Les Vandyke, singer and songwriter also known as Johnny Worth who penned hits for Adam Faith – obituary

Les Vandyke (centre in black hat) with fellow musicians, circa 1964 - Alamy
Les Vandyke (centre in black hat) with fellow musicians, circa 1964 - Alamy

Les Vandyke, who has died aged 90, wrote a string of hit songs for the pocket-sized pop star Adam Faith, notably What Do You Want? (1959) and Poor Me! (1960), both of which reached No 1 in the British charts.

Under the pen name Johnny Worth, Vandyke almost scored a hat trick of UK chart toppers for Faith, but his third single Someone Else’s Baby, co-written with Perry Ford, failed to dislodge the American Everly Brothers’ Cathy’s Clown in May 1960, and he had to settle for No 2.

In the summer of 1961 he did achieve a third No 1, this time for the British Elvis clone Eden Kane (born Richard Sarstedt), with Well I Ask You. Like Adam Faith, Kane developed a a vocal tic by way of a gimmick, a sort of growl which he claimed was only partly accidental. “It was a mixture if laryngitis and bronchitis,” he explained.

As Johnny Worth, he had asked the young pianist Les Reed for help in making a demo for Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, but when Reed played What Do You Want? to him it was in a 4/4 rock-style rhythm and Kidd turned it down on the spot.

Rearranged with strings played pizzicato (plucked) in the style of a Buddy Holly number, What Do You Want? became Worth’s first No 1 with Adam Faith, and the number influenced the work of several other pop song writers, notably Geoff Stephens, who considered Worth “brilliant”, the first to seriously challenge the Americans.

Adam Faith - Allstar Picture Library
Adam Faith - Allstar Picture Library

“Johnny Worth was strictly pop,” Stephens noted, “but very, very on the mark.” Another songwriter and arranger, Mitch Murray, acknowledged Worth’s influence on his hits like How Do You Do It? and I Like It for Gerry and the Pacemakers in the early 1960s, especially the quality of “constantly surprising yourself”.

Worth also became musical mentor to Les Reed, who went on to be a bestselling hitmaker in his own right. When Worth first found songwriting success, he adopted another pseudonym, and combined Reed’s first name with his local telephone exchange to become Les Vandyke.

He was born John Worsley on June 21 1931 in Battersea, south London. His Greek Cypriot father wanted to name him Yannis Paraskos Skordalides but his Welsh mother insisted on John Worsley, the surname chosen by his father during the Wall Street Crash fearing that he would not be able to get work with a Greek name. He changed it by deed poll after sticking a pin in a map on Worsley, a suburb of Manchester.

On leaving school John began work as a draughtsman but returned from National Service with an ambition to become a singer, changing his name to Johnny Worth.

Working semi-professionally in pubs, he landed a television booking and was seen by the wife of the bandleader Oscar Rabin, who signed him up as his singer. Five years later he joined the Raindrops vocal quartet (with Len Beadle, Beadle’s wife Jackie Lee and Vince Hill) and in 1959 appeared on the BBC television programme Drumbeat where he met the singer Adam Faith. Worth upset the producer by advising Faith to smile gently at the camera, rather than present his usual rough biker image.

Meanwhile Worth had sought advice about an idea for a song from Les Reed, the pianist with the John Barry Seven, and from John Barry himself, who arranged Worth’s first effort at writing pop called What Do You Want?, which Johnny Kidd hated.

At Les Reed’s suggestion, the song was offered to Adam Faith. Coached by the singer Roy Young (“Britain’s Little Richard”), Faith adopted glottal stops and turned the word “baby” into “bay-beh”, while Barry added pizzicato strings.

When Faith sang What Do You Want? on ITV’s Cool For Cats, Worth remembered that the star “sat on a stool, smiled his wistful smile and went zonk! into the hearts of millions”. Released in November 1959, by early December the record was selling 50,000 copies a day and remained at No 1 for three weeks. His follow-up Poor Me! was released in March 1960.

Les Vandyke, aka Johnny Worth, at Westminster Music's Poland Street studio with the band Kestrel in 1974 - PA
Les Vandyke, aka Johnny Worth, at Westminster Music's Poland Street studio with the band Kestrel in 1974 - PA

By 1962 Worth had minted a further six Top Ten British chart hits for Adam Faith, among them How About That and Don’t That Beat All as well as two follow-up hits for Eden Kane, Get Lost (1961) and Forget Me Not (1962). In an echo of his early singing career, he recorded three songs for the score of the short 1968 film Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, credited as Johnny Worth.

In 1971 he wrote the British Eurovision entry Jack in the Box, sung in Dublin by Clodagh Rodgers, which came fourth. Two years later he wrote and produced Gonna Make You an Offer You Can’t Refuse, a No 8 UK hit for the American Jimmy Helms.

In the course of his songwriting career his work was recorded by artists including Petula Clark, Engelbert Humperdinck, Anthony Newley, Bobby Vee, Shirley Bassey, Herman’s Hermits, Marty Wilde, Bobby Rydell, Cleo Laine, Barbra Streisand, Jimmy Justice, John Leyton and Sammy Davis Jr.

In 1986 Les Vandyke married Catherine Stock, sister of the songwriter Mike Stock, and wrote her a UK hit To Have and To Hold which reached No 17 later the same year. She predeceased him.

Les Vandyke, born June 21 1931, died August 6 2021