Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Workin’ for a Livin”

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.

huey lewis news

According to Huey Lewis, he started writing the song “Workin’ for a Livin” when he was doing exactly that. A musician who toiled through the nineteen-seventies with modest success — most notably as a member of the San Francisco band Clover — Lewis relied on a series of other jobs to help him make ends meet over the years, including a stint as a truck driver. It was in the cab of the vehicle, Lewis said, that he started formulating the tune that would become the fourth and final single off of Picture This, the sophomore album from Huey Lewis and the News.

Coming across as a modest bar band with slicker-than-average capabilities, Huey Lewis and the News had already registered a pair of Top 40 hits from Picture This, including “Do You Believe in Love,” which peaked at #7. “Workin’ for a Livin” was an attempt to wring one more one more chart success out of the album, cementing the band as an act with real staying power. Instead, the song stalled out just before crossing the most important Billboard barrier, finishing its ascent at #41.

If there was disappointment over the slight slump of “Workin’ for a Livin,” it didn’t last long. The following year, Huey Lewis and the News released their third full-length, Sports. One of the biggest albums of the early nineteen-eighties, Sports yielded five Top 40 singles (four of which made it into the Top 40) and went multiplatinum.

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

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Pretty in Pink”

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.

furs

For college rock bands in the nineteen-eighties, landing a track on the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie was the equivalent of buying a lottery ticket with half the numbers guaranteed to hit. Riches weren’t an automatic outcome, but the odds were pretty good. And if Hughes went so far as to adopt the band’s song title as the name of the film in question, surely even the most cantankerous budding rock star would find their head aswirl with lavish possibilities.

The story of how “Pretty in Pink,” the 1981 single from the Psychedelic Furs, became an integral part of the 1986 film Pretty in Pink is full of conflicting testimony. The most commonly repeated lore insists that Molly Ringwald, star of Hughes’s Sixteeen Candles and The Breakfast Club, brought the song to the filmmaker’s attention, suggesting it could serve as inspiration for a new screenplay. But even Ringwald disputes that version of events.

“I have heard that I did, but I can’t imagine that he hadn’t heard it already,” Ringwald told Susannah Gora, author of You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation. “I think maybe I reintroduced him to it, or maybe he heard it in a different way when I played it for him.”

However it occurred to Hughes to use “Pretty in Pink” as the ostensible foundation for a story, he dashed off a script and gave it to Howard Deutch to direct. Also serving as a producer on the film, Hughes was deeply involved with selecting the pop songs that formed the emotional spine of the story. Working with music supervisor David Anderle, the production secured songs from the likes of INXS, New Order, and the Smiths, with Hughes sometimes making direct suggestions to Deutch about how specifically they could be used in the film.

Of course, it was practically a certainty that “Pretty in Pink” would be featured. The only question was whether the original recording, as included on the Psychedelic Furs album Talk Talk Talk, would serve the purpose. Again, there are disputing narratives about the situation. Richard Butler, frontman for the Psychedelic Furs, insists the record label was happy to lend the song to the movie, but, according to Anderle, the rights weren’t available. Either way, the Psychedelic Furs wound up making a fresh recording of “Pretty in Pink,” refining the sound in an attempt to make it more palatable a mainstream audience.

Released as a single, the new “Pretty in Pink” predictably became the Psychedelic Furs’ biggest hit to that point in the U.S. It also fell well short of the smash standard for a song from a Hughes-overseen soundtrack set the previous year by Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” from The Breakfast Club. “Pretty in Pink” stalled out at #41. Another song from the Pretty in Pink soundtrack wound up approaching pop sensation status. “If You Leave,” written and recorded hastily by synth-pop band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark after Hughes changed the ending of the film, made it into the Billboard Top 5 and undoubtedly onto the moody playlists of high school proms coast to coast.

 

 

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

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Easy Come Easy Go”

winger

Whatever other plentiful complaints can be lodged against the hair metal band Winger, they deserve admiring credit for the novelistic perfection of this detail: Their final single to place on the Billboard Hot 100 bears the title “Easy Come Easy Go.”

Hailing from New York City and named for frontman Kip Winger, the band benefited from the boom in glossed up, expertly moussed hard rock bands that struck the U.S. music market in the late nineteen-eighties. Much as they might have liked to, MTV couldn’t fill the programming day with Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home” on endless repeat, so other bands with the right sound and the right look — especially the right look — had ample opportunity to rattle up interest in the marketplace. Winger’s self-titled debut album landed in later summer of 1988, and two of its singles — classically gross underage girl anthem “Seventeen” and power ballad “Headed for a Heartbreak” — made it into the Billboard Top 40. The band also quickly became an MTV staple, even playing the annual New Year’s Eve live extravaganza.

The band’s sophomore album, In the Heart of the Young, was released in 1990 and including their highest charting single, “Miles Away,” which peaked at #12. Utterly generic hard rock number “Easy Come Easy Go” served as the follow up.

In the manner of the day, the requisite music video also served as an advertisement for the band’s concerts. The clip opens with Kip Winger’s stage banter, which offers Paul Stanley a challenge in the competition for yelped inanity. (There’s no beating the champ, though.) “How many of you people have been tryin’ all your life for somethin’ and it ain’t happened yet?” shouts Winger, pausing to grin at the raucous cheers. “Yeah, I know what you mean, man. But I tell ya, if things get goin’ just a little bit too bad just remember one thing.” Then Winger yells, “Easy Come,” and the crowd finishes, “Easy Go!”

I can’t quite parse the meaning of Winger’s advice, but the fans seemed to like it. I hope some of them eventually got to see that thing they were trying all their life for come to fruition.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Whiskey Lullaby”

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.

Brad-and-Alison

In the late nineteen-nineties and into the early two-thousands, there was a lot of room for country music on the pop charts. Led by the likes of Faith Hill and Shania Twain, multiple artists crossed over from the twangier slices of the radio dial, perhaps reflecting a recognition that as broadcasters were losing their hold on the mass listenership, country fans were uncommonly devoted. Even so, the tracks that did best, perhaps understandably, were often those that wore the Nashville influence lightly. The more country an artist was, the less likely they were to ascend particularly high on Billboard‘s main chart.

Brad Paisley is — and established himself almost immediately as — one of the biggest country music performers of his generation. Paisley’s second single, “He Didn’t Have to Be,” topped the country music chart, and he would return to that peak often. At one point, Paisley claimed the chart’s top spot with ten straight singles. Once that streak ended, his next seven singles made it to at least the runner-up slot, with four of those landing at #1. Of those seventeen songs, only one made into the Billboard pop Top 20, and that had the boost of Carrie Underwood sharing vocal duties. By my rough count, Paisley made it into the Top 40 seventeen times, almost always stalling out low enough that the songs still felt more like also-rans than big hits.

And then there’s the song that sputtered and started to drop after peaking just outside the Top 40. As might be expected, the cut in question is very, very country. Penned by Jon Randall and Bill Anderson, “Whiskey Lullaby” is almost country music cliche, recounting a tale of woe that includes a man who drinks himself to death over heartbreak (“We watched him drink his pain away a little at a time/ But he never could get drunk enough to get her off his mind”). Then the woman who left him commits the same grueling suicide by constant inebriation because of the guilt she feels at her ex-lover’s demise.

Even for country music, “Whiskey Lullaby” is grim stuff, which is why it sat unclaimed for around five years before Paisley took it on. Paisley decided that it would work better as a duet and recruited Alison Krauss as a partner. Released as the third single from the album Mud on the Tires, the song was a major hit on country radio, reaching #3 on the relevant chart, earning double platinum certification by the RIAA, and weighing down the shelves of both Paisley and Krauss with country music awards.

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

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “All Cried Out”

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.

dusty

Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien was born in London, in 1939. When in her teens, she started pursuing music as a professional career, starting with some very basic jobs singing at camps and then moving up to be a member of a girl group called the Lana Sisters. She left that act to join her older brother in a vocal trio he was forming. According to lore, the new group adopted a name inspired by the verdant springtime landscape in which they often rehearsed. O’Brien decided she needed a stage name and chose to the group’s name into her new moniker, and so she became known as Dusty Springfield.

Before long, Springfield was out on her own, releasing elegant pop singles. She had the voice, she had the look. She was practically an embodiment of a certain nineteen-sixties style, as the buttoned-up nineteen-fifties gave way to a gradually loosening of mores and a zingier outlook. And, though Springfield was a solid songwriter in her own right, she was a skilled interpreter of other’s songs, a vital skill in the echoing culture of the time. When she heard Dionne Warwick’s version of “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Springfield knew she could make it her own. It became her first Top 10 hit in the U.S.

“All Cried Out” was the follow-up single to that hit. Slinky and romantically forlorn, it’s a splendid showcase for Springfield, offering irrefutable evidence that her voice could be nestled deep into lush, Phil Spector-style production and still burst forth, fully commanding the track. Rarely in the history of the form has there been another vocalist like Springfield, powerful and yet fully at ease at the same time. “All Cried Out” is wonderful, but it didn’t match its immediate predecessor in terms of upward chart mobility. It peaked at #41 on Billboard.

 

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

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Promised Land”

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.

chuck

The Mann Act was cemented in U.S. federal law on June 25, 1910. Like most regulations with over a century of dust on it, the Mann Act has been amended and finessed over the years, but its core prohibition is against transporting women or girls across state lines for “immoral purposes.” In the most famous cases, the law has mostly been leveled against individuals who were lasciviousness preying on girls under the age of consent. As the nineteen-fifties came to a close, Chuck Berry became one of those individuals.

The rock ‘n’ roll trailblazer, who sang of a sixteen-year-old girl in tights dress, lipstick, and high heel shoes in one of his many hits, claimed that it was only the most innocent gainful employment he had in mind when Janice Norine Escalanti was brought by him from Mexico to the club he owned in St. Louis. Escalanti, who was two years younger than the subject of his hit single when Berry recruited her, offered a different interpretation of events. The courts sided with her. After an initial conviction was vacated because of the judge’s bigoted commentary from the bench, a retrial landed Berry a prison sentence. He served almost two years behind bars.

“Promised Land” was the first single from Berry following his release from prison. Borrowing the melody of folk standard “Wabash Cannonball,” the newly unconfined Berry offered a tale of a fellow who travels from Norfolk, Virginia to California by multiple means, with stops in Charlotte, Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, and Houston (and Albuquerque apparently glimpsed from high above in an airplane). The performer was clearly agitated and feeling his freedom.

According to fellow rock ‘n’ roll founding father Carl Perkins, Berry came out a prison a deeply changed man, carrying around anger and bitterness that seemed to stick with him for the remainder of his life. The propensity for skeevy behavior lingered, too. Three decades after he was on the wrong side of the Mann Act, Berry got in trouble for secretly videotaping women as they used the bathroom on a property he owned. There’s no denying Berry’s importance in the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, but there’s a big impediment to hero worship. His legacy should be as much about the ignominious behavior that no amount of guitar wizardry excuses.

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

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “I’ll Bring It Home to 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.

carla thomas

In 1962, Sam Cooke released the cut “Bring It On Home to Me.” It resided on the flip side of the single “Having a Party,” but it actually slightly outperformed the A-side, peaking four spots higher on the Billboard chart, at #13. That same year, Carla Thomas took the same song and gave it just enough of a twist to make it simultaneously a cover and an answer song, offering the assurance that she would indeed commit to bringing it home.

Thomas registered a Top 10 hit one year earlier, with “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” a song she also wrote and that had been persistently championed by her father, Rufus Thomas, even after it was essentially rejected by Vee-Jay Records. A version of the track was recorded in the Thomas home and basically self-released before being picked up for distribution by Atlantic Records. By that point, Carla Thomas wasn’t counting on a music career. As the song took off, she was in her first year of college.

Finding the follow-up hit proved elusive. For several years, the pass at the Cooke song was the closest Thomas came to a return to the Top 40, missing by one place. A few years later, Thomas had moved on to record for Stax Records, working with their ace songwriters Isaac Hayes and David Porter. One of their compositions, “B-A-B-Y,” become the only other solo Top 40 single of Thomas’s career.

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