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.
When Archie Bell found out that his song had hit #1, he was laid up in a hospital in Germany. Bell, serving in an Army transportation unit, had gotten into a car accident on the Autobahn, and he’d broken his leg. And nobody in the hospital would believe that the song on the radio was his.
Bell came from Houston, part of a weirdly accomplished family. One of Bell’s brothers, Jerry, was a world karate champion who would go on to sing for the Dazz Band, a funk group that recorded for Motown in the ’80s. (Chart peak: the Devo-paraphrasing “Let It Whip,” #5 in 1982. Would’ve scored a 7.) Another brother, Ricky, was the #1 overall pick in the NFL draft in 1977, and he led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to an NFC Central Division championship two years later. Jerry died of heart failure in 1984, when he was 29, and Mario Van Peebles played him in a made-for-TV movie in 1991.
Anyway, Archie. Archie Bell started singing in Houston nightclubs in the ’50s, when he was a child. He and some friends formed the Drells in 1966, and they were strictly a local phenomenon. Bell co-wrote “Tighten Up” with his bandmate Billy Butler. Bell had just gotten his draft notice, and he was depressed about it. So Butler started doing a goofy dance to cheer him up. When Bell asked what the dance was, Butler told him that it was the Tighten Up, and then a song was born.
Bell and the Drells recorded “Tighten Up” with the TSU Tornadoes, a local instrumental band. The Tornadoes had already come up with the song’s instrumental track, and they were using it in their live shows. Truthfully, it’s not much of a song. It’s a groove, and the Tornadoes probably deserve more credit for it than Bell and Butler do. Over the high-stepping beat, Bell plays master of ceremonies, introducing himself and the band and then spending the rest of the song urging the band to get nasty. He never even really sings, and the Drells, Bell’s backup singers, don’t do anything beyond some handclaps.
“Tighten Up,” you could argue, is a funk song. It’s a variation on what James Brown was already doing, and Brown was doing it better. Brown evidently didn’t mind, since he would cover “Tighten Up” in his live shows. (James Brown’s chart peak: “I Got You (I Feel Good),” #3 in 1965. Would’ve been a 9.) The version of funk that we hear on “Tighten Up” is pretty chintzy, with its bright guitar burbles and its sprightly horns. There’s a lot of force to its backbeat, but the groove never really gets deep. And yet “Tighten Up” is a fun record, mostly because Bell projects charm all over it. (Later on, Bell would theorize that the song did as well as it did because it sounded like a house party.) It’s hard to be in a bad mood when it’s playing.
Bell was already in the Army when “Tighten Up” started picking up steam locally. Atlantic picked up the song after it became a regional phenomenon, and then that phenomenon went nationwide. The Army let Bell come back to the US to play shows and to record, and he and the Drells ended up having a pretty decent career, recording for Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label and cranking out minor hits well into the ’70s.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the weirdly competent “Tighten Up” cover that R.E.M. recorded in 1984, during the Reckoning sessions:
(Since I now habitually look this stuff up: R.E.M.’s chart peak was “Losing My Religion,” #4 in 1991. Would’ve been an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Janet Jackson’s 1997 track “Free Xone,” which sampled “Tighten Up”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Go! Team’s 2004 single “Ladyflash,” which also sampled “Tighten Up”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Yo La Tengo covering “Tighten Up” on their 2006 album Yo La Tengo Is Murdering The Classics: