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.
Nobody ever gives Andy Kim any respect. I went to elementary school with a kid named Michael Jackson, and that kid got roasted for his name all time time. (This kid would’ve been born in 1979 or 1980. His parents should’ve known better.) But when I went to high school with a kid named Andy Kim? Nobody said shit. I don’t think anyone even realized that there’d once been a famous Andy Kim. I sure didn’t. And yet Andy Kim — the once-famous Andy Kim, not the one from Centennial High School in the ’90s — had a weird and impressive run. It all culminated with “Rock Me Gently,” a big, silly, juicy song that briefly and deservingly barnstormed the charts.
Andy Kim was born Andrew Youakim, the son of Lebanese immigrants living in Montreal. Like plenty of other ’70s pop stars, Kim started out as a behind-the-scenes songwriter. At 16, Kim dropped out of high school, moved to New York, and went to work in the Brill Building. Eventually, Kim started working with Jeff Barry. Barry and his wife Ellie Greenwich had written a whole lot of great early-’60s pop songs, but they divorced in 1965, and they mostly stopped writing songs together around the same time. So Barry needed a new songwriting parter, and Kim stepped into the role. Together, Barry and Kim wrote the Archies’ immortal 1969 jam “Sugar, Sugar,” the song that came to define the early-’60s bubblegum boom. Barry and Kim both sang backup on it, too. Barry and Kim also wrote a bunch of other Archies singles, as well as some songs for the Monkees.
Around that same time, Andy Kim started releasing his own singles, often co-writing them with Barry or just covering Barry’s old songs. Plenty of Kim’s songs were minor hits, and one of them cracked the top 10. That was “Baby, I Love You,” a 1969 version of a song that Barrie, Greenwich, and Phil Spector had written for the Ronettes in 1963. (Kim’s take on “Baby, I Love You” peaked at #9, 15 spots higher than the Ronettes’ original. It’s a 7.) On those early singles, Kim, a big guy with a hard-belting chesty delivery, sped his voice up, effectively neutering himself. He figured that the kids he was targeting would like him better if his voice was higher.
Eventually, that run ended. Kim lost his record deal, and nobody wanted to give any time to this veteran of the bubblegum era. When Kim wrote “Rock Me Gently,” he knew he had a winner, but every label guy he’d known turned him down. So he recorded it and produced it himself, paying for the sessions and forming his own label, Ice Records, just to release it — some real Black Flag shit. Kim believed in the song so much that he didn’t even lay down a B-side; he just put a “Rock Me Gently” instrumental on the single’s flip. It worked. Capitol bought into “Rock Me Gently” and signed Kim up again, and the single ended up becoming his only #1 hit.
In retrospect, it’s hard to figure what all these label guys were thinking. “Rock Me Gently” is about as obvious as it gets. It’s a massive hook-parade of a song, a bone-simple fence-swinger that connects hard. It’s built on the same formulas that made “Sugar, Sugar” work, and those formulas didn’t stop working just because everyone got embarrassed about the idea of a cartoon band hitting #1. Kim, singing in his own voice rather than the sped-up version, turns out to be a grand ham. He sounds almost exactly like Neil Diamond — a schticky belter with a clearly audible grin. Maybe “Rock Me Gently” is a Neil Diamond ripoff. (The way Kim delivers the line “you got the moves” could almost be a sample.) But I like “Rock Me Gently” better than any of the actual Neil Diamond songs that made it to #1. It’s formulaic as all hell, but formulas become formulas for a reason.
Lyrically, “Rock Me Gently” is both a love song and a sex song. It’s about being so into somebody that you get a bit scared of the intensity of your own feelings. We don’t often hear men asking their partners to be gentle, but that is basically all Kim does on “Rock Me Gently.” The lyrics are about as dumb as lyrics get: “Oh, my darling / Oh, my baby / You got the moves that drive me crazy.” But Kim sells them with Neil Diamond levels of insincere sincerity.
As a producer, Kim knew what he was doing. All the elements are in their right places: the strummy and propulsive acoustic guitar, the in-the-pocket bass, the humming-along organ, the cheap synth riff. Kim hammers every line hard, and he sings the chorus again and again, knowing that it’s the thing powering the song. Toward the end of the track, there’s a sudden keyboard eruption, a solo that boldly aims for Stevie Wonder levels of funkiness and admirably gets about 70% of the way there. Even with that in there, very little about “Rock Me Gently” screams 1974. With minor adjustments, it could’ve been a hit 10 years earlier. That’s what’s good about it.
Kim never had another real hit. A couple of years after “Rock Me Gently,” Kim started recording, for whatever reason, under the name Baron Longfellow. When the Baron Longfellow records didn’t work out, Kim went into a sort of semi-retirement. In 1995, he was lured out by fellow Canadian Ed Robertson, frontman of the Barenaked Ladies (who, sadly, will eventually appear in this column). Robertson produced an EP that Kim released in 2004, and Kim has been intermittently busy, playing annual Christmas shows in Toronto and getting Broken Social Scene frontman Kevin Drew to produce his album It’s Decided in 2015. That makes Andy Kim, as far as I know, the only Broken Social Scene affiliate with a #1 single. (I’m pretty sure his only competition is Feist, whose 2007 single “1234” peaked at #8. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2008 Jeep commercial where a bunch of CGI animals sing “Rock Me Gently”: