Ruth B's 'Lost Boy' And The Story Behind The Year's Strangest Hot 100 Hit

Jiro Schnieder
Ruth B

Ruth B’s “Lost Boy” is easily the most unusual song on the Hot 100: when it cracked the top 50 earlier this month, it was the only unadorned piano ballad on the chart’s top half, no small feat. It’s also the only song on the chart inspired by a more than century-old play.

That play is Peter Pan, first staged in 1904 and currently enjoying something of a moment in pop music. Last summer, an album with the same theme was released to accompany the musical Finding Neverland, but despite contributions from Nick Jonas, Jennifer Lopez, and Zendaya, nothing cracked the Hot 100. But Ruth B’s out-of-nowhere success -- she was an unknown without a record deal before “Lost Boy” -- suggests that the problem was with the execution rather than the concept.  And Peter Pan’s appeal transcends genres: while “Lost Boy” climbs the charts, country listeners are warming to Kelsea Ballerini’s “Peter Pan,” No. 28 and climbing on the Hot Country Songs chart.

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Why now? James Graham, who wrote the Broadway musical Finding Neverland, believes Peter Pan expresses a common reluctance to “grow up,” conform, and play the game. “There’s so many universals in that story about being human,” he tells Billboard. While the tale was written by an Englishman, it celebrates the outsider spirit that still holds a strong grip on the American imagination. “Peter Pan himself is this massive rebel,” Graham notes. “An anarchist. A carefree dude who doesn’t care what anyone thinks and refuses to conform. That was very modern at the time, and still 100 years later, whether it’s Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber, the idea of the young rebel trying to hold on to their youth, [who] doesn’t really care, that’s something that survived the passage of time.”

Professor Maria Tatar, a Harvard University professor and the author of The Annotated Peter Pan, echoes these sentiments. “Some kids really want to grow up too fast, especially today,” she says. “As a kid, I always wanted to stay a kid. For me, it’s the fantasy about flying. Lack of gravity is great -- it has to do with not being serious, having fun, playing. The idea of being above it all, being able to escape into this secret other world.”

That secret other world has spawned a thousand spinoffs, and the Peter Pan character in the TV show Once Upon A Time is the one who inspired Ruth B to write her hit. After watching an episode, she headed downstairs to her keyboard. “I was in a Peter Pan headspace,” she remembers. “I sang that first line out of nowhere.”

Ruth is a fan of the app Vine -- especially after a spontaneous decision to post a loop of her singing the chorus to Drake’s “Hold On We’re Going Home,” which led to a large increase in followers. She’d never written a song before the first line of “Lost Boy,” though, so she was hesitant to promote it on the app. “I initially didn’t even want to post it because it was a little bit cheesy,” she says. “But it kept ringing through my head.”

She eventually posted it, and the reaction was immediate: people wanted more. She started to add lines in Vine-able increments. “I would finish studying, come down stairs, and add a line to the chorus,” she explains. “In a week, I had a chorus, so I decided I should turn this into a full song and take it to YouTube.”

The result, built six seconds at a time, is a beatless piano ballad. Chords hang in the air, never pressing on top of each other. Ruth occasionally climbs into falsetto, but the track doesn’t have much movement or drama. Although it’s about finding friends, Ruth sings alone, and this isolation is emphasized by an echo effect. Her Neverland is a place of complete liberty -- “lost boys like me are free” -- and the singer avoids taking sides in the frequently violent squabbles that divide the island’s characters in the original story: “Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, Wendy darling, even Captain Hook/ You are my perfect storybook.”

But a perfect story, even one with the long term resonance of Peter Pan, doesn’t guarantee a national hit. That’s where major label radio promotion comes in handy. The tale of “Lost Boy” seesaws between old and new media -- while there’s a nostalgia inherent in the idea of not wanting to grow up, the most up-to-date technology played a crucial role in the track’s formation; though Vine helped “Lost Boy” bubble up, old-school radio power gave it a key boost.

The radio clout was corralled in part by Lee Leipsner, EVP and head of promotion at Columbia Records. He has been at Sony music for 22 years; before that, he spent five years at Mercury records. On the phone, he has the enthusiasm and fervor of a lifelong salesman, and an arsenal of statistics to support his points. “It never gets old breaking records,” he tells me.

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In his view, the Peter Pan theme might have worked against “Lost Boy” at first, at least for people at radio. “[Programmers] hear she’s singing about Peter Pan and they think it’s Disney, it’s G-rated, it’s silly -- my audience is too cool for this,” he theorizes.

But the power of the song and the speed with which it was embraced on Vine convinced Leipsner that the cynics were mistaken. “I knew [that] given the chance, because of what she did on her own, and how [listeners] responded, all we had to do was get the record exposed,” he asserts. “[Ruth] had this record incubated. All we had to do is turn the key and magnify it.”  

Leipsner set his sights on Michael Martin and Jayn at KLLC, a Hot AC station in San Francisco. It turned out that “Lost Boy” was already on Jayn’s radar, and she played it the same day she met with Leipsner. “It was so reactive from the start,” he declares. “It happened so fast that [other stations] jumped in quickly as well.”

From there, Leipsner headed to WIXX in Green Bay, WI. “They were one of the first stations on the pop side to play Rachel Platten’s ‘Fight Song’ and Hozier’s ‘Take Me To Church,’” Leipsner notes. “They’re not afraid of playing records that seem outside of the norm; odd records that seem to find their way to the middle.” The station agreed to test Ruth’s song with their listeners. “I’ve never seen a score that high for any of our records,” Leipsner declares. “Within one week, the record was No. 1 on Shazam in Green Bay.”

After that, he portrays it as an easy move to other areas -- Baltimore, D.C., Philadelphia. “Everyone gets caught up in tempo and instrumentation,” he notes. “Sometimes the simplest songs have the biggest meaning and the biggest impact. We’ve had a lot of those: ‘Someone Like You’ from Adele, John Legend’s ‘All Of Me.’” Both of those tracks were No. 1 hits. “Lost Boy” still has a way to go to reach the top ten, but it appeared to regain momentum on this week's chart, jumping to a new peak at No. 41.

Though neither Graham nor Tatar had heard “Lost Boy” before talking with Billboard, both spoke about it favorably after listening. “I completely identify,” Tatar says. “That was my fantasy as a kid: having that special island that is your own, that is imagination and wonder and adventure. The longing for a place like that is captured in those lyrics.” “The poetry and the ideas in the lyrics; it’s very human,” Graham adds separately. “She’s got a very original voice and way of viewing the world -- very mature lyrically and emotionally.”

In Liepsner’s mind, “the best records are the ones that people all think are a little odd, coming from the left or the right to the center.” “Hits come from everywhere,” he continues -- even Neverland.