The Greatest’s Hit

(An iconic shot from the Beatles’ February 1964 meeting with Cassius Clay. They left after a few minutes of photogenic clowning, and Clay asked a reporter, “Who were those little sissies?”)

Fifty years ago this spring, the Beatles were beginning to earn their place on the list of worldwide icons of the 20th century. And so was a man who topped many of those lists at century’s end. Muhammad Ali, then still known as Cassius Clay, met the Beatles in Florida during their first visit to America, shortly before he knocked out Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship. The story of that meeting is here.

It’s not the story I’m telling today.

In August 1963, Columbia Records took Clay into a recording studio in New York, thinking they might capitalize on his upcoming bout with Liston. There Clay cut “Stand By Me,” which had been a hit for Ben E. King in 1961. Clay did it straight, with none of the histrionics for which he was then as famous as he was for his boxing skills. He’s clearly an amateur singer struggling to stay on pitch, and toward the very end, he comes completely disconnected from the backing track. (The backing track itself is oddly slathered in sleigh bells.) Nevertheless, Clay’s “Stand by Me” is better than it has any right to be, and it would peak at #102 on the Bubbling Under chart 50 years ago this week. The flipside, “I Am the Greatest,” charted separately and reached #113. It’s more along the lines of what the average American would have expected to hear from the verbose young boxer—Clay sings his own praises over a rockin’ 50s-style instrumental track, punctuated with laughter and applause that sounds canned.

The sessions over four days in August resulted in a whole album, I Am the Greatest, which charted beginning in October 1963. It did not include the single (at least not until the 1999 CD reissue), but featured a series of spoken-word pieces, mostly about Clay’s greatness. (One of them is titled “Will the Real Sonny Liston Please Fall Down?”) At the time, it was claimed that Clay had written the pieces. Many critics praised his skills as a poet and would quote the album as Clay’s own words for years thereafter. But most of it was actually written by veteran TV writer Gary Belkin, who was credited as producer on the original album. (Click that link—the story is fascinating.) I Am the Greatest reached #61 on the Billboard album chart during a 20-week run and received a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Recording.

You know the story from that point: Clay would join the Nation of Islam within days of defeating Liston in 1964 and would adopt the name Muhammad Ali in 1966. He’d be stripped of his titles in 1967 after refusing to report for the military draft. (Middle America would not find him quite so entertaining after that.) When he returned to boxing in 1970, he fought a string of legendary bouts that made him the legendary figure he remains today.

And instead of making records, he would inspire them. In 1975, Johnny Wakelin, a white British singer, recorded “Black Superman,” which became a gigantic hit in the US and the UK. In 1977, the biographical movie The Greatest would feature a song by George Benson called “The Greatest Love of All,” which became a modest hit then, and would become a bigger one when Whitney Houston covered it in 1985.

Fifty years ago this week, the Beatles ruled the record chart with the top five singles in America. And had you looked far down the same chart, to the Bubbling Under section, you’d have seen another all-time champion there too.

Chart 5: Invasion

This is the day, 50 years ago, when the Beatles captured the top five positions on the Hot 100. As we’ve noted before, Billboard‘s chart tended to run behind the streets by a little bit—so let’s visit a local chart for the week of April 4, 1964, from WOKY in Milwaukee.

WOKY has the same top two as Billboard, but in a different order: “Twist and Shout” is #1 in Milwaukee and “Can’t Buy Me Love” is #2. Other Beatle hits were starting to cool on WOKY: Billboard‘s #3, “She Loves You,”dropped to #7; “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Billboard‘s #4, was down to #13; “Please Please Me,” Billboard‘s #5, fell to #19. Two other Beatle hits, also on the Hot 100, were on WOKY: “Do You Want to Know a Secret” (#9 at WOKY, #46 in Billboard) and  “All My Loving,” which made its debut on the WOKY chart at #31—it was at #58 in Billboard.

Other British invaders storming Milwaukee included the Dave Clark Five, the Searchers, and the Swinging Blue Jeans. Apart from all the Brits, however, the chart’s a bit thin on enduring classics: the Beach Boys’ “Fun Fun Fun” is there (#16), as is Betty Everett’s “The Shoop Shoop Song” (#14). Louis Armstrong’s “Hello Dolly” (#3), which will briefly break the Beatles’ dominance of the #1 position in Billboard, is on its way up, although it’s more oddity than classic today. Two big stars of the moment, Brenda Lee and Elvis, are on with double-sided hits, although none of the four songs is particularly memorable. Terry Stafford does Elvis better than Elvis with “Suspicion” (#4).

Here are five others that catch my eye and/or ear:

6. “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down”/Serendipity Singers (up from 7). One of the casualties of the British Invasion was the folk boom, although the demise of this nine-member group from Colorado was no great loss. To quote some Internet hack, “‘Don’t Let the Rain Come Down’ sounds like something a group of middle-aged middle-school teachers might do to sublimate an unmet desire to get laid.”

12. “White on White”/Danny Williams (up from 20). A South African pop crooner, Danny Williams was modestly popular in the UK until the beat groups went big. Early in ’63 he went on one of those big package tours that included the not-yet-famous Beatles, and was billed well above them. “White on White” is dang sappy, but not terrible.

15. “Little Boxes”/Pete Seeger (up from 18). You may have learned “Little Boxes” at church camp or Bible school, or maybe when it was the theme song to the early seasons of Weeds. It was Seeger’s lone charting single, reaching #70 on the Hot 100. (A half-century later, it still rings true.)

24. “Understand Your Man”/Johnny Cash (down from 17). I’m currently reading Robert Hilburn’s Johnny Cash: The Life, and I can’t recommend it enough. “Understand Your Man” was written at a time when Cash’s marriage to Vivian Liberto was coming apart (although the couple would not divorce until 1966), and its bitter lyric is aimed—unjustly, it seems to me—at her.

27. “Shangri-La”/Robert Maxwell (up from 34). Providing an adult antidote to all that kiddie music, “Shangri-La” opens and closes with a big ol’ harp flourish played by Maxwell himself, who was a composer, conductor, and arranger in addition to a harpist. But the song is mostly powered by an enormous orchestra riff and a lascivious saxophone that skates the line between cheesy and awesome. It was heard—anachronistically—in the first episode of Mad Men, which was set in 1960.

Folkies, crooners, and big orchestras weren’t the only artists swept away by the British Invasion. Chubby Checker and Chuck Berry, both on WOKY 50 years ago this week, got swamped too. And we are, to a certain extent, still living in the musical world that was just then being born.

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.

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