The Top Ten Most Successful “Missing” Number Ones Artists: Number 6: Johnny Tillotson

186 views

(Note: Criteria, Scoring and Rationale for this series may be found here.)

Johnny Tillotson
(71 pts):

  • 4 Top 10 hits
  • 2 Top 20
  • 8 Top 40
  • 12 Top 100 hits
  • “Poetry in Motion” peaked at #2 in 1960.

Neil Sedaka was a pop star in the late 50s and early 60s who was left behind when musical tastes changed.

In the mid-70s, Elton John and a few friends in the industry brought him back to relevance, earning him two more #1s in 1974 and 75:

(Stereogum reviewer Tom Breihan gave “Laughter in the Rain” a 2.)

But what happens when an artist grows up outside the New York City musical world, and doesn’t have connections to resurrect their career? 

You wind up with Johnny Tillotson.

Tillotson and Sedaka were born 11 months and 900 miles apart: Johnny in Jacksonville and Neil in Brooklyn. Both showed musical talents at an early age.

By the time Tillotson graduated high school he was appearing on local television shows.

A recording of him singing was sent to a talent competition, and as a national finalist, he was invited to perform in Nashville. Success came quickly, and after a few songs in the Billboard Top 40 and a college degree, Tillotson moved to New York City to pursue his dream as a singer.

Tillotson took The Penguin’s “Earth Angel” and Johnny Ace’s “Pledge My Love” onto the charts. He followed those with a song written by Paul Kaufman and Mike Anthony, inspired by young women walking by at a nearby school.

Both men were around 30; I sincerely hope it was a college and not a high school.

“Poetry in Motion” was a smash, hitting #2 for one week behind Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind,” which Tom gave a 10. It also hit the charts in five European countries, and #1 in the UK, where 43 years later, UK reviewer Tom Ewing would give it a 6. 

“Poetry in Motion” is typical for the time period:

A youthful Tillotson wistfully thinking about seeing his girl, supported by a soulful saxophone. After twenty seconds, the melody changes to a danceable song.

He’s got nothing bad to say about his girlfriend – her sway is better than the ocean, and she doesn’t need plastic surgery – her arrangement is too nice to rearrange. It could be the plot to one creepy ass movie, but Tillotson just sounds too damn innocent to do anything with (or to) his girlfriend.

This was Kaufman and Anthony’s biggest success. Kaufman only has five songwriting credits to his name – no others charted.

Kaufman and Anthony co-wrote a few other minor hits. More importantly, they were not a part of the Brill Building songwriting factory, and Tillotson wasn’t signed to a major record label. 

Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts was one of the first television shows ever.

Archie Bleyer was the music director, and Julius Larosa was a young singer on the show. Bleyer created Cadence Records to provide Larosa a place to record.

In the 1950s Cadence had a number of success stories, such as Tillotson, Andy Williams, The Chordettes and The Everly Brothers. But the label acted more as a minor league farm system team to the bigger labels. 

Larosa left for RCA in 1955, and The Everly Brothers jumped to Warner Brothers in 1960. They hit #1 with “Cathy’s Clown” in 1960. (Tom gave it a 7.)

Andy Williams jumped to Columbia in 1961 as well, and Cadence started releasing previously recorded songs to diminishing returns… and focusing on the stars who stayed, like Tillotson. (Andy Williams’ highest-charting single is the the 1962 single “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” which peaked at #2. Tom didn’t rate it or any of his other four Top 10 hits, but did mention him six times in his column. It’s a 3.)

The Chordettes stopped making hits in mid-1961, and the label was now entirely reliant on Tillotson, who penned the #7 “Without You” (it’s a 4), and 1962’s #3 “It Keeps Right a’ Hurtin’”, which also hit #6 on the R&B charts and #4 on the C&W. It’s a 3.

There were three more singles from Tillotson on the Cadence label. Then he too jumped to a major label, and much like the other artists, found success.

His cover of Ernest Ashworth’s “Talk Back Trembling Lips” hit #7 (it’s a 4), but that was it.

Cadence continued to release old Tillotson singles, and while his MGM singles first reached the lower rungs of the Top 40, American tastes changed – but not before he made one final pop Americana contribution:

Not going to lie – if there were one actress in the 1960s I could see associated with Johnny Tillotson, it’s Sally Field.

While Sedaka was going through a renaissance of sorts, Tillotson bounced around a number of record labels. He played smaller and smaller venues until the 1980s when he had a semi-revival in Southeast Asia.  As recently as 2010, he recorded “Not Enough”, a Rebecca Black-esque tribute to those who serve in a uniform. 

Neil Sedaka and Johnny Tillotson are still living today, but Sedaka continues to perform to sold-out shows while Tillotson is mostly retired.

On Spotify he has 368,000 monthly listeners, less than 20% of Sedaka’s.

Sometimes it just pays to be connected.

GRADE: 4/10 

TRIVIA: I dare anyone to say The Dream Academy is a one-hit wonder – after all, their follow up song “The Love Parade” made #36 (and clocked in at #16 on my Irrational Love chart). Tom mentioned them once under which 80s one-hit wonder?  

“Life in a Northern Town” peaked at #7.  Tom didn’t rate it, but it’s an 8:

The All-American Rejects had a decent run about fifteen years ago with 3 Top 10 hits, including 2004’s “Gives You Hell”, but Tom never rated any of their songs, and only mentioned them once…while discussing a comeback story for whom? Well, I guess this brings it full circle since they appeared on Tom’s column for Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood.” (“Gives You Hell” is a 5, “Bad Blood” is a 6)

BONUS BEATS:  Following in the footsteps of Stars on 45 and other medley acts, Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers achieved a bit of success in the late 80s and early 90s mining the late 50s/early 60s sounds, and they sampled “Poetry in Motion” in “Hopping Mad”.  Here it is:

(Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers’ highest-charting single is 1989’s “Swing the Mood,” which peaked at #11.)

Let the author know that you liked their article with a “Green Thumb” Upvote! 

17

Thank You For Your Vote!

Sorry You have Already Voted!

Subscribe
Notify of
25 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
rollerboogie
Member
Famed Member
rollerboogie
Offline
November 22, 2023 6:38 am

Thanks for this, thegue. Lots of thoughts here. Johnny Tillotson is a name I am almost certain I have never heard until your article. I immediately recognized the song “Poetry in Motion”, as it was played frequently on the oldies format that was popular in the the late 80s/early 90s when I was listening.

I actually like the song and would bump it up to a 6. It has a nice melody and his voice is pleasant and totally works for the song. The warbling soprano floating over the top at the end is a nice touch. Once the 80s themselves became part of the oldies format in later years, many of those 50s and early 60s songs were phased out. I can totally see how he has been forgotten, being that I never knew his name in the first place. I think you are right about the importance of having connections. Sedaka’s hits from the same era do not do it for me, and “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” just feels icky. The only thing that would make it worse would be to have Ringo Starr cover it in the 70s.

The Gidget theme is great, perhaps a very underrated TV theme song. Maybe I haven’t quite woken up yet, but it sounded to me that at one point he was singing “waterboard your Valentine” and I couldn’t get my brain to hear it any differently.

My mood darkened when you mentioned “Swing the Mood”. That atrocity showed up at every wedding we went to in the 90s like the plague, wiping out anything good about swing music, leaving nothing but death and destruction in its wake. Why would anyone want to start out a marriage like that?

I am glad you pointed out that Dream Academy is not a one-hit wonder. Giving bands/artists that moniker when they have had more than one song in the top 40 is a real pet peeve of mine.

Last edited 2 months ago by rollerboogie
Phylum of Alexandria
Member
Famed Member
November 22, 2023 7:27 am

Well hell, I was fully expecting to learn about a completely unknown artist, and that was still mostly true–never heard of the the guy–until I got to the part about Gidget. Very cool!

Also, I used to work at Tower Records, and I would restock those Jive Bunny albums sometimes, but I had no idea of what music could be on there. Another nice to know. Though that I know that one, I’m good! Not my thing.

I like what I hear from Tillotson, though. Smooth without being too saccharine.

JJ Live At Leeds
Member
Famed Member
November 22, 2023 7:57 am

Finally, a name I recognise! If only because of one song; Poetry In Motion. Johnny wasn’t strictly speaking a one hit wonder here but after PIM topped the charts he only managed another three top forty hits with his next being #21.

Mention of Jive Bunny brings a shudder. I certainly wasn’t expecting to see them at tnocs. Didn’t realise they infiltrated the US as well. They were a phenomenon here. First three singles topped the charts. They were the third act ever to achieve the feat (after Gerry & The Pacemakers and Frankie Goes To Hollywood). Once the novelty wore off there was a pleasing downward trend to their charts placings;

1 – 1- 1 – 4 – 8 – 13 – 28 – 43 – 48

I can only apologise for my part in their success, I bought the first two on 12 inch before realising the error of my ways and that I was just encouraging them to make more.

I couldn’t tell you when Tom mentioned Dream Academy but I remember them being mentioned in the comments on a number of occasions. They might be a one and a bit hit wonder but they made an impression.

LinkCrawford
Member
Famed Member
LinkCrawford
Online Now
November 23, 2023 3:14 pm
Reply to  thegue

I don’t know much by G&TP, but their big hit “Ferry Cross the Mersey” is a 10/10 for me. I remember had a great description of that song in tnocs saying something like, It sounds like a song that felt nostalgic the instant it was recorded.

It is a gorgeous song.

AdaminPhilly
Member
Trusted Member
AdaminPhilly
Online Now
November 26, 2023 4:11 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

That and “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” seem like songs from an alternate universe in which rock ‘n’ roll never took over, but the kind of pop that was popular in the early 1950s continued to evolve, losing some of the orchestrated backing, and dominate the chart.

Last edited 2 months ago by AdaminPhilly
JJ Live At Leeds
Member
Famed Member
November 22, 2023 9:26 am
Reply to  thegue

Spice Girls did beat the record. First six singles all went to #1 before Stop put a stop to it. Only a #2.

Their 10 hits applies to their initial run. There was an 11th that everyone forgets about / pretends didn’t happen. Headlines (Friendship Never Ends) was released to support their 2007 Greatest Hits. It only got to #11.

It pains me to report that it was broken again a couple of years later by the blandly generic Irish boyband; Westlife. They went a long way on their unerring ability to synchronise their getting up off their stools when the key change comes in. Their run extended the record to its current position of seven.

Last edited 2 months ago by JJ Live At Leeds
Virgindog
Member
Famed Member
Virgindog
Online Now
November 22, 2023 9:07 am

I’ve somehow never seen an episode of Gidget, so haven’t heard the theme song before, but I remember “Poetry In Motion.” “It Keeps Right On A Hurtin'” sounds familiar, too. The name Johnny Tillotson though? Can’t say I haven’t heard it but it’s not exactly front of mind.

Musicians often complain about how a famous performer has less talent than the guy playing at the local venue. Sure, that’s true, but success is a combination of talent, hard work and luck. You have to be in the right place at the right time.

And in order to be in the right place at the right time, you have to be in the right place all of the time because you don’t know when the right time is going to be. I guess Jacksonville isn’t the right place.

Nice job, thegue. Thanks for calling attention to someone with talent but not necessarily luck.

mt58
Admin
Famed Member
mt58
Online Now
November 22, 2023 10:35 am
Reply to  Virgindog

I was just a skootch too young to appreciate Gidget.

Any preadolescent fixations with Sally Field were a result of my exposure to “The Flying Nun.” And I’m sorry, but no, I will not be taking any further questions at this time.

Although, it does explain a lot of things…

Virgindog
Member
Famed Member
Virgindog
Online Now
November 22, 2023 10:51 am
Reply to  mt58

No explanation necessary. I’m right there with you.

rollerboogie
Member
Famed Member
rollerboogie
Offline
November 22, 2023 11:23 am
Reply to  mt58

I remember a discussion in the comment section over at the mother ship that involved someone admitting that they were turned on by the song Dominique, and though I didn’t feel the same, it didn’t seem like a stretch. Heck, it’s in French, so I get it. No judgement there at all, and absolutely none on a young mt for a fixation on the Flying Nun.

stobgopper
Member
Famed Member
stobgopper
Offline
November 22, 2023 4:27 pm
Reply to  mt58

The Flying Nun: the Catholic Dumbo.

LinkCrawford
Member
Famed Member
LinkCrawford
Online Now
November 23, 2023 3:15 pm
Reply to  mt58

Has Sally Field ever not been cute? At any age?

TLeo
Member
Trusted Member
TLeo
Offline
November 22, 2023 11:02 am

I have a bone to pick with you, gue. It’s not about Tillotson, who has long struck me as one of the dullest singers to come out of the early ’60s.

No, it’s giving “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” a 3. First of all, it’s a Pomus/Shuman song, and even though it’s not close to being their best (that would be “Save the Last Dance for Me” or “This Magic Moment,” with “Viva Las Vegas” a dark-horse pick), that’s worth 3 points RIGHT THERE. Williams is a smoother version of Perry Como, if there is such a thing, but he’s backed with a terrific arrangement, which I actually prefer to the English Beat’s ska-inflected take.

Anyway, it’s a 6 or 7. So there.

rollerboogie
Member
Famed Member
rollerboogie
Offline
November 22, 2023 11:35 am
Reply to  TLeo

Looking at a list of Pomus/Shuman compositions, and I would think “Teenager in Love” should get a kick of the tires, and I would put “Suspicion” in the conversation as well. Can’t Get Used To Losing You for me is a 5 but I could go 6 on it. It’s decent and the strings are interesting. Andy Williams has always existed in my world, but means nothing to me. My only story involving him was a time many, many years ago when some of my family and I were watching a holiday special, on which he appeared and began crooning “O Holy Night”. We sat watching it, and when he launched into the “fall on your knees” climax of the song, my younger sister simply said “this is bad”, breaking the silence. She wasn’t wrong.

Last edited 2 months ago by rollerboogie
Aaron3000
Member
Famed Member
Aaron3000
Offline
November 22, 2023 8:02 pm
Reply to  TLeo

Ha, was going to comment #JusticeForCan’tGetUsedToLosingYou (having coincidentally heard the English Beat version today for the first time), so I’ll ride on your coattails of reasons why it’s deserving of better than a 3.

Zeusaphone
Member
Famed Member
Zeusaphone
Offline
November 22, 2023 1:49 pm

Fun Fact: I once won a trivia contest by knowing the name of Gidget and Moondoggie’s high school (Westside).

Aaron3000
Member
Famed Member
Aaron3000
Offline
November 22, 2023 8:23 pm

Add me to the list of those who saw Johnny Tillotson’s name and said “Who??” but totally recognized “Poetry In Motion” when it played. I’d give it a 6.

Also, I’m sorry for having purchased the “Swing The Mood” cassingle (which I admit to not hating) as well as the full-length Jive Bunny CD (which I will admit sucked hard).

spacecitymarc
Member
Noble Member
spacecitymarc
Offline
November 23, 2023 5:15 am

Are you suggesting that Neil Sedaka is mobbed up?

[ponders]

Huh.

LinkCrawford
Member
Famed Member
LinkCrawford
Online Now
November 23, 2023 3:33 pm

Who the heck is Johnny Tillotson??? I swear, this is a stumper for me, Gue. I’m sure that I’ve heard “Poetry in Motion”, because of listeing to oldies stations over the years, but I swear I have no memory of it.

BUT, Elvis recorded “It Keeps Right On a Hurtin'” on his highly regarded 1969 album Elvis in Memphis. I know that one. Just not by Johnny.

Thanks for the education!

AdaminPhilly
Member
Trusted Member
AdaminPhilly
Online Now
November 26, 2023 4:16 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

I’m slightly older than you and swear I don’t remember hearing his hits growing up, so I was shocked at seeing how many he had when I bought one of Joel Whitburn’s hits books in the 1980s.

Wk95
Member
Member
Wk95
Offline
November 24, 2023 12:36 pm

My dad had hundreds of 45s from the 50s and 60s including several by Johnny Tillotson. My early childhood was spend listening to artists from this era, as my dad made mixed tapes of his favorites. It Keeps Right on A Hurtin and Poetry in Motion turned up on a couple. Also remember Talk Back Trembling Lips, although my dad must have preferred the country version by Ernest Ashworth, which I agree is the better version.

AdaminPhilly
Member
Trusted Member
AdaminPhilly
Online Now
November 26, 2023 4:18 pm

Neil Sedaka wrote better songs than Johnny.

25
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x