Hold on to your hats as we’re whooshing our way back through the decades to land in the fifties, and with the wind howling up a storm outside my office window, the journey didn’t take long.
With the January chart not too different from the Christmas listing, it was like a ray of sunshine – and I use the term loosely – when Elvis Presley hit the top in February 1958 with “Jailhouse Rock”, the title song from his third film. So, let’s stay with that for a minute because it was his first for MGM and shot in black and white in their Culver City, California, studios. It seems its original name was The Hard Way, then Jailhouse Kid before the film company settled on Jailhouse Rock. I bet a highly-paid executive took months to come to this decision, don’t you? Anyway, back to the song. Its composers, Leiber and Stoller were told the lyrics were silly yet Elvis sang it as a straight rock ‘n’ roll song, turning a blind eye to what he was singing, like the suggestion of a gay romance when Inmate number 47 tells Number three “you’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see.” For goodness sake! Not only that, but some of the characters named in the song were real people. The Purpose Gang was a real mob of gangsters, Sad Sack was a US Army nickname during World War II, while Shifty Henry was a known Los Angeles’ musician and certainly not a criminal. The single entered the chart at number one and stayed there for three weeks. By the way, The Beatles regularly included “Jailhouse Rock” in their early live performances, while in the seventies Queen used it in a rock and roll medley on stage. It was also the final song in The Blues Brothers film and…oh, the list goes on and on.
Before leaving Mr Presley, I just had to include this because mishaps certainly seemed to plague Jailhouse Rock. Like, a day after shooting began, Elvis, wearing a wig and make-up to cover his hairstyle and sideburns, was doing his stuff in the famous jail dance routine when one of his tooth caps loosened and fell off to lodge in his lung. He was rushed to the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital where the cap was removed. Following an overnight stay, shooting resumed the next day.
Sitting just below the frenetically wild chart topper was a single at the other end of the music scale from Michael Holliday. Influenced by his idol Bing Crosby, this Liverpudlian crooned his way through this low-keyed song which, I was surprised to see, was penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Michael’s style of singing apparently earned him the title of “The British Bing Crosby” and, I’ve found out, his biography was actually called The Man Who Would Be Bing published in 2004. This modest man was elevated to a household name during the fifties, when he racked up a string of hit singles including two chart-toppers (“Starry Eyed” was the second). During Michael’s career, when he was top of his game, Bing Crosby befriended him, but behind the scenes, things were totally the opposite. Michael’s marriage was fractured and he owed the taxman. Not able to cope he took his own life in 1963.
After this short hiatus, it’s back to rock and roll with Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls Of Fire” which sat at number three. As this music force was prevalent in this month’s charts I decided to look up exactly what the term meant. Well, the official view is that rock and roll is an amalgam of black R&B and white country music, usually based around a twelve-bar structure featuring double bass, drums and guitar thumping out a simple melody and a rather heavy beat. It was, of course, also called “The Devil’s Music”. Anyway, back to “Great Balls Of Fire” and Jerry Lee Lewis, also known as “The Killer” – but I couldn’t find out why. During its first ten days of release in America the single sold one million copies on its way to peaking at a staggering five million. A pioneer of rockabilly and rock and roll, Jerry Lee’s stage act was – if you’re young enough to remember – a sight to see because during a song he thumped away at the piano with his heels, often kicking the piano stool behind him. He also played standing up, sat or stood on the keyboard, whipping up a storm as he did so. However, reviews of his live performances in the newspapers competed with headlines about his personal life when a journalist learned and subsequently printed, that he had married his first cousin once removed. She was thirteen years old: Jerry Lee was twenty-two. There was such a public uproar, that a pending British tour was cancelled after three concerts.
Two more twelve-bar structured singles rounded off the top ten this month. “Oh Boy” from The Crickets, featuring Buddy Holly on lead vocals, and “Peggy Sue” credited to a solo Buddy Holly despite members of The Crickets playing on the song. You go figure! However, The Crickets did record their own version after Buddy’s death, with the soundalike David Box on lead vocals. It might be of interest to know, the single was originally titled “Cindy Lou” after Buddy’s niece but later changed to honour The Crickets’ drummer Jerry Allison’s future wife. Incidentally, Buddy recorded a follow-up “Peggy Sue Got Married” with only his guitar for company. When the tape was unearthed after his death, the track was strengthened by backing vocals for commercial release.
Hanging up the petticoats and jeans, long dresses and multi-coloured knitwear, college jackets and the ‘slip and grip’ shoes so necessary for the fast and demanding dance routines, it feels good to take time out with a handful of slow numbers that demand no more than a quiet listen, or a gentle waltz around the dance floor whether it be in a village hall or in your own front room.
Gary Miller’s version of “The Story Of My Life”, creeping up the chart, was a pleasant – and welcome – distraction. Another song that calmed troubled musical waters was Jimmy Rodgers’ “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”, a popular love song adapted from the unlikely titled “If It Wasn’t For Dicky” by folk and blues singer Lead Belly. A further version by everyone’s favourite, Frankie Vaughan, was also edging its way up the listing. Calmness also prevailed with Welsh singer, Malcolm Vaughan with “My Special Angel”, and Marion Ryan’s “Love Me Forever”. Malcolm, with his warm tenor voice, enjoyed a raft of hit singles during this decade, as well as dabbling in the film world. Born in Middlesbrough, Marion. once tagged “the Marilyn Monroe of Popular Song”, was extremely successful during the fifties as a singer and television entertainer. If her name sounds familiar, you might be thinking of Paul and Barry Ryan, her twin sons, who also recorded a handful of singles including the best selling “Eloise”. Spanning five minutes plus, their single was more of a mini-opera than a pop song, with lashingss of orchestra, dramatic vocals, rounded off by a slow interlude that built up again with great gusto. “Eloise” peaked just outside the top spot but sold an awesome three million copies globally.
But I digress, so let’s return to 1958 and another welcome ballad – “April Love” from Pat Boone, who, at the age of twenty-three, actually hosted his own variety show The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom on American television. His remarkable career was the envy of many as his credits included actor, composer, television personality, author, pop singer, political commentator and motivational spokesman. He also loved watching baseball! Anyway, as a singer he sold over 45 million records and as an actor was featured in over twelve Hollywood films. Right behind these singers, Jackie Wilson, The Everly Brothers, Paul Anka, Edyie Gorme, and, of course, Elvis Presley with his “Jailhouse Rock” EP, were on the ascent. Some would make it, others fell by the wayside. Such is the reality of the ever-changing music business and public taste. At least, thankfully, there was some variety this month, even though “The Devil’s Music” did have a stranglehold across the singles chart. However, it wouldn’t last forever!
Let’s take a quick peek now at a couple of television high spots. “Evening all” opened and closed the top rated BBC series Dixon Of Dock Green, which was three years old this month, and where Jack Warner played the mature and kind hearted London copper. Although it was based in a fictional London police station, filming took place at the old Ealing station, just north of the Green. PC George Dixon was the typical copper on the beat who, in his own gentle but firm way, kept law and order in his neighbourhood during a period when there was petty crime, and the occasional serious violence incidents. Attracting a huge loyal viewing audience, including Royalty, it was one of the BBC’s top programmes. When the Queen visited the studios one time, she told Jack Warner that she believed Dixon Of Dock Green had become a part of the British way of life. It’s a good job she couldn’t see into the future……
And finally, we said a fond farewell to The Woodentops. This must-watch children’s television series featured a middle-class family living on a farm, with extras of the home help, Mrs Scrubbitt, Sam Scrubbitt, who helped out with the animals and Buttercup the cow. The series was filmed in a tin shed at the BBC’s Lime Grove Studios, and what made me laugh out loud, was, Maria Bird who spoke the Queen’s English was Mrs Woodentop, while her husband, the farmer, was given a West Country accent! No, I’m not making this up, I promise. The wooden puppets jumped, jerked and hopped about with elongated arms and legs – even Spotty dog appeared to be suffering from St Vitus’ Dance sometimes. I can’t believe I’m actually writing this….anyhow, these much loved puppets are now in the Museum of London, where over six million objects are on display, the largest urban history collection in the world. So there you have it.
I think I’d better quit while I’m ahead. Please join me next month when sanity will return, or at least I hope so?