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.
Working on this project, one of the things that’s really surprised me has been the enduring popularity of easy-listening instrumental music. For years — for decades, even — that music sold in huge numbers, to the point where Lawrence Welk’s “Calcutta” blocked the Miracles’ “Shop Around” from the #1 spot. I had no idea. I lived through Kenny G, so I really should’ve figured that out, but I didn’t.
Even in the late ’60s, when pop music completely and fundamentally changed, that instrumental music did not go away. But the good news is that this music changed the same way the rest of pop music did. And there’s a world of difference between “Calcutta” and Paul Mauriat’s “Love Is Blue.”
“Love Is Blue,” originally composed by André Popp and Pierre Cour, started off its life as Luxembourg’s entry in the 1967 Eurovision Song Contest. The Greek singer Vicky Leaondros sang the song at Eurovision, and her version was a minor hit around Europe and in Canada and Japan. But the version of the song that really hit, for whatever reason, was the one that the French easy listening composer Paul Mauriat released the following year.
Mauriat, from Marseilles, started leading jazz bands in France in the ’40s. (He’s still only one of two French artists to land a Billboard #1. The other is Daft Punk, who got a feature credit on the Weeknd’s “Starboy.”) Through the ’50s, Mauriat toured as musical director for the French singers Charles Aznavour and Maurice Chevalier. In 1958, Mauriat co-wrote the instrumental “Chariot,” which was eventually given words and translated into English. That became “I Will Follow Him,” a #1 hit for Little Peggy March in 1963. So Mauriat had at least had some passing involvement with an American chart hit. Still, I have have to imagine the success of “Love Is Blue” came out of nowhere. The song presents a weirder, looser, more energetic version of mass-market instrumental music, and its monster success is one of those weird historical blips that’s fun to think about.
And yet the appeal is not a mystery. “Love Is Blue” is a pretty and reassuring piece of music, and like so many Eurovision songs before and after it, it’s built around the kind of melody that can get stuck in your head for days at a time. But it’s full of big, bouncy horn stabs and sentimental strings, and it’s all driven by an oddly funky little harpsichord figure that really works as the song’s bassline. This is as grand and melodramatic as mass-market instrumental pop music gets, and unlike something like “Theme From A Summer Place,” it never gets boring.
1968 was a big year for Mauriat; he also did the theme for the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He kept touring and recording for the rest of his life, becoming hugely popular in Japan from the ’70s on. He died in 2006, when he was 81.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 1998 track “Channel Zero,” on which Canibus uses a “Love Is Blue” sample to rap about the coming Y2K apocalypse and about utilizing every word of the Arabic alphabet to touch a part of your body that makes you feel erogenous: