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.
You have to be smart about how you use the falsetto. That vocal register can be a potent pop-music weapon. It can also be as irritating as a low-on-batteries smoke alarm. Sometimes, it can be both of those things. When the Bee Gees crossed over to disco, Barry Gibb unlocked the full power of the falsetto, using it to convey a weird strutting androgynous power. But Leo Sayer, another English-Australian folk-rocker who hit #1 with a song about dancing, couldn’t do what Gibb did. On “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” the first of his two #1 singles, Sayer is firmly in feral-cat-screech territory. What I’m trying to say is: Leo Sayer’s falsetto fucking sucks.
Sayer has been an Australian citizen since 2009, but he was firmly English when he started out and when he topped the US charts. Sayer came from the UK coastal town Shoreham-By-Sea, and he came up busking in London and singing soul songs on American Army bases. As a college student in the late ’60s, he sang in bands with extremely late-’60s names: Terraplane Blues, Patches. Eventually, the UK pop star Adam Faith took on Sayer as a protege and started managing him. (Years later, it would come out that Faith had disastrously mismanaged Sayer’s finances and lost him millions.) Sayer first found work as a songwriter, then he came to fame in the UK by singing in vaguely horrific sad-clown makeup. By the time he made it in the US, Sayer had thankfully ditched the greasepaint.
During his sad-clown period, Sayer scored a #2 UK hit with his 1973 song “The Show Must Go On.” A year later, Three Dog Night covered the song, unfortunately leaving the original track’s circus-music intro intact. (Three Dog Night’s take on the song peaked at #4 on the US chart, and it’s a 3.) Also in 1974, Sayer scored his first real American hit, creeping up to #9 with “Long Tall Glasses (I Can Dance).” (It’s a 4.) When it looked like he had a window of opportunity in the US, Sayer went to Los Angeles and recorded his Endless Flight album with Nilsson/Carly Simon producer Richard Perry.
Sayer recorded “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” on the spur of the moment in the studio, co-writing it while jamming with a studio band. (Ray Parker, Jr., a session guitarist who played on the song, will eventually appear in this column himself.) Officially, Sayer co-wrote the song with one Vini Poncia, a guy who would later produce a couple of Kiss albums. But when Perry told Sayer that “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” was the album’s hit, Sayer didn’t even remember recording it.
Sayer has been adamant that “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” isn’t his disco-crossover attempt; even going so far as to say, “I hate disco music.” (That quote comes from Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits.) Sayer is wrong to hate disco music — disco music is great — but he’s right that “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” isn’t a disco song. It’s more of a jaunty, nebulously soul-informed pop amble. But with that title, and with Sayer doing his insufferable best to hit Barry Gibb-level high notes, the song definitely capitalized on the American listening public’s disco appetite.
Really, the only remotely good parts of “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” are the ones that sound most like disco. On the second half of the chorus, Sayer drops down his voice to an almost human pitch and hits a couple of nice whoos while drummer Steve Gadd, the guy who’d played that great marching riff on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” takes over. The session guys who play on “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” are all pros, and they do lots of cool little shuffling tricks all over the song. Those tricks are nowhere near enough to make up for Sayer himself, who spends the song howling like his balls are being devoured by adorable baby alligators.
Sayer leaps onto “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” yelping: “You’ve got a cute way of taawawwwking!” Off the rip, he’s bloodcurdlingly shrill, sounding like air squeaking out of a balloon. Sayer then spends the rest of the song elaborating how much he likes this particular other person: He’s in a spin, he doesn’t want to go home, the other person puts a spell on him, etc. If I were the target of Sayer’s affections on this song, I would try to make him dance as hard as possible, mostly to run him out of breath so that he couldn’t sing anymore.
But people evidently liked the absolute bullshit that Sayer was kicking on this song. Despite never appearing on Billboard‘s R&B chart, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” went on to win the 1978 Grammy for Best R&B Song. (This is a complete fucking insult to the entire idea of R&B music, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that we should expect from the Grammys.) And Sayer will be back in this column soon.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Leo Sayer singing “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” on a 1978 episode of The Muppet Show, dancing along with some giant birds who aren’t even fucking Muppets:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a teenage Homer and Barney singing “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” on a 1996 episode of The Simpsons: