#1. “Green Onions” — Booker T. & the M.G.’s
Peaked: September 29, 1962
Weeks on Chart: 16
Held Out By: “Ramblin’ Rose” (Nat King Cole) “Sherry” (The Four Seasons)
If ever there were a group whose impact and importance could not be measured by chart performance or sales, it’s Booker T. & the M.G.’s. As the house band for Stax Records, the group didn’t just help define soul during the 1960s, they (partly) were soul during the 1960s.
Nevertheless, we are talking about chart showings here. While Booker T. & the M.G.’s returned to the Top 20 three times in 1968/69, “Green Onions” was by far their most successful single. It sold more than a million copies and continues to pop up in movies, TV shows, and video games. It simply couldn’t overcome the first #1 single from the Four Seasons or “Ramblin’ Rose,” Nat King Cole’s highest-charting single on the Hot 100 since “Looking Back” hit #5 in 1958.
#2. “California Girls” — The Beach Boys
Peaked: August 28 & September 4, 1965
Weeks on Chart: 11
Held Out By: “Help!” (The Beatles), “I Got You Babe” (Sonny & Cher), and “Like a Rolling Stone” (Bob Dylan)
Given the massive commercial success the Beach Boys enjoyed in the 1960s, would it surprise you to learn that they only hit #1 three times during the decade? Yup, it’s true. That honor, by the way, went to “I Get Around,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” and “Good Vibrations.” And in a strange but fun coincidence, David Lee Roth’s 1985 cover of “California Girls” also peaked at #3 — in addition to having one of the coolest videos of the ’80s.
While I certainly feel this song merits a #1, it’s hard to argue with prime, pre-Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles or what was Bob Dylan’s first hit single. As for Sonny & Cher, well, let’s just say that there’s probably a reason “I Got You Babe” was the featured song in Groundhog Day.
#3. “Nowhere Man” — The Beatles
Peaked: March 26, 1966
Weeks on Chart: 9
Held Out By: “19th Nervous Breakdown” (The Rolling Stones) and “The Ballad of the Green Berets” (SSgt. Barry Sadler)
It’s hard to feel bad for the Fab Four not hitting the top spot with this single, given all the others they had, but I find it interesting to look at what blocked them out. It makes sense that the rival Stones would, as it was the British Invasion after all, but “The Ballad of the Green Berets”? Let’s just say that regardless of its patriotic merits it never did much for me as a tune, although I can see why it would have resonated with many in the days before the Vietnam War became deeply divisive.
#4. “Imagine” — John Lennon
Peaked: November 13 & 20, 1971
Weeks on Chart: 9
Held Out By: “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves” (Cher) and “Theme from Shaft” (Isaac Hayes)
Gah! Cher again!!!
#5. “Saturday in the Park” — Chicago
Peaked: September 23 & 30, 1972
Weeks on Chart: 12
Held Out By: “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” (Mac Davis) and “Black and White” (Three Dog Night)
“Saturday in the Park” held the honor of being Chicago’s highest-charting single until “If You Leave Me Now” claimed the #1 position and ushered in the era of Ceterafication in October 1976. It’s certainly a better song than “Black and White,” but I’m down with Three Dog Night for the most part so I can overlook that.
Mac Davis, however… well, let’s just read what the rest of the staff had to say about him and “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” in an old installment of Digging for Gold.
#6. “Don’t Stop” — Fleetwood Mac
Peaked: September 24, 30, & October 1, 1977
Weeks on Chart: 18
Held Out By: “Float On” (The Floaters), “Best of My Love” (The Emotions), “Keep It Comin’ Love” (KC and the Sunshine Band), and “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” (Meco)
This was the third U.S. single released from the commercial juggernaut that was Rumours, and nearly became the second #1 in a row (after “Dreams”). I’m not going to argue that it’s Mac’s best song — it’s not even the best one from the album — but it sure has stood the test of time and is a damn fine piece of pop.
And seriously, look at those other tracks. “Float On” is smooth enough but insanely cheesy, like Velveeta, and the less said about Meco the better. I do have to give it up for the Emotions, however. “Best of My Love” is a damn good song.
#7. “My Life” — Billy Joel
Peaked: January 6, 13 & 20, 1979
Weeks on Chart: 19
Held Out By: “Le Freak” (Chic) and “Too Much Heaven” (Bee Gees)
Billy Joel’s first Top 10 single was “Just the Way You Are,” which also peaked at #3, but “My Life” was an even bigger international hit. It was certified platinum by the RIAA and broke the Top 20 in Australia, Austria, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. It just couldn’t win out over one of the most memorable songs of the disco era and a great ballad from the Bee Gees just before they crashed and burned.
Outside of the charts you may remember that “My Life” became the theme song to the early ’80s sitcom Bosom Buddies, starring Peter Scolari and some other guy whose name I forget.
#8. “Sexual Healing” — Marvin Gaye
Peaked: January 29, February 5 & 12, 1983
Weeks on Chart: 21
Held Out By: “Africa” (Toto), “Down Under” (Men at Work), and “Baby, Come to Me” (Patti Austin and James Ingram)
This has to go down as one of the greatest comebacks in music, no? Not only did the Midnight Love album become Gaye’s most successful, but “Sexual Healing” sold two million copies and was just his second certified platinum single. Oh, and he won to Grammy Awards for it as well. As it turned out, however, early 1983 belonged to Toto and Men at Work. “Baby, Come to Me,” incidentally, rose to #1 thanks to its use on the hit ABC soap opera General Hospital.
Of course it all came to a tragic end just over a year later, but at least we had one last great document from one of the greatest singers of the 20th century.
#9. “Drive” — The Cars
Peaked: September 29, October 6 & 13, 1984
Weeks on Chart: 19
Held Out By: “Missing You” (John Waite), “Let’s Go Crazy” (Prince and the Revolution), and “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (Stevie Wonder)
I’ve always been more of a fan of the Cars’ early albums — they got a little too slick and formulaic for my taste by the time the Mutt Lange-co-produced Heartbeat City became a huge hit. But man, this is just sweet. Ric Ocasek had to have Ben Orr in mind when he wrote this — it’s just too vulnerable and emotional for anyone else to sing.
As it happens, this is the highest-charting single in America for the Cars, which doesn’t seem right to me. They just had so many great ones, one of them should’ve gone all the way. But looking at the competition for “Drive” I can see why they didn’t go to the top. Those are some of the greatest pop songs of the decade right there — and yes, I’m including “I Just Called to Say I Love You” in that list.
#10. “Remember the Time” — Michael Jackson
Peaked: March 7, 14, 28, & April 4, 1992
Weeks on Chart: 20
Held Out By: “I’m Too Sexy” (Right Said Fred), “To Be With You” (Mr. Big), “Tears in Heaven” (Eric Clapton), and “Save the Best for Last” (Vanessa Williams)
I was going to keep this list strictly about the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s but I had to include this, one of my favorite MJ songs (especially from this post-Thriller period). Only “Black and White,” also from the Dangerous album, charted higher in the U.S. The curious item about this song is that, unlike all the others on this list, it dropped down from #3 and then came back for another run at the top spot.
After being held back by Mr. Big and Right Said Fred — and the latter had to hurt — for two weeks, “Remember the Time” fell to #4 for the week ending March 21. It then rose back to #3 only to be stopped by Eric Clapton and Vanessa Williams. Jackson only charted that high again one more time in his career, when “You Are Not Alone” became his final #1 hit in 1995.