Monday 28 March 2022

Retro Pop: Brian Hyland & Johnny Tillotson




“Sealed With A Kiss” and “Poetry In Motion” were two 
career-defining hits on the cusp of the fifties into the sixties, 
and Brian Hyland and Johnny Tillotson both have tales to tell…


What I’ve never been able to understand is how the Boy Band – whose sole function is surely to be visually appealing, have turned out to be such unattractive examples of masculine youth. When it comes to good-looking pin-up faux-Boyfriends aimed at impressionable pubertal girls, the 1950s when Rock first got Rolling, beats them hands down. Ricky Nelson was pretty to the max, Bobby Vee had that cute smile, even a moody young Cliff Richard had charisma, before we even get to the searing sexuality of Elvis Presley himself! Then there was Brian Hyland, even younger and prettier than the rest. 

He began with a novelty hit record. It must seem an irresistible opportunity to break on through to instant fame and to reach a wider audience. Yet the downside of the equation is that the follow-up seldom happens. In most cases, a novelty is – almost by definition, a brief one-off fad that is impossible to replicate. Brian Hyland is one of the few who pulled off that unlikely comeback achievement. Born 12 November 1943, in New York’s Queens district, he sang in the choir of the Roman Catholic Church at Woodhaven, Long Island, and also sang with the Del-Fi’s, a Doo-Wop harmony group of school-friends. A disc cut privately by the group and sent to music companies, resulted in Brian being singled out by David Kapp and signed to Kapp records as a solo artist, issuing his debut single – “Rosemary”, in late 1959. 

The Brill Building writing team of Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss tried him out with the slight catchy novelty song “Four Little Heels (The Clickety-Clack Song)” which made sufficient waves to indicate potential. Brian was only fifteen when his recording of the team’s song “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” on the Leader label went into the US Hot Hundred. It topped the Billboard chart, and entered Britain’s ‘New Musical Express’ chart at no.29 (9 July 1960), climbing to no.10 by 13 August in a list topped by Cliff Richard’s lip-curling Rocker “Please Don’t Tease” and the Shadow’s “Apache”. It did marginally better over on the rival ‘Record Mirror’ chart where it peaked at a no.8. Its success meant that “Four Little Heels” was re-promoted and made a fleeting appearance, up to no.34 (20 October 1960). 

The 1950s was a strangely insular period for post-war Britain, an inwardness reflected in the tightly restricted horizons offered by home-grown Pop music. Its American equivalent seemed a distant and more exotic world. When Perry Como sang about the Moon hitting your eye like a big pizza pie – on “That’s Amore”, the general reaction was to ask what, exactly, is a pizza pie? Jerry Keller’s “Here Comes Summer” consists of trips to drive-in movies, while not only did British kids not have drive-in movies, but there might possibly be just one family car, driven by Dad. And when Jerry Keller kisses his girl it makes his flat-top curl. What the hell does that mean? We now know it means a kind of crop-headed high-school hairstyle. Back then it was simply a code for that jukebox soda-Pop life-style that we could only imagine. The bikini we could understand. We’d seen the photos in magazines. In fact the situation envisaged by the song could easily have been a saucy Bamforth seaside postcard, with the embarrassed semi-immersed girl in her scanty two-piece swimsuit ogled by a red-nosed oldster in a flat-cap berated by his harridan wife, as the seagull loops above. Except that on the surviving TV-clips Brian looks as cute and vulnerable as she did, and his innocent non-threatening delivery neatly robs the song of any suggestive content. His sympathies lie with her. There’s no faint trace-elements of nudge-nudge lewd innuendo. 

The song’s appeal was international, making it a hit in Ireland, Israel, Norway, Sweden and across South America. But there was a suspicion that the lyric, about the shy young girl embarrassed by wearing her skimpy swimwear, was something time-locked back in the more modest 1950s. Haven’t costumes got even skimpier and attitudes more blatant? Yet it returned to the chart, and finally hit the UK no.1 spot in November 1990, through the guise of Bombalurina, produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and widely assumed to be sung by children’s TV-star Timmy Mallett, although he later admitted that it was not his voice, as he was unable to hit the high notes. 

But meanwhile, because Brian’s debut hit had been a gimmicky record in the style of Paul Evans’ more knowing “Seven Little Girls (Sitting In The Back Seat)” – also by Lee Pockriss, but with co-writer Bob Hilliard, it was inevitably followed by the similarly odd “Lop-Sided, Overloaded And It Wiggled When I Rode It”, a paean to ‘our wacky little car’ which basically rewrites the ‘Bikini’ format with added comedy sound-effects. But Brian returned from a three-week Tokyo engagement to sign with ABC-Paramount who were more open to expanding his range, and “Let Me Belong To You” was more successful a year later, Brian’s first venture into big romance-balladry. ‘Make me your slave’ he utters unconvincingly at the midpoint, ‘tie me down and make me behave’ as Stan Applebaum’s orchestra and chorus soar to power-crescendos that recall some of Brenda Lee’s emotion-overload hits. 

Yet Brian had to wait until 1962 when he scored two straight Top Ten hits for ABC Records, “Ginny Come Lately” and “Sealed With A Kiss” – both controlled exercises in teen angst. With UK distribution switched from London-American to HMV, first, there’s a twist on the Johnny-come-lately idea, the New Girl At School theme, an acoustic guitar figure, gently-brushed percussion, an uncluttered production with unobtrusive strings and backing vocals, but a line about her ‘soft soft silhouette’ that could set adolescent pulses racing. And oh, the delicious agonies of teenage yearning that she evokes, she only had to smile, a little smile, nothing more than look at him, she only had to smile and in a little while he was dreaming recklessly. Written by the Gary Geld and lyricist Peter Udell team, there’s a tremulous naivety to the way he sings that makes it come totally real, there’s no postmodern awareness, no hint of insincerity to betray his feelings. 

From the same songwriting duo “Sealed With A Kiss” takes the hopeless romance of “Ginny Come Lately” a step further, with soft harmonica, muted dual-tracking, and just the correct edge of restrained passion in his voice. A sparse production of a simple melodic refrain, yet instantly unforgettably memorable. The season is over, school is done, they’re heading away for the long vacation from the parental home, but it’s gonna be a cold, lonely summer… will their romance survive their enforced months of separation, with only the words in his love-letters to fill the emptiness and take her heart away? ‘I’ll see you in the sunlight, I’ll hear your voice everywhere, I’ll run to tenderly hold you, but darling, you won’t be there.’ As far as he’s concerned, it might as well rain until September. Will their pledge to meet in the Fall be fulfilled, or will there be new distractions, new soft soft silhouettes to lure his attentions?

Sometimes, to create enduring memories, Pop music doesn’t need to make statements or define a generation. It just needs to be charming. The single entered the ‘New Musical Express’ chart at no.27 (11 August 1962), climbed to no.14, then no.8 and no.6 to peak at no.5 (8 September) as Frank Ifield’s yodelling “I Remember You” topped the chart. “Warmed Over Kisses” followed it into the chart at no.30 (3 November 1962), a few places below Johnny Tillotson’s “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On”, the week after the Beatles made their chart debut with “Love Me Do”. With a Country-style piano run “Warmed Over Kisses” is the third in a Geld-Udell trilogy of appealing singles as he anticipates that his girl is about to leave him for a new boy, ‘I see I gotta be headed for pain, I see a broken heart wearin’ my name…’ The song was later effectively revived by Dave Edmunds. But meanwhile, in early 1963, Brian toured the UK as part of a package-show with Little Eva and the Brook Brothers. 

This tight little handful of hits – an arc of songs tracking love from first anticipations, through enforced separation towards the final parting, proved to be the high point of Brian’s career. Other artists had more hits. Other Teen Heart-throbs had moodier more charismatic image. But when it came to sixties nostalgia, and the endless procession of hits compilations that resulted, Brian Hyland was always there. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight it seems to have been a kinder less hectic era, when issues were simpler and more clearly defined. If Rock was a revolution, it was only in the sense that kids demanded a change, they got it, and it was here to stay. But when it comes to the lure of fame and fortune, competition is always going to be intense. 

In Britain the recording scene was locked into a monopoly of labels, EMI, Decca and maybe Philips. If you weren’t signed to one of these dominant majors, your career didn’t stand a chance. There was no independent sector that would take a chance with a new unknown. In the States it was different, there was a mass of little regional labels all hunting that one hit record ahead of the trend curve that would break-out nationally and elevate them into big-time players. And if naïve young singers were exploited by ruthless industry forces, naïve young singers have always been exploited, and their naïveté will always be taken advantage of. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Some singers luck into levels of fame that their abilities perhaps never justify, through a combination of being in the right place at the right time, with a song that gets exactly the right promotional airtime boost or lucky TV spot. Other more able talents languish. Which is why archivists and vinyl junkies keep rediscovering neglected gems of Rockabilly, Northern Soul or Freakbeat. Or just sweet Soda-pop Pop to soundtrack nostalgia TV-movies.

In a time of Pin-up picture-romance magazines with titles like ‘Roxy’, ‘Valentine’, ‘Mirabelle’, and most opaque of all, ‘Boyfriend’, these pretty Pop Stars were surrogate boyfriends targeted at the adolescent dreams of teenage girls, a rehearsal for – or an alternative until the real thing comes along. While the boys at school or in the office might have acne or poor personal hygiene problems, Bobby Vee, Ricky Nelson, Billy Fury – Brian Hyland or Johnny Tillotson were never less than photogenically pristine. In a few years time it would be Paul McCartney or Billy J Kramer on the fan-mag covers, then Donny Osmond and David Essex, before descending to Westlife and Boyzone. But for those few early-sixties years these were the Boyfriends of choice with songs of sweet innocence perfectly matched to the time. 

‘Those early days made me very paranoid’ Brian told journalist Michael Watts, ‘I had a million-selling record and I wasn’t ready for it. I was just thrown out onto gigs. I was sixteen and doing shows for maybe ten and twenty-thousand people. I hadn’t worked to attain it. I guess, unlike most people, I’ve never really had the time in my life between sixteen and twenty-one when you can be really loose. I was always being told, hide that cigarette, hide that drink. And all around were older people – promotion men, managers etc’ (‘Melody Maker’ March 1971). Yet in his home country Brian continued recording with ABC, Philips and Dot – on which he had a Top Twenty hit with the bright bubble-Pop Snuff Garrett-produced and Leon Russell-arranged “The Joker Went Wild” in 1966. 

Then Brian moved to California, signed to the Liberty-subsidiary Uni, and came under the production supervision of Del Shannon who he’d first met when they toured together in 1961, but whose own hit-making career was in decline. They began to write and record together, and it was with Del producing that Brian had his final hit, “Gypsy Woman” in 1970. A slick effortless trip around the Curtis Mayfield song – ‘she danced around and around to a guitar melody,’ enhanced by Romany violins, electric piano and near-falsetto passages. After his teen-idol phase, although still only in his late-twenties, this was evidence of a more mature Brian Hyland. Then “Sealed With A Kiss” became a UK Top Ten hit all over again in Britain when it was reissued in 1975, and Brian flew in for a ‘Top Of The Pops’ appearance – sealed with a royalty cheque!, causing comment by sporting a seriously off-trend pony-tail! While the song proved its longevity by charting yet again for Jason Donovan.

Johnny Tillotson

Time changes everything into its opposite, youth into age, innocence into experience, certainty into uncertainty. Only the hits remain unchanged, although they’re seen through an increasingly distorting lens. Johnny Tillotson’s “Poetry In Motion” knocked Cliff Richard off the no.1 spot (with “I Love You”), to reign for the two weeks of 12th and 19th January 1961, before in turn being deposed by Elvis Presley (“Are You Lonesome Tonight?”). Johnny’s only substantial UK hit, it was nevertheless all he needs to become indelibly part of the Pop landscape. If the title wasn’t necessarily freshly-minted, it passed into common currency with renewed power. ‘P-P-P-P-Poetry In Motion’ bounces with contagious energies, as he celebrates his girl’s ‘gentle sway… no wave out on the ocean, could ever move that way.’ When little literary magazines and Bardic verse-readings playfully adopt ‘Poetry In Motion’ as a titular flag of convenience, following the Love-Story-In-Pictures adaptation, it is to this bright uncomplicated hymn to the joys of love that they’re cocking their hats. ‘She doesn’t need improvement, there’s nothing I would change’ he sings in high clear articulation and total conviction, ‘she’s much too nice to re-arr-range.’ Written by the New York duo of Paul Kauffman with Mike Anthony, and issued here on the distinctive black-&-silver London label, the record was instantly everywhere. 

Unlike Brian Hyland, Johnny was originally seen as a Country singer who claimed Hank Williams as his greatest influence. He was born in Jacksonville, Florida on 20 April 1939, and was talent-spotted at the Nashville ‘Pet Milk’ talent show, from where the baby-faced teenager was astutely signed to Archie Bleyer’s Cadence Records which was then enjoying huge success with the Everly Brothers, as well as The Chordettes and Andy Williams. His debut hit, “Poetry In Motion” was recorded twice, first unsatisfactorily in New York, then a second time in Nashville where studio sessions with Floyd Cramer’s piano and Boots Randolph’s sax, deliver pristine Teen-vinyl. 

Between 1958 and 1966 Johnny was rarely out of the US Pop charts, enjoying some twenty-five Hot Hundred records including “Without You” (no.7), “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’” (no.3), the syrupy “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On” (no.17) and – in a curious twist, a cover of Kenny Lynch’s UK hit “You Can Never Stop Me Loving You” (no.24). Some of his hits ventured into a strong backbeat, but he was never less than parentally-approved, and clear-voiced with no rough edges. When the Everly Brothers quit Cadence for the newly-launched Warner Brothers records, Bleyer wound up his label, with Andy Williams acquiring many of the masters. While Johnny Tillotson simply re-signed to MGM, and soon returned to the Top Ten with the saccharin “Talk Back Trembling Lips”. And it was melancholic Country songs that would guarantee him a loyal audience long after his Pop career declined, as ‘Melody Maker’ phrased it, ‘Remember Johnny? Gather round all ye lovers of olde Pop and drift in mists of sentiment with the ballad ‘n’ country voice of Tillotson’ (January 1967). 

Sometimes, to create enduring memories, Pop music just needs to be charming. “Sealed With A Kiss” and “Poetry In Motion” need nothing more.



7 July 1960 – ‘Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ c/w ‘Don’t Dilly Dally, Sally’ (London HLR 9161) hits no.8, on the chart for 13 weeks. US no.1 on Billboard chart (Leader 805) 

20 October 1960 – ‘Four Little Heels’ c/w ‘That’s How Much’ (London HLR 9203) hits no.29, on the chart for six weeks. 

November 1960 – ‘Lop-Sided Over-Loaded (And It Wiggles When We Rode It)’ c/w ‘I Gotta Go (‘Cause I Love You)’ (US Kapp K-363X) issues in UK as London 9262. The B-side written by John D Loudermilk. 

4 September 1961 – ‘Let Me Belong To You’ c/w ‘Let It Die’ (ABC-Paramount 10236), no.20 on US Billboard chart. 

10 May 1962 – ‘Ginny Come Lately’ c/w ‘I Should Be Getting’ Better’ (HMV POP 10130) hits no.5, on the chart for 15 weeks. No.21 on US Billboard chart (ABC-Paramount 10294) 

2 August 1962 – ‘Sealed With A Kiss’ c/w ‘Summer Job’ (HMV POP 1015) hits no.3, on the chart for 15 weeks. No.3 on US Billboard chart (ABC-Paramount 10336) 

8 November 1962 – ‘Warmed Over Kisses’ (HMV POP 1079) hits no.28, on the chart for 6 weeks. No.25 on US Billboard chart (ABC-Para 10359) 

6 August 1966 – ‘The Joker Went Wild’ c/w ‘I Can Hear The Rain’ (US, Philips 40377) US no.20, issued in the UK as Philips BF 1508.

26 November 1966 – ‘Run, Run, Look And See’ (US, Philips 40405) US no.25, issued in the UK as Philips BF 1528. 

1966 – LP ‘The Joker Went Wild/ Run Run Look And See’ (Philips BL 7762) which includes ‘Just Out Of Reach’, ‘Yesterday I Had A Girl’, ‘Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly)’ and the Beatles ‘Norwegian Wood’. ‘Record Mirror’ calls it ‘a bunch of clean-limbed songs… but Pop music here has changed since this type of sound sold well.’ 

March 1967 – ‘Hung Up In Your Eyes’ c/w ‘Why Mine’ (Philips BF 1555), both sides written by Crickets Glen Hardin and Sonny Curtis, ‘Why Mine’ with Snuff ‘TL’ Garrett. 

May 1967 – ‘Holiday For Clowns’ c/w ‘Yesterday I Had A Girl’ (Philips BF 1569. 

August 1967 – ‘Get The Message’ c/w ‘Kinda Groovy’ (Philips BF 1601) 

February 1969 – ‘Tragedy’ c/w ‘You’d Better Stop, And Think It Over’ (Dot 119) 

May 1969 – ‘A Million To One’c/w ‘It Could All Begin Again (In You)’ (Dot 124) 

August 1969 – ‘Stay And Love Me All Summer’ c/w ‘Rainy April Morning’ (UK Dot 128), flip-side written by Brian Hyland. 

10 April 1971 – ‘Gypsy Woman’ c/w ‘You And Me’ (Uni UN 530) hits no.42, on the chart for 5 weeks, US no.3 (UNI 55240). A Curtis Mayfield song, produced by Del Shannon. 

1972 – ‘Only Wanna Make You Happy’ c/w ‘When You’re Lovin’ Me’ (UNI 545), produced by Bobby Hart with Brian Hyland, ‘Melody Maker’ says that ‘I guess Brian sounds as young as ever.’ 

28 June 1975 – ‘Sealed With A Kiss’ (ABC 4059) hits no.7, on the chart for 11 weeks.


1 December 1960 – ‘Poetry In Motion’ (London HLA 9231) hits no.1, on the chart for 15 weeks. When it was included on the November 1972 ‘The Best Of Johnny Tillotson’ (MGM) collection the ‘Melody Maker’ reviewer (MO) said ‘I can remember pressing my ears up to the radio, tuned to Luxembourg, at age ten or so in order to catch each fading second of ‘Poetry In Motion’.’ 

2 February 1961 – ‘Jimmy’s Girl’ (London HLA 9275) hits no.43, on the chart for 2 weeks 

12 June 1962 – ‘It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’’ (London HLA 9550) hits no.31, on the chart for 10 weeks 

4 October 1962 – ‘Send Me The Pillow You Dream On’ (London HLA 9598) hits no.21, on the chart for 10 weeks, in competition with a cover version by Marty Wilde. 

27 December 1962 – ‘I Can’t Help It’ (London HLA 9642) hits no.41, on the chart for 6 weeks 

9 May 1963 – ‘Out Of My Mind’ (London HLA 9695) hits no.34, on the chart for 5 weeks 

1966 – ‘No Love At All’ c/w ‘What Am I Gonna Do’ (MGM) ‘NME’ says ‘a plaintive country-type ballad, sung by Johnny in heartfelt, sob-in-the-throat style, against a background of cascading strings, whispering girls and a slowly plodding beat.’ Co-composed by Tillotson with his wife Lucille Cosanza. The title-song of a January 1967 LP (MGM C8025). 

January 1967 – ‘Tommy Jones’ c/w ‘Strange Things Happen’ (US MGM K13684) 

March 1968 – ‘Cabaret’ c/w ‘If I Were A Rich Man’ (MGM1393), ‘Record Mirror’ says ‘Johnny takes this much-recorded show hit at breakneck speed, I liked it, but I feel it’s in the field a bit late.’ 

14 April 1979 – ‘Poetry In Motion’ (Lightning LIG 9016), a reissue that hits no.67, on the chart for 2 weeks

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