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Ask Billboard: Whistlers Smother The Hot 100’s 10

Four songs featuring whistling currently rank in the top tier. What other unusual sounds have stood out in prior pop smashes?

Ask Billboard is updated every Friday. As always, submit your questions about Billboard charts, sales and airplay, as well as general music musings, to askbb@billboard.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, state and country, if outside the U.S.


Hi Gary,

With Foster the People‘s “Pumped Up Kicks” climbing 13-8 and OneRepublic‘s “Good Life” rebounding 11-10, there are now four songs in the top 10 of this week’s Billboard Hot 100 that prominently feature whistling. Maroon 5‘s “Moves Like Jagger,” featuring Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears‘ “I Wanna Go” round out the quartet.


What an obscure, but interesting (I think), chart fact!

Best regards,

Brian Brostek
Boston, Massachusetts

Hi Brian,

Those songs are certainly putting the “h-i-t” in “whistle.”

Yes, a true chart quirk to have that many such high-charting current songs. We’ll see if any can make it to No. 1, as not too many tracks featuring whistling have managed to top the Hot 100. As “Jagger” rolls 8-3 with dual Digital and Airplay Gainer awards this week, Maroon 5 and Aguilera could be a candidate (Also interestingly, the past two weeks mark the first time that Aguilera and Spears have shared space in the Hot 100’s top 10 simultaneously. The former “Mickey Mouse Club” co-stars missed appearing in the top tier together by a mere week in June/July 2000).

What are some prominent examples of past Hot 100 smashes featuring whistling?

“Goodbye Stranger,” Supertramp, No. 15, 1979

“Centerfold,” J. Geils Band, No. 1, six weeks, 1982

“Walk Like an Egpytian,” the Bangles, 1986

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Bobby McFerrin, two weeks, 1988

“Patience,” Guns N’ Roses, No. 4, 1989

“Joyride,” Roxette, No. 1, one week, 1991

“Wind of Change,” Scorpions, No. 4, 1991

The Harlem Globetrotters’ theme, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” is one of the best-known whistling anthems. Curiously, it spent just one week on the Hot 100 – at No. 100 – dated 49 years ago yesterday (Aug. 18, 1962), as recorded by the Carroll Bros.

And …

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding, No. 1, four weeks, 1968. Redding is currently back on the Hot 100 as a guest on Jay-Z and Kanye West‘s “Otis” (No. 36, after reaching No. 12), marking his first chart appearance since 1969. Should it rebound (speaking of the Globetrotters) and reach the top 10, it would join “Dock” as his only top 10 titles.

What’s just as interesting to me is, with the historic Hot 100 coronation of Katy Perry‘s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” we have a song with a prominent saxophone solo back at the summit.

Katy Perry Makes Hot 100 History: Ties Michael Jackson’s Record

Lenny Pickett, tenor saxophone soloist with the “Saturday Night Live” band (since 1985), performs on the song, which recalls a golden age of pop music when sax solos were common in Hot 100 hits, i.e., Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” Glenn Frey’s “The One You Love” and Wham!‘s “Careless Whisper.”

Sax is clearly selling again. Lady Gaga‘s “The Edge of Glory,” of course, provides a touching tribute to the career of E Street Band member Clarence Clemons, who passed away in June. The song reached No. 3 on the Hot 100 and stands as Clemons’ final masterpiece in a career of adding sax flair to several Bruce Springsteen hits.

Another song that blatantly heralds the return of the saxophone in pop music is Alexandra Stan’s “Mr. Saxobeat.” The cut bullets at No. 33 on Pop Songs and No. 53 on the Hot 100 after reaching the top on multiple European charts. The debut hit from the Romanian singer led Dance Airplay for seven weeks beginning in May.

Why the rebirth of the saxophone in pop music? Billboard’s jazz and dance charts manager Gordon Murray theorizes that the instrument was a natural fit for hit songs until the early ’90s, when it became less common. At that time, top 40 veered into two extremes: grunge/harder rock, upon the arrival of Nirvana, and rap/R&B, which by then was becoming a core sound in mainstream music. Pushed from the spotlight was mainstream pop. Now, Murray notes, hit music is at its most retro and “pure pop” point in a long time, making the melodic sounds of the saxophone again a better fit in popular songs.

And, when such superstars as Perry and Lady Gaga are leading the charge, younger generations are surely discovering the instrument’s appeal and validity on pop radio.

Ask Billboard Asks You: from whistling to sax solos, when it comes to the Hot 100’s history, what hit songs can you think of that have featured uncommon sounds?

Two favorites of mine immediately come to mind: R.E.M.‘s “Losing My Religion” (a No. 4 Hot 100 hit in 1991) and Shawn Colvin‘s “Sunny Came Home” (No. 7, 1997) both gave rare chart shoutouts to the mandolin.

(Yodeling and hand claps count, too. Folk singer Cheryl Wheeler even invented her own instrument on her 2009 song, “My Cat’s Birthday,” which features a “catash.” What’s that? The song is an ode to her late cat, Penrod. What better way, she thought, to honor the feline than to have it posthumously perform on its own tribute. Thus, his ashes infuse the insides of the maraca-like instrument bearing his species’ name. Folk singers’ cleverness knows no bounds).

Please send your examples of pop hits featuring instruments not usually found in mainstream music to askbb@billboard.com and we’ll pick up the discussion next week.

Have a great weekend!