224. ‘Distant Drums’, by Jim Reeves

What to make of this, then…? Just as we were getting into a groove at the top of the charts – a rocking, modish, soulful groove with cool and forward-facing #1s following similarly cool and forward-facing #1s – The Kinks, The Blue Flames, Chris Farlowe and ‘Eleanor Rigby’, a curveball is thrown our way.

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Distant Drums, by Jim Reeves (his 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 22nd September – 27th October 1966

Gentle drums, a swaying rhythm, a crooner’s voice… I hear the sound, Of distant drums, Far away, Far away… It’s the sort of country-ish ballad that was ten-a-penny in the late fifties and early sixties. (I’d perhaps call this one country-calypso, if that’s at all possible…) But it’s a sign of how far popular music has come in a very short time that ‘Distant Drums’ sticks out like a sore thumb in late 1966.

It’s a sentimental song, about a man who hears the distant drums of war… Then I must go, And you must stay… And so he begs his beloved to marry him before he gets shipped off: Let’s share all the time we can before it’s too late… If you love me Mary, Marry me… (Gettit? ‘Mary’ – ‘Marry’?) It’s sweet. Old-fashioned. Your gran would love it. I am certain, even without checking, that Daniel O’Donnell has covered this.

Why on earth it spent over a month at the top of the charts I do not know. But there’s no need to make a big fuss about it. Yes, it’s nothing like the brilliant hits that went right before, but I’m not a snob. There’s room for all in this parish. Jim Reeves sings it beautifully, in a very understated way. And it’s worth noting that exactly one year ago, Ken Dodd was at the top of the charts – for five weeks as well, no less – with the similarly saccharine ‘Tears’. And as with Doddy, ‘Distant Drums’ was, despite the strong competition, the biggest-selling single of the year! Maybe there was something in the autumn air…

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Or maybe it was because, as I’ve just discovered, Jim Reeves was dead. We have our third ever posthumous #1! But, unlike Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran’s swansongs, Reeves had been dead for a while… A light aircraft crash, in a storm, in July 1964. Well over two years before this record hit the top spot… A bit late for a tribute, then. One other explanation is timing: that the song’s theme suddenly became prescient with escalation of the Vietnam War. Jim Reeves – ‘Gentleman Jim’ as he was known – had had plenty of chart hits before this one, both alive and dead, and so perhaps it isn’t a huge shock that one would catch the public’s imagination like this.

Whatever the reason, it means we get a little interlude in our rundown of the nation’s biggest selling songs. I’m not going to pretend that hearing this song has been a highlight of my day. If it had come in, say, 1962, in a version by Frank Ifield, I would have probably had far less patience with it… Moving on, then, without any further ado…