Put it this way: “Waiting for a Girl like You” sat at #2 for 10 weeks in 1981, behind a bunch of fat guys doing aerobics. “I Want to Know What Love Is” got to #1 for two weeks in 1985. A quarter-century later, which song is considered Foreigner’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 “for whatever reason,” 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 director’s girlfriend just adored those cute Osmond boys?
Today we start with five singles that never reached the top during the post-“Rock Around the Clock” 1950s. But first, a brief explanation of my methodology for including records in this survey. Initial choices were based on quality; if one’s first response to a song title is “I can’t believe that didn’t make it to #1,” or if a #2 single seems (in retrospect) infinitely better than the song that screwed it out of the top spot, it’s here. Beyond that, over the course of the survey I’ll feature some singles that topped out at #2 during the latter stages of another song’s extended run in the top spot, figuring things might have been different if it weren’t for some amount of programming inertia at radio. After I identify my picks for each decade, I’ll list some other #2s and open the comments section for debate on who got shafted the worst.
Here we go!
5. “Blueberry Hill,” Fats Domino. The Fat Man’s biggest hit nearly became the first rock ‘n’ roll tune by an African-American artist to top the charts during the holiday season of 1956. (I’m on the fence as to whether the Platters’ great chart-topping hits of that year, “The Great Pretender” and “My Prayer,” qualify as rock ‘n’ roll.) “Blueberry Hill” spent a couple weeks at #2, but its path to the pinnacle was blocked by Guy Mitchell’s mammoth hit “Singing the Blues,” which spent nine weeks at #1. Now, “Singing the Blues” is a great song, but c’mon, Guy – couldn’t you have spared a week or two for the Fat Man? It’s a shame Fats never made it to the top of the charts, but he did have eleven Top 10 hits – 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 storm’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, “Too little, too late.”
4. “Sea of Love,” Phil Phillips with the Twilights. Poor Phil Phillips. No, literally – 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) “Sea of Love,” despite the fact that it sold 2 million records during the summer of 1959. If we’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 didn’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 Browns’ “The Three Bells.” An Edith Piaf chanson (“Les Trois Cloches,” bien sur) translated into English during the late ’40s, “The Three Bells” tolled for the birth, marriage and death of a certain Jimmy Brown – which made it the perfect choice for a sibling trio whose male voice emanated from a dude named … Jim Ed Brown. Creepy. Anyway, while the usual one-hit wonder story ends with the words “and he was never heard from again,” that’s not quite true with Phillips, who in the late ‘’60s released a spoken-word anti-drug record called “The Evil Dope.” (Must … not … reference Bush again.) Oddly enough, Popdose’s own Jason Hare once wrote about that song here; if we ask him nicely enough, maybe he’ll re-post it. In the meantime:
3. “Bye Bye Love,” the Everly Brothers. It’s difficult to feel too sorry for the Everly Brothers here; three of their next four singles (“Wake Up Little Susie,” “All I Have to Do is Dream,” and “Bird Dog”) would leapfrog past #2 and take the checkered flag. Too bad, though, that the debut single that established their trademark harmonies – and became the template for all the male pop duos that followed, to the extent that Simon & Garfunkel made “Bye Bye Love” a cornerstone of their live sets – didn’t provide songwriters Felice & Boudleaux Bryant with a #1 hit out of the gate. And it’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 “Love Letters in the Sand.”
2. “Great Balls of Fire,” Jerry Lee Lewis. The Killer’s closest whiff of the #1 slot – “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” topped out at #3 – cooled its heels at #2 for four weeks in January 1958 while Danny and the Juniors bogarted the glory hole with “At the Hop.” Not to take anything away from Danny Rapp and the boys, because “At the Hop” is an iconic song in its own right, and without it we might never have experienced the magic that was Sha Na Na. But we’re talking about “Great Balls of Fire” here: one of the seminal singles in rock history – a song that took the “fire” 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, “the 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 ‘cloven tongues as of fire’ and the Apostles spoke in tongues.” Yeah, OK, whatever – if I need further elaboration, I’ll get Jerry’s cousin Jimmy Swaggart to explain it to me. Thanks anyway.
1. “Blue Suede Shoes,” Carl Perkins. How might the history of the rock era been written differently had “Blue Suede Shoes” beaten Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” to the #1 spot? It’s a little-remembered fact that Perkins’ boppin’ debut hit for the Sun label hit the charts the same week in March 1956 as Presley’s first RCA single. But instead of becoming the second-ever rock ‘n’ roll #1 (still ambivalent about the Platters, and sorry, Kay Starr, but “Rock and Roll Waltz” simply doesn’t count), “Blue Suede Shoes” was kept from the top spot by bandleader Les Baxter and “The Poor People of Paris,” and then by Elvis himself. Baxter’s hit was part of a mid-’50s fad of European melodies getting American makeovers; as Bronson notes, Baxter’s label (Capitol) didn’t even get the song’s title right – it originally translated from the French as “The Ballad of Poor Jean.” Anyway, Perkins and his band were almost literally on the road to #1 – driving to New York for performances on Ed Sullivan and Perry Como’s shows – 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 “Hillbilly Cat,” while Elvis got to be the King.
A few other criminally neglected #2s of the ’50s (and the singles that blocked them from the top): “Little Darlin’,” the Diamonds (Perry Como’s “Round and Round”); “All the Way,” Frank Sinatra (Pat Boone’s “April Love”); “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Chuck Berry, and “Lollipop,” the Chordettes (both stopped by the Champs’ “Tequila”); “Charlie Brown,” the Coasters (Frankie Avalon’s “Venus”); “Dream Lover,” Bobby Darin (Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans”).
Think one of those should displace one of my choices? Have at it in the comments. Next time, the Sixties – and Motown’s greatest songwriter getting cock-blocked by … Lawrence Welk?