In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The best movie about music that I’ve seen in recent years might not really be a movie, and it might not really be about music, either. It’s the 68-minute Lovers Rock, the best of the films in Small Axe, the series that Steve McQueen made for Amazon last year. Lovers Rock takes place over a single night at a party in London, and it follows the different people who dance and fight and sing and fall in love at that party. Bad things happen in Lovers Rock, but the film also works as a dazed, fantastical vision of the sort of magic that can happen when people get together with friends and hear music that they love.
The musical culture depicted in Lovers Rock — Jamaican reggae, as received by the West Indian population of circa-1980 London — is the same culture that produced Maxi Priest, the singer who topped the Hot 100 with his single “Close To You” a decade after that fictional Lovers Rock party. Maxi Priest had come up through the London soundsystem scene of the ’80s, singing over reggae instrumentals at parties and street fairs and youth clubs. By the time Priest became a chart-topping pop singer, he’d translated the reggae of those soundsystem parties into something smoother and maybe blander. But Maxi Priest still represented an immigrant culture on a global stage, and his success feels, in retrospect, like an indicator of changing cultural tides.
Max Elliott was was one of nine siblings born to Jamaican immigrant parents in London. (When Elliott was born, the #1 song in America was Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared.”) There were a lot of musicians in Elliott’s family. His uncle Sydney Elliott was an early-’60s reggae singer, and his cousin Jacob Miller was the original frontman of the reggae group Inner Circle. (Miller died in a car crash in 1980. In 1993, a reissued version of Inner Circle’s 1989 single “Bad Boys” reached #8 on the Hot 100 after it became the theme song to the TV show Cops. “Bad Boys” is a 6.) Max Elliott has also said that another distant relation is Heavy D. (Heavy D’s highest-charting single, 1991’s “Now That We’ve Found Love,” peaked at #11.)
Max Elliott grew up singing in his parents’ Pentecostal church. As a kid, he heard plenty of gospel, but he also loved Jamaican reggae and American soul and the Beatles. As a teenager, shortly after his father died, Elliott found his way to Rastafarianism and to London’s soundsystems. At first, Elliott built speaker boxes. After running with a few smaller soundsystems, he became a member of the crew behind the Saxon Studio International soundsystem, and he took the name Maxi Priest as a performer. At parties, Priest would sing haunted, wistful melodies over the instrumental b-sides of reggae singles, and he made a name for himself with that approach. Tapes of Priest’s performances started making the rounds in reggae circles. In the mid-’80s, Priest started releasing his own singles.
Priest signed with the Virgin imprint 10 Records, and he first made the UK charts with his 1986 single “Strollin’ On.” A year later, Priest went to Jamaica and recorded his album Maxi / Maxi Priest with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the legendary rhythm section and production duo. On the plane to Jamaica, Priest’s manager convinced him to record a reggae version of Cat Stevens’ 1970 song “Wild World.” (When Stevens released it, “Wild World” peaked at #11.) Priest hated “Wild World,” but he understood that he’d never break in America if he didn’t have a familiar song, so he went along with it. The strategy worked. “Wild World” became Priest’s first charting single in the US, where it peaked at #25.
Maxi Priest wasn’t especially happy at Virgin, where he felt that he always took a backseat to his labelmate Ziggy Marley, the second-generation star with the famous last name. (In the US, Ziggy Marley’s highest-charting single is 1988’s “Tomorrow People,” which peaked at #39 — higher than any of his father’s singles had ever climbed.) Virgin moved Priest over to a newly relaunched imprint called Charisma, and Priest went to work on his 1990 album Bonafide.
Priest co-wrote “Close To You,” the lead single from Bonafide, with two British pop-industry professionals, Gary Benson and Winston Sela. Up until then, Benson’s biggest claim to fame was that he’d co-written “Let Her In,” which was a hit for John Travolta in 1976, when Travolta was still a sitcom star. (“Let Her In” peaked at #10. It’s a 2.) In a recent Songfacts interview, Priest told the story of how “Close To You” came to be:
I was in my Jeep on my way to a session with Gary Benson and Winston Sela. We were writing for the next album. It was a bright, sunny day, my sunroof was down, and I was just watching the road and watching people go by. And then all of a sudden, I just started singing, “I just wanna be close to you.” When I got to the studio they were working on something else, and I came in with this vibe. I was just singing and Gary asked me, “Where did you get that from? Where did that come from? I like it!”
“Close To You” is essentially an R&B-flavored club song, a bit like Priest’s fellow British Rastafarian singer Billy Ocean’s 1984 breakout hit “Caribbean Queen (No More Love On The Run).” But instead of the sleek post-disco sound of “Caribbean Queen,” “Close To You” has a syncopated breakbeat and rippling, echoing guitar. It’s smooth, breezy dance-pop, and its shivery string melody is lifted straight from Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life (However Do You Want Me),” a 1989 single that peaked at #4 in the US. (“Back To Life” is a 10. There were plenty of connections between Maxi Priest and Soul II Soul. Soul II Soul had started out as a London reggae soundsystem in the early ’80s, and Soul II Soul’s production masterminds Jazzie B and Nellee Hooper produced a couple of tracks on Priest’s Bonafide album.)
“Close To You” isn’t anywhere near as anthemic as “Back To Life.” Instead, its breezy, improvisatory feel is key to its appeal. “Close To You” scans as a seduction song, and Priest delivers its chorus with a yearning intensity: “I just wanna be close to you and do all the things you want me to.” But on the verses, Priest describes a dangerous temptress: “She was a jezebel, Miss Brixton Queen/ Living her life like a bad sweet dream.” (Americans in the late ’80s and early ’90s loved pop songs about jezebels.) Priest is clearly very into this “devil woman” who spins around like a wheel on fire and walks the tightrope on love’s highwire. He keeps reminding himself that she’s bad news, but he’s drawn in anyway.
Those “Close To You” lyrics don’t exactly hold up to scrutiny. We don’t get a clear picture of this woman, and Priest certainly doesn’t sketch her out as a three-dimensional person. But I kind of like the silliness of the lyrics: “Her blood was hot, she burned so bright/ A neon sign there in the night/ It’s hard to say if I went too far/ My heart still bears a scar.” At any rate, the delivery matters more than the words. Priest sings hard on the chorus, and he half-raps the verses, which might come off as dancehall toasting if Priest had more patois in his voice. Priest sounds a bit like he’s arguing with himself in two different voices, and he also sounds a bit like he’s just making the song up as he goes along.
Recording “Close To You,” Priest returned to Jamaica and worked with a trio of veteran reggae producers: Sly Dunbar, Geoffrey Chung, and Handel Tucker. The track has some skank to it, but it’s definitely not a straight-up reggae song, and Priest knows it. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Priest says, “The song was originally more like soul than reggae. I used those producers to swing it back over. I think we got a nice balance between reggae, pop, and soul — it has all three of the elements in there.” He’s right. “Close To You” has a wind-in-your-hair weightlessness to it. The song isn’t hugely memorable, but when it’s on, it floats.
“Close To You” was a global hit, but it was bigger in the US than it was anywhere else. The song crossed radio formats — #2 R&B, #12 Adult Contemporary, #12 Dance Club Songs. That crossover appeal is presumably what took “Close To You” to the top of the Hot 100 for a week. Talking to Songfacts, Priest remembered hearing that he had the #1 song in America: “I was in tears as I called my brothers and sisters, reminiscing about our parents and my brother Osburn that we had lost, wishing they were around to share that news. I was just overwhelmed with joy.”
When “Close To You” topped the Hot 100, reggae hadn’t fully broken through on the American pop charts. UB40, a very different British reggae act, had taken “Red Red Wine” to #1 two years earlier, and a few other reggae-adjacent songs had topped the charts over the years — things like Eric Clapton’s version of “I Shot The Sheriff” or Blondie’s version of “The Tide Is High.” “Close To You” was a lot closer to the London dance-pop hits of the late ’80s — the hits from artists like Soul II Soul and Neneh Cherry and even Fine Young Cannibals. And maybe “Close To You” helped open things up for the Jamaican dancehall songs that would top the Hot 100 in the years ahead.
Maxi Priest has never returned to #1, but he made more hits. “Just A Little Bit Longer,” the next single from Bonafide, peaked at #30 in 1991. That same year, Priest also sang the hook on the dancehall star Shabba Ranks’ US breakthrough “Housecall,” and Priest’s little “Shabba” ad-lib became a thing that kids in my sixth-grade class yelled all the time. (“Housecall” peaked at #37. Shabba Ranks’ highest-charting single, the 1993 Johnny Gill collab “Slow And Sexy,” peaked at #33.) Also in 1991, Priest duetted with the veteran R&B star Roberta Flack, who’s been in this column a bunch of times, on a cover of “Set The Night To Music,” a Diane Warren-written Starship song from the soundtrack of Vice Versa. Flack and Priest’s version peaked at #6, giving Flack her first top-10 hit in more than a decade. (“Set The Night To Music” is a 5.)
Maxi Priest’s most recent Hot 100 hit is 1996’s “That Girl,” which samples Booker T & The MGs’ “Green Onions.” The track features the Jamaican-born toaster Shaggy, who was just starting to break through to the mainstream and who will eventually appear in this column. It’s a cool song.
After his pop-chart moment ended, Maxi Priest kept touring and recording, and he’s still doing that now. Last year, for instance, Priest got together with guitar hero Robin Trower and producer Livingstone Browne to release the collaborative album United State Of Mind. Maxi Priest is a small but important part of the story of reggae’s slow, hard-fought acceptance in America. If “Close To Me” was a terrible song, that would still be a serious career distinction. Thankfully, “Close To Me” is not a terrible song. It’s pretty good.
BONUS BEATS: Jay Sean heavily interpolated “Close To Me” on “Make My Love Go,” his 2016 Sean Paul collaboration, and “Close To Me” translated just fine to a dancehall-inflected tropical-house context. Here’s the “Make My Love Go” video:
(Jay Sean and Sean Paul will both eventually appear in this column.)