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.
Joe Dowell snuck into #1 on a technicality. “Wooden Heart (Muss I Denn)” was an Elvis Presley song, one that Presley sang in the movie G.I. Blues. (One of the songwriters was Bert Kaempfert, the German jazz bandleader who’d hit #1 earlier in 1961 with “Wonderland By Night.”) In Europe, it was a huge hit. But Presley’s handlers figured that the song was cheesy enough that it could hurt Presley’s image in America — even though this was an era when Presley was releasing cheesy music almost exclusively.
They were right. “Wooden Heart” is not a good song. It’s a goofy half-polka, with Presley singing half of its lyrics in German. In the movie, he literally sings the song to a puppet. Presley probably recorded it just to pander to a German audience, but Presley was a big enough star that even his goofy regional panders could become global hits, and “Wooden Heart” went to #1 even in Germany. But in the US, “Wooden Heart” never came out as a single. If Presley had released it over here, he would’ve almost certainly earned himself another #1 single, but it wasn’t worth it to him. So someone had to record it, and that someone was a toothy Illinois kid named Joe Dowell.
Dowell recorded his version of “Wooden Heart” during his first-ever recording session, and legend has it that he only had a few hours to learn the bilingual lyrics. You’re never going to believe this, but it’s not any fucking good at all. Dowell’s version of “Wooden Heart” is even thinner and more bloodless than Presley’s. It’s a clumsy, galumphing ballad with a farting tuba that reminds me, more than anything else, of the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme music. It’s not an offensive song or anything, but it drifts by in two minutes without leaving any impression at all. It’s a nonentity.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ superior-in-every-way cover of “Wooden Heart,” with none of the German lyrics: