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.
It used to be a thing. If you needed an apartment, or a used car, or a job, you picked up a newspaper and spent hours combing through the entire section of tiny-font classifieds, looking for anything that might possibly work, deciphering the acronyms that people would come up with because the newspaper was charging by the letter. This was a terribly inefficient way to get anything done, but in a pre-Craigslist era, we made do.
I got my first two real full-time jobs — selling cut-rate layaway bedroom sets to broke people in an East Baltimore furniture store, stuffing envelopes at the Maryland State Bar Association — because of newspaper want ads. And in a different way, I got my first media job because of want ads, too. After a few years of stuffing those envelopes, I moved up to New York and somehow miraculously found a job at The Village Voice — a venerable journalism source that, at least as far as I could tell, made most of its money because sex workers bought classified ads.
Shortly after I started working there, a piece-of-shit company bought the Voice and, one by one, fired all the legendary names working there. The people behind that venture finally dumped the Voice entirely — it no longer exists as a print product — and founded Backpage, a website dedicated entirely to sex-work want ads. Last year, Michael Lacey, the asshole most responsible for killing the Voice, was arrested in a big federal sting and charged with facilitating prostitution and laundering the money he made from it. Fuck that guy.
Anyway, point is: Classified ads were once a sufficiently established part of life that they inspired a #1 novelty hit. (They actually inspired two, but we’ll get to the other one later.) The Honey Cone’s “Want Ads” came into being when a studio engineer, while leafing through a newspaper, mused that someone should write a song about want ads. (His name was Barney Perkins, and he got a songwriting credit.)
The Honey Cone were three longtime backup singers, all of whom had been working for a while before they became a group. Lead singer Edna Wright, Darlene’s sister, had briefly been one of Ray Charles’ Raelettes, while Shelly Clark and been one of Ike Turner’s Ikettes, and Carolyn Willis had sung backup for Lou Rawls. Together, they were the first act signed to Hot Wax Records, the label that legendary songwriting/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland formed after leaving Motown in 1969. Holland-Dozier-Holland had written most of the Supremes’ biggest hits, but they had a hell of a time getting anything going on their own, and all of the Honey Cone’s early singles went nowhere.
“Want Ads,” the trio’s one big hit, did not come from Holland-Dozier-Holland. Instead, producer Greg Perry cowrote it with Chairmen Of The Board singer General Norman Johnson, who is not a real general. (Chairmen Of The Board’s highest-charting song was 1970’s “Give Me Just A Little More Time,” which peaked at #3. It’s a 4.) But even if Holland-Dozier-Holland had no direct involvement in “Want Ads,” it’s a clear attempt to replicate the kind of girl-group success they had in the early Motown era.
“Want Ads” is a simple song with a grand hook, a few swirling strings, a brash lead vocal, and a completely obvious hook: “Wanted! Young man, single and free / Experience in love preferred, but will accept a young trainee.” Wright’s character is pissed off because her man is cheating on her, and so she’s out looking for someone else. It’s a broad idea, but you can hear easily enough how the circa-1965 Supremes might’ve spun it into gold.
But 1971 was not 1965, Hot Wax Records was not Motown, and the Honey Cone were not the Supremes. The people at Hot Wax tried to get “Want Ads” to work a few different ways. First, Scherrie Payne, who would later join a ’70s incarnation of the Supremes, tried recording it, but she hated the song. Then Scherrie’s sister Freda Payne tried it, and that didn’t work, either. (Freda Payne had peaked at #3 with 1970’s “Band Of Gold“; it’s a 7.) The Honey Cone were third on the call list. Maybe the Honey Cone’s version of the song was the one the Hot Wax people were looking for, or maybe they just got sick of recording different versions.
In any case, the final version of “Want Ads” is a decent but slightly awkward collision of mid-’60s songwriting and early-’70s aesthetics. The production is pure budget Motown, and it has the chintzy strings of early-’70s MOR pop but also the humid, high-stepping funk of the Staples Singers. (The MVP here is rhythm guitarist Ray Parker, Jr., who will eventually get his own entry in this column.) None of it amounts to anything like peak Motown, but as novelty hits go, it’s not terrible. Taken all together, “Want Ads” is a gimmicky nothing of a song, but it’s a fun and efficient gimmicky nothing of a song.
The Honey Cone scored a couple more minor hits, but every single charted lower than the one that had come before, and they eventually broke up in 1973. That same year, Hot Wax Records went out of business — something currently happening to every newspaper that ever depended on want ads to make money.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Avalanches’ video for their 2016 Camp Lo collab “Because I’m Me,” which samples “Want Ads”: