A balladeer from the 50s, Ronnie Hilton earned a place in the hearts of every Brit of a certain age for his 1965 hit A Windmill In Old Amsterdam. Hilton had a long career, first charting (with his debut release) in 1954 but issuing his last single in 1982.
Born Adrian Hill in Hull, Ronnie started singing professionally under his adopted name in 1954. Signed to HMV, he amassed 18 Top 40 hits on the UK Singles Chart, hitting the coveted Number One spot in 1956 with his cover of the Rogers and Hammerstein song No Other Love, a US hit three years earlier for Perry Como. The following year he took part in the inaugural A Song For Europe contest, although he was beaten by another singer from Hull, Patricia Bredin. In 1959 he scored a hit with The Wonder of You, the same song that Elvis Presley topped the UK chart with in 1970.
In 1967, two years after his last chart entry (with the aforementioned A Windmill In Old Amsterdam) he released the single that I wish to bring your attention to today, a cover of If I Were a Rich Man from the hit musical Fiddler of the Roof. It’s not a great version, and the utterly ridiculous inclusion of an impression of Quacker, the little yellow duckling from the Tom and Jerry cartoons in the middle takes it in to the realm of ridiculous. In fact, it’s good enough (or bad enough) to merit an inclusion here for that reason alone, but it’s the single’s flip side that’s the peach – a stupendously awful (and incredibly early) cover of David Bowie’s The Laughing Gnome.
Yes: The Laughing Gnome. It, like Bowie’s original, did not chart, although Bowie would eventually have a hit with the song when his single was reissued in 1973. At this point in his career Bowie’s manager, Kenneth Pitt, was trying to market him as a songwriter; despite beginning his recording career in 1964 he would not have a hit under his own name until 1969, and it would take another three years after that until he enjoyed his second. Ronnie Hilton was not the first artists to cover Bowie though: in January 1967 Over the Wall We Go had been covered by stage star Paul Nicholas under the name Oscar. The following year Billy Fury would issue his cover of Bowie’s Silly Boy Blue. But the honour of having the first ever cover of a Bowie song goes to actor Kenny Miller (I Was A Teenage Werewolf, Touch of Evil, Attack of the Puppet People etc.) and his 1965 recording of Bowie’s Take My Tip (credited to Davie Jones), produced by Shel Talmy of Kinks/ Who fame.
Hilton suffered a stroke in 1976. Following his recovery, he turned to radio presenting, fronting Sounds of the Fifties, a nostalgic radio series for BBC Radio 2. He died in Hailsham, East Sussex from another stroke, aged 75.
Here’s Ronnie’s preposterous version of The Laughing Gnome and, for good measure, If I Were a Rich Man. Enjoy!
Download Rich Man HERE
Download Gnome HERE