HIS FAVOURITE MELODIES
Way back in the late-1950s UK Rock stars had names that denoted rebellious excitement, they were Wilde (Marty), Fury (Billy), Eager (Vince), and Power (Duffy). Craig Douglas was never like that. He had two given names… the first one carries just a suggestion of American mystique, because ‘Craig’ was rare and exotic back then. And while others curl their lip in mock Presley-sneers or strike sultry James Dean poses, Craig Douglas had a pleasant friendly smile. He was never a Rock star. He was never dangerous. Never threatening. He was the mild Pop Star pin-up that a teenage girl could imagine bringing home to meet Mum. Mum was sure to approve. But hey, we can’t all be mean and moody. The full spectrum of Pop needs a couple of token nice guys too. And Craig Douglas fits that role exactly.
Born a twin, in Newport 13 August 1941, ‘in a family of eight, boasting three sets of twins’, he’d started out as an Isle of Wight milkman called Terence Perkins. The story goes that he entered and won a talent contest, by singing Harry Belafonte’s “Mary’s Boy Child”. The story could well be true. He came to the attention of Bunny Lewis, who became his manager, and who gave him the name Craig Douglas. This proved a lucrative move, and Craig never had to tramp his milk-round again. Ruthless impresario Larry Parnes famously had his stable of pretty-boy Pop stars who he saddled with their outrageous monikers.
Bunny Lewis was different. Not only was he a songwriter in his own right – he’d pseudonymously co-penned and produced David Whitfield’s massive semi-operatic hit “Cara Mia” – which became a surprise US hit for Jay & The Americans in 1965, but he went on to write songs for Helen Shapiro and Cliff Richard’s movie-song “A Voice In The Wilderness”. And as a manager, Bunny Lewis was selective, he signed Doug Sheldon who scored a minor hit with a respectable cover of Kenny Dino’s US single “Your Ma Said You Cried In Your Sleep Last Night” – a song later revived by Robert Plant. And he signed Terry Perkins, who became Craig Douglas.
Cover versions were very much the currency of the time. When Rock ‘n’ Roll exploded across the United States the British music scene was caught unprepared, and was incapable of formulating an adequate response. Tommy Steele’s first few singles, “Rock With The Caveman” c/w “Rock Around The Town” and “Doomsday Rock” c/w “Elevator Rock” were penned by or with Lionel Bart, or by Steele himself, establishing his presence, but it was only when he covered Guy Mitchell’s “Singing The Blues” that he scored his first domestic no.1. Marty Wilde started out with a cover of Jimmy Rodgers “Honeycomb”, until his big commercial breakthrough came with his cover of Jody Reynolds “Endless Sleep”. The idea was to snatch a song that was happening big in the States, before it was released in the UK. There was usually a time-lag involved, sufficient for a hasty version to be replicated around the original arrangement, using a convenient local artist. The added advantage of a strategic promotional slot on one of the few TV music shows, Jack Good’s ‘Oh Boy!’ or the BBC reviews show ‘Juke Box Jury’, or even a play on Brian Matthews Light Programme radio ‘Saturday Club’ was enough to give the cover an edge over the original. Is there a patriotic duty to ‘Buy British’ and support the familiar known quantity, or the more esoteric task of hunting out the difficult-to-find American original? It was a problematic choice, even for those aware that the question existed in the first place.
‘New Musical Express’ still printed a Sheet Music chart alongside its listing of Pop singles. For songwriting was still considered a separate professional skill carried out by songwriters. So there’s an argument that the interpretation of the song is down to the singer and the musicians involved, regardless of the song’s history or provenance. Marty Wilde certainly invests a greater doomy intensity to his “Endless Sleep” than Jody Reynolds manages. But Marty’s next hit took “Donna”, written and first recorded by a teenage Ritchie Valens, who would benefit from songwriter royalties, but was robbed of the opportunity of charting in his own right. Although Cliff Richard cut his own album version of “Donna”, significantly his own run of hits was largely achieved through original songs, from Ian Samwell’s “Move It”, “High Class Baby” and “Mean Streak”, through to Lionel Bart’s “Living Doll” arranged by Bruce Welch – a song which Marty Wilde had first option on, but had turned down.
Following a fortuitous appearance on BBC-TVs ‘Six-Five Special’ Craig Douglas was given a try-out shot with the Decca label for whom he released a couple of singles, first taking an uncharacteristic Rocker in the shape of Eddie Fontaine’s “Nothin’ Shakin’ (But The Leaves On The Trees)”, but giving it a smooth big-band swing treatment, flipped with the whistle-along “Sitting In A Tree House” (August 1958, Decca 45F-11055). Then Jimmie Rodgers’ “Are You Really Mine” c/w Jerry Vale’s “Go Chase A Moonbeam” (October 1958, Decca 45F-11075), issued on a big old 78rpm single, after which he followed producer Dick Rowe in switching to the newly-launched Top Rank records. “Come Softly To Me” was a charming ‘Billboard’ no.1 by the Fleetwoods, a trio playing innocent male and female voices back-and-forth, Craig’s competent solo version c/w “Golden Girl” (April 1959, Top Rank 45JAR-110), opens with a virtually a-capella ‘dum-dum, dummy-doo-dum, a-doobie-doo’, singing both sides of the dialogue – but it misses out to a more high-profile version with old Vaudeville hoofer Frankie Vaughan doing the ‘doobie-doo’ as a drunken scat against the Kaye Sisters counter-harmonies. It’s their version that climbs to no.9. Next was a romantic string-laden song by the Platters’ Buck Ram, “Wish It Were Me” flipped with a finger-clicking brushed-drum and plucked stand-up bass “The Riddle Of Love” (Top Rank International 45-JAR-204), with novelty lyric and playful musical quotes. The pattern was already set. These are wholesome adult-acceptable mainstream Pop records with only a slight tilt at the teen-market… and no trace of that confrontational bratty Rock ‘n’ Roll fad.
Things only really begin to hot up with a three-way battle for “A Teenager In Love”. Written by the masterful duo of Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman the definitive version was obviously recorded by Bronx hoodlums Dion & The Belmonts, an immaculate slice of fifties street-punk at its pristine finest, emoting the anguished doubts and pain of adolescent love. Marty Wilde was first off the block with his cover, which entered the ‘New Musical Express’ chart at no.26 (6 June 1959), leaping to no.8 the following week, as Craig’s version enters the race at no.24 (c/w Tony Hatch’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, JAR133). By 20 June Marty is up to no.4 with Craig trailing him at no.14, the following week the Dion & The Belmonts original joins them at no.28.
With backing from Wildcats Big Jim Sullivan (lead guitar), Tony Belcher (rhythm guitar), Brian Locking (bass guitar) and Brian Bennett (drums) the song eventually takes Marty Wilde – father of high-charting Kim, to his highest-ever placing at no.2. Craig and Marty found themselves touring the UK as part of the same ‘package’ bill, and amicably agree to sing “Teenage In Love” on alternate nights! Decades later Marty would recreate this signature hit as part of a TV ‘Candid Camera’ sketch in which backing singers have supposedly failed to turn up, so he invites a trio of elderly ladies who happen to be passing, to coo ‘I’m a teenager’ behind his vocals. Meanwhile Craig Douglas, who had stalled at no.13 (no.12 on the rival ‘Record Mirror’ chart), was undaunted. The song had opened doors for him.
Picking up on another song from the American charts, “Only Sixteen” had supplied Sam Cooke with his eighth American hit, where it peaked just outside the ‘Billboard’ Top 20. And let’s be honest, no-one could ever equal Sam’s melodious honeyed tones – no-one. In Britain it gave Cooke his second of eight hits, four of which eventually reached the Top 10, but “Only Sixteen” was not one of them, mainly because of the local competition. This time it was the Craig Douglas cover that climbs all the way to the no.1 for four straight weeks – from 11 September 1959 (five weeks on ‘Record Mirror’) unseating Cliff Richard’s “Living Doll” in turn to be replaced at the summit by Jerry Keller’s “Here Comes Summer”, an apex from where he could gaze down on both local rival Al Saxon, as well as Sam Cooke’s original recordings far below. Recorded at EMI’s Abbey Road studios, with Bunny Lewis taking producer credits for a Harry Robinson jog-along arrangement, with jaunty whistling added by Mike Sammes – of the Mike Sammes Singers, Craig’s clean enunciation tipped half-a-million sales, easily outselling Sam’s version in the UK (c/w “My First Love Affair” JAR159).
Craig sings the lyric in a clear uncomplicated way that exactly catches the song’s gauche mood, allowing for no agenda or subtext. The theme of adolescent – and possibly under the age of consent unrequited stirrings, passed without comment. It would recur in Lovin’ Spoonful’s wistful sinful “Younger Girl” and Jefferson Airplane’s “Come Up The Years”, to reach its apotheosis in Union Gap’s lascivious “Young Girl” in which Gary Puckett attempts to resist the sexual allure of ‘just a baby in disguise.’ “Only Sixteen” was never seen in that way, even when it was revived into the charts by Dr Hook. ‘I was a mere lad of sixteen, I’ve aged a year since then’ remains unimpeachably above suspicion. Craig Douglas had arrived in a big way, closing the year by being voted ‘Best New Disc Or TV Singer’ in the 1959 ‘New Musical Express’ poll. He went on to record eight cover versions of former American hit songs, in a total of nine Top 40 UK singles, with the unique distinction of having four consecutive no.9 placings in one particular UK charts!
His take on the US Steve Lawrence hit, “Pretty Blue Eyes” (c/w “Sandy”, JAR268) entered the chart at a modest no.28 (23 January 1960) but swiftly climbs to a high of no.4 (27 February). Falling for the new girl next door, with angelic voices swooning in the background, it makes the obvious sequel to “Only Sixteen”, and while the arrangement does not stray too far from the template, Craig dispenses with Lawrence’s dual-tracking, a simplification that invests his reading with a greater vocal clarity. Although just twenty-five, crooner Steve Lawrence makes for an unconvincing dewy-eyed teenager. At nineteen, Craig Douglas does. Although next time, for the first and only time in his chart career, “The Heart Of A Teenage Girl” (c/w “New Boy”, JAR340) is an original composition credited to Bill Crompton-Morgan Jones (?), with the Bob Sharples orchestration giving it something of a saccharine overkill. As a romantic balladeer Craig could get away with the sentimental lyric about ‘the heart of a girl who is only seventeen’ – her age rising to eighteen, then nineteen in the ensuing verses, and he was duly rewarded with a no.10 hit.
Of course, there were others competing for the same Teen Idol market, using similar strategies to target the disposable income of the fickle teenage female demographic. Mark Wynter (Terence Sidney Lewis), born in Woking 19 January 1943 and educated at Forest Hill Comprehensive School, had the same easy pin-up charm, and scored with 1962 cover versions of Jimmy Clanton’s “Venus In Blue Jeans” (no.4) – penned by Howie Greenfield with Jack Keller, and then with Steve Lawrence’s “Go Away Little Girl” (no.6) from the Gerry Goffin-Carole King team. Although some might prefer his lively earlier “Kickin’ Up The Leaves” written for him in 1960 by Lionel Bart. And then there was Jess Conrad (Gerald Arthur James) who squeezed into the bottom end of the chart with his cover of Skip & Flip’s “Cherry Pie” (no.39 in 1960). He came closer when he guested in ‘The Flip-Side Man’, the second episode of Herbert Lom’s ITV psychiatry drama ‘The Human Jungle’ (6 April 1963), his role as troubled singer Danny Pace offered him the chance of performing the catchy “It’s About Time” onscreen. But despite the exposure, it failed to sell. He’d already appeared as ‘Teddy Boy’ in Cliff Richard’s debut movie ‘Serious Charge’ (1959), and further cameo acting parts came along as diverse as the BBC Department-store comedy ‘Are You Being Served’, to the Sex Pistols ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ (1980), by which time he’d discovered a talent for send-up self-mockery. Ironically, he appears as Larry Parnes in the excellent ‘Telstar: The Joe Meek Story’ (2009) in which his tongue-in-cheek anecdotal charm is given full reign.
While Craig Douglas was experiencing a minor career glitch. He’d expanded into twelve-inch territory, and his LP ‘Craig Douglas’ (Top Rank BUY049) – largely made up of previously issued singles and flipsides plus “Come Be My Love” and his take on Adam Faith’s “What Do You Want?”, rode the album chart as high as no.17. According to the liner notes, ‘the rise to stardom of Craig Douglas, the farmer’s boy from the Isle of Wight who has become one of the most consistently successful popular vocalists in the country, must surely rank among the most gratifying of last year’s crop of Show Business success stories.’ While a vaguely gospel-tinged ‘Lordy Lordy Lordy’ single “Oh! What A Day” (August 1960, c/w “Why Why Why”, JAR406) failed to get higher than no.43. Another sweetly inconsequential single, “Where’s The Girl (I Never Met)” c/w “My Hour Of Love”, JAR515) vanished without trace. He entered the ‘Song For Europe’ contest – the early ‘Eurovision’, with “The Girl Next Door” with plucked strings and a catchy whistle to recall “Only Sixteen”. He sings it as part of a guest spot in the early Michael Winner musical-comedy movie ‘Climb Up The Wall’ (1960). Popular piano-player Russ Conway was also cast-listed, alongside Mike Preston (who’d had a November 1959 hit single with “Mr Blue”) and organist Cherry Wainer from the ‘Oh Boy’ show. But the single fails to chart (March 1961, c/w “Hey Mister Conscience”, JAR543).
He goes on to co-star in the mild exploitation movie ‘It’s Trad Dad!’ (March 1962) – ‘Entertainment With A Beat… For The Young… And The Young At Heart!!!’, with Helen Shapiro, establishing the basis of a working relationship that would survive for many years, until the two share a billing on what was announced as Helen’s 2002 ‘Farewell Tour’ with Craig as ‘Special Guest’. Produced by Milton Subotsky for Amicus Pictures – a company better-known for supernatural horror in the ‘Hammer’ vein, the film also constitutes Richard Lester’s directorial debut (he would go on to do ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ as well as many others). To make such films marketable in the States it was necessary to sign at least one recognisable American name into the cast, so they’d acquired Del Shannon, Chubby Checker – and, significantly, Gene McDaniels who were all strung together around a flimsy excuse for a plot concerning unlikely teenage rebels Craig and Helen organising a protest concert against the Town Mayor’s anti-music policy. Craig sings two songs written by the film’s MD Norrie Paramor with Bunny Lewis, “Rainbows” and “Ring-A-Ding”, included on the soundtrack album that climbs to no.3 (April 1962, Columbia 33SX-1412).
Craig also returned to the Top Ten in a big way. Kansas City-born Gene McDaniels – who sings “Another Tear Falls” in the movie, was unfortunate in that his headline US hits were all stolen by UK covers. Written by Burt Bacharach with Bob Hilliard, “Tower Of Strength” was a major ‘Billboard’ hit for Gene that was covered by Paul Raven – who would later become ‘Gary Glitter’, but it was Frankie Vaughan who took the song to no.1 across three weeks of the Christmas 1961 period. “A Hundred Pounds Of Clay” was another, a no.3 million-seller for Gene in the States, which took Craig Douglas comfortably back up to no.9 (no.8 on the ‘NME’ chart 6 May 1961), although there were some initial problems with accusations of blasphemy from the ultra-sensitive BBC. The song’s vaguely Biblical Adam & Eve theme was seen as offensive by radio programmers, so an initial pressing was hastily withdrawn and replaced by one with more acceptable lyrics revised by Bunny Lewis (c/w “Hello Spring”, JAR555 and JAR556). ‘He created a woman and a-lots of lovin’ for a man’ was rewritten into ‘he created old Adam, then he made a woman for the man.’ ‘For every kiss you’re givin’’ was amended to ‘for all the joy he’s given.’ ‘For the arms that are holdin’ me tight’ become ‘for my world full of beauty and life.’ ‘Doin’ just what he should do’ was changed to ‘makin’ land and sky and sea,’ and ‘to make a livin’ dream like you’ becomes ‘and doin’ it all for you and me.’ While the changes do seem to de-gender the woman, they do dispel the idea that she was simply created for a man to love.
It was followed by “Time” (c/w “After All”, JAR569), one of Craig’s stronger records, with his smooth melodic enunciation enhanced by Harry Robinson’s plucked pizzicato strings and the Mike Sammes Singers backing voices. It climbed to no.8 (19 August 1961), while several rungs higher in the same week’s chart “You Don’t Know” was giving Helen Shapiro her second major hit and first chart-topper. There were a couple of chart no-shows with “No Greater Love” c/w “We’ll Have A Lot To Tell The Children” (JAR589) and “A Change Of Heart” (JAR603) – while the Norrie Paramor-composed B-side “Another You” was sung by Craig in ‘The Painted Smile’ (1962) crime-thriller movie starring Liz Fraser. Then the magic of yet another three-way cover battle saw Craig back at ‘NME’ no.13 competing for Goffin-King’s “When My Little Girl Is Smiling” (c/w “Ring-A-Ding”, JAR610) with the Drifters original (at ‘NME’ no.17) – Ben E King was long-gone but with Charlie Thomas taking lead vocals the Drifters were still a formidable vocal group. But the winning version was by Jimmy Justice (no.3). Again – of course, there was variation depending on which music paper chart you happen to be reading, over at ‘Record Mirror’ the Drifters manage only a no.31, with both Jimmy and Craig tying at no.9.
Meanwhile, there were changes in the air. Craig closed out his Top Rank contract with a curious tie-in EP ‘Craig Sings For Roxy’ (JKR8033), packaging “A Teenager In Love”, “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, “Come Softly To Me” and “Golden Girl” in the magazine’s love-story-in-pictures sleeve design. He re-signs to Columbia for a one-off “Our Favourite Melodies” (June 1962, DB 4854, c/w “Rainbows”) that peaks at no.9. The song cleverly uses phrases the singer hears on the radio or as he passes the record store, songs that remind him of his lost love, Ray Charles (“Hit The Road, Jack”), Del Shannon (“Hey Little Girl”) and Bobby Vee (“Take Good Care Of My Baby” and “Run To Him”). Journalist Jon Savage calls this ‘a perfect slice of Paramor Pop and Douglas’s best record. The production nears kitsch but is rescued by some prominent drumming and the conceptual fascination of the life-as-song-title lyric… an early realisation of how far Pop had already invaded everyone’s subconscious’ (‘Mojo’ magazine). To call it post-modern would be to overstate the case, but the playfully aware lyric was certainly evidence of the Pop Will Eat Itself self-referential process.
After which there’s a return to Decca for a retread of Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” (c/w “Please Don’t Take My Heart”, F11523), produced by Bunny Lewis, which became his last Top Twenty hit at no.14 (‘NME’, 24 November 1962). Always professional, never less than tuneful, Craig had a single vocal setting, regardless of the material, and there’s a clip of him wearing tie and sensible cardigan, smiling – despite the heartbreak lyric, and Twisting the song on TVs ‘Pops And Lenny’, introduced by Terry Hall’s puppet Lenny The Lion (9 November 1962). While, glance over at the music press, and the Beatles “Love Me Do” was already making inroads.
When Craig appears on a Brian Epstein-promoted bill at the Liverpool Empire headed by Little Richard (Sunday 28 October 1962), it’s the Beatles who provide his onstage back-up! It’s difficult to conjecture how the raw Beatles could possibly have replicated the full arrangements of Craig’s hits… unless audience screams made the flaws inaudible? It was one of their first major stage shows, but the Fab’s emergence ultimately spells the end of Douglas’s chart adventure. They shift the emphasis decisively away from slavishly aping American Pop in favour of artists originating their own material. Did any of the cover hits of earlier years better the original versions, or even radically reinterpret them? I think not. Of course, covers continued to be made, back and forth now, with American artists quick to cover new Beat Boom UK hits – Del Shannon is the first to chart in the US with “From Me To You”. And even “Twist And Shout” was technically a Beatles cover of an Isley Brothers record, with its own rival versions on the chart, but no-one could seriously accuse the Fab Four of sly theft. The golden age of the easy-option fallback position of covers was over, and with it – Craig’s hit-making career.
Craig’s final chart entry came in February 1963, when “Town Crier” (Decca F11575, c/w “I’d Be Smiling Now”) crawls up to a modest no.36. From the Howie Greenfield pen, it opens with a ringing bell and the cry of ‘Oh-Yez Oh-Yez’, before the singer announces to the world how he’s been dumped by his girlfriend. Arguably it has crisper cleaner production values than Tommy Roe’s original, and if the very English concept of the Town Crier confused Tommy’s American audience, the Paul Revere reference would confuse Craig’s UK counterparts. It was around this time that Craig took his chance at musical comedy, the production of ‘No, No, Nanette’ was intended to run six months but worked so well it was extended to eight.
He continued to release less visible singles through various labels, from Pye to Bunny Lewis’ own label Ritz Records, including the movie theme “From Russia With Love” (1963, Decca F11763), a Chris Andrews song “Come Closer” c/w “She’s Smiling At Me” with the Tridents (June 1964, Fontana TF475), a retread of Little Anthony & The Imperials “I’m On The Outside Looking In” c/w “Knock On Any Door” (1966, Fontana Ritz Records TF690), and a revival of the Connie Francis biggie “Who’s Sorry Now?” c/w “From Both Sides Now” accompanied by the ‘Dougettes’ (August 1976, Cube Records BUG72). As late as April 2011, when the Tony Hatch-produced “Don’t Mind If I Cry” – previously B-side of his version of the much-recorded “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” (1969, Pye 7N863), was given a limited seven-inch vinyl reissue on Spoke Records.
Craig signed to voice-over TV commercials for a well-known brand of detergent, while tracks licensed to various ‘Hits Of The Sixties’ albums ensured his music remained in circulation. Compilation ‘Only Sixteen’ (See For Miles SEED34) gathers his hits, including both takes of “A Hundred Pounds Of Clay” – the original, and the revised lyric version. ‘The Best Of The EMI Years’ (EMI CDEMS1494) compiles thirty-two remastered tracks, adding “Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue” and “Walking My Baby Back Home”. In 1965 he was playing Robin Hood in the Barnsley pantomime ‘Babes In The Wood’. While in another strand, dramatist Dennis Potter’s final work for TV – ‘Karaoke’, features Albert Finney and the recurring theme of Craig’s “Teenager In Love” (broadcast on BBC 28 April 1996), intended to evoke the bitter-sweet lost innocence of teenage dreams. And a 2011 album, ‘The Craig Douglas Project’, includes his interpretations of Chris Rea’s “Auberge”, “If I Were A Carpenter”, “Beautiful Noise” and a bizarre revision of Radiohead’s “Creep”!
Meanwhile, he continued to perform, with nightclub bookings, cabaret and on cruise ships. He toured venues across the UK as part of ‘Solid Silver Sixties’ shows, including the Medina Theatre in his native Isle of Wight, until 2010 when a rare condition affecting his legs forced him into retirement. He appeared at a benefit event held for him at the Amersham Rock ‘n’ Roll Club on 11 December 2010, with Jet Harris among other celebrities attending, as well as John Leyton, Mike Berry & The Flames taking part. Craig sang three songs from his wheelchair at the close of the concert. Sky News filmed the event.
If the full spectrum of Pop needs a couple of token nice guys, Craig Douglas always fits that role exactly. And during that strange and frequently neglected period of pre-Beatles British Pop, he was a star.