Monday, 31 January 2011

Did Britons really take to Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1950s?

Having just bought The Complete Book of British Charts at a remainder store for £2 a few days’ ago (it’s the 2004 edition, but am I likely to care about anything released in the past seven years?), I decided to find out just how cruelly British record-buyers had treated pioneer rockers. 

You see, I’d always assumed that while a few British fanatics kept the flame of R&R and Rockabilly alive after the Yanks lost interest, the Hit Parade didn’t fully reflect that enthusiasm. Certainly, whenever I’ve looked at old charts, I’ve been amazed at what didn’t make it.

I wasn’t altogether wrong: there certainly were some shocking omissions over here. The Big Names who missed out included Bo Diddley, who didn’t make it into the UK charts until 1963, when a reissue of “Pretty Thing” managed to reach No. 34 (I’ve still got my copy). Apart from that – diddley!

Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop A Lula” made it all the way to No. 16 in September 1956. “Bluejean Bop” reached the same lofty heights a month later – and that was it for Mr. V. for the rest of the 1950s. (But, to be fair, the Americans treated him just as badly, and, when he was on the sklds in the 1960s, it was Britain that kept this pain-raddled alcoholic’s career alive.)

Before Chuck Berry reached No. 3 in 1963 with a reissue of “Let It Rock”/”Memphis Tennessee”, his highest chart position had been 16, with“Sweet Little Sixteen” in 1958. (Chuck & Bo’s 1960s success over here was almost entirely due to the Rolling Stones and the Beatles championing their music.) “Johhny B. Goode” has never charted in the UK! Neither has“Rock & Roll Music” or “Roll Over Beethoven” or “Little Queenie” or “Oh Carol” – bizarre! 

Carl Perkins got to No.10 with “Blue Suede Shoes” in 1956, and promptly disappeared from the charts forever (but that pretty much reflected his fate in the US – a car crash and increasing alcoholism did for his career until Johnny Cash asked him to join his band). 

Speaking of the Man in Black, and I know he’s not strictly Rock ‘n’ Roll, but Johnny Cash first entered the UK Top Twenty in 1967 – “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line” never charted here!

To put these omissions in context, however, UK record buyers went mad for some rockers – for a while, they couldn’t get enough of Bill Hailey, after which it was wall-to-wall Elvis (although, oddly, The King seems to have been even more successful between 1960 and 1963 than in his 1956-1959 pomp, judging by the amount of No.1 hits he posted).  Little Richard was the most successful black rock ‘n’ roll shouter, posting eight Top 20 hits before 1960 - even my Scottish granny loved Little Richard!

Fats Domino scored six Top 20s during the decade (“Blueberry Hill” reached No. 6 in 1956). Before he married his 13-year old cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis managed four Top 20s, including one No. 1 with “Great Balls of Fire” (a rare rock ‘n’ roll feat).

Eddie Cochran did okay, with two Top 20s (“Summertime Blues” and “C’Mon Everybody”, which reached No. 6 – funny how many R&R classics hit that magic number). The Coasters semi-comic story songs brought them three Top 20s. Instrumentalists did well – Duane Eddy scored five Top 20 hits pre-1960, and did even better in the early 1960s, while Johnny & the Hurricanes had two hits in 1959 (including my favourite, “Red River Rock”), and three in 1960.

But the artists Britain really clasped to its bosom were Buddy Holly, who was much more popular here than in the States, scoring no less that TEN Top 20 hits during the decade. If anything, the Everly Brothers fared even better, managing eight Top 20s – two less tghan Holly, but they tended to chart higher, and went on to score eleven further Top Twenty hits after 1st January 1960 (mind you, they had the advantage of being alive).

It’s a similarly mixed picture with lesser artists: Dale Hawkins’ “Suzie Q”and his namesake Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You” weren’t hits, but The Big Bopper reached No. 12 with “Chantilly Lace”, Danny and the Juniors took “At the Hop” all the way to No. 3, while The Diamonds reached the same heights with “Little Darlin’”.

As for those classics that failed to chart, was that really the fault of record-buyers? How do we know whether these records were properly marketed at the time? After all, there was hardly anywhere to hear this new music: Radio Luxembourg, BBC Radio’s Saturday Club and the occasional request on Two-Way Family Favourites, and from 1957, Jack Good’s TV show, Six-Five Special - the music press was full of boring old jazz and anaemic middle-of-the-road pop. And I shudder to think of the kind of people at the record companies tasked with deciding what should be released and what should be consigned to oblivion – they were probably all around the age I am now, and even less hip!

I get the distinct impression that it was the British public who forced Rock ‘n’ Roil onto the agenda, rather than the broadcasters, record companies or sheet music publishers. 

So, I’ve changed my mind. I now reckon all Britons who bought a Rock ‘n’ Roll record between 1st January 1956 and 21st December 1959 should stand up and take a bow - but don’t try jiving! 


  1. "Charted"? "Tasked"? Please spare us these locutions. Were you the person who came up with the immortal line " Engelbert Humperdinck who perpetrated The Last Waltz"? I think you were.
    Thursday, February 3, 2011 - 08:50 AM

  2. You are confusing me with Ramsden Greig, who wrote about music for the Evening Standard in the 1960s, and I believe he had Ken Dodd perpetrating "Tears", which got to Number One in 1965. The odd thing is that the buck-toothed comic's recording of "Happiness", which we had to suffer for years on end, only reached No. 31 - so why it didn't sink without trace, I have no idea. I take on board that these are locutions up with which you will not put - but that's the way we red-hot professionals discuss the charts.
    Thursday, February 3, 2011 - 03:10 PM

  3. 60 years later, :

    In the year that rock was declared dead, the Brit Awards heralded the shock rise of a genre hitherto considered mummified: folk music. Marcus Mumford and Laura Marling, who were a folk power couple until their split several weeks ago, took home two of the most important prizes in British music.

    Mr Mumford is an OK, contemporary with my son.
    Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - 10:32 AM