One of these things is not like the others. See if you can figure out which is the oddball.
“You’re So Vain”/Carly Simon
“Me and Mrs. Jones”/Billy Paul
“Funny Face”/Donna Fargo
That’s the top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 dated January 13, 1973. It’s a chart loaded with AM radio pleasure: the rest of the Top 10 are “It Never Rains in Southern California” by Albert Hammond, “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” by Johnny Rivers,” “Your Mama Don’t Dance” by Loggins and Messina, Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly,” and Al Green’s “You Ought to Be With Me.” And so I ask again: of those five songs up there, which one is not like the others?
Donna Fargo’s brief run to the top of the pop charts, three seasons from the summer of 1972 through the winter of 1973, is one of the more unlikely I can think of. Fargo, a North Carolina girl born Yvonne Vaughn, had a rural quaver and big hair; she was trained as an English teacher, and she had not seriously considered a career in music before she met the manager who eventually became her husband. She was unusual in a couple of ways, however. She wrote her own songs, which most female country singers of the time did not, and she had not gone to school at some North Carolina teachers’ college—she was a graduate of the University of Southern California. So she was neither unlettered nor unsophisticated.
Her first pop hit landed on the charts in May 1972 and slow-cooked its way to Number 11 in August: “Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” is an ode to newly wedded bliss in which one can guess what Donna and her husband have been doing before the alarm clock rang. That would explain the joy in Fargo’s voice, which makes the song title not so much a wish or a boast as a statement of fact. It’s nicely arranged, too: three little notes to get it started and a stuttering rhythm guitar to take it out. It’s doubtful that the same people who were buying Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on 45 that summer were buying “Happiest Girl,” but they wouldn’t have had to. With Richard Nixon riding high on his way to a landslide reelection, there would have been a large audience for Fargo’s countrified slice of domestic life, opposed as it was to, say, “School’s Out.” But “Happiest Girl” was an international hit as well; Fargo sang a Spanish version and there was a cover version with lyrics in Danish.
Fargo’s next single was even bigger: “Funny Face” (not the greatest audio at that link, but at least it’s the original recording) was at its chart peak this week 38 years ago this week. It, too, is extremely well-produced by Fargo’s husband Stan Silver: coming out of a jingle onto the radio, that three-second intro built momentum to the vocal and it got your attention every time. It’s a waltz, which you didn’t hear on the radio every day and it’s pretty in a cheesy sort of way. But it’s not as distinctive as “Happiest Girl,” and the gender politics of the lyric are a little skeevy to modern ears. He calls her “funny face,” and she’s glad he forgives her “when I say those mean things that we know are not true”—which probably do not include “stop calling me ‘funny face,’ you jackwagon,” although maybe they should.
Both “Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” and “Funny Face” topped the country charts. “Happiest Girl” won a Grammy and Fargo took the Academy of Country Music’s top female vocalist award for 1972. Fargo’s next two singles, “Superman” and “You Were Always There,” would go Number-One country, too, and although both hit the Hot 100, neither cracked the Top 40. Eleven more Top-10 country hits followed through 1978, including the 1974 Number-One hit “You Can’t Be a Beacon If Your Light Don’t Shine.” Fargo fought multiple sclerosis around the turn of the 1980s and departed the charts a couple of years later. She’s pursued a career writing greeting cards and poetry in recent years, and has a successful catalog of songs to bank on.
What I love most about the Top 40 music of the 1970s is the crazed variety of it. Damn near anything could get to be a hit, and over the course of those fascinating years, damn near everything did. Even the unlikely country music of Donna Fargo.