Radio used to be a lot more adventuresome. To regular readers of this pondwater, that’s news on par with the sunrise. Narrowly targeted formats and sophisticated research methods have mostly put an end to real variety. Even the “we play everything” formats that were fashionable for a while a decade ago were carefully programmed, and didn’t really play everything.
The first hour of the recent American Top 40 repeat from January 15, 1972, is an excellent artifact of a time when radio was not nearly so circumscribed. On the flip, behold the playlist for Casey Kasem’s Album Rock Party Hour:
40. “Me and Bobby McGee”/Jerry Lee Lewis. This is a record we mentioned in one of the first installments of One Week in the 40. The Killer’s first Top 40 hit in a decade is a half-assed barrelhouse run-through that misses every emotional nuance of the original song and tramples on memories of Janis Joplin’s hit version the year before.
39. “Lookin’ for a Love”/J. Geils Band. A pretty fair update of the 1962 R&B hit by the Valentinos (and a hit for Valentinos member Bobby Womack in 1974).
38. “George Jackson”/Bob Dylan. I wrote last year that “King Heroin” by James Brown was one of the stranger records ever to make the Top 40, but “George Jackson” might be even stranger. Jackson became a revolutionary activist and author while serving a term at California’s San Quentin prison, and was eventually charged with murdering a guard. In August 1971, shortly before his trial was scheduled to begin, he was killed while trying to escape. This version, which is not available at YouTube, is just Bob, his guitar, and his harmonica, a throwback to the protest songs of his pre-electric days (although he would eventually recut it in a full-band version). It had hit #3 on KXOK in St. Louis during Christmas week, although it’s mighty hard to imagine it alongside other hits of the moment listed on the station’s survey.
37. “Fire and Water”/Wilson Pickett. It’s worth remembering that segregation wasn’t imposed on album-oriented radio until the birth of the classic-rock format in the 80s. At about the same time MTV was opening up to African-American artists, classic rock closed the door to everyone but Jimi Hendrix. In 1972, however, album-oriented stations were more congenial to black acts, and Pickett’s “Fire and Water,” with its sizzling guitar by Dennis Coffey, would have fit right in.
36. “Without You”/Nilsson. Similarly, album-oriented stations would not have shied away from a hit ballad, particularly not one from Nilsson Schmilsson, the biggest album of Nilsson’s career.
35. “Stay With Me”/Faces. This would be the hardest-rockin’ record of the hour were it not for #33.
34. “An American Trilogy”/Mickey Newbury. I once described “An American Trilogy” as “painfully slow, painfully sincere,” and it is. It’s a medley of “Dixie,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “All My Trials,” but if you think of this first hour of this AT40 as an album-rock show, it fits, because such socially relevant material frequently did. If you didn’t have to do the show in order, however, you wouldn’t put it between “Stay With Me” and . . .
33. “Black Dog”/Led Zeppelin. In which Casey talks over the guitar feedback heard before Robert Plant starts wailin’.
32. “Make Me the Woman That You Go Home To”/Gladys Knight and the Pips. I doubt that album-oriented stations played much Gladys Knight, but I’m not going to let that disrupt my narrative here.
31. “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha”/Bobby Womack. This was Womack’s most successful single until “Lookin’ for a Love” came along. (Soul Train performance here.)
30. “Levon”/Elton John. This song has always seemed like an album cut to me; WLS didn’t chart it in 1972, and I first heard it on one of those TV compilation albums I bought sometime around 1973. It would eventually peak at #24 on the Hot 100.
29. “Respect Yourself”/Staple Singers. Wrapping up the first hour, the Staples are rockin’ just as seriously as Faces and Zeppelin, but in their own fashion.
The show gets more conventional in the second and third hours—which is to say that the songs are more familiar, but no less eclectic. Top 40 in the early 70s was a true variety format, frequently broadening your horizons and shaking you out of your comfort zone. Radio formats don’t do that much anymore, but it was fun when they did.