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.
Cher had a formula, and that formula worked, at least for a while. She hit #1 three times in quick succession in the early ’70s, and those three songs shared a whole lot in common with one another. All three were story-songs. All three made use of producer Snuff Garrett’s schlocky Broadway-rock aesthetic. And all three revolved around some kind of exoticized version of the American other. In “Gypsys, Tramps And Thieves,” Cher is a Gypsy. On “Half-Breed,” she’s half-Cherokee. (In real life, she’s neither.) And on “Dark Lady,” the last #1 single from that run, we don’t learn anything about Cher’s character’s ethnicity, but she does kill a Gypsy woman.
The dark lady of the song’s title is a New Orleans fortune teller. Cher’s character goes to see her one night, and the dark lady tells her that her man is cheating. She also tells her to leave and never come back. But when Cher goes back home, she remembers that she’d once smelled the fortune teller’s perfume in her own room. So she goes back, sees the fortune teller and her man together, and murders both of them: “The next thing I knew, they were dead on the floor / Dark lady never would turn a card up anymore.”
And that’s it. The story ends with the moment of murder. There’s no trial, no flight from town, no follow-up at all. We never find out anything about the boyfriend, or even anything really about the narrator. But the narrator does seem fascinated with the fortune teller: “The fortune queen of New Orleans / Was brushing her cat in her black limousine / On the back seat were scratches from / The marks of men, her fortune she had won.” (New Orleans fortune tellers apparently make limo money.) So maybe Cher’s character is in love with the fortune teller, too. Maybe she reacts with violence because she can’t figure out how else to process her feelings. Or maybe I’m just putting too much thought into a dumb little nothing of a song. (They should’ve at least let us know what happened to the cat.)
Johnny Durrill, keyboardist for surf-guitar greats the Ventures, wrote “Dark Lady” during a week-long songwriting session with Snuff Garrett. (The Ventures’ highest-charting single is “Walk Don’t Run,” which peaked at #2 in 1960. It’s an 8.) Later, Durrill and the Ventures were on tour in Japan, and Garrett decided that the song needed a new ending. Garrett finally got in contact with Durrill and told him, in Durrill’s version of the story, to “make sure the bitch kills him.” I don’t know how the song was originally supposed to end, but Durrill wrote a new murder-ballad ending and sent Garrett the new lyrics via telegram.
Cher gave “Dark Lady” the same grandly operatic reading that she gave everything back then. There’s a campy delight in her voice as she reaches the chorus, but there’s no real emotional connection to the lyrics. There’s no indication that she’d ever become a great actress — an Oscar winner, even. And Garrett piles on the goofy pop-music ideas of dreamy Gypsy instrumentation: Harps, minor-key strings, tambourines, castanets.
The song does have a strong central hook, and as with a lot of the songs that were hitting #1 around the time, you can hear the impending arrival of disco in the sleazy operatic swirl of it all. But that doesn’t make it a satisfying pop-music experience. “Dark Lady” is just a dull, clumsy song — no bridge, no storytelling structure, no real need to exist except to capitalize on Cher’s already-established blueprint. And “Dark Lady” would turn out to be the end of that run. Cher wouldn’t hit #1 again for another 25 years.
BONUS BEATS: “Dark Lady” hasn’t left any real cultural footprint; I can’t find any notable covers or samples or soundtrack placements or anything else like that. So instead, let’s go with something else from roughly that same Cher period. Here’s the sparkly spectacle of Cher and Tina Turner (who will eventually show up in this column) singing together on The Cher Show in 1975:
This had to be the 1975 version of bringing Kendrick Lamar in for a guest verse. Like, do you know what’s about to happen to you? Do you know how dumb you’re about to look? Why not just jump into a crocodile pool while you’re at it?