Clockwise from top left: Roberta Flack, Gilbert O'Sullivan, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Nilsson, and Don McLean.
Traveling back to 1972, I am afraid I don't have a great deal of insight to offer for it. You see, I was 12, and living in the small town of Smyrna, Delaware. I was going to middle school, and my music was either listening to stuff with my sister Kathy, or listening to the radio when the family was in the car. But that does mean I had some awareness of the top songs of the day, and I do remember all 5 in the top 5 tonight, starting with the #5 song, The Candy Man. Of course, the song was originally a part of the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, sung by a store owner to some kids. The the most famous version, also the most popular, was by Sammy Davis, Jr., and released in 1972. Here is The Candy Man.
The #4 song has an interesting and a bit sordid past. Without You was written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of the British rock band Badfinger, and recorded on their 1970 album, No Dice. It was never released as a single. Legend has it that while at a party, folk singer Harry Nilsson heard the song, and loved it so much, he wanted to do his own cover of it. He did, and it was party of his late 1971 release, Nilsson Schmilsson. Released as a single, Without You held the #1 position on the US Billboard charts for 4 weeks in a row, and for 5 weeks on the British charts. In a strange tiwst of fate, both Ham and Evans were caught up in financial and legal struggles with management, and committed suicide, Ham in 1975, and Evans in 1983. But the legacy of Without You lives on, both in Nilsson's cover, and a later cover by Maria Carrey.
The #3 song seems an unlikely entry into the Billboard chart at all, let alone in the top 5 for the year. That, however, is exactly the case. No matter how surprising, Don McLean's American Pie caught the ear and the heart of those who listened, and it stormed up the charts to #1. The album tract was 8:33 in length, far too long for radio play. So there were edits made, the single was 4:31, and in a world of the three minute song, it was still long. But folk-rocker McLean's homage to rockers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper and the plane crash marked the day "the music died," certainly spoke to the public, who kept it at #1 on the Billboard Pop chart for four weeks. And, by the way, just for the record, the day the music died was February 3, 1959.
Before 1972, Gilbert O'Sullivan was an Irish singer/songwriter who was doing fairly well on the British charts, but fairly unknown elsewhere. That all changed when he released the #2 song for 1972, Alone Again (Naturally). The song was everywhere, and was at #1 on the Pop charts for five consecutive weeks. And while O'Sullivan had success with the follow-up single, Clair, they were the highpoint of his success in the US. While he continued to make music and have an impact of the British charts, he was never able to recapture that lightning in the US.
The #1 song had an interesting story, starting with the writer. Ewan MacColl wrote the song for folk star Peggy Seeger. MacColl was in lover with Peggy, who was the half-sister to folk-rocker Pete Seeger. Unfortunately, MacColl was still married to another. He was married to Jean Newlove, and together they had a daughter, the wonderful and talented Kirsty MacColl. Later, MacColl and Seeger married. MacColl wrote First Time Ever I Saw Your Face for Seeger in 1957, but it remained relatively unnoticed until a cover by Roberta Flack was released in 1972. Flack slowed down the temp, making for a much more sensually-charged performance. In fact, it was a part of Flack's 1969 release, First Take, but shot to fame when it was included on the soundtrack of the Clint Eastwood film, Play Misty For Me. It was atop the Billboard Pop chart for six weeks in a row, and won the Grammy Awards for Best Song for MacColl and Record of the Year for Flack.
It has been said by his family that Ewan MacColl never really liked the song, First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, even though it was his most popular song. What that means, I don't know. But I do know that MacColl and Seeger remained together until MacColl passed in 1989. While the song was the first #1 for Roberta Flack, it was certainly not her last. I guess that just goes to show was a crazy business the music industry it.