The Story Behind Lulu's 'To Sir With Love,' Which Topped the Hot 100 in 1967
Saturday Night Live closed its first episode of the Trump administration with a musical farewell to President Obama. Under a portrait of the 44th President, cast member Cecily Strong sang the perfect song to say goodbye to the outgoing POTUS, the title song to the 1967 film To Sir, With Love.
The parallels were apparent to anyone familiar with the British flick. Sidney Poitier had the starring role as an unemployed black engineer who takes a job teaching an unruly class of white students in London’s East End. By the end of the film he has won over the undisciplined youngsters and has taught them to have self-respect.
One of the students was portrayed by Glasgow-born singer Lulu, who was best known in the U.K. for her version of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” Making her motion picture debut, Lulu heard the songs the producers were considering for the title song and thought they were all poor choices.
“I hated them,” she told Billboard in 1985. “I said to my friend Mark London, ‘They’re going to make me sing these rotten songs and it will be awful. Why don’t you write the songs?’” London said no, thinking he didn’t have a chance of having his work accepted. Lulu insisted so the Canadian composer came up with the music in five minutes. The next day, lyricist Don Black wrote the words.
“I was over the moon,” Lulu said. “I just knew it was going to be a great song.”
In June, 1967, Epic Records released a single by Lulu -- a cover of Neil Diamond’s “The Boat That I Row.” The Scottish singer was upset that “To Sir With Love” was relegated to the flip side of the 45rpm release. But American DJ’s preferred the B-side and gave it enough airplay to launch it onto the charts. In October, “To Sir With Love” began a five-week run at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Oddly, the song was never released as a single in the U.K., despite reaching pole position in America. The title tune was not nominated for an Academy Award, and Lulu and her manager both protested the snub.
On SNL, Strong was joined by cast member Sasheer Zamata halfway through the song, and then the two women held up a mug for Obama. The inscription was “World’s Best President.” They noted that the receipt was inside, in case the outgoing leader of the free world wanted to return it.