The fifties was a decade where men wore casual style clothes, while ladies prioritised formality, with a certain elegance where matching accessories were a must. It’s a pity – or is it? – that the music didn’t follow suit. Do read on…..
The month kicked off on a rather mellow note with the top two singles from American crooners, appealing to the more senior generation of record buyers. At the top was a single written and recorded by Paul Anka who explained the song was inspired by Diana Ayoub, a girl he met at church and who he worshipped from afar. From the sounds of it, he didn’t get much closer either. Anyway, “Diana” also topped the US R&B listing even though it was as far from soul music as the earth is from the moon, so really don’t know what that was all about. I put it down to being the fifties where music genres got muddled up in the mix. In its lifetime the single sold over nine million copies; 1.2 million in the UK when it topped the chart for nine long weeks. It also became the top selling single ever by a Canadian recording artist.
Here’s a little backstory. Paul was born in Ottawa, Canada, where his parents, Camelia and Andrew Anka Sr, Paul owned a restaurant called the Locanda. His father was born in Damascus, Syria, while his mother was an immigrant from Lebanon. As a youngster, Paul sang with the St Elias Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral choir, studied music theory, and mastered the piano, before attending the Fisher Park High School where he joined the Bobby Soxers trio. Moving on, Paul Anka recorded his first single “I Confess” as a teenager in 1956 and to be fair, he never looked back as his career blossomed every which way, even into films, where his debut acting role was a cameo as an army private in the 1962 The Longest Day. He also wrote the title song, by the way.
As an established all-rounder, the hits came one after the other with titles like his charttopper, “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” and “(You’re) Having My Baby”. I can’t write about this exceptionally talented guy without mentioning he co-wrote the lyrics to “My Way” recorded by a host of singers, with, of course, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley among them. Plus, he penned “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” for Buddy Holly which he recorded shortly before he tragically died in a plane crash in 1959. So, from one silky-voiced singer to another….
Pat Boone, who sat at number two in this month’s chart with “Love Letters In The Sand”, a song that’s subsequently been re-recorded more times than I’ve had hot dinners. That aside, he was another singer with the same industry credentials as Paul Anka, as he became a well known figure across the entertainment platforms. However, back to the hit single because as Pat’s popularity ascended at this time, he was criticised for riding on the back of black R&B artists who had recorded the original versions of songs he covered, thus denying them the chance to crossover into mainstream music. More to the point, the originators weren’t credited and, in some instances, the composers weren’t paid. Actually, he wasn’t criticised, he was publicly outed, alongside other white singers, by American R&B fans for misuse of black material. Anyhows, back to the front line, Pat Boone’s career was the American dream and all that went with it; he sold a staggering forty-five million records during his career and was the second biggest charting singer of the late-fifties behind Elvis Presley, who we’ll get to in a minute.
So, rounding off the top three was a single that broke the previously mentioned dulcet tones, as we switch from crooning to a Trinidadian calypso disc by British-based American musician Johnny Duncan. “Last Train To San Fernando” was the title and, with the Blue Grass Boys providing back ups, this skiffle-tinged record waited patiently to hit the top spot. But it didn’t get there I’m afraid. However, riding on the success of this title, the Tennessee-born singer toured the UK with the likes of Cliff Richard, was a regular guest on the BBC radio show Saturday Skiffle Club (which preceded Saturday Club) and was in demand as a performer. When skiffle fell from grace, so did Johnny’s career. But, to be fair, he had a good run which can’t be sniffed at. So, here’s Elvis….
Recorded earlier in 1957, “All Shook Up” featured Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires on joint vocals with Elvis and what was released was, apparently, take ten of the sessions. Within three weeks of issue, the disc had kicked Perry Como’s “Round And Round” from the top of the US chart before hitting the UK pole position for seven consecutive weeks. It was his first British number one – but certainly not the last! Then, just inside the top ten was “Teddy Bear”, first recorded by Elvis for his second film “Loving You”. Nowadays, the single is afforded its full title “(Let Me Be) Your Teddy Bear” – probably due to the publisher’s insistence – but the song remains the same. The third “Paralysed” actually sat at number ten then started to drop down the listing, failing to notch up the sales expected from his releases. Actually, I have to admit I don’t remember this single at all but then I was a dedicated follower of Cliff Richard and later The Beatles.
I’m happy to say, Elvis didn’t get all his own way because our own Tommy Steele was also credited with three singles in the top twenty this month. Although the Bermondsey-born, chirpy chappie Tommy was never a serious threat to Elvis’ popularity in the UK, he did give him a run for his money, particularly during the fifties. “Water Water” was a top ten hit, while “Shiralee” and “Butterfingers” stalled in the lower ten. One of Britain’s favourite national treasures, our Tommy’s dad was a racing tipster, his mum a factory worker, while their son tried his hand at several jobs including a short spell as a merchant seaman. By all accounts, he wasn’t eligible for National Service because of heart problems, so continued to work where he could, using his leisure time to strum guitar and banjo while singing in small, but popular London clubs like the famous 2i’s Coffee Bar in London’s Soho, the nondescript venue that gave birth to so many British acts. I nearly forgot, while serving in the merchant navy, Tommy’s ship docked in Norfolk, Virginia – and to cut a long story short – he heard Buddy Holly for the first time. Rock ‘n’ roll and Tommy was love at first sight – or should that be first listen. He dropped skiffle like a hot potato in favour of this new, vibrant American sound with the crazy lyrics, and before too long Tommy was fronting his own band The Steelmen pounding out their own brand of the devil’s music – British style. After their first single “Rock With The Caveman” which soared into the UK top twenty, the guys were on their way, and for several years never gave a backward glance.
That wonderful Bernstein/Sondheim musical “West Side Story” hit the boards on Broadway this month in 1957, telling the story of the rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets, two teenage street gangs from different ethnic backgrounds. They sing together and taunt each other, dance and fight, then fall in love. I’m sure you know the story like the back of your hand but suffice to say, it’s a modern day Romeo and Juliet set in New York, with, erm, loads of attitude. The musical ran for 732 performances on Broadway before going on tour, while in London’s West End, its run was longer. The musical was later transformed into a cinema film, another huge success. I should imagine that judging by the number of awards, honours and accreditations showered on both the musical and movie, the writers, actors and so on probably built house extensions to hold them all.
Then on the small screen we were introduced to Raymond Burr playing Perry Mason, a Los Angles criminal defence lawyer, in a series that was destined to span nine years. Already an established actor, Mr Burr couldn’t have foreseen just how popular this weekly one-hour crime series would be. Not only did it attract several Emmy awards but received handfuls of honours during its lifetime, and, it appears, “Perry Mason” remains one of the longest running, most successful legal-themed television series of all times. However, its success didn’t come easy because, for example, the filming schedules were gruelling as its star once said – “I had no life outside of Perry Mason. And that went on twenty-four hours a day, six days a week. I never went home at night. I lived on the lot. I got up at three o’clock every morning to learn my lines for that day, and sometimes I hadn’t finished until 9 o’clock. I had a kitchen, bedroom, office space, sitting room—all of that—on every lot I ever worked on.” Hah, isn’t there always a downside to becoming a successful actor across the globe!
To finish off this month then, let’s return to the music that fans were buying. The upper rungs of the chart encompassed a kaleidoscope of sounds, from The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” and Petula Clark’s “With All My Heart”, to Lonnie Donegan’s “Gambling Man”/”Puttin’ On The Style”, who were holding off (temporarily) newcomers like Frankie Vaughan and his “Man On Fire”, The Crickets’ “That’ll Be The Day” (a future number one) and Larry Williams’ “Short Fat Fannie”. I’ll say no more!
I look forward to your company in a month’s time where we’ll end up as the mood takes, but, as always, the adventure won’t be the same without you.