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.
After the Beatles broke up, all four Beatles had multiple #1 hits as solo artists. That’s incredible. The Beatles were popular enough that their drummer was able to climb to the summit of the Hot 100 a couple of times. In all of chart history, there’s only one accomplishment that comes anywhere close to that. That accomplishment: All three core members of the Rat Pack had #1 hits of their own — all with bad songs, all when the singers were long past their career peaks.
Dean Martin was first. He got to #1 with “Everybody Loves Somebody” in 1964, right in the thick of Beatlemania, even knocking “A Hard Day’s Night” out of the #1 spot. And Beatlemania was still raging when Frank Sinatra got there twice — first on his own with “Strangers In The Night,” then, less than a year later, with his daughter Nancy on “Somethin’ Stupid.” Five years later, Sammy Davis Jr., Mr. Entertainment, went up against Laurel Canyon folk-rock and orchestral soul, earning himself a three-week stay at #1 with a song that even he knew was a piece of shit. (Pity Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford, who weren’t singers and who thus never got to #1.)
“The Candy Man” came from Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, the rapturous and psychedelic kids’ musical. The candy shop owner sings it in the scene where he’s tells a bunch of kids about the magical properties of Wonka products. Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, two Broadway songwriting partners, wrote the song for the movie. Newley hated the way that Aubrey Woods, the actor who played the candy shop owner, had sung it. Newley lobbied the movie’s producers to re-record the whole scene, and he even offered to pay for it himself. They turned him down, so Newley decided that he’d record it himself. But before he could do that, MGM Records head Mike Curb had the idea to get Sammy Davis Jr. to sing it.
Davis was 47 when he hit #1 with “The Candy Man,” and he had already done a whole lot of living. Davis grew up performing as a kid in a vaudeville family, and he kept doing vaudeville for his entire life. During World War II, Davis served in the Army, performing in an integrated Special Services unit. In the ’50s, he ran Vegas and starred in a bunch of movies with his Rat Pack buddies. In the ’60s, he hosted a variety show. Along the way, he lost an eye in a car accident, and he also converted to Judaism. Davis was a mainstream-beloved black entertainer during periods were there were very few mainstream-beloved black entertainers. And he suffered for it.
In the ’50s, when Davis was dating the white movie star Kim Novak, the head of Columbia Pictures hired a mafia don to put a stop to it. The don kidnapped Davis, threatened his life, and demanded that he marry a black woman within the next two days. So Davis did. He briefly married a dancer. Three years later, Davis married a Swedish-born white woman. John F. Kennedy, as a result, wouldn’t allow Davis to perform at his inauguration, even though Davis and the rest of the Rat Pack had campaigned for Kennedy. In 1972, when Davis got to #1 with “The Candy Man,” he was campaigning for Richard Nixon, even speaking at the Republican National Convention. By then, he’d been famous for decades. He was a show-business survivor of the highest order.
As a vaudeville performer, Davis was never just a singer, and singing was never his greatest skill. He was probably a dancer first, a comedian second, and a singer third. He had a warm, resonant singing voice, and it worked pretty well when he sang Broadway standards. That voice was strong enough, but it was also deeply schmaltzy, and Davis always had a distracting habit of sprinkling his records with silly, fun-to-imitate hepcat aphorisms. (Billy Crystal kept doing his Davis impression for years, to the point where he was still wearing blackface when he hosted the 2012 Oscars.) If you gave Davis a Broadway ballad, he could at least do something with it. If you gave Davis “The Candy Man,” he would half-commit to mugging his way through it, putting absolutely zero effort into anything.
Davis hated “The Candy Man.” Mike Curb had already recorded the instrumental track, so all Davis had to do was record his vocal. He did it in two takes, and he wasn’t happy about it. In his autobiography, Davis wrote about when his manager was trying to convince him to do the song. Davis wrote that he told his manager this: “It’s horrible. It’s a timmy-two-shoes, it’s white bread, cute-ums, there’s no romance. Blechhh!” But he agreed to do it anyway. And as he was listening to the playback, Davis told his manager this: “This record is going straight into the toilet. Not just around the rim, but into the bowl, and it may just pull my whole career down with it.” (Sammy Davis Jr. was great at talking.)
Davis was right about “The Candy Man” being bullshit, and you an almost hear his contempt for the song in his performance. He hits his notes, but he does it coldly. Even his goofy little ad-libs seem forced: “Soak it in the sun and make a groovy lemon pie.” And outside the context of the movie, it really is a wretched song, a riot of ungainly brass tootle-farts and back-up singers trying to sound like little kids. The song evidently blew up on easy-listening radio, and this just makes its success more puzzling to me. It’s not easy listening. It’s difficult. I get tense every time I hear it.
If anyone can deserve to have a #1 song, Sammy Davis Jr. deserved to have one. Too bad it had to be this one.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cover of “The Candy Man” that Indianapolis punks Sloppy Seconds included on the 1989 album Destroyed:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Cibo Matto’s version of “The Candy Man,” from the 1996 album Viva! La Woman:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Zedd and Aloe Blacc recorded a version of “The Candy Man” as an M&Ms jingle in 2016, which caused Diplo to accuse Zedd of ripping off Flume. Here it is: