The Number Ones

September 21, 1963

The Number Ones: Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

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.

***

Could a song be Lynchian before David Lynch got ahold of it? Before the whole David Lynch aesthetic even existed? “Lynchian” is one of those know-it-when-you-see-it terms, but broadly defined, it’s some version of idealized, plasticine post-War white Americana, but with something strange and wrong and alien thrumming underneath. It’s a dream that becomes a nightmare.

“Blue Velvet” is probably always going to be the song most associated with David Lynch. In Blue Velvet, the 1986 movie that a lot of people still hold to be Lynch’s masterpiece, it’s both a mood-setter and a punchline. And for those of us who weren’t alive in 1963, the song is probably always going to channel images of a zonked-out, eerily still Isabella Rossellini seducing a mic stand in a nightclub while a besotted Kyle MacLachlan looks on and while a high-pitched industrial drone chatters through the sound design.

Did the listeners of 1963, the ones who turned “Blue Velvet” into a #1 hit, hear anything sinister or uncanny in the song? It’s possible. It’s certainly a dreamlike piece of music. Musically, it’s a museum piece, a slow-rotating sigh, full of swooning backing vocals and tingly xylophones. Lyrically, it’s practically Proustian, a heartbroken man flashing back on a past period in his life simply by fixating on the color of the fabric in his lover’s dress: “I still can see blue velvet through my tears.”

“Blue Velvet” would’ve been a throwback even when Bobby Vinton recorded it. Bernie Wayne and Lee Morris had written it almost a decade earlier. Tony Bennett’s smoothly contemplative version had been a hit in 1951. In 1955, the Clovers turned it into slow and stately supper-club R&B. In 1960, the Statues made it into rockabilly-informed doo-wop.

Vinton ended up recording it because he’d had a #3 hit with “Blue Is Blue” and because he’d had the brilliant idea to record a whole album of only songs with the word “blue” in the title. Vinton recorded the song in two takes, nailing a lost-in-memory quality over a track that sounds like slowed-to-a-crawl polka. It’s not my favorite version of the song — that’d be the Statues one — but it’s the one that resonated. It’s a perfectly pretty piece of an old-timey orchestral-waltz pop ballad. Maybe it hints at something deeper; I don’t know. But on its own, it’s not a strong enough song to break away from the image of Dennis Hopper with a medical mask over his face, braying about Pabst Blue Ribbon.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the video for the 2013 version of “Blue Velvet” that Lana Del Rey recorded for an H&M commercial, which certainly attempts to go full Lynchian:

more from The Number Ones

Hi. It looks like you're using an ad blocker.

As an independent website, we rely on our measly advertising income to keep the lights on. Our ads are not too obtrusive, promise. Would you please disable adblock?