The Whole Damn Bus Was Cheering

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We have passed several musical milestones from 1973 already this year, including the releases of Dark Side of the Moon and Houses of the Holy. Let other bloggers write about those. I will stick to subjects I am uniquely qualified to explore: Forty-five years ago this week, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” by Dawn Featuring Tony Orlando hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Dawn had made a big splash with “Candida,” which hit #3 in the fall of 1970, and “Knock Three Times,” which went to #1 in January 1971. Their next three singles peaked at #25, #33, and #39 nationally, and the three after that didn’t crack the Top 40 at all. So when “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” landed at radio stations in the winter of 1973, there was no reason to think that it was going to be a monster, but a monster it turned out to be.

The song first shows up at ARSA on a survey from Detroit Top 40 giant CKLW on January 30, 1973. It cracked the Hot 100 on February 17 and picked up radio station adds in bunches throughout the last half of February. On March 17, it crashed into the Top 40, going from #48 to #29 the same week that it scored its first #1, at WCOL in Columbus, Ohio. Its climb up the Hot 100 was steady, going 29-19-13 and cracking the Top 10 at #6 on April 7. It would go to #3 the next week and #1 on April 21, 1973, taking out “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” by Vicki Lawrence. By then, it had hit #1 in literally dozens of cities across North America. It would top the Hot 100 for four weeks, and during that time it would rack up more local #1s. Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” dethroned it on May 19, but it wouldn’t start losing chart momentum until the end of June. WQAM in Miami actually charted it until February 1974.

Why was “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” such a massive hit? For one thing, people love a story well told, and it was surely that. Songwriters L. Russell Brown and Irwin Levine, who wrote several of Dawn’s most famous songs, took a Civil War legend about a prisoner of war returning home and transposed it to the story of a guy getting out of jail. (It might have resonated just as strongly had they kept the POW angle, given the return of those imprisoned in Vietnam during early 1973.) Maybe it offered an escape from the news of the day: the Watergate scandal exploded into public consciousness during the record’s run up the chart. But it also was an irresistably bouncy record at a time of year when that kind of thing sounds great, and Tony Orlando delivers an ingratiating performance. It was a polarizing record, however—some people simply ate it up, while others found it too cheesy to bear and/or grew sick to death of its endless repetition on the radio. But it ended up the #1 song of the year in at least 10 cities, and on Billboard‘s year-end singles chart as well.

After “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” Dawn doubled down on novelties (most famously “Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose” and “Who’s in the Strawberry Patch With Sally” from the album Dawn’s New Ragtime Follies). The group got a four-episode CBS variety show in the summer of ’74 and a regular slot that December. Their show was reasonably successful for a couple of seasons before going off in late 1976. Although they’d hit #1 one more time, with a well-done cover of “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)” in the spring of 1975, the hits slowed to a trickle during the TV years; Dawn’s last Hot 100 hit came early in 1977.

“Tie a Yellow Ribbon” remained part of American culture after its chart run, gaining new resonance during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980, and again during the Persian Gulf War of 1991. (The Gulf War inspired a new Dawn recording called “With Every Yellow Ribbon,” which had precious little to do with its semi-namesake.) But today, the significance of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” is mostly as an artifact of the weird 1970s, when it scratched some sort of itch we couldn’t have described at the time.

It was an itch I didn’t suffer, by the way; although “Candida” and “Knock Three Times” were important records in my life and I was still buying 45s in the spring of 1973, I never considered buying “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.” It seemed to be on the radio every five minutes anyhow, and that was enough for me.

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