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.
By 1976, just about every established star in pop music was playing catchup to disco, the music that was taking over America. This wasn’t always easy. Disco was an underground phenomenon, one born out of a gay nightclub culture that was foreign to most of the pop stars who were attempting the sound. But Diana Ross was a natural for disco. Ross had been singing exquisite songs of longing over four-four beats since the Supremes had first hit #1 all the way back in 1964. Those early Supremes singles were, among other things, dance songs. And when Motown sounds became fuller and lusher, Ross adapted along with them. At least a couple of later Supremes hits, like “Love Child,” were basically disco before the fact.
But when disco arrived, Ross wasn’t sure about the sound. She had to be cajoled into making “Love Hangover,” her first real disco single. But with that song, Ross made a masterpiece — at least partly because she and producer Hal Davis captured the sort of dizzy rush of joy that you can only ever feel in a packed nightclub.
Motown helped lay the foundation for disco, but Motown was also late to disco. It was an East Coast sound, and Berry Gordy wasn’t crazy about it. Before “Love Hangover,” Motown standbys the Miracles scored a surprise disco #1 with “Love Machine (Part 1),” but Gordy wasn’t into the idea of his crown-jewel star playing around with this new genre — one that was, for all anyone knew, a total fad. Ross wasn’t into it, either. But Hal Davis understood that he had a song that would be perfect for Ross. He put all the pieces together, and he made it all work.
“Love Hangover” came from two women who worked within Motown’s songwriter system: Pam Sawyer (who had co-writted “Love Child” eight years earlier) and Marilyn McLeod (sister of Alice Coltrane, sister-in-law of John, and grandmother of Flying Lotus). Hal Davis, the Jackson 5’s former producer, heard their demo for it, and he loved it. He knew it might be a hard sell, so he brought in a bunch of studio musicians to record the backing track before he brought it to any of Motown’s stars. Legend has it that Davis recorded the “Love Hangover” backing track at 2AM after giving the studio musicians shots of Remy Martin.
In the J. Randy Taraborelli biography Diana, Davis says, “Nobody really liked disco here at Motown… [Ross] was used to singing more lush songs by producers like Michael Masser, and the public sort of identified her with arrangements like ‘Touch Me In The Morning.’ She liked the lyric to ‘Love Hangover,’ but people thought I was a little off for even suggesting that Diana do this song.” So Davis figured out how to make the conditions right. He recorded her at night, served her vodka, and brought red lights and strobes into the studio. And he pretty much got Ross to do whatever she wanted, whatever felt right. So when “Love Hangover” really kicks in, it hits like a drug.
“Love Hangover” famously opens with a long, extended sultry-ballad interlude. It’s full and warm and sensual, and Ross breathily moans, doing her version of what Donna Summer had done the previous year on “Love To Love You Baby.” (“Love To Love You Baby” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.) It’s very blatantly a sex song. Ross has just had some really, really good sex, and she’s exulting in the afterglow: “Think about it all the time / Never let it off my mind / Cuz I love you.” (Note: It’s not “think about you all the time.” It’s “think about it.”) If you were used to hearing Diana Ross sing ballads like “Theme From Mahogany,” which had hit #1 only a few months earlier, you might think, on first listen, that the whole song would’ve been just like that. But there’s an almost imperceptible tension in that intro. And then, all of a sudden, that tension comes crashing down in a glorious rush just over a minute in. (On the eight-minute album version of the track, it takes even longer.)
When “Love Hangover” becomes a disco song, it loses all sense of structure. There’s no chorus, no architecture. It all just becomes one tremendous, all-consuming groove. But it doesn’t remain static. The instruments keep darting in and out of each other, finding their own little hooks and melodies. It builds, then subsides, then builds again, as if all those musicians are one organism moving together. Bassist Henry E. Davis, in particular, gets all the way loose with it, his basslines constantly changing but always pushing the groove. (Davis came from the North Carolina-bred funk band L.T.D. L.T.D.’s highest-charting single, 1977’s “(Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again” peaked at #4; it’s an 8.)
That groove is a monster, and when Diana Ross first heard it, she thought she couldn’t do it. But when she locks into it, she goes into full vamp mode. She plays with that groove. She whoops. She coos. She cackles. She briefly goes into her Oscar-nominated Billie Holiday impression. Can you remember your first truly magical nightclub moment? The first time you heard a song you loved and just instinctively rushed onto the floor? The first time that you just absolutely lost it, shedding all sense of self-consciousness? Diana Ross sounds like she’s having that. It’s magical.
Ross was (and is) an all-technique singer, a born actress who could put across the emotional core of a situation in only only a few words. But “Love Hangover” is Ross leaving that technique behind, going for pure instinct instead. She’s still singing the song, of course, and she’s still conveying the joy of great sex. (It’s not too hard to hear something orgasmic in the way the song kicks in.) But mostly, Ross sounds like she’s just riding the wave, doing what the beat demands. When that groove kicks in, there’s a nice little stretch where Ross is completely silent, just letting the musicians do their work, letting the feeling course through her. And then when we first hear her again, before she sings any actual words, she lets go with a simple “whoo!” And then she keeps that same energy for the rest of the song.
The night she recorded “Love Hangover,” Diana Ross figured out something about disco music, something that most of her fellow pop stars would never really learn. Adapting to disco, at least in the ideal, didn’t mean singing simpler, hookier songs over bigger and faster beats. It also meant relinquishing the feeling of control. It meant giving in, moving, dissolving into the sound, becoming a part of the environment. Diana Ross was able to make that switch. And in turning that corner, she made the first true disco masterpiece ever to hit #1. Not bad for a first try.
Berry Gordy, of course, did not want to release “Love Hangover” as a single. Something had to happen to change his mind. And it did: The Fifth Dimension, still hanging on after their ’60s peak, recorded their own far-inferior version of “Love Hangover” and put it out as a single. Gordy immediately put Ross’ take on the song out, and both versions entered the charts in the same week. But the Fifth Dimension’s “Love Hangover” peaked at #80; it was their final Hot 100 hit. Sometimes, the right thing happens.
In the years after “Love Hangover,” Diana Ross would launch a big tour and a two-week Broadway stand that would win her a special Tony. She’d turn that Broadway show into a TV special. She’d guest-host The Tonight Show. She’d record a couple of disco-infused albums that didn’t sell huge. But she kept adapting. She kept going where pop music was going. And she will be back in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 1977 movie Looking For Mr. Goodbar where Diana Keaton buys drugs in an extremely skeezy disco while William Atherton — Peck from Ghostbusters — dances to “Love Hangover”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: “Love Hangover” has been sampled dozens of times, including on one song that will eventually appear in this column. Here’s Bone Thugs-N-Harmony going nuts over a sample of the “Love Hangover” intro on their 1997 track “Ready 4 War”:
(Bone will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Steady Mobb’n interpolating the “Love Hangover” hook on Master P’s 1998 track “Gangsta Bitch”:
(It is extremely weird to learn this, but as a lead artist, Master P has never had a top-10 single. 1998’s “I Got the Hook Up!” and “Make ‘Em Say Uhh!” both peaked at #16. But P and his brother Silkk The Shocker both guested on Montell Jordan’s “Let’s Ride,” which peaked at #2 in 1998. It’s a 7.)