“To Know Him Is To Love Him” at 60
For three weeks near the end of 1958, before it was knocked down by “The Chipmunk Song,” “To Know Him, Is to Love Him” by the Teddy Bears was the number one record in America.
Sixty years ago, pop music was a going through an awkward phase following the initial burst of rock’n’roll—the Teddy Bears’ chart mates included Louis Prima & Keely Smith, the Kingston Trio, Bobby Darin, and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra doing “Tea for Two Cha Cha Cha”—but in that goofily eclectic year, the year of “The Purple People Eater” and “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare),” the only hit by this West Coast trio stood out, and continued to ripple through the pop world well into this century. It’s a sweet and stumbling little song, an earnest expression of pure devotion (it’s almost like a hymn to a perfect boy, whose only listed quality is a life-affirming smile), frustration (“How blind can he be?”) and hope beyond reason. The singer’s friends are very encouraging: “Everyone says there’ll come a day when I’ll walk alongside of him” (down the aisle, presumably). They are, one guesses, just too nice to tell her that he’s just not that into her.
There are things many pop music fans might know about the record. It was the first hit written and produced by Phil Spector (one of the three Teddy Bears, along with school chums Annette Kleinbard and Marshall Leib), who got the song’s title from the inscription on his father’s tombstone. That’s the story he always told about it, but it’s possible he was tuned into the radio six years earlier when Perry Como and the Fontaine Sisters’ “To Know Him (Is to Love Him)” was being spun. The record Spector made doesn’t, in any meaningful way, point to his celebrated Wall of Sound, or even to the tracks he cut with Gene Pitney (“Every Breath I Take”) and Curtis Lee (“Pretty Little Angel Eyes”) before breaking through with hits by the Crystals. But it is distinctive. It’s soooo slow (like the records he would make in the early ’70s with artists like Dion and Cher), and there’s a deep sadness to it underneath’s Annette’s plaintive vocal. It’s like she’s singing along with the radio in her bedroom. And that’s one of the keys to the record’s tremendous success: she’s relatable; she’s voicing the adolescent drama of teenage girls, and that was a rare thing in 1958.
Top 40 radio was overwhelmingly male. On occasion, there’d be a hit by the McGuire Sisters or the Chordettes, but they sounded older and cornier. So did Connie Francis, who sang like someone’s aunt who could be depended on to belt out a tune at a family reunion. There were terrific singers like the stratospherically passionate Arlene Smith of the Chantels, but what young girl could imagine sounding like that? It seemed so obvious that girls would want to hear other girls expressing their thoughts about boys, but the whole girl-group thing was in its infancy: the Shirelles had a near-hit with “I Met Him on a Sunday” in spring ’58, and the Poni-Tails made the top 10 with “Born Too Late,” a lament about a crush who’s age-inappropriate. Kleinbard was the only female lead singer of a number-one hit in 1958 (the following year there’d be zero, but Brenda Lee ended that drought in ’60). She broke the vinyl ceiling.
After Kleinbard, girls didn’t need to have much vocal range, just a knack for expressing yearning and non-explicit desire, persistence, and patience. There was the other Annette, the one on The Mickey Mouse Club. And Connie Stevens and Dodie Stevens. By 1961, Billboard was publishing an article called “Gal Singers Make the ‘Sick’ Scene,” describing the sound of the new wave of female singers as “not necessarily true to pitch.” Among the evidentiary records were “Angel Baby” by Rosie and the Originals, “A Thousand Stars” by Kathy Young and the Innocents, and “Please Love Me Forever” by Cathy Jean and the Roommates. You could also hear the influence of “To Know Him, Is to Love Him” in the seductive soft-pop of the Fleetwoods (the Teddy Bears’ inverse: a boy backed by two dreamily harmonizing girls), in the post-Arlene Smith Chantels, and in the Shirelles’ version of the 5 Royales’ “Dedicated to the One I Love.” Then came the girl-group explosion that Spector helped kick off with records like 1961’s “There’s No Other (Like My Baby).”
And “To Know Him, Is to Love Him” kept being rediscovered and reimagined, sometimes with some pronoun play, transformed into “To Know Her Is to Love Her” or “To Know You Is to Love You,” which makes the least sense, because who would say all that to someone?? There’ve been so many versions throughout the decades, some appalling (it isn’t something Jerry Vale should have gone anywhere close to, and we won’t speak of Bobby Vinton again), some inspired (Amy Winehouse’s reading is so emotional, and who could resist the trio of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris?), some of historical interest (Dee Dee Sharp’s was an early Gamble & Huff production, and there’s a strange, fun Marc Bolan–Gloria Jones duet). In England, where the Teddy Bears’ record reached number two, Peter & Gordon took it to later-period Spectoresque extremes and scored a hit, and Andrew Loog Oldham produced a single of it by a singer named Cleo Sylvestre (billed as just “Cleo”), with the Rolling Stones as her backing group.
It also plays a part in Beatles history, as “To Know Her Is to Love Her.” It pops up in a few places. They used to do it as part of their repertoire in Hamburg. They cut it as one of the songs on their demo tape that was turned down by Decca. They performed it live on the BBC. Always, John Lennon took lead vocal, and the group sounded tentative, reverent (those Paul and George “bah-da-dah”s!). The roots of the song, the beat, the three-part harmonies, find their way into Lennon–McCartney ballads like “This Boy” and “Yes It Is.” It made sense, then, when Lennon and Spector went into the studio in 1973 to cut an album of rock oldies—a legal compromise that resulted from a song-publishing fracas—that they would tackle “To Know Her Is to Love Her.” They tackled it, all right: it’s a full slow-motion musical pile-on; everyone is in everyone else’s way. Lennon is floundering (this was during his self-indulgent Lost Weekend in L.A.); Spector is trying to top his first triumph. There’s a whole lot of psychodrama going on.
When Phil first went into the studio with his friends Marshall and Annette, when John first practiced the song with Paul and George, everything was new, everything was possible. The song is steeped in sadness, but the singer goes back and forth between fatalism and optimism. “Someday he’ll see that he was meant just for me.” It’s as though she (or he) is trying to cast a spell: “know, know, know,” “love, love love,” “and I do and I do and I do.” The song sounded like a dream of romance: tomorrow, he’ll notice me. Tomorrow, my life is going to change.