I read the other day that Cee Lo Green, famed singer and Riverbend Festival outcast, recorded the song, “Happy,” and chose not to release it. As everyone knows by now, the song’s writer Pharrell Williams then recorded it himself, and “Happy” has become that song you cannot escape. I’m sure Cee Lo and his team are most unhappy about the one that got away. After all, he hasn’t had a hit in four years, and Pharrell is on every magazine cover except “Stamp Collectors Monthly.”
But dear Cee Lo, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re just the latest in a long line of singers who have made some questionable choices.
Take Ray Stevens. In 1969, he was riding high with novelty songs like “Gitarzan.” He was beginning to feel typecast as a comedy singer, and wanted to show the world he could be serious too. Burt Bacharach, who had written dozens of hits, wanted Ray to sing a song from the soundtrack of an upcoming movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” It was a bouncy little tune. Ray opted out, choosing instead to sing a dark ballad from a new songwriter named Kris Kristofferson. So B.J. Thomas ended up with a #1 record for “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” while Ray fizzled at #81 with “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” B.J. ought to send Ray a thank-you card every time that royalty check comes rolling in!
There are also cases when an artist has so many great songs to choose from, they just can’t record them all. In 1988, George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam were a songwriting team. They had not one, but two cases of big stars turning down their songs, and both times it turned out for the best. A couple of years earlier, they had written “How Will I Know,” with Janet Jackson in mind. Janet, or her “people,” gave it a thumbs-down. “That’s not the direction she’s going,” they were told. So it got passed around to Whitney Houston’s people and it became one of her biggest hits. A few months later, George and Shannon attended one of Whitney’s outdoor concerts in Los Angeles, and while they were enjoying the song they had written, they looked up in the sky and saw a shooting star. They rushed home and wrote “Waiting For A Star To Fall,” and both agreed, “This is perfect for Whitney. She’ll have another huge hit with one of our songs.”
This time it was Whitney’s turn to say no. Her producer, Clive Davis told the couple, “This just isn’t quite right for her.” They still believed in “Star,” so they took it to Belinda Carlisle’s producers, who insisted she record a demo version. Belinda didn’t like it either, and didn’t include the song on her next album. So the writers decided to record it themselves (just like Pharrell) under the name Boy Meets Girl, and their version rocketed to the top of the charts. Personally, I think Whitney would have done a great job on this song, but I don’t know if she could have done it any better than the songwriters did. It’s a great pop record that still makes me smile when I hear it on the radio.
Then, there are the artists who said, “Yes” to a song, and now wish they’d said “No” despite the millions they’ve earned from it. Linda Ronstadt has been doing a lot of interviews since being elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. Surprisingly, she always makes a point of saying how much she doesn’t like many of her early hits, and is “astounded” that anyone else does. Take, “You’re No Good,” for example. She says, “I’ll hear it and go, ‘I don’t know why I thought I could sing, I never could sing, I never should have been singing.” As a music fan who bought a lot of her records, and played many of them on the radio, this makes me question my judgment. At least until I hear one of her songs on the radio. If I could find Linda’s phone number, I’d call and tell her, “Sorry, we disagree on this one. You are one fine singer.”
Of course, stories like this are everywhere. Frank Sinatra, according to his daughter Tina, hated “My Way.” Paul Anka wrote the lyrics with Sinatra in mind, and she said her dad regretted recording it for the rest of his life. “He loathed it,” said Tina. “But the song stuck, and he couldn’t get it off his shoe.” Even years after his death, if you ask a Sinatra fan to name two or three of his hits, “My Way” is sure to be one of them, whether he likes it or not.
Van Morrison has long felt the same way about “Brown Eyed Girl,” his first, and most-played hit. “Stairway to Heaven” sold a few million albums for Led Zeppelin, but singer Robert Plant said he didn’t like it then, and doesn’t like it now. Books have been written about the disagreements within the Beatles on some of their biggest hits. John didn’t like the songs Paul wrote, and vice versa, and there was a lot of drama connected to those songs credited to “Lennon-McCartney” on the record labels.
So, to close on a positive note, what’s one classic hit song that most of us apparently agree on? According to the company that tracks “oldies” radio stations, their most-played song these days is a 1975 hit by America, “Sister Golden Hair.” Best I can tell, even the band members like this one. And if the style sounds familiar, maybe it’s because it was produced by George Martin, who was behind the hits of another popular group: those battling Beatles.