43. ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers

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It’s Almost Tomorrow, by The Dream Weavers (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 16th – 30th March / 1 week, from 6th – 13th April 1956 (3 weeks total)

Perhaps it’s time to christen a brand new era in popular music. I’ll call it: the ‘post-pre-rock age’! We’ve had the first wave of the rock ‘n’ roll explosion – the very first rock ‘n’ roll number one – but the waves have receded and we are stood on soggy sand waiting for them to return. And they will, they will… Just not yet.

What I mean is that, to all intents and purposes, we are still in the pre-rock age but that the rules have changed ever so slightly. Of course, the very top of the charts is never where you look for music’s cutting edge. You get to the top of the pop charts by being, well, popular, and by appealing to the largest number of people. But… even if you look at the Top 20 from the week in March ’56 that this latest song hit #1, there are very few records that stand out as being rock songs: Bill Haley is at #7 with ‘See You Later Alligator’, Lonnie Donegan is at #9 with ‘Rock Island Line’ (a skiffle track, admittedly, but still) and there’s a song called ‘Pickin’ a Chicken’ by Eve Boswell which sounds like a rock song involving a funky dance move (a la ‘The Twist’) but is actually just a pretty dull song about having a picnic. The rest is Sinatra, Jimmy Young, Slim Whitman

And, as with ‘Memories Are Made of This’ which preceded it, ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’ has elements of rock ‘n’ roll in it – enough, perhaps, to attract the youngsters but not enough to put off the old folks. Thus the gap between the worlds of Eddie Fisher and Elvis is deftly bridged.

Anyway, to the song. And after that big build-up, all that stuff about it being a brand new era in popular music, ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’ is a bit dull. The idea behind it is that the singer’s sweetheart is falling out of love with him, and that she will leave him ‘tomorrow’. And yet he hopes it will be otherwise… My dearest, my darling, tomorrow is near, The clouds will bring showers of sadness, I fear… ‘Emotions As Weather’ – the first chapter in ‘Cheesy Love Songs 101’. It’s almost tomorrow, but what can I do? Your kisses all tell me that, your love is untrue…

It’s a bit cloying, what with its backing singers and plinky-plonky pianos. A bit of a nursery rhyme, too – I can’t decide if it sounds more like ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ or ‘Away in a Manger’. And again, it’s another very simple #1. The production is very rich – the piano and backing singers turned up to 11 – but there isn’t much there. And, unfortunately, there’s a bit of a THIS IS THE END OF THE SONG ending: You’ll always be miiiiiiiiiiiine!

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But, in the ‘pros’ column there is a rather wonderful key-change – a very rock ‘n’ roll touch. I’m a big fan of a well constructed key-change. I can’t resist them. Who can? Its inbuilt in most people, I think. A Pavlovian reaction. And this is not just a key change, but a mid-note key change… Your love is untruuuu *key change* uuuueeeee. I’m not going to lie – it did give me a mild covering of goose bumps the first time I heard it. But that’s far and away the best thing about this song. A song which we could brand the very first rock ballad to hit the top of the UK Singles Chart, if it didn’t feel a bit of a waste to use up such an honorific title on such an average record.

This is The Dream Weavers only appearance in this countdown, and in the charts. They were big ol’ one hit wonders, you see. Though we should give them a shout out for being one of the few acts so far to have hit the top with an original composition. The Dream Weavers consisted of two high school friends – Gene Adkinson and Wade Buff (great name!) – and a rotating cast of back-up singers. Adkinson and Buff wrote ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’ themselves, and so are pretty unique among the forty-two songs that we’ve written about previously.

And we’ll leave it there for now. A simple love song – all key changes and not an orchestra in sight – but with familiarly mopey lyrics about rain and heartache, as well as a silly, bombastic ending. One leg in the new world; one leg stuck firmly in the past.

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.

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.

30. ‘Give Me Your Word’, by Tennessee Ernie Ford

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Give Me Your Word, by Tennessee Ernie Ford (his 1st of two #1s)

7 weeks, from 11th Mar to 29th Apr 1955

Before we get down to analysing this next chart-topper, let’s just take a second to appreciate the name of the artist that recorded it. Tennessee Ernie Ford… I wonder what kind of music he might make? (*cough* country and western *cough*)

But, no. While he has the voice for a C&W hit, this isn’t the song. He drawls ‘all’ into ‘aawl’ and ‘wants’ into ‘waaonts’, yet from this second this record cracks into gear, with soaring strings and a dramatic piano, we know we ain’t gettin’ a country lament – no tumbleweeds nor howlin’ coyotes. This is a song that means business.

It’s basically a marriage proposal – a lot of talk of vows, of being beside him, of words being given for ever and always. And, to be fair, you probably wouldn’t say ‘no’ to Tennessee: he has a deep sonorous voice, the voice of a man who can chop trees and wrestle cattle. Rough hands but a warm heart, that kind of thing. The only time the voice lets him down is at the very end, when a song of this gravitas needs a slightly more powerful, and slightly less Pingu sounding finish.

And is it just me, or are these chart toppers starting to get sexier? Ruby Murray was all about softly, breathlessly, touching lips and now Mr. Ford carries on the theme. Give me your lips, he drawls, and let your lips remain. Remain where, you might ask? It’s hardly Prince at his raunchiest; but it certainly isn’t something Eddie Fisher would have sung about either.

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Looking at pictures of Tennessee Ernie, he looks somewhat like you would expect. Perhaps not as rugged as his voice makes him sound, but he has a natty little moustache, and clearly liked to play up his cowboy credentials, with plenty of Stetson ‘n’ rodeo-tassels popping up on a Google image search. He was really born in Tennessee, too.

But, for a song that starts of with grand intent, this is actually pretty dull. Or at least average. File it along with ‘Answer Me’ and ‘Cara Mia’ – songs that were huge, and clearly got people all weepy in their day, but whose melodramatic lyrics and OTT melodies have lost their resonance over time.

29. ‘Softly, Softly’, by Ruby Murray

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Softly Softly, by Ruby Murray (her 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 18th Feb to 11th Mar 1955

Aaaah…

That wasn’t a cry of anguish you just heard; more an exhalation of boredom. Or an extended pause while I tried to think of something to stop this from being my shortest post yet.

But maybe it should be a short post. Ruby Murray, claiming the twenty-ninth UK #1 with a perfectly forgettable song. It’s basically an amalgamation of what’s gone before: the string intro to ‘Secret Love’, Mantovani’s violins, Eddie Fisher’s ethereal backing singers, plus a sprinkle of Kitty Kallen and a half-teaspoonful of Kay Starr… Almost as if someone was using an algorithm specifically designed to write a mid-1950s chart hit. However they did it; it worked – ‘Softly Softly’ logged a very respectable three weeks at the top.

Softly, softly, Miss Murray purrs, come to me, touch my lips, so tenderly… The lyrics are all about kissing and caressing, about her lover taking his time to open up her heart. But it’s not a sexy song at all. It’s a bit nursery ryhme-ish, and a bit dull after ‘Mambo Italiano’.

Murray has a nice enough voice and, notably, this is the second example, after Dickie Valentine, of a British singer trying to sound like an American. She breathes and tickles the lines in a way that Vera Lynn most certainly would not have approved of. Actually, Ruby Murray was from Belfast and, by my reckoning, this makes her the first in a very long line of Irish crooners to have topped the UK Singles Chart.

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Ruby Murray is also (and this is the only thing that I knew about her prior to writing this post) cockney rhyming slang for curry. As in: It’s Friday night, we’re off dahn the Taj Mahal for a cheeky little Ruby Murray, innit. She is therefore the second chart topping artist so far, after Mantovani, to have remained enshrined in the public consciousness less for her music and more for the way her surname sounds. But her music was very popular. Though this was her sole #1, she recorded eight further Top 10 hits between 1954-59. Only two of her releases failed to make the Top 10, actually. I guess it’s a bit of a shame that she’s now remembered solely for having a name that rhymes with curry.

I’m pretty sure I could go out on a limb and declare that I’m the only person in the world who has listened to a Ruby Murray song today. ‘Softly Softly’ is by far her most listened to song on Spotify, at 104,676 plays. A quick bit of maths, dividing that number by the 70 million total users on Spotify, gives you 0.00014 plays of ‘Softly Softly’ per user. And that’s after I’ve played it five times in the past half hour.

Still – it is pretty amazing that every single one of these prehistoric chart toppers is available nowadays at the click of a button. Had I tried to do this blog a decade or so earlier I would have had to rely on wading through weird re-recordings on YouTube, or to opening my laptop up to all sorts of viruses on Pirate Bay. Had I attempted this twenty or thirty years ago (before blogging existed, I know, but bear with me) I’d have had to spend a fortune in ‘Sounds of the 50s’ compilations. These are enlightened times in which we live. And there, that wasn’t such a short post after all.

28. ‘Mambo Italiano’, by Rosemary Clooney & The Mellomen

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Mambo Italiano, by Rosemary Clooney (her 2nd of two #1s) & the Mellomen

1 week, from 14th to 21st Jan / 2 Weeks, from 4th to 18th Feb 1955 (3 weeks total)

Just like that, Rosemary Clooney’s pops up again. She had two number ones, within a couple of months, and then she was done. (I’m being a little disingenuous here – she was a chart force for several years – but we are only concerning ourselves with number ones hits here, no room for second best).

And good old Rosie – her time at the top may have been fleeting, but at least she had a bit of fun while she was there. This is an even more frenzied bop than ‘This Ole House’. We start out with a bit of nonsense about a girl going back to Napoli, because she misses the scenery. And then… Hey Mambo!

On first listen I thought she was really singing in Italian, but she is just listing food: Hey mambo… try an enchilada with the fish bacalla and other cod-Italian phrases. Something something mozzarella, something something Calabrese… I think there’s a Como se dice in there. To be honest, Miss Clooney doesn’t know como se dice very much at all. And anyway, that’s Spanish. But it’s OK – you can’t help but want to dance to this. For the solo, the bouncy piano from ‘This Ole House’ returns, and it ends with a brilliant That’s Nice! OOH! As for ‘The Mellomen’… who knows? They do little more than your average ’50s backing singers – a few ‘Hey Mambo’s here and there – so I’m not sure why they got a credit. But, just like that, they have a UK Number One single.

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If this were released today, people might pick up on the gibberish mix of English and Italian, and the picture it paints of Italian-Americans, and they may perhaps view it in an unfavourable light. Remember how Justin Bieber got in trouble for singing about Doritos to the tune of ‘Despacito’? But actually, this is a song about a girl returning to a native land where she now feels confused and out of touch. The lyrics are meant to be mumbo-jumbo. We’re not meant to understand them… Kinda clever when you think about it.

The song also features the line: If you gonna be a square, you ain’t a-gonna go nowhere, ‘Square’, as far as I’m concerned, is the archetypal ’50s slang word: Be there or be square… You’re so square, baby I don’t care… So, while this is a mambo record, sung by an easy-listening singer-slash-actress, this is rock ‘n’ roll. It may be fun and funky, but it just about manages to retain an air of cool around all the silliness. While we were waiting for Bill Haley to come along and kick-off things off, the ideals and attitudes, if not the actual sounds, of rock ‘n’ roll were being sneaked in right under our noses.

As with her previous chart topper, I knew this song already. Most people do. I have vague memories of a late-90s remix. Plus, Miss Clooney is remembered nowadays as the aunt of housewives’ heartthrob George Clooney. But – remixes and celebrity descendants aside – we should all take a minute to appreciate her for the few weeks, in late ’54/early ’55, when she slapped a good dollop of fun into an otherwise pretty staid and stuffy UK singles chart.

27. ‘The Finger of Suspicion’, by Dickie Valentine with The Stargazers

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The Finger of Suspicion, by Dickie Valentine (his first of two #1s) with the Stargazers (their 3rd of 3 #1s)

1 week, from 7th to 14th Jan / 2 Weeks, from 21st Jan to 4th Feb 1955 (3 weeks total)

We race on into 1955 with a song that sounds like it could be very interesting. The Finger of Suspicion! Dickie Valentine calls out his unfaithful love. He knows what she did! And he’ll stand for it no longer!

Except, no. This isn’t an era of surprises, of shocks… of excitement (with a few notable exceptions). This is a cloying little love song, putting the ‘easy’ into easy-listening. The crimes for which the accusing finger points are things like stealing a beat or two from the singer’s heart, robbing him of sleep etc. etc… All very smooth, Dickie, but the title promised so much more.

Musically it’s right down the middle of the road. Not too dull; but far from thrilling. There are snatches of film-noir soundtrack between the verses, and an extremely sedate guitar-cum-trumpet solo. Peak pre-rock!

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the song – and perhaps I’m clutching at straws here – is that Dickie Valentine is a Brit who sings like an American. Bear with me… So far in the British chart-toppers corner we’ve had folks such as David Whitfield, Vera Lynn, and Eddie Calvert. All very proper, all very sedate, all very… pleasant. They’ve sang their number one hits in a restrained, decidedly British fashion. Calvert even played his trumpet in a restrained, decidedly British fashion. Whilst the Americans – the Frankie Laines, the Guy Mitchells, the Rosemary Clooneys – have all had a bit of a swagger about them. And Valentine, here, has clearly learned from them. He doesn’t have the greatest voice, but it’s a bit louche, and slightly knowing. He sounds like he’s having a good time singing this song. Even the name, Dickie Valentine, sounds fun and stagey (his real name was the far more prosaic Richard Maxwell). We are witnessing the birth of the British pop star here, the first in a long line of cheeky, yet loveable faces that ranges from Cliff to Olly Murs, via Rod Stewart and Robbie Williams. It’s a moment of some significance.

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Almost as interesting is the manner in which Valentine ends the song. It seems that we are set up for the big, overly-dramatic finish so beloved of this era’s biggest stars. The finger of suspicion – dum dum dum dum dum dum – you’re ready for it, no matter the fact that it won’t suit the song – and then we get an ever so gentle points… at… you… Expectations well and truly subverted.

We are, of course, meeting The Stargazers again as well. Their first chart-topper was dire, their second was bizarre, and their final one is this standard little ditty. In truth, they barely feature here, save for a few backing lines. You wouldn’t even know they were involved if they weren’t credited. When this hit the top they became the act with the most UK Number Ones – joint with Frankie Laine. Best leave them there. They won’t hold onto this record for long, and will soon fade into the mists of chart history as an act very much of their time.

26. ‘Let’s Have Another Party’, by Winifred Atwell

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Let’s Have Another Party, by Winifred Atwell (her first of two #1s)

5 weeks, from 3rd Dec. 1954 to 7th Jan. 1955

I wrote in the intro to my last post that Rosemary Clooney was finally getting our pulses racing – or our toes tapping, at least – and here comes Winifred Atwell to keep up the momentum.

It’s another piano-led song. Well, I say ‘piano-led’; it’s nothing but piano. Winnie and her piano, bashing out a selection of boogie-woogie and ragtime standards in extremely short order. According to Wikipedia we are getting classics such as ‘Broken Doll’, ‘Lily of Laguna’ and the ‘Sheik of Araby’ served up with a verse here, a snatch of chorus there, then on to the next one. I don’t recognise any of the featured tunes – though I’m pretty sure one of them was played by an ice-cream van in days of childhood yore.

It’s jaunty enough, but the effect of squeezing so many different tunes into a couple of minutes means it’s a bit of an odd listen. They’re all played in the same ragtime tempo, so there are no segues: it’s straight from one song into another with no time to draw breath, before we screech to a halt with dum-didley-dum-dum… dum-dum. But hey, it’s the first medley to top the charts, and off the top of my head, I’m not sure if there will be another one until Jive Bunny in thirty-five years’ time. On Spotify, the track is listed as having a Part I and Part II, the former being all of these old hits strung together while the latter is a much-more sedate number, even featuring a bit of guitar. I think, though I’m unable to confirm, that only the first part counts as the record that hit #1. Maybe Part II was the B-side.

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Anyway, all of this nonsense about which part is blah blah blah pales wildly into insignificance when it is revealed that Ms. Atwell was… black! Born in Trinidad & Tobago, before moving to the States and then to London, she becomes, a little over two years into their existence, the first black artist to hit the top of the charts. It’s a big moment, and worth taking a moment to reflect on this happening at a time when, say, landlords could stick a ‘No Blacks’ sign in their windows with impunity and, in the USA at least, Winifred Atwell wouldn’t have been allowed on the same public transport as her fellow chart-toppers. Just because this is the frothiest of throw-away records shouldn’t render it any less significant.

In fact, it’s almost ironic that she achieved this historic landmark with a medley full of old music-hall hits. The sort of hits that were big in even less enlightened times. The sort that might have been sung by men in black-face, to howls of laughter (seriously, Google ‘Lily of Laguna’ to see just what kind of song it is…) In a way, she is reclaiming them, and making them popular on her own terms.

And with that, I’ll descend from my high-horse, and conclude by saying that we will be hearing from Winfred Atwell again soon. She was huge in the early to mid-1950s (played for the Queen, didn’t you know!), and definitely seemed to have a winning formula. Hey, if it ain’t broke… ‘Let’s Have Another Party’ was the follow-up (somewhat inevitably) to ‘Let’s Have a Party’, and was followed up by another medley, the wonderfully titled ‘Let’s Have a Ding-Dong’. All good, (very) old-fashioned fun!

 

25. ‘This Ole House’, by Rosemary Clooney

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This Ole House, by Rosemary Clooney (her first of two #1s)

1 week, from 26th Nov. to 3rd Dec. 1954

Now this is more like it! After an incredibly sedate run of number ones – seriously, nothing since early-May of this year has been enough to get even a toe tapping – we are rocking and a-rolling!

You probably know this song. I certainly knew of it, for a couple of reasons. One is that Shakin’ Stevens revived it in the early ’80s. The other is that I can recall, way back in the mists of time, reading an ‘Oor Wullie’ comic (link provided for non-Scottish readers) in which this song was playing at a party, the words changed to something suitably Scottish (‘This ole house ain’t got no lino’, perhaps). My grandparents kept piles of old ‘Oor Wullie’ annuals lying about, and so have no idea whether it was a new-ish comic strip parodying the Shaky version, or a vintage comic parodying this version. Amazing, isn’t it? Anyone who tries to tell you that the charts don’t matter, and that the songs which make number one don’t form the backdrop to our lives, is very, very wrong. Anyway. You will know this song, I assure you – it’s got a sort of nursery rhyme feel to it and goes a little something like this:

            * raucous piano, or maybe a harpsichord (???) or an organ *

        This ole house once knew his children, This ole house once knew his wife, This ole house was home and comfort as they fought the storms of life, This ole house once rang with laughter, This ole house heard many shouts, Now he trembles in the darkness when the lightnin’ walks about…

Yes, it’s the tale of a lonely old man. Clooney then goes on to detail the repair work that this house needs – the floor, the hinges, the windowpane, even the shingles (I’m pretty confident that this is the only #1 hit to reference shingle). But he needn’t bother, this lonely old man, as he: Ain’t gonna need this house no longer, He’s getting ready to meet the saints…

This is a strange ole song. In a musical landscape of mopey, flowery, boringly chaste love-songs this is a best-selling song about a man sitting in his dilapidated house, waiting for the sweet embrace of death. The piece de resistance is the line: Oh his knees are a-gettin shaky, But he feels no fear or pain, ‘Cause he sees an angel peekin’, Through a broken windowpane…

Like, seriously. WTF? – as they most certainly didn’t say in 1954. I love it. It’s weird, morbid, almost sadistic. It’s quite modern, in a way, the juxtaposition of upbeat music with some with very downbeat, depressing lyrics. It’s interesting, anyway, and a lot better than some of the guff we’ve had to listen to recently. The gulf between this record and ‘My Son, My Son’ – its predecessor at #1 – is what makes a singles chart so interesting. The next chart-topper can always be something completely different.

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Rosemary Clooney’s voice is standard, mid-1950s American. Polished, glossy, accessible. She even throws in a Westlife style key-change after the twangy piano solo which, if I’m not mistaken, is the first we’ve heard in this rundown. I, for my sins, love a good key-change. And we must mention her brilliantly deep-voiced backing singer – with his ain’t a-gonna need this house no longer, ain’t a-gonna need this house no more – who adds an even more bizarre edge to an already pretty bizarre record.

This was Clooney’s first of two number ones, the second of which will be coming up very shortly indeed. And, I can tell you now, it’s another cracker!