Etched Into History

In the summer of 2004, I found myself with a lot to say about music. But the blog I had at the time, the Daily Aneurysm, was focused on politics and current events, and music didn’t really fit there. So, 10 years ago today, I established this blog. For a while, I kept both of them going, writing at the other place one or more times a day and here one or two times a week. But by 2006, I was sufficiently fatigued by news and politics that I gave up the Daily Aneurysm and made this my main blog. It’s been my Internet home ever since. Our anniversary tradition is to present a list of my favorite posts since the last anniversary, so here we go, with each one annotated Twitter-style, in no particular order. (To find favorite posts from other years, click here.)

—We traveled in time to the “semi-sex orgy” that rocked Milwaukee three weeks before Woodstock, and went back to a rock festival we had visited previously.

—A reader took us along on his epic journey to a different rock festival.

—We looked into the search-engine phrases that bring people to this lightly trafficked corner of the Internet.

—In 1980, I briefly pondered quitting school in favor of a radio job, which I probably should have done but eventually did not.

—We cranked up the most unlikely shredding in the history of rock guitar.

—We got acquainted with a former researcher for American Top 40 and learned about the show from the inside (part 1 here, part 2 here).

—The shades of the past crowded around us, and made us weep.

—A genuinely un-hip 70s TV hero got caught up in the disco craze, while one of his contemporaries proved to be a little more with it.

—One of country music’s hippest heroes got caught up in TV, to his eventual disdain, during what proved to be a very fertile era for rock on TV.

—We heard the alternate-universe version of a song that became part of one of rock’s most beloved recordings.

—And then we did it again.

—We read the morning paper on November 22, 1963, hours before that day was etched forever into history.

—We corrected a widely misremembered piece of Beatles trivia, and elaborated on what we found.

—And then we corrected another bit of trivia people often get wrong.

—We read the comments on our posts to find people defending Dan Fogelberg (and then we tried defending him ourselves).

—We listened to a record that could only have hit in the 70s and two other oddities, one recorded by an unknown who eventually became a star in a different field, and the other by someone who would become one of the most famous people in human history.

—We met a legend, and heard from several others in their prime.

And for a 10th consecutive year, we grossly overused the editorial “we.”

Many thanks to all of you who still bother to come here regularly. I am grateful for your attention, your contributions, and your friendship. Don’t forget that this blog has a companion Tumblr site, which I encourage you to visit, because it includes stuff that never gets mentioned here that is along the same lines as the stuff that does get mentioned here, in addition to all of the posts that appear here.

Photographs and Memories

(Pictured: Mike, Casey, and Kerri Kasem in 2005.)

It’s only within the last 20 years or so that the average funeral has included a display of photographs and memories from the life of the departed. It’s a way to bring life back into the midst of death—a way to remember the loved one as the vibrant living creature they were, instead of the shell in the box at the front of the room. Surely a tribute to Casey Kasem, who leaves a trail of nearly 50 years on television, radio, movies, and even on the stage, would positively glow with memories of those triumphs. But the tribute show Premiere Radio Networks produced in his honor, weirdly enough, did not. Not really.

The two-hour show, hosted by Casey’s son Mike, now a radio jock in Singapore, and his daughter Kerri, until recently co-host of a syndicated radio show with Nikki Sixx, was offered to Premiere affiliates over the last couple of weeks, and we listened to it in the car while traveling this past weekend. It contained plenty of memories of Casey—what it was like to grow up with somebody famous, about his career as a cartoon voice, his quiet political activism, that he was a vegan and a baseball fan. It contained plenty of music, some thematically linked to the content of the show (a Paul McCartney song after the veganism story, for example), or songs that Casey especially liked (Faith Hill’s “This Kiss”). It was heavy on music from the 80s and 90s, with only a couple of 70s songs included—a reasonable decision given the need for the show to thread a path appropriate for both the oldies stations and adult contemporary stations that air the reruns.

What the show didn’t contain enough of, however, was Casey himself. He wasn’t heard often, and when he was, the clips were almost always from his last years on the air—maybe for legal reasons—after his vibrant voice had been thickened by age, and he sounded worn out. Apart from the first long-distance dedication, broadcast in 1978, listeners to the tribute show got little of the man in his prime. Surely it would have been possible to snip even a quick intro or outro from an old broadcast for most of the songs, but the choice was made not to do so.

There were some bits that were relatively new to me, and probably to most people. One was “Letter from Elaina,” which I’d heard of several years ago but didn’t actually hear until earlier this year. In 1964, on the air in Los Angeles, Casey received a letter from a girl who had met George Harrison after a Beatles show. Fifty years later, it doesn’t sound like anything special, but he recorded it with music behind it, and it bubbled under the Hot 100 for a couple of weeks in October. Listener letters eventually became a feature of Casey’s radio shows (and on his local TV shows in Los Angeles), and when AT40 expanded from three hours to four in 1978, the need to fill time gave birth to the Long Distance Dedication. A story I never heard before involved Casey’s struggles as a young actor sometime in the 1950s, how he had been assured he had won a particular part, only to never receive a callback. Telling the story at a banquet years later, Casey was interrupted by one of the people at his table, who leaned in to say he knew why Casey hadn’t gotten the part—he had. The other actor was Edward Asner. A clip from a Michael Bublé concert, in which he described what it was like to hear Casey announce his song “Home” as a #1 hit, included Bublé’s impression of Casey, which was pretty good.

By the end of the show, as at any funeral, I found myself thinking fondly of the departed, and wishing I could spend some more time with him. Fortunately, I had a couple of old AT40 shows in the CD bag.

Tell Me You’re Coming Back

(Pictured: the Rolling Stones, circa 1964. Keef already looks a bit sketchy.)

Hey, remember the Beatles? They were pretty hot there for a while. Whatever happened to those guys?

On July 4, 1964, the single act that had dominated record charts all year like none other in history, not just at WOKY in Milwaukee but around the world, were nowhere to be found on the WOKY chart. The two-sided hit “Love Me Do”/”P.S. I Love You” had charted for a final week on June 20th, but unlike every other Beatles hit that spring, nothing came blazing up behind it. The WOKY chart for June 27th was Beatle-free, and so was the one for July 4.

The Hot 100 was similarly light on Fabs 50 years ago this week: “Love Me Do” was the last Beatle hit remaining on the chart, sitting at #19—if you don’t want to count the Boston Pops recording of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which debuted at #74. This wasn’t going to last, of course. On July 4, 1964, hype surrounding the forthcoming film A Hard Day’s Night must have been intense, with its pending release in the UK on the 6th and its American premiere set for August, and within a week or 10 days, there would new Beatles music on the radio again. But as Americans picnicked and partied and looked up at the fireworks in the sky on this particular Fourth, the current hits playing on their little transistor radios were coming from other stars.

Lots of them were from Britain. On July 4, Gerry and the Pacemakers (“Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”), Peter and Gordon (“A World Without Love”), Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas (“Bad to Me”) and the Dave Clark Five (“Can’t You See That She’s Mine”) were all in the top 10 on the Hot 100 (and “A World Without Love” had been #1 the week before, the first British act other than the Beatles to scale the heights). All were in the top 15 at WOKY, which was also charting the Searchers (“Don’t Throw Your Love Away”), Cliff Richard (“Bachelor Boy”), and another Peter and Gordon hit (“Nobody I Know”) in the lower reaches of its chart. And at the very bottom of its top 35, WOKY debuted a new British band, the Rolling Stones, with “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back).” WOKY had not charted the Stones’ earlier “Not Fade Away”; “Tell Me,” which debuted on the Hot 100 the same week, would eventually become their first Top 40 hit.

Pre-Beatles pop styles were doing just fine yet, though: Barbra Streisand is at #5 with “People,” and there are records from Terry Stafford, Chubby Checker, Bobby Vinton, Louis Armstrong, Al Martino, and Jack Jones farther down the chart. (And the Boston Pops’ Beatles cover, too.)

And here are five other records that jump out as I browse the WOKY chart dated July 4, 1964:

Continue reading →

Push-Ups With the Professor

If you have watched TV at all recently, you have seen an Apple commercial touting the iPhone and its fitness apps, using an odd, martial song encouraging you to touch your toes 10 times every morning, and concluding with “go you chicken fat go.” As you might have guessed, this is an old bit of popular culture being repurposed ironically.

“Chicken Fat” was written by Meredith Willson, famed for The Music Man, and originally sung by Robert Preston, who originated the role of Professor Harold Hill, The Music Man‘s leading man, on Broadway in 1957 and in the 1962 film. (The Apple ad uses a new recording that sounds a lot like Preston’s original.) It grew out of President Kennedy’s 1961 push to improve physical education in American schools, and after it was recorded, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce bought thousands of copies and sent them to schools across the country. They were used in phys ed classes for years after that—I know, because I remember doing the exercise routines described in the song in my own grade-school days, sometime in the late 60s, probably.

By the time I was working out to “Chicken Fat,” I would have already been a fan of The Music Man, although I don’t think I connected the two back then. It was the era when absolutely everybody in small-town America went to the local high-school musical, and we saw The Music Man as a family. There was something about the songs and/or the character of Professor Harold Hill that grabbed me. My parents bought a copy of the soundtrack, which I listened to often, so it didn’t take long before I learned the words to every song—and I still know most of them. Lots of people do. One evening in college, The Music Man was on one of the movie channels we got because I lived with aspiring TV engineers who were able to hack into the cable, and I had it on while I was doing the dishes. One of my roommates came home, and before long we were duetting on all of the songs, me in the kitchen, him in the living room.

Preston had won a Tony for playing Harold Hill on Broadway, but he wasn’t the first choice for Hill on screen. Movie mogul Jack Warner wanted Frank Sinatra—even though it’s impossible to imagine him as a hammy Indiana con man (“Gary, Indiana, Conservatory of Music, gold medal class of ’05″). Cary Grant was also offered the part, but he maintained that only Preston could do it. The Music Man was the first opportunity boys of my generation had to fall in love with Shirley Jones, who played the female lead, Marian; we would have another when she became Shirley Partridge in 1970. And you can’t watch the movie without spotting then-child actor and future film director Ron Howard as Marian’s little brother. (It’s on TCM this coming Sunday afternoon, BTW.)

The Music Man is also notable for its unlikely connection to the Beatles. “Till There Was You” was a song Paul McCartney had picked up from an older cousin, and it became part of the band’s repertoire in Hamburg. It’s not the best song in the show, though: that would be “Goodnight My Someone,” which uses the same tune as the film’s famous theme, “Seventy-Six Trombones,” slowed to ballad tempo, and is as beautiful a thing as you’re going to hear today.

But we’ve gotten off the subject, as we frequently do around here: “Chicken Fat.” I’m listening to it as I write, and I’m transported back to Northside School, in the gym, where one of those indestructible school phonographs blasts the song, turned up to the ragged edge of distortion, struggling to fill the echoing space, as 25 or 30 grade-schoolers bounce up and down at Preston’s instruction. Mr. Hubbard stands at the front of the room, wearing that odd half-smile he always wore, watching—participating some days, but most days just watching. Even kids who are somewhat averse to physical activity—like me, for example—find “Chicken Fat” to be fun, and damn catchy. Catchy enough to be instantly recognized when it appears out of nowhere nearly 50 years later.

Nothing Succeeds Like Success

(Pictured: Swamp Dogg, who didn’t need to cover Sinatra to declare he did it his way.)

I am still working my way through Matt Hinrichs’ monumental Outside the Top 40 Spotify lists for 1970, 1971, and 1972. They contain hundreds of songs that placed on either the Hot 100 or the Bubbling Under singles charts without making it to #40 or better. They’re a damn treasure and that’s no joke. Even though I’ve spent countless hours poking around in dusty corners all these years, these lists keep revealing records I’ve never heard and performers I’ve never bothered to notice.

For example: Bill Deal and the Rhondels. I’d heard of them but never paid much attention. Although they emerged at a moment in history when horn bands like Chicago and BS&T were getting hot, they were different, a raucous show band, and two of their biggest hits were covers of songs from an earlier day: “May I,” and the biggest, “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am,” which went to #23 late in the summer of 1969. The band placed among Billboard‘s top 10 artists of 1969, a list populated by a remarkable number of acts who barely flourished beyond 1969—the Brooklyn Bridge, Oliver, the Friends of Distinction, the Winstons, and Checkmates Ltd. featuring Sonny Charles—and the Rhondels were one of them, bagging one last Hot 100 hit before returning to the Virginia/Carolina beach-music scene from which they had come. That last hit is toned down a great deal from their customary party honk, and it’s pretty good: “Nothing Succeeds Like Success” got up to #63 in the spring of 1970.

“My Way” is one of the most famous songs in American pop, but it strikes me that it’s a difficult one to do well given that Frank Sinatra owns it. Sinatra’s version is prideful in a way unique to him; the second-most-famous one, by Elvis, made a few months before his death, comes off bathetic—like a lot of late-period Elvis recordings, there’s emptiness at the emotional center of it. Brook Benton recorded “My Way” in 1970, made it as personal as Sinatra did but in his own imitable way, and took it up to #72.

On the subject of personal and inimitable, there’s Bettye Swann’s cover of “Little Things Mean a Lot,” originally made famous in 1954 by Kitty Kallen. Swann moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the early 60s and scored a #1 R&B hit with “Make Me Yours” in 1967, and four other Hot 100 hits between 1967 and 1973, plus four others that bubbled under. “Little Things Mean a Lot” reached #114 in February 1970.

Don’t confuse Doris Duke with Doris Troy. Troy famously recorded “Just One Look” and had some late recordings released on Apple; Duke was a gospel singer who had cut some demos for Motown and sang on sessions for Gamble and Huff before she made an album at Capricorn Studios called I’m a Loser, with songs by Gary U.S. Bonds and Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams. Swamp Dogg also produced it. The album contained two singles, “To the Other Woman (I’m the Other Woman),” which went Top-10 on the soul chart and #50 on the Hot 100 in the spring of 1970, and “Feet Start Walkin’,” which bubbled under, reaching #109 in the summer. The tiny label on which I’m a Loser was released went tits-up shortly thereafter, and Duke didn’t record again until 1975. After three albums in six years, she retired from music, and as Allmusic.com puts it, “at the time of this writing her whereabouts and activities are unknown.”

During the week of June 6, 1970, while “Feet Start Walkin’” bubbled under at #117, a Bonds/Williams song performed by Swamp Dogg hisownself sat directly above at #116: “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe,” from an album called Total Destruction to Your Mind. According to Allmusic.com, the album is what resulted after Williams, an idiosyncratic character to begin with, experimented with LSD. “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe” is a deep Southern blues groove, and the whole story of the lyric is right there in the title.

There will be future installments along this line, because how could there not?

 

The Host Is Dead, Long Live the Show

This past weekend, just like always, my radio station ran its usual schedule of vintage American Top 40 shows, less than one week after the passing of Casey Kasem. Earlier in the week, we asked our listeners on Facebook if they wanted the shows to continue, and the answer was definitively yes. There will probably be a few stations that will drop them, though—using Casey’s death as an excuse to make a change, or because they’re weirded out by the idea of having a dead guy on their air, or for reasons somewhere in between.

In the late 80s, at the elevator music station, we aired a syndicated show featuring MOR vocals from the 50s and 60s, the name of which I forget. It was hosted by Jim Lange, a veteran radio personality best known for having hosted The Dating Game. When Lange’s contract ran out, the syndicator began sending older versions of the show that had been hosted by another radio veteran, William B. Williams—whose hosting gig had ended when he died in 1986. This news sent a couple of us to the production room to record a joke promo for the show, which began with “KRVR, the station that plays more dead artists than any other station in the Quad Cities, is proud to present a program with a dead host.” The promo was never meant to air, but we probably should have contrived to sneak it on at least once.

On to Other Stuff: I have been tweeting a lot of stuff the last week or so, and unless you’re on Twitter (or you compulsively visit this site every few hours to see the Twitter feed in the right-hand column), you might have missed it. So here’s a rundown.

—Some of it had to do with Casey. Here he is on The Dating Game (with Jim Lange) as Bachelor #3. Here’s a tribute to Casey as “Pilot of the Airwaves.” Here he is on Late Show With David Letterman with a Top-Ten list. Casey pursued an acting career even as AT40 continued to grow—here he is in one of his two appearances on Hawaii Five-O.

—Flavorwire assembled a list of the 25 Best Rock Movies Ever Made. It’s a fine list, but we really needed it in the first week of winter, to while away the days when it’s too damn cold to do anything, not so much in the first week of summer.

—Through some sort of magic I haven’t tried to unlock, the Internet has become an excellent source for isolated tracks, which permit us to hear famous recordings in entirely new ways. Open Culture uncovered some isolated bass lines by Paul McCartney, John Paul Jones, John Deacon, and others, that reveal hitherto under-appreciated contributions to famous songs.

—We have talked repeatedly here over the years about the tendency of oldies radio stations to play the same tiny pool of songs over and over and over again. One show swimming in its own ocean is Barry Scott’s The Lost 45s, which is celebrating its 28th anniversary on the air this month. This article at RadioInfo describes how Scott came to do the show, and how he deliberately avoids playing the same tiny pool of songs over and over and over again. (Related: this article from Billboard about how stations decide which oldies to consider for airplay and where they go wrong doing it.)

—In 1974, during the making of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the film was required to pass muster with the British censors. Letters of Note found a report sent by one producer to another about proposed cuts, which reveals how the funniest line in the film was in jeopardy, but ultimately retained. Along the same line, you can read extensive excerpts from Michael Palin’s diaries about the making of the film, with a bunch of fabulous stills from the production, at Dangerous Minds.

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