The Number Ones

May 7, 1988

The Number Ones: Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Wishing Well”

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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He was a genius. He’d made a debut LP that was better than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He had, in fact, made “the most brilliant debut album from any artist this decade.” These were the things that 25-year-old Terence Trent D’Arby said about himself in 1987. There’s confidence, and then there’s that.

The thing is: D’Arby was trolling, but he wasn’t way out of pocket with it. I don’t know whether D’Arby was a genius, since I don’t really know what that word means, but he was furiously, insanely talented. His debut album, the preposterously titled Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D’Arby, wasn’t the most brilliant debut album of the ’80s, but it might’ve been one of the hundred most brilliant debut albums of the ’80s. And given that I am not the sort of person who willingly sits around listening to Sgt. Pepper, I can tell you that, given the choice, I would usually rather throw on Introducing The Hardline than Sgt. Pepper.

D’Arby said all that stuff when he was a young American artist courting fame in the UK, playing the country’s sensationalistic music press for all it was worth. Those quotes stuck with him, and they came close to dominating his narrative. Within a year, D’Arby was doing damage control, telling The Los Angeles Times:

People miss the nuances — like the genius thing. I was joking. I was making fun of the image I had built up, the whole arrogance thing… A lot of it was what I truly believed, but a lot of it was exaggerated to make a point. You have to hit people over the head to make them notice, and I did it. I know how to play the game.

That might’ve been the game in the UK, but it was not the game in an America that was still in thrall to its boomer rock heroes. In the late ’80s, rap music had not yet inured American music consumers to the art of wild and relentless self-promotion. Here, we had Terence Trent D’Arby trying to be late Kanye before he even had a chance to become early Kanye. That ploy blew up in D’Arby’s face, but not until after he landed his first and only #1 hit.

The whole Terence Trent D’Arby backstory was irresistibly twisty — perfect copy for the UK music press (or, for that matter, for a music blog that’s looking back at that one #1 hit). Terence Trent Howard was born in Manhattan, and he spent his younger years moving around the US. (When Howard was born, the #1 single in America was Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby.”) Howard’s family was intensely religious, and his mother wouldn’t allow any music in the house that wasn’t gospel, but young Terence had his mind blown as a kid when he heard a Jackson 5 single at a neighbor’s house. Right away, he later said, he knew that he wanted to become a singer.

Howard’s mother, a gospel singer herself, eventually married a bishop named James Darby, and Terence Trent took later Darby’s last name, adding a completely superfluous but awesome apostrophe. While in high school in Florida, Terence Trent was an amateur boxer and a Golden Gloves champion. D’Arby got an offer to study boxing at an Army school, and after a year of studying journalism at the University Of Central Florida, he signed on with the Army. D’Arby served in West Germany, and while he was there, he started singing for a band called the Touch. One night, D’Arby went AWOL to play a show, and the Army gave him a court martial and a dishonorable discharge. After the Army sent him home, D’Arby went right back to Germany and rejoined the Touch. The group released an album in 1984, and D’Arby spent the next few years traveling around Europe before winding up in London.

In London, D’Arby went to work with Howard Gray, an Australian producer who’d worked with bands like the Cure and Scritti Politti. D’Arby and Gray recorded a couple of songs, and those songs got D’Arby a contract with the UK division of CBS Records. CBS paired D’Arby with the producer Martyn Ware, who had once been one of the founders of previous Number Ones artists the Human League. Ware had left the Human League before that group became a pop force, and he’d gone on to found the competing synthpop group Heaven 17. (Heaven 17’s highest-charting US single, 1982’s “Let Me Go,” peaked at #74.) Ware had also helped kick off Tina Turner’s comeback, co-producing her 1983 dance-pop cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” which peaked at #26. I was not expecting Martyn Ware’s name to show up in this column again, but he co-produced most of Introducing The Hardline with D’Arby, so here he is.

D’Arby later said that multiple British labels had passed on signing him. In that fascinating 1988 Los Angeles Times feature, D’Arby told Robert Hilburn, “They couldn’t see past the obvious. They looked at me and said, ‘Oh, here is another Michael Jackson or Prince. Who needs that?'” This doesn’t exactly track for me. If I was a label A&R guy in the ’80s, I would’ve happily given up half a lung to find another Michael Jackson or Prince. Furthermore, I have to imagine that any label person back then would’ve looked at Terence Trent D’Arby and immediately had dollar signs in their eyes — or, since it was the UK, pound signs.

The “Wishing Well” video makes it clear: D’Arby was a rare and special talent. He could sing. He could move. He could dress. He could deliver a hook with total commitment and feeling. He could emanate pure liquid charisma. He was comfortable existing in a space between genres and radio formats, pulling swagger from multiple sources at once. He definitely had a serious Prince thing going on, but he was distinct, too.

Like Prince, D’Arby drew on both R&B and new wave, but he approached those sounds from different directions. As a singer, D’Arby was an old-school ’60s-style soul rasper. He had nothing to do with the crushed-velvet soft-soul balladry of the late ’80s or with the new jack swing that would replace it. Instead, he drew on gospel and on the soul singers — Al Green, Sam Cooke, James Brown — who had drawn on gospel in earlier decades. But D’Arby didn’t work with soul musicians or soul producers. Instead, his collaborators came from synthpop and post-punk, and he steered right into the arty, clubby style of what was happening around him. He was a hybrid beast, a unique combination.

D’Arby was a great interview and a great TV performer, and those things made him an instant sensation in the UK, where Introducing The Hardline entered the charts at #1, back when that was still an incredibly difficult thing to do. His debut single, the Howard Gray-produced retro rave-up “If You Let Me Stay,” made the top 10 in the UK, but it barely caused a ripple in the US when it arrived shortly thereafter. (Here, “If You Let Me Stay” peaked at #68.) The US has a long history of ignoring hyped-up UK imports, which is essentially what D’Arby was even though the guy is American. But “Wishing Well,” D’Arby’s second single, changed that trajectory.

D’Arby co-produced “Wishing Well” with Martyn Ware, and he co-wrote it with Sean Oliver, an Antiguan-British bassist who’d previously been in the noisy post-punk band Rip Rig & Panic with a young Neneh Cherry. (Oliver never got a chance to write another big hit. He died of sickle cell anemia in 1990, at the age of 27.) “Wishing Well” has a slick, simple groove anchored to a big drum sound, with sparkly bluesy guitars and evocative little synth drones. The song is both playful and portentous, and it’s got an extremely catchy whistled hook that’ll bounce around the inside of your skull. D’Arby sings the absolute hell out of it, screaming and grunting and hitting heavenly falsetto runs. Sometimes, he sounds like a ’60s soul superhero who’s come unstuck in time. Sometimes, he sounds wounded and vulnerable. There’s something a bit slight about the song, and it doesn’t really give you much sense of who Terence Trent D’Arby is. But D’Arby trafficked in mystery, and the slightness worked for the song. It’s a vibe, a workout.

Lyrically, “Wishing Well” is basically a love song, though its lyrics are flowery romantic-poet gibberish: “Hugging like a monkey see, monkey do/ Right beside a riverboat gambler/ Erotic images float through my head/ Say you wanna be a midnight rambler.” The “midnight rambler” bit is a salute to the Rolling Stones, a band that D’Arby loved. Don’t ask me about the rest of it because I don’t fucking know. D’Arby sings of a wishing well that’s full of both butterfly tears and crocodile cheers, which doesn’t make any sense. Quickly, loudly, D’Arby wants to hear those sugar bells ring.

That’s all balderdash, of course. D’Arby’s words seem to hint at some elusive poetic truth, but they’re just random bits of nonsense jammed together, intoned with a solemnity that only hints at their silliness. I love this. I love it when anyone can sing utter gobbledygook and make it work. D’Arby sings it so hard that it almost sounds like he believes it, even when he’s stage-cackling mid-line. He makes a great bullshit artist. In the video, he sells that bullshit even harder, exhibiting dangerous levels of mysterious-guy sexiness and busting out fluidly disjointed chitlin-circuit dance moves. He looks like a star. For a little while, that’s what he was.

“Wishing Well” hung around the charts for months before finally reaching #1. By the time “Wishing Well” conquered the charts, D’Arby had performed the song at the Grammys, and he’d been nominated for Best New Artist, an award that he lost to Jody Watley. (Watley’s two highest-charting singles, 1987’s “Looking For A New Love” and 1989’s “Real Love,” both peaked at #2. “Looking For A New Love” is a 9, and “Real Love” is an 8.) Eventually, Introducing The Hardline went double platinum, and D’Arby took one more single, the brooding “Sign Your Name,” to #4. (“Sign Your Name” is an 8.)

D’Arby had made a very good, very successful debut album, but he’d also burned through any goodwill that the album generated by the time he released the 1989 sophomore LP Neither Fish Nor Flesh – A Soundtrack Of Love, Faith, Hope & Destruction. (These titles! What a guy!) Neither Fish Nor Flesh dips heavily into psychedelia, and it was generally regarded as a pretentious disaster at the time. Today, the album definitely plays as a bit of an overreach, but in the loose and lush art-soul textures of its ballads, you can hear a bit of what someone like Maxwell would pull off successfully a few years later. (Maxwell has spent his entire career exhibiting D’Arby’s whole combination of absurd talent and just-as-absurd pretension, and he’s always gotten away with it, possibly because his voice is just smoother. Shout out to him.)

Neither Fish Nor Flesh flopped hard on both sides of the Atlantic, and none of its singles even made the Hot 100. D’Arby’s next two albums flopped, as well. After “Sign Your Name,” only one of his singles, the 1993 Des’ree duet “Delicate,” ever charted again, and that one only got to #74. (Cool song, though.) After the total failure of 1995’s Vibrator, CBS was done with D’Arby.

After that defeat, D’Arby went six years without releasing another album, though he briefly fronted INXS after Michael Hutchence’s death. In 2001, D’Arby self-released an album called Wildcard without a label, and he also changed his name to Sananda Maitreya, not for religious reasons but because the name signified a sort of rebirth for him. Here’s how he explained it: “Terence Trent D’Arby was dead. He watched his suffering as he died a noble death. After intense pain, I meditated for a new spirit, a new will, a new identity.” I love this fucking guy. These days, all of his old records are on YouTube and on streaming services under the Sananda Maitreya name. Maybe it was an asshole move for me to keep referring to him as Terence Trent D’Arby all through this column. I hope not.

Maitreya moved from London to Munich, and then to Milan, where he married an Italian architect. Over the past 18 years, he’s self-released a series of albums with titles like Return to Zooathalon and The Rise Of The Zugebrian Time Lords. I can’t imagine that Sananda Maitreya will ever get near the pop charts again, but he is living his truth, and I bet he still thinks of himself as a genius. I hope so.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the rinky-dink “Wishing Well” cover that the Barenaked Ladies included on a 1989 demo:

(Barenaked Ladies will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: On “Money Jane,” a 2000 single from the Toronto DJ group Baby Blue Soundcrew that features Kardinal Offishall and Sean Paul, the hook from singer Jully Black uses the “Wishing Well” melody. Here’s the “Money Jane” video:

(Kardinal Offishall’s highest-charting single, the 2008 Akon collab “Dangerous,” peaked at #5. It’s a 4. Sean Paul will eventually appear in this column.)

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