Single of the week

Mona Lisa (Nat King Cole)

An email came in from David Robinson who said, “Hi Jon, a few weeks ago on your online quiz you asked a question about who had a hit in the 50s with Mona Lisa. I put Nat King Cole and then found out it was the wrong answer because he never charted with it. Sneaky! After looking it up, I found the answer was Conway Twitty (whoever he was) but it’s quite a good version. How about the story about Conway Twitty and Mona Lisa presumably originally by Nat King Cole?” Well David, why not. Read on you’ll probably be in for a surprise.

The Mona Lisa or Gioconda as it’s known in Italian is arguably the most famous painting in the world as created by Leonard Da Vinci in the very early 1500s. It also holds the record, as verified by Guinness World Records for the highest-known painting insurance valuation at just under $900m. Wouldn’t fancy paying that premium or even the excess!

The song was made famous by Nat King Cole, the man with the velvet voice in 1950, but he did not do it originally. It was written in in 1949 by the New York-born lyricist Ray Evans and the Los Angeles-born composer Jay Livingston for a movie originally called OSS In an interview with American Songwriter Magazine in 1988, Jay Livingston explained how it all came about, “There was a picture called OSS, which took place during World War II, and Alan Ladd was in a little Italian town where the clandestine radio was, and they needed a song to warn them that the German patrol was coming. There was this blind accordion player who wasn’t actually blind playing on the street and every time he saw the Germans coming he would play a certain melody, so we wrote Mona Lisa and they said that it sounded Italian and they liked it. Then they called us and said they had changed the title from OSS to After Midnight and we had to write a song with that title. They loved title songs because it sold their picture. So we threw away the lyrics of Mona Lisa and wrote After Midnight. A month later we picked up Variety and read that Alan Ladd’s new picture was going to be called Captain Carey, USA. We went back to the studio and asked for Mona Lisa back, and then pitched it to Nat King Cole and he liked it and recorded it on the reverse side [of Nat’s latest single] The Greatest Inventor Of Them All. So we went on a junket for Paramount about that time, and we took the records with us and we must have been on 25 or 30 radio shows, and when we got back the song was a hit. But the original ads for the record didn’t even mention Mona Lisa, just The Greatest Inventor. I think us pushing it really made the difference in that song being a hit.”

The version in the film was performed by Sergio de Karlo who was a street busker playing guitar and when he saw the Germans coming began playing Mona Lisa which was a warning to all the residents of an impending invasion. The full version in the film was by Charlie Spivak & His Orchestra with vocals by Tommy Lynn and released on a 78rpm disc in January 1950. Nat loved the song and cut his version two months later. His version won an Academy Award for Best Original Song and the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1992.

Livingstone and Evans wrote many more songs together most notably Whatever Will Be Will Be (Que Sera Sera) which was a chart-topper for Doris Day and featured in the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Man Who Knew Too Much. They wrote Tammy, a number two hit for Debbie Reynolds, which featured in the film Tammy And The Bachelor and also As I Love You, a number one hit in 1959 for Shirley Bassey and appeared in the film The Big Beat. They also composed the theme to the TV series’ Bonanza and Mr Ed.

Nat’s version went to number one on Billboard and stayed there for eight weeks. In 1987, it was used as the theme for the movie of the same name. Nat’s daughter, Natalie, originally included this song in her live sets but pulled it when it became too emotional for her. In 1991, thanks to the wonders of technology, she recorded a version of her father’s song Unforgettable as a duet with him which went to number 19.

The only version of Mona Lisa to chart in the UK was Conway Twitty who took his  uptempo version to number five. His real name was Harold Lloyd Jenkins and claimed he took his name after looking at maps and spotted Conway in Arkansas and Twitty in Texas. Twitty was primarily a country singer although did dabble in rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly in his early days when he was signed by Sam Phillips to his Sun record label. In the US  he scored 40 number one on the Hot Country Songs chart. His biggest hit in the UK was the 1958 Christmas number one, It’s Only Make Believe.

Mona Lisa has been recorded by many acts including Bing Crosby (1956), Sam Cooke (1960), Johnny Burnette (1961), Marvin Gaye (1965), James Brown (1967), Donny Osmond (1974),  Willie Nelson (1981), Shakin’ Stevens (1988), Julio Iglesias (1990), Natalie Cole (1991), Harry Connick Jr. (2009) and Gregory Porter (2017).

Mona Lisa, the only song in the film Captain Carey, USA. won Best Song Oscar and was the first to do so from a non-musical movie.

Jay Livingston died in 2001 aged 86, Ray Evans died in 2007 aged 92 and Twitty died in 1993.

Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand) (The Shangri-Las)

I do love it when someone puts out a morsel of information that eventually becomes legend only to find out it’s not true and I spend the rest of my life correcting people. The best example is about Rod Stewart playing harmonica on Millie’s hit My Boy Lollipop. No he didn’t! That was Pete Hogman who was once briefly in a band with Rod Stewart and the idiot who made the statement didn’t do his research and claimed it was Rod. The other is that Bob Holness played saxophone on Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 hit Baker Street. No he didn’t! That rumour was made up as a joke by Stuart Maconie when he was a journalist and people have believed it ever since. That, for your information, was Raphael Ravenscroft. This week’s choice, The Shangri-Las’ Remember (Walking in the Sand), is a song that is said to have Billy Joel playing piano. Is that true? Read on to find out.

This song was produced and co-written George Morton who was known within the industry as Shadow and was born in Richmond, Virginia but raised in Long Island. Whilst at school he met a girl, Lois Berman, who later became his wife and together they formed a doo-wop group called the Markeys.

A few years later he wanted to break into song writing so he moved to New York. Whilst there he met the songwriter Ellie Greenwich and they became friends. With the possibility of advice or tips from Greenwich about song writing he would often pay her visit and this, in turn, got Greenwich’s husband, Jeff Barry, suspicious. When Greenwich explained Morton’s frequent visits, Barry decided to challenge Morton and asked for a meeting where he could view some of his recent work. Morton was worried as his portfolio was pretty much empty and so when Barry asked for a song he rose to the challenge to write one.

He decided to drive back to his old stomping ground of Long Island which was only about 40 miles away to write a song. He drove to Long Island Beach and whilst there heard seagulls which gave him some inspiration and was used in the song’s outro. Once written he headed back to New York and arranged for some musicians and a local girl-group he knew and liked to attend a recording session.

The girl-group were the Shangri-Las who were formed in 1963 by two pairs of sisters, Mary and Betty Weiss and identical twins Margie and Mary Ann Ganser who were all from New York. They recorded the demo complete with seagull sound effects which many people assumed Morton had recorded whilst at the beach, but he later stated, “No, they’re from a sound effects record.”

One of the musicians at that session was a 15-year-old piano player called Billy Joel. Many people wondered if this was true and even Billy Joel once said he wasn’t sure, but in 1987 he revealed in an interview with Q magazine that is was him and how it came about, “I met a guy at an Echoes gig and he asked me if I wanted to play piano on a recording. So I go down to this little studio in a guy’s basement in Levittown, Dynamic Studios, and they’ve got this sheet music down there. There’s two songs, one’s called Leader Of The Pack and the other is called Remember (Walking In The Sand) and this is pretty easy stuff to play and then Shadow comes in. He’s a pretty strange guy, Shadow. He’s wearing this big cape and dark glasses and he played the producer role to the hilt. I think he had a thing about Phil Spector. He wanted to be the Phil Spector of the East Coast. And he talked in these wild, dramatic, theatrical terms, he wanted more ‘thunder’ and he wanted more ‘purple’ in the record. He’s waving his arms in the air saying ‘give me more purple’. And I’m sitting there kind a nervous – this is my first time ever in a recording studio – and I’m hissing to the other musicians, what does that mean? How do I play ‘purple’? And the guitar player leans over and says, ‘Oh, just play louder, kid.’ So we did these songs in a couple of hours and the singers didn’t actually sing with us, we just did the backing tracks and I was never really sure who it was for and then I heard Remember (Walking In The Sand) on the radio, I went wait a minute, that’s me, and the guys in the band said, ‘Oh, what did you get paid?’ I didn’t get paid anything. What did I know. I guess Shadow pulled in guys like me so he could save some money.”

The song was a winner because it covered that common story about love going wrong when one of them walks away and this will always resonate with people.

Morton offered the song to Jerry Leiber who had just launched his own Red Bird record label and Leiber accepted. The song went to number 14 in the UK, number five in the States and number two in Canada. All of Morton’s writing credit were confined to The Shangri-Las including the more well-known Leader of the Pack, the less-well known Past Present and Future that became a minor hit for Cindy and the Saffrons in 1983 and Give Him a Great Big Kiss which peaked at number 18 on Billboard but failed to chart in most other places in the world.

Remember (Walking in the Sand) has been covered by, among others, Skeeter Davis, the 1974 Dutch Eurovision entrants Mouth & MacNeal, The Go-Go’s and The Beach Boys but most notably by Aerosmith which was recorded in 1979 and featured uncredited backing vocals by The Shangri-Las’ own Mary Weiss.

During the 80s and 90s there was a group called the Shangri-Las touring across American but none of them were connected with the original act. It was put together by a promoter called Dick Fox who had claimed he’d bought the rights to the name. Needless to say legal action took place on both sides.

Mary Ann Ganser died of a drug overdose in 1970 aged just 23 and her sister Marguerite passed away in July 1996. Betty still lives and works in Long Island but not in the music industry and Mary released a solo album in 2007 called Dangerous Game. As for George ‘Shadow’ Morton, he turned to alcohol in 1976 and after 10 years of treatment at The Betty Ford Clinic he got clean but never did anything of note. He died of cancer in February 2013.

Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep (Middle of the Road)

The first ever request for a Single of the Week came back in October 2011 and was MacArthur Park by Richard Harris and the person requesting it claimed that the lyrics were absolute nonsense. Well, they had a surprise when I wrote the story and they realised that they weren’t rubbish at all and told quite a sad story. This week’s choice is one of the catchiest number one hits of the 70s but in this case the lyrics really don’t mean anything. The request came from Blodwyn Buttercup who said, “I used to sing this when I was little to anyone that would listen lol and it is still a firm fave of mine on my long-distance driving playlist it really cheers me up.”

The song started life in Liverpool and was a hit in the US and across Europe before being recorded by a Scottish band with a Spanish name who were signed in Italy to an American label. Work that out.

I’ll explain, the song’s sole writer was a man called Lally Stott who was born in Liverpool and was a member of a band called Denny Seyton and the Sabres who just scraped into the top 50 in 1964 with a cover of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ song The Way You Look Tonight. Stott, whose real first name was Harold, was born in 1945 and recorded the original version in 1970 which did nothing in the UK and limped to number 92 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1971. It did, however, make the top 10 in the Netherlands and South Africa and topped the chart in both Australia and Zimbabwe.

He was signed to Philips records who, for reasons, as always, are best known to themselves, weren’t keen on releasing it many countries and they decided to offer it to the Trinidad-born brother-and-sister duo Mac and Katie Kissoon whose version was recorded at a quicker pace. Their version peaked at a more respectable number 20 in the States, number 10 in Canada and stiffed at number 41 in the UK.

In 1967, singer Sally Carr (born Sarah Carr), guitarist Ian McCredie, his brother Eric on bass and drummer Ken Andrew formed a band called Part Four but within a couple of years had changed their name to Los Caracas and their style of music to Latin American. In 1970, they entered one of the original talent shows, Opportunity Knocks which they won. When little happened following their win, they moved to Italy where they met record producer Giacomo Tosti who suggested they record the Lally Stott song and had them signed to RCA records. As the song was not remotely Latin-American sounding a name change was suggested and Middle of the Road they became.

With its distinctive drumming intro and catchy, ‘Where’s your mama gone’ lyric it took off and made the top 10 in 18 countries. Originally a slow-burner in the UK until Tony Blackburn chose it as his record of the week on his Radio 1 breakfast show and then it flew here too.

The song seems to tell the story of a baby called Don who keeps asking where his mama and papa had gone when he woke up and all we know is that they went ‘far far away’ and all he could hear was his mama singing, ‘chirpy, chirpy, cheep, cheep’. Frankly it seems like his parents were deluded and then abandoned their baby. We don’t know where. We don’t know if they ever came back and we don’t know, and will probably never know, what happened to Don. Makes you wonder why it wasn’t banned for reasons of neglect to a child.

Stott managed to enjoy the success of his song around the world, but died in a motorbike accident in June 1977 aged 32.

Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep stayed on the UK chart for 34 weeks and was still in the chart when the follow-ups Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum (number two) and Soley Soley (number five) were charting. They had two further lower hits with Samson And Delilah and Sacramento (A Wonderful Town) which both did well in Scandinavia.

Sally Carr left the group in 1977 and was replaced by Linda Carroll who stayed with the band until 1981.

It’s a little-known fact that Middle of the Road inspired a much more successful Swedish group by the name of ABBA. Middle of the Road’s chart career had come to an end before ABBA won Eurovision in 1974. In an interview with the Sunday Post, Sally Carr said, “Agnetha covered two of our hits in Swedish, before she joined Abba. And the two boys Benny and Bjorn, on a live television interview, said that they used our sound as a guide for their sound.” Carr also remembered, “It was Tony Blackburn who interviewed us the first time. He actually thought we were Italian. Ken turned round and said to him: ‘Don’t be stupid, we’re Scottish’.”

Even after 50 years since it was number one, everyone still seems to know the song. As Sally said, “Your grannies and your mums and dads, and your wee tots know Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep. I always used to laugh and say, ‘Yeah, I’m chirpy, but I’m not cheap.'”

I Write The Songs (Barry Manilow)

This week’s suggestion came from a lady who said that when she heard Barry Manilow sing I Write the Songs on the radio she assumed he did until the presenter said he didn’t. That presenter also failed to say who did write it. Naturally, when you read or hear the title I Write the Songs, you assume the narrator did. It’s fairly unlikely you will have heard the writer’s version of it even though it was released as a single because no one really plays it. Come to think of it, no one plays the original version either which was not by is scribe.

Many people have covered the song but thankfully I’ve never heard any of its interpreters claim they wrote it. The most well-known is arguable Barry Manilow’s version which topped the American singles chart in 1975 giving him his second US chart-topped after Mandy exactly one year earlier. Two versions have charted in the UK, the best-remembered is by David Cassidy who reached number 11 in 1975 and lesser known version by Big Daddy – not the wrestler, but an American 10-piece Rock ‘n Roll band doing cover versions of well-known songs in a Doo Wop style. Their only chart hit was the four-track Dancing In the Dark EP which bizarrely listed I Write the Songs as the lead track and it did climb as high as number 21 in 1985.

Anyway, to the origins of the song. It was solely written by Bruce Johnston who was a long-time member of the Beach Boys. It has been rumoured for many years that the song was written about the Beach Boys singer and primary songwriter Brian Wilson but in actual fact that is nonsense. Bruce Johnston explained, “I never wrote I Write The Songs about Brian Wilson. I wrote it about where music comes from (for me, music comes only from God). My song has nothing to do with Brian! I admire Brian Wilson’s great melodies and, as a member of the Beach Boys, I’m singing these fantastic songs in concert year after year.”

Johnston doesn’t have a writing credit on any of the Beach Boys’ UK hits although he did soley produce three – Here Comes The Night, Lady Lynda and Sumahama all in 1979.

What probably backs up Johnston’s ‘God’ statement is the opening line of the song, ‘I’ve been alive forever and I wrote the very first song’ as well and the second verse beginning with, ‘My home lies deep within you and I’ve got my own place in your soul’.

Despite Johnston writing it he was not the first to lay the track down, “The Captain & Tennille were the first artists to record my song,” he explained. The Captain – real name Daryl Dragon – was a member of the Beach Boys from 1967 – 1972 and it was Mike Love from the group who gave Daryl his nickname calling him Captain Keyboard. On the back of that Dragon began wearing naval captain’s hat to go with the new name.

When it was first suggested that Barry Manilow should record the song, he wasn’t keen. Not because he didn’t like the song but because, “I felt that if you didn’t listen closely to the words you would think I was talking about me and would sound like an egomaniac.” He said to Clive Davis, the head of Manilow’s label, Arista, “This I Write The Songs thing Clive, I really don’t want to do it. Listeners would think I was singing about how ‘I’ wrote the songs, when it was really about the inspiration of music.” Clive didn’t think it would cause an issue and said to Manilow, “Besides, you DO write songs!” Manilow, however, liked the song enough that he decided to record it and added, “Whenever I heard the song in public, I felt the need to run to everyone who was listening and say, ‘You know, I’m really not singing about myself!'” Not many people say no to Clive Davis and, besides, it went on to win a Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1976.

Other artists who have covered the song include, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Dinah Shore and Des O’Connor (all in 1976), Vera Lynn in 1979 and Don Estelle (solo) 20 years later.

Making Plans For Nigel (XTC)

Any song with a person’s name in the title makes me wonder if it’s a real person or not and if so, is it autobiographical. So, is this the case in this week’s suggestion?

The roots of XTC  were formed as early as 1972 by lead singer and guitarist Andy Partridge and bass player Colin Moulding who had both grown up in Swindon. They formed a glam rock band with drummer Terry Chambers eventually changing their name to XTC in 1975. Two years later they signed to Virgin Records

Their debut hit, Life Begins At The Hop, was written by Moulding, released in May 1979 and just fell short of the top 50. The follow up, also written by Moulding, gave them their breakthrough. “Andy Partridge had been perceived as the writer and I was very much a sideshow,” Moulding recalled to Ian Harrison. “When Barry Andrews left the band in 1979 it seemed to set something off in me perhaps the desire to be myself. I came up with Nigel soon after Barry left and suddenly we were talking about dominating parents and family dysfunction and my dad was pretty upset that I’d forsaken my education at 16 to play in a band. Was I Nigel? I don’t know. My dad did kick up a bit but he wasn’t as domineering as the song makes out.” He explained in a 2014 interview with Uncut magazine, “There were no Nigels at school. I wasn’t bullied, but I think I had a natural empathy for people that were. ‘Nigel’ was my song for the bullied, I suppose.”

It was hard said Moulding; “It was like what George Harrison said, John and Paul were able to get their rubbishy songs out of the way before The Beatles became famous, whereas I had to do it in the public eye,” he mentioned in a Classic Rock interview. “On some of my early stuff I was aping Andy a bit too much. This was me trying to write something more ‘me’.”

So, what did the band initially think of the song? “It sounded like the Spinners,” remembered Partridge, “When Colin brought it to us and played it on an acoustic guitar, he might as well have had a dress on and some horn-rimmed glasses like Nana Mouskouri.”

The song tells the story of a young lad being hounded by his parents to go out a find a tedious and monotonous job which is very much how it was in the late 70s. His parents claiming they only want what’s best for him, like they knew! The song talks about him working of British Steel? Why that company? “British Steel was in the air at the time. You couldn’t get away from all the industrial disputes, the three-day weeks and all that,” Moulding reflected. I just chose British Steel as it just popped into my head. It could just as easily have been British Pharmaceuticals. Once the track entered the chart, Moulding got a phone call, “One of the union leaders at British Steel rang me up and said, ‘Really glad you’re supporting the cause’ What the cause was I don’t know.”

“I could never see Making Plans For Nigel being a single to be honest,” Moulding said. Top of the Pops was a bit of a laugh, we were on there with Lena Martell and Peaches and Herb but it was a farce as well. We had to go along with our record company who tried to the kiss the arse of the BBC, but I preferred the Old Grey Whistle Test, all the good bands played on that. It’s incredible what a bit of TV and radio airplay can do, We’d gone from the college circuit to the city halls, had bigger PA systems, bigger light show and were following bands like The Stranglers or The Clash so you had to step up.

Germfree Adolescents (X-Ray Spex)

With the whole world having just endured a pandemic where for a while everything was shut down, no one was allowed to leave their home, shops rationing many of their products and we’re all made to wear masks and use hand sanitizer, as well as taking lateral flow tests which had been rapidly invented to fight the cause, this week’s suggestion from Kev seems very appropriate. We all needed to stay germ-free, but surely that wasn’t what X-Ray Spex were worried about back in 1978…or was it?

X-Ray Spex joined the punk movement fairly late but did so in a very memorable way thanks to the band’s lead singer. Her name was Poly Styrene who was born Marion Joan Elliott-Said, in Bromley, Kent, is of Somali descent and was inspired to put the band together after seeing the Sex Pistols in Hastings for her 19th birthday. They comprised Jak Airport (real name Jack Stafford) on guitar, Paul Hurding on drums, Paul Dean on bass and, as a last-minute addition, Lora Logic (real name Susan Whitby) on saxophone. Logic was not yet a professional musician as she was only 15 and still studying. Just over a year later she left to complete her studies although some stories at the time claim she was dismissed because of trying to upstage Poly. This is probably enhanced by the fact that she went on to form her own band called Essential Logic, and played some saxophone sessions for artists like Boy George. Poly had a fairly unconventional voice but a distinctive look especially with the large braces worn on her teeth. At the time of their first hit, The Day The World Turned Day-Glow in 1978 she said, “I wasn’t a sex symbol and if anybody tried to make me one I’d shave my head tomorrow”.

Poly explained in an interview with Jenn Pelly how she came to use that name, “I chose the name Poly Styrene because it’s a lightweight, disposable product. It sounded alright. It was a send-up of being a pop star—plastic, disposable, that’s what pop stars are meant to mean, so therefore I thought I might as well send it up.”

Their debut album, Germfree Adolescents was well received and remains so to this day. In various media polls it’s been referred to as, a masterpiece and storming album and was ranked ninth in the Top Albums of the Year in 1978 by the New Musical Express. Sixteen years later the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music named the album the eighth best punk album of all time then in 2001, Spin magazine ranked it at number five in its 50 Most Essential Punk Records. It also features in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

The title track was released as a single in November 1978 – the unusual reggae-punk ballad all about hygiene uses words you’d rarely find in any song. Use of the words Listerine, sterilised and disinfectant really pushes home that the new man in her life really must be spotless. The opening line, ‘I know you’re antiseptic, your deodorant smells nice’ tells us that he already meets with her approval. The lines, ‘deep frozen like the ice’ and ‘the S.R. way’ are references to the very first television advert shown in the UK in 1955 which was for Gibbs S.R. toothpaste, the S.R. standing for sodium ricinoleate.

Poly suffered with mental health issues and the stress of fame only aggravated her condition. She suffered with horrendous and intense mood swings as well as having hallucinations. She had a fixation about Nazis and the supernatural. Her band mates were getting worried and the band finally fell apart when she revealed she saw a UFO after a gig one night, “I saw a Day-Glo UFO in Doncaster one night after a concert. It was a bright ball of luminous pink, made of energy – like a fireball. Everyone else thought I’d lost the plot,” she explained to The Independent in 2008. It was as late as 1991 that she was diagnosed as bipolar. One of her best friends was John Lydon of the Sex Pistols. She would often visit his house, he confirmed this in his 2014 memoir, “They used to lock her up occasionally… She’d break out and always make a beeline for my house. She was good fun until the ambulance turned up for her.”

In 1995, Poly briefly reformed the band which included Logic but it was short-lived as they clashed again. Airport and Hurding were both members of Classix Nouveau but Airport left within a year and went to work at the BBC’s corporate and public relations department. Poly died of cancer in 2011 at the age of just 53.