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.
Sean Penn has two Oscars. Even though he doesn’t act that often these days, Penn has been a movie star for nearly 40 years. He’s one of the most respected actors of his generation. Things didn’t turn out so well for Sean’s younger brother Chris.
For a little while, Chris Penn had on OK career as a loud, intense character actor. He played memorable parts as a scumbag armed robber in Reservoir Dogs, a scumbag cop in True Romance, and a cowboy karate expert in the first two Best Of The Best movies. But throughout his career, Chris battled problems with weight and addiction, and he also had to deal with being constantly overshadowed by his older brother. Chris died of heart disease in 2006, at the age of 40.
Unless I’m forgetting something, though, nobody has ever scored a #1 hit by soundtracking a scene of Sean Penn dancing. Sean’s ex-wife Madonna, someone who will soon appear in this column, couldn’t even pull that one off.
This would probably be a good place to mention that Michael Penn, the oldest Penn brother, is a musician, and that Michael’s highest-charting single, 1989’s pretty great “No Myth,” peaked at #13. “No Myth” is, at least partially, a song about dancing. But nobody ever got to #1 by soundtracking a Michael Penn dance scene, either. Chris Penn is the only Penn brother who accomplished that. He’ll always have that going for him.
In Footloose, one of the biggest hits of 1984, an astonishingly good-looking 18-year-old Chris Penn plays Willard Hewitt, a big, dumb, friendly ox of a kid. When Kevin Bacon’s Ren McCormack moves to Willard’s tiny Oklahoma town, Willard immediately becomes his best friend, even though they don’t actually have anything in common. (Willard has apparently never heard of previous Number Ones artists Men At Work and the Police; he thinks Ren is talking about actual men at work and actual police.) Ren loves dancing, and Willard is terrified of it. In a cowboy-bar scene, Willard gets so mad about his inability to dance with Sarah Jessica Parker that he gets into a fistfight with a yokel who’s probably twice his age. That’s the kind of guy Willard Hewitt is.
Finally, though, Willard has had enough. He wants in on this. He wants to dance. So he gets his buddy Ren to teach him. Naturally, Footloose accomplishes this bit of storytelling through the magic of the montage. Footloose accomplishes most things through montage. If it weren’t for montages, Footloose would be a half-hour story about conflicted preacher John Lithgow.
Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For The Boy,” the song that soundtracks the montage of Chris Penn learning to dance, was a last-second addition to the Footloose soundtrack. Footloose screenwriter Dean Pitchford, who co-wrote every song on the movie soundtrack, had been planning to set that scene to “Somebody’s Eyes,” a song that he’d co-written for the movie. (Pitchford and co-writer Tom Snow had previously written “You Should Hear How She Talks About You,” which had been a #5 hit for Melissa Manchester in 1982. That song is a 5.) But Footloose director Herbert Ross didn’t think “Somebody’s Eyes” had the right energy for the scene, so Pitchford and Snow had to write a new song in a hurry. (Ross, who’d previously made The Goodbye Girl and California Suite, came onto Footloose after the Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino was fired from the movie.)
Pitchford and Snow wrote “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” in a hurry, and they got the R&B singer Deneice Williams to record it. Like Michael Sembello, another relatively anonymous artist who scored a #1 single by soundtracking a dance montage in an early-’80s blockbuster, Williams had gotten her start backing up Stevie Wonder. (Sembello was Wonder’s guitarist; Williams was one of his backup singers. I wonder if they’ve ever had a conversation about how they both went on to do pretty much the same thing after working with Wonder.)
In 1978, Williams had gotten to #1 with “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” an adult-contempo breakup duet with veteran crooner Johnny Mathis. In the years after that, Williams teamed up with Mathis a few more times, including on the Family Ties theme song. But in the years between her two #1 hits, Williams only made it into the top 10 once: A 1982 cover of the Royalettes’ 1965 R&B ballad “It’s Gonna Take A Miracle,” which peaked at #10. (It’s a 5. The Royalettes’ original peaked at #41.)
You can kind of tell that the songwriters behind “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” didn’t spend a ton of time on the track. There’s not a ton to the song. The lyrics are based around a pretty simple idea: Williams’ narrator is in love with a guy, even though she knows he’s not perfect. The boy in question can’t talk well or dress well or sing well or spend money on her, but she loves him anyway. It’s a backhanded compliment of a song. But Williams sells it.
Williams recorded “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” with the producer George Duke, a jazz-fluent polymath who’d made records with Cannonball Adderly and Frank Zappa. (As lead artist, Duke’s highest-charting single is the 1981 Stanley Clarke collab “Sweet Baby,” which peaked at #19.) On the track, Duke surrounds Williams with digital bells and whistles: Synthetic bass, high-pitched chicken-scratch guitar, drum-machine bloops and pings and sputters. Duke also gives a whole lot of room to backup singers George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, who would go on to form the duo Boy Meets Girl and peak at #5 with “Waiting For A Star To Fall.” (That one is a 7.)
As a singer, Williams is pretty great at conveying the idea of pure, overwhelming happiness. She’s the reason why “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” doesn’t carry the immediate threat of doom for this couple. When she sings about this boy, hopeless schlub though he may be, she sounds utterly transported with joy. If anything, the lines about how he’s broke and tongue-tied sound like affectionate teasing. Putting a gospel singer like Williams on a giddy dance-pop track like this is a smart decision. Whitney Houston, someone who will be in this column a ton of times, first became famous singing songs like that.
“Let’s Hear It For The Boy” clearly owes a ton of its success to the fact that it was in Footloose. After Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose,” “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” was the second single from the movie’s massively successful soundtrack to hit #1. Like Flashdance the year before, Footloose sent two dance-montage songs to #1. Like Flashdance, Footloose also had a couple of tracks nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar. (“Let’s Hear It For The Boy,” like “Footloose,” lost to a song that will eventually end up in this column.)
But “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” is a bright, happy song with its own kind of appeal. “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” hit #1 on the R&B chart, which means that it caught on with an audience that Footloose, a movie with an all-white cast, didn’t target. And “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” doesn’t feel tied to the movie in the way that “Footloose” will always be.
We should talk about the video. Unlike most of the big soundtrack hits of the year, “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” has a music video that’s not made up entirely of clips from its movie. Instead, it’s got Deniece Williams granting magical dance-powers to a series of hopeless dudes. A little kid in a dunce cap becomes a high-stepping Fred Astaire type. A cringing nerd gets up on his piano and spins around. A hopeless football player punches and headbutts his opponent — not legal things to do in football — and does Michael Jackson kicks. As the video ends, Williams dances with a whole horde of guys who show off their radically divergent levels of dancing ability. (The little kid in the top hat, by the way, is Aaron Lohr, who went on to become a Broadway star and who is now married to Idina Menzel.)
Unless I’m radically misinterpreting the subtext of the video, all these different boys are not supposed to be Deniece Williams’ boyfriends. Instead, all of them are supposed to blur together into some multi-faceted ur-boy. This changes the message of Williams’ song. The boy is not any one boy in particular. It’s all boys. Through the lens of the video, “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” says something like: These boys are terrible, but let’s hear it for them anyway.
After “Let’s Hear It For The Boy,” Deniece Williams never came anywhere near the top 10 again. Instead, she pulled a reverse Whitney Houston: After spending years as a successful pop singer, she became a full-time gospel singer. She’s won four Grammys, all in gospel categories, and she seems plenty happy in that world.
Deniece Williams might be the least famous singer with two #1 singles to her credit, but that’s still more #1 singles than almost anyone ever gets to make. Also, Deniece Williams can say that she’s the singer who taught Chris Penn to dance. 14 years after Footloose, Chris Penn was still so confident in his dancing abilities that he was busting moves while pouring drinks in a Jay-Z video. That’s a legacy.
(Jay-Z’s 1998 single “Can I Get A…” peaked at #19. Jay-Z and Ja Rule will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2002 Will & Grace episode where both Sean Hayes and Matt Damon sing “Let’s Hear It For The Boy”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the country version of “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” that the former One Tree Hill star Jana Kramer recorded for the 2011 Footloose remake:
(Jana Kramer’s highest-charting single, 2012’s “Why Ya Wanna,” peaked at #50. Also, Kramer was in 2018’s Support The Girls, and that’s a good movie.)