Bill Martin obituary

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Gillian Shaw/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Gillian Shaw/Rex/Shutterstock

The songwriter Bill Martin, who has died aged 81, made his name with two successful Eurovision song contest entries in the late 1960s – Puppet on a String, with which Sandie Shaw won the competition in 1967, and Congratulations, which was steered into second place by Cliff Richard in 1968. Later, with his writing partner Phil Coulter, he also came up with hits for Cilla Black and the Bay City Rollers.

When Shaw was chosen to represent the UK in Vienna in 1967, Martin and Coulter were determined to write the winning song. Martin reasoned that it should open on a long note, along the lines of Domenico Modugno’s Volare. “That’s stealing,” said Coulter. “No,” said Martin, “He stole it from ‘Oooo-kla-homa’ so we’ll be all right.”

Puppet on a String gave the UK its first Eurovision victory and was a No 1 single for Shaw. She disliked the song, which was the last of her three chart-topping singles, and felt that it destroyed her credibility. But it went on to sell more than 4m copies.

The following year Martin and Coulter felt confident of repeating their success with a new composition, Congratulations. Having arrived one morning before Coulter at their shared office in London, Martin saw that his writing partner had been working on a song in which the five key notes had been given the title I Think I Love You. He disliked the title on the basis that “you either love someone or you don’t”, and wondered instead whether it could be replaced by a single, five-syllable word. By the time Coulter had arrived, Martin was able to say: “We’ve just written a hit song. Congratulations!”

Although their composition lost out to Spain by one vote, Martin told me later: “While it was embarrassing to come second to such a poor song as La La La, really we won, because nobody plays La La La today and Congratulations is everywhere.” The Spanish entry disappeared without trace, but the runner-up got to No 1 in the UK singles chart, was a hit throughout the rest of Europe and remains ubiquitous.

In 1969 Martin wrote about the collapse of his marriage in Surround Yourself with Sorrow, which was a hit at No 3 in the UK for Black. In 1970 he and Coulter wrote the official song for England’s World Cup squad, Back Home, once the silver-tongued Martin had persuaded the England manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, that it was a good idea.

They then followed up with My Boy, a translation into English of a French song that had originally been released by Claude François. It was recorded by Richard Harris (1971) and then Elvis Presley (1974). They wrote for the Dubliners, their most poignant song being Scorn Not His Simplicity about a child with Down’s syndrome.

In the early to mid-70s, Martin and Coulter began to establish the look and sound of the Bay City Rollers, and wrote several hit songs for them, including Summerlove Sensation, Shang-a-Lang and All of Me Loves All of You (all 1974). In a similar vein they recorded The Bump (1974) with Kenny and had another UK No 1 with Forever and Ever for Slik (featuring Midge Ure) in 1976.

Martin was born William Macpherson, the son of Letty (nee Wylie) and Ian Machpherson, in Govan, the dockside district of Glasgow, where his father worked in the shipyard. “There was shipbuilding around me all day,” he recalled. “The reason I have such a loud voice is because we all had to shout to make ourselves heard.” His parents liked to socialise, and his father would entertain on accordion or piano, but at Govan high school their son was more interested in history and geography than music.

After leaving school at 15, he worked in the shipyard himself, and then trained as a marine engineer. It was on a night shift doing that job, while listening to Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover playing on the radio, that he first seriously considered the idea of composing music. “The lyrics were tight and modern,” he said. “This was my kind of rock music and I felt then that I could make it as a songwriter.”

Martin did not take an immediate change in direction, however. Having married Margaret (Mag) Howe in 1960, he accepted a post as an engineer in South Africa, where, shortly after his arrival, he witnessed the Sharpeville massacre, watching from the safety of a tree as police fired on a crowd of anti-apartheid protestors, killing 69 people.

When he and Mag returned to the UK in 1962, Martin tried to interest Denmark Street publishers in songs that he had written while he was away. The music publisher Cyril Gee told him to change his name, suggesting that that any combination of 10 letters was lucky for songwriters – and so in early 1963 he became known as Bill Martin. That year a Liverpool singer, Tommy Quickly, recorded his song Kiss Me Now, and he wrote English lyrics for the winning Eurovision song of 1965, Serge Gainsbourg’s Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son, which became A Lonely Singing Doll (1965), sung by Twinkle.

He also wrote for the Dublin pop group the Bachelors, and through that work befriended Coulter, their young arranger. Martin suggested the two of them write together, and their first success was Hi Hi Hazel for Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band in 1966.

Eventually, in 1983, he broke up his partnership with Coulter. The same year he also fell out with the entrepreneur Eddie Healey over the financing of a West End musical, Jukebox. His ambition to write his own hit musical was never realised; he came close with a proposed stage version of the 1979 film The Water Babies, which he had scored with Coulter, but the logistics of having a large water tank on stage were too great.

He was appointed MBE in 2014 and his autobiography, Congratulations – Songwriter to the Stars, was published in 2017.

He and Mag divorced in 1970, after which he bought John Lennon’s former home, Kenwood, in Weybridge, Surrey, and moved in with Jan Olley, whom he married in 1972. He is survived by Jan, and their children, Angus and Melanie, and by Meran and Alison, his children from his first marriage.

• Bill Martin (William Wylie Macpherson), songwriter, born 9 November 1938; died 26 March 2020

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