So Rare

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(Pictured: some guys who could play: L to R, Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Lionel Hampton.)

This post has been in my drafts folder for quite literally years, but today is its day. I started it after a reader asked me how come I never write about the 30s and 40s. 

I have written about the Pioneer Era of Recording, which spans the late 1800s to the middle of the 1920s. I think I’ve probably mentioned the pre-rock 50s a few times. But the era between has been neglected, so here we go.

The 30s are often said to be the decade in which jazz was America’s most popular music, but that’s not completely accurate. Based on the list of the decade’s #1 singles (as found in Joel Whitburn’s remarkable Pop Memories: 1890-1954), jazz arrives in 1932, when Louis Armstrong’s version of “All of Me” reaches the top. But a version of the song by Paul Whiteman, erstwhile King of Jazz whose music is not considered especially jazzy today, was on the charts at the same time. A bandleader who’s never been considered a jazzman, Guy Lombardo, was far more popular than Armstrong. During the first half of the 30s, Lombardo would hit #1 or #2 something like 15 times.

Jazz doesn’t start to dominate until what we call the Swing Era. Between 1936 and 1939, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman were frequent visitors to #1, even as Lombardo and Bing Crosby continued to get their share of time at the top. Glenn Miller scored his first #1 hit in 1939, although you’ll get some debate about whether to consider Miller a jazzman or a pop star. (Even recordings by ostensible jazz bands often had plenty of pop flavor, such as Artie Shaw’s “Frenesi,” which spent 13 weeks at #1 as 1940 turned to 1941.) The year 1941 belonged to Tommy Dorsey’s brother Jimmy with seven #1 hits that year alone. The World War II era was soundtracked by bandleaders Freddy Martin, Harry James, and Kay Kyser in addition to the Dorseys, Miller, and Goodman—and Lombardo, and Crosby, who was the most popular recording artist of the 20th century until Elvis came along.

The bands of the 1940s all had singers, some who would remain eternally famous, like Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey or Doris Day with Les Brown, and some who were famous in their time but no longer, such as the stable of singers who fronted Miller, including Ray Eberle, Tex Beneke, and Marion Hutton. And as World War II ended, you can begin to see the big bands fade out and solo singers take prominence. Perry Como hits #1 for the first time in 1945 and repeatedly in 1946; so do Dinah Shore, Nat King Cole, and Sinatra as a solo artist. By 1948, the Kay Kyser band is the last of the World War II big bands to hit #1; in 1949, nearly all of the #1 songs are by solo singers not fronting big bands, including Evelyn Knight, Mel Torme, Como, Vaughn Monroe, Vic Damone, and Frankie Laine. Guy Lombardo managed a #1 version of “Third Man Theme” in 1950, 23 years after his first #1, but he was the last of the famous bandleaders to reach the top.

Eras never break cleanly. Think of the start of the rock ‘n’ roll era in 1955 or the British Invasion in 1964, and then consider how older styles continued to thrive even after times had supposedly changed. So there’s a finer gradation to this story than I am relating here. Solo singers were popular throughout the 30s and 40s, as Crosby’s success indicates. Jimmy Dorsey scored a big pop hit with “So Rare” in 1957. Even without hit singles, editions of the dominant big bands sold albums, and they remained on the road in the 50s and 60s, albeit scaled down in size and itineraries. Stars such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie would remain popular live attractions until their deaths, Ellington in 1974 and Basie in 1984, as would Frank Sinatra until his death 20 years ago last month. Guy Lombardo was on national network TV every New Year’s Eve until the end of the 70s.

An edition of the Glenn Miller Orchestra is still on the road in 2018, over 70 years after Miller’s death. How long it will remain viable is a good question. We live in a society where “old school” means 10 years ago; before long, the music of the 30s, 40s, and early 50s will be entirely the realm of antiquarians. But while it lasted, it was pretty remarkable.


Music Within Limits

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I read a Twitter thread recently about the preferred format for mix “tapes” nowadays. CDs are still popular, although Spotify links are catching up. A few people compile them as zip files or use USB drives. I would like to think there are some old geezers out there who still use tape; perhaps they aren’t connected to the Internet to say so.

I have written here before about the 8-track recorder I bought in high school, so the first mix tapes I ever made were in that format. When I got to college, I made a few party mixes on reel tapes in the production rooms of radio stations. I graduated to cassettes shortly after I graduated from college, and they were my medium of choice for car tapes until the early 00s, when I got a CD burner. But I kept playing tapes until 2012, when the car with the tape deck went to the big salvage yard in the sky.

I burned a CD just this morning, some tunes for a trip we’re getting ready to take. I burn as MP3s, which means a single CD can hold several hours of music. (Burning standard CD files limits a disc to 80 minutes.) As I was selecting tunes for the CD, I kept thinking, “What else could I put on here? There’s certainly room for more.” If I were putting them into a zip file or USB drive, there would be even more room. A Spotify playlist is theoretically limitless.

That feels like it could be a problem.

A mix begins with a goal. What do I want this mix to do? If you’re sending one to a girl (and I am guessing that many of the male geeks reading this post have done it, or considered it), you want to express yourself, tell her who you are, and create a mood. For a road trip, you want to create a different mood, one that enhances the experience of travel in whatever way you choose. Or maybe you’re making a mix for your own amusement (“the greatest hits by artists whose names begin with A”), or on a particular theme (“best party hits from college”). What belongs, or best fits the theme?

More importantly, what doesn’t? A C-90 cassette or an 80-minute blank CD requires you to make choices. Does this song contribute to the mood, or the theme? Is it better for that purpose than some other song I am considering? I’d argue that a cassette or CD mix you make for somebody will say more about you as a person than a mix you send as a Spotify list because of the paring and tweaking you have to do to make it right within a physical limit. It also says something about how you regard the person you’re giving it to. You care enough to spend real time, effort, and thought on them. You don’t just browse a list and hit “add” a few times.

Years ago, I heard a party DJ say something similar. He wondered whether there’s really an advantage in being able to take thousands of songs to a party digitally instead being confined to what fits in a crate of vinyl or CDs. As in making a mix, choices are necessary. Is this a record I need, one I can’t imagine the party without? If so, it goes in the crate. If not, it can stay home. True, the DJ with 10,000 songs is likely to have more latitude on those occasions when it’s helpful, or be better able to play some guest’s request, but does that automatically mean he’ll provide a better party in the long run than the DJ who’s crated up a couple of hundred tried-and-true dance floor monsters?

Our culture frowns upon limits. We equate freedom with having whatever we want, as much as we want, whenever we want, for as long as we want. But “unlimited” is not automatically better. For an artist of the mix, acceptance of limits can enhance the work.

Good Ole Boys Like Me

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(Pictured: Ronnie Milsap on stage in the 70s.)

The Radio Rewinder Twitter feed recently featured Billboard‘s Hot Country Singles list from June 7, 1980, which may be of no interest to you, but it is to me, and this is my blog, so here we go.

The movie Urban Cowboy, which is often credited with sparking a pop-country boom, was released on June 6, 1980, but the pop-country trend had been strong for a while by then. “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer” by Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes, #3 on this chart, was #4 pop in the same week, and is country only in terms of where Rogers was filed in the record store. Anne Murray’s “Lucky Me” (#9) is one of several crossover hits she scored in 1979 and 1980, although it was less successful on the pop charts (#42) than previous singles had been. Mickey Gilley was climbing the country chart with two records, both remakes: “True Love Ways” (#15) and “Stand By Me” (#45), and both eventual pop crossovers, with “Stand By Me” going all the way to #22. Although neither side of Ronnie Milsap’s current #1 single, “My Heart”/”Silent Night,” crossed over to pop, both of them certainly could have; Milsap would hit the Hot 100 13 times between 1977 and 1984. And down at #24 was the familiar soulful swing of Crystal Gayle on “The Blue Side.”

In 1974, Marilyn Sellars had a #10 hit with the country-gospel song “One Day at a Time.” This chart contains a poppier version of it that ended up a bigger hit. Cristy Lane, the Academy of Country’s Music’s Best New Female Vocalist of 1979, had five Top-10 country hits before her take on “One Day at Time.” It would spend only a week at #1 later in June, but its overtly religious theme opened a second career for her as a Christian-music artist; later albums and her biography were hawked endlessly on TV, always referring to “One Day at a Time.”

A band that would skate the line between pop and country for a couple of years in the process of becoming one of the biggest country acts in history was breaking into the Top 40 this week: “Tennessee River” by Alabama was at #36. It was their third record in six months to make the country Top 40, but this one would be their first to go to #1, in August. After that, their next 20 singles would hit #1—every last one that charted—until a 1987 release peaked at #7. Not to worry, however. After that, they’d hit #1 with nine of their next 10 singles, which gets us to 1991. By the end of the century they scored 32 #1 country hits in all. Seven of those #1s would cross to the Hot 100. In 1981 and 1982, “Feels So Right,” “Love in the First Degree,” and “Take Me Down” all made the Top 20.

That’s not to say that more traditional country was dead or dying. The 6/7/80 chart includes a record that some writers, including me, consider to be the best, most-emblematic country record of all time: “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones, at #9 this week on the way to #1 in July. It’s built on a metaphor that could easily became maudlin, with a weeping steel guitar and flourishing strings, but Jones is the perfect communicator for it, right down to his absolutely convincing sale of the spoken-word bit toward the end. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” earns its profound sadness legitimately. It has the emotional depth of a short story, which it kind of is.

On the subject of short stories: Don Williams was at #2 in this week with “Good Ole Boys Like Me.” Songwriter Bob McDill was as capable as anyone in Nashville of turning out disposable song product, but “Good Ole Boys Like Me” is positively literary:

Then Daddy came in to kiss his little man
With gin on his breath and a Bible in his hand
He talked about honor and things I should know
Then he’d stagger a little as he went out the door

Any song that name-checks Uncle Remus, Stonewall Jackson, Tennessee Williams, Thomas Wolfe, and legendary Nashville DJ John R just gots to be cool. As delivered by Don Williams, who scored hits with several Bob McDill songs over the years, “Good Ole Boys Like Me” has an intelligence, warmth, and depth that’s been AWOL from Music Row in Nashville for years now.

I wasn’t doing country radio in June of 1980—I’d started my summer gig at the album-rock station by then. But I’d be back in the fall, catching up on the hits of the summer.

The Secret History of 1968

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(Pictured: the Grateful Dead, who do not figure in the story of Boston in 1968 except as one of the acts who played at a club called the Boston Tea Party, as shown here.)

(But see the postscript below.)

In 1968, Van Morrison and his wife, Janet, were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He’d made one album, Blowin’ Your Mind, and one indelible single, “Brown Eyed Girl.” But late in 1967, after Morrison and Bang Records chief Bert Berns got into a shouting argument, Berns fell over dead. Morrison wanted out of the contract he signed with Berns, but Berns’ mobbed-up business partners weren’t willing to just let him walk. It took a sack of $20,000 in cash, delivered to a warehouse in the dark of night by a Warner Brothers executive, to get him free. While the contract situation was hanging over his head, Morrison was working on new music—music that would eventually become the legendary album Astral Weeks.

The making of that album is only one of the Boston stories told in Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan H. Walsh. In addition to Morrison, we meet an enigmatic guru named Mel Lyman, who presided over a commune in Boston’s Fort Hill neighborhood, published a newspaper called the Avatar, was deeply influential in the city’s counterculture, claimed to be God, and may or may not have died a decade later. We’re present at the Velvet Underground’s historic residency at the Boston Tea Party, and the less-successful attempt to hype the local music scene under the name “the Bosstown Sound.” We visit the set of an experimental public television show called What’s Happening, Mr. Silver? and influential rock radio station WBCN. We tag along at an odd modern-day meeting between the author and musician (and former WBCN DJ) Peter Wolf, who says he has tapes of a show at which Morrison, his longtime friend, played some of the Astral Weeks songs for the very first time. And we’re there the night James Brown plays a televised concert in the wake of Martin Luther King’s murder that’s credited with keeping the lid on the city.

The Brown story is often portrayed as a magnanimous gesture by a star who wanted to do something for his people. The reality is something else again. Brown was scheduled to play Boston Garden on April 5, the night after the King shooting. Officials feared what might happen with so many black people in one place, but they also feared what might happen if the show were canceled. So the idea came about to televise it, thereby keeping people indoors and off the streets. Brown hated the idea at first; TV would lower the attendance and his take of the proceeds. The city agreed to pick up the cost of lost earnings from ticket sales, which turned out to be $60,000. (Mayor Kevin White ended up having to go to a group of old-line Boston financiers for a handout to cover it.) The concert nearly went bad when audience members started jumping on stage, but Brown managed to get the fans back under control, and ended up keeping Boston peaceful while other cities were burning. Years later, White would say it was definitely worth the money.

Although Van Morrison had woodshedded his new songs with a group of local musicians, only one of them ended up playing on Astral Weeks. Producer Lewis Merenstein rounded up a group of bigtime professionals to play; one of them, guitarist Jay Berliner, walked into the first Astral Weeks session after spending the afternoon recording jingles for skin cream and potato chips. Another, bassist Richard Davis, said that none of the musicians had ever heard of Morrison and he never spoke to them, staying in the vocal booth with his guitar the whole time. Because the musicians were all jazz players, they were able to improvise at the direction of Morrison and Merenstein; the album came together in three sessions over several weeks.

You don’t have to know anything about Boston to read Astral Weeks, although it might enhance your enjoyment if you do. For example, Marsh Chapel at Boston University figures in several scenes; only after I finished the book did I remember that I attended a wedding there many years ago. At a time when we’re overdosing on memories of 1968, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 is on ground that few other histories of that fabled year have covered.

(Postscript: in a Twitter exchange we had over the weekend, Ryan Walsh reminded me that an early edition of the Dead was heavily inspired by the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Kweskin was an associate and sometime-bandmate of Mel Lyman’s, and lived at Fort Hill. So the Dead indeed has something to do with the 1968 Boston story, albeit peripherally.)

RFK Plus 50

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Here’s a thing I posted 10 years ago today, on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. It links to a piece I contributed to Popdose that same day, which was based on something I wrote at my very first blog, probably on the 35th anniversary in 2003. It’s been edited a bit. For more on this day 50 years ago, scroll through my Twitter feed in the right-hand column. 

It happened just after midnight in Los Angeles, so most of the country learned of it first thing in the morning. I remember coming out from my bedroom and hearing the news, one of the first days after school got out. I would have just finished second grade. Kennedy would die the next day, June 6, 1968. Over at Popdose, you’ll find a piece I wrote about the historical what-ifs involving the assassination of RFK. Here, I’d like to add some additional color from that day.

At YouTube, there’s a three-part video titled “RFK Assassination as it Happened,” which features RFK’s California primary victory speech and raw footage of the shooting aftermath and news coverage. It’s taken from one of those conspiracy DVDs that claims to find the real truth behind the Kennedy assassinations in connections between the CIA, the mob, and (for all I know) UFOs. Fortunately, there’s little of that flavor in the YouTube excerpts. You can find part one of the video and navigate to the additional parts here.

In London, the Rolling Stones had started recording “Sympathy for the Devil.” On the fly, Mick Jagger revised the song’s lyric, singing “I shouted out ‘who killed the Kennedys’”, instead of the original reference only to “John Kennedy.” If the standard chronology of the song’s recording is correct, the lyric would have been changed before RFK died.

When the Top 40 stations finished reporting the day’s sorry news and went back to music, it must have been difficult to reconcile the hits of the day with the real world. The Rascals’ “A Beautiful Morning” may have been meteorologically appropriate in many places, like my town, but not spiritually. Love songs like “This Guy’s in Love With You,” “Cowboys to Girls,” and “Like to Get to Know You” would have seemed trivial. The frivolity of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and “Yummy Yummy Yummy” must have been hard to stomach. “Reach Out in the Darkness” by Friend and Lover must have seemed like a dream crushed at birth. When Jim and Cathy Post sang about “people finally gettin’ together,” they did not imagine it would be around another Kennedy’s bier.“ Mony Mony,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?,” “Indian Lake,” “Jumping Jack Flash”—diversions all, but probably not diverting enough.

One might have hoped for solace through the cathartic emotion found in the best soul music, maybe from “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You),” the last hit by the David Ruffin edition of the Temptations. But what’s likeliest of all is that there was no quick fix, from the radio or from any other source. RFK himself, speaking on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated, reminded his audience that grief takes time: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Fifty years later, we hope to have acquired the wisdom, although a trace of the grief lingers.

As I wrote in my Popdose piece, I don’t think RFK would have gotten the Democratic nomination in 1968 or been elected that fall if he had. But I can’t be sure. He entered the race at a moment when millions of Americans were crying “enough,” not just about Vietnam but about poverty, racism, and a host of other ills, and perhaps their righteous anger would have been enough to make a miracle. Today, there’s a sense—or maybe not quite a sense, but a hope—that millions of Americans have seen enough Trumpism, the logical end point of a generation of conservative snake oil, to cry “enough.” If we make it to November, perhaps we’ll demand leaders who, instead of sowing division and inflicting pain by the simple act of showing up for work in the morning, will see wrong and try to right it, see suffering and try to heal it, see war and try to stop it.

Celebrate Youth

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(Pictured: Rick Springfield, 1985.)

What do you do after a dream comes true?

Think a moment before you answer. Achieving the dream is never an end in itself. It can lead to consequences you never imagined as part of the dream, and you’ll have to deal with them. Also, you’ll have to live in the world the dream created, for good or ill. Now that I’m old, and I’ve experienced both dreams coming true and the crash that can happen afterward, I have learned to be careful what I dream of.

But when you’re young, and one of your oldest dreams comes true, you don’t worry about the consequences.

The American Top 40 show from May 11, 1985, represents that moment exactly. I was the 25-year-old program director of a Top 40 station in a college town. The year 1985 was one of the most solid musical years of the 1980s, so my station sounded hot and hip. My boss was committed to doing good radio, and part of his philosophy was to let the people he hired do their jobs without micromanaging them. In 1985, as spring shaded toward summer, I was living the radio dream I had nurtured since I was in fifth grade.

The show is pretty solid from #40 (“Would I Lie to You” by Eurythmics) to #1 (“Crazy for You” by Madonna). Even the songs I couldn’t remember right away turned out to be familiar: “Celebrate Youth” by Rick Springfield, “When My Baby Comes Home” by Luther Vandross, “Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid” by Hall and Oates. Some of them, thanks to their longevity since 1985, were as familiar as the weather: “Heaven” by Bryan Adams and “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves were back to back at #25 and #24; other ultra-familiar hits included “The Search Is Over” by Survivor, “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen, “Rhythm of the Night” by DeBarge, and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears. Back then, on beautiful spring days, I liked to go for a ride on my lunch hour, cruising into the country blasting the the station on my car radio. Certain songs on the 5/11/85 show were perfect for that: Chicago’s “Along Comes a Woman,” Glenn Frey’s “Smugglers Blues,” “Fresh” by Kool and the Gang, and Don Henley’s “All She Wants to Do Is Dance.”

This show comes from the height of Casey’s “announcer-y” period, where he sometimes doesn’t speak to the people as much as he speaks at them. He’s pretty personable on the show, however, if a bit repetitive. The answer to a question about the country act with the most #1 hits, Conway Twitty, gets repeated three times in the span of 30 seconds, and another trivia feature about the biggest #1 hit of the 50s, 60s, and 70s is delivered in a similarly repetitious manner. Casey has a tic in this period that drives me wild: Over a song intro he’ll say something like, “Patti Labelle, formerly of the group Labelle, has her first solo hit with ‘New Attitude.’ Patti Labelle.” It’s not necessary to give the artist’s name twice (or in this case, three times) in four seconds. We got it the first time.

The show also features the usual time-fillers: before introducing Alison Moyet’s “Invisible,” Casey talks about the concept of invisibility and name-checks H. G. Wells and Claude Rains; he uses a collection of trivial facts about the sun to introduce Katrina and the Waves. They’re harmless, but they’re also irrelevant. I have said dozens of times over the years that the AT40 shows in this era don’t need to be four hours long as much as they need to be 3 1/2. Long Distance Dedications are read at a painfully show pace. And the show uses less-familiar full-length album versions of certain songs rather than radio versions, all in the name of filling time.

But back to the note on which this post began. I was living the dream in the spring of 1985, making $230 a week and rockin’ the hell out of my town on the radio. But that dream did not prove to be sustainable. Time passes and things happen with no regard for dreams. And 18 months later, I’d be eager to quit that job and move on to the next one. And it wouldn’t be long before my full-time radio career—the only thing I had dreamed of since I was 11 years old—would be closer to its end than to the beginning.

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