Songs You Thought Hit Number One But Didn’t
Topping Billboard’s Hot 100 isn’t as easy as Taylor Swift makes it look.
Over the course of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart history, some artists, at various points in their careers, have made scoring number ones look like a cinch: Elvis Presley in the late ’50s, The Beatles and The Supremes in the ’60s, Bee Gees and Elton John and Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder in the ’70s, Michael Jackson and George Michael and Janet Jackson and Lionel Richie and Madonna and Phil Collins and Prince in the ’80s, Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men in the ’90s, Rihanna and Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and The Weeknd this century.
But looks indeed can be deceiving. Getting to the top of the US pop chart takes hard work. Some superstars (Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, ELO, and The Pointer Sisters immediately come to mind) never managed to reach the Hot 100 summit. Then there are the pop classics that, to many of us, sound like number-one hits, but never were.
Of course, these would vary for everyone, so this list of singles from the ’60s through the ’80s that have legacies worthy of a number one but never quite scaled the Hot 100 is just a sampler. (Non-US singles like Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Madonna’s “Into the Groove” are not included.)
“Stand by Me” by Ben E. King
This modern pop standard has charted multiple times since it first became a hit for its co-writer in 1961, yet it’s never been able to make it to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 in any version. In fact, its only two trips to the top ten have been via Ben E. King’s original recording in 1961 (number four) and a 1986 re-release that reached number nine after the song was featured on the soundtrack to the film of the same name.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
The national anthem for Black Americans was most recently dusted off by Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson during the Democratic National Convention. Despite its near-mythic status, the song has never been a big chart hit. Sam Cooke, its composer, took it to number 31 in 1964, and “A Change Is Gonna Come” hasn’t seen the upper reaches of the charts since.
“California Dreamin’” by The Mama’s And The Papa’s
When you think of the ’60s folk-pop group The Mama’s And The Papa’s, chances are you think of this West Coast reverie. It qualifies as one of the most beloved songs of the hippie age, and, in 1965, it became the quartet’s first hit, but it only got as high as number four. Just one single by The Mama’s And The Papa’s, “Monday, Monday,” the 1966 follow-up to “California Dreamin’,” reached the chart summit in the US. It also was a considerably bigger hit abroad, climbing to number 3 in the UK, 20 notches higher than “Dreamin’” did there, and to number four in Australia, far besting the number 87 down under peak of “Dreamin’.”
“Live and Let Die” by Paul McCartney and Wings
The James Bond series has spawned some iconic themes, but only one of them has hit number one. Believe it or not, it’s the one that accompanied the last of Roger Moore’s seven 007 stints — Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” in 1985 — and not Paul McCartney and Wings’ number-two theme from the 1973 first film of Roger Moore’s Bond era.
One of my earliest musical memories was hearing this song on the radio all the time in 1976. If I had known about Billboard’s Hot 100 back then, I would have assumed it was a number-one smash. Alas, although it was a chart-topper in the UK, all over Europe, in Australia, in New Zealand, in South Africa, and in Mexico, it had to settle for a lowly number 13 peak in the US. The four Swedes didn’t go to number one in the US until their next single, “Dancing Queen.” Not only was that their first and only trip to the top in the States, but they’d hit the top ten there only twice more, with 1978’s “Take a Chance on Me” and 1980’s “The Winner Takes It All.”
Elton John’s ’70s slow songs
He has one of the most varied hit lists in popular music, but the songs that made him an icon during his ’70s heyday were mostly mournful piano ballads. Shockingly, not one of them — not “Your Song,” not “Tiny Dancer,” not “Rocket Man,” not “Daniel,” not “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” not “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” not “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” not “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” — went all the way to the top (though three of them stalled at number two). All six of John’s ’70s number ones, from 1972’s “Crocodile Rock” to 1976’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” were mid-tempo to uptempo pop rockers.
His sad songs said so much, but they were more successful in later decades. After hitting number two in 1974, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” finally got to the top when George Michael, with a vocal assist from John, took it there in 1992. And “Candle in the Wind,” the 1974 eulogy for Marilyn Monroe that was the B-side of the chart-topping “Bennie and the Jets,” finally reached the summit as a requiem for Princess Diana 23 years later (with the “Goodbye, Norma Jean” lyrical intro changed to “Goodbye, English Rose”).
“Just the Way You Are” and “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel
The piano man enjoyed an impressive but somewhat head-scratching chart career. His three number-one singles — 1980’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” 1983’s “Tell Her About It,” and 1989’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” — aren’t even close to definitive. None of them enjoy the “classic” legacy of his career-defining number-three hit “Just the Way You Are,” which won Song and Record of the Year Grammys in 1979, or even Joel’s 1979 single “My Life,” which also hit number three.
Hmm … Three does seem to have been Billy Joel’s lucky number on the Hot 100: He peaked there four times. “Tell Her About It,” the first single from his An Innocent Man retro celebration, became his second Hot 100 chart-topper in 1983, but when you think of that album today, does “Tell Her About It” come to mind, or do you remember “Uptown Girl,” whose video featured Joel’s then-girlfriend and future wife/ex-wife Christie Brinkley and has 139 million more YouTube views? Oh, guess where “Uptown Girl” peaked …
“In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins
It might be the Grammy- and Oscar-winning superstar’s most iconic hit, in or out of Genesis, yet his first solo single only got to number 19 on Billboard’s Hot 100 when it was released in 1981. Meanwhile, it made the top three in Australia, Canada, the UK, and a number of other countries, making it a bigger global hit than any of his eight U.S. number ones, in or out of Genesis. In the 40 years since its release, “In the Air Tonight” has enjoyed at least two second winds: in 1984, when it popped up in the first episode of Miami Vice, and in 2020, when a video of twin You Tubers Tim and Fred Williams responding to hearing the song for the first time went viral.
“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper
The single that launched Cyndi Lauper’s superstardom in late 1983 and the one most closely associated with her name had to settle for a relatively lowly number-two peak. Despite Lauper’s zany, upbeat image, her two number ones were gentle ballads: “Time After Time” in 1984 and “True Colors” in 1986. Her first cut may not have been the deepest, but it’s her most iconic by far.
“Thriller” Michael Jackson
It debuted on the Hot 100 all the way up at number 20 in 1984, which made it seem like a shoo-in to top the chart. Despite the grand entrance, a number-one peak may have been too much to expect for the belated seventh single from an album that had already spawned six top tens and two number ones. Not that Jackson was slouching on the charts: In between the number 10 peak of “P.Y.T. Pretty Young Thing” and the number-four peak of “Thriller,” he spent six weeks at the summit with “Say Say Say,” his 1983 non-Thriller duet with Paul McCartney. One might presume the overexposure cost “Thriller” the number-one status it deserved.