Our first repeat offenders on No Hard Chords don’t have the record to match pop chart recidivists like Elvis Presley, Paul Anka or Bobby Darin. As I wrote in the review of “Come Softly To Me,” The Fleetwoods were a high school vocal trio who managed to concoct an amateurish yet endearing pop sketch, charming record buyers enough to snag a spot at the top of the charts for a week. Somehow lightning struck twice for The Fleetwoods, at least commercially. Their next release also managed to top the Hot 100, interrupting the nine-week run of Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” for a single week. “Mr. Blue” sounds more polished than “Come Softly to Me,” but suffers for it. They still have more personality than, say, The Browns, but the professional songwriting and production muffles their awkward charm. Still, the song has a pleasant tune, if a little slight, and lead singer Gary Troxel’s sweet but not schmaltzy voice adds the right note of melancholy without going into Ankaland. But perhaps the most memorable element is Si Zentner’s trombone, wandering lonely as a cloud. 6
Hit #1 on November 16, 1959; total of 1 week at #1
21 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 2.18% through the Hot 100
“Come Softly to Me” is the first single on No Hard Chords where the YouTube video is more than an easy way for me to post the song. The video above finds the three teenage members of The Fleetwoods lip-synching their hit on American Bandstand. Their dancing is stiff and awkward and clearly choreographed by the group itself. But there’s something endearing in the amateurish way they shuffle from side to side. You can picture them rehearsing their moves at Mom’s house, struggling to be perfectly in sync for their big television appearance.
Their DIY dancing is the product of The Fleetwoods’ status as industry outsiders, high school kids who somehow got a lucky break with a song they made up to pass the time while waiting to be picked up after school. They self-recorded the vocals, later dubbing in a minimum of instrumental accompaniment, with the rattling of singer Gary Troxel’s car keys keeping the beat. The song itself is built on one of those once-in-a-lifetime absentminded melodies that sticks in your mind. Once The Fleetwoods stumbled across it, they didn’t need to detract from this flash of inspiration by tacking on complex lyrics or a chorus or a counterpoint – just let Troxel scat it for two and a half minutes (with two stanzas of lyrics added to shake things up), and the girls could sing some gentle harmonies over the top that let the melody breathe. There are a few points in the interplay of the three voices that would have been sweetened in a professional studio, but here they make the song more genuine. After the vapidity and overproduction of “Venus,” The Fleetwoods’ lack of polish and pomp provides a much-needed palate cleanser. 7
Hit #1 on April 13, 1959; total of 4 weeks at #1
12 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.25% through the Hot 100