Number Two with a Bullet
MOTOWN’S RUNNERS-UP ON THE BILLBOARD HOT 100
Why do some No. 1 records only reach No. 2?
Or, put another way, what unites the Beatles, the Monkees and the Osmonds? Bobbie Gentry and Van Halen? Roberta Flack, Ray Stevens and Kenny Loggins? Lawrence Welk and the Doors?
All are among the 19 recording acts whose work – whisper this, if you must – once kept a Motown single from reaching the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Were these moments of competitive achievement, or a denial of natural justice?
Others who have done such a thing include Manfred Mann, Three Dog Night and Berlin. On three occasions, it was even a fellow Motown act. What’s going on? (Yes, that, too. Blame the Temptations.)
Obviously, the Billboard Hot 100 has been an indicator of popularity for as long as anyone can remember, as “soundcarriers” evolved from 78s to 45s, from vinyl to compact disc, from physical to digital, from ownership to access. The magazine’s charts represented a peak which most record makers sought to scale during Motown’s glory years.
(To this day, I recall sitting with the publisher of Billboard as the president of the world’s largest record company at the time was screaming about the magazine’s failure to bestow a No. 1 slot on one of his artists, and threatening a commercial apocalypse if this was not rectified, immediately.)
Anyway, a total of 53 Motown singles claimed the summit of the Hot 100 between 1959, when Berry Gordy launched his record company, and 1988, when he sold it. There were 20 chart-toppers during the 1960s, 25 during the 1970s, and eight in the ’80s.
You know them all, from the first (“Please Mr. Postman”) to the last (“Say You, Say Me”), but you may not be aware of the 17 other singles which were robbed – robbed! – of the ultimate prize. The specifics will follow shortly, but here are a few highlights. Or lowlights.
The Jackson 5 lost out more than anyone. Three of their releases, and one of Michael’s, failed to get higher than No. 2. Perhaps the greatest disappointment was how "Mama's Pearl" was rebuffed by the Osmonds' “One Bad Apple” for two weeks in early 1971. Real or confected, the rivalry between the two boy bands was inescapable back then. Michael was present on another also-ran: Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me,” which suffered at the hands of Van Halen’s “Jump” in March 1984. For Jackson, at least, there was some compensation: during the same chart week, Thriller prevented the rock band’s 1984 from jumping to No. 1 on the Billboard album countdown.
Several years earlier, Smokey Robinson’s “Being With You” couldn’t dislodge Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” from the top of the Hot 100. This was ironic, given that Carnes’ earlier remake of the Miracles’ “More Love” had inspired Robinson to approach Carnes’ producer, George Tobin, about writing songs for her. Instead, Tobin produced “Being With You” for Smokey. Close, but no cigar.
There was comparable misfortune – if that’s the right description – when Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” held onto No. 1 for seven consecutive weeks as 1968 turned into 1969. For two of those weeks, Gaye's supersmash blocked Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life” from the top, then did the same for another two weeks to “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” by Diana Ross & the Supremes and the Temptations.
Motown was the ultimate winner in that case, not to mention holding the Hot 100’s entire top three positions for four consecutive weeks from mid-December to early January. Little wonder that the company’s general manager, Barney Ales, gave a $1,000 bonus to each of his sales and promotion team soon afterwards, as they were also enjoying the benefits of a beachside business convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
In April 1971, there must have been delight and disappointment once more at Motown. Early that month, “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” was at the peak of the Billboard chart, while denying that privilege to “What’s Going On.” When the Temptations tumbled, Three Dog Night’s “Joy To The World” stepped up. “What’s Going On” had to defer to the Dogs for two weeks, then it slid down the Hot 100.
Fortunately for Marvin and the Motown promotion crew, “What’s Going On” climbed to No. 1 on the Top 100 singles list of Billboard rival Cash Box for the week ending April 10. (More on the latter magazine’s charts, and how Motown fared there, in a future West Grand Blog.)
Barney Ales kept his promotion team under relentless pressure to obtain the best chart outcome. For many of the 24 years between 1961's “Please Mr. Postman” and 1985's “Say You, Say Me,” he was the man ultimately responsible to Gordy for those results. One of Ales’ recruits, the late Joe Summers, once told me about his weekly travels to the trade-press chart departments in New York, to light fireworks about the latest Motown releases. “I used to go almost every Monday,” he said, “and come back on Wednesday with the advance charts. If they were good, I’d stay in the office. If they were bad, I’d go to Carl’s Chop House [in Detroit].” Ales called him there once, about a record which was almost at the top. “Barney said, ‘You celebrating your number two record?’ He could beat you up pretty good.”
Finally, then, here’s the list of the coulda/woulda/shoulda chart-toppers on the Billboard Hot 100, with the number of weeks at No. 2 in parentheses. Beneath the titles are the relevant dates, and the title and artist of each record which held the Motown stars at bay.
1961: “Shop Around,” THE MIRACLES (1)
Feb. 20 (“Calcutta,” Lawrence Welk)
1964: “Dancing In The Street,” MARTHA & THE VANDELLAS (2)
Oct. 17/24 (“Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” Manfred Mann)
1967: “I Was Made To Love Her,” STEVIE WONDER (2)
July 29/Aug. 5 (“Light My Fire,” the Doors)
1967: “Reflections,” DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES (2)
Sep. 9/16 (“Ode To Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry)
1967: “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS (3)
Dec. 16/23/30 (“Daydream Believer,” the Monkees; “Hello Goodbye,” the Beatles)
1968-69: “For Once In My Life,” STEVIE WONDER (2)
Dec. 28/Jan. 4 (“I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye)
1969: “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES and THE TEMPTATIONS (2)
Jan. 11/18 (“I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye)
1971: “Mama’s Pearl,” JACKSON 5 (2)
Feb. 27/March 6 (“One Bad Apple,” the Osmonds)
1971: “What’s Going On,” MARVIN GAYE (3)
April 10/17/24 (“Just My Imagination,” the Temptations; "Joy To The World," Three Dog Night)
1971: “Never Can Say Goodbye,” JACKSON 5 (3)
May 8/15/22 (“Joy To The World,” Three Dog Night)
1972: “Rockin’ Robin,” MICHAEL JACKSON (2)
April 22/29 (“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Roberta Flack)
1973: “Neither One Of Us,” GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS (2)
April 7/14 (“The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia,” Vicki Lawrence)
1974: “Boogie Down,” EDDIE KENDRICKS (2)
March 9/16 (“Seasons In The Sun,” Terry Jacks)
1974: “Dancing Machine,” JACKSON 5 (2)
May 18/25 (“The Streak,” Ray Stevens)
1981: “Being With You,” SMOKEY ROBINSON (3)
May 23/30/June 6 (“Bette Davis Eyes,” Kim Carnes)
1984: “Somebody’s Watching Me,” ROCKWELL (3)
March 24/31/April 7 (“Jump,” Van Halen; “Footloose,” Kenny Loggins)
1986: “Dancing On The Ceiling,” LIONEL RICHIE (2)
Sep. 13/20 (“Take My Breath Away,” Berlin; “Stuck With You,” Huey Lewis & News)