Piano-And-Vocal-Only Ballad Hits

Is Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ The First No. 1 Piano-And-Vocal-Only Ballad?
by Gary Trust | September 13, 2011 12:05 EDT

Hello Gary!

I was amazed (and very, very happy) that Adele’s wonderful and mesmerizing ballad “Someone Like You” has made it all the way to the top of the Hot 100, helped by her incredible performance at the MTV Video Music Awards Aug. 28.

I really thought that, being a piano ballad, it never would have. I should have never underestimated the greatness that is Adele.

The song’s rise made me wonder: What was the last piano ballad to hit the top? Does Rihanna’s “Take a Bow” count? As noted in Chart Beat last week, that was the last ballad of any kind to reach No. 1 prior to “Like.”

Sarah McLachlan ‘s “Angel” would be a comparable song, but that track stopped at No. 4 in 1999.

I just cannot think of the last straight-up piano ballad reaching the heights that Adele has conquered (which is sad, because I love the format).

Congratulations to Adele!

Mark Anthony
Castro Valley, California

Hi Mark,

Hmm, you’re making me work. Not enough simply to note the last ballad No. 1? Now you want the last piano ballad?! Such nerve!

No – happy to try and figure out (of course!)

First, I think you could make a case that “Bow” is a piano ballad. It does, after all, start with a piano intro. But, if the slight tempo and other, fuller production that kicks in later disqualifies it as a piano ballad to your ears, I could certainly understand that.

“Angel” is a great example of that rare type of pop hit, a song that showcases the raw strength of a vocalist against only the backdrop of piano accompaniment, combining to create a tempo-halting, yet undeniably captivating, radio moment.

A more recent such song could be Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb,” which rose to No. 4 on the Hot 100 in 2009. The latter song, however, does culminate in a gush of guitars and drums.

Britney Spears’ “Everytime” seems to count as a piano ballad, but that song peaked at No. 15 in 2004. (I always thought it was interesting that it was one of two ballads by superstar divas in recent years by that title: Janet Jackson had released the similarly intimate “Every Time” in 1998. Somewhat inexplicably, Jackson’s melodic single spent only a week at No. 25 on the Hot 100’s Bubbling Under chart).

A few other non-Hot 100 No. 1 piano ballads from recent years that merit a mention: Leona Lewis’ “Better in Time” (No. 11, 2008); Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You” (No. 7, 2005); and, Michael Buble’s “Home” (No. 72, 2005; No. 1 on AC).

(A personal favorite, although it never charted: Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up,” most famously sung by members of the cast of the 1999 movie “Magnolia,” starring Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore).

I’d not put any of those songs, though, in that same “Someone Like You”/”Angel” league of sparseness, as they all include greater levels of instrumentation. (Nor, Marc Anthony’s “You Sang to Me,” which I mention only because I want to reference your almost-namesake).

What, then, was the last all-out, low-key piano ballad to rule the Hot 100 prior to “Someone Like You”?

I’m tempted to bestow the title upon any of the early “American Idol” coronation songs: Carrie Underwood’s “Inside Your Heaven” (2005); Fantasia’s “I Believe” (2004); Clay Aiken’s “This Is the Night” (2003; oh wait, that’s right, Ruben Studdard won that year …); or, Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This” (2002). Again, though, none are clearly as bare-bones as “Someone Like You” (or “Angel”).

I can’t count Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’ ” (2001), as it also seems too produced to be considered a pure piano ballad. Perhaps her subsequent “If I Ain’t Got You,” but that song peaked at No. 4.

From 2000, Lonestar’s “Amazed”? Piano-driven, but too much slide guitar and drums. Mariah Carey’s “Thank God I Found You,” featuring Joe and 98 Degrees? Also too much percussion.

That takes us back to the ’90s, where we find this No. 1:

Adele’s countrymate Elton John performed “Candle in the Wind 1997” Sept. 6, 1997, at the funeral of Princess Diana and released a new studio version of his ’70s classic as a single (paired with “Something About the Way You Look Tonight”). With revised lyrics by Bernie Taupin, the song led the Hot 100 for 14 weeks, John’s longest career command, beginning Oct. 11, 1997.

(At the time, little Adele Laurie Blue Adkins was nine years, five months and six days old).

However … did you hear the orchestration at the song’s end? While “Candle” is a piano ballad, it, thus, is not a 100% pure piano ballad.

“Someone Like You” is.

It’s just Adele on vocals and Dan Wilson on piano.

Does that, then, make “Like” the only pure piano ballad – with no other instrumentation – ever to top the Hot 100?

Going back further in the ’90s than “Candle,” there were other leading piano ballads, but all with varying degrees of strings, guitars or drums, including Carey’s “Hero” and Jackson’s “Again” (1993) and Carey’s “I’ll Be There” and Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last” (1992).

(While not the most obvious of piano ballads, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” No. 1 for 14 weeks in 1992-93, is notable in that it’s upfront vocal impact is similar to that of Adele’s current No. 1, as the song opens with 44 seconds of a capella singing before strings, drums and saxophone join in).

The final single from Billy Joel’s Billboard 200 No. 1 album “Storm Front” was an all-piano ballad pop hit. “And So It Goes,” however, just dented the Hot 100’s top 40, reaching No. 37 in December 1990. (David Archuleta performed the song on “Idol” in 2008).

The ’90s also heralded the arrival of Jim Brickman. Since 1996, the piano player has sent 26 piano-dominated titles onto the Adult Contemporary chart, including two No. 1s. Still, his only Hot 100 hit to-date, “Valentine,” featuring the vocals of Martina McBride, reached No. 50 in 1997.

Contenders that come close from the ’80s: Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” and Debbie Gibson’s “Lost in Your Eyes” (1989); Tiffany’s “Could’ve Been” (1988); Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” (1984); Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’ “Endless Love” (1981); and Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” (1980).

Two mixes exist of Bette Midler‘s “The Rose”: the single edit with orchestration and the soundtrack version that sports, yes, piano and vocals only. The song just missed topping the Hot 100, however, reaching No. 3 in 1980.

Any pure piano ballads in the ’70s, when disco strings invaded even the catalogs of Rod Stewart and Kiss? Commodores’ “Still” (1979); Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (1978); Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” (1977); Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You” (1975); Streisand’s “The Way We Were” (1974); Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and Nilsson’s “Without You” (1972)? None qualify as piano-only ballads.

Even Barry Manilow’s three piano-centric No. 1s, “Looks Like We Made It,” “I Write the Songs” and “Mandy,” are string-laden, as are the Beatles’ last two No. 1s, “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be,” along with John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a No. 3 hit in 1971.

Going back to February 1970, we get to … Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” A perfect match? … No, there are strings attached. Literally. Art Garfunkel’s vocal and Larry Knechtel’s piano arrangement are all that comprise the song … until strings and drums arrive near its closing.

Now, we’re back in the ’60s. Not too many ballads of any kind, actually, that led the Hot 100 then, as the Beatles helped craft an era of, largely, jangly pop/rock toppers. Pre-British Invasion, tempo also was a fairly necessary Hot 100 No. 1 ingredient, albeit with fewer guitars and more orchestral arrangements.

There were piano-dominated songs in the early ’60s and late ’50s, but the piano in those years tended to serve as an uptempo element of early rock and roll (Chuck Berry, Dave “Baby” Cortez, Fats Domino) or the focus of fast-paced instrumentals, such as Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date” (No. 2, 1960).

1960 … 1959 … Aug. 4, 1958, the first Hot 100, led by Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool.”

That’s it.

1,008 No. 1s.

One pure, all-piano-and-vocal ballad: the current reigning song, Adele’s “Someone Like You.”

(And, even the songs that are almost as stark – “Candle in the Wind 1997,” “I Will Always Love You,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – stand among the rock era’s most celebrated and timeless recordings. Not bad company for “Like” to join).

“At the VMAs, it was her, a spotlight and a piano,” says Columbia Records senior VP/promotion Lee Leipsner.

“That’s all she needed.”

Adele, accompanied by only a piano.

Unaccompanied in Hot 100 history.

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