Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Johnny Lee, “Hey Bartender”

“Hey Bartender”

Johnny Lee

Written by Floyd Dickson

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

August 26, 1983

Johnny Lee’s best known for his hits from earlier in the decade, but “Hey Bartender” blows all of them out of the water.

My primary criticism of his earlier work was how lethargic those records were.  He sounded disconnected from the lyrics he was singing, and the production seemed designed to lull listeners into a coma just mild enough to keep them from changing the radio station.

“Hey Bartender” is a shot of adrenaline, with Lee sounding fully present and even enthusiastic as he asks the bartender to keep the beers coming.  Brass instrumentation is used effectively to create a bit more drama, but it all would have been for naught if Lee himself wasn’t so energetic on the record.

Once again, the decade’s most underrated MVP is behind the console.  Jimmy Bowen’s ability to properly arrange and mix records shouldn’t have made him stand out as much as he did during this era in Nashville, but it did.  Johnny Lee certainly never sounded better than he does here.

“Hey Bartender” gets a B+

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. While I like this recording, I’m not sure that it is anything special as a country song. It is an old mid-1950s R&B song that I think most people would associate with its use by The Blues Brothers in various performances on Saturday Night Live and in live performances. The song appeared on their multi-million selling album Briefcase Full of Blues and received considerable airplay in some areas (it was released as a single in 1978 although it didn’t chart)

  2. …then again, it would have taken an “800 pounds gorilla” to stand up to jimmy bowen most of the times. not exactly the weight class i see johnny lee in. for a moment though the 50s were nicely back in the 80s.

  3. I will forever associate this song with a family fishing vacation we took to Ely, Minnesota. It was seemingly always on whatever radio station serviced that neck of the northwoods. My mom had a little radio playing in the cabin and this song was in heavy rotation.

    As such, it has a sentimental spot in my memory and heart. It’s hard to shake these associations from childhood.

    I agree that Lee sounds like he found another gear with this one even though I still went to bat for his earlier “sleepier” hits.

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