One of Those Sometimes

So I am in the car listening to the American Top 40 show from April 9, 1977. At #40, “Spring Rain” by Silvetti might be the single most generic disco record of all time. At #39 is Ambrosia’s cover of “Magical Mystery Tour,” which must have seemed like a good idea at the time. But then things take a turn: at #38 is the magnificent “Dancin’ Man” by Q. And up next, debuting at #37, Casey introduces “Sometimes” by Facts of Life.

After all this time, I expect to have heard, or at least heard of, everything that might turn up on an AT40 show, but somehow “Sometimes” slipped by. Obscure as it is, if AT40s modern-day producers needed to cut something for time, “Sometimes” was the thing to cut. So the song runs for maybe a minute-and-a-half at the most. And as Casey comes back on and I realize what is happening, I’m sitting there behind the wheel thinking, “No, dammit, let the thing play, this is great.”

Casey mentioned that Facts of Life was produced by soul singer Millie Jackson, who was big enough in the mid-to-late 70s to choose her own projects. But there’s more to Facts of Life than a star’s side project. Jackson credited Keith Williams (who had been with Little Anthony and the Imperials and the Flamingos) and Chuck Carter, two-thirds of the group, with having taught her how to sing. The third member, Jean Davis, was a friend Millie made on the road, and the sister of Chicago soul singer Tyrone Davis. Jackson was too busy to produce individual records for the three singers, so she suggested they form a group (which she managed). They eventually got a record deal with the fabulously named Kayvette Records, owned by Jackson’s manager.

At first, they were called Gospel Truth, and they released one single under that name. After becoming Facts of Life, their splendid “Caught in the Act (Of Getting It On)” hit the R&B top 20 in 1976, in which a trysting couple learns that their spouses are down in the hotel lobby looking for them: “We were in the midst of heaven when all hell broke loose.” Their next single was “Sometimes,” which had been a #1 country hit for Bill Anderson and Mary Lou Turner. It’s a magnificent cheatin’ song with a couple of spoken interludes, delivered at an adulterous tempo, the sort of Southern soul that was out of fashion by 1977, and in fact a lot closer to country than what was considered soul music there on the cusp of the disco era. (Considering how down-home it is, maybe Casey’s producers cut it short in 1977.) “Sometimes” went to #3 on the R&B charts, and #1 at soul station KATZ in St. Louis. It spent four weeks on AT40, peaking at #31, falling to #96 on the Hot 100 the next week, and vanishing into the void the week after that.

The Facts of Life album Sometimes came in a sleeve riddled with typos, and with a cover photo that looks a Polaroid snapped at a wedding. It managed to get up to #146 in a seven-week run on the Billboard 200, but a second album sank without a trace. After that, Millie Jackson found other fish to fry. One of the facts of life is that nothing lasts forever, and so the group disappeared.

There’s a mysterious alchemy in popular music, something none of us—fans, artists, producers, disc jockeys, record executives—can completely understand, when a moment’s union of people and talent and time and circumstances produces three-and-a-half minutes of magic as ephemeral as a soap bubble. Which describes “Sometimes” pretty well.

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5 responses

  1. Excellent column Jim. I remember that song well because…well, I’m a 70’s junkie. But I’ll bet you that outside of the occasional airing on XM’s “IT” feature, I have never heard “Sometimes” on terrestrial radio outside of AT40. A-ways back I did play the country version as a “Classic Country cut” here. But that April AT40 show does hold some special memories for me….

  2. Ambrosia – MMT.

    innocuous mostly, and kind of “why bother?”

  3. lump Rundgren’s “Good Vibrations” in category with Ambrosia. And Dave Edmunds’ note-perfect Spector recreations on “Subtle as a Flying Mallet” LP. Impressive but why?

    I collect versions of particular songs and Millie Jackson does an awesome “Loving Arms” (Tom Jans, Dobie Gray, Dixie Chicks etc).

  4. The distributor I worked for in ’77 handled the T.K. family of labels, but I have no recollection of ever seeing any promos come in on the Kayvette label. That’s not to say I didn’t actually send out any, but I most certainly would have remembered encountering any Facts Of Life album bedazzled in such Polaroidean platitudes and state-of-the-art fonts. Even the layout justification on the T,K, family’s printed record labels seemed to erase any doubt that the company’s graphic arts department was holed up at Hialeah Junior High. The vinyl records themselves looked like they’d been a shop class project.

    Yeah, Ambrosia’s MMT pretty much defines “generic,” but think of how much worse it could’ve been. Had Russ Regan had his dream just a couple years earlier, we might *still* be trying to mentally erase that DeFrancos cover…

  5. …and yet Ambrosia’s “Holdin’ On To Yesterday” is one of that era’s “lost” classics, minor key sadness with B.B. King-style guitar.

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