The Number Ones is a new column where I’ll review every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Rock ‘n’ roll, as it played out in real time, wasn’t exactly a rupture. It was a burst of excitement, sure, but it existed within a pop-music context, and plenty of its stars were old-fashioned showmen, not insurgent bomb-throwers. Consider the Platters. The Los Angeles group had three #1 hits in Billboard‘s pre-Hot 100 era, starting with 1955’s lovely “The Great Pretender.” Stylistically, they were closer to jazz-era singing groups like the Ink Spots than they were to, say, Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis, and yet they were one of the most popular groups of that early rock ‘n’ roll era.
“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” the Platters’ final #1 hit, wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll song. It was originally written for the 1933 musical Roberta, and it became a standard. Pop singers like Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, and Eartha Kitt recorded versions of the song, and so did jazz innovators like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. The Platters didn’t record it as a rock ‘n’ roll song, either. Instead, in their hands, it was a sweeping, orchestral weeper of a ballad, with strings and harps and kettle drums. And it’s lovely.
“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” is a deeply and fundamentally sad song. It’s about losing yourself in love, ignoring all the friends who tell you that these things fall apart. And then it’s about losing someone and being forced to admit that all your friends are right. Lead tenor Tony Williams keeps his composure all through the song, singing with a sweet fondness that only lets in a hint of that sadness. But then he builds up to a fiery, cinematic final note, exploding upward as the strings swirl with him. The song must’ve sounded terribly old-fashioned, even in 1958. But it’s also immaculately sung and beautifully orchestrated in ways that only add to that central emotional gut-punch.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Serge Gainsbourg’s weirdly bluesy take on “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” from his 1975 album Rock Around The Bunker: