(Pictured: In the middle of playing his latest hit in 1983, a perplexed Billy Joel wonders why it isn’t moving any higher on the Hot 100. Or not.)
I have been on the road this week, and a lot of my traveling time has been spent in the company of Casey Kasem, and a couple of recent repeats of American Top 40.
The show from March 5, 1983, was the one on which Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” first hit #1, a place it would hold for seven weeks in all. And it’s notable for something else. “You and I” by Eddie Rabbitt and Crystal Gayle was holding at #7 for the fourth week in a row; Billy Joel’s “Allentown” was at #17 for a fifth straight week; and “Tied Up” by Olivia Newton-John was stuck for a third week at #38. In addition, “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” the first hit by Night Ranger, was at #40 for a second week; it would hold that same place during the week of March 12 as well. The long-held position for each record was its chart peak, which is eminently believable—grind to a halt like that and you aren’t going to start forward again. It’s one thing for a song to hold the #1 position for a long stretch, beating back all comers; it strains credulity a bit to think that a song might manage to be the 17th-most-popular in the country for a similar stretch.
Toward the end of the 1983 show, Casey teased “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” by Culture Club by referring to Boy George, then making waves for his androgyny, as “the tootsie of the pop charts.” And I nearly drove off the road—it seemed over-the-top sexist and out of character for amiable ol’ Casey. But when he paid off the tease, he explained it as a reference to the hit movie Tootsie, one of the top box-office draws in the early spring of 1983, in which Dustin Hoffman played a cross-dressing actor who becomes a soap-opera star.
Context: it matters.
Back to the subject of records oddly holding on the way down: the show from March 13, 1976, featured a letter from a listener who wanted to know if the four Beatles had ever held the top four positions on the singles chart together as solo artists. Uh, no. But Casey reported that during a single week in December 1974, all four Beatles had been in the top 40 at the same time. It took John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” holding at #40 on its way down, a strange thing for a record to do, to make it happen. A couple of years ago I read an AT40 message board post that wondered if the Lennon song had been held at #40 by Billboard to create material for Casey.
We made a bargain with Casey, then and now—we’d sit through the junk if he’d eventually deliver the good stuff. And during the 3/16/76 show, we had to endure “The White Knight” by Cledus Maggard, a CD-themed novelty that had been to #1 on the country charts and was sitting at #19 on the Hot 100. We know that AT40 had no qualms about editing songs for time, even back in the 70s; their rationale was that the top songs of the week were on every station all the time, so it was no crime to snip a verse here and there. But we had to sit through all of “The White Knight”—four leaden minutes—and that made what happened next a little hard to explain. Four of the next eight records—“You Sexy Thing,” “Dream On,” the Bee Gees’ “Fanny,” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”—were all snipped to two minutes or less. “Dream On” and “50 Ways” were not so much songs as they were highlight packages—one verse, a solo, one chorus, fade out.
But we needed all of “The White Knight”? I guess we should be thankful Casey played all six minutes of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”