Saturday, March 21, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Week 12: A Tale of Two Cities

For the background on this blog series, see this post.

In the course of human events, into each life some snow must fall. And apart from that, sometimes pages in a book stick together. If I had been reading a novel when that happened, I might have noticed. But I was preparing to go off to attend a conference in Chicago, and one music chart looks a lot like another, so how was I to know I was looking at the chart for March 31, 1958, rather than March 24?

Look at the date on the chart, you think to yourself. Yeah, I know. It doesn’t matter, though, because I have still managed to figure out a way to write a post about a song that hasn’t hit the Top 40 yet.

I have to write about this song because it’s the only song I brought with me that coincides with the 1950s charts for Week Twelve. When the 1-terabyte external hard drives creep below $100, I will buy one and use it to store my whole music collection. Then, if I remember to take it on business trips, I will be able to overcome glitches caused by crisp paper and inattention.

So, I’m in Chicago. It’s spring here, like everywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere, but when I was walking to the Hyatt by the Chicago River, the air was really cold. Not much colder than Week Twelve of the 1950s charts, however. The debuts this week have had little staying power: there’s yet another Davy Crockett version, this one by Tennessee Ernie Ford (March 19, 1955); another version of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” by Gale Storm, a Best Sellers debut on March 24, 1956, “Mama Look at Boo Boo” by Harry Belafonte on March 23, 1957; and “This Should Go On Forever” by Rod Bernard on March 23, 1959 (it didn’t go on forever, obviously).

With such a thin crop to feature, you can imagine that I was pleased to find that, during Week Twelve of 1958, a future #1 hit by a One-Hit Wonder jumped into the Top 40 at #12, after entering the chart the week before at #61. It also leapt onto the Best Sellers at #13 in its debut week there. And radio loved this song; in its second week there, it climbed from #15 to #11.

Of course, I was looking at Week Thirteen when I decided this song deserved the spotlight for this post. Fortunately for me, March 24, 1958, Week Twelve, is the official debut date for the song, thanks to the DJs. My approach to this series normally would be to wait until the song made a dent in the sales charts on March 31, but I’m stuck now.

And so, since this is the one smash debut for Week Twelve, let me tell you about “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” by Laurie London.

First of all, the song owes its status as a #1 hit to radio. While it raced up the Best Sellers and Top 100 charts to #2 very quickly, “Twilight Time” by the Platters, and then “Witch Doctor” by David Seville, shut it out of the top sales spot. But the Jockeys made it #1 for 4 weeks, so it’s pretty legit. (Note to Wikipedia editors: the summary there says he spent 4 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, but the chart did not yet exist, and he did not top any sales chart.)

And where did Laurie London go after this auspicious debut? Well, he stayed home in London, and that seems to be what he did wrong.

Laurie was just 14 when he released this gospel tune. He looked like a wholesome London boy with a clean face and a bright smile. His accent showed in his vocals, which made him exotic to Americans, I’m sure. He was the first British artist to hit #1 on any American chart in the Rock Era.

All of the online bios are brief, which is a pity, as I can’t confirm a career quirk about which I read in a Rolling Stone guide or in a #1 hits book. When Capitol picked up his single from Parlophone for U.S. release, there was “encouragement” to have Laurie tour the United States to back this hit and subsequent smashes. His dad didn’t want him to come over, and that was probably a wise choice for the long-term mental health of little Laurie. (Think Britney, Lindsay, et al.)

But if Laurie really wanted to have a music career, and his 42 other recordings would make one think he did, his dad blew it for him. Unless the book I read was lying, or I got the story wrong. Laurie even tried singing a lot of songs in German, including “Itsy Bitsy Teene Weenie Honolulu Strand Bikini,” which sounds like sexy English, but “Strand” is German for “beach.”

However the scenario played out, American record-buyers were denied a look at Laurie, and so they blew him off. We are still left with this unusual, all-inclusive gospel tune, taken to #1 by a London boy named London, while America’s gospel queen, Mahalia Jackson, only managed #67.

For Wednesday, I’ll bring on the postponed Benny Goodman feature. See you then!

Laurie London, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands

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