It’s one of the oldest, and most obvious Pop Quiz questions: ‘What was the first UK No.1 record?’
Of course, everyone knows the answer to that one. It was Al Martino’s ‘Here In My Heart’, which occupied pole position on the very first chart published by the New Musical Express, on November 15th 1952, and it stayed there until early in the New Year.
Before this there had been Sheet Music charts, which had been produced on and off since the mid-‘30s – and had even provided the basis of the first-ever chart countdown show, on Radio Luxembourg, in 1950. But Radio Lux, of course, rotated records, playing different versions of the various top-selling tunes each week, which were not necessarily the most popular versions. Earlier, in the early ‘40s, Melody Maker had sporadically published a Top 12 Sheet Music chart but it hadn’t caught on – whereas conversely, in the United States they’d been publishing listings of popular records since well before WWII, based on a combination of wireless airplay, juke box plays, and sales.
Ironically, sales of UK 78s were known to have been highly significant in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, as Britain staged an economic recovery after WWII, so it had always seemed mildly incongruous that there was no statistical information available to tell us exactly what the big hit records had been. But then eventually, in 1989, a reference book, First Hits, appeared. Essentially based on the Radio Luxembourg data, it was a useful tome, which valiantly logged all UK Sheet Music chart entries between 1946 - 1959, and it finally offered us a few clues about some of those early hits. It gave us peak chart positions and weeks spent on the chart, alongside an impressive, comprehensive list of all the various different recordings of each song. But of course it still didn’t tell us what the actual UK hit versions were – only that there had (usually) been anywhere between half a dozen or ten different recordings of each of the most popular songs of the era. OK, it certainly served to whet the appetite, but it left us chartoholics desperately wanting more.
Meanwhile, over the years, vague rumours had occasionally circulated concerning some alleged ‘Lost’ or ‘Missing’ UK charts, believed to date back to the ‘40s, but as yet unpublished. At one time, it had even been mooted that In Tune magazine might publish some of these missing listings, but nothing ever transpired – so, increasingly, it seemed that these missing charts must be merely another Urban Myth.
But now, astonishingly, nearly six decades after the event, here they are.
Having been languishing in storage for decades, these – previously-unpublished – charts represent the hitherto-unfulfilled notion of some one who, with the benefit of hindsight, was clearly something of a visionary. The star of this remarkable enterprise turns out to be one Colin Brown, a man readily known within the music industry, having worked variously as a performer, musician, manager, agent, and back-room boy for various music publishers and record companies, for more years than he cared to remember. In more recent years he operated as a consultant, specialising in ‘vintage’ music, and he handled upwards of thirty or so out-of-copyright releases each year. Colin’s infatuation with record sales and charts had bitten in the late ‘40s, and once he realised that there were no readily available stats for him to consult, he’d set about compiling his own. As you might expect, the story behind his quest is every bit as interesting as the charts themselves – and it was, naturally enough, all sparked off by an unlikely collision of circumstances.
As Colin recalled, it all began around 1948. At that time he was already working on the fringes of the music industry, and was obsessed with Nat Gonella, the finest British trumpeter of his era. Colin used to frequent a notorious amusements arcade in London’s Soho, and continually badgered the proprietor to put a Nat Gonella record – any Nat Gonella record – on the jukebox. One day the jukebox operator came into the cafe to change the records, and agreed to put one of Gonella’s discs on, but only if Colin provided it! In those days, 78s cost 3/7 d (viz: three shillings & sevenpence ha’penny – circa 18p) at a time when the average working wage was around a couple of quid a week. But Colin decided it was worth a punt, and the record was duly placed on the jukebox. A few weeks later he was delighted to see that a couple more Gonella 78s had also mysteriously found their way onto the jukebox, and when Colin next saw the operator he asked the obvious question. What happened next became the unlikely catalyst for The Missing British Charts...
Colin Brown told me that the Nat Gonella record he’d given them had very quickly become the most-played record on that particular jukebox, so they’d gone out and bought more copies of it to put on all their other jukeboxes... ‘if I remember, they had more than 500 jukeboxes at that time. Apparently, it soon became their most popular record, so they’d started to put more of Nat’s records on their various jukeboxes, and they also became popular. He showed me some of their figures... they used to compile a ‘Most Played’ list each week, from plays across all their jukeboxes, and I was intrigued. It got me thinking about record sales in general, and trying to find out just how many Nat Gonella records were being sold.’
Indeed, Colin was so impressed by their ‘Most Played’ list that, once he’d realised that there were no published sales figures available elsewhere, he wondered if it might be possible to compile his own. He subsequently approached a couple of the larger music publishers – who, back in those days, owned various record wholesale and distribution companies – and asked if he might be allowed to see their weekly sales figures. Although they declined, as this information was confidential, Chappells eventually agreed to let him have historical data, showing the sales reps’ order and re-order sheets, and once he was up and running, the other publishers and wholesalers followed suit. Colin began to collate the information and he also set up a system where he would be supplied with re-order sheets on a regular weekly basis. When he asked about historical sales figures, he was delighted to find that he was able to get re-orders going back to 1940, and so his data-collecting began in earnest.
He very quickly accumulated an enormous mass of paper and it soon became far too big a task for him to handle alone, in his spare time, so he subbed some of the work out – also, as he admits, ‘I wanted someone else to collate the information because if I’d done it myself, I’d have fiddled it and Nat Gonella would have been No.1 every week!!’ Initially, the sales figures were transcribed by a handful of temporarily out-ofwork classical musicians whom he knew (from the Ivy Benson’s band, as Colin recalled) and gradually, it all started to come together. Having started in 1948 and worked his way back to 1940, he kept it ticking over for several years and he eventually stopped collecting data at the end of 1952, shortly after the NME began publishing their chart.
Once his work was ‘finished’, so to speak, he had to decide what he was going to do with it. Colin first tried to get his chart data published in the mid-‘50s – but this was long before such books existed and he was unable to get a regular publisher interested in the project, whereupon he decided to try and do it himself. Having shopped around he found a printer willing to try and print the book in ‘down time’, at a ‘special rate’, and pre-paid around 50% of the fee. Indeed, he twice put the project with printers – the second time in the ‘60s, some ten years later, once he’d seen the birth of chart books – partially pre-paying them each time. But both went out of business before they could deliver. On each occasion Colin very nearly lost his precious database and it was setbacks like these that led to him gradually losing interest in the project, and his listings gathering dust for forty-odd years.
In 2013, the Official Charts are a highly sophisticated operation whose guardians – the Official Charts Company – survey a staggering 6,500 physical and digital retailers every single day to create today’s Official Charts. From the likes of HMV on the high street, supermarkets the length and breadth of the country, all the key digital outlets including iTunes, Amazon, Play.com, and many more, all the way through to the smallest vinyl record shops in your local town, the research panel now captures a staggering 99% of all singles sold in the UK every week.
It’s a great shame that these charts weren’t published earlier, as they contain some extraordinary information. Indeed, once you start dovetailing the missing chart data into the Guinness British Hit Singles database, some startlingly different patterns emerge. Bing Crosby has scored the most No.1 records, Vera Lynn becomes the third, all-time most successful female performer (with six new, ‘forgotten’ No.1 records), whilst the vast array of artists whose hit careers not only took in but predated the NME charts – e.g. Lita Roza, Alma Cogan, The Beverly Sisters, Billy Cotton, Jimmy Young, Petula Clark and, particularly, all-conquering US artists like Johnny Ray, Guy Mitchell, Teresa Brewer and Frankie Laine – are seen in a whole new light, with hit records, including No.1s, that no-one quite knew they had. There are a whole host of ‘lost’ No.1s for CD and quiz compilers to busy themselves with, whilst artists like Danny Kaye, The Mills Brothers and particularly The Ink Spots (whose ‘Bless You’ is now the joint ‘biggest’ No.1 record of all time, alongside ‘White Christmas’), can certainly no longer be categorised as ‘one-hit wonders’.
Indeed, a whole host of immediate post-war favourites, whose biggest successes occurred before 1952 – and have traditionally, therefore, been off the radar as regards UK hits – can now be seen in their true light, including names like The Andrews Sisters, Vaughn Monroe, Phil Harris, Ella Mae Morse, Al Morgan, Donald Peers, Rose Murphy, Mario Lanza, Teddy Johnson, etc. Rather more pertinently, perhaps, the existence of these missing charts would have lent rather more weight to the published obituaries of people like Les Paul and Yma Sumac, both of whom died relatively recently. Both, of course received effusive obits, but there were no mentions of any UK record successes. Were those obits to be written now, each would be credited with a UK No.1 – Les Paul with ‘Little Rock Getaway’, and Yma Sumac with ‘Virgin Of The Sun God’.
But perhaps the most important element of the missing charts is the fact that they provide a Top 30, whereas the NME started with a Top 12 – and, although they eventually upped this to a Top 20, they didn’t expand to a Top 30 until April ’56. Consequently, a vast array of ‘minor’ hits can be seen, which serves to reintroduce long-forgotten names like Reggie Goff, Josef Locke, Alan Dean, Tony Martin, Lee Lawrence, The Five Smith Brothers, and many more.
One particular quirk which is well worth exploring concerns Decca Records, who had an exclusive arrangement with Woolworths circa 1948/1949/1950, during which Woolies only stocked Decca product (including their US licensed labels, most notably Brunswick and London). This led to Decca enjoying a number of ‘unlikely’ hits during this period. Presumably, it was arrangements like this which inspired Woolies to launch their own Embassy label a couple of years hence.
In my own case, I was born before 1952 and I’ve often wondered what my date-of-birth No.1 might have been. Received wisdom had always told me that it was ‘Galway Bay’, because that (allegedly) held down the No.1 spot on the Sheet Music charts on April 26th 1948 – indeed, it was (again, allegedly) the first piece of Sheet Music to enter at No.1! But I’d always been suspicious. There were no recordings of ‘Galway Bay’ released until that May, so I’d never been confident that it can really have been the best-selling Sheet Music that week. My money had always been on The Andrews Sisters’ ‘Near You’ – and so it proved to be.
In closing, it’s probably worth reinforcing the point that this really was a labour of love, as Colin Brown incurred some fairly steep costs over the years. For starters, he’d had to ‘sweeten’ the music publishers, whose wholesalers provided him with the raw data. Then he had the problem of storage. He’d quickly amassed a vast mountain of paper, which was kept in a rented garage in North London for several decades. In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s he’d paid those aforementioned out-of-work musicians to compile the actual charts from the raw data, and during the ‘50s and ‘60s he ended up badly out of pocket when his earliest attempts to get his charts printed bit the dust. Frankly, it’s a miracle that his manuscripts survived – and had it not been for a chance remark to the guys, a couple of years ago, Colin would undoubtedly have ended up trashing the whole lot.
But now, finally, after all these years, here they are. These Missing Charts will certainly give a new perspective on UK pop music history, possibly even offering another alternative answer to that eternal question – what was the first No.1 UK record?*
Music Industry Consultant and Rock Historian
(N.B. * The new answer is Vera Lynn, with ‘We’ll Meet Again’, in January 1940.)
Text © Steve Waters, 2013
The rights of Steve Waters to be identified as the author of the Work has been asserted by Steve Waters in
accordance with the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988.