On December 24 1995, Oh Father was released as the second UK single from Madonna’s ballads retrospective, Something To Remember.
Warner had initially declined the option to release Oh Father in most European markets when it became the fourth North American single from Like A Prayer in late 1989, instead opting for a more by-the-numbers portrait of childhood innocence with the release of Dear Jessie. Why it was determined to be a better idea in 1995, following its poor showing on the U.S. charts, is anyone’s guess. One possibility is that Oh Father‘s brilliant preexisting music video provided an easy, cost-free means of promoting the song while Madonna remained unavailable due to her recording commitments for the Evita soundtrack.
While I would personally rank Oh Father among Madonna’s very best musical and lyrical efforts, and its music video an underrated classic – it never had the makings of a commercial hit. And history repeated itself when the song’s dark subject matter once again stunted its ability to gain momentum on radio for its British release. It became only her third UK single at the time to peak outside the top-ten when it stalled at #16 in its first charting week. It fared better in Finland and Italy, however, reaching #6 in both countries.
On October 24 1989, Oh Father was released in North America as the fourth single from the Like A Prayer album. France, Japan and Australia also opted to issue the single in 1989, while other European markets waited for Madonna’s 1995 ballads compilation, Something To Remember, to promote the song. Oh Father was written and produced by Madonna & Patrick Leonard.
Leonard recalled the recording of the track in a 2014 interview with Billboard Magazine:
My favorite thing that we ever recorded, ever – or wrote – is Oh Father. That to me is the best thing we ever did. So, it didn’t surprise me because we knew when we did it, that there was something about this that was in a way kind of the most real thing.
For that song, the ‘record’ button was only pressed three times. It was pressed to do the track, live, with her singing live. Then we did the orchestra. And then we did a double of her vocal when we were mixing. That’s it. So it’s real. It’s something that I really wanted to do and she was kind enough to say “let’s try this,” and it was not easy.
There’s two or three guitar players playing. I’m playing keyboards. Jai Winding was playing keyboards. There was a percussionist and a drummer – and she’s singing – all at the same time.
These days, people go “wow, that seems crazy.” Those days it wasn’t uncommon for everybody to be playing together even though you’re not a band. But it was one of those things where the arrangement was tricky enough, that it really took some working out to get it all right.
Even all those weird synth overdubs and things – all those things were being done live. We worked out all the parts, had all the sounds. I remember that we cut it live, and then put the orchestra on. You’re not doubling the orchestra, so it’s one pass for the orchestra.
When I say [the ‘record’ button was] pressed three times, it might have gotten pressed 10 [times] that day, but it was ultimately one that stayed there. If you see what I’m saying. When we were mixing it, [mixer] Bill Bottrell suggested that we double the choruses. I remember even being a little upset about it (Laughs). Like, look, “we’ve got an amazing record that we only pressed the record button twice – can’t we leave it?” He said, “three isn’t exactly shameful.” We doubled the lead vocal on the choruses, and that was it.
On January 6 1990, Madonna’s Oh Father single peaked at #20 on the Billboard Hot 100 and completed her run of 16 consecutive Top 5 singles in USA.
Two years after her mother’s death, her father married the family’s housekeeper, Joan Gustafson. At this point, Madonna began to express unresolved feelings of anger towards her father that lasted for decades, and developed a rebellious attitude. She explained in the May 1989 issue of Interview magazine:
That rebellious attitude really came, I think, when my father remarried. Because for the three years before he married, I clung to him. It was like, OK, now you’re mine, and you’re not going anywhere. Like all young girls, I was in love with my father and I didn’t want to lose him. I lost my mother, but then I was the mother, my father was mine. Then he got taken away from me when he married my stepmother. It was then that I said, OK I don’t need anybody. No one’s going to break my heart again. I’m not going to need anybody. I can stand on my own and be my own person and not belong to anyone.
On December 30 1989, Dear Jessie peaked at number-five on the UK singles chart. The track was released as the fourth single from Like A Prayer in Europe (with the exception of France which instead opted to service the North American/Japanese fourth single, Oh Father) and as the fifth single in Australia.
Dear Jessie was written and produced by Madonna and Patrick Leonard and was inspired by Leonard’s young daughter, Jessie, with whom Madonna had developed a special connection.
The psychedelia-infused reflection on childhood fantasy and innocence was particularly poignant within the context of the Like A Prayer album’s sequencing, with its segue into Oh Father offering a stark musical and emotional contrast that is perhaps one of the most effective in Madonna’s body of work.
On November 11 1989, the music video for Oh Father premiered on MTV in the US. Filmed at Culver Studios, California in late October, 1989 by director David Fincher, the black & white clip drew cinematic influence from the 1941 Orson Welles film, Citizen Kane. Its narrative expanded on darker elements from Madonna’s life – focusing on the death of her mother, her relationship with her father and the recurring effects of childhood trauma in her adult life. The clip’s icily detached symbolism and heavy subject matter are counter-balanced by overarching themes of forgiveness and inner-strength.
In a 2009 interview with The Guardian, Fincher recalled:
“I had kinda talked Madonna into releasing Oh Father as a single and we did this video and were very happy with the video – but nobody ever saw it because the song wasn’t a hit.”
Although the video was put into rotation on MTV, the channel had requested that Madonna remove a scene that displayed a close-up of the deceased mother’s lips sewn shut – a request that she refused to consider. Compounded by a tepid response to the song from radio, where its bleak overtones clashed with playlists of the day, the single stalled at number twenty in the US – her lowest peak on the Hot 100 at the time (excluding her first two singles, neither of which broke into the Hot 100). In Canada the video was put into heavy rotation and the release fared slightly better on the charts, peaking at number fourteen.
Despite its relative lack of commercial appeal, the song and video are frequently cited as a creative triumph for Madonna by fans and critics alike.
On November 7 1995, Madonna’s Something To Remember greatest ballad hits collection was released. The collection was released on different dates in different markets.
Described as a “love letter from Madonna to her fans and music lovers alike” in the album’s liner note, Madonna further explained:
So much controversy has swirled around my career this past decade that very little attention ever gets paid to my music. The songs are all but forgotten. While I have no regrets regarding the choices I’ve made artistically, I’ve learned to appreciate the idea of doing things in a simpler way. So without a lot of fanfare, without any distractions, I present to you this collection of ballads. Some are old, some are new. All of them are from my heart.
Something To Remember included the following songs:
I Want You
Take A Bow
Crazy for You
This Used to Be My Playground
Live to Tell
Love Don’t Live Here Anymore (Remix)
Something to Remember
One More Chance
I Want You (Orchestral)
The Japanese release included La Isla Bonita.
The Latin release included Verás the Spanish version of You’ll See.