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.
Pop music history is a funny thing. Consider, if you will, the winter of 1965. That must’ve been a hell of an exciting time to be listening to pop radio. In February, the songs that had been at the #1 spot for the past couple of months were all monstrous, towering classics. But they ended up replaced by a piece of frothy, instantly forgettable bullshit — from the son of a celebrity, no less — and, at least in the moment, it was just as big as any of those other songs. That’s the story of “This Diamond Ring.”
Gary Lewis was the son of Jerry Lewis, the man who pioneered Jim Carrey’s whole gibbering-idiocy vaudeville comedy act in the ’50s. The younger Lewis had made short appearances in a few of his father’s movies, but he didn’t want to trade on his father’s name. As an 18-year-old, he founded Gary And The Playboys with some friends from school. He got the group a job as the house band at Disneyland without mentioning his family’s connections. But when a record exec learned that Jerry Lewis’ kid was playing in a rock ‘n’ roll group, he convinced them that they’d be more likely to sell records if they put “Lewis” in their name. He was right.
“This Diamond Ring” had originally been recorded by the Miami soul singer Sammy Ambrose. It’s a bruised, heartbroken song, and that’s how Ambrose sang it. That’s not how Lewis and his band played it, though. They made it into a chirpy two-minute confection. Lewis sings it in a thin, matter-of-fact voice, never clamping down on the emotion in the song. The Blood, Sweat & Tears founder Al Kooper, one of the song’s three writers, hated the Playboys’ version, later saying that they’d “made a teenage milkshake out of it.”
Lewis insists that the actual Playboys played on the record, but producer Snuff Garrett brought in the session musicians of the Wrecking Crew to play over it, anyway. The best parts of the song, like the cool echo on that guitar solo, are almost certainly the work of the Wrecking Crew. When the Playboys performed on The Ed Sullivan Show — a gig that Jerry Lewis had finagled for them — they had to play over a recorded track, since they weren’t good enough to play the song on their own. Nevertheless, Lewis and the Playboys put together a pretty impressive string of hits, one that they achieved partly by making sure the Beatles didn’t have anything new out whenever they released them. Their run only ended when Lewis was drafted into the Army, and some version of the band still plays the oldies circuit.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Gary Lewis, playing the younger version of his father’s character, singing a very obnoxious song called “The Land Of La-La-La” in the 1958 Jerry Lewis vehicle Rock-A-Bye Baby: