Author Archive: jb

All Hail the Cutout

Tomorrow is Record Store Day, on which we celebrate the unique culture of the independently owned record store. Although vinyl is making a comeback, there are still only a few hundred such places in the United States. Those of us of a certain age can remember when you could buy records everywhere: department stores, TV repair shops, drug stores, even service stations.

One such place was in my hometown, Gibson’s Discount Store. Gibson’s was like a modern chain drug store, a Walgreens or a CVS, in that it stocked a little bit of everything, but also like a dollar store in that much of their stuff was off-brand and sold cheap. It also stocked a few records. Independent rack jobbers would provide the records and the rack to display them on, and the store would receive a percentage of the sales—which is why it wasn’t uncommon to see racks of records in places that would seem strange today.

Gibson’s carried the top albums and a few singles, but it was also the first place I ever saw that carried cutouts. A cutout is an album or cassette sold at a discounted price, usually because it’s been discontinued by the label. A cutout album would have a corner of the jacket cut off or a hole punched in it; cutout cassettes (and later, CDs) usually had a notch sawed in the plastic case. This was to mark them so that they would not sold for full price—or, in the case of promotional copies sent to radio stations and record stores, not sold at all.

Where regularly-priced albums were six or seven dollars back in the 1970s, cutouts often sold for a couple of bucks and sometimes less. And while I loved music, I loved getting music for cheap even more—and as a result, I became a denizen of the cutout bins forever after.

It was at Gibson’s that I scored one of my favorite cutout purchases, the sort of musical bonanza that would have appealed to the geek I was circa 1975. One fine night I stumbled across the Warner Special Products compilation Superstars of the ’70s, a four-vinyl-album collection of hits I knew and artists I recognized. I remember staying up very, very late the night I brought it home, just to listen to the whole thing. It introduced me to certain artists I wasn’t hearing on my favorite Top 40 stations, like Jimi Hendrix (“Foxey Lady,” “Purple Haze”) , the Grateful Dead (Truckin’”), and Black Sabbath (“Paranoid”). It also includes Alice Cooper, Yes, the Doors (the long version of “Light My Fire”), the Kinks, Deep Purple, and the Jefferson Airplane. Most unusual of all, it includes tracks from Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, who rarely appear on anthologies of this sort. There are some odd choices in that company, though, including Roberta Flack’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Where Is the Love” by Flack and Donny Hathaway, and a couple of tunes by the Bee Gees (“Lonely Days” and “To Love Somebody”), but as a snapshot of the state of pop and rock circa 1973, you can scarcely do better.

The most off-the-wall track on the album is probably the Byrds‘ version of Neil Young‘s “Cowgirl in the Sand,” which appeared on the band’s self-titled 1973 album. I used to skip over it when I played Superstars of the ’70s back in the day, but I wouldn’t skip it now. So here it is, right off somebody else’s copy of Superstars of the 70s.

(Adapted from a post in my archives.)

Come and Love: Pictures of Iola

(The photo above is a crowd shot from Woodstock. The success of that festival inspired many smaller-scale imitations, including a couple in Wisconsin. I would like you to be looking at a photo from the collection that is the subject of this post, but we do not always get what we want.)

Two of my favorite posts out of the more than 1,700 that have appeared at this blog are the ones from 2010 about the Iola People’s Fair, a Wisconsin rock festival held in June 1970. (part 1 here, part 2 here). I dug up newspaper articles about the fest and collected memories from a few attendees, all in an attempt to flesh out the details about an event that was remembered mostly in hazy fragments sprinkled across the Internet, many of them distorted or flat wrong.

Recently, a friend of the blog pointed me to a collection of photos from Iola that have turned up on Facebook, posted by Sanderson Photography of Green Bay.

Before you get to the pics, though, look at this publicity poster for the event, which is the distilled essence of 1970, promising “Fresh Air! Nature! Music! Love! Fun! Water! Ponds and Streams!” and exhorting, “Street People, Come and Love.” The poster promised an eclectic lineup from Buddy Rich, Ravi Shankar, and Chuck Berry to Buffy Ste. Marie, the Amboy Dukes, and Sugarloaf. Neither the advance publicity nor the news stories following the event (which were notoriously terrible nationwide about mentioning artists, probably figuring that their adult readers wouldn’t care) say anything about Iggy and the Stooges, although their 3AM Sunday morning set has come down as the single most well-remembered performance of the festival. Advance tickets: $10.

Iola is most famous for the Sunday morning incident in which bikers mounted up and charged angry concertgoers who had been chucking rocks and bottles at them in response to thefts and violence committed by the bikers. (“Chicks were on the handlebars shooting,” one witness told me.) One of the photos shows a large number of motorcycles parked on the grounds, although no bikers are in sight. Another concertgoer reported an incident involving a tanker truck full of water. It was supposedly the only source of drinking water on the grounds, until some of the bikers took it over, opened the top hatch, and went swimming in it. (I am a little skeptical about that story, given that there was a lily pond on the grounds that could have been used for swimming, but it could have happened.) Madison-area musician Tony Menzer also remembers the bikers and the water. “I camped up on the hill above the path to the lake and water supply . . . Not where you wanted to be when the bikers tried to take over the water. A buddy of mine jumped on some biker’s bike and drove it into the lake . . . during all hell breaking loose down there. This is the day I realized that some bikers are mere posers . . . once again the hippies ruled!!” (There are more concert memories in a separate post here, although I am not sure if Facebook will permit you to see it.)

There’s an excellent shot of the stage here, a good look at the array of tents pitched by attendees here, and a terrific crowd shot here. I especially like the couple with their arms wrapped around each other’s waists, listening to the music in the distance, and the girl wearing an American flag as a sundress. There were giant bongs and hippie art. There were guys who looked like Jesus and girls with their tops off.

And there’s this photo: the flags, the tents, the people, and the fading light at sunset. Nobody knew, neither the people in the photograph nor the photographer, how evocative that moment would become, an incalculable 44 years in the future. We look at it and we wish, for just a moment, that we could have been there, to see it and hear it, to enjoy the Renaissance Fair atmosphere the newspapers wrote about (before the bikers ran amok), to gather with the tribe during America’s rock festival summer, in a world we dream as more innocent. To come and love, as so many did, before the 60s were completely over and the 70s truly begun.

(An entirely different collection of Iola photos is here. Thanks to Richard Menning for putting my original Iola post on Facebook and tagging me so I could see this stuff.)

The Man in Black on TV

(Johnny Cash hated the idea of doing a circus-themed episode of his TV show, even fearing ABC would demand he sing “I Walk the Line” while holding a chimp. He ended up holding the chimp, but didn’t have to sing to it.)

We have praised The Johnny Cash Show, which ran on ABC from 1969 to 1971, as a show more serious about pop and rock music than variety shows of an earlier day. But according to Cash biographer Robert Hilburn, the show viewers saw was not the show Cash envisioned.

Cash thought he was making a country music show. ABC told the press it would include stars from all fields. Production company Screen Gems suggested the show would be “85 percent music and some comedy.” Cash insisted that Screen Gems hire a guy named Stan Jacobson, who ended up neither a producer nor a talent booker but merely a writer. As a result, he and Cash had little input into the first-season guest list. They got Bob Dylan, whom Cash wanted, as well as Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Linda Ronstadt, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, but Screen Gems and ABC insisted on stars who would cross-promote other shows they owned, leading to appearances by the Cowsills and the Monkees, a random selection of Hollywood stars including Dan Blocker and Eddie Albert, and comedians including the rubber-faced Charlie Callas.

The Johnny Cash Show premiered in June 1969, at the same time the eventual #1 album Johnny Cash at San Quentin was released. It was not especially popular in big cities but was a smash in smaller ones and in rural areas. There was little question the show would be renewed for 1970. Cash insisted that the second season would have “more of my own people,” and it did. Stan Jacobson was promoted to co-producer, and the guest lists improved in the next two seasons: Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, Loretta Lynn, Ray Charles, Charley Pride, Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder, Louis Armstrong, Neil Young, the Staple Singers, James Taylor.

About the time the show launched, evangelist Billy Graham became Cash’s spiritual adviser, and Cash began appearing at Graham’s televised crusades. During the second season, the recurring “Ride This Train” travelogue segment frequently featured gospel songs. During an early third-season episode, Cash read a lengthy statement about his religious faith. “Lately I think we’ve made the devil pretty mad because on our show we’ve been mentioning God’s name . . . . and [Satan] may be coming after me again, but I’ll be ready for him. In the meantime, while he’s coming, I’d like to get in more licks for Number One.” Jacobson believed it was the turning point in the show’s demise—that viewers were turned off by the show’s increasing religiosity—although Hilburn points out that variety shows were falling out of favor then. And 1971 was also a time in which networks continued to get rid of rural-themed (and rural-popular) shows to chase after more affluent urban viewers.

With declining ratings, ABC insisted on a format change to what it called “theme nights,” some of which Cash hated. In the spring of 1971, ABC announced the show would not be back in the fall. Cash would later criticize “all the dehumanizing things that television does to you.” But he appears to have been caught in the same undertow that has claimed a lot of talented people in TV—what happens when a strong artistic vision clashes with a more powerful partner’s need for ratings and money.

The TV experience may have felt dehumanizing to Cash, but it resulted in three of the most humane songs he ever recorded. “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” written by Kris Kristofferson, first appeared in February 1970 on “Ride This Train.” Cash sang it live on the April 8 show. (It didn’t come without controversy that night: Cash had to argue with a network rep to preserve the line “I’m wishin’ Lord that I was stoned,” which the network wanted changed to “I was home.”) “What Is Truth” is what Hilburn calls “a less confrontational take on Dylan’s defense of youth in ‘The Times They Are a Changing.’” It was a powerful message in the spring of Kent State, especially amid growing exasperation with the antiwar movement and the counterculture among older and more conservative Americans—Cash’s fan base. “Man in Black,” in which Cash explains that he dresses in black in solidarity with the downtrodden (despite having worn black onstage for most of his career), was taped before an audience of college students at Vanderbilt University late in 1970.

As Hilburn observes, the songs “largely established Cash as a symbol of American honor, compassion, and struggle,” neither blindly reactionary nor too much for Mrs. and Mrs. Middle America at the precise moment when such things seemed impossible. They’re the lasting legacy of The Johnny Cash Show.

Chart 5: I Am What I Am, Even If I Can’t Remember What

A couple of Facebook friends of mine both mentioned the record charts from this week in 1974 recently, so that naturally got me thinking about the spring of 1974 too.

It was the spring of eighth grade. I don’t remember many specifics about that year. I think I went on my first actual date with a girl around that time, and I know I watched baseball every chance I got. I had my own official scorebook, which I used mostly to score games on TV. In that book is the game in which Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home-run record, which happened 40 years ago this week. (I’d like to look at the book now, but I don’t know where it is. Last time I saw it was back in the 90s, in a box that was either just out of storage or on its way there.)

I’m not entirely sure what radio station I was listening to regularly. Probably WCFL in Chicago, where Larry Lujack was doing afternoons. The WCFL survey dated April 6, 1974, reveals a week as purely 70s as any you’d like to pick, with a Top 10 containing at least four half-novelties: “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Spiders and Snakes,” “Eres Tu,” and “The Lord’s Prayer”. One of the most reviled records of the 70s, “Seasons in the Sun,” sits at #11. (Do not revile “Hooked on a Feeling” or we’ll have to throw down.) The same Top 10 also contains a couple of songs that remained on the radio for years thereafter: “Bennie and the Jets” and “Jet.” Others fondly remembered, at least by me: “Rock On,” “T.S.O.P.,” “The Locomotion,” “Let It Ride,” and the Guess Who’s “Star Baby,” the world’s greatest fake CCR record.

It’s not an original observation of mine, but there was a Canadian invasion in 1974, with stars big and small scoring hits in the states. The Guess Who, Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot, and Andy Kim would count among the big ones. Several among the small were on ‘CFL 40 years ago this week.

15. “Virginia”/Bill Amesbury (up from 20).  A rowdy hootenanny thing, “Virginia” was Amesbury’s only American hit amidst several he had in his native Canada. In the early 80s, Amesbury came out as a transsexual and goes by Barbara now.

25. “Last Kiss”/Wednesday (down from 16)More Canadians. “Last Kiss” was their version of the teenage death record written by Wayne Cochran and most famously recorded by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers.

27. “Simone”/Henry Gross (up from 32). Gross (who is not from Canada) was once a member of Sha-Na-Na, and he would become a household word (at least in my household) with “Shannon” in 1976. “Simone,” which didn’t make the Hot 100, is your garden variety 70s pop ballad, although every time Gross jumps into his high register, it’s like somebody’s being stabbed—maybe not him, but definitely the listener.

28. “I Am What I Am”/Lois Fletcher (up from 33). Yet another Canadian (who is not Academy Award-winning actress Louise Fletcher, as some Internet sites insist), she did time during the 60s in the folk group Back Porch Majority, which was intended as a farm team for the New Christy Minstrels to develop new talent. She doesn’t seem to have made it with the Minstrels, but she got her own record deal anyhow. “I Am What I Am” is likable enough, but at the same time it’s easy to hear why it didn’t become a smash.

39. “Tryin’ to Hold on to My Woman”/Lamont Dozier (down from 31). One-third of the great Holland-Dozier-Holland production and songwriting team at Motown and later Hot Wax, Lamont Dozier managed a couple of Top 40 hits as a singer. “Tryin’ to Hold on to My Woman” is a fine soul ballad that had risen to #15 on the Hot 100.

It is both surprising and not how much of the spring of 1974 I am unable to remember anymore. I suspect that without the music, Hank Aaron and streaking might be it.

One Day in Your Life: April 9, 1976

April 9, 1976, is a Friday. Frisch’s Big Boy Restaurants in the greater Cincinnati area invite you in for fish fillets tonight with fries, salad, and a roll for $1.60. It’s the second day of the major-league baseball season, but only two games were played yesterday; 16 teams open their seasons today, including the Chicago Cubs, who lose to the Cardinals 5-0 in St. Louis. On a trip to Texas, President Ford visits the Alamo in San Antonio during the morning and then goes to Dallas. He throws out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ season opener, staying only for the first inning. In the first pro sports event at the new Seattle Kingdome, Pele scores two goals as the New York Cosmos defeat the Seattle Sounders in pro soccer, 2-1. Folksinger Phil Ochs, most famous for “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” hangs himself; he was 35. A strong earthquake kills eight people in Ecuador. In Nagoya, Japan, a 13-year-old boy takes a series of photos that seem to show a UFO. In Syracuse, New York, the Onondaga County Public Library unveils its new logo. In Madison, Wisconsin, the first edition of a new weekly newspaper, Isthmus, is laid out in the living room of one of its co-founders.

New movies in theaters include All the President’s Men starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford and Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot. On daytime TV, Foster Brooks ends a week co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show; guests today include Gloria Swanson, Frankie Valli, and Geraldo Rivera. The Merv Griffin Show welcomes Kaye Ballard, Jack Jones, comedian Charlie Callas and impressionist Marilyn Michaels. In prime time, the animated special The First Easter Rabbit, featuring the voices of Burl Ives and Robert Morse, airs on NBC, and so does The Rockford Files. CBS airs an episode of Sara, starring Brenda Vaccaro as a schoolteacher in an 1870 Colorado town. She will be nominated for an Emmy, but the show will end after 13 episodes. Rush plays the Indianapolis Coliseum with special guests Ted Nugent and the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver. On separate bills, Genesis and Donovan play New York City. The Electric Light Orchestra and Journey play Huntsville, Alabama. Bruce Springsteen plays Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.

The Midnight Special airs on NBC following Johnny Carson. Host Helen Reddy welcomes Fleetwood Mac, who perform a blazing version of their new hit “Rhiannon.” Also on the show, Gary Wright, Barry Manilow, Queen, and Hamilton Joe Frank & Reynolds, who perform “Fallin’ in Love” with Reddy and their recent hit “Winners and Losers,” and then come back for a second spot doing “Every Day Without You.”

Perspective From the Present: Helen Reddy is Australian, but I get distracted listening to her by trying to figure out what the hell her accent actually sounds like. She does not seem to have rehearsed “Fallin’ in Love,” and then she ad-libs an awkward introduction to “Winners and Losers,” but it’s not enough to spoil the song, which is insanely great. Somebody preserved this thing for 38 years, and the YouTube video is a little jumpy, but you can watch it right here.


The Greatest’s Hit

(An iconic shot from the Beatles’ February 1964 meeting with Cassius Clay. They left after a few minutes of photogenic clowning, and Clay asked a reporter, “Who were those little sissies?”)

Fifty years ago this spring, the Beatles were beginning to earn their place on the list of worldwide icons of the 20th century. And so was a man who topped many of those lists at century’s end. Muhammad Ali, then still known as Cassius Clay, met the Beatles in Florida during their first visit to America, shortly before he knocked out Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship. The story of that meeting is here.

It’s not the story I’m telling today.

In August 1963, Columbia Records took Clay into a recording studio in New York, thinking they might capitalize on his upcoming bout with Liston. There Clay cut “Stand By Me,” which had been a hit for Ben E. King in 1961. Clay did it straight, with none of the histrionics for which he was then as famous as he was for his boxing skills. He’s clearly an amateur singer struggling to stay on pitch, and toward the very end, he comes completely disconnected from the backing track. (The backing track itself is oddly slathered in sleigh bells.) Nevertheless, Clay’s “Stand by Me” is better than it has any right to be, and it would peak at #102 on the Bubbling Under chart 50 years ago this week. The flipside, “I Am the Greatest,” charted separately and reached #113. It’s more along the lines of what the average American would have expected to hear from the verbose young boxer—Clay sings his own praises over a rockin’ 50s-style instrumental track, punctuated with laughter and applause that sounds canned.

The sessions over four days in August resulted in a whole album, I Am the Greatest, which charted beginning in October 1963. It did not include the single (at least not until the 1999 CD reissue), but featured a series of spoken-word pieces, mostly about Clay’s greatness. (One of them is titled “Will the Real Sonny Liston Please Fall Down?”) At the time, it was claimed that Clay had written the pieces. Many critics praised his skills as a poet and would quote the album as Clay’s own words for years thereafter. But most of it was actually written by veteran TV writer Gary Belkin, who was credited as producer on the original album. (Click that link—the story is fascinating.) I Am the Greatest reached #61 on the Billboard album chart during a 20-week run and received a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Recording.

You know the story from that point: Clay would join the Nation of Islam within days of defeating Liston in 1964 and would adopt the name Muhammad Ali in 1966. He’d be stripped of his titles in 1967 after refusing to report for the military draft. (Middle America would not find him quite so entertaining after that.) When he returned to boxing in 1970, he fought a string of legendary bouts that made him the legendary figure he remains today.

And instead of making records, he would inspire them. In 1975, Johnny Wakelin, a white British singer, recorded “Black Superman,” which became a gigantic hit in the US and the UK. In 1977, the biographical movie The Greatest would feature a song by George Benson called “The Greatest Love of All,” which became a modest hit then, and would become a bigger one when Whitney Houston covered it in 1985.

Fifty years ago this week, the Beatles ruled the record chart with the top five singles in America. And had you looked far down the same chart, to the Bubbling Under section, you’d have seen another all-time champion there too.


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