ZING – was the path of ITV’s first hit tune 

2 May 2016 tbs.pm/8936

Tune 19560422-9From the TVTimes for week commencing 20 April 1956

This is the story of a hit tune. Independent Television’s first hit tune – Robin Hood. Those who were watching television on Sunday, September 25 last year,[1] heard the birth of a tune that was to climb swiftly and surely to the hit-parade. It was the date of the screening of the first episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood.[2]

On that day, and every Sunday since, the programme was introduced by one minute and four seconds of words and music – stirring words and stirring music, that lodged securely in the “favourites” department of the public’s song-store.

Week by week it gained in popularity: stars rushed to their recording studios, bands played it on the radio. Errand boys whistled it on their rounds, workmen sang it in their canteens, girls sang it in their offices, housewives sang it in their homes.

A hit had arrived way up there in the Top Twenty – for sales of records and sheet music.

The screen does not identify the smooth-voiced songster on the television sound-track – but those familiar tones leave little room for doubt. It’s Dick James,[3] veteran of many hundreds of broadcasts.

Dick, of course, has made a recording of Robin Hood for Parlophone. He’s supported on the record by the cheers of his nine-year old son Stephen and 11 school chums.

And there are at least eight other recordings on the market, including those of Billy Cotton and Edmundo Ros. Vying with Dick James’ record in the popularity stakes is Gary Millers version.[4]

The American representatives of Sapphire Films, who produce the TV show,[5] knew that a “signature-tune” would be wanted. They obtained from Carl Sigman[6] (he wrote Dance, Ballerina, Dance, too) a likely-looking effort and sent a special recording to England.

Sapphire played it over, liked it. They cabled back: “Go ahead and copyright it.”

 

 

That settled the “signature-tune” problem. But who was to record the soundtrack?

They phoned Dick James. He asked what key it was in – then, satisfied about that, asked them to send him over a copy.

Says Dick: “What really persuaded me was what they told me about it being heard every week here in England and over 450 stations in America on a coast-to-coast hookup.”

Screening in America started within a few days[7] of Robin Hood’s English TV début, and reports indicate that show and tune are doing well over there, too.

“Anyhow, I said Yes, I’d do it. This was only about three weeks before the show went on the air, and the sound-track had to be made quickly.

“They fixed it for late one evening. I had a charity concert to do, but I went on early and dashed out to the recording studios at Beaconsfield.[8]

“I got there about 9.30, and we finished at 11.30. Two hours work for a minute and four seconds on the sound-track.”

What was the hold-up?

I’m glad it wasn’t going on Russian TV, or I’d have been completely kettled.

“The tune was wonderfully easy to sing; it has such a flow to it. What caused the trouble was the accent.

It was going on English TV, so the accent couldn’t be too American. I couldn’t sing the word ‘Robin’ like an American gangster – yet I couldn’t sing it like an English butler, either, because it was to be heard in America. I had to hit it right in the middle.”

Dick did very well. His accent is exactly mid-Atlantic.

And he adds this comment: “I’m glad it wasn’t going on Russian TV, or I’d have been completely kettled.”

The musicians for the sound track were “session boys,” specially recruited for the occasions. To get the mediaeval horn effect, they used four trumpets and a flute. For rhythm – bass, drums and guitar.

Did Dick realise, then, that he had a hit on his hands?

“Well, when I got back my wife Frances asked how it had gone. I said to her: ‘It’s pretty catchy. It could be big.’

“You see, in this business we don’t make sweeping statements. We are the people who are supposed to know, but we can be so wrong.

“Anyway, we soon knew Robin Hood really was going to be big. Right after the first TV show the letters started arriving at Television House from people wanting to know where they could buy a record. They couldn’t – there wasn’t one.

“After three weeks I had to appear on television, to tell everybody I’d be making a record as soon as possible.

Still fifth

After the record’s long run in the Top Twenty, a huge chain-store reports that Robin Hood is still fifth in their best selling list.

“We made the record, but even then we couldn’t market it immediately, because I had another record in the shops that was selling well. And in this business you daren’t have two best-selling records on the market at once.

“It was January by the time it was on sale – exactly ten years from the date I made my first record.”

By January everybody was rushing Robin Hood records into the shops. Though his was one of several, Dick James’ recording sold 45,000 copies in less than three weeks – then the presses began working a 24-hour day and the plant was doubled.

After the record’s long run in the Top Twenty, a huge chain-store reports that Robin Hood is still fifth in their best selling list.[9]

“We went one better than the soundtrack,” says James. “We had four horns, two flutes and a piccolo. And 12 children, including my son.”

He chuckles, and says: “Stephen[10] insisted on his royalties the other day – a pair of football boots. If the record goes on like this I’ll have to buy him the ball to go with them.”

And, incidentally, Dick reports that his own royalties are coming in “very nicely.”

 


  1. ATV London, and ITV’s, first Sunday on air in 1955, the system having launched the previous Thursday.
  2. This wildly popular series ran for 143 episodes across 4 series, from 1955 until 1959 in first-run ITV showings, then syndicated across the various companies until the coming of colour.
  3. Dick James (12 December 1920-1 February 1986) was born Leon Isaac Vapnick in London. His singing career slowly came to an end in the late 1950s and he switched to publishing records. In 1963, the owner of a record shop in Liverpool contacted him, asking him to publish the works of his new boy band. Intrigued by their sound, he agreed, forming a joint company, Northern Songs Ltd, with the record shop owner, Brian Epstein, and two members of the band, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. He would later go on to sign a young Reg Dwight.
  4. The music industry of the time was still largely based around the publication of sheet music. A popular song would be released as sheet music first and record labels would choose a star on their books to record the song. These various editions of the same song by different artists on different labels would compete in the record shops and in the charts. The public switching from being fans of music to being fans of bands in the 1960s would bring this to an end and most songs from the time of The Beatles onwards would be released as one record by one band on one label – although still often by a different band on a different label in US vs in the UK until the 1970s.
  5. Lew Grade, in advance of the launch of ITV, began making and stockpiling programmes for the new ATV to have on the shelves ready. The advantage of this was, in an era before videotape was practical, the programmes had to be produced on film, and could therefore be sold without format problems internationally – repeatedly, as television began in each county. He hired writers and producers who had been blacklisted in the United States during the recent Red Scare, who formed their own production companies like Sapphire Films Ltd to keep the eyes of the US authorities away. The profits from the international sales were funnelled through Grade’s ITC rather than its jointly-owned sister company ATV, which saved a considerable amount of tax and also made Grade a considerable pile of money.
  6. Carl Sigman (24 September 1909-26 September 2000) was primarily a lyricist. His best selling work was Ebb Tide, while his best known piece is probably Pennsylvania 6-5000, as made famous by Glenn Miller.
  7. Monday 26 September 1955, across the CBS television network.
  8. Most likely the dubbing suite at the British Lion Studios in Beaconsfield.
  9. This cherry-picked statistic neatly hides the fact that his re-recording of the song only made it to number 14 in the UK charts.
  10. Stephen James joined his father’s company, DJM Records, in 1963 and was number 2 in the business until his father died in 1986. The younger James then sold DJM to Polygram, but kept one part – a publishing contract with Tony Hatch – to form the nucleus of his subsequent company, Dejamus.

    Notes by Russ J Graham

You Say

8 responses to this article

Paul Mason 3 May 2016 at 5:16 am

It was still being shown on either Granada or ABC in the sixties as I recall the song very well. I remember certain TV aspects from the age of three or four even if I don’t remember whole programmes as such.

Arthur Nibble 3 May 2016 at 1:55 pm

Dick James’s hit spent eight weeks hovering between 14 and 17 in the UK singles chart. Interestingly (to me, anyway), Dick’s only other UK chart entry was the least successful of three hit versions of “The Garden Of Eden”, reaching number 18. Frankie Vaughan’s rival effort was a chart topper, and a version by none other than that Gary Miller made number 14.

Arthur Nibble 3 May 2016 at 2:02 pm

Me again. Three more things I’ve found out or remembered…

1) According to the matrix numbers on the labels, Dick James’s “Robin Hood” was actually the B-side of “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett”.

2) Gary Miller’s cover of “Robin Hood ” peaked in the UK charts at number 10! Maybe that huge chain store was combining both hit versions to make the top five status for the song itself.

3) As you all know (so why am I saying this?), Gary Miller was the crooner behind the wonderful “Marina”, the outro ballad on “Captain Scarlet”.

Paul Mason 4 May 2016 at 4:27 am

Arthur – the beautiful Aqua Marina, the silent girl of the deep was on Stingray!

Arthur Nibble 4 May 2016 at 1:07 pm

Duhh! Where’s that big conical hat with the D on it?

Paul Mason 4 May 2016 at 10:27 pm

Theres a link between the late Ronnie Corbett and Robin Hood. Lionel Bart wrote a stage musical called TWANG! based on Robin Hood. However it closed after a few nights on the West End. This freed Ronnie Corbett to join the Frost Report with Rpnnie Barker and John Cleese on BBC1, and the rest is history – of a different kind.

Alan Keeling 10 May 2016 at 8:47 pm

Channel TV was the last ITV region to screen re-runs of the Robin Hood series, which finished in 1972. Mind you, Channel TV didn’t begin until 1962.

Garry Humphreys 8 July 2016 at 6:18 pm

Four trumpets and a flute? That’s interesting because I hear four French horns and have always wanted to know who the horn players were! Does anyone know who the session musicians were on this occasion?

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