From a distance, Ken Dodd’s musical career seems utterly bizarre. You could understand him having a couple of novelty comedy hits along the lines of Tommy Cooper’s Don’t Jump Off the Roof Dad or Charlie Drake’s My Boomerang Won’t Come Back, but Ken Dodd’s records weren’t funny, or at least the ones that sold weren’t. He knocked out a succession of comedy records, but there were far fewer takers for The Nikky Nokky Noo Song and The Diddly Doo Parade than for the love songs he sang, apparently in deadly earnest.
He specialised in two things. The first were sentimental Italian ballads translated into English – he, or whoever picked songs for him, seemed particularly fond of the oeuvre of Liguria-born MOR singer Wilma Goich – and songs about crying: Tears, Tears of Happiness, I Can’t Hold Back the Tears, Tears Won’t Wash Away These Heartaches, Every Little Tear, Dancing With Tears in My Eyes, Let Me Cry on Your Shoulder. No matter that he made for a deeply improbable romantic balladeer, as evidenced by the sleeves of his albums – with his trademark hair slicked back and his goofy face fixed in a pensive, lovelorn expression, Ken Dodd looked, if anything, even more peculiar than usual. His romantic ballads sold, in occasionally mind-boggling quantities. 1965’s Tears was the biggest-selling single of the year, and the third biggest-selling of the decade: only the Beatles’ She Loves You and I Want to Hold Your Hand shifted more copies. He had 14 Top 30 hits in 15 years: as late as 1980, a Ken Dodd best-of compilation could make the Top 10.
It might look like an inexplicable aberration, but Ken Dodd’s musical career was anything but: it was as much a sign of the times as Sgt Pepper or Highway 61 Revisited. He had his first hit in 1960, and was still knocking records out in 1983, but there’s something very telling about the fact that his biggest commercial success came between 1965 and 1967. These were the years in which, fuelled by a changing diet of drugs, pop music changed more dramatically and rapidly than it ever had before, or indeed has since. By their end, it was virtually unrecognisable: The Beatles in 1964, still the same besuited and bowing-in-unison quartet that had played at the Royal Variety Performance, seemed to have almost nothing in common with the Beatles who appeared on TV on Boxing Day 1967 singing I Am the Walrus.