(Pictured: Bobby Goldsboro and his remarkable helmet of hair.)
Fifty years ago today, according to the ARSA database, Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” made its first appearance on a radio survey, listed as a pick hit at WKIX in Raleigh, North Carolina. In 2012, I wrote about the song at Popdose as part of a feature called World’s Worst Songs. It’s been edited a bit.
The farther back we go in time, the harder it is to fairly judge what sucks, because tastes and styles change. Complicating matters is the post-modern ironic distance through which we look at almost everything. I provide this caveat because this week’s entry in World’s Worst Songs was staggeringly popular in its day, blasting up the charts to #1 and staying there for five weeks, beating back all comers in one of the greatest years popular music ever experienced. To listeners in 1968, Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” was not as awful as it seems to us now.
But holy crap it seems awful to us now.
“Honey” was written by Bobby Russell. He also wrote “Little Green Apples,” which won a 1969 Grammy for Song of the Year and briefly threatened to become a standard, and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” a #1 hit in 1973 for his then-wife, Vicki Lawrence. He also scored a handful of minor hit singles as a singer. Many of his songs were sketches of middle-class domestic life in the 60s, and “Honey” is the ne plus ultra of the form.
“Honey” is told in the voice of a husband describing life with his wife, who is “always young at heart / Kinda dumb and kinda smart.” And right there we get at what drives modern listeners to “Honey” around the bend: the singer condescends to nearly everything his wife does, and everything he does for her. She wrecks the car and fears his wrath; after he pretends to be angry for a while, he forgives her, and (instead of being pissed off at his emotional manipulation) she hugs him. He buys her a puppy, but the goddamn thing keeps him awake all night. She cries over sad movies and he thinks it’s silly. You half-expect him to eventually say, “Women—what are you gonna do?”
But then the proceedings take a dark turn: “I came home unexpectedly and caught her crying needlessly / In the middle of the day.” And within half-a-verse more, she’s dead: “One day while I was not at home / While she was there and all alone / The angels came.” (Perhaps if he’d paid more attention to her as a human being, he might have known her crying wasn’t needless.) We do not know what happened, whether she had some disease he couldn’t be bothered to find out about, or whether she killed herself in despair over being treated like a child. In any case, once she’s gone, he realizes he’s lost, well, something: “Honey, I miss you / And I’m being good / And I’d love to be with you / If only I could.”
“Honey” is produced to tug the heartstrings, with an angel choir and chimes that ring out when Honey departs this vale of tears. And at the fade, when Goldsboro repeats the song’s first verse, he does so with an audible lump in his throat. It’s a fine performance for its time, but you probably wouldn’t do this song now, and if you did, you probably wouldn’t do it this way.
“Honey” had already reached #1 in several cities by the time it debuted on the Hot 100, on March 23, 1968. It would blast to #1 on the Hot 100 in just its fourth week, on April 13, and stay five weeks. It would spend three weeks at #1 on the Billboard country chart and two atop the Easy Listening chart. ARSA shows it as the #1 song of the year at stations in Flint, Pensacola, and other medium-sized markets, and #2 at several of the biggest Top 40 stations, including KNUZ in Houston, WRIT in Milwaukee, KJR in Seattle, WCOL in Columbus, and KGB in San Diego. In Chicago, both WLS and WCFL ranked it at #3 for all of 1968. In one of music’s most magical, innovative years, “Honey” stood tall above almost everything else.
Eight-year-old me absorbed “Honey” from hearing it on my parents’ radio stations, and it lingers 50 years later as the sound of spring awakening after the long winter. And although I was pretty snide about the song in this Popdose piece, honesty compels me to report that there’s another reason why “Honey” lingers: it gave eight-year-old me an excuse to think, for the first time, about love and loss. But not for the last.