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.
There are a whole lot of reasons to write love songs, and there are a whole lot of ideas that love songs can express. Even when you’re dealing with the most treacly, generic take on the form, there has to be some kind of emotion involved beyond simple devotion. “You Needed Me” is a song written from a place of astonished gratitude. That’s what works about it.
If you’ve ever been in love with someone, you might very well know that feeling: You’re a total fuckup, you’re a pain in the ass to be around, and you don’t quite understand why someone could love you. And yet someone does. You’re not totally sure why, and you second-guess that person’s decision-making all the time. But that person loves you, and all you can do is be happy about it. “You Needed Me” is a total ’70s sleepytime ballad, a stately and undistinguished slow-dance type of deal. But there’s something to that central theme.
Randy Goodrum, the guy who wrote “You Needed Me,” had grown up playing jazz piano in Hot Springs, Arkansas. In high school, he was in a trio with his friend Bill Clinton. Goodrum served in the Army and played piano in the Army band, and he eventually moved to Nashville, where he found work as a session pianist and part-time songwriter. He wrote “You Needed Me” for his wife, and he was bummed when she thought that the song was merely OK. Whenever he played it for people, they told him that it needed a chorus. He never gave it one. Eventually, though, Anne Murray found the song while digging through a box of demo tapes. Goodrum’s tape only had his name on it — no contact info — so Murray’s producer Jim Ed Norman, figuring that maybe Goodrum lived in Nashville, had to call local information to get his number.
Anne Murray had been a provincial kid, too. She’d grown up in a small Nova Scotia mining town, embarking on a long bus ride every day in high school to take voice lessons in another town. She went to college for Physical Education, spent a year teaching gym on Prince Edward Island, and eventually landed herself a spot in the cast of Singalong Jubilee, a folk-music TV show local to Nova Scotia. Eventually, she married Bill Langstroth, the show’s co-host and producer.
On the advice of Singalong Jubilee‘s musical director, Murray moved to Toronto and made a solo record. “Snowbird,” a string-soaked oompah of a single, became a surprise hit, going to #1 in Canada and #8 in the US in 1970. (“Snowbird” is a 4.) From there, Murray pretty much became Canadian royalty, cranking out a long series of massive hits. She did pretty well in the US, too, landing in that Olivia Newton-John zone where her songs got play on country and adult-contemporary radio, sometimes inching their way up the pop charts. Murray had a few top-10 US hits in the ’70s. (Murray’s 1972 cover of Kenny Loggins’ “Danny’s Song” peaked at #7; it’s a 7. Her 1974 version of the Beatles’ “You Won’t See Me” peaked at #8; it’s a 4.)
By 1978, though, Murray had gone four years without any real hits outside Canada, partly because she’d taken some time off after becoming a mother a couple of years earlier. She was absolutely convinced that “You Needed Me” would be a smash, to the point where she called president of Capitol at home to ask that he stop the presses of her already-in-production next single. He did what she asked, and “You Needed Me” became Murray’s biggest-ever hit.
“You Needed Me” does its job. Murray sings it in that weirdly poised ’70s show-biz way, where there’s emotion but there’s also care to clearly enunciate every syllable. (Murray says it took multiple takes for her to record the song, since she kept breaking down and crying midway through. I believe her, but you can’t hear that in the finished product at all.) There’s a nice stateliness to the strings, and a slight twang to the occasional murmurs of bluesy guitar. But I don’t hear much in the song beyond a soft meander. Maybe it did need a chorus.
Still, there’s something there, and that something, I think, is in the basic idea of the song. Maybe that’s why it caught on the way it did — as a reminder of the miraculous sense of connection that human beings can feel with each other when we’re at our best. The YouTube comments on every single song that has appeared in this column have been weirdly poignant, full of memories of dead spouses or sweethearts or parents. The “You Needed Me” comments — the non-Family Guy-related ones, anyway — are even heavier than usual.
Murray never had another US top-10 hit after “You Needed Me,” though she came close a few times. In Canada, she remained a chart presence well into the ’90s, and it seems like she’s still a beloved national institution up there. They need her.
BONUS BEATS: Anne Murray’s “You Needed Me” was only a #22 hit in the UK. But in 1999, the Irish boy band Boyzone, who never charted in the US, had a UK #1 with a cover of “You Needed Me.” Here’s their video for it:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2007, Anne Murray recorded a new version of “You Needed Me” — a duet with fellow Canadian-born pop-country star Shania Twain. Here’s the Murray/Twain take on the song:
(Shania Twain’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, 1998’s “You’re Still The One,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8. It is absolutely nuts that Anne Murray has a US #1 but Shania Twain doesn’t.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2013 Family Guy episode where Stewie Griffin sings “You Needed Me”: