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.
Music can be such a revelation. Music careers, on the other hand, can fall into some sadly predictable arcs. Consider the phenomenon of late-’80s and early-’90s dance-pop groups who made exciting club records before finally arriving at #1 with hacky, boring, immediately-forgotten ballads, then disappearing from public life, only popping up again at nostalgic freestyle events. This seems like an incredibly specific career path, and yet it happened multiple times. It happened with Will To Power. It happened with Exposé. And at the dawn of the ’90s, it happened again with the New York trio Sweet Sensation. (Something very similar often happened in glam metal, too, but that’s a different column.)
Sweet Sensation were never exactly A-listers within the Latin freestyle world, but in the late ’80s, the group had some bangers. Sweet Sensation’s only #1 hit, however, is a piece of ultra-generic, beyond-sentimental popcraft that could’ve come from anywhere. If my wishes came true, then the fun dance records would’ve dominated the pop charts, while the gloopy ballads disappeared from history. As it is, the gloopy ballads did disappear from history, but sometimes they went to #1 first.
Sweet Sensation started in the mid-’80s, when the members of the group were still in high school. Lead singer Betty LeBron had studied opera at the High School Of The Performing Arts, the fabled Fame school. But LeBron — I love that her name is LeBron — didn’t really want to sing, so she transferred to Manhattan’s Satellite Academy, where she met Margie Fernandez. A local dance producer had heard LeBron singing, and he invited her to a studio for a meeting. At the studio, LeBron met Romeo JD, one half of a Harlem rap group called the Boogie Boys, who happened to be recording that day.
Romeo had written a dance-pop song called “Hooked On You,” and he convinced LeBron to record it. LeBron cut “Hooked On You” with session singers, and once the song was done, Next Plateau Records, the New York indie best known for discovering Salt-N-Pepa, wanted to release it. Rather than promoting LeBron as a solo artist, someone decided that “Hooked On You” should come from a group, so Margie Fernandez and her sister Maria joined Betty LeBron, and the three of them became Sweet Temptation. Next Plateau released “Hooked On You” in 1986, and the song eventually peaked at #64. A couple of years later, a remixed version made it to #23.
Just before the release of “Hooked On You,” the group heard from the managers of the Temptations, who told them that they couldn’t use the name Sweet Temptation. The “Hooked On You” records were already printed up with the Sweet Temptation name, but the group immediately changed its name to Sweet Sensation. There already had been a group called Sweet Sensation, a British soul combo. That group’s 1974 single “Sad Sweet Dreamer” had been a #1 hit in the UK, and it had reached #14 in the US. But the New York Sweet Sensation didn’t know anything about the Manchester Sweet Sensation, and the Manchester Sweet Sensation had broken up in 1978. The newly rechristened Sweet Sensation kept the name.
At first, music was just a side-hustle hobby for the members of Sweet Sensation, but offers to perform in clubs started coming in, and the group signed with the Atlantic imprint Atco. In 1988, Sweet Sensation released their debut album Take It While It’s Hot. In a lot of ways, that first LP is a pretty standard Latin freestyle album. It’s all giddy and horny and uptempo, and it’s a lot of fun. Compared to other Latin freestyle groups, though, Sweet Sensation were a little bit less electro and a little more based in older Latin styles like salsa. There’s a lot of syncopation in those tracks. Take It While It’s Hot never went gold, but four of its singles charted. The biggest hit was “Sincerely Yours,” which had a guest-rap from Romeo JD and which peaked at #14.
For Sweet Sensation’s 1990 sophomore album, the group’s producers Steve Peck and Ted Currier did everything in their power to cross over to bigger pop audiences. (Around that time, Sweet Sensation opened for New Kids On The Block, which probably helped that transition.) For the album’s lead single and title track, Sweet Sensation turned the Supremes classic “Love Child” into a pulsing dance track, which honestly wasn’t that big of a leap. Sweet Sensation’s “Love Child” cover peaked at #13, making it the group’s biggest hit yet.
The next single was the ballad. Sweet Sensation had messed around a bit with slower songs, and “If Wishes Come True” had basically come from the Latin freestyle world. Co-writer Ross DeSalvo later said that he wanted to write a sequel to the lovelorn ballad “Thinking Of You,” which had been a 1989 hit for the freestyle singer Sa-Fire. (“Thinking Of You,” which is Sa-Fire’s highest-charting single, peaked at #12.) DeSalvo wrote “If Wishes Came True” with his “Thinking Of You” co-writer Robert Steele and with another writer named Deena Charles.
Ross DeSalvo has been a session musician for a long time, and he’s played on records for people like Céline Dion and Lionel Richie. (He also played keyboard and guitar on Steven Seagal’s extremely silly 2005 blues-rock album Songs From The Crystal Cave, so I bet he’s got some stories.) As far as I can tell, though, one of DeSalvo’s main recent gigs is writing princess ballads for movies like Ella Enchanted, Disney Princess Enchanted Tales: Follow Your Dreams, and Barbie Island Princess. This makes sense. There’s definitely a serious Disney-princess vibe to both “Thinking Of You” and “If Wishes Came True.”
Betty LeBron sings “If Wishes Came True” from the perspective of a girl who’s been through a breakup and who can’t stop thinking about the person who’s gone: “Take me back, turn back the hands of time/ When you kissed me in the warm September rain/ Back before my heart was filled with pain/ If only we could be in love that way again.” It’s all pure goo, and it never gets more specific than that line about the warm September rain. (Incidentally, if you’re reading this column on the day that it’s published, you just missed your last chance to kiss someone in the warm September rain. Next year, don’t put it off!)
In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Betty LeBron confesses that she had no idea what to do with “If Wishes Came True”: “When you get a girl who’s so used to doing uptempo songs and jumping up and down, then give her something like this, you look at it and say, ‘What do I do with this mess?'” Truthfully, though, LeBron does just fine with this mess. She’s not a showy singer, but she nails the whole teenage-yearning thing. There’s just not much there for her to nail.
“If Wishes Came True” isn’t exactly an unpleasant song. You can hear the production style starting to move on from ’80s adult-contempo dreck, and I think the big drum sounds and the clicky guitar noises are pretty OK. The problem is that the song immediately evaporates from my brain as soon as it’s over. There’s no personality. With minimal adjustments, “If Wishes Came True” could’ve been a glam metal ballad, and it even has some glam metal guitar neenering in there. It’s a big, dramatic nothing.
Sweet Sensation were thrilled to have a #1 record. In the Bronson book, LeBron says, “We cried for weeks. Every time somebody congratulated us, it was an extreme emotion.” But by the time they were done crying, Sweet Sensation were pretty much over. Only one more Sweet Sensation single made the Hot 100; the follow-up club track “Each And Every Time” peaked at #59. Other than the 1991 remix album Time To Jam, Sweet Sensation never released anything else.
But Sweet Sensation kept going. The trio’s lineup changed a bunch of times, but Betty LeBron remained at the center. She’s gone through long periods of inactivity, but she still leads the current version of the group, which still plays the freestyle nostalgia circuit. LeBron has what she calls “a crazy, very demanding, but fulfilling day job,” and then she gets to go be a star on the weekends sometimes. Maybe that’s not a wish that came true, but it’s something.
BONUS BEATS: “If Wishes Came True” is one of those amazing disappearing #1 hits, so we’re going to have to look elsewhere in the Sweet Sensation back catalog for a Bonus Beat. In 2000, Guy Bangalter, one half of Daft Punk, started a side-project duo called Together with fellow French house producer DJ Falcon. Together only ever released two tracks, but the first of those tracks, the 2000 single also called “Together,” is built on an endlessly-repeating sample that’s taken from Sweet Sensation’s “Sincerely Yours.” Here’s “Together”:
(Daft Punk’s highest-charting single, the 2013 Pharrell Williams collab “Get Lucky,” peaked at #2. It’s a 9. As featured guests, Daft Punk will eventually appear in this column.)