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.
Tony Orlando & Dawn – “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree”
HIT #1: April 21, 1973
STAYED AT #1: 4 weeks
It could’ve been a Ringo Starr song. When Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown — the same songwriting pair responsible for Tony Orlando & Dawn’s mind-boggling piece of shit “Knock Three Times” — wrote “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree,” their first idea was to give the song to the ex-Beatles drummer. This did not turn out well. Here’s how Brown remembers the pitch, in a decades-later interview:
We first played it for Ringo Starr. The people who listened for Ringo Starr put their hands on the guitar and said I should be ashamed of showing songs like this to people. It’s ridiculous, about a ribbon in a tree. We should be ashamed of ourselves. It could ruin us, and to never show this song to anybody again.
Now: It’s not like Ringo Starr had some wonderful, dazzling solo career. He did get to #1 a couple of times as a solo artist — we’ll get to them — so he probably outperformed whatever expectations the world had for him. (The world, by and large, does not have great expectations for former drummers, even for former drummers of iconic bands.) But I’ve never heard anyone loudly debating their favorite Ringo Starr solo album. “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree” was a tremendously successful song — Billboard‘s #1 for the entire year of 1973. It would’ve probably been huge with Ringo Starr singing, too. And yet that Apple Records A&R guy did Ringo Starr a favor. Because “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” is ridiculous. Those guys should be ashamed for showing that song to people. Fuck this song, and fuck them for writing it.
Levine and Brown spent less than 15 minutes writing “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree,” and they based it on a half-page Reader’s Digest article. The article told a story about a Union soldier during the Civil War. He’d been taken prisoner in the South, and when the war ended, he was getting ready to return home. Before that soldier returned home, he wrote his wife a letter, saying that he’d been away for years and he understood if she wanted to start a new life without him. So he’d ride the stagecoach home, and if she wanted to see him again, she should tie a yellow handkerchief around the oak tree in the middle of town. When he got back, the oak tree was covered in yellow handkerchiefs. This story had apparently been passed down, in different forms, for generations. Pete Hamill, who’d written the Reader’s Digest article, based it on a version of the story’ he’d once heard it in a New York bar. (Magazine editors must’ve been taking some weird pitches back then.)
That’s a classic tearjerker of a story, complete with melodramatic happy ending, but it does not make for a good song. Part of it is the total lack of specificity. Brown and Levine updated the song, making the narrator get off a bus instead of a stagecoach. But they couched the entire thing in meaningless blandness: “I’m coming home / I’ve done my time / Now I’ve got to know what is and isn’t mine.” (That’s another thing: This guy talks about his wife like she’s some shit he left in the back of his garage.) When the song reaches its big ending — “Now the whole damned bus is cheering, and I can’t believe I see / A hundred yellow ribbons ’round the ole oak tree” — it gets there before doing anything to build up the fear and uncertainty in its narrator’s soul. It’s unearned catharsis.
But the real problem isn’t the writing; it’s the performance. Tony Orlando was not the guy to sell a song about a joyous reunion after years of tumultuous separation. He drips insincerity all over it, audibly grinning like a pageant host. As a singer, Orlando was never able to convey anything beyond general lounge-lizard confidence. That’s the opposite of how this song is supposed to play. He doesn’t sound like he’s tying himself up in knots on this bus. He sounds like the guy at the party telling off-color jokes, utterly convinced of the charm that he doesn’t actually have.
And the production does Orlando no favors. It’s a funkless galumph of a song, a half-speed polka. Its guitar sounds like a ukulele. Its bass sounds like a tuba. Its xylophone sounds like a kindergartener attempting to learn the instrument. Its drums sound like the footfalls of a half-drunk elephant. The harmonica somehow manages to whine, and I don’t even know how they made it do that. It’s an utter disaster of ’70s pop halfassery, a Vegas-showroom catastrophe.
But timing is everything. “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree” had the good fortune to hit the marketplace just as troops were returning home from the Vietnam War. Those veterans were not treated especially well. They are still not treated especially well. And yet a song like this allowed for perfectly sanctimonious and perfunctory our boys are home celebrations. The image of the yellow ribbon persisted, taking forms like the support-our-troops car magnets that were everywhere in the early years of the Iraq war. Tony Orlando sang the song at Donald Trump’s inauguration, and that says it all, doesn’t it? Ringo Starr wouldn’t have done that shit.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Andy Kaufman, playing his lounge-singer character Tony Clifton, singing “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree” in a 1977 HBO special:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: During the end credits of the 1987 sketch-compilation movie Amazon Women On The Moon, future In Living Color cast member David Alan Grier played Don “No Soul” Simmons, “a black person born in this country without soul.” There’s a fake infomercial for his album, which extols “the man who turned a personal affliction into a recording career.” Here’s Grier singing “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree,” as well as “(They Long To Be) Close To You” and “Honey” and “Joy To The World“:
THE NUMBER TWOS: War’s outlaw-themed Latin funk vamp “The Cisco Kid” peaked at #2 behind “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree.” It’s an 8.