There are very few songs that are remembered from the Eurovision Song Contests that were held in the fifties. Naturally the winning songs from each year are at least recognised by all, you have the utter powerhouse of ‘Nel Dipinto Di Blu’… and then you have ’Sing Little Birdie’.
Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson’s second-place entry at Eurovision 1959 is a key song in the development of the Song Contest. It was the first song that was… fun!
In an era of static singers and locked off camera angles, the UK’s second entry was a revolutionary song. When you look at the portrayal of relationships on television at the time, ‘Sing Little Birdie’ is one of the most quietly subversive two minutes in Eurovision history.
With arguably the first ‘surprise prop reveal’ in Song Contest history, it showed a couple who connected both to the audience and each other on stage. It handed the secondary passive role to the male singer, it was playful, whimsical, carefree, and most of all, it was genuine.
Teddy Johnson’s career in the public eye effectively started with his broadcasting on the English-language side of Radio Luxembourg, which is regarded as the forerunner of both commercial radio in the UK and the influx of pirate radio stations that pushed musical boundaries in the fifties and sixties.
He joined the station in 1948 and ran the English output in partnership with Geoffrey Everitt until 1950. Johnson helmed the UK Top 20 show for the then marathon duration of two hours every week, and when Johnson returned to the UK to work primarily on his singing career, the slot was taken over by another institution… Pete Murray.
For those keeping track, Pete Murray hosted the UK’s Eurovision selection show in 1959 and was the commentator for both the TV and radio broadcasts of the Song Contest from Cannes that year.
Breaking The Rules
Johnson is noted as recording one of the earliest ‘remote duets’ recording his harmonies in the UK while American Jo Stafford would record her side in America. Covering older songs meant this innovative new technique wasn’t an immediate hit, but it handed Johnson another first.
As with many entertainers plying their trade in the fifties, television and radio work was about exploring a new medium and taking chances. A true man of variety, Johnson was happy to take one for the team, including what can only be described as a rite of passage as he took to the boards at the Glasgow Empire acting as the stooge to another legend, US comedian Jack Benny.
The new medium of broadcasting was also drawing its lead from the variety shows and multi-billed theatre shows that packed venues every weekend in every major town and city around the world. If you had mastered the art of fitting in with a rotating cast, were happy to work in a live environment, and could connect to an audience down the camera, then success was within reach.
1950 saw him meet Pearl Carr on the set of the BBC variety show ‘Black Magic’. It was suggested that the two pair up to do a duet, as he explained to Paul Jordan in an interview last summer:
“I didn’t want to do it, I was a solo singer, I didn’t do duets,” he said laughing. “I was offered a variety tour after Black Magic. I told Pearl that I’d be away for the summer and that I wouldn’t see her for a while. She replied saying that she would come with me on the tour. At the time she was in a band called The Keynotes, that’s how we started.”
Although Carr & Johnson continued to record separately, they worked on their double-act. Their first joint-billing was at the top of the bill at the London Palladium. If ‘Black Magic’ was their ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, this first run at the Palladium was effectively Carr & Johnson’s ‘Dangerously In Love’.
Which leads us back to the Eurovision Song Contest. The call from the BBC to appear in the Song for Europe selection show came from the Head of Light Entertainment, but Eric Maschwitz forgot to mention that if they won, they’d need to be free to pop over to Cannes to fly the flag for the United Kingdom a few weeks later.
As Johnson recalled, that led to a moment of panic:
“I said: ‘What? What do you mean?’ I didn’t know we had to represent the country. We had no idea whatsoever. He gave me the dates for Cannes and I just hoped we had them available. As it happened, we did. Pearl flew out with three guys from the BBC but I was doing a small show for ATV and got a later flight.”
Given their status in light entertainment circles, the BBC were sending one of the most formidable musical acts to the Song Contest in its short history, and its return would be the first of fifteen second places in the Contest. It also established Carr & Johnson in the public eye, gifted them a signature song that they would continue to sing for decades to come, and create one of a handful of songs in the formative years of the Contest that changed the direction of the Contest.
Teddy Johnson was a true pioneer of entertainment, willing to try anything, and always respectful of his audience. But most of all, he was a kind, fun, and loving partner to Pearl Carr.
Edward Victor “Teddy” Johnson, entertainer, born 4 September 1920; died 5 June 2018.