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.
“Quarter To Three” sounds like chaos. The song opens with muffled crowd noise and a bandleader counting off the beginning of a song. It’s not a live recording, but it sounds like one — and not even like a good one. It sounds like an amazing party happening down the street — wild, frenzied, mysterious, its sound obscured by what might as well be a couple of sets of walls. In any era, it’s crazy that a record this lo-fi managed to hit #1. In the pre-Beatles era where labels were pushing cleaned-up teenage dreamboats, it seems especially strange.
“Quarter To Three” is both for dancing and about dancing. Gary U.S. Bonds, the Florida-born and Virginia-based singer behind the song, roars out, “Don’t you know I danced, I danced till a quarter to three / With the help that night of Daddy G.” Daddy G is Gene Barge, the saxophone player who co-wrote the song and who honked frantically all through it. (It’s not the guy from Massive Attack.) So “Quarter To Three” is self-promotion, too: Come see this band! They will keep you dancing until late at night!
There’s a story, probably apocryphal, that the band didn’t even know they were recording the take of “Quarter To Three” that ended up at #1, that someone had hit record by mistake. The song is so rough and murky that it’s almost believable. But its rough murkiness is part of the appeal. So is the riotous energy. The one thing that comes through more clearly than everything else is Bonds’ voice, a joyous zero-subtlety bray. It’s not a graceful song, but it’s a hard and immediate one.
BONUS BEATS: During the late ’70s, Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band would end shows by playing ecstatic, ritualistic covers of “Quarter To Three,” stretching the song out to 10 or 15 minutes. (Springsteen later engineered a career revival for Bonds, writing and producing a bunch of songs for him, including the 1981 comeback hit “This Little Girl.”) Here’s video of one of those performances, from a 1978 show in Landover: