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.
Since the advent of commercial country music, Nashville has run as its own sealed-off, efficient machine — a whole major local industry dedicated entirely to cranking out a specific kind of hit song. But for all its precision, country music is perpetually in crisis, at war with itself. It’s an old story: One side of country music wants to pull back to its raw-boned traditionalist roots, while another wants to chase pop-crossover money. In the early ’70s, Nashville threw opens its doors to cross-genre superstars like John Denver and Olivia Newton-John, but that same impulse also led Charlie Rich — a crossover star himself — to light the envelope containing John Denver’s name on fire when he awarded Denver with the Entertainer Of The Year trophy at the 1975 CMA Awards.
In 1980, country music’s pendulum once again swung toward pop, thanks in large part to the movie Urban Cowboy, a John Travolta/Debra Winger romance about Houston oil workers who frequent a rowdy honky tonk. Urban Cowboy, essentially Saturday Night Fever in a Western shirt, was a big fat hit, and it had a Saturday Night Fever-style effect on the country music business. Country stars like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, who had already been making pushes toward soft-pop accessibility, scored huge hits. And Eddie Rabbitt, a Nashville veteran who’d been inching in the same direction, scored his only #1 hit on the Hot 100, temporarily knocking Dolly Parton out of the top spot.
His name really was Eddie Rabbitt. No relation to Frightened Rabbit, B-Rabbit from 8 Mile, or Jive Bunny & The Mastermixers. The son of working-class Irish immigrants, Edward Thomas Rabbitt was born in Brooklyn, and he grew up in northern New Jersey. These aren’t exactly hotbeds of country music, but Rabbitt learned about the genre while in Boy Scouts; a scoutmaster played a few songs on guitar during a camping trip. Rabbitt dropped out of high school in the ’50s and spent years working in a mental hospital, but he also had weekly gigs playing country in Newark bars. He released a single after winning a talent contest in 1964, but it didn’t go anywhere. In 1968, Rabbitt moved to Nashville and worked a bunch of different menial-labor jobs before becoming a staff writer at one of Music Row’s publishing companies.
In 1969, a comeback-bound Elvis Presley recorded “Kentucky Rain,” a ballad that Rabbitt had written. “Kentucky Rain” made it to #16 on the Hot 100, and Rabbitt wrote a few more minor hits for other artists. In 1975, Rabbitt signed to Elektra and started releasing his own singles. 1976’s “Drinkin’ My Baby (Off My Mind)” was Rabbitt’s first country #1, and from then on, he became a consistent country hitmaker. Rabbitt also recorded the theme song for the 1978 comedy Every Which Way But Loose — a truly implausible blockbuster where Clint Eastwood is a trucker and bare-knuckle boxer whose best friend is an orangutan. Rabbitt hosted a 1980 TV special that apparently convinced a few industry types that he could cross over from country to pop. Rabbitt was almost 40 by this point, but he was a good-looking guy without a thick Southern accent who knew how to put a song together. He had potential.
Rabbitt flipped the pop-crossover switch pretty elegantly on Horizon, the 1980 album that gave him his first two big cross-genre hits. First was “Drivin’ My Life Away,” a breezy uptempo jam that peaked at #5 on the Hot 100. (It’s a 7.) Then came “I Love A Rainy Night,” the song that would take Eddie Rabbitt to #1. Rabbitt first had the idea for the song in the late ’60s, when he sang a couple of lines into a tape recorder during a thunderstorm. More than a decade later, Rabbitt found the tape and, with the help of co-writers Even Stevens and David Malloy, turned it into a finished song.
“Drivin’ My Life Away” and “I Love A Rainy Night” are both what I’d call gentle rockabilly. Musically, they’re simple and propulsive choogles with a big bottom ends and comforting, familiar progressions. Rabbitt was a big fan of the music that Elvis Presley and his peers had released on Sun Records in the ’50s, but he sang a friendlier, cleaned-up version of that, bringing none of the clenched anger or chaos that Presley and his peers sometimes showed. “I Love A Rainy Night” is a mellow, pleasant amble of a song, driven by a fingersnap beat that mimics the sound of windshield wipers swishing back and forth. It’s got big, juicy guitars from Larry Byrom, a former Steppenwolf member, and Rabbitt multi-tracks his own voice, enthusiastically singing along with himself on the chorus.
Lyrically, there’s no symbolism to “I Love A Rainy Night.” The rain is not a metaphor, and it doesn’t mirror what’s going on inside Rabbitt’s heart. It’s not a situation like the one that the Temptations sang about on “I Wish It Would Rain,” where Rabbitt likes the rain because it hides his teardrops. “I Love A Rainy Night” doesn’t even have anything to do with romantic love. Rabbitt is just a happy guy who likes precipitation: “I love to hear the thunder/ Watch the lightning when it lights up the sky/ You know, it makes me feel good.”
“I Love A Rainy Night” might be the ultimate low-stakes version of mainstream-accessible country music. Rabbitt doesn’t really nod to mainstream pop music on “I Love A Rainy Night,” the way his former tourmates Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton did on their own big crossover hits around the same time. Instead, Rabbitt simply sings in a blissful sort of haze about a weather phenomenon that he thinks is cool. There’s no sob story, no element of class anxiety. Rabbitt doesn’t even come across like John Denver, finding mystical respite in the natural world. “I Love A Rainy Night” is a perfectly nice and forgettable little song, a toe-tapper that immediately dissipates into the air once its three minutes are over. It does its job, and it gets out.
Rabbit landed a few more crossover hits after “I Love A Rainy Night.” His follow-up “Step By Step” peaked at #5 in 1981. (It’s a 6.) Then, in 1982, Rabbitt duetted with fellow country-crossover type Crystal Gayle on the ballad “You And I,” which made it to #7. (It’s a 3.) I can only assume that Rabbitt’s crossover success had something to do with the Urban Cowboy after-effects, since it didn’t last beyond the early ’80s. But Rabbitt continued to churn out a string of huge country-chart hits into the early ’90s.
Rabbitt was only 56 when he died of lung cancer in 1998. He didn’t leave the same cultural legacy as fellow crossover stars like Kenny Rogers or Dolly Parton did. But the man did grab his moment, and he found more success than any other Brooklyn-born Irish-American country singer in history.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cover of “I Love A Rainy Night” that Tom Jones recorded for the 1998 album Tom Jones Sings Country:
(Tom Jones’ highest-charting single, 1971’s “She’s A Lady,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.)