(Pictured: Hurricane Smith, unlikely singing star and later, a breeder of horses.)
Norman “Hurricane” Smith was first a recording engineer, best known to history for his work on the Beatles’ albums up through Rubber Soul, and later producer of Pink Floyd’s early material, including the single “See Emily Play.” But he was not of their generation—he was pushing 40 when the Beatles came up—and so when he began recording himself at the age of 48, his work reflected a different taste. In the winter of 1972, the deeply odd “Don’t Let It Die” went to #2 in the UK, but a much bigger hit was to come.
“Oh Babe What Would You Say” hit #4 in the UK in the summer of 1972. It hopped the Atlantic and landed at two of America’s most influential radio stations, CKLW in Detroit and WFIL in Philadelphia, at the end of October. It was mostly an East Coast hit for a while, not getting much action farther west until December. For example, it’s a top-five hit at WRKO and WMEX in Boston before it ever charts in Chicago, at WCFL in mid-December. It doesn’t appear on a WLS chart until the second full week of January. By the end of January, it’s in the Top 10 in dozens of cities, and it spends the weeks of January 20 and 27 at #2 on the Billboard Easy Listening chart, behind Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” It records its first local #1 at WHIO in Dayton, Ohio, during the week of February 5, and it goes #1 at KXOK in St. Louis for the week of February 17, 1973. In the same week, it hits #1 in Cash Box and peaks at #3 on the Hot 100. Also in February, Julie Andrews performs it with a giant blue Muppet on a TV special, and Smith himself sings it on The Tonight Show. But every record runs its course sooner or later, and “Oh Babe What Would You Say” is gone from most charts by the end of March. For all of 1973, its highest local ranking is #8 at KRUX in Phoenix and WNCT in Greenville, North Carolina. On Billboard‘s 1973 Top 100, it’s #57; in Cash Box, it’s #31.
Although I liked the song, I didn’t buy the 45. (I am continually baffled by the buying choices of the younger me.) And I wish knew whether “Oh Babe” got much radio play after 1973. I don’t remember hearing it a lot, although there’s no reason it would have made any greater impression on me than anything else from the winter of 1973, if I heard it in the few years following. It would occasionally resurface: Peggy Lee occasionally sang it in her nightclub act, and comedienne Kaye Ballard did it, with the same giant blue Muppet that had duetted with Julie Andrews, on a 1977 episode of The Muppet Show. (The Muppet Show debuted on Disney Plus last week, so you can’t say this website isn’t topical every so often, if only by accident.)
It wasn’t long, however, before “Oh Babe” took a place among the largely forgotten hits of the past, at least for most people. In the early 80s, when I started sneaking records home from my radio job to record them to cassette, “Oh Babe What Would You Say” was one of the first ones I grabbed. And when it appeared on Rhino’s Have a Nice Day 70s anthology in 1989, that volume was one of the first ones I grabbed.
The sax player on “Oh Babe What Would You Say” is a guy named Frank Hardcastle, who had served with Smith in the Royal Air Force. The dude had chops: the solo in the middle sounds like it’s improvised. It’s the hook of that horn as much as Smith’s old-timey vocal that made the song into a hit. It’s easy to visualize Smith and Hardcastle in the 1940s, young men sitting in some club, eyeing the local girls, and listening to a band that honks like they would on a future day.
In the winter of 1973, not-quite-13-year-old me hears “Oh Babe” without a clue about how it refers to the bygone time when its musicians were young. Instead, I think about a particular pretty girl and imagine saying to her, “Have I a hope or half a chance to even ask if could I dance with you?”
I have neither.
If you’d like to hear “Oh Babe,” I recommend this clever version of it, which features the moment not-quite-13-year-old me dreamed of, at about one minute in.
(Note to Patrons: The comments on Wednesday’s post were far more interesting than what I wrote originally, and I thank all who participated.)