The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Billy Swan’s “I Can Help”

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.

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Billy Swan – “I Can Help”

HIT #1: November 23, 1974

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

There are so many different kinds of seduction song, and one of the funniest is the good-samaritan seduction song. If you’re writing a good-samaritan seduction song, you aren’t talking about your own needs. You’re not talking about how good this other person looks. You’re not talking about love, or companionship, or sex. You’re simply offering your services. The message is something like this: “Hey, you’re struggling. You need someone to help you out. Let me be that person.” It’s not that different from a straight-up friendship song, something like Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me.” But there’s an added layer to it, something that goes unspoken.

The good-samaritan seduction song is slightly disingenuous. It’s a song with an objective. You’re trying to convince this other person that they need you. It’s certainly possible to write a transcendent good-samaritan seduction song; the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There” is one. But there’s something weirdly off-putting about the whole idea. It’s an aw-shucks foot-shuffle, a way around saying what you really mean. When I hear a lot of these songs, I end up wishing the singers were a little more assertive, a little more honest. Case in point: “I Can Help.”

Billy Swan’s “I Can Help” is a weird little #1 hit, a lazy old-timey rockabilly shuffle that hit #1 at the dawn of disco, when larger-than-life superstars like Elton John and Stevie Wonder were at their peak. Maybe “I Can Help” succeeded because of the wave of ’50s nostalgia that swept over America during the ’70s. Maybe it just made for a pleasantly breezy change of pace. “I Can Help” first blew up on country radio, mostly because the country establishment of the ’70s had absorbed ’50s rockabilly sounds, the same way that the country establishment of today has absorbed ’70s and ’80s soft-rock sounds. But it’s not really a country song. It’s a happy, bemused shrug, and it’s also a good-samaritan seduction song.

On “I Can Help,” Billy Swan, a fairly nondescript guy with a fairly thin voice, sings about how much this other hypothetical person needs him in her life. He offers comforting compliments: “It’s a fact that people get lonely / Ain’t nothing new / But a woman like you, baby, should never have the blues.” He makes outlandish promises, even offering to completely change his own life for her benefit: “If your child needs a daddy, I can help.” But he also gives the game away: “When I go to sleep at night, you’re always a part of my dream / Holding me tight and telling me everything I wanna hear.” So it’s not that he wants her to help him. It’s that he needs help himself. He needs her, and he’s trying to make it seem like she needs him.

But maybe he’s just doing his best to be a gentleman. There’s something courtly and old-fashioned about the song itself. It’s essentially a laid-back front-porch version of a song that, 15 or 20 years earlier, would’ve been jumpier and wilder. Swan and the other musicians play that simple shuffle slowly and deliberately. Swan recorded the song live-in-studio, singing and playing a dinky Farfisa organ that he’d borrowed from a session guy. At the end, you can hear the members of the band burst into applause — possibly because he’d nailed the song in two takes, while his German shepherd puppy was tugging on his pants leg.

There’s a glaring flaw at the center of “I Can Help” that goes beyond the whole good-samaritan thing: Billy Swan can’t really sing. His voice is weedy and flat, and he sounds like he’s just keeping up with the song. In 1975, Elvis Presley recorded a cover of “I Can Help” at the same studio where Swan had made the original, and you can really tell the difference. This was Elvis two years before his death, nowhere near the peak of his powers, and yet he still blows Swan off the track, taking control of it and emanating charisma in ways that Swan never could.

But then, Billy Swan wasn’t really meant to be a pop star. Swan came from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, a small town about halfway between St. Louis and Memphis. (Rush Limbaugh was also born in Cape Girardeau, nine years after Swan.) When Swan was in high school, he wrote a rock ‘n’ roll song called “Lover Please,” which the former Drifters singer Clyde McPhatter took to #7 in 1962. (It’s a 7.) The bandleader Bill Black had released McPhatter’s version of “Lover Please” on his Louis label. But Black died of a brain tumor in 1965, and so Swan just kind of floated around the music business for a few years.

Swan bounced between Memphis and Nashville for a few years. He wrote country songs, including some recorded by people like Waylon Jennings and Conway Twitty. He worked as a recording assistant and janitor at a Columbia studio in Nashville, quitting while Bob Dylan was in the middle of recording Blonde On Blonde there. He produced a few songs, including Tony Joe White’s 1969 swamp-rock hit “Polk Salad Annie.” (“Polk Salad Annie” peaked at #8. It’s an 8.) He played in Kris Kristofferson’s touring band.

Swan was at home when he wrote “I Can Help.” He and his wife had turned a closet into a music room, and his wife had a primitive early drum machine with preset beats on it. Swan used one of the rock presets to write “I Can Help.” (That drum machine isn’t on the record, but maybe “I Can Help” still belongs to the early history of #1 hits that used drum machines.) Swan wrote the song on an RMI organ, which Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge had bought him as a wedding present. The producer Chip Young decided to record the song, mostly because Swan’s voice reminded him of Ringo Starr’s.

The song was a freak success, and Swan never scored another real hit. And after “I Can Help” blew up and died down, Swan went right back to touring in Kristofferson’s band. He liked playing in that band too much to stop. I may not like “I Can Help” much, but I love that story.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 movie Thor where a bunch of yokels, including Stan Lee, attempt to lift Thor’s hammer while “I Can Help” plays in the background:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a video of the San Francisco indie band Part Time covering “I Can Help” at SXSW 2013, in what appears to be a hotel room:

Tags: Billy Swan