Author Archive: jb

All Flushed With Fever

(Pictured: Roberta Flack, who undoubtedly felt better about herself in 1973 than I did about myself in 1973.)

Were I to rank each of the years during which I lived with Top 40 radio in my ear by the quality of their music (a project I should undertake one day), I expect that 1973 would rank near the bottom. The best explanation for the strange way I view 1973 from this distance has to do with the full onslaught of adolescence and all the fevered craziness it can provoke in a boy—but while that explains the way I remember 1973, it doesn’t explain why I like so little of that year’s music now. Or maybe it does, because I first heard the music of that year while suffering the fever of that year.

So now then: I have spent the last few days listening to the American Top 40 show dated March 31, 1973, and just as I suspected, it didn’t do much for me. Not until it got to the Top 10, anyhow.

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Tornado Geek

If you can tolerate one more damn tornado-related thing, here’s part of a post I wrote back in 2006 about covering severe weather on the radio, lightly edited for 2015.

It wasn’t until I got to college and watched some of the more experienced people at the campus radio station covering a severe weather outbreak that I realized a fundamental truth of broadcasting—on most days, you’re just playing records and cracking wise. You don’t actually live your station’s commitment to operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity until you’re on a full severe-weather alert.

In those days, many small-to-medium market stations had the goal of owning severe weather coverage—to be the station that everybody tuned to when the skies turned dark. In Dubuque, KDTH was that station. Even though it may have been late at night or their day off, news department staffers would materialize when watches were issued, and they set a standard for the way to do severe weather right. They knew what information people needed, who to call or where to go to get it, and how to ad-lib off the radar screen, as well as how to do it while staying cool, even when the newsroom behind the studio door was chaotic. You knew—although we never faced it while I was there—that if a tornado were bearing down on the station’s very building, they’d stay on the air no matter what. I learned a lot at KDTH, and by the time I got to my next radio job, on tornado alley in western Illinois, I considered myself an expert on how to cover severe weather.

One of my jobs there was public-service director, which meant I was responsible for the box of 3-by-5 cards with “community calendar” information for jocks to read, and for the public-service announcements jocks could play to fill time. That first spring, I planned to do a series of PSAs for Tornado Awareness Week, but management vetoed them. We can’t let you do it, they said, because it might start a panic.

Honest to God, that’s what they told me, and I still can’t fathom their logic. But they fired me a few weeks later (not for the tornado PSAs, but for something equally loony) and I went to the other station in town. As it turned out, that station was about to be purchased by the guy who had been the general manager at KDTH, so I was sure my weather expertise would be appreciated there, and it was.

Within a few years, severe weather coverage, especially on music radio stations and extra-especially in large markets, started going out of fashion. In the late 80s, a jock in Dallas was famously fired for breaking his station’s format rules to read a tornado warning for the area. At about the same time, I was driving home in a horizontal rainstorm driven by 50MPH winds and listening to a station in my town when I heard the jock say, “A tornado warning has been issued for a portion of our listening area. If you want to know the details, call me on the listener line.”

Honest to God, that’s what he said. If he’d been working for me, I’d have fired him on the spot. To this day, it might still be the single worst thing I’ve ever heard on the radio—although he was probably just doing what he’d been told to do.

By the early 90s, I was working for an owner whose commitment to the public interest, convenience, and necessity matched my own. The station was located in a little prefab house on a hill just outside of town. During the first bout of bad weather that spring, I wasn’t entirely up on the local geography. “Hey,” I said to one of the news people, “We’ve got a warning here that says a tornado is on the ground seven miles southeast of Miles, Iowa. Where is that?” She got a strange look on her face and said, “That’s . . . here.” Instead of heading for shelter in the basement, I immediately ran outside to look for the tornado.

I didn’t see it.

Today, I’m pleased that my stations have a commitment to cover severe weather, and they’ll pay us to come in after hours to do it if necessary. It’s part of the reason they have the license in the first place. Without that commitment, they’re just playing records and cracking wise.

One Day in Your Life: April 11, 1965

(Pictured: This is not the tornado that struck my family’s farm 50 years ago today, although it looms that large in my memory.)

April 11, 1965 was Palm Sunday. Across the middle of the country, it’s the first warm spring day. In an old schoolhouse near his ranch in Texas, President Johnson signs the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the nation’s first law federally funding schools. Johnson, who had been a teacher himself as a young man, is joined for the ceremony by his first teacher. In today’s Peanuts strip, Charlie Brown battles the kite-eating tree. House Minority Leader Gerald Ford speaks at a dinner in Chicago and encourages support for the Israel Bonds Program. In his mostly lighthearted speech he compares Israel, “surrounded by a numerically larger and hostile army,” to the Congressional GOP, whom Ford says are similarly outnumbered by the Democrats. A gigantic tornado outbreak strikes the Midwest. Over approximately 11 hours, 47 tornadoes are reported from Iowa to Ohio. Storms in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio come with winds in excess of 200 MPH, and 271 people are killed. The most fatalities occur in Indiana, including 36 in and around Elkhart. Among the first communities to be hit is Monroe, Wisconsin, about 2:00 in the afternoon. The tornado carves a 27-mile path through Green, Rock, and Dane counties, destroying or damaging homes, businesses, and over 400 cars. Forty injuries are reported, but no fatalities. Winds in the Monroe tornado are estimated to have reached over 100 MPH.

A Texas entrepreneur announces the formation of the United States Football League, which will have six franchises in major cities. It is to begin play in the spring of 1966 with its championship game on Memorial Day, but the new professional league will never get off the ground. Conference finals continue in the National Basketball Association. The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers take 3-2 leads in their respective series with wins today. In the National Hockey League, the Detroit Red Wings beat the Chicago Black Hawks 4-2 to take a 3-2 lead in their semifinal series. Marvin Panch wins the NASCAR Atlanta 500. Baseball’s regular season begins tomorrow; today the Chicago Cubs acquire pitcher Ted Abernathy from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for cash.

On TV tonight, ABC broadcasts Wagon Train and the sitcom Broadside, about a group of Navy WAVES assigned to a base in the South Pacific. Bonanza anchors NBC’s lineup. On CBS tonight, following Lassie and My Favorite Martian, Ed Sullivan welcomes Gerry and the Pacemakers (who are promoting their movie Ferry Cross the Mersey), Maurice Chevalier, and Soupy Sales among his guests. In London, the Beatles close the annual all-star concert presented by New Musical Express, which features the winners of the magazine’s annual popularity poll. It’s the third year the Beatles have appeared. Also on the bill: the Moody Blues, the Rolling Stones, Them, the Animals, the Kinks, and several other acts.

At WRIT in Milwaukee, several of the acts from the NME show are on the station’s latest survey. “I’m Telling You Now” by Freddie and the Dreamers is #1; “Game of Love” by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders moves to #2. The hottest record on the chart is “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” by Herman’s Hermits, moving from #20 to #3. (Herman’s version of “Silhouettes” makes another strong move, from #32 to 20.) Also new in the Top 10 are “Go Now” by the Moody Blues and “The Clapping Song” by Shirley Ellis. Also moving up: “Count Me In” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys (to #22 from #34).

Perspective From the Present: The National Weather Service in Kansas City and local weather bureaus knew about the ripe conditions for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms, so at about 10:45AM, they issued a Severe Weather Forecast, which was standard operating procedure at the time. At 1:00, they updated it to say that “one or two tornadoes” might occur, but they identified a huge area of threat—essentially from Madison to Peoria and Cedar Rapids to Chicago, about 50,000 square miles. But by then, tornadoes were already hitting Iowa. (My family and I heard that updated forecast on a Rockford, Illinois, radio station in the car on the way back from our Sunday dinner.) Further alerts were issued as the storms moved across Illinois and Indiana, but the terminology wasn’t clear enough about the urgency of the situation, and as a result, many people were unaware just how dangerous the storms were. In the aftermath, the National Weather Service devised the tornado watch and tornado warning terminology that we use today.

My first baseball glove, which I would get when I started playing organized ball three or four years hence, was a Ted Abernathy autographed model.

Huddled in the Basement

I wrote here recently about the 50th anniversary of my hometown’s high school basketball team winning the state championship—an event I have no memory of. Three weeks after that, however, came the first event of my life on which I can hang a precise date and say yes, that I definitely remember. It will be 50 years tomorrow.

April 11, 1965, was Palm Sunday. We’d been to church and Sunday school, and it’s likely that we little kids were given palm fronds to wave in a procession intended to remind us of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. So the five-year-old me was likely holding one as we rode from Monroe to Monticello, a little town up the road, for a special Sunday dinner out. I was in the back seat of a strange car, for my parents’ 1957 Ford something-or-other was in the shop and they were driving a loaner. My brother, not quite three, was probably at large in the back seat just like I was: there were no child seats and often no seat belts in those days.

After dinner at the Casino, your basic Wisconsin supper club, with the relish tray that came to your table, the basket of individually wrapped breadsticks and crackers, and the inevitable fried chicken I would have ordered, we drove the 15 minutes or so back home. The radio was on, and as we pulled into the garage, we heard the announcer talk about the possibility of bad weather in the Rockford area. “Where’s Rockford?” I asked. “It’s about 50 miles away,” my mother said. Implicit in her tone: “Don’t worry.”

We went inside and my mother put my brother down for nap. I flicked on the TV, picked up a book, and sat down on the couch.

I am not sure how much time had passed when the TV suddenly snapped off. “Hey!” I said. I saw my father looking out of the kitchen window toward the west. “Head for the cellar!” he cried. My mother’s voice came from down the hall where the bedrooms were. “What?” My father again, more urgent this time: “Grab Danny and head for the cellar!” The four of us hurried down the basement steps, but before we reached the bottom, we heard a crash behind us. We went to the southwest corner and waited. I didn’t know what was happening, and I don’t remember what I heard.

We’d been down there maybe five minutes before Dad declared it was safe to go back up. The crash we had heard was a single window being blown in, but the house was relatively unscathed. However, the roof was partly off our barn, and a machine shed that sat a few feet from the house was destroyed. Up the road, our neighbor’s farm buildings were a pile of rubble and the roof was completely torn off their house.

Those few minutes are remembered in my hometown, and by my family, as the Palm Sunday Tornado. My father had seen the top of the cloud, and we assume the tornado had been on the ground at the neighbors’. He told me years later that as we huddled in the basement, he was sure our roof was going to go, or worse—but the tornado must have hopped back up in the air to pass over our farm before touching down again on the west side of Monroe, where it did extensive damage. (Fortunately, nobody died, at least not in my town.)

Like the electricity, the telephone was out, so my father would have gone to the other side of the farm, where his parents lived, to check on them. It wasn’t long before my maternal grandparents pulled into the driveway from their home 30 minutes away, having heard on the radio that a tornado had struck southwest of Monroe. They were worried when they were unable to get us on the phone.

That night, my father’s cows went unmilked for the only time in his 50-plus years as a dairy farmer. The next morning, he managed to re-jigger the vacuum-powered windshield wipers on his old farm truck to generate enough vacuum to power a single milking machine. That day, we were issued passes to display on our vehicles saying we had the right to be in the area. The idea was to keep gawkers away and discourage looting. Although there was some of the latter (people were seen taking cheese from a damaged factory after the storm on Sunday), the former was a greater problem. Despite appeals to stay away, gawkers clogged Monroe’s main highways and arterial streets on Easter weekend, and extra sheriff’s deputies had to be called in for traffic control.

The machine shed was rebuilt. The barn was re-roofed. Life eventually returned to normal. And now 50 years have passed since that very vivid day.

Coming tomorrow: what happened elsewhere on April 11, 1965.

Freberg on 45

stan-freberg-shboom-1954-78

(Edited.)

The death of humorist Stan Freberg yesterday hit a lot of radio people hard. Many of us either wanted to get into radio, or wanted to be creative in a particular way, because of an early exposure to Freberg’s work. A lot of us (and I put myself in this category) admired him because his vision was so uniquely bent, and his critiques of media, music, and advertising were so perfect. I’ll let other people on the Interwebs talk about his brilliant radio commercials or his groundbreaking album Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America. Instead, I’ll write about Freberg’s appearances on the singles chart over the years.

Freberg scored with both comedy bits and parody songs. His first chart single, “John and Marsha,” (1951) was the former; his next four were the latter. His biggest hit came in 1953, when the Dragnet parody “St. George and the Dragonet” spent three weeks at #1. Freberg employed two of the most famous voice actors in history, Daws Butler and June Foray, who also appear on the single’s B-side, “Little Blue Riding Hood.” Only a few weeks after “St. George” hit #1, Freberg went back to the Dragnet well with Butler for “Christmas Dragnet,” and he started 1954 by recycling his first hit into “John and Marsha Letter,” which charted briefly. Later in 1954, the topical “Point of Order” would parody the Army/McCarthy hearings.

(Late edit: Joel Whitburn misidentifies “John and Marsha Letter.” It’s actually “A Dear John and Marsha Letter,” which does revisit Freberg’s 1951 hit, but also parodies the 1953 country hit “A Dear John Letter” by Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard.)

At the end of 1954, Freberg charted with a parody of “Sh-Boom,” the original of which had become one of first big hits of the rock ‘n’ roll era. Freberg plays a record producer who repeatedly warns his singers that if they expect to have a hit, they need to mumble. Freberg would frequently skewer the kids’ music, releasing versions of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “The Great Pretender.” Freberg’s last chart hit, “The Old Payola Roll Blues,” (1960) is explicit in its belief that rock ‘n’ roll success requires no real talent—just a smart producer and payments to disc jockeys.

In 1957, Freberg hit with a single that most people (of a certain age) have heard: “Banana Boat (Day-O),” a takeoff on the Harry Belafonte hit that features another famous voice, that of Peter Leeds, as a man who keeps interrupting the singer for being too loud, shrill, and/or piercing. It made #25 on Billboard‘s Best Sellers chart and #43 on the Hot 100.

Freberg starred in a radio sitcom in 1954, but his creative vision was constrained by the sitcom format. The Stan Freberg Show, co-starring Butler, Foray, and Leeds, ran briefly in 1957, but couldn’t attract a sponsor and ran only 15 episodes. The show was the launching pad for the Lawrence Welk parody “Wun’erful, Wun’erful,” which charted at the end of 1957. It’s my favorite Freberg record, featuring a runaway bubble machine and an irreparably damaged accordion.

Although he would win lot of honors and make a lot of money from advertising, he could also take a dim view of it. He turned down tobacco advertising for his 1957 radio show, contributing to its eventual cancellation. And at Christmas 1958, “Green Chri$tma$” sharply criticized companies trying to cash in on Christmas, suggesting they’d forgotten the real meaning of the season. Radio jocks, who knew how clever it was, loved it; radio sales executives did not. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), a DJ in New York City who played it was told he’d be fired if he played it again, and a station in Los Angeles made sure it didn’t air within 15 minutes of any commercial break. Twenty-five years later, the radio station I worked for played it a few times, but only after a great deal of soul-searching, and, if I’m recalling correctly, with a disclaimer.

It really is remarkable how harsh Freberg’s criticism of Christmas commercialism is. “Green Chri$tma$” simply destroys the cynicism of advertisers looking to make a buck on the holiday. (It still hits pretty hard today—or it would, if anyone still cared about such a thing, which no one does.) Despite the record’s merciless tone—it ends with the ringing of cash registers—Coca-Cola and Marlboro, both recognizably satirized in it, responded by asking Freberg to design ad campaigns for them. Freberg had done parody commercials on his 1957 radio show—and the lengthy career in advertising that resulted would win him 21 Clio awards, the highest honor in the ad game.

Stan Freberg started as a voice actor in animation before his 20th birthday, and he was still doing it in the 21st century. He was 88 years old.

Gonna Do It Again

(Pictured: Al Green in 1975, with more soul in his little finger than all of us in our whole bodies, combined.) 

I have written a great deal about the winter of 1975 at this blog recently, so I’m not going to make you sit through yet another live blog of yet another American Top 40 show from that season—just the first hour of one, specifically the show from March 22, 1975. This part is one that makes program directors cringe. The songs run the gamut as widely as anything can, and a few are pretty obscure now.

40. ‘Wolf Creek Pass”/C. W. McCall. Before “Convoy,” there was “Wolf Creek Pass,” the flat-out hilarious tale of two truckers and a runaway load of chickens. I hadn’t heard it in a while, and I found myself repeatedly laughing out loud as I listened. A longer post on the works of C. W. McCall would seem to be in order.

39. “Jackie Blue”/Ozark Mountain Daredevils. This is a deeply weird record, really—the effeminate vocal, the oddly sliding guitar solo, and the enigmatic Jackie herself.

38. “My Boy”/Elvis Presley. Casey says “My Boy” is one of his favorite Elvis songs. To me, it’s just another one of those windy but emotionally empty Elvis performances so common during the last couple years of his life.

37. “To the Door of the Sun (Alle Porte del Sol)”/Al Martino. This actually made it to #17 on the Hot 100 earlier in March. If your local station didn’t play “To the Door of the Sun,” I’m not surprised—although it’s actually pretty good.

36. “The Bertha Butt Boogie”/Jimmy Castor Bunch. To make sense of “The Bertha Butt Boogie,” it helps to know a little about the universe Jimmy Castor created on his earlier records, lest his references to the Butt Sisters, Leroy, and the Troglodyte leave you baffled. Or you can just surrender to the absolutely ferocious groove and not worry about it.

34. “L-O-V-E (Love)”/Al Green. Which Casey introduces as “Love, Love,” not spelling out the first one, as we’re intended to do. If you don’t dig “L-O-V-E,” we probably shouldn’t see each other anymore.

32. “Satin Soul”/Love Unlimited Orchestra. Writing about “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” earlier this winter, I referred to the Love Unlimited Orchestra as the sound of a finely tuned limo cruising on the Interstate. On “Satin Soul,” it comes on like a freight train, and you best scramble aboard or get run over.

30. “Butter Boy”/Fancy. If you remember Fanny’s bangin’-great “Charity Ball,” the best way to enjoy “Butter Boy” is to forget that. If if it’s the last thing you hear before you turn off the radio, it’ll keep playing in your head for a while afterward.

29. “The South’s Gonna Do It”/Charlie Daniels Band. In which Daniels name-checks a number of Southern rock acts, from Marshall Tucker to ZZ Top and even his own band. Includes a lengthy fiddle solo, which is both awesome and an indication of just how long ago 40 years is. Imagine such a thing now. Even in country music.

28. “Walkin’ in Rhythm”/Blackbyrds. See #34.

There’s one song in the second hour I want to mention.

23. “Emma”/Hot Chocolate. I was hooked on the sound of this from the moment I heard it—the ominous tempo, that low buzzing guitar, and lead singer Errol Wilson’s idiosyncratic voice as he narrates the story of Emmeline, the aspiring actress “searching for that play / That never ever came her way.” Even after 40 years of hearing it, the end of the story remains horrifying. Wilson comes home to “find her lying still and cold upon the bed / A love letter lying on the bedroom floor.” The suicide note tells him that “I just can’t keep on livin’ on dreams no more / Tried so very hard not to leave you alone / I just can’t keep on tryin’ no more.”

He gasps her name. Then he screams it. Over and over.

There’s a 1975-vintage video. Go watch it. And if you are unmoved, see #34.

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