- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
Beatle Paul McCartney first heard of Mary Hopkin when he was eating dinner at his father’s Liverpool home one night.
Included at the table that evening were friends Twiggy (the British supermodel) and her manager. The conversation turned to TV talent-discovery shows, and the younger McCartney wondered aloud whether anyone was ever really discovered on such programs?
Twiggy responded that she had recently seen a cute 17-year-old Welsh girl named Mary Hopkin on a show called Opportunity Knocks. Twiggy, impressed with the young lady’s high, clear voice, predicted — correctly — that Hopkin would win on the next week’s broadcast.
McCartney became intrigued enough to tune in. He too quickly fell under the spell of Hopkin’s voice and her striking and wholesome looks. The Beatles had recently started their own label — Apple Records — and were on the lookout for talent other than themselves to promote.
McCartney: “So I thought, OK. Quite right. We should sign her up for Apple, maybe make an interesting record with her.”
To Hopkin’s amazement, McCartney phoned her and suggested that they meet for lunch in London. They did (along with Mary’s mother), and on the same day visited a neighborhood recording studio where Hopkin taped several songs.
Years earlier, at a London club called the Blue Angel, McCartney had heard “Those Were the Days,” at the time sung by touring American performers Gene and Francesca Riskin. The tune featured a haunting Russian melody but, courtesy of Gene Riskin, employed English lyrics and arrangement.
The song had originated as a 1925 Russian romance piece called “Dorogoi Dinnoyu” — literally “By the Long Road” — and dealt with reminiscences upon youth and romantic idealism. The Riskins always closed their shows with “Those Were the Days.”
McCartney loved the song and suggested it to friends Donovan and the Moody Blues, but neither showed interest. Later, McCartney decided to produce the tune himself with Hopkin.
“I thought it was very catchy, it had something, it was a good treatment of nostalgia,” McCartney said. “[Hopkin] picked it up very easily, as if she’d known it for years.”
The future 8-million seller became Apple’s second released single, immediately following the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”
McCartney had been prescient in picking “Those Were the Days” for his new artist. The song reached No. 2 on Billboard, and eventually numerous other artists, including Bing Crosby and Dolly Parton, recorded the rousing tune.
McCartney also felt the work had international appeal and asked Hopkin to record versions in Italian, Farsi, Spanish, French, and German — sung phonetically, just as the Beatles had done when they cut German versions of “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964.
Alas, Hopkin’s star soon faded, but not before leaving behind two more Top 40 winners with the McCartney-produced singles “Goodbye” and “Temma Harbor.”
A downbeat footnote: On Christmas Eve 1975, Francisco Macias Nguema, the president of Equitorial Guinea, ordered the execution of 150 coup plotters in a football stadium while powerful amplifiers blasted — yes — Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days.”
Randal C. Hill is a rock ’n’ roll historian who lives at the Oregon coast. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.