamboat, the kisses you gave me, set my dreams afloat… She’s besotted, and would follow the object of her desire anywhere – she would sail the seven seas, in fact: even if you told me to go and paddle my own canoe (I can’t help but think that sounds like a euphemism – ‘Just off to paddle my canoe darling, don’t wait up’).

There isn’t much else to ‘Dreamboat’ -it’s a fun little ditty. Cogan sings it well, with the perfect pronunciation we’ve come to expect but also with a light, playful touch that’s been missing from many of the number ones thus far. She sounds like she’s having a ball, as if she has a big, broad smile on her face while belting it out. Again, it’s a female singer having a good time. Contrast this with the song it replaced at the top – Jimmy Young’s painfully earnest take on ‘Unchained Melody’. Even in 1955 girls were having all the fun. It’s a noticeably shorter record than all the previous chart toppers as well, clocking in at well under two minutes, and that’s one of the most important things to consider when writing a brilliant pop song: make sure that it doesn’t outstay its welcome!

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It’s a shame, I think, that this is Alma Cogan’s only song on this countdown. I like the cut of her gib. She was another young, British-born singer who, along with Ruby Murray and Dickie Valentine earlier in 1955, was dragging popular music away from old crusties like Vera Lynn and David Whitfield and towards the teenagers, towards rock ‘n’ roll. This is a song, essentially, about a hunk and his sweet kisses.

A quick look at Cogan’s Wiki throws up a colourful picture: the highest paid female star of the late ’50s, serial winner of the NME Outstanding British Female Singer award, and perennial visitor to the Top 10. Parties with Princess Margaret, Cary Grant and Noel Coward. An affair with a young John Lennon just as the Beatles were shooting to fame. And then dead at the tragically young age of thirty-four…

A life well lived, though cut far too short. I have a feeling that I’ll miss her even more – this ‘Girl with the Giggle’ – when we return to the bog-standard, plodding ‘pre-rock’ songs that I fear are still to clock up the charts, before rock truly lands.

34. ‘Unchained Melody’, by Jimmy Young

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Unchained Melody, by Jimmy Young (his 1st of two #1s)

3 weeks, from 24th June to 15th July 1955

Forget ‘I Believe’, discard ‘How Much is that Doggie’, don’t mention ‘Mambo Italiano’… For the first time in this countdown, we have a song that everyone knows.

We’ve flirted with legend so far. Sinatra and Doris Day have hit the top, but not with any of their most famous recordings. Frankie Laine has set an unbeatable chart record with a song that will be unmistakeable to people of a certain age. And there have been other chart toppers that people might be able to sing a couple of lines from. But everyone, and I repeat everyone, knows ‘Unchained Melody’.

But not everyone will know this version. 4 (Four!) versions of ‘Unchained Melody’ have hit top spot in the UK charts – take a bow The Righteous Brothers, Robson & Jerome, and Gareth Gates, we shall hear from you anon. With these versions – the former especially – ingrained in popular culture, Jimmy Young’s version is a strange listen.

The tempo is faster, for a start. Then there are the Spanish guitars, when we are used to it being a piano led song. And then there is the clipped, British delivery. No glossy, American vocals here. Young’s voice is deep, sonorous even. It’s technically a good voice. But there is more than a whiff of David Whitfield about it, especially when he belts out the line Are you still MIIIIIIINE?

He still needs your love, and would like God to speed your love to him. It is the same song, but it’s not. I think that were this a more forgotten hit – a ‘Give Me Your Word’ for example -it might simply file in amongst all the other stiff, slightly overwrought, pre-rock ballads that we have sat through so far. But, unfortunately for Jimmy Young, people took this song and turned it into one of the most instantly recognisable pieces of popular music ever recorded. And his version, while still not the original (there were, inevitably, four other versions in the chart during the summer of ’55), now sounds very dated next to the more modern interpretations.

Interestingly, though, as we study the evolution of the number one record through time, we have a first here. At least, I think it’s a first (I can’t be bothered going back and listening to all the previous thirty-three). So many of these hits have favoured a bombastic THIS IS THE END OF THE SONG approach to the final chorus (to be referred to from now on as a TITEOES ending). And what song would have better suited this kind of OTT climax than ‘Unchained Melody’? But no. What we have here is Young singing the last line – God speed your love to me – the final note being held, the guitars strumming and a fade. A fade! And it works pretty well. It is, ironically – considering the time in which it was recorded – the most understated ending out of the four chart topping versions.

Why, though, is it called ‘Unchained Melody’ when the lyrics make no reference to being ‘unchained’? Is it because the singer is unchaining his heart, and pouring out his feelings to the one he loves? That would be a sensible guess, but no. We might as well address this here, though I am aware that I will have sod all to write about by the time we stumble across the Gareth Gates version. The song is from a film called ‘Unchained’, and is therefore the melody from ‘Unchained’. Kind of like Mantovani’s ‘Song from Moulin Rouge’. Simple. The film has been forgotten, but it lingers on in the title of a world-famous love song. And, it keeps up our run of film soundtrack #1s – four in a row, and counting. Of course, ‘Unchained Melody’ is also very well known for being in an ultra famous scene from another movie: ‘Ghost’. Which is turning this all very meta – kind of like the play within a play. Or not. I think I should stop writing soon.

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But I can’t finish without mentioning the man who has played barely a supporting role in this post so far: Jimmy Young himself. I’ve not so far been able to relate many of these early chart toppers to life events, experiences, or memories… But I do have a special place in my heart for Jimmy Young.

He was known by most as a Radio 2 DJ, rather than a singer. My parents love a bit of Radio 2 – as parents tend to do – and while I did put in some half-hearted protests for Radio 1, or even a commercial station (Shock! Horror!), I didn’t actually mind long car journeys with Steve Wright or Wogan or whoever. But I hated the two hours over lunch when Jimmy Young came on to talk about, ugh, politics, the world, society and the issues of the day. Then I would really protest, and my parents would usually concede to putting ‘ABBA Gold’ on for a bit.

Young just came across as a crusty old man, who thought youngsters didn’t know how easy they had it, who was definitely in favour of bringing back National Service, maybe even hanging… This is obviously all complete speculation on my part (though I see now that he had a column in the Daily Express – draw your own conclusions there…) and he’s dead so I shouldn’t be too rude. He did talk an awful lot, though. And yet I look back on those days fondly now, sitting in a car on our way to a fortnight in, I don’t know, Devon, listening to an old man chuntering on – an old man I had no idea had been a chart-topping singer.

33. ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Eddie Calvert

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Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, by Eddie Calvert (his 2nd of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 27th May to 24th June 1955

And so, for the second time in chart history, two versions of the same song take their turn at the top. It’s not quite as dramatic as David Whitfield and Frankie Laine replacing one another with ‘Answer Me’ back in November 1953 (and then completing the ’50s chart bingo board by tying for the number one slot), but still.

You do have to wonder, once again, why people needed multiple versions of the same song. Was it a case of people buying every version of ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’ going because they really loved the song? Or was it Team Perez Vs Team Eddie? As far as I’m concerned, there should only have been one winner…

This is the knock-off version, the Poundland version, the 2-bit ringtone version… you get the idea. It is the same tune: the same notes and rhythm without any of the oomph of Prado’s version. Calvert is trying all the same tricks, even doing the same drawn-out, low then high, note that Billy Regis did to such giddy effect on the original. (I know they are contemporaneous, but the Prado version will from now on be ‘the original’ to me) Even Calvert’s trumpet sounds different, reedy, not up to the task. Why on earth this lasted twice as long at number one is a mystery.

But… maybe it shouldn’t be. Calvert was British, for a start, not some moustachioed Cuban. And everything about this record that I’m filing in the ‘Against’ column – the fact that it’s a bit restrained, a bit stiff, a bit less raunchy – probably actually explains this version’s greater success. Calvert was from Preston, and he certainly did not go ‘Huh!’, ‘Ooh!’ and ‘Aah!’ during his records. Respectable households could drop this disc on to the gramophone after Sunday lunch safe in the knowledge that grandma wouldn’t be requiring the smelling salts.

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There is a section, towards the end of this version, in which Calvert goes a little wild and takes it away from Prado’s version, which is commendable, but no. The ending of this version, in particular, is a complete damp squib. It’s not an awful #1 – a good tune is a good tune – but Perez Prado just did so much more with it. We won’t be hearing from Eddie Calvert again in this countdown, I’m not terribly sad to say. He burned brightly, but briefly, and didn’t have an awful lot of singles chart success beyond 1955.

It’s worth also noting here that we are in the midst of a film/musical soundtrack run here: two versions of ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, which featured in the Jane Russell movie ‘Underwater!’, as well as Tony Bennett’s Broadway hit ‘Stranger in Paradise’ sandwiched between. I suppose it would be hard to downplay the role cinemas had in influencing music buying tastes in the 1950s. Very few people owned a TV set, radio barely played any chart music… Films were one of the few places where people could actually hear current, popular music. Get your song in a film and hey presto! And it’s a trick that still works to this day.