584. ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’, by Aretha Franklin & George Michael

I spent much of my last new post hailing a brave new world of modern dance. As is often the way, the song that follows a ground-breaking #1 proves the more things change the more they stay the same… Or something… For we are still firmly in the mid-1980s here – ‘peak mid-eighties’, if you will – and when the mid-1980s are giving us songs as fun as this, why would we want to leave?

I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), by Aretha Franklin (her 1st and only #1) & George Michael (his 3rd of seven solo #1s)

2 weeks, from 1st – 15th February 1987

I love the revving guitar in the intro, and the glossy period-piece drums. It’s a lot beefier, a lot more upbeat than either of George Michael’s two previous chart-toppers. There’s a swagger to it, a confidence. It’s very ‘American’, for want of a more sensible expression. On ‘Careless Whisper’ and ‘A Different Corner’, Michael was sad and introspective. Here he’s bubbling with confidence. And that’s probably because he’s duetting with an icon. The motherfunking Queen. Of. Soul.

It’s Aretha who kicks off the first verse. In fact, Aretha takes control of the second verse, too. Make no mistake: this is her song. George Michael may have been one of the hottest pop stars on the planet, but he’s very much the understudy here. He was apparently terrified when he got the call – who wouldn’t be? – but he keeps up nicely. Like all the best duets, the couple riff off one another well: I kept my faith… sings George… I know ya did… replies Aretha.

There’s a clear nod to a Motown classic in the chorus: When the river was deep, I didn’t falter… When the mountain was high, I still believed… Which is great. In the video, the pair perform in front of a screen showing other legendary duets – Ike and Tina, Sonny and Cher, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. And I also love the way Aretha starts letting loose in the second half of the song: belting, trilling and whooping, as if she knows this will (unjustly) be her one and only moment atop the British singles chart.

You could say that Franklin’s hit-scoring days were over by 1987, though it wouldn’t strictly be true – she had visited the Top 10 the year before in a duet with Eurythmics on ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves’. But if we’re being honest, she never really scored many hits in the UK. She’d had just two Top 10 hits in the sixties – ‘Respect’ and ‘I Say a Little Prayer for You’ – and none in the seventies. In the US she was much more successful, but this record still brought about her first chart-topper since she’d spelled out those seven famous letters.

Meanwhile, this was quite the statement for George Michael in his first release following his split from Andrew Ridgeley. Ahead of him lay ‘Faith’ and solo superstardom (though none of those late-eighties hits will feature in this countdown), and here he was, duetting with one of his heroes. I admit I was surprised to see that ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’ is GM’s 6th most listened to song on Spotify, as I don’t think it’s one you hear too often these days. It feels as if it’s been overshadowed by his other big duet from a few years later, with another famous diva: Elton John. For my money, though, this one’s better, and ripe for re-discovery…

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582. ‘Reet Petite (The Sweetest Girl in Town)’, by Jackie Wilson

The 1986 Christmas #1, then. And, giving Paul Heaton a run for his ‘best vocals of the year’ money, in comes Jackie Wilson. The late Jackie Wilson. With a song recorded over thirty years before…

Reet Petite (The Sweetest Girl in Town), by Jackie Wilson (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 21st December 1986 – 18th January 1987

One thing you’ve probably noticed if you’ve been following our chart-topping journey for a while is that when it comes to Christmas hits, all logic goes out the window (often along with taste and decency). Think ‘Lily the Pink’, ‘Two Little Boys’, ‘Ernie’, and ‘Long Haired Lover from Liverpool’… Think, if you can bear it, of ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’. Think, too, of the festive horrors still to come…

Luckily for us, though, while the appearance of ‘Reet Petite’ at Christmas #1 is clearly a novelty, this isn’t a saccharine twee-fest, or a misguided attempt at humour. Rather it’s simply a stonking, barnstorming, a-whooping and a-hollering classic re-release. It’s got nothing to do with Christmas, nothing to do with peace, love, or the blessed infant; it’s simply an ode to an ‘A’-grade hottie…

She’s so fine, fine, fine, So fine, fa-fa-fa fine… yelps Wilson… She’s alright, She’s got just what it takes… She fills her clothes, from head to toes, as well as being a tutti frutti and a bathing beauty. I don’t know about you, but I’m imagining a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop. While the lyrics may be largely nonsensical, and often just exclamations stitched together into pidgin sentences, Wilson sells them with his trademark energy.

Is it a bit much? Maybe. Does it verge on gimmicky when he rolls his ‘r’s on the title line? Perhaps. But who cares when it’s just so darn exuberant, when it’s bursting at the seams with such fun. Wilson competes with the brassy horns, that are just as much the lead instrument as his voice is, and that constantly threaten to outdo him while never quite managing.

So, ‘Reet Petite’ is a great song, and a welcome addition to the Christmas Number One pantheon. Back in 1957, when it was Wilson’s first single after leaving his vocal group The Dominoes, it had made #6. It was re-released thirty years on after demand had grown following the screening of a clay animation video for the song on a BBC 2 documentary. I’ve included the 1987 video below… I don’t know if I’ve been spoiled by the Aardman standard of clay-mation in the 90s and ‘00s, but it’s a bit… odd. Slightly terrifying in places, too. Clearly you had to have been there.

Sadly, by the time Jackie Wilson scored his one and only UK chart-topper he had been dead for three years. He’d seen out his final years semi-comatose in a nursing home, after suffering an on-stage heart attack in 1975, and his star had fallen so far that he was initially buried in an unmarked grave. All of which makes his posthumous return to the charts, which coincided with his body being moved to a proper mausoleum, even more bittersweet.

This will kick off a strange era of re-releases, from adverts, movies and TV shows, several of which will go to #1 in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. But, here and now, 1986 comes to end. And a strange end it’s been: from hair metal, to indie lads, to a doo-wop classic. We head into the late-eighties next, with another abrupt change in direction…

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561. ‘Saving All My Love for You’, by Whitney Houston

The second last chart-topper of 1985 (an eclectic year of decidedly mixed chart-topping vintage) introduces one of the most famous, most powerful voices in pop history.

Saving All My Love for You, by Whitney Houston (her 1st of four #1s)

2 weeks, from 8th – 22nd December 1985

And it’s a pretty low-key entry for such a mighty voice. The intro is very of-its-time, soft, soft soul… Elevator-soul, I’m going to call it from now on, even though playing muzak in lifts hasn’t been a thing for many years. Houston’s voice also comes in very softly. A few stolen moments, Is all that we share…

Following on from Wham’s ode to spontaneous and anonymous (and possibly gay) sex, this record is keeping the illicit theme going. You’ve got your family, And they need you there… Whitney, the homewrecker, is having an affair with a married man! They’re making love the whole night through, while his children ask why daddy’s not home for dinner… Whitney’s mother, Cissy, was against her daughter recording such an immoral song, but to no avail.

Personally, I like the fact that she’s completely unrepentant. Her friends warn her off, she pines away lonely at home… But, she sings, no other man’s gonna do…. So I’m saving all my love for you… She doesn’t come across as very sorry about it at all. The way she slams her fist down on lines like For tonight, Is the night…! In the video, she’s having a great time at a club with her lover, as the wife serves side-eye from the balcony. (In the end, though, the couple re-unite while Whitney walks home alone. You wonder if this scene was thrown in last-minute, by a nervous record label…)

It’s very classy, and well-produced. I’m even enjoying the lounge-bar saxophone that’s crooning away in the background. I could complain about the slick-as-a-seal’s-arse eighties production, but by this point I’d just be shouting into a typhoon. It’s December 1985, things are glossy, and they’ll be staying that way for some time to come. It does feel like a slightly understated song to have been the breakthrough hit for a voice such as Houston’s, but there are moments where she shows what she’s capable of. The that’s just an old fantasy… line, for example, as well as some impressively long notes at the end of the choruses.

I may well be pining for this understated version of Whitney come her final, monster #1 (you know the one). Here she was just twenty-two, with a massively successful career ahead of her. It’s elegant, and very well sung: a grower not a show-er. In the US, ‘Saving All My Love for You’ was the first of seven chart-toppers in a row for her. While never quite as successful in Britain, she would be a big chart presence for the next twenty years. More to come very soon, then, from Miss Houston …

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549. ‘Move Closer’, by Phyllis Nelson

We are deep, deep into the eighties now. As deep as we can go before we start to come out the other end… If I were to take this metaphor to a slightly terrifying level, I’d say we’ve passed through the decade’s throat and oesophagus, and are currently wallowing in some thick 1980s stomach juice…

Move Closer, by Phyllis Nelson (her 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 28th April – 5th May 1985

Although the intro to this next #1 is clanking, churning, production-line eighties, I do like how it hints back towards the girl-groups of the sixties, in the way the drum machine mimics some chickachick-asPhyllis Nelson’s voice too, when it comes in, sounds as if it’s from a different era. The spoken word intro is very retro: Hey baby, You go your way, And I’ll go mine, But in the meantime…

Then she starts to sing, and she’s got a great voice. It’s light, and floaty, quite Diana Ross-y, and quite at odds with the industrial production. But it works. When we’re together… she trills… Touchin’ each other… It’s steamy stuff, an ode to the physical side of a relationship, that culminates in the chorus: Move closer, Move your body real close to mine, ‘Til it feels like we’re really making love…

The windows grow even steamier when you find out that Nelson, who was in her mid-thirties when this record became a hit, wrote it about her relationship with a ‘much younger man’ (Wikipedia’s words, not mine…) I can’t find out exactly how ‘much younger’ the guy was, but still. We have a cougar anthem right here!

I like this, after three or four listens. It’s very ‘of its time’, but there’s something about the slow, deliberate rhythm and Nelson’s bird-like voice that draws you in. Makes you move closer, if you will. And I’m not the only one who has taken their time to appreciate this song – it had a very slow-burning climb to #1. In fact, 1985 has three of the longest-ever (at the time) climbs to top spot. I don’t know what that indicates, but it’s interesting.

‘Move Closer’ probably took its time to catch fire simply because Phyllis Nelson was a complete unknown. She had spent the previous decade recording soul and disco records that failed to chart anywhere, and so took it upon herself to write something herself. In doing so she became the first black woman to write her own number one hit. She’s a one-hit wonder, though – the closest she came to chart success after this was at #81 – and she sadly passed away at the tragically young age of forty-seven, in 1998.

It seems that Nelson and/or her record label didn’t expect much from this record, as there isn’t even a music video for the song (quite a rarity by the mid-80s). Somebody has at least taken the time to make a video of the original song playing over footage of Nelson on Top of the Pops, though, so enjoy that instead…

PS I tried to find a better picture of Phyllis to head this post, I really did…

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Never Had a #1… Tina Turner

Part II of this look at huge chart stars who’ve never quite made it to the top. Yesterday we featured Bob Marley, whose five biggest UK hits were an eclectic mix. Today we feature a woman whose career spans eight decades… and whose five biggest hits are wall-to-wall classics. The Queen of Rock n Roll: Tina Turner.

‘The Best’ – #5 in 1989

I should actually do a full ‘Should Have been a Number One’ on what is probably Turner’s signature song, in Britain at least. It deserves the attention. Although released in the final year of the decade, ‘The Best’ sums everything great about the 1980s (a decade I may have been critical of, musically speaking, from time to time…) Throbbing synths, power chords, a belt-it-out-at-the-top-of-your-voice chorus, a galloping black stallion in the video, and one of the most outrageous uses of a saxophone ever heard in a pop song.

Before writing this, I had no idea that the original had been recorded by Bonnie Tyler a year earlier, or that it was written by the man behind so many ’70s glam rock classics, Mike Chapman. All that is interesting, and relevant, but also completely shunted to the background by Tina Turner’s performance in owning would could be, in different hands, a completely ridiculous song. The fact that I can even overlook ‘The Best’s decades-long association with Glasgow Rangers – they enter the pitch to it, and fans even had the song re-enter the chart at #9 in 2010 – is a testament to how good it is.

‘Nutbush City Limits’ – #4 in 1973 (with Ike Turner)

Before her reinvention as an eighties power-rock diva, Tina had a first wave of success with her then husband Ike in the sixties and seventies. And if ‘The Best’ has a rival for its position as Turner’s signature tune, then ‘Nutbush City Limits’ is it… (OK, and ‘Proud Mary’, which doesn’t feature here…) It’s a fabulously funky tale of a little ol’ town in Tennessee, that sounds as crispy as a piece of fried chicken. It’s a (hopefully) tounge-in-cheek ode to her hometown: no whisky for sale, you get caught – no bail, salt pork and molasses, is all you get in jail… Elevating the song further is the rumour that the track’s distinctive lead-guitar was recorded by none other than Marc Bolan…

River Deep – Mountain High’ – #3 in 1966 (with Ike Turner)

Belted out by a young Tina, and produced by Phil Spector using every Wall of Sound trick in the book (it even has Darlene Love on backing vocals), ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ gave Turner her first big hit. Ike was credited, but didn’t actually feature on this version (the couple would go on to re-record it in 1973). It was a big hit around Europe in 1966, but flopped in the US. Spector was so distraught by the song’s failure that he didn’t produce another one for two years, and set off on a very destructive path…

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What’s Love Got to Do With It’ – #3 in 1984

Turner’s certified biggest hit, and her only solo #1 in the US. This was her big comeback after seperating, both musically and romantically, from Ike. While it doesn’t do it for me like ‘The Best’ and ‘Nutbush’ – it tends a little too much towards ‘icky eighties’, especially in the harmonica – I can accept its classic status. In fact, Turner’s outrageous hairdo in the video would be enough to seal this one’s place in the pantheon. ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ went on quite the journey before being recorded by Tina: Cliff Richard turned it down, Donna Summer dithered over recording it, and Bucks Fizz recorded a (pretty decent) version that never saw the light of day until 2000.

We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)’ – #3 in 1985

Turner’s joint-biggest hit is this track from the soundtrack to ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’. She starred in the movie, alongside Mel Gibson. Again, I’m not a huge fan of this one: it’s standard mid-eighties power-balladry (though I do like the snarling guitar). I’d have taken ‘Private Dancer’ (a #26), or ‘Proud Mary’ (never released as a single in the UK!) over this.

Still, there you have Tina Turner’s biggest UK hits that never quite made it to #1. One more ‘Never Had a #1…’ up tomorrow. And it’s the 1980s biggest girl-group!

538. ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’, Stevie Wonder

And so we reach the last of 1984’s colossal ballads. ‘Hello’, ‘Careless Whisper’, now this. Fifteen weeks at #1 shared between them. And can I admit, straight off the bat, that this is my favourite of the three…?

I Just Called to Say I Love You, by Stevie Wonder (his 2nd of two #1s)

6 weeks, from 2nd September – 14th October 1984

Yes, yes, yes. It is fashionable – and quite correct – to scoff at this silly little song for being THE Stevie Wonder’s only solo chart-topper. No ‘Superstition’ (a #11), no ‘Sir Duke’ or ‘Master Blaster’ (both #2s)… Only ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’. And while it’s not anywhere near Wonder’s best work, there’s a charm to it.

It’s a lullaby of a song. And I don’t mean that it’s dull, like ‘Hello’; I mean there’s something in its strangely reggae-ish rhythm that just chills you out. Plus, it’s an easy song to remember, and to sing. It’s a song a mother might sing to their baby, or that a dorky boy might sing down the phone to his crush. It’s cute. It’s not Valentine’s Day, or New Year’s, or the 1st of spring (??)… Stevie’s just calling to say he loves you. (In fairness, some cynics have argued that if a man unexpectedly ‘just calls to say he loves you’, then he must just have done something fairly shitty…)

That’s not to say there isn’t quite a lot wrong with this song, though. The production is cheap and tacky – the drum machine is pure karaoke backing track. Then there are the key changes, which start early, on the second chorus, and just keep coming (to be fair, they are so cheesy I can help enjoying them). And then there are the three rinky-dink notes that it ends on, possibly the laziest ever ending to a number one single.

But I do like the ‘second’ melody – the higher, synth line that compliments the chorus. And if it were a little faster, and the production better, this could be a great song. Seriously. As it is, I like it a lot more than ‘Hello’ and, while I admire ‘Careless Whisper’, ‘I Just Called…’ is a simple love song, simply told. And that’s nice. At least it slightly redeems Stevie Wonder’s UK chart-topping career, after ‘Ebony and Ivory’

I’ve lived abroad for a lot of my life, in non-English speaking places, and I can confirm that this song is universal. ‘Top of the World’ by The Carpenters, ‘My Heart Will Go On’, this. And you can see why… Aside from the blatant sentimentality, which other cultures don’t seem to mind as much, the lyrics are slow and simple, and you can make them out clearly. As I’ve mentioned in posts before, that was a big bug-bear of my late Gran’s: pop singers you couldn’t make out. I never had time to ask, but I’ll bet she approved of this one.

Before we go, it’s worth noting how long songs are staying on top of the charts at the moment. In the last twelve months, we’ve had three 5-weekers, three 6-weekers, and a jumbo 9-weeker. There hasn’t been a one-week #1 for a year and a half. Not sure what this means, if anything, but it’s interesting. What’s also interesting (and slightly depressing) is that this is Motown’s biggest-selling record of all time in Britain. It’s a colossus and, yes, I do kind of love it…

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533. ‘Hello’, by Lionel Richie

And so the promising start that 1984 had made comes to a crashing halt. Actually, no. ‘Crashing’ makes this sound way more exciting than it is. ‘Shuddering’? Still a bit too dramatic. A whimpering halt….? Yes, that’s it.

Hello, by Lionel Richie (his 1st and only solo #1)

6 weeks, from 18th March – 29th April 1984

‘Hello’ is a dull record. The lyrics are trite… Let me start by saying, I love you…. and Sometimes I feel that my heart will overflow… The pace is that of a glacier. Lionel Richie’s voice, while technically decent, is bland. After two records that showed how fun the 1980s could be – ‘Relax’ and ’99 Red Balloons’ – it’s dross like this that gives the decade a bad name.

It’s not that dull ballads were invented in the 1980s. The fifties, for example, was stuffed to the brim with them. But the production here, the glossy soft-soul gloop oozing from this record’s grooves, is prime mid-eighties. And it doesn’t enhance… There’s a soppy organ, a soppy piano, a soppy brass section. There are some weird swirling synths, which are as close as the music gets to being interesting. And then there’s an insipid acoustic Spanish guitar solo that really tries the patience.

Having never actually listened to this snooze-fest through choice before today, I was expecting a more OTT power-ballad element to it. You know: bad, but ridiculous. Except that’s just the video… In it, Richie plays a drama teacher with the unfortunate habit of creeping around behind one of his female students. Who just happens to be blind. He finally plucks up the courage to call her – the way he sings Hello! Is it me you’re looking for…? down the phone is actually hilarious – and she displays her love by making a truly monstrous clay model of his head.

Play ‘Hello’ away from the video, however, and you lose all this silliness. It is a truly boring experience. It’s only four minutes long, but it feels like twice that. I named Richie’s previous #1 – ‘Three Times a Lady’, with the Commodores – as a ‘Meh’ chart-topper, but this one takes ‘Meh’ to new levels. Why this was top of the charts for six weeks, and why it has since become an eighties pop culture cornerstone, is beyond me.

I have to admit that even his more upbeat hits of the mid-‘80s, the likes of ‘All Night Along’ and ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’, leave me feeling cold. Lionel Richie is, for whatever reason, an artist I don’t connect with. Too slick? Too glossy? Soulless soul? Maybe. Either way, for now I’m reminded why this decade will, at times, be a slog.

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524. ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)’, by Paul Young

Delving deeper into the decade, we arrive at another synthed-up, peak-eighties sounding hit…

Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home), by Paul Young (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, 17th July – 7th August 1983

First things first, let’s mention the things I like about this record. The bassline, or whatever effect has been applied to it, is very eighties but very cool. It’s bendy, and twangy. It sounds like a beast emerging from the depths… There’s an ominous edge to its funk, that reminds me of something I can’t place.

Then there’s Paul Young’s voice, which is also good. A strong, blue-eyed soul voice, that takes command of this song, and sings it with conviction. For I’m the type of the boy, Who is always on the run… You could argue that he over sings it at times, but it’s fine. He’s listing all the ways he’s a dick to women: he loves and leaves them, he gives them the eye before upping sticks and disappearing… It’s basically ‘Desperado’, sung from Desperado’s POV. I think we’re meant to pity him, to sense a hint of regret, or false bravado, in his voice, but I’m not sure we do. In the video, meanwhile, one of the women he’s dumped returns to shoot him… Or, at least he dreams she does.

Away from the bass, and the voice… I’m already checking the runtime. It’s a bit dull. And the dullness lies, yes, in the production. It’s very polished, perfect for playing in the background at a dinner party, but I’m not getting ‘number one single’. Rather, I’m not getting ‘number one single at any time other than mid-1983’. It’s very of its time. If you love eighties music, you’ll like this. If not, then it’ll drag…

I did wonder if ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat’ perhaps followed Young’s bigger hits. I could name ‘Love of the Common People’ and ‘Every Time You Go Away’ ahead of this. It smacks of ‘shadow number one’ (a concept I’ve explained in other posts). But no. This was his breakthrough hit. ‘…Common People’ made #2 as the follow-up to this, and ‘Every Time…’ #4 a couple of years later.

I was also amazed to find that this song dates from as far back as 1962. And that it was originally recorded by one Marvin Gaye. Two more different versions of the same song you will struggle to find. The original’s Motown vibe, while far from being a classic, just sounds better to my ears. I have been programmed from a very young age to prefer the sixties, and seventies, to the eighties… Earlier, when I wondered what this bassline reminded of, perhaps it just reminds me of ‘the mid-1980s’ in general…

The last time I focused so much (nay, complained…) about the ‘sound’ of the time was way back in the pre-rock days, when I despaired of the never-ending parade of overwrought ballads occupying top spot for weeks on end. I’ll try not to focus so much on the fact that the 1980s has a certain sound. It just does. It’s the summer of 1983. Paul Young is #1. Get over it!

Young won’t be chart-topping under his own steam again, but he’ll have hits until the early ‘90s. He is still touring and recording as we speak. His voice will appear at #1 again, though. In fact, next year he will utter one of the most famous lines in British pop history… Until then, then…

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480. ‘Being With You’, by Smokey Robinson

You’re listening to the silky smooth sounds of Smooth Radio, and up next we have a sexy soul number from Smokey Robinson…

Being With You, by Smokey Robinson (his 2nd of two #1s)

2 weeks, 7th – 21st June 1981

After building a nice, oh-so-eighties, head of steam with Shakey, Bucks Fizz, and the aggressively modern Adam & The Ants, we’re temporarily dragged back a few years to the slick, glossy days of the mid-late seventies. And wait… That piercing sax line sounds mighty familiar. It’s… ‘Baker Street’, right? At least, it sounds like someone launching into ‘Baker Street’, before quickly realising that this isn’t the right song.

I don’t care what they think about me and, I don’t care what they say… A disco beat and soft-rock guitars soundtrack this unrepentant tale. Smokey is prepared to commit social suicide, to lose friends and relations, just to be with a woman. I don’t care about anything else but being with you, Being with you… His voice sounds softer, older… In fact pretty unrecognisable from his earlier chart-topping hit, ‘The Tears of a Clown’. It’s still a fine voice, though.

At first, this is simply pleasant background music but, after a few listens, I’m starting to come around to this record’s slowly revealed charms. It’s a solidly written pop song, maybe suffering from not being as cheesily instant as, say, ‘Making Your Mind Up’. Yet it’s still lacking a definite hook, something to grab onto, something to explain why this record became a #1 single.

I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever heard this song before, though I’m sure it does still get some late-night spins on Smooth Radio and the like. But, regardless of this record being slightly on the dull side, it is very impressive that Smokey Robinson was able to score a chart-topping single this far into his career. He was forty-one when this record came out, having released his first discs (with the Miracles) as far back as 1958.

In the UK, none of Robinson’s other solo releases came anywhere near to the top of the charts, but in the US he was more of a presence. He scored a Top 20 album a few years ago, and has duetted with current chart star Anderson Paak, one half of Silk Sonic, on their Grammy Award winning album. He is bona-fide pop music legend. Next up for us… a recap.

Random Runners-Up: ‘The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’, by O.C. Smith

The late sixties were one of the most eclectic periods for the UK charts, as the classic mid-sixties beat sound fractured, and a multitude of different genres filled the void.

‘Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’, by O. C. Smith

#2 for 3 weeks, from 3rd-24th July 1968, behind ‘Baby Come Back’

Which means country/soul oddities like this were free to spend three weeks at #2, behind the Equals’ reggae-rock chart-toppers. I say ‘country/soul’ because, while the sound is pure rhythm and blues, with a brilliantly funky bass-line, the story it tells is one of pure country woe…

Oh the path was deep and wide, From footsteps leading to our cabin, Above the door there burned a scarlet lamp… Daddy’s a drunk who packed up and left, leaving the weeds high and the crops dry so, yes, mum’s turned to whoring to feed her fourteen children. And yet, it’s an overwhelmingly positive song. Yes, I’m the son of Hickory Holler’s tramp! announces O. C. Smith, unashamed of how his mother made ends meet.

The neighbours did nothing to help, but did plenty of talking, and judging. The children didn’t notice though – all we cared about was momma’s chicken dumplings... – and grew up loved and nurtured. Mum’s dead now, Smith sings, but every Sunday fourteen roses arrive at her graveside. By the end, as Smith declares once again just who he’s the son of… Well, if there isn’t a tear in your eye.

It’s a very progressive song – probably long before ‘progressive’ became a thing – and I wonder why such a big hit has been erased from the sixties canon? Maybe it’s because the subject matter is just a little too on the nose, a little too celebratory towards the world’s oldest profession? Either way, I’m glad the date-generator threw up this forgotten hit. Ocie Lee Smith had many chart entries on the Billboard chart in the sixties and seventies, but in Britain he is a bone-fide one-hit wonder. He died in 2001.

One last number two for you tomorrow, and it’s one we can all sing along to…