(Above: Kris Kristofferson, singer, songwriter, actor, and more handsome than anybody.)
It seems like an easy way to calculate the year’s top hits based on chart performance: give 100 points to the #1 song each week, 99 to #2, 98 to #3, and so on all the way down to the #100 song, which gets only one point. Over the course of a year, the song with the most points is the top song of the year. It’s generally a fine system that balances chart peak with longevity, but it’s one that can get badly fubar’d by a record with an extremely long chart life. I do not know for certain whether that kind of fubaring is what happened to Billboard magazine when calculating their top hits of 1973, but something weird certainly did.
1. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree”/Tony Orlando & Dawn
2. “Why Me”/Kris Kristofferson
3. “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”/Jim Croce
4. “Killing Me Softly With His Song”/Roberta Flack
5. “Let’s Get It On”/Marvin Gaye
6. “My Love”/Paul McCartney & Wings
7. “Crocodile Rock”/Elton John
8. “Will It Go Round in Circles”/Billy Preston
9. “You’re So Vain”/Carly Simon
10. “Touch Me in the Morning”/Diana Ross
One of those things is not like the others.
(Return with us now to events of precisely 35 years ago this week, rebooted from a post that originally appeared on October 30, 2006.)
I was hanging around the campus radio station one day in late August 1979. I may have been getting ready to go on the air, or I may have just come off, or I may have been there simply because I’d missed it over the summer. I’d worked a lot of radio since my first shift eight months before, and I was already making plans to run for program director in the elections later that fall. I’d also managed to snag a paying part-time gig. In short, I felt like I had radio, and life, pretty much by the tail. At the start of my sophomore year, I was a much different person than I’d been the previous fall.
So, late August 1979. I’m hanging out with a few friends at WSUP. New freshmen interested in radio have been coming in to check the place out. On this particular afternoon, a girl walked in and started looking around. She was wearing a red-and-white striped sweater—which she filled out extreeeemely well—and had long dark hair down to her waist, dark eyes, and a distinctive nose. “Holy crap,” I said to my friends. “Who’s that?” And then: “I have an overwhelming desire to go over and ask her out.” I didn’t, of course, because that is not how I rolled back in those days.
I did find out that Sweater Girl’s name was Ann. And when I found out she was going to be reading news on Tuesday nights, I did what any radio guy shy around women would do—I signed up to host the Tuesday evening show. I also found out she already had a boyfriend, but I asked her out for drinks after the show a couple of times anyhow, and she accepted. She seemed to like me, but she kept dating this other guy, too.
At the end of October, the radio station hosted a Halloween party in the student center bar. It was a rager—legend has it that the party marked the last time $1 pitchers of beer were ever offered on campus because beer consumption broke some sort of record. Ann came with her boyfriend, but she also hung around the table full of radio people, and after about two beers, I wrapped my arm firmly around her waist and didn’t let go of her for the entire night. (Except, it is said, for the brief time I climbed up on the table to do the bump with one of the sports guys.)
I am not sure what became of the boyfriend on that particular night, but even after all that, she still didn’t officially dump him.
Every year in the late fall, the radio station held a banquet. It was ostensibly a time to hand out awards and to honor the outgoing heads of various station departments, but it was mostly an excuse to dress up and drink. I asked Ann if she would like to go with me—not as a date, but as a couple of colleagues going to the same function, since I had a car and she didn’t. (Christ, was I smooth.) But after I dropped her at her dorm room at the end of the night, I asked if I could kiss her goodnight, and she said yes. I arranged to have roses delivered to her a few weeks later on Christmas Eve, and the boyfriend was out of the picture soon after that. I had actually won the girl.
There’s more to the story I could tell, but I’m going to skip ahead. Ann became The Mrs. in 1983, and is still The Mrs. today.
The red-and-white sweater is hanging in the closet in my office.
January 29, 1971: The Partridge Family is in its first season, part of ABC’s fondly remembered Friday night lineup. The family’s #1 hit, “I Think I Love You,” is still on the radio, and in another week their followup single, “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted,” will bubble under on its way into the Hot 100 and eventually, the Top 10.
On this particular Friday night, the Partridges have a problem. They’ve been booked into a club in Detroit, but it isn’t the posh hotel ballroom they’re expecting—it’s an old firehouse in a neighborhood they clearly find questionable, even nobody comes right out and says so. They park the bus, they go inside, and after a minute or two, one of the owners of the club slides down the pole.
Go ahead, click the link before you read any further. It’ll be more fun that way.
(It’s not my intent for this blog to become all American Top 40 all the time, but I suppose I could do worse. And I probably will.)
About a year ago, I wrote about an American Top 40 show from 1972 that made me feel as if I were listening to Emile Berliner explain how the gramophone works. The show and the world in which it was first heard seemed remarkably far removed from everything we are and everything we know today. Recently, Casey did it again, with the show from August 12, 1972.
Part of the way I reacted has to do in part with the way the late summer of 1972 lives on in my head. Songs from that season remain remarkably vivid—I must have had the radio on 18 hours a day in those two or three weeks before school started, hearing the top hits over and over and over again until they made a mark time can’t wash away. Not every season of the 70s is like this, but the late summer/early fall of 1972 definitely is. I can reach back and touch it in a way I can’t do with other periods in my past. So some of the stuff Casey said on the August 12, 1972, show is jarring in 2014 because it makes clear, in a way the music alone does not, just how impossibly long ago 1972 is.
Early in the show, Casey tells about a multi-talented star who had won a Tony, several Grammys, an Emmy, and a Best Actress Oscar, who was nevertheless blackballed when she tried to buy a $240,000 co-op apartment in New York City. The other owners feared that she would bring the wrong element into their building, which was home to Wall Street types and their high society wives. An era in which Barbra Streisand (pictured above) is considered too questionable a sort to hobnob with the Park Avenue swells has to be more than 42 years ago, doesn’t it?
Later, Casey plays Bobby Vinton’s remake of “Sealed With a Kiss,” the teenage summertime anthem that had been a #3 hit for Brian Hyland in 1962. As I listened, with a device in my pocket that can connect me to anyone anywhere in the world in a number of different ways, the lament of a boy separated from his sweetheart for three months and able to communicate only through letters seemed impossibly quaint. Did we ever really live like that?
Still later, Casey refers to Karen Carpenter as “a modern-day Patti Page.” While the metaphor would zoom over the heads of modern listeners on the repeat, it would have resonated with many AT40 listeners in 1972. Page charted her first hit in 1948 and scored steadily from 1950 through about 1963, and in 1972 was only seven years removed from her most recent Top 10 hit, “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte.” So to compare her to a contemporary singer in 1972 was little different than comparing somebody who was consistently popular from the late 80s to the early oughts with one of today’s stars. And it’s a fine comparison, really—like Karen Carpenter, Page in her prime had a remarkably pure tone: just listen to her spectacular 1957 hit “Old Cape Cod.” But here in 2014, the comparison knocked me sideways for a second. If this show comes from a time when Patti Page was still relevant, just how long ago a time are we talking about here?
Come August, I am prone to feeling my age. As much as I love fall, the weeks before the seasons change can be hard to take. Maybe it’s a hangover from those days when we’d go back to school late in August and the calendar of life seemed to turn over with a hard and definite click. The clicks seem to come faster now, and there’s been an awful lot of them.
(Pictured: Grand Funk, whose “Some Kind of Wonderful” was #6 for all of 1975, equaling the year-end position of “The Locomotion” in 1974. You want trivia, you got it.)
The second half of the American Top 40 year-end countdown for 1975 was officially scheduled for the week of January 3, 1976. Like the first part, it was a special four-hour show. A station running it back then would have had to find an extra hour for it. Not until 1978 would the show go to four hours regularly.
If your local AT40 affiliate repeated the 1975 countdown today, it could be cut up strangely. When Premiere Radio Networks sends four-hour 70s shows to affiliates today, the first hour contains no national commercials, so stations are not obligated to run it. If an affiliate airs the show in a three-hour window, they pick it up at the beginning of the second hour, and the first hour goes unheard. So if a station with a three-hour window were rebroadcasting the eight-hour Top 100 of 1975 show over two weeks, they’d have started the countdown at #88 (the beginning of hour #2) and carried it through to #51, then picked it up again the next week at #36 (the beginning of hour #6).
I made some observations about the first half of this show in an earlier post. Here are a few thoughts about the second half:
(Pictured: Gene Simmons, Robert Klein, Robin Williams, and Ace Frehley, at a taping of Klein’s radio show in 1979.)
(Couple of late edits below.)
Many of us get breaking news now by reading our Twitter timelines in reverse-chronological order—and when a celebrity’s name appears out of the blue a couple of times, we immediately start fearing the worst. So it was when Robin Williams’ death was announced the other night. Because I am old enough to remember when the comedy album was a thing, it didn’t take me long to start thinking about Williams’ work as it was heard on flat black pieces of plastic.
When The Mrs. and I merged our record collections, Williams’ 1979 album Reality . . . What a Concept was one of hers. At the time it was recorded (at live shows in New York and San Francisco), Williams was best known as the star of Mork and Mindy. If you’ve seen his 1978 HBO On Location special, some of the material will be familiar. On the album, as in the special, Williams bounces off the walls of the theater—he’s clearly got a structured performance in mind, but he ad-libs wildly before, during, and after each bit. It’s frequently hilarious, but sometimes it’s as exhausting to watch as it must have been to perform. (The fact that Williams was coked to the eyeballs contributed to the mania.) You can hear the whole Reality . . . What a Concept album here, although if you’d like a smaller bite, click here for “Come Inside My Mind,” in which Williams explains the workings of the brain of an actor who’s bombing on stage. The album was a remarkably big hit for a spoken-word/comedy recording, reaching #10 on the Billboard 200 in a 22-week run that began in July 1979. At the same time, Williams’ label, Casablanca, released a radio-only sampler called 44 Lines. My guess is that it’s just what the title implies: 44 lines from Reality . . . What a Concept that DJs could drop into their shows.
Williams won the Best Comedy Recording Grammy in 1980, but it would be three years before he made another full album. In the interim, he would continue to star in Mork and Mindy as well as in the movies Popeye (1980; a couple of flop singles were released featuring songs from the soundtrack) and The World According to Garp (1982; still my favorite performance of his). He did a second HBO special, An Evening With Robin Williams, recorded in San Francisco and representing the apex of his coke-fueled standup era. Several performances from that period ended up on his 1983 album Throbbing Python of Love. Casablanca also released a seven-inch sampler from the album to radio stations. (I’ve got a copy.) It includes “Elmer Fudd Sings Bruce Springsteen” and Williams’ impersonation of Jack Nicholson doing Hamlet (“To be or not to goddamn be . . . whether ’tis nobler to take the ca-ca or sling it right back at ‘em”). Throbbing Python of Love made the Billboard album chart, reaching #119 in a nine-week run beginning in April 1983. It also received a Grammy nomination, but didn’t win.
From that point on, Williams had more success at the Grammy awards than on the album chart. Live at the Met (1988) and Live 2002 (2003) both won for Best Comedy Recording. (Williams also won a comedy Grammy for his work in Good Morning Vietnam.) In 2009, the soundtrack from another HBO special, Weapons of Self Destruction, was released as a DVD and CD.
It became the only Williams album not nominated for a Grammy. (Late edit: wrong. It got nominated too.) According to his discography at Allmusic.com, Williams also narrated a couple of kids’ albums, Pecos Bill (1988, with music by Ry Cooder; late edit: also a Grammy winner, for Best Children’s Recording) and The Fool and the Flying Ship (1991). The latter was from a PBS children’s series that featured a number of prominent actors narrating animated folktales.
I am not a person who believes in heaven. I believe that this life is all there is, and when we’re dead, we’re done. Nevertheless, I like to imagine Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, reunited after her death just yesterday, having to move to a different table in the bar because Williams, Richard Pryor (who gave Williams one of his first breaks in showbiz), and George Carlin are laughing too loud at the next table.