There are certain songs that you would probably always associate with school; certainly if you were at school during the 60s, 70s and 80s. For me, and probably many others, it was Morning Has Broken and we had a girl in our class that was asked to play it in assembly on a regular basis. Another is this week’s choice, well half of it anyway, as Sing A Rainbow was part of a medley and one of the songs used to teach young children colours and the order of the colours in the rainbow. But how come it became a hit?
Let’s look at the songs first. The two songs were Sing A Rainbow coupled with Love Is Blue. Why those two songs were chosen is still unclear, but Sing A Rainbow began life in 1955 when it was written by the Seattle-born songwriter Arthur Hamilton although his best-known song is arguably Cry Me A River which was a UK top 40 hit four times; for Julie London (1957), Mari Wilson (1983), Denise Welch (1995) and Michael Bublé (2009).
In the late 40s he had been contracted to the television producer and director Jack Webb who had worked on Dragnet and the radio series Pete Kelly’s Blues. Now he was making a new film of Pete Kelly’s Blues based on the radio series and used much of the dialogue too. Webb, who was also going to star in it, asked Hamilton for some songs. Hamilton duly obliged and submitted three songs, the aforementioned Cry Me A River which was eventually dropped, He Needs Me and Sing A Rainbow both of which were sung by Peggy Lee. The film didn’t attract too many cinema goers but it did attract an Academy Award nomination for Peggy Lee as a Best Supporting Actor in a supporting role. Hamilton believes that the nomination came about because of Peggy’s performance of the rainbow song in the film and who’s to argue with that.
The song opens with the lyrics, ‘Red and yellow and pink and green, purple and orange and blue, I can sing a rainbow – Well actually you can’t because the actual colours are Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet and thus known by the mnemonic Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain so why pink and purple are listed is unknown. Pink is a pale shade of red but has been known as a colour since the late 17th century and purple is created by mixing red and blue.
As for Love Is Blue, well that song began life in 1967 when the French composers and songwriters André Popp and Pierre Cour submitted the song for the Eurovision Song Contest. It was performed under its original French title L’Amour Est Bleu by Vicky Leandros who represented Luxembourg that year and came fourth – the first year the UK won when Sandie Shaw did us proud. Those were the days! Popp and Cour were no strangers to Eurovision as they had penned Tom Pillibi the winning entry for France in 1960 sung by Jacqueline Boyer.
The year after Leandros showcased the song which went on to record in 19 different languages, it wasn’t a massive seller anywhere but the French orchestra leader Paul Mauriat covered the song as an instrumental and took it number 12 in the UK, but in the States, it went to number one where he became the first U.S, chart-topper to originate from France. The Christmas number one of 1963 was Dominique by The Singing Nun who had recorded the song in French but she was Belgian by birth and had recorded the song in her native country. The week Mauriat was number one, there were three other versions in the Hot 100 by Al Martino, Manny Kellem and Claudine Longet.
In 1968, the rock guitarist Jeff Beck, along with his group, also recorded an instrumental version and took it number 23 in the UK. Just four months later The Dells arrived with their version which now had Anglicised lyrics penned by Brian Blackburn.
Now if you want to talk about longevity, then let me introduce you to The Dells. Not many groups or bands stay intact for so many years with the same line-up, The Four Tops, who formed in 1953 when they were high-school students in Detroit kept the same line up until Lawrence Payton passed away in 1997. They are still performing today with the only original member Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir. I should also mention U2 who formed in 1976 and, in 2023, are still touring and recording with the same four members, but The Dells did a total of 60 years with almost the same membership. Forming in 1953, originally as six piece called The El-Rays by Marvin Junior, Verne Allison, Chuck Barksdale, Michael McGill Lucius McGill and Johnny Funches. Two years later, Lucius left and then they charted their first R&B hit with Oh What a Night. They briefly disbanded in 1958 following a near fatal car crash, but reformed in 1960 with Johnny Carter having replaced Funches. This line up remained until 2012 when Junior and Barksdale were forced to retire due to health issues.
The Dells recorded for many labels over the years but Sing A Rainbow – Love Is Blue was their only UK hit and charted on the Chess record label which was set up in 1950 by brothers Leonard and Philip Chess. The label only had nine UK hits between 1965 and 1973 with their most successful being Chuck Berry 1972 chart-topper My Ding-A-Ling.
Sing A Rainbow, which was also covered in the UK by Cilla Black, lends its title to the album Cilla Sings A Rainbow which got to number four in 1966 and not one I recommend at all especially as it includes her dreadful covers of A Lover’s Concerto, Make It Easy On Yourself, Yesterday and a criminal cover of When I Fall In Love.