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.
“Kiss You All Over” is a song without a genre. That used to happen with ’70s hits, mysterious concoctions that could conceivably fit into a half-dozen radio formats. Those songs, however, were not usually this striking in their rootlessness. Consider: “Kiss You All Over” is a sex-jam that’s about halfway between soft rock and disco, with a guitar riff ripped straight from Hot Chocolate’s 1975 pop-soul hit “You Sexy Thing.” (“You Sexy Thing” peaked at #3; it’s a 9.)
But the people who made “Kiss You All Over” had nothing to do with soft rock, disco, or pop-soul. Instead, the song came from the UK’s leading bubble-glam songwriting team, and it was recorded by a Kentucky band who would later become country stars. The track is a tiny little melting pot unto itself.
Exile started out in the early ’60s as a band of high school students from Richmond, Kentucky. They started out playing covers in clubs and bars as the Exiles, and eventually they joined Dick Clark’s Caravan Of Stars tour, where they backed up established teen idols like Brian Hyland. The Exiles landed a couple of record contracts and put out a few singles, but nothing clicked until Mike Chapman, an Australian producer who’d recently relocated to Los Angeles, dug their demo tape out of a pile and liked it enough to fly to Kentucky and watch them play at the opening of an apartment complex.
Chapman had gotten his start in London, where he and songwriting partner Nicky Chinn cranked out UK hits for people like Sweet, Mud, Smokie, and Suzi Quatro. Some of those songs were even hits in the US. Sweet’s 1972 Chinn/Chapman banger “Little Willy” peaked at #3 in the US, while 1973’s “The Ballroom Blitz” made it to #5. (“Little Willy” is a 9, and “The Ballroom Blitz” is a 10.) Chapman liked the idea that the Exiles wrote their own songs, but when Chapman signed the Exiles and changed their name to Exile, he and Chinn still took over songwriting duties.
“Kiss You All Over” was apparently inspired by Barry White, though it sounds nothing like Barry White. When Chapman talked to Billboard about the song in 1978, he pretty much exactly nailed it, saying that the song “is very much about what music in the US is all about in 1978. It’s MOR soft rock, slightly disco though not pure disco, and has a sensuous lyric line that Americans love.” Chapman thought that he had to tailor the song to American tastes, since Americans cared more about lyrics than European listeners did. But his “Kiss You All Over” lyrics — “When I get home, babe, gonna light your fire/ All day, I’ve been thinking about you, babe/ You’re my one desire” — are not exactly poetry.
So “Kiss You All Over” is explicitly a sex song and implicitly an oral sex song. (That has to be what “kiss you all over” means, right?) The song has that classic disco thump to it, but it’s slow and tender, and it’s not built for dancing. Exile singer Jimmy Stokley manages to sell the sweet nothings, drawling them in a heavy Southern twang that implies country music without ever diving into it. He knows that what he’s singing is silly, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
Chapman might have triangulated “Kiss You All Over” too well for 1978 America. The song was a massive hit, and yet it left no real lasting cultural impact. It must’ve blurred into the wallpaper in 1978. There’s no real personality to it. Instead, it’s just a generically pleasant little amble. The one thing I really like is the moment on the chorus where everything builds. Stokley sings that he’ll keep doing stuff to you “till the night closes in,” and suddenly he’s got some urgency in his voice. Then the rest of the band repeats that line, some of them singing high and almost squeaky. There’s some Barry Gibb in that moment. There might be some glam rock, too.
Exile never got anywhere near the top 10 again after “Kiss You All Over.” Their follow-up singles bricked, and Stokley left the band in 1980. (He died of hepatitis five years later.) When Stokley quit, Exile replaced him with fellow Kentucky native Les Taylor and rebranded themselves as a country act. This turned out to be a smart decision. Exile had a tremendous run of chart-topping country hits through the ’80s. They’re still playing today.
Chapman, meanwhile, was just getting started. He went on to a hell of a career as a new wave producer, and we’ll see a whole lot of his work in this column.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Adam Sandler singing “Kiss You All Over” into an intercom in the 1996 movie Happy Gilmore:
(Adam Sandler has never had a top-10 hit as a recording artist. His highest-charting single, 1996’s “The Chanukah Song,” peaked at #80.)