America was late to the Spice Girls party. By the time the initial single “Wannabe” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 the week of Jan. 25, 1997, the quintet’s first three U.K. singles had already topped the chart in their homeland. When “Wannabe” landed in first place in the U.S. 20 years ago today, it fulfilled one of the group’s dreams. “Being No. 1 in America [was] something we were always really determined to do,” Melanie Chisholm (a.k.a. Melanie C, a.k.a. Sporty Spice) told Billboard in 1998. “We were ecstatic about it.”
They may have seemed like overnight successes, but the group had been working together for four years when they conquered America. The five individual women had been working as dancers and singers in the U.K. “Our paths crossed at various auditions and we’d done various jobs together,” Chisholm said. Then Geri Halliwell, Melanie Brown, Victoria Adams and Chisholm, along with Michelle Stephenson, answered an ad in The Stage that asked, “Are you street smart, extrovert, ambitious and able to sing and dance?” Stephenson was quickly out of the group and Emma Bunton was added.
Also dropped: their first manager. They soon found a new person to take charge. Simon Fuller, whose clients included Annie Lennox and Cathy Dennis, wasn’t looking to add another act to his roster at 19 Entertainment. “What clinched it for me was that they had written their own material and it was very strong,” Fuller told Billboard’s Dominic Pride. “Coupled with the fact that they all had really strong individual characters, it was irresistible.”
Fuller took the five women around to record labels in the U.K. and narrowed down the final choice to RCA and Virgin. He went with the latter, which had a strong roster of alternative acts, but no successful pop artists. Then Fuller teamed the Spice Girls with two different sets of producers: Paul Wilson & Andy Watkins, and Richard Stannard & Matt Rowe. That latter duo wrote “Wannabe” with the five members of the group and produced the recording session.
“You know when you’re in a gang and you’re having a laugh and you make up silly words?” Chisholm told Billboard. “We were having a giggle and we made up this silly word, zigazig-ha. We were in the studio and it all came together in this song. It only took about 30 minutes to write and then we demoed it up quickly fast. As soon as we recorded it, we knew we wanted it to be our debut single.”