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.
The Essex weren’t a professional singing group. They were people with stressful jobs, blowing off steam. All five members of the group were active-duty Marines when they recorded “Easier Said Than Done,” their first single and only #1 hit. Two of them had met when stationed in Okinawa, and they really became a band when they were transferred to the North Carolina base Camp LeJeune.
William Linton, the co-writer of “Easier Said Than Done,” was another Marine stationed at Camp LeJeune, and the group recorded the song in five minutes, as a favor to Linton. They reportedly didn’t even like the song. And because of their military status, the group didn’t last long. Even with a #1 single, the Essex only had time to record one follow-up single before they were all transferred elsewhere in the world. Singer Anita Humes ended up doing regular nightclub gigs in Fort Gordon, Georgia, where her husband was stationed, but none of the people in the group really went on to become professional musicians. One of them, Rodney Taylor, was killed in an attempted mugging in New York three years after “Easier Said Than Done” hit.
Maybe because the members of the Essex weren’t professionals, “Easier Said Than Done” has an appealing immediacy that sets it apart from a lot of the other hits of the era. They didn’t have strings or horns or other sweetening effects. The song has a nervous rhythmic pulse that, according to Linton, was inspired by the Teletype machines in the Camp LeJeune Information Office, where he worked.
It’s a sweet song, an ode to nervousness and shyness and romantic paralysis. Humes sings about knowing that she should confess her love to someone, but she’s too nervous to do it, even with all her friends urging her on: “Well I know that I love him so / I’m afraid that he’ll never know / Because I get so timid and shy each time that I look him in the eye.” (Been there.) Her voice floats with an easy sort of grace. It’s a slight song but a charming one, and its success speaks to a moment when a one-off like this could catch fire without some machine behind it, for a group who didn’t even have any prospect of remaining a group.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Monks’ deranged and psychedelic 1966 garage rock single “Complication,” my favorite song ever recorded by a group whose members met in the military: