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.
“Sugar Shack” probably didn’t feel like an ending, but it was one. The biggest-selling single of 1963 wasn’t really remarkable in any way. It’s pretty typical of the pop songs of its era: Short, sentimental, innocent, infernally catchy in a way that can be deeply irritating, barely two minutes long. There were thousands of songs that were basically just like it, and it’s hard to say why this one hit the way it did. It probably seemed like songs like that could keep coming out and keep selling millions forever. But shortly after the song finished its long run at #1, President Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas. And just a few weeks after that, the Beatles showed up in America and put bands like the Fireballs more or less out of business. So maybe it’s best to think of “Sugar Shack” as an oblivious death-rattle of a proudly goofy era.
The Fireballs came together in the late ’50s in New Mexico, scoring a few minor hits as an instrumental group. In 1960, the Chicago-born and Texas-raised singer Jimmy Gilmer joined up and became the de facto frontman. “Sugar Shack,” their one truly big hit, is all about a guy who flirts with, and eventually, marries a girl he meets while she’s working at a coffeehouse. Songwriter Keith McCormack came up with the lyrics over breakfast one morning, tossing lines back and forth with his aunt Fay Voss, who also got a songwriting credit. It’s all pretty relentlessly happy and pleasant.
Gilmer’s delivery on the song is probably the worst thing about it. It’s a corny, wide-grinning simper-croon, a teenager-in-a-sitcom kind of thing. (“Espresso coffee tastes mighty good.”) The bloopy Hammond Solovox riff, played by producer Norman Petty, sounds like Gilmer whistling to himself, and it’s just as oppressively sunny as Gilmer’s voice. But there’s a nice stomp to what the rhythm section are doing; it’s what keeps the song from dissolving into treacle completely.
BONUS BEATS: Here, from the 1993 album Muppet Beach Party, is Gonzo and Rizzo covering “Sugar Shack,” turning it into a song about a chicken: