I haven’t done one of these listicle-type posts for a while, so let’s take a look at the Billboard chart from various early Decembers of the past and see what was sitting at #40, and what each can tell us about its time.
1981: “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World”/Ronnie Milsap. There’s no better poster child for the utter blandness of Top 40 music in the last days before MTV than country star Ronnie Milsap, who had hit with “It Was Almost Like a Song” in 1977. Beginning in 1980, he scored a string of generic pop crossovers, the biggest among them “Any Day Now,” “Smokey Mountain Rain” and “There’s No Getting Over Me.” (The best record he made during this period, “Why Don’t You Spend the Night,” didn’t get a sniff on the pop charts, although it was #1 country in 1980 and was glorious fun to play on the radio, with a tremendous intro and a long instrumental fadeout to jump on.) Bonus trivial fact: my first date with The Mrs. was supposed to be a Ronnie Milsap concert, a plan that fell through when I couldn’t get free tickets from the radio station. (Chart peak: #20, 1/16/82)
1972: “Superfly”/Curtis Mayfield. Growing up in a community populated by people of Swiss, German, and other northern European extractions did not keep me from developing a love of R&B fairly early on. I’d bought Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” on a 45, and while I didn’t buy “Superfly,” I remember loving the way it sounded on the radio, starting out sparse and ominous, then steadily ramping up until the funk really kicked in. I doubt I knew either song was about the drug trade. Growing up in a community populated by people of Swiss, German, and other northern European extractions was pretty good insulation. (Chart peak: #8, 1/13/73)
1968: “1432 Franklin Pike Circle Hero”/Bobby Russell. We have met Bobby Russell here before, best known for Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” and “Little Green Apples,” recorded most successfully by soul singer O. C. Smith. One way to read his tales of suburban domesticity is as a reaction to the spiraling 60s—when the going got weird, Russell’s songs touted the virtues of family life. “1432 Franklin Pike Circle Hero” isn’t as memorable as Russell’s higher-charting “Saturday Morning Confusion,” but it comes from the same place: celebrating regular guys doing regular things. (Chart peak: #36, 11/23/68)
1957: “Wun’erful, Wun’erful”/Stan Freberg. I am not sure you’ll think this is funny if you don’t remember The Lawrence Welk Show, and it does go on a bit too long in its full two-part version. But orchestra leader Billy May gets the sound of Welk’s music exactly right, and Freberg sounds plausibly like the bandleader. Welk was a longtime endorser of Wurlitzer accordions, and in the mid 50s, the company’s slogan was “Gee, Dad, it’s a Wurlitzer.” So I am guessing that for listeners in 1957, the funniest line of “Wun’erful, Wun’erful” might have been the one delivered by Freberg-as-Welk after a dancer accidentally steps on his accordion. I know it cracks me up. (Chart peak: #32, 11/18/57)