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.
An entire generation’s brain just broke in the ’70s. That’s the best explanation I can offer. The effects of the late-’60s sexual revolution had gone mainstream by the mid-’70s, and nobody knew how to handle it. Divorce rates skyrocketed. Porn movies did blockbuster business. Key parties became a thing. And Mary MacGregor’s “Torn Between Two Lovers,” basically the most Ice Storm song that could ever exist, spent two weeks at #1.
Pop songs about cheating have been around for as long as pop songs have existed, and they were especially huge in the ’70s, as past #1 hits like “Kiss And Say Goodbye” and “Me And Mrs. Jones” can attest. But “Torn Between Two Lovers” feels like an extreme example — partly because the music is so sedate and sleepy, and partly because “Torn Between Two Lovers,” unlike the others, suggests that the whole cheating thing should just keep happening. On the song, a woman tells her partner that she’s been seeing someone else. She sounds sad and maybe guilty, but she’s not regretful. Instead, she tells her partner that she still loves him and she hopes he’ll stick around, even though it’s pretty clear that she’s not breaking the affair off.
On “Torn Between Two Lovers,” we only hear one side of a conversation. Mary MacGregor’s narrator tells this man how special he is but also that “there’s been another man that I’ve needed and I’ve loved.” This man “knows he can’t possess me, and he knows he never will, but there’s just this empty place inside of me that only he can fill.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that the other guy has a big dick, but it sure sounds like it means that the other guy has a big dick. MacGregor’s narrator goes on to assure her first man that she loves him, and her final message is this: “I couldn’t really blame you if you turned and walked away / But with everything I feel inside, I’m asking you to stay.” That’s a hell of a sales pitch.
Adult relationships can take all sorts of shapes, and this kind of thing still happens, even among otherwise functional married couples. But the whole tone of “Torn Between Two Lovers” is just weird. MacGregor sings it all with a deep melancholy in her voice, as if she’s the victim of this situation: “Torn between two lovers, and feeling like a fool / Loving both of you is breaking all the rules.” “Breaking rules” is a time-honored rock ‘n’ roll tradition, but when it shows up on hit songs, it usually takes a much less emotionally messy form.
The circumstances behind “Torn Between Two Lovers” are even messier. Mary MacGregor didn’t write “Torn Between Two Lovers.” Instead, the man most responsible was a ’60s folk-pop star, a beloved children’s entertainer, and a convicted child molester. Up until 1970, Peter Yarrow was one third of Peter, Paul And Mary. “Torn Between Two Lovers” was the first and only #1 single that Yarrow ever had a hand in writing. (John Denver was the one who’d written “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” which Peter, Paul And Mary took to #1 in 1969.) Yarrow did, however, come close when he co-wrote Peter, Paul And Mary’s perennial sad-kid jam “Puff (The Magic Dragon),” which peaked at #2 in 1963. (Please don’t ask me what I’d rate “Puff (The Magic Dragon).” I genuinely have no idea.)
Peter, Paul And Mary broke up in 1970, and that same year, Yarrow was convicted of taking “improper liberties” with a 14-year-old fan who’d come to his hotel room for an autograph. Yarrow served three months in prison. That probably should’ve been the end of Yarrow’s public career. Nope. Yarrow put out Peter, his first solo album, in 1972. He produced a few kids’ TV specials based on “Puff, The Magic Dragon.” He’s remained in the public eye as a liberal activist, and Jimmy Carter gave him a full presidential pardon in 1981. That sucks!
Yarrow co-wrote “Torn Between Two Lovers” with the mostly-unknown Alabama singer-songwriter Phil Jarrell. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Yarrow says that he can’t remember why he wrote the song. He’d originally intended for a man to sing it, and he thinks the song may have risen out of a conversation he’d had with his wife about Dr. Zhivago. (The “two lovers” situation doesn’t work out too well for the two women in that story, though I guess only one of them disappears into a Siberian labor camp.)
Mary MacGregor was a Twin Cities native who been singing with a couple of different bands when Yarrow heard her. Yarrow recruited MacGregor as a backup singer, both on tour and on his 1975 solo album Love Songs. When MacGregor recorded her version of “Torn Between Two Lovers” with Yarrow, Yarrow might’ve meant for it to serve as a demo.
MacGregor has said that Yarrow was thinking about taking the song to Anne Murray or Olivia Newton-John. But Jay Lasker, the head of the new label Ariola America, liked MacGregor’s version of the song, and he put it out. (“Torn Between Two Lovers” really does sound like an Olivia Newton-John song, though.) It seems pretty likely that Peter Yarrow was trying to play catchup to the canned adult-contempo folk-pop of the mid-’70s and that he stumbled into the zeitgeist with a song that tried to untangle what cheating meant when a lot of people were trying to figure out that exact same thing.
In Bronson’s book, MacGregor says that she couldn’t stand “Torn Between Two Lovers,” mostly because she blamed the song for ending her own marriage. MacGregor had been married for five years when she recorded the song, which was her first single. She had to keep explaining to people that she, personally, was not actually torn between two lovers. But MacGregor says that her marriage didn’t last much longer when the song took off: “Not because I was sleeping with someone else, but because I was living with my career instead of him.”
There’s another pretty good reason why MacGregor might’ve hated “Torn Between Two Lovers”: It’s a bad song. MacGregor recorded the song at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, and Yarrow co-produced it with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section’s Barry Beckett. A lot of the great Muscle Shoals studio musicians played on the track, but you can’t really tell. It’s sleepy and generic mid-’70s meander-music, the kind of thing that instantly blurs into the background.
MacGregor’s got a pleasant-enough voice, warm and precise in that Karen Carpenter sort of way. But she sings the song with no force or conviction or energy. It’s like she knows that she’s going to come off as an asshole, so she wants to deliver the song as quietly as possible. The track has a weak, sloppy, barely-there melody and no hooks to speak of. What it does have are those lyrics, which describe a situation without offering any real insight or resolution. We just have to imagine the outcome of that conversation for ourselves. Maybe those three crazy kids figured it out. Maybe they’re all living together somewhere now. Statistically, though, probably not.
“Torn Between Two Lovers” did not lead to some great career for Mary MacGregor. She recorded a few more albums but never came close to the top 10 again. After “Torn Between Two Lovers,” her highest-charting single was “Good Friend,” her contribution to the soundtrack of the 1979 Bill Murray vehicle Meatballs; it peaked at #39. MacGregor was mostly out of the music business by the early ’80s.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the inadvertently Lynchian spectacle of Mary MacGregor holding a stuffed sheep and singing “Do You Hear What I Hear” with the Beach Boys’ Mike Love on the 1984 TV special Scrooge’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Christmas: