American Schlock

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(Pictured: Debby Boone, #1 with a bullet, 1977.)

Maybe it was the thinning ozone thanks to aerosol deodorant and hair spray. Maybe it was all that polyester. Or maybe there was a deeper reason, something that’s always been part of who we are, and is still part of us today.

“You Light Up My Life,” recorded by Debby Boone, was released on August 16, 1977. (That’s the same day Elvis Presley died, although the autopsy showed no correlation.) Its chart debut came on September 3rd at #71. It went to #58 the next week, then into the Top 40 at #35 for the week of September 17th. It zoomed from #35 to #21 the next week, then to #15, and then, during the week of October 8, took a mighty leap from #15 to #3. The song hit #1 40 years ago this week, on October 15, 1977, where it would stay for 10 weeks, the longest stretch at the top for a single song since 1956.

Week after week during the fall of 1977, other songs stormed the heights of the Hot 100 but none could take it: “Keep It Comin’ Love” by KC and the Sunshine Band, “Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon, “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave, and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle all peaked at #2, Carly and Crystal for three weeks each. Finally, during the week of December 17, the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” reached the second spot, and it took out the queen on December 24, 1977.

It may surprise you to learn that “You Light Up My Life” spent but a single week at #1 on the adult contemporary chart. Nevertheless, its pop-chart dominance makes it the #1 single of the 1970s.

After the song fell out of the Hot 100 in February 1978, it stayed topical for a while. It won the Oscar for Best Original Song (from a movie also called You Light Up My Life). It tied for the Song of the Year Grammy with “Evergreen,” and was nominated for Record of the Year but lost; Debby Boone won the Best New Artist Grammy. But after the spring award season, “You Light Up My Life” seemed to vanish from history, like a Soviet official declared a nonperson who never officially existed. It never had the kind of afterlife on radio playlists that such an enormous hit would be expected to have. It’s as if collective embarrassment over the embrace of such bland schlock caused people to repress the memory entirely.

It’s arguable that the same impulse repressed Debby Boone’s career. She returned to the Hot 100 only twice, with “California” and “God Knows,” both in 1978. She did a bit better on the country charts, where “You Light Up My Life” had peaked at #4, scoring a #1 hit in 1980 called “Are You On the Road to Lovin’ Me Again.” Eventually, she moved into Christian music (no surprise given that she had imagined the “you” in “You Light Up My Life” to be God), acted on the stage, raised a family, and wrote children’s books.

“You Light Up My Life” got back into the news in 2009 when songwriter Joe Brooks, who also wrote and directed the You Light Up My Life movie, was accused of 91 counts of sexual assault against 11 women, some of whom he had lured to his New York apartment by dazzling them with his Oscar. He committed suicide before the cases could come to trial.

Despite the fact that many claimed to hate “You Light Up My Life” during its chart run, it was on most of the country’s radio stations every 90 minutes for a reason: millions of people absolutely fking loved it. Even with all that airplay, Mr. and Mrs. Average American, and more than a few of their children, bought the single or the album or the cassette because they couldn’t get enough of it on the radio.

“You Light Up My Life” has not endured all that well, but what it represents certainly has. Schlock remains one of America’s favorite mind-altering substances, as it always has been.

(Rebooted from posts first appearing in 2009 and 2010.)

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13 responses

  1. HERC liked it then – when asked by his piano teacher in late 1977 which two songs he wanted to learn, he chose Chicago’s “Colour My World” and Boone’s tune – and, dadgummit, he likes it now. Here’s the song’s run up the WLS’s hit survey:

    When the song cracked Billboard’s Top 40 the week of September 17, it debuted on WLS’s Forty-fives down at number 43, sandwiched in between fellow newcomers “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next To Me” and “Just Remember I Love You”. The next week, it had the biggest leap on the survey, jumping eighteen spots to number 25. For the week of October 1, “You Light Up My Life” leapfrogged its parallel chart run on the Billboard Hot 100 to crash into WLS’s Top 10 at number 3 behind the previous week’s Number One “Best Of My Love” and that week’s Number One “That’s Rock And Roll” before claiming the top spot for its own the following week, October 8, 1977. It stayed there until the week of November 28, 1977, when Heat Wave’s (sic) “Boogie Nights” dethroned it.

  2. I don’t remember this personally but a friend told me that WLS used to play a ten second or so snippet of the song, eventually making it all they way through to the end so they could say they “played” the song.

    I think “dazzling them with his Oscar” should become part of the vernacular…

    1. Seems to me John Landecker was the one who did that, although I don’t remember hearing it.

      1. You are correct, Jim. That was a Landecker bit one night. I heard part of it on an aircheck once. He really was the greatest.

  3. My parents never (to my knowledge) bought a 45 except for “You Light Up My Life.” I guess they were among those who could not get enough of it on the radio. I didn’t *hate* the song but it wasn’t my favorite, either.

  4. What other huge hits had so little impact after their chart run? My picks would be “One Sweet Day” and the original version of “Endless Love”. The first one, even during its 16 weeks on top of the chart, never seemed to match its chart performance in the pop culture landscape. (I wonder if that was a lot of those singles were sold at a giveaway price of 99 cents.) The second I’ve literally never heard anywhere in the last 20 years.

    1. “Physical” was the biggest hit of the ’80s (10 weeks at #1) and now is remembered essentially as a novelty song, if at all.

    2. Any No. 1 songs by The Carpenters, Barry Manilow and Barbra Streisand have likewise vanished from the airwaves, including oldies formats that have now disowned them. When was the last time any station in America played “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”?

    3. George Michael’s “Praying For Time” is a completely forgotten #1 single. It’s a gorgeous piece of work, but nothing about it screams “chart topper”. No hook or catchy chorus, probably at least a couple of minutes too long. Great for sitting quietly and contemplating the meaning of the lyrics and luxuriating in the beauty of the expert production work, but not one you’d necessarily want to turn up the volume and blast on your car radio. It made #1 solely because it was the new George Michael single off the new George Michael album, which in 1990 was a huge deal.

  5. JB, I’d like to suggest another explanation than an ingrained American love of schlock. Though that certainly exists.

    My philosophy has always been that there are, at bottom, three kinds of sure-fire hits. Or at least there were during the Top 40 era. Novelties, songs with an irresistible dance beat, and songs that express a universal emotion.

    As sappy and syrupy as “You Light Up My Life” was (and man, was it ever), it had the killer middle:

    “Rollin’ at sea, adrift on the water
    Could it be finally I’m turnin’ for home?
    Finally a chance to say “Hey, I love you”
    Never again to be all alone

    And you light up my life
    You give me hope to carry on
    You light up my days and fill my nights with song”

    And who among us can honestly say we wouldn’t like that, haven’t felt that way or wouldn’t love for that to be true?

    The universal emotion songs are almost always love ballads and—unless there’s a backlash that renders them uncool (“You Light Up My Life”, anything by the Carpenters), they become wedding staples.

  6. Another “American Top 40” memory here. No one, no group of individuals, was more stricken by Debby Boone’s seemingly endless run at Number One on the charts than the AT40 staff. Every week, we had a little bit of latitude in where we would place our extended “tease-and-a-hook” stories. God forbid that the songs and artists on which we had A+ material would congregate adjacently on the chart, but we usually had that aforementioned wiggle room.

    There was no such luxury when it came to the Number One Record in America! We needed a great, “keep ’em hanging on the edge of their seats” hook and a tease to set up Casey’s intro to the week’s chart-topper. In this instance, we ran outta gas after Week Two.

    We first took advantage of the “three generations” angle– Grandpa Red Foley, Dad Pat and Debby were the first members of a family to feature three successive generations at the top of the charts. Our statistician, Sandy Stert-Benjamin, exhausted every chart numbers approach any reasonable person could imagine. And when I landed an interview with Debby who, by the way, couldn’t have been a more lovely person, we mined that rather innocuous chat for everything we could. We almost told the tale that Debby and I had a couple of mutual friends– that’s how desperate we were. But we didn’t.

    We three staffers at that time definitely were stricken with some sort of Billboard Charts PTSD. For the life of me, I can’t remember more than three of the tales told during the ten weeks Debby Boone topped the charts. I’d love to hear how we fudged the additional weeks she resided at the top, but then again, maybe not.

    But as you suggested, JB, it’s almost as if that saturation of popularity and airplay put that record to bed forever. Over the past 40 years, I have never ever heard “You Light Up My Life” played as an oldie. Not even once. And even as I reminisce here, I’m okay with that.

  7. I think the last time it got played on a radio station that I worked for was in 1987…on a country station…that was automated, playing reels of tapes.

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