Remembering Bobby Darin

Named after a faulty sign outside a Chinese restaurant (the letters M-A-N were blacked out, leaving only D-A-R-I-N), today we remember perhaps the most underrated of the big fifties stars…

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Underrated, perhaps, because nobody knew where to fit him in. He didn’t look much like a teen-idol. He could sing rock ‘n’ roll, as well as more old-fashioned swing and jazz. His hit singles include both self-penned songs, like his debut ‘Splish Splash’, and modern interpretations of standards, such as his 1961 Top 10, ‘You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby’.

Born in Harlem, New York, in 1936, into a family of low-level mobsters and vaudeville singers, his mother was actually his grandma and his sister his biological mother  – a fact he didn’t find out until he was in his thirties. He was a sickly child, with recurring bouts of rheumatic fever, and always knew that he was not expected to live to an old age.

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(The sheet music for Darin’s first big hit.)

Which perhaps explains why he crammed so much into his short life. Songwriter, singer, actor, presenter, political campaigner, chess player… His two UK chart toppers perhaps best sum up his approach to life and music. In the space of four months in 1959 he hit #1 with the swaying rock ‘n’ roll ballad ‘Dream Lover’

And then with a cover of ‘Mack the Knife’, a German musical number from the 1920s, about a murdering, thieving, raping ‘shark’ called MacHeath…

Two number ones of the highest quality. ‘Mack the Knife’ stands out in particular – it doesn’t sound much like any of the other hits of the time, and the lyrics are pretty niche. It’s simply a record that got to #1 because it’s really, really good. Darin continued to have hits through the early sixties, including karaoke standard ‘Beyond the Sea’ and one of my personal faves, ‘Things’.

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(Bobby Darin with Connie Francis – whom he wrote songs for and had a relationship with – and Ed Sullivan in 1960.)

As the sixties progressed he moved into films, then TV and political campaigning. Darin was heavily involved in Robert F. Kennedy’s career, and he went into a deep depression when Kennedy was assassinated, having been present when it happened.

He continued to perform right up until his death, and by the end was on oxygen before and after each performance. Bobby Darin passed away during an operation on his heart, aged just thirty seven.

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Bobby Darin, May 14th 1936 – December 20th 1973

 

94. ‘What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?’, by Emile Ford & The Checkmates

What’s that I hear? Tick, tick, tick, tick… Is it a clock racing to the turn of a decade? From the Fabulous Fifties to the Swinging Sixties? Tick, tick, tick, tick… Or is it just the intro to this next chart-topper?

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What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?, by Emile Ford and The Checkmates (their 1st and only #1)

6 weeks, from 18th December 1959 – 29th January 1960 (including 1 week joint with Adam Faith from 18th – 25th December 1959)

It begins with some ticks, and then the vocals swoop in. This is a Doo-Wop record in the truest sense: in that much of it consists of the backing singers – The Checkmates, presumably – going a-doo-wop bee doo be doo be doo-wop…

I love this song, I do. What with all the doo-wops, the key changes and the brilliant false ending I can’t see how anyone could fail to enjoy it. I first heard it on a compilation called ‘Don’t Stop – Doo Wop’, which must have been released in the early ‘90s and which I picked up in a second hand CD shop years ago. I think I mentioned it in my post on The Teenagers’ ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’, which also featured on it.

The lyrics, though, to ‘What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?’ (abbreviated forever more into WDYWTMTEAMF because that is a hell of a title to type out in full)… Hmmm. Questionable. What do you wanna make those eyes at me for, If they don’t mean what they say… That sounds like the justifications of a sex pest: “She was askin’ for it, guv! Those eyes!” You’re foolin’ around with me now, We-ell you lead me on and then you run away… She does sound like a tease… Of course, during these enlightened #MeToo times, we know that no means no. In 1959 it was perhaps a different story. We-ell that’s alright, I’ll get you alone tonight… Ok… And baby you’ll find, You’re messing with dynamite… Oo-er. Sexual dynamite? Or is he just going to give the disobedient hussy a black eye?

I jest, I jest… I’m willing to give Emile Ford the benefit of the doubt, as he keeps this song the right side of jaunty throughout and, to be honest, you can listen to it several times – as I did – without ever noticing the slightly sinister lyrical undertones. And, in defence of the 1950s as a whole – a decade, don’t forget, in which certain professions were closed to women, in which hotels could stick ‘No Blacks, No Irish’ in their windows, in which gay men were being slung in jail, in which people could still be sentenced to hanging – there have been very few #1 singles that stand out as troublesome for the modern listener. Very few lyrics have veered away from the catchy or the bland. I’d perhaps nominate WDYWTMTEAMF  and Guy Mitchell’s ‘She Wears Red Feathers’, from way back when (i.e. 1953) as being the most ‘of their time.’

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As I mentioned in my last post, this disc was one of the last two records ever to share the top-spot in the UK charts. I suggested earlier that the death of the joint number one was due to a wider range of sales figures coming in but now I’ve just realised another theory: there will never be two such similarly titled #1 singles sitting at the top of the charts. Think about it: people go in to HMV looking to buy ‘What Do You Want?’ by Adam Faith, take a quick glance at the shelves, and come away with ‘What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?’ by Emile Ford! Or vice-versa. Must have happened loads! Mystery solved.

WDYWTMTEAMF (that might actually be more of a pain to type than just writing it out in full) has quite the story, beyond this most famous of versions. It was written in 1916 (!) as a duet – in which the woman actually got to defend her wanton ways – and has been recorded by acts as varied as Shakin’ Stevens and former England, Barcelona and Tottenham manager Terry Venables. (Yes. Seriously.)

And so. We come to the end of the 1950s. And the start of the 1960s. Is this the last #1 record of the ‘50s, or the first of the ‘60s? Philosophical questions best left for another day. We are about to delve into a decade that will bring the most innovative pop ever recorded, the birth of modern rock, Merseybeat, Flower Power, psychedelica etc. and so on. So, I thought it might be interesting to gaze forward to the record that will be atop the charts on 31st December 1969, and to wonder at the advancements to come over the next ten years. Except. The final #1 of the sixties will be… ahem… ‘Two Little Boys’ by Rolf Harris. So… From a record with sex-offender lyrics to a record by an actual, convicted sex-offender. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the 1960s!

Let’s linger a while yet in the more innocent air of 1959, and end this post as Emile Ford (the first, and presumably only, St. Lucian to hit #1 in the UK – correct me if I’m wrong)  ended his sole chart-topping hit. Possibly the best ending we’ve heard yet. One more time, then: adoo-wop bee doo be doo be doo-wop be doo be doo be doo-wop be doo be doo be doo… Yeah!

93. ‘What Do You Want?’, by Adam Faith

So. I finish writing that last post, search out the next chart-topping record on Spotify – ‘What Do You Want’ by Adam Faith – and settle down to take some notes. The song begins… And then the song finishes. I take precisely two notes, the second of which is ‘This song is short…’

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What Do You Want?, by Adam Faith (his 1st of two #1s)

3 weeks, from 4th – 25th December 1959 (including 1 week joint with Emile Ford & The Checkmates from 18th – 25th December)

It is, in fact, the shortest ever UK #1 single, clocking in at 1 minute and 38 seconds. That is seriously short. We’ve covered plenty of records thus far that have hovered around the two minute mark. This knocks a full twenty seconds off them. Adam Faith gets in and gets out, and gets his first chart-topper. (For the record, we’ll be meeting the longest UK #1 single – a nine-minutes-plus behemoth – in exactly thirty eight years’ and two months’ time. Bonus points for those who can name it.)

The first note I took upon listening to ‘What Do You Want’ was: ‘Strong whiff of ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’. Now, I wouldn’t ever want to use a phrase liked ‘ripped off’… So let’s just say Mr. Faith and his song writing team were heavily influenced by Buddy Holly’s recent, posthumous hit. It’s sung at the same pace, with the same staccato strings, while Faith tries to replicate Holly’s famous hiccup.

What do you want if you don’t want money, What do you want if you don’t want gold… Say what you want and I’ll give it you darlin’, Wish you wanted my love baby… Adam loves a girl, but she isn’t feeling it. So Adam hurls all sorts of rubies and trinkets at her – ermines and pearls, amongst others – but to no avail. It’s not the best message to be sending out in a song… maybe she’s just not that into you Adam, yeah?

He even gets a little petty in the final verse: One of these days when you need my kissin’,  One of these days when you want me too, Don’t turn around ‘cos I’ll be missin’, Then you’ll want my love, baby… I get the feeling that this girl just thinks he’s a dick, no matter what he buys her.

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I know, I know – I’m perhaps looking a little too hard into what is an extremely light and fluffy #1 single. It’s cute, it’s jaunty, and it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome. Adam Faith’s voice is kind of endearing as well. He’s not a great singer; but he lends the song something distinctive (check out his ‘bay-buh’), and he’s a clear successor to the likes of Dickie Valentine and Tommy Steele in the British cheeky-chappy, teen idol stakes. I’ll delve deeper into his life and works when he scores his second chart-topper in a few months.

But for now I’m struggling to think of much more to write… Perhaps such a short song requires a short post. One final thing to note is that the penultimate #1 of the 1950s is also one of the last two songs ever to have tied for the top spot. It’s happened four times now: once each in 1953, 1957, 1958 and now ’59. It seems that the upcoming switch of the ‘official’ chart from the NME to Record Retailer will have something to do with killing off the tied number one (more record shops’ sales figures going towards the charts, perhaps?) I can confidently say that it will never happen again, such is the accuracy with which sales and streams are tracked nowadays. Apparently if it does, the song with the biggest increase in sales for that particular week will be given the #1 position – kind of like goal-difference in football. And part of me is slightly sad about that… Farewell, then, to the shared number one single. Well, after we’ve covered the record with which Adam Faith had to share, that is.

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.

90. ‘Here Comes Summer’, by Jerry Keller

Number ninety! If this was Bingo we’d be top of the shop. And to celebrate this milestone – a record I’d never ever heard before.

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Here Comes Summer, by Jerry Keller (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 9th – 16th October 1959

I’ve mentioned this a couple of times now, but what was quite common back when I started this blog is now pretty rare. I know more and more of these songs as we push on through the first flushes of rock ‘n’ roll and into the canon of pop and rock. So it’s quite nice to come across a disc that I have truly never heard of. ‘Here Comes Summer’? Nope. Jerry Keller? Who’s he?

Well, I think he may be related to Cliff. Cliff’s long lost American cousin, perhaps? I take it all back – what I said in my last post, and before, about US singers being intrinsically cooler than their British counterparts. Because this is a twee little number.

First things first – I quite like the riff that underpins this song. Though I’m not sure it counts as a riff, more of a chug. It’s kind of a proto-Beach Boys, gentle surf-rock lilt. If that makes any sense. And towards the end an organ comes in for emphasis, which is pretty nice. The backing singers are very ‘pre-rock’, but Jerry Keller himself is very clean-cut rock ‘n’ roll. And beyond all that… we have the lyrics.

Here comes summer… do-do-do-do… School is out, Oh happy day… It’s the summer holidays, and Jerry couldn’t be happier. He’s got lots of plans: hanging out with his girl, hanging out with his buddies… We’ll go swimming every day, Oh let the sun shine bright, On my happy summer home…

What follows are lyrics about his flat-top (which I always thought was a type of open-top car – turns out it’s a short back and sides!), drive-in movies, (double features – more time to hold her tight!), sittin’ by the lake and meetin’ the gang at Joe’s Café. It is a song that drips images of milkshakes, preppy sweaters, ball-games and sock-hops on to the floor of the juke-joint until we are ready to drown in all the cuteness.

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I guess, like so many of the cheesy sounding US-recorded hits that have topped the charts before this (I’m looking at you ‘Diana’, ‘When’, and ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’) it appealed because it sounded really exotic to British schoolkids in, say, Scunthorpe, whose dads still had an Anderson shelter in the garden and whose mums were still darning tights.

The song finishes on a romantic note. Jerry has high hopes for him and his girl: If she’s willing, We’ll go steady right away… (Aww..) And then, with a Here comes summer time at last… we reach an abrupt end. Summer is over. And summer was truly over when this reached the top of the UK charts. On the 9th of October. When the schools had been back for well over a month…

This is a perfectly harmless, kind of cute little song that zips along nicely for a couple of minutes. Beyond that I’m not sure it has much of a wider significance. There are strong notes of earlier, preppy-rock (a new genre I’ve just invented) #1s such as The Dream Weavers ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’ and Tab Hunter’s ‘Young Love’. Looming largest of all, though, is good old Pat Boone who, if Wiki is to be believed, was Keller’s friend from church and introduced him to his manager.

Jerry Keller is a one-hit wonder in the purest sense, in that he had had zero previous chart hits – in either the US or the UK – and would go on to have zero more. A 100% strike-rate for him, then. Well done! He’s still alive – aged eighty-one – and was apparently the go-to guy for TV jingles in the ‘70s and ‘80s! Well there ya go. Next up – a recap!

89. ‘Only Sixteen’, by Craig Douglas

Following on from Cliff, it’s another British rock ‘n’ roll disc taking up a considerable residency at the top of the UK Singles chart. Unlike Sir Cliff, the singer is completely unknown to me…

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Only Sixteen, by Craig Douglas (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 11th September – 9th October 1959

But first, a question. Why, oh why, couldn’t British rock ‘n’ roll acts of the 1950s take themselves seriously? Why does every rock ‘n’ roll chart topper from a British artist have the whiff – nay, the stench – of the Victorian music hall, of Skegness pier about it? Why weren’t we cool?

I make Craig Douglas the 5th UK-born rock ‘n’ roll chart topper, and the four previous – Tommy Steele, Lonnie Donegan, Lord Rockingham’s XI and Cliff – have made the top by blending simple rock melodies with a lot of silliness. OK, ‘Hoots Mon’ was a novelty record so we can perhaps let Lord Rockingham’s XI off. Lonnie Donegan was a pioneer in terms of his sound but old-fashioned when coming out with lyrics like ‘two old ladies sitting in the sand, each on wishing that the other was a man’. Tommy Steele camped ‘Singing the Blues’ right up, while ‘Living Doll’ was barely more than a nursery rhyme. (A very creepy nursery rhyme, but still). And you can trace this theme – this current of candyfloss that runs through our British hit singles – way back into the pre-rock days. The US was giving us ‘I Believe’; while the UK was replying with ‘I See the Moon’.

I suppose the big question is… (and I’m deliberately excluding women like Ruby Murray and Shirley Bassey as, while British and while quite classy, they definitely weren’t rock) what will be the first truly cool, suave and sophisticated British recorded rock ‘n’ roll record? Well, I can reveal… It’s not ‘Only Sixteen.’

This is more jauntiness, more end-of-the-pier winking and gurning. There’s whistling, and a guitar plucked so precisely that I think it might be a banjo. She was only sixteen, Only sixteen, I loved her so… Douglas’s voice is slightly shrill, quite posh and, to be honest, fairly average. It doesn’t quite fit the song. It sounds a bit like the dreaded David Whitfield, but a David Whitfield who’s debasing himself in an attempt to sing rock ‘n’ roll…

We’d laugh and we’d sing, And do the little things, That made my heart glow… Craig had a fling with a lass; but it didn’t last. She was too young to fall in love, I was too young to know… So far, so ‘Jackie Magazine’. Then comes the punchline: Why did I give my heart so fast, It never will happen again, I was a mere lad of sixteen, I’ve aged a year since then… Oh! Hahaha – he thinks he’s all grown up. At seventeen! The folly of youth.

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Yeah, it’s a cute line and all, but I don’t think it’s quite enough to build a whole song around. Plus, with that voice, I’m having trouble imagining that Craig Douglas was seventeen when he recorded this. *Plot twist* He was! But come on – look at that picture. That lad of sixteen must have had one hell of a paper round. And while we’re at it – Craig Douglas just isn’t the name of a chart-topping star. Craig Douglas lives next door to you, and is someone you avoid making conversation with on your way to the car in the morning.

I think we should just file this under ‘Of It’s Time’ and be done with it. ‘Only Sixteen’ isn’t a terrible record – it’s quite pleasant, really – but it won’t live with you long after hearing it. Craig Douglas is still with us, however – aged seventy-seven – and still tours, though his recording career didn’t last the Beatles-led cull of ’63.

To finish, and to illustrate my point about US singers being that much cooler than their British counterparts, just listen to Sam Cooke’s version of this song. It’s technically the original, though they were released around the same time, and has exactly the same melody and lyrics… But, you see what I mean? I think I may have finally put my finger on just what the difference is, though: the huge gulf in coolness between British and American stars. The Sam Cooke version, you see, doesn’t have Any. Bloody. Whistling!

88. ‘Living Doll’, by Cliff Richard & The Drifters

In which we meet the pre-eminent British popular singer of the day. And the next day. And the next. Next. Next. Basically, there will be no escaping Cliff for the following forty years…

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Living Doll, by Cliff Richard & The Drifters (Cliff’s 1st of fourteen #1s / The Drifters – AKA The Shadows – 1st of twelve #1s)

6 weeks, from 31st July – 11th September 1959

In the intro to my post on Shirley Bassey’s debut #1 I gave it the big fanfare about living legends and national treasures and so on. And let’s be honest, the same applies ten times over for Sir Clifford of Richard. He will go on to utterly dominate UK pop music, remaining a genuine chart presence well into the 2000s, even if he is probably more famous today for singing during the rain at Wimbledon and for suing the BBC over the way they covered allegations of… (REDACTED).

Let’s get to the music shall we? ‘Living Doll’ begins with a natty little bass intro, and then… Well it’s rock ‘n’ roll; but not as we know it. I’ve mentioned many a time the idea of ‘US’ Vs ‘UK’ rock ‘n’ roll: British singers taking on the Yanks at their own game and slowly getting better at it. Let’s be honest, the odds were stacked against the Brits with Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Johnnie Ray et al against Lonnie Donegan and, um, Tommy Steele. And with the arrival of ‘The British Elvis’ AKA Cool Cliff, you might think that this is the moment for Britain to really grab the rock ‘n’ roll flag for herself!

Except, no. ‘Living Doll’ is an extremely lightweight record. A couple of acoustic guitars. Cliff’s simpering vocals. And that’s about it. Got myself a cryin’, walkin’, sleepin’, talkin’, living doll… Got to do my best to please her, Just cos she’s a living doll… This is a song that I could have sung a few lines from – most Brits could, no? – without ever having listened to it properly. And it’s a song that doesn’t do well under more intense scrutiny.

Yes it sounds cheesy and flimsy with a whiff of George Formby in the background. But beyond all that there’s the problem of the lyrics… In the previous chart-topper, Bobby Darin was giving us a ‘girl as dream’ narrative. Here Cliff is giving us ‘girl as doll’, and taking it very literally: Well take a look at her hair, It’s real and if you don’t believe what I say just feel… Pretty creepy… Gonna lock her up in a trunk, So no big hunk, Can steal her away from me… Eww. That’s taking a metaphor way too far and then some. She’s either literally a doll with which Cliff is romancing… Or an extremely submissive young lady over whom Cliff is aggressively over-protective. Either way…

The best bit of the song, by far, is the dreamy guitar solo which by the standards of the time is pretty long, loose and groovy. That, of course, is provided courtesy of Cliff’s long time backing band The Sha… No, wait. The Drifters. It’s actually quite simple: The Drifters were The Shadows until the US Vocal group of the same name (Ben E. King and co.) threatened legal action. They appeared as The Drifters on Cliff’s first five or so hit singles; this was their sole chart-topper before the name change.

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It’s pretty easy, almost a cliché, to get stuck into Cliff as an uncool, God-bothering, 2nd rate Elvis impersonator. And I’d try to avoid doing so at all costs… If his debut #1 record didn’t kind of prove all the accusations correct. He was clearly trying to sound like Elvis. He was clearly trying to look like Elvis (just look at that quiff!). And this record is him selling out just like Elvis did. Except Elvis got a good few years of genuine rocking ‘n’ rolling in before the movie studios, the army and the burgers came a-calling. Cliff got one album. (Do give ‘Rock on With Cliff Richard’ a listen, though – it’s got some decent tracks on it.)

Anyway, that’s one down for Cliff; just thirteen more UK #1 Singles to go…

87. ‘Dream Lover’, by Bobby Darin

Now this is more like it. This is a chart-topping single!

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Dream Lover, by Bobby Darin (his 1st of two  #1s)

4 weeks, from 3rd – 31st July 1959

It’s been a while since I listened to this song, or to any Bobby Darin songs, but slipping the needle to hear ‘Dream Lover’ is like slipping into a silk dressing gown and settling down by the fire: Every night I hope and pray, A dream lover will come my way, A girl to hold in my arms, And know the magic of her charms…

We get not one but two groups of backing singers: girls for the ‘oohs’ and boys for the ‘wadda waddas’. We get strings and we get some oh-so-fifties staccato guitars. In fact, I’d put this up there with ‘Diana’ and ‘When’ as the most fifties, most rock ‘n’ rolly, doo-woppy #1 yet. But ‘Dream Lover’ is a much better song than either of those.

And that’s down to Bobby Darin. His voice is as crisp and as clear as a bell, and he lends the song a sort of… gravitas, that places it a cut above pure teeny-bopper fluff. He sounds older than his twenty-three years, and sounds suave where Paul Anka and the Kalin Twins sounded puppyish. Does this then represent the pinnacle of late fifties rock ‘n’ roll-as-pop? Maybe something to consider in our upcoming re-cap.

For all that, it’s a simple song. The singer wants a dream lover, so he doesn’t have to dream alone. Someday, I don’t know how, I hope she’ll hear my plea, Some way, I don’t know, She’ll bring her love to me… The listener knows where the song is going, but is more than happy to be taken along for the ride.

I don’t want to really write any more about this record. I want to leave it there. Minimalist. This is where easy-listening and pop collide to create a seriously classy song. And we’ll be hearing from Bobby D again very soon, so we can delve into his backstory then. For now, just sit back, relax, and enjoy.

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There are two little things of note, though, that we should point out here. I mentioned in my post on ‘Hoots Mon’, back in November ’58, that the production on these chart-topping singles was getting more substantial, beefier. And I have to admit that on ‘Dream Lover’, and to a lesser extent on ‘When’, I’m getting a hint of the ‘Wall of Sound’ technique – Phil Spector and all that – which will be all the rage in three or four years. Listen to the crashing symbols that precede the final verse and chorus here, and you’ll see what I mean. Interestingly, this song was engineered by Tom Dowd, a pioneer of multi-track recording. So there could be something in that…

And finally, while this is a wonderful record more than worthy of a month atop the UK Singles Charts… something has been nagging at me for a while now. Are our #1 singles growing more and more lyrically banal? Let’s explore. Drag your minds back to the dark and smoggy days of pre-rock and yes, song lyrics were probably pondering weightier issues: I believe for every drop of rain that falls, A flower grows… Or Three coins in the fountain, Which one will the fountain bless…? Or I saw her face and ascended out of the common place, into the rare, somewhere in space… from ‘Brainiest #1 Yet’ ‘Stranger in Paradise’. Or they at least talked of love in slightly flowerier, more abstract terms. And there haven’t been any out-of-place, soundtrack songs like ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ or ‘The Man from Laramie’ with lyrics about sharp-shooters and speakeasies hitting the stop spot recently.

In 1958-9, while there are anomalies like ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ and ‘The Day the Rains Came’, it’s mainly all Dream lover, where are you…? All I have to do is dream… And Goodness gracious great balls of fire…! Simple, immediate stuff. Is this a bad thing? Rock ‘n’ roll may have dumbed things down a bit, but its brought an immediacy to our chart-topping hits. Everyone can relate to someone sitting at home wishing for a dream lover. Not everyone can relate to She wears red feathers and a huly-huly skirt… I’m all for it really. And that’s probably a good thing, as our next #1 takes simple to the next level.

86. ‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway

I think we’ve heard this record before… ‘Roulette’ may, in fact, be identical to Russ Conway’s first number one. Or it may sound completely different. Who knows? Who even cares?

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Roulette, by Russ Conway (his 2nd of two  #1s)

2 weeks, from 19th June – 3rd July 1959

Actually, they do sound the same. Same perky piano, same lightly strummed guitar as accompaniment. In fact, to illustrate my point, let me quote verbatim from my post on ‘Side Saddle’ (which was #1 barely two months before):

“Upon first listen of this latest chart-topping record, two questions spring immediately to mind: What is this? And why did it spend a whole month at the top of the charts? It’s an instrumental, Mr. Russ Conway tinkling away at his piano, and… that’s about it. It’s got a melody, which plods along pleasantly enough without going anywhere very far, and then it ends, in under two minutes.”

Swap ‘whole month’ for ‘two weeks’- and ‘pleasantly’ for ‘irritatingly’ because that’s the mood I’m in today – but you’re still pretty much there. This record is equally short, similarly jaunty, and is still searching for a tune that never quite seems to materialise. And why ‘Roulette’? Is it because the cascading notes that tumble at intervals throughout the song sound like a rolling roulette wheel? Or is that me putting way too much though in?

I think I hate this more than I did Conway’s first #1. It was bland; this is criminally perky and is played in an irritatingly high key. Plus those little flourishes at the end of every second note are starting to make me feel a little sick. Way, way back in one of my early posts I claimed the idea of the ‘shadow number one’ – the chart topping record that only gets there due to the reflected glow of a preceding hit. Frankie Laine had one when ‘Hey Joe’ followed the chart-humping ‘I Believe’. Rosemary Clooney had one with ‘Mambo Italiano’ hot on the heels of ‘This Ole House’ (though ‘Mambo…’ was probably the bigger record). Guy Mitchell had one in ‘Rock-A-Billy’ after his huge hit ‘Singing the Blues’. And now we have to suffer a second dose of Russ Conway because grannies across the land liked ‘Side Saddle’, and probably thought he looked like a nice boy.

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In fact, for a ‘nice boy’ Conway led a fairly troubled life. Let’s face it, anyone who records songs of such fake jollity and forced perkiness is going to be a little screwed-up inside… Alcoholism, crippling self-doubt, a reliance on anti-depressants, an eighty (80!) a day cigarette habit – all of which can probably be attributed to his being gay but having to keep it hidden for fear of losing everything (shades of Johnnie Ray there). Unlike Ray, however, Conway remained fairly popular throughout his career, and was still performing publicly just two weeks before he died in 2000. He had actually sliced the tip of a finger off during the war, so it’s pretty impressive that he could play the piano at all I suppose.

God, I have been a little harsh on ole Russ here, haven’t I? I just had a quick listen to some of the other hits from his late fifties heyday – the likes of ‘China Tea’ and ‘Party Pops’ – in an attempt to redeem his chart career. But. I’m sorry to confirm that they ALL. SOUND. THE BLOODY. SAME! In desperation I tried to look for some clue as to the inspiration for ‘Roulette’, but the Wiki entry is one line long and there ain’t much else out there. What little I could find all seemed to prefer this disc to ‘Side Saddle’ (come on, people!) But then I found this, and I started with a quote so I’ll end with one too.

Thanks to the guy(s) at fiftiesnumberones.blogspot.com – which I will wholeheartedly recommend as long as you promise to still read my blog – for their brilliant description of ‘Roulette’ as an ice-cream van jingle… “albeit an ice cream van plying its trade around the dusk tinged streets of a council estate on a late October evening. In the rain.”

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End post

85. ‘A Fool Such As I’ / ‘I Need Your Love Tonight’, by Elvis Presley

The King is back in the building. Buddy Holly replaced at the top by Elvis himself. What halcyon days!

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A Fool Such as I / I Need Your Love Tonight, by Elvis Presley (his 4th of twenty-one #1s)

5 weeks, from 15th May – 19th June 1959

One of these songs I’ve known for a very long time – since I got my first Elvis ‘Best Of’ way back when –so let’s start there. Now and then, There’s a fool, Such as I… I used to think that the scarily deep baritone that opens and closes this record was Elvis himself. It wasn’t, unfortunately. A chap called Ray Walker provided the voice, and it makes this whole track.

I really like this song. At least… I thought I did. I had it marked as one of my favourite ‘fifties-Elvis’ numbers, better than the silliness of ‘Teddy Bear’ or the mumbling verses of ‘King Creole’. Listening back to it now, though, I’m not so sure. The way Elvis sings it – he’s slightly restrained, slightly clipped… The vocals are weirdly ‘posh’, if you can imagine what I mean. There’s none of the growl he was giving us on ‘Jailhouse Rock’, and none of the saucy wink from ‘One Night’. It seems to me, listening to the song fresh after such a long absence, that Elvis might have been phoning it in here.

‘A Fool Such as I’ had been recorded before – back in the depths of the pre-rock era (AKA 1952), so perhaps Elvis had the original in the back of his mind as he enunciated, giving birth to the previously undiscovered Plummy Elvis. And while obviously everyone knows that Elvis phoned in pretty much everything he did between 1961 and ’68, it’s distressing to think that Elvis’s ‘phoning it in’ period might have started as early as 1959!

Still, the solo swings like I remember. And, to be fair, Elvis does let loose a little in the final verse. I’m a fool, But I love you dear, Until the day I die… And he just about redeems the whole thing by belting these lines out towards the end. He should, though, have been very grateful to Mr. Walker for his deep voice and to whoever was playing the guitar. They definitely helped paper over the cracks.

This record, and in fact all of Elvis’s early chart-toppers, are sometimes co-credited to The Jordanaires, AKA his backing singers. They also pick up some of the slack here (though I can’t remember even noticing them on songs like ‘All Shook Up’.) The Official Charts company don’t recognise them, however, so I won’t. But they’re there on the vinyl above, if you squint hard enough. I suppose it’s a case similar to the days when every record was ‘accompanied’ by an orchestra. I mentioned in a post a while back how the conductors of these orchestras had been airbrushed out of history, and it seems to be happening with backing groups now too.

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On then to the song I don’t know so well. Tell the truth I’d never heard this before and, when I saw that it was called ‘I Need Your Love Tonight’, I feared the worst. Maudlin ballad ahoy! But no…

The piano comes blasting in, rolling like a runaway train. And Elvis? Well, he needs your love tonight. And not in a mopey, crooning-in-the-window-at-the-moon kind of way (as we recently heard in Connie Francis’s flip-side ‘Carolina Moon’). No siree. I’ve been waiting just for tonight, To do some lovin’ and hold you tight, Don’t tell me baby you needa go, I got the Hi-Fi high and the lights down low…

This is fun stuff. This is rock ‘n’ roll. This possibly should have been the lead track. And Elvis does sound like he’s having a little more fun here. I count an ‘Oh-oh’, an ‘Uh-uh’, an ‘Ooh-ooh’, an ‘Oh Gee’, a ‘Wowee’, a ‘Wow’, and a ‘Pow-Pow’ among the lyrics. There’s even a bit of a rhumba during the bridge. But it really is the flip-side of ‘A Fool Such as I’ – they were well-placed together – as in the former he is lamenting the woman he loved while in this he’s pulled himself together and is promising her a night she won’t forget. G’wan yourself Elvis!

I still, though, get the faintest tang of him phoning it in here, even on this little rocker. I may be wrong – I may be listening for something that just isn’t there – but I can’t help but feel like I’m getting a whiff. He still isn’t quite going for it in the same way he did just a few months ago on ‘I Got Stung.’

As a little aside, ‘I Need Your Love Tonight’ is listed several times on Spotify as being ‘Live’, though there is nothing in the recording to suggest that it was performed in front of an audience. The link below is, to the very best of my knowledge, the version that topped the UK charts in the spring of ’59.

This #1 pulls Mr. Presley level with Guy Mitchell and Frankie Laine as the acts with the most UK chart-toppers. They all have four, though Frankie Laine is still well out in front in terms of weeks-at-number-one (Elvis has eighteen weeks from four #1s; Frankie Laine got that many just from ‘I Believe’). And if you think that this means Elvis will be boosting ahead any time soon you’d be wrong – we won’t be seeing him again for well over a year.

Thus, we bid farewell to rock ‘n’ roll Elvis. It’s been nice meeting him, or rather rediscovering him. He’s off into the army now; and when we hear from him next it will be with something rather different.