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.
The 1975 Golden Globe Awards. Chinatown wins Best Motion Picture, Drama, beating out The Conversation and The Godfather Part II. The Longest Yard wins Best Motion Picture, Musical Or Comedy. Jack Nicholson, Raquel Welch, Fred Astaire, and Roman Polanski all take home big awards. Faye Dunaway is there; after starring in Chinatown, she loses Best Actress, Drama to A Woman Under The Influence‘s Gena Rowlands. Dunaway is there with her husband, J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf, a man who will eventually appear in this column. Also present is cheese-pop maven and variety-show host Tony Orlando. Tony Orlando is nervous.
Orlando has been famous for a few years, but he’s not glamorous-famous. He doesn’t know the other celebrities there. Orlando is there to hand an award to Rhoda star Valerie Harper. He’s seated at a table with Lucille Ball, Peter Falk, and John Cassavetes. “I never saw all those people together in person before, blew my mind,” Orlando tells the Rolling Stone reporter who’s shadowing him. Before the ceremony is over, Orlando bounces. He’s got to get back to a recording session. But before he does that, he has an idea for a record.
Backstage, while he’s waiting to go onstage, Orlando gets into a conversation with Peter Wolf. The two of them start singing old R&B songs together. After they sing one of them, Wolf and Dunaway tell Orlando that he should record it. Orlando does. And a few months after the ceremony, that song goes to #1. It’s the fourth time in 1975 that a cover of an old ’60s song hits #1.
In 1961, Jerry Butler had just left the Impressions, the great Chicago R&B group. He’d been the group’s lead singer, and they’d sometimes been billed as Jerry Butler & The Impressions. Butler had formed the group with Curtis Mayfield, a fellow Chicagoan; they’d grown up singing gospel together. With the Impressions, they’d made a handful of top-20 hits. But Butler wanted to branch out on his own. And his first single after leaving the group turned out to be bigger than any of the songs that he’d made with them. “He Will Break Your Heart,” an elegant and restrained seduction song that Butler co-wrote with Mayfield and blind Alabama singer and guitarist Clarence Carter, peaked at #7. It’s an 8.
Butler went on to have a great career as a soul singer, making hits into the ’70s. Butler’s highest-charting track is 1969’s rich and authoritative Gamble & Huff collaboration “Only The Strong Survive,” which peaked at #4. (It’s a 9.) Actually, all the people involved in writing “He Will Break Your Heart” went on to real success. Clarence Carter, for instance, landed a bunch of hits, and his two highest-charting singles both peaked at #4 — 1968’s “Backdoor Santa,” a 9, and 1970’s “Patches,” another 9.
With Butler gone, Curtis Mayfield took over as leader of the Impressions, and their highest-charting single is 1963’s Mayfield-written “It’s All Right,” which peaked at #4. (It’s an 8.) In 1970, Mayfield left the group, went solo, and became one of the transcendent talents of the ’70s orchestral-soul wave. He’ll appear in this column, but as a producer, not as a solo artist. As a solo artist, his highest-charting single was 1972’s funky Superfly-soundtrack elegy “Freddie’s Dead,” which peaked at #4. (It’s a 9.) The night that Tony Orlando and Peter Geils sang “He Will Break Your Heart” backstage at the Golden Globes, Mayfield was actually up for a Best Original Song award. He’d written Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “On And On,” which had been on the soundtrack of the Harlem drama Claudine. (“On And On” peaked at #5. It’s a 9.) Mayfield lost that award to Charlie Rich’s “I Feel Love,” from Benji.
This is, admittedly, a whole lot of digressive information. But I have a point here. Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, and Clarence Carter were all straight-up soul-music greats. They had serious success and made incredible music. And yet none of them ever got to #1. But here comes smug dipshit Tony Orlando, recording a washed-out and empty version of one of their great old songs, giving it an annoyingly parentheses-laden ’70s title, and landing at #1 for three weeks. Chart history can be so aggravating sometimes.
Here’s something that should not surprise you: Tony Orlando & Dawn’s retitled “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)” sucks shit. As written, “He Don’t Love You” is a song of need and desperation. The narrator’s girl is leaving him for another man. He can’t stand to see her go, and he tells her than her new relationship will end badly. He frames it as a warning, but he’s falling apart. He knows he can’t compete, and he’s ready to burst with jealousy: “He uses all the great quotations / Says the things I wish I could say / But he’s has so many rehearsals / To him, it’s just another play.” And at the end, he promises that he’ll still be there for her when this guy leaves her. He’s too broken. He has no pride left.
Orlando sells none of that. He sings it with the same smiley smarminess that he always used for everything. Orlando is a capable singer, at least technically, and he at least hints toward blues when he draws some of those notes out. But he can’t stay sad for long. When he sings about how he’ll still be there when this new couple breaks up, he acts like it’s happy ending. And the music is, of course, pure ’70s chintz, replete with strings and horn-stabs and xylophones. It bops along, jaunty and cheerful, utterly oblivious to the heartbreak that it’s supposed to convey. You hear a song like this, and you understand why disco needed to show up when it did. Pop needed something to change. This bullshit couldn’t keep happening.
There are, however, two pieces of good news. For one thing: “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)” is, at the very least, a well-written song, though the recording does that song no justice. That alone means it’s a whole hell of a lot better than “Knock Three Times” and “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree,” Orlando and Dawn’s previous #1 hits.
The other bit of good news is that “He Don’t Love You” was Orlando and Dawn’s final #1 hit. Two years later, the group broke up onstage, when Orlando told an unsuspecting audience, “This is my last day as a performer. I am giving up show business in the name of Jesus Christ.” Orlando was in the midst of cocaine addiction and depression, having lost his little sister and his best friend Freddie Prinze. His retirement wouldn’t last, but when he came back, he wouldn’t do it with Dawn. He has spent the remainder of his career on the oldies circuit. These days, he lives in Branson, Missouri and plays that town and Vegas a lot. In 2017, Orlando lost his finger in a garage-door accident and sang at Donald Trump’s inauguration. Fuck Tony Orlando.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 1984 version of “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)” from Dolly Parton, an artist who will eventually show up in this column:
(There’s also apparently a scene in Peggy Sue Got Married where Nicolas Cage sings it, but that scene inexplicably does not seem to be on YouTube.)