Take a Look Around

(Pictured: J. J. Cale in the early 70s, slightly bemused by all the attention.)

And now, a twist on my usual routine with American Top 40 shows. Here are the seven strangest records on the show from April 1, 1972, in order from least to most:

7. “Crazy Mama”/J. J. Cale (#25). This is Cale’s lone Top 40 hit, a down-home, laid-back blues shuffle spiked with wah-wah guitar. Nobody talked about “roots music” back then, but “Crazy Mama” is clearly an example of it. From Naturally, the Cale album with “Call Me the Breeze,” “After Midnight,” and “Magnolia” on it.

6. “Take a Look Around”/Temptations (#30). I am pretty sure I never heard this song before, and if I did, I don’t remember it. “Take a Look Around” was from Solid Rock, the first album by what you could call Temptations Mark II—Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams were out of the group, replaced by Richard Street and Damon Harris. The socially conscious lyric is straight out of producer Norman Whitfield’s playbook and the vocals are fine, but it doesn’t seem particularly commercial, and it got to #30 pretty much on the power of the Temptations’ brand.

5. “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done”/Sonny and Cher (#16). Not since 1965 had Sonny and Cher had back-to-back Top 10 singles, and the one-of-a-kind “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done” (which followed “All I Ever Need Is You”) would be their last one, even as The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour became one of the biggest hits on TV.

4. “Jungle Fever”/Chakachas (#8). The appeal of beat and the riff on “Jungle Fever” is obvious. The appeal of the vocal takes longer to sink in.

3. “Give Ireland Back to the Irish”/Wings (#22). Amazingly, this Top 40 contains only three songs by British acts (T. Rex and Yes were the others), and it’s fitting that this should be one of them. It was recorded two days after the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland and released about three weeks later, the first record under the Wings name. EMI executives told Paul that British media outlets would refuse to play it, even though he naively believed that singing “Great Brit, you are tremendous / And nobody knows like me” would take the curse off of it. “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” would peak at #21 on the Hot 100. As a historical document, it’s interesting, but everything else released under the Wings name is better.

2. “Every Day of My Life”/Bobby Vinton (#29). A remake of a song first popular in the 1950s, “Every Day of My Life” sounds like it was recorded in 1958, all swelling strings and big backing chorus, perfect for sock-hop dancing. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), it was the most-played record on jukeboxes for the whole year of 1972. Vinton was more popular throughout all of the 1960s and into the 70s than anybody remembers, scoring widely played radio hits almost every year from 1962 through 1974, even though the later ones never made it onto your local oldies station.

1. “King Heroin”/James Brown (#40). The strangest record on the countdown, and one of the stranger ones in the history of American Top 40. “King Heroin” started as a poem written by Manny Rosen, a working stiff from Manhattan who had lost a daughter to drug abuse. Somehow, the poem found its way to Brown, who had it set to music. Brown describes a dream he had, in which heroin spoke to him and talked about all the drug is capable of, concluding with “the white horse of heroin will ride you to Hell.” It would anchor the countdown the next week, too. It shows up on 19 surveys at ARSA, all but one on soul stations, because there’s no way to make it fit alongside Bobby Vinton or Sonny and Cher.

However you want to describe them—strange, obscure, forgotten—these songs were once among the most popular in America, but their popularity barely outlasted the season in which it occurred. A lifetime later, however, some of us still remember them. Except for “Take a Look Around.”

Traffic Jam

(Pictured: Steve Winwood dressed with a bit more color at Red Rocks in Colorado last fall than he did in Milwaukee on Sunday night.)

Last Sunday night, we went to the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee to see Steve Winwood. We’d seen him once before, in 2003, on one of the grounds stages at Summerfest in Milwaukee, but since then, I’ve become a far bigger Winwood fan than I was 12 years ago. My laptop music stash includes tons of Traffic, official releases and bootlegs, and as much of Winwood’s other work, in groups and solo, as I can lay my hands on. So I was a little better equipped to appreciate him Sunday night.

If you go to a Steve Winwood concert because you liked his hits in the 80s, “While You See a Chance” and “Roll With It” and “The Finer Things” and the like, you’re going to be disappointed, because he doesn’t seem particularly interested in playing those songs. In 2003, he did “Back in the High Life Again,” and on Sunday night, he closed the main part of the show with “Higher Love,” but they were the only songs from his 80s catalog. It’s clear he’d rather play stuff that lets him and his bandmates stretch out—and nothing’s better for that than songs made famous by Traffic, one of the original jam bands. So he opened with “Rainmaker” and played “Pearly Queen,” “Glad,” “The Low-Spark of High-Heeled Boys,” and a blazing version of “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” that allowed each band member a lengthy solo. Guitarist José Neto and multi-instrumentalist Paul Booth really stood out—at one point, Booth was playing a keyboard with one hand and holding a sax in the other, periodically blowing a couple of notes in the midst of providing backing vocals. Another time, he was alternating soprano sax and tenor sax on the same song.

When Winwood strapped on a guitar, Booth moved over to Winwood’s keyboard spot—and when Winwood strapped on a guitar, the highlights of the show followed. He did a terrific plugged-in version of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and he burned through the solos on “Dirty City” that were originally played by Eric Clapton on the 2008 album Nine Lives. But his best moment was on the first encore, “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” in which he and the band reduced the theater to a smoking pile of rubble. Then it was a quick segue into “Gimme Some Lovin’,” and the show was over barely 90 minutes after it had begun.

Give the man credit: he must have grown sick of playing “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “Gimme Some Lovin'” long, long ago, but far from going through the motions (as he did on “Gimme Some Lovin'” when we saw him in 2003), he seemed to be fully engaged in both of them Sunday night. In 2003, he barely spoke to the audience or acknowledged us before disappearing backstage at the end. This time, he was more talkative, and he seemed genuinely pleased by the ovation the band received while taking its bows at the end.

The Riverside was built in 1928 and renovated in 1984. We’ve seen several shows there in the last four or five years, but honesty compels me to report that the sound isn’t always great. We would have appreciated a little more attention to mixing—the one thing that should never be swamped at a Steve Winwood show is the organ, and it often was—and a little less volume. But the venue is easy to get to, easy to get around in, and in close proximity to many fine bars, so it’ll always be a favorite of ours.

Winwood’s daughter Lilly opened the show, as she’s doing for just a couple of shows this week. She was born in Nashville and relocated there in 2010 to pursue her own career in roots music. She played half-a-dozen songs, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. She sounds like she’s still figuring out a style, but that’s OK. She’s 19. Her old man had it figured out by the time he was 19 (in 1967), but not everybody’s Steve Winwood.

Out on the Floor

What follows is rebooted from something I wrote in 2007 about being a wedding-reception DJ, which The Mrs. and I were for a couple of years in the early 90s.

Consider the wedding-reception DJ. Next to the clergyman who performs the ceremony, he’s in the most public role of all the hired help. He’s an entertainer, but he’s not supposed to make himself the center of attention, either. Most of the guests probably won’t notice him at all, unless he does something one of them doesn’t like. And in any room of 250 people, that’s almost inevitable.

Some couples take great pains to come up with a list of songs they want at the reception. But here’s a little secret that some of my brethren in the wedding-DJ biz must surely share: I will ignore many of your suggestions. You simply don’t want me playing album cuts by REM at a party attended by 400 people, including both your six-year-old niece and your 89-year-old grandmother, even if REM is the groom’s favorite band. I’d be falling down on the job if I didn’t give you the benefit of the party-making expertise I possess. The bride and groom are the clients, but the guests are the audience, and the DJ owes them the best show he can put on.

One night I played, at the bride’s request, “YMCA,” which I always followed with KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way I Like It.” I made the segue and absolutely nobody left the packed dance floor—except the bride, who came blazing over to angrily tell me that I was ruining her party by playing disco. Which, to her, apparently, “YMCA” was not.

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All Flushed With Fever

(Pictured: Roberta Flack, who undoubtedly felt better about herself in 1973 than I did about myself in 1973.)

Were I to rank each of the years during which I lived with Top 40 radio in my ear by the quality of their music (a project I should undertake one day), I expect that 1973 would rank near the bottom. The best explanation for the strange way I view 1973 from this distance has to do with the full onslaught of adolescence and all the fevered craziness it can provoke in a boy—but while that explains the way I remember 1973, it doesn’t explain why I like so little of that year’s music now. Or maybe it does, because I first heard the music of that year while suffering the fever of that year.

So now then: I have spent the last few days listening to the American Top 40 show dated March 31, 1973, and just as I suspected, it didn’t do much for me. Not until it got to the Top 10, anyhow.

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Tornado Geek

If you can tolerate one more damn tornado-related thing, here’s part of a post I wrote back in 2006 about covering severe weather on the radio, lightly edited for 2015.

It wasn’t until I got to college and watched some of the more experienced people at the campus radio station covering a severe weather outbreak that I realized a fundamental truth of broadcasting—on most days, you’re just playing records and cracking wise. You don’t actually live your station’s commitment to operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity until you’re on a full severe-weather alert.

In those days, many small-to-medium market stations had the goal of owning severe weather coverage—to be the station that everybody tuned to when the skies turned dark. In Dubuque, KDTH was that station. Even though it may have been late at night or their day off, news department staffers would materialize when watches were issued, and they set a standard for the way to do severe weather right. They knew what information people needed, who to call or where to go to get it, and how to ad-lib off the radar screen, as well as how to do it while staying cool, even when the newsroom behind the studio door was chaotic. You knew—although we never faced it while I was there—that if a tornado were bearing down on the station’s very building, they’d stay on the air no matter what. I learned a lot at KDTH, and by the time I got to my next radio job, on tornado alley in western Illinois, I considered myself an expert on how to cover severe weather.

One of my jobs there was public-service director, which meant I was responsible for the box of 3-by-5 cards with “community calendar” information for jocks to read, and for the public-service announcements jocks could play to fill time. That first spring, I planned to do a series of PSAs for Tornado Awareness Week, but management vetoed them. We can’t let you do it, they said, because it might start a panic.

Honest to God, that’s what they told me, and I still can’t fathom their logic. But they fired me a few weeks later (not for the tornado PSAs, but for something equally loony) and I went to the other station in town. As it turned out, that station was about to be purchased by the guy who had been the general manager at KDTH, so I was sure my weather expertise would be appreciated there, and it was.

Within a few years, severe weather coverage, especially on music radio stations and extra-especially in large markets, started going out of fashion. In the late 80s, a jock in Dallas was famously fired for breaking his station’s format rules to read a tornado warning for the area. At about the same time, I was driving home in a horizontal rainstorm driven by 50MPH winds and listening to a station in my town when I heard the jock say, “A tornado warning has been issued for a portion of our listening area. If you want to know the details, call me on the listener line.”

Honest to God, that’s what he said. If he’d been working for me, I’d have fired him on the spot. To this day, it might still be the single worst thing I’ve ever heard on the radio—although he was probably just doing what he’d been told to do.

By the early 90s, I was working for an owner whose commitment to the public interest, convenience, and necessity matched my own. The station was located in a little prefab house on a hill just outside of town. During the first bout of bad weather that spring, I wasn’t entirely up on the local geography. “Hey,” I said to one of the news people, “We’ve got a warning here that says a tornado is on the ground seven miles southeast of Miles, Iowa. Where is that?” She got a strange look on her face and said, “That’s . . . here.” Instead of heading for shelter in the basement, I immediately ran outside to look for the tornado.

I didn’t see it.

Today, I’m pleased that my stations have a commitment to cover severe weather, and they’ll pay us to come in after hours to do it if necessary. It’s part of the reason they have the license in the first place. Without that commitment, they’re just playing records and cracking wise.

One Day in Your Life: April 11, 1965

(Pictured: This is not the tornado that struck my family’s farm 50 years ago today, although it looms that large in my memory.)

April 11, 1965 was Palm Sunday. Across the middle of the country, it’s the first warm spring day. In an old schoolhouse near his ranch in Texas, President Johnson signs the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the nation’s first law federally funding schools. Johnson, who had been a teacher himself as a young man, is joined for the ceremony by his first teacher. In today’s Peanuts strip, Charlie Brown battles the kite-eating tree. House Minority Leader Gerald Ford speaks at a dinner in Chicago and encourages support for the Israel Bonds Program. In his mostly lighthearted speech he compares Israel, “surrounded by a numerically larger and hostile army,” to the Congressional GOP, whom Ford says are similarly outnumbered by the Democrats. A gigantic tornado outbreak strikes the Midwest. Over approximately 11 hours, 47 tornadoes are reported from Iowa to Ohio. Storms in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio come with winds in excess of 200 MPH, and 271 people are killed. The most fatalities occur in Indiana, including 36 in and around Elkhart. Among the first communities to be hit is Monroe, Wisconsin, about 2:00 in the afternoon. The tornado carves a 27-mile path through Green, Rock, and Dane counties, destroying or damaging homes, businesses, and over 400 cars. Forty injuries are reported, but no fatalities. Winds in the Monroe tornado are estimated to have reached over 100 MPH.

A Texas entrepreneur announces the formation of the United States Football League, which will have six franchises in major cities. It is to begin play in the spring of 1966 with its championship game on Memorial Day, but the new professional league will never get off the ground. Conference finals continue in the National Basketball Association. The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers take 3-2 leads in their respective series with wins today. In the National Hockey League, the Detroit Red Wings beat the Chicago Black Hawks 4-2 to take a 3-2 lead in their semifinal series. Marvin Panch wins the NASCAR Atlanta 500. Baseball’s regular season begins tomorrow; today the Chicago Cubs acquire pitcher Ted Abernathy from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for cash.

On TV tonight, ABC broadcasts Wagon Train and the sitcom Broadside, about a group of Navy WAVES assigned to a base in the South Pacific. Bonanza anchors NBC’s lineup. On CBS tonight, following Lassie and My Favorite Martian, Ed Sullivan welcomes Gerry and the Pacemakers (who are promoting their movie Ferry Cross the Mersey), Maurice Chevalier, and Soupy Sales among his guests. In London, the Beatles close the annual all-star concert presented by New Musical Express, which features the winners of the magazine’s annual popularity poll. It’s the third year the Beatles have appeared. Also on the bill: the Moody Blues, the Rolling Stones, Them, the Animals, the Kinks, and several other acts.

At WRIT in Milwaukee, several of the acts from the NME show are on the station’s latest survey. “I’m Telling You Now” by Freddie and the Dreamers is #1; “Game of Love” by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders moves to #2. The hottest record on the chart is “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” by Herman’s Hermits, moving from #20 to #3. (Herman’s version of “Silhouettes” makes another strong move, from #32 to 20.) Also new in the Top 10 are “Go Now” by the Moody Blues and “The Clapping Song” by Shirley Ellis. Also moving up: “Count Me In” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys (to #22 from #34).

Perspective From the Present: The National Weather Service in Kansas City and local weather bureaus knew about the ripe conditions for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms, so at about 10:45AM, they issued a Severe Weather Forecast, which was standard operating procedure at the time. At 1:00, they updated it to say that “one or two tornadoes” might occur, but they identified a huge area of threat—essentially from Madison to Peoria and Cedar Rapids to Chicago, about 50,000 square miles. But by then, tornadoes were already hitting Iowa. (My family and I heard that updated forecast on a Rockford, Illinois, radio station in the car on the way back from our Sunday dinner.) Further alerts were issued as the storms moved across Illinois and Indiana, but the terminology wasn’t clear enough about the urgency of the situation, and as a result, many people were unaware just how dangerous the storms were. In the aftermath, the National Weather Service devised the tornado watch and tornado warning terminology that we use today.

My first baseball glove, which I would get when I started playing organized ball three or four years hence, was a Ted Abernathy autographed model.

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