the first song I can remember dancing to
So this is where it all started? The only reason anyone wanted to talk to me in the first place was because I would dance with such lack of inhibition down the front of shows.
Our family had one of those monstrous wooden radiograms when I was growing up in Chelmsford. It was the Sixties. It stacked the records as it played them: a pre-requisite for any record-player, and one guaranteed to shorten the life of all vinyl by several years (that, and the lack of replacement styluses). Before then I think we had a stand-alone in a box unit, complete with storage space for the vinyl. My father’s taste in music veered on left-field – Spike Jones, Tom Lehrer, The Goons, a smattering of children’s 78 rpms including ‘The Banana Boat Song’, Danny Kaye’s shamelessly tear-jerking ‘Little Child (Daddy Dear)’ and Rolf Harris’ fantastic ‘Two Little Boys’. Oh, and the still peerless Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Puttin’ On The Style’. I believe we even had ‘Rock Around The Clock’. No Beatles or Elvis or (heaven forbid!) Rolling Stones, of course: We were much too High Church of England for that.
I say my father, because I strongly suspect my mum’s taste didn’t come into it. We were a family moulded along Victorian lines. Partly. My father smoked a pipe, but was a conscientious objector during the Fifties, my mum finally obtained a divorce after 30 years and became a school-teacher. I loved all the above records without discrimination and, when my dad died, I ended up with several of them – Michael took the Spike Jones, I think, while my other brothers and sisters passed, not owning record-players. (The final present I can recall my dad giving me, several years earlier, was a tape of Scott Joplin ragtime numbers: this followed on from an inspired choice of his, to buy me a Jane Siberry tape after reading a review of it in Punch. The tape later sound-tracked the saddest train journey I have ever taken.) But this was the song I can recall bouncing off sofas back and forth to, faster and faster: my dance was half-romp, half-frantic expulsion of desire, and wholly creative. The idea was to try and contort my body into as many different shapes as possible while hitting as many sofas as possible while never losing touch with the energy at the song’s core that caused my body to behave thus. I must have been about the same age as Isaac (six years old) and there wasn’t a more thrilling sound in the world.
Sometimes, I still feel that way. The song in its French language version was called ‘The Ballad Of Poor John’, but I knew it by its English name, ‘The Poor People Of Paris’. The Les Baxter version from 1956 was a massive hit (Number One for four weeks on Billboard) but I didn’t know about that. Hearing it now, it sounds much too polite. The version I grew up knowing and loving was popular ragtime pianist Winifred Atwell’s much jauntier, almost pub-time, take (Number One in the UK, same year).
First black artist to have a Number One hit in the UK, apparently (with 1954’s ‘Let’s Have Another Party’). Massive in Australia in the Seventies, apparently.
Good on ya, Winifred.
Here’s Lonnie. Doubtless I busted a few sofa cushions to this one as well.