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The tale behind the song: Those Were the Days

1 May

Mary Hopkin: those were the days… of floral prints

It’s Eurovision season again, which is a tenuous hook for introducing an article about “Those Were the Days” – an evergreen hit for Mary Hopkin who, of course, represented the United Kingdom in 1970. Alas, it wasn’t with this number, an old Russian folk song. If it had been, she might have sent Ireland’s Dana packing. Instead, she came second with the rather dismal “Knock Knock, Who’s There?” She’s never made any secret of her dislike of this typical old-school Eurovision ditty.

The following article was from a long-running series called Songscape, which I contributed to the now-defunct Singer magazine for several years. I’ll be posting a selection here during the next few weeks. I note that I referred to Mary’s spasmodic returns to recording. Happily, in the interim, she has been back in the studio – and the album (You Look Familiar) she made with her son, Morgan Visconti, a couple of years ago proved that her golden voice is still in fine fettle.

Those Were the Days

If you like your nostalgia tinged with a dose of world-weariness, “Those Were the Days” is guaranteed to send you into a reverie populated by your own loved and lost, tempered with a dark veneer of experience. It’s a folk survival anthem in a minor key, occasionally betraying its somewhat lugubrious, fatalistic Russian roots before rallying itself for that instantly recognisable, bittersweet refrain that harks back to more carefree times.

The melody of “Those Were the Days” is possibly an ancient Russian folk tune, although some sources claim it was written by a pair of Russian songwriters towards the end of the 19th century. Its early history is traced on Pat Richmond’s fascinating Mary Hopkin website, which includes an audio link to a native interpretation by Rada and Nikolay Volshanivovs.

But the song was probably first heard more widely when it was sung by Maria Schell in the 1958 film adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov. Around the same time, the great American folk composer and songwriter, Gene Raskin, encountered it and produced the English lyrics we know today.

Raskin and his wife, Francesca, kept it in their repertoire and when they appeared at the Blue Lamp club in London in the mid-1960s, Paul McCartney heard it and stored it in his memory bank. A couple of years later, he retrieved it and suggested it as the debut single for his protegée, the Opportunity Knocks winner and new Apple signing, Mary Hopkin.

Armed with a voice as pure and true as anything that has graced the charts in the decades since, and a plangent arrangement that featured various strings – including a Hungarian version of the dulcimer – and a boys’ choir, Hopkin scored a huge international hit and secured her own place in pop history.

On paper, it shouldn’t have worked. Hopkin, a vision of youthful innocence with her unspoilt folk-singer’s soprano, was hardly a convincing prospect for lyrics imbued with the hard-learned lessons of life and the wages of experience. But somehow, she got to the truth at the heart of the words and made them her own. The recording, as evocative today as ever, never leaves you doubting that the lonely woman she sees in her reflection is really herself.

Both Hopkin and Sandie Shaw recorded “Those Were the Days” in a number of different languages for the international market, singing phonetically in the custom of the time.

Shaw’s Italian, French, German and Spanish efforts have recently resurfaced, nicely packaged, on a series of compilation CDs. Unfortunately, they trade the subtleties of the Hopkin arrangement for the brassy oom-pahs that tended to characterise so many of her records. Despite her valiant efforts, she always seems to come second to the band.

When Hopkin recorded the song, perhaps she was already anticipating how quickly life in the mainstream recording industry would stale. To the regret of her contemporary fans, and plenty who have discovered her since, Hopkin turned her back on a commercial career after a couple of albums. She has made only spasmodic returns to public performance, always on her own musical terms.

Those Were the Days, Dolly-style

How touching it is, then, to hear a familiar voice among the harmonies for the title track on Dolly Parton’s album, Those Were the Days. Parton, an immensely likeable, serious musician, almost claims the song for her own. But she had her people call Mary’s people, and Hopkin’s tones – remarkably undiminished by the years – shimmer through the proceedings in delightful memory of times past.

Three of the best

Mary Hopkin, Postcard, EMI

The 1968 worldwide hit is still fresh and arresting after all these years. A concert version is also available on Live at the Royal Festival Hall 1972, released on CD by Mary Hopkin Music.

Dolly Parton, Those Were the Days, EMI

One of the highlights of a jewel-studded album from an artist who, beneath the wigs and the front, just keeps on getting better. Hopkin guests on the harmonies.

Sandie Shaw, Pourvu que ca Dure, EMI

Interesting collection of Shaw’s French language recordings, including “Le Temps des Fleurs” (“Those Were the Days”). She races the band all the way to the finishing line.

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Kathy Kirby: a Unique and Troubled Star

21 May

Kathy Kirby sings at the NME Poll Winners concert in 1964

Hits, Rarities and Lipgloss: demand for Kathy Kirby's recordings remains high, despite her years away from the spotlight

A star’s longevity is a complex thing, often defying simplistic interpretation based on chart placings, millions of records sold and accumulated decades of success. So how to explain the enduring enigma of Kathy Kirby, whose death at the age of 72 made the headlines, despite the fact that nearly half a century had passed since she was at the peak of her television stardom, and it was four decades since she had made any substantial recordings?

Discovered and mentored by the great band leader Bert Ambrose, Kathy Kirby was groomed in the image of his ideal woman – a kind of late 1950s hybrid of Marilyn Monroe and Diana Dors, with crisply styled peroxide hair and startlingly glossy red lips. Ambrose’s concept was dated even by the time Kirby became a major television star on the strength of her early 1960s appearances in Stars and Garters. But somehow – largely thanks to a winning and cheerful personality that knew instinctively how to reach a television audience beyond the camera and, crucially, a voice of spectacular power and emotional force, which commanded attention whatever she was singing – she transcended the stylistic straightjacket he imposed on her.

As so often in the annals of show business, Kathy Kirby’s life eventually came to mirror the more dramatic lyrics of some of her songs. This, combined with the unique qualities of her voice, dusted her with an almost mythical fascination, long after her active career had waned.

Ambrose had given Kirby her first break as a teenager, employing her on a short contract as a vocalist for his dance band after she had persuaded him to let her sing for him at the Palais de Danse in Ilford when she was just 16, in 1954. She spent the next few years paying her dues on the club circuit, singing with Ambrose on and off, and gaining valuable show-business experience. But it was not until he became her manager and took control of her recording and television career that things really took off, culminating in hit singles and albums for Decca, and some hugely popular television series. Their relationship soon developed privately and they would be together until his death in 1971, an arrangement that would have disastrous consequences for Kirby.

Kathy Kirby’s repertoire, tightly controlled by Ambrose, was heavily standards-based. Her most enduring hit was an up-tempo cover version of Doris Day’s “Secret Love”, and most of her television performances favoured the American song book and show tunes rather than the pop and soul songs that fuelled the careers of her contemporaries – Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Cilla Black and Petula Clark. Her look, too, was at odds with their fashionable styles, which would come to define the swinging 60s. And yet she carved a niche for herself in a competitive market, winning an NME Award for the best female singer of 1964 and singing “I Belong” with characteristic brio for the United Kingdom in the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest. She was defeated only by the mighty combination of one of Serge Gainsbourg’s yé-yé compositions and the nubile France Gall, who took the trophy for Luxemburg.

I Belong: Kathy Kirby’s performance at the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest

There’s no doubt that Kirby could – and should – have had a much more versatile and long-lasting career. But Ambrose’s artistic and financial control were absolute. Occasionally she tried to persuade him to try something new. She begged him to let her record “You’re My World”, a typically extravagant 1960s Latin ballad that would have suited her vocal range and majesty down to the ground. He refused, the song went to Cilla Black, and she took it to the top of the charts. Not only were Kirby’s sharp musical instincts constantly repressed but when Ambrose died, she discovered how badly he had mismanaged – and misspent – her hard-earned fortune (she was for a while the UK’s highest-paid female television star).

Rudderless and naïve, and at the mercy of her own increasingly brittle temperament, Kathy Kirby soon found herself marooned at the edge of the spotlight. If she’d had the steely, worldly-wise verve of a Shirley Bassey or the common touch of a Cilla Black, and the backup of an astute manager, she might have been able to reinvent herself for the 1970s. As it was, for her, that decade imploded into tabloid notoriety, bankruptcy, mental health problems and a difficult reputation which made work difficult to come by.

Secret Love: Kathy Kirby sings her greatest hit in 1982 – a rare, late appearance that shows she’d lost none of her vocal power

Kirby did come back, several times. As late as 1983, she was making occasional television appearances and singing in nightclubs. Then she turned her back on the business, retreating to her flat in West London. Living quietly, she unwittingly added to her own status as a reclusive enigma. Occasionally a newspaper article would ask, “Whatever happened to Kathy Kirby?” but the lady herself preferred to keep quiet on the matter.

Then, in 2005, a biography (Secrets, Loves and Lip Gloss) written by her friend and manager James Harman appeared, generating new interest in her career and recordings. And in 2009, she made a DVD documentary with Harman – Kathy Kirby: My Story – giving her first live interview in decades. Some people were upset by her appearance – she was clearly not in the best of health, and perhaps they resented the changes that had taken place since she was last in the public eye. In fact, her lucid comments, her refusal to cast blame elsewhere for any of her troubles – she loved Bert Ambrose, she said, despite everything – and her gratitude for what she still considered to have been a career of high achievement (which indeed it was), proved a fitting and dignified valediction.

Among her considerable vocal talents, Kathy Kirby was a superb torch singer. You only need to hear her versions of “Body and Soul” or “The Man I Love” to understand the extent of her skill. Her large voice sometimes seemed too grand an instrument to be constrained by small rooms and venues, but given a classic number her phrasing and lyrical clarity were second to none and she was equally capable of great subtlety and an urgent emotional truth. We should have heard a great deal more from her.

I tried to interview her occasionally over the years, sending letters via Equity and Decca without a great deal of hope. Then one afternoon in the mid-1990s, the phone rang and a familiar, breathy, slightly off-centre voice started speaking to me in the third person about a note received for Miss Kirby from Mr Piers. Miss Kirby, said the voice, was not giving interviews at the moment but would pass the letter to her musical director who would let Mr Piers know when anything changed. As tends to happen on such occasions, I was too nonplussed to press the singer – for it was obviously the lady herself – any further and meekly thanked her for calling. Caller-ID allowed me to take a note of the number, which I kept for posterity but never had the courage to ring. Now, it’s too late. But I was delighted that the BBC bulletins made room for news of the death of this unique and quintessentially troubled star.