The Number Ones

May 21, 1994

The Number Ones: All-4-One’s “I Swear”

Stayed at #1:

11 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 terms of pure record sales, the biggest star of the ’90s was Garth Brooks. It’s not close. Garth spent that entire decade beasting out on the CD market. The numbers he put up are now just unfathomable. Between 1989 and 1997, Garth Brooks released six different studio albums that went diamond. Brooks also has two greatest-hits collections — one from 1994 and another from 2007 — that are also diamond. And then there’s 1998’s Double Live, which is double diamond. In the US, Garth Brooks has sold 157 million albums. Here, he’s the biggest-selling solo artist of all time. Looking at the Billboard Hot 100, you would have no idea.

Garth Brooks is a country singer. If he’d come along a decade earlier, Garth would’ve almost certainly been a factor on the Hot 100. In the ’70s and ’80s, there was a whole lot of crossover between the pop and country charts. Country stars like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton made #1 hits. Pop stars like John Denver and Olivia Newton-John were embraced by the country music establishment. But after the urban-cowboy fad of the early ’80s, country music essentially removed itself from the pop conversation. Garth Brooks carried himself, more or less, as a stadium-level rock star, but he understood that his country bona fides were key to his success. He treated the pop charts accordingly.

In the ’90s, Billboard wouldn’t allow songs to chart on the Hot 100 unless those songs were commercially available as singles. Garth Brooks wanted to make it clear that he was a country singer, not a pop singer, and so he intentionally kept himself off the pop charts. He didn’t release singles, and he didn’t promote his songs to pop radio. Over the entire course of his career, Garth Brooks only has one top-10 hit on the Hot 100 — “Lost In You,” the 1999 track released under Brooks’ baffling and short-lived Chris Gaines alter-ego. (It’s a 4.) You can’t tell the story of ’90s pop music without mentioning Garth Brooks, but Garth Brooks decided that he wanted no part of the Hot 100.

Garth Brooks wasn’t alone. The ’90s were a boom time in country music, but that boom came when country isolated itself from pop music and became its own parallel universe. Country songs simply did not have any significant impact on the pop charts in the ’90s. There were exceptions, but those exceptions were random one-off novelties like Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart,” which made it to #4 in 1992. (It’s a 5. Billy Ray Cyrus will eventually appear in this column, but it won’t be for anything he that he did in the ’90s.)

“I Swear,” one of the biggest hits of 1994, started off its life as a country song. When it became a hit, record-label forces wanted to turn “I Swear” into a pop song. At this point, though, pop and country were so far removed from one another that “I Swear” needed to change completely to become the smash that it became. It needed to become something other than country, and that’s what it became. Along the way, the song lost whatever personality it might’ve once had.

Two country music professionals, Gary Baker and Frank J. Meyers, wrote “I Swear” all the way back in 1987. Baker had been the bassist for the Shooters, a country band that had some success in the ’80s. Meyers had played guitar for the country singer Eddy Raven, and he’d written “You And I,” the crossover-hit 1982 duet from Crystal Gayle and former Number Ones artist Eddie Rabbitt. (“You And I” peaked at #7 on the Hot 100. It’s a 3.) Baker and Meyers first started writing together when Baker was still in the Shooters, and that band recorded some of their songs.

During that early period of their writing partnership, Baker and Meyers lived a few hours apart from one another, so they had to schedule out all their songwriting sessions. Before one such session at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Baker called Meyers and told him that he had a song title: “I Swear.” During the drive from Nashville to Muscle Shoals, Meyers came up with a chorus, and the two of them finished up the rest of the song together. Their “I Swear” demo got some interest from some big stars, and Kenny Rogers considered recording it, but nothing ever happened. Baker and Meyers moved on.

In 1990, after the Shooters broke up, Baker and Meyers both played in Marie Osmond’s backup band. (Marie Osmond’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, 1973’s “Paper Roses,” peaked at #5. It’s a 6.) They kept writing together, and they landed their first hit a few years later. In 1993, Alabama recorded Baker and Meyers’ song “Once Upon A Lifetime,” and it went to #3 on the country charts. (Alabama’s highest-charting Hot 100 single is 1981’s “Love In The First Degree,” which peaked at #15.)

During those years, Baker and Meyers still thought that they had something in “I Swear.” Eventually, they recorded a new demo for the song, and they played it for John Michael Montgomery, a relatively new country star who was just coming off of his first #1 hit on the country charts. Montgomery cut “I Swear” and released it as a single in 1993. It became another country #1, and it also crossed over to the Hot 100, where it peaked at #42. (John Michael Montgomery’s highest-charting Hot 100 single is 2004’s “Letters From Home,” which peaked at #24.)

At the time, Doug Morris was the president of Warner Music, and he thought that “I Swear” could be a pop hit. In its original form, though, “I Swear” was too country to do anything on pop radio. Montgomery’s vocal twanged hard, and the arrangement was all full of pedal steel. For “I Swear” to work as a pop song, someone would need to cut a pop version of it. John Michael Montgomery couldn’t do that without jeopardizing his status within country music, so Morris had to look elsewhere. Enter All-4-One.

The four members of the young singing group All-4-One all came from the California desert towns of Antelope Valley and Mojave. Tim O’Brien, founder of a small label called Blitzz Records, put the group together and gave them the name All-4-One, which was supposed to have something to do with their multiracial identity. Beyond that name, All-4-One didn’t really have much of a persona. Three of the group’s members had been singing jingles for a local radio station. All of them were in their teens or early twenties.

All-4-One’s first single was a cover of the Tymes’ 1963 doo-wop chart-topper “So Much In Love.” The All-4-One version was pure soft-focus nostalgia, and it contrasted sharply with the hornier R&B songs that were all over the charts in the mid-’90s. Their cover was almost entirely a cappella. Jamie Jones, the youngest member of All-4-One, sang lead in a piercing tenor while the other guys layered on prim and pillowy harmonies. The cover was squeaky-clean and a bit forgettable, but it was also genuinely pretty. It became a surprise hit, peaking at #4. (It’s a 6.)

When “So Much In Love” hit, Blitzz made a deal with Atlantic, and All-4-One got to work on their self-titled debut album. The LP was already done when Doug Morris told Tim O’Brien that All-4-One had to record “I Swear” and that their version had to be on their album. The group had already recorded an album track with mega-producer David Foster, who had some experience in turning country hits into adult-contempo pop mega-smashes. Foster had produced Whitney Houston’s world-conquering version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” so he was the natural choice to produce the All-4-One version of “I Swear.” All-4-One spent two days recording “I Swear” in Foster’s home studio, and their cover came out six months after the John Michael Montgomery original. It then spent basically the entire summer of 1994 at #1.

As a group, All-4-One didn’t exactly have a sound. Their self-titled debut album is all over the place — some ballads, some breezy uptempo funk-pop tracks, some attempts at new jack swing, the tiniest little bit of rapping. Those different tracks had different producers, and All-4-One clearly did whatever those producers wanted, changing their approaches to fit different sounds. Maybe their general anonymity was part of the appeal of “I Swear.” All-4-One didn’t put any personality into the song, so listeners could project whatever they wanted onto it.

The best country songs tell stories, and the worst read like greeting cards. “I Swear” is not one of the best country songs. It’s a thoroughly generic love ballad. The narrator pledges eternal fealty, never hinting at any of the messy chemistry that draws actual human beings together. A song like that can work, but it takes a great singer to sell it. The vocals have to do all the work, hinting at complexities that simply don’t appear in the text. On the original, John Michael Montgomery’s voice does some of that work. He sounds weary and weatherbeaten and kind. He sounds like a guy who’s lived a life and who wants to spend the rest of that life with you, the listener. I don’t get any of that from All-4-One.

All-4-One’s take on “I Swear” is clearly the work of a young, unformed group. The singers all know how to harmonize and trade off leads, but there’s no character in their voices. They’re only distinguishable from one another by vocal tone. Jamie Jones sings lead on most of “I Swear” in a nasal squawk that stabs right through David Foster’s arrangement. On the second verse, bandmate Delious Kennedy takes over. His voice is a bit deeper, and I like his part a bit better, but it never feels like any kind of shift for the song. These four guys are all clearly playing the same character. (The “I Swear” video is one of those funny deals where all four singers are supposed to be romancing the same woman. I’m not sure that anyone really considered the implications.)

The main thing that “I Swear” has going for it is the chorus. It’s a simple hook, and the simplicity is the point. You’re not supposed to doubt these guys. You’re supposed to believe them when they say that for better or worse, till death do you part, they’ll love you with every beat of their collective heart. All-4-One work hard to sell that chorus. That chorus is extremely memorable, and it’s the reason that “I Swear” has become a wedding staple. The chorus can stuck deep in your head even if you can’t stand the song. That’s bad news for me, since I am not into this thing.

David Foster clearly knew what he was doing. In the two biggest hits that he produced, Foster took country songs, wrapped them up in fusty early-’90s pop packaging, threw in smooth-jazz sax solos, and sold them to the world. “I Will Always Love You” worked despite Foster’s excitement-smothering arrangement. Whitney Houston sang that song with all the force of a volcano erupting into a hurricane, and she transcended everything that David Foster threw at her. The guys in All-4-One are all gifted singers, but none of them is Whitney Houston. For that matter, “I Swear” is also nowhere near as great a song as “I Will Always Love You.”

I have not ruled out the possibility that every production decision that David Foster made on “I Swear” was specifically intended to annoy me, personally. The canned keyboard tones? The fake fingersnaps? The sleepy acoustic guitars? The cymbal swooshes? That goddamn motherfucking sax solo? All of it makes me feel attacked. I wish “I Swear” was merely boring. It’s not. It’s ugliness presented as prettiness — so cynically simpering that it’s downright offensive. Rationally, I know that David Foster was not directly fucking with me when he produced “I Swear.” He didn’t know who I was, and he had no interest in making my life worse. He was simply trying to make a hit, pandering to the tastes of the day. But if David Foster had wanted to convince me to hack my own ears off with a meat cleaver, he wouldn’t have done anything different.

“I Swear” was all over the fucking place that summer. I couldn’t escape it. It was like a faintly toxic burning-plastic smell that lingered in the air for three solid months. “I Swear” has a nice melody and a nice sentiment, and it should simply be forgettable dreck, but it was too big for that. That summer, “I Swear” made my life worse in all sorts of tiny and intangible ways. I still resent the song’s existence.

All-4-One’s self-titled debut didn’t produce any more hits, but it still went quadruple platinum. A year later, All-4-One shamelessly attempted to replicate that success. The lead single from their sophomore album And The Music Speaks was “I Can Love You Like That,” another cover of a song that had been a country hit for John Michael Montgomery. Once again, David Foster produced the cover. Once again, it was a hit. This time, though, the cover wasn’t successful enough to ruin my summer. (“I Can Love You Like That” peaked at #5. It’s a 4.)

A year after “I Can Love You Like That,” All-4-One got to #30 with “Someday,” a song from the Hunchback Of Notre Dame soundtrack. That was their last time on the Hot 100. All-4-One stayed together, and they kept recording. By 2004, their records weren’t even getting American releases; they were strictly for the Asian market, which apparently loves gloopy American balladry. Amazingly, All-4-One are still together, and they’ve had no lineup changes. They play the nostalgia circuit, and I bet they live pretty well. “I Swear” promised drama-free eternity, and maybe that’s what All-4-One have found. Good for them. “I Swear” still sucks.

GRADE: 2/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the incomprehensible-to-me scene from the 2005 film Just Friends where a fat-suited Ryan Reynolds lip-syncs to “I Swear”:

I’m sorry to report that Reynolds re-created that scene, sans fat suit this time, when he joined TikTok last year:

@vancityreynolds

I swear you will be disappointed by this account.

♬ I Swear – All-4-One

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the romantic montage from a 2012 South Park episode where Cartman sings “I Swear” in multi-part harmony:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the wedding scene from the 2013 movie Despicable Me 2 where the Minions sing “I Swear” in their Minion language:

(The other song that the Minions sing in that clip is the Village People’s “YMCA,” which peaked at #2 in 1978. It’s an 8. The Despicable Me 2 soundtrack will eventually figure into this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s another wedding scene, from a 2021 episode of Pose, where the show’s entire cast sings “I Swear”:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Madonna’s synthy, heart-swelling movie ballad “I’ll Remember” peaked at #2 behind “I Swear.” It’s an 8.

Warren G and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate,” a silky and hypnotic story-song masterpiece about killing and then fucking, also peaked at #2 behind “I Swear.” It’s funk on a whole new level — the rhythm is the bass and the bass is the treble — and it’s a 10.

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