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 Mac Davis by diving into his lone Hot 100 chart-topper, the can’t-be-tied-down ballad “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me.”
Not many artists in history have successfully made the transition from in-demand industry songwriter to sex symbol crossover star — but Lubbock, Texas’ own Mac Davis, who died on Tuesday (Sept. 29) at age 78, was the right man at the right time to do just that.
For his ability to write evocative, detailed lyrics, he was known as “the song painter” — a nickname he had already earned by the time of his 1970 solo debut album, aptly titled Song Painter. But for his easygoing charisma, multi-platform appeal and string of pop and country hits, he could also be rightly called the “Blake Shelton of the ’70s” — as fellow singer/songwriter Bobby Braddock deemed him in a Variety tribute this week, comparing Davis to the 21st century Nashville entertainer and former People Sexiest Man Alive.
Working his way through the music industry in the late ’60s, Davis got his big break in 1968 when Elvis Presley recorded his “A Little Less Conversation” and “Memories,” both co-written with Billy Strange. The King would release several more singles penned or co-penned by Davis, including the No. 3-peaking Billboard Hot 100 hit “In the Ghetto.” You couldn’t imagine two pop hits much more different than the funky and aggressively flirtatious “Conversation” and the mournful social-awareness ballad “Ghetto,” but such was Davis’ confidence and versatility as a writer, which he also brought to hits recorded by Bobby Goldsboro and Kenny Rogers & The First Edition in the early ’70s.
It was when he began his solo career in 1970, though, that Davis really started to swagger. Debut Song Painter generated his first Hot 100 entry under his own name in 1970, with the No. 53-peaking “Whoever Finds This, I Love You,” and his 1971 sophomore effort I Believe in Music produced a future signature song in the oft-covered anthemic title track. Then, in 1972, he achieved true solo stardom with his Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me album, and its title cut lead single — Davis’ first and only Hot 100 chart-topper.
“Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” reads as immediately off-putting from its very title. The sentiment is positively dripping with arrogance and condescension — the idea that Davis’ love is such an addictive substance that he has to essentially issue a surgeon’s warning before administering it would be a tough sell even from the most undeniable of Don Juans — and the rest of the lyric feels very much of its time, with lines like “Girl, you’re a hot-blooded woman, child” that would never fly in 2020. Reading the lyrics before actually hearing it, you might picture “Baby” as a blustery, funky jam, Davis dropping the titular caution with popped-collar malevolence in between searing guitar licks and a strutting bass line.
In fact, Davis goes the complete other way with it. “Baby” arrives on a gently lapping drum beat and plush bed of electric piano and strings, before Mac begins a vocal nearly as dolorous as Elvis’ on “In the Ghetto”: “Girl, you’re getting that look in your eyes/ And it’s starting to worry…” By the time the song gets to its chorus — mostly just a repeated plea of the title, mixed with a lone “‘Coz I’ll just use you, and I’ll set you free” elaboration — it’s clear that Davis is playing this extremely straight-faced, singing out of legitimate concern that his new girl will attempt to deny his free-bird nature if she grows too close. It’s pretty caddish stuff.
And yet, against all odds, the song never becomes completely unlikeable. Part of that is the singer/songwriter’s undeniable ear for melody — rare was the Mac Davis single you couldn’t sing along with by the end of the second chorus — and part is the immaculate sonic detail of the production, courtesy of Rick Hall. But a lot of it is just Davis himself, the kind of affable performer who ends up showing up in movies and TV shows simply because folks are always happy to see him. His unbuttoned-top-two-buttons charm permeates the track just enough — helped by his vocal, which goes for matter-of-fact directness rather than overwrought melodrama — to keep it from being totally insufferable. He’s still a heel, but one you can’t help admiring just the tiniest bit.
For his own part, Davis was never particularly fond of the song. The idea for it came to him when producer Hall asked him to write “a hook song” for his new album, and he ended up interpreting the direction somewhat literally, and perhaps a little sarcastically. Even with just the title phrase and its melody in place, Hall instantly saw the commercial potential in “Baby,” and Davis had the song written and recorded by the end of the next day. “I thought it was super-egotistical and pretentious,” he told Fred Bronson of the finished product for The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. “But Columbia released it as a single anyway.”
It was certainly the right moment for the song to become a hit: soft rock and easy listening had dominated the charts for much of the early ’70s, as smooth, country-tinged melodies from the likes of Bread, America and Lobo and lightly soulful adult contemporary ballads by Neil Diamond and Dawn had been scaling the Hot 100. “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” fit right in between all of them, replacing Three Dog Night’s “Black or White” atop the chart on the week of Sept. 23, 1972, and lasting there for three weeks. The song helped turn Davis into a star, leading not only to further pop and country hits, but eventually his own NBC variety show, and a well-received supporting role in the Nick Nolte football dramedy North Dallas Forty.
Davis didn’t approach No. 1 again on the Hot 100, returning to the top ten just once more, with 1974’s “Stop and Smell the Roses.” But he notched 15 total entries on the chart between 1968 and 1982, continued to have country radio success well into the ’80s, and then returned to industry life as a writer for other acts — collecting co-writes well into the 21st century, including for such diverse starry acts as pop star Bruno Mars, EDM icon Avicii, and alt-rock greats Weezer. We might not have gotten totally hooked on Mac Davis back in 1972, but we were never able to quite quit him, either.