by Steve Race
A year ago, one glance at the Top Twenty record list was enough to depress any reasonably musical person for the rest of the day. Now things are changing, though none of the experts seems able to agree on the reason for, or even the direction of, the trend.
Rock -n- roll is dying, they tell us. Yet Jack Good’s TV series, Oh, Boy! has chosen this moment to start again, and one would hardly call it a minority programme.
Elvis Presley still sells a record or two now and then. The word “skiffle” is box-office poison these days, or so Ker Robertson assured Lonnie Donegan in print last week. Yet skiffle still has a long way to fall.
Meanwhile, the music publishers, like girl guides at a first-aid class, are desperately trying to keep their fingers on the pulse.
Some of them still maintain that Calypso will be the next rage once Denmark Street has tired of running round in circles after the hula-hoop. Yet Calypso has been repeatedly tried here – and received with a blank stare.
Other publishers – especially those with established catalogues – insist that “ballads are coming back.” Optimism always was the Alley’s strong point.
The fact is that the current Top Twenty list is an inexplicable hotch-potch of tastes, proving nothing other than that – to coin a phrase – it takes all sorts to make a world.
Rock numbers, old waltzes, Perez Prado, Bernard Breeslaw; one might as well look for uniformity in the Ark.
The majority taste in pop music is in a state of transition, with a curious temporary leaning towards the Italian tongue.
Quite the most cheering sign in recent months has been the rise of Peggy Lee’s “Fever” (Capitol 45 CL-14902), a record which combines strong jazz qualities with a number of proved Hit Parade ingredients, and by satisfying both sides qualifies for a place in my series.
Unlike any other member of the current Top Twenty aristocracy, 38-year-old Peggy Lee has a sound jazz background. Originally discovered by Benny Goodman’s wife, she has long been prominent in the top jazzmen’s own list of favourites.
As an actress she won [sic – she was nominated for] an Academy Award for Pete Kelly’s Blues. As a songwriter she has helped to contribute several numbers to the repertoire of near-standards. As a performer, her influence – especially on what was to become the Kenton school of vocalists – was immense.
“Fever” is the opposite of that familiar type of record in which the singer does almost nothing, accompanied by a frenzied orchestra of 75.
Here, Peggy Lee works to the absolute minimum of accompaniment: one bass, one percussionist, and two or three finger-snappers. The result is novel and extraordinarily compulsive.
With such a sparse backing her singing is utterly exposed, to a degree that only a handful of popular singers in this world could survive. (Nat Cole did it in the similar “Calypso Blues”).
The subtle inflections of each phrase, the way she raps out the title word, the conversational, almost mocking way in which she tells her story: these things are the result of a planned artistry which seldom glimpses that pot of gold at the end of the Top Twenty rainbow.
These are reasons why “Fever” is a great record: they do not explain its presence in the sales chart, or its rise to a position usually reserved for baying vocal groups and splay-legged caveboys.
For the final key to the success of “Fever” one must look at its lyrics, with their suggestion that the great lovers of history not only felt the sting of teenage passion (“Just like me and you, baby doll”) but spoke of it in the teenage vernacular. A rose by any other name would still be a gas. It’s good to know that Romeo and Juliet had parent trouble, too.
Is it just that a fine record will always find its way to the top? Alas, not yet, however pleasant it might be to think so.
Perhaps one day, when the present confusions of the Top Twenty chart have resolved themselves, we shall see records as musicianly as “Fever” shoot right to the top of the list… and stay there to the delight of a public no longer deafened and depraved by the rock.