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.
Even when it seems like everything changes, everything doesn’t really change. Case in point: Bobby Vinton’s ongoing success. Vinton was basically early-’60s pop music personified — somehow both a Brylcreemed teen idol and a whitebread big-band revivalist at the same damn time. He was everything that Beatlemania was supposed to kill off, and indeed his “There! I’ve Said It Again” was the last song to hit #1 before the Beatles began carpet-bombing the charts. It seems like Vinton’s chart career should end there, just to mark the historic inflection point. But people didn’t suddenly stop liking Vinton once the Beatles showed up, and he kept scoring hits all through the ’60s. That included one more trip back to #1, with a song that Vinton had recorded back when the Beatles were still playing in Hamburg strip clubs.
Vinton had started writing “Mr. Lonely” in the late ’50s, when he was serving as a chaplain’s assistant in the Army. And he’d recorded it in 1962, in the same session where he’d sung “Roses Are Red (My Love),” his first #1. Back then, Vinton had wanted to make “Mr. Lonely” into a single, but his label didn’t really see him as a star, even though he’d already started making hits. So instead, they gave the song to Buddy Greco, who they were grooming as their next big thing. But Greco’s version bricked. (Even though Vinton had co-written the song, he only found out about Greco’s version when he heard it on the radio.) Vinton’s version was relegated to album-track status.
Two years later, though, that same label was getting ready to put out a greatest-hits album for Vinton. They needed one last song for the collection, and Vinton suggested “Mr. Lonely,” which had always been his favorite of his own songs. Radio stations started playing Vinton’s version, and all of a sudden, he had another hit on his hands.
There was societal context for it, too. On “Mr. Lonely,” Vinton sang about being “a soldier, a lonely soldier, away from home through no wish of my own.” It’s not just a song about heartbreak, then. It’s a song about the vast international forces that drag you into some other country, forcing you to think about everyone back home, about how they must’ve forgotten all about you. In 1964, as the Vietnam War was ramping up, this hit a nerve. The song was a favorite of servicemen, and those soldiers stayed with Vinton. (In 1967, he and “Mr. Lonely” co-writer Gene Allan had another hit with “Coming Home Soldier,” which could be heard as the happy-ending sequel to “Mr. Lonely,” similar melody and all.)
On paper, the whole saga of Vinton and “Mr. Lonely” really should make for a perfectly delightful stick-it-to-the-man story. Vinton knew he had something, even if his label didn’t believe in him. And in the end, he was proven right. But for that story to really work, “Mr. Lonely” would have to be good, and it’s not really any good at all.
Vinton’s melody is instantly memorable and vaguely iconic. And his delivery is emotional in ways that we didn’t often hear from the era’s pop singers. He remains controlled, even hitting Frankie Valli-esque falsetto, but his voice always sounds like it’s about to break. He’s on the brink of tears, and you can hear it. But the song itself is still a saccharine plod. There’s no rhythm, no sense of atmosphere, nothing beyond a weepy string section and a tinkly piano. It’s a snooze of a song, great story or no.
BONUS BEATS: The obvious thing here would be to include Akon’s “Lonely,” the 2005 hit built from a chipmunk-soul sample of “Mr. Lonely.” But instead, let’s go with Soulja Boy’s “So Fresh (You Can Suck My Nuts),” a 2010 loosie that opens with Soulja Boy yelling at a “Mr. Lonely” sample and telling it to shut up: