Frank Ifield, singer who thrilled the 1960s teenage market with hits like I Remember You – obituary

Ifield: he was the number one star in 1962, when the then-unknown Beatles were his supporting act
Ifield: he was the number one star in 1962, when the then-unknown Beatles were his supporting act - Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Frank Ifield, who has died aged 86, found fame in the early 1960s with a string of big pop hits, beginning with a surprise revival of I Remember You (1962), and was one of the few singers of the day who could claim The Beatles as their support act.

Possessed of smooth Nordic good looks, Ifield was a country and western vocalist renowned for his falsetto yodelling style. He crested the wave of a new record-buying craze, and in late 1962 and early 1963 became the first British artist to release three consecutive number one singles.

I Remember You, an old Johnny Mercer ballad, topped the British hit parade in July 1962 and remained in the charts for 28 weeks. It was the first single to sell more than a million copies in England alone and was the top-selling British single of 1962.

Ifield cranked Mercer’s finely-wrought lyrics through his yodeller’s mangle, so that lines like: “When my life is through/And the angels ask me to recall/The thrill of them all/I will tell them I remember you” ended instead with a “yoooo-hooo”, the two halves of the fractured pronoun being bridged by a falsetto octave leap.

The song was further “enhanced” by the addition of a harmonica track, inspired by Bruce Channel’s recent hit Hey! Baby. The result was played incessantly in clubs and coffee bars, and at the Cavern in Liverpool that August, Paul McCartney sang it with John Lennon joining in on harmonica. The song, together with Hey! Baby, inspired The Beatles’ arrangement of their first hit record, Love Me Do, with its rasping harmonica riff, released in September 1962.

But as the historian Dominic Sandbrook noted, “What distinguished Ifield from his predecessors, was not that he was a better singer; it was that he was appealing to a bigger, more visible and more enthusiastic teenage market.” At the peak of his success, some five and a half million British teenagers were spending an estimated £1 billion buying 50 million records each year. Such was their potency as an economic force that even The Daily Telegraph began publishing the weekly Top 10.

In the autumn of 1962, after the chart success of I Remember You, the pop promoter Arthur Howes offered the virtually unknown Beatles a date at the Embassy Cinema in Peterborough as Ifield’s supporting act. It was their one appearance with Ifield, the number one star of the day, and they were terrible.

For a few brief months, Ifield had the pop world at his feet and he went on to release two more number one hits in close succession: Lovesick Blues (1962) and The Wayward Wind (1963). At the end of 1962 New Musical Express readers ranked Ifield third in the top six pop acts behind Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard, with whom – in Peter Gormley – he shared a manager.

By the spring of 1963, Ifield was sharing a girlfriend with Paul McCartney. Since breaking up with his first paramour, Dot Rhone, McCartney had been dating Iris Caldwell, the beautiful sister of Rory Storm (of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes). As everyone in Liverpool apparently knew, she was two-timing McCartney with Ifield.

“I’d go out with Frank,” she told the American author Bob Spitz, “who would give me a pound for the taxi home. But Paul would meet me, and we would have the pound to spend.”

This delicate situation was awkward for both young men. McCartney was reportedly devastated when Iris Caldwell played Please Please Me to Ifield and “he just burst out laughing”; indeed, in the event, The Beatles’ second single just failed to dislodge Ifield’s The Wayward Wind from the top spot. When Ifield played the Liverpool Empire, he spotted McCartney and Iris Caldwell holding hands in the second row. Ifield pointedly announced his next number as He’ll Have To Go.

Ifield in 1962
Ifield in 1962 - Popperfoto

One of seven sons, Francis Edward Ifield was born on November 30 1937 at Coundon, an area of Coventry, to Australian parents. His father Richard was an inventor and engineer who, before the Second World War, invented the “Ifield fuel pump”, a piece of equipment which became standard in early jet aircraft.

Shortly after the war the family moved back to Dural, a semi-rural township some 30 miles from Sydney. Listening to country and western music on the radio while milking the family cows, Frank taught himself to yodel like Hank Snow and other country stars.

As a child performer in Australia, doing rope tricks and singing cowboy songs, he toured with a wrestler called Big Chief Little Wolf, who told him: “If you’re not prepared to make a fool of yourself, you shouldn’t be in this business.” Young Frank had several hits as a teenage country and western artist, and by the age of 19 had more than 40 records to his credit, making him the most successful recording star in Australia and New Zealand. In 1958 he was the opening act in a Buddy Holly tour of Australia.

The following year he returned to Britain in search of international stardom and signed a three-year contract with EMI.

Ifield’s first UK single Lucky Devil (1960) reached number 22 in the charts. His next six were no more successful, but in July 1962 he finally broke through with I Remember You.

His next single was a double A-side: the 1949 Hank Williams hit Lovesick Blues and She Taught Me How to Yodel. He gave Lovesick Blues, a number dating back to 1922, a contemporary Twist beat, and with She Taught Me How to Yodel, he delivered a virtuoso example of yodelling with the final verse sung at double-speed.

Ifield in the 1970s
Ifield in the 1970s - Tony Russell/Redferns

With his next hit, The Wayward Wind, Ifield became the first British artist to reach number one with three consecutive records; the only other artist to have achieved this at the time was Elvis Presley. The song had been recorded by several artists (including Jimmy Young), but Ifield modelled his version on that of the American Gogi Grant, who had had a No 1 hit with it in the US in 1956.

Ifield’s version went head-to-head with The Beatles’ Please Please Me but just held on to the number one slot before being toppled by Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday in March 1963. His fourth single, Nobody’s Darlin’ But Mine, another vintage number dating from 1930, reached number four, but in July 1963 he had another number one with Confessin’ (That I Love You). On the B-side was an up-tempo arrangement of Waltzing Matilda, which earned considerable air play in itself.

As the Mersey Sound swept all before it, Ifield continued to star on British variety bills, late-night cabaret at Butlins, and in pantomime at the London Palladium. When the hits dried up, he concentrated exclusively on country music, but in 1988 his vocal cords were damaged during an operation and he was unable to sing as before.

Latterly he worked as a television presenter in Australia.

In 2007, when an Australian girl group called the Waifs were asked to sing I Remember You as a tribute to Ifield who, at 69, was the oldest inductee at a Hall of Fame ceremony in Melbourne, none of the Waifs had heard of him.

The theatre critic Kenneth Tynan once reviewed Ifield “under the insane misapprehension that he was blind”, confusing him with a blind vocalist of similar name. “I often wonder,” he mused in his diaries, “what he thought when he read the review in which I congratulated him on the gallantry with which he had overcome his handicap.”

Frank Ifield married, in 1965, Gillian Bowden, a dancer whom he met while working at the London Palladium, and with whom he had two children. The couple divorced in 1988 and in 1992, he married, secondly, Carole Wood, an air hostess.

Frank Ifield, born November 30 1937, died May 18 2024