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.
A little ways into George Roy Hill’s revisionist Western Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, the highest-grossing movie of 1969, there’s a scene where Paul Newman’s Butch, celebrating after a successful robbery, goes to visit his schoolteacher girlfriend. He’s picked up a newfangled bicycle somewhere, and so he uses it to make her laugh, mugging and doing dumb stunts and finally pissing off a bull. There’s not a lot of narrative function to that scene; it’s mostly there to remind you that, yes, you are watching titanic movie star Paul Newman, and yes, he is very charming. It’s a bucolic little hey-look-at-this-guy moment, an interlude before the story really gets rolling. And the song playing on the soundtrack during this reverie is “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” which ended up as the first #1 single of the ’70s.
Burt Bacharach scored Butch Cassidy, and he convinced Hill that the scene would work better with a vocal pop song playing on the soundtrack. Even though Bacharach almost never wrote the lyrics to his songs, he had the title phrase stuck in his head, and so he got his regular lyricist Hal David to write around it. It’s not raining in that scene of the movie, so I’ll never know why Bacharach figured that a song like this would be right for the scene, but maybe that’s why Burt Bacharach is a beloved songwriting institution and I’m not.
According to various accounts, Bacharach offered the song first to the novelty-song specialist Ray Stevens, who didn’t like the movie, and then to Bob Dylan, who loves saying no to things. And so it ended up with B. J. Thomas, a sort of journeyman pop star. Thomas had come out of Houston and played in bands since the early ’60s. He’d hit the top 10 twice. The first was with a slow-ambling white-soul cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” which made it to #8 in 1966. (It would’ve been a 7.) The other was the original sitar-driven version of “Hooked On A Feeling,” which peaked at #5 in 1968. (It would’ve been a 6.)
Thomas had been getting over laryngitis when he recorded “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” and Bacharach made him record a bunch of takes. But the movie’s producers liked what he did with the song; they thought he’d made his voice hoarse so that he’d sound more like Paul Newman. In any case, the song turned out to be huge, topping the charts for the first month of the decade and winning a Best Original Song Oscar.
Writing this column, I can’t help but think of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” as a harbinger of things to come. Years are arbitrary ways to measure musical history (or any kind of history), and it’s not like there was some mystical changeover on the first day of the ’70s where a song like this could suddenly blow up. (If anything, it sounds a lot like Bacharach and David’s one previous #1, Herb Alpert’s 1968 hit “This Guy’s In Love With You.”) But this kind of unhurried, carefully orchestrated soft-rock amble would pretty much run shit on the charts for the first half of the ’70s.
Consequently, you will see a whole lot of me shrugging in this column. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” isn’t a bad song, exactly. It’s got one of those choruses that imprints itself on your brain the day you’re born, and it’s not easy to write one of those. And there’s a nicely beatific vibe to it. But the song’s arrangement — that strummy guitar, those tootling horns, those slow-swelling strings — is too cute by half. And Thomas is only too happy to play into that too-cuteness, letting his voice drift alongside the song rather than taking control of it. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” is a mediocrity that had the good fortune to be associated with a great movie. Plenty of later ’70s hits wouldn’t even have that.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” soundtracking the Butch Cassidy parody bit from the incredibly dumb 1996 comedy Spy Hard:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jim O’Rourke teaming up with the Japanese musician Mitsuko Koike for a cover of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” from the 2010 tribute album All Kinds Of People: Love Burt Bacharach: