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.
The first time Robert John appeared on the Billboard Hot 100, he was 12 years old. It was 1958. At this point, John (no relation to Elton or Olivia Newton-) was known as Bobby Pedrick, Jr. He got as high as #79 with “White Bucks And Saddle Shoes,” a half-decent sock-hop jam written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shulman, the same team who would later write the Drifters’ “Save The Last Dance For Me.”
Twenty-one years later, Robert John had his first and only #1 hit. At the time, it was the longest span of time between the moment an artist first debuted on the charts and that artist’s first #1 hit. (A few years later, Tina Turner would break that record.) In the 21 years between “White Bucks And Saddle Shoes” and “Sad Eyes,” that eventual #1 hit, Robert John would live a whole lot of lives.
Robert John came from Brooklyn, and his real name was Robert John Pedrick, Jr. (So Robert John is like Kendrick Lamar, another guy who will eventually appear in this column, in that he uses his real middle name as his fake last name.) After he scored that one flukey minor kiddie hit, John spent a little while as the singer of a doo-wop group called Bobby & The Consoles. Later on, John worked as a songwriter, co-writing tracks for people like Lou Rawls and Bobby Vinton with his working partner Mike Gately.
In 1972, John recorded an adult-contempo cover of the Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” that randomly turned out to be a huge hit, peaking at #3. (Robert John’s version is a 5.) But even after the success of that single, Atlantic Records didn’t want to make a Robert John album, so John got dejected and quit the music business.
A few years later, the record producer George Tobin decided that he wanted to work with Robert John, whose piercing falsetto was the sort of thing that was showing up on hit records at the time. When Tobin found John, John was working construction out in New Jersey. Tobin had the idea that John should make a record like Toby Beau’s “My Angel Baby,” a soft-rock/white-soul ballad that had peaked at #13 in 1978. John, living at Tobin’s house, spent months writing and rewriting “Sad Eyes” until Tobin thought it was perfect.
Aesthetically, there’s something fascinating about “Sad Eyes,” especially once you realize that Robert John had his roots in prefabricated Brill Building doo-wop. The song essentially sounds like a doo-wop ballad, filtered through early-’70s soft-rock and into the studio-rock of the late ’70s. It sounds like Journey trying to come up with their own version of “I Only Have Eyes For You” and then muffling it in canned strings and weepy pianos. Darlene Love, another holdover from that pre-Beatles era, sings backup on it.
Like so many of those pre-Beatles songs, “Sad Eyes” is a ballad that lays out a tough romantic situation as economically as possible. Robert John’s narrator is a guy who’s been having an affair, but he’s decided that he’s going back with his ex, or his ex has decided that she’s coming back to him. So he’s got to break it to his current affair that their fling is over and that he’ll have to leave. Her eyes are sad about it.
Robert John is dumping someone, then, but he doesn’t appreciate getting a guilt-trip about it: “We had a good thing/ I’ll miss your sweet love/ Why must you look at me that way?” John makes it clear that they’re not going to get back together. He tries to be nice about it, but everything he says comes off harsh and egotistical instead: “Try to remember the magic that we shared/ In time, your broken heart will mend/ I never used you; you knew I really cared/ I hate to sit and defend.” He delivers it in a sensitive but muscular falsetto, a sound that might remind you of Barry Gibb if the music sounded anything like the Bee Gees.
“Sad Eyes” had a long and slow climb to its single week at #1. When it got there, it was one of the first #1 hits of the immediate post-disco era, the time when the disco backlash had taken over and reshaped the pop landscape. This was a moment of chaotic transition, when nobody knew what constituted a hit song anymore. “Sad Eyes” is not a memorable song in any way. Instead, it’s a perfectly generic ballad that, but for its falsetto, could’ve hung around easy-listening radio at any point in the previous 15 or 20 years. It’s an OK song. You never hear it anymore.
“Sad Eyes” would be the final hit for Robert John. Over the next couple of years, a couple of his singles made it into the Hot 100, but none of them got anywhere near the top 10. At least according to his Discogs page, John’s last single came out in 1984. As far as I can tell, he’s still alive, but I have no idea what he’s been doing ever since then. Maybe he went back to working construction. (Based on recent experience, there’s at least some chance he’ll jump into my Twitter mentions at some point in the next 24 hours.)
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Sad Eyes” soundtracking a montage of Homer feeling guilty in a 2007 episode of The Simpsons: