When “Hey! Baby” topped the Hot 100, the harmonica was still a novelty. The instrument hadn’t really been heard on popular records until the emergence of Chicago Blues just a few years prior. While the harmonica would become a staple of rock radio, thanks to British blues, garage and Dylan, in 1962 musicians were still experimenting with how to apply the instrument to country and pop. Much of the harmonica’s allure derives from its accessibility: it’s the instrument even a busking hobo can afford, a day laborer can master, an incarcerated criminal can respect. Its status as weapon of choice of the poor and disenfranchised, as well as its decidedly coarse sound, means that just a few blasts can automatically add gritty authenticity to a song. The harmonica is best experienced as a burst of brash punctuation, a contained blast of fury or lust or braggadocio or melancholy. What it’s not is a melodic instrument. Go beyond a few rough puffs or a short riff, and it’s about as effective and pleasant to listen to as an ambulance siren sonata.
Of course, there are some great exceptions, some of which we’ll visit on this blog. “Hey! Baby,” however, is a pretty standard example of an early ‘60s attempt to bring the mouth organ to the pop charts (cf. early Beatles singles). The lack of subtlety in Delbert McClinton’s harmonica playing is aggravated by two factors: first, it’s pushed up too far into the mix, making it even more dominant; and second, it has to do nearly all the heavy lifting on the record. Like or loathe McClinton’s harmonica work, at least it is worth discussing. Bruce Channel’s song, however, never lives up to the energy that the harmonica insists is there. Channel seems to be writing a Louisiana Hayride version of a Buddy Holly song, but without Holly’s knack for a memorable lyric or an unexpected arrangement. What does redeem “Hey! Baby” is some vague yet definite quality of geniality which has made it a favorite of sporting events and nostaligists; it’s not likeable, exactly, but it is firmly not-hateable. 4
Hit #1 on March 10, 1962; total of 3 weeks at #1
66 of 970 #1’s reviewed; 6.80% through the Hot 100