Right around the time of the Gulf War, I got a phone call from a singer who was trying to get her self-produced record on the air. She was working off an outdated list of Iowa radio stations that showed us as a country station (which we hadn’t been for many years), and even as I patiently explained that we weren’t interested in her record, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Let me send you a cassette,” she said. A couple of days later, it arrived, a C-90, the kind you’d buy in three-packs at Walmart, no plastic box, just a naked cassette in a padded envelope. A handwritten file-folder label was stuck to the tape with the singer’s name and the song title, and I could see that another, earlier label had been ripped off below it. I would like to be able to tell you that I put the cassette into the player and was blown away by a beautiful song, but I was not. It was a horrid, cliché-ridden country joint that indicted the listener for shameful neglect of war veterans, sung in a draggy drawl with no control over its dynamics, so godawful that I reddened in embarrassment for the woman. I got through about 45 seconds before the cassette got tossed into the discard box.
It never had a chance anyhow. By 1991, the era of local radio music programming was largely dead, particularly at stations in the middle of nowhere, where we relied on syndicated national formats instead of paying local disc jockeys, but also in larger markets, where the stakes had become too high to entertain much musical risk. Although occasional brushfire hits would still break out from a single radio market, it was nothing like a decade or two before. In the 60s and early 70s, it was still possible for local bands to benefit from radio play in their home area, and to become household names in a relatively small number of households.
It didn’t have to be local bands, however. Local programmers could make local hits out of records that got national release without catching on nationwide. This happened at stations as big as WLS, where songs including “Love’s Made a Fool of You” by Cochise, Fanny’s “Charity Ball,” “Jimmy Loves Mary Anne” by Looking Glass, and “All Day Music” by War climbed to the top of the WLS survey while barely scratching the Billboard Top 40 (or in the case of Cochise, the Hot 100).
I started thinking about all this the other day after looking at a radio survey from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, an hour or two north of Madison. In March 1971, right there with “Just My Imagination” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” the Partridge Family and Bobby Sherman, is a record called “Hot Pants” by Salvage. It’s a Paul Vance/Lee Pockriss production, two guys fabled for novelty-style records, most notably “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and “Leader of the Laundromat,” but also Perry Como’s “Catch a Falling Star” and the marvelous “Tracy,” recorded by the Cuff Links. It was on the Odax label, owned by Vance.
And it’s easy to understand how it ended up on the air. It was topical in the spring of 1971, as hot pants became a fashion fad. It’s got a catchy and non-threatening pop-rock feel, sung with a wink and a smile, extolling the virtues of all the women “strollin’ in their hot pants,” and closing the deal with “Jumpin’ catfish I can’t believe my eyes / Here comes Grandma / She found a pair in her size.” Stevens Point wasn’t the only place it did good business. A February 1971 item in Billboard touts strong sales in Milwaukee, and “Hot Pants” would make the top 10 in Kansas City and Indianapolis, and the top 20 in Denver, Columbus, and Youngstown, Ohio. After bubbling under a couple of weeks in early March, it made the Hot 100 and spent seven weeks there, peaking at #54 early in April. You can hear it right here.