83. ‘Side Saddle’, by Russ Conway

And so, The Winter of the Ballad, which I took such pains to introduce in my previous post, experiences a sudden thaw. Spring has sprung, and has brought with it a perky piece of piano-pop.

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Side Saddle, by Russ Conway (his 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 27th March – 24th April 1959

Upon a first listen of this latest chart-topping record, two questions spring immediately to mind: What is this? And why did it spend a whole month at the top of the charts? It’s an instrumental, Mr. Russ Conway tinkling away at his piano, and… that’s about it. It’s got a melody (of sorts), which plods along without going anywhere very far, and then it ends, in under two minutes.

The obvious comparison to draw here is with Winifred Atwell, who has already claimed two UK chart-topping singles with records sounding very similar to this. But Atwell at least had a kind of frantic energy about her piano-playing – you could picture her bashing out the hits with a smile and a bead of sweat rolling down her temple. Whereas you can only imagine Conway plodding his way through ‘Side Saddle’ with a cheesy grin-slash-wink combo. The other piano-led #1 single which springs to mind at this time is, of course, ‘Great Balls of Fire’. But to compare that record to this record is, to my mind, heresy of the highest order. There is a slight concession to rock ‘n’ roll here, in that someone in the background is tickling a drum kit in time to Conway’s piano, but that’s strictly it.

It’s a strange chart-topping record, this. At best I’d describe it as incidental music, or silent movie music: you can imagine it going down quite well as an accompaniment to Buster Keaton running down a railroad track. It is very 1932. Which means we have to pose a 3rd question: Why now? Why did this curio of a record zoom to the top of the charts in the spring of 1959? My research has thrown up no answers. It wasn’t an old song; it was written and released in ’59, apparently recorded for a TV adaptation of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ – which at least helps explain the olde-worlde feel of the song. There’s no clue as to how the melody concerns a horse-riding style popular with posh old ladies. According to Wiki “the song was a staple of the BBC’s ‘Housewives Choice’ radio programme”, which perhaps says more than anything I could ever write.

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Due to summer holiday commitments, this is the first time in over a fortnight that I have sat down to write one of these posts. In that time, I’ve listened to very little music, and the music I have heard has been radio-friendly, modern pop. Perhaps ‘Side Saddle’, then, is suffering from being the oldest record I’ve heard for a while. Perhaps if I were in the swing of things – in my mid-season form of writing a post every couple of days – it wouldn’t stand out so much. But then again… maybe not. I fear that, whatever way you look at it, this track is simply a relic. And, glancing down my list o’ number one singles… Oh, goody. There’s more to come from our Russ in very short order.

One final thing of note… If you click on the video below and discover a hitherto unrevealed love of bland, piano-based background Muzak, Spotify has the most extensive collection of Russ Conway back-catalogue ever seen. Like, seriously. There must be fifty-odd albums on there. Knock yourselves out!

81. ‘As I Love You’, by Shirley Bassey

And so – as happens every once in a while on this countdown – we meet a legend. A British legend, at least. And not ‘British Legend’ as in Robin Hood or Merlin or anything like that. No, no, no. I mean ‘British Living Legend’ – as in Barbara Windsor, or David Attenborough, or Sir Clifford of Richard. People so woven in to the very fabric of British life – of Saturday evenings on ITV and audiences with the Queen – that everybody upon everybody upon everybody knows them.

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As I Love You, by Shirley Bassey (her 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 20th February – 20th March 1959

Dame Shirley Bassey is one of these people (she is a Dame after all), and the foundations of her ‘National Treasure’ status were laid right here: in the singles charts of the late 1950s, and in this polished and expertly sung record. It’s a very good song: a grown-up ballad of a pop song. But, and after that big old build up I feel a bit bad writing this… I’m not really feeling it.

It starts with a flourish, and then: I will love you, As I love you, All my life… Ev’ry moment spent with you, Makes me more content with you… She loves a guy. Loves him a lot! Ev’ry single, Touch and tingle, I adore… Ev’ry kiss from you to me, Always seems so new to me… Each one warmer, Than the one before… It’s a love song in the very purest sense – in that it’s a song about being utterly in love. Which is nice, I suppose. There’s certainly a real sparkle in her voice, with just the cutest whiff of a Welsh accent, and if the quality of her singing were being judged by a panel then she might just sweep the board. And the ending… My that ending. She gives it everything, and then some. AND MOOOORRRREEEE…. It’s another real throwback of a record, following hot on the heels of Jane Morgan’s – albeit somewhat jazzier – ‘The Day the Rains Came’.

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Why, then, am I struggling to like this song? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve failed to really ‘get’ one of the many old-time ballads that we’ve featured thus far. ‘Stranger in Paradise’, ‘Secret Love’ and ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’ were all records that somewhat passed me by, and that’s before we get to the God-awful Eddie Fisher and David Whitfield efforts. ‘As I Love You’ is nowhere near as terrifying as anything by either of those chaps, but I’ll have to file it under ‘Can appreciate; Can’t enjoy.’

The situation isn’t helped by the fact that I originally found a version of ‘As I Love You’ that was much jazzier, much snazzier, and sung at a much higher tempo. I was all prepared to write a post championing it as one of the best tracks so far – it really was that good. It sounded so modern that I was going to announce it as the first ‘1960s Number One’. But something nagged at me as I listened. Something sounded too good to be true… And it was. The version I had been listening to – click here for a listen, it’s good isn’t it? – was a re-recording from, I’m guessing, the late sixties / early seventies. Sigh.

But! We shouldn’t judge a record by what it is not. ‘As I Love You’ is the first chart topper by Dame Shirley of Bassey, the foremost British female voice of the past half-century, the yin to Sir Cliff’s yang (and note that she got to the top a good few months before Cliff ever did). She will only get one (one!) more chart-topper and I will perhaps shock you when I reveal that it is neither ‘Goldfinger’ (#21), nor ‘Big Spender’ (#21) nor ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (#38!), but something else entirely. Stay tuned.

It is also the very first Welsh #1, meaning that we finally complete our ‘British Isles Chart-Toppers Map’ by adding Dame Shirley to hits from The Stargazers (England), Ruby Murray (Northern Ireland) and Lonnie Donegan (Scotland). So – this record is many things. And yet… It could have been, and later was, so much more!

79. ‘The Day the Rains Came’, by Jane Morgan

So what do we have here, then, for the first #1 of 1959? Well, the intro is promising: trumpets, saxophones…? Some kind of brass section at least. Ba-da-da-da-da-da-da…Bum-bum-bum… I would describe it as an intro you could strip to, if that weren’t being slightly tasteless.

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The Day the Rains Came, by Jane Morgan (her 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 23rd – 30th January 1959

Does the rest of the song live up to this saucy promise? Well, no. Not if you truly were expecting some kind of chanson d’amour. The title kind of gives that much away. It’s a song about rain, flowers, and crop cycles: The day that the rains came down, Mother Earth smiled again… Now the lilacs could bloom, Now the fields could grow greener… Further lyrics follow about buds being born and rivers swelling.

It’s an extended metaphor of a song – all the nature that is blooming is mirrored in the love blooming between the singer and her beau. As the young buds will grow… So our young love will grow… Love sweet love… Morgan’s voice is prim and clipped, harking back to the era of Doris Day and Vera Lynn. She sings it crisply, and properly, but it does come across as rather old-fashioned. She’s no Connie Francis, that’s for sure.

It’s reminiscent in many ways of singers like Jo Stafford and Kitty Kallen, jazz-pop from the very earliest days of the chart. Listen to the bridge in particular, the lines that begin: A robin sang a song of love, A willow tree reached out to the heavens… and tell me that it doesn’t reek of 1954. And the ending… Oh the ending. Ms. Morgan absolutely belts it out – Raaaaiiiiinnn Sweeeeet Raaaaaaaaaaiiiiiinnnnnn! – in a way that nobody else on a chart topping record has done for years. Is this perhaps our first throwback record? The first chart-topper that is intentionally harking back to days gone by, years before acts like Showaddywaddy, Shakin’ Stevens and, erm, Oasis? It certainly wasn’t an old song, having been written, originally in French, and recorded in 1958.

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I don’t dislike this record. The instrumentation is great, with a real swagger to the drums and brass. It’s just a shame that the lyrics are so wishy-washy. It’s technically ‘The Day the Rains Came Pt I’, as Part II is the same song sang by Morgan in the original French. Which is better to listen to, in a way (as long as you don’t understand French), as you can imagine that she is singing the saucy lyrics that the music is crying out for.

This may also be the first occurrence in the UK singles charts of a ‘January Number One’ – a record that takes advantage of the usual post-Christmas drop in sales to sneak a week or two at the top. It was a regular thing from the seventies through to the nineties, and can still happen today – see Eminem’s ‘River’ from January this year. And I’ve mentioned before how much I admire a good ‘one song-one week’ chart-topping record. Jane Morgan hadn’t troubled the upper reaches of the UK charts, let alone the number one spot, before this and wouldn’t do so again. And – following on from Tommy Edwards, Lord Rockingham’s XI and Conway Twitty – I make her the fourth consecutive one (ish) -hit wonder chart topper!

To conclude, then. This is a nice enough diversion, a snazzy little jazz pop number; but one which sounds pretty out of place as the first #1 of 1959. Let’s get back on track, shall we…

77. ‘Hoots Mon’, by Lord Rockingham’s XI

And so on we roll towards the United Kingdom’s seventy-seventh chart topping single. And it’s a song that I’ve never… No, wait… Ah! I know this… We all know this…

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Hoots Mon, by Lord Rockingham’s XI (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 28th November – 19th December 1958

Dooooo-doo-doo-do-do… Dooooo-doo-doo-do-do… It’s an intro that smacks of slightly misplaced grandeur, like an aged diva swishing onto the stage before slipping on a banana. We know what follows is going to be absurd. And, oh boy, it is…

Na-nana-na-nana, Na-nana-na-nana, Nana-nanananana… Na-nana-na-nana, Na-nana-na-nana, Nananananananana… Apologies for my woeful attempts to render this riff using the medium of ‘na’s. The minute this starts playing you will know it.

It’s an instrumental, and it’s been a while since we featured an instrumental. I make Winny Atwell’s ‘The Poor People of Paris’ our most recent lyric-less number one, and that was two and a half years back. And it is undeniably catchy. It bores its way in on the first listen and will, I’m sorry, remain for days. And days. And days. There are key-changes, oh yes! And the bass! One of my main complaints about the rock ‘n’ roll numbers we’ve heard so far is that, while there have been some undeniable classics – your ‘Great Balls of Fire’s, your ‘That’ll Be the Day’s and your ‘Rock Around the Clock’s – they’ve all sounded a bit light to modern ears. Listen to this, though, especially through headphones. It fills your ears, in a way that makes it sound like a modern record. Every instrument – the throbbing bass, the slapdash drums, the natty organs – are, if you’ll forgive the cliché, turned up to eleven. And a half.

Actually, I called this an instrumental; but it’s not quite. There are a few words, shouted out above the clatter, foremost among them being: There’s a moose loose aboot this hoose… and It’s a braw, bricht, moonlicht nicht… Then there are the Och Ayes! thrown in towards the end and the big Hoots Mon! upon which the record ends. Yes, this is, as they say in theatre circles, The Scottish Number One. All we’re missing is a ‘Help ma Boab!’

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The ringleader of Lord Rockingham’s XI was a man named Harry Robinson, a Scot if ever there was one. But, being from Scotland myself, I’m not sure how I feel about this record, and the manner in which it reduces the culture, language and heritage of my homeland to a handful of trite, drunken catchphrases…

Actually, screw it. It’s as catchy as crabs and a hell of a lot more fun than some of the more ‘official’ Scottish songs – ‘500 miles’ (Jings!), ‘Scotland The Brave’ (Crivvens!), ‘Caledonia’ (Shudder… and boak!) In fact, I think that this song I hadn’t ever properly listened to until twenty minutes ago should become our new national anthem, in place of the dirge that is ‘Flower of Scotland’. And when I fulfil my manifest destiny in replacing wee Nicky Sturgeon as First Minister, that’ll be the first act I sign into law.

Anyway, file this record under ‘complete and utter novelty’. It’s no coincidence that it hit the top spot in the weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year. Lord Rockingham’s XI wouldn’t go on to much more success and so for the first time, I think, we have two (semi) one-hit wonders replacing one another at the top of the charts. File this also under ‘British Rock ‘n’ Roll’. It’s something that I’ve long been noting – the gradual handing over of the rock ‘n’ roll baton from the US to the UK – and with this anarchic British track following soppy efforts from The Everly Brothers and The Kalin Twins the transition may be complete.

I’ll finish by reminiscing on how this song stirred in me a long-discarded, foggy memory of a commercial for something or other, way back in the late eighties or early nineties… I knew I knew this song, but I didn’t know how I knew it – if you catch my drift. I suppose whatever it was will be forever lost in the mists of time… Actually, no it won’t. The advert was for Maynard’s Wine Gums, back in 1993. Thanks, internet.

76. ‘It’s All in the Game’, by Tommy Edwards

If the previous two chart toppers have been ‘clickety-clacking’ and ‘rollicking’ respectively, then this next one is… not. Sorry. ‘It’s All in the Game’, by Tommy Edwards, is merely ‘sedate’ and ‘swaying’.

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It’s All in the Game, by Tommy Edwards (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 7th – 28th November 1958

Many a tear has to fall, But it’s all, In the game… All in the wonderful game, That we know, As love… This is a song about arguments, and how having them is part of being in love. About how a guy not calling you back is just a tactical move, a rook to bishop four. A song about not sweating it – ’cause it’ll all turn out right in the end. And you believe Tommy, you really do. He’s got a voice you’d trust.

You have words, With him, And your future’s looking dim… But these things, Your hearts can rise above… Pretty soon, according to Tommy, you’ll be back kissing and a-cuddling. In a way, it’s a very old fashioned song – counselling a woman to put up with a man’s vagaries and inconsistencies. Especially given that it’s a man singing it. You might get away with it in 2018 if it was a woman dishing out sage advice to her girlfriends; a sort of ‘Independent Woman’ type of song. (Though that was nearly twenty years ago and I think the underlying message of that song was that Beyoncé and co. weren’t taking no more shit).

Tommy Edwards, though, manages not to come across as patronising. He simply comes across as very, very smooth: a sort of omniscient father figure looking down at the trials and tribulations of couples in love. And it is, at least, an interesting angle to come from. We’ve had a few super-basic love songs topping the chart recently – ‘Diana’, ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’, ‘When’ – and it’s good to get a little cerebral every once in a while.

Then he’ll kiss, Your lips… And caress your waiting finger tips… And your hearts, Will fly, Away… If pressed, I’d have to add one more adjective to those that I used at the start of this post: ‘classy’. This is a classy song; the sort of song that George Clooney puts on as he pours a glass of wine for his date. I’m not sure if it’s a rock ‘n’ roll record, or a swing record, or just a plain old easy-listening disc. Edwards certainly croons the arse off it. Maybe it’s another of those new, hybrid songs – the fusion of rock and pre-rock that I mentioned back in my post on the Everly Brothers.

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‘It’s All in the Game’ is one of the (slowly dwindling) number of #1 hits that I’d never heard before. Though perhaps I should have as alongside this there have been Top 5 charting version by Cliff and by The Four Tops, as well as a highly respected version by Van Morrison. But somehow these had all passed me by.

What also almost passed me by is the fact that Tommy Edwards was black. Which makes him *drum roll please* only the second black male soloist to top the UK Singles Chart. Edwards would only go on to have one more, minor hit on these shores before dying in 1979, aged but fifty-seven.

One other fascinating little tit-bit before I go… The lyrics to ‘It’s All in the Game’ were written in 1951 but the melody was composed way back in 1911 by a Mr. Charles G. Dawes, who would go on to serve as Vice-President of the United States of America. Thus, when you press play on the video link below, you will be listening to the only #1 single to have been co-written by a US Vice-President. That is some Grade A trivia right there, people. Over, and out.

72. ‘On the Street Where You Live’, by Vic Damone

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On the Street Where You Live, by Vic Damone (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 27th June – 11th July 1958 (including 1 week joint with The Everly Brothers from 4th – 11th July)

Oh Lordy, that intro! Whipping us right back to 1952. The crescendo that kicks us off here is almost identical to that which announced the very first UK chart-topper, Al Martino’s ‘Here in My Heart’Plus ca change…

Oooooh, the towering feeling! Just to know somehow you are near… Vic Damone howls the opening line as if on a mission to wake the dead. And then… we sit back down, chill out, and listen to a song about a man wandering down a street.

This is, of course, a song from ‘My Fair Lady’ – I know it well; without ever having heard this version. I’ve always thought of ‘My Fair Lady’ as the musical without any decent songs. Or without anywhere near as many decent songs as other musicals of similar stature. Apart from this song, and maybe ‘Wouldn’t It Be Lovely’ or ‘I Could Have Danced All Night, the others are short, semi-comic skits, while Professor Higgins’s numbers are almost early-form rap tracks.

Anyhoo… From ‘My Fair Lady’ it is, which makes sense in as much as the show debuted on Broadway in ’56 and in the West End two years later. Damone sings it well, with cut-glass, stage school diction, and goes from full-on belting it out – see above – to subtle, almost whispered lines like: People stop, and stare, They don’t bother me… On a technical level, this is ‘better’ singing than that of the young rock ‘n’ roll stars we’ve been hearing from recently, and my gran would certainly have preferred Viccy D to Buddy H. But it already sounds – and bear in mind it is only the summer of 1958 here – super old-fashioned. And again we have an easy-listening interlude after a couple of rock ‘n’ roll chart-toppers. This is definitely the ongoing theme of ’58.

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One problem – and this is one that regularly arises when stage songs are recorded away from the context of the show for which they were written – is that lyrically this song sounds pretty weird. It is essentially about a man lurking outside the house of a woman with whom he is besotted. Does enchantment pour, Out of Ev’ry door? No, it’s just on the street where you live… I’m getting flashbacks to Eddie Fisher’s ‘I’m Walking Behind You’. At least, though, when heard towards the end of Act I of ‘My Fair Lady’, this song is quite cute. Fisher, on the other hand, was just being a creep.

Another problem with stage-show songs being recorded as pop records arises here too: namely the question of how to finish. On stage you can’t fade out. But the flourishes that signal the end of the song in a show sounds trite and cheesy on record. Here they’ve gone for the flourish, and I can’t help but think there must have been a better way to end this song than with a plop!

But it is a diverting little interlude in UK Chart history, if nothing else. Showtune #1s don’t come along every day, and Vic Damone won’t go on to have much further success in the UK. I would have bet a large sum of money, before doing any sort of research, that Vic Damone was some sort of Italian-American, Rat-Pack type singer. And… of course he was. He idolised Sinatra, had various mob connections, married five times, and died earlier this year, aged eighty-nine. A life well lived, it would seem.

And note – yet another tie for number one. The third time it’s happened, and it will happen one final time before the decade’s out. I covered the reasons for these anomalies a few posts back – if you care to read further – but it does raise an important issue. Do we record Vic Damone’s ‘On the Street Where You Live’ as having spent a single week at the top? Or two weeks? Or one and a half? Questions, questions, questions…

68. ‘The Story of My Life’, by Michael Holliday

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The Story of My Life, by Michael Holliday (his 1st of two #1s)

2 weeks, from 14th – 28th February 1958

For the first time in a while, we pull up alongside a song I hadn’t ever heard before… Not since Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Gamblin’ Man / Puttin’ on the Style’ have I been able to approach a record with my ears fresh and untainted like this. What, then, do we have here…?

First things first – this is a big step back from the frenzied piano, and then snarling guitar, of the previous two #1s. It’s got the lilting acoustic guitar that sounds soooo 1957 (see ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain’, ‘Singing the Blues’ and ‘Young Love’ for reference). It is a rock ‘n’ roll record; but super gentle rock ‘n’ roll – diluted and a little wishy-washy.

There are also some super cheesy touches – irritating whistles at the end of lines, some toodle-oohs and bum-bum-bums from the backing singers – which almost tip it over into pastiche territory. It’s very interesting, the fact that we have seen rock ‘n’ roll fragmenting before our very ears over the past few entries: Jerry-Lee Lewis and Lonnie Donegan have given us balls-out – dare I say real – RAWK. Elvis has given us superstar, super-polished rock. Paul Anka, and now Michael Holliday, are giving us what I’d call 2nd generation rock ‘n’ roll – pop music with rock touches, designed to appeal to the kids and their parents.

To the lyrics: Michael wants to write the story of his life: I’ll tell about, The night we met, And how my heart can’t forget, The way you smiled at me… Awwww. Basically his love is his life. But wait… They broke up! No wait… They made up! Safe, safe.

The story of his life isn’t quite over, though. It won’t be until – you guessed it – they get hitched. There’s one thing left to do, Before my story’s through, I’ve got to take you for my wife, So the story of my life can start… and end… with you… It’s nice. This is a perfectly nice, perfectly sweet and utterly forgettable record. I was actually shocked to discover, as I embarked on a little Wikipedia-ing, that ‘The Story of My Life’ was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the first of this legendary duo’s songs to top the UK charts. A shock because, compared to the classics they wrote later in their careers, this is very, very meh. A big contender for the ‘Meh Award’ in my next recap, I’d say.

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I’d hoped to pad this post out by delving a little into just who Michael Holliday was – as he’s someone I’d never heard – but I’ve just realised that we’ll meet him again, briefly, in a couple of years. Best hold something back for then. Suffice to say, he made the most of a short career – scoring two number ones out of only ten charting singles – before dying at the shockingly young age of thirty-eight. He has a nice, if unremarkable, voice on this nice, if unremarkable, record. Wiki sums it up best in their succinct entry on Holliday: ‘a British crooner popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s.’

Fin.

67. ‘Jailhouse Rock’, by Elvis Presley

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Jailhouse Rock, by Elvis Presley (his 2nd of twenty-one #1s)

3 weeks, from 24th January – 14th February 1958

Ready? This is another song that grabs you from the get-go – just as ‘Great Balls of Fire’ before it – and for two and a half minutes gives you a good shaking. 1958 really did get off to a storming start in terms of chart-toppers.

But whereas Jerry-Lee Lewis grabbed us with his opening lyrics; Elvis here – or rather his band – grab us with their intro. With that guitar and those drums. Durrrr-durr (dun-dun)…, Durrrr-durr (dun-dun)… The most instantaneous intro yet? I mentioned, recently, the start of ‘That’ll Be the Day’, and that the jangly guitar there was iconic. ‘Jailhouse Rock’ kicks off in a much less subtle way; but since when has rock ‘n’ roll been about subtlety?

This is the Elvis that people think of in the early days; before GI Elvis, or Movie Star Elvis, or Comeback Elvis or Bloated Vegas Elvis. Jailhouse Rock Elvis, and that iconic picture of him in his black and white striped T, frozen, mid-yelp, on his tiptoes. Type his name into Wikipedia – go on… – and what is the picture that introduces one of ‘the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century’? In a way, I’m sad that this wasn’t his first ever UK #1 – rather than the nice but very understated ‘All Shook Up’. Imagine this snarling guitar announcing Elvis’s arrival at the top of the charts.

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But… But, but, but. Those famous pictures of Elvis in a convict’s uniform (a very sexy, rock ‘n’ roll convict’s uniform, but still) gyrating outside the prison gates? They were promotional shots for the movie: ‘Jailhouse Rock.’ We are already in Movie Star Elvis phase here. ‘Jailhouse Rock’ was his 3rd feature film. The argument I put forward during his first stint at the top – that Elvis was ‘over’ before he got started, that if it ain’t his ‘Sun’ recordings then it ain’t worth shit – gains further ground here. Because this record is an early step into Cheesy Elvis. The music may be rocking; but the lyrics are nothing but a bunch of silly vignettes about prisoners dancing in a jail yard.

Let’s rock… Everybody let’s rock… Everybody in the whole cell block… Was dancin’ to the Jailhouse Rock… The warden throws a party, encourages everyone to get dancing, even if they have to dance with chairs, and madness ensues.

Two verses stand out for having more than a whiff of music-hall comedy to them – thereby somehow tying this classic record to the likes of The Stargazers’ ‘I See the Moon’, from the depths of the pre-rock era (that’s a connection I never thought I’d make). There’s the ‘gay’ verse, in which two prisoners – presumably male – proposition one another: Number 47 said to Number 3, Now you the cutest jailbird I ever did see, I sure would be delighted with your company, Come on and do the Jailhouse Rock with me… I’ve read some interpretations of these lines as a revolutionary moment in the history of popular music. Personally, I think the songwriters were just taking the piss.

And there’s the final verse: …The wardens lookin’ out, A chance to make or break… Bugsy turned to Shifty and he said ‘Nix Nix, I wanna stick around a while an’ get my kicks… They could have escaped, you see, but they were having such a good time. It’s fun, and silly, but I think it also gives this record slightly less authenticity when compared to immediate contemporaries such as ‘Great Balls…’ and ‘That’ll Be the Day.’

Still, though… this is an absolute cornerstone of music history. On Spotify, even today, ‘Jailhouse Rock’ is second only to ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ as Elvis’s most listened to track. And it was the first ever record to enter at #1 in the UK. That’s right. The sixty-five previous chart-toppers had all spent at least a week – often much longer – climbing to the top. Elvis barged right in there; he wasn’t waiting for no-one. And – give me a second as I put on my chart-geek hat – up until the 1990s entering at #1 on the UK Singles Chart was an honour reserved for the very biggest stars: Cliff, The Beatles, Elvis, Slade, Frankie Goes to Hollywood… um, Gary Glitter… or the BIGGEST records, like ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’. In the ’90s it became de rigeur, and in the early ’00s it was the only way to arrive on the charts. Nowadays, in the streaming era, it’s become slightly less common once again. But in 1958 it was unheard of. Only Elvis was that big.

To finish, something that I’ve come to realise since starting this blog: that ‘pre-rock’ didn’t just mean ‘pre-Elvis’. I used to think that ‘Rock Around the Clock’ kicked off the rock ‘n’ roll revolution before Elvis took over. But I’ve now seen that The King was actually kind of late to the party. And it’s been good to give Johnnie Ray, Guy Mitchell, Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele a bit of recognition, even if it’s been to the detriment of a singer that I was pretty well obsessed with in my teenage years. He may have been The King of it, but rock ‘n’ roll didn’t begin, or end, with Elvis Aaron Presley.

58. ‘Rock-A-Billy’, by Guy Mitchell

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Rock-a-Billy, by Guy Mitchell (his 4th and final #1)

1 week, from 17th – 24th May 1957

Part 58, in which Guy Mitchell scores his latest UK #1 single with a rockabilly record entitled… ‘Rock-a-Billy.’ Imagine if Eminem were to release a song called ‘Rap’, or Ed Sheeran were to record one called ‘Bland Shite’ – that’s where we are right now. This is a record that does exactly what it says on the tin.

It’s another fast-paced chart topper – not quite as frantic as ‘Cumberland Gap’, but then what is? – that rolls along on jaunty guitars and a Winifred Atwell-esque piano. While lyrically it takes the term ‘generic’ to new levels. This is a song about a man and his love for rock ‘n’ roll music, to which the chorus goes:

Rockabilly, rockabilly, rockabilly, rock… Rockabilly, rockabilly, rock, rock, rock… Rockabilly, rockabilly, rockabilly, rock… Rockabilly, rockabilly… Rock! Rock!

Anyone who claims that modern pop is dumbed-down nonsense; point them in the direction of this record. The verses aren’t much more highbrow. There’s some silliness about the history of rockabilly music – it came from Tennessee, spread on out to the lone prairie – and then a lot of advice on how to dance to this crazy new music:

From the moment that you feel this crazy beat, You gotta lose control of your two left feet, Give me mountain juice, Turn me loose, Leave me wave my arms about…

It’s the latest song in a growing list where I’ve had to look the lyrics up online, rather than transcribe them by simply listening to them, as Guy Mitchell does a good bit of growling and slurring. (Actually, if you listen to his first chart-topper, back in 1953, and now this, Mitchell’s voice does have a harder edge – perhaps he was altering it to fit the style of the time? Or maybe he was just getting older?) Plus… is that reference to ‘mountain juice’ the first mention of alcohol, of drugs, of any kind of intoxicant in a UK Number One Single? I think it might just be… We truly are rockin’ and rollin’!

However, although I’m bandying terms like ‘generic’ and ‘silliness’ around, I wouldn’t want anyone to think for a second that I don’t like this song. It’s great. It’s dumb. It’s fun. I like it like how I like sherbet dib-dabs: I know there are ‘better’ foodstuffs to shove down my gullet, but I know I wouldn’t enjoy them half as much. It is a song that I dare anyone to dislike, a song that’s programmed to hit all the most primal happiness receptors in your brain. It’s got four key-changes, for God’s sake! The best bit of all is the bridge, which strangely comes right at the end, and which is positively life-affirming: You know what rockabilly’s all about, You know it’s gonna make you sing and shout, You know you’re gonna act like a crazy fool, Who cares? It’s cool! Yes, dance people! Dance like no one’s watching. Guy says so!

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We have to bid farewell to Mr. Mitchell here, following this short encore at the top of the charts. And I have to admit that I’ll miss searching for pictures of his handsome face to add to these posts. His first chart-topper was… interesting, but the subsequent three – ‘Look at That Girl’, ‘Singing the Blues’ and now this – can legitimately go down as classics of the early rock ‘n’ roll/pop crossover. Few, if any, artists can claim to have been as consistently popular throughout the 1950s as Guy Mitchell: he had his first US Top 10 single in 1950 and his last in 1959. And we leave him here as the man with the joint most UK #1s, a record which he’ll hold for a couple more years.

Anyway, I’m on my seventh listen of ‘Rock-a-Billy’ as I type this sentence, and with every listen I like it more. I’d better stop before I begin claiming that it’s the best song ever recorded. One final thought, though: it’s telling that the biggest stars of this fledgling ‘rock age’, at least in UK chart terms, were Guy Mitchell and Johnnie Ray – two already very established artists who jumped on the rockin’ bandwagon and started scoring huge hits once again. A case of mass-appeal, perhaps? The kids liked the cool new music, while mum and dad trusted good ol’ Guy to keep it respectable? More respectable than arrivistes like Elvis, Chuck and Little Richard at least? Not that this will last long, but still. An interesting mini-era in rock music: the oldies outselling the upstarts.

46. ‘No Other Love’, by Ronnie Hilton

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No Other Love, by Ronnie Hilton (his 1st and only #1)

6 weeks, from 4th May to 15th June 1956

Through writing these blog posts, I’m becoming a strong believer in nominative determinism. I.e. through looking at the name of the recording artist one can anticipate what the song will sound like. Not that anyone’s been called Sax Jazzington, or anything silly like that. More like how Kay Starr sounds fun and flirty, Slim Whitman sounds grizzled and lonesome, Jimmy Young sounds… normal, and a little dull. I feel that Ronnie Hilton should fall into the latter category.

And, lo and behold, he does. It starts dramatically enough, though: a burst of cymbals, then another, then another… Then it feels like a step back in time, to the dark days of *shudder* David Whitfield. It’s semi-operatic, its over the top, it’s not a particularly easy listen. Hilton’s voice is overwrought. It’s a powerful voice, a technically very good voice, the sort of voice that your gran would have approved of; but it’s too much. It’s probably no worse than the Whitfield, Laine days of a couple years back, but it already sounds very dated coming so soon after more progressive-sounding records by Bill Haley, Alma Cogan and even Dean Martin.

Lyrically too, this is a song that’s been done before. No other love have I… Into your arms I’ll fly… Waiting to hear you say… ‘No other love have I’. He’s a little lovelorn, is Mr Hilton. I’ve mentioned it before, but why is it the girls that have all the fun in these early chart toppers? With a few exceptions (Vera Lynn, cough cough) they get to be perky and flirty while the men stay at home and stoically wait for their love to be fulfilled.

One thing I was certain of, without doing any kind of research, is that Ronnie Hilton was British. His voice has that properness, that stoicism, void of any kind of vulgar, American swagger. One other thing that I was pretty certain of, again before delving into Wikipedia and around, is that ‘No Other Love’ must have been from a soundtrack, such is its unnervingly bombastic approach to what is an otherwise very basic love song. And yes, it’s a Rogers & Hammerstein number, from their 1953 show ‘Me and Juliet’.

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Actually, the most surprising thing I could uncover about Ronnie Hilton – this is his only appearance at the top so let’s give him a moment in the sun – is that ‘Ronnie Hilton’ was his stage name. He was born Adrian Hill. Let that sink in for a second: he, or somebody advising him, thought Adrian Hill was a little too boring, a little too staid, and that ‘Ronnie Hilton’ would get the girls swooning. I think that just sums him, this song, and this whole pre-rock era up… If you’re going to change your name in an attempt to gain fame and glory for God’s sake try to come up with something slightly sexy. No?

And – perhaps just as interestingly – Hilton recorded a fairly successful (in the UK at least) version of ‘The Wonder of You’, eleven years before Elvis Presley made it a standard. But… listen to Hilton’s version, then Presley’s version, and it becomes clear why the latter was one of the most famous voices, and personalities, of the 20th Century and the former wasn’t.

I’m being a little down on Ronnie Hilton, really, so let’s give him a break and end with something completely unrelated. Something that just occurred to me as I wrote the intro to this post. The only reason that my nominative determinism theory works is because I have heard so few of these early number one hits. I write the title down, search them out on Spotify, and take a step into the unknown. But, looking down the list of UK #1s through the remainder of 1956, through ’57 and ’58, this is going to become less and less of a thing. I know several of the next twenty or thirty records. Soon I’ll know the majority of them. Of course, every so often, even as we get to the eighties and nineties, there will be songs I simply have never heard before (I have no idea how ‘Doop’, by Doop, goes for example – and it had 3 weeks at the top in 1994) but, on the whole, we are slowly stepping out of the mist and onto firmer, better known ground.