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.
Chart-topping singles don’t just disappear. Some of them permeate culture more than others, but a song can’t reach #1 unless it resonates on some level. Very few people have heard every #1 hit, but if there’s a song in this column that you don’t recognize, that probably says more about you than it does about the song. All sorts of factors go into it: Race, location, age, economic status, gender. If a chart-topping song never meant anything to you, personally — if you never even heard it — then it was probably still defined a moment in time for many, many other people.
There are, however, exceptions. Every once in a while, you’ll run across a #1 hit that seems like it’s utterly disappeared into the ether. “Lately,” the only real hit from the short-lived R&B trio Divine, is one of those songs. “Lately” snuck its way to #1 for a single week at the end of 1998. Divine broke up shortly after the release of their only album, which is now out of print. Since none of the individual members ever became famous, Divine’s run can’t even be considered a footnote in some larger story. The people who wrote and produced “Lately” didn’t exactly go on to huge careers, either. Even the label that released the song quickly ceased to exist. Compared to the other songs that have appeared in this column, Divine’s “Lately” is a ghost, a whisper. That’s too bad, since it’s a good song.
It’s hard to find much information on Divine online — partly because the group was only around for a brief spell and partly because their name was so generic, so hard to Google. This Divine is not the drag queen who starred in all those John Waters movies and who released a couple of albums in the early ’80s. This Divine also isn’t the RZA’s brother, the guy who ran the Wu-Tang Clan’s business affairs for a while and who seems to be despised by a bunch of the rappers in the group. It’s not the Hindi rapper who’s been trying to break through to the mainstream for the past decade or so, either. Those are all different Divines, and all of them will potentially make life more difficult for you if you’re trying to do research on the Divine who made “Lately.”
The three members of the Divine who made “Lately” were all teenagers when they auditioned for a pair of managers. They came from different cities, and they didn’t know each other, but they sang well together. Those managers signed Divine to Red Ant Entertainment, a label that only existed for a few years and that put out records from industrial-sleaze crew My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult and the Wu-Tang-affiliated rap group Sunz Of Man. Red Ant’s online footprint is virtually nonexistent, which gives off vague “tax shelter” or “organized-crime money-laundering operation” vibes. From what I can tell, Red Ant was a subsidiary of Pendulum Records, a small rap label that was founded by the former Elektra VP Ruben Rodriguez and that put out Digable Planets and Lords Of The Underground records. This was not, in any case, a big company.
The people who wrote and produced “Lately” all came from Indianapolis, and they all had some kind of loose connection to Indianapolis native Babyface, which was a good connection to have if you were trying to make R&B in the ’90s. Producers John Howcott and Donald Parks spent time working at LaFace Records, the label that Babyface co-founded. For a while, they were two thirds of H.O.P. Productions, a team that did a couple of Keith Sweat tracks. When H.O.P. broke up, Howcott and Parks started a company called Urban Vibe and signed the Indianapolis songwriters Will Baker and Pete Woodruff. Those two writers, along with Baker’s childhood friend Christopher Kelly, wrote “Lately.” In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Baker says that the song “was about my high school days. My high school sweetheart took me on a merry-go-round of ups and downs. I ended up marrying her.” Since Will Baker is not a famous person, I have no way of learning how that turned out. Let’s hope it went well.
Red Ant founder Ruben Rodriguez loved the “Lately” demo, and he took it to Divine, the girl group he’d just signed. The song became their debut single. Howcott and Parks produced “Lately,” recording the song at three different sessions in three different cities. The last of those sessions was in Indianapolis, where co-writer Pete Woodruff played Hammond B3. The sound of “Lately” is really nice. It’s a slow, Southern-fried traditionalist sort of thing — the rare late-’90s R&B song that actually has some tangible connection to the “blues” part of R&B. It’s a warm, simple track, and that Hammond organ and the easy-winding guitar strike up a nice chemistry. “Lately” is clearly not a major work, but its groove is just exceedingly pleasant.
The vocals are good, too. The three young women in Divine — Kia Thornton, Nikki Bratcher, and Tonia Tash — all came from New York or New Jersey, and they all had pretty similar vocal ranges. On “Lately,” they trade off lead vocals, but they all sound similar enough that you can’t really tell. It’s a strange approach to a song like this one. Most singing groups are either built around one lead singer or around a team of radically different personalities, and Divine never had that. They were just three good singers who all sounded like each other and whose voices meshed well. When the different members of the group take lead, they show off some serious chops. Sometimes, those chops get in the way of the song’s laid-back atmosphere. The line about “the saddest day in sweet November,” for instance, gets a little overwrought. Most of the time, though, the singers lock in with the groove, and their harmonies on the chorus are truly pretty.
There’s nothing particularly distinctive about “Lately.” It’s a song about pining for a relationship that’s been over for a while. The main line from the chorus is relatable enough: “Lately, been thinkin’ ’bout you, baby/ Just sittin’ away, watchin’ the days go by.” But there’s nothing specific about the lyrics, which are pure banality when they aren’t just wrong. One line is a total clanger: “If loving you is right, then I don’t wanna go wrong.” That’s not how the expression goes! Nobody wants to go wrong! And if you have to contort a cliché so that it can rhyme with “another sad love song,” then maybe you need to rethink that whole line. But on-paper lyrics aren’t really the point of a song like “Lately.” Instead, it’s about capturing a feeling and a vibe, and “Lately” succeeds at that.
I have no idea how “Lately” became a #1 hit. The song hung around the charts for a while, climbing gradually, and it got airplay on pop and R&B radio. (“Lately” seems like it would be a slam dunk for adult contemporary radio, too, but it never made that chart.) The single also sold well enough to go platinum, so maybe the sales were enough to push it up the Hot 100. The song rings vague memory-bells for me, but it didn’t leave much of an impression, and I’m pretty sure I never saw the swampy low-budget video on any cable channel. Even the Billboard institutional memory of Divine seems to be just about nothing; on the magazine’s website, the thumbnail photo of Divine is the Divine who was in the John Waters movies, even though that Divine had been dead for a decade by the time “Lately” reached #1.
Divine only released one more single. Their not-bad cover of George Michael’s 1988 chart-topper “One More Try” peaked at #29 in the spring of 1999. And then that was it. Divine’s album Fairy Tales came out and then disappeared. Red Ant Entertainment ceased to exist sometime around 1999, and so, as far as I can tell, did Divine. Nikki Bratcher went on to sing on a few records from the Detroit rapper Royce The 5’9″, and she also, weirdly, co-wrote the Gang Starr song that appeared on the 8 Mile soundtrack. Kia Thornton apparently went back to singing in the church. In 2007, nine years after “Lately,” she had a memorably emotional audition on American Idol, a show that will eventually figure into this column.
The idea of someone scoring a #1 hit and then auditioning for Idol years later is just wild. Not too many people have made #1 hits even after being on Idol. It’s not too hard to imagine the arc of an Idol run for Kia Thornton — sailing through the early rounds and then, finally, reckoning with her past at a dramatic turning point in the season, singing “Lately,” her own song, and leaving America’s collective jaw hanging open. But that’s not what happened. Idol bounced Thornton in the Hollywood rounds, and the show never even acknowledged the time that she’d made a #1 hit. That wasn’t the narrative that they wanted to push.
The behind-the-scenes people involved with “Lately” haven’t exactly gone onto legendary careers, either. Writers Pete Woodruff and Chris Kelly wrote an early song for Pink, an artist who will eventually appear in this column. Their co-writer Christopher Kelly did some work with R&B singers like Marques Houston and Avant. “Lately” was a true one-off. The whole enterprise just seemingly evaporated after that song did what it did.
But an amazing disappearing #1 hit can still mean things to people. If you look at the YouTube comments under “Lately,” most of them fit into a couple of common categories. There are the ones about “please take me back to the ’90s” and the ones about “remember the time when women could be respectful and not naked”; those are just pure omnipresent white noise. A couple of nights ago, though, one comment ambushed me and made me extremely sad. Please be warned: This is some raw, traumatic shit, and I’m going to quote it in full:
This song reminds me of my baby that I lost in a custody battle in court,it tears me inside I cry every night think of my baby every second of the day,his dad won’t let me see him ,I miss you my baby mama loves you always and forever ,I wish you were in my arms again ,I’m still fighting for you I’m not giving up
I don’t know what this lady’s story is. I don’t know why she lost custody of her kid. (I have some strong opinions on the way the American court system treats mothers, especially mothers without money, but this column does not seem like the place for those.) But just imagine going through some primal loss and feeling like the only place where you can talk about it is in the YouTube comments under the video for a widely forgotten hit song from decades earlier. That’s godawful terrible nightmare shit, but it also says something about how songs, even songs that many of us might barely remember, can become vectors for gut-wrenching emotion. That’s its own kind of triumph. A whole lot of us might have forgotten all about “Lately,” but it still means something real to somebody.
BONUS BEATS: In 2001, the Irish singer Samantha Mumba released a “Lately” cover that was slicker than Divine’s original. Mumba’s cover was a top-10 hit in the UK and Ireland. Here’s her “Lately” video:
(Samantha Mumba’s highest-charting US single, 2000’s “Gotta Tell You,” peaked at #4. It’s a 6.)