The Number Ones

February 29, 1992

The Number Ones: Mr. Big’s “To Be With 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.

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In the grand annals of rock history, there’s an oft-repeated narrative that Nirvana killed glam metal. I don’t think that’s what happened, exactly. From where I’m sitting, glam metal killed itself, and Nirvana happened to come along at the exact moment of its death rattle. By the early ’90s, the biggest crossover glam metal hits were songs like Nelson’s “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love And Affection” or Extreme’s “More Than Words” — power ballads that were utterly without power. The grand balance of peacocking hedonism and heart-on-sleeve emotion had been upset, and things just couldn’t continue.

Early in 1992, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” scratched its way into the top 10, where it bounced around for a while. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” climbed as high as #6 twice — first behind Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White” and then again behind Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy.” (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a 10.) “Teen Spirit” was still in the top 10 the week that Mr. Big’s “To Be With You” reached #1.

“To Be With You” happens to be the last glam metal song that ever made it to #1 on the Hot 100. Since “To Be With You” was, in pure pop-chart terms, a bigger hit than “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you can’t exactly say that Nirvana snuffed out Mr. Big’s flame. The two songs got played on some of the same radio stations, but they came from completely different musical universes, and they represented different feelings and ideas and aesthetics. “To Be With You” had more in common with Shanice’s “I Love Your Smile” or Atlantic Starr’s “Masterpiece,” two other songs that were in the top 10 at the same time, than it did with “Teen Spirit.”

Mr. Big were a glam metal band, and I guess that makes “To Be With You” a glam metal song. But “To Be With You” is also a strummy adult-contempo love-ballad that has little in common with the central sound of the shred-happy group that made it. In that sense, “To Be With You” is essentially a “More Than Words” redux — one more vaguely ooky lovelorn prom ballad from a bunch of guys who were mostly concerned with proving how well they could play their instruments. Like “More Than Words” before it, “To Be With You” was essentially an accidental hit, and it remained an anomaly in the grand Mr. Big catalog. “To Be With You” is not a terrible song, but listening to it, you can kind of understand why the world was ready to move on to something else.

Before “To Be With You,” the misters of Mr. Big had all spent years in the rock trenches. When Mr. Big first formed in 1988, the band’s best-known member was probably its bassist, the blonde livewire Billy Sheehan, who topped a lot of Bass Player magazine polls and who played with David Lee Roth during Roth’s post-Van Halen years. (DLR’s highest-charting solo single, his 1985 version of “California Girls,” peaked at #3. It’s a 4.) After he left Roth’s band in 1988, Sheehan cold-called the singer Eric Martin, who he’d never met, and told him that he wanted to start a rock ‘n’ roll band. Martin, who’d just been dropped by Atlantic Records, didn’t have a whole lot else going on, and he agreed to join up.

Eric Martin, born in Long Island, grew up mostly in the Bay Area, and he started singing in rock bands in the late ’70s. (When Martin was born, the #1 song in America was Larry Verne’s “Mr. Custer.”) In the early ’80s, Martin’s band 415 signed with Elektra, changed its name to the Eric Martin Band, and promptly disappeared into the lower tiers of the corporate-rock world. After that band broke up, Martin went solo, and he didn’t have a whole lot more success. (Martin’s one charting single, 1985’s “Information,” peaked at #87.) After losing his deal with Atlantic, Martin figured he’d try to make another solo album for some other label, but Sheehan’s call was well-timed.

Sheehan also rounded up guitarist Paul Gilbert, who’d played in the glam metal band Racer X, and drummer Pat Torpey, who’d played for a bunch of pop acts. The new band was inspired by ’70s boogie-rock, and they named themselves after a 1970 song from Free. (Free’s highest-charting single, 1970’s “All Right Now,” peaked at #4. It’s a 9.) In Mr. Big’s records, you can definitely hear some echoes of bands like Free, especially in Eric Martin’s showy blues-rawk howls, but that influence comes filtered through bright-plastic glam metal aesthetics and the musicians’ desire to shred as hard as possible.

The newly formed Mr. Big signed with Atlantic, the same label that had just dropped Eric Martin. The band’s self-titled 1988 debut album didn’t make a whole lot of noise. Two years later, they followed that album with Lean Into It, which is mostly more of that same strutting and shredding. But the album ended with a quasi-soulful please-love-me ballad that Eric Martin had started writing many years earlier.

In a bunch of interviews over the years, Martin has said that he’d spent his teenage years in love with an older girl who was a kind of proto-goth and who was not into him like that: “This girl had a lot of boyfriends who treated her like shit. I wanted to be the knight in shining armor, wanted to be with her. She wasn’t having it.” At one point, Martin’s publisher put him together with David Grahame, another songwriter who’d once played Paul McCartney in the Broadway show Beatlemania. Together, Martin and Grahame wrote the final version of “To Be With You.” At first, Martin didn’t even want to play the song for the rest of Mr. Big; he figured it was too wimpy. But Martin’s bandmates liked the song, and it became the closing track on Lean Into It.

It’s pretty clear that “To Be With You” is written from the perspective of a guy trying to wheedle his way out of the friendzone. More specifically, Eric Martin’s narrator tries to comfort someone after a breakup by telling this person that she should be with him instead. I don’t know if that approach has ever worked for anyone in the entire history of humanity, but I do know that it’s generally a bad look.

On “To Be With you,” Eric Martin makes sales pitches; he’ll “build up your confidence, so you can be on top for once… Why be alone when we can be together, baby? You can make my life worthwhile! I can make you start to smile!” He says her ex wasn’t shit anyway: “Wake up! Who cares about little boys that talk too much?” He makes a sports analogy that doesn’t really work: “The game of love was all rained out.” He also makes an inscrutable allusion to mood rings, a sure sign that this song really was written in the ’70s: “Waited on a line of greens and blues, just to be the next to be with you.” (I never understood what that part was about, but know I know. Mood rings.)

Pop history is full of songs about feeling pathetic in the face of your own romantic feelings. Many of those songs are great. The great ones usually come with some level of self-awareness, usually paired with some kind of self-loathing. I don’t get that from “To Be With You.” The vibe I get from “To Be With You” is that hey, maybe this will work! “To Be With You” is a sad song masquerading as a romantic one, and it’s also a sad song that might not know it’s a sad song. That might be interesting, but I mostly find it pretty off-putting. The song has this condescending, swaggerless frustration working for it, and it just doesn’t work for me. Also, I’m very happy that we, as a society, have collectively decided to stop using “little girl” as a term of endearment in love songs. People were doing that for decades, and it always sounded creepy.

Thankfully, that sense of lyrical entitlement doesn’t really translate to the music of “To Be With You.” Instead, Mr. Big play the song as a mellow, blues-adjacent campfire-singalong kind of thing. Martin absolutely goes off with his white-boy yowling, and the end result lands somewhere between Steven Tyler and Michael Bolton. That’s a singing style that I generally don’t like — like, at all — but Martin does it well. He hits big notes, moves fluidly from rasp to falsetto, and manages to make those lyrics sound sensitive and weirdly jolly, not clenched and needy. The rest of the band sings the basic melody in a nicely breezy harmony, giving Martin the room he needs to launch into scraggly-moan overdrive.

The “To Be With You” video — in which the members of Mr. Big goof around in a train car, with the whole thing snapping from black-and-white to color during Paul Gilbert’s acoustic-guitar solo — is unambiguously a glam metal video. Eric Martin, floofy and elfin, is the very picture of a late-period hair-band frontman. But “To Be With You” doesn’t sound like a glam metal song. It’s strummy and casual, and it sounds like what might happen if REO Speedwagon attempted to go folk. The song is definitely catchy. That chorus, repeated over and over, slides into infernal-earworm territory. The guitar solo manages to be showy and melodic at the same time. There’s a profoundly satisfying key change toward the end. If you were a kid who listened to rock radio in 1991, this song was in your head all the time. I don’t like the song, but I do respect the craft.

Clearly, Mr. Big had no idea what they had on their hands with “To Be With You.” The rest of the album sounded nothing like it. A track like album opener “Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song),” on which Paul Gilbert and Billy Sheehan both played solos by holding drills up to their instruments, was more this band’s speed. That song was the first single from Lean Into It, and it went nowhere. The psych-rock-inspired follow-up “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind” didn’t leave much of an impression on the world, either. But a rock station in Lincoln, Nebraska started playing “To Be With You,” so the band turned it into a single quickly. “To Be With You” was the first Mr. Big song that made the Hot 100 at all, and it quickly came to eclipse the rest of the band’s existence.

Mr. Big followed “To Be With You” with “Just Take My Heart,” the big traditional power ballad from Lean Into It, and it peaked at #16. In 1993, when the band released their follow-up album Bump Ahead, their lead single was a cover of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” a clear attempt to recreate what they’d done with “To Be With You.” The Mr. Big take on “Wild World” reached #27. (The Cat Stevens original had peaked at #11 in 1971.) “Ain’t Seen Love Like That,” another mostly-acoustic ballad from Bump Ahead, made it to #83, and that was Mr. Big’s last time on the Hot 100.

Mr. Big stuck around much longer than you might expect. The band’s random-ass success throughout Asia probably had a lot to do with that. In Japan, especially, Mr. Big remained huge for years. While Mr. Big utterly disappeared in the US, their records continued to reach the top 10 of the Japanese charts. They also released a whole lot of live albums for the Japanese market. During that era, Eric Martin sang the version of “Go Go Power Rangers” that appeared in 1995’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, which I think is pretty funny.

In 1999, Paul Gilbert left Mr. Big, and former Poison guitarist Richie Kotzen took his place. The band finally broke up in 2002, but they got back together in 2010 and released three more albums, all top-10 hits in Japan. In 2018, drummer Pat Torpey died of Parkinson’s disease at the age of 64. The band had plans for one more album, but the album never came out. Mr. Big have essentially been on hiatus since Torpey’s death, though they’ve said that they might get back together in the right situation. I’m sure that there are still guitar-shredding fans who speak the name Mr. Big in hushed voices, but those of us who remember the band’s existence mostly just remember “To Be With You.” I suppose there are worse reasons to be remembered.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2017’s Opening Night, a movie that I have never heard of in my life, where Topher Grace sings a dramatic version of “To Be With You”:

(The best “To Be With You” bonus beat would’ve been the 2009 SNL sketch where a bunch of guys sing along with “To Be With You” while happily recounting memories of terrible romantic situations, but I can’t find that one online. In any case, Bradley Cooper, one of the stars of that skit, will eventually appear in this column.)

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