Behind the #1s – Norrie Paramor

We’ve covered 210 chart-toppers so far in this countdown, going from the very first chart through to Nancy Sinatra and her boots in early 1966. And it’s only fair that we turn our attention to the man that, up to now, has been involved in more of these #1 singles than anybody else, more than Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Bacharach and David…! Norrie Paramor.

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Born in 1913, Paramor had worked as a pianist and arranger through the thirties and forties, before being appointed recording director at EMI in 1952 – the very year that the singles chart he was to help shape began. Having developed his sound during the light-programme, easy listening days, Paramor was perfectly positioned to help the pre-rock stars sway (albeit gently). He was responsible for trumpeter Eddie Calvert’s hits, and the Northern-Irish warbler Ruby Murray’s ‘Softly, Softly’. Then there was Michael Holliday. Already a pretty impressive body of chart-topping work… And it was about to become all the more impressive, because along came Cliff.

Cliff Richard has had eight number ones so far in our countdown, all of which have been produced by Norrie Paramor. And each time I’ve complained that ‘rock ‘n’ roll Cliff’ was nowhere to be seen… Britain’s answer to Elvis etc. etc. Yeah right. He had a handful of truly rocking singles in ’58, but by the time he’d gotten down to the business of topping the charts the rock had become more of a gentle toe-tap. And a lot of that was probably down to Paramor. He wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll producer; he was a light-entertainment, easy listening kind of guy. I get the feeling he wasn’t convinced by rock and roll, probably saw it as a fad, and was willing to allow it as long as it was successful. Still, he moulded Cliff’s sound. One wonders how Cliff would have turned out had he had someone else’s hands on the tiller…

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(An early pic of Paramor, Cliff and The Shadows)

Of course, wherever Cliff went The Shadows weren’t far off. Paramor produced all of their chart-toppers too. Which makes for a more interesting comparison of styles, as discs like ‘Kon-Tiki’ and ‘Dance On!’ were actually pretty rocking little numbers. Perhaps it’s unfair, then, to write Paramor off as a dinosaur. Add to this the fact that he also oversaw Helen Shapiro’s wonderful 1961 chart-topping double – the bubbly ‘Walkin’ Back to Happiness’ and the melodramatic ‘You Don’t Know’ – and it’s clear that he wasn’t all bad…

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(Paramor with Cliff, again, and Helen Shapiro in the early sixties)

Wait, though… On the flip side of this particular coin lies one Frank Ifield. Yep, Norrie Paramor produced all four #1s from ‘The Year of Ifield’, pre-rock’s final hurrah before The Beatles and The Pacemakers saved us all… The yodelling horror that is ‘Lovesick Blues’ remains, for me, far worse than anything that Cliff has inflicted.

A mixed bag, then, from Norrie Paramor, prolific producer of the chart’s early years. In total (I think, it’s hard to keep track) he put his name to around twenty five chart-topping singles before the seventies arrived. He also acted as musical director for the Eurovision Song Contest, and wrote multiple film scores, before passing away in 1979. And, in a sentimental twist, the artist that was sitting at #1 in the UK as Paramor drew his final breath, with his first chart-topper in over a decade, was… Cliff!

153. ‘Confessin’ (That I Love You)’, by Frank Ifield

In my last post, I indulged in a bit of metaphor-making and compared the Merseybeat wave that was sweeping the charts to a meteor – a mop-topped meteor that flattened all the musical dinosaurs who were clogging the charts. Except, as beautiful as that image is, reality gets in the way here. We briefly have to return to the old ways. The corpse, it seems, is still twitching.

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Confessin’ (That I Love You), by Frank Ifield (his 4th and final #1)

2 weeks, from 18th July – 1st August 1963

Frank Ifield, after dominating the latter half of 1962, still had enough in the tank to claim one final #1 single. The three he’s had so far have ranged from dull (‘The Wayward Wind’) to demented (‘Lovesick Blues’), but none have been very good. Can ‘Confessin’’ save the day?

It starts with a smooth rhythm – a bossanova? – and, naturally, a harmonica. And then the syrupy tones of ol’ Frank. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating – for all his many faults, this guy could sing. I’m confessin’ that I love yo-ooou, Tell me do you love me to-ooo, I’m confessin’ that I need you, Honest I do… Need you ev’ry moment…

It’s a lot more understated than his previous chart-toppers, even his trademark yodelling works here, in that it fits in with the lilting rhythm of the song and doesn’t just sound like him showing off. I kind of like it… I mean, I’ve forgotten it pretty much as soon as it’s done, and the lyrics are a kind of nothingy mulch about how much he loves a girl, and how he hopes she returns his feelings: I’m afraid someday you’ll leave me, Saying can we still be friends… To suggest that it has redeemed the chart-topping career of Yodelling Frank, however, would be a step too far.

If I’ve learned anything over my past four Ifield-based posts, it’s that this will be an old song done up to suit modern ears. It’s what Frank did. And in fact, ‘Confessin’ (That I Love You)’ dates further back than any Ifield #1 has done so far. It’s had the treatment from pretty much everyone, many of whom we’ve met before on this countdown: Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Perry Como, Frankie Laine, Kay Starr, Dean Martin and Johnnie Ray, as well as others like Judy Garland and the wonderfully named Chester Gaylord, who had the original hit way back in 1930.

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It’s a perfectly nice record, but one that I doubt would have come anywhere near the top of the charts had it been Ifield’s first release. It definitely needed the goodwill and borrowed lustre of his earlier, much bigger hits to drag it to the summit. Way, way back – when I wrote about Frankie Laine’s follow up to the monster-hit ‘I Believe’ – I invented the idea of a shadow-hit, a hit record kind of like those tiny birds that hang out picking the flies off hippos, and this is definitely what’s happening here.

And so ends the chart-topping career of Frank Ifield. He burned brightly but oh-so briefly – his four #1s squeezed into just under a year. I must admit I made a grave error when I got excited about Elvis doing four-in-a-year and struggled to find any other act that had managed it… Our Frank was hiding right here under our very noses. But that kind of sums up his career and his legacy, as I’d say he’s been pretty much forgotten. He was bulldozed from collective memory by The Beatles et al, and now rarely gets mentioned… He had one more Top Ten hit following this, and has been inducted into both the Australian Music Hall of Fame and, more importantly, the Coventry Music Wall of Fame. In the eighties he contracted pneumonia, which left him unable to yodel… He’s still going, though, aged eighty-one.

Frank Ifield, then, ladies and gentlemen. First Australian to top the UK charts, the Great Yodeller, forgotten superstar of the 1960s… A round of applause, please. And onwards.

Follow along, and listen to every #1 covered so far, on my Spotify playlist:

147. ‘The Wayward Wind’, by Frank Ifield

I have to admit – I’m struggling to ‘get’ Frank Ifield, Britain’s pop-idol du jour in 1962-3. We’ve arrived at Pt. III of his chart-topping quadrilogy (that’s a word, right?) and still the key to his success is eluding me.

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The Wayward Wind, by Frank Ifield (his 3rd of four #1s)

3 weeks, from 21st February – 14th March 1963

At the very least ‘The Wayward Wind’ is an improvement on Ifield’s last #1, the demented ‘Lovesick Blues’. Largely because the yodelling (Oh God, the yodelling…) is kept to a minimum. Instead we get a harmonica riff (that sounds suspiciously like it’s from an early-Beatles B-side…) and the story of a wanderer:

Oh the wayward wind, Is a restless wind, A restless wind, That yearns to wander… And I was born, The next of kin, Ah, the next of kin, To the wayward wind… It was originally, you may have guessed from those lyrics, a Country & Western song from the fifties – the rest of the lyrics are all about ‘railroad tracks’ and ‘border towns’. Which means it’s the third hit running in which Frank Ifield and his producers have taken an old song and tarted it up to fit in with the sound of the time – i.e. the soon-to-explode ‘beat movement’.

It’s probably the best of Ifield’s three chart-toppers; though that is very, very faint praise indeed. I like the way that strings and cymbals come in on the verses as the ‘wayward wind’ – it’s a nice effect. And we make it almost a minute into the song before the first yodel: made me a sl-a-a-a-eeee-ave…! Frank clearly couldn’t help himself. Maybe it was an actual affliction – yodelling Tourettes? – and he did it even when talking…? He saves it for that line and that line only, though, for which we can all be grateful.

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Like all of Ifield’s hits, ‘The Wayward Wind’ isn’t a song I’d ever heard before. The one good thing about his year in the sun is that all these tunes are completely new to me. There is at least a novelty value to his work. It was quite the popular tune, however, especially in the mid-to-late fifties. Our old friend Jimmy Young did a version (which makes complete sense, thinking about it – this could be ‘The Man from Laramie’ Pt. II) along with Patsy Cline, Sam Cooke and The Everly Brothers. The Beatles included it in their early live shows (I knew it – that harmonica!)

Let’s look at this as a throwback. In fact, let’s view the entire career of Frank Ifield as a throwback. He sings nicely, properly (your gran would have liked him, no doubt) with good enunciation. He was the final Pre-Rock star, the successor to the likes of Jimmy Young, Guy Mitchell and Frankie Laine, and his sudden popularity was the final twitch of a corpse that had been trampled over by rock ‘n’ roll and that was about to be completely buried by beat groups.

But, at the end of the day, this isn’t a very good record. Solid at best. Competent. Maybe his final chart-topper will unlock the mystery of Frank Ifield’s success? Maybe… Anyway, to finish… I’ve really held off mentioning this, but hey… ‘The Wayward Wind’ sounds, to me, like a euphemism for a fart.

On that note…

142. ‘Lovesick Blues’, by Frank Ifield

It had been a while since I arrived at a record about which I know nothing. Zilch. Nada. Until Frank Ifield came along. I should relish these moments of blissful ignorance. They are becoming rarer and rarer the further we move into the rock age…

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Lovesick Blues, by Frank Ifield (his 2nd of four #1s)

5 weeks, from 8th November – 13th December 1962

Upon pressing play, however, and unleashing this next #1, I find myself wishing for a quick return to those halcyon times, just two minutes back, when I had never heard this song.

‘Lovesick Blues’ could be a decent song. It’s fun, it’s up-tempo. It’s got a strong hook and a funky trumpet. It’s a record with an old-world, showtune charm (it was originally written in 1922) and a super-sixties rhythm section. It’s cheesy, sure, but that’s OK. I can imagine it as the theme to a silly sitcom, or an Austin Powers movie. I could live very easily with this as a huge chart-topping record; if it weren’t for one very big problem…

The yodelling. Oh God, the yodelling. In my post on Ifield’s first number one – ‘I Remember You’ – I was surprised to find him labelled as a ‘yodeller’. He doesn’t yodel that much, I thought. One listen of ‘Lovesick Blues’, however, and my doubts are dispelled. Frank Ifield = Yodeller.

A Brief History of Yodelling. Originally used by Alpine herders calling to their cattle, or to send messages from one village to another, yodelling was gradually incorporated into traditional songs and stage shows. And then, for some reason, it crossed the Atlantic and made it into country music. We’ve had yodelling before in this countdown – without me even noticing it! – thanks to Slim Whitman in 1955. Once you start looking, the breadth and depth of yodelling around the world is quite terrifying. Switzerland is where it started, obviously, but it can also be found in the folk music of Romania, Scandinavia, Georgia, Central Africa and Hawaii… Hank Williams was a good yodeller. As was, believe it or not, Bill Haley (he gave it up when he jumped on the rock ‘n’ roll bandwagon.) The mind boggles.

I want, as I usually do in these posts, to quote some lyrics from this song, to explore some of the themes that are present etc. and so on. But to be honest, I can’t really focus on the words. Ifield rattles through the song at breakneck speed, adding twelve notes to a word when just one would do. It’s a song, I believe, about feeling blue when lovesick.

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He’s a good singer, is Frank Ifield. He’s an excellent yodeller, if that’s your kinda thing. But when he hits that drawn-out final note… Oh boy. In the interests of fairness, I gave the Hank Williams version of ‘Lovesick Blues’ a go. But nope, I wasn’t feeling it. Little Richard recorded a version, and I love me some Little Richard, but, again, it ain’t doing nothing for me. Maybe the song’s just cursed… Plus, the ‘B’-side to ‘Lovesick Blues’ was a ditty titled ‘She Taught Me How to Yodel.’ I’ve put in a link, but I would urge you to only click on it if you are in a sound-proofed room with hard liquor to hand.

There’s clearly a reason why this is a very forgotten chart-topper; why this was the first #1 in a long time that I’d never heard before. I bet nobody’s listened to this for years… And for it to follow on from the sublime ‘Telstar’!? Talk about coming back to earth with a bump. You can still see the crater…

‘Lovesick Blues’ does, though, mark an important milestone in British chart history. Its second week at the top coincided with the chart’s 10 year anniversary. From ‘Here in My Heart’ to now. One decade; 142 chart-topping discs. That’s an average of one #1 every twenty-six days. From pre-rock, to rock ‘n’ roll, to post rock ‘n’ roll, to yodelling… If I continue at this rate I’ll reach the 1970s by next summer, the 1980s by 2022, the 1990s hopefully before the 2030s… Still with me…?

139. ‘I Remember You’, by Frank Ifield

For the 3rd post in a row, we have somebody new at the top of the charts. Mr. Frank Ifield is going to burn very brightly, and very briefly, across British pop in 1962-63 and he kicks things off here with a big ol’ seven-week stay at #1.

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I Remember You, by Frank Ifield (his 1st of four #1s)

7 weeks, from 26th July – 13th September 1962

Let’s get down to business, then. What is this new and rather sudden singing phenomenon all about? On first listen… I’m not sure. There’s a nice, rolling C&W rhythm, and a lot of harmonica. This is a record that is harmonica-heavy. I remember you-oooh… You’re the one who made my dreams come true, A few, Kisses ago…

He’s got a distinctive voice, does Frank Ifield. It’s a good voice; but not what I’d call a particularly enjoyable voice. He has a tendency to launch into extremely high notes at the end of each line, for a start. Then there’s the way he takes the phrase out of the blue, and adds about eight extra syllables onto the end. Wiki describes Ifield as a ‘singer and guitarist who often incorporated yodelling’, but I wouldn’t describe what he’s doing here as ‘yodelling’ exactly. It’s more that he’s just fannying about when he should be getting on with singing the song.

Singing style aside, I’m not terribly sure what this song is about, either. He ‘remembers’ a girl, but that’s because he just kissed her. When my life is through, And the angels ask me, To recall, The thrill of them all… That’s a strange thing to think, as you kiss the love of your life – that you’ll remember it on your deathbed. Or is it extremely romantic? Kind of? Contrast these very lightweight lyrics with those of Ray Charles in the previous chart-topper. Big difference.

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If you’re getting the feeling that I’m not terribly into this record, then you’d be right. This is the first time I’ve ever heard it and, to be honest, it’s average. Even the music is a weird kind of Americana: a British interpretation of Country & Western (Ifield was British-Australian). You can imagine him on a music-hall stage, perched on a wooden fence, chewing a bit of straw. Howdy pardner…! But – and this might just be me – I’m also getting slight Merseybeat vibes. Maybe it’s the way his sentences run on – You’re the one who said I love you too, Yes I do, Didn’t you know…. – or maybe it’s the chord progression. The harmonica ‘riff’ which I complained about at the start kind of reminds me of ‘Please Please Me’ by The Beatles. The Merseybeat explosion is less than a year off, and the bands that would lead it were already around and making music, and so perhaps it’s not so far-fetched to be hearing the sounds already creeping through.

The end of ‘I Remember You’ sounds pretty cheesy and cheap, and I, personally, was glad that we got there in just over two minutes. If ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ was a Champions League kind of record; then this is solidly League One. The Scunthorpe United of chart-topping singles. It’s a cover of an old forties standard – which means that the blame can’t be heaped wholly at Frank Ifield’s door and that the people of 1962 would perhaps have already known the song, giving it a head start in its bid for the top. Yet, I remain unconvinced that this is what the charts needed. And why on earth it stayed at #1 for seven weeks, selling over a million copies in the process, is a real mystery. Maybe it shouldn’t be, though: bland and accessible sells – always has, always will.

I’ll hold off on any Frank Ifield biography for now – this is just the beginning of a big twelve months for him, and we’ll be hearing a lot more from him very, very soon. For now, let’s leave the bio at him being (half) Australian, and thus the first in a very long line of Aussie chart-toppers. To be at the head of a list that contains Kylie, The Seekers, Olivia Newton-John and Peter Andre is a proud achievement indeed…