The first chart book I ever owned, Star File, compiled by Dafydd Rees and published in the UK in 1977, intrigued me back in the day with two entries for a song I’d never heard, “Roxy Roller” by Sweeney Todd. The book said that the first version had been withdrawn after legal trouble and replaced by the second. But since I’d never heard either one, and neither one rose above Number 90 on the American charts, I never pursued the mystery any further—until today.
Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles 1955-1986 (the falling-apart copy of the book I still use religiously) shows “Roxy Roller” with a catalog number of London 240, and says that it appeared on the Hot 100 for three weeks in 1976. Nothing about multiple versions, nothing about legal battles, just a single entry, wham bam thank you ma’am, one-hit wonder, end of story. But there are some interesting connections surrounding Sweeney Todd and “Roxy Roller,” and here they are.
Sweeney Todd was formed in Vancouver, British Columbia, by Nick Gilder and Jim McCulloch in 1973, although the band’s original name was Rasputin. Allmusic.com compares the band’s early sound, after it had evolved into Sweeney Todd, to that of 10cc. “Roxy Roller” topped the Canadian singles chart for three weeks in the summer of 1976, but by that time, Gilder and McCulloch had left the band for their own record deal in Los Angeles. The group’s producer, Martin Shaer, signed a new lead singer, Clark Perry, and recut “Roxy Roller” over the original backing track. When Perry didn’t work out, Shaer canned him and hired a young kid named Brian Guy Adams, who had kept bugging him for an audition, and had him recut the vocal for “Roxy Roller” again.
“Roxy Roller,” catalog number London 240 and billed to Sweeney Todd, hit the American Hot 100 at Number 90 on the chart dated August 21, 1976. It held there the week of August 28 but was gone entirely from the chart dated September 4. It returned for one last week, bubbling under at number 110 during the week of September 11, billed this time to Sweeney Todd featuring Nick Gilder. The following week, September 18, “Roxy Roller,” catalog number London 244 and billed to Sweeney Todd featuring Brian Guy Adams, hit the Hot 100 at Number 99, but didn’t last a second week. Star File says that the Gilder version was withdrawn and replaced by the Adams version, but it’s not entirely clear to me what the nature of the legal dispute was. It most likely had to do with ownership of Sweeney Todd’s contract. Their Canadian label had gone tits-up in 1976, and Shaer wound up with the band’s contract. It’s reasonable to suspect that the dispute involved which party would get paid for the Gilder version of “Roxy Roller.” Recutting the record with Adams doing a close impersonation of Gilder probably seemed like a smart business move to Shaer.
In March 1977, Sweeney Todd won the Juno Award in Canada for Best New Group. Although it was the Gilder edition of the band that had made a giant splash in 1976, the group accepting the award was fronted by Brian Guy Adams, who was only 17 years old at the time. He would make one album with Sweeney Todd, but by December 1977 he too would be gone, like Gilder, to seek fame and fortune as a solo artist. And like Gilder, he would find it. In the fall of 1978, Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child in the City” would hit Number One in the States. It took Adams a little longer. A disco-flavored single, “Let Me Take You Dancing,” made the Canadian top 20 in 1979. His first American hit came in 1982, a song called “Straight From the Heart.” He had changed the spelling of his name by then, to Bryan Adams, and he would hit steadily in the States for the next 15 years. But his first American chart entry had come way back in 1976, as Brian Guy Adams, on the recut version of “Roxy Roller.”
So anyhow, there were two charting versions of “Roxy Roller” in the States, and they sound a hell of a lot alike. But making a distinction between the two is this blog’s raison d’-freakin’-etre. Listen to Gilder’s version here and Adams’ version here. What I wanna know is: Where’s the Clark Perry version to complicate matters further?
Sweeney Todd is one of the one-hit wonders to peak at Number 90 on the Billboard chart. We’ve already taken care of several of them in previous installments of the Down in the Bottom series, and we’ll take care of the rest next week.