It is now hard to appreciate the national outcry over Ricky Valance’s record Tell Laura I Love Her in the summer of 1960. It told of a young boy who entered a stock-car race because he wanted the prize money to get married. He crashed and his final words were, “Tell Laura I love her”. It was maudlin and clumsily written, but Valance’s vocal made it sound better than it was, and the song reached No 1 in the UK charts, despite restricted play by the BBC.
At the time, many adults were troubled by teenage music and disliked the morbid fascination of Tell Laura I Love Her. The song was followed by other “death discs”: the Everly Brothers’ Ebony Eyes (about a plane crash), the Shangri-las’ Leader of the Pack and Twinkle’s Terry (both motorcycle accidents). Not to be outdone, Valance, who has died aged 84, then recorded Bobby (1961), about a girl who had lost the will to live, and Six Boys (1965), about the pallbearers at a girlfriend’s funeral.
Valance was born David Spencer in the village of Ynysddu in south-east Wales, one of seven children in a coal-mining family. His father, Ronnie, was also an amateur boxer and his mother, Emily, encouraged him to join the choir at the village church, where he became a fine tenor. He followed his father into the collieries when he was 15, but he tired of the work and had a succession of jobs. He joined the RAF when he was 17 and served for three years, meeting his wife, Evelyn, in Malta. Once demobbed, he and Evelyn moved to London and he accepted cabaret bookings, often with the Sid Phillips band.
Taking his name from a racehorse trainer, Richard Valance, David renamed himself Ricky Valance, perhaps not appreciating that this sounded similar to Ritchie Valens, who died with Buddy Holly in a 1959 plane crash. In 1960 he was signed by Norrie Paramor to Columbia Records, which was part of the EMI group.
The American singer Ray Peterson had recorded the original version of Tell Laura I Love Her for RCA Records, and the song made the US Top 10 in June 1960, but campaigners asked its British subsidiary not to release it. While RCA hesitated, Columbia and Top Rank rush-released UK cover versions from Ricky Valance and John Leyton respectively. Valance said, “I had a lot of faith in that song because it stirred something in me and the melody was so beautiful. It’s a song in a lifetime.” The panel on the BBC’s Juke Box Jury, which included Petula Clark, did not agree and voted it a “miss”.
Ironically, this attention on a high-rated Saturday teatime TV show encouraged sales and Valance was No 1 for three weeks, displacing another of Paramor’s acts, the Shadows. The record was restricted but not banned by the BBC and most of its airplay was on Radio Luxembourg.
Sticking with plaintive Brill Building songs, Valance followed his hit with Movin’ Away (1960) and then Jimmy’s Girl (1961), which missed the charts. In 1961, he submitted the song Why Can’t We for the Eurovision song contest, but the Allisons’ Are You Sure won the UK nomination. Valance made good pop records but his contemporaries Craig Douglas and Mark Wynter were choosing better compositions.
Valance toured with package shows, usually supporting major performers such as Gene Vincent. “I hated being regarded as a one-hit wonder,” Valance told me, “I sold 40,000 copies of some of my other records.” However, the only time he made the news was when he crashed his new Anglia or fought with Peter Chester, the son of the comedian Charlie Chester, for which he was fined £15 in 1962.
He was a professional entertainer for 60 years. The bulk of his work was cabaret bookings but he had a residency with an Irish showband in 1967, recorded as Jason Merryweather in 1972, toured in a rock’n’roll musical, Leave Him to Heaven, in 1981, and established himself in the UK country market. He made cassettes to sell at his dates and singles for RAF charities. When he lived in Spain, he hosted a golfing series on TV. He had mixed feelings about Billy Connolly’s high-spirited parody of Tell Laura I Love Her.
Ricky and Evelyn were married for 62 years and had two children, Clay and Sian. Although Shirley Bassey was the first Welsh person to top the charts (with As I Love You in 1959), Ricky Valance was the first man from Wales with a No 1 hit, ahead of Tom Jones, and this was recognised at a St David’s Day concert in 2017 at the Wales Millennium Centre.
He is survived by Evelyn and his children.
• Ricky Valance (David Spencer), singer, born 10 April 1936; died 12 June 2020