Has there ever been a weirder assortment of hits in the Billboard Top 20?
A No. 1 song by a jazz artist best known for doing jeans commercials. . . . A Stevie Winwood tune that began as a beer commercial. . . . Two songs called "Don't Be Cruel". . . . A rap spoof of "Nightmare on Elm Street". . . . A Phil Collins re-make of a Carole Bayer Sager song. . . . And the theme song from "Caddyshack II," a box-office bomb sequel.
But let's talk \o7 really \f7 improbable. Let's talk about a 5-year-old reggae song--a song written by Neil Diamond--which was first released in 1983 and flopped . . . and flopped . . . and flopped again . . . and is now ready to crack the Top 10!
Let's talk about the year's most unlikely hit--"Red Red Wine" by UB40, the British reggae band which is enjoying so much radio attention that both of its albums--the 5-year-old "Labor of Love" and its new self-titled disc--have jumped into the Billboard album chart's Top 40.
"It's truly a phenomena," said Charlie Minor, A&M Records' colorful promotion tycoon and a man who will do anything--anything except miss a meal at Le Dome, his beloved industry hang-out--to launch a hit record. "We think this record could go all the way to No. 1."
You didn't hear much of that bravado back in 1983, when no one outside of KROQ-FM and a tiny band of adventuresome rock stations ever played the cut, which features reggae rhythms and rap-style vocals.
But times have changed. Reggae isn't such a dirty word with radio, not after Ziggy Marley has sold nearly 750,000 copies of his album. And rap is really booming. So this summer, just as A&M was preparing to release a \o7 new \f7 UB40 cut--a duet with Chrissie Hynde called "Breakfast in Bed"--it was shocked to discover that a Phoenix Top 40 station, KKFR-FM, had resurrected "Red Red Wine."
Even more shocking was what happened next. KKFR's rival station, the higher-rated KZZP-FM, went on the record too, with both stations dueling to see who could play it the most. Even though Minor had the much-ballyhooed Chrissie Hynde duet ready to go, he took a bold gamble--he threw A&M's resources behind "Wine."
"It was a big risk, but we'd always believed that if we could get one hit with UB40, we could get 10," he said. "I thought with the new interest in reggae and rap that we could really run with 'Wine,' start selling both the old \o7 and \f7 the new album--and still set up 'Breakfast' as our next single."
Minor cajoled his radio programmer pals in Phoenix to talk up the record, which was clearly a crowd-pleaser. Whenever stations tested it, the song got a huge call-in response. Soon stations everywhere were jumping on the bandwagon--with a little push from Minor.
"I'd tell 'em, don't believe me--just call Phoenix or San Francisco or Dallas, who were all playing the record," he recalled. "And I'd say, don't use your dime. Use mine. Here's my credit card number. Call 'em on me and hear for yourself."
Because just as many fans are buying the old album as the new one, A&M's sales and marketing departments are shrewdly advertising both albums together. And Minor, who's been around long enough to appreciate this rare burst of pop spontaneous combustion, isn't letting up.
"We're not gonna give (radio) any breathing space," he vowed. "We've got to keep the new album selling or we'll lose it. So we're gonna come right at them with 'Breakfast in Bed' while they're still excited. The smart guys in radio see that reggae is selling now, so we're gonna keep after them. It's as if we've got a new candy bar--and if they like it, we've got to give them some more of it!"