Look at the list of Number-One singles from 1966. There were giants in the earth in those days; with very few exceptions, the songs that topped the Billboard Hot 100 that year remained the backbone of radio playlists for years to come, and the vast crop of oldies stations that sprouted in the 1980s built their libraries on them.
But while those songs were playing out in real time, I was hearing practically none of them. I turned six in 1966, a chubby-cheeked little kid who had yet to discover music, or sports, or any of the other interests that would define the rest of his life. (My main interest that year was the TV show Batman, which debuted in January.) So the hits of 1966 made little impression on me at the time.
Little impression, but not zero impression. As I’ve noted before, my parents were heavy radio listeners, mostly to WEKZ, our hometown radio station, or WGN from Chicago. So it ‘s understandable that a few WEKZ-appropriate hits of that year managed to seep into my consciousness. Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” which was Number One the week I turned six, was one of them. Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” which did a week at the top in July, has a clear association with summer, and fooling around in the little inflatable swimming pool with my brother. But the one that made the biggest impression at our house—not just on me but on Mom and Dad, too—was “Winchester Cathedral” by the New Vaudeville Band.
“Winchester Cathedral” was inspired by the English music-hall style, so it would have been old-timey and nostalgic to British listeners. There’s no true American equivalent to music-hall style, although some American listeners would have been reminded of Rudy Vallee’s 1920s and 30s crooning, and older ones might have recollected vaudeville itself. It wasn’t necessary for “Winchester Cathedral” to remind anybody of anything, however: all things English were still hot ‘n’ trendy in 1966, and “Winchester Cathedral” is amazingly hooky from intro to coda. The song did four weeks at the top of the easy-listening chart and three weeks in two different runs at the top of the Hot 100 in December 1966.
The New Vaudeville Band was a studio group put together by songwriter Geoff Stephens, but when “Winchester Cathedral” became a hit, a band had to be assembled for TV appearances and concerts. One musician who appeared on the record made the cut. Stephens reportedly approached the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (whose members included future Monty Python collaborator Neil Innes) about assuming the name and going on the road, but ended up with only a single Bonzo.
“Winchester Cathedral” had enough momentum to produce two more American hits for the New Vaudeville Band, “Peek-a-Boo” and “Finchley Central.” But the band’s output was so resolutely English that its American appeal was limited. And by the summer of 1967, their 15 minutes were up.
Mom and Dad went out and bought “Winchester Cathedral”—not the 45, but the Lawrence Welk album of the same name, so that version was heard a lot around our house. I remember being a bit perplexed by it, though. I knew what a cathedral was, but I couldn’t figure out how precisely it was supposed to have kept the singer’s girl from leaving him. I knew nothing about girls at the time, but I suspected that simply ringing the bell wouldn’t have done it.