223 songs hit the #1 spot on Billboard’s R&B chart during the ’80s.
Well, slight correction: the R&B chart wasn’t called the R&B chart in the ’80s; it was called “Hot Black Singles.” This designation didn’t always stick-certainly, black folks aren’t the only people who bought R&B music. They weren’t the only people who made it, either-a fact that several of the chart toppers during the decade made clear. Thankfully, someone intelligently pulled the plug on “Hot Black Singles” at the dawn of the ’90s and renamed the charts. They’ve since been adjusted to “Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles,” but that’s another story for another time.
The 1980s were a decade of great change in popular music, and as with just about every musical innovation-black music was at the forefront. From the last vestiges of disco at the beginning of the decade, the move towards hip-hop (largely in the form of New Jack Swing) towards the end of the decade, and a multitude of sub-genres in between, it was an action-packed ten years. The big funk groups found themselves having to adjust to a synthesizer-happy world, the epicenter of the music scene moved from L.A. to Minneapolis to New York, and the quiet storm made stars out of Anita Baker, Luther Vandross and many others, to name just a few developments.
As with any group of chart-toppers over a 10 year span, there are some stone classics. There are also some foul, foul songs. The diversity of sounds, artists, and overall song quality has never been as apparent as it was during this decade of excess. So, taking a page out of my friend Thomas Inskeep’s book (he curated the excellent blog Rock Me Tonight and is co-authoring a book detailing R&B and hip-hop in the ’80s with yours truly,) I’ve decided to put together a list of every song that hit #1 from the beginning of 1980 until the end of 1989.
I’m taking the added step of ranking them. This wasn’t a particularly scientific undertaking. I went to Wikipedia-wrote each song’s title out longhand, and separated the songs into five groups by quality. From there, I ranked from 223-1, and here we are. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be visiting five songs at a time, going from worst to first. I’m doing this for several reasons. One is that my blogging mojo has dried up considerably, and I’m trying to jump start it by undertaking something major. The second reason is that because of the book, I’ve been deep in ’80s soul and rap for the past six months or so, and this gives me an immediately publish-able outlet. The book’ll be 10X more awesome, though. I promise.
Of course, these lists are entirely subjective, so don’t pitch a bitch if I shit on your favorite song. Just one man’s opinion. Shall we begin? Let’s get the dregs out of the way as quickly as possible, starting at the very bottom.
223. “One In A Million You” by Larry Graham (#1 for 2 weeks, August 1980 | Amazon)
I knew who Larry Graham was long before I knew who Sly & The Family Stone were. There’s something inherently wrong about that, but it was what it was. Strangely, when I was a little kid, I was certainly able to tolerate “One In A Million You,” although I can’t really recall if I outright liked it. I don’t know that I’ve been in many situations as an adult where I’ve had to hear it, but a quick run-through of the song in my head confirms that I hate it with every fiber of my being.
There was a bit of hand-wringing and contemplation involved in starting the list off with this song, but in the end I’m okay with my decision for two reasons. One is that this song is post-Nat “King” Cole pablum of the highest order, as oily and smarmy (and soulless) as the worst of soft rock jackasses like Michael Bolton. Second is that this cat used to be one of the funkiest dudes to ever pick up a bass. How he transformed into…into…that person that recorded this song is something I’ll never quite figure out. It’s like Flea having a religious conversion and then making Michael Buble records. Unforgivable.
At one point, I considered saying something like “every song that hit #1 in the ’80s had at least some merit.” But I’d be lying to you. This song (and probably the next 10 or so on this list) is absolutely horrible. No covering it up. You shouldn’t polish a turd, and I don’t know why I even had a notion to try.
I may have hallucinated this, but does anyone remember a game show called One In A Million, Chance Of A Lifetime? If that was an actual thing that existed, double shame on Larry Graham.
Plus, he ruined Prince. All the more reason to place him at the bottom.
222. “Shower Me With Your Love” by Surface (#1 for one week, July 1989 | Amazon)
One term you’ll probably hear a lot over the course of this list is “Crossover.” There was a glorious time in the ’90s and ’00s when R&B songs appeared in the upper reaches of the pop charts with regularity. Prior to that, most hip-hop, dance and soul records had to climb up their ghettoized charts and peak before being able to chart pop. Exceptions to this rule (usually) were songs by superstars like Michael, Lionel and Whitney (to give you an example, Luther Vandross charted something like 15 singles in the top 10 of the R&B charts before scoring a pop hit.) Another way to achieve across-the-board crossover status was to make a wussy ballad that easy listening stations would lap up and/or wouldn’t sound out of place next to Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Richard Marx or whatever faceless corporate rock band ruled top 40 at the moment. The wussy ballad was the go-to move for many funk bands during the ’80s (The Commodores, Atlantic Starr, etc.) and reaped considerable dividends for them, even as the artists pissed off their core fans.
Surface certainly shouldn’t be considered a funk band. Even their most uptempo stuff had an air of “chill” to it. Even though songs like “Happy” and “Closer Than Friends” hit the upper reaches of the R&B charts, they were mid-charters on the pop list. That changed with “Shower Me With Your Love,” a song that topped the R&B survey and made it all the way to #5 pop. Much like “One In A Million You,” “Shower” is vapid and soulless. At least Larry Graham had a robust voice. Surface’s Bernard Jackson sounds like a neutered puppy as he pledges his devotion to a lover. You couldn’t get near a radio without hearing this one for the last six months of 1989, and I couldn’t change the dial fast enough.
It’s not the worst single in the Surface catalog, however. That distinction has to go to 1991’s even more ham-fisted ballad “The First Time.” Naturally, that made it all the way to #1 on the pop charts. Surface broke up following that album, so I guess things in the universe have a way of working out.
221. “Sukiyaki” by A Taste Of Honey (#1 for 1 week, May 1981 | Amazon)
A Taste of Honey won the Grammy for 1978’s Best New Artist, befuddling just about everyone to this day who thinks about the thought process behind decisions like that. Not to say that the group wasn’t talented, but when you look at their career vs. the careers of nominees The Cars, Elvis Costello or even ultra-smooth hit factory Toto, you may wonder if the ballot box got stuffed. That said, female instrumentalists were and are a rarity in music, and by honoring Hazel Payne and Janice Marie Johnson (along with their two male counterparts,) Grammy voters may have thought they were being progressive at the time.
Either way, A Taste of Honey essentially turned out to be a two-hit wonder, as opposed to the aforementioned three artists. Their first (and best-known) hit was the disco classic “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” and their second was a cover of this ’60s chart topper. The original version, by Kyu Sakamoto, was sung entirely in Japanese (and given a nonsense title-“sukiyaki” is the name of a Japanese dish. It’s not mentioned anywhere in the song, and the title was given just because it was a word that Americans were familiar with.) A Taste of Honey’s Johnson was given permission to write English lyrics to the song, and the result was this pallid ballad.
I honestly don’t have a ton to say about the song itself-it just kind of floats by. Nothing sticks to the ribs or stands out. As a matter of fact, as a hip-hop fan, the only thing I like about “Sukiyaki” is that its lyrics provided Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di” with one of that song’s most memorable verses. 1981 was a pretty solid year. How “Sukiyaki” got to the top and not The Whispers’ “It’s A Love Thing” or The Jacksons’ “Heartbreak Hotel” or any number of songs it shared the charts with is beyond me.
Coming up in the next batch…the first “baby mama” anthem of R&B.