Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer -- a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single -- by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Wayne Fontana by looking at his lone chart-topper with backing group The Mindbenders, the groovy British Invasion-era smash "The Game of Love."
By 1965, Beatlemania had been in full swing in the United States for a full year, and more and more chart-toppers were being imported every month from across the Atlantic. In the 15 months following the Fab Four's first visit to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (on Feb. 1, 1964, with "I Want to Hold Your Hand"), another half-dozen British acts topped the chart -- with plenty more to come throughout the the rest of the decade, as The Beatles changed the face of popular music and opened the door for countless followers trying to replicate the early success of their loveable, mop-topped image and jangly, upbeat sound.
When Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders' "The Game of Love" hit No. 1 for its first and only week on top on April 24, 1965, it was sandwiched between two Hot 100-toppers who were very much in that mold: Freddie and the Dreamers with their soaring "I'm Telling You Now" and Herman's Hermits with the cuddly "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter." But "The Game of Love" didn't sound much like either, nor was it particularly reminiscent of John, Paul, George or Ringo. Rather, the breakout U.S. hit from Wayne Fontana -- who died last Thursday (Aug. 6) at age 74 -- had more in common with the soul records dominating the American R&B charts than any of the pop-rock emanating from Liverpool.
Wayne Fontana was born Glyn Ellis in Manchester, England, and as a teenager started the group the Jets, with a lineup that also came to encompass bassist Bob Lang, guitarist Eric Stewart and drummer Ric Rothwell. Inspired by a 1963 horror movie, they changed their name to the Mindbenders, while Ellis became Wayne Fontana -- which he claimed was not done at the behest of his eventual label (which so happened to be called Fontana), but rather as a tribute to Elvis Presley drummer D.J. Fontana.
As Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders, the group achieved minor success in their home country with a number of soul covers before hitting the top 10 with a version of Major Lance's "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um," penned by R&B legend Curtis Mayfield. While Fontana's vocal on that rendition leaned toward restraint, he emerged on the group's next single -- "The Game of Love," penned by Texas songwriter Clint Ballard, Jr., who also wrote future Linda Ronstadt No. 1 "You're No Good" -- with a newfound growl and authority, his full-chested belting of the songs' signature opening lyric ("The purpose of a man is to love a woman/ And the purpose of a woman is to love a man") instantly setting the song apart from the group's British Invasion peers.
The Mindbenders weren't the first British group to top the Hot 100 with a song that sounded more soul-influenced than bubblegum: The Animals had done so the year before with their searing electric cover of the folk standard "The House of the Rising Sun." But unlike that howling lament, "The Game of Love" was also still very much a pop song, with a funky opening drum shuffle, a bounding bassline and frisky guitar lick combining for a groove that's already addictive before Fontana even enters. Meanwhile, the central refrain -- of Fontana and backing vocalists bouncing rising "love (love!) love (love!)" repeats off one another before culminating in Fontana's "la-la-la-la-la-LOVE!" exclamation -- remains one of the stickiest hooks of the entire decade.
By essentially running its verses into its chorus (the song's opening lyrics lead directly into the "love-love" refrain) the Mindbenders' "Game" is also an extremely economical one, packing an intro, outro and two double-time Bo Diddley-esque bridges into a lean two-minute runtime. The lyrics are hardly revelatory -- and given their explicitly heteronormative assumptions, they've proven far from timeless in their wisdom -- but they're delivered so gleefully and with such vocal abandon that it's hard to take them too seriously, and the song is in and out before their absurdly over-simplified nature really starts to grate.
The group scored just one more Hot 100 hit -- the chugging, more garage-rocking "It's Just a Little Bit Too Late," which reached No. 55 in July 1965 -- before Fontana split with the rest of the group he formed over the band's artistic direction and ultimately went solo. Fontana never hit the Hot 100 as a solo artist (though he made the U.K.'s top 20 twice, including with the delicate, No. 11-peaking "Pamela Pamela"), but the Mindbenders found success without their frontman, hitting No. 2 the next year with the shuffling, unapologetically sappy ballad "A Groovy Kind of Love" -- sung by Stewart, who had taken over as lead vocalist. (The song was taken all the way to No. 1 in 1988 when Phil Collins covered it for the soundtrack to Buster.)
Fontana's own time in the pop mainstream was brief, and he stopped recording music altogether by the late '70s, telling The Daily Mail in 2017 that he had gone "into self-retirement, drank too much and didn't know where I was half the time." But he found his place on the '60s touring circuit, and "The Game of Love" proved enduring, covered by New Zealand's Tex Pistol's in a 1987 version that went to No. 1 in his home country, and used prominently in that year's Robin Williams vehicle Good Morning Vietnam. More impressively, it's also been sampled by venerated rap artists like De La Soul and Eminem -- the latter nearly a half-century after the song's original release -- demonstrating how much more fun and versatile the song remains than any number of other hits from post-Fab Four British Invaders.