The most surprising fact in last week's obits for Andy Williams was that his version of "Moon River" was never released as a single. The gorgeous ballad was Williams' signature song for 50 years. He even named his theater in Branson, Mo. (the Moon River Theater) after it.
But Cadence Records, Williams' record company from 1956 to 1961, questioned the song's youth appeal and discouraged the star from recording it. Williams moved onto Columbia Records, where he recorded the song in January 1962. But by then, two recordings of the song (by its composer, Henry Mancini, and by R&B hit-maker Jerry Butler) had become top 15 hits. Williams sang "Moon River" on the Oscars in April 1962 (where it won as Best Song). The following month, Williams' album Moon River & Other Great Movie Themes cracked the Billboard chart. Even without spawning a Hot 100 single, Williams' album was a fixture on the chart for more than three years.
Williams' rendition of "Moon River" isn't the only recording that everybody knows, even though it was never released as a single. Here are 10 more.
Frank Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin." Sinatra's definitive version of this Cole Porter classic was the highlight of his 1956 album, songs for Swingin' Lovers! Sinatra had best-selling albums and hit singles in the 1950s, but he kept them separate. His biggest hits of this era, including "Learnin' The Blues" and "All The Way," didn't show up on albums until much later. Las Vegas regulars Louis Prima & Keely Smith and The 4 Seasons had chart hits with "I've Got You Under My Skin" (which Porter wrote for the 1936 movie Born To Dance).
Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." "Maggie's Farm" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues" were the singles released from Dylan's 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home. The Byrds heard the potential of "Mr. Tambourine Man." Their version topped the Hot 100 on June 26, 1965, just two months after the release of Dylan's album. It was the first recording of a Dylan song to reach #1. The following month, Dylan charted with "Like A Rolling Stone" from his next album, Highway 61 Revisited.
The Beatles' "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds." Amazingly, no singles were released from the Beatles' most famous album, the 1967 landmark Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. This trippy Lennon/McCartney song had definite hit potential, which Elton John proved in January 1975 when his subtly updated cover version reached #1. John Lennon played guitar on Elton's remake under the pseudonym Dr. Winston O'Boogie. (Many other Beatles songs could have made this list, including "Michelle," the only Beatles song to win a Grammy as Song of the Year. When the Beatles didn't release it as a single from 1965's Rubber Soul, an English duo, David & Jonathan, covered it and took it into the top 20.)
Carole King's "You've Got A Friend." King let her pal James Taylor record this heartfelt ballad for his 1971 album Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon (which he was recording at the same time that she was recording Tapestry). He put the song out (with her blessing) as the first single from his album. His version hit #1. King's version would have made an ideal follow-up to her #1 smash "It's Too Late." She probably would have had two #1 hits in a row. (Instead, she went with "So Far Away," which reached #14.) King's generosity was rewarded at Grammy time, when "You've Got A Friend" was voted Song of the Year. (The hit covers by Taylor and Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway had boosted the song's stature.)
Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven." "Black Dog" and "Rock And Roll" were Hot 100 hits from Led Zeppelin IV, but this epic track received far more airplay. The song, co-written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, remains one of the most played songs in the history of album-rock radio. The song didn't crack the Hot 100 until October 1986, when a cover version by a studio group, Far Corporation, reached #89. In 2010, Mary J. Blige "bubbled under" the chart with her version of the song (proving that she can sing absolutely anything).
Elton John's "Candle In The Wind." This classic ballad was slated to be the third (and final) single from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but in a bold move, Elton instead released the spacey, R&B-accented "Bennie And The Jets." "Bennie" hit #1 and even reached #15 on the R&B chart. Elton could have released "Candle In The Wind" (which he co-wrote with his long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin) as the fourth single from the album, but fourth singles were rare at the time. Instead, he moved on to a new song, "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me," from his next album, Caribou. Elton finally released a live version of "Candle In The Wind" as a single in 1987 and a revised version, "Candle In The Wind 1997," following the death of Princess Diana in 1997.
Earth, Wind & Fire's "Reasons." This soulful ballad would have been a big hit, but the group instead released "Shining Star" and "That's The Way Of The World" as the singles from its 1975 album That's The Way Of The World. Then they moved on to a new song, "Sing A Song," which became a top five hit. Philip Bailey's beautiful falsetto elevates "Reasons," which he co-wrote with Maurice White and Charles Stepney.
Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." The quintet pulled three top 20 hits from its 1975 album Fleetwood Mac: "Over My Head," "Rhiannon (Will You Ever Win)" and "Say You Love Me." And then it moved on to its record-setting run of hits from 1977's Rumours. So this Stevie Nicks song didn't earn a single release until a live version from the band's album The Dance charted in 1998. Dixie Chicks released a very faithful cover in 2002. It went top 10.
Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely." This heartfelt song is one of the clear highlights from Wonder's 1976 classic Songs In The Key Of Life, but it was passed over for single release in favor of "I Wish," "Sir Duke," "Another Star" and "As." ("Isn't She Lovely" made the top 30 on the adult contemporary chart strictly as an album cut.) Another song from the album, "Pastime Paradise," was also passed over for single release. That song got its due in 1995 when Coolio featuring L.V. recorded a hip-hop version, "Gangsta's Paradise," for the movie Dangerous Minds. It hit #1.
Bee Gees' "More Than A Woman." Bee Gees had three straight #1 hits from Saturday Night Fever: "How Deep Is Your Love," "Stayin' Alive" and "Night Fever." This silky dance tune might have been the fourth, but the Gibb brothers decided to instead take a brief hiatus from heavy rotation and then come back with their next studio album. When they did, they knocked out three more #1 hits in a row, matching the Beatles' record of six #1 hits in a row. If they'd put this out, they might have had seven straight #1 hits—or they might have broken their string with a (gasp!) #2 or #3 hit. Tavares should very glad Bee Gees showed restraint. The R&B group's cover of "More Than A Woman" became a Top 40 hit.
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Until December 5, 1998, songs that weren't released as a commercially-available singles were barred from making Billboard's Hot 100. The following five songs hit #1 on the Hot 100 Airplay chart, but never made the Hot 100 itself because they weren't released as singles.
No Doubt's "Don't Speak." "Just A Girl" was a top 30 single from the band's third album, Tragic Kingdom, but "Don't Speak" was a phenomenon. In December 1996, it became the first album cut to reach #1 on the Airplay chart. It stayed on top for 16 weeks. Fans who wanted the song were forced to buy the album, which topped The Billboard 200 for nine weeks. "Don't Speak," which Gwen Stefani co-wrote with her brother Eric Stefani, received a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year. It probably would have been nominated for Record of the Year, too, but rules in place at the time didn't allow non-singles to compete in that category.
Will Smith's "Men In Black." This song is from the movie of the same name, which starred Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. The song, which samples Patrice Rushen's 1982 hit "Forget Me Nots," topped the Airplay chart for four weeks starting in August 1997. The soundtrack album spent two weeks at #1. Smith also put the song on his first solo album, Big Willie Style, which was released that November.
Sugar Ray's "Fly" (featuring Super Cat). This hip-hop jam, from Sugar Ray's sophomore album, Floored, topped the Airplay chart for six weeks starting in October 1997. The album reached #12.
Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn." This song, from Imbruglia's debut album Left Of The Middle, topped the Airplay chart for 11 weeks starting in May 1998. The album reached #10. One Direction performed the song on the British version of The X Factor. "Torn" is far and away Imbruglia's biggest hit, but technically, her only Hot 100 hit was "Wrong Impression" (#64 in 2002).
Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris." This moody ballad, from the City Of Angels soundtrack, topped the airplay chart for 18 weeks starting in August 1998. The soundtrack was #1 for three weeks. Goo Goo Dolls also put the song on their sixth album, Dizzy Up The Girl, which was released that September. "Iris," which was written by the band's lead singer John Rzeznik, received Grammy nominations for Record and Song of the Year. It was the first non-single to receive a nomination in the former category, following a rule change by the Recording Academy.
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Want to know what other "great movie themes" were on Williams' album, Moon River & Other Great Movie Themes? Here you go: "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing," "A Summer Place," "Never On Sunday," "The Exodus Song," "Tender Is The Night" and "Three Coins In The Fountain," all from the movies of the same name, plus "Maria" and "Tonight" from West Side Story, "As Time Goes By" from Casablanca, "The Second Time Around" from High Time and "It Might As Well Be Spring" from State Fair. (This was years before "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp.")