Everybody hates something, and often, our choices are highly personal. Nevertheless, there’s a certain consensus about the most reviled Top-40 hits of all time: “Muskrat Love,” “You’re Having My Baby,” “Run Joey Run,” and “Seasons in the Sun” would make most people’s lists, I think. And “You Light Up My Life,” too. In my experience, that’s one people tend to forget.
“You Light Up My Life,” recorded by Debby Boone, daughter of Pat, 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 3 at Number 71, and it embarked on a respectable-but-not-spectacular climb up the chart. The week of October 8, however, it took an enormous leap from 15 to 3, and the week after that, “You Light Up My Life” hit Number One, where it would stay for 10 weeks, the longest stretch at the top for a single song since 1956. It also hit on the country chart, reaching Number 4.
Week after week during the fall of 1977 other songs stormed the castle, 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 Number Two, 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.
“You Light Up My Life” would remain in the Hot 100 until late February 1978. In the final accounting, it’s the Number One song of the 1970s. It was nominated for Record of the Year at the Grammys (and Boone won Best New Artist); it also won the Oscar for Best Original Song. But the odd thing about “You Light Up My Life” is that it vanished from history almost as soon as it left the charts. The song was disappeared, like a Soviet official who was declared a nonperson and never officially existed. (Or like George W. Bush to the Republicans now.) Oldies stations don’t play it; easy-listening stations don’t play it—and if I’m recalling correctly, it stopped getting much radio play almost from the moment it left the charts. It’s as if collective embarrassment over our embrace of such bland schlock caused us to repress the memory entirely.
It’s arguable that the same impulse repressed Debby Boone’s career. She was unable to follow up on her mega-hit, returning to the Hot 100 only twice, with “California” and “God Knows,” both in 1978. She did a bit better on the country charts over the years, even reaching Number One with “Are You On the Road to Lovin’ Me Again” in 1980. 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.
The song’s blandness and Boone’s faceless performance of it made it ripe for cover versions, and for a particular sort of cover version at that: Every easy-listening artist you can name recorded it, including Engelbert Humperdinck, Perry Como, Robert Goulet, the Ray Conniff Singers, and Mantovani. It’s also been cut by Leann Rimes, Kenny Rogers, Whitney Houston, and the Irish group Westlife, who turned it into a boy-band ballad for the generation whose parents were pre-teens in 1977. In 1979, the Three Degrees did it for a British TV special. Adding a little soul helped it a lot—hell, adding a harmony vocal line helped it a lot.
In the end, perhaps the only way we can explain the unprecedented success of “You Light Up My Life” is what explains many strange excesses: It was the 1970s. We couldn’t help ourselves.