The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life”

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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Debby Boone – “You Light Up My Life”

HIT #1: October 15, 1977

STAYED AT #1: 10 weeks

I can’t figure it out. Usually, writing about the songs that became hugely popular in the years before I was born, I can get at least some historical sense of what was happening, whether or not I like the songs in question. Songs don’t get to #1 on musical merits. They get there because of some mystical, elusive combination of luck, timing, and talent. Part of the fun of writing this column is going back and figuring out the societal currents that pushed a song to the top. But with “You Light Up My Life,” I have no idea. I can’t make any sense of it.

Commercially, “You Light Up My Life” was a monster. It stayed at #1 for 10 weeks — longer than any other record in the history of the Hot 100 at that point. It would be more than a decade before a song had a longer stay at the top. “You Light Up My Life” won awards, too. It won a Record Of The Year Grammy and a Best Original Song Oscar. It hit some kind of cultural zeitgeist, and I don’t have a clue what that zeitgeist was.

Debby Boone, the young woman who sang “You Light Up My Life,” was not famous. (Her father Pat was famous, but it had been 16 years since he’d hit #1 with the putrid “Moody River.” It’s not like “You Light Up My Life” coasted to the top based on widespread affection for Pat Boone.) Like a lot of hit songs, “You Light Up My Life” came from a movie, but that movie, also called You Light Up My Life, was not a big hit, and critics detested it. The song is a grand, hammy ballad — an evergreen genre, but one that didn’t necessarily guarantee a massive hit in 1977. And yet it reigned.

“You Light Up My Life” was a hit around the holidays, and hammy ballads have a history of doing well around that time of year. We’re seeing something like that this year with Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved.” But that’s still not enough explain the long-reigning dominance of “You Light Up My Life.”

The song’s success only becomes more baffling once you learn its freaky, convoluted, ultimately dark story. Joseph Brooks, the man who wrote and produced “You Light Up My Life,” was a longtime ad-jingle writer who’d transitioned into composing for movies. Brooks decided that he wanted to make movies himself, so he wrote, directed, produced, and self-financed the 1977 film You Light Up My Life, a somber romantic drama. Columbia picked the movie up, shot a happier ending, and put it out to market.

Didi Conn, the film’s lead actress, wasn’t a singer. So in the climactic moment when she sings “You Light Up My Life,” the song that Brooks had written for the movie, she lip-syncs. In the film, we hear the voice of Kasey Cisyk, the classically trained ad-jingle singer who’d recorded it with Brooks. But Brooks wanted to get out of paying Cisyk. Years later, after she died young of breast cancer, Cisyk’s husband wrote that Brooks had made “improper advances” on Cisyk and that, when Cisyk turned him down, he refused to speak to her ever again. Knowing how Brooks’ life ended, which we’ll get to, that story seems pretty credible.

Cisyk’s version of “You Light Up My Life” is on the movie’s soundtrack album, though it’s credited only as an original cast recording. (Later on, Cisyk successfully sued for royalties.) In the meantime, Brooks decided to record a different version of the song, with another singer. He used the original orchestral track from Cisyk’s version, since he didn’t want to pay for an orchestra again. And because Cisyk’s vocal had been picked up by the microphones that were recording the orchestra, he needed to find a singer who would sing the song exactly like the original version. Enter Debby Boone.

Boone, of course, came from a performing family. Pat Boone was her father, and her maternal grandfather was the country star Red Foley. Debby and her sisters started touring and recording as kids, singing gospel songs and covering pop songs. For a little while, they were signed to Motown, which is weird to think about, and they had minor adult contemporary radio hits with Supremes and ABBA covers. The 20-year-old Debby had never recorded a solo song before “You Light Up My Life,” but Curb Records owner Mike Curb thought she had potential as a solo act, and so he pushed her to do the song.

As it’s written, “You Light Up My Life” is a fairly boilerplate love ballad: “Finally, a chance to say, ‘Hey, I love you’ / Never again to be all alone.” But because its lyrics are so vague, it works just fine as a religious song, and that’s how Boone meant it when she sang it. For her, the “You” in the song is God. Given what people knew about Boone and her family, that’s probably how a lot of the public heard it, too, even if that’s now how Joe Brooks meant it.

As ballads go, “You Light Up My Life” is dull and bland and stilted, but not offensively so. It’s got a big hook, and its strings and pianos all hit at the points where they should. Boone doesn’t have a huge voice, and she sounds strained at some of the climactic moments, possibly at least in part because she’s trying to replicate another singer’s version of the song as precisely as possible. But she sounds like she means it, which isn’t something you can say about every grand and sappy movie ballad.

Boone won a Best New Artist Grammy after “You Light Up My Life” hit, but she never got anywhere near the top 10 after that. Her follow-up, the 1978 Brooks-written “California,” peaked at #50. Her next big movie theme — “When You’re Loved,” from 1978’s The Magic Of Lassie — was nominated for another Oscar, but it didn’t chart. Boone had more success in country; her 1980 single “Are You On The Road To Lovin’ Me Again” was a one-week country-radio #1, though it didn’t cross over.

From there, Boone moved on to Christian music and to stage acting, which she still does today. She’s also written a bunch of children’s books with her husband, the minister and illustrator Gabriel Ferrer. And in 2005, after 16 years away from the music business, she released Reflections Of Rosemary, a tribute album dedicated to her late mother-in-law Rosemary Clooney. (George Clooney is, if I’m diagramming all this out right, Boone’s cousin-in-law.) In interviews, Boone seems like a nice lady.

As for Joe Brooks, his career took some different turns. After the success of “You Light Up My Life,” he co-wrote, produced, directed, scored, and starred in another romantic drama called If Ever I See You Again, and it was a notorious bomb. He also wrote and produced stage musicals like the 2005 Broadway show In My Life, another notorious bomb.

In 2009, Brooks was arrested and indicted on charges of sexually assaulting 13 women, all in casting-couch situations. Brooks would take out Craigslist ads, looking for attractive young women for movie roles. He’d bring them to his apartment, get them drunk on wine, and use his Oscar to impress them. He faced 91 counts of rape, sexual assault, and other crimes. In 2011, before his trial started, he died by suicide. This motherfucker didn’t light up anyone’s life.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Patti Smith, accompanied by Joe Brooks on piano, singing an intense version of “You Light Up My Life” on a 1979 episode of the TV show Kids Are People Too:

(Patti Smith doesn’t have any top-10 hits, though she’s come closer than I would’ve guessed. Her highest-charting single, 1978’s “Because The Night,” peaked at #13.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a young Homer and Marge Simpson singing a lovely version of “You Light Up My Life” on a 1991 episode of The Simpsons:

THE 10S: Donna Summer’s rapturous, hypnotic wheels-within-wheels sex-disco odyssey “I Feel Love” — almost certainly the most important piece of dance music ever made — peaked at #6 behind “You Light Up My Life.” It’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good, and it’s a 10.

Tags: Debby Boone