The Number Ones

November 23, 1991

The Number Ones: Michael Bolton’s “When A Man Loves A Woman”

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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There is no such thing as objective criticism. It doesn’t exist. Anytime anyone talks about a piece of art — just like anytime anyone makes a piece of art — personal feelings and experiences and internal forces come into play. If you’re lucky enough to make a living discussing other people’s art, then it’s important to learn as much as you can about the people who made that art and the way the art functions in the world. On a certain level, though, you’re speaking from the gut. My gut has always told me that Michael Bolton fucking sucks.

Michael Bolton’s second #1 single, his version of Percy Sledge’s 1966 chart-topper “When A Man Loves A Woman,” ascended to the peak of the Hot 100 when I was 12 years old. At that point, I was close to discovering my own sense of music snobbery, but I hadn’t yet gotten there. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know that “When A Man Loves A Woman” was a cover, though I don’t think I was surprised when I found out. I didn’t know about Michael Bolton’s years as a replacement-level hard rock howler or his late-’80s rebirth as an adult-contemporary megalith. I certainly didn’t understand the greater social and political undercurrents at work when a white pop singer covers a Black artist’s beloved decades-old chestnut. I just saw this fucking guy, with his chin and his hair and his face, singing this song on TV, and I thought: Ugh. No. Fuck That. Get out of here.

In my young and unformed music-fan years, I had a lot of gut reactions that I had to unlearn years later. It takes a certain level of maturity to look at something that you once rejected and to understand the value of this thing, to figure out what people loved about it in the first place. A lot of music that I now love is the stuff that I once wrote off as garbage. Every time I write one of these columns, I try to listen to a song from every angle, to understand how it works. But with Michael Bolton, I have never shaken that original impression. I have never gotten past that initial instinctive feeling that this shit was not for me. If anything, I like Bolton’s music less now than I did when the guy was all over TV. So I guess my first instinct was the right one. Michael Bolton fucking sucks, and his version of “When A Man Loves A Woman” really fucking sucks.

In 1966, Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” was a rarity. At that time, when a soul song crossed over to the pop chart, it was usually specifically calibrated to appeal to white audiences. This was the heyday of Motown, when Berry Gordy had figured out a magical formula. Gordy and his Motown assembly line made bright, streamlined uptempo pop songs, and America fell in love with them. But Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” didn’t sound like Motown. It was messy and raw and passionate, a version of Southern soul that was still deeply rooted in gospel. It was different.

The difference between Percy Sledge and Motown was not authenticity. Authenticity, like objective criticism, does not exist; it’s an invented lens through which to view things like pop music. Motown’s hits may have been made with white audiences in mind, but virtually everyone involved in the Motown assembly line — from the singers and writers and musicians to the guy who owned the business — was Black. “When A Man Loves A Woman” came out on the white-owned Atlantic, and Sledge recorded it with the white musicians of the Muscle Shoals house band. But there’s still a whole lot of history built into the raw intensity of Percy Sledge’s voice on “When A Man Loves A Woman.” Sledge was a former sharecropper and a hospital orderly who sang in clubs on weekends. If people listened to Percy Sledge’s voice and heard struggle and determination, then they weren’t necessarily projecting.

Soon after Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” other Atlantic soul singers like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin scored massive hits of their own, and that version of Southern soul became part of the pop-music vocabulary. Michael Bolton loved all that stuff. When Bolton started to break into the pop mainstream, he intentionally evoked those sounds whenever possible. He also covered those old, legendary soul singers at least once per album. Bolton had not been through life experiences anything like those of the singers who he admired. Bolton’s roots were in ’70s studio-rock, not gospel, and his version of intensity always sounded forced and ugly. But for Bolton, the strategy worked. One of Bolton’s first big chart breakthroughs happened in 1987, when he recorded his own pained version of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.” Bolton’s cover peaked at #11. At the time, it was his biggest hit.

A couple of years later, Bolton made the even more risible choice to cover “Georgia On My Mind.” Two white guys, Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell, had written “Georgia On My Mind” in 1930, but the definitive version of that song was the one that Ray Charles took to #1 in 1960. That’s certainly the one that Michael Bolton was doing his best to imitate. Bolton sang “Georgia” is his trademark vein-bursting howl, and he got his friend Kenny G to tootle all over it. Shortly after Bolton scored his first #1 hit with “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You,” he took his cover of “Georgia” to #36.

Now: I have absolutely no doubt that Michael Bolton loves Otis Redding and Ray Charles on a deep level and that he merely wanted to pay tribute to these artists. But songs like “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” and “Georgia On My Mind” hit different when a guy like Michael Bolton sings them. History has a lot to do with that. Race does, too. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” is an itinerant worker longing for home. “Georgia On My Mind” carries the wrenching weight of the segregation era, even if the song itself wasn’t written from that perspective. A white singer like Michael Bolton isn’t necessarily going to be able to access all these undercurrents.

Bolton’s classic soul covers also suck for reasons that aren’t necessarily related to all that history. There’s no nuance in his guttural bellow; it’s essentially Joe Cocker’s rasp-holler schtick cranked up even further. Bolton always made sure you could hear tons of sweat and effort in his delivery, and I just can’t understand how anyone ever mistook that sweat and effort for artistry, or for anything as ineffable and indefinable as soul.

In his early-’90s moment, Michael Bolton was on a serious run. Bolton followed his big hit 1989 album Soul Provider — Jesus Christ, that title — with 1991’s even bigger Time, Love & Tenderness. He co-produced Time, Love & Tenderness with Walter Afanasieff, the Narada Michael Walden protege who’d become one of Mariah Carey’s prime collaborators. The album came out in April of 1991, and it went to #1 on the album chart a month later, temporarily dislodging R.E.M.’s Out Of Time from the top spot. (As it happens, Time, Love & Tenderness was the first #1 album of Billboard‘s SoundScan era.) Before “When A Man Loves A Woman” reached #1, two of the album’s singles had already hit big.

The first single from Time, Love & Tenderness was “Love Is A Wonderful Thing,” an uptempo screecher that Bolton co-wrote. “Love Is A Wonderful Thing” peaked at #4. (It’s a 3.) Soon afterwards, the song turned out to be a huge problem for Bolton and his label. The Isley Brothers had also written a song called “Love Is A Wonderful Thing“; it had come out as a single in 1966 and missed the Hot 100. Bolton’s “Love Is A Wonderful Thing” wasn’t a cover, but it had more than just a title in common with the Isleys’ song, and the Isleys sued. Bolton wouldn’t settle. He fought it, hiring a team of lawyers that included Alan Dershowitz, and the case went to court. In 1994, a jury ruled in the Isleys’ favor. Bolton kept appealing, and the case dragged out for years, but the Isleys kept winning. When the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, the Isleys got millions from Bolton, his label, and his publishing company. (The Isley Brothers’ highest-charting single, 1969’s “It’s Your Thing,” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)

If there was any backlash over Michael Bolton biting the Isley Brothers, it wasn’t enough to stop the Michael Bolton sales juggernaut. Bolton followed “Love Is A Wonderful Thing” with the Diane Warren-written ballad “Time, Love And Tenderness,” which peaked at #7. (It’s a 4.) “When A Man Loves A Woman” was the album’s third single. By the time it hit #1, the Time, Love & Tenderness album was already triple platinum. It would go on to sell eight million copies in the US alone.

When Bolton and Walter Afanasieff were working on the album, their label bosses Tommy Mottola and Don Ienner came to visit. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Afanasieff tells the story of how the “When A Man Loves A Woman” cover came to be. In conversation, Bolton mused aloud that he wanted to record “another oldie remake.” Afanasieff says that both Mottola and Ienner said, simultaneously, that he should do “When A Man Loves A Woman.” Afanasieff also claims that he’d privately been thinking the same thing. Bolton apparently responded, “That’s the song I was going to do.” So this cover was basically inevitable. All of these well-compensated music-business professionals had decided, independently of one another, that Michael Bolton needed to sing “When A Man Loves A Woman.” Apparently, that’s exactly what the listening public wanted to hear.

When Bolton starts out his version of “When A Man Loves A Woman,” he’s already on 10. There’s no real dynamic variation to the song. That was not the Michael Bolton method. Bolton’s style was to bray out every syllable in a full-throated roar, throwing in lots of moans and growls and gargles. He never let the track breathe. He never let himself breathe, either. He sounded like these words were being tortuously ripped out of his throat, like he was powerless to direct or regulate this firehose stream of passion gushing out of his esophagus. His singing style might be an impressive party trick, but it’s not exactly expressive. It’s all gritted-teeth fireworks, and I find it to be profoundly unpleasant.

I’ve got these bluetooth headphones that keep disconnecting from my phone when I’m walking my dogs. Usually, it’s the absolute worst. I’ll be really getting into something, and then it’ll randomly pause for a few seconds and rip me right out of whatever groove I’m in. But when I’m listening to Michael Bolton — a thing that I would simply not do if I wasn’t writing those column — I live for those moments of disconnection. Bolton’s guttural shriek suddenly disappears, and I’m like: Aaaaah, the blissful silence of the universe at rest.

Bolton and Afanasieff recorded “When A Man Loves A Woman” with a whole crew of big-name studio musicians. Afanasieff played the organ himself, and the rest of the band included people like Toto’s Jeff Porcaro on drums and future American Idol judge Randy Jackson on bass. The whole production is perfectly professional. Everyone nails all their parts, and it sounds like a cleaned-up and frictionless version of the Percy Sledge original. But that production also foregrounds Michael Bolton’s voice, and that is a terrible decision. Bolton bulldozes everything around him, to the point where everything else barely registers.

When Bolton’s cover topped the Hot 100, “When A Man Loves A Woman” became the seventh cover of a #1 hit to become a #1 hit itself. (The previous one had been Kim Wilde’s version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” four years earlier.) Bolton’s take on the song also happened to be the last #1 hit before Billboard started using SoundScan to figure out the Hot 100. Earlier that year, the magazine had started to use that new technology on the album charts, and the industry had been shocked to learn that rap and country were way more popular than anyone had realized. (Sadly, Soundscan also confirmed that Michael Bolton was, for the moment, quite popular.) SoundScan made it harder for labels to game the Hot 100, but the effects on the singles chart were not as immediate or dramatic. Still, the advent of SoundScan might’ve helped limit Bolton’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” to a single week at #1. For that, at least, I’m grateful.

Bolton followed “When A Man Loves A Woman” with “Missing You Now,” a song that he co-wrote with Diane Warren and Walter Afanasieff. Once again, Bolton brought in Kenny G for guest-tootles on that one. But the combined forces of Michael Bolton and Kenny G were not enough to get “Missing You Now” into the top 10; it peaked at #12. The final song on Time, Love & Tenderness was “Steel Bars,” a song that Bolton co-wrote with one Bob Dylan. (Dylan’s two highest-charting singles, 1965’s “Like A Rolling Stone” and 1966’s “Rainy Day Woman # 12 & 35,” both peaked at #2. “Like A Rolling Stone” is a 10, and “Rainy Day Woman” is a 6.) “Steel Bars” did pretty well at radio, but it never officially came out as a single, so it missed the Hot 100.

Bolton followed Time, Love & Tenderness with the 1992 all-covers LP Timeless: The Classics, which went quadruple platinum but yielded no top-10 hits. (Bolton’s version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” peaked at #11.) A year later, Bolton made it to #6 with the Mutt Lange collaboration “Said I Loved You… But I Lied.” (It’s a 5.) This would be Bolton’s last time in the top 10.

The world moved on pretty quickly from the Michael Bolton era. In 1997, Bolton made it to #24 with the end-credits version of “Go The Distance,” a song from the Disney movie Hercules. Two years later, Bolton was the punchline of a pretty great running joke in the movie Office Space. At that point, Bolton was no longer a public menace, and we were free to laugh at him.

Bolton himself has been a good sport about his change in status. He’s richer than fuck, of course, and he doesn’t seem to take himself remotely seriously. Bolton is still making music, and some of that music is still finding adult-contemporary airplay. But he’s also doing the David Hasselhoff thing where he shows up in public a lot to make fun of his own previous fame. He’s in 2018’s Teen Titans Go To The Movies, for instance, as the voice of a keytaur-playing tiger who gets run over while singing a number called “An Upbeat Inspirational Song About Life,” and he’s in 2016’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping as the hook-singer on the absurd “Incredible Thoughts.” In a 2015 Funny Or Die video, Bolton even Forrest Gumped himself into Office Space, playing the character known as Michael Bolton.

This willingness to clown himself actually earned Bolton one last Hot 100 hit when he collaborated with the Lonely Island on the 2011 SNL joint “Jack Sparrow,” which made it to #69. (The Lonely Island’s biggest hit, the 2010 Akon collab “I Just Had Sex,” peaked at #30.)

When a figure like Michael Bolton turns out to be a decent human being who’s in on the joke, it’s tempting to reevaluate his entire existence, and to find things to like about the stuff that made him famous in the first place. I can’t do it. Bolton deserves credit for being cool about people making fun of him. But when Michael Bolton was making hits? That shit still fucking sucked.

GRADE: 1/10

BONUS BEATS: In a 1992 In Living Color sketch, Jim Carrey impersonated Michael Bolton and absolutely ethered his entire being. The sketch “When A Man Needs A Big Hit” brutalizes Bolton’s singing style and mannerisms, as well as the forces at work when a guy like Bolton has a hit with a song like that. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1994, Jody Watley released a very different version of “When A Man Loves A Woman,” and I’m guessing it was a sort of response to the Michael Bolton hit. Here’s the video:

(Jody Watley’s version of “When A Man Loves A Woman” didn’t chart. Watley’s two highest-charting singles, 1987’s “Looking For A New Love” and 1989’s “Real Love,” both peaked at #2. “Looking For A New Love” is a 9, and “Real Love” is an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Michael Bolton appearing on a 2014 episode of Two And A Half Men to sing “When A Man Loves A Woman” and to assist with Ashton Kutcher’s marriage proposal:

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