American Top 40 shows from any year contain records that were obscure in the first place and are forgotten now, but the early 70s shows tend to contain more of ‘em, alongside songs that just don’t translate well to today’s pop-radio audience—twangy country crossovers, gritty soul stompers, whacked-out novelty records—and many programmers don’t want them on their air, even as part of a weekend specialty show. But for eccentric antiquarians such as we, that’s the attraction of the early 70s shows. On a recent weekend, AT40 gave affiliates a choice: a show from 1971 or a show from 1977. Here are a few notes on the show you probably didn’t hear, featuring the chart dated May 15, 1971.
40. “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley”/C Company Featuring Terry Nelson. Right-wing agitprop that excuses the atrocities at My Lai by using the Nuremberg defense and blaming the goddamn hippies, or something—it’s hard to tell what the exact point of “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” is supposed to be. It was recorded at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, however, so there are presumably some fine players on it.
38. “Baby Let Me Kiss You”/King Floyd. With an R&B lyric line for the ages: “Baby let me do it now / Cuz I’m ’bout to do it anyhow.”
37. “Booty Butt”/Ray Charles Orchestra. Casey remarks, “He makes it sound so easy,” and punches the title, “Booty BUTT,” like it pleases him. Too bad that title probably kept this fine mid-tempo R&B instrumental from getting on the radio in lots of places.
33. “I’ll Meet You Halfway”/Partridge Family. I adore “I’ll Meet You Halfway,” which might be the perfect example of the bubblegum paradox—how music intended to be disposable eclipses its purpose because of the craftsmanship lavished upon it.
31. “Reach Out I’ll Be There”/Diana Ross. To remake one of Motown’s great soul classics as a limp ballad shows that for the most part, the label had no idea what the hell to do anymore when they weren’t handing creative control to Marvin, Stevie, and Smokey. The versions available at YouTube all seem to be either remixes or alternates, which you can go and find if you want.
24. “Superstar”/Murray Head. It took more time than I intended to spend the other day researching the chart profile of this record. It first appeared on Billboard‘s Bubbling Under chart in January 1970, and had a seven-week run on the Hot 100 that winter before falling out. It bubbled under again during the last week of 1970 before climbing back onto the Hot 100 for 12 more weeks, never getting above #65, whereupon it fell back to the Bubbling Under chart for a couple of weeks before departing the chart again. A third run on the Hot 100 began in April, when it finally caught fire. “Superstar” (from Jesus Christ Superstar, then setting the world on fire) would reach #14 at the end of May, but its last week on the Hot 100 would be June 26, 1971, when it was #22. It vanished after that.
There’s plenty of smokin’ good R&B on this chart: Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Knock My Love, ” “Treat Her Like a Lady” by Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose, “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations, “Give More Power to the People” by the Chi-Lites, and Stevie Wonder’s cover of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.” Less fabulous but still worth hearing: “I Love You for All Seasons” by the Fuzz and “Right on the Tip of My Tongue” by Brenda and the Tabulations, which is one of the great group names of all time. And there will be more in the next installment, proving why the spring and early summer of 1971 was one of the Top 40′s greatest seasons.
After premiering on radio in 1949 and airing on TV from 1951 to 1959, Dragnet came back for a four-year TV run beginning in 1967. The late 60s was a fertile time for the stalwart Joe Friday to make a comeback, as much of what his generation assumed was settled about American life turned out not to be. The rebooted Dragnet set out to assure its target audience—greatest-generation adults who had built the postwar world now under siege by the counterculture—that they had been right, were right, and would continue to be right. The show’s hamfisted portrayals of youth culture are legendary (everybody remembers Blue Boy), as if the kids were from another planet—which to the Dragnet audience, they were.
So if Dragnet was ever going to intersect with local radio in Los Angeles, it wouldn’t be with KHJ or KPPC or any station the kids listened to. And when that unlikely event actually happened, it wasn’t. In an episode of Dragnet 1970 (the show’s final season), Dick Whittinghill is credited as himself. By 1970, he had been one of the city’s top DJs for two decades, holding down mornings on KMPC.
There’s a 1968 Whittinghill aircheck here, and it’s pretty interesting. Most of the airchecks that have survived from this period are from Top 40 stations, but KMPC was an MOR station, programmed squarely at adults, heavy on news, sports, and traffic, and billing itself as “the station of the stars,” a reference as much to its jocks as its other on-air content. Other famous LA personalities who worked there over the years included Wink Martindale, Geoff Edwards, Jim Lange, Gary Owens, and Robert W. Morgan.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of KMPC to the same audience that liked Dragnet–this aircheck contains a remarkably calm half-hour of radio. Whittinghill doesn’t seem to be doing much except playing light, non-rock pop music (Bert Kaempfert, Ray Charles Singers, Patti Page, etc.) and occasionally delivering a mild wisecrack after the songs before moving on to the commercials. (Not heard: Whittinghill’s occasionally risqué subject matter, by the standards of his time.) The aircheck was recorded between 9:30 and 10AM on Monday, June 10, 1968, and in that entire time, Whittinghill never once gives the call letters. Quite a contrast from Top 40 stations of the era, and radio stations today. Listeners that morning were finally reminded of what they were listening to during the introduction to a newscast (which is voiced by Owens, then KMPC’s afternoon guy).
Dick Whittinghill had acted on TV and in the movies since the 50s. He and Jack Webb were old friends, and Webb cast him in Adam-12 and Emergency! in addition to both the rebooted Dragnet and the 50s original. He also appeared as a local TV host in Los Angeles in addition to the radio gig during the 1950s and early 60s. He retired from KMPC in 1979 after 29 years (and was replaced by Robert W. Morgan), but old radio guys do radio, and so he came back a couple of different times. Whittinghill died in 2001 at age 87. His Los Angeles Times obituary is here.
Over the years, we saw Jerry Seinfeld, George Costanza, Elaine Benes, and Cosmo Kramer going to lots of movies, attending baseball and football games, and watching a lot of TV, but we rarely saw them attend a concert (other than the opera) or listen to music. In the many scenes set in cars, the radio was almost never on. Nevertheless, there were a few intersections between Seinfeld and popular music.
The first recognizable hit song used on Seinfeld, as far as I know, was “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys, in the Season 5 episode “The Hamptons.” But that was a rarity. It wasn’t until the eighth and ninth seasons that the show began to use popular songs frequently. In the Season 8 episode “The Checks,” Elaine’s boyfriend is obsessed with “Desperado” by the Eagles. She decides to find another song that can belong to both of them. Her suggestion, “Witchy Woman,” is rejected. One of Elaine’s most famous moments on the show also occurs in Season 8—her itchy dance to Earth Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star” in “The Little Kicks.” In “The Bizarro Jerry,” Kramer finds himself accidentally working in an office, and he’s seen going to work in a montage set to Sheena Easton’s “Morning Train (9 to 5).” A great George moment from Season 8 involves his use of the theme from the TV show The Greatest American Hero (which was a #2 single for Joey Scarbury in 1981) as his answering machine message, in “The Susie.”
In the ninth and final season, “Morning Train” appears again in “The Butter Shave,” when George goes to work. Also in Season 9, Foghat’s “Slow Ride” is heard as Elaine folds laundry in the episode “The Slicer,” and “Mexican Radio” by Wall of Voodoo is briefly, oddly used in “The Reverse Peephole.” In the same episode, Jerry describes his performance handling music at a friend’s party by saying, “I got jiggy with it”—a reference to a Will Smith song.
Fifteen years ago tonight, on May 14, 1998, the last episode of Seinfeld aired on NBC. On the night of the finale, in the clip show that aired before the last episode, Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” was used for a montage. At the very end of the clip show, another montage, of backstage moments this time, was set to Green Day’s “The Time of Your Life.” It seemed back then like a surprisingly sentimental choice for a notoriously unsentimental show. Or maybe not. The full title of the Green Day song is “Good Riddance (The Time of Your Life).” Maybe Seinfeld was getting one last laugh—at the expense of viewers such as I.
(From my WNEW.com archives, slightly edited.)
We are going to be up to our eyeballs in 50th anniversary stuff before long—the March on Washington in August, the Kennedy assassination in November, Beatlemania next February, and the dozens of notable Sixties events we’ll relive in the next few years—so we should probably get used to being unimpressed by the passage of that much time. Nevertheless, I can’t help being boggled by the survey from WHK in Cleveland dated May 13, 1963. Count the boomer classics that were on the radio 50 years ago this spring: “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “I Will Follow Him,” “Surfin’ USA,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “It’s My Party,” “Pipeline,” “Sweet Dreams.” The tectonic forces driving popular music at the time are writ large: surf music, girl groups, Motown, folk, teen idols, MOR schmaltz—it’s all there, even as it was all save Motown about to be swept away by the Beatles (just starting to happen in the UK in the spring of 1963).
Were songs from 1913 as present in the minds of people of 1963 as this stuff is in our minds now? Some songs of that vintage would have still been part of the vernacular in 1963, including “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” “You Made Me Love You,” and “Peg o’ My Heart,” although they were better known as songs than as specific performances, which is the way we remember our old songs. A few eccentric antiquarians might have been chasing after Al Jolson’s “The Spaniard That Blighted My Life” or Henry Burr’s “When I Lost You,” but most music lovers of 1963 were not.
Here are five records from the WHK survey that interest the eccentric antiquarians of today. Say, for example, you and me.
3. “You Can’t Sit Down”/Dovells (up from 10). I can remember hearing “You Can’t Sit Down” on WLS in the early 70s, but my sense of it—which could be completely wrong—is that it didn’t rank high in the oldies pantheon, back when oldies stations still played early 60s cuts.
24. “Take These Chains From My Heart”/Ray Charles (down from 16). Brother Ray’s two 1962 albums, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Volume 2, contained performances that every music fan should know: “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Busted” among them, along with “Take These Chains From My Heart.” They show just how closely related country and soul music can be, yet none of them made Billboard‘s country Top 40.
30. “If You Need Me”/Wilson Pickett (up from 33). Instantly identifiable as the Wicked Pickett from the first word he sings, “If You Need Me” was his first single, although the version by Solomon Burke was much bigger and is more famous. Pickett was still a couple of years away from “In the Midnight Hour.”
39. “Crazy Days of Summer”/Nat King Cole (debut). When I was a kid, the local radio station would bust out “Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer” late in May, about the time school got out. My mother loved it, and it became a signifier of summertime at our house. To this day, it has vivid associations with that place and time, lighted by the morning sun, windows open, breezes blowing in, Mom bustling around with her countertop radio playing, and her children reveling in the freedom of summer vacation.
41. “10 Commandments of Love”/James MacArthur (up from 44). MacArthur cut a couple of singles in the early 60s. He doesn’t actually sing on “10 Commandments of Love,” and so he’s easily recognizable as Danny Williams of Hawaii Five-O, which he would one day be.
It’s obvious but it’s true, and nothing proves it like this WHK survey: 1963 is a lot further away than it used to be.
As I’ve written here before, Walter Cronkite was a nightly presence in our house, just as he was in millions of others during the 60s and 70s. (I have always wondered if the years since would have seemed quite so barking mad if he’d been there every night to tell us about them.) Historian Douglas Brinkley recently published a biography titled Cronkite, and I can’t recommend it enough. The outlines of Cronkite’s anchorman years, from the early 50s to the early 80s, are pretty well-known, yet riveting anyhow in Brinkley’s telling. But the stories of his life after leaving the CBS Evening News in 1981 are the most interesting of all.
Late in life, Cronkite made an unlikely friendship with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. In 1987, Hart and Stephen Stills had been hired to score a sailing documentary Cronkite was producing. They bumped into one another at the studio one day, and Hart asked to hear Cronkite’s narration so he could write the music around it. At the end of the day (on which Stills failed to show), the two men ended up having dinner. A mutual interest in sailing and environmentalism cemented their friendship. When the Dead played shows in New York that year, Cronkite and his wife Betsy attended. After that, Cronkite and Hart occasionally sailed together. And not only that: “We played drums together a lot,” Hart said. “I was amazed one time to see that he had twenty drums set up in his living room.” Hart believed that drumming had positive health effects for Cronkite; after Cronkite’s 1997 open-heart surgery, Hart brought him 17 different drums to play. “The music made him alive as he as losing his facility,” Hart said. “The music connected him to life and the world at large.”
Cronkite befriended another fellow sailor during this period: Jimmy Buffett. The two men met at the America’s Cup race in Australia in 1987 and remained friends for the rest of Cronkite’s life. “I’d have him as my guest at Madison Square Garden,” Buffett said of his New York shows. “I knew how to make him happy. I sat him by the showgirls.” When Cronkite worked CNN’s coverage of John Glenn’s 1998 space-shuttle flight, Buffett dropped by the anchor booth in Florida. Cronkite invited him to sit in for a while, on the air. “Son of a Son of a Sailor” became one of Cronkite’s favorite songs, and Buffett performed it at Cronkite’s funeral in 2009.
Cronkite had been an admirer of Rolling Stone‘s journalism since Hunter S. Thompson battled Richard Nixon, and in later life he befriended the magazine’s founder and publisher, Jann Wenner. He briefly collaborated with jazz pianist Dave Brubeck on a documentary project, and he got to know Andy Warhol a little. After Betsy Cronkite died in 2005, he spent the rest of his life in the company of Joanna Simon, sister of Carly Simon, a trained opera singer who’d been his New York realtor.
Any person as famous as Walter Cronkite moves in a celebrity-filled circle. Nevertheless, his musical connections are interesting. The Most Trusted Man in America was neither a marble monument nor a model of propriety: one of his producers affectionately called him a dirty old man, and he liked to recite obscene limericks in the same tone he used on TV every night. He was, in fact, an everyman as regular as the guy next door. If nearly everybody who watched him on TV liked him, the same seems to have been true of everyone who met him in the flesh.
Last week, I wrote about the Rolling Stones’ six appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show between 1964 and 1969. All six are available on DVD, and the DVDs contain not just the Stones’ performances, but other acts from the shows on which they appeared. They aren’t quite the complete shows, as you’ll read below, although they do include some of the national commercials that ran.
The October 7, 1964, show features comedy performances by Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara and by London Lee, who appeared with Ed 32 times over the years. Also appearing that night, but not on the DVD: the Cambridge Circus, which featured John Cleese and Graham Chapman years before Monty Python. There was classical music by Itzhak Perlman, tap dancing by Sullivan regular Peg Leg Bates, and the international acts Ed loved: the Kim Sisters from South Korea (doing the spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”) and the Berosinis, an acrobatic troupe from Czechoslovakia. The oddest guest spot belonged to actor Laurence Harvey, who recited Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
On May 2, 1965, the hipness factor was slightly higher. The Stones shared the musical bill with Dusty Springfield and Tom Jones, although their performances on the DVD are apparently not the ones broadcast that night, but other songs from other shows. There was also the usual round of kinetic acts, including Gitta Morelly, who’s described by the Internet as either as a balancing act or a contortionist, and the Half Brothers jugglers. British comedians Morecambe and Wise and another frequent Sullivan guest, Totie Fields, provided the comedy. The show opened with Topo Gigio, the puppet mouse who became an international sensation after appearing with Ed, and who was very popular at our house. (Wikipedia claims Joan Rivers wrote some Topo Gigio sketches as one of her first professional gigs, but I’m skeptical.)
On February 13, 1966, the comedians were Senor Wences, old-time comic and Sullivan regular Eddie Schaeffer, and Sandy Baron, best remembered now for playing the curmudgeonly Jack Klompas on Seinfeld. The kinetics were provided by the Romanian Folk Ballet, and there’s an act listed as “Les Olympiades–Adagio Act,” about which I can find nothing. And on a show where the Stones performed “Satisfaction,” “As Tears Go By,” and “19th Nervous Breakdown,” Hal Holbrook recited Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
Later that year, on September 11, the Stones got the opening slot on a star-packed season premiere, alongside Louis Armstrong, Robert Goulet, Red Skelton, and Joan Rivers. Also on the bill: Holiday on Ice (another performance snipped from the DVD, replaced by a pair of Italian opera singers) and the Muppets.
On the famous January 15, 1967, show (broadcast on the night of the first Super Bowl game), it looked as though Ed Sullivan was catching up with the times. In addition to the Stones, singer Petula Clark appeared, riding a long string of hits over the previous couple of years. A group of 44 Pennsylvania nuns called Sisters ’67 sang “Kumbaya,” then gaining popularity thanks to the counterculture. Flip Wilson, about to become a major star, was also on the show, but so was more traditional comic Alan King. The Muppets were back along with clog dancers and acrobats.
The Rolling Stones’ last appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was on November 23, 1969, taped in Los Angeles. Apart from the Stones, the other musical guest was Ella Fitzgerald. Rodney Dangerfield appeared; so did Robert Klein, then just beginning a standup career that would influence a large number of big-name comics of the 70s and 80s. Topo Gigio was back, along with a couple of novelty acts that sound made-up: from the Hawthorne Circus, a tiger riding a horse, and Lucho Navarro, a Mexican comedian whose main schtick seems to have been making car noises.
The list of performers on these episodes of Sullivan are pretty typical. The lineups open another fascinating window into the small-d democracy of variety television in the three-channel universe. There was once a time when it wasn’t possible to personalize every aspect of one’s world—when, as the Stones sang, “you can’t always get what you want”—but if you sat through the Czechoslovakian acrobats, you eventually might get what you need.