The Number Ones

April 7, 1990

The Number Ones: Taylor Dayne’s “Love Will Lead You Back”

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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For a couple of years, Taylor Dayne had a charmed pop-chart existence. Dayne was never a star, exactly. Beyond an impressive mane of hair, I’d have a tough time pinpointing any of the key points of the Taylor Dayne persona. But through the late ’80s and into the early ’90s, Dayne made hits. Dayne rose up out of the New York dance-pop scene, a universe where singers were generally treated as interchangeable delivery systems for producer-generated hooks, and she transcended that system. Dayne had a big run: Two multi-platinum albums, seven consecutive top-10 hits, and one single week at #1. That’s pretty good. That’s a lot more than most people get.

Like so many of the successful dance-pop artists of her generation, Dayne didn’t score her biggest hit with the sleek, computerized dance-pop that brought her to the charts in the first place. For singers like Dayne, the uptempo hits laid the runway, but the gloopy ballads were the big paydays. Dayne had the good fortune to sing a gloopy ballad from Diane Warren, perhaps the leading purveyor of gloopy ballads in pop history, in the moment when Warren was sitting on top of Gloop Mountain. Given what we know about the pop charts at the turn of the ’90s, anyone could’ve had a hit with the Warren-written “Love Will Lead You Back.” It could’ve been a hit for Luther Vandross or Michael Bolton or Warrant. Instead, Taylor Dayne got the song, and the song got Taylor Dayne to #1.

Taylor Dayne was born Lesley Wunderman in Manhattan, and she grew up mostly on Long Island. (When Wunderman was born, the #1 song in America was Gene Chandler’s “Duke Of Earl.”) Wunderman’s family made regular trips to Manhattan to go see Broadway shows, and you can hear plenty of theater-kid tryhard intensity in the music that she went on to record. Wunderman studied as a classical singer in college, and she also sang in go-nowhere bands called Felony and the Next. In the mid-’80s, after finishing college, she started calling herself Les Lee, and she recorded a couple of 12″ singles with Ric Wake, a just-starting-out producer who first heard her singing at a Russian nightclub in the Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

Wunderman’s two Les Lee singles came out on a small New York indie called Mega Bolt, and the label went out of business in 1986. Wunderman and Wake reached out the music publishers at Warner Chappell and asked for some songs that had been turned down by major artists, and got ahold of a track called “Tell It To My Heart.” Wunderman and Wake borrowed a few thousand dollars from Wunderman’s father, a rare coin dealer, and they recorded “Tell It To My Heart” on their own, gambling on the hope that a label would want to put the song out. The gamble worked out. Clive Davis heard “Tell It To My Heart,” and he signed Leslie Wunderman to a singles deal at Arista.

At that point, Clive Davis didn’t generally think that dance-pop singers had any shot at long careers. Arista had an album option; if “Tell It To My Heart” sold, they could ask Wunderman for an album. Wunderman, taking that deal as a new beginning, took a new stage name, calling herself Taylor Dayne. A few years later, she’d legally change her name, too. “Tell It To My Heart” is a dinky little track, a replacement-level mid-’80s hi-NRG thing, and it doesn’t necessarily sound like the beginning of a successful career. But “Tell It To My Heart” outperformed everyone’s expectations — first hitting huge all over Europe, then coming out in the US and getting as high as #7. (It’s a 6.)

Arista rushed out Dayne’s debut album Tell It To My Heart in January of 1988, and the album spun off more hits. The singles from Tell It To My Heart are all pretty generic, but all of them did well. “Prove Your Love,” a pretty slick Latin-freestyle approximation, did exactly as well as “Tell It To My Heart,” peaking at #7. (It’s a 7.) At Clive Davis’ behest, Dayne also recorded a ferociously boring MOR ballad called “I’ll Always Love You,” and it reached #3. (It’s a 2.) The album’s biggest single was its last one. The bland synth-rocker “Don’t Rush Me” made it all the way to #2. (It’s a 5.) Eventually, Dayne’s first album went doule platinum.

Clive Davis understood that Dayne wasn’t really a dance-pop singer. Dayne had a big voice, the kind of thing that scans as soulful if you don’t actually listen to soul music. Even on her big club tracks, Dayne sang like a showy, gifted cocktail-bar singer. In the late ’80s, Clive Davis knew how to sell a cocktail-bar singer to America. Dayne opened for Michael Jackson on tour, and she worked with Ric Wake to knock out out the sophomore album Can’t Fight Fate before the end of 1989. If anything, that album’s lead single “With Every Beat Of My Heart” was even chintzier than the stuff on her debut album. With those synth-horns, it sounded like an Americanized version of the assembly-line stuff that the Stock-Aitken-Waterman team was cranking out in the UK. But “With Every Beat Of My Heart” still made it to #5. (It’s a 5.)

Naturally, the second single from Can’t Fight Fate was a Diane Warren joint. Warren had started writing “Love Will Lead You Back” in a hotel room in Russia. When she played the song for Clive Davis, she was hoping that he’d give the song to Whitney Houston, and it definitely sounds a lot like the kind of MOR ballad that Houston would’ve recorded in the ’80s. But Davis had an instinct for pairing dance-pop artists up with Diane Warren ballads; he’s the one who gave “Blame It On The Rain” to Milli Vanilli. So Taylor Dayne got “Love Will Lead You Back,” and it became her biggest hit.

The narrator of “Love Will Lead You Back” is in the middle of getting dumped, but she’s OK with it. She believes fervently, with all her soul, that her ex will return soon enough: “If you must go, well, darling, I’ll set you free/ But I know in time that we’ll be together.” She won’t stop this person from leaving because in her heart, she knows that love will lead them back. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Warren says, “I like the idea of someone being strong enough to let somebody go, knowing in their heart that they’re going to come back. It takes a lot of strength.” I don’t know if I’d call that strength. That sounds more like straight-up delusion to me.

Imagine anyone using any of the lines from “Love Will Lead You Back” mid-breakup. Imagine trying to break up with someone and then being told that love will lead you back into this person’s arms again, where you belong. If I’m the person doing the dumping, I am getting the fuck out of there immediately. That reaction is way worse than someone getting upset or sad or frustrated. That’s someone denying the reality of the moment, thinking they know your heart better than you do. To me, “Love Will Lead You Back” is a clear sign that the narrator really needs to step back and reassess things. Even if “Love Will Lead You Back” is just the narrator’s internal monologue, I think it’s deeply wrong on some fundamental level. Maybe I’ve just never been lucky enough to go through a serene breakup. In any case, fucked-up relationship sentiments were all over the charts in 1990, and nobody really paused to interrogate the intentions behind a song like “Love Will Lead You Back.”

“Love Will Lead You Back” definitely doesn’t betray any musical clue that the person singing this song is having issues with reality. Ric Wake’s production is exactly the kind of sleepy, sticky gloss that plagued so many of the adult-contempo hits from that moment. The watery keyboard sounds, the smooth-jazz sax-noodles, the vaguely rock-adjacent guitar-wails, and the big drum booms — it’s all exactly what you’d expect from one of this period’s wack-ass pop ballads. (There’s some fake sitar in there, too, which is at least unique. It’s not unique enough to make the song stand out in any way, though.)

There’s a bit of jazz-club smoothness in the backup-singer arrangement on “Love Will Lead You Back,” and maybe that’s why Diane Warren thought the song should go to Whitney Houston. Dayne delivers the song in a throaty, dramatic wail. She’s a gifted singer and a born maximalist, and she never holds back. Her performance is capable enough, and she definitely doesn’t make the song worse. But I never hear a whole lot of personality on “Love Will Lead You Back.” The song could’ve come from anyone. A lot of Taylor Dayne songs could’ve come from anyone.

After “Love Will Lead You Back,” Taylor Dayne only made the top 10 once more. Dayne followed “Love Will Lead You Back” with another Diane Warren song. Warren had written “I’ll Be Your Shelter” for Tina Turner, and she was pissed off when Turner rejected the song. Maybe that’s why Dayne sings “I’ll Be Your Shelter” in a straight-up Tina Turner impression. (“I’ll Be Your Shelter” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.)

Like Tell It To My Heart before it, Dayne’s Can’t Fight Fate album eventually went double platinum, though it took a long time. The album didn’t get its second plaque until 1995, and by that time, Dayne’s hitmaking run was long over. Dayne followed Can’t Fight Fate with 1993’s Soul Dancing, and its lead single, a deeply inessential cover of Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love,” topped out at #20. “Send Me A Lover,” the album’s second single, stalled out at #50, and Taylor Dayne hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since.

After her run of hits was over, Taylor Dayne did some acting. She had a run in Elton John’s Aida on Broadway, and she played roles in small indie movies and mostly-forgotten TV shows. (In 2000, for instance, Dayne had seven-episode arc on Showtime’s Rude Awakening.) Dayne also kept making music, essentially returning to her roots as a dance-club singer, and she had some success there. In the ’00s, two of her songs topped the Billboard dance charts. In a 2005 VH1 special called Remaking Taylor Dayne, Dayne got some plastic surgery and tried for a comeback. It didn’t take.

But Taylor Dayne is still around. Last year, for example, Taylor Dayne competed on a season of the surreal, nightmarish Masked Singer. She was the Popcorn. Dayne made the semi-finals, but she ultimately lost to LeAnn Rimes. (Leann Rimes also had her biggest hit with a Diane Warren ballad. Rimes made it to #2 with “How Do I Live” in 1997. That song is a 4.) Dayne ended 2020 by performing alongside a bunch of other faded pop artists at the New Year’s Party at Donald Trump’s Florida resort Mar-A-Lago. When people got mad at Dayne online, she tweeted and deleted a statement that she was “saddened” and that she has “many diverse friendships”: “I try to stay non political and non judgmental and not preach.” Love can lead her the fuck out of here with that. Taylor Dayne will not appear in this column again.

GRADE: 3/10

BONUS BEATS: Former Number Ones artist Patti LaBelle covered “Love Will Lead You Back” on When A Woman Loves, her 2000 album of Diane Warren songs. Here’s LaBelle’s version:

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