Fifty Years of Sugar!

Sugar Sugar record

In 1969, a song recorded by a fictional group reached the top of the charts in no fewer than ten (!) countries, including the U.S., the U.K., and Canada. There’s no question that “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies, with lead vocals by Ron Dante and Toni (“I’m gonna make your life so sweet”) Wine, is pleasing to the ear, with a strong bass line and catchy hook; and it would easily be understandable if the single made a respectable showing in the Top Twenty or even the Top Ten. But to sail all the way to the #1 position in not just its country of origin, but around the world? This is a phenomenon that has had musicologists scratching their heads over the years—especially those musicologists who denigrated the tune as mere fluff, pigeonholing it as “bubblegum music,” a term that was used in a negative sense; implying a lack of sophistication or substance, music for kids which could hardly be expected to be embraced by the masses.

Video: “Sugar, Sugar” (original 1969 music video)

The masses proved the critics wrong, in spectacular fashion; and the songwriters, Jeff Barry and Andy Kim, got to cry all the way to the bank as “Sugar, Sugar” climbed the charts, and its popularity spread to such diverse locations as Ireland, Norway, and South Africa. Since its release, the track has been featured in a number of TV shows, movies, and even a few commercials. Recognition of the tune has never waned. Statistically speaking, most people on the planet were probably born since “Sugar, Sugar” first hit the airwaves, yet age seems to play little part in familiarity; start singing “Sugar…” and the chances are good that someone within earshot will respond with, “ah, honey honey.”

Video: “Sugar, Sugar” performed by lead singer Ron Dante (c. 1971)

So why did “Sugar, Sugar” come to enjoy such an amazing run, and why does it continue to be so well-known today? Beauty being in the ear of the beholder, analysis might prove to be an exercise in futility, but there is a possible explanation for the first part of the question. The Sixties were a turbulent time, and by the end of the decade, young people were in full rebellion mode. Kids were tuning in, turning on, and dropping out in larger and larger numbers. Drugs (such as marijuana and LSD) were everywhere and starting to become more prevalent in the media as well, with references finding their (sometimes sneaky) way into the hit songs of the day. With apologies to Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, sex seldom waited for love and marriage any longer, and the music reflected this; lyrics had begun to rhapsodize more about the former than the latter.

Then, of course, there was the Vietnam War and the (sometimes violent) protests against America’s involvement. Anti-war songs—”For What It’s Worth” (Buffalo Springfield), “Alice’s Restaurant” (Arlo Guthrie), “Eve of Destruction” (Barry McGuire), “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” (Country Joe and the Fish), and “Fortunate Son” (Creedence Clearwater Revival), to name just a few—had begun showing up on the charts several years previously. The Broadway musical Hair, which both glorified drugs and protested the war, had opened in 1968 and was a huge success, spawning several hit songs. The Beatles recorded their final studio album, Abbey Road; the group would formally disband within the coming year. And even as “Sugar, Sugar” was climbing the charts, Woodstock happened.

As musically pointed out by Bob Dylan—the times they were a-changin’ indeed.

And perhaps this was the secret to Sugar’s success—people were already growing weary with the inundation of loud, hard, “heavy” music (shouted rather than sung); with the news reports of violence and murder; with hippies and drugs and psychedelia and the popularity of casual sex and the death of monogamy (“Make love, not war” was the mantra of the younger generation) along with the proliferation of XXX-rated movies and full nudity in legit theater; and the protests, and the assassinations, and all of the political bullshit that got folks riled up and accomplished little. People yearned for simple entertainment, a return to basics; an uncomplicated love song, with an infectious melody and poetic heart-to-heart lyrics (sung rather than shouted) and a great hook. “Sugar, Sugar” provided this.

Video: Dancers doing their thing during the Top Ten countdown on American Bandstand, with “Sugar, Sugar” in the top position

Originally released in May of ’69, “Sugar” entered the U.S. Billboard Top 40 on August 16 of that year (which was, interestingly enough, the second day of the Woodstock music and art festival, taking place in Bethel, NY) and on September 20 reached the #1 position, where it remained for four weeks. It would go on to become the #1 record on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1969. The track has scarcely been off the airwaves since. Not only has it continued to receive airplay on oldies radio stations, both terrestrial and online, it has shown up in TV shows like The Simpsons, and films such as Bee Movie and Now and Then. The song itself has been recorded by several other artists, including Wilson Pickett, whose version went to #25 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and to #4 on the Billboard R&B chart. Pickett’s recording was heard in the 1997 film The Ice Storm—and also, oddly enough, during the opening credits of the 1990 live-action made-for-television movie Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again.

Video: “Sugar, Sugar” co-composer Andy Kim performing the song, which he recorded under the name Baron Longfellow in the early 1980s

In 2017, the song came full circle, in a sense, when it was featured on the hit TV series Riverdale with a new title (“Candy Girl [Sugar Sugar]”), additional verses with new lyrics, and a rather unusual but ultimately workable new arrangement that combined a modern hip-hop vocal interpretation with music from a high-school marching band. A couple of generations removed from the original, “Sugar, Sugar” has found a new identity and a new, younger audience.

Now, a half-century later, what of the real-life folks who had a hand in making “Sugar, Sugar” the hit that it was? Where are they, and what are they doing these days?

Most of the principals are still with us (although, sadly, music supervisor and record-label owner Don Kirshner passed away in 2011). Lead singer Ron Dante lives in Los Angeles and performs at dozens of venues every year; for the past three years in a row he has appeared with the Happy Together Tour, having opened the show with his own set in 2017 and filled in for Howard Kaylan (sidelined due to medical issues) as lead singer of The Turtles in 2018 and 2019. Songwriter and producer Jeff Barry relocated to California in the early 1970s, resides in the Santa Barbara area, and has been semi-retired for a number of years. Co-composer Andy Kim divides his time between LA and Toronto and continues to perform, record and make personal appearances, mainly in his native Canada; all proceeds from his annual Christmas shows go to charitable organizations. And Toni Wine regularly performs with Tony Orlando as keyboardist and vocalist with Orlando’s backing band, the Lefty Brothers.

Below (left to right): Ron Dante, 2017; Andy Kim, 2008; Toni Wine, 2019

(Click on each photo to enlarge. All photos taken by the blog author.)

Further reading:

Andy Kim Revisits Iconic Pop Hit ‘Sugar Sugar’ on Song’s 50th Anniversary

SPILL Feature: Sugar, Sugar: A Fine Example of 1960’S Pop – A Conversation With Songwriter Andy Kim

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