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Russ Hamilton: Liverpudlian singer-songwriter who had a hit in America years before the Beatles

Friday 17 October 2008 00:00 BST

In 1957, several years before the British beat invasion of America, a young singer-songwriter from Liverpool, Russ Hamilton, made the US Top 10 with "Rainbow". In Britain the song was the B-side of Hamilton's hit "We Will Make Love", which came close to the top of the UK charts in August that year.

The newspapers of the day were full of Hamilton's success and he was in buoyant mood, planning to buy a car and hoping to give his parents a weekly allowance – once his royalties came through. He would sing "We Will Make Money" to reporters, but despite having a Top 10 record in Britain and America he made very little money. He offered young musicians this advice: "Never give anyone your power of attorney."

Russ Hamilton was born Ronald Hulme in Liverpool in 1932. In his early twenties, he fell in love with Pat Hitchin, a girl from Blackpool, and when she jilted him he consoled himself by writing a romantic waltz, "We Will Make Love". Despite the title, the lyric was very innocent, and the song was literate with good imagery. Hulme had a dreary job as a cost clerk and, in 1956, he became a Redcoat at Butlin's in Blackpool, where, as Uncle Ronnie, he organised parties and treasure hunts for children. He offered "We Will Make Love" to Frankie Vaughan, but Vaughan wasn't interested.

Hulme then formed a skiffle group, which entertained Butlin's staff at the Royal Albert Hall. Billy Butlin suggested that they made a record to wake up the campers. This was arranged with a small independent label, Oriole, and while in the studio, Hulme asked if he could also sing "We Will Make Love", which he would pay for himself. Oriole's musical director, Jack Baverstock, urged the label's owner, Morris Levy, to sign him.

A recording session was arranged in March 1957 with the Mike Sammes Singers and the Johnny Gregory Orchestra. Oriole thought he should have a new name: Hamilton Square was nearby and Hulme added "Russ" as it sounded American.

During the winter months, the newly named Russ Hamilton was working for Butlin's at the Ocean Hotel, Brighton, entertaining honeymooners who wanted the tax advantage of marrying before the end of the financial year. One guest star, the singer Michael Holliday, offered to record "We Will Make Love". When Hamilton told him it was being released on Oriole, Holliday pooh-poohed its chances as the label had had so few hits, but with Butlin's publicity, Hamilton secured appearances on BBC TV's Six-Five Special.

The single climbed the charts, although Scottish sales were split with Kathie Kay's cover version. After 11 weeks it reached the No 2 slot. Elvis Presley's "All Shook Up" had been on top for four weeks and Russ Hamilton was set to replace him.

But on 2 August 1957, Oriole Records placed an advertisement in the music press: "This week and next our factories are closed for the annual holidays. Our presses are at a standstill. Large supplies of this record built up prior to the close-down have been exhausted and for two weeks you may have difficulty in buying Oriole CB. 1359 – which is, of course, Russ Hamilton's 'We Will Make Love'." The ad concluded: "We know that this disc will be a Number One... and it will be up there very soon after supplies start rolling again."

The huge success of Hamilton's record had taken Oriole by surprise. The following week, "We Will Make Love" slipped to No 4, and it faded away as Paul Anka's "Diana" took over from Presley instead. Hamilton was touring Butlin's camps, judging skiffle contests and singing with the winners: for all he knew, he could have been performing for the workers at the pressing plant.

The B-side of the single, "Rainbow", was a whimsical ballad, all the more appealing because Hamilton couldn't say his r's. The A-side was published by Dave Toff but the B-side belonged to Robbins Music, who pushed it hard in the US, securing cover versions from Bill Darnel and Bobby Breen. Hamilton entered the US charts and went to No 4 during a four-month stay. Because of commitments to Butlin's and Six-Five Special, an appearance on Patti Page's The Big Record Show had to be postponed until October and by then, the moment had passed.

"They had made up publicity stories about me, saying that I had won a Purple Heart in Korea and had bought Hitler's yacht for £100,000," Hamilton once told me, "and I hadn't even got a bike."

His follow-up, the engaging "Wedding Ring", scraped into the UK Top 20. "Little One", which was later recorded by Ruby Murray and Houston Wells, made the sheet music sales charts. Hamilton made an LP for Oriole and his 12 singles for the label include standards ("Tip Toe Through the Tulips", "September in the Rain") as well as an answer song, "The Reprieve of Tom Dooley".

Hamilton recorded for other labels, notably "Gonna Find Me a Bluebird" with the Jordanaires in Nashville, and a remake of "We Will Make Love" for Embassy, but he was disheartened. As he said, "I was going round the world singing my head off and I was swindled out of a fortune. I never even got my gold disc."

Spencer Leigh

Ronald Hulme (Russ Hamilton), singer and songwriter: born Liverpool 19 January 1932; died Buckley, Clwyd 11 October 2008.

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