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.
A monster chorus isn’t enough. Plenty of songs have monster choruses. Plenty of songs with monster choruses never break through. Even if you have that monster chorus already intact, sometimes a song needs to go through weird permutations before it breaks through. Sometimes, the song needs to go on a journey of its own. Sometimes, the version of the song that breaks through isn’t even the best version. That’s what happened with Helen Reddy’s “Delta Dawn,” her second #1 single.
“Delta Dawn” came from Larry Collins, a guy who was a minor child star in the ’50s. Back then, Larry and his sister Lorrie were the Collins Kids, a cute little rockabilly duo who had some success making a children’s version of the sound that was sweeping the world. After that act died down, Larry formed a songwriting duo with Alex Harvey, and they were a part of the Nashville-country machinery in the ’70s.
Collins co-wrote “Delta Dawn” with Harvey, and he wrote it about his mother, a Mississippi Delta native who died by suicide when Collins was a teenager in Brownsville, Tennessee. Collins has said that his mother appeared to him when he first started writing the song. He and Harvey finished the song in about 20 minutes, and Harvey recorded the original version of it for the self-titled album that he released in 1971. Harvey’s version of the song is slurry, swampy, and nothing like what would come later.
One of the backup singers on Harvey’s version of the song was Tracy Nelson, the singer for the blues-rock band Mother Earth. Not long after that, Mother Earth covered “Delta Dawn” when they were playing a show at the Bottom Line in New York. Bette Midler was in the audience that night, and she loved the song. At the time, Midler, who will eventually show up in this column, hadn’t yet started her recording career; she was a Broadway actress and a nightclub performer. Midler held down a residency at the Continental Baths, a New York gay club. (Barry Manilow, who will also show up in this column, would accompany her on piano.) Midler worked “Delta Dawn” into her set, and when she first appeared on The Tonight Show in 1972, she sang the song.
The veteran country producer Billy Sherrill saw Midler sing the song on The Tonight Show, and he loved it, too. Sherrill had just started working with the singer Tanya Tucker, a 13-year-old country prodigy, and he and Tucker recorded a version of it. (Tanya Tucker has had a legendary decades-long country career, but she’s never crossed over; her highest-charting single on the Hot 100, 1973’s “Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone),” only made it up to #46.) Tucker’s 1972 version of “Delta Dawn,” her debut single, was a country hit. And I love her take on the song. Tucker absolutely sinks her teeth into that chorus, and the song becomes a big, operatic blues-weeper in her hands.
The pop producer Tom Catalano saw how “Delta Dawn” did as a country song, and he figured it could work as a pop song, too. Catalano recorded an instrumental track of “Delta Dawn” replicating Sherrill’s arrangement as closely as he could. Catalano was working with Barbra Streisand, and he wanted her to record it. But Streisand didn’t like the song, so she shot it down. So Catalano had this expensive instrumental version of “Delta Dawn” and nobody to sing on it. He brought the song to Helen Reddy, the Australian newcomer who’d hit #1 with “I Am Woman” less than a year earlier. Reddy’s version of “Delta Dawn” is the one that hit, but it’s not the best.
Reddy’s “Delta Dawn” single actually fucked things up for Bette Midler. By this time, Midler had signed to Atlantic and recorded her own slow, torchy version of “Delta Dawn.” It was supposed to be Midler’s second single. But Reddy’s single came out two days before Midler’s; Atlantic had to scramble, and they instead threw their weight around Midler’s version of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” an Andrews Sisters song from 1941. Midler’s “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” originally slated to be her “Delta Dawn” B-side, still made it to #7. (It’s a 2.)
“Delta Dawn” is a pretty simple song, even if it had a strange and circuitous route to #1. The song is the story of a single woman in Tennessee who’s still pining for some asshole who’s not coming back. Years earlier, a man had promised to marry this woman, and then he’d disappeared. But she still pines for him, the same way that Brandy pines for that long-gone sailor in Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl).” Maybe the woman of “Delta Dawn” is meant to be a pathetic figure; the song never really gives her much personality besides her general clueless longing. But every version of the song empathizes with her and makes her situation sound tragic. And that all comes down to that chorus, a colossal world-swallower that outshines everything around it.
Reddy’s take on “Delta Dawn” isn’t as good as Tucker’s, or Midler’s, or Harvey’s. It still rules. Reddy’s got a big voice, and you need a big voice to handle that chorus. But Reddy doesn’t hit the chorus as hard as those other singers, and she doesn’t give it the same bluesy intensity. Tom Catalano’s arrangement is big and busy, with tinkly party-time pianos that sometimes threaten to drown Reddy out. She doesn’t hit the key change as hard as Tucker does. And being Australian, Reddy sounds like an outsider when singing a song that’s so fundamentally Southern. When Reddy is singing “Delta Dawn,” it’s a little easier to notice that the song has no bridge, or that it might repeat that chorus one too many times. And yet “Delta Dawn” is a great song, even in Reddy’s inferior version. It’s a majestic American sad-pop stomper, a desolate hymn. The wrong version of the song hit, but I’m glad the song had a chance to hit at all.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Delta Dawn” cover that the late experimental music legend Scott Walker included on his decidedly non-experimental 1974 album We Had It All:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the absolutely wonderful moment, from a 2001 episode of Monday Night Raw, where Stone Cold Steve Austin inexplicably serenades the Rock with an atonal rendition of “Delta Dawn”:
(Real talk: I have been waiting for months to post this video. As for the other songs in that beautifully weird exchange: Kenny Rogers’ 1978 single “The Gambler” peaked at #16 on the Hot 100, while Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville,” from 1977, peaked at #8. It’s a 5.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Me First And The Gimme Gimmes’ snot-punk cover of “Delta Dawn,” from the 2004 live album Ruin Jonny’s Bar Mitzvah, which ends in an argument about key changes: