Updated: Oct 12, 2021
At a time when there was not much ‘popular’ music on radio, or at least not as we would know it, Ray Ellington’s weekly slot on The Goon Show was quite a coup. His quartet played a mix of jazz-infused numbers, the occasional instrumental, and comedy songs.
These would occasionally link into the show’s narrative, such as ‘Framed’ – from ‘Ye Bandit of Sherwood Forest’ (Series 5 Episode 14), broadcast on 28 December 1954.
In the 1950s, the idea of a singles chart was in its infancy. The New Musical Express began compiling one in the early ‘50s by literally phoning record shops and asking what was selling well. Other publishers started doing similar surveys soon after. The closest thing the music world had to an ‘official’ chart before this was records of sheet music sales.
When it came to popular singers and performers, they would often be approached by music publicists and asked to play new songs by the composers they represented, which I believe is how it often worked for the Ray Ellington Quartet - although I'm lacking solid evidence for this theory, admittedly. For example, twice in the fifth series they played ‘I Can’t Tell A Waltz From A Tango’. It suited their comedy stylings (and the tone of The Goon Show) perfectly.
The song had been a hit in the US for American singer Patti Page in 1954, while Alma Cogan brought it to the UK later that same year.
The rest of the cast would occasionally try to put Ellington off or make him laugh, and they succeeded during his performance of ‘Pink Champagne’ in the episode ‘The Fear of Wages’ from series six, broadcast 6 March 1956.
Max Geldray played this several times, including in ‘Lurgi Strikes Britain’ (Series 5, Episode 7), available here.
A couple of other favourites of mine are ‘We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’, from ‘The House of Teeth’ (Series 6 Episode 20), and ‘Stranded In The Jungle’, from ‘The Nasty Affair at the Burami Oasis’ (Series 7 Episode 1).
‘We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ was originally performed by Merv Griffin and Rita Farrell, and you can find their version on Spotify. I can’t find much verifiable information about the song, but it may have been written by Ben Raleigh and Sherman Edwards, two quite successful songwriters of the 1950s and 1960s. In any case, the Ray Ellington Quartet’s version from January 1956 is here - who needs a duet when you can have an argument with yourself?
‘Stranded In The Jungle’ was a much bigger hit, having helped three American groups reach the Top 40 in the US within the space of a couple of weeks in 1956. The Cadets reached #16 in July 1956 with their version, while The Jay Hawks were two places lower at #18. It probably rankled with The Jay Hawks a little as they had recorded it first! The third group to release a version was The Gadabouts, who made it to #39 a week later. (The Cadets’ version also peaked at #3 on the US R&B chart.)
There have been many other cover versions of this song over the years, including by Frank Zappa and Adam Ant, although the latter recording was never released as far as I can tell.
As I've mentioned before, I owe a debt of thanks to Goon fan (and obvious fellow nerd) Paul Winalski on the alt.fan.goons message board for compiling a list of every tune from (nearly) every show. I have no idea how you did it, but hats off to you.
Episode nine of the second series was broadcast on 25 March 1952 at 9:45pm. The Radio Times listing is here. (Note the promo for 'Epidemic!' at 8pm - "The story of something we hope may never happen"...)
According to Mr Winalski’s research, Ellington and his quartet performed ‘Minnie the Moocher’ for this episode, while Max Geldray’s tune was ‘Oh, You Beautiful Doll’.
Both images sourced from Wikipedia. Alma Cogan image originally from Israel's National Photo Collection, image credit Pridan Moshe.