Random Runners-Up: ‘Are You Sure?’, by The Allisons

Part II of this week’s runners-up feature, and the random date generator throws up one of the longest-running #2s in chart history…

‘Are You Sure?’, by The Allisons

#2 for 6 weeks, from 9th-23rd Mar / 30th Mar–27th Apr 1961 (behind ‘Walk Right Back’ / ‘Ebony Eyes’ and ‘Wooden Heart’)

Six weeks, over the course of two months, is a long and very unlucky amount of time to be marooned in second place, but it will happen if you’re up against two of pop music’s most famous acts.

This is a slice of early-sixties pop that probably sounded a little old-fashioned even when it hit the charts. The staccato strings and jaunty pace ape Adam Faith‘s hits, which in turn borrowed heavily from Buddy Holly’s posthumous chart-topper ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’. The Allisons are also clearly going for an Everly Brothers vibe, but when you listen to the Brothers’ record that kept this off the top then there’s no contest. It’s pleasant enough, and over in a trice; but it’s a reminder of why The Beatles couldn’t come fast enough…

Goodbye, Farewell, I’m not sure what to do… Compare and contrast the well-mannered harmonising here with the Greek-stomping hit I featured yesterday, ‘Bend It!’. Only five and a half years separate these two songs, but they just so happen to have been the most fertile five years in pop music history.

The Allisons were, perhaps surprisingly, not actual brothers. Bob Day and John Alford were simply marketed that way. And this record has a particular claim to fame, perhaps even more important than its long run at number two… It was the first big British Eurovision hit single. The Allisons represented the UK at the 1961 contest, finishing in second place. It’s fairly middling as Eurovision singles go: not the best, but far from being the worst… Yet it was the duo’s only real hit, though they would continue performing for many years afterwards.

Next up, tomorrow, and we’re going even further back in time…

Songs That Should Have Been #1… ‘Stranger on the Shore’, by Mr. Acker Bilk

The Stargazers, Don Cornell, The Johnston Brothers, The Dream Weavers, Jerry Keller…? Nope, me neither. But they’ve all had the honour of topping the UK singles chart.

How well a single performs in the charts can be influenced by various things… promotion, star power, tastes and trends, time of year… pure luck. And that most fickle, unpredictable of  factors: the general public. Do enough of them like your song to make it a smash? Or will they ignore it, and let it fall by the wayside?

I’m taking a short break from the regular countdown to feature five discs that really should have topped the charts. Be it for their long-reaching influence, their enduring popularity or for the simple fact that, had they peaked a week earlier or later, they might have made it. (I’ll only be covering songs released before 1964, as that’s where I’m up to on the usual countdown.)

Next up… a song that I have to admit I don’t know terribly well. In fact, I listened to it for the very first time just before typing these words…

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Stranger on the Shore, by Mr. Acker Bilk

reached #2 in January 1962

It’s a pleasant enough instrumental, by a clarinetist from Somerset… The theme to a TV programme of the same name. It sounds slightly dated, even for a record released in 1961. Not the type of song I’d usually rush to listen to… I’m including this disc in this mini-countdown for exactly the opposite reasons I included ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. ‘Stranger on the Shore’ isn’t revolutionary, or life-changing, or any of that…  But it was a bloody persistent record.

It entered the Top 10 in December of 1961, and it remained, with a couple of drops and re-entries, a Top 10 record in the following… July! Over six months! It remained in the charts for a year. It was the first British single to hit #1 in on the Billboard Hot 100, two years before the British Invasion. It was also the biggest selling hit of 1962 in Britain, and is the biggest selling instrumental record in chart history. It was played in Apollo 10, on its way to the moon…

All the figures suggest that this should have been massive chart-topping smash… except the one that matters most. It never got higher than number two, held off in the most part by Cliff & The Shadows, ‘The Young Ones’. It did top the NME chart, but that wasn’t the official chart, and a lot more on that tomorrow, in my next shoulda-been-number-one post…

Recap: #121 – #149

To recap, then…

We’ve fallen into a bit of a slump, really, at the top of the UK singles charts. It happens… This is my fifth recap, and it’s another one without a defining theme to it. We’ve had ‘The Pre-Rock Recap’, and we’ve had ‘The Rock ‘n’ Roll Recap’ and we’ve had two others that were more a bunch of songs squashed together. It’s like throwing dinner parties: sometimes the guests all hit it off smashingly and other times everybody just sits around looking awkward.

If I was to fumble around for a one-word summary of the past thirty twenty-nine chart-toppers, I’d have to go for… ‘easy’. By and large they’ve been very easy listens – nothing too wild, nothing too experimental, no boundary pushing… I’m thinking ‘Moon River’, ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’, ‘Wonderful Land’, ‘The Young Ones’ – proper records the lot of them. Background music, though, rather than anything that really grabbed me. But maybe that’s just me…

Then there were the downright bland chart-toppers, of which the last few months haven’t been short: ‘Well I Ask You’, ‘Dance On!’ (such a promising title; so little going on), and Frank Ifield’s double-whammy of dull, ‘I Remember You’ and ‘The Wayward Wind.’ Lots of worthy contenders, then, for the latest ‘Meh’ Award… I’m going to give it to Cliff though, for the thoroughly snooze-inducing ‘The Next Time’ / ‘Bachelor Boy’ – a double ‘A’ for double the dullness.

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And, sorry, we can’t talk about ‘dullness’ without mentioning Elvis. This recap covers an unbelievable 5 (five!) chart-toppers from The King. ‘Little Sister’ / ‘His Latest Flame’ is an undeniable classic double-‘A’, don’t get me wrong, as is ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’. Except, that came with the hideous ‘Rock-A-Hula Baby’ in tow, which took a lot of the shine off. No, it is his three most recent #1s that have really had the eye-lids drooping. ‘She’s Not You’ – OK at best. ‘Return to Sender’ – cheesy, though an undeniable guilty pleasure. And ‘Good Luck Charm’, with its pre-set boogie-woogie riff and half-arsed vocals, which had the temerity to spend five weeks at the top! I was seriously tempted to dish out Elvis’s 2nd Very Worst Chart-Topper award for this… But I can’t. Not when the worst charge you can level at it is that it’s Elvis on auto-pilot. And not when ‘Lovesick Blues’, by Frank Ifield, is barrelling its way towards you like a yodelling freight-train. I honestly still have nightmares about that record… It’s by far the worst of the past bunch.

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That is the big mystery of British music in 1962-3… why Frank Ifield? Why? He bursts out of nowhere to become the biggest star in the land for a year, and then… I’m pinning all my hopes on his final number-one, which is coming up shortly, redeeming the career of Frank Ifield for me. But I won’t be holding my breath.

Before we get to the next awards, a little love for the outliers. The discs that aren’t very bad, or incredibly good, or mad-cap, or even dull. Shirley Bassey (Dame Shirley Bassey, thankyouverymuch) with ‘Reach for the Stars’ / ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, ‘Tower of Strength’ by Frankie Vaughan, ‘Michael’ by The Highwaymen, the bubble-gum bounce of ‘Walkin’ Back to Happiness’ and the irrepressible – no matter how much you want to repress it –  ‘Summer Holiday’. All perfectly acceptable, and all records that I enjoyed (re)discovering at the time.

Because so many of the recent chart-topping records have been planted firmly in the middle of the road, I feel that there is a very fine line between those few that stand out for being the best and those few that stand out for being the craziest. So, I think I’ll have to award my ‘WTAF’ Award, and my Very Best Award at the same time. Should ‘Nut Rocker’ go down as one of the best; or one of the craziest? Should ‘Telstar’ go down as one of the craziest; rather than the best? Maybe I should re-consider ‘Lovesick Blues’… It was an utterly crazy record, after all. Then there’s the gothic-romance-as-three-minute-pop-song of ‘Johnny Remember Me’

No, I’m going to stick with my gut, and dish the ‘WTAF’ Award out to Mr. B. Bumble and his Stingers, for turning The Nutcracker into a gloriously daft rock ‘n’ roll boogie. Hurrah!

And for the very best – the crème de la crème – I’ve whittled it down to four. In one corner we have The Everly Brothers final UK #1, ‘Temptation’. One the one hand it’s probably the hardest rocker of the past thirty twenty-nine, but on the other it feels like it shouldn’t really be here. It was so long ago that I had kind of forgotten that it would be in this recap. Next we have some real heartbreak in the form of Helen Shapiro’s ‘You Don’t Know’ – it still amazes me that that was the voice of a fourteen-year-old. Then it’s the towering ‘Telstar’, from The Tornados, sending pop music light years into the future. And finally our most recent chart-topper, and The Shadows last ever: ‘Foot Tapper’. I could give a good argument for any of them, but I know deep down which way I want to go… The very best chart topping single between July 1961 and April 1963 is… drum roll please… ‘Telstar.’

In case you’ve lost track, then:

The ‘Meh’ Award for Forgettability: 1. ‘Hold My Hand’, by Don Cornell. 2. ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers. 3. ‘On the Street Where You Live’, by Vic Damone. 4. ‘Why’, by Anthony Newley. 5. ‘The Next Time’ / ‘Bachelor Boy’, by Cliff Richard & The Shadows.

The ‘WTAF’ Award for Being Interesting if Nothing Else: 1. ‘I See the Moon’, by The Stargazers. 2. ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, by Anne Shelton. 3. ‘Hoots Mon’, by Lord Rockingham’s XI. 4. ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, by The Temperance Seven. 5. ‘Nut Rocker’, by B. Bumble & The Stingers.

The Very Worst Chart-Toppers: 1. ‘Cara Mia’, by David Whitfield with Mantovani & His Orchestra. 2. ‘The Man From Laramie’, by Jimmy Young. 3. ‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway. 4. ‘Wooden Heart’, by Elvis Presley. 5. ‘Lovesick Blues’, by Frank Ifield.

The Very Best Chart-Toppers: 1. ‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray. 2. ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra. 3. ‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis. 4. ‘Cathy’s Clown’, by The Everly Brothers. 5. ‘Telstar’, by The Tornadoes.

Actually, looking at those winners, perhaps the word I was searching for to describe this phase of chart history was ‘Instrumental’. Of the past twenty-nine #1 hits, seven have been lyric-less. And really, this is the last hurrah of the instrumental hit because, looking forward, they are about to become a rare species indeed.

I mentioned in my last post that I have broken my own rules slightly here, by doing a recap one song early. But… there was method in my madness. Whatever we’ve been calling the past few years: the rock ‘n’ roll age, the post rock ‘n’ roll age, the 2nd wave of rock ‘n’ roll… One thing’s for sure. It’s over. And another thing that’s for sure is that when I do my next recap, I won’t be complaining about there being no definable ‘sound of’ the time. Because we are about to hit on one of the richest, most distinctive, most glorious eras in British music history…

 We are off to Liverpool.

(P.S. I’ve made Spotify playlist featuring all the #1s so far – I’ll update it every time I post. Follow it below…)

131. ‘Moon River’ by Danny Williams

Before we begin our next post, can I take a moment to praise the year that has just been? The year that this next #1 single will bring to a close. I know it isn’t time for a recap, but 1961 has been an unprecedented year in terms of the breadth and depth of its chart-toppers.

The twenty-one number ones from this year have taken us from gloriously pure pop (Johnny Tillotson, Helen Shapiro) through to tongue-in-cheek pastiche jazz (The Temperance Seven), from doo-wop (The Marcels) to pure rock (The Everly Brother’s ‘Temptation’), from the sublime (‘Runaway’) to the ridiculous (‘Wooden Heart’). There’s been room for piano instrumentals from Floyd Cramer, guitar instrumentals from The Shadows and showtunes from Shirley Bassey. There’ve been a couple of crooners – Frankie Vaughan and Eden Kane – and we’ve even found time for two ‘death-discs’ and a spot of collegiate folk. We’ve also had glimpses into the future with electronic solos on the Musitron and Joe Meek twiddling his dials. And the fact that all this has managed to shine through in a year utterly dominated by The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and his eighteen weeks at the top, is just superb. 1961, I take my hat off to you. My favourite chart year so far, by miles.

And to finish the year off we have room for one more. An absolute classic…

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Moon River, by Danny Williams (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 28th December 1961 – 11th January 1962

Moon river, Wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style someday… Oh dream maker, You heart breaker… Wherever you’re going, I’m going your way… It’s a song, and a voice, drenched in a romantic echo – an evocative song, that really does lull you into imagining that you’re drifting down a river, water flat as glass, the moon a white diamond in the sky… I’d say that it’s the atmosphere that pervades this whole song – that haunting melody, rather than the lyric – which has made this such a famous record.

Because, for perhaps the first time in the entire countdown, I’m not terribly sure what the actual lyrics of this song are about. Two drifters, Off to see the world… OK, I can picture that. We’re after the same rainbow’s end, Waiting round the bend… And I get that they’re floating downriver to some unspecified destination. My Huckleberry friend… Which I’m guessing is a reference to one of literature’s most famous river-floaters, Huck Finn. Moon river, And me…

OK, in actual fact I do get what the song’s about. But – it is still pretty abstract, very poetic, in a way that, say, your average Elvis song isn’t. It’s also got an air of old-Americana that to me, as a small-town Scot, sounds very alluring and exotic. When the backing singers take-over for the final verse it sends a shiver down your spine. This is a standard – a song that could have been a hit in any era.

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‘Moon River’ is, of course, from the film adaptation of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, sung originally by Audrey Hepburn, sat in a window, plucking at her guitar. But in 1961-’62, there were a lot of versions of ‘Moon River’ to choose from – you could have had the instrumental version by the song’s composer Henry Mancini, Jerry Butler’s version – which was the first one to hit the charts, the definitive version from Andy Williams… This Danny Williams version, which claimed a fortnight at the top in the UK, is pretty far down the list. Williams was a South-African born crooner who didn’t do an awful lot more, in terms of chart hits, than cover this song.

I have to admit: I like this song, I respect it, I admire it… But I can’t bring myself to love it. It’s beautiful; but it’s not a warm beauty. It most reminds me of Tony Bennett’s 1955 #1, ‘Stranger in Paradise’, which had similarly flowery lyrics and dwelt on similarly abstract themes. Also, it’s been a while since I saw it but I really have no idea what the song’s relevance is to a movie about a party-hopping socialite in New York.

Maybe we’re not meant to understand. Maybe we should just stand back and appreciate ‘Moon River’ for what it is – a piece of art too valuable for plebs like me. And as we stand there, lulled by its haunting strains, we can look ahead to 1962, and hope for as much variety and innovation as we had in the year just past…

130. ‘Tower of Strength’, by Frankie Vaughan

And so we resume normal service. Since I first listened to this next Number One single, in preparation for writing this post, I’ve been trying to place it. Trying to put my finger on what exactly is happening here… What box does this fit into? Why did it prove such a popular song in December of 1961…?

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Tower of Strength, by Frankie Vaughan (his 2nd and final #1)

3 weeks, from 7th – 28th December 1961

What’s happening here is simple: Frankie Vaughan is singing a song – and having the time of his life doing so. This is an irresistible song – it barrels in the front door and wallops you over the head with a rollicking sax riff (you can have a saxophone riff, right?)… baaa da da-na da-na… And then in comes Frankie.

If I were a tower of strength, I’d walk away, I’d look in your eyes, And here’s what I say… If he were a tower of strength, a man of action, someone with a bit of backbone, he’d tell his wayward lover: I don’t want you, I don’t need you, I don’t love you anymore… Said woman would , cry, plead and beg him to stay. Simple. Except, plot twist… A tower of strength is something, I’ll never be…

That’s pretty much it as far as the lyrics are concerned. The main attraction here is the absolute gusto with which Frankie Vaughan belts his way through this song. He yelps, he growls, he hits some scandalously high notes, and he gives us the biggest finish we’ve had a number of years: I’ll… Ne-ver… BEEEE-EEEEEE! It’s the sort of ending that was done to death in the mid-fifties – the THIS IS THE END OF THE SONG! kind of finale – but in the right hands it can still sound superb. For some reason I’m imagining this scenario where the sound engineer and the producer are goading Vaughan, suggesting that he might not be up to singing this particular song, not able to hit all the notes, and Frankie just looks at them and says: “Press the red button, punks…”

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I first came across this song a few years ago when it appeared on my Spotify feed, and it lifts me every time it pops up on a shuffle. It’s the sort of tune you should throw on when you’re in a mid-afternoon slump, or nursing a mild hangover – an aural espresso. When it finishes, you draw breath, half-expecting to look around the room and see the lampshade swinging, pieces of paper floating to the ground, pictures on the wall knocked squint…

What I didn’t realise until now is that Vaughan’s version of ‘Tower of Strength’ was a cover. The original was released by one Gene McDaniels – an American soul singer. It’s a fine version, a slightly slicker, Sam Cooke-ish version, that was a big hit in the US – though it could only creep to #49 in the UK. But… There’s something so relentlessly likeable about this version, something so fabulously uncool about Vaughan’s dad-at-a-wedding vocals, that I’d say his is definitive.

Of course, we have heard from Mr. Vaughan before in this countdown. Way, way back in January 1957 – nigh on five years ago – with ‘The Garden of Eden’. A song which was, in its own way, every bit as weird as this. While a five year gap between #1s isn’t that odd; he has basically straddled the rock ‘n’ roll era – bookending it with his two chart-toppers. Very few of the chart stars from 1957 – Tommy Steele, Guy Mitchell and Tab Hunter were his contemporaries at the top the first time around – were still managing it in the early sixties, and so credit where it’s due. In total, Vaughan’s recording career lasted from 1950 through to 1987 and, again, that ain’t to be sniffed at. He was an old-fashioned type – the sort of Butlins holiday-camp performer turned everyman pop star that seems to be a constant trope in British music, no matter the era – think Dickie Valentine through to Olly Murs.

We’ll leave him here, belting out ‘Tower of Strength’ to his heart’s content. And while we won’t be hearing from Frankie again, our ears will still be ringing for some time to come…

129. ‘Little Sister’ / ‘(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame’, by Elvis Presley

Just when you were thinking that we hadn’t heard from him in a while, along comes Elvis with his 4th (fourth!) number one single of the year. I’m not sure when he was first christened ‘The King’, but this is definitely the period in which his reputation as the biggest-star-that-ever-was-and-ever-will-be was confirmed. I recently stuck him up as the header image on this blog’s homepage because, well, he was the UK singles chart between 1960-62.

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Little Sister / (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame, by Elvis Presley (his 9th of twenty-one #1s)

4 weeks, from 9th November – 7th December 1961

And while a large contributor towards the making of said reputation is the fact that he could release any old shit and watch it soar to the top of the charts (*cough* ‘Wooden Heart’ *cough cough*), this is not such an occasion. Elvis’s 9th #1 is a record worthy of note.

First, though, some housekeeping. To me, ‘His Latest Flame’ is the more famous of these two songs – the ‘main’ side of this particular double ‘A’. It featured on my first ever Elvis Greatest Hits whereas ‘Little Sister’ didn’t. But the Official Charts company lists the latter first, and on the record sleeves of the time ‘Little Sister’ is presented as the main event. Let’s tackle that one first, then, shall we…

It’s not a song that I know at all well, and the first thing that strikes me after pressing play is that they’ve nicked the riff from ‘Shakin’ All Over’. Lil’ sister don’t you… (Diddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-din…) Lil’ sister don’t you… (Diddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-din…) Fair enough, really – it is a peach of a riff. The scuzzy bass is really cool here too. And appropriate, cos this is a scuzzy little song. Elvis, it seems, is chasing two sisters…

Lil’ sister don’t you kiss me once or twice, Then say it’s very nice, And then you run… It’s a ‘dangerous woman’ type of song – the same kind of lyrics we’ve seen crop up recently in ‘Please Don’t Tease’ and ‘Temptation’. But the plot thickens. Lil’ sister don’t you do what your big sister done… Oh Elvis, you dirty, dirty dog.

Big sister, it turns out, ran off with one Jim Dandy while El was buying candy (seriously) at the county show. She’s mean and she’s evil, Like that lil’ ol’ Bo Weevil, Guess I’ll try my luck with you… I mean, yeah. It is 1961, after all. It’s tongue -in-cheek, it’s forgivable.

At least, it’s forgivable until the final verse. That’s where things get creepy, and we begin to wonder at the age-gap between the sisters… Well I used to pull your pig-tails, And pinch your turned up nose, But you’ve been a-growin’, And baby it’s been showin’, From your head down to your toes… And you can tell by the way Elvis lingers over that last line he ain’t just talking about her height.

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Still, dubious verses aside, it’s nice to hear Elvis rocking again after all the ballads and the operatics and the lederhosen that have plagued him since his post-army comeback. And – heavens be praised – he keeps it up on the flip side of the disc with a riff that’s even more recognisable.

Dun-da-dun-da-dun…dun-dun, Dun-da-dun-da-dun…dun-dun… The Bo Diddley riff. Used most famously by Bo Diddley, obviously, but also on rock ‘n’ roll standard ‘Not Fade Away’, and now this. The riff follows us, steady and unchanging, as Elvis unfurls his tale of heartache. A very old friend, Came by today, Cause he was tellin’ everyone in town, Of the love that he’d just found, And Marie’s the name, Of his latest flame… His friend talks and talks of his new found love, of her beautiful eyes and long dark hair – Elvis has to just suck it up and smile. It’s a familiar theme given a nice twist. In hearing of his betrayal second-hand, from ‘a very old friend,’ the sense of heartbreak is heightened.

It peaks in the bridge – the only part of the song that breaks from the Bo Diddley riff: Though I smiled the tears inside were a-burnin’, I wished him luck and then he said goodbye, He was gone but still his words kept returnin’, What else was there for me to do but cry…? You can hear the suppressed heartache in Elvis’s voice. It’s not a song that requires much effort, not his most technically challenging vocal performance; but he sells it. The King sells whatever he’s singing. He could sing the phonebook and sell it.

This is my favourite post-army Elvis #1 so far, on a par with his fifties chart-toppers ‘One Night’ and ‘All Shook Up’. I’m in good company on this, too – ‘(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame’ is a favourite of punk and alternative bands who want to ‘do Elvis’. Even The Smiths (not a band I’ve ever been able to love, but still) covered it in the eighties, with Morrissey claiming it to be his favourite Elvis song, period.

I started this post by mentioning that fact that this was Presley’s fourth chart-topper of 1961. Take a moment to appreciate this, because it’s is an extremely rare feat – four #1s in a calendar year. Cliff never managed it, The Beatles never managed it. The only other act to ever manage it are… (***spoiler alert***)… Westlife. Yep. In 1999. If you extend the idea of a ‘calendar year’ to being any twelve-month period, rather than insisting on January-December, then you can include The Spice Girls in 1996-97 and B*Witched in 1998-99. But… if you do that then you have to mention the fact that Westlife actually managed FIVE chart-toppers between April 1999 and April 2000.

But, without wanting to go all snobby and belittling of the achievements of these nineties popsters, the charts of the late-nineties were a completely different landscape to those of the early sixties: much faster moving, with a much higher turnover of #1s. Westlife’s five chart-toppers spent a total of nine weeks in the top spot. Elvis’s 1961 chart-toppers amounted to a grand total of eighteen weeks.

Plus… If we’re applying the Westlife-rule to Elvis we have to take into account the fact that ‘It’s Now or Never’ hit #1 in November 1960, exactly one year before ‘Little Sister’ / ‘His Latest Flame’. So, five number ones and a whopping twenty-six weeks at the top… Elvis wins! Hurrah! And just to prove he’s The King, the GOAT in the UK Singles Charts – like Lio Messi bending yet another free-kick into the top corner or Roger Federer lifting his umpteenth Wimbledon title – he’ll do it all over again in 1962.

128. ‘Walkin’ Back to Happiness’, by Helen Shapiro

She’s back. Barely two months after a gorgeous slice of teenage angst, ‘You Don’t Know’, made her the youngest ever solo chart topper, our Helen returns to the top of the charts. And this time she’s feeling much perkier.

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Walkin’ Back to Happiness, by Helen Shapiro (her 2nd and final #1)

3 weeks, from 19th October – 9th November 1961

Funny but it’s true, What loneliness can do… OK, it’s not immediately very perky, but bear with it… Since I’ve been away… Wait for it… I have loved you more each day!

And we’re off. This is a pop record that whips along at breakneck speed – the drums, the guitar, the violins, even the backing singers – none of them linger too long over a single note. Carried along, you really can imagine Miss Shapiro skipping gayly through a field of daffodils. Or something. And the hook; what a hook. Walkin’ back to happiness, Whoopa-oh-yeah-yeah…! Add it to the wop-bop-ba-loomas and the rama-lama-ding-dongs of pop music lore. To most people in 2019, Helen Shapiro’s entire career has probably been reduced to this very line. It certainly had been for me before starting this blog.

Contrast if you can the in-your-face optimism of this tune with the moodiness of her first chart-topper. On ‘You Don’t Know’, Helen was languishing in the exquisite pain of loving a boy who never noticed her. She could never tell him. She was condemned to suffer in silence. Here, though… Spread the news I’m on the way, Whoopa-oh-yeah-yeah, All my blues have blown away, Whoopa-oh-yeah-yeah… Technically this song is about someone returning to their lover (I never knew I’d miss you, Now I know what I must do…), but it’s tempting to view it as a riposte to ‘You Don’t Know’ – now she’s head over heels in love. Maybe it’s with the guy who, just two months before, was passing her by in the corridor?

In terms of managing the career of a teen star, her ‘team’ did very well here (she was managed by Norrie Paramour, fifties/early sixties producer du jour – we’ve already heard his work with stars like Cliff and The Shadows, Ruby Murray and Michael Holliday). Shapiro’s two chart-toppers are simultaneously different and yet complimentary. While so many stars have recently followed up big hits with very-similar-sounding hits (Adam Faith, the Everlys, Cliff) it’s refreshing to hear the youngest star of the time return with something completely different. It reminds me of Connie Francis’s double-whammy of ‘Who’s Sorry Now’ and ‘Stupid Cupid’ from a few years back.

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The best bit of this whole affair is the bridge, when Miss Shapiro lets rip with a Walkin’ back to happiness with yo-ou, mm-hmm-hmm… It’s still hard to imagine that someone with a voice this rich and honeyed was just fifteen when she recorded this. Though I do feel that, as good as this record is, her voice has a natural air of melancholy which suited her previous #1 better. That’s me nit-picking, though. This is a pure pop classic – a disc that can’t help but make you smile.

Helen Shapiro’s star burned brightly but briefly. Her two chart-toppers aside, she only had three other Top 10s, and by the mid-sixties she was struggling to make the Top 40 at all. Going by her Greatest Hits, she had a go at all the pop classics of the day: ‘It’s My Party’, ‘A Teenager in Love’, ‘Please Mister Postman’ and the ultimate teeny-bopper anthem ‘Lipstick on your Collar’ (that Mary-Jane, eh). She then moved into acting – both on TV and in the West End – and officially ‘retired’ from showbiz in 2002.

While we’ve had girls with perky pop songs hitting the top of the charts before now – Rosemary Clooney and Connie Francis say ‘Hi!’ – they were both American. Helen Shapiro is British, and can thus be seen as the start of a chain linking us right through the 1960s, taking us past Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw, Lulu and more. Female chart-toppers are few and far between in this decade, and the ones that do pop up tend to do so with some pretty special songs…

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!

126. ‘Kon-Tiki’, by The Shadows

As we continue our slow meander along the highways and bye-ways of 1961 –it does feel that this year is taking a little longer to get through than previous ones – it’s time for a little interlude.

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Kon-Tiki, by The Shadows (their 6th of twelve #1s)

1 week, from 5th – 12th October 1961

Picture, if you possibly can, the year 1961 as a TV variety show. On the bill are some huge, established stars – Elvis, the Everlys, Shirley Bassey – along with some new up and coming teen sensations – Johnny Tillotson, Helen Shapiro – and some quirky little gems – Floyd Cramer and The Temperance Seven. Maybe Cliff – who won’t actually be hitting #1 this year – can be the MC. OK? Well, to this weird mental image you can add the house band, the ones that pop up and play as the curtains drop and the scenery gets shifted. They are, of course, The Shadows.

‘Kon-Tiki’ is another instrumental. A lilting little slice of surf-rock. It’s got cool drum-fills, a nice crunchy, tinny edge to the guitars and a hint of reverb around the main riff. There’s a couple of call and response bits between the lead and the bass, and the ending has some gnarly (did they say ‘gnarly’ in the early sixties?) echo. It’s a decent enough record – I’m not sure that the Shadows made many poor ‘solo’ records – but when it ends less than two minutes in you’re left wondering… Is that it?

It’s far from being one of their bigger hits (I wasn’t particularly familiar with it before starting this post) and it kind of feels like filler. Something thrown together as the guys were jamming. A ‘B’-side, maybe? But hey, what do I know. It was a UK number one single; only the band’s second solo chart-topper.

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The Kon-Tiki was actually a raft used in a 1947 expedition across the Pacific Ocean by the Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl. ‘Kon-Tiki’ was chosen as it was an old name for the Incan sun-god. What all this had to do in inspiring the writing of this perky guitar instrumental is, to be honest, unknown. My best guess is that it sounds kinda tropical, kinda surfy, and could work well as the soundtrack to a sunset luau on the beaches of Hawaii. Compared to ‘Apache’, which really did conjure up images of Indian braves galloping across the plains, ‘Kon-Tiki’ is a little more abstract.

Maybe that’s fine, though. It’s a nice enough tune, a pleasant one-week interlude on our journey through 1961. It reminds us that The Shadows are still around, are still the biggest British band of the time. Maybe it needs no further meaning than that.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, it does feel like we’ve been lingering in 1961 for quite a while now. In actual fact, with twenty-one number one singles, 1961 has by far the most chart-toppers of any year yet covered. But that’s OK. It’s proving a nice place to be. Jazz, rock, showtunes, instrumentals… all genres are welcome here. And, if you thought it’s been eclectic recently; just wait till you hear what’s up next!

125. ‘Reach For the Stars’ / ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, by Shirley Bassey

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s time to welcome back on stage a member of British pop royalty. Dame Shirley, of Bassey, claiming her rightful place atop the UK charts…

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Reach for the Stars / Climb Ev’ry Mountain, by Shirley Bassey (her 2nd and final #1)

1 week, from 21st – 28th September 1961

Except, despite being singer of huge repute, a diva with a seven-decade long career in the upper echelons of British popular culture, the singles charts never were Shirley Bassey’s natural stomping ground. This is only her second number one – and it’s her last! She’s had five weeks in total at the top of the listings, and only ever had twelve top ten hits in her whole career… Compare that to the titans of the UK Singles Charts – Elvis, Cliff, The Beatles, Madonna – and that ain’t nothing.

But perhaps it’s not so surprising when, amid the teeny-bopper pop and the rock ‘n’ roll that was shaping the sound of the early sixties, she was releasing discs like this. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that this record got to #1 at all… The first song, ‘Reach for the Stars’, sounds out of place the second the soaring intro kicks in.

I reach for the stars, When I reach for your love, For so far above me, You always will be… It’s a song about adoring someone, about loving them completely… When you come to my arms, In that moment divine, All the stars in the sky, Are mine… It’s not a song about longing, or about a love unrequited. It’s a song about being utterly besotted with someone. (A song that might terrify you slightly if it were about you…)

The lyrics are all about stars and clouds, and the sky, and Dame Shirley sings it as if making sure that she’ll be heard up there in the firmament. The last chorus and verse are absolutely belted out, while the way she packs around four different notes into that last sky-y-y is spine-tingling, as is the way she drags the final all mine…! out to within an inch of its life. In terms of pure singing technique, this is one of the very best-sung chart-toppers so far.

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You might, then, expect the flip-side of this disc to be a subtler affair – yin and yang, and all that. But nope. That’s not how this Dame plays. On ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, she cranks the operatics up even further… Climb ev’ry mountain, Search high and low, Follow ev’ry bye-way, Ev’ry path you know… (on a song that’s already pretty old-fashioned, that Victorian apostrophe in ‘ev’ry’ is just the icing on the cake)… She’s following rainbows, fording streams, doing all these things in search of her dream. It’s a motivational number, lyrically very simple, about never giving up.

Before writing this, I wasn’t familiar with either of these songs – but I had strong suspicions from the first listen that ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ was a piece of musical theatre (the David Whitfield-esque backing singers are a dead giveaway). But I was astounded to learn that this song wasn’t just from any old two-bit musical – it’s from the bloody ‘Sound of Music’! How did that pass me by? Admittedly I’ve managed to go through thirty-three years on this earth without ever seeing said movie, but I’ve picked up a lot through pop-culture osmosis – the Von Trapps, nuns and Nazis, ‘The Hills are Alive..’ ‘Doe, a Deer…’, the one about the flowers… ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, though…? No idea. You learn something new every day.

This song ends with a bang every bit as big as ‘Reach for the Stars’. Perhaps too big a bang. While on the former song Bassey stayed the right side of bombastic; here she over-eggs the pudding. The recording crackles as she launches into the final Till you find your dream…, the equipment clearly unable to cope with Shirley’s lung-power. The woman could sing, and still can. Aged eighty-one, she still regularly appears at Royal Variety performances, at the Queen’s garden parties and on her own TV specials – 2011’s ‘Shirley’ for example (no surname required, clearly). As we leave her here, in September 1961, her most famous songs still lie ahead – ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, ‘Big Spender’ and so on – while her biggest hits have come and gone – this and ‘As I Love You’ almost forgotten in 2019.

It’s slightly sad to wave such a premature goodbye to Dame Shirley. But this disc is a real outlier in the charts of ’61 and, as I wrote at the start, perhaps offers an insight as to why she never really set the singles charts alight. These are two superbly sung and gorgeously orchestrated ballads, but they aren’t indicative of the general trends in popular music at this time. They do, however, add the eclectic mix of chart-toppers that we’ve enjoyed in 1961 –long may that continue.

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention that this double ‘A’-side lives on in a much more recent song… S Club 7’s smash-hit from 2000, ‘Reach’, which incorporates the titles of both these songs into its chorus; but whose bubble-gum pop cheesiness couldn’t be further from Dame Shirley’s ear-drum shattering balladry. Anyway, I’m happy I got to link to an S Club song several decades earlier than I thought I would (what an utter guilty pleasure that one is…) Onwards!