Fifteen Hits to Number One

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(Pictured: Michael McDonald, Billy Crystal, and Gregory Hines wearing a bad Chicago Bears knockoff jersey, in the music video for McD’s “Sweet Freedom,” from the movie Running Scared, 1986.)

A couple of years ago I did a thing for Friday the 13th in which I picked, in a completely arbitrary fashion, the best song to peak at #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in each year from 1955 through whenever we stopped. Let’s do that again, but since today is the 15th, let’s take #15.

1955: “Hearts of Stone” by Otis Williams and the Charms, although “Razzle Dazzle” by Bill Haley and the Comets is interesting, with its jackhammer drums and sharp lead guitar licks.

1956: Gotta be “Stranded in the Jungle” by the Cadets.

1957: “Can I Steal a Little Love” by Frank Sinatra sounds like something Elvis would have sung in one of his lesser movies. It was in the teenage drive-in quickie Rock Pretty Baby, although Sinatra didn’t sing it.

1958: “Maybe” by the Chantels.

1959: Because it’s December, we’ll go with “The Little Drummer Boy” by the Harry Simeone Chorale, back on the chart in 1959 after hitting #13 in 1958. Runners-up are “Dance With Me” by the Drifters and the Kingston Trio’s “M.T.A.”

1960: Choices. If you like guitar twang, there’s the Ventures (“Perfidia”) and Johnny and the Hurricanes (“Beatnik Fly”). If you prefer R&B, there’s “Three Nights a Week” by Fats Domino and two records by Jackie Wilson, “A Woman, a Lover, a Friend” and “Doggin’ Around,” which is what I’m going with.

1961: Fats takes it the next year with “Let the Four Winds Blow.”

1962: Some famous records peaked at #15 in this year, including “Follow That Dream” by Elvis, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” by the Blue-Belles, and “Sharing You,” a Carole King/Gerry Goffin song recorded by Bobby Vee. But the prize goes to the jazz classic “Desafinado” by saxophonist Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd.

1963: “Little Deuce Coupe” by the Beach Boys.

1964: Despite a couple of Marvin Gaye tunes plus Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Impressions, and the Dave Clark Five, I’m going off the board for “Shangri-La” by Robert Maxwell, because I am a sucker for those big instrumentals from the 60s.

1965: I am tempted to pick “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose” by Little Jimmy Dickens, but I’ll take “Willow Weep for Me” by Chad and Jeremy.

1966: I want to pick something other than Al Martino’s “Spanish Eyes” here, but I can’t.

1967: Quite a list of possibilities here: “Talk Talk” by the Music Machine, “Alfie” by Dionne Warwick, and the Bob Crewe Generation’s “Music to Watch Girls By.” But I’m going with “Darling Be Home Soon” by the Lovin’ Spoonful.

1968: “Words” by the Bee Gees.

1969: Billy Joe Royal’s “Cherry Hill Park,” a song we’ve dug around here since always.

1970: Out of “The Thrill Is Gone” by B. B. King, “Out in the Country” and “Celebrate” by Three Dog Night, and “Sex Machine” by James Brown, “Out in the Country” it is.

1971: “Won’t Get Fooled Again”? “Temptation Eyes”? “Funky Nassau”? The Donnie Elbert version of “Where Did Our Love Go”? Could be any of them, but it’s “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again” by the Fortunes.

1972: “Rock and Roll Lullaby” by B. J. Thomas and “Beautiful Sunday” by Daniel Boone are both on my Desert Island list, but I’m going off the board again for the fabulous “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” by Honey Cone.

1973: “China Grove” by a nose over “Space Oddity.”

1974: “Who Do You Think You Are” by Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods over “Heartbreaker” by the Stones, but I feel bad about not picking the Spinners’ “Love Don’t Love Nobody.”

1975: “SOS” by ABBA over “Bad Luck” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, but you could talk me out of it.

1976: “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel” by Tavares.

1977: “Give a Little Bit” by Supertramp.

1978: “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by Santa Esmeralda.

1979: “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘n’ the Tears over “Goodbye Stranger” by Supertramp.

1980: “Breakdown Dead Ahead” by Boz Scaggs over Tom Petty’s “Refugee.”

1981: “The Breakup Song” by the Greg Kihn Band.

1982: The cheesy pop addict in me wants to pick “Nobody” by Sylvia, but I’m going with Sheena Easton’s “You Could Have Been With Me”.

1983: Only two songs peaked at #15 in this year: “Heart to Heart” by Kenny Loggins and “Cuts Like a Knife” by Bryan Adams, but I can’t work up enough enthusiasm for either one to pick between ’em.

1984: “Don’t Answer Me” by the Alan Parsons Project.

1985: Here’s one you haven’t heard in a while: “Crazy in the Night” by Kim Carnes.

1986: “Man Size Love” by Klymaxx. It’s from the soundtrack of Running Scared, a buddy cop movie that The Mrs. and I love unreasonably.

Because this post is already too long, we’re gonna stop here. If after reading it, you want your two minutes back, I understand completely.

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Skip a Rope

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(Pictured: country singer Henson Cargill.)

The genesis of this post is the weirdest one yet.

Most mornings I wake up with a random song running through my head. I suspect it’s the result of a life spent with music always in my ear—when I’m asleep, my brain plays everything I’ve ever heard on shuffle and I wake up hearing the last one. The other morning it was a country song called “Skip a Rope” by Henson Cargill. But I got sidetracked with other stuff later that morning and eventually, the song disappeared.

Later that afternoon I got a Twitter message from our Houston radio pal Jeffrey Thames with a picture of a soundsheet he’d found in his station’s archives. In the course of a couple of messages, he mentioned that for stability’s sake, the soundsheet had been stuck to a vinyl 45—a copy of “Skip a Rope.”

Well hell, at that level of synchronicity, I have to write about it now.

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Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 18

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The Christmas shuffle feature started at this blog 10 years ago, so I feel a certain responsibility to keep it going. When I shuffled up my Christmas library recently, here’s what I heard:

“The Little Drummer Boy”/.38 Special. I have mentioned the band’s unlikely 2001 album A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night in past editions of this feature. It’s a terrible title and has a terrible cover, but the music inside is far better than it has any right or reason to be.

“Frosty the Snowman”/America. In 2002, America released Holiday Harmony, produced by Andrew Gold, and boy is it not good.

“On This Christmas Day”/Moody Blues. If forced to pick the prettiest album in my collection, both Christmas and not (with all of the associations “pretty” conjures up, good and bad), the Moodys’ December might be it. Your mileage may vary depending on how much you dig the band to begin with, your appreciation of good old-fashioned major-chord pop craftsmanship, and your level of tolerance for unrelenting warmth and sentimentality.

“Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy”/Soulful Strings. In 1966, Chess Records hired jazz arranger Richard Evans to create albums by the Soulful Strings, a studio group that eventually made a half-dozen albums and included such noted Chicago players as Phil Upchurch, Charles Stepney (a producer on notable works by Rotary Connection and later, Earth Wind and Fire), and Donny Hathaway. Their Christmas album is definitely worth seeking out.

“Merry Christmas From the Family”/Robert Earl Keen. This hilarious tale of a Texas family Christmas is a hell of a lot more truthful about the way people really live than the ones in which we roast chestnuts or ride in a one-horse open sleigh.

“Ave Maria”/Stevie Wonder. “Ave Maria” and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus are often lumped in with the Christmas records, but I don’t think they belong. In my experience, the Hallelujah Chorus is so closely associated with Easter that it simply feels wrong at Christmastime; “Ave Maria” was not within the religious experience of a Methodist boy such as I. This “Ave Maria” is really good, though. Stevie sings in Latin behind a non-Motown-style backing track, but also takes a reverent and lovely solo on harmonica. (Stevie’s album Someday at Christmas, re-released under other names over the years, is 50 years old in 2017.)

“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”/Partridge Family. We’re still feeling the loss of David Cassidy around here, so this is well placed. At the end of 1971, a year in which they had dominated the record charts (and pop culture itself), the Partridge Family dropped a Christmas album. The cheese factor on A Partridge Family Christmas Card is extremely high—this version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” includes a whistling interlude—but it’s made with the same Hollywood craftsmanship we have praised repeatedly at this blog over the years. And on the subject of people we miss …

“Christmas All Over Again”/Tom Petty. This song is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2017, having first appeared on A Very Special Christmas 2 in 1992. According to the liner notes for Petty’s box set Playback, he wanted to replicate the Phil Spector Wall of Sound, so “Christmas All Over Again” features 18 musicians bashing away live in the studio, including two drummers, two bass players, and four acoustic guitars. Petty said, “It was a lot of fun, but when I finished with it, it was pretty much a mess. I called Jeff Lynne and he came and helped me redo the lead vocal and tidy it up just a little bit.”

“Gee Whiz It’s Christmas”/Beginning of the End. This is the song Carla Thomas did in 1963 (a takeoff on her own “Gee Whiz”), recorded by the Bahamian band known for the 1971 hit “Funky Nassau.” As best I can reconstruct the history, “Gee Whiz It’s Christmas” was the A-side of a 1970 single released only in the Bahamas. It was released again as the original B-side of the “Funky Nassau” single, although it doesn’t seem to have appeared on American singles, which contained “Funky Nassau Part 1” backed with “Funky Nassau Part 2.”

“Happy Holidays”/Ohio Players. This was released over both sides of a 1975 single and didn’t reappear in the CD era until 2000. It doesn’t need to run 8:22, having exhausted its main idea in the first couple of minutes, but once a year it’s OK.

“Once a year it’s OK.” Not a bad tagline for this blog, actually.

More to Come After This Message

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Our friend Kurt Blumenau went down a rabbit hole the other day and into the history of the “more to come” bumpers shown during NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. As I commented at Kurt’s post, it seems kind of quaint to think that NBC would have filled a local commercial break with music and a more-to-come slide instead of running a public service announcement or a network promo (or a commercial for some but-wait-there’s-more gadget, as they would today), but it was a different world.

Surely some NBC affiliates, late at night, had no commercial inventory of their own to run. They could have filled the time with their own public service announcements or promos, but in the days before compact video formats, running PSAs in particular (and filmed programs in general) was cumbersome. It required a piece of equipment called a film chain, which literally projected film into a TV camera. Stations would keep a reel of film with a bunch of PSAs on it, and load it up when needed. Or not.

Talk of late-night commercial breaks reminded me of a couple of stories from our days living and working radio in Macomb, Illinois. Macomb sat between Peoria and Quincy, about 70 highway miles from each, and we got TV stations from both. In the middle of the 80s, Quincy had only two stations, a CBS affiliate licensed to Hannibal, Missouri, across the Mississippi River, and an NBC affiliate. The Peoria stations did not attempt to sell advertising in Macomb, but the Quincy stations did. I never thought it made sense for Macomb businesses to buy Quincy TV. Putting your ad on a TV station 70 miles away meant that your money was being spent in part to reach people way the hell and gone over in Missouri, and they weren’t going to drive 140 miles to shop at your shoe store or muffler shop or whatever.

One especially popular package was “shop Macomb,” which would start with a short blurb encouraging viewers to visit Macomb, followed by three 15- or 20-second blurbs for individual Macomb businesses. (Many TV stations still sell this kind of community-specific package today.) As TV ads went, they were cheap to buy—but compared to radio ads, they cost a lot.

When The Mrs. was selling radio, some of her clients would occasionally pop for a shop-Macomb spot. One Saturday night, we were watching Saturday Night Live, and we noticed that the NBC affiliate didn’t have any local spots scheduled. They filled every local break with scratchy film-chain PSAs. That is, until the first break after SNL got over, right before sign-off, when they ran a shop-Macomb spot featuring one of her clients.

We have conflicting memories of her reaction to this. When I asked her about it the other night, she doesn’t remember being bothered. I remember it differently. Loosely translated, it was as follows: Why the #%!%@ didn’t they run that thing during Saturday Night Live instead of those $!@%ing PSAs, for #$% sake?

After Saturday Night Live each week, the Quincy NBC affiliate broadcast a news summary. It wasn’t a repeat of the late local news, which is what many stations do now in the wee hours of the morning before turning their airwaves over to infomercials. They’d put up a station identification slide and somebody, most likely the master-control engineer (the only person left in the building at midnight), would read five minutes of news, often just copy ripped from the AP or UPI wire. The broadcast would conclude with the weather forecast before the station played the National Anthem and went dark for the night. In the middle of the 1980s, that little low-tech news update seemed like such a quaint, small-town thing to do that I actually started to look forward to it a little.

Nowadays, technology makes it possible for even the tiniest stations in the middle of nowhere to look like big-time operations. Thirty-some years ago, they had to be what they were.

Maybe Painted Pink

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This month, I’m going to repeat a couple of Christmas posts from the archives. This one originally ran in 2010 and has been edited ever so slightly. 

The TV specials A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown are sometimes called “timeless,” in that they appeal to viewers in the new millennium just as they did to viewers in the mid 1960s when they first appeared. But there’s a plausible argument that they’re actually quite dated.

Take the overarching themes of both. Linus believes that the Great Pumpkin will appear on Halloween night in the pumpkin patch that is the most sincere, and he admires his patch by saying, “There’s not a shred of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” The war between sincerity and hypocrisy has been over for a long time—in significant ways, not only are we unable to tell the difference, we don’t care that we can’t. Charlie Brown is troubled by the commercialism of Christmas, but nobody’s troubled by the commercialism of the holiday anymore. (Even the right-wingers battling in the so-called War on Christmas, who claim to be defending the “real” meaning of the season, mostly want salesclerks to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” when they hand back your credit card.) So the philosophical underpinnings of both shows have largely crumbled over the last half-century.

There are other, smaller instances where the changed times between then and now are clearly visible. In The Great Pumpkin, the kids get cookies and popcorn balls for trick-or-treat. Nowadays, such homemade treats would be tossed into the garbage by parents fearing fiendish acts of neighborhood terrorism. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Lucy says that Christmas is run by a big Eastern syndicate, but in modern America, “syndicate” is heard almost exclusively as a verb and not a noun. (It’s still used in other countries to refer to criminal enterprises, though.) When Charlie Brown decides that a Christmas tree would set the proper mood for the Christmas play, Lucy tells him, “Perhaps a tree! A great big shiny aluminum Christmas tree! Maybe painted pink!”

In 1965, Lucy’s line neatly encapsulated the episode’s basic conflict between the commercialism of the holiday and the “real” meaning of Christmas. Years later, kids watching may have no idea what Lucy is talking about. If you remember the 1960s, however, you may remember how aluminum trees were once all the rage. Said a newspaper ad of the early 1960s: “The modern Christmas tree is one that lasts . . . designed of sparkling aluminum and naturally tapered to a realistic finish.” As realistic as fluttering, silvery aluminum can be, that is. But if you purchased such a tree, paying anywhere from $1.99 for a two-foot table model to $16.95 for a best-quality seven-footer (nearly $180 in current dollars), you probably wouldn’t just slap it down in the living room and leave it be. Sometimes an aluminum tree would be decorated with ornaments of all one color, but sometimes not. Because the apotheosis of the shiny aluminum Christmas tree was achieved by using a color wheel, which would provide changing hues of red, blue, yellow, and green to reflect off the tree. The color wheel would create a spectacular, cutting-edge, Christmas vibe in any modern 60s home.

You will remember that Charlie Brown bypassed the spectacular artificial trees at the Christmas-tree yard and chose a sad little pine tree instead. To him (and to Charles Schulz), an artificial tree represented a step too far into the world of commercial artifice, away from what’s “real” about Christmas. In our time, we’ve taken that step and countless more. Just like fish who don’t know they’re wet, millions of us neither know nor care that that commercial artifice is the world in which we live.

Fifty Years of “Snoopy’s Christmas”

(Pictured: the top of the music survey from WNDR, Syracuse, New York, dated December 22, 1967.)

In 1966, a songwriter named Dick Holler wrote a straight military ballad, in the mold of “The Ballad of the Green Berets” and “Sink the Bismarck,” about World War I fliers doing battle with German ace Manfred von Richthofen, known to history as the Red Baron. Record producer Phil Gernhard suggested that given the popularity of the comic strip Peanuts, perhaps Holler (who would also write “Abraham Martin and John”) could incorporate Snoopy’s battles with the Red Baron and turn his song into a novelty number. Gernhard offered “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” to a Florida band called the Royal Guardsmen. They were skeptical about it but cut a demo anyway—and by the end of 1966, their demo, with a few late overdubs in the studio, was a smash hit. “Return of the Red Baron” followed “Snoopy” up the charts early in 1967, and “The Airplane Song,” another novelty, hit that summer.

The Guardsmen considered themselves a legitimate rock band, so they opened their shows with their novelty hits before going on to the stuff they preferred to play: songs by Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Procol Harum, the Stones, and other heavy bands. But their record label, Laurie, preferred that the Guardsmen record what had worked before, pigeonholing them as a novelty act. So in the fall of 1967, when Laurie brought them “Snoopy’s Christmas,” they weren’t enthusiastic. But with little choice, they took it on. (“Snoopy’s Christmas” is credited to Hugo and Luigi and G. D. Weiss, although group member Barry Winslow calls it “pure Dick Holler.”) Group member John Burdett recalled that they worked in the studio with a full orchestra, and the conductor kept trying to change the arrangement because he felt it wasn’t “correct,” so the group threw him out and finished up the recording on their own.

“Snoopy’s Christmas” ended up being a hit for the ages. Radio station WALT, in the Guardsmen’s hometown of Tampa, had helped the band get some early bookings in 1966, and they were the first to chart it, on November 3, 1967. Within two weeks, however, the song was on some of the most influential stations in the country: KNUZ in Houston, KIMN in Denver, KJR in Seattle, KMEN in San Bernardino, WMCA in New York, KOMA in Oklahoma City, WLOF in Orlando, KDKA and KQV in Pittsburgh (both of which would eventually chart it at #1), and KXOK in St. Louis. More stations picked it up as November turned to December, and by the middle of the month, it would have been quite literally impossible to avoid hearing it, not just in America but in Australia, where it was also a monster.

“Snoopy’s Christmas” did not make the Billboard Hot 100, although it did top Billboard‘s special Christmas chart for the entire month of December 1967. It made the main Cash Box chart and rose to #10 for the week of December 30, 1967. KDKA ranked it as the #4 single for all of 1967, behind only “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “I’m a Believer,” and “Happy Together.” “Snoopy’s Christmas” would reappear on Billboard‘s Christmas charts in 1968 and 1969.

The Royal Guardsmen would do Snoopy one more time, with “Snoopy for President” in 1968, although 1969’s “The Smallest Astronaut” is clearly a Snoopy song without mentioning him: group member Bill Balogh says that Charles Schulz, who had been paid a sum of money by the record label before “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” was released (and who provided artwork for the group’s first album), had told them “no more Snoopy songs.” By then, the Guardsmen had already begun going their separate ways and would break up officially in 1970. As most bands do, they have reformed a few times over the years; in 2006, they recorded “Snoopy vs. Osama.”

Fifty years on, “Snoopy’s Christmas” is one of the holiday’s season’s essential records. It’s satisfying to hear it each year, satisfying in a way that lots of other familiar holiday songs are not. I can’t describe the feeling beyond that; it just is.

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