The Number One Singles of 1978: Sweet Sixteen

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A sign of things to come: This ad for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack appeared in the Nov. 26, 1977 issue of Record World

We continue our series of looking at the most popular music for a given year. The topic, as you know by the headline, is singles and while we have done stories on the biggest hits of the year, this series slices things a bit differently. Here, we look at 1978’s #1 pop hits in the U.S. according to Record World, a competitor of Billboard.

We’ve done this analysis for more than a dozen years and we’ve never seen one like this. Unlike hit albums, which would often stay at #1 for weeks and often months at a time, singles generally turned over more quickly at the top. Thus, in 1974, no less than 44 songs reached #1. In 1975, 39 different singles made it all the way.

Incredibly, in 1978, just 16 accomplished the feat, led by two songs from the same musical family that each logged eight weeks at the summit. By this year, many dance floor numbers reached #1, as programmers were featuring less from rock acts. As you’ll see, the Bee Gees had an astounding impact on the chart this year, thanks in no small part to the success of Saturday Night Fever which was released at the end of 1977.

Our recap begins in reverse, and alphabetically by artist, starting with the six that grabbed the top spot for a single week. (Note: Many of the chart numbers will differ with those compiled by Billboard.)

1 Week

A Taste of Honey – “Boogie Oogie Oogie”

The single sold over two million copies in the U.S. alone and the group won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist over the Cars, Elvis Costello, and Toto. Go figure.

Debby Boone – “You Light Up My Life”

The phrase “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public” applies here. This vapid song ended 1977 with 12 weeks at #1, and rang in the new year for one final, dreadful week.

Andy Gibb – “(Love is) Thicker Than Water”

Much, much more coming from the 19-year-old below. The song was penned mostly by Brother Barry and its one-week at the top interrupted the Bee Gees’ 14-week residency (see below).

Johnny Mathis & Deniece Williams – “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late”

Twenty-one years after Mathis had topped the chart with “Chances Are,” he returned with this pleasing duet ballad. Six years later, Williams would score her second #1 with “Let’s Hear it For the Boy.”

John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John – “You’re the One That I Want”

Though it’s one of the best-selling singles in history, with more than six million in the U.S. alone, it had a short stay at #1. The catchy song from Grease was one of many hits written by ON-J’s frequent collaborator, John Farrar. Try not to tap your toe to this one…

Wings – “With a Little Luck”

This mid-tempo entry in Paul McCartney’s canon was from the group’s London Town album. There’s a reason he looks so boyish here. He was still just 35.

2 Weeks

Barbra Streisand & Neil Diamond – “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”

Each of the stars had recorded the song on their own. When radio stations created their own duet in the studio, the Columbia Records label mates were persuaded to re-record it as a duo. It shot to #1 in just its sixth week on the chart.

Donna Summer – “MacArthur Park”

First there was actor Richard Harris’ unlikely 1968 hit of the epic Jimmy Webb composition. A decade later, producer Giorgio Moroder was looking for material for his client to record and famously recounts how he was driving on the Hollywood Freeway when the Harris version came on the radio. “It was perfect [for her],” he said afterwards. Her recording became the first of her four #1 hits before the decade was over. (For some reason, she sings it as “MacArthur’s Park.”)

Related: Our feature story on Webb’s composition

Frankie Valli – “Grease”

There was no title song for the original Broadway musical. None other than Barry Gibb was commissioned to write one for the 1978 film smash. And with this fun number, the then-44-year-old Valli returned to the top of the chart.

3 Weeks

Chic – “Le Freak”

Freakin’ smash, is more like it. The dance floor favorite was, of course, written and produced by masterminds Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers. (It ended the year at #1 and earned a fourth week at the start of ’79.)

Queen – “We Are the Champions” / “We Will Rock You”

Yeah, Billboard has the double-sided single peaking at just #4. “We Are the Champions” was the official A-side, but radio stations wisely began playing both anthems back-to-back. Tell ’em, Freddie…

4 Weeks

Nick Gilder – “Hot Child in the City”

Gilder was born in London and raised in Vancouver. At 26, the song became a surprise #1, given its topic. He co-wrote it after witnessing “a lot of young girls, 15 and 16, walking down Hollywood Boulevard with their pimps.” Gilder later co-wrote “The Warrior,” a 1984 smash for Scandal featuring Patty Smyth.

Related: More on Gilder’s glitter rock-infused single

5 Weeks

Commodores – “Three Times a Lady”

A truly magnificent vocal by Lionel Richie, who also wrote the song. After a single week at #1, the song was replaced at the top by Valli (above). Two weeks later, it achieved a rare return to the top, as summer came to a close. From 1976-1985, the soul group scored ten Top 10 singles

6 Weeks

The Bee Gees – “Stayin’ Alive”

This great track from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was #1 for the entire month of February. After it yielded the top spot to Brother Andy for one week, it once again ruled the chart for two more weeks. Great song and production. And that amazing opening scene from the film…

8 Weeks

The Bee Gees – “Night Fever”

While “Stayin’ Alive” got the prominent Grammy noms (for Record of the Year and Song of the Year – losing in both instances to Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are”), “Night Fever” lasted longer at the top, from the end of March through the middle of May. Both are great; however, if we had to choose a favorite we’d go with this one.

Related: Not surprisingly, only 6 albums reached #1 in ’78

Andy Gibb – “Shadow Dancing”

The youngest Gibb capped off his hugely successful year with this one, co-written with Barry, Robin and Maurice. The disco song first reached #1 on June 3 and remained there through July 22.

[Readers may note several songs that missing from the story, that reached #1 in ’78 on the Hot 100, including the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” and Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You” written by – you guessed it – the Bee Gees.]

Related: See how Top 40 had drastically changed in 10 years – The #1 Singles of 1968

Greg Brodsky

4 Comments so far

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  1. AlfredCMartino
    #1 AlfredCMartino 11 March, 2023, 14:52

    Disappointed you take a shot at “You Light Up My Life.” It’s a beautiful song, highlighted by Boone’s fantastic vocals, and was a monster hit.

    Reply this comment
  2. Batchman
    #2 Batchman 10 June, 2023, 20:03

    “(For some reason, [Donna Summer] sings it as “MacArthur’s Park.”)” So did Richard Harris. So?

    Reply this comment
  3. Batchman
    #3 Batchman 10 June, 2023, 20:10

    Never made sense that the title theme song for “Grease” was a 70’s-style disco tune and not a 50’s rock-n-roll tune like the rest of the soundtrack. Still a good record, though.

    Reply this comment
  4. GrittyKitty
    #4 GrittyKitty 11 June, 2023, 00:51

    I worked in a video arcade in 78. Regardless of the number chosen, the jukebox would only play “You Light Up My Life” – which created a ton of refunds to customers expecting “Hot Child In The City” or other songs

    In an attempt to save my and my customers’ sanity, I unplugged the jukebox.

    I got fired, but I stand by my decision.

    Reply this comment

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