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.
There were so many talented and important people involved in the creation of “Somethin’ Stupid.” Frank Sinatra is, of course, one of the three or four most iconic figures in the entire history of American popular music, and he was in the midst of a huge career comeback in 1967, having hit #1 on his own less than a year earlier. And he was also pushing himself creatively, recording passion-project collaborative albums with Duke Ellington and with the Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim and even toying around, just slightly, with ’60s pop. Sinatra was on a run, and “Somethin’ Stupid” was the culmination of it.
Nancy Sinatra was on a run, too. She’d had a classic monster hit the year before, and she’d proven herself to be a furiously charismatic pop star, one who was at the peak of her powers. She was recording with Lee Hazlewood, the spaced-out cowboy songwriter and producer whose sense of space in sound was truly revolutionary.
Hazlewood co-produced “Somethin’ Stupid” with Jimmy Bowen, the man behind Frank’s big comeback hits. And the musicians of the Wrecking Crew, the ace LA session team, played on it. Glen Campbell, the Wrecking Crew’s future star, had been hired to play guitar on it, but he couldn’t master the complicated quasi-Spanish lead the way Frank wanted, so Al Casey, the rockabilly veteran and Wrecking Crew standby who’d played on the original song that the Sinatras were covering, played it instead.
All these people knew pop music. All these people knew what they were doing. And yet none of them apparently thought it might be extremely fucking creepy for a father to sing a love-song duet with his daughter. How does this happen? How does everyone involved think this is OK? And how do enough people buy the record for it to stay at #1 for a whole month?
The man who wrote “Somethin’ Stupid” was Carson Parks, a veteran of the Los Angeles folk music scene and the older brother of weird-music hall-of-famer Van Dyke Parks. Carson and his wife Gaile Foote had recorded “Somethin’ Stupid” as a duet, and in their hands, it was both smart and sweet.
It’s a song about a couple, early in their relationship, having a romantic night together and then leaping headlong into uncertainty. They’re having a great time, but then one of them ruins it: “And then I go and spoil it all by saying somethin’ stupid like ‘I love you.'” But they’re singing the song together, so we don’t know which of them said the stupid thing. Maybe they said it together, at the same time. Maybe they were both thinking it the whole time. Maybe they’re both too scared to really say it.
It’s one thing for a married couple to sing this song. It is another thing entirely for Frank Sinatra and his daughter to sing it. Even leaving aside the ooky vibes of a father and daughter making musical goo-goo eyes at each other, neither Sinatra really does much on this song. Frank never relies on his greatest gifts, his timing or his bravado or his way of absolutely uncorking at the big moments. Instead, he holds back for the entire song, almost mumbling the lyrics to himself. For her part, Nancy is reduced to backup singer, never getting to show off any of her ferocious charisma. They’re singing every line together, but they sound totally remote from one another, like they barely know each other.
Even the production can’t find the right tone. The combination of Hazlewood’s countrified bliss-float and Casey’s down-the-middle orchestrations just never gels. It’s just a mess of baritone acoustic-guitar flutters and cheesed-out string-section curlicues. The song is creepy, but it also sucks for reasons entirely unrelated to its creepiness.
After “Somethin’ Stupid,” Frank Sinatra would record some great songs, songs that are now much better-remembered than “Somethin’ Stupid.” He sang “My Way” in 1969. He sang “Theme From New York, New York” in 1980. And yet Frank Sinatra never so much as scraped the Billboard Top 20 after “Somethin’ Stupid.” In a very real sense, it’s a great hitmaker’s last true hit. And if you think about it like that, it’s a sad note for the guy to go out on.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the video for Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman’s extremely schticky 2001 version of “Somethin’ Stupid,” a massive hit across Europe and Australia and a Christmas #1 in the UK: