The Number Ones

January 20, 1990

The Number Ones: Michael Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You”

Stayed at #1:

3 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.

***

The 1990s began poorly. George Herbert Walker Bush was President of the United States. Dan Quayle was Vice President. In January of 1990, Time Inc. and Warner Bros. merged to form one media mega-corporation, the FBI arrested DC mayor Marion Berry for crack, and the Panamanian narco-dictator Manuel Noriega, a former CIA informant, surrendered to the US Army. At the North American box office, Driving Miss Daisy knocked Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July out of the #1 spot and, a couple of months later, won Best Picture at the Oscars. And on the Billboard Hot 100, motherfucking Michael Bolton had the first #1 hit of the ’90s. This was not an especially inspiring start for a new decade.

Bolton is not a definitive ’90s figure, except insofar as he was hugely popular for a few years around the turn of the decade. Bolton represented a wing of whitebread adult-contempo balladry that ran roughshod on the pop charts in the years before the ’90s really developed its own musical identity, but he was a relic of an earlier age. Bolton had served in the late-’70s hard rock trenches without any great distinction, and he always sang with the strained intensity of that era’s arena rockers. But where guys like Foreigner’s Lou Gramm conquered the pop charts by delivering white-blues screeches over thudding power chords or glimmering keyboards, Bolton actually came to imagine himself as a soul singer, and that’s how he rose to temporary pop stardom. This should’ve never happened. We should’ve never let this happen.

Bolton’s first #1 hit wasn’t a definitive ’90s song, either. In fact, Bolton had co-written the flavorless ballad “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” many years earlier, and it had been a hit for a different singer as far back as 1983. When Bolton took the song back for himself, he earned the historic distinction of becoming the first chart-topper of the ’90s. Those of us who came of age during that decade can hold this up as evidence that we were always good and fucked.

When Bolton landed his first #1 hit, he was a month shy of his 37th birthday, and he’d been kicking around the music business for decades. Michael Bolotin was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and he started out young. In 1969, when Bolotin was 15, his bar band the Nomads signed with Epic and released a couple of singles. Those singles flopped, and Epic dropped the band. In 1975, a solo Bolotin signed with RCA and released a self-titled debut album of unimpressive Joe Cocker-style blues-rock growling. That didn’t go anywhere, either.

In 1979, Bolotin became the singer of a hard rock band called Blackjack, which also featured the former Meat Loaf sideman and future Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick. Blackjack only stayed together for two years, but they released two albums, and one of their singles, the extremely forgettable “Love Me Tonight,” made the Hot 100, where it peaked at #62. The band broke up after their sophomore album, 1980’s Worlds Apart, bricked. At some point, Kanye West must’ve gotten his hands on a copy of Worlds Apart, since he sampled songs from that album on Jay-Z’s 2002 track “A Dream” and on his own 2004 banger “Never Let Me Down.” That’s probably a better legacy than Blackjack deserved.

After Blackjack, Michael Bolotin went solo again, and he changed his name to Michael Bolton, thus setting into motion a chain of events that would lead to a very good Office Space joke many years later. There are rumors that Bolton tried out for the lead singer spot in Black Sabbath after Ronnie James Dio’s departure, but Bolton himself has denied them. Instead, Bolton started to find some success as a solo artist when his 1983 rocker “Fool’s Game” made the Hot 100, peaking at #82. Listening to early Michael Bolton songs is sort of fun because the man always sang like that. Songs like “Fool’s Game” are literally just the Michael Bolton chesty-wail thing over the kind of deeply generic radio-rock that was coming out around then.

Bolton’s first real success didn’t come from his own records. Instead, in 1982, Bolton signed a publishing contract with CBS. CBS paired Bolton up with Doug James, a journeyman songwriter who’d written for Dionne Warwick. Bolton and James wanted to write hits, and they were not precious about this. They succeeded. The first song that the two of them wrote together was a weepy ballad called “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You.” The song almost went to previous Number Ones artists Air Supply, but Clive Davis, Air Supply’s label boss, wanted to change a line from the chorus. Bolton refused to allow that.

Instead, Laura Branigan released her version of “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” in 1983. At the time, Branigan was having a nice little run of hits, and her take on “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” went to #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart and reached #12 on the Hot 100. (Branigan’s highest-charting single, 1982’s “Gloria,” peaked at #2. It’s a 9.) Branigan based her version of “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” on Bolton and James’ demo, and her profoundly sleepy take on the track gave Bolton his first significant hit. A few years later, Bolton co-wrote another ballad called “I Found Someone” for Laura Branigan. Branigan’s version only made it to #90. A couple of years later, though, Cher recorded a dramatic synth-rock cover of “I Found Someone,” and she took it to #10 in 1988. (Cher’s “I Found Someone” is a 7.)

By the time “I Found Someone” became a hit, Michael Bolton had figured out that nobody took him seriously as a hard rocker. On his 1987 album The Hunger, Bolton switched his style up. Bolton recorded much of the album with the non-Steve Perry members of Journey backing him up, but the songs that took off were the watery quasi-soul ballads that didn’t involve the Journey guys. Two of those ballads made the top 20. “That’s What Love Is All About,” which Bolton co-wrote, peaked at #19, while his cover of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” peaked at #11. (There’s a whole lot to say about Michael Bolton’s audacity in even attempting to sing that one, but we’ll get into that in a future column.)

In any case, by the time he recorded his horrifically titled 1989 album Soul Provider, Michael Bolton had found his lane. He was going to bellow out dry, bland, soul-sucking sucky soul ballads for every waiting room in America, and he was going to get hugely famous doing it. There’s nothing remotely hard rock about Soul Provider except for the terrible, terrible vocal decisions that Bolton makes. Lead single “Soul Provider,” for instance, is that Michael Bolton gargle-bawl over smooth-jazz sax-tootles and narcoleptic keyboard plinks.

“Soul Provider” peaked at #17, and Bolton followed it up by bringing back “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” and making it, once again, his own. Bolton sings “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” from the perspective of a heartbroken man. He’s just heard that the person he loves is leaving. Someone else has swept this person’s heart away. It’s not entirely clear if Bolton’s narrator and this person were ever together. It could be that Bolton simply had a big, overpowering crush: “How can I blame you, when I built my world around the hope that one day we’d be so much more than friends?” But also, who gives a fuck? Point is: Michael Bolton is sad. That’s all we’re really supposed to take away here.

Bolton recorded “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” with Michael Omartian, a soft-rock veteran who’d previously produced chart-toppers for Christopher Cross and Peter Cetera. (Mercifully, this is Omartian’s final appearance in this column.) The “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” arrangement is pure cliché, fully of noodly bass and gloopy cascades of keyboard. There’s an easy-to-ignore guitar solo somewhere in there. Bolton’s guttural bray overpowers everything else on the song, but he doesn’t give himself a whole lot of melody to sing. So we’re just listening to this guy’s exploding-vein roar over hold-music nothingness. I hate it. Literally the only good thing about “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” is the single’s cover art, where Bolton, presumably accidentally, looks a lot like Michael Myers.

Soul Provider lingered in the charts for years and years, and it sent two more singles into the top 10. “How Can We Be Lovers,” which Bolton co-wrote with Diane Warren and Desmond Child, peaked at #3. (It’s a 3.) Before long, the Warren-written “When I’m Back On My Feet Again” made it to #7. (It’s a 4.) Soul Provider went platinum shortly after “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” fell out of the #1 spot. The album continued to sell steadily for a long, long time. In 1994, it went sextuple platinum. This would not even turn out to be Michael Bolton’s biggest-selling album. He’ll appear in this column again.

GRADE: 2/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 1992 Saved By The Bell episode where Zack Attack members Mario Lopez and Elizabeth Berkley sing “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You”:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Beavis and Butt-Head encountering the “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” video on a 1994 episode of their show:

(The Rev. Horton Heat, who also appears in that clip, has never had a Hot 100 hit, but Beavis and Butt-Head are right about the fact that he rocks.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Michael Bolton being a good sport and transforming “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” into a song for the IRS on a 2015 episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Technotronic’s elemental, hypnotic laser-lights-in-the-gothic-cathedral hip-house throb “Pump Up The Jam” peaked at #2 behind “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You.” It gets my booty on the floor tonight and makes my day. It’s a 10.

THE 10S: Tom Petty’s gleaming, ecstatic windows-down singalong “Free Fallin'” peaked at #7 behind “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You.” I wanna write its name in the sky. It’s a 10.

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