We’re Number One! (almost) part 2
Here are some more great songs that just didn’t make it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Since my first post on the topic stopped at 1969, today I list tunes that stalled at #2 on Billboard from the ’70s and ’80s.
It was early in 1971 when perhaps the greatest #2 song of all time was released, “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. It was written by Motown staff writer Al Cleveland (I Second that Emotion), Renaldo Benson of The Four Tops and Marvin Gaye. It topped the R&B charts for five weeks (March/April) and the song crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100 in March and spent three weeks at #2 in April before dropping off the top 20 by the end of May. It finished at #28 on the Billboard Year End chart. On the R&B chart, the song was #2 at the end of the year behind “Mr. Big Stuff”. For R&B albums it was Isaac Hayes hitting #1 for the second year in a row with “To be Continued” and “What’s Going On” finished at #4. Of note, 1972 would have been its (most) eligible year for a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song, however, it was not nominated. The nod went to a worthy song, “Ain’t no Sunshine” by Bill Withers. I really like the Bill Withers song but it only charted #5 on the weekly and #21 on the year-end R&B charts and #37 on the Hot 100 and currently it does not appear on any ‘all-time greatest’ hits lists that I could find. Not to slag the great Bill Withers at all, on the contrary it demonstrates the effect that time has on the perception and appreciation of a song.
I would describe “What’s Going On” as having modestly impressive chart numbers, however, this is not the typical performance we think of for a song that now ranks as the fourth Greatest Song of all time (Rolling Stone Magazine). It is also on the list of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll and ranked by Acclaimed Music as the #1 R&B song of all time. Interestingly, some other lists put Gayes 1968 song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” at #1. I can’t find any list of songs from the *National R&B Hall of Fame, but Marvin Gaye was inducted in 2014 which was just the second year of this new organization.
Fate has played a significant role in the life of many a song. On the topic of “What’s Going On”, the great Motown founder Berry Gordy is quoted as saying it was “the worst thing I ever heard in my life” and refused to release it. After Marvin Gaye threatened to go on strike until it was released, music executives Harry Balk and Barry Ales (without Gordy’s knowledge) released 100,000 copies in January of 1971. They immediately had to press another 100,000 as it sold out in less than a week.
These two R&B songs that placed #1 on the Hot Soul Hits weekly charts stood out for me because I’m sure I’m not alone in still listening to them: “Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight and “Spanish Harlem” by Aretha Franklin, both from 1971. “Mr. Big Stuff” finished the year at #1 on the R&B year-end charts but peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 weekly charts and finished the year at #18. “Spanish Harlem” was a (changed) cover of Ben E King’s original, and Aretha also hit #2 with her version and was #49 at year-end on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Two great songs stand out from 1973: “Yesterday Once More” from the Carpenters and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John. Both songs have that timeless quality.
The next notable song to peak at #2 was “I’m Not In Love” from 10cc in 1975. Yet another contender for the best #2 song of all time is Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” from the same year. I blogged on this song in the early days so you can check out more on the song here. Also in 1975 we have “When Will I be Loved” (written by Phil Everly) by Linda Ronstadt that peaked at #2, which is a bit better than the #8 spot the Everly Brothers‘ original obtained in 1960. Ronstadt’s song could not push out “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain & Tennille; it was the #1 song for four weeks in 1975. It is also a cover song of Neil Sedaka‘s original from 1973.
In 1977 we have Carly Simon, “Nobody Does It Better” and “I’m in You” by Peter Frampton for memorable #2 hits.
The great song by Gerry Rafferty, “Baker Street” stopped at #2 in 1978, as well as the Bruce Springsteen penned “Fire” by the Pointer Sisters. Then there is the wedding reception special, “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People which was perhaps mercifully stopped at #2.
Now, the 1979 single “Ride Like the Wind” from Christopher Cross’s eponymous debut album hit #2 as well, but it was only a harbinger of things to come. Cross would break Grammy Award records that stood until Billie Eilish broke them in 2020. In 1981 he was the first to win: Record of the Year (“Sailing”), Album of the Year (Christopher Cross), Song of the Year (“Sailing“), and Best New Artist.
In 1981 “Waiting for a Girl Like You” was a great power ballad from the British/American band Foreigner. It featured the distinctive synthesizer theme by the then-rookie performer Thomas Dolby. It hit number #2 at the end of November behind Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”, and stayed there till the end of the year. “Woman” by John Lennon also peaked at #2 that year.
Foreigner continued from the end of 1981 to be stalled with “Waiting for a Girl Like You”, spending five more weeks at #2, four of them still behind Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” and the last behind Hall & Oates “I Can’t Go for That”. “Waiting..” holds the distinction of having the most weeks (10) at #2 without hitting number one. “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” from Culture Club and “Gloria” by Laura Branigan were both stopped at #2 in 1982. Journey was another power ballad Rock band that followed the fate of Foreigner; their song “Open Arms” spent six weeks at the #2 spot.
In 1983 we had a few notable songs not reach #1. Bob Segers cover of “Shame on the Moon” spent four weeks behind “Billie Jean”. Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” was at #2 for five weeks and Hall & Oates’ “Say It Isn’t So” could not get past “Say, Say, Say” by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson; they trailed at #2 for five weeks extending into week one of 1984.
In 1984, Bruce Springsteen’s highest ranking single “Dancing in the Dark” peaked at #2 for four weeks, three of them behind “When Doves Fly” by Prince. Prince’s other hit song from that year was “Purple Rain“, now considered a classic. It spent just two weeks at #2 behind Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”. Charts, eh? What do they know?!
Perhaps as a testament to how rare these #2’s are, I did not find any more notable songs for the rest of the 1980s!
*Warning* the website for the R&B Hall of Fame (www.rbhof.com) has been hijacked as of the last time I checked it, do not attempt this site it appears to be dangerous. There is a hotlink on Wikipedia and I am following up to get it removed.
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Edited by Richelle Dafoe