This past weekend’s vintage American Top 40 show was dated August 1, 1970. Casey Kasem was still groping toward his familiar style, although it had come a long way since the very first broadcast a month earlier—his delivery and the show’s production were much more consistent compared the slapdash quality of the first show.
No matter the year, I particularly like the first hour of each show, where legendary singles frequently rub up against ephemeral oddballs: country weepers, R&B stompers, and novelty records that had enough juice in enough places to crack the 40, but not enough to leave a mark on history. The second and third hours of the show are generally filled with highly familiar music, but that first hour often contains stuff even I have forgotten, and it’s usually a lot of fun. The August 1, 1970, show was unique in my experience, however: The first hour was terrible.
Let me count the ways. The standard Motown narrative has the label beginning to struggle in 1970, reflecting its failure to find a second generation of stars apart from the Jackson Five. “Do You See My Love (For You Growing)” by Jr. Walker and the All-Stars and “Everybody’s Got the Right to Love” by the Supremes, which debuted at Numbers 39 and 37 respectively, are evidence of Motown’s decline. There’s absolutely nothing special about either one. Up at Number 35 is “Maybe” by the Three Degrees, a cover of the 1957 Chantels hit (as Casey told the audience twice), which starts with a monologue and seems to take forever to play. (The album version, linked above, takes even longer.) “Tell It All Brother” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, which closes out the hour, is so firmly anchored to a particular moment in history—the one at which the hippie dream of universal brotherhood and peace begins to unmistakably crumble—that it sounds as dated as ragtime. The first hour also includes “Summertime Blues” by the Who and “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain. Next to Walker, the Supremes, and the Three Degrees, it wasn’t so much a contrast as a collision—a head-on with fatalities.
That first hour was not without its gems: “Mississippi” by John Phillips is a record we have repeatedly praised ’round these parts. “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago (“We’ll figure it out as the weeks go by,” Casey says of the title, which perplexes him) points the way toward the sound of the 70s better than most other records in the countdown. And “Patches” by Clarence Carter brings the timeless charm of old-school soul music that the Three Degrees were going for in “Maybe,” but couldn’t capture. The first hour also included “Sex Machine” by James Brown, and if you guessed that Casey glossed over the title, you are correct.
I have said more than once—most recently on Twitter Saturday night—that when I look at a record chart from the summer of 1970, I see my life in the test tube, mixed up but not yet poured out. Most of the top songs during August would still be around in September, that pivotal month of discovery. The songs at the bottom of the Top 40 are part of that history, too. Just as my love of music started at the top of the charts that fall, perhaps my eventual fascination with obscurities was sparked by the stuff at the bottom.