THE VERY BEST OF THE BACHELORS

by Ian Whitcomb

 

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to
ianwhitcomb.com


    In 1961, when I first came to Dublin as an undergraduate at Trinity College, I was intrigued by signs all over the city announcing, "Singing Lounge." Pushing aside the surrealism of the image conjured up, I guessed that the music offered behind the doors of what resembled an average pub would be traditional Irish music, the kind that wails of past wrongs
committed by we British and, of course, of doomed loves.
    Thus I was pleasantly surprised to find that, quite the contrary, a Singing Lounge was a center of conviviality where the pleasure of your pint of stout mingled with stentorian singers leading the company in choruses of venerable Tin Pan Alley songs, peppered with a few of the latest American country hits such as "I Gave my Wedding Dress Away." A high point during one of my lounge visits was a legless blind man rendering "I Believe" as if he'd just written it, and conducting us in a repeat chorus with his pint glass. The old songs, the good ones, were being kept warm.
    But I went on to fill Dublin with R&B via my band Bluesville, neglecting the great traditions of the Singing Lounge. Meanwhile, in the same city, three local lads had been appearing as The Harmony Chords, providing barbershop pleasure at local venues since 1958 with their pure but lusty voices, filling the gaps with their mouth organ blowing.
    Brothers Conleth and Declan Cluskey, together with their pal John Stokes were raised on the songs of the Singing Lounge but for the moment, like me, they were diverted by the trends of their times--in their case, American folk music, which was enjoying a spotlight due to the recent fad for Skiffle and the Kingston Trios' top ten success, "Tom Dooley". While I was starting off at Trinity College Dublin in 1961 they were getting signed up to a management contract by the dynamic Phil Solomon, another Irishman, aided by his equally dynamic wife, Dorothy. Solomon knew they were nice boys with winning smiles and voices, but without commercial material. This folk stuff would never do. But what would suit them?
    The act -- and it was a good one, appealing to the entire family--started playing theaters, the dying days of Variety. Solomon persuaded Decca Records A&R chief Dick Rowe to come take a peek at his property. Later he reported:
"We went backstage and there were these three boys who looked at me as if I'd come from heaven and was going to open the door for them to walk in. I said, 'God be with me at this moment' and I meant it". Yes, they were nice as sugar
and spice but they weren't yet a recording act. Rowe signed them and immediately changed their name to "The Bachelors" because "that's the kind of boy a girl likes!".
    Now, Dick Rowe has a bad name because the legend is that he's the guy who turned down The Beatles. Which is unfair because Brian Epstein's discoveries were turned down by most of the British record business until they landed with novelty producer George Martin at Parlophone, home of The Goons. No, Dick Rowe had the regular ears for recognizing decent voices and matching them with a well-made song. And this he did with The Bachelors: he dug up a 1927 movie theme song, "Charmaine", actually composed in Hungary in 1913, but with a haunting descending melody that has made it an evergreen. Britain's own King of a Million Strings, Mantovani, enjoyed an American hit with it in 1951, so it was still fresh in the public's ears. But they were not about to buy any schmaltz in the bold, brave 1960s.
    The Bachelors' version of "Charmaine", with the original melody streamlined slightly for modern taste, jogs along to a country guitar strum and a sprinkling of piano licks. Could Patsy Cline's arrangements have been an influence? Rowe chose American Shel Talmy as producer, the same fellow who went on to produce some of The Kinks' classic rock hits. In the spring of '63, "Charmaine" reached the British Top Ten just as The Beatles' establishing "Please Please Me" was slipping down and Roy Orison's "In Dreams" was climbing. I give these chart details to show that pop music, unlike today, was still a festalboard of many varieties--big beat and ballad jostling together in fair and friendly competition, a sweepstakes followed
eagerly by the entire nation with the same interest as it gave to the Olympic Games.
    With a proven mold Decca went on to cast their boys in more trusted revivals, allowing them to sing out true with a touch of Irish brogue and a bit of steady emotion--but not of the excessive and melodramatic type favored by Italian-American harmony groups such as The Four Lads and the like. "Diane", another 1927 movie theme song written by the "Charmaine" couple, Erno Rapee & Lew Pollack, and arranged in the same Nashville-like manner, was released in 1964 and gave the group their first Number One, as well as an American breakthrough at Number 10.
    Girl names  continued to be the meal ticket for the boys: "Ramona", from the 1928 film of the same name, and "Marie", an Irving Berlin song from an obscure 1928 early talkie called "The Awakening". We might pause here to note that all of these movie songs were originally performed as waltzes but time and taste had steamrollered their daintiness into a smoother four-four beat. The Bachelors were serving up old staples in a new sauce.
    Other offerings from the Irish boys--good Catholics all--included a clutch of what the music biz used to term, "Religiosos":  "I Believe",   which had been a 1952 bestseller for Frankie Laine (and a controversial one at the time because BBC radio didn't approve of religion in pop);" In The Chapel  In The Moonlight", a 1937 hit by Billy Hill , revived by Kitty Kallen
in 1954; and  "Walk With Faith In Your Heart" which owes a little in sentiment to "You'll Never Walk Alone".
    In 1966, with rock establishing its domination and psychedelia ready to swirl, the Bachelors made a sort of return to folk music with a version of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound Of Silence". Cheeky though it would appear, their well-crafted record beat the eggheady American duo in the British charts. The literary lyrics were worlds away from the Tin Pan Alley
simplicity of Charmaine and her girl friends.
    From the late 1960s onwards the group had no more records hits but they had so well established themselves as all-round family entertainers in Britain that for the next quarter century they remained favorites on the cabaret and working men's club circuit occasionally crossing paths with Freddie & The Dreamers or Gerry & The Pacemakers. Their female fans, now
sensible housewives, would listen raptly while their menfolk enjoyed the scampi & chips or chicken-in-a-basket washed down with strong local beer. During the summer months the group became seaside stars at such venues as Blackpool's North Pier and Scarborough's Futurist Theatre where children were welcome and sand wasn't a worry.
    With Phil and Dorothy Solomon continuing to manage them a future of continual employment stretched out rosily. The British are very loyal to their stars, unlike fickle Americans. There was a slight hiccup when one of the boys got temporarily sidetracked into spiritualism, with a particular interest in egg-reading. Then in 1984 John Stokes was asked to leave. He took
the matter to court and was shocked to hear his voice described as similar to that of a "drowning rat". However, he settled for a certain amount and The New Bachelors emerged to keep the act on the road.
    The show simply had to go on--they knew nothing else. Singing was their bread and butter.  And the legacy of The Singing Lounge was now moving up and down the motorways of the isles bringing heartwarming harmony to a people who
were living in a land of encroaching concrete.     Phil Solomon has written a fitting epitaph:
    "The Bachelors never missed a date in their lives.  Let me give you an example: one of them had an accident on the way to a Christmas pantomime in Bristol--but he went on stage with a leg in plaster and 27 stitches in thehead. Now if that isn't professionalism I'm a Dutchman!"

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Ian Whitcomb was a British Invader with his 1965 top tenner, "You Turn Me On".  His classics "After The Ball--Pop Music From Rag To Rock" and "Rock Odyssey--A Chronicle Of The Sixties" are available in paperback from Limelight Editions, New York. He can be reached at www ian whitcomb.com.

 

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to
ianwhitcomb.com