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:

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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.

Small Ambitions

(Pictured: REO Speedwagon sometime around 1981. Their jazz-hands pose has them looking like the band that played the Homecoming dance at your high school, which 10 years before, they might have been.)

The summer of 1981, which was the subject of a post earlier this week, was the last one I spent living the life of a student, the only life I had known since I went off to kindergarten. Even so, it was different—I had left home for good after the summer of 1980, and I spent the summer of ’81 in my college apartment, working my part-time job and taking a couple of classes. A few of us kept the campus radio station on the air on an intermittent schedule, broadcasting mostly to ourselves.

We were an album-rock station, so we would not have been playing much of the stuff on the Top 40 then, apart from the Moody Blues, Alan Parsons Project, Pure Prairie League, John Lennon, Rick Springfield, Tom Petty, Styx, REO, and George Harrison. But what else would we have been playing? Here’s the Billboard Top 10 from a typical midsummer week:

1. Mistaken Identity/Kim Carnes
2. Hi Infidelity/REO Speedwagon
3. Long Distance Voyager/Moody Blues
4. Paradise Theater/Styx
5. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap/AC-DC
6. Hard Promises/Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
7. Face Value/Phil Collins
8. Street Songs/Rick James
9. Stars on Long Play/Stars on Long Play
10. Zebop/Santana

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What Are We Doin’ in a Mess Like This

(Pictured: Dottie West and Kenny Rogers, a.k.a. the hip young couple next door, circa 1981.)

Over the weekend, The Mrs. and I got the news about Casey Kasem’s death at the same time we were listening to the American Top 40 show from June 13, 1981. (Somebody on the Internet noted how appropriate it was that Casey’s death was announced on Sunday morning, the daypart in which his show most frequently aired.)

That early 80s pocket between disco and MTV is a fascinating time for a low-rent music historian such as myself, even though—and largely because—the hits of the day were so odd. In the summer of 1981, Top 40 radio stations were rife with tasteful adult balladry: depending on how you count them, something like 13 funkless medium-tempo love songs were among the 40 on June 13, as utterly unthreatening as a glass of milk and in some cases, about as interesting: Carole Bayer Sager’s “Stronger Than Before” (#40), “Fool in Love With You” by Photoglo (#31), Lee Ritenour’s “Is It You” (#21), “What Are We Doin’ in Love” by Dottie West and Kenny Rogers (#15), and so on. Melodies that sound familiar from the first time you hear them, easy to bob your head or tap your foot to and perfect for in-office radio listening, innocuous enough to vanish from consciousness until they come up in the rotation three hours later.

In 2013, Brian Boone tried explaining the phenomenon over at Popdose—although he never really offers a definitive reason for it. He comes closest when he wonders, “Were the ‘70s, with its Watergates and Vietnams and recessions and Rootses and iron-fisted peanut farmers so stressful that adults were left so fried that they needed to spend a couple of years, even if these were their last years actively consuming the culture just chilling the hell out, agreeing with Eddie Rabbitt as to the goodness of rainy nights?” And he goes on to wonder why those performers—your Michael McDonalds and Peter Ceteras—seemed so much older than pop stars of today, who are the same age (or older) today than McD and Cetera were back then.

My guess is that what was happening in 1980 and 1981 was the Big Chillification of the boomers. After an adventuresome (and for some, extended) adolescence, they were discovering that you cannot be a barefoot revolutionary forever, and that burning down the system is a lot less attractive when you have kids in public school. Cocooning with the family and trying to make a decent space emotionally for yourself and your loved ones became a priority, and it frequently expressed itself through this sort of denatured pop music. (“Stop playing that goddamn guitar so loud, you’ll wake the baby.”) The fragmentation of radio formats, just beginning at that time, made it profitable for some stations to concentrate on adult pop-rock, as Boone notes, which helped increase its reach.

Today, 30-plus years later, adolescence need never end. Popular music has been infantilized to the point at which singers pushing 40 can get away with songs better left to kids on the Disney Channel.

There are a few forgotten gems among the June 1981 dross, though: “I Can Take Care of Myself” by Billy Vera and the Beaters debuts at #39; the magnificent career of Rosanne Cash gets going with “Seven Year Ache” at #36; the Gary U.S. Bonds comeback record, “This Little Girl,” powered by its Bruce Springsteen connection, is at #12, and “Sweetheart” by Franke and the Knockouts, is at #10. Conversely, the top 10 is remarkably dire, apart from George Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago” at #7. It contains what might be the single most pointless remake in history at #3: “Sukiyaki” by A Taste of Honey, an English-language R&B-ification of Kyu Sakamoto’s Japanese-language #1 hit of 1963. The #1 song is “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes—fitting, since it sounded like nothing we’d ever heard in the 70s, and it would sound as dated as Dixieland by 1983.

The show contains a lot of extras to pad it to four hours. The Long Distance Dedications are “Just Remember I Love You” by Firefall, dedicated by a tongue-tied nerd to the girl who probably doesn’t even know he exists, and “Hey Jude,” somehow appropriate for three children to dedicate to their hospitalized grandmother. During this era, each hour of the show contained one of the #1 songs of the 60s, and this week, they’re pretty strong: “Soul and Inspiration,” “Good Lovin’,” and “Monday Monday,” all from the spring of 1966, and each one better than whatever you consider to be the best song on the charts during the week of June 13, 1981.

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