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.
Michael Jackson was the first singer ever to top the Billboard Hot 100 who was younger than the Hot 100 itself. Jackson was born in August 1958, a few weeks after Billboard launched the Hot 100. (The #1 song when Jackson was born was the Elegants’ “Little Star.”) Jackson was 11 when he recorded the lead vocal on the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” — a timeless pop classic, one of the best songs ever to top the charts. Two and a half years later, Jackson would land his first #1 as a solo artist: “Ben,” not a classic on the “I Want You Back” level but a great song nonetheless.
Years passed. All through the ’70s, most of the singers topping the Hot 100 were baby boomers, born in the ’40s or early ’50s. And it wasn’t until 1977 — more than seven years after “I Want You Back” — that another singer younger than the Hot 100 would top the Hot 100. (Edmund Sylvers, who sang lead on the Sylvers’ “Boogie Fever,” came close; he was born six months before Billboard started the chart.) Shaun Cassidy, the second person to pull this feat off, did it with a song that was decidedly shittier than “I Want You Back.”
What do you do with a cover song that’s technically more successful than the far better, far more beloved original? Because that’s what we’re dealing with here. The Crystals’ 1963 single “Da Doo Ron Ron” is a joyous nonsense classic of the girl-group era. Phil Spector produced it. He also got a writing credit, along with the great husband-and-wife team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. They spent a couple of days writing it in Spector’s office, and the gibberish syllables of the title were originally supposed to be mere placeholders for lyrics that would come later. Spector liked the gibberish, though, so they left it in. (Barry and Greenwich later hit #1 with more gibberish, when Manfred Mann’s cover of their song “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” topped the US chart.)
“Da Doo Ron Ron” sounds huge in that classic Phil Spector way. There’s something almost experimental in the way he layers the sounds — the drone of the saxophone, the relentless pounding of the piano, the way the handclaps merge with Hal Blaine’s drums. It’s mythic nothingness, a song that lives forever in your brain after the first time you hear it. But it wasn’t a #1 single. “Da Doo Ron Ron” peaked at #3. (It’s a 9.)
The Crystals only hit #1 once: 1962’s “He’s A Rebel,” which is only a Crystals song by name. Darlene Love ghost-sang that one with her group the Blossoms, getting no credit for it. None of the actual Crystals are on the song at all. Love has also claimed, at various points, that she sang lead on “Da Doo Ron Ron,” but most people seem to agree that it really was the Crystals’ La La Brooks on that one. (Cher, who has already been in this column a few times and who will be in it again, sang backup on “Da Doo Ron Ron.”) Actually, the Crystals only got into the top 10 three times. Besides “He’s A Rebel” and “Da Doo Ron Ron,” they made it to #6 with 1963’s “Then He Kissed Me.” (It’s a 10.)
Shaun Cassidy has said that “Da Doo Ron Ron” was the first single he ever bought. Cassidy was born in September of 1958, a month and a half after the Hot 100 started. (The #1 song in America at Cassidy’s birth: Domenico Modugno’s “Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu).”) Cassidy, like Michael Jackson before him, grew up in a show-business family. Both of his parents, Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones, were pretty successful actors. When Cassidy was a toddler, his mother won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing a vengeful sex worker in the drama Elmer Gantry.
Cassidy would’ve been about five when he heard the Crystals “Da Doo Ron Ron.” In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Cassidy says that when he was in kindergarten, his busdriver used to play the LA top-40 station while taking everyone to school. “Da Doo Ron Ron” is the sort of song that a kindergartener could absolutely love. His story checks out.
When Cassidy was still a child, his family went into the pop-music business. His mother was cast on The Partridge Family, a sitcom about a family band. So was David Cassidy, his half-brother. Both Shirley Jones and David Cassidy also sang on “I Think I Love You,” the Partridge Family single that made it to #1 in 1970. Seven years later, Shaun Cassidy followed pretty much the same trajectory.
Cassidy had a band called Longfellow when he was 13. When he was 16, he signed a deal with Curb Records and released a self-titled debut album that came out in Europe and Australia in 1976. That same year, Cassidy was cast as Joe Hardy on The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, the ABC adaptation of the kids’ novels. The producers had been looking for a younger version of David Cassidy, and that’s pretty much exactly what they got.
The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries wasn’t a huge hit, but it lasted three seasons, and it was popular enough that Curb released Cassidy’s album in the US. It is a deeply cheesy piece of work, full of old ’60s covers and new songs engineered to sound like old ’60s covers. Cassidy’s take on “Da Doo Ron Ron” is exactly what you would expect. He sings it in a simpery, smiley quaver. He switches up the lyrics for gender reasons; “somebody told me that his name was Bill” becomes “somebody told me that her name was Jill.” And instead of the Phil Spector wall-of-sound production, we get the flavorless bounce of ’70s top-40 radio.
As remakes go, it’s almost aggressively pointless. The studio musicians do everything they can to replicate the feel of the original, even playing the sax solo note-for-note. There’s a not-entirely-unpleasant bubbleglam stomp to the beat, and I like the way the drum rolls hit, but it’s obviously not touching the Spector track. And as a singer, Cassidy is a vast and empty blank. His lyrical adjustments fall flat; the word “Jill” simply doesn’t pop out of the speakers the way “Bill” does. And even though I’m ready to believe that Cassidy loved “Da Doo Ron Ron,” he doesn’t sound remotely connected to the perfect silliness of the lyrics. He’s just filling space.
Cassidy never had another #1 hit. He made it into the top 10 twice more — both later in 1977, both with songs from that self-titled album. “That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” peaked at #3; it’s a 6. Soon after, “Hey Deanie” peaked at #7; it’s a 5. Eric Carmen, the former frontman of early-’70s power-pop greats the Raspberries, wroth both of those songs for Cassidy. (The Raspberries’ highest-charting single, 1972’s “Go All The Way,” peaked at #5; it’s an 8. Carmen’s highest-charting single as a solo artist, 1975’s “All By Myself,” peaked at #2; it’s a 4.) In terms of pure chart success, then, Shaun Cassidy had essentially the exact same impact as the Crystals. This seems very wrong.
Cassidy released a few more albums, and all of them did worse than the ones that had come before. The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries was cancelled in 1979, and in 1980, Cassidy hired Todd Rundgren as a producer and released an album where he covered David Bowie and the Who. It did not recharge his career. So Cassidy, like so many other ’70s teen idols, turned to the stage in the ’80s and ’90s, starring in Broadway and West End musicals.
Later on, Cassidy became a TV writer and producer. The first show Cassidy created, a 1995 series called American Gothic, was a supernatural swamp-noir thing that I thought was really cool when I was in high school. Sam Raimi co-produced it, and CBS cancelled it after one season. Later on, Cassidy co-created Roar, a 1997 show about Celtic warriors fighting off Roman invaders. Heath Ledger and Vera Farmiga starred; Fox cancelled it after eight episodes. Cassidy created Cover Me, a 2000 comedy about an undercover FBI agent; it ran for one season on USA. Invasion: 2005, alien bodysnatchers, one season on ABC. Ruby & The Rockits: 2009, sitcom about an ex-teen idol family man and his wildman brother who is also an ex-teen idol, 10 episodes on ABC Family. (Wonder what inspired that one.) Most recently, Cassidy has written three episodes of New Amsterdam, a medical series currently in its second season on NBC. He’s still in the game! Good for him! His one #1 single still sucks!
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Harold Ramis leading an ESL class in “Da Doo Ron Ron” in the 1981 Ivan Reitman movie Stripes:
(A song from a different Reitman/Ramis/Murray movie will eventually show up in this column.)