Confess Your Unpopular Opinion

(Pictured: Rita Coolidge.)

(There is a new post at One Day in Your Life today, and there will be another new one on Sunday.)

“Confess your unpopular opinion” is a hashtag game people play on Twitter sometimes. What follows are several potentially unpopular opinions, inspired by the American Top 40 show from June 25, 1977.

Shaun Cassidy’s version of “Da Doo Ron Ron” is far better than you remember. It helps to hear it in its natural habitat, on the radio, amidst jocks and jingles. (Or to remember having heard it that way.) It’s got one of those introductions that requires a self-respecting DJ to bring it: you don’t just read the weather forecast over something that hot.

One does not listen to Barry Manilow for the words, but one should. “Looks Like We Made It,” a future #1 hit with lyrics by Will Jennings, is a short story in three minutes: old lovers meet for the first time in years, claiming they’re pleased to have gotten over one another and fallen in love with others, only to realize that the two of them aren’t past their old feelings at all. A year later, Manilow would add another, more devastating chapter on “Even Now,” a #19 hit with lyrics by Marty Panzer: what sounds like the same guy, long married now, spending every day longing for the woman he really loves, suffering eternal romantic damnation. Barry Manilow, people. Who knew?

The Rita Coolidge version of “Higher and Higher” is a great record. The key to hearing it that way is not thinking about the original. It may be easier for me than it is for some people; when this was a hit, I’d didn’t know Jackie Wilson’s joyous, electrifying version. Compared to that, anybody would sound flat. But Rita’s version was arranged by Booker T. Jones, who doesn’t make junk, and he does some great stuff with it, including the interplay between the guitarist and the drummer and the way he sweeps a string section in from nowhere. But the best part (if it’s not his own solo on the organ) is the way he handles the key changes. Of course “Higher and Higher” should get higher and higher.

The Bill Conti/original soundtrack version of “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky is inferior to Maynard Ferguson’s version. Listen to the Ferguson version, which peaked at #28, and you’ll hear it. Conti’s version is contemporary enough, although whoever arranged the chorus vocals made them sound stiff and white and weird. Ferguson’s is square in the pocket for 1977, with a disco beat, sassy singers, and Ferguson’s way-up-there trumpet soloing. (He played a gig at my college sometime around 1979, and “Gonna Fly Now” nearly blew the roof off.) Nevertheless, it was Conti’s version that would get to #1, having gone 7-6-5-4-3-2-1 to reach the top, 40 years ago this week.

A couple of other observations about the 6/25/77 chart:

—My general fondness for this summer’s music is always tempered by the presence of Kenny Rogers’ “Lucille,” which I disliked in 1977 and still don’t care for today. I suspect it rose to #5 (and #1 in the UK, believe it or not) wholly on its earworm of a refrain, which you can most likely sing to yourself right now:  “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille / With four hungry children and a crop in the field”.

—10cc’s “People in Love” spent the week of 6/25/77 at #40, its lone week on the chart. It was followed by the crazy-good threesome of the Commodores’ “Easy,” Boston’s “Peace of Mind” (heard it its 45RPM configuration), and “Couldn’t Get It Right” by the Climax Blues Band. There’s another fine stretch later on: Ferguson’s Rocky theme, ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Ariel” by Dean Friedman, Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” “Whatcha Gonna Do” by Pablo Cruise, and “Higher and Higher.”

All of this is another reminder, as we have noted before, how much damn fun it could be listening to the radio during the glory days of Top 40.

Maybe you don’t hear it like I do. Maybe you had to be there. In the summer of 1977, more than in most seasons, I’m grateful that I was.

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11 responses

  1. I wasn’t going to call it to your attention because it’s far from my best work as a “personality” (I got about 4 hours of sleep due to moving and does it EVER show) but since it shares so much real estate with this countdown, here’s my 4th of July show devoted to the musical landscape of four decades ago. A relevant shoutout may or may not be dispensed before the closing number. (Advance apologies for picking Conti over Ferguson, but I had my reasons.)

    1. If all y’all haven’t heard Jeffrey’s show, click this one.

    2. Those Barry Manilow songs are even deeper in retrospect, now that we know he was a closeted gay man, but nevertheless was forced to cavort on variety shows and such as a consummate ladies’ man. Even at the time, those songs were conveying tricky, complex emotions, but now it sounds like he was really singing about his own life.

      Also, Rita Coolidge’s “We’re All Alone” is the bomb.

  2. My unpopular 6/25/77 opinion: It’s quite possible that the record I’d most like to hear out of this group of 40 is “I’m In You.”
    Though the run you mention between Maynard Ferguson and Rita Coolidge is one long flow of gold.
    (I’d include the Alice Cooper in that run, too, both because the song sticks in my head and because the whole notion of Coop as sensitive balladeer is a hoot-and-a-half.)

  3. “The Bill Conti/original soundtrack version of “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky is inferior to Maynard Ferguson’s version.”

    Thank you! Maynard Ferguson’s version is smoking hot and still has a welcome place on my iPod playlist 40 years later. Bill Conti? Not so much.

  4. I still prefer the Conti version, though in both cases the record would be far better without those horribly inane lyrics. Has there been any other recording that would be far better as an instrumental?
    As far as unpopular opinions, I unapoligetically love “MacArthur Park”, “I am Woman”, and “Brand New Key”. What do I win?

  5. I’ve seen Alice Cooper perform, sans makeup, at the Bird’s Nest at the Phoenix Open Golf Tournament. He sang nothing but requests. One of the best shows I’ve ever attended. He actually sang a couple of ballads.

  6. I admit to loving “Brand New Key” and completely love “Ariel”

  7. At the time, I remember having the urge to punch Shaun Cassidy in the face, every time I saw him on TV. I still don’t have any fond memories of his “Da Do Ron Ron”, and haven’t heard it in years…but his two other hits “That’s Rock and Roll” and “Hey Deanie” are pretty great.

    I’m with you on the Maynard Ferguson version over Bill Conti. In fact, where I grew up in San Diego, that was the only version that got airplay. When I eventually heard the Conti version, it sounded hopelessly sluggish and uninspiring compared to Ferguson’s.

    I tend to like covers sung by the opposite sex of whoever sang the original. Tends to lend a different dynamic and feel. I also love a good smoky, understated female alto, so the Rita Coolidge “Higher and Higher” gives me a lot of what I like. I wouldn’t say it’s superior to the Jackie Wilson original, but it’s definitely worthy.

    So many of the big stars of my youth who I didn’t care for at the time I’ve learned to appreciate, thanks in part to the nostalgia factor, my own maturing and mellowing, and I can’t say I’ve ever come around on Barry Manilow, though. His entire career as a hitmaker is still pretty much a “meh” for me. Some of the ballads are OK, but I can’t imagine ever wanting to hear more than one of them in a sitting. I can appreciate the level of musical talent he possesses, but he’s always seemed aimed squarely at a grandma demographic that I’ll never be a part of. If “Mandy” or “Weekend in New England” come on the radio, I listen and sing along, though.

  8. Quick piece of trivia: Booker T recorded the rhythm track for his cover of Higher & Higher for an album of his own. When his wife Priscilla heard it, she told him, “You should have my sister, Rita, sing on it.” And the rest is AT40 history….

  9. The Shaun Cassidy record that I would absolutely turn up if anyone were to play it is “Hey Deanie”. And KFRC, San Francisco, did a great edit combining the Rita Coolidge and Boz Scaggs versions of “We’re All Alone”. I think it’s on a late 1977 aircheck.

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