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.
Stevie B is the king of freestyle. That’s what he calls himself, anyway. When he first came up, Stevie B was a music-industry outsider, a Miami entrepreneur type who became a part of a regional scene and who put out his own records. These days, Hill is still a music-industry outsider — one who regularly headlines nostalgia-driven freestyle shows and continues to put out freestyle records, despite the genre’s ephemeral pop-chart nature. In fact, Stevie B might be the one last true believer in Latin freestyle. He’s so invested in the state of the genre that he’s willing to post a long, angry Facebook rant about how the people currently making freestyle records are doing a bad job of it. That’s admittedly a weird thing to do, but you have to respect the passion.
Since Stevie B has appointed himself the official monarch and protector of the whole freestyle genre, it’s only right that his pop-chart journey should follow the strange, nonsensical arc of so many other freestyle artists. The weirdest thing about freestyle, at least as far as this column is concerned, is how many of the artists came up cranking out dizzy, horny, effervescent dance jams before finally scoring their biggest hits with maudlin adult-contempo love-dirges. This column has already covered the syrupy, forgettable chart-toppers from Will To Power, Exposé, and Sweet Sensation. Stevie B might’ve had the biggest, blandest crossover hit of all, so maybe he really is the king of freestyle.
By the time his chintzy slow jam “Because I Love You (The Postman Song)” topped the Hot 100, Steven Bernard Hill was north of 30. Hill, a Miami native, had first heard an early version of “Because I Love You” in 1985, when songwriter Warren Allen Brooks played him the song on piano. Hill was convinced that “Because I Love You” could be a hit. When he finally got the chance, Hill proved that he was right. “Because I Love You” became one of 1990’s biggest hits, and it was the biggest hit that Hill and Brooks had ever touched.
Steven Bernard Hill grew up in Miami, and he taught himself to play music. In high school, Hill played in a band called LUV that also included Howard Johnson, the singer who made the dance and R&B hit “So Fine” in 1982. After his time in LUV, Hill didn’t go pro as a musician for a long while. He studied business in college. He played tennis. He worked at fast-food joints and car washes. He sold custom T-shirts. He ran a landscaping business and opened a car-stereo shop. Eventually, he bought a Tallahassee nightclub and opened a recording studio.
As early as 1980, Hill was putting out his own music. Hill’s first single, released under the name Stevie, is a post-disco track called “Sending Out For Love.” Hill wrote that song, co-produced it, and released it on his own Midtown Records label. In the years ahead, when Stevie got involved in freestyle, he kept producing and often writing his own stuff, a fairly rare thing in the genre. In 1985, Stevie and his friend Warren Allen Brooks, a Tampa native, formed a duo called Friday Friday. They broke up after releasing “Boy Toy,” their only single, but they kept working together afterwards.
In the late ’80s, Stevie’s music hustle started to pay off. He produced “I Need You,” a chirpy pop-rap track for a local group called BVSMP, and that song randomly became a #3 hit in the UK. Around the same time, Stevie also started making a push for himself as a solo artist. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of No. 1 Hits, Stevie says, “I made a total commitment. I felt that I had a decent voice and wasn’t the ugliest guy in the world, so if I was packaged right as an artist, I could do all right.” Stevie’s excellently titled 1987 dance track “Party Your Body” got airplay on Miami’s Power 96, and the single, which Stevie initially put out on his own, got him a deal with a small New York label called LMR. When it got a national release, “Party Your Body” missed the Hot 100, but it made Billboard‘s dance and R&B charts.
Stevie quickly released two albums, 1988’s Party Your Body and 1989’s In My Eyes. Both albums went gold, and both spun off multiple charting singles. Stevie’s videos make great little time capsules. He came off as the ultimate soulful ’80s tough guy — big muscles, dangly earring, jheri curl mullet with elaborate shaved-in designs. You can tell that this guy is a grown-up; he looks like somebody’s sketchy uncle. But the music itself is pure freestyle — pounding electro beats, one-finger keyboard riffs, lovelorn lyrics. Stevie’s voice is more feathery than his frame would suggest, and it meshes nicely with the music, which has that great cheap ’80s DIY sheen to it.
On those early records, Stevie included a few ballads, which were the wrong kind of cheap. The biggest hit from those first two albums was “Love Me For Life,” an exceedingly generic romantic devotional that reached #29 in March of 1990. Stevie’s ballads strive for the gloss of late-’80s R&B, but his voice and his production is too thin to convincingly approximate that sound, which can already be plenty thin in the first place. There’s a whole lot more life an energy in Stevie’s dance songs, but for whatever reason, the Hot 100 just loved ballads in those days.
In 1990, Stevie released his third album, Love And Emotion. Its title track, a sort of freestyle take on new jack swing, became Stevie’s biggest hit yet, peaking at #15. “Love And Emotion” suggests that there was a path forward for freestyle performers after the freestyle boom started to die down. As a dance artist, Stevie was fairly one-dimensional, but he was canny enough to tweak his sound to fit a changing landscape. And Stevie’s Arsenio performance from around that time shows that he had moves.
But once again, the ballad was the hit. In the Bronson book, Stevie’s friend and collaborator Warren Allen Brooks says that he wrote “Because I Love You (The Postman Song)” about God: “It was God talking to me, telling me that he loved me… It was like I had written him a letter.” But “Because I Love You” is actually written from the perspective of someone who’s just received a letter: “I got your letter from the postman just the other day/ So I decided to write you this song/ And just to let you know exactly the way I feel/ And let you know my love’s for real.” So maybe Brooks was writing as God? If that’s true, then it’s by far the most interesting and transgressive thing about “Because I Love You.”
There’s nothing overtly spiritual about “Because I Love You,” and that’s by design. Brooks says that he hid his true intentions in plain sight: “I turned it into a pop song where the audience thinks it’s about a male/female relationship, but it’s really about me and God having a personal relationship.” The parentheses in the title are pretty funny. There’s a long history of great pop songs about sending and receiving love letters: “Please Mr. Postman,” “Sealed With A Kiss,” “PS I Love You.” But it’s hard for me to imagine anyone remembering “Because I Love You” as “The Postman Song.” If anything, the postman plays a minor supporting role in the whole drama. (That bit does make me want to know more about God’s postman, but I don’t think Warren Allen Brooks was trying to get me to ponder the metaphysical logistics of mail delivery between earthly and divine realms.)
“Because I Love You” sounds extremely cheap, which really isn’t a problem for me. There are only a few instrumental elements on the song: a tinkly keyboard, a humming synth, a drum-machine hi-hat tic. The song is pure melodrama, but the cheapness keeps it nicely restrained. Other hit ballads of that era went all-in on bombast: Surging strings, booming gated drums, guitar solos. Stevie B probably would’ve gone crazy with that stuff if he’d had access to it, but the big dramatic touches on “Because I Love You” aren’t big at all. All we really get is a presumably-fake cymbal-wash on the chorus. The song doesn’t even have a proper bridge. Where the bridge would be, we get a quick keyboard riff that sounds like an eight-year-old playing xylophone. I find that kind of charming.
But “Because I Love You” isn’t charming enough for me to consider it a good song. It’s too boring. The piano melody is sleepy and sentimental. Stevie’s vocal is controlled and vulnerable, and he clearly wants to sound like Smokey Robinson, but he never gets anywhere close. Stevie’s narrator promises “to be a light, to be your guide” — more evidence for my thesis that we’re supposed to be listening to God here — but there’s no tension in it, nothing beyond simple garden-variety devotion. “Because I Love You” has no real personality. The song isn’t unpleasant, exactly, but it evaporates while I’m still listening to it. Even the video is a slog. It’s just Stevie mooning around a grand piano, looking all sincere, and he doesn’t even have that great mustache that he had in his earlier videos.
“Because I Love You” turned out to be Stevie B’s only top-10 hit. Stevie followed “Because I Love You” with a similarly bland ballad called “I’ll Be By Your Side,” which reached #12. The album Love And Emotion went gold, just like the two before it, but it didn’t do any better than that. After Love And Emotion, Stevie moved from LMR to Epic, but his 1992 album Healing didn’t chart. Stevie did score a couple of charting singles with his 1994 indie album Funky Melody, but he hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 1995, when his ballad “Dream About You” reached #29.
But Stevie B never stopped making music. He’s released something like 15 albums, the most recent of which is 2020’s self-released Best Of Life. Most of those albums have been on indie labels, but Stevie did sign to Universal for 2009’s The Terminator, and he teamed up with fellow Miami dance-club hitmaker Pitbull for “Spring Love 2013,” an update of a single that Stevie had first released in 1988. (“Spring Love 2013” did not chart. Pitbull will eventually appear in this column.)
These days, whenever I see an ad for a big freestyle concert, it’s got Stevie B as the headliner. I think that’s cool. As far as I can tell, Stevie B became a career artist without ever leaving behind freestyle. He might be the only career artist in freestyle. I don’t like “Because I Love You (The Postman Song),” but I like that.
BONUS BEATS: Adam Wingard’s 2014 action/horror film The Guest is one of my favorite undersung movies of the past decade or so, and it’s got a beautifully disturbing lead performance from Dan Stevens, who’s never been better. (I might have to start calling him Stevie D.) In The Guest, “Because I Love You (The Postman Song)” soundtracks a violent diner scene. You probably shouldn’t watch it if you haven’t already seen The Guest, but here it is anyway:
THE 10S: In 1990, the UK dance duo DNA put together an unauthorized remix of “Tom’s Diner,” an a cappella story-song that Suzanne Vega had included on her album Solitude Standing three years earlier. DNA put Suzanne Vega’s vocals over the beat from Soul II Soul’s “Keep On Movin'” and released the song as a 12″ single. A&M, Vega’s label, bought the remix and gave it a proper release, and the DNA version of “Tom’s Diner” peaked at #5 behind “Because I Love You (The Postman Song).” As I’m listening to the bells of the cathedral, I am thinking it’s a 10.
Also! George Michael’s euphoric “Freedom! ’90,” a gospel-infused and breakbeat-driven dissection of the man’s own career, peaked at #8 behind “Because I Love You (The Postman Song).” It’s every hungry little schoolgirl’s pride and joy, and it’s a 10.