The Number Ones

January 24, 1987

The Number Ones: Billy Vera & The Beaters’ “At This Moment”

Stayed at #1:

2 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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I wrote column for a while before I really figured this out, but every #1 single has a story. That’s why I love writing about them. Even when I don’t like the song, I love watching the forces that pushed it to the top. A #1 single always requires some combination of timing, luck, and cultural momentum. A record label can put all its resources into pushing a song towards the top of the charts, and sometimes it works, but the chart itself remains a fluid and unpredictable beast. Nobody can ever really, truly guess what song the public will fall for at any particular moment.

Billy Vera & The Beaters’ “At This Moment” is one of the purest, truest, most beautiful examples of this phenomenon at work. When he scored his sole #1 single, Billy Vera was a 42-year-old music-business journeyman with decades in the game and very little to show for it. Vera had seen success slip past him more than once, and he was scraping out a living as a bit-part actor and singing for his bar band on weekends.

One night, though, a producer for one of America’s most popular sitcoms saw Vera singing one of his songs in a nightclub, and that song ended up soundtracking a couple of key emotional moments on that sitcom. At that point, the song was five years old, and it was no longer in circulation. But Vera made a deal to get it back out on the marketplace, and the song took off. I love stuff like that. “At This Moment” is not a terribly compelling song itself, but its long journey to #1 is a thing of wonder.

Billy Vera grew up in California’s Inland Empire, and his whole family lived adjacent to the entertainment business. Vera’s father was an announcer on NBC game shows — one of those guys who would enthusiastically tell the contestants what they’d won. His mother had sung backup for Ray Charles and Perry Como. Vera started writing songs and making records in the early ’60s, when he was still a teenager. The Shirelles and Ricky Nelson recorded songs that Vera had written. Vera wrote the Remains’ 1966 single “Don’t Look Back,” a minor garage rock classic. As an artist, Vera made the charts for the first time in 1967, when Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler teamed him up with the soul singer Judy Clay. Their gentle, longing duet “Storybook Children” peaked at #54.

In 1968, two more of Vera’s singles made the Hot 100: The Judy Clay duet “Country Girl – City Man,” which reached #36, and the solo single “With Pen In Hand,” a cover of a song by former Number Ones artist Bobby Goldsboro, which got as far as #43. After that, though, Vera’s recording career stalled out, and he played in bands for oldies-circuit artists like Ronnie Spector and Dion & The Belmonts. But Vera had some good luck in 1979. He’d written a song called “I Really Got The Feeling.” Dolly Parton recorded it, and she took it to #1 on the country charts. (“I Really Got The Feeling” didn’t make the Hot 100, but Parton released it as the B-side to her single “Baby I’m Burnin’,” which peaked at #25.)

Vera actually wrote “At This Moment” in 1977, when he was living in New York. He’d been dating a much-younger woman, and she’d told him the story about how she’d broken up with her previous boyfriend. Vera started writing the song from the boyfriend’s perspective, but he didn’t come up with the song’s finale until a few months later, when that same girl broke up with him. That’s when Vera landed on the big, climactic, slightly overstated climax: “If you’d stay, I’d subtract twenty years from my life! I’d fall to my knees and kiss the ground that you walk on if I could just hold you again!” That’s a bold statement. It didn’t work. She didn’t stay.

Vera shopped “At This Moment” around to artists like Dionne Warwick and Olivia Newton-John, but none of them recorded it. (It’s frankly just impossible to imagine a beautiful woman singing “At This Moment.” “At This Moment” is a pure sad-sack-dude song.) After his Dolly Parton song blew up, Vera moved to Los Angeles to try his hand as a songwriter. As a side gig, he started up a cover band to play in local nightclubs, and they eventually started working some of his songs into the setlist. “At This Moment” was the showstopper.

Pretty soon, Billy And The Beaters had a local following, and the American arm of the Japanese label Alfa signed them up. In 1981, Billy And The Beaters recorded a self-titled album live at the Roxy in West Hollywood, with the former Doobie Brother and current missile defense expert Jeff “Skunk” Baxter producing. “I Can Take Care Of Myself,” the first single from that live album, was a surprise success, peaking at #39. “At This Moment” was the follow-up, and it actually cracked the Hot 100 in 1981, peaking at #79.

That Billy And The Beaters album is a total bar-band record, a pure throwback. It’s a yacht-rock-era adult-contemporary take on ’60s-style R&B, as sung by a white guy who’d actually been recording R&B records in the ’60s. Vera’s voice was never the biggest, but for a white soul singer, he’s got a fairly convincing holler. His band is loose and comfortable. There’s a lot of crowd noise, and the audience sounds like it’s having a great time. But there’s no urgency to the album. It’s pure pastiche — nothing more or less than music for a nostalgic night out. Vera and his band make no attempt to situate their music in the 1981 zeitgeist, and it’s hard to imagine how they even would, though I guess their initial success might’ve had something to do with The Blues Brothers coming out the year before.

Within the context of that album, “At This Moment” is the clear standout. The song works as Vera’s big vocal showcase, his moment to do all his best Otis Redding and Al Green riffs. He’s nowhere near those guys’ league, of course. He comes off as a weekend warrior — the guy with the best voice in your office, cutting loose at karaoke night after a few drinks. From that perspective, though, “At This Moment” is an impressive work.

The Vera of 1981 was a few years removed from the heartbreak that inspired “At This Moment,” but he still summons some of it for the big moments. You get the feeling that the song’s narrator is howling into the void, that there’s no chance he’ll actually get back with this woman he’s addressing. I like how Vera and the sax are both screaming hardest at the same point of the song. I do not, however, like the part where Vera sings, “Did you think I could hate you or raise my hands to you?/ Now come on, you know me too well.” That sounds like the type of shit that someone would only say if he really did have the capacity to be abusive. It just ooks me out.

After that first album did surprisingly well, Vera recorded a 1982 solo LP, with his old Atlantic boss Jerry Wexler producing. Shortly after the album’s release, though, the Japanese label Alfa shut down its American office, and the record went nowhere. Vera landed a few acting gigs — he’s got a small part in the 1984 cult film The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension — and kept singing in bars.

One night in 1985, the Family Ties writer/producer Billy Weithorn heard Vera singing “At This Moment” at a nightclub. At that point, Family Ties was a huge ratings hit. Its star Michael J. Fox had already been in 1985’s biggest movie, which meant that’d he’d also helped drive Huey Lewis & The News’ “The Power Of Love” to #1. Fox may have also invented rock ‘n’ roll while time-traveling, but we’ll have to check out sources on that one.

Weithorn needed a song to soundtrack a romantic scene between Fox’s Alex P. Keaton and Ellen Reed, the love interest played by Tracy Pollan. Weithorn had tried to license songs from bigger names, but those songs were too expensive. So Weithorn called Vera and asked him about that song he sang that night. (Weithorn hadn’t caught the song’s title.) The Family Ties producers actually brought Vera and the Beaters into the studio to re-record bits and pieces of “At This Moment” so that the crowd noise wouldn’t show up on TV.

When that Family Ties episode aired, “At This Moment” was out of print. Vera made a deal with Rhino Records, a Los Angeles reissue label that mostly put out well-curated oldies collections, to re-release a few thousand copies of the “At This Moment” single and the Billy And The Beaters album. The process took a long time, and the Family Ties episode was a distant memory by the time Vera got those records out, but he figured he could sell them at live shows. Soon afterward, though, Family Ties used “At This Moment” again, this time to soundtrack a sad flashback montage of Fox and Pollan. Hundreds of people called NBC to ask about the song, and “At This Moment” took off.

“At This Moment” sounded like an old song in 1981, so it stood out even more starkly in a 1987 pop context. The song didn’t fit into any clear genre, but it got played on just about every radio station. “At This Moment” topped Billboard‘s adult contemporary chart, and it also made the lower reaches of the R&B and country charts. The song was just nostalgic enough for everyone. It probably also helped that Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan were dating in real life. They got married in 1988, and they’re still together today. Fox has joked that every time he and Pollan have tried to dance with each other, “At This Moment” has started playing.

Billy Vera And The Beaters never released another charting single, though they did show up as the nightclub band in the 1987 Bruce Willis movie Blind Date. Vera kept playing clubs and acting. He played a villain named Duke Weatherill on four episodes of Beverly Hills 90210. He’s done a bunch of cartoon voices. He co-produced a few late-period Lou Rawls albums. And he sang the theme songs for Empty Nest and The King Of Queens, which has to be a pretty nice paycheck.

These days, Vera does a lot of voice-over work, which is basically the same thing as his father did for a living. He also works as a music historian, helping put together box sets and reissues. In 2013, Vera even won a Grammy — not for singing, but for writing the liner notes for a Ray Charles box set. Since Vera is someone who’s very plugged-in with music history, I have to imagine there’s a decent chance he’ll read this. In which case: Hi, Billy Vera! You have had a wild career! Sorry if I fucked anything up!

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the overwrought cover of “At This Moment” that Michael BublĂ© released in 2009:

(Michael BublĂ©’s highest-charting single, his 2012 version of “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas,” peaked at #23.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cringey moment from Seth MacFarlane’s 2015 movie Ted 2 where MacFarlane, as Ted, sings the beginning of “At This Moment” while testifying in court:

(MacFarlane has fortunately never had a Hot 100 hit. Mark Wahlberg will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a cringey-for-different-reasons video of Jimmy Fallon and the Roots performing “At This Moment” in the Tonight Show green room in 2018:

(Jimmy Fallon’s highest-charting single, the 2014 Will.I.Am collaboration “EW!,” peaked at #26. The Roots’ highest-charting single, the 1996 Raphael Saadiq collab “What They Do,” peaked at #34. The fact that Jimmy Fallon has charted higher than the Roots is upsetting to me, and the fact that ?uestlove plays the DJ in the “EW!” video doesn’t make me feel any better about it.)

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