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’s a peculiar gift: To sing about sadness without sounding the slightest bit sad. The first time Neil Diamond got to #1, he did it with the drinking song “Cracklin’ Rosie.” That song had been inspired by a story that Diamond had heard. Apparently, somewhere in the north of Canada, there was a native tribe where the women outnumbered the men. So the men who were shut out of the heteronormative numbers game, the ones who couldn’t spend their time with women, spent their time with bottles of wine instead. That’s a crushingly depressing scenario, but Diamond gave it as much celebratory razzle-dazzle as he could muster. And since he was Neil Diamond, he could muster a whole lot of celebratory razzle-dazzle.
The same holds true for Diamond’s second #1 single, which was also his last as a solo artist. (He’d get back to the #1 spot, but only in duet form.) “Song Sung Blue” is a song about songs, and it’s also a song about depression. It’s got a simple premise: When we sing songs about sadness, we channel that sadness, and we make ourselves feel better. Sure! But this whole idea is complicated by the fact that “Song Sung Blue” is not a remotely sad song.
“Funny thing, but you can sing it with a cry in your voice,” Diamond sings. “And before you know it, get to feeling good / You simply got no choice.” There’s no cry in his voice. Instead, he radiates the Broadway-ready warmth that made him a star. Maybe he’s simply charmed by the power of what music can do. Maybe he’s delighted to deliver us the news that we don’t have to be depressed, that we can simply sing a song and make ourselves feel better. After all, Diamond isn’t singing about his own sadness. He’s just singing about songs. Still, there’s a funny disconnect to the idea of Diamond singing this as a sunny amble — as a happy advertising jingle for the very idea of sad music. (Introducing the song live, Diamond would call it “a glad song” rather than “a sad song.”)
Diamond based the “Song Sung Blue” vocal melody on the second movement of a Mozart concerto, and the melody, it turns out, translates just fine to pop music. It’s got a sharp arrangement, too. Diamond and his regular producer Tom Catalano built the song around a lazy guitar-strum and a warm, glowing Fender Rhodes. And all the elements of the song — the melodramatic strings, the wistful backing vocals, the plaintive harmonica — arrive at just the right time. There’s no sense of rhythm or momentum to it, but all the pieces fit together like a puzzle. It’s a fine piece of meaningless craftsmanship.
Diamond himself didn’t didn’t especially care about “Song Sung Blue.” Later on, he admitted that he “never paid too much attention” to the song. He called it “a very basic message, unadorned. I didn’t even write a bridge to it.” But Russ Regan, boss of Diamond’s Uni label, heard a hit, and a hit is what it became.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s a video of Diamond performing “Song Sung Blue” in 1976 at LA’s Greek Theater, and bringing up both future Number Ones subject Helen Reddy and eternal good sport Henry Winkler, the latter of whom sings in character as the Fonz: