It reached #1 in Canada on the RPM 100national singles charts and shortly thereafter in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100chart. Stephens was a big fan of tunes from the British music hall era (or what Americanswould call “vaudeville”), so he wrote “Winchester Cathedral” in that vein, complete with a Rudy Vallée soundalike (John Carter) singing through his hands to imitate a megaphone sound. Although the song was recorded entirely by session musicians, when it became an international hit, an actual band had to be assembled, with Fontana trying unsuccessfully to recruit the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. The recording is one of the few charting songs to feature a bassoon. The band toured extensively under the tutelage of Peter Grant, who later went on to manage The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin.
Singer Rudy Vallée, whose voice and style the original recording imitated, did his own cover of the song in 1967 when he was in his late 60s. (It did not chart.) The Four Freshmen recorded a cover of the song on their 1968 album In a Class by Themselves. Frank Sinatraalso recorded a version of the song for his 1966 album That’s Life. Global sales of the single were over three million, with the RIAA certification of gold disc status.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the song’s release, a new version by Geoff Stephens was released on CD by Signum Classics, sung by members of the Winchester Cathedral Choir. The premier performance of this version was to take place during a Gala Concert in Winchester Cathedral on March 12 to help raise funds for the Cathedral’s Appeal.