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.
Writing in this space recently, I said that the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” might’ve been the first #1 song to acknowledge, however obliquely, the early days of the Vietnam War. That became a little more concrete with the next girl-group song that hit #1. The Shirelles’ “Soldier Boy” is a declaration of love for a man in the military and a pledge to stay faithful while he’s away. Maybe the song would’ve come out even if President Kennedy hadn’t been ramping up troop levels in 1962. Maybe it would’ve even done well. But it wouldn’t continue to resonate the way that it does. Right now, YouTube is full of videos that set “Soldier Boy” to images of the war, and the YouTube comments, even on the video below, are full of Vietnam memories.
Of course, the Vietnam of 1962 wasn’t yet a meat grinder for American kids, and it certainly hadn’t yet become a mass-death clusterfuck in the larger cultural imagination. So whereas “Soldier Boy” might’ve once been a sweet, simple song, it’s found a tragic new context later on. The starry-eyed harmonies sound like pure naïveté, an artifact of some lost innocence.
In any case, that’s a lot of weight for the song itself to carry, and “Soldier Boy” is simply a dinkier, less powerful song than “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” the Shirelles’ previous #1. The beat is a staid lope, and a big chunk in the middle of the song is just a plinky-plonk go-nowhere guitar solo. Still, those harmonies are absolutely lovely, and the way they project both sadness and happiness is a wondrous thing. The Shirelles were so good at implying things that went way beyond the scope of the songs they were singing.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Brittany Murphy singing “Soldier Boy” in the 2001 movie Riding In Cars With Boys: