(Pictured: Pete Wingfield.)
Forty-five years ago this week, an especially beloved but still obscure 70s hit achieved a bit of perfection that was too good to be an accident.
Pete Wingfield is one of the most prolific musicians in the history of rock. He came up as a blues musician in a band called Jellybread, but when it failed to find success, he got into session and concert work as well as songwriting and production. His list of credits is extremely long: B. B. King, Lightnin’ Slim, Memphis Slim, Nazareth, Keef Hartley, Colin Blunstone, Van Morrison, the Hollies (with whom he was associated for a very long time), Freddie King, Al Stewart, Maggie Bell, Edwin Starr, Lindisfarne, Richard and Linda Thompson, Bonnie Tyler, Olivia Newton-John, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, the Everly Brothers (whose band he joined for its 1980s reunion), the Alan Parsons Project, and Paul McCartney—and that is undoubtedly an incomplete list. He played so many sessions—over a thousand sessions in all—that he can no longer remember them all. He once told a journalist, “Well, I must have been there because my name’s on the sleeve.”
But apart from the long list of credits, what most people best remember about Pete Wingfield is one indelible record: “Eighteen With a Bullet.” In Billboard chart jargon, records that show potential for greater growth and a higher chart position are marked with what’s known as a bullet. So the phrase “eighteen with a bullet” refers to the #18 position on the chart, with the potential to go higher. Wingfield uses it as a metaphor for a budding relationship with the potential to get stronger.
“Eighteen With a Bullet” was a big hit in the UK during the summer of 1975. It first shows up at ARSA on a survey from WWIN in Baltimore at the end of June, but it takes a while to catch on. It starts getting traction across America in mid-September, and becomes particularly big at WCFL in Chicago, where it gets to #3 as October turns to November—although WCFL’s crosstown rival, WLS, didn’t chart it at all. It’s even bigger at KMBY in Monterey, California, where it spends a couple of weeks at #1 in November. In December, it tops local charts in San Bernardino and Sacramento.
There is little doubt that lots of radio stations would have been sorely tempted to rank “Eighteen With a Bullet” at #18 on their weekly music surveys at some point, and many of them did. WWIN was first, then KYA in San Francisco, WRKO in Boston, KTKT in Tucson, WHB in Kansas City, WFIL in Philadelphia, KTLK in Denver, KRIZ in Phoenix, and a few smaller stations. And Billboard gave in to the temptation too. During the week of November 22, 1975, “Eighteen With a Bullet” ranked #18, with a bullet. During the week of November 29, “Eighteen With a Bullet” peaked at #15 in Billboard—a remarkably high placing for something so quirky and original. I suspect that radio stations and record-industry people loved it more than the public did, and that couldn’t have hurt it one bit.
The lyrics to “Eighteen With a Bullet” could only have been written by a man with experience in the music business, somebody who spoke the language of records, record marketing, and radio, and who had the talent to turn that jargon into a love song. The music could only have been written by somebody who knew his way around the blues, New Orleans R&B, and doo-wop. In a world where every piece of music is described by comparing it to something else, there’s nothing quite like “Eighteen With a Bullet.”
I first wrote about “Eighteen With a Bullet” in 2006, and it was this website’s most popular post for a long time. This post is partially rebooted from material posted in 2012.