In fourteen years of Steyn's Song of the Week, we have never addressed a current Number One record. That's because, alas, I have limited interest in Weeknd, Saint Jhn, Dua Lipa, Doja Cat and Powfu Ft Beabadoobee, all of whom read like the creations of a typewriter with ever more missing keys. Yet, for the first time ever, our Song of the Week is also the Number One record of the week on a national hit parade - the UK's Top Forty.
It began with the Chinese Coronavirus, and a 99-year-old widower called Tom Moore. When Britain declared war in 1939, 19-year-old Tom enlisted with the Eighth Batallion, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, went to India with the Royal Armoured Corps, fought at the Battle of Ramree Island and then in the Burma Campaign, and ended the war in Sumatra. Three-quarters of a century later, he opted to re-enlist in a new campaign, and help the National Health Service battle Covid-19. So on April 6th Captain Tom (as he's become known to the British public) announced he'd walk ten laps a day in his garden, with the aid of his walker and while wearing his medals (Burma Star, 1939-45 Star, War Medal), in order to raise £1,000 for the NHS. As of today, he's raised over £30,000,000.
Somewhere along the way Michael Ball, the popular British entertainer, appeared on the BBC and decided to sing by way of tribute to Captain Tom "You'll Never Walk Alone" - even though he is, in fact, walking alone - albeit while being watched by a socially-distant guard of honor from the First Batallion, the Yorkshire Regiment (with whom the Duke of Wellington's were merged in 2006). And within twenty-four hours someone at Decca Records had come up with the idea of an unlikely duet. Here are Tom Moore and Michael Ball, straight into the UK charts at Number One:
That's Michael Ball's first Number One single - oh, and also the first for Captain Tom, who becomes the oldest person ever to have a Number One smash, breaking the previous record, held by Tom Jones, who was a mere whippersnapper of 68 last time he hit the top spot. This Thursday Tom Moore will become the first man in history to celebrate his hundredth birthday with a Number One single.
The song is not new, although it's newer than Captain Tom. And, like the hard-walking centenarian, it's celebrating a birthday this month: "You'll Never Walk Alone" was introduced to the world seventy-five years ago, in April 1945 at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway. Carousel was Rodgers & Hammerstein's long-awaited follow-up to the blockbuster Oklahoma!, and, although it has never achieved quite the same level of success as their first hit, it remained Richard Rodgers' personal favorite among all his shows. Oklahoma! is a much lighter work, at least until last year's very heavy-handed Woke-lahoma! With their second show, Rodgers & Hammerstein announced that they were serious about the revolution they had wrought: Before Oklahoma! the genre was called "musical comedy" - songs'n'gags. After Oklahoma! it was just the "musical" - songs and ...well, not a lot of laughs. Rodgers & Hart were smart, witty, breezy, and Rodgers' music swung and jazzed. Then Larry Hart drunk himself to despair and death, and was replaced by the far more professional and reliable Oscar Hammerstein II. As I wrote in Broadway Babies Say Goodnight:
Suddenly it's such a serious business. Rodgers & Hart is basic him-and-her romance; Rodgers & Hammerstein is hymns and hearse: all those anthemic exhortations - 'You'll Never Walk Alone', "Climb Ev'ry Mountain'; all those corpses - Hammerstein was killing off characters in musicals as long ago as Rose-Marie (1924) but he only hit his stride with Rodgers...
In Oklahoma! he killed off the bad guy (Jud of "Pore Jud Is Dead"); in Carousel he killed off the leading man, and then had the problem of trying to prevent the Second Act turning into a total downer. Carousel was adapted from Liliom, a 1909 play by Ferenc Molnár, who had spent a third of a century turning down offers for the rights from, among others, Puccini, Gershwin and Kurt Weill. The producers took the playwright to see Oklahoma!, and he agreed to let R&H take a crack. Hammerstein's big creative leap was to transplant the story from Budapest, of which he knew very little, to the Maine coast, of which he knew nothing. He felt vaguely that New England menfolk, with their reputation as stoic taciturn dullards, had been given a bum rap, and he wanted to show that they were lusty vibrant types who lived life to the full. Also, he liked writing about community, and figured that from Oklahoma Territory to Maine wasn't such a big leap - stonecutters instead of cowmen, clambakes instead of picnics.
The real change was the hero, who was an anti-hero: Billy Bigelow, the loser carny roustabout who in conventional musical comedy would have been redeemed by the love of a good woman but instead spirals down into bitterness and wife-beating. The latter can be problematic, even before the #MeToo era: Hammerstein was the very acme of limousine liberalism, but, on a theatre panel back in the Nineties, I was berated by the leftie feminists on hand for defending a writer whose lead female character explains to her daughter that sometimes when your hubby beats the crap out of you that's just his way of showing how much he loves you.
At any rate, Billy Bigelow commits suicide during a pointless robbery, and his young widow struggles to find meaning in his death and turns to her cousin Nettie. And so it fell to Christine Johnson, previously a contralto with the Metropolitan Opera and later Florence Henderson's voice teacher, to sing for the first time - seventy-five Aprils ago - this April's Number One song:
This is the third song we have featured from Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel, after "Soliloquy", which is included in my book A Song for the Season, and "June Is Bustin' Out All Over". None is a love song, although the Carousel score has a real beauty: "If I Loved You." But Rodgers & Hammerstein, unlike Rodgers & Hart, is not the normal stuff of songwriting. With Hart, Rodgers' wild freewheeling music came first, and a brilliant lyricist managed to find words that stuck to them - "My Funny Valentine", "Blue Moon", "The Lady Is a Tramp", "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered"... With Hammerstein, the words came first, and in the once freewheeling music a certain stolidity set in. The composer's daughter Mary Rodgers (of Freaky Friday et al) told me he had great difficulty writing "You'll Never Walk Alone", and one can well believe it:
When you walk through a storm
Hold your chin up high
And don't be afraid of the dark...
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown...
When a lyricist sticks something like that on the guy's piano, he's telling the composer: "Okay, genius, write me something important, something with weight..." Alec Wilder, the great musicologist of classic American song, considered that Rodgers wrote more great tunes than anyone else, but reckoned that once he'd teamed up with Hammerstein it was all over and that "I almost feel as if I should change into formal garb before I listen".
In 1945, when a new show opened, there was a stampede by the best singers to be first to the big songs. Sinatra loved the Carousel score, and he would have been terrific as Billy Bigelow in the film - if he hadn't pulled one of those cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face moves and walked out on the picture. He sang the Carousel "Soliloquy" for half-a-century, and he made a decent record of "You'll Never Walk Alone". So, a few months later, did Judy Garland. Both singles spent a grand total of one week each on the charts.
Yet "You'll Never Walk Alone" didn't seem to be the kind of song that needed Frank and Judy. Instead, having been reprised in the Second Act of Carousel as a kind of high-school graduation song, it became regarded as one in real life, too - rather in the same way that Hammerstein's earlier "Ol' Man River" was such a convincing approximation of a 19th century Negro spiritual it was assumed to be an actual 19th century Negro spiritual. "You'll Never Walk Alone" took off at school ceremonies and funerals. Irving Berlin, after watching a friend get interred to it, said the song was up there with the 23rd Psalm. The bandleader Fred Waring was similarly moved. As Richard Rodgers recalled:
[Waring's] mother had died in a small town in Pennsylvania, and he went home for the funeral. It was a thoroughly miserable day, with leaden clouds hanging ominously over the entire sky. Among the musical pieces chosen for the service, which was held in the local church, was 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. The choir sang, the organist played and the melody ascended step by step until it reached the climax, the syllable 'nev-' in the final line, 'You'll never walk alone'. Just as the singers hit that climactic note, the sun broke through the clouds, streamed through the stained-glass windows and cast a beam directly on the coffin. The entire congregation was so overcome that everyone, as if on cue, let out a spontaneous, audible gasp.
And that's how it was for almost two decades: "You'll Never Walk Alone" thrived in churches and schoolhouses, but not on records or radio. And so it was not Sinatra or Garland or Bing Crosby or Peggy Lee, but the Merseybeat group Gerry and the Pacemakers who turned a Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway eleven o'clock number into a UK (and Australian) chart-topper in 1963:
Attentive listeners might have noticed that Gerry Marsden is singing:
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
...rather than, as in the show:
Keep your chin up high...
"Hold your head" is from the first published sheet music for the song. The publisher wrote to Oscar Hammerstein querying what appeared to be a "two-word" discrepancy between the sheet and the Broadway score, but, if he ever got a reply, it didn't resolve the issue. Going over his catalogue for his 1949 book Collected Lyrics, Hammerstein settled on "Keep your chin up high" - which I'd say was the wrong call: Keeping your chin up is chipper advice to the downhearted, whereas holding your heading up suggests an innate human dignity more attuned to the theme of the song and the music. The whole thing, by the way, is a classically Hammersteinian lyric: the hope, the heart, and the omnipresent lark. But for the second line somehow that original sheet music found its way to Gerry and the Pacemakers, and every hit-minded version since has take nits cue from him
But that's not necessarily the first thing that strikes you about the above. If you're a showtune buff, you may be wondering: what's with all the gritty monochrome Liverpudlians singing along? Well, as I wrote a while back:
On a National Review cruise a decade or so back, I was on a curious panel in which Jay Nordlinger interviewed Ken Starr about law, Midge Decter about novels, and me about music. And at one point Jay asked a question about the difference between Rodgers & Hart and Rodgers & Hammerstein. And I replied you can wander into any record store (for those old enough to remember such things) and find bins full of Rodgers & Hart albums: Ella Fitzgerald Sings Rodgers & Hart, Tony Bennett Sings Rodgers & Hart, The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, Donald Rumsfeld Sings Rodgers & Hart... On and on. Singers love to sing Rodgers & Hart, but the public loves to sing Rodgers & Hammerstein, and one reason is those great rousing chorus numbers. To be sure, various star names from Bryn Terfel to Benny Goodman have recorded this material, but the rest of us love them because they're singable songs - not just songs you like listening to, but songs you like bellowing out yourself.
"You'll Never Walk Alone" is the apotheosis of that thesis. Gerry Marsden gave Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of Liverpool Football Club, an advance copy of his record, and Bill loved it, telling the Mersey rocker: "Gerry my son, I have given you a football team and you have given us a song." Within weeks, it was being bayed by thousands of fans on the terraces every Saturday. Soon "You'll Never Walk Alone" was on the club's coat of arms, and eventually on the gates to the stadium. And then it spread to other stadia. In 1990, at the all-star anti-apartheid gala at Wembley Stadium, the crowd broke into "Walk on! Walk o-o-on..." as Nelson Mandela took to the stage. Having been released from prison only a few weeks ago, Mandela was not quite up to speed on sociocultural phenomena of the previous quarter-century and so he asked Adelaide Tambo, standing next to him, what the tune was. "Some football song," said Mrs Tambo.
Richard Rodgers liked his compositions sung just how they are on stage in the show - and that's it. Upon hearing Peggy Lee's whiplash version of his waltz "Lover", he told her, "Why pick on me when you could have f**ked up 'Silent Night'?" So, upon hearing that his secular hymn was now "some football song" roared out every Saturday afternoon by bazillions of footie fans, his first reaction was one of horror. His second reaction was to call his lawyer and see if there was any way to have it stopped. There wasn't.
And then something weirder happened. The Eighties were a pretty terrible time for English soccer, with awful once-in-a-lifetime catastrophes becoming almost routine: I mentioned the Hillsborough carnage on a recent Mark Steyn Show, and not long before that something almost as bad occurred at Bradford City during a Third Division match, when fire broke out and fifty-six people died. And so, a generation after Gerry and the Pacemakers, Gerry Marsden returned to his old anthem with the assistance of various celebrities, including Kiki Dee, Motorhead, the Nolan Sisters, John Entwistle from The Who, Denny Laine from Wings ...oh, and Rolf Harris, too. In 1985 Mr Marsden thus became the first person to have two Number One hits with different versions of the same song:
Gerry Marsden is officially retired now - the standard Gerry and the Pacemakers joke is that these days Gerry has a pacemaker - but I'm sure he could have had a spot on the Captain Tom version if he'd wanted. He is responsible for two tremendous transformations in the song: "You'll Never Walk Alone", having become a song for football matches, then became a song for football-match disasters - and then a song for disasters in generals, the go-to number for defiance in the face of adversity. There had always been an element of this present in the number - hence Jerry Lewis's annual performance at the end of his Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. But the determination to press it into service for every calamity accelerated: after 9/11, Barbra Streisand sang it at the Emmys; after the opioid crisis, the punky Dropkick Murphys released a version; less than a month before this week's Number One charity fundraising version, singer Marcus Mumford released another charity fundraising single - for War Child UK.
That's quite a niche to have a monopoly on - and so almost exactly seventy-five years after its debut "You'll Never Walk Alone" is a Number One record all over again. I do believe it's the only song to have been Number One thrice on the British charts, and perhaps some halal version will be barnstorming its way to the top circa 2045. To return to where we came in, Captain Tom is now the oldest man to have had a Number One single, but his boyish charmer of a duettist, Michael Ball, is also up there too:
THE OLDEST ARTISTS TO HAVE HAD A UK NUMBER ONE:
1) Captain Tom Moore (100, this Thursday): "You'll Never Walk Alone" (2020)
2) Tom Jones (68): "Islands in the Stream" (2009)
3) Louis Armstrong (66): "What a Wonderful World" (1968)
4) Tony Christie (61 yrs, 11 mths): "(Is this the way to) Amarillo" (2005)
5) Frank Skinner (61 yrs, 5 mths): "3 Lions" (2018) [footie song]
6) Cliff Richard (59): "Millennium Prayer" (1999) [the words of the Lord's Prayer set to tune of "Auld Lang Syne"]
7) Elton John (58): "Ghetto Gospel" (2005)
8) Michael Ball (57 yrs, 9 mths): "You'll Never Walk Alone" (2020)
9) Leo Sayer (57 yrs, 8 mths): "Thunder in My Heart Again" (2006)
10) Ozzy Osbourne (55): "Changes" (2003)
That Number Eight position is quite sobering when I recall Andrew Lloyd Webber sitting at the piano playing me the song he'd just composed for a newcomer nobody had heard of: Michael took it to Number Two - "Love Changes Everything". He waited a long time to hit the top:
With hope in your heart
And You'll Never Walk Alone!
You'll Never Walk Alone!
Tom Moore walked his way into a Number One hit on his hundredth birthday - a record that will stand for a very long time.
Unless he has another Number One this time next year.
~If you enjoy our Sunday Song of the Week, we have a mini-audio companion, a bonus Song of the Week Extra, midweek on our Coronacopia edition of The Mark Steyn Show - and sometimes with special guests from Mark's archive, including Eurovision's Dana, Ted Nugent and Paul Simon.
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