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 whole journey of “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” a deliriously fun piece of horny-nonsense pop music, is basically the story of everything that was happening in pop music, rendered in miniature. Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, the married couple who had written the Dixie Cups “Chapel Of Love” and a whole pile of Phil Spector hits, had written the song for the Exciters, a girl group from Queens. A year earlier, Barry and Greenwich had scored a #3 hit with the Crystals’ similarly wonderful gibberish romp “Da Doo Ron Ron.” They figured they could pull it off again. They couldn’t. Not at first, anyway.
The world had changed, and even though pop-music kingmakers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller produced it, the Exciters’ version didn’t go anywhere. Barry and Greenwich, fed up with what they saw as label mishandling, knew they’d written a hit, and they went ahead and recorded their own version, figuring maybe that one would land. But their version didn’t come out until decades later. Because some British blues dorks covered the song and hit #1 with it.
Manfred Mann were part of the same British art-school blues revival that produced the Animals and, eventually, the Rolling Stones. (Manfred Mann were a band, but they were named after their keyboardist, whose name was also Manfred Mann, because pop music is confusing.) Their early records are frankly tedious — lame, growly, turgid, faux-authentic blues, sung in fake accents. This was some Iggy Azalea shit — swagger appropriated from distant cultures, done with a weird stiffness that came off just wrong. But then the band noticed that the Beatles were doing well with covers of American girl-group songs, and so they decided to try it themselves. They ended up coming up with something that was both bigger and better than what they were doing before.
In a perfect version, the Exciters’ version of the song (which was released as “Do-Wah-Diddy”) would’ve been the one that hit. It’s the better record. It’s loud and brash and boisterous, with explosive lead vocals and honking, energetic production. Instead of that harmonica solo, there’s what sounds like saxophone and guitar and church bells all playing at once.
But Manfred Mann’s version is a blast, too. This isn’t a Pat Boone situation, where the radio was only playing watered-down versions of black songs and this one asshole got rich doing it. It’s just the reality of that early Beatlemania moment, when American kids were losing their mind for anything made by British boys with floppy haircuts. Manfred Mann’s version has all the canned swagger of their fake-blues records, but it’s used for a noble cause: grandly horny pop music. They get that the song’s hook is basically one big euphemism for fucking, and sing it with all the bouncy joy they can muster. And so a great song got a second chance, and it didn’t lose its greatness in the process.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the part of Ivan Reitman’s 1981 movie Stripes where the soldiers march around singing “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.”
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s 2 Live Crew’s video for their raunchy, gross, homophobic “Do Wah Diddy”: