The Number Ones

December 6, 1986

The Number Ones: Bruce Hornsby & The Range’s “The Way It Is”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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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How far can good intentions go? Bruce Hornsby & The Range’s “The Way It Is,” the gentle and florid soft-rock jam, is unambiguously a song about racism and about people with money doing everything in their power to keep their place atop the societal pyramid. Hornsby opens the song with a lyrical vignette about “the man in the silk suit” going out of his way to sneer at an old lady in a welfare line. For years, Sean Hannity, a man who continues to make his living performatively sneering at people in welfare lines, used “The Way It Is” as theme music. But Hannity didn’t use any of the actual words that Hornsby sang. He just used that piano line.

In 2004, Hornsby admitted that he wasn’t happy about Hannity using the song but said that he felt helpless to stop it:

I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it. They can use it if they want to. If I make a stink about it, then they make you into a clown. They make a big joke out of you. So you just ignore it. If you go and raise your hand in protest, they just turn you into their new whipping boy.

It seems like a cruel joke, but people have a great ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance in the music they like. You can spend years listening to a song that passionately argues against the way you feel. You can sing along with that song in the shower every day, and you can still feel the way you feel. That’s just the way it is.

Bruce Hornsby was born atop that societal pyramid. Hornsby came from Williamsburg, Virginia, where his father, a former oil exec, had become a hugely successful housing developer. Hornsby’s father, a former musician, kept a Steinway piano in his living room, and Bruce learned to play on it. In 1974, when Bruce was studying music at the University Of Richmond, his brother Bobby started a band to play Grateful Dead covers at frat parties. Bruce joined Bobby Hi-Test And The Octane Kids, playing Fender Rhodes. Later on, Bruce had his own band, and Michael McDonald caught one of their local shows while touring with the Doobie Brothers. Impressed, McDonald returned the next night, bringing more Doobies with him and advising Hornsby that he should move out to Los Angeles.

Bruce and his younger brother John arrived in LA in 1980, and the two of them became staff songwriters at 20th Century Fox. For a little while, Bruce played keyboards in a later lineup of the soft rock band Ambrosia. (Ambrosia’s two highest-charting singles, 1978’s “How Much I Feel” and 1980’s “Biggest Part Of Me,” both peaked at #3. “How Much I Feel” is a 4, and “Biggest Part Of Me” is a 3.) Later on, Bruce spent a couple of years in former Number Ones artist Sheena Easton’s band. You can see him in her video for the 1984 hit “Strut,” wearing goofy sunglasses and lip-syncing along with Easton on the bridge. (“Strut” peaked at #7. It’s a 7.)

Hornsby formed the Range in 1984. Bassist Joe Puerta had been in Ambrosia with Hornsby. Drummer John Molo had been playing in that Virginia bar with Hornsby when Michael McDonald walked in. Hornsby didn’t think his new band was making commercial music, but RCA signed them anyway. RCA was right. The Range’s debut single “Every Little Kiss” peaked at #72, but their second single was “The Way It Is.” The song took off on adult-contempo radio, and Hornsby and the Range’s debut album, also called The Way It Is, sold three million copies. In 1987, The Way It Is was one of the biggest sellers of the year; only Slippery When Wet, Graceland, and Licensed To Ill moved more copies.

The Way It Is is a lush, pretty, well-crafted piece of work — the type of album that could sit comfortably on a CD rack next to Brothers In Arms or Invisible Touch or Sports. (Hornsby’s buddy Huey Lewis co-produced a couple of songs on The Way It Is and played harmonica on “Down The Road Tonight.”) Hornsby sings in a warm, smooth white-soul yarl. The drums echo just right, and the guitars noodle with processed precision, like they were soundtracking a cop show. If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I’m not generally predisposed toward this sort of warm-digital-blanket music. Most of the time, I prefer the pop charts to be a site of hormonal rioting. That applies here. Generally, I think The Way It Is is a pretty boring album. And yet that title track has an easy grace that I can’t dismiss.

It’s that piano. That piano is something else. Over that big, expensive, smoothed-out groove, Hornsby lets his fingers loose. “The Way It Is” is built around a central riff, but Hornsby keeps circling that main figure, dancing around it. He orbits the main melody, ducking in and out when it makes sense, never losing the melodic thread even when he’s playing solos. Hornsby’s actual singing voice is pretty plain, but his piano has its own voice, and that voice stands out.

The lyrics for “The Way It Is” are essentially folk-song lyrics. Hornsby sings about people struggling while other people thrive. There’s the one verse about the old lady in a welfare line, then another about a little kid who needs the rules of segregation explained. Then Hornsby mentions the Civil Rights Act while making it clear that its work is nowhere near done: “Well, they passed a law in ’64/ To give those who ain’t got a little more/ But it only goes so far.” On the chorus, Hornsby dwells on the idea that we’re stuck in this inhuman rut: “That’s just the way it is/ Some things will never change.”

“The Way It Is” is not a song about hopelessness. The last line on the chorus makes that clear: “Ha, but don’t you believe them.” Even still, that one line comes off almost as an aside. Instead, Hornsby’s piano has to do the heavy lifting. It has to sound sad but hopeful, wounded but resolute. Hornsby pulls it off. That delicate balance between fatalism and hope is, I think, the reason why, as the Bonus Beats section shows, so many rappers have sampled “The Way It Is.” The tone resonates. (Maybe that’s why Hannity kept using the song, too.)

“The Way It Is” made Bruce Hornsby a pop star, and his follow-up single “Mandolin Rain” peaked at #4. (It’s a 6.) In 1988, Hornsby and the Range went platinum again with their second album Scenes From The Southside, and its lead single “The Valley Road” reached #5. (That’s another 6.) But Hornsby wasn’t really into his own pop stardom. Talking to Stereogum in 2019, Hornsby said that he wasn’t a big fan of the music that he made in that era: “I don’t think it ages well. I didn’t really like it that much then. I’m proud of the songs but I’m not much of a fan of that singer who was singing those songs. I think it’s pretty mediocre, at best… I feel like I had the hits, and then the music got interesting.”

In that era, Hornsby helped make a lot of hits for other people. In 1989, for instance, Hornsby co-wrote, co-produced, and played piano on Don Henley’s “The End Of The Innocence,” which peaked at #8. (It’s a 7.) In 1991, Hornsby also played on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” (That one peaked at #18, so it doesn’t get a rating, but it’s a good one.) Hornsby played on a whole lot of other people’s records around that time: Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, Squeeze, a bunch of others. He also flirted more and more with jazz and bluegrass, two projects that would endear him to the legendary band that would soon welcome him as a part-time member.

In the early ’90s, Hornsby achieved some sort of boomer-musician nirvana, essentially became a touring member of the Grateful Dead. (The Grateful Dead’s highest-charting single, 1987’s “Touch Of Grey,” peaked at #9. It’s a 5.) Hornsby toured with the Dead for two years, and he played with the band and its various offshoots for decades afterward. He was with the band when they played their big farewell reunion shows in 2015.

In the past few decades, Hornsby has essentially forsaken his pop stardom, making oblique and layered records. As a touring act, he’s been all over the jam-band circuit. He’s done a bunch of music for Spike Lee movies, and he’s also done a lot of work with bluegrass veteran Ricky Skaggs. In the past few years, Hornsby has made a lot of records with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, an artist who’s always been forthright about the influence that Hornsby’s had on his own work. (Bon Iver’s highest-charting single, the 2020 Taylor Swift duet “exile,” peaked at #6. It’s a 7.) In 2021, as in 1986, Bruce Hornsby seems like a great hang.

As an artist, Bruce Hornsby won’t be in this column again, and I’m sure he’s fine with that. As a songwriter, though, we’ll see him again.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: As mentioned above, “The Way It Is” has been sampled many, many times on rap songs. The UK rapper MC Buzz B sampled the track as far back as 1991, but the first time that sample had a real impact was in 1996, when E-40 used it on “Things’ll Never Change,” a collaboration with the Dove Shack member Bo-Rock. Here’s the video:

(As lead rapper, E-40’s highest-charting single is the 2006 T-Pain/Kandi Girl collab “U And Dat,” which peaked at #13. As a guest, 40 made it to #7 on Lil Jon’s 2006 track “Snap Yo Fingers.” That one is a 6.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: The posthumous 2Pac single “Changes,” which came out in 1998, sampled “The Way It Is,” and it featured the R&B singer Talent doing a version of Hornsby’s hook. “Changes” is the song I always think of when I hear “The Way It Is.” Here’s the video:

(“Changes” peaked at #32. 2Pac will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s 2Pac’s onetime labelmate Snoop Dogg rapping over a sample of “The Way It Is” on his 2008 Charlie Wilson collaboration “Can’t Say Goodbye”:

(Snoop Dogg will eventually appear in this column, and he’ll do it with a song that Bruce Hornsby sampled. As a solo artist, Charlie Wilson’s highest-charting single is 2005’s “Charlie, Last Name Wilson,” which peaked at #67. Wilson was also the leader of the Gap Band, whose highest-charting single, 1982’s “Early In The Morning,” peaked at #24. As a guest, Wilson made it up to #6 with his appearance on the 2003 Snoop Dogg/Pharrell collab “Beautiful.” It’s a 6.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2010 Community episode where Chevy Chase sings his version of “The Way It Is”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Polo G rapped over a sample of “The Way It Is” on his 2020 track “Wishing For A Hero,” a collaboration with BJ The Chicago Kid. Here’s the video:

And here’s Bruce Hornsby and Polo G performing a remote version of “Wishing For A Hero” together for the virtual version of last year’s Bonnaroo:

(As lead artist, Polo G’s highest-charting track is the 2019 Lil Tjay collab “Pop Out,” which peaked at #11. “Pop Out” is one of those songs, like “The Humpty Dance” or “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record),” that would totally be 10s if they made the top 10. As a guest, Polo reached #10 on the 2020 Juice WRLD/Marshmello track “Hate The Other Side.” It’s a 7. BJ The Chicago Kid hasn’t had a Hot 100 hit as lead artist. As a guest, BJ made it to #38 on Schoolboy Q’s 2014 track “Studio.”)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Hornsby reinterpreting “The Way It Is” for a Stereogum Session at our NYC office in 2019:

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