The Number Ones

January 26, 1974

The Number Ones: Ringo Starr’s “You’re Sixteen”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.


“You know, in 1973, Ringo Starr hit #1 on the Billboard charts with the song ‘You’re Sixteen (You’re Beautiful, And You’re Mine),’ and it was a remake of an earlier song. He was thirtysomething at the time, singing about a 16-year-old. Do you want to take away Ringo Starr’s achievement?”

That was Breitbart editor Joel Pollak, talking on CNN in 2017. At the time, Roy Moore was running for Senator, staying in the race even after multiple women came forward with stories about him dating children when he was an adult. Pollak was trying to make the case for why that wasn’t such a big deal. CNN host Chris Cuomo reacted with total disbelief, and the clip went lightly viral, just like so many other clips of right-wing pundits saying outrageous bullshit on news stations.

Even running as a Republican in Alabama, Roy Moore lost. Maybe everyone in Alabama just wanted to take away Ringo Starr’s achievement.

Don’t have heroes. If you have heroes, your heroes will end up being terrible fucking people. In the ’70s, a whole lot of great musicians were regularly having sex with children, and nobody treated it like it was weird. Marvin Gaye met his second wife, a daughter of a friend, when she was 17, and he was reportedly singing directly to her when he recorded “Let’s Get It On.” Jimmy Page once allegedly kidnapped a 14-year-old girl. Ted Nugent had himself appointed legal guardian of his 17-year-old girlfriend. There are similar stories about David Bowie, Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop. A few of them even sang about it.

Maybe Ringo Starr wasn’t actively having sex with teenagers. Starr was married when he recorded his version of “You’re Sixteen,” though he and his first wife divorced in 1975, and his infidelities were reportedly a factor. (Starr later admitted to drunkenness and spousal abuse.) It’s possible that Starr was just covering an old song that he’d liked when he was younger. This was a time, after all, when early rock ‘n’ roll was coming back into vogue. Starr would’ve been 21 when Johnny Burnette’s original “You’re Sixteen” came out, so maybe he was just indulging in a bit of nostalgia. But still: Ringo Starr was 33 when he came out with his cover of the song. And coming from him, it’s extremely fucking creepy.

For his part, Johnny Burnette was 26 in 1960, when his version of “You’re Sixteen” came out. But in ’50s and early ’60s pop, it was probably safer to assume that the people singing these pop songs were playing characters, not necessarily being themselves. Burnette was making a song for teenagers, not confessing to some illicit affair. Even though the song wasn’t originally his, I don’t think Ringo Starr can make that same excuse.

Johnny Burnette grew up in the same Memphis housing projects as Elvis Presley, and he’d been a Golden Gloves boxer before he started recording rockabilly. “You’re Sixteen,” his biggest hit, came from the Sherman Brothers, a pair of Tin Pan Alley songwriters. It’s a bubbly, string-sweetened piece of rockabilly silliness, the speed of its beat at odds with its sparkly production. Burnette had a few other big singles, and then he died in a boating accident four years later, when he was 30. As for the Sherman Brothers, Walt Disney hired them, and they ended up writing tons of songs for Disney movies like Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, winning two Oscars along the way. They weren’t Disney songwriters yet when they wrote “You’re Sixteen,” but the song sounds less like an actual horny rock ‘n’ roll jam, more like something written for a kids’ musical. (The original “You’re Sixteen” peaked at #8. It’s a 4.)

In 1973, George Lucas used “You’re Sixteen” on the soundtrack of his movie American Graffiti, one of the cultural artifacts that kicked off and benefitted from the sock-hop nostalgia wave of the ’70s. Ringo Starr recorded his version of “You’re Sixteen” about a month after American Graffiti opened. I don’t know whether Starr had seen the movie yet, though he was already deep in the film industry, so it seems likely. Maybe he just knew there was something in the air. Or maybe Starr just independently thought of the song around the same time that Lucas did. (Or maybe Ringo Starr just wanted a way to publicly brag about having sex with 16-year-olds. Maybe it was all of those things!)

“You’re Sixteen” became Starr’s second #1 hit, and I imagine that people liked the song because it worked as a kind of double-layered nostalgia cookie, calling back to the rockabilly days and the days of Beatlemania. That’s how I’d like to imagine it, anyway. The alternate explanation is that the American record-buying public collectively decided that 33-year-old men sleeping with teenagers was awesome.

In any case, Starr’s cover damn sure didn’t make it to #1 on its musical merits. It’s an entirely pointless exercise, a fucking-around-in-the-studio nostalgia-trifle. The cover doesn’t have the original’s cheap-sounding strings, but it does have Ringo Starr, a singer who can’t really sing. Paul McCartney sings what sounds like a kazoo solo. And Starr evidently liked the song enough that he shot a two-minute video for it a few years later. Starr included that video in his 1978 made-for-TV movie Ringo. A 21-year-old Carrie Fisher played the 16-year-old girl, and a 37-year-old Starr (looking about 60) played himself. It didn’t make the song any less creepy.

Look: I know it doesn’t make sense to hold older art to present-day morality. Ringo Starr wasn’t the worst offender of his era, and there’s plenty of plausible deniability built into “You’re Sixteen.” But it’s still a gross song. And even if it wasn’t gross, it’s not like it has any real musical merit. Maybe people thought this shit was cute then, but it’s not cute now, and I won’t be sad if I never hear “You’re Sixteen” again.

GRADE: 2/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Australian punk band Frenzal Rhomb’s 2003 “You’re Sixteen” quasi-parody “60, Beautiful & Mine”:

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