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.
Songs can have weird lives. Consider what happened with Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” two entries in the grand pantheon of ’70s lighters-up arena-rock power ballads. Both of those songs were hits, but neither one made the top 10. Lynyrd Skynyrd and Frampton both sold millions upon millions of records, but neither one ever managed to land a #1 hit. When both of those songs were more than a decade old, though, a Miami DJ and dance producer combined both tracks into one ungainly beast, and he wound up with a #1 hit.
Those two ’70s power ballads have endured; “Free Bird,” in particular, is now part of the American cultural fabric. The 1988 single that fused the two songs has totally faded from memory. Still, the Miami producer’s version was a much bigger chart hit than either of the originals. From a narrative standpoint, this makes no sense. But that’s what happened. Chart history so rarely makes sense.
“Free Bird” came first. Most of the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd had been gigging around Jacksonville under different band names by the time they recorded their 1973 debut album (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd). They ended that album with a slow-building nine-minute song about refusing to be locked down in a romantic relationship. The song became a live favorite. Eventually, someone at MCA trimmed the track down to half its length and released it as a single. Early in 1975, a year and a half after that first Skynyrd album came out, “Free Bird” finally peaked at #19. (Skynyrd’s highest-charting single is “Sweet Home Alabama,” which came from the band’s second album but which actually peaked at #8 a few months before “Free Bird” reached its apex. “Sweet Home Alabama” is a 10.)
1975 is also when Peter Frampton first released “Baby, I Love Your Way.” Frampton, an angelic-faced British rocker, had been in the band Humble Pie for years, and he’d kicked off his solo career with his 1972 album Wind Of Change. In 1975, Frampton included the gooey soft-rock ballad “Baby, I Love Your Way” on his fourth LP, which was simply titled Frampton. That album, like Frampton’s previous efforts, didn’t do much business. In 1976, though, Frampton released the double live LP Frampton Comes Alive!, which blew up massively, selling eight million copies and becoming the year’s biggest-selling album. Frampton released the live version of “Baby, I Love Your Way” as a single, and it peaked at #12. (Frampton’s highest-charting single, 1977’s “I’m In You,” peaked at #2. It’s a 4.)
Lynyrd Skynyrd and Peter Frampton both had big runs in the ’70s, but neither of them were doing too well by 1988. Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zandt and guitarist Steve Gaines were both killed in a 1977 plane crash, which also took the lives of many of the band’s associates. That plane crash broke the neck and nearly severed the arm of guitarist Allen Collins, Van Zandt’s “Free Bird” co-writer. In 1986, a drunk-driving Collins crashed his car. Collins was paralyzed from the waist down, and his girlfriend was killed. Collins lived long enough to see “Free Bird” become a #1 hit, but he died in 1990.
Nothing so apocalyptic happened to Peter Frampton, but his subsequent records never reached the heights of Frampton Comes Alive! By 1987, Frampton was one of the musicians on his former classmate David Bowie’s Glass Spider tour. When this new version of “Baby, I Love Your Way” reached #1, Frampton told the LA Times that he was “thrilled”: “I always thought it was a strong song. And it’s definitely not hurting my situation.”
Those two ’70s nuggets made it to #1 in 1988 mostly because a guy named Bob Rosenberg lied to his record label. Rosenberg grew up in Philadelphia, and he was a second-generation pop star of sorts. Rosenberg’s mother Gloria Mann was a singer, and she scored a couple of pre-Hot 100 hits. In 1955, Mann’s versions of “Earth Angel” and “A Teenage Prayer” both made the top 20. Rosenberg moved to Florida when he was in high school. I don’t know when he grew out the long hair or the handlebar mustache, or when he got all swole, but the 1988 version of Rosenberg looked like he should’ve been a midcard heel in Jim Crockett Promotions.
In Florida, Rosenberg worked as a DJ — first at parties, then at clubs, then doing mixes on the radio. In the mid-’80s, Rosenberg recorded an electro-rap track called “Miami Vice,” and he also did the remix of 2 Live Crew’s “Beat Box” that appeared on the group’s 1986 debut album Is What We Are. At a Winter Music Seminar, Rosenberg met Suzi Carr, a singer who’d co-written a few Miami Sound Machine songs. Rosenberg convinced Carr to sing on a track he’d written called “Dreamin’.” She didn’t like the song, but she sang backup anyway. Rosenberg sang the track’s lead vocal in a feathery voice that didn’t go with his hulking frame at all. “Dreamin'” is a banger — a slinky Latin freestyle song built on a one-finger synth-riff and a whole lot of ping-ponging electronic percussion. It’s exactly the kind of low-tech ’80s dance track that I love.
Rosenberg released “Dreamin'” on his own label, and he took the group name Will To Power. The name comes from Nietzsche, whose idea of the human drive to dominate has formed the basis of a lot of right-wing philosophy. Bob Rosenberg seems to be at least a little bit right-wing himself. I haven’t heard Will To Power’s out-of-print 1990 sophomore album Journey Home, but my old boss Chuck Eddy loves that record. Chuck once wrote that, on that LP, Rosenberg “quotes Nietzsche and Solzhenitzyn, insults ‘knee-jerk liberals,’ demands relaxed gun-control laws, and says he won’t let his anger linger because it’d be bad for his aim and his trigger finger.” So that seems to be Bob Rosenberg’s whole deal.
“Dreamin'” became a local club hit. Epic picked the single up, and it went national, peaking at #50. Will To Power followed “Dreamin'” with another club track called “Say It’s Gonna Rain,” which had Suzi Carr on lead vocals. That one peaked at #49. At that point, Rosenberg only had a singles deal with Epic, but someone at the label asked him if he had enough music for an album. Rosenberg said he did. He was lying. Rosenberg rushed to come up with enough tracks to fill an LP. While coming up with music, Rosenberg heard “Baby, I Love Your Way” on the radio. It made him think of “Free Bird,” so he just decided to fuse the two songs into one. Epic didn’t think the medley would work, but Rosenberg gave a tape of his track to a Miami radio station, and it caught on, so Epic released the medley as a single. It became the second medley to hit #1 after Stars On 45’s “Stars On 45,” another weird little novelty that came from DJ sensibilities.
The combination of “Baby, I Love Your Way” and “Free Bird” doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, especially in a Miami club-music context. “Baby, I Love Your Way” is a drippy, needy love song. “Free Bird,” on the other hand, is about refusing to be in love — about how the narrator must be travelin’ on now. On the Will To Power fusion of those two songs, Suzi Carr sings “Baby, I Love Your Way,” and Bob Rosenberg sings “Free Bird.” So maybe you can hear those two songs as two sides of a conversation — a woman trying to pull a man closer while the man tries to push her away. Or maybe I’m giving it too much credit. Maybe no thought went into the combination at all.
Whatever the case, “Baby, I Love Your Way / Freebird Medley (Free Baby)” doesn’t work at all. It sounds like ass. “Free Bird” is a good song. “Baby, I Love Your Way” is not. The two tracks scratch the same romantic-grandeur itch, but that whole feeling isn’t even remotely well-served by giving those two songs a rinky-dink roller-disco makeover. Rosenberg combines those vocal melodies on top of a floridly fake adult-contempo piano and a slightly brain-numbing digital bassline. Rosenberg is a truly gifted club producer, but the physical exhilaration in a song like “Dreamin'” is totally absent on “Free Baby.” Meanwhile, Suzi Carr sings the Peter Frampton parts in a flavorless piano-bar squawk, while Rosenberg himself delivers the Ronnie Van Zandt bits like the shy office guy who hasn’t yet gotten drunk enough to do karaoke the way you’re supposed to do it. The whole thing is just deeply awkward.
I can’t really tell you what anyone liked about “Baby I Love Your Way / Freebird Medley (Free Baby),” but apparently people liked it enough that they wanted Will To Power to pull the same trick again. By the time Will To Power released Journey Home in 1990, Suzi Carr was out of the group; Rosenberg replaced her with Elin Michaels, a session singer who’d done backup vocals on the first album. The big single from that second Will To Power album was another ’70s arena-ballad cover. With Michaels singing, Will To Power remade 10cc’s 1975 jam “I’m Not In Love,” and their version of the song made it as high as #7. (Will To Power’s “I’m Not In Love” is a 4. 10cc’s original version peaked at #2; it’s a 9.)
Will To Power didn’t release any more major-label records after Journey Home, though there was an indie album called Spirit Warrior in 2005. I don’t know what Bob Rosenberg is doing these days, but Facebook tells me that he is still extremely jacked.
BONUS BEATS: The pop charts were not yet finished with “Baby, I Love Your Way.” In 1994, the group Big Mountain contributed a sort of easy-listening cover version of the song to the soundtrack of the movie Reality Bites, and that one became a hit, too. Here’s the video:
(Big Mountain’s “Baby, I Love Your Way” peaked at #6. It’s a 3. Another song from the Reality Bites soundtrack will eventually appear in this column.)