Mother & Son Hitmakers

In our article about Shirley Jones, we mention the fact that Shirley never had much singles chart success until she topped the Billboard Hot 100 with stepson David and “I Think I Love You,” recording as “The Partridge Family” in 1970. Just seven years later, her son Shaun (David’s half-brother) topped the Billboard Hot 100 with a fun remake of “Da-Doo-Run-Run.” If ever there were proof that the late 1970s produced some rather banal sounds, that recording is it. In any case, it was a notable achievement, because this marked the first instance of a mother and son having hit the top of the charts.

Or was it?

Let’s back up a second. What is so unusual about famous mothers who had hit songs and then had famous sons who had hit songs? Well, it just hasn’t happened very often. In fact, Shaun Cassidy is the only son to have his name on a number one record as the artist. Father/offspring combinations are much more common; considering father/son combinations, the Crosby family has done it, Hank Williams Sr and Jr have done it on the country charts, Rex Allen Sr and Jr on the country charts as well. Father/daughters have hit the top spot in the form of Frank Sinatra and then Nancy Sinatra when she hit with “Boots.” They even did it together with “Somethin’ Stupid.” Pat Boone topped the charts a few times; daughter Debbie followed two decades later with “You Light Up My Life,” which had the longest run at the top of any song in the 1970s. Beach Boys’ founder Brian Wilson’s daughters Carnie and Wendy did it as part of Wilson-Phillips, which as you know means that Mamas and Papas’ John Phillips and daughter Chynna also hold that distinction.

Interesting thing to note is that as a member of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson penned and performed on three number one singles. They were “I Get Around,” “Help Me Rhonda,” and “Good Vibrations.” (While considered rock and roll when released, these songs have since found their way into pop iconhood.) The interesting thing is that Wilson-Phillips had exactly three number one songs as well: “Hold On,” “Release Me” and “You’re in Love.” That’s two more chart toppers than the Mamas and the Papas had, although Papa John co-wrote one other song that topped the US charts, a Beach Boys song called “Kokomo.” Oddly enough, Brian Wilson does not appear on that record, so we keep his Beach Boys chart topper tally at three. But he did compose and sing on one other number one song, a ditty recorded by Jan and Dean called “Surf City.” So as of this writing, Wilson holds a slight edge over his daughters for chart-toppers.

You can also glean from the paragraph above that Michelle and Chynna Phillips are one of the few mothers and daughters who have topped the charts. Can you think of any others? We’re trying…one possibility that comes to mind is Judy Garland and Liza Minelli, however Liza never topped the charts — not even adult contemporary.

The only other pair we can think of is Mother Maybelle Carter and June Carter Cash on the country charts. The Carter Family topped the country “charts” numerous times, although the charts they topped were regional, prior to any nationwide country charts. If you think they don’t deserve mention on a website about American Popular Song, consider that one of the Carters’ chart toppers was “Wildwood Flower,” which is as American as it gets. Unfortunately June never really topped the Billboard Country charts as a vocalist. Her duets with Johnny Cash on Tim Hardin’s “If I Were A Carpenter” and Lee Hazlewood’s “Jackson” only made it to #2 on Billboard, but did top some other national and record sales charts. So how do we say Maybelle and June were a mother/daughter to both reach #1? Well, June co-wrote a little song called “Ring of Fire,” which topped the Billboard country charts for future husband Johnny Cash for seven weeks. June’s daughter Carlene Carter found success in the 1990s, putting three songs in the top five on the country charts. Had just one gone to the top, the Carters would be the only family with three generations of chart toppers. Carlene would’ve also fit in the father/daughter category, because her dad Carl Smith topped the country charts five times during the 1950s.

Speaking of country charts, mother/daughter combination Naomi and Wynonna Judd had a string of 14 number ones as The Judds. Good thing we’re only talking about songs recorded separately by parents and offspring, because they’d pretty much rule this category. The Mills Brothers would also stand strong in this category; patriarch John Mills Sr. joined his successful sons in 1936 and stayed with the group well into the 1950s. They would then be the only example of a father singing on his first #1 record after his children had topped the charts.

In the father/daughter category, one pair that certainly deserves recognition is Nat “King” Cole and daughter Natalie. Nat of course topped the charts countless times during the 1940s and early 1950s. Natalie never topped the pop charts, but she dominated the r & b charts five times, and the dance charts once. Other than the aforementioned Frank and Nancy Sinatra, they are the only father/daughter combination we know of to chart a major hit record as a duet, although their specially-created “Unforgettable” did not top the charts.

This digression has been fun, but let’s re-focus on mother/son hitmakers.

We mentioned Shirley Jones and Shaun Cassidy. Have you thought of any other mothers with number ones followed by sons who did the same? There are at least two more that we’ve uncovered. If you managed to come up with either of these next two, give yourself a big pat on the back. If you managed to come up with both, you get the Trivia Insanity award. Remember, the category here is mothers and sons. Here we go…

Earlier in this article we mentioned “Kokomo,” which was co-written by John Phillips. That song is the key to the second mother/son chart toppers. The primary composer of that song, which topped the charts in 1988, was songwriter/producer/singer Terry Melcher. Who? He was a music producer, wrote a number one song, and his mom happened to be Doris Day. Doris of course had a number of chart-toppers, the biggest of which was “Sentimental Journey,” which belongs on anybody’s short list of American standards. Melcher’s name appeared on one other number one record, as producer of the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” in 1965.

Had you thought of that pair? If you’re a Doris Day afficianado (and in our own way, all of us are Doris afficianados) you might’ve known that. Kudos if you thought of the late Mr. Melcher. He was an extremely talented man in his own right.

We saved the biggest for last.

In the 1950s a country songwriter named Mae Axton penned a tune called “Heartbreak Hotel,” which she demoed for Elvis Presley. Although she had help from lyricist Thomas Durden, it was largely her tune. Elvis gets a credit on the song because Colonel Parker insisted that if Elvis recorded a song, Elvis got part of it. Axton, who had virtually no success as a songwriter to that point, readily agreed. The song topped the pop charts for eight weeks, the country charts for 17 weeks, and was the #1 song of 1956 according to Billboard. The song put Mae Axton back in the #1 slot in 1979 when a duet version by Willie Nelson and Leon Russell topped the country charts. Oddly enough it had one more stay at #1, this time in 2006 on the Billboard Hot Singles Sales Chart when re-released. It’s the only song we can think of in which the same recording was #1 50 years later. Neither Mae nor her chart-topping son would live to see it return in the new millenium, by the way.

And just who was her son, and what was his chart-topper? Hoyt Axton was a burly folksinger who first made his mark with 1963’s “Greenback Dollar,” which went top 20 for The Kingston Trio. Hoyt penned a few more minor hits until he finally struck gold with “Joy to the World,” which many people remember simply as “Jeremiah was a bullfrog.” The song was written as a quirky, goofy folk tune that nobody would record. Three Dog Night had some success with a couple of Hoyt’s tunes, and asked him something like “got anything else?” at a recording session. Axton demoed “Joy,” and was more or less laughed out of the studio. When the laughter died down, legend has it that Three Dog Night vocalist Chuck Negron said, what the “heck,” he would try it. Rather than present it in a warm, folksy manner, Negron intentionally went over-the-top with his voice, and belted it out as a rock anthem. The instrumentation was secondary; Negron’s vocals made the song. It went number one, and according to Billboard, was #1 Song of the Year for 1971.

So now you know the mother-son songwriters who not only both topped the charts, but both had song of the year honors, Mae and Hoyt Axton.

The question comes up, as it always does when “rock and roll” songs are mentioned here on, is “what does this have to do with the Great American Songbook?” Well, ask anyone over the age of 30 if they know “Jeremiah was a bullfrog,” and they’ll probably finish the verse for you. If it isn’t already, it’s well on its way to becoming a “standard.” Maybe Negrons’ version can’t be considered “American popular song,” but the song certainly should be.

More Mothers & Sons…

The editorial staff at seldom (hopefully never) deals in absolutes, because there really aren’t many. So when we say “only,” as in “only mother/son combinations to top the charts,” it’s either a typo, or you misunderstood it, or we made a mistake. Because almost every time we use the word “only,” we find another example within a week or two.

As it is with this category.

One semi-memorable possible addition is the late-60s pop family act, The Cowsills. We say possible because while the numbers listed above were separate records, the Cowsills all appeared on the same record. Mom Barbara Cowsill was added almost as an afterthought; she really had no musical training nor experience. The Cowsills never topped the Billboard charts, but did so on Cashbox twice. First was “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” in 1967, followed by a cover of “Hair” in 1969. Drummer John Cowsill, who is married to Vicki Peterson of The Bangles and is employed with The Beach Boys touring band, appeared on another #1 record as part of a band, but was not credited on the record “867-5309/Jenny” which hit #1 for Tommy Tutone.

Incidentally, The Cowsills were one of America’s most-traveled touring acts of the late 1960s, and served to inspire a couple of television producers to create a new prime time series. Some of the Cowsill kids were even considered for the TV parts at one point. That program? You probably guessed…The Partridge Family.

We’re going to repeat this recommendation, because we like it so much: A book called As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s by Karal Ann Marling is an excellent read — not a dry history book or study, but an interesting ride through the past, revisiting a day gone by. You’ll find this book impossible to put down…click here for more information about this book. The link goes to, so you can click without worrying about all kinds of pop-ups and other wackiness troubling your computer.