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Before Elvis, this was what you heard on British radio
on 20 May 2009
All tracks here date from 1955 at the latest, mostly from the fifties but with a fair selection from the forties and a few earlier. The music reflects British mainstream popular taste of the era including a few novelty songs. Conspicuously absent are any R+B (except one track by Louis Jordan) or country recordings. The fusion of those styles produced rock'n'roll but you won't even find Bill Haley here. So this very much an easy-listening collection, but I knew that when I bought it, and I'm very pleased to have a compilation like this, containing as it does many tracks that I don't already own on CD, as well as plenty that duplicate what I have on other multi-artist compilations or on releases by the individual artists. Some of the tracks that I hadn't already got on CD sound very familiar anyway, either because I have other versions of those songs or because they were a part of my childhood.
Each of the four CD's is based around a radio show or station of the era. The first CD, titled Desert island romance, opens with the theme to Desert island discs (still broadcast on BBC Radio 4, having become something of a tradition), with the remainder of the CD occupied by 24 love songs, many of them ballads but also including a few up-tempo songs such as Mr Sandman (Chordettes). Overall, I think that this is the strongest CD of the four, including as it does Softly softly (Ruby Murray), Unchained melody (Jimmy Young), When I fall in love (Doris Day), No other love (Perry Como), Three coins in the fountain (Frank Sinatra), Suddenly there's a valley (Petula Clark), Moulin rouge (Mantonavi), Cry (Johnnie Ray), Someone else's roses (Joan Regan) and Little things mean a lot (Kitty Kallen). Yes, that really is the same Petula Clark who later became famous for Downtown. It's also worth noting that Doris Day had the American hit with When I fall in love, but the song became a huge British hit for Nat King Cole in 1957, too late to make his version eligible for inclusion here.
The second CD, titled Family favorites, starts with the relevant theme, the remaining 24 tracks having no obvious linking theme. Although not quite as strong as the first CD here (at least to my ears), there is plenty of great music here too, including Eternally (Vic Damone), Serenade (Mario Lanza), The happy wanderer (Obernkirchen children's choir), Wheel of fortune (Kay Starr), I still believe (Ronnie Hilton), My son my son (Vera Lynn), Stranger in Paradise (Tony Bennett), Give me your word (Tennessee Ernie Ford), The finger of suspicion (Dickie Valentine) and Oh mein papa (Eddie Calvert). On this CD, Margaret Whiting duets with Bob Hope on Home cooking. I hadn't heard this track before buying this compilation (though I later bought a 4-CD boxed set of Maggie's music that included it) and although it's very good, I'd have preferred Maggie to be represented by one of her classics such as Moonlight in Vermont, A tree in the meadow or Far away places. Still that's fairly typical of this compilation, where obvious tracks are interspersed by obscure but delightful tracks.
The third CD, titled On the medium wave, begins with the theme to Music while you work, a theme tune that I heard frequently for a few years, but never heard again for several decades prior to it turning up here, sounding exactly as it always did. As with the second CD, there is no obvious theme to the remaining 24 songs, but the quality is similarly high. The highlights include How high the moon (Les Paul and Mary Ford), Happy days and lonely nights (Frankie Vaughn), Music music music (Teresa Brewer), Wonderful Copenhagen (Danny Kaye), On the sunny side of the street (Jo Stafford), American patrol (Glenn Miller), Open the door Richard (Louis Jordan), T'ain't what you do it's the way that you do it (Ella Fitzgerald), Why don't you do right? (Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee), C'est si bon (Louis Armstrong), If I knew you were coming I'd have baked a cake (Eileen Barton) and Goodnight Irene (Weavers).
The final CD, titled Legends of the Light programme, opens with the theme to Housewives' choice. To my ears, this is the weakest CD here but even this CD has plenty of good music. However, it also has several novelty songs that you may or may not like. You must make up your own mind about (for example) The laughing policeman, which I didn't like as a child and still don't. Much better are There's a small hotel (Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon), Life begins at forty (Sophie Tucker), Powder your face with sunshine (Donald Peers), I do like to be beside the seaside (Reginald Dixon) and the Archers theme.
If you've ever wondered what music was like before rock'n'roll changed the face of popular music forever, this compilation will give you a fair idea even though it avoids most of the obvious classics. And if anybody wonders why there was so much fuss about Elvis Presley, on the basis that his music seems (to them) nothing special, play some of the music here, then play some early Elvis. Nobody can then be in any doubt. I am a huge fan of Elvis, but I also love a lot of the earlier music as represented by this collection. In liking both, I may be in a small minority, but that's fine by me.
Whether you are new to the music of the pre-Elvis era or already a fan of such music, this is a great compilation despite the occasional questionable selection. With 100 tracks, many of them obscure, it's unlikely that any but the most avid collector will have a substantial proportion of these tracks already.