In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing 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.
We’re only 30 seconds into “Stay” when it arrives. The blaring, exaggerated falsetto hits like an air-raid siren, electric and absurd in its urgency. It’s the sort of sound that belongs to an alley cat in a Warner Bros. cartoon, not to an actual rational human reaction. “Stay” was a pretty great little doo-wop song before that falsetto showed up. When the falsetto arrived, it became immortal.
The song is about a sentiment that comes close to universality. The boy wants the girl to stick around, but she’s got a curfew. So he does everything he can think of — up to and including transforming his voice into a helium whine — to convince her to give him a few more minutes: “Now, your daddy don’t mind / And your mommy don’t mind / If you we have another dance, just one more / Oooooone more tiiiime.” It’s a sexual-frustration anthem for the ages.
The irony, of course, is that the song where the boy begs the girl to stick around does not, itself, stick around. “Stay” is 98 seconds long. It’s the shortest song that has ever reached #1 in the US, and I don’t think anyone will ever come close to breaking that record. But “Stay” is exactly as long as it needs to be. It’s fast and grimy and irresistible, firing off hooks in all directions and then ending as soon as it started.
You never know how true these things are, but the story behind “Stay” is that Maurice Williams wrote the song in 1952, when he was 15 and when some girl cut a date off early so that she wouldn’t break curfew. He recorded it years later, as a full-grown man, but he kept that tingling neediness intact in the version that reached #1.
Williams grew up singing gospel in South Carolina churches, and he put all the longing he’d learned how to convey into this song about being stuck alone on a couch with an uncomfortable boner. So did fellow Zodiac Henry Gaston, who sang that ridiculous falsetto part and who unknowingly birthed a whole generation of high-pitched yowlers.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 1987’s Dirty Dancing where Jennifer Grey is shocked and intrigued to discover Patrick Swayze and his friends frantically dry-humping each other to “Stay”: