425. ‘Three Times a Lady’, by The Commodores

We are racing through 1978 now. In the space of just three #1s, we’ve leapt from early May to late September. And I thought we’d escaped, really I did. I thought we’d finally pulled ourselves from the late-seventies easy-listening swamp. But, just as we wrenched our back feet free from the sludge, Lionel Richie grabs us by the ankles and drags us back down…

Three Times a Lady, by The Commodores (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 13th August – 17th September 1978

Let’s start with the positives. I know this chorus, can sing this chorus, can drop this chorus jokingly into everyday counting situations… You’re once, Twice, Three times a lady… without ever having properly listened to the rest of the song. Which is a sign of a certain ubiquity, of a song’s place among the big boys. What does it mean, to be ‘three times a lady’? I had hoped it might be something dirty… But, apparently Richie wrote it after hearing his dad describe his mum as a great lady, a great friend and a great mother.

I must have heard the rest of this song, surely, but I can’t remember doing so. In fact, I’ve listened to this song several times in writing these past two and a bit paragraphs, and have already forgotten everything but the chorus. I am listening to it right now, and it is still not going in. It is background music, plain and simple.

Lionel’s voice is nice, the piano is nice, the percussion is… nice, I guess? But Good Lord it’s dull. Ballads like this are always at a disadvantage with me, but the best can pull through and convince. (Chicago’s ‘If You Leave Me Now’ was one such fairly recent example.) But here, chorus aside, it’s too slow, it’s not catchy, it’s nowhere near OTT enough (unlike Richie’s solo chart-topper…)

Just once does the song break away from its plod. Before the final chorus it builds, some drums and cymbals enter, and some backing vocalists harmonise… But it’s gone. The pace slows again and we trudge towards the end. It is genuinely terrifying to discover that the album version of ‘Three Times a Lady’ runs to almost seven minutes! Give whoever at Motown records decided to chop three minutes off for the 7” a medal.

The Commodores had been around for a few years before this gave them a trans-Atlantic #1. ‘Easy’ was their big breakthrough in the UK (it’s better than ‘Three Times…’, but I’d still be picking holes in it had it been a chart-topper…) They did release upbeat, funky tunes – try their debut single ‘Machine Gun’ – but sadly that wasn’t what sold. Lionel Richie left the band in 1980, and went to absolutely dominate the next decade on the Billboard chart. The remaining Commodores kept at it though, to decent success, and are still active today.

411. ‘Float On’, by The Floaters

Two of the 1970’s most forgotten number ones back to back, then. From ‘Angelo’, to ‘Float On’, as the world shrugs and thinks ‘Nope, don’t remember them…’

Float On, by The Floaters (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 21st – 28th August 1977

Musically, this is dense, lush, soul-cheese. The bassline is smooth, while the production has a ‘sounds of rainforest’ vibe, all echoey and dripping, with what sounds like tropical birds in the distance. While, lyrically, it’s a lonely hearts ad. There are four members of The Floaters, and they all take turns at introducing themselves, their star-signs, and the kind of women they’re after.

First up is Ralph, an Aquarius. Now I like a woman who loves her freedom, And who can hold her own… Then Charles, a Libra, who likes a woman who carries herself like Miss Universe… He really goes for it with the falsetto, in a kind of vocal peacocking move. (And is there a more seventies line than let me take you Loveland…?) Actually, by the late nineties, every pop group worth their salt had a gimmick for introducing the members in their debut single. In this respect, The Floaters were well ahead of their time.

Anyway. Our Leo, Paul, isn’t picky. See, I like all women of the world, he announces proudly. And last up is Larry, who delivers his sign, Cancer!, slightly too loudly. He likes… Oh to be honest, who cares? The descriptions are deliberately vague in order to not put off any woman who might buy the record. I guess sociology students could look back, forty-plus years later, at this song as a first-hand example of what men of the late-1970s looked for in a woman (if that was their ultra-niche specialist subject).

Float, Float on… I’m not sure where they’ll be floating, or what they’ll be on, but I’m getting an image of each Floater with his girl, in a swan-shaped boat, cruising down one of those old ‘Tunnel of Love’ rides. It all goes a bit weird at the end, with some trippy flutes and heavy breathing, as we wonder just what is going on as those boats float out of sight…

The Floaters were from Detroit, and are stone-cold, one-hit wonders. ‘Float On’ floated to #1 in the UK, and to #2 in the USA, and that was that. To be honest, naming your band after your debut single, or vice-versa, pretty much guarantees that you will remain in one-hit purgatory for all eternity. They do, though, usurp Pussycat as the chart-topping act with the worst name because to me a ‘floater’ is, at best, an unwelcome object in your drink and, at worst, an unwelcome returnee to your toilet bowl…

408. ‘So You Win Again’, by Hot Chocolate

Taking up where The Jacksons left off – I’m sure any DJ worth their salt could spin this and ‘Show You the Way to Go’ together seamlessly – here’s Hot Chocolate with another slice of disco-lite.

So You Win Again, by Hot Chocolate (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 26th June – 17th July 1977

I love the guitar sound on this record. It sounds like a whale bellowing from the ocean’s depths: primal and deep. Is it even a guitar? A synthesiser? Electric violin? Whatever it is, it works brilliantly. It helps create a really thick, sticky sound, as if this whole record has been dipped in a vat of honey.

There’s also a hypnotic bass to drag you along. This record has a pretty sleazy-sounding undertone to it, which the lyrics don’t really justify. It’s a song about a man spurned: Your perfumed letters didn’t say, That you’d be leaving any day… She does sound flighty – can you really trust someone who sends perfumed letters?

So you win again, You win again, Here I stand again… Under all the heavy instrumentation, however, a great pop song lurks. There are plenty of hooks: the do-do-dodoops and a catchy middle-eight in the I can’t refuse her… line. Plus the way lead singer Errol Brown draws out the ‘lo-ser’ in the chorus is great. But I think what makes the whole song complete is the little ‘So’ in the title. It adds weight to the singer’s resignation, to the fact that he’s a schmuck who’s been fooled before and will be fooled again…

This is sophisticated, and layered pop music. There’s a marimba in there somewhere, a horn, and strings, while the rest of the band wrap themselves around the lead vocals. In my last post I mentioned bands whose sole #1 single isn’t their most famous. Hot Chocolate are better known for ‘You Sexy Thing’ (a #2) and probably ‘Every 1s a Winner’ (only a #12!) But, out of these three, I’d say ‘So You Win Again’ is the better record.

This was already their seventh Top 10 hit, though, in a run stretching right back to the start of the decade. They’d have a few more, and are still a going concern, still with three of the members that appeared on this record. Lead singer Brown, he of the velvety voice, left the group in the eighties and passed away in 2015.

Before I finish, can I just give a shout out to ‘Hot Chocolate’ as a brilliant band name? I recently called out ‘Pussycat’ for having a ridiculous name, and there is an even worse one coming up shortly. But ‘Hot Chocolate’ stays just the right side of cheesy, and sums up the group’s sound perfectly.

404. ‘Free’, by Deniece Williams

Yet again – and this is happening a lot recently – a record comes along that I realise I know as soon as the vocals begin.

Free, by Deniece Williams (her 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 1st – 15th May 1977

But before we get to the lyrics, we have a sexy, slinky bass-line that enters and wraps itself around us. Mmm yes… Is there a more seventies sound than a funky bass-line? And I just got to be me… Free… Deniece Williams’ voice is very pure, crystal clear. She sounds very young. Was she?

Not particularly, she was twenty-six when she recorded her one and only chart-topper. Still, there’s something very girlish about the way she sings, teasing the words around the beat. Whispering in his ear, My magic potion for love… On first listen, this is standard light-soul fare. Except, she just wants to be free. She wants a man, but not the commitment. How that man pleases me… But I want to be free…

That’s quite the feminist statement, and not one that we’ve heard much so far in our four hundred plus chart-toppers. Women can be steadfast (Cilla, Dusty), they can be playful (Connie Francis, Rosemary Clooney), and they can definitely be disappointed by the men in their lives (Freda Payne, Tammy Wynette). But Williams here is brazen in wanting her cake and eating it too. And good for her!

Perhaps the message is the best bit of this song. On the whole, it’s a bit too slickly soulful, with a bit too much tinkly, shimmering production for my tastes. I’ve noticed that in the first throws of this disco/soul era, around 1974, the production was very thick and layered. Here it’s stripped back and feels a little lightweight. My heart sank when I saw ‘Free’s runtime of close to six minutes, but the single edit chopped things down to three. Actually, though, the six-minute version works as an extended slow jam, with a bit more guitar.

Deniece Williams (from Gary, Indiana, like a certain pop icon we’ll be hearing from very soon) had been releasing singles since the late sixties. ‘Free’ was her big breakthrough hit, though it only hit #1 in the UK. She would have to wait a few months to reach top spot in her homeland, in a duet with our most recent Christmas chart-topper, Johnny Mathis. Then came ‘Footloose’, and the classic ‘Let’s Hear It For the Boy’.

I suppose, in a way, this song brings us back to the easy listening, balladry that was bogging us down a few posts ago. But I can stomach this kind of short, sweet and slightly sassy kind of easy-listening. Next up… a whole double ‘A’-side of hardcore balladry. Party on!

376. ‘Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)’, by The Stylistics

I’ll tell you this, folks: the mid-seventies was the era of The Intro (note the caps). Remember back in the pre-rock days, when almost every #1 started with a ridiculous swirl of strings and a clash of cymbals? Well, these days, disco and soul have taken the same technique and turned it into something much catchier, much cooler.

Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love), by The Stylistics (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 10th – 31st August 1975

I had it in my mind that this would be a glossy, sultry ballad. Not a bit of it. It is sweeping, grandiose, and a complete and utter foot-tapper. A hip-shaker. A shoulder-shimmyer. A few months ago the top of the charts were very disco-soul heavy, as Barry White, Carl Douglas and The Tymes followed one another to the summit. It’s been a more eclectic start to the year, but The Stylistics finally have us back on the dancefloor.

I can’t give you anything, But my love, But my love…. It’s a simple enough premise: the singer can’t afford much at all – no diamonds, no pearls, no chauffeured limousines. But my devotion I will give, All my love just to you girl… For as long as I live… All the while the horns parp, almost taking the role of a second lead-singer, and the strings go wild in the background. It’s completely OTT, but completely wonderful – a song that has complete confidence in where it is going from the very first note.

It’s always a sign of a good song if you find yourself singing along before the first listen has ended. That’s what happened with me here. The lead singer, Russell Thompkins Jr., has an excellent falsetto, especially when he extends the final ‘I’ in the title to an ‘I-I’. It’s tiny details like that which make a good record great.

The Stylistics were a five-piece vocal group from – you guessed it – Philadelphia. They were regulars in the Top 10 both before and after their sole UK #1 single. And I was probably right to expect a ballad here, as most of their other hits were much slower and sultrier. On ‘Can’t Give You Anything’, though, they let loose and scored their biggest British hit. A lesson for us all! They were recording albums up until the nineties, and are still touring and performing to this day, with a couple of line-up changes (including Thompkins Jr., who left in 2000). Anyway, a song like this doesn’t need me to waffle on about it. Press play below and let the music speak for itself. The soul train is up and running once more…

Listen to every #1 thus far, here:

373. ‘Tears on My Pillow’, by Johnny Nash

Our next #1 single feels a little bit misleading. It has a title that hints at other things… Is it a cover of the fifties classic ‘Tears on My Pillow’? Does Johnny Nash sound anything like Johnny Cash?

Tears on My Pillow, by Johnny Nash (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 6th – 13th July 1975

Its starts off very lush and soulful, with the swirling strings that have soundtracked many of the past year’s disco hits, but just when you think you know where this record is heading it changes tack and seamlessly slips into a reggae beat.

I remember, All the good times, That we had before… He loves a girl, she doesn’t love him back like she once did. Baby, Every night I wake up cryin’… Tears on my pillow… (and then, in a nice nod to the ‘50s song of the same name) Pain in my heart…

I like this one. I’d never heard it before, but I like it. I can even cope with the spoken word section (not something I often say) because it’s not too overwrought. I’ll always remember that day, You promised to love me… Meanwhile the reggae beat in the background is just too darn perky to make you feel sad.

Is ‘reggae-soul’ a thing? If it is, then that is what is happening right here. I especially like it when the horns come in at the end, playing an almost music hall refrain. They are – and there is simply no other word for it – funky. The more I listen to this song the more I’m enjoying it.

One thing’s for sure, 1975 is turning into one hell of an eclectic year. We can now add reggae to Philly soul, hard rock, a country classic, a novelty from a sitcom, and some spoken word sexiness from a TV detective… Those were the days! Johnny Nash was a Texan – one of the first non-Jamaicans to have reggae hits – and best remembered for the classic ‘I Can See Clearly Now’, which had reached #5, and #1 in the US, in 1972. That is a stone-cold classic, but I’m kind of glad that ‘Tears on My Pillow’ was his only chart-topper here. It really is a fun little tune.

It was the last of six UK Top 10s for Nash, who passed away just a few months ago, aged eighty. And for those of you left disappointed that this wasn’t a cover of Little Anthony & The Imperials’ doo-wop classic, just hang on fifteen years until an Australian legend takes to the top. Those of you disappointed that this is Johnny Nash not Cash… He never charted higher than #4.

364. ‘Ms. Grace’, by The Tymes

1975 is off to an excellent start. After Status Quo comes another great, but very different #1 single. We’re back riding the soul train…

Ms. Grace, by The Tymes (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 19th – 26th January 1975

Why is it a soul ‘train’, by the way? You don’t get rock trains, rap trains, trance trains… Anyway. I like the way that soul records of the mid-seventies place great importance on their intros. ‘When Will I See You Again’, ‘Sad Sweet Dreamer’, ‘You’re My First…’, and now this, all have good, long, scene-setting intros. Opulent intros. (Slightly self-indulgent intros, maybe, but who cares…)

Ooh-ooh-ooh Ms. Grace, Satin and perfume and lace… The fact that it’s Ms. Grace, rather than Miss, makes this song what it is. The ‘Ms.’ suggesting a glamorous, sophisticated older lady, one who’s lived and loved, maybe misplaced a husband or two along the way… A woman who knows what she wants… The minute I saw your face, I knew that I loved you…

Ms. Grace is the sort of woman who turns rivers in their beds, while flowers bloom where she treads… You know the type. You’re the twinkle in my eye… These are lyrics that would sound ridiculous if accompanied solely by an acoustic guitar, but that perfectly suit a sweeping, swooping, strings and horns arrangement such as this.

It’s a perfect mix of the classic soul sounds of the sixties, and the glossier sounds of seventies Philly-soul. The strings are very now, and it’s another song where you can’t help picturing the disco ball spinning as it plays; while the doo-wop backing vocals and horns are already retro. It’s a mix that makes sense, as The Tymes had been around since the fifties, and had scored a US #1 way back in 1963 with ‘So Much In Love’.

I did wonder if this was perhaps a re-release, an older disc that had proven popular in dance halls, as with The Tams a few years back. But no, The Tymes just had some longevity, which had taken them well into the 1970s as soul veterans. ‘Ms. Grace’ was their last big hit, and soon after this they swapped in some female members. They still perform, with two founding members, Albert Berry and Norman Burnett.

Chart-toppers like this, and ‘Down Down’ from the week before, are the reason why January is often the best month for #1s. The quiet, post-Christmas spell allows slow-burners and leftovers to sneak a week which they might not have managed later in the year. Anyway, the next #1 will be the first one to actually have been released in 1975, and the year will be officially up and running… By that point, we’ll be in a new year ourselves. A very happy new year, then, to all who read this, and I hope you can join me in 2021, to continue our journey along the top of the charts!

361. ‘You’re the First, the Last, My Everything’, by Barry White

We got it together didn’t we…? Lord, that voice. Nobody but you, and me… Thick as gravy and deep as a canyon: Mr Barry White. Add some dramatic strings and you’ve got one hell of an intro. Was this on the original single version…? I hope so.

You’re the First, the Last, My Everything, by Barry White (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 1st – 15th December 1974

After a bit of a break we’re back on a disco vibe – the sound of late-1974 – with one of the genre’s defining hits. My first, my last, my everything… And the answer to, All my dreams… A record can be as cheesy as you like, and this is a disc dripping in the stuff, but when a singer sells the vocals like Barry White sells them here… well, you can’t argue with it.

The way he belts out the Girl you’re my reality, But I’m lost in a-a-a-a dream… line, and the way he drops several octaves for the my everything… in the chorus is superb. But it’s not just the vocals that make this a classic. There are the pause-clicks between lines – perfect for drunk dancing – and the simple but effective chord progression. ‘You’re the First…’ was originally written as a slightly less sincere, country and western song: ‘You’re my First, My Last, My In-Between’. And you realise, during the interlude, with its soaring strings and backing singers, that that’s why this song is so damn catchy: it’s a simple country song, a vaudeville ditty even, dressed up as disco.

Any wedding DJ worth their salt will launch this record onto the turntable at some point in the evening. It matters not when: this is a song to dance to with wild, drunken abandon, making all the trademark ‘disco’ hand gestures. You know, the flicks and the pointing. The earnestness in White’s voice almost commands you: My first! My last! MY EVERYTHING!

I’d say that for people of my age, Barry White’s image precedes his music. Maybe it’s because most of us met him through his cameo on The Simpsons. His size, his voice, his curls… ‘The Walrus of Love’ is one hell of a nickname – though I’m not sure it’s the most complimentary – and well-earned as, according to his Wikipedia entry, White fathered ‘at least’ nine children.

He was more than just this hit and a Simpsons cameo, though. There’s ‘Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe’, a US #1 to which ‘You’re My First…’ was the follow-up, and ‘You See the Trouble With Me’ (which will be remixed and taken to #1 many years from now) among others.

In the end, the thing we all know Barry White for was the thing that sadly killed him. The Walrus suffered from exhaustion, kidney failure, diabetes and high blood pressure. He passed away at the very young age of fifty-eight, in 2003. His biggest hit, however, will live on for as long as people keep getting married (and drunk, and dancing…)

358. ‘Sad Sweet Dreamer’, by Sweet Sensation

One thing that becomes clear the longer this trawl through the charts goes on… If a hot new sound makes its way across the Atlantic – be it rock ‘n’ roll, Motown, or disco – it won’t be long before the Brits are trying it out for themselves.

Sad Sweet Dreamer, by Sweet Sensation (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 13th – 20th October 1974

I was genuinely surprised to find out that Sweet Sensation were a UK based band, from Manchester, so drenched is this record in the Philly-soul sound. Ooh-wah-wah-ooh-wah-wah-ooh… We’ve got strings, saxophones (a proper ‘Baker Street’ sax-riff), and that wonderful, trademark chukka-chukka disco guitar. Sad sweet dreamer, It’s just one of those things you put down to experience… That chorus is sung by the band, in response to the lead singer’s tale of heartbreak.

Been another long night and I’ve missed you girl… I was also genuinely surprised to discover that the lead vocals are not being sung by a woman, so soft and gentle is the falsetto. (That and the fact they’re singing about a girl… Which would have been very progressive for 1974.) Marcel King was just seventeen years old when this hit #1, which makes sense both in terms of how young he sounds and in the way he’s cast as the lovelorn teen: the sad sweet dreamer. I’ve been thinking about you girl, All night long…

I like this record. It’s a grower – a sexy, glossy, sophisticated disco-soul track, from what I am now naming ‘The Disco Fall’ (gettit, like a ‘disco ball’??) There’s something slightly suspect about bands whose name and biggest hit share words. It screams ‘novelty ahoy’! (Think Las Ketchup with ‘The Ketchup Song’, or Mr. Blobby). But in the case of Sweet Sensation’s ‘Sad Sweet Dreamer’ I think it’s just a coincidence. They were, however, very nearly one-hit wonders. The follow up to this made #11, and that was that.

Some interesting titbits about this record. Sweet Sensation sprang to national attention by winning a TV talent contest, ‘New Faces’. Which means we can add them alongside Peters and Lee, and Paper Lace, in this category. But ‘Sad Sweet Dreamer’ feels like a ‘real’ record – if one record can indeed be any realer than another. It fits right in with earlier, high-quality chart-toppers from The Three Degrees and George McCrae in shaping the sound of late-74.

It was also produced by one Tony Hatch, whose wife Jackie Trent had enjoyed her very own #1 single back in 1965. She even features as a backing vocalist here, scoring her 2nd chart-topper by proxy. And finally, ‘Sad Sweet Dreamer’ is another one of those records that is nowhere to be seen on Spotify… unless you want a ropey cover from a band called The Top of the Poppers. Meanwhile, a completely unrelated band called Sweet Sensation can be found, offering their brand of late-eighties, Hi-NRG dance-pop, if that’s your bag…

354. ‘When Will I See You Again’, by The Three Degrees

As if to confirm that our last helping of disco-soul – George McCrae’s ‘Rock Your Baby’ – wasn’t a fluke, here’s another slice. Go on, you know you want to…

When Will I See You Again, by The Three Degrees (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 11th – 25th August 1974

This is an impossibly glitzy record – you can’t help imagine a shimmering disco ball slowly spinning above The Three Degrees as they sing – and, as with our previous #1, it’s supremely glossy. Back in the fifties, I used to write that American singers sounded so polished and mature, so sexy, next to our gurning music hall stars. So it is again. We were dancing like loons to ‘Sugar Baby Love’; they were coolly shimmying to records like this.

Hoooo…. Haaaa… Precious moments…. It’s a reboot of the classic sixties girl-groups – The Shirelles, The Ronettes and, of course, The Supremes. When will I see you again…? Lyrically, this is very close to ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, with the singers asking if what’s just passed is the real thing or just a fling. When will we share precious moments…? It’s such a perfect pop song, so well put together, so smooth and silky, that I’m struggling to pick it apart. Maybe it’s one that simply needs listening to, and appreciating, and I can shut up. Post over.

It’s also a record that gets better as it progresses. I like it when lead singer Sheila Ferguson gets insistent: Are we in love, Or just friends… Is this my beginning, Or is this the end…? Enter a funky brass section, on top of the swirling strings, which I feel shouldn’t work but which does, wonderfully.

Apparently Ferguson really didn’t like ‘When Will I See You Again’ when it was first offered to the group. “I thought it was ridiculously insulting to be given such a simple song, and that it took no talent to sing it,” she said later. Not the first, nor the last, example of a singer not knowing a hit song even if it jumped up and bit them on the behind.

I’m amazed at how few big hits The Three Degrees enjoyed in the UK. This was the biggest of just five Top 10s. In the US – and this truly has me flabbergasted – this record reached #2… and then they never had a hit again! I didn’t know much about them, but The Three Degrees just sound like such a classic pop group. I’d have had them up there with the aforementioned sixties girl groups in terms of hit singles.

Still, as I’ve said before, if you’re gonna have a limited number of hits, you better make ‘em good ones. This is definitely a ‘good one’. It is also, by all accounts, one of Prince Charles’s favourite songs – the group performed it for him, in Buckingham Palace, for his thirtieth birthday. The man has taste. The Three Degrees are still a going concern, with one of the ladies whom you can hear on this record: Valerie Holiday. Of the other two, Fayette Pinkney, a founding member of the group, passed away in 2009, and Sheila Ferguson went solo in the ‘80s. There have been fifteen members in total but, for obvious reasons, only three at one time…