Ricky Valance: First Welshman to have number one hit releases final song

By Rhiannon Beacham
BBC News

Image caption,
Ricky Valance's single Tell Laura I Love Her sold more than a million copies in 1960

The first Welshman to have a UK number one chart hit is hanging up his microphone after 57 years in the business - but not before he releases one last song.

Ricky Valance, now aged 80, grew up in the south Wales valleys village of Ynysddu.

David Spencer, as he was known then, always had ambitions to be a singer and was lead soprano in the local church choir as a child, but he seemed destined to join his peers down the mines.

"I remember working in both collieries either side of the valley, one with my father, and it was a race home to get in the tin bath before him," he recalls.

"But I was getting into trouble with the bobbies, a bunch of us were, and I had a hard think about what my future was going to be.

"Singing was the only thing I wanted to do, but after a multitude of jobs I joined the forces."

Valance was 17 when he joined the Royal Air Force and says it had such a profound effect on him he has dedicated his final recording to the RAF.

Image source, One Media iP Ltd
Image caption,
Valance was 17 when he joined the RAF

"It was incredible. It was one of the best things I've ever done. It opened my eyes and taught me a lot," he says.

After three years, during which time he saw active service in north Africa and married his sweetheart Evelyn, he came home and very soon started gigging in clubs in the north of England.

"Finally I got spotted in a nightclub in London. There was a lady sitting in the audience who was in management," he says.

"She approached me and said she felt there was something she could do for my career. We had a long talk and I decided 'this is what I need'.

"I signed up with her and, no more than a few months after, I was recording a test for Columbia [Records], the big company at the time.

"Tell Laura I Love Her was the song that came along three weeks after I signed with them. They called me in and said they'd like me to listen to it."

Image source, One Media iP Ltd
Image caption,
Valance has dedicated his final single, released on St David's Day, to the RAF

"I listened to the American version, which I loved, and thought 'how the hell do I do it any better than this?'

"They said, 'you were a choir boy, it's a hymn, that's the sound we want'."

Valance breaks into song at this point, to demonstrate, and adds: "The rest is history."

The song tells the tragic story of a boy called Tommy and his love for a girl called Laura.

It was a controversial song at the time and was apparently banned from airplay by the BBC. But the single went on to be a number one hit in the UK, selling more than a million copies in 1960, the year of its release.

The single entered the Top 50 on 25 August and, a month later, knocked The Shadows with Apache off the top spot. It was in the charts for 16 weeks, number one for three of them.

"It certainly did turn my life around. It's a wonderful feeling when you're travelling on the road with the band, as we were, when it become number one.

"There was a huge fanfare on Parade of the Pops and the number one song that particular week - it was mine.

"It was an incredible experience that brought me gold, silver and platinum records. It's still being sold today. I haven't been able to get on stage without singing it."

Media caption,
First Welshman to have number one hit releases final song on St David's Day

But it was not all shiny discs and cheering crowds for Valance.

"I came in and my first record got a number one. There were a lot of jealous people at that time. Show business is like that.

"You had to be strong and have broad shoulders. It's not a pleasant experience, but it changed my life forever - over the years I've been to 19 different countries.

"I was teetotal, I didn't smoke. I made a promise I didn't want to be a flash in the pan. I wanted more success."

This is most evident when Valance says he is "fed up" of being referred to as a "one hit wonder".

"It's a bit sad when they say something like that when they know nothing about my discography," he says, citing further singles Jimmy's Girl - which sold more than 100,000 records - and Movin' Away, which was number one in Australia and Scandinavia.

"I even had that through the 60s. You need a thick skin," he says.

His singles Why Can't We and Don't Play Number 9 also made it into the UK Top 50 in the 1960s.

By 1960 he was using the name Ricky Valance and is keen to set the record straight that he did not take the name from La Bamba singer Ritchie Valens, whose singing career ended abruptly in 1959 when he was killed in a plane crash.

Image source, One Media iP Ltd

"A lot of people have the audacity of believing I took my name from Ritchie Valens. That's utter nonsense," he says.

"The true story is it's from a horse trainer I saw on the television. I was looking for a name to go with Ricky and he was called Colonel Valance. Later on I found out they also called him Ricky," Valance states.

In more recent years, Valance has performed in Spain, while living on the Costa Blanca, and recorded an album - One of the Best - in Nashville, Tennessee in 2001.

In 2012 he returned to his homeland for the BBC Wales series They Sold a Million, and in 2015, Tell Laura I Love Her was re-released to mark the 55th anniversary of it hitting the number one slot.

The epitome of his career, he says, came in 2015 when he was given an award at a St David's Day concert at the Wales Millennium Centre for being the first Welshman to have a UK number one hit.

"I would love to have done a concert at the Millennium Centre," he says. "I performed there the night I got my award, I was so full of emotion I don't know how I got through the song."

But Valance, who currently lives in Skegness, Lincolnshire, with his wife of 61 years, says he has not been on stage since he suffered a heart attack about 18 months ago.

"It does interfere with your confidence and I found out from the hospital that a major problem with a lot of people is it affects their mind as well.

"A couple of weeks ago I was doing some exercises on the voice and thought, 'can I climb up there again and get hold of a microphone?' It scares the life out of me."

Image source, One Media iP Ltd
Image caption,
Valance said the idea of getting on stage after his heart attack 'scares the life out of me'

One Media iP, the company publicising Valance's latest release - Welcome Home - describes it as "his last recording before retirement".

But the octogenarian is more non-committal, saying: "How can we say what's in the future?

"My future at this point in time is working for charity."

He hopes to raise £1m for the RAF Association and the Royal Air Force Museum through sales of the single and video, as well as donations.

"I recorded this song back last year and decided I wanted to do something special with it," Valance said.

"All our forces do a fantastic jobs, but I felt the air force could do with more exposure for what they've done and are still out there doing today.

"The biggest thing for me now is getting this started with the RAF. It's got to make a million pounds. I'm going all out for that."

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