Mar 14

ETERNAL ft BEBE WINANS – “I Wanna Be The Only One”

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#768, 31st May 1997

eternal All through the pre-Spice 90s, if you wanted a girl group, it was R&B you looked to, and the reason you looked there was En Vogue. Like the Spice Girls, they were immediately successful and widely copied. They mixed high-gloss beats with rich, harmony-driven soul and used it to deliver short, potent empowerment slogans. They were exhilarating, they seemed exactly right for their times, and their imitators and successors ultimately led to one of pop’s grandest and most inventive eras. And, like any great American band, they received the dubious compliment of a British knock-off: Eternal.

To be “the British [x]” is, by definition, to follow a hard act – and imitation is often the limit of such groups’ ambition. Eternal bounced mildly around the Top 5 for a few years, making records I remember a great deal less well or fondly than “My Lovin’” or “Free Your Mind”. When Louise Nurding left the group to strike out solo, she did exactly the same. So “I Wanna Be The Only One” at Number One felt like a reward for patient service, in line with the BRIT Awards Nominations Eternal kept racking up.

But for once the public get a group right: this is Eternal’s most likeable moment, with collaboration bringing out the best in them. I can’t bluff and pretend I know anything about the history of gospel in the 80s and 90s, but clearly the Winans family are a major force in it, and BeBe Winans came to this record with a dozen years’ experience duetting with his sister – mixing it up with female voices is his speciality, and his interplay with the group here is terrific.

“I Wanna Be The Only One” is purring along before he gets there – the first verse setting up the shape of the song, with a solo voice cradled by those soft “yeah yeah yeah yeah” backing pulses. But Winans wakes everyone up, sidling into the song like a televangelist – “Now you deserve a mansion / You can have the best in life” – and as soon as he arrives Eternal relax and start to enjoy themselves. Winans’ presence makes the song a nonsense as a narrative – who’s meant to be soothing who anymore? Where’s this pain that’s being erased? (BeBe Winans certainly doesn’t have an ounce of it). But that’s fine – his swaggering entrance is just a signal to appreciate the song as pure collaboration, to enjoy the heaped key changes, the vamps, the ecstatic group pile-on at the end.

The main downer is the backing, which sounds stiff and tinny – if Eternal were put together along a 1990 R&B girl group model, the beat still sounds stuck back there. As for the horns, it was a genuine surprise to find they’re credited to human beings. The backing gives the record a cheap gloss, an air of megachurch tackiness. Luckily it gets overwhelmed, lost in the tumble of voices at the end, all those overlapping “the only one – the only one” shouts. This sort of secular gospel climax has a bit of the motivational speaker about it, Winans clapping and coaxing the girls into being the best Eternal they can be. Subtle it isn’t, but it’s the most untroubled and joyful Number One of 1997 so far.



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  1. 31
    Izzy on 6 Mar 2014 #

    Did this go straight in at no.1 too?

    I remember my Guinness Book of Records 1986 or thereabouts having a list of tracks that had pulled off the feat – all huge event releases like Two Tribes or The Reflex. If IWBTOO did follow them, it’s scarcely the worst offender, but nevertheless an undeniably wimpy member of the lineage.

  2. 32
    Chelovek na lune on 6 Mar 2014 #

    #31 yes, it did

    I was rather fond of Eternal’s first album, a few years before this, even if it was mostly not much more than satisfying, not terribly challenging, pop music that sought to please, just the thing for a winter evening. (Wasn’t there some record-breaking stat, like the first all-female act to have six top 20 singles from one album, associated with it, too?), but don’t really recall any of the singles from the second one at all. . For some reason (well, moving from London to Fife, my more youthful avant-garde interests being somewhat physically out of reach) I’d been listening to a lot of music broadly in this genre in the few years before this – and I definitely could describe Eternal as a slightly inferior, if more consistent*, British relation of En Vogue. I’d also stick up for “Just A Step From Heaven”, and also “Save Our Love”, and even “Oh Baby I…” as well, perhaps more than this.

    *although, glancing through their list of hit singles, perhaps, in fact, not so consistent. A few distinctly sub-par releases among the more delightful ones.

    This, though: I like, not immeasurably, but a fair bit. It’s enjoyable radio music – despite the shortcomings already discussed. And to my aging ears, it sounds like a “real number 1” – ie one with broad and enduring appeal – in a way that by 1997 was becoming less common. It may not quite set the world on fire, but it certainly makes it sound like a nicer place for as long as it lasts.

  3. 33
    iconoclast on 6 Mar 2014 #

    This is difficult to feel strongly about to any extent; there’s nothing especially wrong with it, but nor is there much to get excited about either. It’s a passable representative of the genre, but you can’t help feeling it would be a lot more convincing if it had been done properly over in the USA. And the multiple key changes at the end seem to say nothing more than “Help, it’s run out of steam, what are we going to do?” FIVE.

  4. 34
    Tom on 6 Mar 2014 #

    It was in the Top 20 best-sellers of that year, so it probably meets the ‘broad appeal’ part of that criteria. Enduring? Dunno. I still hear it occasionally, but I’m heavily primed to notice when I hear upcoming/recently covered Popular stuff. (Wiki also reveals it was the 3rd most played song of the year on radio, confirming Kat’s memory way upthread!)

  5. 35
    thefatgit on 6 Mar 2014 #

    As promised, I had a bit of an Eternal-centric 90s R&B binge on YT. It’s amazing how these songs tend to blend into each other, though that’s not to say none of them are any good. Another vote from me for “Just A Step From Heaven” and “Stay” is also good. “I Wanna Be The Only One” was instantly recognisable once the first few bars played. I can’t imagine why these songs hadn’t stuck in the memory longer. I avoid oldies radio and music channels like Magic etc. So I thought about this glaring blindspot some more and picked a slice of 2nd tier 90s US R&B as a comparison (Brownstone’s “If You Love Me”) and realised why. Even a laid back track like IYLM has much greater impact compared to JASFH or IWBTO1. They’re definitely the safe side of the pop avenue, and as Marcello mentions, if Radio 2 remembers the 90s Eterenal are likely to feature heavily (perish the thought anything mildly “challenging” would ever get on their playlist).

    En Vogue and TLC were infinitely slicker than Eternal, not just because there was more money thrown in their direction, but also their songs were better IMO. “Don’t Let Go” is a stone cold classic and it’s not even my favourite of theirs (“Hold On” has that honour). As far as TLC are concerned, I see them more in the Salt ‘n’ Pepa mould than the classic R&B girl group model. Of course “Waterfalls” is the exception that proves the rule, as does “Unpretty” (maybe they’re less hip hop than I remembered?).

  6. 36
    Auntie Beryl on 7 Mar 2014 #

    TCL started off with a heavy sprinkle of hip hop on their R&B cereal (Ain’t Too Proud To Beg), but quickly moved away with the raps becoming restricted to the middle eights, if they were there at all. See also No Scrubs.

    Agree with the praise for En Vogue here; they could jump genres effortlessly (Free Your Mind set a template) and rarely made an average record. Shame they couldn’t hold a consistent line up together.

    Eternal’s story is more interesting than their records, which are probably still in hourly rotation on Chiltern FM. The Big Reunion hasn’t really scratched the surface if some of the stories in circulation are true.

  7. 37
    punctum on 7 Mar 2014 #

    Never heard of TCL. Perhaps you meant TLC.

  8. 38
    Mark G on 7 Mar 2014 #

    He was thinking of “Then Clay Long”

  9. 39
    Tommy Mack on 7 Mar 2014 #

    It’s the best pottery blog on the web.

  10. 40
    Auntie Beryl on 7 Mar 2014 #

    Ah yes, TLC. Stupid technology.

  11. 41
    James BC on 7 Mar 2014 #

    Putting the L last could be a commentary on how Left-Eye became underused when the hip hop element was de-emphasised after the first album. In the Unpretty video she just sits there doing sign language – I don’t think her voice is on the song.

  12. 42
    Rich on 7 Mar 2014 #

    The one thing that comes to mind with this was it was good that they got a No.1 at last, while their chart career suggests it was just before they ran out of steam; a fate similar to a three-digit boyband and – though too early to call it but should they wind down soon – a day-of-the-week girl group.

    Comment #11 – I had always heard it as ‘mansion’!

    Did they ever perform this live with Luther Vandross? When the song was played (albeit as a live version) during a pub quiz I proudly offered Winans’ name to the rest of the team for completeness, but the answer was read out as Eternal with Luther – virtually nothing online indicates this to be the case, so now I think was stiffed!

  13. 43
    thefatgit on 7 Mar 2014 #

    Bebe and Luther have a similar vocal range. Personally, I think Luther’s voice is a little rounder, but it’s not hard to believe a less than diligent pub quizmaster would get mixed up.

  14. 44
    Mark G on 8 Mar 2014 #

    Less than diligent pub quizmasters should be rounded up tbqh!

  15. 45
    flahr on 8 Mar 2014 #

    #36: Oh, so that’s why I always mix up TLC and No Doubt – one of them is No Doubt, one of them is “No Scrubs”.

  16. 46
    Steve Mannion on 22 Apr 2014 #

    I am quite fond of the “yeahyeahyeahyeahyeahs” on this and do wonder if they directly inspired Destiny’s Child’s ‘No No No’ (who could and perhaps should’ve added the two other ‘No’s onto that title).

  17. 47
    Ben Gould on 1 Feb 2021 #

    This is the only Eternal song that gets played on Radio 2 these days, I definitely remember liking some of their other songs far more but maybe that’s just because I haven’t heard them for so long? Perhaps being a number one gives IWBTOO (acronym needs work) that bit more longevity.

    I remember an interview with Kelle Bryan after she quit that featured allegations of bullying by the Bryan sisters, which might provide a reason for Louise’s earlier departure too.

  18. 48
    Ben Gould on 1 Feb 2021 #

    Edit: the Bennett sisters, dammit.

  19. 49
    Gareth Parker on 18 May 2021 #

    I think Tom’s 6/10 is about right here. Nothing special in my eyes, but decent enough.

  20. 50
    Mr Tinkertrain on 30 Mar 2022 #

    I went through a spell last year of listening to all of the Now albums from the 90s (some helpful person has made playlists of them all on Spotify) and I was surprised how many Eternal songs kept turning up which I’d forgotten about. This one was obviously the biggest and it’s solid enough, very listenable. But I preferred Don’t You Love Me (a moodier single which came right before this) and Angel Of Mine (a cover of which was apparently much bigger in the US).

    I can go to a slightly generous 6/10 for this one.

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