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Oct 03

GUY MITCHELL – “Singing The Blues” TOMMY STEELE – “Singing The Blues”

Popular27 comments • 9,400 views

#53, 4th January 1957 / #54, 11th January 1957

“Singing The Blues” is an obvious smash – immediately memorable, modern enough to grab the rock’n’rollers, catchy and polite enough to hook everyone else too. The arrangements of these versions are very close (Mitchell’s is a bit brisker and busier), but the treatments are still worlds apart.

Guy Mitchell brings the tune the assurance of an old pop hand – even heartbreak is a bit of a chuckle for good old Guy, so in his hands it’s a stagey swoon to win over a coy could-be. And of course we fall for it – he’s so charismatic, his voice so sparkly, how could we not?

Tommy Steele gives us the fresher, more rockin’ treatment, but his record is hardly more authentic – in fact it’s bare-facedly, outrageously, preposterously mannered, and the manners in question belong entirely to one Presley, E.

Here’s how Mitchell sings the first verse of “Singing The Blues”:

Well I never felt more like sing’n’ the blues
Cos I never thought that I’d ever lose
Your love, dear
Why’d you do me this way?

And here’s how Steele sings it:

Weh-hell uhne’eh’el’orlike sinnuh blues
Cos I ne’eh’ought a’Ide’uhlose
Your love, dear
Why’cha do me this way?

Steele’s singing is not his natural voice, no, it is a very specific style he is attempting, and that style is ‘rock and roll’, as incarnated in the larynx and lips of Elvis. No consonant is safe with Steele around, words pool into one another in a shrugged gush of pre-meditated moodiness. Next to him, Guy Mitchell’s enunciations have the sharp edges and neat corners of, well, a square.

So if you wanted you could read Mitchell’s one week at the top and Steele’s two as a changing of the guard. But it’s not quite like that. Listen again to Steele’s first verse and you hear the rocker make up cracking – “your love, dear” sounds cockney; “do me this way” trails off in an arch near-falsetto. Tribute act he may have been but you can hear the Britishness creep through. Their records are very different but Mitchell and Steele have a lot in common – they’re both showbusiness lads, trying their best to make a fist of it in changing times and guess which way the wind is blowing. Tommy Steele’s guess sounds better at first, but he never had another No.1.

5

5

Comments

  1. 1
    Mutley on 23 Jan 2009 #

    I think you are being a little unfair on Tommy Steele by calling him a tribute act. I was about 13 when “Singing the Blues” came out.Prior to “Singing the Blues” Tommy Steele recorded some original British rock ‘n’ roll songs (not classics but at least they weren’t cover versions of US recordings), written I think mainly by Lionel Bart (who moved into musicals with “Oliver!” etc.). Someone made the comment on YouTube regarding a video of early Tommy Steele, that Steele could be seen as a prototype David Bowie (and not just Bowie’s “The Laughing Gnome”, which does indeed sound like Tommy Steele post rock’n’ roll). Certainly the words you use about Steele such as “mannered” and “arch” are relevant to much of Bowie’s and the British Glam-Rock output of the early 70s.

    Tommy Steele was a 20-year-old at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll — he was Britain’s first nationally known rock ‘n’ roll star — at a time when no one thought any rock ‘n’ roller would survive for more than two years. At that time, everyone would have wanted to move into another area of entertainment, in particular movies, as did Tommy Steele. His only role model, Elvis Presley, had already made movies, and of course, we now see much of Elvis’s career as a great waste of talent when he was producing one dire movie after another. But what could he or any others have done in the 1950s, when they perceived themselves to have such a short career span as singers. It was much later – probably since the late 60s – when rock could be seen as a “life-long career”. I remember a TV interview in 1963 with the Beatles at the very start of their fame, when they envisaged a future where Lennon and McCartney would give up singing and write “musicals” (perhaps following the career path of Lionel Bart?)

  2. 2
    Billy Smart on 1 Apr 2009 #

    Light Entertainment Watch: Here are some representative television appearances by Tommy Steele (all missing);

    PERSONAL CHOICE: with Cliff Michelmore, Tommy Steele (1968)

    SIX-FIVE SPECIAL: with Tommy Steele and his Steelmen, Dennis Lotis, Humphrey Lyttelton and His Band, The Southlanders (1957)

    SIX-FIVE SPECIAL: with Tommy Steele and his Steelmen, Jack Brymer, Patti Lewis, Humphrey Lyttelton and His Band, Mike and Bernie Winters
    (1957)

    SIX-FIVE SPECIAL: with Tommy Steele and his Steelmen, Jill Day, Lonnie Donegan and his Skiffle Group, Humphrey Lyttelton and His Band (1957)

    SIX-FIVE SPECIAL: with Tommy Steele and his Steelmen, Julian Bream, Russ Henderson And His Steel Band, Michael John, Mike and Bernie Winters (1957)

    SIX-FIVE SPECIAL: with Tommy Steele and his Steelmen, Vipers Skiffle Group, Mike and Bernie Winters, Charlie Yates, Big Bill Broonzy (1957)

    SUNDAY NIGHT AT BLACKPOOL–MEET THE STARS: with Tommy Steele and his Steelemen, Jill Day, Denis Spicer (1957)

    SUNDAY NIGHT AT BLACKPOOL–MEET THE STARS: with Tommy Steele and his Steelmen, Lenny The Lion with Terry Hall, Rolly Rolls (1957)

    SUNDAY, SUNDAY: with Faith Brown, Irene Handl, Tommy Steele (1983)

    THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS: with Adam Faith, Bernard Cribbins, Joyce Blair, The Ray Ellington Quartet, Danny Williams, Susan Maughan, Tommy Steele, Pete Murray (1962)

    What does survive, as always, tends to be later appearances;

    ASPEL & COMPANY: with Tommy Steele, Shirley Anne Field, Paul Merton (1992)

    BOB MONKHOUSE NEWS ITEMS: Bob With Tommy Steele (1961)

    DES O’CONNOR TONIGHT: with Tommy Steele, Joe Pasquale, Mariah Carey,
    Meat Loaf (1994)

    PARKINSON: Meets Tommy Steele (1979)

    THIS IS YOUR LIFE: Tommy Steele (1958)

    THIS IS YOUR LUNCH: Tommy Steele (1983)

    TOMMY STEELE AND A SHOW (1977)

    TOMMY STEELE: A HANDFUL OF SONGS (1981)

    VAL PARNELL’S SPECTACULAR: The Tommy Steele Show (1959)

  3. 3
    Pete Baran on 28 Oct 2009 #

    Its a great pity Tommy never had another number one. Whilst he is proper showbiz his drift from rock’n’roll to full on musicals I thought was something that almost happened to Cliff, and Tommy has a better voice. Butthen Tommy was cheeky, and possibly less attractive to the teenyboppers, and from a film point of view a considerably better actor than Cliff.

    I was a big fan of Tommy The Toreador as a kid, and still find myself singing Little White Bull on random occasions. As for Flash Bang Wallop!

  4. 4
    MichaelH on 28 Oct 2009 #

    A song that has retained its place in folk memory, thanks in part to later covers (Dave Edmunds had a hit with it 30 or so years ago). When I had a season ticket at QPR in the 90s, barely a week would pass without a chorus of “I never felt more like singin’ the blues/ When Rangers win, and Chelsea lose/ Oh Rangers/ You’ve got me singin’ the blues.”

  5. 5
    Waldo on 28 Oct 2009 #

    Re # 4 – There was an utterly hateful variation of this chorus aimed at Tottenham fans, which I’m certainly not repeating here. As Cloughy would have put it: “They’d close us down, Tom!”

    As for STB itself, on Tommy’s version, his contorting of the opening lyric (as set out perfectly by Tom) is very nearly in a head-on collision with the whistler. True, the two arrangements are similar but Tommy tries to do too much with a song which simply does not have adequate clay to mould and for me it sounds like a wind-up. Guy just gets the job done and for me would get the decision all day long.

    “Little White Bull” was an Ed Stewart staple and “Flash Bang Wallop” should have been a huge hit but for some reason wasn’t. Btw, Tommy Steele was a first rate squash player. Almost international standard, they say.

  6. 6
    wichita lineman on 28 Oct 2009 #

    Unlike Cliff, I always get the feeling that ‘proper showbiz’ Tommy is acting on his R&R sides. I’m quite fond of Doomsday Rock and Elevator Rock as well – they were co-written by Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt, who later became the Randall in Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) – but they sound quaint, written and recorded by people who basically didn’t GET it. Tommy liked R&R, but also dug calypso and music hall – he wasn’t singly inspired by R&R. Move It was written and recorded by teenagers in thrall to the new American sound, and it shows.

    So Tommy’s Singing The Blues sounds like an action transfer of Elvis (one badly transferred, bits missing, include half of his head and a leg) on a pre-rock background. Guy Mitchell makes the song swing. His take was most likely by inspired by another whistle’n’wail number one – Johnnie Ray’s Just Walking In The Rain – which he dislodged from the top.

    Who was the more convincing? Guy Mitchell cut a minor hit later in ’57 called Sweet Stuff which is suggestive, almost rough, well worth a listen. Tommy Steele was always harmless, one huge grin with a big blonde mop on the top, likeable and funny but never, ever threatening – even the man who sang Feet Up (Pat Him On The Pop Po) could sound more carnal.

    Tommy’s best 45 is the self-penned Shiralee, with an atmosphere that anticipates John Leyton’s records with Joe Meek; windswept, haunted, ambiguous. And ambiguity – the pink satin jackets, the rouge, the whispered innuendo – is the one thing early British pop has over its more direct American counterpart.

  7. 7
    thefatgit on 28 Oct 2009 #

    Being a regular listener to Junior Choice as a kid, I am more familiar with Tommy Steele. “Little White Bull” was played almost every week. His cockney delivery was immediately recognisable. It’s because of this, I favour the Steele version. I can’t get excited about either version, but then again there’s nothing really that bad about either version. So a 5 for both then.

    PS. I checked the Ed Sullivan Show clip on YouTube of the Guy Mitchell version. Interesting use of a woman as a prop. Mad Men misogyny alive and kicking for real in 1956 (when the recording was made).

  8. 8
    Ben on 29 Oct 2009 #

    @MichaelH – at Wycombe Wanderers, a rock cover of this (I think the version by The Rattles?) gets played when the teams are coming out for kick off.

  9. 9
    Jungman Jansson on 29 Oct 2009 #

    The 50s felt unfathomably distant to me as a child, in the mid-80s – and they haven’t really gotten closer since then. I could probably give a reasonably accurate, albeit extremely rough, account of the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll if held at gunpoint, but that’s about it. My grasp of 50s music is honestly limited to its most well known superstars, and even then it’s tenuous at best.

    I had never actually heard anything by Tommy Steele until very recently. I’ve been sniffing around Punctum’s Then Play Long project (which I highly appreciate, by the way), and that made me listen to a few songs which I found quite enjoyable. “Doomsday Rock” being one of them. Based on that experience, and Tom’s description, I was expecting Steele’s version to be more to my tastes. But it wasn’t.

    Steele does some sort of Elvis impersonation/tribute (pick your poison) but can’t really maintain it all the way, and it doesn’t sound absolutely genuine at any point. There’s not much for me to add there. The Mitchell version has wheezy whistling that annoyed me at first but quickly became something of a hook in itself. And its guitar is slightly more prominent, with a muted, boxy sound that makes me think of various singing cowboys – it’s somewhat more country-ish, even if it’s not exactly a close association. Its more pronounced jauntiness also put me off to begin with, but it wins out in the end.

    Moving back to Tommy Steele – I may not have heard any of his songs until, well, a few weeks ago, but I have heard the name. And it always pops up in a very specific context; namely as a rival to Elvis. It’s nearly universally claimed by those that were around (and cared) at the time that you had to choose, Steele or Elvis and never both. I tend to be skeptical of all such band/artist rivalries, as at least the ones that I’ve lived through myself have never been very prominent or clear-cut in reality. But is this a uniquely Swedish phenomenon? I can’t really find any mention of this “rivalry” (which of course went on amongst the fans in this case, not between the singers themselves) on the English-speaking parts of the net. It does sound like a somewhat odd choice of antagonists.

  10. 10
    Mark G on 29 Oct 2009 #

    Is the Tommy Steele b-side anywhere near as damn weird as “Crazy with Love” ?

  11. 11
    tonya on 30 Oct 2009 #

    The third version of this on the US charts in 1956 (and maybe the original recording?) was Marty Robbins’, and to my ears that’s the best. His version doesn’t sound as affected as Tommy Steele’s or as kitschy as Mitchell’s, he just sings it in that beautiful voice.

  12. 12
    Mutley on 23 Nov 2009 #

    Jungman Jansson (9) asks whether as a fan you had to choose between Tommy Steele or Elvis back in the 50s. As a male British teenager throughout the second half of the 50s I can’t remember this “rivalry”. Basically, my friends and I thought that all British singers were rubbish with the exception of very early Tommy Steele, probably up to and including “Singing the Blues”, and Cliff Richard up to but not including “Living Doll”. The success of the latter song shows that our views weren’t universal! By the way, Tommy Steele’s slurring of the lyrics of “Singing the Blues” was exactly what we liked about his version – it annoyed parents and teachers alike.

    Elvis, on the other hand was a god who could do no wrong throughout the 50s. Just about any American artist was seen as great, mainly because they were generally indeed better than their British counterparts, but there was also an air of the exotic about them. Therefore we would rather watch the Everly Brothers on TV than Cliff Richard, even though the latter was probably a better performer at that time (I’m referring to performance rather than the sound of the music). This air of the exotic foreigner may explain why there was the Elvis versus Tommy debate in Sweden mentioned by Jungman Jansson – given the limited opportunities for travel in those days, from the vantage point of Sweden they may have both seemed exotic! (Just as we were to subsequently find the magnificent Abba exotic).

    U.S = great, British = rubbish is almost certainly unfair on some British rock’n’roll artists of the 50s who don’t appear in these charts – I thought that British rock’n’rollers like Dickie Pride and Roy Young were good on TV (on Oh Boy! I think), but their records got nowhere. Unfortunately there seems to be so little TV recorded material remaining of British performers of the 50s (unlike the 60s), let alone concert footage, that it is difficult to make a fair judgement of their performances in hindsight.

    The paucity of quality British no 1s. in your charts during the second half of the 50s no doubt reflects what British teenagers felt about British rock’n’roll. Strip away Cliff Richard and Lonnie Donegan (he was already in decline from Skiffle king to music hall act) and there’s precious little left, unless you like the tinkling piano of Russ Conway.

  13. 13
    Jackson Hart on 23 Jan 2010 #

    The Tommy Steele version of this song is like “fingernails on a chalkboard” to me, because of the OVERDONE slurring of the lyrics, an affectation that I can’t even believe any self-respecting producer would’ve allowed to come out of his studio. It’s so phoney-sounding as to sound like a mockery, a joke. I’d bet this version would’ve sold a lot more copies if Tommy had just sung it straight, though the bogus slurring is practically the only thing that keeps it from being a direct copy of Guy Mitchell’s recording (which was also number one for Mitchell in The USA for 10 weeks).

    The success of this song in England is, more than anything else, a testament to how important being young and cute is in show business (ala Fabian on the USA side of the pond, a “matinee idol” who could scarcely carry a tune, but had several hit records, nevertheless).

  14. 14
    Paulito on 27 Jan 2010 #

    Kudos to Tonya @ #11 – Marty Robbins was a wonderful (and wonderfully versatile) singer, and a hugely talented songwriter to boot. He’s never gotten the recognition he deserves on this side of the Atlantic.

  15. 15
    wichita lineman on 27 Jan 2010 #

    Well, ‘this side of the Atlantic’ considers Robbins a little tarnished by the racist, right-wing ditties Ain’t I Right and My Own Native Land he wrote for his guitarist Johnny Freedom (possibly Robbins under a pseudonym).

  16. 16
    Pete Baran on 27 Jan 2010 #

    Right wing certainly, blinkered and jingoistic probably but with the exception of the location of the singer in Ain’t I Right there is nothing directly racist in the lyrics of either Johnny Freedom track. That said you are probably right that Ain’t I Right is more about say the Cambridge race riots than anti-Vietnam war protests, though the latter is the only direct political thing referenced in the song (bar communists and socialists being the same thing). I’d put Marty Robbins in the troubling but good songwriter box with Toby Keith, but then I know lots of people can abide Toby either!

  17. 17
    wichita lineman on 27 Jan 2010 #

    Shouldn’t have used the ‘r’ word, yr right Pete. It’s more implied than direct. It does my nut in when people can’t stick She Wears Red Feathers and call it racist for its cartoon stereotyping, so I should have cut Marty some slack!

  18. 18
    Mutley on 27 Jan 2010 #

    “Singing the Blues” was written by Melvin Endsley for Marty Robbins and according to his obituary (2004) in the Independent (see http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/melvin-endsley-550326.html)
    can be seen as an extension of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues”. I can certainly see it as a Hank Williams song, but it needs better lyrics.

    Incidentally, re the Marty Robbins debate, a sequel to “Singing the Blues” and called “Knee Deep in the Blues”, was also written by Endsley for Marty Robbins, and, surprise surprise, was recorded by both Guy Mitchell and Tommy Steele, with much the same arrangement as “Singing the Blues” including whistling. This time, in the UK, Guy had the bigger hit (reaching number 3) whereas Tommy had to contend with reaching only number 15, possibly because he refrained from slurring his words this time.

  19. 19
    crag on 13 Apr 2011 #

    DESERT ISLAND DISC WATCH

    Norris Mcwhirter, Editor of the Guinness Book of Records (1979)

    Proffessor Vanezis, Academic, Scientist (2001)

    Martin Evans, Biologist(2008).

    (ALL THE ABOVE CHOSE TOMMY RATHER THAN GUY BTW.)

  20. 20
    Sam C on 30 Jun 2013 #

    ‘Singing The Blues’ has also remained popular with Leicester City supporters (we like it when Leicester win and Forest lose); I was still hearing it when I stopped going three or four years ago. I’d be interested to know if any British teams in blue didn’t have a version. Did Glasgow Rangers or Everton fans maybe feel it was a bit beneath them?

  21. 21
    MichaelH on 30 Jun 2013 #

    We sing it at QPR when – every few decades we beat Chelsea – though, of course, they’re the ones in blue.

  22. 22
    Ben on 6 Aug 2013 #

    Tommy’s singing voice an influence on Joe Strummer? He sneaks in a quote from STB at the end of London Calling…

  23. 23
    tm on 8 Aug 2013 #

    Is that the ‘never felt so much alike…alike…alike…alike…’ coda?

  24. 24
    Mark G on 10 Aug 2013 #

    On some live versions, Joe sings “Singin’ the blues” to the same not-the-tune he uses on the record.

    Copyright issues obviously, prevented it’s use

  25. 25
    hectorthebat on 2 Feb 2014 #

    Critic watch: The Guy Mitchell version of this song appears on the following ‘best-of’ lists:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 37
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003).

    The Tommy Steele version is somewhat less critically acclaimed.

  26. 26
    inakamono on 3 Mar 2014 #

    In the review, you write “So if you wanted you could read Mitchell’s one week at the top and Steele’s two as a changing of the guard. ”

    I know earlier comments have been lost so maybe this was dealt with before, but both the NME chart and the Record Mirror chart have three weeks for Mitchell and one for Steele, although the weeks and sequence are different. Which I noticed because the Beeb is reporting Mitchell’s unusual achievement of three bites at no 1 was equalled today (they are using the NME chart)

    http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-26410704

  27. 27
    Erithian on 9 Feb 2016 #

    So farewell then Norman Hudis, whose long and varied career as a screenwriter included the first six Carry On movies as well as “The Tommy Steele Story” and “The Duke Wore Jeans”. And later on, The Saint, Danger Man, Man from UNCLE, Hawaii Five-O etc etc…

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