The Stalker of ’79

(Pictured: “Oh, God, there’s that idiot with the Leo Sayer record again.”)

As time passes, we learn new things, we gain new perspectives, and we sometimes find that what we once believed isn’t quite true. So we recalibrate what we once believed, in hopes of being wiser in times to come. It’s what most intelligent people do (except for some intransigent political creatures who equate virtue with believing in the same things you believed 10 or 30 or 50 or 500 years ago, even in the face of evidence to the contrary).

American Top 40 recently repeated the show from July 21, 1979, the very same week that inspired a 2011 post I wrote called “Summer of Schlock”, but I am finding it not quite so schlocky another time around.

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Look What You’ve Done

(Pictured: young Boz, 1974.)

The ARSA database of radio station music surveys shows 21 songs by Boz Scaggs charted by at least one station between 1969 and 1988. Eight of those were charted on less than 10 surveys (four on only one). That leaves 13 singles to get airplay on more than 10, and here they are in order by number of surveys, least to most.

“Near You” (1971), 12 surveys. From the album Moments, “Near You” is the Silk Degrees sound in the test tube. (Highest chart position reached: #18, KGY, Olympia, WA, 7/9/71)

“Dinah Flo” (1972), 19 surveys. From My Time, part of which was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and produced by Boz himself (including “Dinah Flo”), and part of which was recorded at CBS in San Francisco and produced by Roy Halee, famed for his work with Simon and Garfunkel. (Highest chart position reached: #7, KISN, Vancouver, WA, 11/8/72)

“Hard Times” (1977)  28 surveys. From Down Two Then Left, the album in the unenviable position of following Silk Degrees. “Hard Times” is one of the funkiest joints Boz ever recorded. (Highest chart position reached: #11, KYNO, Fresno, CA, 11/9/77 and 11/16/77)

“Heart of Mine” (1988) 31 surveys. Infinitely forgettable, straight off the late 80s adult-contemporary template and the album Other Roads. (Highest chart position reached: #8, WKTI, Milwaukee, WI, 6/10, 6/17, and 6/24/88)

“It’s Over” (1976), 32 surveys. Everybody forgets that this was the first single from Silk Degrees. Would likely have charted higher if it had followed “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle,” since it’s halfway between them aesthetically. (Highest chart position reached: #4, WIXY, Cleveland, OH, 6/4/76 and KFXM, San Bernardino, CA, 6/11 and 6/18/760

“What Can I Say” (1976), 41 surveys. A question I am asking myself right now. It’s a good song overshadowed by better songs on a great album. (Highest chart position reached: #10, KYNO, Fresno, CA, 2/2/77)

“We Were Always Sweethearts” (1971), 78 surveys. Ranking songs by the number of surveys is highly unscientific. There are many, many more surveys from the 60s and 70s than from the 80s (which probably pushes “Heart of Mine” down the list some). Also, a couple of stations that played “We Were Always Sweethearts” for a long time have extensive collections of surveys at ARSA, which pushes up the number. It’s a good song, though. See Boz and his soul patch perform it live in 1971 here. (Highest chart position reached: #5, KFRC, San Francisco, 4/5/71)

“Miss Sun” (1980), 100 surveys. Four of Boz’s most-charted hits were released in 1980. Two were on his album Middle Man, and two more, “Miss Sun” and “Look What You’ve Done to Me,” showed up on the weirdly programmed compilation Hits! The production on “Miss Sun” sounds pretty dated, but the bangin’ electric piano and Lisa Dal Bello’s ultra-funky vocal line make up for it. (Highest chart position reached: #3, KSTT, Davenport, IA, 1/19/81 and KOUR, Independence, IA, 2/9/81)

“Breakdown Dead Ahead” (1980), 116 surveys. The hardest-rockin’ thing Boz ever did. If you don’t dig it, well, you know what I always say. (Highest chart position reached: #2, CHUM, Toronto, ON, 5/24/80)

“Look What You’ve Done to Me” (1980), 131 surveys. I adored “Look What You’ve Done to Me” back in the day. Today it still sounds pretty, but it’s got less emotional depth than a half-dozen other Boz ballads I could name. (Highest chart position reached: #3, WHB, Kansas City, MO, 10/21/80)

“Jojo” (1980), 146 surveys. Of all the songs Boz did at his concert last Sunday night, this was the one that surprised me most. It’s got an effective hook, but it’s even more shallow than “Look What You’ve Done to Me.” (Highest chart position reached: #1, KZZP, Mesa AZ, 7/30/80)

“Lido Shuffle” (1977), 205 surveys. I suspect this is more beloved than “Lowdown” among Boz fans today, as its position as a show-closer or encore would suggest. The synthesizer on it dates it to the middle of the 1970s, but Boz’s keyboard player replicated it on Sunday night, because of course he did. (Highest chart position reached: #1, WYSL, Buffalo, NY, 5/9/77)

“Lowdown” (1976), 264 surveys. It’s great to make a record everyone loves, but it has to get tiresome playing it every night. After 20 years of playing “Lowdown,” Boz recorded an unplugged version of “Lowdown” that was first released only in Japan. It appeared in the States in 2005 on Fade Into Light, a collection of reworked songs from Silk Degrees, Middle Man, and Some Change, an album I highly recommend. (Highest chart position reached: #1, WAVZ, New Haven, CT, 9/19 and 9/26/76; WMLP, Milton, PA, 9/20/76; WDRC, Hartford, CT, 10/1,10/8, and 10/15/76; WFAA, Dallas, TX, 10/1/76; KFMD, Dubuque, IA, 10/8/76; WGAR, Cleveland, OH, 10/13/76)

As said earlier this week in my post about his concert, Boz Scaggs is making the best music of his career right now, with practically no radio play at all. But as this list indicates, Radio Boz was mighty good Boz, too.

Last Tango

(Pictured: Boz Scaggs, onstage in 2014.)

How long would it take for an artist who’s been recording regularly and successfully for over 45 years to encapsulate his entire career on the concert stage? For Boz Scaggs, it took 90 minutes.

Last Sunday night’s show at the Northern Lights Theater of Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee was technically the third time I’ve seen Boz perform: once on an unusual bill with Ben Sidran and once with Donald Fagen and Michael McDonald as the Dukes of September. Nevertheless, a full Boz show has been on my bucket list for quite a while, so I was glad to finally have the chance to cross it off.

The purpose of Boz’s tour, which is the most extensive one he’s undertaken in years, is to promote his new album A Fool to Care, so he included the title song, a Fats Domino original, along with “Hell to Pay,” which appears on the album as a duet with Bonnie Raitt, and the beautiful “Last Tango on 16th Street.” His 2013 album Memphis was represented by “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl.” He went back to the dawn of his career to open and close the show, with “Runnin’ Blue” and “Loan Me a Dime.” His band sounded great—most notably backup singer Ms. Monét, and especially her solo performance of Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back to Me.” She was spectacular.

Based on the long arc of Boz Scaggs’ career, blues and soul music is what comes most directly from his heart. But anyone who knows that long arc knows that for a long time, Boz took a detour from that music, which lasted almost two decades.

Slow Dancer (1974) was his first largely pop-oriented album, followed by Silk Degrees and its long list of classics. His soul leanings were still on display on Down Two Then Left (1977), but by 1980, and the release of Middle Man, he was all in on being a pop star. Before he played “Jojo” on Sunday night, he joked that it was a song he’d written during “the Hollywood years.” After Middle Man, Boz took an eight-year hiatus from recording. When he returned with Other Roads, the blues-and-soul man was completely absent—Other Roads chased every last late-80s pop trend, and sounds remarkably dated as a result.

But something happened between 1988 and the release of Some Change in 1994—the wisdom that comes to us when we start pushing 50, perhaps. Some Change marked the return of the blues and soul man, with the best songs he’d put on an album since Silk Degrees. (The title song was one of the highlights of his show on Sunday night.) Since 1994, Boz has detoured into intimate small-combo jazz (But Beautiful and Speak Low, your fondness for which will be in direct proportion to how fond you are of Boz’s unadorned voice), and he veered back into a pop direction for Dig in 2001, but he’s always returned to blues and soul. And now, at the age of 71 (!), he’s making the best music of his long career.

Because people come to hear the hits, Boz gave us plenty of Silk Degrees on Sunday night—five songs, including “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” to close the main part of the show, and “What Can I Say” as his first encore. After a smoking “Loan Me a Dime,” the show was over a mere 90 minutes after it began. Oddly enough, however, it didn’t feel incomplete. As a portrait of the man’s career, it was almost perfect.

Almost. “Breakdown Dead Ahead” would have been nice, but we don’t always get what we want. And that’s OK.

The Best Newsman I Ever Knew

As I listened to a thunderstorm the other morning, I thought about the best newsman I ever knew, a man who was never better than when the weather went sideways.

I first heard Dave when I was still in high school and dreaming of being on the radio. When I got my part-time job at KDTH in Dubuque, he was one of the people I was most excited to meet. I found, however, that Dave was rather difficult. Back then, I was a young idiot whose powers of observation were lacking, so I can’t tell you now, over 35 years later, precisely what made him that way. I can say only that he did not suffer fools, or young idiots, gladly. I merely annoyed him a few times; I was never responsible for one of his legendary blowups, which involved snapping at colleagues or throwing audio carts across the newsroom in frustration. Eventually, when Dave was on during one of my weekend shifts, I would give him a wide berth.

When I went full-time at KDTH in 1982, Dave and I worked together almost every day, and I discovered the charming, wryly funny man behind the frequent scowl. He had a DJ rig for weddings and parties, and he liked weird records. I would occasionally let whoever did the 6PM newscast pick the song that would follow it. One night, Dave brought in some kind of disco bagpipes thing.

He was, above all, a great newsman, able to pack a ton of information into five minutes, and he was absolutely authoritative doing it. Honesty compels me to report that he did not have a reputation in the newsroom as a great writer, but nobody in that newsroom did, at least among the others. By that, I mean that everybody disliked everybody else’s writing. I can still see Dave flicking off his microphone and making a face after reading a story written by a colleague who wrote in the same rococo way he spoke.

I would like to describe Dave’s voice, but I’m not sure I can. It was not particularly deep. It had a certain nasal quality, but it was resonant at the same time. Whatever its specifics, it was a voice that commanded attention—never more than when severe weather struck.

Our practice at KDTH, when a weather warning came in, was to simply cue the newsman and let him read it. Even after all these years, the sound of Dave’s voice comes back to me vividly: “This is Dave Eliason in the KDTH newsroom with this weather bulletin.” He would read the National Weather Service advisory first, then he would elaborate on it out of his own weather experience and his remarkable knowledge of Iowa geography. After we got the first weather radar unit I ever saw—on a 26-inch TV monitor that needed its own desk—Dave would ad lib from the radar. In those minutes when dangerous weather was bearing down on the listening area, he was nothing less than the Voice of God.

After I left KDTH in 1983, I saw Dave only a couple of times. He died in 1998, but I think of him often. Any radio person worth a damn is standing on the shoulders of those who came before, and I often stand on his. Whenever I am on the air during severe weather, I use the lessons I learned watching and listening to Dave: know what you’re talking about, be precise, don’t hype, but don’t downplay the seriousness of the situation, either.

There’s a mildly humorous addendum to this story. The Mrs. worked part-time at KDTH for a while, after we’d gotten together but before we were married. I had warned her about Dave’s temperament, but she got along with him just fine. “It’s easy,” she told me. “I just get out of his way, let him rant, and when he’s finished, we figure out what we’re going to do. Kind of like I do with you.”

Hush Hush Ron Wiley

(Pictured: Rick Springfield, dressed to appear on a 1974 Australian telethon for blindness prevention. Sometimes the jokes write themselves.)

For a music and radio geek, there’s no more reliable source of entertainment than ARSA, the Airheads Radio Survey Archive. It’s raw material for the history of popular music, the history of American radio, and in a sense, the history of America itself, from the 50s to the new millennium. While entertaining myself the other day, I found five interesting oddballs to share with you.

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Summer Has Its Way

(Pictured: aftermath of the New York City blackout of July 14, 1977, and a metaphor for my own summer of 1977.) 

I have written many times about how the summer and fall of 1976 are the two seasons in which I would live forever if I could. The winter and spring of 1977 were the happy hangover from those few golden months. But the summer of 1977 ended up having its way with me, and not the good way.

I had a job in town, thus freeing me from having to drive a tractor on the farm. I pumped gas, checked oil, and topped off wiper fluid at a station owned by a friend’s father. A significant percentage of our receipts came from selling smokes, chips, and candy. The job was OK when the place wasn’t busy, or on busy nights when two of us were scheduled to work. The job was at its worst when I was scheduled to work alone on a busy night. And many nights were busy.

As summer began, I got a job at a new grocery store in town, so now I had two jobs. One of my friends had been regaling me for months with stories about how great his grocery store job was. So I went into my job with visions of big fun and big money, only to find it involved big physical labor. I started before the store’s grand opening, and I spent my first weeks cleaning filthy display cases, swabbing filthy floors, and stocking miles of shelves. When the store finally opened, I bagged groceries, which meant hours of continuous motion and heavy lifting.

The worst part of the job, however, involved the people who worked there. Most of my co-workers treated me with undisguised scorn, for reasons I never understood. My boss was an awful man who seemed to take pleasure in making people feel two inches tall and miserable. Especially me.

On July 14, 1977, a little after 10:00, I was coming home from one of my jobs, behind the wheel of my AMC Hornet, getting up onto Highway 69. The radio was on— because the radio was always on—and as I drove, I heard about the New York City blackout. “Wow, that’s weird,” I thought, and then another song came on and I went back to thinking about my own life, the jobs I didn’t like, and about my girlfriend, who had left for Europe the weekend before. Because that’s what matters when you’re 17.

It wouldn’t be very many more nights before my summer fell apart, although not as spectacularly as New York City’s did. In early August, I quit the grocery store, so discouraged by the work and my co-workers that I didn’t even bother to pick up my last paycheck. Shortly thereafter, the gas station mysteriously stopped scheduling me; I wasn’t fired, but I never worked there again. And although the reunion with my girlfriend after her month in Europe was joyous, we were only a couple of months away from beginning a protracted period of splitting up and getting back together that confused and exhausted the both of us.

So: my specific memory of that July night is not much, but it has stuck with me for 38 years now, by whatever alchemy such a thing happens. The blackout is part of the mental furniture whenever I revisit that summer—a summer in which I learned that nothing lasts forever, that everything sweet and glorious eventually becomes sour and small. New York was learning that lesson in slow motion throughout its painful 1970s. My lesson didn’t take quite so long.

(If you’d like to read a better essay about the summer of 1977, Michele Catalano wrote a wonderful piece yesterday at Medium about growing up on Long Island during that summer, and how it affected her and her fellow teenagers.)


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