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.
To talk about the McCoys and “Hang On Sloopy,” we first need to talk about the Strangeloves, who fucking ruled. The trio of Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, and Richard Gottehrer came along at the tail end of the era where New York songwriters and producers were creating whole new singing groups and creating hits for those singing groups. The trio got to #1 once, with the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” in 1963. But then the Beatles came along, and things changed. So those three guys changed, too. They became the Strangeloves.
The Strangeloves were a curious thing. They wanted to remain behind-the-scenes hitmakers, but bands, not prefabricated vocal groups, were the ones making hits in 1965. Specifically, vaguely exotic English bands were making hits. So rather than attempting to pass themselves off as English, the Strangeloves passed themselves off as Australian, inventing a whole backstory where they were all really shepherds. They wrote and recorded “I Want Candy,” and they had a hit with it. And they had an idea for a follow-up: A new version of “My Girl Sloopy,” a minor 1964 hit for the Los Angeles soul vocal group the Vibrations.
The Strangeloves played their retitled version of “My Girl Sloopy” when they were opening for British Invaders the Dave Clarke Five on tour. The Dave Clarke Five liked it so much that they decided they’d record their own version. (This was a cover song, after all. The Strangeloves didn’t own it.) The Strangeloves had to get their version on the market before the Dave Clarke Five did. But they didn’t want to rush their own follow-up to “I Want Candy,” which was still doing well. They had to have someone else record it. Enter the McCoys.
The McCoys were really Rick And The Raiders, a teenage rock band from Indiana. Rick And The Raiders opened for the Strangeloves one night in Dayton, and they also played as their backing band. They looked like Beatles, and the Strangeloves saw dollar signs. So the Strangeloves got Rick And The Raiders to come with them to New York. (They had to get the band’s parents’ permission.) They renamed the band, so that nobody would get them confused with Paul Revere And The Raiders. And they got singer Rick Derringer to sing over the backing track that the Strangeloves had already recorded. And that’s how we got “Hang On Sloopy.”
Now: This is one ungainly-ass way to make a hit record. It’s cynical and vaguely desperate, these huckster-songwriter types doing whatever they could to get themselves another #1. But it worked. “Hang On Sloopy” is big and silly and glorious, with Derringer going all doe-eyed on the verses and then hollering the chorus like his life depends on it. The beat, as on the Strangeloves’ own songs, is titanic. The entire band, horn section very much included, played like a rhythm section. And it’s just jammed with all these supercharged hooks, swinging wildly from one peak to the next.
Funny thing about the Strangeloves: They might’ve been pop-music careerists, but they made some raw, nasty garage rock. And that comes through on “Hang On Sloopy,” as well. The transition from the howled “yeah!” “yeah!” call-and-response vocals to the noise-damaged guitar solo is a thing of rowdy, hormonal beauty. And the whole thing hammers away with giddy, overjoyed urgency. It’s just a fucking fun song.
The McCoys didn’t last too long after “Hang On Sloopy.” (Neither, for that matter, did the Strangeloves.) But Rick Derringer and his brother, drummer Randy Z, went on to join the backing bands of the Winter brothers, first Johnny and then Edgar. Derringer scored a pretty great classic rock solo hit with 1974’s “Rock And Roll, Hoochie Koo.” He played guitar on some Steely Dan records and on Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” He worked for the World Wrestling Federation and co-wrote Hulk Hogan’s “Real American” entrance theme. He produced six albums for “Weird Al” Yankovic and even played his version of Eddie Van Halen’s “Beat It” guitar solo for “Eat It.” In more recent years, he’s become a loud Christian conservative, hanging out with people like Alex Jones, which is sad to think about. Still, hell of a career on that guy.
BONUS BEATS: “Hang On Sloopy” has a huge connection to Ohio State University and to sports in Ohio in general. According to Derringer, the song was originally inspired by Dorothy Sloop, a jazz singer from Steubenville who attended Ohio State. Thus, at the urging of staff arranger John Tatgenhorst, the Ohio State marching band started playing the song during games in 1965, and now it’s a traditional part of every game. (It’s also the official rock song of Ohio.) Here’s a guest verse on “Hang On Sloopy” from Stereogum’s Columbus correspondent Chris DeVille:
As someone who grew up in Columbus in the shadow of Ohio State University, it’s wild to think of “Hang On Sloopy” as the former #1 song in America, or even as a rock song at all. I’ve heard the McCoys’ recording so many times that it’s part of the fabric of my life, but “Sloopy” was so quickly subsumed into the litany of Buckeye football traditions that by the time I was born two decades later it already felt like a fight song first and foremost, a ritual far too ancient to have been contemporary with the Beatles. The Ohio State marching band (the Best Damn Band In The Land, as they’re known) blares the tune just as often as the university’s two fight songs, “Across The Field” and “Buckeye Battle Cry,” and its alma mater, “Carmen Ohio.” And given the fervor surrounding Buckeye football, those songs are basically secular hymns, reverently recirculated all year round and howled together by 100,000 football fans in a horseshoe-shaped stadium Saturdays in autumn. This is the context in which “Hang On Sloopy” exists for me and basically everyone I know.
As a result of this history, bands like the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band tend to cover “Hang On Sloopy” when they come through Columbus. Here’s a video of the Smashing Pumpkins (speaking of Alex Jones), wearing goofy costumes and covering the song at an acoustic Halloween show in 2008: