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.
In a lot of the songs that went to #1 in the late ’50s or early ’60s, sex was a factor. It was there. Restrictive radio standards kept the singers from ever mentioning it, but these were teenagers singing about falling in and out of love, so sex is always implied. Songwriters would deal with it by tiptoeing around it, by delicately alluding to it. The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” — a song about the fear that love will turn out to be fleeting as soon as sex enters the equation — dealt with it in a way that was commendably frank. There’s plausible deniability in the lyrics, but this is very plainly a song about worrying that sex will ruin everything. It’s what makes the song timeless.
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was the first song from what would become the early-’60s girl-group boom to hit #1. All the ingredients of those classic girl-group songs were there from the beginning: the yearning-but-poised lead vocal, the fun little intricacies in the backing harmonies, the grand but stately backbeat, the strings playfully flitting all through it. It’s a perfect pop sound, a sound that took universal teenage emotions and made them sound regal and sophisticated. Before too long, producers would be turning singles like this into mini-radio plays, with teeming casts and echoing sound-effects. But with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” it’s a just a girl asking for affirmation, hoping that nothing will change once limbs disentangle themselves in the morning.
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is also the first #1 from the married songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. In the years that followed this, before King became a solo star in her own right, those two became an absolute human hit factory, cranking out one massive single after another and dominating the pop landscape of their day. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” remained close to King’s heart. A decade later, she recorded her own version of it for Tapestry, her megahit solo album, with her peers Joni Mitchell and James Taylor singing backup on it. But King’s own version, slower and stripped of the sprightly early-’60s strings, has none of the original’s resonance. In attempting to turn the original’s subtext into something obvious, King lost the magic of the original.
Part of what makes the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is the innocence in their voices. The Shirelles were young — a quartet of black girls from Passaic, New Jersey who’d formed only a few years earlier so that they could sing at their high school talent show. They’d recorded a few minor hits before “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and they still sound young and naive. Shirelles lead singer Shirley Owens doesn’t sell “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” as an anguished plea. It’s just an indulgence of a nagging doubt. There’s warmth and assurance in her voice. She already knows that she’s going to go through with it. She just wants to hear that it’ll be OK first.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lykke Li singing a mournful, stripped-down version of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” as part of a live-in-studio session in 2009: