130. ‘Tower of Strength’, by Frankie Vaughan

And so we resume normal service. Since I first listened to this next Number One single, in preparation for writing this post, I’ve been trying to place it. Trying to put my finger on what exactly is happening here… What box does this fit into? Why did it prove such a popular song in December of 1961…?

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Tower of Strength, by Frankie Vaughan (his 2nd and final #1)

3 weeks, from 7th – 28th December 1961

What’s happening here is simple: Frankie Vaughan is singing a song – and having the time of his life doing so. This is an irresistible song – it barrels in the front door and wallops you over the head with a rollicking sax riff (you can have a saxophone riff, right?)… baaa da da-na da-na… And then in comes Frankie.

If I were a tower of strength, I’d walk away, I’d look in your eyes, And here’s what I say… If he were a tower of strength, a man of action, someone with a bit of backbone, he’d tell his wayward lover: I don’t want you, I don’t need you, I don’t love you anymore… Said woman would , cry, plead and beg him to stay. Simple. Except, plot twist… A tower of strength is something, I’ll never be…

That’s pretty much it as far as the lyrics are concerned. The main attraction here is the absolute gusto with which Frankie Vaughan belts his way through this song. He yelps, he growls, he hits some scandalously high notes, and he gives us the biggest finish we’ve had a number of years: I’ll… Ne-ver… BEEEE-EEEEEE! It’s the sort of ending that was done to death in the mid-fifties – the THIS IS THE END OF THE SONG! kind of finale – but in the right hands it can still sound superb. For some reason I’m imagining this scenario where the sound engineer and the producer are goading Vaughan, suggesting that he might not be up to singing this particular song, not able to hit all the notes, and Frankie just looks at them and says: “Press the red button, punks…”

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I first came across this song a few years ago when it appeared on my Spotify feed, and it lifts me every time it pops up on a shuffle. It’s the sort of tune you should throw on when you’re in a mid-afternoon slump, or nursing a mild hangover – an aural espresso. When it finishes, you draw breath, half-expecting to look around the room and see the lampshade swinging, pieces of paper floating to the ground, pictures on the wall knocked squint…

What I didn’t realise until now is that Vaughan’s version of ‘Tower of Strength’ was a cover. The original was released by one Gene McDaniels – an American soul singer. It’s a fine version, a slightly slicker, Sam Cooke-ish version, that was a big hit in the US – though it could only creep to #49 in the UK. But… There’s something so relentlessly likeable about this version, something so fabulously uncool about Vaughan’s dad-at-a-wedding vocals, that I’d say his is definitive.

Of course, we have heard from Mr. Vaughan before in this countdown. Way, way back in January 1957 – nigh on five years ago – with ‘The Garden of Eden’. A song which was, in its own way, every bit as weird as this. While a five year gap between #1s isn’t that odd; he has basically straddled the rock ‘n’ roll era – bookending it with his two chart-toppers. Very few of the chart stars from 1957 – Tommy Steele, Guy Mitchell and Tab Hunter were his contemporaries at the top the first time around – were still managing it in the early sixties, and so credit where it’s due. In total, Vaughan’s recording career lasted from 1950 through to 1987 and, again, that ain’t to be sniffed at. He was an old-fashioned type – the sort of Butlins holiday-camp performer turned everyman pop star that seems to be a constant trope in British music, no matter the era – think Dickie Valentine through to Olly Murs.

We’ll leave him here, belting out ‘Tower of Strength’ to his heart’s content. And while we won’t be hearing from Frankie again, our ears will still be ringing for some time to come…