Last year, in the midst of compiling my â€œWorst Number One Songs of the Rock Eraâ€ series, I began contemplating the sad, sorry fate of those records that have come up just short of the top slot on Billboardâ€™s pop charts. After all, nobody celebrates even the greatest, or biggest-selling, #2 hit as a colossal achievement, the same way even the worst #1 hit ever (â€œHoneyâ€?) is honored. You donâ€™t see Fred Bronson compiling five editions of The Billboard Book of Number 2 Hits, do you?
Put it this way: â€œWaiting for a Girl like Youâ€ sat at #2 for 10 weeks in 1981, behind a bunch of fat guys doing aerobics. â€œI Want to Know What Love Isâ€ got to #1 for two weeks in 1985. A quarter-century later, which song is considered Foreignerâ€™s biggest hit?
So, beginning this week we honor some of those great songs that, for whatever reason, never got that Casey Kasem drumroll on American Top 40. And when I say â€œfor whatever reason,â€ I mean it: Sure, many times a single has simply been blocked by a bigger, better rival, but heaven knows there have been plenty of payola/cocaine/label/radio shenanigans through the years that have kept a deserving song from ascending to glory. As I explored last year, the Top 40 has never been a perfect beast; who knows how many times a single has gotten stuck at #2 because some program directorâ€™s girlfriend just adored those cute Osmond boys?
Today we start with five singles that never reached the top during the post-â€œRock Around the Clockâ€ 1950s. But first, a brief explanation of my methodology for including records in this survey. Initial choices were based on quality; if oneâ€™s first response to a song title is â€œI canâ€™t believe that didnâ€™t make it to #1,â€ or if a #2 single seems (in retrospect) infinitely better than the song that screwed it out of the top spot, itâ€™s here. Beyond that, over the course of the survey Iâ€™ll feature some singles that topped out at #2 during the latter stages of another songâ€™s extended run in the top spot, figuring things might have been different if it werenâ€™t for some amount of programming inertia at radio. After I identify my picks for each decade, Iâ€™ll list some other #2s and open the comments section for debate on who got shafted the worst.
Here we go!
5. â€œBlueberry Hill,â€ Fats Domino. The Fat Manâ€™s biggest hit nearly became the first rock â€˜nâ€™ roll tune by an African-American artist to top the charts during the holiday season of 1956. (Iâ€™m on the fence as to whether the Plattersâ€™ great chart-topping hits of that year, â€œThe Great Pretenderâ€ and â€œMy Prayer,â€ qualify as rock â€˜nâ€™ roll.) â€œBlueberry Hillâ€ spent a couple weeks at #2, but its path to the pinnacle was blocked by Guy Mitchellâ€™s mammoth hit â€œSinging the Blues,â€ which spent nine weeks at #1. Now, â€œSinging the Bluesâ€ is a great song, but câ€™mon, Guy â€“ couldnâ€™t you have spared a week or two for the Fat Man? Itâ€™s a shame Fats never made it to the top of the charts, but he did have eleven Top 10 hits â€“ and then, four decades after his last chart appearance, he was in the public eye again for all the wrong reasons, as a symbol of the havoc created by Hurricane Katrina. On the anniversary of the stormâ€™s landfall, George Bush visited New Orleans and presented Fats with a National Medal of the Arts to replace the one that had been lost in the flood. And the nation, if not Fats himself, sighed, â€œToo little, too late.â€
4. â€œSea of Love,â€ Phil Phillips with the Twilights. Poor Phil Phillips. No, literally â€“ poor Phil Phillips. Phillips was paid a grand total of $6,008 for his work on the colossal single (and inspiration for a terrific Al Pacino movie) â€œSea of Love,â€ despite the fact that it sold 2 million records during the summer of 1959. If weâ€™re to believe his MySpace autobiography, not only did Mercury Records thoroughly shaft him after purchasing the single, but Phillips was so ticked off at the deal he had received that he didnâ€™t bother recording an album to follow it up. Thus are one-hit wonders created, and Phillips certainly qualifies. The only thing that could make this sad story even sadder is the downright maudlin record that kept Phillips from at least qualifying for a Fred Bronson mini-bio: the Brownsâ€™ â€œThe Three Bells.â€ An Edith Piaf chanson (â€œLes Trois Cloches,â€ bien sur) translated into English during the late â€™40s, â€œThe Three Bellsâ€ tolled for the birth, marriage and death of a certain Jimmy Brown â€“ which made it the perfect choice for a sibling trio whose male voice emanated from a dude named â€¦ Jim Ed Brown. Creepy. Anyway, while the usual one-hit wonder story ends with the words â€œand he was never heard from again,â€ thatâ€™s not quite true with Phillips, who in the late â€˜â€™60s released a spoken-word anti-drug record called â€œThe Evil Dope.â€ (Must â€¦ not â€¦ reference Bush again.) Oddly enough, Popdoseâ€™s own Jason Hare once wrote about that song here; if we ask him nicely enough, maybe heâ€™ll re-post it. In the meantime:
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3. â€œBye Bye Love,â€ the Everly Brothers. Itâ€™s difficult to feel too sorry for the Everly Brothers here; three of their next four singles (â€œWake Up Little Susie,â€ â€œAll I Have to Do is Dream,â€ and â€œBird Dogâ€) would leapfrog past #2 and take the checkered flag. Too bad, though, that the debut single that established their trademark harmonies â€“ and became the template for all the male pop duos that followed, to the extent that Simon & Garfunkel made â€œBye Bye Loveâ€ a cornerstone of their live sets â€“ didnâ€™t provide songwriters Felice & Boudleaux Bryant with a #1 hit out of the gate. And itâ€™s really too bad that Phil and Don had to stand aside for four weeks while goddamn Pat Boone had his fourth chart-topper with the putrid â€œLove Letters in the Sand.â€
2. â€œGreat Balls of Fire,â€ Jerry Lee Lewis. The Killerâ€™s closest whiff of the #1 slot â€“ â€œWhole Lot of Shakinâ€™ Goinâ€™ Onâ€ topped out at #3 â€“ cooled its heels at #2 for four weeks in January 1958 while Danny and the Juniors bogarted the glory hole with â€œAt the Hop.â€ Not to take anything away from Danny Rapp and the boys, because â€œAt the Hopâ€ is an iconic song in its own right, and without it we might never have experienced the magic that was Sha Na Na. But weâ€™re talking about â€œGreat Balls of Fireâ€ here: one of the seminal singles in rock history â€“ a song that took the â€œfireâ€ metaphor away from Tin Pan Alley (where it had something to do with a mushy feeling in the heart) and attached it to a location about a foot lower on the male anatomy. Actually, to hear Wikipedia tell it, â€œthe song title is derived from a Southern expression, which some Christians consider blasphemous, that refers to the Pentecost’s defining moment when the Holy Spirit manifested itself as â€˜cloven tongues as of fireâ€™ and the Apostles spoke in tongues.” Yeah, OK, whatever â€“ if I need further elaboration, Iâ€™ll get Jerryâ€™s cousin Jimmy Swaggart to explain it to me. Thanks anyway.
1. â€œBlue Suede Shoes,â€ Carl Perkins. How might the history of the rock era been written differently had â€œBlue Suede Shoesâ€ beaten Elvis’ â€œHeartbreak Hotelâ€ to the #1 spot? Itâ€™s a little-remembered fact that Perkinsâ€™ boppinâ€™ debut hit for the Sun label hit the charts the same week in March 1956 as Presleyâ€™s first RCA single. But instead of becoming the second-ever rock â€˜nâ€™ roll #1 (still ambivalent about the Platters, and sorry, Kay Starr, but â€œRock and Roll Waltzâ€ simply doesnâ€™t count), â€œBlue Suede Shoesâ€ was kept from the top spot by bandleader Les Baxter and â€œThe Poor People of Paris,â€ and then by Elvis himself. Baxterâ€™s hit was part of a mid-â€™50s fad of European melodies getting American makeovers; as Bronson notes, Baxterâ€™s label (Capitol) didnâ€™t even get the songâ€™s title right â€“ it originally translated from the French as â€œThe Ballad of Poor Jean.â€ Anyway, Perkins and his band were almost literally on the road to #1 â€“ driving to New York for performances on Ed Sullivan and Perry Comoâ€™s shows â€“ when their Chrysler rear-ended a pickup truck on March 22. Perkins suffered a fractured skull and additional broken bones, other members of his band were injured as well, and his career momentum was effectively halted. Perkins never had another Top 40 pop single, and had to settle for the title of â€œHillbilly Cat,â€ while Elvis got to be the King.
A few other criminally neglected #2s of the â€™50s (and the singles that blocked them from the top): â€œLittle Darlinâ€™,â€ the Diamonds (Perry Comoâ€™s â€œRound and Roundâ€); â€œAll the Way,â€ Frank Sinatra (Pat Booneâ€™s â€œApril Loveâ€); â€œSweet Little Sixteen,â€ Chuck Berry, and â€œLollipop,â€ the Chordettes (both stopped by the Champsâ€™ â€œTequilaâ€); â€œCharlie Brown,â€ the Coasters (Frankie Avalonâ€™s â€œVenusâ€); â€œDream Lover,â€ Bobby Darin (Johnny Hortonâ€™s â€œThe Battle of New Orleansâ€).
Think one of those should displace one of my choices? Have at it in the comments. Next time, the Sixties â€“ and Motownâ€™s greatest songwriter getting cock-blocked by â€¦ Lawrence Welk?