Category: Single of the week

Angel of Harlem (U2)

Very few groups can boast the same line up for an eternity. The Four Tops hold the record having had the same line up from 1954 (when they became the Four Tops) until 1997 when one of its founding member Lawrence Payton died – that’s a total of 43 years. Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy called them, “The epitome of loyalty, integrity, class.” Creeping up fast is the group who are this week’s suggestion, U2, having formed (as U2) in 1978 and are still going – that’s 41 years. This week I delve into the follow-up hit to their first chart-topper, Desire, which is Angel of Harlem.

They landed their first UK top 40 hit in the summer of 1981 with Fire, the follow up’s, Gloria and A Celebration missed the 40, but New Year’s Day, in mid-January 1983, gave them their first top 10 hit. Their 1987 album, The Joshua Tree gave them three back to back top 10 hit singles – With Or Without You, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and Where The Streets Have No Name whilst their next album, Rattle & Hum went one better and produced four hits – Desire, Angel Of Harlem, When Love Comes To Town (with B. B. King) and All I Want Is You.

Angel of Harlem is not only a tribute to the blues, but also a tribute to Lady Day herself, Billie Holiday who was The Angel of Harlem. She was born Eleanora Fagan in April 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and moved to Harlem, New York when she was 13. Once there, she performed in numerous nightclubs and sang about things that affected her, mainly broken relationships and drugs and she did it such a way that her audiences were often moved to tears.

Bono had been thinking about Billie because an American friend of his whom he’d met in San Francisco when they were teenagers, had given him a biography of the singer and he was fascinated, and the song was written on the road during their 1987 tour. It was the first time the band had visited New York and this visit is told in Angel of Harlem. “We landed in JFK and we were picked up in a limousine,” Bono explained in the book U2 by U2. “We had never been in a limousine before, and with the din of punk rock not yet faded from our ears, there was a sort of guilty pleasure as we stepped into the limousine. Followed by a sly grin, as you admit to yourself this is fun. We crossed Triborough Bridge and saw the Manhattan skyline. The limo driver was black and he had the radio tuned to WBLS, a black music station. Billie Holiday was singing and there it was, city of blinding lights, neon hearts. They were advertising in the skies for people like us, as London had the year before.”

The obvious reference is in the line, ‘Lady Day got diamond eyes, she sees the truth behind the lies’. The line ‘On BLS I heard the sound of an angel’ refers to that New York radio station. The song was recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee during their 1987 tour and features the Memphis Horns, who had appeared on so many of the blues and soul classics that had been recorded there.

Angel of Harlem was produced by ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement who was a regular at Sun Studios having worked there with Sam Phillips. Bono wanted Clement to produce the album but Clement, who had never heard of U2, was initially reluctant until someone pointed out that it might be a good career move for him. During the recording he had an idea, “I thought I would lighten the session up, so I sent out for a case of Absolut Vodka,” Bono explained. “I was giving it to the horn players and we were all having a little laugh and Cowboy came up to me and said, ‘Bono, how long you been doing this?’ I said, ’10 years, nearly.’ He said, ’10 years and you don’t know not to give the horn section Absolut Vodka? You can give it to anybody else but you can’t give a horn section Absolut.’ I asked, ‘Why, particularly, the horn section?’ Cowboy said, ‘Listen, stupid, you try playing a horn when your lips won’t work.'”

The song had its live debut at the Smile Jamaica concert on October 16, 1988 in London, a benefit for the victims of Hurricane Gilbert.

Billie Holiday died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1959 at age 44.

Bono said of the song, “It’s a jukebox song. We don’t have many jukebox songs, maybe six or seven, but that’s the one people like to play in bars.

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Men in Black (Will Smith)

There’s a certain poignancy that Men in Black should be number one in the UK on a day when millions of people around the world might have been wearing black to mourn the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

At the end of 1996, Will, having had hits as one-half of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, dropped his rap moniker, quit The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air after six years and became a Hollywood movie star. He loved recording and the following year released his first album Big Willie Style, under his own name. He had finished filming his seventh movie, Men in Black, the title song of which appeared on the album. The song became his first UK number one as a solo artist.

Will was born Willard Carroll Smith Jr. in September 1968 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He had no intention of going to college but wanted to become a singer and actor. His first film role was as Ta Cake Walters in the 1993 film Made in America and then as Paul in Six Degrees of Separation later the same year. By 1997, he was landing major movie roles and that year he was chosen to star opposite Tommy Lee in Men in Black. The story focused on two NYPD agents Jay (Will) and Kay (Tommy) who alongside a pathologist, Laura Weaver, are asked to track down and wipe out an alien called Edgar who is out to assassinate two ambassadors. It was the executive producer, Steven Spielberg who brought in Will. He said, “He’s funny and he’s serious, all rolled into one. And he’s a totally honest actor.” Tommy Lee said of Will, “He is double cool. I just hoped I could keep up with him in the cool department.”

15 months before Men in Black topped the chart, George Michael had a number one with Fastlove, both songs sampled Patrice Rushen’s 1982 number eight hit Forget Me Nots. The original line in Patrice’s hit was ‘To help you to remember’ but was changed to ‘They won’t let you remember’ in Men in Black to fit in with the theme of the film. The female singer on this version was Cheryl Clemons, former vocalist with SWV.

Will also became the king of sampling because over the following five years he had top three hits with: Getting’ Jiggy Wit It (sampling Sister Sledge’s He’s The Greatest Dancer), Miami (using The Whispers’ And The Beat Goes On), Wild Wild West from the film of the same name (using Stevie Wonder’s I Wish) and Will 2K (which sampled The Clash’s Rock The Casbah).

Despite spending four weeks atop the UK singles chart it was not released as a single in the US, which, because then-chart rules disqualified it from the Billboard hot 100 Singles chart, but because of heavy rotation on the radio it spent four weeks at the summit of the Billboard airplay chart. Possibly a clever move by the record company as it boosted sales of the soundtrack album instead. It did go on to win a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance.

The song was produced by Jean Claude Olivier & Samuel Barnes who use the moniker Poke & Tone. They had already produced hits by Soul For Real, Nas and Foxy Brown but Men in Black gave them their first number one. They have since worked on over 25 UK hit by acts including Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Destiny’s Child and Rihanna.

On New Year’s Eve 1997, Will married the actress Jada Pinkett. He has since gone on to star in the films, Enemy Of The State (1998), The Legend Of Bagger Vance (2000) and the sequel to Men In Black, Men In Black II (2002), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), Men in Black 3 (2012), Suicide Squad (2016) and Gemini Man which is released this month. His 2002 hit, Black Suit’s Comin’ (Nod Ya Head) was lifted from the Men In Black II soundtrack and reached number three. His last two hits to date were Switch and Party Starter in 2005.

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He’ll Have to Go (Jim Reeves)

Over the years, a number of singers have turned into radio broadcasters and using Radio 2 as an example, Jimmy Young, Michael Ball, Elaine Paige & Ana Matronic have all done just that but the other way round is quite a rarity. Jim Reeves is one but he never considered himself a singer despite charting over 25 UK and US hit singles as well as 73 hits on the Billboard Country chart. This week we look at his debut UK hit.

James Travis Reeves was born in Panola County, Texas in August 1923 and after completing his education had aspirations to become a baseball player, but due to an ankle injury that ambition was short-lived. So instead he moved to Shreveport, Louisiana and began work as a radio announcer on KWKH. With his deep rich voice he was occasionally encouraged to sing in between announcements. He got his first recording contract with Macy’s in 1950 and joined the Louisiana Hayride cast three years later, two years after that he joined the Grand Ole Opry.

His first country hit was Mexican Joe in 1953 which spent nine weeks at the top and followed it with Bimbo which topped the country chart for three weeks. His 1957 eight-week chart topper became his first Billboard Hot 100 hit. The following year the Roger Miller-penned Billy Bayou gave him another five weeks at the top. But it was in 1959 that he really hit the big time when the Joe and Audrey Allison song He’ll Have to Go gave him his first UK hit and spent a whopping 14 weeks at number one on the U.S. country chart.

The song is seemingly about a man ringing his wife or girlfriend and feeling that she is cheating on him because he thinks there is someone there with her and explaining that he can’t say the intimate things he normally would when another man is on the scene.

Jim Reeves made that song his own making you believe that the problem was between him and his significant other, but in truth, it’s not a true story and no one else was involved, but it was a real phone call that inspired it.

The song was written by the husband and wife song writing couple, Joe and Audrey Allison and one day Joe was out and called his wife to check everything was ok, but the trouble was that Audrey had such a soft voice that Joe couldn’t hear what she was saying and kept asking her to repeat herself. He asked her one more time to speak up and put her mouth closer to the receiver so he could hear her properly which she finally did and all was ok.

When Joe arrived home he saw a piece of paper which was always kept by the phone and saw a single line of writing which Audrey had written that read, ‘put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone’. After realising it was from their earlier conversation he noted that Audrey had changed mouth to lips and thus inspired a memorable song which now felt like it was a conversation between two lovers. Instead of talking to Audrey about what she had written and asking if she wanted to add to it, he just carried on writing and within a matter of minutes, Joe had just about finished the song.

It seems unlikely that either of them would have come up with that song alone, but it was her line that triggered the song. They called it He’ll Have to Go and gave it to Columbia records who got one of their new signings, Billy Brown, to record it first. The label failed to promote it properly and song only got occasional airplay on the country stations. One of those few occasions was lucky for Jim Reeves who heard it and wanted to record it straightaway. He was advised to hold off just to see if Brown’s version would do anything. Jim just knew that this song was the one saying to his close associates, “This is going to be the big one. No matter what I’ve done in the past, or ever will do, He’ll Have to Go is going to be the one that will live on.” Thankfully, Brown’s version didn’t go anywhere and it was agreed that Jim would record it in Nashville.

The recording sessions at the Little Victor studios in Nashville usually took place in the afternoons and evenings, but Jim asked for an early morning recording session because he knew his deep voice sounded more resonant in the morning and knew he could do it justice. Jim’s regular musicians were known as the A Team and all were there in the morning and they comprised, Floyd Cramer on piano, Hank Garland on guitar, Bob Moore on bass and Buddy Harman on drums. The backing voices were the Anita Kerr singers and producer Chet Atkins brought Marvin Hughes in to add a touch of vibraphone. It was the third take that nailed it and in the same session three other songs were recorded, one of them being In A Mansion Stands My Love, which was put on the other side of the record.

Just when it was time to sit back and watch the record fly, a spanner was put in the works by RCA. Jim’s label had decided in their infinite wisdom to relegate He’ll Have to Go to the B-side and, instead, promote In A Mansion Stands My Love. Jim and Chet were furious. Once the record was serviced to radio stations, many of the DJs agreed with Jim and Chet by actually playing the B side and thus He’ll Have to Go became the big hit and his first UK hit reaching number 12.

Jim had taken a pilot’s test and qualified but, like Roger Peterson – the pilot of the Buddy Holly plane crash – he was only qualified to fly VFR (visual flight rules) and on the afternoon of Friday 31st July 1964, Jim, and his manager Dean Manuel, were en route to Nashville International Airport from Batesville, Arkansas when they encountered a storm and heavy rain and literally within 60 second the plane had nose-dived and both men died instantly. There was a lot of confusion surrounding the moments leading up to the crash with one story being that he was flying upside down, but this was incorrect and attested by an eye-witness and singer Marty Robbins who remembered hearing the crash and helped direct investigators to the location. More confusion was added when the Nashville Controller John Hettish pinpointed the exact spot of the impact but investigators still took a couple of days to locate the wreckage. There is further fascinating reading on this in Jim Reeves: His Untold Story which was published in 2011 by author Larry Jordan.

The week Jim died, ironically I Won’t Forget You was on its way down the UK chart from number four but went back to a new peak of number three. Two years later Jim had his only UK number one with Distant Drums which he’d originally recorded purely as a demo for Roy Orbison.

In 1967, Jim Reeves was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and 31 years later, he was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. That is where his Memorial is situated with the inscription, ‘If I, a lowly singer, dry one tear, or soothe one humble human heart in pain, then my homely verse to God is dear, and not one stanza has been sung in vain.’

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The Otherside (Breaks Co-Op)

Back in the day, a number of radio DJs went on to become successful singers especially in America, Jim Reeves, Tennessee ‘Ernie’ Ford, Rick Dees and Willie Nelson are good examples. Some do it concurrently – Bob Dylan, Elaine Paige, Alice Cooper, Michael Ball and Huey Morgan to name a few and some began as singers and gave it up to become broadcasters, Jimmy Young, Lauren Laverne, Ant & Dec and this week’s act who features a Kiwi or two.

The Kiwi DJ in question is Zane Lowe who, alongside, Hamish Clark formed Breaks Co-Op in Auckland in 1997. Later the same year the duo recorded the album Roofers which was full of samples and hip hop beats and released two singles from it, Sound Advice which peaked at number 39 in their native New Zealand and the follow-up Transistor missed the chart completely.

That was seemingly it and the pair relocated to the UK where Lowe became a Radio One DJ as well as a television presenter and Clark continued travelling. It turned out to be just a long hiatus because they began working together in 2004. The first song they wrote was The Otherside with its positive, uplifting and inviting chorus, ‘So take my hand and I’ll lead you back on to the other side, Get yourself into a better place and lift your life’. Quite possibly inspired by the fact that it was written in a dingy rat infested flat in Southall in west London in 2003!

Did they want to relaunch their music career? Lowe, when looking back on it, explained, “We did it with the mentality that we didn’t want to write an album like The Sound Inside where we only had the one single. It was a great album, and I’m not taking anything away from it at all, but in terms of commercial value it had The Otherside and that was about it, and we were determined that if we were going to make a new record we’d like it to be more accessible to a bigger audience.”

They didn’t have a vocalist nor a producer so they invited British singer-songwriter Andy Lovegrove to join them, initially as a producer, but after hearing Lovegrove’s soulful voice they suggested he becomes the lead singer. They signed a deal with EMI and recorded the 13-track album The Sound Inside. The Otherside was released as a single, it reached number 10 in their chart, became the summer anthem of 2005 and was awarded ‘Single of the Year’ at the NZ Music Awards and in-turn, the album was certified double platinum. It got a further boost in February 2007 when it was featured in the Valentine’s Day Massacre episode in Season One of the Brothers & Sisters drama. They obviously made appealing song for TV dramas as the album’s title track was featured in the episode Post Mortem of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

The parent album took a little longer than expected to make , Lowe explained why, “It was about three years in the making because Clark got married and Lovegrove had twin baby girls in that time, which stretched things out a bit.”

They toured The Sound Inside for two years and finished in London but the reunion seems short-lived again; the two follow-up singles, Settle Down and A Place for You in 2005 and 2006 respectively failed to capture the same atmosphere as their predecessor and they stopped again. Lowe continued as a DJ on Radio 1 and Lovegrove released a solo album in 2008 but soon got fed up with the music industry and decided to take a break. He returned in 2011 with another Breaks Co-Op album. He explained his decision, “My wife got quite irritated with me in the end. She went, ‘I love you to bits but I really miss that creative element to you, you never play and you’re not doing anything, what’s going on?’ So she spoke to Hamish behind my back – he was living in Berlin at the time, and then she booked me a flight and said: ‘There’s your ticket, you’re going to see Hamish for five days, come back with something, or don’t come back at all,”‘ he laughed in an interview with the New Zealand Herald. Lowe wasn’t involved this time, “Hamish and I hadn’t really written together before,” he continued, “because on The Sound Inside Hamish and Zane had written the backing tracks to the majority of the record, and when I got involved Hamish was on his way back to New Zealand, so I mainly worked with Zane. But it was great, it worked so well.”

Since 2006, there is a Classic Hits Winery Tour every year and Breaks were included in the 2014 line-up and for it, the band recorded a new album, Sounds Familiar, to showcase.

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Short People (Randy Newman)

This week’s suggestion was written by a singer/songwriter who had no UK hits as an artist but has written some of the most well-known songs. His songs include I’ve Been Wrong Before (Cilla Black), Nobody Needs Your Love and Just One Smile (Gene Pitney), Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear (Alan Price Set), Mama Told Me Not To Come (Three Dog Night and Tom Jones with the Stereophonics), I Think It’s Going To Rain Today (UB40) and You’ve Got A Friend In Me (from Toy Story), but his biggest American Hit, Short People, caused a headache for him, his name is Randy Newman.

We now live in a very PC-world yet we still seem to have numerous songs in recent and current times which contain nothing but swear words, especially the most offensive n-word and no one seems to worry about it, but back in 1977 when Newman wrote, recorded and released Short People, so many people took it the wrong way and radio stations in America refused to give it airplay.

Newman was born in Los Angeles but spent many years growing up in New Orleans and writes social observational songs told in a story-like way with a deadpan delivery and Short People is indeed just that. It was meant to be an amusing declaration against prejudice but a lot of people never saw it that way. On the face of it, it’s very insulting song with its  opening line, ‘Short people got no reason short people got no reason, short people got no reason to live’ and then follows it with, ‘They got little hands and little eyes and they walk around tellin’ great big lies’, no wonder vertically challenged people were upset, but in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2017 he said, “Because it was a hit, the song reached people who aren’t looking for irony. For them, the words mean exactly what they say. I can imagine being a short kid in junior high school. I thought about it before I let the record get out. But I thought, ‘What the hell?’ I know what I meant – the guy in that song is crazy. He was not to be believed.” Newman was asked in an interview with The Guardian in 2008 if he realised that he might have trouble with the track, he said, “I didn’t. I thought all you gotta do is listen. It’s not like it’s James Joyce. (Then) I realised the medium wasn’t great for that. People don’t listen to music like that, where they’re actually listening. They’re doing all kinds of things. It’s just an irritation. I would never write a song to make fun of someone or something. What I’m making fun of his people’s callousness and insensitivity.” Short People was given extra kudos because it features backing vocals by Eagles’ members Glenn Frey and Timothy Schmit.

In 1987, Newman further explained, “It’s so bizarre, I mean everyone should know nobody has anything against people just because of their height and if they do, then there is something wrong with them. The people in my songs are generally exaggerations. What they say and think is coloured by who they are. When a song works, the audience understands the character’s point of view and they don’t mistake it for mine.” This is possibly backed up by what he said of Mama Told Me Not to Come, “I was never crazy about that song, and it’s just about a fool at a party that’s all and I didn’t think it would ever be a hit.”

Toy Story was not Newman’s first film score, in fact, he had done nine before that including, Cold Turkey (1971), Parenthood (1989), Awakenings (1990) and Maverick (1994). After Toy Story in 1995, he scored James and the Giant Peach (1996), A Bug’s Life (1998), Meet the Parents (2000), Meet the Fockers (2004), The Princess and the Frog (2009) and this year sees him providing music for Toy Story 4 and Marriage Story which was released last month.

He has also found time to release a new album, Dark Matter, his first for nine years. The first song he wrote, but has since been scrapped, was one in the voice of President Trump, back when he was still a candidate and a conversation about penis sizes. In an interview with Vulture magazine, Newman revealed what the lyrics were going to be, ‘My dick’s bigger than your dick, it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true, my dick’s bigger than your dick I can prove it too. There it is! There’s my dick isn’t that a wonderful sight? Run to the village, to town, to the countryside, tell the people what you’ve seen here tonight. Scrapping it was probably a good move!

Newman, who is nearing his 76th birthday, has won six Grammys and, in 2013, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In another recent interview when he was asked how he’ll be remembered after he’s gone, he said, “In my obituary, which will be soon, it will say ‘Newman, composer of Short People’ — that will be in the first sentence. Right after ‘composer of the Trump penis song.'”

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Children of the Revolution (T. Rex)

This week’s artist was a glam rock item and a thoughtful and considerate one at that. He cared about his fans and didn’t want them wasting unnecessary money and paying twice for records which is why many of this singles were three-track EPs known then as maxi-singles, this act of kindness was verified by his long-time producer Tony Visconti. Children of the Revolution was one such track.

Marc Bolan was born Mark Feld in Stoke Newington in London in 1947 and is generally credited as the man who started the whole glam rock genre. He attended school in nearby Upper Clapton and in 1956, after receiving his first guitar as a present, he formed a skiffle band at school called Susie and the Hula Hoops and although there was no one called Susie, their lead singer was a 12 year-old Helen Shapiro who attended the same school. In 1962, at the age of 15, he was expelled for bad behaviour. A few months later his good looks briefly earned him a job with a modelling agency but in 1964, he decided on a career in music.

He met Geoffrey Delaroy-Hall who became his first manager and he recorded a song called All At Once. Then he met the child actor Allan Warren and the pair shared a flat together with Mark changing his name to Toby Tyler. Warren watched Mark playing guitar around the flat, saw his potential, and offered to become his second manager. The following year he changed his name to Marc Bolan and signed a record deal with Decca. Two years after that, and following a brief spell as lead guitarist with the psychedelic-rock band John’s Children, he formed the band Tyrannosaurus Rex with Bill Legend, Mickey Finn and Steve Currie. With plenty of support from John Peel they released three albums and four singles before evolving into T. Rex in 1970 and scoring their first big hit with the number two song Ride a White Swan. They were teamed with producer Tony Visconti who said, “What I saw in Marc Bolan had nothing to do with strings, or very high standards of artistry; what I saw in him was raw talent. I saw genius. I saw a potential rock star in Marc – right from the minute, the hour I met him.” When Visconti first heard it, he loved the riff of Children of the Revolution he loved it so much when Marc began jamming he suggested to Marc that he had an idea to add strings which he did and is the version we all know today.

They’d hit the big time, the six-week number one Hot Love followed then Get It On went to the top, Jeepster peaked at two and Telegram Sam and Metal Guru were both chart-toppers. Next came Children of the Revolution a song that was originally recorded for the album The Slider but didn’t make it onto the album. Johnny Reece, radio DJ and T. Rex expert said, “The reason for this was that Bolan felt it didn’t quite ‘fit’ on The Slider – and he’s right actually – it wouldn’t have. So, they thought of putting it back for the next album, Tanx, though, as it turns out, it didn’t fit there either because by the time that Tanx was ready for release, T. Rex had quite a change of direction.”

The opening lyrics, ‘Well, you can bump and grind it is good for your mind, well, you can twist and shout, let it all hang out’ is a nod to sixties radicalism and the Beatles. Later lyrics like ‘I drive a Rolls Royce ’cause it’s good for my voice’ is generally about his self-interest, but it’s the banging guitar riff and drum patterns that make it quite anthemic. My personal disappointment is that there should be a final drums beat at the end, but it just wasn’t there. “Initially this song was a 20 minute jam in the Studio,” Reece continues, “and they all enjoyed it so much, it was redone and cut down. It was also the only single on the T. Rex Wax Co label to change from the blue/red label design to a Red/White one with a 7″ cover to match.”

Whilst many songs that were about revolution were generally political or about war, this wasn’t, Marc’s revolution was aimed at people who wanted to dress a little bit differently say in a more hippy style. Marc was seen on Top of the Pops wearing a top hat and a feather boa and anyone who wanted to do the same was fine by Marc. It would be a style later adopted by everyone from Elton John and Alice Cooper to Freddie Mercury and Lady Gaga.

“The two tracks on the B-side, Jitterbug Love and Sunken Rags were both strong songs and were both thought of as possible singles,” Reece says. “There is a version of the song that appeared in the film Born to Boogie and is a live version played in John Lennon’s house in Surrey and featured Elton John on piano, and Ringo Starr on drums.”

T. Rex were a little unlucky with their four UK number two hits, Ride a White Swan was kept off the top by Clive Dunn’s Grandad, Jeepster couldn’t unseat Benny Hill’s Ernie, Children of the Revolution was unable to squeeze passed David Cassidy’s How Can I Be Sure and their Solid Gold Easy Action, well it didn’t sell quite enough to shift Little Jimmy Osmond.

Bolan’s death is well documented but a small rock shrine marks the spot which was placed there in September 2007 on what would have been Bolan’s 60th birthday.

The opera singer Maria Callas died on the same day as Bolan, but it was he who made the front page of the newspapers, so rock music clearly rules!

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