Tidbits: British Invasion in the Great American Songbook

In our Forgotten Gem feature this month, we look at "The Gypsy," top song of 1946, a bonafide American standard. Only problem is that it was written in the UK by Englishman Billy Reid. In our Artist feature this month we cover Matt Monro, the "British Frank Sinatra" who sounded so much like Sinatra that some people are convinced that his originals were actually Sinatra songs. (Could you follow that?) So for this issue of Tidbits, we figured we'd tie up some loose ends. Then again, maybe we'll just untie some of your preconceived notions about The British Invasion, and fill in one more tidbit on Matt Monro.

The first British star we'll cover is Gene Pitney. Yes, we said British star, although fact is he was born in the USA and really was an American artist. But beginning with Gene's first chart hit, the obscure "(I Want to) Love My Life Away" in 1961, he usually charted higher on the British charts. The rare exception to this was "Only Love Can Break a Heart" from 1962, a Burt Bacharach/Hal David tune that is rightfully considered Gene's U.S. Standard. Pitney penned a few classics of his own, including Ricky Nelson's "Hello Mary Lou." In any case, Pitney became a smash in England; he was so popular that he was even invited to sit in with the Rolling Stones on a few sessions. As a token of thanks Mick Jagger and Keith Richards penned a song for Pitney called "That Girl Belongs To Yesterday" which -- believe it or not -- charted in the USA just prior to The Beatles arrival. Pitney continued to chart in the UK long after he had dropped like a stone from the US charts, and ultimately died in England while on tour.

Speaking of The Beatles, the songwriting contributions of the Lennon/McCartney team to the list of American classics probably numbers in the dozens, from "Michelle" to "Yesterday" to "Hey Jude." One that they seldom get credit for is "A World Without Love," which was recorded by Peter and Gordon. That song topped the American charts in June 1964, and although the song is iconic, the facts of who sang it and who wrote it are usually lost in the crush of the British Invasion.

Another group that is often forgotten in British Invasion discussions is Herman's Hermits, a cutesy pop act fronted by the irrepressible Peter Noone. This group routinely performed older U.S. Standards, and actually put a couple of them on the charts. These included "Silhouettes" -- originally a hit for The Rays and The Diamonds, and "Wonderful World" -- a hit for Sam Cooke, and later for Art Garfunkel. Incidentally, The Hermits took the song to #2, some ten notches higher than Cooke's original, and believe it or not, Garfunkel's went to #1.

Herman's Hermits had at least one other hit song that must be considered a pop standard; in February 1967 they released "There's a Kind of Hush," which topped out at #4 on the charts. Although Noone's vocals were fun, the song didn't actually gain "standard" status until it was covered a few years later by The Carpenters, who -- surprise -- didn't even reach the top ten. Truth be told, The Carpenters' version did hit #1 on the Adult Contemporary charts, but it is still interesting that the recording considered the "standard" didn't actually chart as well as the Hermits' more simplistic rendition.

"A Kind of Hush" was written by Les Reed and Geoff Stephens, sort of the British version of Bacharach and David. Although most successful writing together, they each contributed chapters to the Great American Songbook individually; Reed with "It's Not Unusual" for Tom Jones, and Stephens with "It's Like We Never Said Goodbye" for Crystal Gayle. By coincidence, "It's Not Unusual" topped the UK charts in March of 1965 and was knocked out of that spot a week later by "The Last Time," the first chart-topper penned by the aforementioned team of Jagger/Richards.

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featured performance

Here's a vintage video of Herman's Hermits "There's A Kind of Hush." Please note that you have to click on the little "play" arrow twice to get it to work.

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One of Herman's Hermits huge hits from the midst of the 1964 British Invasion wasn't actually British at all. "I'm into Something Good" was their first U.S. chart hit, with music and lyrics by none less than Gerry Goffin and Carole King. The song had already been recorded by some American artists, but had tanked. It wasn't until Hermit Derek Leckenby changed the arrangement around that the song really took off. This is unusual in the history not only of Goffin-King songs, but also for the Hermits, because producer Mickie Most routinely lorded over most of the recordings.

Most, incidentally, was the British brains behind another American classic, "The House of the Rising Sun." This tune dates at least from the early 20th century, but was more or less the stuff of blues guitar students until Most re-worked it for The Animals. Another of Most's productions that became a well known pop hit in the U.S. is "To Sir, With Love" from Lulu in 1967. Lulu, as you may recall, was married for a time to pop icon Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees. Most seldom wrote songs; he merely had a knack for formulaic hit singles. To create this sound -- including the sound of "There's A Kind of Hush" and "To Sir, With Love," Most often relied on two session musicians named Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, who would go on to form a decidedly non-pop group called Led Zeppelin. So if someone tells you that Led Zep has no place in the Great American Songbook, you can reply that they aren't totally correct.

The lyrics for "To Sir, With Love" were penned by a gentleman named Don Black (Donald Blackstone) who created the lyrics for a number of Bond movie themes. Lest you think Black didn't play much of a role in the Great American Songbook either, please be aware that he has also written lyrics for the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber. OK, you caught us...Lloyd Webber is British. So we'll have to do a little more name-dropping to prove our point: Black also worked with Jule Styne, Henry Mancini, Elmer Bernstein, Michel Legrand and Marvin Hamlisch.

By the way, Black was also Matt Monro's manager.

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To revisit "Tidbits" from last month, which delves into classic songs that aren't necessarily sung by the person you might think sang them, please click here.