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.
Back in 2009, Flo Rida came out with “Sugar,” an exceedingly generic club-rap hit that was built around the chorus of Eiffel 65’s extremely silly Euro-cheese-house anthem “Blue (Da Ba Dee).” I never even hated the Eiffel 65 track. (“Blue [Da Ba Dee]” peaked at #6, and it’s a 7. “Sugar,” meanwhile, peaked at #5, and it’s a 3.) But when the Flo Rida song came out, my immediate reaction was: Really? This shit again? I wonder how many people had that same thought about “Go Away Little Girl” in 1971.
’60s nostalgia started setting in almost immediately. There’s a small handful of songs that have hit #1 more than once, in different forms, and most of them come from the ’60s, a decade that we Americans will never, ever stop lionizing. But the first song ever to hit #1 a second time is one that never deserved any sort of lionization.
In 1962, the married duo of Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote “Go Away, Little Girl” for the bland and unthreatening teen idol Bobby Vee. Vee’s version wasn’t a hit, but “Go Away Little Girl” did hit #1 when the unctuous-sounding grown man Steve Lawrence released his own version of it. “Go Away Little Girl” is a song about being afraid to be in the same room as another girl because of the temptation involved: “When you’re near me like this / You’re much too hard to resist / So go away, little girl / Before I beg you to stay.” Steve Lawrence made that sentiment sound extremely creepy, and his version of the song is one of the worst #1 hits of the ’60s.
Donny Osmond, meanwhile, was not someone who was capable of sounding creepy. Osmond was one of these kids who basically came out of the womb performing. He was five years old when he made his debut on the national stage, singing an extremely stage-kid rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” on a 1963 episode of The Andy Williams Show. (Osmond’s four older brothers were already regulars on that show, singing in a kids’ barbershop quartet.)
When the Osmonds turned toward pop music, Donny became a star. The Osmonds got to #1 earlier in 1971 with “One Bad Apple,” a not-bad song that was also a direct and shameless Jackson 5 ripoff. Donny did the Osmonds’ pale imitation of Michael Jackson’s high-pitched yelps, and Donny, like Michael, was immediately pegged as the breakout star of the group. So he quickly took his place within the unthreatening-teen-idol pantheon, singing bland covers of songs that were already pretty bland in the first place. “Go Away Little Girl” was Osmond’s second single and, blessedly, his only #1.
Unlike the Steve Lawrence version of “Go Away Little Girl,” Osmond’s cover is not a leering creepfest. It’s not a sweet song or anything; Osmond is still telling a girl to leave him alone because he can’t control himself around her. But that sentiment, while still not great, at least sounds defensible when it’s a little kid singing. And yet Osmond’s version of “Go Away Little Girl” still rankles.
This time, it’s not the creepiness. It’s the lifeless flatness of the thing. Osmond hits his notes, but he does nothing to sell the song. There’s no anguish, no emotion in the way he sings. There’s no flirtation, either. You can practically hear Osmond smiling, begging for approval. He simpers. The arrangement is almost militaristically bland, all pillowy flutes and sickly strings. Its inoffensiveness is offensive. I wonder if Carole King was embarrassed when this ended up being her third #1 of 1971.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the oddly soothing and cathartic sight of Donny Osmond getting his face covered in scorpions on a 2001 episode of Fear Factor:
(Onlooker Coolio will get his own entry in this column eventually.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: Aretha Franklin’s hard-strutting Ben E. King cover “Spanish Harlem” peaked at #2 behind “Go Away Little Girl.” It’s a 9.
THE 10S: Bill Withers’ mythic acoustic two-minute soul-blues incantation “Ain’t No Sunshine” peaked at #3 behind “Go Away Little Girl.” It’s a 10.