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 was never any really sense of tabloid drama to the 5th Dimension, a group of clean-living show-business professionals who all seemed to like each other and to enjoy performing. But there was, at the very least, a narrative to sell. Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr., the group’s two most visible members, were engaged. And before they set a wedding date, producer Bones Howe recorded their cover of “Wedding Bell Blues,” a Laura Nyro song about a woman who is wondering when a man, fortuitously named Bill, would marry her.
Nyro, a Bronx-born singer and songwriter, had written “Wedding Bell Blues” in 1966, when she was 18. She recorded it and released it as a single a year later, though she hated the arrangement that the producer forced her to use. The song wasn’t about Billy Davis, Jr.; Nyro had been inspired by the an affair that a friend’s mother had been having. But sometimes, things just work out.
The 5th Dimension had already had hits with two Nyro songs, “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Sweet Blindness.” And so they gave “Wedding Bell Blues” the full dramatic reading. While “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In,” the group’s first #1, had been an actual song from a musical, they sang “Wedding Bell Blues” more like it was a showtune, using that arrangement that Nyro hated and making a big, smiley setpiece of a song about this lady’s romantic desperation.
On most of their big hits, the 5th Dimension sang in group harmony. But “Wedding Bell Blues” is a showcase for Marilyn McCoo. She definitely sings the hell out of the song, at least in the technical sense. She hits one huge note after another, again and again. But I don’t think she sells the song’s lyrics. Instead, she treats it more like a brassy love song. And by the time the song is over, I have come to truly hate the name “Bill.” It’s just one of those things: A well-written and impressively performed song that smashes all my irritation sensors. I just can’t stand it.
This particular form of pop music — big, dramatic, heavily orchestrated, weirdly peppy — was firmly in vogue in the late ’60s. As a songwriter, Nyro had a huge pop moment. On the last of the three weeks that “Wedding Bell Blues” was at #1, Nyro also had two other songs in the top 20: Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “And When I Die” at #4 (would’ve been a 5) and Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Coming” at #18. (“Eli’s Coming” eventually made it up to #10, and it would’ve been also been a 5.)
If Marilyn McCoo ever did have wedding bell blues, she didn’t have them for long. She and Davis were married by the time “Wedding Bell Blues” hit #1, and they’re still married now.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the B-side of “Wedding Bell Blues,” a not-even-remotely-sludgy cover of Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love”:
THE NUMBER TWOS: R. B. Greaves’ soul story-song “Take A Letter Maria” peaked at #2 behind “Wedding Bell Blues.” It’s an 8.