The Number Ones

June 14, 1986

The Number Ones: Patti LaBelle & Michael McDonald’s “On My Own”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

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.

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Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald never met each other until after their duet “On My Own” had hit #1. When they recorded the song, LaBelle and McDonald were on opposite coasts — LaBelle in Philadelphia, McDonald in Los Angeles. Producer/songwriters Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager took the two singers’ vocal takes and blended them together, making the two of them sound like they were singing to each other. For the video, director Mick Haggerty filmed LaBelle and McDonald in split-screen, their poses mirroring each other. The two of them were never in the same place until they sang “On My Own” on The Tonight Show together.

That kind of things happens all the time now. Songs come together over emailed wav files, and managers broker collaborations between artists who don’t know the first thing about one another. In 1986, though, this was a pretty new thing — especially for a song like “On My Own,” a duet where the two singers’ voices are supposed to mesh. But since “On My Own” is a song about not being together, that separation makes some kind of conceptual sense.

All the people involved in “On My Own” were show-business survivors. (All of them still are, in fact.) All of them already had #1 hits to their credit, but it’s still pretty remarkable that all of them were able to come together to make a chart-topper as late as 1986. When “On My Own” ascended to the top of the Hot 100, Burt Bacharach was 58. Carole Bayer Sager, who was married to Bacharach at the time, was 39. Patti LaBelle was 41. Michael McDonald, the baby of the bunch, was 36. “On My Own” is music by and for grown-ups, people who have been through some stuff.

Patti LaBelle had started out leading the Philadelphia girl group Patti LaBelle And The Blue Belles in the early ’60s. Her group first charted in 1962, when their single “I Sold My Heart To The Junkman” peaked at #15. For many years, that was their biggest hit. But in 1970, the Blue Belles moved to London, changed their name to Labelle, and started infusing their sound with psychedelic rock. Eventually, they made it to #1 with the 1975 banger “Lady Marmalade.” Soon after that, though, the group broke up, and LaBelle went solo.

For the first few years of her solo career, Patti LaBelle was an R&B-radio mainstay whose songs almost never crossed over to the Hot 100. That changed in 1985, when LaBelle sang a couple of songs on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. Her synthy dance track “New Attitude” peaked at #17. This led to more opportunities for LaBelle. She sang at Live Aid and at the Motown Returns To The Apollo TV special, and she jumped from Philadelphia International Records to MCA.

Like Patti LaBelle, Michael McDonald had sung for a group that made a #1 hit in the ’70s. But unlike her, he’d never faded from the center of pop music. McDonald’s “On My Own” collaborators all came from the pop-song factory system of the early ’60s. (Bacharach started even earlier, but he was a key part of that universe.) McDonald, on the other hand, had come up in early-’70s California, a time and a place when professional songwriters were considered passé.

McDonald had started out as a session player for Steely Dan before becoming the Doobie Brothers’ lead singer in 1975 — first temporarily filling in for the ailing Tom Johnston, then taking the spot over full-time. McDonald co-wrote and sang the Doobies’ 1979 chart-topper “What A Fool Believes.” He also sang backup on hits like Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like The Wind” and Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It,” as well as Patti Austin and James Ingram’s 1983 #1 hit “Baby, Come To Me.” (1980’s “Ride Like The Wind” peaked at #2. It’s a 7. 1979’s “This Is It” only made it to #11, so it doesn’t get a rating.)

The Doobie Brothers broke up in 1982, and McDonald went solo that year. McDonald made it to #4 with his debut solo single “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near).” (It’s a 6.) McDonald didn’t crank out solo music too quickly, and he didn’t seem that bothered about making hits. Instead, he was content to hang around in the background, lending his honeyed yarl to whoever needed it. He was a presence. Still is.

Early in 1986, Bacharach and Bayer Sager, who’d never quite gone away either, scored a massive hit with “That’s What Friends Are For,” the all-star single headlined by Bacharach’s old collaborator Dionne Warwick. A few months later, they pulled it off again.

Bacharach and Bayer Sager had been working on a song called “On My Own” for a while. Bayer Sager didn’t think the song was a hit. In her memoir, she later wrote that didn’t want to write lyrics for Bacharach’s melody but that she ended up doing it just to placate him. The couple took the song to Patti LaBelle when they were still in the middle of writing it, and she liked it. But when she recorded it with Richard Perry, the producer of ’70s hits like Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” it didn’t come together right. Bacharach and Bayer Sager actually recorded a version of the song with Dionne Warwick for her Friends album, but that one didn’t make it onto the album. Warwick has sung “On My Own” a few times, and she’s never seemed too upset about someone else taking it to #1.

Eventually, Bacharach and Bayer Sager just produced a LaBelle version of “On My Own” themselves. Bacharach played piano on the song, and it also has keyboards from hitmaking producers David Foster and Peter Wolf (Starship Wolf, not J. Geils Band Wolf). Bacharach and Bayer Sager still thought it sounded incomplete, though, so Bayer Sager asked McDonald to add some vocals. At first, McDonald just appeared at the end of the song, and Bayer Sager assured him that it wasn’t going to be a single. McDonald was on a different label, and he was nervous about singing on too many other people’s projects. But everyone liked how his voice sounded on it, so they brought him back to add more vocals and to turn the song into a full-on duet.

That’s a convoluted history for a pretty simple song. “On My Own” is essentially a replacement-level ’80s adult-contempo ballad about two people drifting apart from each other. (I imagine that the success of a song like that has something to do with Boomer divorce rates.) Bacharach and Bayer Sager’s production is a far cry from the sophisticated easy listening records that Bacharach was making in the ’60s. Instead, it’s slick and lush in that anonymous ’80s way — glimmering synth sounds, jazz-funk guitar-noodles, keyboards imitating sounds of string-flourishes. There’s absolutely no personality to the arrangement. It’s terribly boring.

There’s plenty of personality to the voices, though. LaBelle and McDonald don’t sound like they were in the same room when they made the song, and there’s not a whole lot of chemistry to their interplay. But both of them get chances to cut loose, and both of them are good at that. LaBelle’s voice is high and precise. Early on, she’s restrained and poised, a bit like Dionne Warwick. Soon enough, though, she’s exploding off of the song, showing the gospel-derived power that set her apart. McDonald, meanwhile, sounds like a big passionate Labrador. His voice is a baritone bleat — perhaps the platonic ideal of the white-soul bellow. As the song ends, both LaBelle and McDonald are just cutting loose, hitting big notes and wailing right past each other.

Both LaBelle and McDonald sing the song as two halves of a couple who wish they could start again but who can see themselves splintering anyway. Both of them are imagining themselves on their own, and they’re full of dread and despair, but they feel powerless to fix things. Early on, McDonald growls, “Now we’re up to talking divorce, and we weren’t even married.” That should make the breakup easier, not harder! There’s a lot of pathos in those “On My Own” lyrics, but there would probably be more if it weren’t so funny to imagine Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald in any kind of romantic relationship with each other.

On the back of “On My Own,” LaBelle’s album Winner In You topped the album charts and went platinum. Soon after, though, LaBelle went back to being an R&B-radio mainstay. She hasn’t made the top 10 of the Hot 100 since “On My Own,” but she regularly placed high on the R&B charts into the late ’90s. LaBelle also branched out, acting on A Different World and then getting her own short-lived sitcom Out All Night in 1992. She’s on TV a lot: American Horror Story, Dancing With The Stars, Empire, The Masked Singer. A couple of months ago, she did a Verzuz battle with her old friend Gladys Knight. Also, she apparently sells a lot of frozen pies. LaBelle really only made a couple of crossover hits, but she’s a beloved national treasure anyway.

Michael McDonald did manage one more crossover hit later in 1986: “Sweet Freedom,” from the soundtrack of the Billy Crystal/Gregory Hines buddy-cop movie Running Scared, which peaked at #7. (It’s a 7.) He’s kept steadily working since then, and he’s gotten a boost in recent years since people started using the term “yacht-rock.” In 2010, McDonald started a band called the Dukes Of September with Donald Fagan and Boz Scaggs. In recent years, he’s also collaborated with people like Grizzy Bear and Thundercat. Last month, he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame as a Doobie Brother. I don’t know if I’d necessarily call McDonald a national treasure, but he’s doing great.

“On My Own” ended up being the last #1 hit for Burt Bacharach, the end of a long run. But it would not be the last for Carole Bayer Sager; we’ll see her in this column again.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1995, Reba McEntire released a cover of “On My Own,” and fellow country stars Martina McBride, Linda Davis, and Trisha Yearwood sang on it with her. Here’s McEntire’s video for it:

(As lead artist, McEntire’s highest-charting Hot 100 single is 1999’s “What Do You Say,” which peaked at #31. Trisha Yearwood’s highest-charting single, her version of 1997’s “How Do I Live,” peaked at #23. And Martina McBride’s highest-charting single, 1999’s “I Love You,” peaked at #24.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Philadelphia rapper Journalist rapping over an “On My Own” sample on his 2001 track “The Way It Used To Be,” with the R&B duo Floetry singing the hook:

(Floetry’s highest-charting single, 2003’s “Say Yes,” peaked at #24.)

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