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 such a sad, beautiful, impossible story. One day in 1960, a young Harlem-born songwriter named Ronnie Mack heard three Bronx high-school kids singing together. He convinced them to add a young Philadelphia singer named Sylvia Peterson to the group, and he named them the Chiffons. Their first single was “He’s So Fine,” a song that Mack may have written about Peterson before flipping the genders around.
Mack brought the Chiffons and “He’s So Fine” to the Tokens, of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” fame, and they produced and played on the song. (Carole King played piano on it, even though she didn’t have anything to do with the song’s writing.) After the bigger labels all rejected the song, “He’s So Fine” finally came out on the smaller Laurie Records, and it was an instant sensation. The song was still #1, in fact, when Mack died, suddenly, of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 23. The people who know Mack say that, if he’d survived, he would’ve been one of the great songwriters of the ’60s.
“He’s So Fine” doesn’t sound like the end of a story. It sounds like the beginning of one. It’s an exceedingly simple song, with its direct melody and its earwormy backing vocals. It’s over in less than two minutes. The lyrics describe, in quick and broad terms, what infatuation is like, with both the excitement and the frustration of it: “He’s a soft-spoken guy / Also seems kinda shy / Makes me wonder if I should even give him a try.” In the end, I don’t think “He’s So Fine” was a masterpiece of girl-group pop. It’s sturdy and efficient pop music, but it’s not inspired, exactly. It does the trick, but it doesn’t open up whole worlds the way some of the best songs from the Crystals or the Ronnettes or the later Chiffons would do.
There’s not a lot to the song, but the melody is so elemental that George Harrison ended up accidentally writing a song with the exact same melody eight years later. “My Sweet Lord,” which also went to #1, caused a long, protracted, and complicated court battle between Mack’s publishers and Harrison. Harrison argued that he hadn’t meant to rip the song off, but a judge eventually ruled that it didn’t matter, that Harrison still owed a huge pile of money to the “He’s So Fine” publishers. (And in a nice bit of what I can only assume was passive-aggressive head-fuckery, the Chiffons released a cover of “My Sweet Lord” in 1975, while the lawsuit was still raging.)
BONUS BEATS: Here’s by far my favorite Chiffons song (and, some days, one of my favorite songs of the ’60s), the dizzy and orchestral 1965 single “Nobody Knows What’s Going On In My Mind But Me”: