Category: Single of the week

Mack The Knife (Bobby Darin)

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The BBC’s rules about banning songs, or ‘restricting’ them, as they now call it, have always been a bit ambiguous. Any song in the forties and fifties which mentioned anything to do with religion was refused airplay, clearly foul language would not be aired (obviously there are a few exceptions where nobody noticed) and, in the early sixties, there was a wave of ‘death’ discs which were deemed unsuitable. As time has gone on, most of the rules have been relaxed and nowadays there are clean radio edits of most rap material, which is lucky otherwise Radio One wouldn’t have much output. However, going back to ‘death’ songs and things that slipped through the net, Tom Jones’ Delilah is one example, but more blatant, about out and out murder was the 1959 chart topper Mack the Knife.

The song was from a show originally known as Die Dreigroschenoper or The Threepenny Opera in English by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht which was based on John Gay’s 1728 work The Beggar’s Opera. The show first opened in Berlin 200 years later in 1928 and is set in a Victorian London where an appalling man called Macheath went about his nasty business. The show starred Kurt Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya as Jenny Driver and Harold Paulsen as Macheath, a gangster in the Berlin underworld.

Mack the Knife was the famous song from the show, but it wasn’t supposed to be in it. Originally called Morität Von Mackie Messer (meaning The Criminal Record of Mack the Knife in English) wasn’t part of the show. It was a last minute addition because, according to David Cheal in the Financial Times, only a few days before the show opened at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm the production’s egotistical star, Paulsen, insisted that he be given a grand introduction. Therefore, Brecht and Weill quickly wrote a scene-setting Morität, with barrel-organ accompaniment, bigging up the frightful deeds of Mackie Messer. The man singing that original introduction was Kurt Gerron, who therefore recorded the original version. The song makes little sense outside the musical but that did not stop it becoming a hit song and covered by numerous people including Lotte Lenya herself in 1930.

The show was a slow burner for a couple of years but by the early 1930s it was flying. As Hitler rose to power, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht were forced into exile and in 1938, in the Düsseldorf exhibition; Weill was labelled a composer of ‘degenerate music’.

In 1952, the show went to America and first played at the Brandeis University in Massachusetts with an orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The following year some of the lyrics were translated into English by Marc Blitzstein just before opening off-Broadway in a production which again featured Lotte Lenya. Blitzstein’s translation certainly softened Mack the Knife from being an out and out serial killer to a roguish gangster. Having said that, Blitzstein’s story is still intense as he refers to the blood scene as ‘Scarlet billows start to spread’ and the excuse about the cement bag being there just for the weight. In 1961, the show moved to Greenwich Village in New York.

In 1955, Louis Armstrong recorded his version for the jazz world and he was the one who added ‘Miss Lotte Lenya’ into the lyrics as an ad-lib by mistake because he was looking at a cast list of the show and thought Lotte Lenya was a character not the actress, hence this error has lived on. Louis’ version was a ‘friendly’ version as it didn’t included some of Mack’s terrible crimes, one being about a woman who was raped in her sleep.

Bobby Darin, in 1958, went to a production of the The Threepenny Opera in Greenwich Village and decided to perform it in his live shows. He turned it around and did it in the swing way nobody else had and it was very well received. The following year when Bobby Darin was considering an album of standards, That’s All, his friend, Buddy Greco, told him that he was going to record Mack The Knife. Darin urged the record company to get his version out quickly and beat Greco to it. Darin describes Macheath’s talent with a jack-knife and his ability for disposing of the bodies in a disguised way certainly omitting the verses about rape and bomb explosions. His final ‘Look out, ol’ Mackie is back’ was a master touch. The album was released in May 1959 just when Darin’s previous hit, Dream Lover, featuring Neil Sedaka on piano, was climbing the chart. Mack the Knife was so popular in his live shows that it would be ridiculous not to release it as a single and thus, like Dream Lover, it went all the way to number one.

Darin’s version of the song built in tension and this was done dramatically with five key changes in the song. It has become a standard and has been covered by the likes of Les Paul, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr, Connie Francis, Sting, King Kurt, Nick Cave, Marianne Faithfull and Robbie Williams, but none give it the tension as much as Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington who performed a searing version at the Jazz à Juan festival in 1966 where Fitzgerald manages 11 key changes.

In 1960, Buddy Greco eased into the charts with his version of The Lady Is a Tramp and he made a resolution never again to tell another singer what he was working on.

Going back to Ella Fitzgerald, the Radio 4 documentary, Ella in Berlin, recalled the time when Ella, who had only learned the words on the way to a show in Berlin, had forgot some of them halfway through performing it. So, being the professional she was, she began to improvise vivaciously in rhyme. The Queen of Jazz never hid the fact and began singing:

‘Oh what’s the next chorus, to this song, now, this is the one, now I don’t know, but it was a swinging tune and it’s a hit tune, so we tried to do Mack the Knife. Oh Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong, they made a record, oh but they did, and now Ella, Ella, and her fellas, we’re making a wreck, what a wreck of Mack the Knife.’

She probably wasn’t too bothered as the majority of the German audience probably couldnt speak English anyway.

Oh, and talking of murder, the song was used in a 1980s advertising campaign for McDonald’s hamburgers sung as Mac tonight but missing out the bit about the murder and then dumping the body.

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(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love And Understanding (Nick Lowe)

Many singers have titles bestowed upon them by their fans or the media. Elvis was The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Aretha Franklin was The Queen of Soul and Bruce Springsteen became The Boss. Nick Lowe’s decoration came from one of his album titles, he’s come to be known as Jesus of Cool after his 1978 album. He is a respected figure in the music industry and has been grafting for years. He also has one of the strangest middle names.

He was born in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey in 1949 and began his musical career in 1967 as a member of Kippington Lodge alongside his schoolmate Brinsley Schwarz. The other members were keyboard player Bob Andrews and drummer Billy Rankin. They released a handful of singles on EMI’s subsidiary label Parlophone but to little interest. A couple of years later the renamed the band after his school friend and were joined a few weeks later by guitarist and singer Ian Gomm. In 1970 they released the album country-tinged Despite It All which earned them respect on the pub rock scene.

It’s often said that Nick wrote many of his best songs whilst in Brinsley Schwarz and one of their most famous songs was (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding which first appeared on their 1974 album The New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz. Nick said recently, “People who know how to play rock ‘n’ roll, this is going to sound a bit po-faced, but it’s quite hard to find people who know how to do it properly. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but the roll part of the rock ‘n’ roll, that’s the intriguing bit to me. Otherwise, it’s just rock, and rock isn’t very interesting to me.”

(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding has been a favourite in all the live shows Nick does either as a member of a band or as a solo career. Apart from appearing on the aforementioned album he re-recorded it as the B-side to the 1978 single American Squirm and it was credited to Nick Lowe and his Sound, but what is the song all about? “It started out as a joke,” Nick revealed in an interview with the A.V. Club, “I wrote the song in 1973, and the hippie thing was going out, and everyone was starting to take harder drugs and rediscover drink. Alcohol was coming back, and everyone sort of slipped out of the hippie dream and into a more cynical and more unpleasant frame of mind. And this song was supposed to be an old hippie, laughed at by the new thinking, saying to these new smarty-pants types, ‘Look, you think you got it all going on. You can laugh at me, but all I’m saying is, ‘What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?’ And that was the idea of the song. But I think as I started writing it, something told me it was too good idea to make it into a joke but something told me there was a little grain of wisdom in this thing, and not to mess it up.”

Nick was one of the first acts signed to Stiff records in 1976 and had the first released with So It Goes. His next release was a cover of a Sandy Posey track called Born A Woman and was the lead track on the Bowi EP – a title that was a response to David Bowie’s album Low, in which Nick thought ‘If he can’t spell my name right, I won’t spell his right.’ In 1978, he was signed to the newly formed label Radar and his first release on that label finally gave Nick his first solo single with the number seven peak of I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass.

Nick’s label mate was Elvis Costello who recorded a version of (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding but never released it as a single. His version was more energetic and probably more radio friendly as it seemed to get the message of love and peace in troubled times across better. It was released as a single in the States but failed to chart, however it was included on the American-only issue of his 1979 album Armed Forces. Nick has said, “Elvis Costello’s version is more earnest than mine,” admitting he favours humour over seriousness.

Nick, since 1977, has made a name for himself as a producer too having credits for the Damned’s debut album Damned Damned Damned, Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model and Armed Forces, a handful of singles for Dr. Feelgood and the Pretenders eponymous debut album. He had further UK hits with Cracking Up, Cruel to Be Kind and a great 1984 song Half A Boy and Half A Man which missed the top 40 completely.

Where Nick really got lucky was when (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding  was covered by Curtis Stigers and used in the film The Bodyguard of which the soundtrack has sold over 40 million copies, “It was a tremendous piece of good fortune. I made an astonishing amount of money from that,” Nick said in The Telegraph.

Nick is still very active by touring and recording. His last album, in 2013, was the Christmas-themed Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family which was just wonderful. Worth checking out especially the track A Dollar Short of Happy which was co-written by Ry Cooder.

How does Nick feel about doing his old songs all these years later? “Well, Peace, Love, and Understanding is almost 40 years old,” he explained in Interview magazine, “It really comes down to how good the song is; if the song is basically a good tune, it will stand the test of time. And, not only that, it will sort of evolve, almost without you having to do anything about it.”

A few years ago Nick wrote a song for Mavis Staples called Far Celestial Shore and in celebration of her 80th birthday Mavis had invited Nick to Nashville to perform it live with her next month.

Oh, if you’re still wondering what Nick’s middle name is, I’ll tell you, It’s Drain!

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Squeeze Box (The Who)

It must be a nice feeling for a songwriter when they write something a little risqué and get away with it. The first song I remember hearing and thinking, ‘how the hell did they get away with that’ was on Bill Haley’s Shake Rattle and Roll. The third verse opens with ‘I’m like a one-eyed cat peeping in a sea food store’, but they did and, 65 years later, it still gets an airing…so to speak. Well, it’s a similar story for The Who’s Pete Townshend when he wrote Squeeze Box.

A squeeze box, very simply, has two slang terms. For the innocent and naive it is an accordion which is an air-based bellow-driven keyboard and button-operated instrument strapped round the body and, with both hands, pumped in and out to get the sound, for the not-so innocent, it’s another term for a vagina. It wasn’t written by coincidence, Pete said, “I had bought myself an accordion and learned to play it one afternoon,” adding, “The accordion gave the song a polka-esque rhythm and the lyrics, which I wrote for fun, were intended as a poorly aimed dirty joke. I had no thought of it ever becoming a hit but amazingly recorded by The Who to my disbelief. Further incredulity was caused when it became a hit for us in the USA.”

The band just wanted to see if they could get away with singing about explicit sex and clearly, they did – ‘Mamma’s got a squeeze box daddy never sleeps at night!’ indeed!

In 1974, there were plans for a Who television special and Squeeze Box was originally intended for that programme. To give the song even more kudos there was also a plan to have the band surrounded by 100 topless women all playing accordions. Shame that never happened. It made me wonder if that’s where Queen got the idea for 65 (although only 25 are seen in the video) naked women riding bicycles around Wimbledon greyhound Stadium for the video to Bicycle Race?

The song was featured on the 1975 album The Who by Numbers and released as a single in 1976 where it reached number 10 in the UK and number 16 in America. It was also their first UK hit for just over two years.

Interestingly, the song doesn’t feature much of the newly purchased accordion, the only time you can hear it is about 90 seconds in when Roger Daltrey sings ‘squeeze me, come on and squeeze me’ and it lasts for approximately 20 seconds. The predominant instrument in this song is the banjo which is play by Townshend. He explained in an interview with Steve Rosen, “I’ve got a really nice G banjo made by Fender which has their version of Scruggs’ heads. I learned how to do a flat-picking very early on; I used to listen to a lot of Chet Atkins and stuff like that. So I can do all that stuff.”

The song is a favourite of lead singer Roger Daltrey’s, he said in an interview with Uncut magazine, “What’s great about Squeeze Box is that it’s so refreshingly simple, an incredible catchy song. A good jolly. I’ve never had a problem with that song because it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is and I love it for that. Live audiences love it. Nothing wrong with a bit of ‘in-and-out’, mate!” When the Who did perform that song on stage, Roger and Pete often used to thrust their hips when Roger sang the in and out bit, thus leaving no doubt what they really felt the song was all about.

There have been a few cover versions, some good and some not so… Poison did it justice in a heavy version that featured on their 2002 album Hollyweird, Laura Branigan gave it a nice country feel on her Branigan 2 album in 1983 and the American band Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band gave it a grassroots flavour. But UB40’s lead singer, Ali Campbell, did a solo version which just sounded like yet another bad UB40 cover version.

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Drops of Jupiter (Train)

How many times have you turned on the radio, usually commercial radio, and within a couple of hours you’ve heard the same song, or advert for that matter, two or three times? Well it’s not just the listeners who get sick of the repetition it’s the presenters too. In 2001, a friend of mine, once on Virgin radio, turned up for his show and saw that the computer had programmed Drops of Jupiter by Train yet again. Fed up, he went to the boss and asked why he has to keep playing that song every single show long after the song had left the chart only to be told where to go if he didn’t like it. Radio is probably at its blandest and the stations that are trying to be different are on limited platforms. We’ll never know why that song was scheduled so many times even though it is a great song, but what’s the story behind it?

Train formed as early as 1993 in San Francisco originally as a duo comprising vocalist/drummer Patrick Monahan and lead guitarist/vocalist Rob Hotchkiss, the following year they added Jimmy Stafford as lead guitarist with Hotchkiss moving to rhythm guitar, Charlie Colin on bass and Scott Underwood on drums. Pat, who was originally from Erie, Pennsylvania, had been in a Led Zeppelin covers band called Rogues Gallery but in 1993 he’d moved to California and met Rob. They sent demos to various record companies but had difficulty getting signed. Therefore, after securing support slots for the like of Barenaked Ladies and Counting Crows, they released their own music independently. In 1998, they did manage to secure a deal with Aware records and released Free. The following year they released I Am and One And A Half, but they went nowhere. In October 1999, their debut hit, Meet Virginia, peaked at number 20 on the Billboard singles chart and spent 27 weeks on the listing. They were beginning to be classed as one hit wonders because there was no further chart action until March 2001 when Drops of Jupiter was released. In the UK, that song was their fourth release of 2001 having followed Ramble On, She’s On Fire and Something More which all failed to attract the record buying public.

The band began touring in 1998 and whilst on tour Monahan found out that his mother, who was a heavy smoker, was dying of cancer. Throughout the tour he kept visiting pay phones to call his mother to see how she was. In the December she passed away and Monahan returned to Pennsylvania to be with the family and grieve. “Loss of the most important person in my life was heavy on my mind, and the thought of what if no one ever really leaves? What if she’s here but different,” he explained in an interview with VH1. “One morning I woke up with the words ‘back in the atmosphere’ in my head” probably a part of the grieving process and was beginning a time of healing. He started to compose the song and, as he said, “The idea was, she’s back here in the atmosphere.”

Until Monahan revealed the truth of the song, many believed it was a relationship between a young couple. Lyrics like ‘She acts like summer and walks like rain, reminds me that there’s a-time to change’ led people to think it was about a woman who leaves the relationship to wonder if they really belong together or not. Monahan was purposely vague when questioned in the early days, but eventually did say, “It was an obvious connection between me and my mother. Drops of Jupiter was as much about me being on a voyage and trying to find out who I am. The best thing we can do about loss of love is find ourselves through it.”

They recorded a demo of Drops of Jupiter and took it to Columbia’s president, Donnie Ienner, who instantly loved it and suggested it could be his ‘Grammy’ song. They brought in Paul Buckmaster to do the string arrangements as he’d worked with the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Elton John before. Ienner insisted that should also be the title of the forthcoming album. Ienner was correct in his prediction; the song went on to win a Grammy for Best Rock Song and Best Instrumental Arrangement with Accompanying Vocalist. When they won the award for Best Rock Song, Monahan thanked his mother.

It was the first single released from the album and was produced by Brendan O’Brien who had previously worked with the rock band Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam. It was after he heard Train’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s Rample On on the radio did he showed an interest of working with them.

The song spent just over a year on the Billboard singles chart having peaked at number five whereas in the UK it peaked at number 10 and spent 16 weeks on the countdown. It also made the top 10 in Australia, Denmark, Belgium, Italy and New Zealand but its best charting performance was in the Netherlands and Portugal where it reached number three.

The band took a hiatus between 2006 and 2008, mainly to have a rest and Monahan released a solo album called Last of Seven. They reconvened in 2009 with an amended line up; Hector Maldonado was the new bass player and Jerry Becker joined on keyboards. In 2012, they added two female backing singers, Sakai Smith and Nikita Houston then in 2014 Drew Shoals replaced Underwood.

Their UK chart career began again in 2010 when Hey, Soul Sister peaked at number 18 and the follow-up, two years later, Drive By, gave them their biggest hit reaching number six.

Drops of Jupiter got another lease of life in 2012 and was back in the top 40 after Phil Poole gave a rendition of it on The Voice.

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From The Underworld (The Herd)

It’s hard to think of the rock legend Peter Frampton as the leader of a teeny bop band, but they all had to start somewhere and in 1967, The Herd, for whom he was the lead singer, were voted, in Disc magazine, the Brightest Hopefuls for 1968 and Frampton, with his good looks, was voted The Face of ’68 by Rave magazine.

The original group were formed in 1965 in south London and were a five-piece comprising lead singer/ guitarist Terry Clark, Louis Cennamo on bass, Tony Chapman on drums, Andy Bown on keyboards and Gary Taylor on rhythm guitar, they signed a deal with EMI record and released three singles, Goodbye Baby Goodbye, She Was Really Saying Something and So Much in Love on their Parlophone subsidiary, which all went nowhere. In late 1966, Tony, Terry and Louis all decided they’d had enough and all left more or less at the same time. The remaining two members brought in a fresh new 16-year-old singer Peter Frampton and Andrew Steele to replace Underwood on drums.

Unusually, for that period, their record label didn’t want to continue, but Fontana were happy to give them a go. The band asked songwriters Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley to write some material for them as they’d already how success with the Honeycombs and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich.

It’s not often Greek mythology cracks the top 10, but the first song they came up with was From The Underworld, which is based on the Orpheus and Eurydice from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld and was written in 1858. It is said to be the first classical full-length operetta and was first premiered on 21st October 1858 at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens in Paris.

The original piece tells the story of Orpheus, a renowned musician, and his wife Eurydice who, whilst fleeing from Aristaeus, she got bitten by a serpent and died. He was so devastated over her death and could do no more than sing very mournful songs, but the way he sang them made all the Nymphs, Gods and Furies in the underworld cry; in return, they gave him advice. It even melted the hearts of Hades, the God of the Underworld, and his wife, the Goddess Persephone. He played his lyre which impressed them and in return it was agreed that Eurydice could be allowed to come back into life but only on the condition that as they leave she is to walk behind him and he is not to turn round and look back. Howard and Blaikley portrayed this in the lyrics as ‘I heard you whisper in my ear, if you should turn now, all that you won will vanish just like a passing dream.’ Unfortunately, his did look back and Eurydice vanished forever.

The song reached number six in the UK and number three in the Netherlands and the band asked the pair to write a follow-up. That song was Paradise Lost, a title borrowed from another historic works, a poem by John Milton. It reached number 15 in the chart. Their third and final hit was I Don’t Want Our Loving to Die which became their biggest hit when it peaked at number five in May 1968.

Towards the end of 1968, the band were falling apart. They dispensed with their songwriter and replaced them with Harvey Lisberg, but he wasn’t able to stand the arguing and ongoing problems so he left too. Frampton wasn’t happy with the ‘teen idol’ tag and left to form Humble Pie with Steve Marriott. Bown finally departed and joined Status Quo and Taylor continued to work with Gerry Rafferty.

Howard and Blaikely, together or separately, wrote other hits for Lulu, Marmalade, Rolf Harris and their last hit together was I’ve Lost You, which Elvis Presley took to number nine in 1970.

After Humble Pie, Frampton launched a solo career and had his biggest success in 1976 with the top 10 hit Show Me The Way and the follow-up, Baby I Love Your Way which bizarrely failed to make the top 40, however the parent album, Frampton Comes Alive, reached number eight, spent 39 weeks on the chart and became the biggest-selling live album in UK chart history.

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Yesterday When I Was Young (Charles Aznavour)

Until he passed away last October at the age of 94, Charles Aznavour was the oldest living male singer to have had a UK number one hit. He only had two UK hits, the beautiful warbling ballad, She topped our chart in 1974 and that was the follow up to the number 50-peak of The Old Fashioned Way (Les Plaisers Demodes). However, one of his best-loved songs, which was recorded by numerous people in a multitude of languages was Yesterday When I Was Young.

Charles wrote the song in 1964 with the Greek-born composer Georges Garvarentz who had moved to France in 1942. He met Charles in 1956 and they began a song writing partnership. The original French version by Charles was called Hier Encore, which translates as Yesterday Again in English. To give it a more worldwide appeal, an English lyric was added by Herbert Kretzmer, the same man who had also written the English lyric to She. The song tells the story of the narrator approaching the end of his life and looking back at their youth and reflecting on the missed opportunities or circumstances that could have been better managed throughout their life. Now that he’s older, he realises that he is not able to so many of the things he wanted to back then.

You can (hopefully) see the appeal of the English lyric when you hear the original (in translated form) as, ‘Only yesterday, I was 20 years old, I caressed time, I enjoyed life, like one savours love and I lived for the night without counting my days, that were wasting away with time’. Then the English written version, ‘Yesterday, when I was young, the taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue, I teased at life as if it were a foolish game, the way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame.’ Both versions are deep and meaningful.

Charles was born Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian in Paris although that wasn’t his parents’ planned landing place. They were en route to America and were only passing through France whilst they waited for approval of their US visa from the American Embassy. His family were Armenian and his mother was an Armenian genocide survivor. The family were poor and by 15 Charles had quit school and took some part time roles in films to help support the family. When he was 18 he met Pierre Roche in an illegal cabaret club in Paris and the pair began singing together with Pierre playing piano. When he was 21 he was spotted by Edith Piaf who was so impressed that she invited him to tour with her.

Herbert, who was born in South Africa and is currently 93, is well versed in meaningful songs as his credentials also include the English-language adaptation of Les Misérables. This is evident as the song’s fourth verse starts, ‘Yesterday the moon was blue, and every crazy day brought something new to do, I used my magic age as if it were a wand and never saw the waste and emptiness beyond’ He wrote these lyrics before he reach 40, but you could believe he had written them now, in his 90s

Cover versions of this song are aplenty; The crooners Matt Monro, Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, Mel Torme and Al Martino have done it, contemporary acts like Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Glen Campbell and Marc Almond have all done it justice. Foreign language versions? Yes them too, in Italian as Leri Si, in Spanish as Ayer Aún, in Dutch as Hvor tiden går, Finnish as Eilen kun mä tiennyt en and even in Japanese as 帰り来ぬ青春. The country singer Roy Clark is the only one to take a version into the Country singles chart. Dusty’s version cropped up in the American novelist and playwright Truman Capote’s biopic Infamous.

In 2008, Charles Aznavour recorded an album of duet’s called Duos in which he sings a version with Elton John under its original title Hier encore. According to Billboard, there over 90 versions recorded before the song was 10 years old.

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