Up in the Spotlight

In the lobby of the building where my radio stations are located, there’s a replica Wurlitzer jukebox. It plays different stations in the group at different times of the day and night. The other day, as I walked along the upper hallway that overlooks the lobby and people bustled all around, I caught a snippet of a song on the oldies station, and suddenly, I wasn’t there anymore.

Forty years ago this fall, I went off to the seventh grade—junior high, as we called it then. On the scale of life’s changes, this was the biggest ever, at least up to that time. The first few weeks were like merging on the Interstate in an underpowered car—you know you’d better get up to speed, but you can’t go fast enough, and holy crap I’m gonna get run over. I eventually figured it out, although it wasn’t easy, and some of what happened that school year I would very much like to forget. I never will, however, because I keep hearing songs that remind me of it.

I have written about a phenomenon involving the winter of 1973—later on that school year—and how much of what I remember is not so much specific people and places and things, but angles and flashes and fog. That sort of remembering starts, however, with the moment I walked into Monroe Junior High in late August 1972.

The Cash Box chart dated September 2, 1972, is rich with songs that flash me back there, across 40 years of time and space. The songs at the top are the songs of the late summer, the ones that played in my head as I drove a tractor on the farm, or as I listened to the radio in my room, or on the car radio as I was being carted to all the places a 12-year-old boy had to be taken. But I’m not going to write about them, or about others from farther down the chart that indelibly stamp the fall, or the few excellent records I wouldn’t hear until years later.

The number of hits on which Leon Russell has played is staggering, although few of them are his own. Across genres and years, he’s played with everybody who’s anybody. He started hitting under his own name in 1970 with a self-titled album, although the one that followed it, Leon Russell and the Shelter People, charted higher and was eventually certified gold. A year later, Carney went all the way to #2 despite some lukewarm reviews (and a terrible cover).

Carney‘s success was bolstered by the single “Tight Rope,” which reached #11 in Billboard that October and made the Top 10 in places like Chicago and New Orleans. Allmusic.com says it’s “an excellent introduction to an off-kilter, confused, fascinating album.” And maybe that’s why it took me out of the radio station and back to the junior high the other day, back to a place that felt, in early September 1972, off-kilter and confused. Although I didn’t connect one to the other in 1972, the tightrope metaphor is pretty good for describing that fall: finding the way between ice and fire, hate and hope, flanked by life and the funeral pyre, while everybody was watching.

It wasn’t quite that serious, of course. But it felt that way then.

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