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The origins of the melody appear to be strongly claimed by the Russians, and Russian gypsies consider it their song. The name of this song seems to be "Dorogo' Dlinnoyu" and translated means "By a long road (or way)" or "Along a long road (or way)" or "On a long way." Some sources claim it was written by two Russian composers - B. Fomin (music) and K. Podrevsky (lyrics) at the end of the 19th century or in the beginning of 20th century. There is another song, Russian title given as "Darogoi Dli Mayou." calling itself "Dear to Me." this too is supposed to be a version of "Dorogo Dlinnoyu," first recorded by Alexander Wertinsky in the 1920s.
In the 1950s Annikki Tahtiand recorded this in her native Finnish language.
In 1962, Gene Raskin took the melody and wrote English lyrics to it. It was popularized in the US by the folk trio The Limeliters.
In 1965, Paul McCartney saw Raskin and his wife perform this in a London club. McCartney remembered the performance 3 years later, when The Beatles formed Apple Records. In 1968, British model Twiggy telephoned McCartney about a singer who performed on the UK TV program Opportunity Knocks (the US had a similar TV show in the '90s - Star Search). Three-time winner Mary Hopkin was a 17-year-old from Wales who had people talking about her performances. McCartney returned to London and auditioned Hopkin. He was impressed by her voice and recommended that she record "an American folk song" that he heard a few years earlier, "Those Were the Days."
The single was released simultaneously with the Beatles' "Hey Jude." While "Hey Jude" was #1 for nine weeks in the US, "Those Were the Days" was #2 for four of them and knocked the Beatles out of #1 in the UK charts. Not bad for the first two single releases of Apple Records.
McCartney produced the recording session for this and played acoustic guitar.
In the UK, Apple Records was introduced to the public by a boxed set of their first four singles -- "Hey Jude," "Those Were the Days," "Thingumybob" (a TV theme song written by McCartney), and "Sour Milk Sea" (a song sung by Jackie Lomax and written/produced by George Harrison).
Versions of the song were also recorded in Spanish, French, Italian and German by Hopkin and McCartney. John Lennon's first wife, Cynthia, also recorded a version.
Cream has a song by the same name released in the same year. The 2 songs seem to be completely unrelated. The song was written by Mike Taylor and Cream's drummer, Ginger Baker.
Other artists who have covered this song include the 5th Dimension, Chet Atkins, Carol Burnett, Max Bygraves, Dexter Gordon, Robert Goulet, Engelbert Humperdinck, Wanda Jackson, Johnny Mathis, Jerry Vale, The Ventures and Bobby Vinton.
The despotic president of the African country of Equatorial Guinea Macias Nguema (1924-1979) was a complete and utter sadist. He liked to have thousands bludgeoned to death in the local football stadium as a military band played this song.