The Better Ones

One of the comments on Monday’s post about minor-league baseball on the radio came from Gene, who was my station’s general manager in 1993. The three years I spent working for him were my last three full-time years in radio, and three of the better ones.

I was out of work in the spring of 1990 when a friend put me in touch with Gene. Enough time has gone by that I don’t remember specifically what he hired me to do—what my job title was at first—but in small-market radio you end up doing everything. Before I was done, I’d be operations manager and pretty much in charge of the day-to-day on two stations, although that wasn’t what I was hired for initially. I board-opped the syndicated programming on the AM station for a while (which marked my first exposure to Rush Limbaugh, who was at that time a brilliant radio entertainer whose schtick had not yet curdled into meanness), and I started doing a live afternoon show on the FM late in the summer.

When Gene and his partner bought the stations (shortly before I came aboard), there were people in Clinton, Iowa, who didn’t know they existed, so it wasn’t merely a matter of building stations from scratch, it was like building them from less than scratch. The AM station eventually put on a satellite-delivered nostalgia format and did a great deal of news; the FM stayed with its satellite-delivered adult contemporary format. Gene was an easy guy to work for, because he didn’t hide behind the title of GM and co-owner, and he didn’t expect us to defer to him that way. He treated everybody as if their jobs were equally important, from bookkeeping to engineering to sales to the people who worked part-time nights and weekends, and he frequently rolled up his sleeves and helped out with whatever needed doing. Personally we hit it off—he and his wife frequently took me in on snowy nights when the weather was too bad for me to get home, and many full bottles were turned into empties.

We didn’t always see eye-to-eye. The FM morning guy was a prima donna with a fragile ego, and the two of us frequently clashed. I didn’t always feel like Gene supported me in dealing with him. After one especially ugly blowup, I asked Gene to fire the guy; when he wouldn’t, I asked angrily, “What precisely does a guy have to do to get fired around here?” I suppose I’m lucky I didn’t find out. (Not then, anyhow.) Once while I was on vacation, he hired a morning guy for the AM. The guy was a good choice and I said so, but at the same time, I felt like I should have been involved in the process just a little.

So by the spring of 1993, many of the little seeds we had planted and nurtured for three years were beginning to grow. Winning the broadcast rights for the minor-league baseball team was only one of them. But by the spring of 1993, I was sinking into burnout. I was in my early 30s, 11 years into my full-time career, and it was clear that I wasn’t going to climb the market ladder the way I’d always dreamed. As a result, it got harder to go to work every day, and the work seemed to matter less. I am pretty sure I grew more and more unpleasant to be around as the year went on—and on the first working day of 1994, Gene fired me. It wasn’t an especially bad breakup, however. We stayed in touch, and I did a little freelance consulting for the stations over the next couple of years.

I wasn’t happy about it at the time, but when Gene fired me, he was doing me a favor. Forcing me to decide about my future, instead of allowing me to postpone deciding by continuing to plod along one day at a time, led me into the multiplicity of careers I’ve had since.

Gene eventually sold the stations and moved to Florida, where he brokered stations and worked in the public-information office of FEMA for a while. Now he’s spending most of his time hanging out close to the beach. His daughters, who were adorable little toddlers who’d come visit me in the studio while I was on the air, are young women with their own careers now.

So often in radio, we remember the dipsticks and numbskulls more vividly than the good guys. It shouldn’t be that way.

The Game Like It Was

(Optional soundtrack for this post.)

The opening day of baseball season feels to me the way your wedding anniversary must feel after you get divorced: it’s a reminder of an old love that used to mean a lot, but doesn’t anymore.

In 1993, I was working at a radio station in Clinton, Iowa, a nondescript town of about 30,000 on the Mississippi River. Against the odds, it managed to support a class-A minor league baseball team. (And still does today.) The team’s home games had been broadcast for years by the other station in town. But the minor-league landscape had begun to change in the late 80s, and like other pro sports franchises, minor-league teams needed enhanced revenue streams to survive. Selling the rights to both home and road games would effectively double a team’s broadcasting revenue. And in 1993, my station put together a hefty offer for the Clinton team’s broadcast rights.

Our competitor knew we were going to do this, but instead of responding with a competitive offer of its own, their general manager walked into the meeting and said, “Well, I suppose they’ve made you all kinds of big promises. Here’s our offer—we’ll keep doing the home games like we’ve always done, at the same rights fee we’ve always paid.” This wasn’t a rhetorical flourish—they actually believed that the team might prefer to keep doing what they had been doing instead of getting more money and more exposure. As you might expect, we got the rights—and we heard that Brand X was actually surprised. (They were an utterly clueless bunch of people, with an almost completely false conception of who their audience was and of how they were perceived in the community.) And so my station became the voice of the Clinton Lumber Kings.

In a small market, you’re never going to know precisely how many people are listening to any broadcast. My guess is that there weren’t very many listening to us for baseball. Minor league baseball attracts most fans based on the entertainment experience at the park surrounding the games, rather than on the game of baseball itself. Only a small group of hardcores is going to live and die by the result of the games. The reality of small-market radio, however, is that if you can sell advertising, a broadcast is considered successful, regardless of how many people are listening to it, so in that first year, we were successful.

In 1993, I was not far from falling entirely out of love with baseball, which had been my favorite sport for almost 25 years. The reasons were several: the pace of games slowed from leisurely to glacial, and I found I lacked the patience to invest four hours in a game. I was a Chicago Cubs fan, but half of the roster would turn over each year, favorite players would be gone, and guys you had rooted against for years were suddenly wearing Cub uniforms. Player salaries were skyrocketing, but many of the players seemed to be doing less and less to earn it. The example that frosted me the most was Danny Jackson, a pitcher who got a $10 million contract before the 1991 season. But when he wasn’t hurt, he was awful. Cub fans, by definition, must learn to tolerate awfulness, and sometimes even embrace it. But Jackson’s awfulness was compounded by an unpardonable sin: he didn’t seem to care that he was awful. He would go out, get shelled, and then tell reporters that he’d felt fine and had done what he wanted to do, but things just didn’t work out. He was just a victim of bad luck, that’s all, so what else could he do?

Well, standing up and admitting you suck when even the blind could see it would have been a fine start.

By 1994, Opening Day was still a holiday to me, but that was the year the World Series was wiped out by a players’ strike—not that the Cubs were going to be in it, but still—and after that, I was done. I watched a few games during the Sammy Sosa/Mark McGwire home-run chase in 1998, but baseball was never going to be what it once was to me. I had stopped caring about the game day to day. Eventually, I stopped caring about the playoffs and World Series, too.

But give me some credit, at least, for feeling a little bit sorry about it every year on Opening Day.

(Rebooted from a couple of posts from 2007 and 2008.)

Been Too Long on the Road

Twenty years ago, unemployed and looking for a gig, I was hired by a company that offered seminars for kids getting ready to take their ACTs, one of the two major college-entrance exams, a seasonal job I did for most of the next four years. Then I took a few years off, and did it again for three years in the early aughts. And now I’m doing it again. It’s the most agreeable job I’ve ever had, but the best part is the travel. I have always enjoyed car time with music on, and this job offers plenty of that. When I’m not teaching, I can go exploring: on some of my trips in the 90s, I’d visit Civil War sites; now my trips involve looking for breweries and beer bars. I can look up old friends (which I did this week), do other work during my hotel hangouts, or just vegetate with the laptop. The trip I’m wrapping up today spanned Friday to Friday, seven nights, which is about as long as trips get anymore—and about as long as I want to be gone. The other morning, as I walked down the hall to the hotel breakfast, I was briefly unable to remember what town I was in, which is usually a sign that it’s getting time to go home.

I travel with a database of the Billboard charts from 1954 to 2004. (But doesn’t everybody?) The other morning I started poking through it looking for “road” songs, and here’s some of what I found.

The most successful “road” song of all time is probably “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men, which did 13 weeks at #1 in 1992. “The Long and Winding Road” by the Beatles was also #1 in 1970, and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John went to #2 in 1973. (“Take Me Home Country Roads” by John Denver belongs on here too, although I searched for “road” and not “roads,” otherwise this post would have run 1,000 words.) “The Valley Road” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range was a Top-10 hit in 1988; John Fogerty’s “The Old Man Down the Road” hit the Top 10 in 1985, and “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson did the same trick in 1980. Charting further down, there was “Middle of the Road” by the Pretenders as 1983 turned to 1984, Barry Manilow’s “Somewhere Down the Road” in 1982, and the Eagles’ final single, “Seven Bridges Road,” which spanned 1980 and 1981.

The last “road” song of the 70s was “Bright Side of the Road” by Van Morrison, which bubbled under the Hot 100 late in 1979. Then it’s back to “Ease on Down the Road” by Diana Ross and Michael Jackson (from The Wiz) in 1978, which had charted three years before by a group calling itself Consumer Rapport. The Stampeders’ weird cover of “Hit the Road Jack,” featuring a cameo by Wolfman Jack, charted in 1976. A group called the Road Apples scored a modest Top-40 hit in the fall of 1975 with “Let’s Live Together.” Similarly honorable mention goes to the group Gunhill Road (“Back When My Hair Was Short”) and to Al Wilson and Climax, who released their 70s hits, including “Show and Tell” and “Precious and Few,’” on the Rocky Road label.

In 1973, a group called Uncle Dog briefly charted with “River Road,” goodtime English blooze with a male/female duet lead. In ’72, the Hollies did “Long Dark Road,” soul singer Solomon Burke scored with the burnin’ “Love’s Street and Fool’s Road,” and the husband-and-wife duo of Terry Black and Laurel Ward scraped into the Hot 100 with “Goin’ Down (On the Road to L.A.).” Freda Payne looks to have done two weeks at #100 with “The Road We Didn’t Take” in January.

The Beach Boys closed 1971 with ‘”Long Promised Road,” a few months after Brewer and Shipley’s “Tarkio Road” and Mark Lindsay’s “Been Too Long on the Road,” which was #98 for a single week.  James Taylor hit in ’71 with “Country Road,” but Merry Clayton bubbled under with it first, and did it better, on her album Gimme Shelter. The year 1970 saw a lot of road songs: “The Long and Winding Road,” “Farther on Down the Road” by Joe Simon, “”Long Lonesome Road” by the Shocking Blue, and “End of Our Road” by Marvin Gaye, the first song ever played on American Top 40. And Jamul, a band we met during our series on one-hit wonders to peak in the 90s, hit with “Tobacco Road.”

To keep this post from going on any longer than it already has, I’m not going to dig into the 60s or the 50s. But because a blog is a content monster demanding to be fed, I probably will someday. After I get home.

Vinyl Confessions

A couple of weeks ago, we got a new piece of furniture for the living room—a low shelving unit to replace the tall, rack-like thing that has held the DVR, DVD player, CD player, and turntable for maybe 10 years. It is, in what seems to be the story of our lives, not quite right, not quite what we’d prefer if we had our druthers, but it’ll do. It takes up less space, which is a major consideration in a place as tiny as ours.

What kept us from replacing the old unit sooner was the necessity of un-wiring all the electronics and then wiring ‘em up again. It would mean digging into the nightmarish forest of cords hidden behind, taking everything apart, and then trying to remember how it was hooked up in the first place, with the consequent threat to our marriage that such a project always seems to evoke. We still haven’t sorted it out; the TV is hooked up through a different input than it was, and I can’t figure out how to play the Dish Network music channels through the stereo like we used to. (We are still married.)

Not everything is back in place, though—I decided not to hook up the turntable.

This is not as drastic as it seems. I can’t remember the last time I actually used the turntable. If it were four or five years, I wouldn’t be surprised, nor would I be surprised if it were longer than that. But packing it away means I no longer have easy access to a working turntable for the first time since, well, ever. From Dad’s little portable to the console stereo in the living room to the first record player I could call my own and through all the iterations of my home equipment since, there’s always been a turntable. But we simply don’t have a need for one anymore. If we listen to music in the living room, it’s usually the Dish Network music channels. I occasionally put in a stack of CDs, but I’ll bet we haven’t used the turntable for an evening’s listening in 20 years.

And that’s not the only reason. If it’s been four or five years since I used the turntable, it’s been at least that long since I bought any vinyl. And I have a confession to make: crate-digging, which used to be something I enjoyed immensely, no longer holds much interest for me. I will occasionally flip through a box of records in an antique store, but the days when I could get lost for hours among sizable stacks are over. I still discover plenty of old stuff that’s new to me via the Internet, and I’m OK with that. I don’t miss owning the physical objects—and I’m completely out of space to store them anyhow.

Many years ago, before the advent of the USB turntable, I bought a CD player with a recording well, thinking it would be good for converting vinyl to digital, but it was a disappointment from the moment I took it out of the box. The recording well never really worked properly—the machine was astoundingly sensitive to vibration and would glitch at random in mid-recording, ruining the blank disc; although it was supposed to recognize silence between songs and create individual tracks, it never did, and so every album was essentially a single long track. The thing should have gone back to the store the day after I got it home.

I’d like to have a USB turntable. If I did—if I could easily convert vinyl to digital—I might pick up the crate-digging habit again. But until I find room on my desk—room that doesn’t currently exist and is unlikely to exist in the foreseeable future—for better or worse, we’re a turntable-free house.

One More Thing: This past weekend I was once again lucky enough to enjoy the hospitality of whiteray and the Texas Gal in Minnesota, where spring remains but a rumor although the liquor stores are well-stocked with good beer, so who cares. I’m grateful to them and their menagerie of cats for making me feel at home in their home.

Before They Were Gamble and Huff

(Pictured: Cooler and richer than you and me—Gamble and Huff in the 70s.)

I am not sure when I first figured out that those records I loved by the O’Jays and the Spinners and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes came from largely the same stable of writers, producers, and musicians. It probably wasn’t until several years after I started listening to them, and may not have been until I fell in with some like-minded geeks in college. So I was a fan of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff before I ever knew who they were.

We associate Gamble and Huff with those elaborate Philadelphia productions—MFSB gliding along like a high-powered luxury car, high-hat cymbal keeping time and strings glittering in the distance, with Teddy Pendergrass testifying on top or the O’Jays or Three Degrees harmonizing along. But before they assembled their own production line at Sigma Studios, Gamble and Huff were independent producers. And while their most famous productions are as polished as silver, some of their early productions are different.

G&H’s first big hit was “Expressway to Your Heart” by the Soul Survivors (1967), a white soul band from New York who were popular in Atlantic City and Philadelphia. The most successful record they produced during their pre-mogul years was Jerry Butler’s “Only the Strong Survive” in 1969. I knew this song for years before I learned it was a Gamble and Huff joint, and I could hardly believe it. It’s practically 100 percent Memphis (and your proof might be that Elvis Presley recorded it on From Elvis in Memphis the same year). You can hear the latter-day Gamble and Huff sound start to coalesce on Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You,” which was one of the first 45s I ever bought, early in 1971. It’s on the album Wilson Pickett in Philadelphia, which also features “Engine No. 9,” a soul burner you’d never spot as Gamble and Huff either—if all you knew was their later stuff. (They wrote it, but it’s listed as produced by “Staff for Gamble-Huff Productions Inc.” I’m guessing they were around.)

All of these productions are mentioned in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s biography of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. But that biography doesn’t mention what I believe to be their greatest pre-mogul production: Joe Simon’s “Drowning in the Sea of Love.” Go and listen to it now—loud, if you can.

From the first second, it grabs you by the ears—the intro is absolutely impossible to ignore from the moment it hits the radio. The arrangement G&H put behind Simon is not especially busy, yet somehow evokes the feeling of a man going under. The lyric is ambiguous—is she giving him hope of survival or pouring more water on him? And you gotta love soul poetry metaphors like “I depended on you for love navigation” and “I’m in the middle of a love storm / Miles from the shore.” The last 30 seconds, with Simon testifying over the main instrumental theme, is the kind of thing I could listen to for 10 minutes on a loop.

(There’s probably another whole blog post in the career of Joe Simon, like so many other soul singers an ex-gospel performer, who scored a handful of memorable hits in the late 60s and early 70s, including “The Chokin’ Kind” and “Power of Love,” although his lone Top-10 hit, “Get Down on the Floor” was a proto-disco record from the spring of 1975. Somehow, his “Drowning in the Sea of Love” made it only to #11 early in 1972.)

“Drowning in the Sea of Love” has been covered plenty over the years. It’s in the repertoire of Boz Scaggs, a singer whose voice resembles Simon’s a little; he recorded a version of it with Donald Fagen’s New York Rock ‘n’ Soul Revue in 1991. But nobody gets closer to the song’s mighty soul than Joe Simon did, with Gamble and Huff at the controls.

Cher and Sonny and Elton and David and Sonny Again

(Pictured: Possibly the most unflattering picture of Cher ever published, going it alone on the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour stage, as she eventually would on her own stage.)

If you lived in the the three-channel TV universe between 1971 and 1974, you saw The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. It was a top-10 hit throughout its run. But 40 years ago this winter, Sonny filed for divorce, and two days later the couple taped what was to have been the season finale but turned out to be the series finale. It aired on May 29, 1974.

Such bankable acts were not destined to be off TV for very long. CBS signed Cher for her own variety show, which was to premiere midseason, early in 1975. ABC, meanwhile, signed Sonny for a show (The Sonny Comedy Revue) that would beat Cher to air, going on in September 1974. Sonny had the advantage of keeping the writers, the bits, and many of the cast members (“We’ll be missing one,” he remarked) from the original Sonny and Cher show. Cher, meanwhile, had the advantage of being Cher. ABC put The Sonny Comedy Revue in the highly viewed 7:00 Central time slot on Sunday nights. CBS announced that Cher would run Sunday nights at 6:30 when it went on the air later that season. But the anticipated head-to-head duke-out never happened. The Sonny Comedy Revue attracted neither kind reviews nor a big audience. It aired for the last time on December 29, 1974.

Cher didn’t premiere until February 12, 1975, but when it did, it came in with a bang: guest stars on the premiere were Elton John, Bette Midler, and Flip Wilson. Although the premiere made a splash, the show was not an especially big hit, placing #23 for the season (despite being the first TV show on which a woman was permitted to display her navel, allegedly). CBS retooled the show for its second season, but the ratings were even lower. It aired for the last time on January 4, 1976—but not necessarily because of the ratings, as we shall see.

On the first show, Elton performed “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” recently the #1 song in America, and sang “Bennie and the Jets,” a #1 single one year earlier, with Cher. (You can see several clips from the premiere here.) After the premiere, the guest list settled into typical mid-70s TV territory with guests including Cloris Leachman, Liberace, Nancy Walker, Tim Conway, and McLean Stevenson. The Osmonds, the Jacksons, the Pointer Sisters, Labelle, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Ike & Tina Turner, Art Garfunkel, and Gregg Allman (about the time Cher married him) were first-season musical guests.

Next to Elton, Cher’s most interesting musical guest appeared in November of 1975. In the fall of that year, David Bowie was doing a great deal of American TV. In early November, he did The Dick Cavett Show and also appeared on Soul Train, nervously answering questions from the kids in the audience after, it is said, having a few drinks to calm himself. (This was also a time in which he admits to having consumed vast amounts of cocaine; he has said that he doesn’t remember recording “Golden Years,” one of the songs he sang on Soul Train.) Sometime in December, he and his band taped the daytime talk show Dinah! with Dinah Shore, where they burned down the house (and the housewives watching) with “Stay” from Bowie’s then-new album Station to Station. And in between, he appeared on one of the final episodes of Cher. The two singers did a version of Bowie’s “Young Americans” sandwiched around a medley of familiar pop and rock songs, a Vegas-type thing that actually works. (There was more of the showbiz trouper in Bowie than anybody in 1975 expected.) He also performed his recent hit “Fame,” doing a live vocal over the record’s backing track, accompanied by what were then state-of-the-art trippy TV graphics.

By this point in Cher’s run, she may have been willing to bring on performers beyond the TV variety show norm—David Essex, never a big name in America, would appear on a December show—because she was done. After only a handful of episodes into the second season, Cher decided to end her own show and go back on TV with Sonny in 1976.

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