The Number Ones

The Number Ones: David Soul’s “Don’t Give Up On Us”

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.

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David Soul – “Don’t Give Up On Us”

HIT #1: April 16, 1977

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

The newish Quentin Tarantino movie Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is full of fascinating little period details, and one of my favorites is the idea that everyone in 1969 watched the same TV shows. The washed-up movie stars, the psychotically violent hippies, the ailing cowboys — they all go home at night and tune in to the same cheesy procedurals. They don’t have options. Cable doesn’t exist yet. Neither, obviously, does the internet. There are three networks. If you’re looking for some kind of routine and vaguely comforting diversion, the shows on those three networks are all you really have.

That was still the case in 1977. The ABC buddy-cop show Starsky & Hutch wasn’t even an especially big hit in its time. It did decent ratings, stayed on the air for four seasons, and stuck around in syndication for a while. Starsky & Hutch wasn’t a landmark TV show. It didn’t change the game. But it was on. So pretty much everyone in America at least had some vague idea who those two Bay City, California detectives were.

If you were, let’s say, an actor who’d never managed to get your music career off the ground but who was on TV every week, that exposure could change everything. You could record a forgettable ballad, and that forgettable ballad, combined with your own familiar face, could propel a record to #1. Starsky & Hutch was in its second season when David Soul, the chiseled and squinty actor who played Detective Kenneth “Hutch” Hutchinson, released “Don’t Give Up On Us.” That year, Starsky & Hutch was airing against The Mary Tyler Moore Show and regularly getting wrecked in the ratings. But that didn’t matter. David Soul was just famous enough.

David Soul was born David Richard Solberg in Chicago. His father was a Lutheran minister who worked for a refugee-outreach program, and the family moved around a lot. Soul learned guitar while studying at the University Of The Americas in Mexico City, and he tried to get a music career going after he dropped out. He released a few folk-pop singles in the mid-’60s, but they went nowhere. Instead, his career took a different path. Soul found work on The Merv Griffin Show, playing a character called the Covered Man. He sang songs while wearing a ski mask, and the idea was that he was a singer who wanted to get famous for reasons other than his looks.

David Soul’s looks ended up helping him out, though. If you squinted hard enough, he looked like a slightly shaggier Steve McQueen. This helped him find work as a TV actor in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He did guest roles on Flipper and Star Trek and All In The Family. For two years, he was a star of Here Come The Brides, a Western comedy show. (Bobby Sherman also starred on that show. Soul and Sherman played brothers.) In the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force, Soul played a corrupt cop, and his character died via motorcycle chase.

Soul got the Starsky & Hutch job in 1975, and he made enough of an impression in the role that his musical ambitions suddenly seemed realistic again. Soul made an album of sleepy singer-songwriter music for Private Stork Records, covering songs like Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On A Wire.” But label boss Larry Uttal didn’t hear any singles. So Uttal flew in Tony Macaulay, a British songwriter who was responsible for hits like the Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup” and Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes).” (1968’s “Build Me Up Buttercup” peaked at #3; it’s a 9. 1970’s “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” peaked at #5; it’s a 7.)

Macaulay had written “Don’t Give Up On Us,” a ballad sung from the perspective of a guy who’s trying to save a fraying relationship. It’s loose and unspecific, full of airy profundities: “It’s written in the moonlight and painted in the stars.” And it only has a few subtle hints of why the relationship might be coming apart in the first place: “I really lost my head last night / You’ve got a right to stop believing.” Macaulay produced the song for Soul, slathering it in dramatic strings and woodwinds.

“Don’t Give Up On Us” has a hook strong enough to linger. It’s got a full, luxuriant arrangement. I like the way the strings take off on the bridge. I like the drizzly electric guitar that shows up on the coda. But “Don’t Give Up On Us” remains a sleepy nothing of a ballad. It fills space, and it does nothing else.

As a singer, Soul turns out to be just fine in a perfectly generic sort of way. He later admitted that he was embarrassed about his own vocal performance; it was the only part of the record he didn’t like. But the song reveals his voice to be a sturdy sort of simper. He sells the idea of himself as a regretful, quietly desperate lover. Soul hits a few big notes — “we can still come throuuuugh” — but he mostly reins himself in, keeping things intimate. But Soul never elevates “Don’t Give Up On Us” beyond the realm of regular-ass ’70s-pop pablum.

After “Don’t Give Up On Us,” David Soul never returned to the Billboard Top 40. But in the UK, where Starsky & Hutch was huge, “Don’t Give Up On Us” was the beginning of a nice little run of hits for Soul. There, “Don’t Give Up On Us” also went to #1. The follow-up single, “Going In With My Eyes Open,” peaked at #2 later that same year. Another 1977 David Soul song, “Silver Lady,” also hit #1. In 1977 in the UK, the same year that punk rock was taking the country by storm, David Soul was apparently the man. But 1977 ended, and a whole lot of the public seemed to give up on David Soul.

Soul remained on Starsky & Hutch until 1979, when ABC cancelled the show. (Paul Michael Glaser, who played Starsky, was the one who publicly pushed to get off of the show and get on with his career. Glaser later directed The Running Man and The Cutting Edge, which makes him my favorite Starsky & Hutch star.) Soul went on to star in the 1979 Salem’s Lot miniseries and to direct episodes of Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice. He played the Humphrey Bogart character on the bad-idea 1983 TV-show version of Casablanca. He also went through court-ordered anger management therapy after he beat his third wife while she was pregnant. (She’d previously been married to Bobby Sherman, Soul’s old co-star.) In the mid-’90s, Soul moved to the UK and started a new career as a stage actor, and that’s what he’s doing right now.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from Joker auteur Todd Phillips’ 2004 Starsky & Hutch movie where Owen Wilson, as Hutch, sings “Don’t Give Up On Us”:

(Owen Wilson has never had a top-10 single, but his Starsky & Hutch co-star Snoop Dogg will eventually appear in this column.)

Tags: David Soul