Rough Draft of the Top 40

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(Pictured: very hairy Mungo Jerry, whose “In the Summertime” was climbing the charts in the summer of 1970.)

We’ve spent a fair amount of time here over the years on the American Top 40 shows from 1970, the era in which Casey and company are trying to figure out what the show should be. The fourth edition in the program’s history, from July 25, 1970, was recently offered as a weekend repeat, and I’ve been listening to it.

I get a strong sense that Casey is winging it—that aside from a few features, he and his producers haven’t mapped out anything else, and he’s saying whatever pops into his head when it’s time to introduce a song or to back-announce it. He’s still not announcing chart positions, which is something we noticed when listening to the first show—he leaves it to the jingle singers, almost as if the producers were leaving themselves open to reusing his introductions on future shows, although that seems crazy. And he sometimes talks so fast you can miss what he’s saying, which strikes me as more evidence that they’re winging it—that they don’t know exactly how much time each segment of the show is going to take, so they’re saving seconds wherever possible, figuring it will be easier to fill than to cut.

Compared to the way the show would eventually sound, the shows from the summer of 1970 sound almost like rough drafts, which I suppose they are.

Something that doesn’t help this and other early shows is that in the summer of 1970, radio playlists were liberally sprinkled with dogs. We noticed this a few years back when listening to the show from August 1. There are a lot of records that do little to make you pay attention (“Trying to Make a Fool of Me” by the Delfonics, “Save the Country” by the Fifth Dimension, and “Check Out Your Mind” by the Impressions, for example), or the reaction they provoke is strongly negative: “Maybe” by the Three Degrees is an overblown weeper with a spoken introduction that lasts forever, and “A Song of Joy” by Miguel Rios spends four minutes trying to go somewhere but never really does. The stronger songs near the bottom are the kind of thing only chart geeks will remember: “Mississippi” by John Phillips, Mark Lindsay’s “Silver Bird,” “Are You Ready” by Pacific Gas and Electric, and “Westbound #9” by Flaming Ember.

Apart from “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry, you have to get pretty far up the chart before you start finding stuff that endured into the age of oldies radio: “Ohio,” “Teach Your Children,” “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “Spill the Wine,” “Signed Sealed Delivered,” “Ride Captain Ride,” “Make It With You,” “I Want You Back,” and “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” The Top 10 is solid, although the #1 song of the week, “Close to You” by the Carpenters, in its first of four straight weeks at #1, never really fit what oldies radio would become; it found an afterlife on MOR and soft-rock radio for a while, but nobody plays it anymore.

But just when I am getting ready to dismiss this show, something magical happens. Casey comes out of a jingle and straight into “Gimme Dat Ding” by the Pipkins, a weird little novelty that matches a falsetto singer with what sounds like Arte Johnson’s dirty old man character from Laugh-In, and it’s the single hottest moment of the show. Then it’s straight into the irresistible pop glide of Vanity Fare’s “Hitchin’ a Ride.” Audiences in 1970 had to sit through a commercial break after that, but in 2017 we roll straight into “Tighter and Tighter” by Alive ‘n’ Kicking, and there I am, in the car, at a stoplight, and it is, as I have said before, like I’m looking at my life in the test tube, mixed up but not yet poured out. What’s in there are not just songs I will love, on the air in 1970 and in years to come, but the way they sound on the radio, which I will love just as much.

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18 responses

  1. Tony Burrows is singing three songs on that list.

  2. Alive n Kickin’ was Tommy James and the Shondells in all but name; Tommy wrote and produced “Tighter, Tighter,” and I’d swear he’s on the backing vocals. And “Hitchin’ a Ride” has always sounded to me like a band going for that Shondells sound.

  3. You’re sadly right about “Close to You” not getting played anymore, and that’s probably true of the Carpenters in general. And that’s a shame. Their records sound even better to my ears 45 years later. But the one disagreement I have with you is over the 5th Dimension’s cover of Laura Nyro’s “Save the Country.” I love it and think it should have been a bigger hit for them. The message was timely in 1970 and is certainly as true in 2017.

  4. I believe most of the unstructured sound of early AT40s, was due to the fact that they recorded everything at the same time. When Dick Clark hosted the show for a week, he questioned why they didn’t just have Casey record all his voice overs at once, and then edit them into the show. Hard to believe they never thought of that before. That could explain why Casey often sounded rushed, as he realized the lyrics were about to start and he was still talking.

  5. Curiously, I heard “Close to You” just this past Thursday on KIVY out of Crockett, Texas. That station is part of the “America’s Best Music” syndication network (Westwood One, maybe?) that plays such things. I started singing along at the top of my lungs before realizing that I needed to shut up and enjoy Karen’s pure voice.

  6. Given that Tom Rounds (ex-KFRC PD) and Ron Jacobs (ex-KHJ PD) were in charge of American Top 40 at the time, I’m betting it was extraneous circumstances that led to the wing-it feel in this particular week. It helps to remember that while AT40 became a monster show, it was, at this stage, very much a shoestring operation. Six months before AT40’s launch, they were talking about LP versions of RKO’s “History of Rock and Roll” and getting into the concert movie business. It was a handful of guys (very talented guys) throwing audio spaghetti at the wall, and I’ll bet that if one or two of them got sick that week, it meant Casey ad-libbed. As the show grew (it launched with all of six affiliates), that changed.

    As for the songs on the chart, it helps to remember that positions aren’t cumulative. They’re a snapshot of the song’s (wholesale) sales performance in a given week. So a record that peaked at #15 had fourteen other singles that sold better than it did on its best week. And Buzz Bennett (who programmed KCBQ, San Diego into dominance in the early 70s) had a philosophy that there are only seven true hits at any given time. The others are songs that were hits, but are past their peak, songs that will be hits, but aren’t yet, and songs that never will be.

    Every station (with the exception of Buzz’s KCBQ and later stations and WABC) played stiffs. American Top 40 played more than anybody. The stuff that peaked at 35 or lower probably wasn’t on most of the playlists of the stations that carried AT40. Meaning they got heard once a week on Sunday morning for a week or three.

    Interestingly, Bill Drake (who hired both Rounds and Jacobs at KFRC and KHJ) hated countdowns, which both stations did each week of their 30-song playlists. His philosophy: “Why should I play my 20 worst records—in a row—to get to my 10 best—which I’m then blowing off all at once?” But his PDs wanted the countdowns and so they stayed. It wasn’t until Drake left RKO that Michael Spears, the new KFRC PD in the summer of 1973, cut it down to a countdown of “Northern California’s Top 10”.

    1. The jury’s still out in my courtroom as to whether or not Bill Drake did a good thing with his top 40 idea, but his philosophy regarding countdowns was dead wrong. Obviously the listeners cared about the numbers, hence the countless weekly surveys that were available at local record stores. Those used to be much more interesting before Drake’s way of thinking took over and they all became the same.

      Also, I have to respectfully disagree about “Trying To Make a Fool Of Me.” I first heard that on a American Top 40 from around the same time as this one, and it instantly became one of my favorite songs from that year.

      1. mackdaddyg: Here’s my suggestion: Bill Drake did a good thing for Top 40. What he killed was old-style personality MOR a decade later. As the Top 40 audience matured and left Top 40, they weren’t going to put up with five minutes of news on the hour, 18-minute spot loads and talkative personalities. KMPC in Los Angeles thought it could pick up Boomers as they moved into their 30s by playing hits and hiring former Top 40 talent (Robert W. Morgan, Dave Hull, Sonny Melendrez). Not playing six records an hour, they couldn’t.

        As to the listeners caring about the numbers….maybe. I’d love to know how many copies of those weekly “Boss 30” lists actually got printed up. If it was 10,000 (20 copies each for the 50 biggest stores in town—or vice-versa), up against nearly a million in cume, that’s not much. And 10,000 copies a week would be pretty steep in terms of cost. If they got ’em down to a dime apiece, that’s $52,000 a year in 1960s dollars just to print a playlist. By the end of the 60s, KHJ was only paying Robert W. Morgan and The Real Don Steele $35,000 apiece.

        And as someone who did them: Countdowns messed up your rotations for most of the shift they aired in. You needed to stay away from the bottom ten in the hour before the countdown, you had (as Drake notes) your 20 or 30 weakest songs in a row, and then blow off your 10 best all at once….meaning you need to stay off the top ten in the hour AFTER the countdown.

        If countdowns were in fact a draw, AT40 wouldn’t have run on Sunday mornings…or Sunday mornings would have become a hot new daypart because it was running there. But that didn’t happen.

      2. CalRadioPD,

        You make many excellent points. I don’t doubt that Drake made life easier for the programmers, but I still feel like radio lost something as all the stations became more like each other. There’s something to be said about driving on a long trip and not hearing the same 40 songs in each city.

        HOWEVER, I admit that times and listener habits change as well, so all that I just wrote may very well be romanticizing a time that really wasn’t like that at all.

        As for the printed lists, I guess my point was if the stations were willing to put the time and money into printing them, they must have been of some use. I dig that it was advertising for the station, but if kids were picking up these lists every week, I’m assuming there was some interest in how their favorites were doing. I find them pretty neat to look over all these decades later.

        One thing about your “countdowns messed up your rotations” comment. I think I get what you’re saying, but I’ve listened to airchecks where a top ten song was easily played once every hour. I’m not sure how a countdown show would really mess much up except for requiring a little more thought as to what the first few songs after the show ended should be to avoid playing the same song twice in too little of a time frame.

        Also, is it fair to call the bottom 20 or 30 “weakest songs”? I know some are on the way out, and some won’t make it any higher, but there are still some that are on their way to the top ten, or even number one.

        Again, that’s just based on my limited knowledge all these years later.

        Finally, I understand that Sunday morning isn’t a big time to listen, but it seems like it wouldn’t make sense to run a show on a weekday, unless it’s in the evening, since the average listener only tuned in for 20 minutes or whatever. I’d think (but I’m not sure) that someone listening on the weekend back then was tuning in at home for a bigger chunk of time. I remember as a kid listening to Casey’s show as much as I could in the late 70s, and I get the feeling a lot of other folks did as well.

        As always, I enjoy your comments. Nothing I just wrote is meant to be contrary; they’re merely thoughts that popped up.

      3. mackdaddyg: No contrariness detected. It’s all just good conversation.

        If radio began to sound more and more like Bill Drake’s idea, that’s not his fault. It wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t successful. And, in a lot of cities, it never really happened. In L.A. (one of the markets I’m most familiar with), KRLA gave KHJ a battle for a good five years without ever just copying Drake. In San Diego, Drake lost to not one, but two, very different approaches from KCBQ…one, in 1969-ish, which was very hip and the second, in 1971, Buzz Bennett’s hyper “Q” format, which ended up taking Drake’s approach out of the market altogether. And in San Francisco, KYA kept KFRC on its toes for eight years…by which point Bill Drake had left RKO and KFRC was in its post-Drake golden age.

        As for countdowns, some stations may have burned a number one record every hour, but most stations were closer to an hour and 40 minutes on their hottest rotations. Songs at the bottom may have ended up becoming hits…but the audience wasn’t clairvoyant. They weren’t huge yet.

        The worst part…and where Drake was right…the Top 10 are the biggies. In normal format, you’re playing six of them an hour. But during the countdown, there are two straight hours where you’ve played none of them.

      4. Some interesting points! Thanks as always for sharing.

      5. I discovered the KHJ Boss 30 in June 1968, when I was 10. Sam Riddle would count down the new list at 6 p.m. Wednesdays, and the printed list would show up at local music stores I think on Friday afternoon. Humble Harve later took over the Wednesday countdown after Riddle left the station, and the tradition continued for a couple of more years. I wouldn’t wait for the printed list, though; I wrote down the new Boss 30 every Wednesday night until 1971. If Drake didn’t like countdowns, he still let it stay on his flagship station for many years.

  7. Thanks for the stories, everyone. I just presumed that Casey always voice-tracked AT-40 since he was a “busy man” and his “minions” could take care of the other stuff. I hadn’t considered that, at least in the beginning, Casey had to start somewhere (as did we all) and, except for the unions, he could possibly have been running the board, too.

  8. Gary: The busy man and his minions came later. In 1970, he was a local DJ without a station (having left KRLA the year before), trying something new with a boutique syndicator (Watermark) that itself was only a few months old and hadn’t yet found its groove. Beyond that, he had voiceover work (Scooby-Doo and commercials).

    It’s not really surprising that they didn’t think of voice-tracking the show. Casey was accustomed to doing it live, and after six days a week of three or four-hour live shows on KRLA, recording one three-hour show a week probably sounded easy.

  9. See, you guys really don’t need me at all anymore.

    1. Technically speaking, you’re the one that got this conversation going!

    2. Like hell. You write some truly great stuff and your write it extremely well. Would love to see you engage in the discussion more.

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