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.
If you have listened to enough rap music over the years, there is a particular owww! sound that a certain part of your brain will recognize. You might not notice it. You might not consciously process it. You might not even register it as the sound of human voices. But you’ve heard it. You’ve heard it so many times.
Prince Paul used that owww! sound on the intro of De La Soul’s “Say No Go” in 1989. Dr. Dre used it on Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Doggy Dogg World” in 1993. A year later, Rob Lewis used it on Nine’s roughneck classic “Whutcha Want,” a song that has been stuck in my head for the last 25 years. In 2012, El-P used that sound on Killer Mike’s “Ghetto Gospel.” That owww! has never gone away.
Rap music works in funny ways. Especially in the genre’s early days, before sampling laws made things like this more difficult, producers would use the same drum breaks over and over, seeing who could do the craziest thing with that same tiny snatch of decades-old music. Producers used those drum breaks because they sounded good but also because they operated on some sense of collective memory. That owww! isn’t a drum break. It’s just one individual sound. But that sound has an origin. For many of those early rap producers, that sound must’ve had an uncanny significance, a direct line to the unconscious childhood memories of a whole lot of people.
The owww! comes from the climactic moment of the Emotions’ “Best Of My Love,” one of the biggest singles of 1977. On song’s the bridge, lead Emotion Wanda Hutchinson puts her gospel training to work, singing huge and wild raw-throated runs over the unrelentingly sunny beat. Wanda’s two sisters Pamela and Sheila trill backing notes behind her, helping ground all those runs. But then Pamela and Sheila, singing in harmony, start to take off heavenward themselves as the song’s horn break kicks in. And then, as the break hits its climax and the music drops away: “Owww!” You can imagine why so many rap producers would want to relive that moment over and over. Who wouldn’t?
Before “Best Of My Love,” the three Hutchinson sisters had been singing together for decades. They’d grown up in Chicago, and they’d sung together at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church as kids. Their father Joe formed them into a group, and they performed first as the Hutchinsons, then later as the Heavenly Sunbeams. The sisters were a local sensation, performing on TV for the first time in 1958. Later, they hosted a radio show, then a Sunday-morning gospel series on local TV. Eventually, the Staples Singers, another beloved Chicago gospel family act, brought the Heavenly Sunbeams along to Stax Records, where they switched from gospel to soul and changed their name to the Emotions.
At Stax, the Emotions worked with producers Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter. They appeared in the great 1973 concert film Wattstax and cranked out a steady run of R&B hits that basically never crossed over to pop radio. (On Stax, the Emotions only cracked the top 40 once: 1969’s “So I Can Love You,” which peaked at #39.) Thanks to insane levels of financial mismanagement, Stax went out of business in 1975. And like fellow Stax refugees the Staples Singers and Johnnie Taylor before them, the Emotions went on to top the charts for another label.
Earth, Wind & Fire frontman Maurice White knew the Emotions from his time as a young musician in Chicago; he’d played drums for them back in the day. When Stax went under, White started working with the group and got them signed to Columbia. White co-wrote “Best Of My Love” with his Earth, Wind & Fire bandmate Al McKay specifically for the Emotions; he figured the song had a sort of positivity that made sense for them. White produced the record, and most of Earth, Wind & Fire played on it.
With its big, stomping beat and its bubbly feeling, “Best Of My Love” was part of the disco zeitgeist. But the single was a bigger hit on R&B radio than it was in the clubs. Other than maybe the melodramatic string arrangement, there’s not too much about the song that’s specifically disco. Early on, the big disco records were pretty much just uptempo soul songs, and “Best Of My Love” fits with that lineage. And it’s a really good uptempo soul song.
The Earth, Wind & Fire guys knew what they were doing. This almost seems like too obvious of a thing to mention, but the horn section, in particular, is just magnificent on “Best Of My Love.” They jump in and out of the song with pinpoint precision, adding exclamation points wherever they’re needed. The bracing intro fanfare, which comes back again and again, is just stunning. Meanwhile, bassist Verdine White and guitarist Al McKay find a quietly joyous interplay, and Brazilian percussionist Paulinho da Costa, a frequent EWF collaborator, adds to the organic push-pull of the beat.
But “Best Of My Love” isn’t just an Earth, Wind & Fire song. The lyrics of “Best Of My Love” are heartfelt but banal romantic stuff. On paper, they’re not much: “Demonstrating sweet love and affection that you give so openly / The way I feel about you baby, can’t explain it / I want the whole wide world to see.” But Wanda Hutchinson sells those words, belting them out with an elemental force and urgency. And her two sisters sing backup with the same dizzy precision as the band. This isn’t a Supremes situation where they’re just murmuring behind the lead singer. They’re going for it, too. They get the owww!
“Best Of My Love,” like so many soul songs before it, is really just a gospel song. With minor lyrical changes, it could easily be a song about God. And the vocal technique — the showy and exultant runs, the militaristically sharp arrangements, the general and overwhelming feeling of performative ecstasy — is pure gospel. Like a gospel song, “Best Of My Love” is about giving yourself completely over to something larger than yourself, and about finding joy in that. It’s beautiful.
After “Best Of My Love,” the Emotions only cracked the top 10 once more: “Boogie Wonderland,” a straight-disco collaboration with Earth, Wind & Fire that peaked at #6 in 1978. (It’s an 8.) But the Emotions stayed together. They kept putting out their own records into the mid-’80s, and they kept performing long after that. They appeared on records with EWF, with George Duke, with Smokey Robinson, with LL Cool J, with Snoop Dogg. In 2016, they were on Terrace Martin’s Velvet Portraits. They’ve kept working.
And “Best Of My Love” has kept working, too. In 1991, Mariah Carey and the C+C Music Factory used pretty much the exact same melody on a Carey single. That song will eventually appear in this column, and the imitation was bald enough that Maurice White sued, back in the era when everyone wasn’t suing everyone else for vaguely similar chords. Incredibly, Carey and the C+C Music Factory called the song “Emotions.” That can’t have been intentional. Some things, like that owww!, just work on a subliminal level.
BONUS BEATS: That owww! wasn’t the only part of “Best Of My Love” that rap producers sampled. In 1989, the same year that he used the owww! on De La Soul’s “Say No Go,” Prince Paul built the 3rd Bass track “Brooklyn-Queens” from a sample of the “Best Of My Love” groove. Here’s that song’s extremely entertaining time-capsule video:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: B-Rock & The Bizz built their utterly ridiculous 1997 hit “My Baby Daddy” from a sped-up sample of the groove and horn fanfare from “Best Of My Love.” Here’s the video for “My Baby Daddy”:
(“My Baby Daddy” peaked at #10. It’s a 4.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Paul Thomas Anderson opened his 1997 film Boogie Nights with a long, masterful tracking shot set to “Best Of My Love.” Here it is:
(Mark Wahlberg will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle quoted “Best Of My Love” on the best moment of the absolutely devastating 2002 song “International Small Arms Traffic Blues.” Here it is:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Mary J. Blige singing “Best Of My Love” in a 2004 commercial for the Gap:
(Mary J. Blige will eventually appear in this column.)