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Forever No. 1: David Soul’s ‘Don’t Give Up on Us’

Mr. Nimbus | 01/23/2024

Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late David Soul by looking at the TV star’s lone major U.S. hit as a recording artist: The ’70s soft-rock ballad “Don’t Give Up on Us.”

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“My name is David Soul and I want to be known for my music.”

The mid-to-late ’70s were a peak period for television’s impact on the Billboard charts. With primetime TV modernizing and diversifying under the influence of innovators like Norman Lear and Aaron Spelling, the biggest shows were crossing over into all parts of popular culture, with theme songs for such hit shows as Happy Days, Welcome Back Kotter and S.W.A.T. all becoming Billboard Hot 100 smashes. What’s more, the stars of the shows themselves were starting to launch pop careers: John Travolta, then best known as Kotter high-school lunk Vinnie Barbarino, had a top 10 single in 1976 with the soft ballad “Let Her In”; a few years later, actor David Naughton reached the top 5 with the discofied title theme to his starring vehicle Makin’ It.

David Soul, star of hit ’70s undercover-cop show Starsky & Hutch — he was Hutch — also benefited from the TV-pop boom of the times. But unlike the aforementioned actor-artists, Soul’s recording career wasn’t just some dalliance or cash-in on a popularity that had simply grown too big for a single medium: He had actually started out as a musician. Soul went the folkie route in the Midwest in the mid-’60s before trying to make it in New York by performing masked and billing himself as “The Covered Man,” finding some success as a guest on variety shows like The Merv Griffin Show, where he would regularly deliver that line up top about wanting to be recognized for his music. Once he revealed himself to be a handsome, blond young man, the novelty of his anonymous routine wore off — but he started attracting the attention of producers in film and TV, who cast him in small guest roles on Flipper, Star Trek, The Streets of San Francisco and more big shows of the late ’60s and ’70s.

His big break came with Starsky & Hutch in 1975, as the action drama won viewers over with its cool cars, hip style (at least by mid-’70s TV standards) and likeable characters. With the show a success and Soul a primetime heartthrob, he saw the opportunity to relaunch his music career — signing to Private Stock records, with promises that he’d be taken seriously as a musician. In 1976, he released his self-titled debut album, and in early 1977, its breakout ballad “Don’t Give Up on Us” started climbing the Hot 100, becoming Soul’s first hit single.

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But “Don’t Give Up on Us” wasn’t actually featured on initial pressings of David Soul. In fact, the dead-center top 40 love song doesn’t sound much like anything else on the album, which is much more in line with the acclaimed work of sardonic ’70s singer-songwriters like Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson — maybe with a bit of ’60s psych-pop mad geniuses like Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett thrown in — and even features a cover of Leonard Cohen’s signature ballad “Bird on a Wire.” But the album had received only limited release by the time Soul had recorded “Give Up,” and sensing hit potential, Private Stock quickly recalled and re-pressed the album to include the new song.

It’s not surprising that the label saw potential in the song, or that they were ultimately validated for doing so. “Give Up” was penned and co-produced by veteran hitmaker Tony Macauley, who helmed a number of major pop hits of the late ’60s and ’70s — even including two of the Billboard staff’s 500 Best Pop Songs of the Hot 100 era, The Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup” and Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes).” “I talked to Tony from the stage of Starsky and Hutch,” Soul told Fred Bronson for The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits of Macauley trying to sell him on meeting to record a couple songs. “I liked the way he talked to me on the phone so I just said, ‘Sure, come on over.’”

“Give Up” carries Macauley’s deft and delicate touch in its tender melody, with a satisfying and unpredictable chord structure and arrangement reminiscent of Burt Bacharach. The lyrics are mostly sappy and a little silly throughout (“Can’t we stay the way we are?/ The angel and the dreamer/ Who sometimes plays a fool”), but a mysterious bridge where Soul admits, “I really lost my head last night/ You’ve got a right to stop believing,” does introduce a little drama and complexity to the narrative. And the refrain, which weaponizes its title plea by putting it right at the top each time, gets its hooks in you from the very start — leading off the song and appearing consistently enough throughout it to never really let you go from there.

It’s never less than a professional pop production, and one that Soul himself is more than capable of selling with his lilting baritone — particularly when his voice gets double-tracked for some gorgeous self-harmonies on subsequent choruses — which grows just mighty enough to handle the money note on his climactic “We can still come through” insistence. It’s not the most demanding or challenging song, certainly, but it was a perfect fit on late-’70s AM radio, and a natural smash on the Hot 100 in the era of pillow-soft romantic-strife ballad No. 1s like Mary McGregor’s “Torn Between Two Lovers” and Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now.”

april 1977 hot 100

Billboard

The song debuted at No. 74 on the Hot 100 dated Jan. 29, 1977, about two-thirds of the way through Starsky & Hutch‘s second season. A little less than three months later, it topped the listing dated Apr. 16, replacing ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” on top before giving way to Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” just a week later — with the dancefloor classics on both sides of its No. 1 run portending the complete disco takeover that would nearly consume the chart in the final years of the decade. The song also topped the Official Charts in the U.K., where Soul was even more of a teen idol, and began an impressive run of hits for the singer that also included a trio of top 10 hits from his sophomore album, 1977’s Playing to an Audience of One, led by a second No. 1 hit in the more prowling “Silver Lady.”

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But in the States, “Don’t Give Up on Us” was Soul’s lone visit to the top 40. No additional singles were pulled from David Soul, and while both “Lady” and the Manilow-esque “Going In With My Eyes Open” hit the Hot 100 from Audience of One, neither made it past the 50s. Soul got lost in the MOR shuffle of the late ’70s — it was probably never particularly natural terrain for the former folkie to begin with — and perhaps subsumed a little on radio by disco’s growing dominance. Starsky & Hutch only lasted another couple seasons, as ratings declined and co-star Paul Michael Glaser wanted off the show. By the ’80s, Soul was largely a Me Decade relic in the U.S., starring in a couple failed TV series (including an ill-fated small-screen adaptation of Casablanca) and eventually moving to the U.K. to successfully pursue theater work.

Becoming a ’70s pop one-hit wonder — especially with such a massive one hit — probably isn’t what Soul would have guessed would be his primary musical legacy when he was first starting out in the mid-’60s. But David Soul wanted to be remembered for his music, and if nothing else, “Don’t Give Up on Us” ensured that every obituary published about him in the past month had to get in at least one sentence in the lead paragraph about it.

This post was originally published on this site

Written by Mr. Nimbus




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