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.
In American life, you’re not supposed to talk about class. It’s supposed to be a non-factor, a sloughed-off relic of the old British caste system. We’re taught that this is the land of social mobility, of Horatio Alger stories and grab-it-if-you-see-it opportunity. But if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you know that’s not the case. In America, rich people’s kids can get away with just about anything.
There are a lot of American pop songs about money, but there aren’t many about class. “Rich Girl,” the first of many #1 singles for the duo of Daryl Hall and John Oates, is a rare case. It’s not an especially complex song — we’re not dealing with “Common People” here — but it does directly attack someone with money for acting like nothing matters. That’s probably the best thing about the song, honestly. But then, the success of “Rich Girl” opens up a whole lot of questions about race, another fraught subject in American life.
Hall and Oates, two white guys who met when they were running and hiding during a fight, are, at least from a certain angle, the most successful Philly soul group in history. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records was on the decline when Hall and Oates took off. Thom Bell’s productions still had some juice, but disco had mostly succeeded Philadelphia’s lush, luxuriant R&B in the popular consciousness. And yet Hall and Oates, working a deeply white and vaguely rock-influenced strain of that Philly soul sound, started making big hits in 1976 and continued into the dawning days of the ’90s.
Hall and Oates were always open about their soul influences. They covered soul classics and performed with classic soul musicians. They did all the things that white musicians are supposed to do when black musical traditions make them rich. But Hall and Oates were able to stay popular while Gamble and Huff faded into the cultural memory. That says something — more about us than about Hall or Oates.
Darryl Hall, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, knew Gamble and Huff. They grew up together, finding work as session musicians in ’60s Philly. As a student at Temple, Hall led a white harmony group called the Temptones. Oates, another white Temple student, had his own group, the Masters. (If you’re a white guy singing soul, that’s maybe not the name you want to pick.) Hall and Oates met one night at the Adelphi Ballroom in 1967, when a couple of gangs got into a fight and the two white boys scrambled for cover. After a few years of gigging around, Ahmet Ertegun signed the duo to Atlantic in 1972.
Hall and Oates’ first three albums didn’t sell, and only one of their first seven singles made it into the Hot 100 at all: 1973’s “She’s Gone,” which peaked at #60. Other people had better luck with Hall and Oates’ songs than they did. The R&B group Tavares covered “She’s Gone” in 1974, and their version got to #1 on the Hot Soul Singles chart, though it only made it up to #50 on the Hot 100. (Tavares’ highest-charting single, “It Only Takes A Minute,” peaked at #10. It’s a 7.)
But in 1976, things turned around for Hall and Oates. They’d moved from Atlantic to RCA, and Todd Rundgren produced their self-titled album. Hall wrote the delicate, pretty “Sara Smile” for his girlfriend at the time, and it took off, peaking at #4 and finally establishing Hall and Oates as hitmakers. (“Sara Smile” is a 7.) That same year, a re-released “She’s Gone” made it into the top 10, peaking at #7. (It’s a 6.)
“Rich Girl” isn’t about a girl — or, at least, it wasn’t at first. Hall wrote the song about Victor Walker, his girlfriend’s ex. Walker’s father had owned the Walker Bros. Original Pancake House, a diner chain in Chicago, as well as a bunch of KFC franchises. One night, Walker came to Hall’s apartment to hang out, and Hall thought that he was a spoiled weirdo who’d never face any consequences for his actions because he was rich. Hall originally wrote the song as “Rich Guy,” but he decided that “Rich Girl” worked better. Maybe he figured that America would have an easier time with a class-based shit-talk song if the target was a woman. If that’s the case, he was right.
“Rich Girl” is not exactly a sophisticated dissection of American social mobility. It’s a simple put-down: “You’re a rich girl, and you’ve gone too far cuz you know it don’t matter anyway / You can rely on the old man’s money / You can rely on the old man’s money.” Hall seems to be in love with this girl, but he’s not especially happy about that: “It’s so easy to hurt others when you can’t feel pain.” He’s got the fatalistic feeling that money will always get between them: “You can get along if you try to be strong / But you’ll never be strong.” And there’s also a bit of envy in the way he sings about her: “You’d rather live for the thrill of it all.” Maybe he would, too, if he could afford it.
“Rich Girl” is a short song, less than two and a half minutes, and it never has the time or space to achieve the sort of takeoff that Hall and Oates’ Philly soul forebears so often did. Hall has a pleasantly smooth voice with none of the grit of, say, the O’Jays’ Eddie Levert. He airily floats above the track, while Oates fills in the spaces and sings all the backup parts.
There’s a part early on when “Rich Girl” seems like it’s about to go glam-rock. The electric piano on the intro fades away, and we hear a ringing guitar chord and a stomping kick-drum. On another song, that might’ve foretold a huge riff crashing in. Instead, “Rich Girl” fills up with strings and horns and keyboards. (Arif Mardin, the former Bee Gees producer, helped arrange the song.) It’s all pretty in a fairly airy and generic sort of way.
The part of “Rich Girl that sticks around is the hook, which Hall sings again and again. He had a gift for that. In the years ahead, even as Hall and Oates’ Philly soul trappings fell away, those repetitive, maddening hooks would remain ferociously strong, which would serve Hall and Oates well in the years ahead. We will see a whole lot more of them in this column.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Nina Simone’s cover of “Rich Girl,” from her 1978 album Baltimore:
(Nina Simone never had a top-10 hit. Her highest-charting single, her 1959 version of “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #18.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Young Gunz, another Philly duo, rapping over a “Rich Girl” sample on their 2004 Juelz Santana collab “$$$ Girlz”:
(Young Gunz never had a top-10 hit, either. Their highest-charting single, 2003’s “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop,” peaked at #14. Juelz Santana had better luck. His highest-charting single is 2005’s “There It Go (The Whistle Song),” which peaked at #6. It’s a 6. He’ll also appear in this column as a guest on someone else’s song.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Me First And The Gimme Gimmes’ 2008 punk cover of “Rich Girl”: