What can I tell you as we hang on to our seats to wiz our way back two decades from the seventies to the fifties in the blink of an eye, or in this case, on the tap of the keyboard. I’ll start by mentioning that this month in ’56 Elvis Presley hit the American music chart for the very first time with “Heartbreak Hotel”, and Norma Jean Mortenson legally changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. Both would have careers that far exceeded their time on this earth, and I think it’s fair to say, their iconic status will continue for many years yet. This preamble, believe it or not, is a very loose link to the singles’ chart where Tennessee Ernie Ford was number one with “Sixteen Tons”.
Written by American country and western singer Merle Travis, “Sixteen Tons” was about a coal miner working in the mines of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. “You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day over and deeper in debt” was a phrase written in a letter by Travis’ brother John, while another line “I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store” came from their father. And both are incorporated in the song’s lyrics. Merle Travis gave his song its first outing during 1947 when sales passed gold status. However, I’m thinking, the most well known version was that recorded eight years later by Ernest Jennings Ford, professionally known as Tennessee Ernie Ford. Raised on country music, Ernie started his career as a radio announcer until World War II interrupted, whereupon he served as a bombardier in the Army Air Corps. Once demobbed, he returned to radio before signing a contract with Capitol Records as a singer in 1949. The career change suited him because he went on to release around fifty country and western singles throughout the fifties like “The Shotgun Boogie” and other driving boogie-woogie records which I’ve never heard of I’m afraid.
However, it wasn’t solely his singing that elevated him to stardom but rather a tenure on the wonderful I Love Lucy television show where Lucille Ball – one of my best-loved comedy icons ever – played the loveable yet naïve Lucy Ricardo and took laughter to a whole new level. With and without her husband, Ricky, she combined slap stick, ridiculous comedic situations that went from bad to worse, to attract global worship. So back to the plot. Tennessee Ernie played a ‘country bumpkin’ called Cousin Ernie, and so successful was he in that role that he became a household name almost overnight. Unfortunately, his commitments elsewhere meant he couldn’t become a semi-permanent character in the series.
Following success with another much-recorded song “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett”, Tennessee Ernie really hit the jackpot with “Sixteen Tons”, the before mentioned coal miner’s lament, when it topped the charts in several countries including Britain. It held the position here for four weeks, beating off versions by Frankie Laine and Edmund Hockeridge. Oh yeah, Mr Cool known as Tennessee Ernie, sold a formidable twenty million copies of “Sixteen Tons”, having capitalised on his television success which went a long way to elevate him into a highly bankable singer. Frankie Laine’s version of the single sat at number 19 in this month’s chart, while others like Stevie Wonder, Tom Jones, Robbie Williams and Bo Diddley recorded it as an album track.
Tennessee Ernie lived the life and enjoyed all the trappings of a career awash with incredible success – and awash with whiskey. That aside, such was his huge contribution to entertainment he was honoured with three stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame: for radio, television and records. Of the countless other awards that came his way, probably the most prestigious was the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984. However, all wasn’t what it seemed because behind the spotlight Tennessee Ernie and his wife Betty had serious alcohol problems. Ernie was diagnosed with liver problems but, against doctors’ orders, refused to give up his whiskey and while he continued to work well into the seventies, his health and voice suffered dramatically. As he battled his demons, Betty took her own life in 1989 following prescription drug abuse and constant worries over her husband’s escalating health issues. Within four months of her passing Tennessee Ernie married again. With his health still on the decline, he was struck down with severe liver failure in 1991 and died in hospital in Reston, Virginia. Ten years later his second wife Beverly died and was buried alongside her husband. Nowadays, personal lives of those in the public eye are splashed across tabloid column inches; trial by media is sadly at its peak, and a ruthless journalist will trample over lives in search of an exclusive. Not so during the fifties. As far as I can tell, the worst to happen back then was a mention in a gossip column part-way through a newspaper, or a saucy mention in a glossy magazine.
As I title-checked Tennessee Ernie’s “Ballad Of Davy Crockett” single earlier, it’s life was on the short side as it peaked at number five in this month’s chart. But, hang on! There was a second version in the top twenty by a guy called Gary Miller, a British singer and actor, whose debut single was another popular country song “The Yellow Rose Of Texas”. Together with the “Ballad Of Davy Crockett”, Gary sat at number 11 with “Robin Hood”, the theme to the television series The Adventures Of Robin Hood. Richard Green played the intrepid, loveable outlaw of Sherwood Forest, in the black and white series that ran for 143 half-hour programmes. Actually thinking about it, I do remember my mum swooning over said Mr Green as she watched him working his way through heroic deeds of stealing from the rich to give to the poor.
Let’s return to the coonskin capped, rifle carrying American hero Davy Crockett. Written for the ABC television series Disneyland in 1954, “Ballad Of Davy Crockett” was sung by Fess Parker in the programmes, hooking viewers not only to his acting ability as the famous frontiersman but to the repetitive – and to be fair, rather annoying – chorus “Davy, Davy Crockett”. I’m in the minority here because it is another song that refused to be ignored, as countless other versions were recorded with Max Bygraves and Billy Cotton among them. However, sitting at number two, with plans to dislodge our Tennessee Ernie, was American singer and actor Bill Hayes with his particular brand of “Ballad Of Davy Crockett”. I don’t know about you, but this month does smack of a lack of original songs.
Thankfully, Frank Sinatra is in the mix with a couple of titles in the top ten, and both singles were different. He chalked up a number three with “Love Is A Tender Trap” and “Love And Marriage” a rung lower. The first, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn for the 1955 film The Tender Trap, where it was sung by our Frank and Debbie Reynolds, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. It lost out to “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing” from the film bearing the same name. This bittersweet romantic drama starred William Holden and Jennifer Jones in the leading roles, where, by all accounts, their love blossomed on a grassy, windswept hill in Hong Kong.
And this leads nicely into the number nine single where The Four Aces sat with their version of – you’ve guessed it – “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing”. This American all-male quartet were huge earners during the sixties with hits like “Three Coins In A Fountain”, “Stranger In Paradise” and, of course the ‘Many Splendored Thing one’ which went on to sell a million copies. I think I’m on the right track by saying a mix and match Four Aces group is still touring to this day.
One of the songs just hitting the chart was “Young And Foolish”, first introduced to the world in the fifties’ musical Plain And Fancy”, one of the first depictions of an Amish community in American pop culture. And not surprisingly, once again a whole host of artists gave the song a go. But this month only two made the top thirty, namely one from the British hit maker Ronnie Hilton and the other from the before mentioned Edmund Hockeridge. In the battle for record sales, Ronnie stalled at number 17, while Edmund kicked him aside to hit the top ten.
Other singles of note in the top ten included a pair from that rock ‘n’ roller with the kiss curl who shocked adults but not youngsters, Bill Haley with “Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie” and “Rock Around The Clock”. Although he penned the latter song, Bill and the Comets didn’t record it first. That was down to The Esquire Boys four years earlier and I’m sure they all had their reasons for this. Anyway, Mr Haley’s version was part of the soundtrack to the 1956 film Rock Around The Clock, which was shot in double-quick time during January 1956 and premiered four months later to cash in on the single’s success, thanks to Bill Haley’s escalating popularity and ability to attract newspaper headlines, whether he intended to or not.
To compliment this melting pot of music, fashion styles were also diverse but fashionable. Women could choose from chemise dresses, sheaths, sack dresses or straight cut suits, leaving the men to sport a ‘teddy boy’ style usually comprising the obligatory greased-back hair, leather jackets, squeakily narrow trousers and velvet-collared jackets. I was going to add that before setting out for an evening’s entertainment, folks would grab a meal in a restaurant beforehand. But, of course, that rarely happened because the average family eat their meals at home, with the main nosh-up at mid-day comprising meat and two vegetables that were in season. So the closest most people would come to eating out was in a pub where potato crisps were on offer in three varieties only – plain, potato or salted. Golden Wonder didn’t give birth to cheese and onion crisps until 1962. Maybe at the weekend there was a special treat from the fish man who sold winkles and cockles from his stall or van outside the pub. Mind you, Wimpey Bars had been around for a couple of years and while they proved extremely popular, I don’t know if they were open of an evening. Oh my, how the years have changed our eating habits. These days we have the choice of food from all over the world thanks to the numerous eateries, pubs, takeaways and deliveries – and probably just as important, have access to vegetables that are out of season!
I’ll leave you with that thought – but sprouts all year? No, I thought not.