In the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2002, a man by the name of Michael Barratt waited for a taxi in Clearwell, a tiny village in west Gloucestershire. When no taxi arrived, he decided to drive himself home. Driving slowly and erratically, he didn’t get far before he was intercepted by the police. A breath-test back at the station revealed he was over twice the legal drink-driving limit, and was subsequently fined £400 and banned from driving for two years.
For Shakin’ Stevens, that’s about as unwholesome as his image has ever been. For the writer of his first UK #1 single, the story is quite different.
Born in 1908, the son of a Methodist preacher, Carl Stuart Hamblen rose to fame as one of radio’s first “singing cowboys”. In 1934 he signed to the recently created Decca label; his first record, Texas Plains / Poor Unlucky Cowboy, was the label’s second release. He appeared in movies, often as a villain, alongside the likes of Gene Autry and John Wayne. He hunted, and bred racehorses. In 1945 his horse El Lobo was flown from Los Angeles to San Mateo, where it raced in and won the Burlingame Handicap before being flown back the same day.
He drank and gambled, gambled and drank. And when he’d had his fill of both he would fight or just shoot out streetlights. If he landed in jail, which he frequently did, his sponsors would bail him out. He may have labelled himself the “original juvenile delinquent”, but he was still fantastically popular.
In 1949 his wife introduced him to a young evangelist by the name of Billy Graham; the meeting transformed both lives. Hamblen was born again, quit smoking, sold his racehorses, and gave up the drink. Now a committed teetotaller (in 1952 he ran for president as the candidate for the Prohibition Party), he refused to read out the radio station’s beer commercials and was fired. Winding up in a jail cell on account of excess use of the sponsor’s product is one thing, but not wanting to endorse it on the airwaves is clearly the worse crime. Graham meanwhile reported a huge increase in turnout for his ministry after Hamblen’s conversion.
In 1954, inspired by a shack he and a buddy stumbled upon while out hunting in the woods, he wrote This Ole House. The song was recorded by Rosemary Clooney and reached #1 in both the US Billboard chart and the UK singles chart in November 1954.
In March 1981, Elvis portrayer and future best-selling artist Shakin’ Stevens recorded a version of the song in his familiar Elvis with clipped wings and heels style. It entered the chart at #29, and ousted Jealous Guy by Roxy Music to reach #1 in its fourth week in the chart, where it stayed for three weeks before being toppled by Bucks Fizz and their recent Eurovision Song Contest winning song Making Your Mind Up.
This Ole House might be a bit cookie-cutter, an example of the too-too-clean 80s desire for metronomic beats and karaoke covers, but back then… what a hero we had in Shakin Stevens…