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.
Right around the time of the Gulf War, I got a phone call from a singer who was trying to get her self-produced record on the air. She was working off an outdated list of Iowa radio stations that showed us as a country station (which we hadn’t been for many years), and even as I patiently explained that we weren’t interested in her record, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Let me send you a cassette,” she said. A couple of days later, it arrived, a C-90, the kind you’d buy in three-packs at Walmart, no plastic box, just a naked cassette in a padded envelope. A handwritten file-folder label was stuck to the tape with the singer’s name and the song title, and I could see that another, earlier label had been ripped off below it. I would like to be able to tell you that I put the cassette into the player and was blown away by a beautiful song, but I was not. It was a horrid, cliché-ridden country joint that indicted the listener for shameful neglect of war veterans, sung in a draggy drawl with no control over its dynamics, so godawful that I reddened in embarrassment for the woman. I got through about 45 seconds before the cassette got tossed into the discard box.
It never had a chance anyhow. By 1991, the era of local radio music programming was largely dead, particularly at stations in the middle of nowhere, where we relied on syndicated national formats instead of paying local disc jockeys, but also in larger markets, where the stakes had become too high to entertain much musical risk. Although occasional brushfire hits would still break out from a single radio market, it was nothing like a decade or two before. In the 60s and early 70s, it was still possible for local bands to benefit from radio play in their home area, and to become household names in a relatively small number of households.
It didn’t have to be local bands, however. Local programmers could make local hits out of records that got national release without catching on nationwide. This happened at stations as big as WLS, where songs including “Love’s Made a Fool of You” by Cochise, Fanny’s “Charity Ball,” “Jimmy Loves Mary Anne” by Looking Glass, and “All Day Music” by War climbed to the top of the WLS survey while barely scratching the Billboard Top 40 (or in the case of Cochise, the Hot 100).
I started thinking about all this the other day after looking at a radio survey from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, an hour or two north of Madison. In March 1971, right there with “Just My Imagination” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” the Partridge Family and Bobby Sherman, is a record called “Hot Pants” by Salvage. It’s a Paul Vance/Lee Pockriss production, two guys fabled for novelty-style records, most notably “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and “Leader of the Laundromat,” but also Perry Como’s “Catch a Falling Star” and the marvelous “Tracy,” recorded by the Cuff Links. It was on the Odax label, owned by Vance.
And it’s easy to understand how it ended up on the air. It was topical in the spring of 1971, as hot pants became a fashion fad. It’s got a catchy and non-threatening pop-rock feel, sung with a wink and a smile, extolling the virtues of all the women “strollin’ in their hot pants,” and closing the deal with “Jumpin’ catfish I can’t believe my eyes / Here comes Grandma / She found a pair in her size.” Stevens Point wasn’t the only place it did good business. A February 1971 item in Billboard touts strong sales in Milwaukee, and “Hot Pants” would make the top 10 in Kansas City and Indianapolis, and the top 20 in Denver, Columbus, and Youngstown, Ohio. After bubbling under a couple of weeks in early March, it made the Hot 100 and spent seven weeks there, peaking at #54 early in April. You can hear it right here.
I don’t try to eulogize every prominent musician who passes away. This is mostly because other people generally do it better. Every now and then, however, I feel uniquely qualified to say something about somebody.
Sammy Johns is dead. His funeral is today.
If we had some kind of tournament for the most quintessentially 70s songs—those that most effectively capture the essence of the times in the way they sound and the things they say—wouldn’t Johns’ lone big hit, “Chevy Van” have to be in the semifinals?
The song is sung by a guy driving one of those vans, and if you remember the 70s, you know the kind I mean: elaborately painted on the outside and big enough to live in on the inside, or at least big enough to sleep in, or not sleep in, when necessary.
I gave a girl a ride in my wagon / She crawled in and took control / She was tired cuz her mind was a-draggin’ / I said “get some sleep and dream of rock and roll”
What a perfectly 70s line: “get some sleep and dream of rock and roll.” It’s quite lovely, actually—dream of something utterly out of this world and time, something simple and unthreatening, purely pleasurable and fun. It’s obvious he’s not suggesting she dream of Black Sabbath or Emerson Lake & Palmer, but rather of something that rocks easy, like “Chevy Van” itself.
While the girl is sleeping, Sammy is checking her out, the moonlight on her hair, her angel’s face, her long and tanned legs. Because this is the 1970s, however, she’s not entirely down with being objectified: “Better keep your eyes on the road, son / Better slow this vehicle down.” Yet at the same time, she needs a lift to the next town, and she’s willing to use what she’s got to get what she wants: She’s gonna love me in my Chevy van and that’s all right with me
And because this is the 70s, we turn discreetly away from the scene and listen to a gentle wah-wah guitar against a wall of acoustic guitars before Sammy fast-forwards to the end of the story. I put her out in a town that was so small / You could roll a rock from end to end / A dirt road main street / She walked off in bare feet / It’s a shame I won’t be passing through again
Then Sammy sings the refrain one last time, slightly altered, in which we learn that what was going to happen has just happened: We made love in my Chevy van / And that’s all right with me
An easy-rockin’ song of the road about a casual sexual encounter in the back of a van with a beautiful, nameless, barefoot hitchhiker. It doesn’t get more 70s than that.
“Chevy Van” bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 the week of January 25, 1975, and hit the big chart the next week. It peaked at #5 in Billboard and Cash Box during the week of May 3 but plunged swiftly off both charts, gone by June. Its chart run roughly coincides with the time when I was involved with my first serious girlfriend. We could imagine what Sammy and the stranger were doing in there, but what it had to do with us—how we might contrive to get to that point—wasn’t entirely clear. I had no van—no driver’s license yet—and certainly no line as smooth as “get some sleep and dream of rock and roll.”
Sammy Johns had charted one single before “Chevy Van” and would chart one more afterward. In their wake, he lived a rock star’s life—broke and in rehab by the end of the 70s. By the 80s, he was back writing songs, however, many of which were country hits, including the #1 single “Common Man,” recorded by John Conlee in 1983. The refrain of “Common Man” includes the lines I’m a common man / Drive a common van
“I’ve had it since the 70s. You shoulda seen it then.”
Once again this year I have forgotten that September 25th is One Hit Wonder Day. Because I don’t have sufficient time to put together a decent original post about it, here’s an update of one that first appeared on March 3, 2009.
We have been occasionally heard to gripe here about the fact that some artists get pigeonholed as one-hit wonders even though they aren’t. I can name a handful who have one record that lives on in the hot rotation of oldies and/or classic-rock radio stations but who scored other hits in their heyday, some quite substantial.
The example that first inspired the gripe was “Brandy” by the Looking Glass. It’s one of the truly glorious records of the 1970s, yes, but not the only Top-40 hit the band ever had, and perhaps not even the best one: Lots of people we know also dig “Jimmy Loves Mary Anne,” which hit a year later. The Five Man Electrical Band is another. “Signs” was enormous in the summer of 1971, but “Absolutely Right” also made the Top 40 later that year (wicked good live performance here), and they scored three other Hot 100 hits over the next three years. Lighthouse is best remembered by the frequently anthologized “One Fine Morning,” but they made the Top 40 after that with “Sunny Days,” and missed it with “Pretty Lady”—which is one of the great lost hits of the 1970s, a superb record that should have been a monster. . . .
Here’s one of the best examples I can think of: Brownsville Station. They are indelibly associated with “Smokin’ in the Boys Room,” and because that’s the only Brownsville song you ever hear on the radio, it seems like it should be their only hit song. It isn’t, of course. They followed “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room with “I’m the Leader of the Gang,” a cover of Gary Glitter’s glam-rock UK Number One, which was a somewhat-odd choice for a boogie band from Michigan. While it just missed the Top 40 in Billboard, it just missed the Top 10 at WLS in Chicago. Up next was “Kings of the Party,” which returned Brownsville to the Top 40, albeit just barely at Number 31. It’s structured a lot like “Smokin’,” with a spoken part to set up the action, and while it’s not quite as compact and hooky as its predecessor, it rocks plenty. (Honorable mentions from the Brownsville Station oeuvre: “Lady Put the Light on Me” and “The Martian Boogie,” both Hot 100 hits, both on the band’s self-titled album, released in 1977.)
So I guess this post isn’t really about one-hit wonders after all. I’ll have to try to do better next year.
Here in Wisconsin, we had our first spring day worthy of the name yesterday. A high temperature in the 60s and lots of sun took down the bulk of the snow left over from last Friday’s storm.
In college, the first warm spring days provided an excuse for a party. Not that we ever needed an excuse for a party, but the first time the temperature broke 60, somebody would inevitably suggest firing up the grill, and that meant a stop at the grocery store and the liquor store to lay in the appropriate supplies. You’d invite whoever you ran into on the way home—and if you weren’t planning a party yourself, somebody you ran into might invite you to theirs.
Fifteen years ago this spring, I was student teaching at a high school in Davenport, Iowa. It was a magnificent old pile, built strong enough in 1907 to take a direct hit. Many classrooms, including the one I was in, had enormous floor-to-ceiling windows that leaked heat and cold like crazy. The district had yet to replace them with more energy-efficient windows, but they were equipped with heavy shades designed to insulate them a little bit. They also kept the room as dark as a tomb, even when it was sunny outside. But my students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, would always provide a reliable indication of the weather outside by their relative squirrely-ness on any given day.
(The teacher to whom I was assigned, who had forgotten more about education than I ever hoped to know, once said to me that the advantage to teaching freshmen is that most of them haven’t yet been corrupted by the world’s many temptations. “If they’re squirrely,” she said, “they probably aren’t on anything—it’s just spring.” And so it was.)
The word “spring” appears precious few times in song titles that have appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 or Bubbling Under charts between 1954 and 2004. The earliest is Pat Boone’s “Spring Rain” in 1960. The best-known of them are probably the disco records “Winter Melody/Spring Affair” by Donna Summer and “Spring Rain” by Silvetti—although you might know John Tipton’s country weeper “Spring,” which bubbled under for him and was a big hit for Tanya Tucker in 1975. The number of songs with “spring” in the title is dwarfed by the number of songs on the Spring label, which charted several hits apiece for Joe Simon and Millie Jackson in the 1970s. The group McKendree Spring shows up a couple of times, too.
(“It Might As Well Be Spring” and “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” two spring songs that immediately came to my mind, never made the Hot 100 in this period; four other songs with “spring” in the title charted between 1937 and 1944.)
One of the “spring” songs we’ve encountered here before: the insanely great R&B number “Spring” by Birdlegs and Pauline, which appeared in our Down in the Bottom series about one-hit wonders who peaked between #90 and #100. Sidney Banks, known as Birdlegs, and his wife, Pauline Shivers, were from Rockford, Illinois, and performed in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin starting in the late 50s. “Spring” was originally recorded on the Cuca label, based in little Sauk City, Wisconsin, but was licensed to the Chicago label Vee-Jay. It became a substantial R&B hit in the summer of 1963 in addition to scraping into the Hot 100.
After “Spring” did well, an album followed, also distributed by Vee-Jay. But the label’s financial troubles in 1963 and 1964 short-circuited Birdlegs and Pauline’s career—and cost them a lot of songwriting royalties, after they went to Chicago to pick up some checks and found the label’s HQ padlocked.
A few years ago I was traveling in North Dakota and listening to an oldies station from Winnipeg, Manitoba. In keeping with rules requiring Canadian stations to play a certain amount of Canadian content, this station played Canadian oldies—songs that had been big up there, often without breaking through down here. It was a Twilight Zone version of the 60s and 70s—much of the familiar American pop of the period but with a number of new-to-me songs that fit seamlessly alongside them. In the years since, I’ve been interested in hits from elsewhere in the English-speaking world that failed to make it in America, and how they would have fit in if they’d made it here.
In the alternate universe known as Australia, the biggest group of the 1970s was Sherbet. Starting in 1971, Sherbet singles were rarely off the radio, and between 1973 and 1978, they made the Australian Top 10 11 times, including two #1s and a #2. They had formed in 1969, and according to Allmusic.com, they were a product of unique circumstances. Australian bands of the late 60s and early 70s were “almost totally geared towards satisfying the money-rich comfort-starved American Vietnam troops who came [to Oz] for official Rest And Recreation.” So Sherbet started as a soul music cover band—although they didn’t stay that way for long. Their photogenic looks and a switch to teen-oriented pop made them into superstars.
In 1975, “Summer Love” went to #1, and given the popularity of glam rock in the British Empire at that moment, it’s easy to understand. But their biggest hit was yet to come. In the summer of 1976, “Howzat” spent four weeks at #1 after knocking ABBA’s “Fernando” from #1, a spot it had held for 14 weeks (the longest run in the history of the Australian charts, I think). It was a top-five hit in the UK, and unlike any other Sherbet single, it also charted in the States, reaching #61 in an eight-week run that fall.
Sherbet’s next attempt to conquer America was strange. The group’s 1978 album was released in the States under the group name Highway. It stiffed. A release in Australia under the name Highway stiffed. At that point, the band decided they’d had enough, so they split, temporarily. When they reformed in 1980, with precisely the same lineup, it was under the name the Sherbs. Their new-wave-styled album The Skill got some airplay in the States and produced the Hot 100 single “I Have the Skill” (which I remember playing on the radio in college). The album failed to produce a hit in their native land, however. After another album and an EP failed to gain much traction anywhere, the band announced it was splitting up for good. Their Australian farewell tour was conducted under the name Sherbet. There were some reunions starting in the late 80s. A couple of the members have died within the last year, including Clive Shakespeare, guitarist and principal songwriter through 1976, earlier this month, and the guitarist who replaced him, Harvey James, in 2011.
Sherbet’s American label, RSO, believed that “Sherbet” was too lightweight a name, and encouraged the change to Highway—which makes me wonder if label executives ever listened to the group’s music. Sherbet seems exactly right for the sort of highly produced pop-rock that made them famous down under during the 70s. “Howzat” is pretty clearly the best of their singles, although “Silvery Moon” (#5, 1974) is pretty good, too. “Only One You” (#5, 1975) is a terrific love ballad, and its B-side, “Matter of Time” was also a hit.
I think we’ll spend some more time in the coming weeks fooling around with the Australian charts. There’s some interesting stuff to talk about down there.