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.
In a lot of the big hits of the early ’60s, there’s a kind of queasy racial dynamic at work. White songwriters, managers, label execs, and producers would team up with a talented young black singer or group. The older white people would, of course, reap the vast majority of the financial reward, while the young black people toured the songs hard, and then, more often than not, faded into obscurity. There were exceptions. Ronnie Mack, the young songwriter who suddenly died almost immediately after assembling the Chiffons and hitting with “He’s So Fine,” was black, and Motown, which would change things massively, was still in the early stages of its ascent. But white exploitation of blackness was mostly how it went.
The dynamic of Lesley Gore’s debut single “It’s My Party” was a refreshing sort of reversal. Gore was a Jewish Brooklyn-born kid, in her junior year of high school when she recorded the song. And its producer was Quincy Jones, who’d already proven himself as a jazz musician, composer, bandleader, and collaborator. The songwriters were white, as were, presumably, most of the people who made money from the song. But “It’s My Party” was Jones’ first monster hit as a producer. It marked a new kind of arrival for him. Many, many more would follow.
The success of “It’s My Party” had everything to do with both Gore and Jones. Jones’ arrangement is complicated but propulsive, and it sells the song about as well as a song like this could be sold. There are a lot of things happening — pounding pianos, jaunty horn-stabs, a tight and focused backbeat full of hand-claps. And Gore got across all the emotions in the song’s melodramatic high-school storyline, a tale of a girl who discovers her boyfriend with someone else at her own party.
Jones and Gore teamed up through typically bizarre circumstances. Gore had recorded a song that the composer Marvin Hamlisch had written. Hamlisch’s uncle was Jones’ dentist, and he got the song to Jones. Jones liked the song well enough, and he and Gore spent a day digging through demo tapes; “It’s My Party” was the only song that both Gore and Jones liked. And then they had to rush it onto the market when Phil Spector mentioned to Jones, at a Carnegie Hall event, that he and the Crystals were about to record a new song called “It’s My Party.” (Spector never released his version of “It’s My Party.” I honestly don’t think it would’ve been any better than what we got.)
So: good performance, great arrangement, fun story. But the problem with “It’s My Party,” at least from where I’m sitting, is that the chorus is extremely fucking annoying. There’s nothing irritating about the way Gore sings it, and there’s a good chance that an entire lifetime of obnoxious TV commercials has turned me against what would otherwise be a perfectly fine song, but I still hear that shit and grit my teeth. Seymour Gottlieb, one of the song’s four writers, got the phrase from his daughter. She’d cried at her sweet 16 party because she’d been told that she had to invite her grandparents, and she didn’t want them there. And honestly, if this song was sung from the perspective of a kid who didn’t want her grandparents at her party, I’d probably like it more.
Unlike a lot of other teenage pop stars who hit #1 out of nowhere during that era, Gore stuck around and had a long and fascinating career. Her follow-up single was the sequel “Judy’s Turn To Cry,” in which the Johnny of “It’s My Party” dumps Judy and comes back to her. This doesn’t seem all that triumphant, and it also seems like a classic case of a singer doing whatever she can to capitalize on what she believes might be her one hit. (It’s a bad song, too.) But “Judy’s Turn To Cry” went top 10, and more hits followed. One of them, 1964’s “You Don’t Own Me,” was a straight-up feminist pop classic that’s aged beautifully. “You Don’t Own Me” got to #2 but couldn’t get past the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” If it had made it up there, I would’ve given it a 10. I honestly think it’s a better song than “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
Gore never went away, either. She got nominated for an Oscar for writing a song for the movie Fame, and after coming out of the closet, she hosted a talk show about LGBTQ issues on PBS for nearly a decade before she died of lung cancer in 2015. She was a force for good in the world.
Quincy Jones didn’t go away, either. We’ll hear a whole lot more from him later.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Gore guest-starring as the Pussycat and singing a song called “California Nights” on a 1967 episode of Batman:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the honestly pretty bad version of “It’s My Party” that Amy Winehouse and Quincy Jones recorded in 2010: