Hello Again, White People

(Above: Casey circa 1990, after he’d left AT40 and created new countdown shows.)

At one point during the American Top 40 show from February 21, 1981, a listener asks which white duo or group had the most hits on the soul chart. Turns out it was the Average White Band. Rarely does a single question and its answer sum up an entire show so well.

Less than two years removed from the height of the disco era, there were but five non-white acts in the 40 that week: Kool & the Gang (“Celebration” at #3), Stevie Wonder (“I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It” at #14), Tierra (“Together” at #18), the Jacksons (“Heartbreak Hotel” at #22), and Diana Ross (“It’s My Turn” at #29). And while Diana is African American, “It’s My Turn” is adult pop, not R&B. That kind of thing was everywhere. Two Barbra Streisand/Barry Gibb singles, “What Kind of Fool” (#26) and “Guilty” (#35) were both on the 2/21/81 chart. Similarly, Neil Diamond also had two such records within the 40, “Hello Again” (#17) and “Love on the Rocks” (#34). All four either had been or would eventually be Top-10 hits. Similarly Caucasian: “The Winner Takes it All” by Abba (#12), Air Supply’s “Every Woman in the World” (#16), “A Little in Love” by Cliff Richard (#21), and “Killin’ Time” by Fred Knoblock and Susan Anton (#40). As if that wasn’t enough, Streisand’s “Woman in Love” was a Long Distance Dedication on the show.) Also contributing to the whiteness of this chart were the country crossovers, including the #1 and #2 songs of the week, Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” and “I Love a Rainy Night” by Eddie Rabbitt, along with Ronnie Milsap’s “Smokey Mountain Rain” (#25).

(Between Dolly and Eddie, if there was a crappier week at the top of the Hot 100 between 1970 and 1986, I can’t think of it right now.)

Even the ostensible rock artists were pretty tame this week: John Lennon’s “Woman” (#4) is the kind of thing he once criticized Paul for writing. “The Best of Times” by Styx (#7) was one of the sappier things they ever did. Don McLean’s “Crying” (#15) is a Roy Orbison cover with most of the soul taken out; and this is the week “Same Old Lang Syne” reached its chart peak (#9). “Seven Bridges Road” by the Eagles (#32), while it was a showcase for their beautiful harmonies, was pretty clearly found among the seeds and stems. Bruce Springsteen’s “Fade Away” (#33) was the second single from The River, presumably because they wanted a ballad, but it’s nothing special.

A few people are rockin’, or trying to: Rod Stewart (the not-very-good “Passion” at #11), Pat Benatar (“Treat Me Right” at #23), Alan Parsons (“Games People Play” at #24). “Ah Leah” by Donnie Iris (#31) sounds remarkably good yet. AC/DC was on with “Back in Black” (#37), and it amuses me to think of it on the kind of radio stations that would carry Casey’s 80s reruns today. At least REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You” (#6), at least has some big guitars on it; Lennon’s “Just Like Starting Over” (#13) is at least uptempo. “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by the Outlaws (#36) tries animating the corpse of southern rock, unsuccessfully.

Blondie was on the charts twice in this week, with “The Tide Is High” (#5) and “Rapture” (#19, the biggest mover within the Top 40 for the week). If I’m recalling correctly, “The Tide Is High” set a record late in 1980 for the largest number of “adds” to radio station playlists across the country in a single week. It’s fine, but it’s weird. “Rapture,” meanwhile, is considered historic, given that it’s the first record with a rap to become a massive hit—but Debbie Harry’s rap about the Man from Mars who eats cars, bars, and guitars has dated badly, now that we’ve listened to three decades of superior wordplay. Rap record or not, “Rapture” is also remarkably white—and so is “The Tide Is High.”

Was anybody bringing something like the funk in this week? Not many. Maybe Steely Dan with “Hey Nineteen” (#10) and Boz Scaggs with “Miss Sun” (#20 and the best song of the 40, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a Boz fan). And Delbert McClinton, whose “Giving It Up for Your Love” reached its chart peak (#8) as the best thing on the radio during that bygone week, sounding indescribably far out of time.

Your mileage may vary on this week, and I crave your opinions.

8 responses

  1. I wasn’t listening much by the time 1981 rolled around. I remember knowing about a quarter of the week’s Top 40 and I recall liking the Lennon tracks and the Delbert (which I still love). I also did like the Fogelberg, probably because there was someone I wanted to run into again (in the grocery store on Christmas Eve not essential), but I’m not so fond of it now, probably because 33 years have gone past and also because your disdain for the record has made me think about it. I’ve backfilled a lot in my listening, so I know most everything that’s there, but not much of what I caught up with impresses me except the Boz record (and he almost always impresses me).

  2. Excuse me, but “9 to 5” is a fucking good song; complex pop, like most Parton songs. (Grump.)

    1. But “Rapture”: my god, awful, awful lyrics. (No, I’m not a “Rap isn’t music” doofus.)

    2. (“9 to 5”: for instance, it’s got different lyrics the second time through the chorus. I like that.)

  3. Yes but “”Mr. Roboto” was waiting in the wings. And when the singer (don’t care who it is) makes that horrible vocal jump, “and a bottle of cold brew” on “Too Much Time on My Hands” I’d like to punch the radio.

    Recently watched Behind the Music, Styx version and they were elated that South Park and Madison Avenue were re-discovering their music, oblivious to the fact that these homages were all because the tunes were crappy corn. Oh well, you take another turn in the spotlight no matter how it comes.

    “Ah Leah” is pop perfection, a fantastic sounding record with real passion; Rod had to name his song that to make you think that’s what it was.

    And if you think “Rapture” the song is bad, check out the video:

  4. “Ah Leah” is absolutely a great track–I adored it at the time, and you’re right that it’s held up. There is a song on this chart that didn’t make too much of an impression on me in real time but really strikes me now a pop gem: “Precious To Me,” by Phil Seymour. I’ve also always had a soft spot for Leo Sayer’s “Living in a Fantasy.”

    1. Phil Seymour was great. He and Dwight Twilley made some great music, “I’m on Fire” being one, easily one of the best rock and roll songs to hit the Top 20 in the 70’s.

  5. The anti-disco backlash was brutal to black artists, even though, ironically, most of the really awful disco was done by white artists who had no business trying to get folks to shake their booties.

    Also, referring to Tierra as non-white MIGHT be a little touchy, as they are Mexican-American, which doesn’t necessarily equate to race. Ethnically/culturally non-white, racially probably mostly white, musically (at least in the case of “Together”) more R&B than pop. It’s complicated, but I’m sure they would consider it a musical compliment if anything.

    And Casey Kasem was flat-out wrong about Average White Band being the white act to have the most success on the R&B charts…that would probably be Elvis Presley. AWB only had 2 top 10 R&B singles neither of which went to #1, and nothing else even went top 20. Elvis had something like 25 R&B top 10’s, including 6 #1’s, plus a whole other boatload of top 20’s. Not even remotely close.

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