And Now, 600 Words About “You Light Up My Life”

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.

16 thoughts on “And Now, 600 Words About “You Light Up My Life”

  1. I have a vague memory of watching a movie, possibly by the same title, on German TV back in around 1981, on which the protagonist sang You Light Up My Life. I presume that was the genesis of the record. I rather liked the song back then. Not so sure I’d find many excuses for it now though.

  2. jb

    Indeed, “You Light Up My Life” was the title song of a movie, released at the same time as the single, directed by Joe Brooks, who wrote the song, and starring Didi Conn, one of those actresses whose face most people would have recognized in the 70s and 80s without knowing her name.

    All of which I’d have put in the post, but I didn’t want to write *700* words about “You Light Up My Life.”

  3. porky

    I seem to recall (or someone told me or maybe it was an urban legend) but when this was a hit John Records Landecker on WLS would play a 5 second snippet of the song interspersed between other records.

    He explained that “management says we have to play this once an hour” so that’s how he got around it.

  4. Shark

    Sadly, “You Light Up My Life” gets played almost every day on the station I work for, SuperHits 106, a Dubuque, Iowa radio station. “Muskrat Love” and You’re Having My Baby” are also in the every day music rotation. Of course, when those songs show up on my afternoon show, I make sure they DON”T get played. In fact, today “You Light Up My Life was scheduled to play right out of the top-of-the-hour ID at 4pm. I swapped it out for “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff n the Tears which was a “fill” song before the top of the hour and would never get played. Management probably doesn’t like it, but I have just one rule: DON”T play music that sucks!

  5. There were a couple of similar phenomenon in the 90s with Whitney Houston’s cover of I Will Always Love You which was EVERYWHERE in 1992 and 1993 and then seemingly disappeared (along with Houston’s career… at least until recently). And then in 1997/1998 with Celine Dion with My Heart Will Go On— You couldn’t get away from that damned song– it was EVERYWHERE. I don’t think Celine Dion’s career has ever fully recovered.

    But all 3 (the 2 I just mentioned plus You Light Up My Life that you of course brought up) are songs that probably got 30 or 40 years worth of airplay within the span of 12-18 months. That’s just plain obnoxious. The listening public just OD’d on all 3 songs and that was that.

  6. On our local talk radio station, the presenter plays a “feel-good record” every morning, nominated by listeners, who must then vote by phone for the song they’d like to hear. This morning it was a random tune by Cliff Richard vs You Light Up My Life. You know which won…

  7. Rebekah

    I stumbled upon this while desperately googling to find out who it was that sang “You Light Up My Life” on live TV in the late 70’s, accidentally switching the lyrics to “it can’t be right when it seems so wrong.” I believe it was a male performer. Can’t remember what show he was appearing on (perhaps The Tonight Show???) I can’t seem to find anyone else who remembers that insignificant, fleeting moment in TV history.

  8. Attila the Hon

    Reply to porky: That was no urban legend. John Records Landecker actually did that! I listened to it as it happened. One of the funniest things I’ve ever heard and a great memory from my youth.

  9. Pingback: Bottom Five: I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Hotel California

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