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.
It’s hard to find anything nice to say about Pat Boone, as an artist or as a human being. A big hunk of noisily Christian, clean-cut white bread, Boone owes his entire early career to racism and to unscrupulous music-business practices. He made his name by recording hit covers of songs by black artists (Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame,” Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”) that white radio wouldn’t touch. Later on, he campaigned, whenever possible, for conservative fundamentalist candidates, helped spread the “Barack Obama is ineligible to be president” lie, and showed his terrifying giant teeth on The 700 Club. And his only career #1? Well, that sucks, too.
“Moody River” came from the country and rockabilly singer Chase Webster. The original‘s a pretty bad song, too, but Webster’s delivery at least dials into the song’s tragic concept. Lyrically, “Moody River” is a teenage tearjerker along the same melodramatic lines as Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel,” but it’s somehow even more absurd. And Boone didn’t even have the decency to sell its absurdity.
Here’s the plot: A guy goes to meet his girlfriend at the riverbank, where they’d always met. She’s dead. She’s committed suicide. And she’s left a note: She’s cheated on him, and she’s wracked with guilt: “No longer can I live with this hurt and this sin / I just couldn’t tell you that guy was just a friend.” That’s terrible! That’s about the most simplistic, goo-goo-eyed depiction of teenage suicide that anyone could possibly formulate! But Boone didn’t even bother to sing it like it was a sad song. The cheesy, uptight brio in his voice, the thing that helped him get famous by singing neutered versions of great songs, keeps the song from even being effective manipulation. Also, the piano riff is really irritating.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the convincingly deranged, much better version of “Moody River” that garage rock weirdo Haunted George released in 2007: