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.
The children’s choir is one of pop’s great shortcuts. It’s the easiest possible route to pathos: You just grab a bunch of cute kids and throw their voices on your grand hug-the-world ballad, and then maybe someone will hear depth or emotional power in what you’re singing. It’s the musical equivalent of the blockbuster-movie scene where the hero saves a puppy. It’s shorthand. It’s always been shorthand.
That doesn’t mean it’s dishonest or cynical to use a children’s choir. People keep doing it for a reason, and people keep responding to it for a reason. Ray Stevens, the novelty-song veteran, used a children’s choir on “Everything Is Beautiful,” his first #1, for reasons that I have to believe were entirely sincere. Stevens’ two daughters went to Oak Hill Elementary in Nashville. And the first thing we hear on “Everything Is Beautiful” is a group of kids from that school, including those two daughters. Stevens must’ve been really proud of them. He must’ve wanted the world to hear them. The idea worked. The world heard them. Too bad the song was trash.
By the time “Everything Is Beautiful” hit #1, the 31-year-old Stevens, a Georgia native, had been a music-business professional for more than a decade. He’d first signed with a Capitol subsidiary as a teenager in 1957, and he’d started making novelty hits a few years after that. Stevens was a musical comedian at a time when the standards for musical comedy were lower than you could ever imagine. Before “Everything Is Beautiful,” Stevens’ biggest hits were the genuinely racist “Ahab The Arab” (which peaked at #5 in 1962 and which would’ve been a 1) and the merely incredibly irritating “Gitarzan” (which peaked at #8 in 1969 and which would’ve also been a 1).
After those novelty hits, NBC had given Stevens his own TV show, a summer variety-show replacement for Andy Williams’ show. Stevens needed a theme song, and so he spent three days at his piano, trying out ideas that didn’t work. Finally, Stevens says, he got the “Everything Is Beautiful” title from a book of Chinese proverbs and wrote the song in about 45 minutes.
The song that Stevens wrote was a drippily well-meaning ballad about how all people are worthy of respect. If you’re going to write a message song, that’s a pretty good message to have. And some of Stevens’ lines might’ve even been somewhat pointed at the time. He took direct aim at the racial polarization and the culture wars that were ripping America apart in 1970: “We shouldn’t care about the length of his hair or the color of his skin / Don’t worry about what shows from without, but the love that lies within.”
Stevens couched all of this in a religious context, and the intro is those kids from that elementary school singing the hymn “Jesus Loves The Little Children.” And soon enough, “Everything Is Beautiful” became a standard worship song, which makes total sense. It’s explicit in its Christianity and fuzzy about everything else, and just about anyone could hear the song as a mushy positivity anthem without feeling judged. Ultimately, this says less about Stevens’ intentions and more about the way that any message song can lose its message if it doesn’t have enough teeth in the first place. “Everything Is Beautiful” had no teeth whatsoever.
Musically, it’s competent enough. Stevens has a big, anonymous voice, and he hits burly white-soul gospel notes. The strings and pianos find that early-’70s soft-rock sweet spot. But the kids’ choir and the hymn interpolation kill whatever replay value the song might’ve ever had and turn it into an irritant, and the song itself is a big enough nothing that it never really offers anything beyond its exceedingly vague message. It’s written from a good place, but “Everything Is Beautiful” is a nothing song. It says nothing, and it leaves no impression beyond a syrupy residue. That makes it better than “Ahab The Arab,” but it sure doesn’t make it good.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Bobby Womack’s not-terrible 1971 Southern soul version of “Everything Is Beautiful”:
(Bobby Womack’s highest-charting song was his 1974 version of “Lookin’ For A Love,” a song he’d originally recorded in 1962 with his group the Valentinos. The 1974 “Lookin’ For A Love” got to #10, and it would’ve been an 8.)
THE 10S: Simon & Garfunkel’s joyous ripple “Cecilia” peaked at #4 behind “Everything Is Beautiful.” It’s a 10.