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 early ’70s were a great era for soul music. It was a time of huge advancement, all these production auteurs using new studio techniques to turn their songs into dazed psychedelic symphonies. But at the same time, these musicians were still deeply rooted in the early days of their genre. A lot of the great vocal groups of the era had been around for a long time, doing their thing since the doo-wop days. That’s the case with the Chi-Lites, who’d spent more than a decade as Chicago journeymen before scoring their one #1 hit. That had to suck for them, but that experience — and that direct line to a previous generation in pop music — comes through on “Oh Girl.” It’s one of the things that makes the song so lovely.
Three of the five Chi-Lites started singing together in a doo-wop group called the Chanteurs. This was in 1959, when all three of them were students at Hyde Park High School in Chicago. Later on, they teamed up with two members of the Desideros, another local doo-wop group. Those two groups had shared stages, and then they joined forces, becoming the Hi-Lites. When they found out that there was already a group called the Hi-Lites, they changed their name, turning it into a tribute to their hometown.
The Chi-Lites kept working all throughout the ’60s without scoring any level of national success. They tried to get themselves signed to Motown; it never happened. Instead, they signed with Brunswick Records, a local Chicago label. Chi-Lites member Eugene Record, who worked as a cabdriver before they took off, became the group’s lead singer, songwriter, and producer. And in 1971, when Record was 30, the group finally broke through with “Have You Seen Her,” a song that Record co-wrote with fellow Brunswick singer Barbara Acklin. It’s a creamy, ethereal song, one that draws on the orchestral splendor of the emerging Philly soul sound and the head-blown monologues that Isaac Hayes was putting on his records. But for all the ’70s production touches, the song still pulls most of its power from the group’s vocal interplay, which is pure doo-wop. It’s a striking, lush, cinematic sound, but it’s comforting, too. (“Have You Seen Her” peaked at #3; it’s an 8.)
The Chi-Lites followed up “Have You Seen Her” with “Oh Girl,” a song that belonged entirely to Record. Record sang lead on “Oh Girl.” He also wrote the song, produced, it, and played guitar and drums. His lead vocal is elegantly raw. He’s worried that his girl is going to leave him, and he’s afraid that he’s about to be completely lost. He wants to tell her how much she means to him, but he makes his case haltingly and clumsily: “All my friends call me a fool / They say let the woman take care of you / So I try to be hip and think like the crowd / But even the crowd can’t help me now.” He sounds like he’s made up his mind that it’s about to end badly, and he’s already crushed and powerless over it.
The rest of the song swirls around Record’s voice, like it’s trying to console him. Fellow Chi-Lite Marshall Thompson, who would later do a year in prison for bribing cops, plays a plaintive harmonica line that echoes Record’s melody back to him. (1972: a big year for harmonicas on pop songs.) Strings and pianos and the other singers’ voices fill things out, creating this sense of pillowy warmth, letting Record sound at home in his own emotional desolation.
The Chi-Lites would keep showing up on the R&B charts for years afterward, but they’d never land another huge crossover pop hit. Eugene Record would leave the group in 1973 and then come back in 1980. Three of the four 1972-era members are now dead, including Record; cancer claimed him in 2005. Marshall Thompson still leads a version of the group, and all the other members have joined up in the past 20 years. That’s show business. But during maybe the greatest time in the history of soul music, the Chi-Lites were a bridge between eras — a group who dressed doo-wop up and kept it relevant.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 2002 Sopranos episode where Tony Soprano breaks down crying while singing along to “Oh Girl”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Me First & The Gimme Gimmes’ GBH-quoting 2003 cover of “Oh Girl”: