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.
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.
Now THIS is a radio survey: from WIBG in Philadelphia, dated April 17, 1967, it’s the top 99 records of the week, divided between the Top Fifty and the Future Forty-Nine. That’s a lot of music, and somebody smarter than me with more time to do the research will have to tell the whole class whether WIBG (known then and fondly remembered now as “Wibbage”) really played all 99 of them, and how often.
Beyond the legends at the top—which, given that it’s 1967, are plenty damn legendary—are some fascinating records further down. For example, there’s the marvelous “Nothing Takes the Place of You” by Toussaint McCall, which I’d rank as one of the great soul singles of all time. It stalled in the 50s on the Hot 100 but is at #23 on this chart. But the Future Forty-Nine is what interests us the most. Some will become famous: “My Back Pages,” “Happy Jack,” “Hip Hug Her,” “Creeque Alley,” “Mirage,” and “Him Or Me—What’s It Gonna Be?” among them. The majority will not, however—and some of them are the sort of oddball records we like around here.
61. “I Want You to Be My Baby”/Ellie Greenwich. Famed as a songwriter with Jeff Barry (many of the great Phil Spector hits, including “Be My Baby,” “And Then He Kissed Me,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” “River Deep, Mountain High,” plus songs for others including “Chapel of Love” and “Hanky Panky) and as a producer, Greenwich started her recording career not with one of her own songs but with “I Want You to Be My Baby,” a garage-style version of an old Louis Jordan number that will kick your ass, go around the block and kick all your neighbors’ asses, and then come back to kick your ass again. It would be her only charting single.
82. “Beautiful Girl”/Ed McMahon. Yup, THAT Ed McMahon, tipped in a late April issue of Billboard as the newest artist on the Philadelphia-based Cameo/Parkway label. He made a whole album called And Me . . . I’m Ed McMahon, on which he recorded versions of several well-known songs, including “They Call the Wind Maria,” “Try to Remember,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “Georgy Girl.” I can’t find a lick of it anywhere online, so you’ll just have to imagine how it sounds.
87. “The Beat Goes On”/Lawrence Welk. Welk made an album called Hits of Our Time in 1967, which also includes “Georgy Girl” (a remarkably popular song back then, covered dozens of times), “Somewhere My Love,” “Strangers in the Night,” and “Music to Watch Girls By.” I can’t find Welk’s original recording of “The Beat Goes On” anywhere online, although it is on this tap-dance routine from the Welk show, date unknown. Cheese factor: extremely high.
90. “If I Had a Hammer”/Richard “Groove” Holmes. The late 60s were the golden age of the soul-jazz 45. Holmes charted a couple, most famously “Misty.” Despite the ocean of Hammond B3 jazz in my files, lots of it by Holmes, I don’t have this particular song, and it ain’t online anywhere, either. C’mon, YouTube, you’re letting me down.
96. “Flashback”/The Spokesmen. Best known for recording an answer to Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” called “Dawn of Correction,” the Spokesmen had released several singles on Decca, but “Flashback” was on a little label called Winchester, distributed by Cameo/Parkway. (You want trivia, you got it.) It, too, is sufficiently obscure to have avoided being posted at YouTube.
So it looks to me like the Future Forty-Five is where Wibbage put everything but the kitchen sink in hopes of seeing some of it catch fire. Some of it did. Lots more of it didn’t. Which is probably why we talk about Top 40 radio and not Top 99 radio.
If you are sick and tired of my obsession with 1976, this post isn’t going to help any. In my defense, it comes from a different angle than the usual—it’s the survey from KCR, the college station at San Diego State University, dated March 1, 1976. It’s got a handful of the major hits of the moment: Frampton Comes Alive, A Night at the Opera, Bad Company’s Run With the Pack, David Bowie’s Station to Station, and Desire by Bob Dylan. Here are five other interesting entries from a list that’s divided between “daytime” and “nighttime,” although there’s plenty of overlap between ‘em:
1. (daytime)/8. (nighttime) How Dare You/10cc. This album comes between The Original Soundtrack (with “I’m Not in Love”) and Deceptive Bends (with “The Things We Do For Love”) without a big single, although “I’m Mandy Fly Me” and “Art for Art’s Sake” made the lower reaches of the Hot 100. Of all the quirky acts the 70s produced, 10cc is among the most underrated—prog rock with a sense of humor.
5. (nighttime) Maxophone/Maxophone. Chances are good that if you are able to name one Italian prog rock band, it’s PFM (Premiata Forneria Marconi). Now you can name two. Maxophone was a six-piece band made up of avant-garde classical musicians and rockers. They released their debut album in both Italian and English; the Italian version has been re-released in the CD era. You can listen to the whole dang thing here.
6. (daytime)/9. (nighttime) Paris/Paris. This is how Bob Welch spent his time between leaving Fleetwood Mac and launching his solo career, in a power trio with former members of Jethro Tull and the Nazz. They made two albums (the second with a different drummer), but the band would be defunct by the end of ’76. You can listen to all of Paris here.
6. (nighttime)/Inner Worlds/Mahavishnu Orchestra. No self-respecting album-rock radio station of the late 1970s would fail to play a bit of jazz fusion, although Allmusic.com notes in their biography of the Mahavishnu Orchestra that the band was considered a rock band in their prime. Compared to earlier albums, Inner Worlds was stripped down—no strings, no horns—and it was the last album John McLaughlin would make under the Mahavishnu Orchestra name until 1984. Stoners of 1976 would probably have dug “Miles Out,” on which McLaughlin creates various otherworldly noises with his guitar.
7. (nighttime) When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease/Roy Harper. You have heard Roy Harper sing, even if you don’t realize it—that’s him on Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar.” He’s also the inspiration for Led Zeppelin’s “Hats Off to Harper,” and is in general a lot better known and more influential in the UK than over here. When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease (one of the great album titles of the 1970s) was released in the UK, it was known as HQ. Harper’s band at the time included Bill Bruford of Yes and fabled session guitarist Chris Spedding, and the album includes guest shots by David Gilmour and John Paul Jones. The somber, stately title song is here.
It seems pretty clear that like many college radio stations then and now, KCR was Very Serious About the Music, and in a way you can only be when you’re 21 or 22.
I was doing some chart research the other day and pulled up the Billboard Hot 100 from the week of February 24, 1973. Behold, my friends, a distillation of the bone-deep weirdness of 70s top 40, 40 years ago this week:
1. “Killing Me Softly”/Roberta Flack (up from 5)
2. “Dueling Banjos”/Deliverance (up from 4)
3. “Crocodile Rock”/Elton John (down from 1)
4. “You’re So Vain”/Carly Simon (down from 2)
5. “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love”/Spinners (up from 7)
6. “Do It Again”/Steely Dan (holding at 6)
7. “Last Song”/Edward Bear (up from 13)
8. “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend”/Lobo (holding at 8)
9. “Love Train”/O’Jays (up from 15)
10. “Rocky Mountain High”/John Denver (holding at 10)
“Dueling Banjos” is one of the oddest novelties of all time, and is now one of only two things most people remember from the movie Deliverance (pretty sure you can name the other), despite the fact that Deliverance was considered a great movie 40 years ago. Contrast it with “Do It Again,” with its weird musical noises and dark, obscure lyric, characteristics that remove it several orders of magnitude on the oddity scale from something like “Rocky Mountain High,” but most of the others, too.
“Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” and “Love Train” are Philadelphia glory, rivaled in their staying power only by “You’re So Vain.” One might include “Crocodile Rock” on the staying-power list too, but for me, it’s crossed the line that separates “beloved and enduring classic” from “Christ, not this again.” But “Killing Me Softly,” which would stay at #1 until the end of March, almost never seems to get on the radio anymore, not as much as “Last Song” and “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend.” Those two are fine examples of the intensely unrequited love song, however, and I oughta know, because I was intensely and unrequitedly in love with somebody in February 1973.
Below the top 10 are several other records that I’ve loved for four decades now. Hurricane Smith’s “Oh Babe What Would You Say,” also bone-deep weird, sits at #11. “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest (#13) and “Why Can’t We Live Together” by Timmy Thomas (#14) are solid artifacts of that bygone winter. So is “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” by Deodato (#18), and, for some reason, “Danny’s Song” by Anne Murray (#26), which zaps me back to the junior high school bus with remarkable clarity.
You could get anything you wanted from your local Top 40 station back then. Rock? The Moody Blues, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, David Bowie, and Wings were all in the top 40. Funk? Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” was on, and some stations were playing “Ants in My Pants” by James Brown. Throwbacks? How about “Your Mama Don’t Dance” by Loggins and Messina, or “Reelin’ and Rockin’” by Chuck Berry, both of which were on their way down the charts. Sap? The Carpenters’ “Sing” was the highest-debuting new single of the week at #61, and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree,” which would do a month at #1 later in the spring, was up to #68 from #80. Blues-rock? The Derek and the Dominoes recording of “Bell Bottom Blues,” re-released under Eric Clapton’s name, was at #89, a couple of spots above “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” by Albert King. Country? Joe Stampley, Donna Fargo, Ray Price, Barbara Fairchild, they were there, and so was John Fogerty’s twangy remake of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” under the name of the Blue Ridge Rangers.
If you look at the current Billboard Hot 100 chart, you’ll also see a crazed variety of dance numbers, rock songs, country tunes, and rap records, but the difference is that no radio station is playing all of them. In 1973, the AM radio giants would have been on most of the top 40, from Anne Murray to Deodato and Steely Dan to Lobo. And it was glorious.
Thirty years ago this winter, the hottest thing in radio was the Hot Hits format.
From the 50s onward, the basic idea of Top 40 was to play a relatively small pool of popular songs over and over. The most popular songs got played more. At the height of the 70s, WLS played its two biggest hits of the week every 75 minutes. Country stations turned the hits over quickly, too. At KDTH at the turn of the 80s, I’d play the top 10 songs of the week three times during a six-hour weekend shift. Hit music stations in all formats still repeat their most popular current hits frequently.
But most stations then (and now) would play lots of older songs too, so if you listened for several hours, you’d hear a fairly large number of different songs. The Hot Hits format proceeded from the premise that people shouldn’t have to wait for the most popular songs of the moment. So Hot Hits stations—the term was trademarked by consultant Mike Joseph—would play the five most popular songs every hour, and fill the rest of the hour from a tiny list of additional songs, sometimes as few as 25. That was all. No oldies, no recurrents (recently popular songs), no hitbounds (new songs)—just the biggest of the big hits, over and over and over again.
Joseph started the Hot Hits format in 1977, although he always told interviewers it was a refinement of concepts dating back to the 50s, and that he’d been developing it since the early 70s. It hit the major markets around 1981: Joseph had stations in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit, and stations in other big cities cloned his approach. The format was heard almost exclusively on FM stations, at a time when Top 40 was still largely an AM-radio phenomenon.
As it happened, I visited WHYT in Detroit while it was running the Hot Hits format. (My in-laws lived in the Detroit area, and I got the hookup through a high-school friend.) One of the jocks told me it was the most intense radio he’d ever done. “You’re bouncing off the walls when you’re in there, but you go home at the end of your shift and you’re wrecked, because you expend so much energy.” The format was heavily structured with jingles and sweepers, and jock-talk was both severely limited and carefully prescribed—so many mentions of the call letters each hour, so many contest promos, etc. Each record came labeled with the number of seconds the jock had to talk, usually at the end, because Joseph believed listeners disliked jock-talk over song intros. And woe betide the jock who used one second more, or one second less, of the prescribed time. Joseph was famous for scoring his jocks on how well they’d executed the format—every day.
So it’s not a surprise that there’s very little music on the WHYT survey dated February 10, 1983—just nine songs and six albums. The top five, which you would have heard every hour, represent a cross-section of Top 40 music at the dawn of the MTV era:
1. “Down Under”/Men at Work
2. “Shame on the Moon”/Bob Seger
4. “Stray Cat Strut”/Stray Cats
5. “Maneater”/Hall & Oates
It seems odd now, at 30 years’ distance, to think of a Top 40 station slamming a record like “Shame on the Moon” every hour on the hour—or Lionel Richie’s “You Are,” also among the top nine. But evolution happens slowly, and evolution it was 30 years ago, as pre-MTV acts like Seger started to be surpassed by a new generation of artists who didn’t play by the same rules.
At that moment, hit radio itself was evolving too. In the winter of 1983, Hot Hits was still going strong, although by the end of the year, a couple of Joseph’s major clients, including WHYT, would drop the format and adopt a more traditional approach. The phrase “Top 40″ would begin to fall out of fashion at the same time, replaced by “contemporary hit radio.” There was nothing magic about the number 40 anymore. Just ask Mike Joseph.