The Number Ones: Billy Swan’s “I Can Help”

In The Number Ones, I’m examining every # 1 single in the history of the Signboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s start, in 1958, and working my way up into today.


Billy Swan– “I Can Help”

HIT # 1: November 23, 1974

STAYED AT # 1: 2 weeks

There are so lots of different sort of seduction song, and among the funniest is the good-samaritan seduction tune. If you’re writing a good-samaritan seduction song, you aren’t speaking about your own needs. You’re not speaking about how excellent this other person looks. You’re not speaking about love, or friendship, or sex. You’re just using your services. The message is something like this: “Hey, you’re struggling. You require someone to help you out. Let me be that individual.” It’s not that different from a straight-up relationship song, something like Costs Withers’ “ Lean On Me” However there’s an included layer to it, something that goes unspoken.

The good-samaritan seduction tune is slightly disingenuous. It’s a tune with an objective. You’re attempting to convince this other individual that they need you. It’s definitely possible to compose a transcendent good-samaritan seduction song; the Four Tops’ “ Connect I’ll Exist” is one. But there’s something strangely off-putting about the whole concept. It’s an aw-shucks foot-shuffle, a way around stating what you actually suggest. When I hear a lot of these tunes, I end up wishing the vocalists were a little bit more assertive, a little bit more honest. Case in point: “I Can Help.”

Billy Swan’s “I Can Help” is a strange little # 1 hit, a lazy old-timey rockabilly shuffle that hit # 1 at the dawn of disco, when epic superstars like Elton John and Stevie Marvel were at their peak. Possibly “I Can Assist” was successful because of the wave of ’50 s fond memories that swept over America throughout the ’70 s. Possibly it just made for a happily breezy modification of speed. “I Can Assist” first blew up on nation radio, mainly due to the fact that the country facility of the ’70 s had actually absorbed ’50 s rockabilly sounds, the very same method that the country establishment these days has absorbed ’70 s and ’80 s soft-rock sounds. But it’s not actually a country song. It’s a happy, bemused shrug, and it’s likewise a good-samaritan seduction tune.

On “I Can Assist,” Billy Swan, a fairly nondescript person with a relatively thin voice, sings about how much this other hypothetical person needs him in her life. He offers soothing compliments: “It’s a reality that individuals get lonely/ Ain’t nothing new/ However a lady like you, child, ought to never ever have the blues.” He makes extravagant pledges, even providing to totally alter his own life for her benefit: “If your kid needs a daddy, I can help.” However he also gives the video game away: “When I go to sleep at night, you’re always a part of my dream/ Holding me tight and informing me everything I wan na hear.” So it’s not that he desires her to assist him. It’s that he needs assistance himself. He needs her, and he’s trying to make it look like she needs him.

However maybe he’s simply doing his best to be a gentleman. There’s something courtly and old-fashioned about the tune itself. It’s basically a laid-back front-porch variation of a tune that, 15 or 20 years previously, would’ve been jumpier and wilder. Swan and the other artists play that basic shuffle slowly and intentionally. Swan tape-recorded the song live-in-studio, singing and playing a dinky Farfisa organ that he ‘d obtained from a session man. At the end, you can hear the members of the band burst into applause– possibly because he ‘d nailed the song in 2 takes, while his German shepherd young puppy was pulling on his pants leg.

There’s a glaring defect at the center of “I Can Assist” that surpasses the entire good-samaritan thing: Billy Swan can’t truly sing. His voice is weedy and flat, and he seems like he’s just staying up to date with the song. In 1975, Elvis Presley taped a cover of “I Can Assist” at the exact same studio where Swan had made the original, and you can really tell the distinction. This was Elvis two years prior to his death, nowhere near the peak of his powers, and yet he still blows Swan off the track, taking control of it and emanating charm in manner ins which Swan never ever could.

But then, Billy Swan wasn’t actually indicated to be a pop star. Swan came from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, a town about midway between St. Louis and Memphis. (Rush Limbaugh was likewise born in Cape Girardeau, 9 years after Swan.) When Swan was in high school, he wrote a rock ‘n’ roll tune called “ Lover Please,” which the former Drifters singer Clyde McPhatter required to # 7 in1962 (It’s a 7.) The bandleader Expense Black had launched McPhatter’s variation of “Enthusiast Please” on his Louis label. But Black passed away of a brain tumor in 1965, therefore Swan simply sort of floated around the music company for a couple of years.

Swan bounced between Memphis and Nashville for a few years. He wrote country songs, including some recorded by individuals like Waylon Jennings and Conway Twitty. He worked as a recording assistant and janitor at a Columbia studio in Nashville, giving up while Bob Dylan was in the middle of recording Blonde On Blonde there. He produced a few tunes, consisting of Tony Joe White’s 1969 swamp-rock struck “Polk Salad Annie.” (“ Polk Salad Annie” peaked at # 8. It’s an 8.) He played in Kris Kristofferson’s touring band.

Swan was at house when he wrote “I Can Assist.” He and his wife had turned a closet into a music room, and his better half had a primitive early drum machine with preset beats on it. Swan utilized among the rock presets to write “I Can Assist.” (That drum device isn’t on the record, but perhaps “I Can Help” still belongs to the early history of # 1 hits that utilized drum makers.) Swan wrote the tune on an RMI organ, which Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge had purchased him as a wedding present. The manufacturer Chip Young decided to record the song, mainly because Swan’s voice advised him of Ringo Starr’s.

The song was a freak success, and Swan never scored another real hit. And after “I Can Help” blew up and passed away down, Swan went right back to touring in Kristofferson’s band. He liked playing in that band excessive to stop. I might not like “I Can Assist” much, however I love that story.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS OFFERS BEATS: Here’s the scene from Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 motion picture Thor where a lot of yokels, including Stan Lee, effort to lift Thor’s hammer while “I Can Assist” plays in the background:

BONUS REWARD BEATS: Here’s a video of the San Francisco indie band Part Time covering “I Can Assist” at SXSW 2013, in what appears to be a hotel room:

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