Category: Single of the week

Smoke Gets in your Eyes (The Platters)

An email came in a couple of weeks ago from Bill Reynolds which said, “Hi John (sic), I live in Cleveland, Ohio and recently came across your website which I found captivating. I was interested to read many of your archived singles of the week which are also really interesting and easy to read. I’ve got a suggestion for you if that’s ok, I recently heard The Platter’s (sic) song Smoke Gets in your Eyes on the radio and the DJ said it was a really, really old song which I never knew. Can you enlighten me and give the story of it please?” I replied thanking Bill for his kind comments and got to work on the story.

Well Bill, firstly it is indeed an old song which dates back to the early 1930s and, like many songs, from that era that later became pop hits, it was written for a Broadway show and, in this case, it was a show called (Gowns By) Roberta which was penned by the great lyricist Otto Harbach with music by the equally great Jerome Kern. It starred Bob Hope and Tamara Drasin (who was known mononymously as Tamara) as Princess Stephanie and tells the story of a man in Paris who knows absolutely nothing about fashion suddenly finds that he inherits his late aunt’s dress shop.

It opened at the New Amsterdam theatre in November 1933 and ran for just under 300 performances before closing in the summer of 1934. The title, Smoke Gets In your Eyes as a standalone line makes you wonder if someone has run into a burning building or set their kitchen on fire of something, but Harbach & Kern originally called it, (When Your Heart’s on Fire) Smoke Gets in Your Eyes which would have made more sense back in those days. Tamara introduced the song in that show but she never laid down a recording of it, nor did she do it first.

It was first recorded just a month earlier, on the 13th October 1933, to be precise, by the American actress, comedian and torch singer Gertrude Niesen who had been born on a ship as her parents were on their way back from a European holiday. She had already signed a recording contract with Victor and they got the song to her first. In 1934, four different versions all made the Billboard chart; Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra using the full title made number one, Leo Reisman who had originally backed Tamara on her version made number three, Emil Coleman peaked at number four and Ruth Etting reached number 15.

In 1935, a film version of the show had been made which starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the song was sung by the lead female Irene Dunn. The film version had omitted the songs The Touch of Your Hand, Something Had to Happen and You’re Devastating but did include two new songs; I Won’t Dance and Lovely to Look At which became popular and did feature in further Roberta shows.

Many have covered the song over years including Harry Belafonte (1949), Charlie Parker (1950), Eartha Kitt (1953), Dinah Washington (1955), Ramsey Lewis (1961), Gene Pitney (1968), Bryan Ferry (1974), Serge Gainsbourg (1975), Patti Austin (1988) and Barbra Streisand (2009) among others.

By far the best-known version is the Platters who topped the UK singles chart in early 1959, “Tony Williams had the best, the clearest, the truest voice I have ever heard in pop music,” says Gene Pitney and certainly Williams’ soaring lead vocals for The Platters were extraordinary. The Platters bridged the gaps between pop ballads, rock ‘n’ roll and doowop. The five vocalists appeared in rock ‘n’ roll films and sang their ballads, Only You (And You Alone), The Great Pretender and (You’ve Got) The Magic Touch. The group featured Zola Taylor, David Lynch, Paul Robi and the bass voice of Herb Reed. “Not a group out there could touch us when we walked out on stage,” said Zola Taylor, “We were a God-blessed winning team.” Zola’s brother incidentally was Cornell Gunter from the Coasters.

The Platters were managed by Buck Ram, a songwriter who had been a member of The Three Suns in the Forties. In 1958, the Platters’ revived The Three Suns’ Twilight Time which reached number three and was the first rock ‘n’ roll hit with a string arrangement. Pleased by the success, they turned to Jerome Kern & Otto Harbach’s torch ballad. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a deeply sad song which tells of the oh so familiar story of losing yourself when you’re young and in love and taking no notice of all your friends and family who try to warn you away from it. Then when it actually does fall apart humbly admitting to your peers that they were right all along. The way Tony sings it almost masks the sadness by keeping his composure. As the song continues and builds, you can feel for him and when his final note explodes, complete with swirling strings you feel the punch, right in the gut. Just so powerful.

Interestingly, after Jerome Kern died in 1945, his widow announced that she hated the song and was livid that Otto had publicly thanked and congratulated The Platters’ producer, Buck Ram for reviving his song with taste.” She was so upset that she considered taking legal action to prevent its distribution.

The song has been used on the Hearts in Atlantis soundtrack and a cover by Nu Colours featured on the Four Weddings and A Funeral soundtrack. In 1995, The Jerry Garcia Band recorded it for the Smoke soundtrack. I mentioned earlier about it possibly being about a burning room, well someone else obviously thought that because in the same year, it was used in the finale of the TV series London’s Burning which then led to cast member Billy Ray (played by John Alford) recording his own version which became his debut hit in 1996 where it reached number 13.

Despite anti-smoking lobbies, the song will always be an evergreen. Tim Rice has described it as the greatest lyric of all-time. The original Platters left the group one by one but they found it tough going as Buck Ram owned the name and they could only trade on their past reputation with difficulty. Even though Ram died in 1991, the Buck Ram Platters still tour the world, a fine group but with no original members.

She’s Not You (Elvis Presley)

Elvis Presley had 21 UK number one hits, including three which were part of the 2005 re-issued series and every one of those songs is memorable in its own right, but arguably the least remembered is the 1962 chart-topper She’s Not You. It was his 12th UK number one, but real rock ‘n’ roll fans will probably prefer the slightly pacier B-side Tell Her Jim Said Hello.

Elvis burst on the music scene in 1956 with Heartbreak Hotel which reached number two in the UK. He had a further six hits that year and 12 in 1957. Things slowed down a little for the remainder of the fifties as The King went into the Army, but his record label, in order to maintain his profile, kept issuing tracks, 10 of them in his absence. Elvis had five hits in 1961, four of those were number ones and identically followed suit in 1962. The Elvis bandwagon kept on rolling.

She’s Not You was a chart-topper in September of 1962 and was written by his regular scribes Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, but this time collaborated with Jerome ‘Doc’ Pomus who had already co-written two earlier number one for Elvis. It was an unusual collaboration but it was written to order for the Pot Luck album.

Doc had a Fats Domino sound in mind for the song, but Leiber & Stoller convinced him that it would work better as a beat-ballad with a shuffle rhythm. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, Leiber & Stoller also submitted an older song of theirs, Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello, which Elvis recorded as an easy-paced ballad for the B-side. Curiously, Suspicion was recorded at the same session and put on the Pot Luck LP. How come that nobody realised that this was the best of the bunch? Terry Stafford had a US Top 10 single with it in 1964 at a time when Elvis wasn’t selling well. Still, if Elvis had released Suspicion, would he have accepted the similarly-titled and themed Suspicious Minds in 1969? Perhaps it was for the best.

Given the pace of She’s Not There and its predecessor, Good Luck Charm, The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll was establishing himself as a lounge singer, but give the amount of film roles, albeit, most of them not that great, he was in no danger of losing his popularity.

This song was released around the same time Elvis began filming the Girls Girls Girls film. His record company had wanted Elvis to record a new proper album, but his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who called all the shots, preferred his to do the filming as it was less demanding for Elvis and more money for the Colonel with the deals he’s negotiated. So, with the record company wanting to make money too, the American music publisher Freddy Beinstock was asked to cobble together an album that became Pot Luck which, as its name implies, is a real potpourri of songs. The record company were right, Elvis hadn’t had a non-soundtrack album for five years and Pot Luck went to number one.

It’s not a song that had been covered that often, but worth checking out the version by Chris Isaak on his 2011 album, Beyond the Sun.

Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers)

There are certain obscure bits of trivia that you tend to always remember and if you’re a music fan, then the one thing you never forget is Bill Withers’ job prior to becoming a singer, he made toilet seats for aircrafts. He probably got by on his income, but no doubt singing was preferably and a lot more rewarding.

Bill Withers was born in West Virginia in July 1938, but by the time he decided to make music in 1967 he really was a late starter by music business standards. He signed a record deal with Lotus records and released one single called Three Nights and A Morning.

Nearly four years later he wrote the song that made his name. He wrote Ain’t No Sunshine after watching the Blake Edwards movie Days of Wine and Roses from 1962 which starred Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, a couple who fall into alcoholism. The drama had already inspired one classic melody, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s Oscar-winning theme. Withers has never quite explained what triggered him to write it, but did add, “It’s just something that crossed my mind from watching that movie, and probably something else that happened in my life that I’m not aware of.”

It wasn’t a quite nor complete write as he was still finishing bits off during the recording. He recorded a demo with incomplete lyrics and submitted it to Sussex records who saw its potential and signed him. They also teamed him up with producer Booker T Jones, the organist of his own group Booker T & the MG’s. It was all a bit daunting for him when he went into the studio because he was surrounded by session players that included Jim Keltner, Stephen Stills and the rest of Booker T’s MG’s. However, he began recording but because the lyrics were still not finished, to play for time, he improvised by singing ‘I Know, I Know, I Know..’ no less than 26 times. It was only meant to be a temporary filler but ended up being one of the most memorable parts of the song. It was Booker T’s idea to leave it in as he realised those repeated two-word moan made the song distinctive, and contrary to Withers’ wishes, the record was completed when the lyrics were not. “I was this factory worker, so when they said to leave it like that, I left it,” Withers explained in an interview with Rolling Stone.

The idea Booker T had to leave it in probably originated from a similar idea four years earlier when the M.G’s were the backing musicians on Otis Redding’s last hit (Sittin’ On The) Dock of a Bay where Redding’s whistling was just a filler because he intended to write some more words a few days later. Sadly, that day never came because just three days later, Redding died in a plane crash, so the whistling stayed.

It’s a simple love song where the protagonist is explaining that when the woman in his life is there it’s bright, wonderful and beautiful, but when she has to leave it’s dark and lonely.

The song was released in the States and went to number three, but unbelievably, the song failed to make the UK chart, at least until a 13-year-old Michael Jackson covered it and took it to number eight the following year. It was a hit again in 1984 care of Sivuca who stalled at number 56, then Ladysmith Black Mambazo featuring Des’ree just missed the top 40 in 1999. Finally, 10 years later, in 2009, some 38 years after it had been recorded Bill’s version finally charted at number 40. Why? Because Shaun Smith performed it on Britain’s Got Talent. Other artists who have recorded it include Sydney Youngblood, Nancy Wilson, Lyn Collins, Freddie King, The Shirelles, Isaac Hayes, Nancy Sinatra, Al Jarreau, Sting and Neil Diamond.

It went on to win the Grammy for Best R&B Song in 1972 and in 2015 he was inducted, by Stevie Wonder, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Later that same year Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello recorded the duet I Know What You Did Last Summer which peaked at number 42, Bill Withers got a writing credit on this song because of the similarity of the ‘I Know, I Know,’ bit which at one minute and six seconds they each sing the seven times.

Along with other songs like Lean on Me, Lovely Day and Just the Two of Us, probably meant that Bill Withers never had to touch another toilet seat again, unless he was using it. Bill died from heart complications in Los Angeles in March this year.

Billy, Don’t Be A Hero (Paper Lace)

Here’s a good pop trivia question; on week-ending 6th April 1974 what was unique about the top three songs in the UK singles chart? OK, a bit tough, I’ll give you a clue and tell you that number three was Emma by Hot Chocolate, number two was Billy, Don’t Be A Hero by Paper Lace and at number one was Seasons in The Sun by Terry Jacks. Still no idea? Ok, they were all on the subject of death. The previous three weeks Paper Lace had been number one and that is our subject this week.

What was also unusual was that the song was written by the British song writers Mitch Murray and Peter Callander and Paper Lace never scored in American, however, a cover by Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods topped the Billboard singles chart a feat which usually happened the other way around.

Paper Lace had been formed by the lead singer and drummer, Phil Wright, and the bassist, Cliff Fish in 1969. The other members were the guitarists, Michael Vaughan, Chris Morris and, sounding like a tribute act, Carlo Santanna. They became the house band at Tiffany’s in Rochdale, Lancashire.

Three years later the songwriters, Mitch Murray and Peter Callander, formed their own label, Bus Stop, but they didn’t pick up passengers with their first releases. In line with their story-songs The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde and I Did What I Did for Maria, they wrote one about a cabin boy, Billy, Don’t Be A Hero, but then changed the setting to the American Civil War. Mitch Murray wanted to give the song to a major artist, but Peter Callander’s wife, Connie, saw Paper Lace win Opportunity Knocks and told Peter about them.

The song carried a powerful, anti-war message and about a guy who heads off to war against his fiancé’s advice. When she realises he’s determined, she tells him to stay safe. His dangerous mission got him killed and the fiancé receives a letter telling her that her beloved Billy had died a hero, which is exactly what she asked him not to do.

The song sold over three million copies and has brought both Murray and Callander extra income as it has featured in the American TV shows ALF and Get A Life as well as the movies Priscilla, Queen of The Desert and Reservoir Dogs. It even appeared in the first ever episode of Friends.

Once it had topped the UK chart, the record label was considering releasing it in America but decided against it when they found out that a cover by Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods had already put it out and within a few weeks topped their chart. Unlike Donaldson, Paper Lace had more than one hit. The follow-up was another Mitch Murray and Peter Callander composition, The Night Chicago Died which peaked at number three here, but did go on to top the chart over there. There was one further hit, The Black-Eyed Boys reached number 11 later the same year. Four years later they changed record labels to Warner Brothers and had one final hit when they were teamed with Nottingham Forest FC and coming up with the gem, We’ve Got the Whole World in His Hands.

The comedian and campaigner Spike Milligan made media appearances saying how significant this record was and how he admired the poignancy of its pay-off, “I heard she threw the letter away.”

Walk a Mile in My Shoes (Joe South)

Joe South is one of the unsung heroes of popular country music. A man who, by and large, had a fairly tragic life, but wrote some wonderful lasting songs. He had the right mind-set which was to tell a story in around three minutes, but a story that would be remembered long after the tune may have been forgotten. As an artist, he only managed one UK hit which was Games People Play in 1968, as a writer, arguably his best-known song is Rose Garden, a transatlantic hit for Lynn Anderson, but there was more to him than that.

South was born Joseph Alfred Souter in Atlanta, Georgia on the 28th February 1940. His career began after he was spotted by the music publisher and entrepreneur Bill Lowery. He served his apprenticeship as a session guitar player at the National Recording Corporation alongside Ray Stevens and Jerry Reed. Ray recorded a number of novelty songs as well as some serious ones and this influence must have rubbed off on South as his first recording was Purple People Eater Meets the Witchdoctor that was co-written and originally recorded by the Big Bopper and had appeared in the flip side of his best-known song Chantilly Lace. He then realised he preferred song writing and concentrated more on that by writing I Might Have Known and Gone Gone Gone which were both recorded by Gene Vincent.

As a session guitarist, he played, usually uncredited, on Marty Robbins’ El Paso, Tommy Roe’s Sheila, Aretha Franklin’s Chain of Fools and Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence. He also recorded the original versions of a number of songs that went on to be hits for other artists, namely Down In The Boondocks (Billy Joe Royal) (Royal recorded some demos for Gene Pitney because he sounded like him), Hush (Deep Purple and Kula Shaker), Rose Garden (Lynn Anderson and New World) and Walk a Mile in My Shoes which nobody had a UK hit with but it was covered by Elvis Presley and Brenda Lee (1970), Jerry Lee Lewis (1972), Bryan Ferry (1974) and Coldcut (2006).

South’s version was credited to Joe South and the Believers – the backing group which featured his brother Tommy and his sister-in-law Barbara. It was a hit in the States reaching number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles and well as charting on the Country music chart and number three on the Adult Contemporary chart.

The song saw South taking on the role of a singing preacher who grabbed people attention by delivering a musical reading suggesting the listener take a look at their own lives and make sure they’re doing the right thing and keeping their noses out of other people affairs. It also dealt with the need for perspective and compassion in a world where racial tolerance was limited.

The opening verse is surely something any caring person has thought about, ‘If I could be you, if you could be me, for just one hour, if we could find a way to get inside each other’s mind’ then he makes you realise how hard things have been for him by singing, ‘Yeah, before you abuse, criticise, and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.’ It just gets you thinking.

He never seemed interested in fame nor the financial rewards the songs brought, he just wanted to get his points across and seemingly points that many agreed with given the diversity of the artists who covered his songs.

In 1968, he released his debut album, Introspect, but soon after he suffered again by having to deal with the death of his brother to suicide and unable to cope, Joe became a recluse and tucked himself away on the island of Maui, the second largest island on Hawaii and confronted his grief and ended up seeking sanctuary with drugs. He returned to Georgia and to recording in 2008 and his last recording was a song called Oprah Cried which was released as a bonus track on the re-release of two of his early seventies albums So the Seeds are Growing and A Look Inside.

South was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1979, became a member of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame two years later and then inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in 2019. He died of heart failure at his home in Flowery Branch, Georgia on 5th September 2012 at the age of 72.

Dream Lover (Bobby Darin)

It quite weird how artists have a complete change of direction during their career and find unexpected success. Chuck Berry is a good example, a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer whose only UK number one was the nauseating My Ding-A-Ling. This week’s subject began his career with novelty songs and then had major success when he became a crooner.

The man in question is Bobby Darin. Many people who worked with him said he was a difficult man and when I saw him on the American version of This Is Your Life, he didn’t seem very forthcoming and seemingly wasn’t happy to be there. When you learn about his troubled life, you can begin to understand why.

“If I’m great now,” he once boasted, “What will I be like when I’m Frank Sinatra’s age?” His lack of tact lost him admirers, but he had confidence in his own talent: “I’m glad I’m not a poor introverted slob,” he once remarked. He also had a heart damaged from rheumatic fever and he knew it would be unlikely that he would reach 50.

He was born Walden Robert Cassotto in New York in 1936. He hung around the famous Brill Building, recording demos for songwriters and writing the occasional song most notably Gene Vincent’s Wear My Ring. It gave him the incentive to launch a solo career of his own, but his real name wasn’t catchy enough, so one day he passed the Mandarin Chinese restaurant with its unlit letters MAN, so he decided to rename himself Bobby Darin and wrote his first hit, Splish Splash within 15 minutes. It reached number 28 in the UK chart and the follow-up, Queen of the Hop went four places better.

Then came his first of two UK number ones, the self-penned Dream Lover. He invited his old friend from the Brill Building Neil Sedaka to play piano and he duly obliged on the B-side too which was the frantic rocker, Bullmoose. The song tells of a guy who keeps wishing and praying for a girl to come into his real life so he no longer has to dream any more. Initially Darin wasn’t keen on the song but nonetheless submitted it to the bosses, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records loved it and submitted it to Tom Dowd who engineered the song. He was just 22 years old when it was released and appealed to the teen market as well as parents alike.

Not long after it was a hit, Darin found his own dream lover in the shape of actress Sandra Dee whom he married and the pair stay together until 1967.

Darin was restless because while Dream Lover was in the charts, he recorded an album of standards, That’s All, which included his second number one, Mack The Knife. After that, he went country and scored in America with You’re the Reason I’m Living, the folk-rock If I Were A Carpenter and Eighteen Yellow Roses with its twist in the tale. He became brash and aggressive and the reason, which according to some, was related to fears about his health. “My feeling is that he knew he wasn’t going to live long,” explained long-time friend and secretary Harriet Wasser, “It was more important to him to make his statement as an artist than a diplomat.” He wanted to enter politics but to avoid a scandal coming to light, his ‘sister’, Nina, told him that she was his mother. He later discovered his ‘mother’ was actually his grandmother, a revelation that troubled him for the remainder of his life. He did, however, became involved in the 1968 presidential candidacy of Robert Kennedy and believed in the promise of Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential bid. He even took part in the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Kennedy’s assassination later the same year deeply affected Darin.

Darin was effectively a man in love with himself and his talent, but due to persistent health problems and died of heart failure on the operating table in 1973 aged just 37. He left his body to medical research.

In 1994, Dream Lovers, the book on the lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee was written and released by their son Dodd Darin. then, 10 years later, in 2004, Beyond the Sea, a biopic was made with Kevin Spacey portraying Darin to great effect and earning a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical.