402. ‘Chanson d’Amour’, by The Manhattan Transfer

At the end of my last post, I claimed that I had never heard this song before. I also offered a prayer that it might break our recent run of bland soft-rock…

Chanson d’Amour, by The Manhattan Transfer (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 6th – 27th March 1977

Well, I can state that I have heard this song before – somewhere, sometime long forgotten. Or, maybe it’s just that this sounds like a standard, a melody that we all have running through us. As for whether it ups the tempo…? It does, a bit.

I like it, though; for it immediately has a boozy, saucy, pub singalong feel to it. A rolling piano, accordions… Chanson d’amour, Play encore… I also like it because, while half the lyrics are French, they are at my level of French – i.e. very basic high school. Chanson d’amour, Je t’adore… And then there’s an inane refrain: rah-ta-rah-ta-dah…

Actually, so bad is the French that I feel qualified to pick them up on it. The pronunciation is well off, coming out more like Chanson d’amooor, Joo t’adooor… Safe to say there were no actual French people involved in the making of this record. But it’s fun. It kind of sounds like Edith Piaf having a singalong, half-cut on Pernod, down an East End boozer.

There’s another saxophone solo. Make that two in a row and throw in a comment about London buses. (This one grates less than ‘When I Need You’, but I still would have preferred them to stick to the piano, or the accordion.) Then we roll to a gentle finish, and I’m left to wonder what on earth this record was doing at the top of the charts in early 1977. It’s completely pointless, but catchy and – praise be! – fun.

Manhattan Transfer were a band from New York, around since the late sixties. They did swing, jazz, a cappella stuff and largely stayed away from the charts until this hit smashed out of nowhere. They are still a going concern, still with three long-term members. ‘Chanson d’Amour’, meanwhile, was first written and recorded in the late fifties, by Art and Dotty Todd. Going off on a complete tangent… the Todd’s had also recorded the original version of another UK #1 single: ‘Broken Wings’, which was one of the very earliest chart-topping singles back in 1953, for The Stargazers. (Never thought I’d be mentioning them again!)

Viewed in this way, then, the record makes more sense. We can slot it in amongst the rock ‘n’ roll revival records – some covers, some originals – that have been peppering the charts for a few years now (Showaddywaddy, the Rubettes, etc.) Meanwhile, perhaps the definitive version of ‘Chanson d’Amour’ came from the cast of ‘Are You Being Served’, in the show’s final episode. Come to think of it, that’s probably how I knew this song… From post-Sunday lunch re-runs as a child.

245. ‘Cinderella Rockefella’, by Esther & Abi Ofarim

Why, isn’t 1968 just turning into the most eclectic year? Ballads about infamous crime duos, folk-pop about Eskimos… and now this.

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Cinderella Rockefella, by Esther & Abi Ofarim (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 28th February – 20th March 1968

We start off with a trad-jazz vibe – woozy pianos, banjos and illicit cocktails – and I’m enjoying it because I’m genetically programmed to like this kind of music hall silliness. But then the yodelling starts. Yodelladayodalladay… Pure Alpine throat-bending, which turns out to actually be saying You’re the lady, You’re the lady that I love… I’m the lady, The lady whooooo…

But before the Frank Ifield flashbacks really hit, thankfully they start singing more normally. A man and a woman. Woman: I love your touch… Man: Thank you so much… The lyrics aren’t up to a great deal (Man: I love your chin… Woman: Say it again…), but at least they aren’t being yodelled.

The man, Abi, and the woman, Esther are wooing one another, in a speakeasy. Musically, this could be from the soundtrack to ‘Chicago’ – minus the yodelling – and it means that half of this year’s #1 singles so far have had a retro-jazz vibe to them. Though, for my money ‘The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde’ was far superior to this. It’s a song that doesn’t really go anywhere, and one that raises plenty of questions… What? Who? Why?

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That ‘What?’ first. Rockefeller is the New York magnate responsible for The Rockefeller Centre. Cinderella is, well, Cinderella. Cinderella is beautiful and JD Rockefeller was rich ergo = the perfect couple. ‘Cinderella Rockefeller’, I know, is a school musical staple – though one I’ve neither been involved in nor seen. Any song list from the musical that I can find online does not list ‘Cinderella Rockefella’ as one of its songs. And the Wiki page for the song doesn’t mention the musical…

On to the ‘Who?’ Esther and Abi Ofarim were an Israeli husband and wife duo – the one and only Israeli act to top the British charts. Abi sings low; Esther sings high. She’s very shrill. The song had been performed on various US variety shows before they picked it up.

And the ‘Why?’ I really don’t know. Novelty hits are novelty hits and often come out of nowhere. Maybe you had to have been there, in the spring of ’68. Maybe people were getting sick of all the high-brow, forward facing, boundary pushing pop of the recent years and were ready to embrace some cheesy tosh.

I can’t say I hate it. It’s kind of fun, and I do love the musical arrangement. But… the yodelling. If, before starting this blog, someone had asked me how many #1 hits would feature yodelling I would have answered with a flat zero. But no. Slim Whitman, old Frank and now this. It’s a record that’s 20% intriguing, and 80% irritating. One things for sure, in my next recap it’s going to be difficult to choose the weirdest chart-topper from this most recent bunch…

Listen to every #1 hit so far:

Remembering Kay Starr

On this day three years ago, one of our earliest chart-toppers passed away: Kay Starr, smoky voiced pre-rock chanteuse.

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Born in 1922, on a Native-American Reservation, Katherine Laverne Starks parents were a sprinkler fitter and a chicken raiser, and she was singing with bands in Texas from the age of ten, to earn a few extra dollars for her family. (Sounds like the sort of story you might invent, were you challenged to invent a story from Depression-era America…) She sang with big bands through the thirties and forties, before going solo and recording two of my favourite pre-rock n roll #1 singles.

Back when I was working my way through the first fifty or so UK chart-toppers, before Elvis, Buddy, Jerry Lee et al came along, I did find it a bit of a slog at times. Painfully earnest crooners (Eddie Fisher, David Whitfield), irritating novelties (‘That Doggie in the Window’, ‘I See the Moon’) and staid instrumentals (Eddie Calvert, Mantovani) plodded by, one after the other. It was the hidden gems, such as Kay Starr, that made the journey more bearable.

She popped up as early as chart-topper number three, in January 1953, with the sprightly, sassy ‘Comes A-Long A-Love’ – a record that was a whole lot of fun, and one that proved a lot of my preconceptions about the pre-rock era wrong.

And then we had to wait a while for her second, and final, #1. A record that Starr was, apparently not too keen on, but that gave her a hugely unexpected hit: ‘Rock and Roll Waltz’. The story of a teenager (though Starr was thirty-two when she recorded it) who comes home to find her parents trying to waltz to one of those new-fangled rock ‘n’ roll discs. It hit the top in the spring of 1956, just before Elvis went stratospheric with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, and can perhaps be counted as one of the first rock ‘n’ roll chart-toppers, even if it is poking slight fun at the genre…

(I’ve linked to an 1980s TV performance, as it’s a lot of fun and shows Ms Starr still swinging in her sixties. Follow the link above to hear the original.)

And that was that for Kay Starr on the UK charts. She only ever charted five singles here, though she would have presumably had more had the charts begun before November 1952. In the US she was much more prolific, with fifteen Top 10 hits between 1949 and 1957. ‘Wheel of Fortune’ was the biggest, but she also had big duets with fellow UK chart-topper Tennessee Ernie Ford. In later years she toured with Pat Boone, and Tony Bennett.

I think the reason that Kay Starr stood out amongst the other pre-rock stars is that there is such a sparkle in her voice – it flirts, flitters and then suddenly goes all husky-sexy. Billie Holiday apparently claimed that Starr was the only ‘white woman who could sing the blues’. It’s a great voice, but not ‘proper’ like her cut-glass contemporaries. She could have succeeded as a rock ‘n’ roll singer like Connie Francis or Brenda Lee, had she been born a decade later.

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Kay Starr, July 21st 1922 – November 3rd 2016