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.
Try to imagine: You’re taking an English class in college, and your teacher is a ridiculously, absurdly handsome man. You hear rumors that he’s married to a pop star, or that he’s got a side hustle singing in nightclubs, but you don’t know anything about that. Then, a couple of years later, this very same English teacher has the #1 single in America, and he’s got it with a song about fucking. That’s got to be pretty weird, right? Because that’s somebody’s experience, and I would love to know more about it.
I was an English major. Before he took his single “Shake You Down” to #1, Gregory Abbott taught English at UC Berkeley. “Shake You Down” is not a terribly interesting song in itself, but I can’t stop thinking about this biographical tidbit. What books did Gregory Abbott have on his syllabus? Was he a tough grader? Were his classroom discussions lively, or did his overall handsomeness intimidate all the students and make them clam up? (RateMyProfessor.com did not exist in the late ’70s or early ’80s, but you can bet that Gregory Abbott would have the little hot-pepper icon next to his name.) Did Gregory Abbott have his desk-chairs all in a row, or did he do the thing where everyone sits in a circle? On sunny days, would Gregory Abbott have class outside? I feel like I need to know these things. If you were ever Gregory Abbott’s student, please jump in the comments section and let everyone know.
Gregory Abbott is a Harlem native, and he’s the son of two immigrants. (His mother was from Venezuela, and his father was from Antigua.) As a kid, Abbott played piano and sang in a choir, but he went on to spend his young adulthood in academia. Abbott got a BA from Boston University and a master’s at Cal State San Francisco, and he also studied creative writing at Stanford, though he stopped short of earning his PhD. Somewhere in there, Abbott also had a stint teaching at Berkeley. And for three years in the late ’70s, he was married to the singer Freda Payne, who was 12 years older than him. They divorced in 1979 after having a kid. (Payne’s highest-charting single, 1970’s divorce-themed “Band Of Gold,” peaked at #3. It’s a 7.)
During all his years studying, Abbott sang with bands to earn money on the side. Somewhere down the line, Abbott met Marvin Gaye, and he says that Gaye showed him how a studio worked. In the ’80s, Abbott moved back to New York and worked on Wall Street. He played his demo for some of the people who worked at his brokerage firm, and they loaned him enough money to build a studio. Abbott’s uncle, a record exec, helped him get signed to CBS, and Abbott started releasing music when he was 32 years old. “Shake You Down,” his first single, had a slow rise, making it to #1 on the Hot 100 after it had already topped Billboard‘s R&B chart.
Abbott wrote and produced “Shake You Down” himself, and he played keyboards and programmed the drum machines. Unlike a similarly titled single that will soon appear in this column, “Shake You Down” is not a song about blackmailing anyone, or about soliciting bribes. Abbott claimed that he’d “coined a phrase.” Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Abbott says that the song is his “attempt to express how men feel when they see a woman they like.” No. This is wrong. It’s a song about having sex.
More Abbott: “When I repeated [the title] to a lady friend of mine, she definitely understood what I was saying.” This is probably the kind of thing that you can only pull off if you look like Gregory Abbott. Being a former English teacher, Abbott presumably knew that you’re usually talking about criminal activity when you’re talking about shaking someone down. But did Abbott know that? Now that I think about it, is it possible that Abbott’s entire career — Berkeley, Wall Street, pop music, all of it — was only possible because the guy is so damn good-looking? Was it like the Jon Hamm character on 30 Rock, where everyone just indulges the guy because he looks like a god?
Anyway, “Shake You Down” is not what I’d call a terribly smart song. Instead, it’s passable adult-contempo smooth soul. Abbott has a nice voice, and he’s capable of falsetto runs and chesty bellows. The song lopes along, a midtempo digital groove, while Abbott sings that he’s been watching you from so far across the floor now, baby, and that he’s glad that you picked up on his telepathy now, baby. Abbott goes into little half-spoken bits that sound maybe a tiny bit rap-adjacent: “I can’t stop thinking of the things we do/ The way you call me baby when I’m holding you.” (A decade later, a song like “Shake You Down” would need a rap verse to be a hit.) Abbott has a rhythmic intelligence, an ability to ride his own breezy beat, but he doesn’t have the presence of a true star.
The video helped, of course. Director Dominic Sena, who’d already made Peter Cetera and Amy Grant’s “The Next Time I Fall” clip and who would later helm movies like Gone In 60 Seconds and Swordfish, shoots the “Shake You Down” clip to look like a roll of film, and various attractive women lip-synch the backing vocals on the hook. Abbott comes off as a grown man, which probably helps with the all-around sexiness of the enterprise.
But the song itself just isn’t much. It’s a bland nothing with a few actively irritating touches, like the canned synth-harmonica on the intro. The song’s synthetic sheen does nothing for it. If “Shake You Down” had come out a decade earlier, it would’ve been a Philly soul song, made with strings and a busy bassline and a whole lot of hi-hat action. It would’ve probably been a lot better. But this kind of ’80s R&B boilerplate just doesn’t do a whole lot for me.
In “Shake You Down,” Abbott had a cross-format hit. It was an R&B-radio smash that also did big numbers on the adult-contemporary stations and got respectable levels of play in clubs. But “Shake You Down” did not announce the arrival of a major new star. After “Shake You Down,” only one more Abbott single even sniffed the Billboard Hot 100. His “Shake You Down” follow-up “I Got The Feelin’ (It’s Over)” made it to #5 on the R&B charts, but it topped out at #56 on the Hot 100. Sadly, that song’s title would prove prophetic, since Abbott never made the singles chart again.
Abbott released one more major-label album, 1988’s I’ll Prove It To You. It flopped. I’m not exactly sure what Abbott’s been doing for the past 30 years, but he releases independent singles a couple of times a year. Last year, for example, Abbott teamed up with the smooth-jazz saxophonist Gerald Albright on a track called “Chill.” It’s OK. The sad thing is: Abbott could go back into academia tomorrow and still be better-looking than virtually any of the professors I have ever known.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Houston rap group Royal Flush’s 1988 track “Shake Me Down,” which is built from a sample of “Shake You Down”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s De La Soul using a quick sample of “Shake You Down” on “Cool Breeze On The Rocks,” a collage-style skit from 1989s 3 Feet High And Rising:
(As lead artists, De La Soul’s highest-charting single is 1989’s “Me Myself And I,” which peaked at #34. As guests, they made it up to #14 on Gorillaz’ “Feel Good Inc.”)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Beastie Boys also used a quick “Shake You Down” clip on “Dis Yourself In ’89 (Just Do It),” a chopped-up DJ-scratch track from 1989’s Love American Style EP. Here it is:
(Beastie Boys’ highest-charting single, 1987’s “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!),” peaked at #7. It’s an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s South Central Cartel sampling “Shake You Down” on their 1997 track “Da Bomb”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On his 2005 50 Cent collab “So Seductive,” Tony Yayo, the Tony Banks of G-Unit, flips the quasi-rapped stuff from the “Shake You Down” bridge. Here’s the “So Seductive” video:
(“So Seductive,” Tony Yayo’s highest-charting single, peaked at #48. G-Unit made it to #13 with 2003’s “Stunt 101,” but Yayo wasn’t on that one, so he probably shouldn’t get credit. Yayo doesn’t really rap on Eminem’s 2006 G-Unit/Cashis collab “You Don’t Know,” either, but he does shout on the outro, so that’s something. That one peaked at #12. 50 Cent will eventually appear in this column.)