This month, enjoy a curated list of some of the most noteworthy “telephone songs” ever recorded — that is, songs all about the phone and our communal relationship with it!
“A telephone survey says that 51 percent of college students drink until they pass out at least once a month. The other 49 percent didn’t answer the phone.”
– Craig Kilborn
- “867-5309/Jenny” by Tommy Tutone
One-hit wonders Tommy Tutone scored a No. 4 hit in 1982 with “867-5309/Jenny,” a song that prompted thousands of crank calls to folks unlucky enough to have that number. The tune was written by Alex Call and Tutone guitarist Jim Keller.
“I actually just came up with the ‘Jenny’ and the telephone number and the music and all that just sitting in my backyard,” Call told Songfacts. “There was no Jenny. I don’t know where the number came from, I was just trying to write a four-chord rock song and it just kind of came out.
“I had the guitar lick, I had the name and number, but I didn’t know what the song was about. This buddy of mine, Jim Keller, who’s the co-writer, was the lead guitar player in Tommy Tutone. He stopped by that afternoon and he said, ‘Al, it’s a girl’s number on a bathroom wall,’ and we had a good laugh. I said, ‘That’s exactly right, that’s exactly what it is.'”
- “Hello, I Love You” by the Doors
“Hello, I Love You” was a No. 1 hit for the Doors in 1968. It was written by Jim Morrison three years earlier, when the band was still named Rick & the Ravens. The song became controversial when Ray Davies claimed the song’s riff was lifted from the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night.” “The funniest thing was when my publisher came to me on tour and said the Doors had used the riff for ‘All Day and All Of The Night’ for ‘Hello, I Love You,’ Davies told Mojo. “I said rather than sue them, can we just get them to own up? My publisher said, ‘They have, that’s why we should sue them!'”
“People always think that we stole that track from the Kinks’ ‘All Day and All of the Night,’ but we weren’t thinking of them at all,” revealed guitarist Robby Krieger in Guitar World. “What I did steal was the drumbeat: I told John [Densmore] to play something like ‘Sunshine of Your Love.’ So, we ripped off the Cream, not the Kinks.”
- “Chantilly Lace” by The Big Bopper
During his ten years as a DJ at radio station KTRM in Beaumont, Tex., J.P. Richardson adopted the name “The Big Bopper” after a dance called The Bop. Richardson, a musician and songwriter, aspired to become a performer to earn enough money to buy his own radio station. Mercury Records gave him an opportunity and after an initial failure, Richardson wrote and recorded “Chantilly Lace,” a Top 10 hit in 1958 noted for its introduction: “Hello Baby!”
Richardson wrote No. 1 hits for George Jones and Johnny Preston and was a member of the tragic “Winter Dance Party Tour” with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens that ended when their plane crashed on Feb. 3, 1959.
Richardson was a pioneer and visionary in the music industry. He foresaw the importance of music videos and is said to be the first to use the term “music video” in a January 1959 interview. It was Richardson’s plan to produce music videos for television and manufacture video jukeboxes. In 1958 Richardson recorded videos for “Chantilly Lace” and two other songs.
- “No Reply” by the Beatles
When a demo of “No Reply” was recorded by the Beatles in 1964, it was given to singer Tommy Quickly, one of manager Brian Epstein’s stable of artists. Quickly never recorded the song and when the Beatles found themselves short of material for the Beatles ’65 album, they reclaimed it.
John Lennon was inspired to write “No Reply” by the Rays’ 1957 hit “Silhouettes.” Paul McCartney described in Many Years From Now how he contributed to Lennon’s work. “We wrote ‘No Reply’ together but from a strong original idea of his. I think he pretty much had that one, but as usual, if he didn’t have the third verse and the middle eight, then he’d play it to me pretty much formed, then we would shove a bit in the middle or I’d throw in an idea.”
“‘No Reply’ was my song,” Lennon explained in All We Are Saying. “Dick James, the publisher, said, ‘That’s the first complete song you’ve written where it resolves itself.’ You know, with a complete story. It was my version of ‘Silhouettes.’ I had that image of walking down the street and seeing her silhouetted in the window and not answering the phone. Although I never called a girl on the phone in my life — phones weren’t part of the English child’s life.”
“Silhouettes” by the Rays
- “Operator” by Jim Croce
Jim Croce released “Operator” in 1972, a year before his death in a plane crash. “Operator” reached No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100. Croce was inspired to write the song during his service in the National Guard in the 1960s. In the liner notes from The Definitive Jim Croce Collection, Croce’s wife Ingrid describes Jim’s stage introduction to the song.
“I got the idea for writing ‘Operator’ by standing outside of the PX waiting to use one of the outdoor phones. There wasn’t a phone booth; it was just stuck up on the side of the building and there were about 200 guys in each line waiting to make a phone call back home to see if their ‘Dear John’ letter was true, and with their raincoat over their heads covering the telephone and everything, and it really seemed that so many people were going through the same experience, going through the same kind of change, and to see this happen especially on something like the telephone and talking to a long-distance operator — this kinda registered.
“It’s one of those songs that kinda comes out of experiences that you watch for a long time, just to see if they’re really valid. I kinda like to write songs about things that a lot of people have experience with, because it really makes the songs communicate.”
- “Long Distance Runaround” by Yes
Progressive rockers Yes released “Long Distance Runaround” in 1971 as a B-side to “Roundabout” but it became one of the band’s signature songs. Songwriter and singer Jon Anderson combined criticism of the Vietnam War, the Kent State shootings and organized religion into its three and a half minutes. Anderson explained in Gibson how the song was produced.
“I was sort of the musical director, the person who decided which direction we should go with an idea. I might bring in a song and say, ‘I don’t want you to simply play the chords. Why don’t you play some unusual figures and jump around within the song?’ Oftentimes the song might be very simple, so I wanted everyone to come up with music that would be entertaining for them to play. That’s how ‘Long Distance Runaround’ and ‘Roundabout’ were written. They were variations on the idea of, ‘You find what you like playing, and let’s make it all work together.’ Pulling those elements together is what created that unique sound. Everyone is playing his unique part, but we somehow made it all fit.”
- “Switchboard Susan” by Nick Lowe
British songwriter Mickey Jupp intended “Switchboard Susan” to be a track on his first solo LP, 1978’s Juppanese. One side would be produced by Nick Lowe; the flip side produced by Gary Brooker of Procol Harum. “Mickey recorded Juppanese with one-half produced by Gary Brooker and I think he did that half first,” explained Lowe in Uncle E’s Musical Nightmares. “It’s rather unusual to have half-a-record done by one producer and the other side done by another. Plenty of records have multiple producers but they are all jumbled up. I was wheeled in to do the other side of the record and Rockpile was hired to be the backing group.
“We cut ‘Switchboard Susan’ and we all thought it was great and we were jumping up and down. The next morning we went to the studio and Mickey pronounced it shit from top to bottom. I waited until he calmed down a bit and told him if he didn’t want it I would buy the tape and put it out myself. He said ‘Alright, alright, I never want to hear it again, it’s rubbish.’ But he was wrong about that one. It’s cracking.”
Lowe released his version on his 1979 LP Labour of Lust. Released as a single in the US, the song only reached No. 107 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
“Switchboard Susan” by Mickey Jupp
- “Telephone Line” by Electric Light Orchestra
Writer-guitarist Jeff Lynne explained in the liner notes of A New World Record how he recorded the ringtone effects of “Telephone Line.” “To get the sound on the beginning, you know, the American telephone sound, we phoned from England to America to a number that we knew nobody would be at, to just listen to it for a while. On the Moog, we recreated the sound exactly by tuning the oscillators to the same notes as the ringing of the phone.”
“Telephone Line” became ELO‘s biggest hit, reaching No. 7 in 1976. “I can remember writing this on an old out-of-tune upright piano,” Lynne recalled in Rolling Stone. “I somehow squeezed this song out of it. I sound really desperate and lonely on this one, and maybe I was. It’s about trying to find a girl every night and you just can’t get through to her. It was a scenario I thought of, but maybe it was prompted by the fact that I wasn’t happy at the time. When I was a kid, I loved the plaintive songs of Del Shannon and Roy Orbison. They wrote songs that were really sad and those were the best. I thought I was writing those sort of songs. People tell me the song gives them a boost, but I never dreamed I was doing that for anybody.”
- “Hello It’s Me” by Todd Rundgren
“Hello It’s Me” was first recorded by Todd Rundgren‘s band the Nazz in 1968 as the B-side to “Open My Eyes.” When Rundgren released his debut solo album Something/Anything?, he re-recorded “Hello It’s Me.” The song would become his biggest hit, reaching No. 5 in 1973.
“‘Hello It’s Me’ was the first song that I ever wrote,” Rundgren said in Songwriter Universe. “Up to that point, I was a guitar player and I could sing backgrounds, but I was not a lead singer. So I wasn’t even writing a song for me to sing. But I had a set of chords that I nicked off of a Jimmy Smith record — he was a jazz organ player and he improvised an introduction to a song that I figured out the guitar equivalent of, and that became the basic chords. Then I wrote what I came to write about in almost every song, which was the relationship I had with a girl in high school, that lasted maybe a couple of weeks [laughs]. But it became fuel for years and years … you know, heartbroken ballads and that sort of thing.”
“Hello It’s Me” by the Nazz
- “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)” by Wilson Pickett
Wilson Pickett recorded “634-5789” for his 1966 LP The Exciting Wilson Pickett during a time when Atlantic Records artists traveled to Memphis, Tenn. to record at the Stax Records studio. The song was written by Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd of Stax. Atlantic sent engineer Tom Dowd to produce the single, which elevated the song to a higher level. Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles provided backing vocals.
“In ‘634-5789,’ if you listen to it closely, you can probably tell that there’s a little bit more to it and a little bit more music than what Stax Records normally sounded like,” Steve Cropper told Songfacts. “For example, we put on another big fat snare beat, and Al Jackson had some tambourine and a couple little licks here and there. Put the girls on it, put the backgrounds on it, and really made it a good, full production. Tom Dowd was always helpful in putting out a full production and really taught us a lot about overdubs and the way to go about it. So this was one of the songs that got that full treatment from Atlantic Records.”
“634-5789” was a No. 13 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart but would be the last song Pickett recorded at Stax. The Wicked Pickett’s behavior got him banned at Stax, which would soon end its relationship with Atlantic to prevent another label from profiting from its sound.
- “Hanging on the Telephone” by Blondie
Blondie‘s “Hanging on the Telephone” was released in 1978 on their Parallel Lines album. The song was written and first recorded by Jack Lee of the Nerves. Blondie’s drummer Clem Burke told Noise11 how they discovered the song. “It’s a funny thing with ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ because we were on a tour in Japan and there was this guy called Geoffrey Lee Pierce who you may have known from The Gun Club,” explained Burke. “He sent us a tape of new songs and ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ was one of the songs on there by a group called the Nerves.”
Lee said in The Independent that while he regretted that the Nerves did not have a hit with “Hanging on the Telephone,” he always knew it was a standout song. “Even people who hated me — and there were plenty — had to admit it was great.”
“Hanging on the Telephone” by the Nerves