‘Terry Wogan said it was the worst thing he’d ever heard!’: Brian May, Sugababes and more on hitting No 1

Popping to see Jagger, collaring Captain Tom on daytime TV or taking their dad’s advice – these artists share how they topped the singles charts

Connie Francis, Who’s Sorry Now? (1958)

I was all set to give up music for a scholarship at New York University. Then my father suggested that if I sang Who’s Sorry Now? – a song from 1923 – with rock’n’roll triplets, it would appeal to grown-ups and younger buyers. I hated it. I thought the song sounded “square” and right up to the last minute I didn’t want to record it. I went into the session with every intention of running out of time, but halfway through I asked the rhythm section to provide a stronger beat. I sang louder, and that second half is what most people recall. After I sang it on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand it took off in the States, but in the UK there were only two TV channels so it was entirely down to radio plays. Being No 1 felt overwhelming, but I’m continually amazed by the reception given to what’s been called “the ultimate revenge song” by younger generations. Just recently it’s been used as Disney’s Cruella trailer and in Don’t Worry Darling, starring Harry Styles, which amazes me. Connie Francis

Chris Farlowe, Out of Time (1966)

I knew the Stones before they were the Stones. They’d come along when I was playing London clubs with the Thunderbirds. A few years later we rekindled our friendship and I signed to [Stones manager] Andrew Loog Oldham’s label, Immediate. One day Mick Jagger said, “I’d like to write some songs for you, Chris.” He sat down in his house, played a couple of numbers for me on guitar and one of them was Out of Time. A month later we were in the studio with an orchestra. Jimmy Page played on it – he was a session guitarist before starting Led Zeppelin. One night I watched England win the World Cup on telly in the pub, then I played a gig in Wales with an unknown Tom Jones. The following morning my mother woke me to say “There’s all these photographers at the front door.” I went down in my pyjamas and they told me I was No 1. I’m 82 now and still performing. I played the Palladium last year. If I didn’t play Out of Time they’d throw bottles at me. Chris Farlowe

Lieutenant Pigeon, Mouldy Old Dough (1972)

We were a serious experimental group called Stavely Makepeace but started making novelty instrumentals for a giggle. We recorded Mouldy Old Dough in Rob Woodward’s mum Hilda’s front room in Coventry. She played piano and Rob told me, “When we get to the chorus bit, just growl ‘mouldy old dough’.” At first, it died completely. Then a Belgian TV news programme used it and we went to No 3 in Belgium. After that it snowballed. We sold two million copies worldwide and spent four weeks at No 1 in the UK. At our first Top of the Pops I watched Marmalade laughing through their slot because off-camera their roadie was baring his arse at them. So when we did our Christmas show we had a drink, dressed as pantomime characters and put a decoy pigeon on the piano. You can hear our laughter on the broadcast. The song gave us a good few years and there’s a box set out next year. It didn’t sink in how big it was until I was gazing out of the night train and the chap from Decca said, “Each of those lights represents someone who was watching you last night.” Nigel Fletcher

Joe Dolce, Shaddap You Face (1981)

I’d sold my house and moved with my wife and kids from Ohio to Australia to try and make it. It was tough. We split up after a year, but within six months I met the love of my life and had a No 1. I’m Italian-American, and wrote Shaddap You Face from memories of growing up in the kitchen, where everyone talked in broken English. When I first performed it, drunken crowds shouted “Hey!” after each line, so I put that in the song. I recorded it in a studio owned by Mike Brady, who’d had hits, He said “This song’s gonna be a monster” and released it first. In England, Terry Wogan said “This is the worst thing I’ve ever heard”, so the song got lots of attention. CBS flew me over to do three TV shows and by the time I left, it was already No 3. It went to No 1 in 11 countries. In the UK it kept Ultravox’s Vienna off the top for three weeks, which drove Midge Ure crazy, but [keyboard player] Billy Currie said, “That’s a good song. I wish we’d written it.” Joe Dolce

Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody (1975 and 1991)

Bohemian Rhapsody was clearly a very important song for Freddie [Mercury], about transformation. It wasn’t unusual for him to come in with various sections of something he’d been working on and tinkle on the piano. When we put it all together the record company said “We can’t get a six minute single on the radio.” We refused to edit it. We had a sort of launch before it was mixed. Kenny Everett stole a rough cut and played it on the radio, and it turned out it was radio friendly because it got everyone’s attention. We hadn’t liked doing Top of The Pops because they made you mime on podiums, so in three hours we made the video which became a huge talking point. We’d just reached No 2 with Killer Queen, so took the chance that if Bohemian got to No 1 they’d have to show it. The single spent nine weeks at No 1 and there was such a celebratory feeling our manager made us lovely gold plaques. After Freddie’s passing it was the Christmas No. 1 for a second time, raising £1m for the Terence Higgins Trust. Young people think it’s always been there, like Beethoven or [Elgar’s] Pomp and Circumstance. Freddie would have loved that. Brian May

Sugababes, About You Now (2007)

I recently found one of my journals from when I was 12 years old and one of my goals was to have a No 1. I was such a dreamer that it didn’t feel like that much of a surprise when it really happened. About You Now was our sixth and last. We’d normally co-written but that song came to us from Dr Luke and Cathy Dennis. It was quite American-sounding, whereas we’d always sounded British. Dr Luke was quite rigid about the sound and I fought for my ad libs, but it’s a very catchy song. After it was No 1, I suddenly read that I was out of the group. Nobody had told me. I had a long time to unpick it, but I’ve worked through any feelings of betrayal and I don’t associate the song with any sadness. It’s a reflective, romantic song that takes on a more nostalgic meaning now we’re back together [as the original trio]. Onstage I’ve noticed that we’ve been singing it to each other. I’ve been able to pause to take it in, because you can’t relive those moments. Keisha Buchanan

Gabrielle Aplin, The Power of Love (2012)

I’d been doing YouTube videos in my bedroom, then I signed to Parlophone. It was all very exciting. I was asked to pitch for the next John Lewis Christmas advert, which was huge then. Everybody loved them. I went in the studio on the Saturday and submitted the song for the Monday deadline. They’d chosen the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song with a very specific brief: “no lyrics on this bit” and so on. I wanted it to sound wintry, but not negative. When we did the advert, the snowman animation hadn’t been finished, so I was singing to this little red circle, but I loved it. I was buzzing when the song went in at 36. Then it started climbing the charts, the label showed us a graph which showed we were trailing Bruno Mars. My manager said, “Well, your graph is wrong.” Waking up to discover I was No 1 was crazy. I was 20, but it gave me a platform for my own songs. I’ve got a new album out in January and I’ll always be grateful for that opportunity. Gabrielle Aplin

Captain Tom Moore, Michael Ball and the NHS Voices of Care Choir, You’ll Never Walk Alone (2020)

I was poorly with Covid and saw Captain Tom on TV walking round his garden to raise money for the NHS. Then I got him on my radio show and he was amazing. BBC Breakfast asked me to sing a song to celebrate his 100th lap, so I sang You’ll Never Walk Alone over Zoom. I could see him singing along so jokingly said “Tom, we should do a duet.” Then I thought, “Could we possibly do that for his 100th birthday in three days?” I had a backing track from a previous recording. Tom read the lyrics like a poem but kept bursting into song. I sang in my bedroom. We had about 200 socially distanced NHS choristers. Everything was done remotely: we finished it at 3.30am and it went live on Zoe Ball’s show within hours. When we were neck and neck in the charts with the Weeknd, he tweeted his millions of followers asking them to get Tom to No 1. The song raised £33m and Tom loved every minute. I’d only managed No 2, 34 years previously, but it wasn’t about me. It was a spontaneous, precious moment, a man nearing the end of his life who was able to do something extraordinary. Michael Ball


As told to Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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