The Story of Tommy Edwards, the Hot 100's First Black Artist to Hit No. 1

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Edwards onstage at the New York Paramount in 1952.

As part of Billboard's celebration of the 60th anniversary of our Hot 100 chart this week, we're taking a deeper look at some of the biggest artists and singles in the chart's history. Here, we revisit Tommy Edwards' “It’s All in the Game,” which finished at No. 47 in our all-time Hot 100 singles ranking. 

The first No. 1 song by a black performer on the Billboard Hot 100 -- which arrived merely a month after the chart’s inception -- tells one of those tales that finds American music slipping the bounds of genre. Tommy Edwards’ 1958 song, “It’s All in the Game,” wasn’t rock’n’roll or R&B, but a tune-up of Edwards’ own 1951 version of a swelling, croony ballad -- itself an adaptation of a four-decade-old ditty by an amateur parlor tunesmith. That last detail also makes it the only pop hit ever written by a top White House official and improbably ties a 1925 Nobel Peace Prize winner to the 2016 literary Nobel laureate.

“It’s All in the Game” draws its sweet tune from “Melody in A Major,” written in 1911 by a banking executive named Charles G. Dawes, who would soon be a military general and later a federal budget chief. By the mid-1920s, Dawes would be Calvin Coolidge’s vice president, though reputedly a lousy one. His Nobel was for his earlier work on the Dawes Plan, which (temporarily) helped Germany stave off postwar economic collapse. But in his off-hours, Dawes was an avid light-classical flautist-pianist. “Melody” is his only known composition, and it’s dumb luck it’s known at all: He handed off the score to a friend who, to Dawes’ amazement, got it published. It became a piano-roll hit, renowned violinist Fritz Kreisler made it his curtain closer, and by the 1930s, it was in the repertoire of big-band orchestras like Tommy Dorsey’s -- though the first attempt to set it to words, as “Let Me Dream,” fell flat. Over time, Dawes found himself vexed by the song, which bands “manhandled” in his honor everywhere he went, according to his biographer Bascom N. Timmons in Portrait of an American.

Whatever made New York lyricist Carl Sigman think to use “Melody” as raw material in 1951, when he did he made a crucial change. He extended Dawes’ initial trilled figure into a seven-note staircase that the first line climbs and descends, with the words, “Many a tear has to fall.” It gave singers a great showboating moment off the top, but it also set up the song’s main tension, musically acting out an arc of anticipation and letdown, pivoting on a teardrop.

Alas, Dawes never got to hear the lyrics that immortalized his tune: As Sigman’s son Michael recently recounted in American Songwriter, Dawes died the same day Sigman turned the song in to his publisher, Mac Goldman, who cracked, “Your lyric must have killed him.”

By 1951, the dapper, Nat “King” Cole-influenced songwriter-crooner Tommy Edwards, from Richmond, Va., had been kicking around New York for several years with tepid success (his life is traced in a recent documentary, Tommy Edwards: Henrico’s Hit Maker). Now, his languid original version of “It’s All in the Game” with MGM briefly made the pop top 20, quickly followed by covers from Cole himself, Dinah Shore, Louis Armstrong and others. Still, both singer and song likely would have faded had MGM not had Edwards recut it as a “beat ballad” in 1958 -- perhaps swayed by how Connie Francis earlier that year had turned moldy ’20s chestnut “Who’s Sorry Now” into a teen-friendly No. 4 hit. With a new bottom end, rhythm section and stylistic nods to doo-wop, the rearrangement seemed to unleash something definitive and magnetic in Edwards’ voice. Suddenly “Game” was everywhere, a staple of slow dances and roadster cruises for years, as fans still reminisce today in the comments on its unofficial YouTube page.

There’s nothing dated about the puzzle it poses: Is love just “the game,” a psyche-wrecking battle (“Once in a while he will call...”) out of the nightmare 1990s dating guide The Rules? Or perhaps it is the dream held out by the song’s climax, all the dreamier for its delay: “Then he’ll kiss your lips/And caress your waiting fingertips/And your hearts will fly away.” Sung the way Edwards does it, the song sustains both visions, the realist’s and the romantic’s.

That’s the test undertaken by the countless musicians who’ve covered it since. The best include a crackling 1970 soul version by the Four Tops, a poignant 1984 country cover by Merle Haggard and an inspired Van Morrison take on his 1979 album, Into the Music, that segues into a long improvisation called “You Know What They’re Writing About” -- deservedly treating “It’s All in the Game” as the prototypical love song that can sum up the whole genre. As for the Nobel connection, Bob Dylan performed the song 10 times on tour in 1981 -- and then never again, though some renditions survive on bootlegs.

In an eerie parallel to Dawes, though, Edwards never witnessed these tributes. He could not duplicate the success of “Game” -- his greatest-hits collections are like hearing the same song repeated in ever-weaker echoes. His smash had been caught between eras, and his talents never found another niche. By the mid-’60s, Edwards was back in Richmond, where he would die at age 47, likely from complications of alcoholism, in 1969. In show business, such tragic twists are, too often, all in the game.

This article originally appeared in the Aug 4 issue of Billboard.

Hot 100 60th Anniversary