A Lot of Music in It

(Pictured: Emerson Lake & Palmer.)

In the summer of 2009, I wrote a four-part series based on a daybook I kept during 1976. It wasn’t a diary; it was a page-a-week calendar on which I noted various bits of trivia day by day: celebrity birthdays, odd holidays—and, most significant now, brief notes about things happening in my life. It had been boxed away for a very long time, and when I rediscovered it, I hoped that it might help me better understand why 1976 has a hold on me that I’ll never shake. The first part follows, slightly edited.

Like all other years, 1976 had a lot of music in it. On Sunday January 11, the family made a trip to the mall in Madison, and I bought Kraftwerk’s Autobahn album. The next week, I noted that I had borrowed Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery album from a friend. (I borrowed Frampton Comes Alive! from another friend that spring, although I didn’t write it in the daybook. I ended up buying him a replacement after somebody stole it out of my locker.) On February 29, I celebrated what would have been my fourth “real” birthday, and among the gifts I received was Station to Station, David Bowie’s latest album, which I got on an 8-track tape. I bought a couple more albums in March: Queen’s A Night at the Opera on the 12th and Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon on the 14th.

The juxtaposition of those two albums amuses me now: Queen defiantly asserted “no synthesizers” on A Night at the Opera‘s liner notes, while Tangerine Dream was entirely electronic, and that’s why I bought it, even though I’d never heard of Tangerine Dream. I got it in a cutout bin for a couple of bucks, imagining it would be full of the proggy synthesizer pyrotechnics I was into at the moment. What it was, however, was ambient music, which was a fairly big leap for me (Autobahn notwithstanding). The album is still up here in the office somewhere, although I don’t think I’ve listened to it more than a couple of times. I decided to stick with prog rock. On July 16, I bought Rick Wakeman’s No Earthly Connection.

As the summer began, I started noting the names of the artists that were being featured every night on Madison’s WIBA-FM, starting with Monty Python on June 1. Other artists featured that month: Jethro Tull, the Charlie Daniels Band, the Beatles, Paul Butterfield, Brian Auger, Ace, Pablo Cruise, Little Feat, and Alice Cooper. I would keep it up all summer. When Paul McCartney and Wings (June 2) and Elton John (July 28 and 30) played concerts in Chicago, I wrote that down, too. At the top of each weekly page, I noted the Number-One songs and albums of the week, taken from the various countdown shows I followed religiously. On July 3, I listened as WMAQ, Chicago’s big country station, counted down the top 76 country records of all time—such was my chart geekery in that summer.

So what the daybook indicates first and foremost is that music was everything to me in 1976—but that wouldn’t have been news to anyone then, and it isn’t news to you now.

In the next installment: brief and maddeningly incomplete glimpses of teenage life.

Across My Universe

(Pictured: the Beatles on TV, 1968.)

In April 2006, I began using LastFM to keep track of the music that plays on my laptop every day. In 10 years, it’s recorded over 153,000 plays. In a recent post, I wrote about the top jazz artists on the list. This post is about the non-jazz stars I listen to most. I’m not going to count these down because there’s not much suspense, really.

1. Van Morrison. Because my library plays on shuffle most of the time, it privileges artists with more tracks. And I have a ton of Van Morrison, so a day without Van is most likely a day when I’m not on the laptop. Most-played track: “Caravan.”

2. Elton John. It figures that a child of the 70s such as I would still be listening to Elton John. Most-played track: “Your Song,” primarily because every single live album and bootleg contains a version of it, so it’s inescapable.

3. Fleetwood Mac. I liked Fleetwood Mac’s radio hits well enough, but I didn’t start exploring their back catalog until the last decade. The pre-Buckingham/Nicks years were spectacular, even if the records didn’t sell much. Most-played track: “Monday Morning.”

4. Rolling Stones. Like Fleetwood Mac, the Stones were a band I liked on the radio, but I didn’t listen beyond the hits until relatively recent times. At their peak, they really were the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. Most-played track: “Brown Sugar,” which is news on par with the sunrise.

5. Steely Dan. Officially my favorite band. I have many, many bootlegs in addition to all of their officially released material, and I’m not quite sure how they’re not #1 on this list. Most-played track: “Josie,” which is because they play it at every show and it’s on every bootleg, and not because it’s a favorite. I can name quite literally 50 Steely Dan songs I like better.

6. Beatles. New data indicates indicates that two-thirds of the people listening to the Beatles on Spotify are under the age of 35. This is happening while oldies radio has largely dropped them (and other artists from the 60s) in the belief that they’re relevant only to those of us approaching retirement age. Radio remaining slavishly loyal to ancient dogma and refusing to keep up with the times? Color me shocked. Most-played track: “Across the Universe.”

7.  Boz Scaggs. I suspect I get more enjoyment from any random Boz cut than from any other artist who pops up on shuffle. Most-played track: “Lowdown,” and how. Various live versions rank #1 on my Boz list, and the studio version from Silk Degrees is #2.

8.  Rod Stewart. Rod has been in my music library even longer than Elton, ever since I bought “Maggie May” in the fall of 1971. Most-played track: “Mandolin Wind,” from Every Picture Tells a Story. 

9.  Bruce Springsteen. My most-played Springsteen album is The Seeger Sessions, and six of my most-played tracks are from that album, with “Erie Canal” and “Pay Me My Money Down” tied for first. That strikes me weird, but it’s OK: “Pay Me My Money Down” would be among my favorite Springsteen songs of any era, if I made a list.

10. Rosanne Cash. There’s no artist currently working for whom I have greater respect than Rosanne Cash. Although “daughter of Johnny Cash” will be in the first line of her obituary, she’s not overshadowed by him. She’s created her own great art and her own indelible image. And if you dip into her four-decade catalog at any point, you’ll find something highly worthwhile. Most-played track: “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” which is one of her father’s songs.

Add these 10 to the top five jazz artists in my earlier post (Jimmy Smith, Grant Green, Jimmy McGriff, Kenny Burrell, and Willis Jackson) and you have my 15 most-played artists. The next five are Lucinda Williams, the Eagles, Richard Groove Holmes, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and the Electric Light Orchestra.

My single most-played track is one I haven’t mentioned to this point: “Ruby My Dear” by Thelonious Monk. LastFM doesn’t differentiate very well between versions of the same song on different albums. I have four different versions of “Ruby My Dear,” so its prominence is mainly a shuffle anomaly. But I don’t mind. Here’s a good version.

Black Enough for You

(Pictured: cover shot from 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, 1972.)

Billy Paul, famed for the 1972 #1 hit “Me and Mrs. Jones,” died yesterday in Philadelphia at the age of 81. The story started making the rounds on social media thanks to a single unattributed web posting late in the afternoon and a tweet by a DJ at WDAS in Philadelphia. There was no source given, no link to additional information, no “family members have called to tell me,” nothing. Within minutes of the “report,” a few tweeters began saying, “Hold up, this isn’t confirmed,” while others called it an outright hoax. After about an hour, Paul’s manager confirmed that the singer was dead.

I suppose it’s possible that WDAS had additional information an hour before but botched the reporting of it. Long gone are the days when a radio station, even in a Top-10 market, routinely staffs a newsroom on a Sunday evening. Yet disc jockeys are not journalists. Old jocks such as I learned by osmosis; where young jocks are expected to learn the basic rules of reporting I don’t know. It doesn’t matter that the WDAS turned out to be right, by the way. It’s irresponsible to report an unsubstantiated rumor as fact, period.

Not that anyone cares. Standards are for curmudgeons on the wrong side of history. We passed the 17th anniversary of the Columbine shootings last week, and I remember watching CNN immolate every journalistic standard in a single afternoon. They reported rumors as fact. They aired video nobody had pre-screened with no idea what it would show. They made wild speculations, each one based on the very tissue of bullshit they were in the process of weaving. Although the O. J. Simpson circus first demonstrated how the 24-hour news cycle could proliferate nonsense, Columbine represented something new, a panicky approach to journalism in which accuracy is the first casualty. All these years later, it’s practically the norm.

But damn, Billy Paul now. “Me and Mrs. Jones” was always going to be his monument, although he was much more prolific and interesting than one record, no matter how perfect that one record is. He was stationed at the same Army base with Elvis. He made his first album with Gamble and Huff in 1968. “Me and Mrs. Jones,” from the album 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, would be the quintessential Philly soul ballad if there weren’t so many other contenders for that title. You don’t need experience with adultery to feel the furtive longing in it, not just the words, but the way the arrangement, and especially the lead guitar and piano, prolongs every note, like hanging-on lovers who don’t want to part.

When it came time for a second single, Paul said, Gamble and Huff wanted to appeal directly to the black audience, even though “Me and Mrs. Jones” had topped the R&B charts for a month. So they decided to release “Am I Black Enough for You,” a funky empowerment anthem. It went to #29 R&B and #79 pop, and stopped Paul’s chart momentum cold.

In 1974, Paul would get to #37 on the pop chart with “Thanks for Saving My Life,” which sums up all of his influences in three minutes. Over a tight, prototypical Philly soul arrangement, with a bank of sassy soul sisters behind him, Paul sings all around the notes like the jazz singer he once was: his early influences included sax player Charlie Parker and singer Nina Simone, and you can hear jazz in nearly everything he sings. He would make the Hot 100 only one other time, with “Let’s Make a Baby” in 1976.

Further explorations in the Billy Paul catalog are worth it.  The title track from War of the Gods, his 1973 album containing “Thanks for Saving My Life,” is a 10-minute psychedelic trip down a road parallel to the one producer Norman Whitfield was traveling with the Temptations at the same time. Paul covered some famous songs extremely well, including “Your Song,” “It’s Too Late,” and “Let’s Stay Together” on 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. Your mileage may vary with his modified, Bicentennial-ish version of Paul McCartney’s “Let ‘Em In”  from 1976 or his 1971 cover of “Magic Carpet Ride,” but they’re worth a listen, too.

And so we put another star in the sky, alongside Prince, and blues guitarist Lonnie Mack, whose death was announced not long before Prince’s last Thursday. And we are not done. No, we are not done.

One Day in Your Life: April 22, 1986

(Pictured: Prince appears at the American Music Awards in January 1986.)

April 22, 1986, is a Tuesday. The nation is abuzz this morning over last night’s syndicated TV special The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults, hosted by Geraldo Rivera, during which a chamber below the Lexington Hotel in Chicago, where Capone had once lived, was opened on live TV. It did not contain cars, bodies, or money as hoped, only dirt and old empty bottles. Thirty-five percent of TV homes in America watched. In Madison, Wisconsin, just after 4AM, 20-year-old convenience store clerk Andrew Nehmer is murdered. Twenty-seven years from now, a possible suspect will be identified, but the murder will remain unsolved. Western diplomats continue discussions about a further crackdown on Libya, one week after retaliatory American bombing raids on Tripoli and Benghazi. The Libyan government is accused of sponsoring the April 5 terrorist bombing of a Berlin disco frequented by American soldiers, in which two Americans were killed and 79 wounded. President Reagan notifies Congress that the national security emergency regarding Nicaragua, in place since the previous May, will be continued. Tonight, Reagan gives a speech at the Heritage Foundation anniversary dinner. Several states get snow with record cold.

In today’s Peanuts strip, Lucy tells Linus about their sister-brother dynamic. Future football player Marshawn Lynch and future actress Amber Heard are born. Cliff Finch, who served as governor of Mississippi from 1976 to 1980, dies of a heart attack at age 59. On TV tonight, ABC’s lineup features Who’s the Boss, Perfect Strangers, Moonlighting and Spenser: For Hire. CBS airs the new family drama Morningstar/Eveningstar, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and The Equalizer. NBC counters with The A-Team, Hunter, and an NBC White Paper news special titled The Japan They Don’t Talk About, which shows how some Japanese manufacturing differs from the industrial powerhouse portrayed in media reports. The Boston Celtics beat the Chicago Bulls 122-104 to win their first-round NBA playoff series three games to none. After scoring 63 points in the previous game, Bulls star Michael Jordan scores 19. The Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets also complete first-round sweeps.

The Los Angeles Times carries a feature story on prolific session guitarist Tommy Tedesco. The Grateful Dead play Berkeley, California, and Rush brings the Power Windows tour to Greensboro, South Carolina. Van Halen plays the Rosemont Horizon in suburban Chicago, Stevie Nicks plays Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, and Neil Diamond plays the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Van Halen’s “Why Can’t This Be Love” is new in the Billboard Top 10; Stevie’s “I Can’t Wait” holds at #16. Prince tops the Hot 100 with “Kiss”; a song he wrote under an assumed name for the Bangles, “Manic Monday,” is #2. At #99, on its way out of the Hot 100, is “A Love Bizarre” by Sheila E, co-written by Prince. In Macomb, Illinois, the local Top 40 morning-show host plays all of these songs, although his favorites at the moment are “Your Love” by the Outfield and “R. O. C. K. in the U. S. A.” by John Cougar Mellencamp, both of which sound great blasting in the car on warm spring days. Or they will, if spring ever comes to western Illinois.

Perspective From the Present: Prince’s domination of pop music in 1986 was remarkable, as described in this terrific piece by Slate‘s Chris Molanphy, which prompted me to yank the Prince post I wrote yesterday afternoon and intended for today, and put this one up instead. One Day in Your Life is the kind of thing I can do well, but I am unable to write a loving retrospective on Prince’s music and what it meant to me. That should have become clear to me yesterday, when I was writing and the following sentence just popped out: “By the time I became a Top 40 DJ a few years later, Prince was on the air all the time, the same as the weather forecast.”

Not every artist, not even the greatest and most prolific ones of our times, can move every listener, or change every listener’s life. Somebody else—many somebodies, if you hit up your favorite social media channels—is going to have to tell you about Prince’s greatness and what he meant. I’m not the one to do it. I don’t intend to demean him, or downplay his significance. He is, by any standard, one of the most significant musicians American culture has ever produced. But to this listener, it doesn’t feel like a personal loss, not like Glenn Frey or Merle Haggard. I’m neither proud of that nor ashamed by it. Although I hate the phrase “it is what it is,” it is what it is.

My Romance

(Pictured: pianist Bill Evans at work, shortly before his death in 1980.)

April is Jazz Appreciation Month. This April also marks 10 years since I started using LastFM to keep track of what plays on my laptop. So this is a post about the most-played jazz artists in my library these last 10 years.

10. Houston Person. I first saw Person’s name in the first chart book I ever owned, Star File, detailed data on the American and British charts of 1976, which my girlfriend brought home to me from a trip to England in 1977. As many jazz players had done by the middle of the 70s, Person had moved away from straight jazz toward a pop style, and he was rewarded with a minor two-sided hit on the Hot 100, “Disco Sax” and “For the Love of You.”

9. Bill Evans. Evans’ early 60s recordings at New York’s Village Vanguard with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian are magnificent, including my most-played Evans track, “My Romance.” Evans’ life and career were dogged by tragedy. LaFaro died in a car wreck just days after the Village Vanguard sessions, and in 1980, Evans completed what a friend called “the longest suicide in history,” dying from various maladies complicated by drug use in the wake of his brother’s suicide the year before.

8. Miles Davis. I cannot always follow where Davis went: we start parting company at In a Silent Way, and I am not sure I have ever made it all the way through Bitches Brew. I am much more interested in Miles as he sounded with his small combos in the 1950s. My most-played track, “Dear Old Stockholm,” recorded in 1957, features a Murderer’s Row of players: John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. All but Jones played on the legendary Kind of Blue in 1959—and so did Bill Evans.

7. Jack McDuff. Soul jazz is my favorite thing, R&B-influenced, often found on urban jukeboxes in the 60s, and occasionally on the singles chart. McDuff is one of the great soul-jazz organ players. His lone Hot 100 hit, “Theme From Electric Surfboard,” charted as 1969 turned to 1970.

6. Richard “Groove” Holmes. Another master organist, another soul-jazz star. Holmes’ biggest hit charted 50 years ago this summer: “Misty,” which was released on 45 in a sub-two-minute edit.

5. Willis Jackson. Sax man, often accompanied by Jack McDuff. Can honk like he’s dancing on the bar, but can also whisper in your ear like he wants to take you home from the bar. His best-known song is probably “Bar Wars” from 1977, on which Jackson is accompanied by organist Charles Earland, who had the best nickname in jazz: “The Mighty Burner.”

4. Kenny Burrell. Guitarist, Director of Jazz Studies at UCLA, and a giant with a highly recognizable style. Most-played track: “If You Could See Me Now,” which proves that smoky, late-night Burrell is the best make-out music in the world.

3. Jimmy McGriff. Philadelphia was quite the hotbed for soul-jazz organists: Holmes, McGriff, and Jimmy Smith (see below) were all natives of the area. McGriff scored a huge R&B and pop hit with the Ray Charles song “I Got a Woman” in 1962, and he hit the Hot 100 four other times in the 60s.

2. Grant Green. Guitarist often found in the company of organ players including Big John Patton and Charles Kynard, and a sideman on recordings by other bandleaders, including Houston Person. Most-played track: “Sweet Slumber.”

1. Jimmy Smith. The master of the Hammond B3 organ, who ranged across more styles than any player this side of Miles Davis. He recorded with a full orchestra and in small combos and even took a vocal now and then. Most-played track: “Back at the Chicken Shack,” which features Burrell on guitar.

Honorable mention, or bubbling under the top 10: the aforementioned Charles Earland, John Patton, and Red Garland, plus Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphonist and sometime collaborator with Green and Patton.

Each of the artists mentioned here, including the honorable mentions, are among my 50 most-played artists according to LastFM. Smith, Green, McGriff, and Burrell are in the Top 10. Before this week is out, I’ll write about some of the top pop and rock artists on the list.

Popular Enough

(Pictured: Robert Plant and Jimmy Page doing what they do.)

I tweeted a Salon piece the other day titled “10 Classic Rock Songs That Radio Stations Need to Stop Playing Right Now.” Pieces like this are fairly common around the Interwebs, and whenever I click one, I always check on the identity of the author. Every young rock writer does one sooner or later, happily slagging music they have no natural affinity for, as if generating aggrieved comments from olds were a journalistic rite of passage. So give credit to the author of the Salon article, Annie Zaleski, who appears to be in her mid 30s. Even though the headline and subhead sound like they were written by a callow young intern, the substance of her piece is mostly right on.

I could add a few songs to Zaleski’s list:

—“Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers (replace with “Melissa” or “Blue Sky”)

—“Feel Like Makin’ Love” by Bad Company (replace with “Live for the Music” or “Silver, Blue and Gold”)

—Nearly all singles by Billy Joel, but especially “Movin’ Out,” “Only the Good Die Young,” “Big Shot,” and “Piano Man” (replace with “Stiletto,” “Everybody Has a Dream, “Get it Right the First Time,” and of course, “Sleeping With the Television On”)

—“Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger (replace it with anything, just as long as you don’t play “Old Time Rock and Roll” anymore)

—“Born to Run” and “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen (replace with extreme deep cuts “Thundercrack” from the Tracks box and “Wreck on the Highway” from The River)

—“Just What I Needed” by the Cars (replace with “Dangerous Type” from Candy-O)

—“Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton (see “Old Time Rock and Roll”)

—“All Right Now” by Free (replace with “The Stealer”)

—“Magic Man” by Heart (replace with “Kick It Out,” “Bebe Le Strange,” or even “Dog and Butterfly”)

—“The Load Out/Stay” by Jackson Browne (replace with “You Love the Thunder”)

—Anything you’re tempted to play from Led Zeppelin IV except “Going to California” (replace with “The Rain Song,” “Trampled Under Foot,” and “Boogie With Stu”; if there were a classic-rock station that played “Boogie With Stu” as much as most of them play “Stairway to Heaven,” I’d listen to it all the time)

—“Take It on the Run” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon (replace with “Golden Country” and the mighty “Say You Love Me or Say Goodnight”)

—“Angie” by the Rolling Stones (replace with “Waiting on a Friend”)

—“Hey Nineteen” by Steely Dan (replace with “Midnight Cruiser”)

—“The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band (replace with “The Stake”)

—“Hold the Line” by Toto (replace with “99”)

Although there’s research to suggest that radio can still be a powerful force for new music discovery, many radio programmers and ownership groups are highly resistant to change. As a result, the songs on Zaleski’s list aren’t going anywhere. And it’s not just programming conservatism. People like those songs. I’ve written about this before: you might wonder why anybody wants or needs to hear “Hotel California” or “Sweet Home Alabama” again, but hundreds of thousands of other people whose relationship with music isn’t strong enough to make them fans of a low-rent blog such as this one like ’em just fine.

Plausibly Related: A reader asked earlier this week why Led Zeppelin’s officially untitled fourth album was in the Top 20 on WLS in April 1976 when it was originally released in November 1971. My strictly anecdotal explanation for this is as follows: although album-rock stations played “Stairway to Heaven” from the very beginning, it wasn’t until the middle of the 70s that Top 40 stations like WLS began playing it, and when they did, it found an entirely new audience. By the spring of 1976, “Stairway” was popular enough among the general run of teenagers to be the prom theme at my high school, and I’m sure we weren’t the only one.


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