We’re #2! – All-4-One’s “I Swear”

“Till death do us part, I’ll love you with every beat of my heart, and I swear.”

Inspired by Tom Ewing’s “Popular” (which traces the history of UK #1 singles) and Tom Breihan’s “The Number Ones” (which does the same for US #1s), “We’re #2!” looks at the history of those songs which almost but not-quite managed to reach the summit of the UK Singles Chart. Beginning a quarter century back from this column’s inception (March 2019) up until whenever the Present Day comes about.

007] All-4-One – I Swear

Reached #2: 26th June 1994

Weeks at #2: 7

“I Swear” took the long way around to its eventual total pop domination, working in tandem with Wet Wet Wet’s unstoppable “Love is All Around” to hold the charts hostage on both sides of the Atlantic for almost the entirety of Summer 1994. Songwriters Frank Myers and Gary Baker had been kicking around the track since 1987, for one. Baker, a resident of Sheffield, Alabama, had called up his buddy Myers prior to one of their regular songwriting meet-ups to pitch him the title “I Swear” and on the latter’s three-hour drive down from his home in Nashville, Tennessee, Myers proceeded to write the music, melody and chorus lyrics before he’d finished the journey. The pair would then write another song that day, enjoy a barbeque together, before stopping off at Muscle Shoals’ famed Fame Recording Studios to hash out the verses and have Baker record the demo.

Everyone passed on “I Swear.” Everyone “I Swear” was pitched to passed on it for five years. But Myers and Baker refused to give up. In 1992, during a session with Marie Osmond’s keyboard player Jerry Williams, they recorded another demo, this time with Myers on vocals. A year later, Myers took a meeting with then-breaking out country star John Michael Montgomery, who was preparing to work on his follow-up, where he played the singer the latest “I Swear” demo. According to Myers, the response was: “I like this song a lot. It’s a little pop. I’m not sure it’s better than what we have.” The meeting ended ambiguously. A few weeks later, Myers ambushes Montgomery at a ceremony to present the latter with his Gold album and yet again plays him “I Swear.” This time: traction. Montgomery says to send it to his producer Scott Hendricks for evaluation, Myers disappears on tour after doing so, then comes home to find out that “I Swear” has been cut and will be the lead single on Montgomery’s highly-anticipated sophomore LP, Kickin’ it Up. Finally, “I Swear” would get its moment in the sun.

And “I Swear” does indeed get its moment in the sun. On 19th November 1993, the single is released and soon enough climbs to the top spot of Billboard’s Country Charts, spending four weeks on the top and becoming the biggest-selling country single of 1994. Despite this, the song only tops out at #42 on the Billboard Hot 100. Atlantic Nashville’s President at the time Rick Blackburn refused pressure from Atlantic Records’ CEO at the time Doug Morris to have Montgomery record a more traditional pop-leaning version of the crossover single in waiting, or even to push the track on pop radio properly, citing concerns that country radio would be offended by the move. (Given the state of country radio and its notoriously cliquey attitudes as to what does and does not get supported by those in charge, Blackburn’s reticence to risk a growing superstar’s career on a roll of the pop dice makes an understandable sense.)

But Morris knew a hit when he heard one and, likely more accurately, wasn’t about to let mountains of money disappear off the table because of cliquey bullshit notions of ‘authenticity.’ So, he did what anyone in his situation would do: he got some wide-eyed newbies on his roster about to finish up their debut album to record the pop-leaning version with a superstar producer and rushed the cover to market barely six months later.

It is almost impossible to critically discuss All-4-One without invoking Boyz II Men in any capacity. Both are foursome vocal groups operating within R&B and occasional pretentions to new-jack swing, with a heavy emphasis on buttery-smooth vocal harmonies and production choices which are designed to accentuate said vocals as much as possible. They both have names consisting of a plural noun followed by a number written out in a stylistic manner and topped off by another noun. Crucially, All-4-One formed in 1993, just one year after the Boyz hit it huge with their international #1 single “End of the Road” from the Boomerang soundtrack. That song went to #1 in the UK for three weeks plus a few additional stays at #2 either side, but the group struggled to maintain that foothold in the UK market afterwards like they did in the US. II’s lead single “I’ll Make Love to You” would crack the Top 5 later in 1994, but otherwise the Boyz would flounder in the undertow of the UK charts after their one giant hit. To use 2019 parlance, one could say that their specific musical niche was free real estate.

In their defence, the story of All-4-One contains a lot of the touchstones found in R&B success stories of the time, to enough of a degree that I can temper my cynicism at least somewhat rather than just proclaiming “COPYCATS” in as smug-prick a tone as possible. Formed in Antelope Valley, California, the group began as just high-school friends Tony Borowiak and Alfred Nevarez who managed to land a job together singing local radio jingles. At the studio, the duo met Jamie Jones and quickly became a trio before discovering Delious Kennedy at a karaoke contest and subsequently ballooning into a quartet. None of the members had any formal vocal training before they got together but they had each grown up singing in various church choirs whilst Borowiak had experience performing in a barbershop quartet, both of which explain the infatuation with smooth intricate harmonies and minimalism on the showcase ballads that dominate their self-titled debut’s first-half. After officially becoming All-4-One, they auditioned for Blitzz Records, an independent L.A. label preparing to sell itself to Atlantic Records, with (legend goes) an impromptu acapella cover of “So Much in Love,” a 1963 #1 hit for doo-wop group The Tymes, which instantly got them a contract.

Issued as their debut single in December of ‘93, “So Much in Love” hit the Top 5 in the US and eventually went Gold. (In the UK, it topped out at #60. When re-released in the wake of “I Swear”’s mega-success, it topped out at a new peak… #49.) The album was done, ready for release, when Doug Morris called the burgeoning superstars into his office to play them John Michael Montgomery’s new country hit “I Swear.” Thinking Morris was asking for their opinion on the song, but not wholly enthused about it on first listen, they responded once the track had finished “ok” which was all Morris needed to strong-arm them into the recording studio. Kennedy would later recall their initial protestations of “it’s a country song, why would we [record] that?” but they unsurprisingly had no say in the matter. Instead, they were buddied up with super-producer and recent Arista signing David Foster to pump out the cover before leaving for their first big tour; a turnaround so quick that first pressings of the CD didn’t even feature the song on the track listing.

Much like with the just-covered “Baby, I Love Your Way,” Foster and Morris were clearly taking absolutely no chances in this somehow not becoming a ginormous hit. Gone is the scene-setting instrumental intro of Montgomery’s original, replaced by another full-force blasting of the titular chorus acapella for prime mixing on instant-gratification pop radio stations. The guitar solo at the midpoint of Montgomery’s take is instead subsumed by the obligatory tasteful saxophone solo because Kenny G was abso-fucking-lutely every-fucking-where in 1994 America. And I swear that the tempo has been taken down just the teensiest of notches, and the initial key having been raised half-a-step, in order to make it work absolutely perfectly on end-of-the-night romantic prom dancefloors the nation over. Oh, also, naturally, there’s a climactic key change for the last chorus but you likely don’t need me to tell you that. More puzzlingly, the line “and when there’s silver in your hair” has been changed to “and when just two of us are there” despite the fact that the former is a sweet declaration of truly committed love into older age and the latter is overwritten and meaningless.

But here comes the big twist, folks: unlike with Big Mountain’s garish take on “Baby, I Love Your Way,” I actually quite like “I Swear” and definitely prefer the All-4-One cover to John Michael Montgomery’s original. Montgomery’s take isn’t bad, but I don’t think that the song itself entirely works as a country ballad. It doesn’t have any muck under the tires, musically, and Montgomery’s voice is a tad reedy in the lines with a higher register, he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the song he’s performing. If anything, I’d say that the country version is a touch corny, which sounds like an objectively ridiculous thing to say when one queues up the All-4-One take afterwards but it’s a matter of intent and tone.

The All-4-One version knows exactly what it wants to be, aims squarely at its target and goes all out in making sure that bullseye is hit. The boys gleefully take the opportunity to throw in some overblown riffing as the track winds down, their harmonies are polished to a mirror shine, and they put so much showmanship feeling into their deliveries that it almost manages to cover for the fact that the song has all the emotional depth and poetic imagery of a mid-range Clintons card. “I’ll build your dreams with these two hands/We’ll hang some memories on the walls” is the only effective couplet in a song otherwise trading in generalities and a possible shift halfway through from a repentant breakup ballad into a sappy love song – plus, again, changing the song’s best lyric into a forgot-to-delete-temp lyric for no understandable reason. Much like with a lot of lower-deck boybands of the time (and even today), I could not tell you whose voice belongs to whom or discern any unique personality from any one member, but that hegemony serves the song and David Foster’s production was worth every last penny; it screams “MEGA-HIT RECORD” so loudly and proudly that you can hear the declaration from space.

And was it ever a mega-hit record. In the UK, it held down the #2 slot behind the omnipresent and indefatigable “Love is All Around” for seven straight weeks, spent 14 weeks in the Top 20, and finished as the year’s third-biggest single. In the States: #1 for 11 consecutive weeks (since “Love is All Around” stalled out at #41 in that country), eventually going Platinum, and the second-biggest single of the year behind only Ace of Base’s “The Sign.” “I Swear” went supernova. Montgomery’s take won Frank Myers and Gary Baker a Grammy for Best Country Song, whilst the All-4-One take landed them a Song of the Year nomination that ultimately went to Bruce Springsteen for “Streets of Philadelphia.” All-4-One’s self-titled debut album went 4x Platinum in the US and they parlayed that success into a hastily-recorded follow-up, 1995’s And the Music Speaks, and prime guest spots on the soundtracks to The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Space Jam – their contribution to the latter, “I Turn to You,” would later be covered by Christina Aguilera and subsequently taken to #3 in the US.

Unfortunately for the boys, the transitory state of the boyband scene that they had thrived in – which, post-New Kids on the Block, was basically just themselves and Boyz II Men – very quickly found its next evolution with the arrival of the Spice Girls, the rise of TLC and the redefinition of what R&B could even sound like thanks to the genre-redefining production work of Timbaland and Missy Elliott, and they never so much as sniffed the kind of success afforded to “I Swear” ever again. That said, they not only never officially broke up and not only are they still recording and releasing and touring music to this day, but they’ve remained the exact same quartet that impressed the Blitzz Records executives all those years ago. Sure, they’ve done varying solo ventures over the years – most notably, Delious Kennedy hosts an online chat show called FlashBack Tonight where he interviews fellow forgotten pop stars from the 80s and 90s – but they’ve never stopped performing together and they still genuinely love hanging around one another.

In the UK, the album peaked at #25 and the lead single of their second album spent one week at #33 before plummeting out of the Top 100 completely. They had their moment and then Britain otherwise blanked on their entire existence, partly because they never recorded a song as good as or better than “I Swear” ever again and partly because Britain’s music scene was in the midst of its own transitory period that would very soon have almost no use for the kind of music peddled by groups like All-4-One. In one of the later Robin Sparkles episodes of How I Met Your Mother, the one where Robin Scherbatsky records her “You Oughta Know” and it’s treated as a huge musical innovation except that it’s the early 2000s instead of 1995, it is said that the 90s took a while to reach Canada. Since a lot of what we now consider representative of the 90s UK pop scene doesn’t really pick up until late ‘94/early ‘95, you can arguably say the same was true for our country as well. But the times would soon change. Adapt or die. All-4-One did one of those things.

Bonus Beats: You may have read all of this write-up and considered it a missed opportunity that All-4-One and John Michael Montgomery didn’t record a duet version of the song that, in both its forms, made them superstars around the time of the cover’s release. Well, in 2015, both artists rectified that oversight for All-4-One’s seventh studio album, Twenty+ – a mixture of new material and re-recordings of their biggest hits.

The #1: Much like in 1991 when Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” paired up with Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” to hold the perches of the Summer charts hostage for six endless weeks, “I Swear” spent seven weeks firmly locked into place behind Wet Wet Wet’s invulnerable “Love is All Around.” At least both of the 1994 songs were significantly better than the 1991 tracks. “Love is All Around” is still a 2, mind, cos we’re only talking about baseline tolerable music here.

Five-Star Flops: On the 17th July, Week 4 of “I Swear”’s time in the #2 slot, Warren G and Nate Dogg’s legendary G-Funk masterpiece “Regulate” debuted at #9 before rising to its peak of #5 the week after. One of the greatest hip hop jams of all-time with an iconic beat and impeccable storytelling lyricism, it still sounds as cool-as-fuck and utterly timeless today as it did upon its initial release 25 years ago.  Just hit the eastside of the LBC, “Regulate” by Mr. Warren G is a 5.

(Warren G would go on to have two UK #2s that we will cover in due course.)

A new entry of We’re #2! will be posted every Saturday.


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