The Number Ones

May 11, 1959

The Number Ones: Dave “Baby” Cortez’s “The Happy Organ”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.


Pop music is an art form driven by happy accidents, and one of those happy accidents is what brought “The Happy Organ” into the world. Dave “Baby” Cortez, a Detroit musician and doo-wop singer, was supposed to record a solo single, but he didn’t like his vocal. Instead, then, he decided to knock out a quick instrumental, playing a deliberately goofy organ riff, one built out of the traditional song “Shortenin’ Bread,” over a fired-up R&B groove. He gave it a title that sounded like a boner joke. And with that, he got his only #1 hit.

Instrumental songs didn’t often hit #1 in the rock ‘n’ roll era, but it did happen from time to time. Those songs sometimes soothed, as with Santo and Johnny’s “Sleep Walk,” and they sometimes introduced strange new sounds, as with the Tornados’ “Telstar.” Neither one was the case with “The Happy Organ,” though it was pretty rare to hear anyone playing an organ in a rock ‘n’ roll context at the time. Instead, I’m pretty sure “The Happy Organ” functioned almost entirely as dance music, as something that kids could bug out to at parties. So it served a utilitarian function, and a noble one. Heard on its own, outside the context of a sock hop or whatever, it’s a perfectly fun tune, but it doesn’t leave much of an impression.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cover of “The Happy Organ” that the underrated soul-reggae great Jackie Mittoo and his band the Soul Vendors released in 1968:

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