Hits That Weren’t Hits

One of the most frequently “googled” artists on this website is Andy Williams, and from our Google research we can tell that the most frequently searched Andy Williams song is “Moon River.” Of course you already knew that. But when PopularSong.org readers discover that Andy’s recording of “Moon River” never reached the charts, they are usually a bit shocked. It is one of the most identifiable pop standards from the previous century — yet it never charted. Williams had numerous Top 40 chart hits over three decades, but his best known song?  Nada.

1970s pop fans often wind up here after searching for Mac Davis’ “I Believe in Music,” a now-standard hit from the early 70s. But if you’ve read our Forgotten Gem page, you now know that it wasn’t that big of a hit, peaking at #22 for a group called Gallery — and Davis’ version barely dented the pop charts.

You’d be surprised just how many songs that are universally thought of as all-time greats that, for one reason or another, either stalled on the charts or missed completely.

Louis Armstrong

“What a Wonderful World” is probably second only to “Moon River” for chart failure. Released in 1967 by Louis Armstrong, the song has become a classic used in numerous movies, and achieved a Grammy award in 1999. Not bad for a record that sold fewer than 1,000 copies when it was first released. Armstrong enjoyed five decades of chart success, but zero from what has become his best known song. The story was a bit different in England, where the record did top the UK pop charts and outsold all other records a year after it was released. Quite an oddity. “What a Wonderful World” was written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss. Thiele was a musical impresario; he started his first record label at age 17. Later he would marry Teresa Brewer, of “Music! Music! Music!” fame.

Weiss was an extremely accomplished songwriter; his first big hit was a collaboration with Bennie Benjamin: Perry Como’s 1946 “Surrender,” which reached #1. Another Weiss/Benjamin collaboration was “Cross Over the Bridge,” a Patti Page classic that peaked at #2. Probably his best known song was a collaboration with Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore called “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” which of course topped the charts for Elvis Presley. But as for “Wonderful World,” it originally tanked on the US charts.

Louis Prima

The irrepressible Louis Prima had two songs that fit this category. Since we’re talking about Grammy winners, “That Old Black Magic” comes to mind. The song of course hit #1 for Glenn Miller in 1943, but strangely enough, that isn’t the version that comes to mind when Ol’ Black Magic is discussed. Most would say it was originally a hit for Frank Sinatra (1953), but that version?  Never charted. Then of course everybody knows Louis’ version, recorded in 1958 as a duet with then-wife Keely Smith. It garnered a Grammy award for best performance, but only reached #18 on the charts. While better than the other Louis’ chart failure mentioned above, it’s still surprising to look back and see a song of this stature was just a mediocre chart single.

Prima’s signature song is probably “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” from the same era. You may recall that Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth charted the song in 1985, but really it’s the Prima version from three decades prior that has sustained. Roth, to his credit, nearly reached the top 10 with it. Prima’s signature version didn’t dent the top 40 at all. Surprising, because if you lived through that era, you remember that song was “everywhere.”

Judy Garland

Most of Garland’s songs that you think of as hits, well, they were indeed hits. But since we have her featured in the photo above, we owe it to Judy to mention at least one.  It would have to be “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” from Meet Me In St. Louis.  The song has been covered dozens of times, by the likes of Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, The Carpenters, you name it.  A few years ago it was the #3 most played Christmas song of all time.  As for Judy’s original, it stalled at #27 on the charts.   Another song from the same film fared much better at the time, which was “The Trolley Song.” That peaked at #4 on the national charts for Ms. Garland.  But the kicker for that one is that the Pied Pipers cover version — released at the same time — beat the original, going to #2.

Dean Martin

Dozens of songs are identified with Dino, and like Judy mentioned above, many of them were indeed hits.  But a couple of the ditties we all know and love as “Dean Martin Standards,” well, not so much.    One song that had tremendous chart success was “In the Chapel in the Moonlight.”  We say tremendous, but not exactly for Dean.  When you think of that song, you think of Mr. Martin, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Fact is it was first a monster hit in 1936 for Shep Fields.  Ruth Etting, a hugely popular vocalist in the 1920s and 30s also charted nicely.  Kitty Kallen picked it off the scrap heap in 1954 and took it all the way to #4 Billboard, #5 Cashbox.  But Dean’s 1967 hit? The one everybody knows?  That recording peaked at #1 on the new “adult contemporary” chart, but stalled at #25 on Billboard, #30 on Cashbox.

A couple years earlier, 1964 to be precise, Dean scored with “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime,” which rocketed to #1 on both Billboard pop and adult contemporary, as well as Cashbox.  One of his well-known follow-up songs was “Every Minute Every Hour,” which stiffed at #123 on the Billboard pop charts, #140 Cashbox, and never even dented the AC charts, possibly because it was a “B” side.  Martin fans and “music of your life” format stations still play the song as if it were a key hit from the Martin catalog.

Did we mention Sinatra…

Back in 1957 Sinatra was making something of a resurgence in his recording career. He even did a duet with Keely Smith. When you think of Sinatra in ’57 you probably think of “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town).” Certainly a well-known Sinatra song, sort of a preview of “New York, New York” which would follow years later. Although “Chicago” is something of an anthem in the Second City area, it peaked dismally at #84 on the pop charts.

How about that other very well known Sinatra Chicago song? “My Kind of Town (Chicago is)” was released in 1964 and nominated for a Grammy award. Chart-wise, Sinatra should’ve quit while he was ahead, because this record didn’t reach the top 100. Told you we had some surprises here…

Two years later, Sinatra got his Grammy for Best Vocal Performance, Male with “It Was a Very Good Year.” That had to be at least a top ten, right? Actually it fell somewhere between city girls who lived up the stairs and blue-blooded girls of independent means, peaking at a mediocre #28.

Don’t feel too badly for ol’ Blue Eyes, he followed his Grammy winning/chart flop with “Strangers in the Night,” which actually did peak at number one. He followed that chart-topper with “Summer Wind.” Today “Summer Wind” is the most licensed, most downloaded, and most frequently played Sinatra recording. It is used in commercials, films, television shows, and is generally a staple at white suburban weddings. It is played more than any of his number one hits, which is a bit strange, since it peaked at a humdrum #25. We’re glad “Summer Wind” is so closely aligned with Frank these days, because throughout the 1980s and 1990s his signature song was undoubtedly “My Way.” If ever there was a paen to self-absorption, that song is it. It never really did that well on the charts, barely cracking the top 30.

And what of “New York, New York?” Certainly an artist of Sinatra’s stature can have more than one signature song. It was Frank’s last chart hit. Well, sort of a chart hit. The classic celebration of the Big Apple peaked at #32 in 1980.

Now for the biggest surprise: With the exception of “Strangers in the Night,” Frank’s 1960 recording of “Old MacDonald” charted higher than any of his records listed above.

Go figure.

What are your memories of this musical journey?