(October 15, 2022). To interpolate the title of her ten-year-old memoir, we had “no idea.”
Former Miss America and famous author, actress and singer Vanessa Williams nearly accomplished yet another first in a lifetime full of them, and she almost did so with a high likelihood that she never would have had a clue it even happened.
It involves a certain Facebook community and her biggest hit “Save The Best For Last,” a song she took to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for five weeks in 1992.
The Facebook group is called “Lost Pop Hits (M.I.A.).” It’s a tight-knit community consisting of about 8,500 members with a professed love of old pop music from decades past. Prospective members even have to complete a questionnaire describing their love of pop music and promising not to maliciously berate others for their tastes (good or bad) to be admitted to the private group by its admins (which includes this blogger). More than a few ex-members have been banned for ignoring the latter rule.
For the past eight years, fellow member (and group admin) Patrick Fortino has sponsored a tournament in which songs from specific years compete with one another in an NCAA-style bracket where song seeding is determined by how well the tunes performed on the Billboard Hot 100 during their original chart runs.
Each day during the tournament, two songs from a certain year’s bracket compete in a match where voting from the Facebook group’s members determine which tune will advance to the next round. This continues until a song is crowned in the final round as the winner of that year’s tourney, or the top “Lost Pop Hit” of the year.
Fortino has been running these tournaments faithfully for eight years beginning with hits from 1965 and moving chronologically through each year before culminating with the most recent 1992 tourney. Since the 1975 version, each tournament features 128 songs from the subject year and, with one single-elimination match per day, takes about four months to run. (Earlier years’ tourneys featured only 64- or 100-song brackets.)
For the first 27 tournaments covering 1965-1991, songs by the Beatles (“Ticket to Ride”), Turtles (“Happy Together”), Badfinger (“No Matter What” and “Day After Day”), Boston (“More Than A Feeling”), Toto (“Africa”), Tears For Fears (“Everybody Wants To Rule The World”), Tom Petty (“Free Fallin’”) and other rock-leaning acts have taken the championship for their respective years.
Up to now, only two female acts had ever won this “Lost Pop Hits” title: Carole King, whose “It’s Too Late” won the 1971 tourney, and Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” which was 1973’s winner.
Excluding Carole and Carly, all of the tournaments’ 25 previous winners were white male acts.
But that almost changed on Saturday (October 15) when Vanessa Williams’ 1992 smash “Save The Best For Last” narrowly lost the tourney of that year’s hits (well, kinda that year’s…more on the winner later). A win would have made her the first Black artist and only the third female to win this competition in its eight-year history.
Williams’ runner-up finish nearly ended a long lockout that not only raised questions about gender bias in rock but about the diminished standing that R&B artists or, more pointedly, Black ones—and their songs—have with “pop” leaning fans decades after those songs were able to successfully crossover to the pop charts.
Chief among those questions was this: to pop music purists, does a song by a Black artist that was once a huge hit on the pop charts revert to being remembered as “just another R&B” song decades after its moment of pop glory?
That certainly seems to be the case with some older pop fans, at least as represented by the members of this “Lost Pop Hits” group, of which this blogger has been a member for the past six years.
As one of the very few Black or Latino members in “Lost Pop Hits,” I recognize it is not representative of the general music consuming population, young or old. It is made up of mostly white men above the age of 50 whose love of rock, a white male-dominated genre, is notorious.
Still, I was initially baffled when, during the 1977 version of this tournament for example, a song like the Emotions’ “Best of My Love,” which statistically was a bigger pop hit (No. 1 for five weeks) than soul (No. 1 four weeks) in 1977, and was the fourth-highest seeded song in the ‘77 contest, was eliminated early in that year’s tourney by Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat,” a song that was seeded 100th (!).
It’s probably unfair to use that example for this discussion because “Cat” wound up beating all of its competition to win the championship title for the ‘77 contest, suggesting that the poignant adult contemporary tune has aged very well with this mostly quinquagenarian (and older) pop community.
But some of the commentary during that tourney—in an attempt to explain (or maybe justify) its poor showing—relegated “Best of My Love” to being an R&B hit in a pop tournament, which retroactively diminished its pop standing (the Emotions’ smash was the third-biggest pop hit of 1977!).
A similar result happened in the 1983 version of this tourney to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” a No. 1 pop smash for seven weeks that year.
The King of Pop’s biggest hit ran into a buzz saw in that year’s “Lost Pop Hits” bracket when it lost early to the Motels’ maudlin top-10 song “Suddenly Last Summer,” thereby being eliminated in the second round!
Unlike “Year of the Cat” in the ‘77 tourney, however, “Suddenly” was eliminated in the next round when it was defeated by Naked Eyes’ “Always Something There To Remind Me,” which later lost to eventual 1983 overall winner, “Africa” by Toto.
But back to Jackson, while he clearly had his personal issues, which caused many people to resent him (and yes personal opinions about the artists, not just the songs, do factor into “Lost Pop Hits” members’ votes, despite the moderator’s pleas to the contrary), there’s no disputing the iconic pop and R&B status of “Billie Jean.”
If you were to poll a million people spanning multiple generations and ethnicities, more of them are likely to be familiar with “Billie Jean” than “Suddenly Last Summer.”
The closest any Black artist prior to Vanessa Williams had come to winning these “Lost Pop Hits” annualized tournaments was when Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” finished as a runner-up in the 1968 contest (to the Grassroots’ “Midnight Confessions”).
Five other songs by Black acts—Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” (1973); Prince’s “1999”(1983); Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It” (1984); Sade’s “Smooth Operator” (1985); and Seal’s “Crazy” (1991)—finished in their respective years’ final four.
Which brings us back to the most recently completed “Lost Pop Hits” tourney for 1992 and the nearly victorious Vanessa Williams.
Her second-place status for “Save the Best For Last” was perhaps the most unlikely finish of all, not because the song wasn’t memorable—it was—but because of the tournament’s track record and the iconic, rock-oriented songs she potentially faced as competition.
In the ‘92 bracket were pop/rock classics like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, “One” by U2, “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, and “Tears In Heaven” by Eric Clapton.
In the twenty-one “prediction brackets” submitted by “Lost Pop Hits” members beforehand to guess which 1992 song would emerge victorious at the end of the tourney, each of those four tunes received at least two predicted championships, with “Tears In Heaven” receiving four, tied for the most.
The song it was tied with?
Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the ubiquitous 1975 rock-opera opus that has had more lives than perhaps any song not named “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”
Queen’s anthem, which was in the 1992 tournament by virtue of its re-release that year following its inclusion in the film Wayne’s World, also received four predicted wins in members’ brackets submitted before the tourney started.
In the end it was “Bohemian Rhapsody” that defeated Williams’ “Save The Best For Last” by one vote in the final match (84-83).
“Rhapsody” had earlier defeated behemoths like Nirvana’s “Teen Spirit” and U2’s “One” (not to mention sentimental favorites by Bonnie Raitt and Elton John/George Michael) to get to the final round.
“Save The Best For Last” had to get by Elton John’s “The One,” Sophie B. Hawkins’ “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” and Madonna’s “This Used To Be My Playground” to make it to the final match.
Unlike “Bohemian,” which appeared in the Final Four in nine of the 21 “prediction brackets,” “Save The Best For Last” didn’t appear in any, which made her close match with the Queen epic that much more unlikely.
But it was Queen who wore the crown in the end, despite some heavy anti-“Bohemian” lobbying by certain members of the group who shall remain nameless. Let’s just say that there were several reminders that this was a 1992 bracket and not a 1975 one. Oh, and perhaps a few more mentions of how overplayed the Queen hit (which had another life just four years ago in the Freddie Mercury biopic bearing the song’s name) has been.
There had to be at least a few disappointed people in “Lost Pop Hits” who were rooting for Vanessa for other, more culturally significant reasons as well.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by Williams’ tough fight. After all, she overcame obstacles to become the first Black woman to be named Miss America in 1983. She also became the first Miss America to have to relinquish the crown eleven months later after nude pictures of her were published in Penthouse magazine.
The Grammy and Tony Award nominated entertainer was also the first (and still only) Miss America to have a No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Save The Best For Last.”
That song’s second-place finish in the 1992 “Lost Pop Hits” tourney now makes her the only Black female to finish that high, which is poignant for yet another reason.
Fortino has elected to stop running these annualized tournaments after the 1992 contest, due to successively low vote totals as the tourneys have moved from the pop-heavy 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s to the more R&B and hip-hop dominated ‘90s.
By most accounts, 1992 was considered the last year that pop and rock music thrived before those genres gave way to the hip-hop culture that still pervades today’s Hot 100 charts.
All of this makes Vanessa Williams’ finish even sweeter because, in this case, she nearly did “Save The Best For Last.”
Now if only she knew about it!
“Lost Pop Hits” member DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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