Clinton Ford’s love of a good song, his enthusiasm for reinterpreting old novelty numbers and his sheer natural exuberance are all evident on his 1960s albums.
Clinton The Clown,
Marble Arch MALS 1223,
In the 1960s, novelty songs and music hall numbers seemed to make perfect sense in that age of psychedelic experimentation and resolute British musicality that no longer felt the need to look to America for inspiration. Artists such as The Kinks and Pink Floyd crafted songs that could have transferred straight from some dingy East End musical hall, telling tales of cross dressing clothes thieves or of the need to preserve Village Greens. Equally, The Small Faces could employ the services of Stanley Unwin to narrate Happiness Stan’s hunt for the missing half of the moon. Bands could also cover songs of a much more ancient nature, with the likes of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Bob Kerr’s Whoopee Band tracking down obscure sheet music and long-forgotten 78s for ideas.
In short, it was an opportune moment to be a lover of novelty songs and an aficionado of old music. And there were few musicians of this era who demonstrated their love of novelty numbers as much as Clinton Ford.
Born Ian Harrison in 1931 in Salford, Clinton learnt much from his musically inclined parents (his mother was a cinema pianist in the days before Clinton arrived). Called up for national service at the age of twenty, Clinton was posted to Vienna where he took to organising concert parties, often featuring himself as a headlining guitar act. During this period he also mingled with US servicemen and became a big fan of country music. After demob, young Ian Harrison as he still was, returned to the UK and signed on for a tour of duty with another famously strict and organised regiment with a reputation for nurturing showbiz talent, namely Butlins.
During his time as a Butlins redcoat at Pwllheli, trainee entertainer Ian Harrison formed the Backwoods Skiffle Group and deciding, quite rightly, that his given name lacked a certain dazzling pizazz, changed it to the much more theatrical Clinton Ford. After the end of the 1957 summer season, Ford bade farewell to knobbly knees contents and Hawaiian ballrooms and toured the variety halls before settling into a residency at Liverpool’s newly opened Cavern Club. With the popularity of skiffle soon on the wane, Clinton instead turned his hand to jazz, and formed the wonderfully named Merseysippi Jazz Band.
Signed up by Oriole Records in 1958, Clinton Ford’s first successful solo recording came a year later in October 1959 with Old Shep. Inspired by his love of country music to record the maudlin tale of a dead dog, the song was given a rock and roll makeover, a move which caused Clinton to disown the song and donate all royalties to The Battersea Dogs Home. Through time, he grew to detest the mawkish ballad even more, a fact which gleeful hecklers would remember for the rest of his career. Leaving deceased canines aside, Clinton Ford’s next chart entry was a much happier and far less mushy affair.
Fanlight Fanny provided Clinton Ford’s second chart hit in March 1962. The song written back in 1935 by George Formby, Harry Gifford & Fred E Cliff had enjoyed a successful release on 78 and also found its way into Formby’s 1939 film Trouble Brewing, along with an additional verse. The tale of a tawdry West End degenerate stuffed with booze and shoplifted goods, her bleary sights set on seeking a good time in the night spots of Soho, it was the perfect song to drag Clinton away from his attempts at country and rock and towards a genre that would stimulate and invigorate his recordings anew.
Fanlight Fanny inspired much of what followed in Clinton Ford’s career. An album simply entitled Clinton Ford was released hot on the heels of its success and was later re-released on Hallmark as Clinton Ford Sings Fanlight Fanny. Further recordings of novelty numbers and old music hall songs followed on albums such as The Melody Man and Oh! By Jingo, both released in 1963. In case the debt to Clinton’s breakthrough single wasn’t acknowledged enough, Oh! By Jingo also included the Wally Lindsay composition Fanlight Fanny’s Daughter, a track also released as a single.
1968’s release of Clinton The Clown (re-released in 1970 on the Marble Arch label) saw Clinton revisit his favourite Fanny yet again. Far from just simply going through the movements with an old favourite though, on Clinton The Clown he saw fit to give his Fanny a through makeover. This time rather than being Fanlight Fanny, the tarnished heroine is now elevated to the status of Fan-Dance Fanny, a renaming which does seem to make some sense and add even more seediness to the character of the decrepit night club sensation. The arrangement by George Chisholm is much tighter than his original 1962 attempt and dispenses with a lot of Clinton Ford’s bellowing of ‘Fanny’, which is perhaps a pity. The only lyrical change in the intervening six years is Fanny’s decision to wear dustbin lids on her chest rather than her earlier saucepan lids. Age can be cruel to even the frowsiest of frowsy old queens.
While mainly drawing on old songs, there are four newer numbers on the album. The fact that these contemporary covers are difficult to spot is a testament to the care and respect with which they were written. The first debut on the album is The Biggest Balalaika In the World, composed by young piano player and future EMI record producer Richard Smith. A tale of ‘Volga Olga’ and her prized collection of unlikely musical instruments including her much discussed maracas and of course the ‘biggest balalaika in the Balkans’. The innuendos are a treat and each is underlined by some frantic playing from George Chisholm and his band The Inmates.
The Biggest Balalaika In the World is a perfect suggestive accompaniment to another of the contemporary tunes, My Baby’s Wild About My Old Trombone, a track which celebrates an equally impressive instrument with similarly beguiling properties. Written by Johnny Stevens and arranged by George Chisholm, its inventory of daft innuendos sung by Clinton is interrupted by some splendidly energetic trombone blowing from George.
Other contemporary treats include The Old Fashioned Bustle My Grandmother Wore, even the title of which sounds like something from a lost Edwardian classic, and The Old Bazaar In Cairo. Both songs again fit perfectly into the mad world of ridiculous novelty songs, and both were written by Clinton Ford himself, The Old Bazaar In Cairo with the assistance of veteran comedian Charlie Chester.
The authentically ancient nonsense songs date way back to 1900 with the inclusion of Burlington Bertie, a music hall song composed by Harry B Norris and made famous by the male impersonators Vesta Tilley and Ella Shields. There are a number of novelty foxtrots included such as He Played his Ukulele as the Ship Went Down, a 1932 Arthur Le Clerq delight, and When It’s Night-Time In Italy, It’s Wednesday Over Here, a 1923 Lew Brown and James Kendis number updated by Clinton with Barbara Castle references, that is more full of gibberish and prattle than words which actually make sense.
Further treats include Leslie Sarony’s 1932 Rhymes, which offers enticingly unfinished lewd limericks for the smutty minded listener to complete. Sarony of course enjoyed another 60’s revival with the Bonzo’s treatment of his bouncy Jollity Farm. The Pig Got Up and Slowly Walked Away sees Clinton tackle a 1933 temperance song with lyrics by Benjamin Hapgood Burt. This inebriated ditty details Clinton’s efforts to befriend a disdainful condescending porker in his best drunken slur, with some fine intoxicated trombone accompaniment, once again courtesy of George Chisholm.
The Night I Appeared As Macbeth by William Hargreaves dates back to 1922 and was made popular by the music hall star Billy Merson. And finally there is Riley’s Cowshed a 1924 call and response frivolity extolling the delights of ‘Bandy Bertha’ from Stanley J Damerell & Robert Hargreaves that was covered later in the 60’s by none other than Adge Cutler and The Wurzels.
Clinton Ford continued performing into the 1980s before gradually retreating into retirement on the Isle of Man. His love of a good song, his enthusiasm for reinterpreting old novelty numbers and his sheer natural exuberance made him a popular live act, and all those traits are there to see on the albums he recorded at the height of his powers. What else can I finish with but the frowsy star of the record, the one and only faded delight that is Fanny!