The Number Ones

March 21, 1992

The Number Ones: Vanessa Williams’ “Save The Best For Last”

Stayed at #1:

5 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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Sometimes the snow comes down in June. Sometimes the sun goes ’round the moon. Sometimes the first Black Miss America in the pageant’s entire history gets stripped of her title for fucked-up reasons and still goes on to become the most famous ex-Miss America who has ever lived. Vanessa Williams’ first year in the public eye must’ve been a real emotional rollercoaster. But less than a decade after she first wore the Miss America tiara, after all the unjust humiliation that she endured afterwards, Williams’ ballad “Save The Best For Last” became one of 1992’s biggest hits, and it turned her whole Miss America tenure into a career footnote. You don’t have to love “Save The Best For Last,” Williams’ only #1 hit, to appreciate that kind of happy ending.

I have never understood the world of beauty pageants. To an outsider like me, the whole culture looks like a fucked-up attempt to force young women into unrealistic ideals that have very little to do with real life. The Miss America pageant itself has a truly nasty history. Established in 1920 as a way to bring tourists to the Atlantic City boardwalk, Miss America began as a racist institution. Racism was, in fact, written into the contest’s rules in its early decades: “Contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” That particular rule was stricken in 1950, but the Miss America pageant still went 50 years without including any Black contestants, and it went more than 60 before a Black woman finally won. That woman was Vanessa Williams.

Vanessa Williams, the daughter of two music teachers, was born in the Bronx and raised in the Westchester County suburb of Millwood. (When Williams was born, the #1 song in America was the Four Seasons’ “Walk Like A Man.”) In the early ’80s, Williams studied musical theater at Syracuse University, which happens to be the same place where I went to college a bunch of years later. (I’m pretty sure she was in the video that they showed prospective students when I toured the school.) When Williams was in school, she was crowned Miss Syracuse, then Miss New York. At the Miss America pageant, she sang the old standard “Happy Days Are Here Again” with serious theater-kid energy, and she won the whole thing.

After being crowned Miss America in 1983, Williams got racist death threats. When she only had a couple of weeks left in her tenure as Miss America, Williams found out that Penthouse was planning to publish some old nude photos of her, without her permission. In response, the Miss America organizers forced Williams to resign her title and gave it to the first runner-up. Decades later, in 2016, Williams served as the head judge of the Miss America pageant, and CEO Sam Haskell offered her a public apology.

When she was trying to figure out how to resign her Miss America title and move on with her life, Williams hired a PR guy named Ramon Hervey. Hervey became Williams’ manager and worked out a deal for her to sign with the PolyGram subsidiary Wing Records. Hervey and Williams also got married in 1987; their daughter Jillian Hervey, born in 1989, is now the singer of the R&B duo Lion Babe. Williams released her debut album The Right Stuff in 1988. Her first single, the album’s title track, peaked at #44 on the Hot 100 and made it to #4 on the R&B chart. Soon afterwards, Williams made it to #8 on the pop chart with the sleek and saxophone-heavy adult-contempo ballad “Dreamin’.” (It’s a 4.)

Vanessa Williams released her sophomore album The Comfort Zone in 1991, and most of the record was clubby, uptempo R&B. The first two singles were minor hits; the funky and house-flavored “Running Back To You” made it as high as #18. Williams could sing that stuff just fine, though she always sounded a bit like she was playacting the club-diva part. Williams’ favorite song on the album, though, was the record’s biggest old-school ballad, and that’s the one that really hit.

“Save The Best For Last” came from three veteran songwriting pros. Jon Lind, one of the writers of Madonna’s “Crazy For You,” co-wrote the music for “Save The Best For Last” with Phil Galdston, who’d written for singers like Celine Dion and Cher. Galdston co-wrote the song’s lyrics with Wendy Waldman, who’d been a folk-rock singer-songwriter in the ’70s. (Waldman’s only charting single, 1978’s “Long Hot Summer Nights,” peaked at #76.) Waldman’s idea was that the song should capture a sort of positive surprise ending, and she came up with that opening lyric about the snow coming down in June and the sun going ’round the moon.

UPDATE: Co-write Phil Galdston has written in with a cool addendum and a correction to the piece. Here’s what he says:

THE ADDENDUM: Jon and I, who were working on another song we were POSITIVE was a hit (we never completed it!), wrote most of the music in one sitting of approximately 27 minutes in an evening session in L.A. During a break, he asked me if I had a title. I consulted my little black lyric book and saw “Save the best for last.” We sang that in what became the appropriate place and really liked it. As we were calling it a night, he suggested that I might want to take a shot at the lyric with Wendy. I agreed, not knowing when I would next see Wendy, who was living in Nashville. Nearly a month later, my wife suggested I should get out of some doldrums and go to work with Wendy in Nashville, where I’d never been (!). On a call with Jon, I mentioned the trip. He said, “Don’t forget our little Broadway melody.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. “That ‘Save’ thing we started,” he told me. When I arrived, I found a nearly nine-month-pregnant Wendy ready to go to work. When I played her Jon’s any my writing tape, she became quite excited. She asked me what the title meant to me.

THE CORRECTION: I told Wendy that I meant it ironically; i.e. you hurt me at the end of our relationship. Wendy shook her head and said, “You’re crazy! It’s not about that at all. It’s about someone you love surprising you by confessing they love you, too!” “You mean a ‘Moon and June’ song?” “Exactly,” she replied. And then, one of us said, “Sometimes the sun comes down in June,” and the other said, “Sometimes the sun goes ’round the moon.” And we were off…… Thanks!

Wendy Waldman sang the demo version of “Save The Best For Last.” In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Jon Lind says, “The demo was deliberately under-produced. We didn’t use a drum machine — just piano, sort of fretless bass sound, and strings.” The trio shopped the song around to a bunch of different pop divas, and Ed Eckstine, Vanessa Williams’ label boss, jumped at it. That demo doesn’t seem to be online anywhere, but a version of Waldman singing it live is.

With Wendy Waldman singing, “Save The Best For Last” doesn’t sound anything like an R&B song. Vanessa Williams’ version of the song topped the R&B chart, but her version doesn’t sound all that R&B, either. (It also went to #1 on adult contemporary, which makes sense.) Williams recorded her version of the song with Keith Thomas, the same guy who’d produced Amy Grant’s “Baby Baby.” In its final form, “Save The Best For Last” is hyper-dramatic cornball music. It’s full of strings and pianos and noodly acoustic guitars. It’s theater-kid music, Disney-princess music. That means it’s right in Vanessa Williams’ comfort zone.

There’s a story to the lyrics of “Save The Best For Last.” Williams’ narrator has been in love with someone for a long time, but she’s always been stuck in the friendzone. She’s listened to this chump talking about other women, not realizing that he should be with her instead: “All of the nights you came to me/ When some silly girl had set you free/ You wondered how you’d make it through/ I wondered what was wrong with you.” Finally, though, they’re together, and Williams’ narrator reacts with a sort of wonder: “And now we’re standing face to face/ Isn’t this world a crazy place?/ Just when I thought our chance had passed, you go and save the best for last.”

“Save The Best For Last” is not a song about being forced to vacate your Miss America tiara after some asshole publishes your old naked pictures, but the song’s story does have some odd resonance with Williams’ time in the public eye. She’d been through an insane ordeal, and she’d triumphed anyway. More importantly, the song fits Williams’ voice perfectly. As a singer, Williams is less showy than most of the balladeers of her era. She can hit big notes, but she’s also got an actor’s ability to convey emotion through restraint. She sings “Save The Best For Last” with a soft vulnerability that nicely undercuts the canned bombast of the arrangement.

Keith Thomas’ “Save The Best For Last” production is hyper-gloop — exactly the kind of orchestral sweetness that I normally cannot stand. But I like the melody and the mellow awe of those lyrics, and Williams makes them sound warm and personal. She comes off as someone who’s found her way to a sort of unexpected happiness. She’s imagined it, but she didn’t actually think it could be hers. Now, it’s here, and she’s like: “Huh. Wow. Cool.” She loves this guy, but she still seems a bit annoyed that he didn’t put things together earlier. The understatement works.

The Comfort Zone went triple platinum on the strength of “Save The Best For Last,” and Vanessa Williams scored a few more big hits with more soft, friendly ballads. A year after “Save The Best For Last,” she made it to #3 with the Brian McKnight duet “Love Is,” a song recorded for the Beverly Hills 90210 soundtrack. (It’s a 7.) And in 1995, Williams made the Disney-princess overtones of “Save The Best For Last” literal. She sang the pop version of “Colors Of The Wind,” the main theme from the Disney movie Pocahontas, and that song peaked at #4. (It’s a 6.)

After The Comfort Zone, none of Vanessa Williams’ albums sold better than gold. She kept recording, but she hasn’t released an album since 2009. Instead, Williams’ acting career became her main focus, and it’s been a huge success. Williams made her screen debut in the 1987 Robert Downey, Jr. vehicle The Pick-Up Artist, but her career really picked up in 1996, when she starred alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the entertainingly stupid Eraser. In 1997, Williams played the lead role in the much-loved family drama Soul Food. She’s also been in films like Hoodlum, Dance With Me, and The Adventures Of Elmo In Grouchland, in which she plays the Queen Of Trash.

Williams has also done plenty of stage acting, and she was nominated for a Tony for her work in Into The Woods on Broadway. And she’s done a ton of work on TV. I really liked her in the Anna Wintour-esque quasi-villain role on Ugly Betty, and she’s also had long arcs on Desperate Housewives and The Good Wife. Williams divorced Ramon Hervey in 1997. After that, she spent five years married to the stupefyingly handsome Laker Rick Fox. These days, she’s married to a civilian, and she still works all the time. Two years ago, Williams was a winner on RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race, which I guess is its own kind of beauty pageant. It seems a lot cooler than Miss America.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Save The Best For Last” lip-sync from the end credits of the 1994 cult classic Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kelly Clarkson singing “Save The Best For Last” during the early rounds of the first American Idol season in 2001, somehow pissing off Simon Cowell in the process:

(Kelly Clarkson will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Me First And The Gimme Gimmes’ 2003 pop-punk version of “Save The Best For Last,” which sets the song to the riff from the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The makers of the 2014 Lifetime biopic Aaliyah: The Princess Of R&B couldn’t get the rights to any actual Aaliyah music, so they made the strange choice to use songs that Aaliyah didn’t really sing. Aaliyah never covered “Save The Best For Last,” but there’s a scene in the movie where Alexandra Shipp’s Aaliyah auditions for Clé Bennett’s R. Kelly by singing the song. Here’s that scene:

(Aaliyah and R. Kelly will both appear in this column. I’m excited for one of those and extremely not excited for the other.)

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