In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
Carly Simon- “Nobody Does It Better”
PEAK: #2 on October 22, 1977
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life”
In some weird coincidence, the top two songs in America during the fall of 1977 happened to be stately and orchestrated movie soundtrack songs from women declaring their love for a man of a higher authority. The #1 song, Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life,” had Boone singing about how this unnamed man lights up her life who Boone has interpreted to be God. But even though the song spent a then-record 10 weeks on top, the title film it came from was largely a flop critically and commercially. You could have heard the song all the time and not know much about its context.
With the #2 song though, you would have most definitely known about its context. In “Nobody Does It Better,” Carly Simon sings about how she’s seduced by this very well-known fictional spy. A few months earlier during the summer, you would have heard her sing the song in the opening credits of the latest James Bond flick The Spy Who Loved Me. When you heard “Nobody Does It Better,” there was no doubt who Carly Simon was singing about.
“Nobody Does It Better” came from songwriter Carole Bayer Sager and her then-boyfriend the EGOT and Pulitzer Prize winning composer Marvin Hamlisch. By 1977, both Bayer Sager and Hamlisch had enjoyed their fair share of pop chart success. Over a decade earlier as a high school English teacher signed to Don Kirshner’s Screen Gems publishing company, Bayer Sager had her first hit co-writing “A Groovy Kind of Love” which the British Invasion group the Mindbenders took to #2 in 1966. (“A Groovy Kind of Love” is a 6.) Bayer Sager kept writing and in 1975 went back to the Top 10 with Melissa Manchester’s “Midnight Blue” which peaked at #6. (It’s a 5.) And in 1977, Sager managed a writing credit on a #1 hit with Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You.”
It was also in the mid-‘60s when Hamlisch got his start co-writing a couple of Top 20 hits for Lesley Gore but he really came into his own in the mid-‘70s scoring two major hit films The Sting and The Way We Were. Both of those films spawned big hits that Hamlisch was involved in such as co-writing The Way We Were’s title theme that Barbra Streisand turned into a #1 smash in 1974 and as a lead artist had his highest-charting hit with “The Entertainer,” an adaptation of an old Scott Joplin ragtime classic recorded for The Sting. (“The Entertainer” peaked at #3. It’s a 6.) “The Way We Were” won the Oscar for Best Original Song and the Grammy for Song of the Year. The Sting won an Oscar for Best Score. And Hamlisch even won the Grammy Best New Artist award in 1975. So both Bayer Sager and Hamlisch were doing just fine by the time they were working together.
As Bayer Sager tells it, one day in 1976 she and Hamlisch were in a songwriting session that wasn’t going too well. Towards the end, Hamlisch mentioned that he was going to London to work on The Spy Who Loved Me. Bayer Sager responded by saying she would name the theme “Nobody Does It Better” even though Bond themes to this point were usually named after their movie. Hamlisch liked that idea and together they immediately came up with much of the central melody and lyrics. The two of them finished the song separately with Bayer Sager incorporating the movie title into the song’s first verse so that it would be mentioned somewhere.
Carly Simon was Bayer Sager’s first choice for “Nobody Does It Better” which she explained last year to the Wall Street Journal, “Carly was sexy in her demeanor and bedroom voice. Her voice had a lot of texture. It’s smooth and strong, and yet it has a great pop sensibility—not too serious and yet intensely sensitive and revealing.” Hamlisch played the song for Simon at her New York apartment with Simon loving the song agreeing to record it for the film. After taking a few months off after the birth of her son Ben, Simon recorded “Nobody Does It Better” in Los Angeles with her regular producer Richard Perry (Also the producer behind “When I Need You”) at the helm and various session musicians playing including fellow producer Michael Omartian on piano.
Like Hamlisch and Bayer Sager, Carly Simon had also enjoyed her fair share of success by the late ‘70s. Simon had spent much of the ‘70s as one of the leading figures of that decade’s singer-songwriter movement hitting her chart peak in January 1973 with the #1 hit and classic kiss-off anthem “You’re So Vain.” For the next four years, Simon’s albums and singles continued to sell but on the pop charts only notched one Top 10 hit with 1974’s “Mockingbird,” a cover of Inez & Charlie Foxx’s 1963 R&B hit recorded as a duet with her then-husband and fellow ‘70s singer-songwriter figure James Taylor. (Simon & Taylor’s “Mockingbird” peaked at #5. It’s a 5. The Inez & Charlie Foxx original “Mockingbird” peaked at #7. It’s a 6.) When the opportunity came to sing the theme for a Bond movie, Simon wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity who’d been wanting to sing a Bond theme since Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger.”
Aside from being the first Bond theme to not be named after the film, “Nobody Does It Better” stands out in its lyrics which are basically about James Bond and how Carly Simon’s protagonist is awestruck by Bond and his abilities. Bayer Sager said the lyrics were meant to give the Bond theme a female perspective, “I didn’t set out to make a statement. It was just me, as a woman, thinking about Bond. He was such a cool, sexy hero.” Fair enough, I’ve started to make my way through the Bond series and he certainly does come across as a cool and sexy hero. The women involved with Bond all seem to fall under his spell so it only made sense that a theme would try to express those feelings especially for a movie titled The Spy Who Loved Me.
Like a lot of Bond themes, “Nobody Does It Better” is carried by a grand sweeping melody that introduces itself immediately with a recognizable piano flourish. It starts quiet before a booming drum fill introduces the full orchestra that pull a lot of the tricks you’d expect for a down-the-middle ‘70s orchestral soundtrack piece. By the ending, the song gets particularly loud as it fades out with lots of riffing from the strings to a very ‘70s sounding trumpet to some noodling guitar. There are no real surprises in this professional-sounding song which for a Bond theme is all it really needs to be.
As a singer, Carly Simon doesn’t have the big booming voice of a Shirley Bassey. Instead, she goes for a more intimate-sounding performance. She holds out notes but not in the way that a powerhouse singer would. Simon starts out soft like the music but then rises with the music. She’s largely singing along with the melody about how she’s transfixed by James Bond. At one point, Simon’s narrator was shy trying to hide from Bond’s love but like heaven above her is now keeping her secrets safe tonight. Throughout the song, Simon feels overcome with infatuation about Bond with the way she sings questions like “Why’d you have to be so good?” and “How’d you learn to do the things you do?” as well as on the ending when she continually sings “Baby you’re the best.”
Now, I don’t exactly love “Nobody Does It Better.” The music while well made isn’t something that necessarily excites me. And Bayer Sager’s lyrics can come across as clumsy in some areas with lines like “nobody does it half as good as you” and “the way that you hold me whenever you hold me.” But Carly Simon manages to pull off the sensual tone the song’s going for and as a Bond theme or a general dedication, it’ll do the job fine.
“Nobody Does It Better” wound up tying the #2 Bond theme chart peak with Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Live and Let Die” from 1973. And like “Live and Let Die,” “Nobody Does It Better” got nominated at all the major award shows but lost each time to the song that kept it off the top of the charts. (For the Grammys, “You Light Up My Life” wound up sharing Song of the Year with Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen (Love Theme From A Star Is Born)”) The Spy Who Loved Me was also a hit grossing $46 million upon its July 1977 release. On the 1977 year-end list, The Spy Who Loved Me is at #6 between The Deep and Oh, God!.
Soundtrack songs and awards would turn out to be the future for Carly Simon. After “Nobody Does It Better, Simon would return to the Top 10 one more time shortly after with 1978’s mid-tempo lope “You Belong To Me” which peaked at #6. (It’s a 5.) By the mid-‘80s, Simon’s sales and fame were on a downward slide until she signed with Arista Records in 1986. Her Arista singing led to a nice little career comeback that culminated with “Let The River Run,” a song Simon wrote for the 1988 movie Working Girl. The song only peaked at #49 but it finally won Simon an Oscar at the 1989 ceremony. It would be Simon’s last time charting on the Hot 100 at least as a lead artist.
In the decades since, Simon has remained active and seems to be doing well. She hasn’t released an album since 2009 but she’s had other endeavors most notably writing a bunch of children’s books and memoirs. She also continues to feed people’s speculations on who “You’re So Vain” is about eventually revealing in 2015 that the second verse is about her ex Warren Beatty. Simon has also been tight with R&B and hip-hop artists appearing with Janet Jackson and Missy Elliott on 2001’s “Son of a Gun” a song that sampled “You’re So Vain” which peaked at #28. She even got President George W. Bush to free the Fugees affiliated rapper John Forté from a 14-year prison sentence for smuggling liquid cocaine through Newark Airport.
Bayer Sager would spend the next decade writing many more hit songs but “Nobody Does it Better” was the last major hit Marvin Hamlisch for a long while until he co-wrote “I Finally Found Someone,” the schlocky Barbra Streisand/Bryan Adams collab recorded for the 1996 Streisand film The Mirror Has Two Faces. (“I Finally Found Someone” peaked at #8. It’s a 4.) Hamlisch continued working through the decades composing for films and stage as well as being the conductor for several major orchestras. He was doing all this up until 2012 when a brief illness killed him at the age of 68. Hamlisch is no longer around but thanks to the way sampling works, he got a songwriting credit on one song that I’ll be discussing in The Ones of the ‘10s.
BONUS BEATS: Starting in 1995, Radiohead have made a habit out of performing “Nobody Does It Better” with Thom Yorke describing the song as the “sexiest song ever written.” Here’s their first performance of the song during a 1995 performance on MTV London:
(Radiohead’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “Creep,” peaked at #34.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Me First and the Gimme Gimmes’ 1997 pop-punk cover of “Nobody Does It Better:”
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Brittany Murphy singing “Nobody Does It Better” in the 2004 movie Little Black Book:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Adam Sandler performing a personalized version of “Nobody Does It Better” during the 2008 MTV Movie Awards where he was awarded the MTV Generation Award:
(Adam Sandler’s highest-charting single, 1996’s “The Chanukah Song,” peaked at #80.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the weird lo-fi indie version of “Nobody Does It Better” that Mike Viola recorded for the 2017 Bond theme tribute album Songs, Bond Songs: The Music of 007: