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 story of “Strangers In The Night” is a tale of two people who share a moment of fleeting but meaningful eye contact, a moment that leads them to fall in love before the end of the night. That, anyway, is the story of the lyrics. The real story of “Strangers In The Night” is the story of Frank Sinatra and a song that he absolutely fucking hated.
Sinatra reportedly called “Strangers In The Night” “a piece of shit.” He called it “the worst fucking song I have ever heard.” It was a massive comeback hit for Sinatra, but he wouldn’t sing it during live specials. Sometimes, when singing the song live, he’d talk about how much he hated it. And I’d like to imagine that I can hear that hate in his vocal. Sinatra was, of course, an all-time great singer and a total pro. But there’s an edge in his voice on “Strangers In The Night” — something miles away from the soft romanticism that the song is supposed to represent. That makes it a fascinating little trainwreck, and it makes it even more bizarre that this song could’ve made it to #1 during a crazy competitive moment in American popular music.
The German jazz composer Bert Kaempfert, who’d had another nocturnal #1 five years earlier with “Wonderland By Night,” is credited for writing the music for “Strangers In The Night,” though three other composers tried to claim credit for it. It was originally part of the score for the movie A Man Could Get Killed, which I’d never heard of before I sat down to write this thing. Charles Singleton wrote lyrics for it, and it went to Sinatra after A Man Could Get Killed star Melina Mercouri refused to sing it. Two Wrecking crew members, drummer Hal Blaine and future solo-star guitarist Glen Campbell, play on the song, though you can only barely pick their contributions out. And Sinatra reportedly called Campbell a homophobic slur during the recording process because he didn’t like the way Campbell was looking at him. So: bad vibes all around.
In 1966, Sinatra had just turned 50, and he was well past the moment when he was drawing proto-Beatlemania screams from teenage girls. But he was going through a nice little career renaissance before “Strangers In The Night.” His 1965 album September Of My Years had won the Album Of The Year Grammy. A best-of collection called A Man And His Music won another Album Of The Year statue a year later. That’s typical institutional Grammy bullshit, of course, but Sinatra was making hits, too: “It Was A Very Good Year,” “That’s Life,” “Summer Wind.” Compared to those songs, “Strangers” is pure fluff. It’s the sort of drippy throwback orchestral cheese that should’ve been beneath Sinatra. And so Sinatra sings it with a cold kind of sneer.
Sinatra sounds composed, and his weathered and serious voice has so much charisma that I can almost understand why people liked this song. His timing remains impeccable. There’s a weird minute at the end where breaks into some improvised scatting, and he even sounds angry doing that. (Scooby-Doo creator Iwao Takamoto later said that he got the dog’s name from the doobie-doo stuff that Sinatra was doing on that song.)
BONUS BEATS: Here’s cover of “Strangers In The Night” that James Brown released in 1968: