Tell the Story of How Great a Love Can Be

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(Pictured: Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, stars of Love Story.)

Honk if you remember how big a deal Love Story was.

The novel, by Erich Segal, hit the top of the New York Times Fiction Bestsellers List in May 1970 and stayed there for 41 straight weeks, into February 1971. Just before Christmas 1970 came the film adaptation of the novel, starring Ali MacGraw as Jenny and Ryan O’Neil as Oliver, with a screenplay by Segal. It topped the grosses for 11 non-consecutive weeks from December to March and got seven Oscar nominations: three for acting, one each for direction, screenplay, and score, and for Best Picture. And in early 1971, the movie’s theme song was inescapable. Four different versions charted on either the Hot 100 or the Bubbling Under chart.

—The first to hit was Henry Mancini’s version, which made the Easy Listening chart on December 19, bubbled under the Hot 100 on 12/26/70 and 1/2/71, and cracked the big chart on January 9, 1971.

—Francis Lai, who had scored the movie, charted with his version of the theme on January 30.

—Andy Williams charted a vocal version of the theme, officially titled “Where Do I Begin,” on February 6.

—Tony Bennett bubbled under the Hot 100 for five weeks in February and March, never getting above #114.

Mancini’s version made the Top 40 on February 6. It climbed swiftly, from #30 in its first week to #21, then #14 for the week of February 27. In that same week, the Francis Lai and Andy Williams versions both cracked the Top 40 for the first time, at #33 and #35 respectively. The three versions rode the Top 40 together for four weeks in all, through the week of March 20.

How did American Top 40 handle this glut of Love Story themes? As it happens, I have the February 27 show in my archives. Introducing Andy Williams, Casey says, “Here’s the first vocal of a song to hit the Top 40 that’s a hit in three different versions. We got two more to go.” Moments later, he introduces Francis Lai, also debuting that week, by saying, “We’ve already heard one version of ‘Theme from Love Story.’ Here’s the second of three versions.” Later on Casey says, “The countdown continues with the third version we’ve heard today of the song from the motion picture Love Story. First, it was Andy Williams with the new vocal version. Then Francis Lai with the soundtrack from the picture. And now here’s Henry Mancini with his arrangement of that same theme.” I also have the March 13 show, and Casey played all three versions on that show too. Based on the cue sheets from the shows, I’m pretty sure he did the same on March 6 and March 20.

According to listings at ARSA, other versions of the Love Story theme got some airplay, including versions by Roger Williams, Peter Nero, and, inevitably, the Ray Conniff Singers. Roy Clark performed a version that’s not very country, and Eddie Holman did an R&B version. I would really like to hear “(The Answer) To a Love Story” by a group called Brand X, which got a one-line mention in Billboard and two weeks of airplay at WAVZ in New Haven, Connecticut, in June of ’71, but the Internet knows nothing apart from those two factoids.

The final Billboard scoreboard: Andy Williams topped out at #9, Mancini at #13, and Lai at #31. America reached peak Love Story during the week of March 20, when both Williams and Mancini were in the pop Top 20, and Williams spent the first of four non-consecutive weeks at #1 Easy Listening. (Mancini peaked at #2 on Easy Listening, Lai at #21.)

Unless I’m missing something (which is always a possibility), I believe it would be 1977 before multiple versions of the same movie theme again charted so high together. For three weeks in May, three versions of “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky, by Bill Conti, Maynard Ferguson, and Rhythm Heritage, were on the Hot 100 at the same time; in June, Conti and Ferguson would run the Top 30 together. In September, two versions of the Star Wars theme, the disco version by Meco and the main title by John Williams, were in the Top 20 at the same time. In February 1978, the same two artists put themes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind into the Top 30 at the same time.

There have been other instances of multiple versions of the same song running the charts at the same time, especially in the 50s and 60s, but you don’t want to read a 2,000-word post today and I don’t especially want to write it. So we’ll deal with that another time.

6 responses

  1. This is not a lie.

    My future in-laws did a fair amount of remodeling on their home in the early 70s. In one of the bathrooms, they put in a musical spindle for the toilet paper dispenser (no, I had no idea such a thing existed). The tune it played when jostled? “Theme from ‘Love Story’.” It was still working when I arrived on the scene in the mid-90s.

    I have to admit I found it somewhat charming.

  2. Honk.

    Dear God, that thing (“Love Story”) was huge at the time. I can’t imagine it aged well (never watched it a second time after seeing it in the theater when new). Carol Burnett did a spoof of it, “Lovely Story”, which our high school drama department staged (I played the Ryan O’Neal character’s father), and that (the script—we were kids) was funny.

    Musically, it was pretty much the last gasp of old-school MOR on Top 40, along with Perry Como’s “It’s Impossible”, which came out a few weeks before.

    At KHJ, Los Angeles, which had my full attention in the early part of 1971, MOR’s refusal to go quietly was really noticeable. The Fifth Dimension’s “One Less Bell To Answer” was number one on the first KHJ Thirty of the year (January 6), with Barbra Streisand’s “Stoney End” at #6, Ray Price’s “For The Good Times” at #11, Liz Damon’s Orient Express’ “1900 Yesterday” at #13 and “It’s Impossible” moving 27-15.

    KHJ only played Francis Lai and Andy Williams, and that was a story in itself. Lai debuted at #26 the week of January 20, then went 24-16-8 and then to #4 the week of February 17—which is the week Andy Williams debuted at #29.

    The next week, Lai fell 4-10, while Andy went 29-23. On March 3, it was Lai 10-18, Williams 23-21.

    On March 10, Lai falls completely off the KHJ Thirty and Williams stands still at 21. But then Andy goes 17-15-15-21 and (on April 14) gone.

    Lai peaked at 4, Andy at 15, but Lai only spent 7 weeks on the Thirty, Andy 8. And KHJ played some version of “Love Story” from late January through early-mid April.

    And, unless I’m wrong, once Andy dropped off the chart, that was it for the old guard of MOR performers on KHJ.

    1. Carol Burnett includes part of the Lovely Story spoof in her one-woman show. It was so acclaimed after it first aired on Feb. 1, 1971 that the show actually did a parody of an imaginary sequel, Beyond Love Story, on Sept. 22, 1971. Between those episodes, Mike Douglas sang “Where Do I Begin?” as a guest on The Carol Burnett Show on March 8, 1971.

      Lovely Story was written by Larry Siegel and Stan Hart, both of whom also wrote for Mad magazine. Coincidentally, Siegel mocked Love Story in Mad magazine as well and claimed he didn’t repeat a joke from what he wrote for The Carol Burnett Show.

      A final semi-related note: Andy Williams, Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis all recorded “Where Do I Begin?” and wanted their versions released as a single. All were signed to Columbia Records, who said it would give them all a fair shot at a hit by releasing their singles the same day. But Andy had one thing the other gentlemen lacked–a weekly TV series–and he used it to help plug his take on the theme song, which probably helped him score this as his last top 10 hit.

  3. Barbara Streisand’s version of Laura Nyro’s “STONEY END” is an absolute soul classic.
    It deserves an article all by itself !!!!!

  4. […] Martino Earlier this spring I wrote about the massive movie success of Love Story, and the three versions of the theme that rode the charts at the same time in 1971. One year later, the massive movie success of the […]

  5. […] the winter of 1971, the movie Love Story and its theme song dominated popular culture like nothing else. I also wrote about the modern-day reboot of a TV […]

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