Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Musical Career of Tracey Ullman

The British comic and singer achieved big success with her eighties albums, and in particular, one retro-sounding hit single.
by Rich Watson 

Many Americans know Tracey Ullman as the one whose Fox television show gave birth to The Simpsons. She has had a prosperous career in TV and film, on both sides of the Atlantic.

A start in musical theater eventually led to the release of two albums from her in the eighties. An international smash single from her made her a star.

Tracey Ullman’s early days in musical theater 

Ullman was born in the English county now known as Berkshire. During childhood, she and her sister put on homemade shows to help her family cope with the death of her father. In school she wrote and appeared in plays.

At sixteen she had her first professional role: a revival of Gigi in Berlin. This led to a stint with the Second Generation Dance Troupe, who appeared on TV variety shows.

Ullman appeared in West End musicals such as Grease and The Rocky Horror Show. In 1981 she won the London Theater Critics Award for Most Promising New Actress. That led to roles in British television.

Music remained on her mind.

Stiff Records

Stiff Records is a British indie record label from 1976 specializing in punk and new wave music. Among the acts they’ve signed include Devo, Elvis Costello and Madness.

In a book about Stiff Records, Ullman says at her hairdresser’s, she met the wife of Stiff co-owner Dave Robinson, Rosemary. They knew of Ullman through the musical parodies she did on TV. Rosemary offered Ullman the chance to make a record

“I went, ‘Yeah, I want to make a record,’” she says in the book. “I would have tried anything.”

You Broke My Heart in 17 Places

In 1983 Ullman released her first album, You Broke My Heart in 17 Places, on the Stiff label, produced by Peter Collins. It peaked at fourteen on the UK Albums chart and, a year later, at thirty-four on the Billboard 200 chart.

It was an album of covers. Her first single in the UK was a peppy tune co-written by Jackie DeShannon called “Breakaway.” Irma Thomas did it in 1964 as the B-side of “Wish Someone Would Care.” 

Ullman’s version went to number four on the UK chart and number seventy in the US. The video, a tribute to classic girl groups, received play on MTV.

Among the other cover tracks on Heart include Doris Day’s “Move Over Darling,” the Dells’ “Oh What a Night,” and Marcie Blane’s “Bobby’s Girl.”

One track in particular was destined for bigger success.

“They Don’t Know” and Kirsty MacColl

In 1979, Stiff signed Kirsty MacColl to a solo record deal. She sung lead for the punk band the Drug Addix. The daughter of folk singer Ewan MacColl, she wrote and sung a song, “They Don’t Know.” Stiff released it as a single.

In the Stiff Records book, MacColl said they preferred her over her band and wanted to hear what other material she had. She hastily put “They Don’t Know” together.

MacColl went on to a good career, mostly in the UK. She died under tragic circumstances in 2000 at age forty-one.

Ullman’s cover of “They Don’t Know”

MacColl was encouraged to pitch “They Don’t Know” to Ullman. MacColl sang backup on Ullmann’s version—that’s her doing the “bay-bee” part before the third verse because Ullman’s voice couldn’t go quite that high—along with Rosemary Robinson. 

The song went to number one in Ireland and Norway. In the UK, Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” kept Ullman out of the top spot. She had to settle for second place.

“They Don’t Know” went to number eight in the US.

Paul McCartney’s cameo in the video was a quid pro quo for Ullman appearing in his 1984 movie Give My Regards to Broad Street. 

MTV invited her to be a guest VJ in February 1984, which caused US distributor MCA Records to rush-release the song in the States. When MacColl died, Ullman sung it at a tribute concert.

In the UK, “Darling” became her third single.

Ullmann’s second album and subsequent career

In 1984 Ullman released her second album, You Caught Me Out. She covered two more MacColl songs, the title track and “Terry.” MacColl again sang backup. Ullman’s biggest hit from the album was her version of Skeeter Davis’ “Sunglasses.” It peaked at eighteen in the UK.

CBS was ready to feature Ullman in a sitcom in 1985, but her agent disagreed with the American network’s vision. In discussion with producer James L. Brooks, he suggested sketch comedy for a TV show instead.

The Tracey Ullman Show debuted in 1987 at the new Fox network. It would win ten Emmy Awards, with Ullman personally winning three. 

She has since been in shows and films in the US and the UK.



Do you remember Tracey Ullman’s songs?


  1. Speaking of SKEETER DAVIS she was once married to well-known radio and TV personality RALPH EMERY. They were married for four years until their divorce in 1964. Ralph had been a disc jockey and hosted POP GOES THE COUNTRY, a syndicated TV show. He is probably best known for hosting the prime-time show NASHVILLE NOW. It was on for at least ten years and aired on TNN, which stood for THE NASHVILLE NETWORK. Do you know Mr. Emery's work? CLASSIC TV FAN

  2. I don’t, but I’m not big on country music .I only know Skeeter Davis for that song “The End of the World.” I wouldn’t call that a country song.

  3. Are there any country singers that you enjoy their music? Some of the female singers that I like are REBA MCENTIRE, DOLLY PARTON and especially PATTY LOVELESS, TRISHA YEARWOOD and MARTINA MCBRIDE. Also from the past BARBARA MANDRELL and JANIE FRICKE. Barbara was really big back in her day. She was pretty and had sex appeal. She did a TV-MOVIE with TOM WOPAT for CBS called BURNING RAGE in the early 80s. CLASSIC TV FAN

  4. Sure. Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton. Really like Emmylou Harris.