Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Okie from Muskogee”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

merle haggard 1970
(via)

An inarguable legend of country music, Merle Haggard had only one Top 40 single during his career. He was dominant of the country charts, delivering thirty-six #1 songs (and two more collaborations with others that reached the pinnacle), including a stretch from 1971 to 1976 when practically every single landed at the top. Across sixteen singles, he the forlorn ballad “The Emptiest Arms in the World” stalled out at #3 and novelty Christmas number “Santa Claus and Popcorn” missed the chart entirely. Every other single climbed as high as it could.

Although “If We Make It Through December” was Haggard’s only single to crack the main Billboard Top 40, he came tantalizing close on one other occasion. Co-written Roy Edward Burns, the drummer in Haggard’s band at the time, “Okie from Muskogee” aimed some country-boy conservative ire at the hippies who were then taking to the streets to protest ongoing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War: “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/ We don’t take our trips on LSD/ We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street/ We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.” It’s familiar buckshot fired in the culture war, the patriotic reverence for militaristic endeavors used as a means of passing disdainful judgment on the selfish ingrates who grouse about endless wars.

There was some speculation that Haggard always meant the song to be a satire of conservative attitudes, but he always insisted that wasn’t the case, even as he was also penning songs such as “Irma Jackson,” which told an interracial love story with a level of sympathy far removed from the prevailing attitudes of listeners who championed “Okie from Muskogee.”  Years later, Haggard told American Songwriter the complaining protagonist of “Okie from Muskogee” accurately reflect his own views at the time, though he attributed those opinions to being “dumb as a rock” when it came to the power structure deceptions that were used to justify the war.

“If you use that song now, it’s a really good snapshot of how dumb we were in the past,” said Haggard. “They had me fooled, too. I’ve become educated. I think one of the bigger mistakes politicians do is to get embarrassed when somebody catches them changing their opinion. God, what if they learned the truth since they expressed themselves in the past? I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song. I play it now with a different projection.”

“Okie from Muskogee” peaked at #41 on the chart for January 2, 1970.

 

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Baby Face”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

little richard 1958

Little Richard was like no one else. He sometimes proved this by performing songs that just about everyone else took a shot at, rattling the conventions of lolling through a pop standard just like he upended every other norm and expectation. Even when Little Richard didn’t seem particularly engaged by a song, his indelible stamp was on it, making the hoariest song seem as if it had never been recorded before. Without particularly trying to do so, Little Richard couldn’t help but show off.

Written by Harry Akst and Benny Davis, “Baby Face” was a chart-topping hit for bandleader Jan Garber, in 1926, and then kept cropping up during the endless musical recycling of the Jazz Age. At the the dawn of the rock ‘n’ roll era, Fats Domino was finding great success with pepped-up version of older tunes, leading Specialty Records head Art Rupe to suggest Little Richard try the same approach. Little Richard’s version of “Baby Face” was released as single in the summer of 1958, following a string of his Top 40 hits that are now considered some of the most vital of the era. If “Baby Face” is a mismatch for Little Richard’s wild energy, he still cranks through it with entertaining vigor, his sandpaper vocals injected rock ‘n’ roll menace into a cutesy song.

In the U.S., “Baby Face” stalled on the chart just outside of the Top 40, but the song had a very different fate in the U.K. Across the ocean, Little Richard’s “Baby Face” made it all the way to #2 on the chart. Remarkably and improbably, it’s Little Richard’s highest-charting single there.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “It’s Got the Whole World Shakin'”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

sam cooke

When Sam Cooke entered RCA Victor’s Music Center of the World studio in New York City on November 18, 1964, he didn’t know it would be his last recording session. An already iconic soul singer and ace songwriter, Cooke was still in the early portion of a five-year contract with RCA Victor, and he had two new songs to work through. One was inspired by the Bobby Freeman hit “C’mon and Swim,” which Cooke loved, telling his cohorts that he’d love to take a crack at singing it. Instead, Cooke wrote his own take on the song, dubbing it “Shake.” The other song he recorded that day was more in line with previous Cooke originals. “It’s Got the Whole World Shakin'” finds Cooke riding the groove, delivering lyrics such as “It’s got that soul in it, baby/ You can’t help but pat your feet” with the relaxed assurance of a performer who fully understand every last bit of his own artistic talent.

Around three weeks after the recording session that produced those two cuts, a reported shooting brought Los Angeles police to the Hacienda Motel. There, they found Cooke, dead from three gunshots to the chest. Bertha Franklin, manager of the motel, admitted to pulling the tigger, claiming self-defense. Police ruled it a justifiable homicide, and Franklin was never charged with a crime. Conspiracy theories cropped up right away, with Cooke’s Civil Rights activism often cited as the reason he was targeted.

“Shake” was the first posthumously released single bearing Cooke’s name, and it also became his last major hit, charting in the Top 10 of the Billboard chart. “It’s Got the Whole World Shakin'” followed not long after, and it didn’t fare as well, missing the Top 40 by one place. The Cooke’s single was boxed out to #41 by the Allan Sherman novelty number “Crazy Downtown,” which itself was reaching its non-dizzying peak that week.

 

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Wide Open Spaces”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

dixie chicks 1998

There were many clearly identifiable results of Dixie Chicks making the personnel shift that brought in new lead vocalist Natalie Maines. Some are disputable, of course. Maybe the band still would have hit big with their 1998 major label debut, selling over twelve million copies and pushing four straight singles to the pinnacle of the country music chart. One thing is all but certain, though: Without Maines, they wouldn’t have recorded the song “Wide Open Spaces,” which was one of those chart-toppers and the album’s title cut.

Maines was recruited into the group when sisters Emily Erwin and Martie Seidel (the band’s guitarist and fiddle player, respectively) needed a new lead singer to replace Laura Lynch, who’d been with the group on their first three, independently-released albums. She brought with her a song suggested by her father, renowned pedal steel guitarist and seasoned country music producer Lloyd Maines. Around the same time his daughter joined her new outfit, the elder mains was presiding over an album by a band called the Groobess and her thought one of their songs, “Wide Open Spaces,” was nicely suited to Natalie’s vocal range. That the song is a sweet, sentimental number about a young woman striking out of her own surely contributed to the association in Lloyd’s mind. Dixie Chicks recorded the song, and their version wound up beating the Groobees’ original to the country music marketplace. Considering the songwriting residuals she got out of the deal, Groobees leader Susan Gibson likely didn’t mind one bit.

While Dixie Chicks were asserting their dominance on the country charts, the pop charts were tougher to crack. Two of the big country hits — “There’s Your Trouble” and “You Were Mine” — made cursory trips to the Billboard Top 40, each peaking in the thirties. “Wide Open Spaces” fell short of even that modest mark, ending its climb just short of the magic number that lands a song the hit designation.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Love Is All Around”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

wet wet wet

Beginning in 1987, the Scottish pop group Wet Wet Wet had a string of hits on the U.K. charts, while causing barely a ripple in the U.S. Each of their first ten singles landed in the U.K. Top 40, only one of which — their debut, “Wishing I Was Lucky” — appeared on the Billboard Hot 100. And that song peaked at a lackluster #58. If there any single that was going to change that dynamic, it was probably “Love Is All Around.”

It certainly helped that the song was a cover. The original version of “Love Is All Around” was a Top 10 hit for the Troggs in 1968, and it endured as a staple of oldies radio stations. Maybe a bigger boost to its prospects was its inclusion on the soundtrack to a hit romantic comedy, at a time when having a music video that doubled as a movie trailer was almost a guarantee of extra airplay. (Screenwriter Richard Curtis gave Wet Wet Wet the choice of three different songs they could cover for Four Weddings and a Funeral, and they bypassed Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” in favor of the Troggs song.) And then there was the track’s massive success in the U.K. Wet Wet Wet spent fifteen weeks on top of the singles chart there, second only to Bryan Adams’s smash “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” in the record book.

“Love Is All Around” was indeed Wet Wet Wet’s most successful single in the U.S. It peaked at #41.

 

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Born to Lose” and “If You Were Mine”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

ray charles

Ray Charles made a name for himself in the nineteen-fifties and a tremendous performer who could move effortlessly back and forth between jazz and rhythm and blues. He also spoke regularly about his love for country music, cultivated during his upbringing in the South. “Hillybilly music” is what Charles called it, and he was convinced he could make a fine record with a batch of suitable songs, albeit tinged with his unique sensibility. After a jump from Atlantic Records to ABC-Paramount afforded Charles the opportunity to operate within a wider creative range, he set out to make his study of country music, recruiting skilled jazz arrangers to give the tracks an uncommon lushness. If music fans were surprised to see a Charles album entitled Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, the shock didn’t prevent them from warming to the material. The 1962 album’s first single, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” became Charles’s third chart-topper is as many years. The follow-up, “Born to Lose,” was similarly languid and jazzy, but it didn’t have the same staying power, peaking at #41.

Eight years later, no one questioned Charles’s status as a music legend, but his commercial prospects were on the wane. Largely pushed aside as rock ‘n’ roll evolved toward its nineteen-seventies thunder and bombast, Charles had a few mildly successful Top 40 singles across the latter half of the sixties, but he hadn’t seen one of his tracks make it into the Top 10 since “Crying Time,” early in 1966. He tried invoking country music again. In 1970, Charles released the album Love Country Style. The album’s first single, “If You Were Mine,” just missed the Top 40, and its follow-up, “Don’t Change on Me,” climbed just a little bit higher, peaking at #36. Charles found his way to the Billboard Top 40 as lead artist only one more time, logging another meager hit with the near-novelty 1971 single “Booty Butt.”

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Under Pressure”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

used romance

My Chemical Romance formed in Newark, New Jersey, in 2001. Playing an especially glossy version of emo, the band developed a large and fiercely devoted following. They sold millions of records and were one of the dwindling number of rock acts that could place the occasional single in the Billboard Top 40. They had two hits that crossed that key threshold: “Helena” and “Welcome to the Black Parade,” the latter making it all the way to the Top 10.

The Used formed at about the same time, first plying their trade in Utah. Writhing around with the declawed punk sound that took over alternative rock in the post-grunge era that fermented into being in the late nineteen-nineties, the Used were too rough to break through on the pop chart and enjoyed only modest hits on alternative and rock radio. It took a team-up with My Chemical Romance to bring the Used their first truly significant chart action.

Gerard Way and Bert McCracken, the respective lead singers for My Chemical Romance and the Used, bonded while indulging in rock ‘n’ roll debauchery when the bands toured together. Their camaraderie helped inspire a collaboration between the bands when the call went out to contribute to a fundraising effort to support people left destitute by the 2004 tsunami that hit Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and several other countries. The natural choice was to record a cover song, presumably the more grandiose the better to suit both bands’ penchants for excess. And rock songs don’t get much more grandiose than “Under Pressure,” originally recorded by David Bowie and Queen.

Released as a downloadable track (it eventually migrated to one of the Used’s albums), “Under Pressure” generated enough attention to edge its way up the main Billboard chart. The good intentions weren’t quite enough to get the collective into the Top 40, though. The track peaked at #41.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Mary Jane”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

rick james

Rick James traveled a long, rutted road before he got to his first hit single. As a member of the Canadian band the Mynah Birds, James signed to Motown Records. The problem was that James was in Canada because he was avoiding the U.S. military. A mind-nineteen-sixties trip to Detroit for recording purposes coincided with James coming to the attention of the military authorities. James served time for the infraction and then started the complicated process of rebuilding his music career. After several thwarted attempts, James finally circled back to Motown Records, landing on the Gordy Records subsidiary. Come Get It!, the solo debut album by James, was released in the spring of 1978, and its first single, “You and I,” topped the R&B chart and went Top 15 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The album’s second single was a more emblematic song from James. Built on an easy funk groove, “Mary Jane” is positioned as a sexy love song, but the actual object of affection is likely marijuana: “I’m in love with Mary Jane, I’m not the only one/ If Mary wanna play around, I let her have her fun/ She’s not the kind of girl that you can just tie down/ She likes to spread her love and turn your head around.” A habitual drug user who started with marijuana as a teenager before moving on to far more potent substances, James eventually spiraled to the point he engaged in violent acts against other people, including brutal instances of sexual assault that led to his conviction, in 1993.

Around eight years after his release from prison, James was found dead in his home. Toxicology reports found multiple drugs in his system. James was fifty-six years old.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Back Up Train”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

al green

Palmer James and Curtis Rodgers were high school classmates in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the mid-nineteen-sixties who took inspiration from a famed entrepreneur living on the other side of their state. As Rodgers later recounted, he and his chum figured that if Berry Gordy could make a fortune running Motown Records out of Detroit, then they could do the same in their hometown. The two formed a label they original dubbed Grand Land Records and released “Hot Wire,” a single with Rodgers’s band the People’s Choice. When the cut became a local hit, they heard from another high school friend who’d initially rejected an offer to record for the little label. A vocalist named Al Greene now wanted in, and he was told to show up at the studio. They had a song for him.

“Back Up Train” credited both Rodgers and James as songwriters (though the former claims it was mostly his handiwork). A soulful churner, the song was inspired by the constant time on the road endured by those in the music business and the homesickness that ensued. According to Rodgers, the session to record the song was almost scrapped due to a lack of funds, and then the manager of a local Woolworth’s, remembering when the burgeoning record mogul was an especially cordial and devoted patrons of the store’s record section, offered a gift of the needed funds.

To give the impression of a sprawling music empire, Rodgers and James created an entirely new label for “Back Up Train,” and so the debut single of the singer who’d lop off the last letter of his last name to go by Al Green came out on Hot Line Music Journal. The eager upstarts at the label started pushing the single to every radio station they could think of, and “Back Up Train” started to build. Eventually it hit the Billboard chart and starting climbing upwards.

“Back Up Train” stalled out at #41, but made it into the Top 5 on the R&B chart, but it didn’t quite establish Green as an up-and-coming star. His next few singles went nowhere. It wasn’t until 1971 that Green scored his first Top 40 hit, with “Tired of Being Alone,” the fifth and final single from Al Green Gets Next to You. It took Green’s label, Hi Records, months of work to get the song to break through, and they rushed the performer into the studio to quickly record a follow-up. That album was Let’s Stay Together, and its title track and lead single became a true smash, topping the Billboard pop chart and quickly entering the canon as one of the defining songs of nineteen-seventies soul.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “But You Know I Love You”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

dolly

Dolly Parton was well-acquainted with the top of the country music charts for most of her career, but her crossover success was surprisingly modest. She went to #1 ten times during the nineteen-seventies, but made it into the Top 40 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 on only four occasions, with the 1977 single “Here You Come Again” significantly outpacing the others. Then Parton had her biggest pop hit with the title song to the 1980 comedy 9 to 5, a film which also featured the performer making her film acting debut. The song spent two non-consecutive weeks atop the Billboard chart, interrupted by another country-pop hybrid, Eddie Rabbitt’s “I Love a Rainy Night.”

Instead of a proper soundtrack album, “9 to 5” was housed on a full-length Parton release. 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs featured a handful of Parton originals supplemented by covers and the work of other songwriters. Eager for a follow-up to the chart-topper, Parton’s label opted for her version of “But You Know I Love You,” a song Kenny Rogers and the First Edition took into the Top 40 in 1968. Parton maintained some of the earlier version’s spacey psychedelia, but softened with adult contemporary pillow fluff. It was the opposite of the catchy, strident track Parton which Parton had just turned into a major hit. “But You Know I Love You” stalled on the Billboard pop chart, just outside of the Top 40. It fared better on the country chart, where it became the latest in a string of #1 songs for Parton. In a funny twist, the song that was unseated from the country chart perch by Parton’s cover was “What Are We Doin’ in Love,” a duet featuring Rogers and his regular performing partner Dottie West.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.