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.
There’s something so beautifully singular about the moment. For a 14-week stretch, the just-arrived Beatles had an absolute stranglehold on the #1 spot of the US charts. And the man who finally knocked them off was a 62-year-old big-band jazz icon whose career was thought to be basically over. But he sang a Broadway showtune, and everything changed.
By 1964, Armstrong’s career in music had lasted nearly 50 years; he’d started playing in brass bands on New Orleans riverboats in 1918. He’d been a key figure — maybe the key figure — in the popular explosion of jazz and in the intelligentsia’s embrace of the music. But by the time Beatlemania happened, he was a relic. Armstrong didn’t have anything to do with the bebop explosion of the ’50s, and he didn’t seem particularly interested in it. He kept touring heavily, adapting to a role that was more cultural ambassador than pop star. In 1959, he suffered a heart attack that kept him off the road for a while. And when he recorded “Hello, Dolly!,” he hadn’t recorded anything in a few years.
“Hello, Dolly!” was the title track of a musical that was opening on Broadway in 1964, and Armstrong recorded his version as a demo, to help the song’s publisher promote the show. It wasn’t even intended for release. But it came out, and it exploded. (Armstrong quickly recorded an album of songs like that, and that also knocked the Beatles out of the #1 spot on the albums chart.)
“Hello, Dolly!,” sung by Carol Channing in the musical, was willfully anachronistic from jump; the play takes place in the 1890s. And Armstrong embraced the old-timiness. It’s a goofily happy, old-timey song, with strings and banjos and horns soloing all over each other. It’s not a great song by any stretch; even Armstrong himself was dubious about it. And yet he sold it. If the song works, it works because of Armstrong’s voice, a happy and full-throated rasp that radiated personality in every direction. And it works because of his playing, graceful and melodic and effortless. It’s a case of a master elevating some uninspiring material, turning it into something that, for whatever reason, resonated on a huge scale.
“Hello, Dolly!” was Armstrong’s only #1 hit on the Hot 100, not especially surprising when you consider that the vast majority of his career happened before the chart was introduced. But it led to a sort of late-career reinvention as a warm, reassuring pop star. Armstrong didn’t record “What A Wonderful World,” the song the world probably associates with him most now, until 1968. A year after that, he sang the theme to a Bond movie. And two years after that, he died of another heart attack. His legacy was already tremendous before “Hello, Dolly!,” but that song still gave the man a nice little final act.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s French synth pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey’s bugged-out 1970 instrumental cover of “Hello, Dolly!”: