'Little Donkey' was Eric's first success. He'd previously written modern classical music (including something called 'The Enchantress' which allegedly crops up in film soundtracks, though no-one seems to know which) but something made him switch to pop, probably hunger, and in time-honoured tradition he ventured south with his manuscripts in a knotted handkerchief to Denmark Street in London's Soho which had gained the unoriginal nickname Tin Pan Alley, like the real one in New York. To all accounts he got the "don't call us" treatment on multiple occasions but kept on plodding onwards.
The usual story is that Eric was nervously visiting a Larry Parnes type with a large cigar at Chappell's at the same time as one Gracie Fields happened to pay a visit. "Our Gracie" as she'd been cryptically dubbed was big during World War II, which was some time ago even then, with 'Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye', 'There'll Be Bluebirds Over The White Cliffs Of Dover' and other teary odes earning her the soubriquet "The Force's Sweetheat". She'd not troubled the record-buying public for some time but fancied a last shot at a comeback. In a "right place at the right time" sort of way the two northerners (Gracie being from Rochdale) were matched up, and after the song's time signature was adjusted from Eric's well-meaning but non-poptastic 3/4 waltz ("Donkey's don't waltz, Eric", someone quite accurately pointed out), Gracie was heading up the Christmas 1959 "Hit Parade" with what would be her swansong before retiring to the island of Capri, presumably because it reminded her of Rochdale. But she always sent Eric a Christmas card.
In those times every British family had at least one piano, usually in the "front room", around which they gathered periodically for a "sing song". Even the charts were based on sales of sheet music rather than "vinyls" as they would much later be known, at least in Dalston bicycle cafes. This was just prior to the Beatles who changed everything such that everybody had to stop having "sing songs" and buy "mop tops" instead.
Another phenomenon was whenever there was a sniff of a new hit other artists rushed to cover it, and even before Gracie's "45" (or quite possibly "78") was in Woolworths, The Beverley Sisters had their own version out, complete with matching perms. Popular Danish duo Nina & Frederik, the Ant & Dec of their day, had a go at it the next Christmas and outsold both of them. And in decades to follow everyone from Aled "Walking In The Air" Jones to Cerys "You Give Me Road Rage" Matthews recorded covers. The song even turned up on a John Peel session courtesy of Glasgow tweesters Camera Obscura after which he presumably stroked his beard, said something sardonic about donkeys then played The Fall at the wrong speed.
Back to the sixties and Chappell were well impressed and put Eric on the payroll for a few years where his output was in the clean-cut spirit of the times with titles like 'Suddenly I'm In Love', 'Money In My Pocket' and 'Happy Trumpet Man' (which sounds exactly like you think it does). Some of these were entered for A Song For Europe, a TV marathon to select the Brit entry to the Eurovision Song Contest and Eric opuses were placed 2nd and 3rd in 1961. This caused much hand-wringing about "splitting the vote" against the eventual winner 'Are You Sure?' by The Allisons, on the grounds Eric's 'Why Can't We' and 'Suddenly I'm In Love' were pretty similar to each other but not to 'Are You Sure?'. The Allisons went on to lose the Eurovision Song Contest to Luxembourg, probably in doing so sowing the seeds for Brexit. The logic was that one of Eric's entries might have won A Song For Europe, and perhaps Eurovision, had there not been two of them. In that alternate universe today 'Why Can't We' or 'Suddenly I'm In Love' (but not both of them) might today be regarded with the same reverence and hushed respect as 'Making Your Mind Up' by Bucks Fizz and Nigel Farage might be marginally less smug. 'Are You Sure?' as The Allisons might have said.
Inevitably Eric was feverishly trying to write a second Donkey. Something or other called 'How Many Days Till Christmas Eve' turns up in his American catalogue but perhaps thankfully YouTube turns up a blank on that. More on the mark was 1970's 'Boy From Bethlehem', a question and answer sort of song where a curious adult interrogates a poor boy as to what is going on under the nearby star. It's just as catchy a tune as the horse one but the awkward duet structure meant there was no Gracie to take it up the charts (though Ant and Dec, if you're reading...). It does remain published and Finchley Children's Choir in North London latterly kept Eric informed that they liked singing it every year even if everyone other one sticks to the one about the nag.
The startling non-success of 'Boy From Bethlehem' may have been instrumental in Eric's turning his back on the pop world in the early 1970s. In a post mop top world groups were writing their own songs rather than have a Brill Building backroom boy hiving off their royalties. He'd already returned to the North East and started writing his folk songs about the area in roughly 1973. Although Eric reckoned on Little Donkey being a Little Albatross around his neck it did open a few doors in 'The Toon' not least at Tyne Tees Television and Newcastle Festival - this site isn't called Don't Mention Happy Trumpet Man for nothing.
Photos from top: Piccadilly Circus about 1969, presumably at either a quarter to seven or twenty-five past two © Arbyreed. A random jukebox evokes the sixties and helps make this the most colourful page on DMLD © Gillyberlin. The Beverley Sisters look wistful on the sheet music promoting their recording, a snip at two shillings, still leaving change for fish and chips on the bus back home. Denmark Street, London WC2, epicentre of post-war pop publishing, still just about hanging on to its music shops in the 2010s, though even since this picture was taken the legendary 12 Bar Cafe, where Gracie Fields and The Beverley Sisters may well have had a 'sing song', has sadly closed down. Photo © Dave Patten.