If you’re a One Hit Wonder that is still widely remembered after five decades, that one hit must’ve done something right. Which it surely did in the case of Looking Glass. Their smash “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” came out as a single – * – 50 years ago today in 1972. We’ll get to that asterisk in a bit.
Looking Glass was a four man rock band (and yes, by and large they were rock & roll even though this hit had them dubbed “New Jersey’s Beach Boys” by some) formed at the tail end of the ’60s at Rutgers University. It was largely led by Elliot Lurie, the lead guitarist and singer, with him and bassist Piet Sweval more or less splitting the songwriting duties. Lurie got the gold star for writing “Brandy.”
The song is of course, a sprightly and elegant early example of what would go on to be considered “yacht rock”, marked as much by Larry Gonsky’s keyboards and horns brought in by Larry Fallon (who says he was the producer of the record although he wasn’t credited as such) as they do to the guitars and bass. It tells of that fine waitress Brandy, whose name was very close to Lurie’s high school girlfriend’s, Randi. Brandy worked at a bar in a port, making all the sailors swoon, but she rejected all their advances because her heart went with a mysterious one who loved her but loved sailing the seas more, leaving her with nothing more than a locket to remember him by.
It was one of the eight tracks on their self-titled debut. They were signed to Epic Records by Clive Davis who saw them playing in a club, and they recorded it near Columbia/Epic’s offices in New York after a session with Steve Cropper (of Otis Redding records fame) in Memphis didn’t pan out well. They put out the first single from it at the beginning of ’72…technically that was “Don’t It Make You Feel Good”, a song written by Sweval. Apparently it didn’t make people feel good; it was widely ignored all over. Here’s where that earlier asterisk comes in. “Don’t It…” didn’t pan out. However, some clever DJ/manager at Washington DC’s most popular station at the time, WPGC, flipped the single over and gave a listen to the b-side : “Brandy.”
He liked it and decided to play it regularly for a few days. “The switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree” each time the station spun it, he recalls. Soon a few other northeastern stations got word of it and played it too. By the time Epic Records took note and started rushing out copies of the single with the “A” and “B” sides reversed, “Brandy” had already hit #1 in D.C. based solely on requests to the pop stations. In late summer, it hit the #1 spot nationally, displacing Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again Naturally” for a week (it was sandwiched between runs on top for that song.) As allmusic note, it was “one of those timeless and very special #1s that come from out of the blue”. Sadly for Looking Glass, they also point out “nothing (else by the band) comes close to the heights of ‘Brandy.’”
Indeed that was true. “Brandy” hit #1 in Canada as well as the U.S., got them a gold single and was the 12th biggest hit of a year chockfull of smash singles. But they’d only squeak into the top 40 once more, with the largely forgettable and forgotten “Jimmy Loves Mary Ann” before breaking up in 1974. Since then, Lurie’s gotten together a new version of Looking Glass to play some oldies festivals and Yacht Rock shows and has a decent career as an entertainment manager in Hollywood. Sweval, sadly died of AIDS in 1992 after being a moderately-popular session musician through the disco era.
As for “Brandy”, it’s retained its popularity every bit as much as the whisky Brandy used to serve the sailors. That’s in no small part due to being used in a plethora of movies and TV shows including A Night at the Roxbury, Charlie’s Angels (each member or their estates, received $30 000 for its use in that), Blackkklansman, the Wire and King of Queens. The Red Hot Chili Peppers at times play it in their shows and Kiss apparently were inspired to write “Hard Luck Woman” by it, with their hard luck woman apparently being that fine barmaid Brandy. Conversely, it inspired Barry Manilow to change a song name. His smash “Mandy” was written and first recorded by Scott English as “Brandy”, but he changed the name because he was worried people would automatically assume it was the Looking Glass song if he kept that name.
One final measure of its popularity : in 1971, Brandy was the 353rd most popular name given to baby girls in the U.S. By 1973, just after the single was a hit, Brandy was the 82nd most popular. Probably more than Billie Jean can say!