Numbers Game

I don’t know if the tale I am about to relate actually happened the way I tell it, but the circumstantial evidence is convincing and this ain’t a court of law, so here we go.

Len Barry was lead singer of the Dovells, a group of high-school pals from Philadelphia who were big for a couple of years in the early 60s. He began his solo career in 1965 with “Lip Sync (to the Tongue Twisters),” which went to #84 during a brief chart run in the summer of ’65 (and is pretty much what you would expect it to be). Barry’s next release was one for the ages, however: “1-2-3,” which went all the way to #2 in the fall of 1965, is one of those 60s pop records everybody used to know. (Vintage TV performance here.) Barry’s next two releases, the “1-2-3” soundalike “Like a Baby” and “Somewhere,” the song from West Side Story, also hit the Top 40, but two more barely scraped into the Hot 100. Another single bubbled under in early 1967.

Flash forward to the summer of 1968. Len Barry, three years removed from his biggest hit, is on a new label, and the new label is looking for a score. The thought process is easy to follow: Len Barry is best known for “1-2-3.” Ergo, if we want to get radio stations to notice his new release, shouldn’t it be called “4-5-6”?

Not an unprecedented thought in the entertainment biz then or now—if people like something once, make it a second time and they’ll probably like it again. But there was a flaw in the plan: Somebody would have to write a song called “4-5-6.” What in the hell would a song called “4-5-6” be about? A house number? An area code? A batting average?

It was at this moment some anonymous record executive was seized with a stroke of brilliance worthy of an era 40 years in the future, when no promotional gimmick is too shameless and people will fall for anything. Barry had recorded a song called “Now I’m Alone,” a weeper about a man who has lost his wife and family. In June 1968, that song was released under the title “4-5-6 (Now I’m Alone).”

Never mind that the numerals 4, 5, and 6 do not appear anywhere in it—a radio programmer who remembered “1-2-3” might be persuaded to give it a listen when it crossed his desk, just because of the title on the label. Perhaps some did, but not enough to make it a hit. “4-5-6 (Now I’m Alone)” did not make the Hot 100, although it showed up on some surveys from WRIT in Milwaukee in the summer of 1968.

Note to Patrons: Posting will continue lighter than normal for the foreseeable. Next one is scheduled for Thursday. In the interim, as always, go play outside.

“4-5-6 (Now I’m Alone)”/Len Barry (out of print; the audio quality of this is sketchy but acceptable)

One response

  1. I spun one of Mr. Barry’s Hot 100 scrapers, “It’s That Time of the Year”, a few weeks ago, having been inspired by a newer track with a similar groove. I had the 45 as a kid, most likely from a stack given to me by a neighbor or my kindergarten teacher’s assistant (yep, I started early). I don’t think I heard “1-2-3” until junior high, and while I acknowledge it as the signature Len Barry tune, “Time of the Year” remains the sentimental favorite.

    (That band I linked to is one of my favorites in the world, btw. Going outside now.)

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