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.
To me, someone who was not alive at the time, it seems incredibly strange that “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” was ever an actual song, rather than just something that people chant during playoff elimination games and loser-leaves-town wrestling matches. But it was, and it somehow made it to #1 for two weeks in 1969, which is still remembered as a great time in pop music even though “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” was a #1 song for two weeks.
“Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” began its gestation in 1961, when a Glenwood, Connecticut band called the Chateaus started but never finished writing a song called “Kiss Him Goodbye.” Years later, Chateaus pianist Paul Leka was a producer and songwriter who worked for Mercury Records. He’d produced and co-written the Lemon Pipers’ early bubblegum #1 “Green Tambourine,” and a couple of years after that, he’d started working with his old Chateaus bandmates Gary DeCarlo and Dale Frashuer. DeCarlo was singing under the name Garrett Scott, and he and Leka had recorded a song called “Sweet Laura Lee.” They needed a B-side, so they finished “Kiss Him Goodbye,” adding the chorus just so that they could stretch the song out.
The people at Mercury loved the song, so rather than using it as a B-side, they put it out as a single. I’ve read a lot about it, but I’m still not sure why the label decided to release it under the name Steam. Steam was not a band. It didn’t exist. The guys on the cover of the single had nothing to do with the song. They did, however, become a touring act. Those cover-art models just lip-synced DeCarlo’s lead vocal. DeCarlo, meanwhile, never had an actual hit of his own. He expected his old bandmate Leka to hook him up with some other songs, but it never happened for him, and DeCarlo resented it until he died of lung cancer last year, at the age of 75. (Leka died six years earlier of the same disease.)
All this fuss over a barely-there song! Leka and his old buddies recorded “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” without a full band, with Leka splicing in the drum track from one of the Garrett Scott singles that he’d recorded with DeCarlo. The song basically works like budget Motown, its piano never sounding full enough to make up for the total lack of bass or guitars or almost anything else.
The song has an actual story: DeCarlo, the singer, wants you, girl, to leave your boyfriend and get with him instead. Throughout, he does white-soul ad-libs to convince you to do this. It doesn’t matter. All anyone ever remembers is that big, dumb, near-wordless chorus. But everyone remembers that chorus, and that’s not nothing.
“Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” somehow didn’t become a regular sports thing until 1977, when White Sox organist Nancy Faust started playing it whenever the opposing team pulled its starting pitcher. The crowd started singing it, and it caught on. I can remember going to baseball games in the ’80s, when I was a little kid, and they must’ve only just started piping in recorded music rather than using organists. (A few stadiums do still use organists, which is cool.) My memories of those games are vague, but I’m pretty sure I heard this song a lot. We needed something to chant, I guess, and “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” was right there.
BONUS BEATS: The 2000 movie Remember The Titans has a scene where the Titans all sing “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” at a funeral? And they do it all mournfully? I’ve never seen this movie, so I don’t know the context, but this seems like an inappropriate thing to do. Here’s that scene:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: JAY-Z’s 2009 single “DOA (Death Of Auto-Tune),” possibly the least prescient song ever recorded, interpolated “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” Here’s the video, which for some reason stars both Harvey Keitel and LeBron James: