Behind the #1s – Paul Weston

Taking a break from the usual proceedings, I’m going to use this week to take a look at the folks behind some of the 210 #1s we’ve heard so far. The writers, the producers and, in the case of our first post, the conductors…

In the early days of the charts, when big productions and even bigger voices were all the rage, any self-respecting chart-topper needed an orchestra to back up them up. On the 45s of the time, nearly every #1 is assigned to both a lead artist and an orchestra. ‘Here in My Heart’, by Al Martino, with Orchestra under the direction of Monty Kelly… ‘Outside of Heaven’, by Eddie Fisher with Hugo Winterhalter’s Orchestra and Chorus…

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Perhaps for reasons of convenience, the Official Singles Chart don’t list the orchestra, or it’s conductor, for any of the early chart-toppers. Which is strange, I suppose, as in modern times we have no problem with crediting ‘featured’ artists on a dance or rap track. Maybe it’s because we don’t actually hear their voices… Whatever the reason, several men have missed out on their moment in the record books. Winterhalter and Kelly, Frank Cordell, Stanley Black, Harold Mooney, Mitch Miller…

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I’ve chosen Paul Weston as the frontman for this piece, though, thanks largely to his work with Frankie Laine. Weston was a Massachusetts born musician, who had been a pianist in a dance band, before becoming a song-writer and music director at Capital, and then Colombia Records. He conducted and arranged all three of Laine’s 1953 hits: ‘I Believe’ (still the song with the most weeks at #1 in the UK, sixty-five years on), ‘Hey Joe!’ and ‘Answer Me’. He also conducted on Jo Stafford’s ‘You Belong to Me’, Britain’s 2nd  ever chart-topper. Stafford and Weston had married not long before recording the song.

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Paul Weston with his wife, Jo Stafford

If Paul Weston were actually credited with his work on #1 singles, he would sit at joint 10th place in the all-time weeks at the top of the UK singles chart list with 29 weeks’ worth of chart-toppers, tied with ABBA and Take That, and one week behind Drake. Later in the 1950s he went on to do TV work, helped to start up the Grammy Awards, and worked for Disney. He passed away in the mid-nineties.

One conductor who did get credited on his hit records was the Italian, Annunzio Paulo Mantovani who, like all the best pop stars, went by just the one name: Mantovani. He was popular enough to score a solo, instrumental number one single in 1953: The Song from ‘The Moulin Rouge’, which had been a big hit in the cinemas that year. This success, and his subsequent fame is, I’m guessing, why he is the only conductor to be credited by the Official Charts Company, for his orchestral accompaniment on David Whitfield’s overwrought ‘Cara Mia’ in 1954.

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Mantovani, doing his thing

Conductors and their orchestras became less essential once rock ‘n’ roll arrived, but they still occasionally popped up on the more bombastic number ones. The last one I can think of was Shirley Bassey’s ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ / ‘Reach for the Stars’ double-‘A’ side from 1961, which was credited, on the vinyl at least, to Geoff Love and His Orchestra.

To the conductors, then, and their batons, which shaped the sound of the singles chart’s earliest years.

9. ‘I Believe’, by Frankie Laine

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I Believe, by Frankie Laine (his 1st of four #1s)

9 weeks, from 24th April to 26th June/ 6 weeks, from 3rd July to 14th August/ 3 weeks, from 21st August to 11th September 1953 (18 weeks total)

Boom! Nine number ones in and we’ve hit the big time. We are walking with UK chart royalty here.

I wish I could more clearly recall the moment when I first became interested in the music charts. I have foggy memories here and there: vague snatches of mid-nineties Top 40 countdowns aged ten or eleven. I remember knowing that No Doubt were #1 with ‘Don’t Speak’, and that The Verve were there with ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’. Which places my first wave of enthusiasm firmly in 1997, aged eleven. What sparked it? I don’t know. Maybe something as simple as watching Top of the Pops.

But then I lost interest for a bit aged thirteen or fourteen – the age when you lose interest in everything – and didn’t return until I was sixteen. Then I remember very clearly listening to the Top 40 countdown in a minibus on the way home from a scout camp, on one of the weeks that Will Young’s ‘Evergreen’ was at the top. And that was that.

My interest grew subtly; from simply knowing who was in the charts, to listening to them every week, to writing down the Top 10, Top 20, Top 40. My uncle had done the same thing for years – and every so often he would let me look through huge ring-binders full of several decades’ worth of hand-written charts, and peek into the cupboard where he had a copy of every number one single since the ’60s on vinyl, cassette or CD. By 2002, though, he was losing interest (it was, I suppose, a bit weird for a man in his fifties to be buying Atomic Kitten cassingles) and so perhaps in some sense I took over from him. I’ve never thought about it like that… We never discussed it or anything. He doesn’t know I do this. And I’ve not matched his level of stamina for the task. I’ve missed huge chunks, missed years’ worth of charts. I’ve dabbled in recording the albums charts, recording iTunes number ones, Spotify number ones, rather than the traditional Top 40… And now I’m writing this.

Anyway, the reason for this huge diversion ahead of describing ‘I Believe’ by Frankie Lane is thus: back at the start of my second wave of interest in the charts I used to pore over the Guinness Book of UK Hit Singles, absorbing chart stats and memorising the #1 singles from any given year. And one of the first chart stats that anyone learns – even people who have nothing more than a passing interest – is that the longest ever run at number one is held by ‘(Everything I Do) I Do it for You’, by Bryan Adams, which resided imperiously at the top for sixteen weeks in 1991. This is basic knowledge – like knowing one Shakespeare quote, or that Pi is 3.14 something something something.

Except. Everything we think we know is wrong. Bryan Adams holds the record for most consecutive weeks at Number 1. This song has the most in total.

It begins with a single guitar strum… I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows… Like all songs that have gone on to become something more than just hit records, it’s a simple song. Deceptively simple. But Frankie Laine is in complete control of the lyrics and the tempo, each line growing upon the previous one. The song is just one big crescendo – no verses, no chorus, just a list of things of every day miracles that make the singer ‘believe’. Every time I hear a newborn baby cry, or touch a leaf, or see the sky… Then I know why… I believe… Two minutes long. Done.

The obvious conclusion to draw is that this is a hymn – that the things he lists are those that seal his faith in God. But I’m not sure. I think he just believes in life. Though I am a massive atheist. Still, perhaps part of the song’s mass appeal is that it doesn’t mention ‘God’ as such. It leaves it open for the listener to apply their own personal convictions upon the song.

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The biggest surprise for me upon Googling Frankie Laine is that he’s a pudgy white guy. His voice makes it sound for all the world like he’s black. I can’t explain it, and wouldn’t want to get into some weird, racial vocal-profiling discussion, but listen and I’m sure you’ll agree. 1953 was Laine’s year on the UK singles chart, and he’ll go on to score another couple of chart toppers before this year’s out.

Anyway. This was a song that I knew, or knew of, but had never really listened to. And it’s very good. It sounds like the sort of song that should have stayed at number one for weeks on end. So often the general public get it wrong, sending utter turds to the top and letting genuine classics languish below. But they got it right here. And if someone came along tomorrow and gave ‘I Believe’ a tropical house makeover, with a verse from Justin Bieber, it would probably work. Not that I’m suggesting anyone tries that anytime soon…

But it should be so much more famous. Its chart run was broken twice, on both occasions just for a single week, and because of that Bryan Adams has all the glory and has passed into chart folklore. And that’s just not fair. #justiceforfrankie.