Author Archive: jb

News of the World

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(Pictured: two men dig out a Volkswagen Rabbit after the northeastern blizzard of 1978.)

It’s been a while since we looked at a vintage edition of Billboard magazine, so here’s a peek inside the issue dated February 17, 1978.

A blizzard that struck the Northeast during the first week in February had significant impacts. Retailers, wholesalers and pressing plants closed, distributors couldn’t reach customers, and a warehouse roof collapsed at Pickwick International in Somerset, Massachusetts. An Emerson Lake and Palmer show scheduled for Princeton, New Jersey, was cancelled. The storm was at its worst on a Monday, a day when many discos and theaters are closed, but operators were surprised by the sizes of the crowds that showed up on Tuesday. Club operators say that when a blizzard hits, partygoers show up earlier, stay later, and drink more. Stranded travelers in New York City actually provided a boost for retailers in Manhattan.

Frisking of audience members at concerts is on the way out, after court rulings that such warrantless searches are illegal. Venues have responded by posting signs warning that entering with “dangerous” items is prohibited, and concertgoers can be asked to voluntarily open bags or briefcases. In an item that’s plausibly related, officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul are concerned about a recent fad in which concertgoers set off cherry bombs and Roman candles inside arenas.

There’s a profile of Co-op Records, a Midwestern chain that “thrives selling progressive rock,” carrying very little country music and no classical or jazz. The article notes that the ordering process for the chain’s 25 locations is paperless—stores call the main office in Peoria, Illinois, and read their orders into a recording machine; the tapes are played back by order-pickers in the main warehouse. (For those of us who lived in Iowa and Illinois back in the day, Co-op is a beloved name, and a handful of Co-op stores still exist in 2018.)

Gary Owens also gets a profile. He’s been at KMPC in Los Angeles for 16 years, and he says a key to his success is staying on top of change. Among the Owens factoids: at WNOE in New Orleans, back in 1957, Owens came out with the first adult coloring book, to be used as a giveaway; a KMPC giveaway item was a two-piece Gary Owens jigsaw puzzle that looked wrong when it was assembled. Owens also says he had the first pet rock, a decade before it became a fad, and that he was the first DJ in the country to play Randy Newman’s current hit “Short People.”

A list of recent top-grossing concerts is led by Earth Wind and Fire, who played the Louisiana Superdome on February 3 with Deniece Williams and the Pockets, and drew over 18,000 fans at between $8.50 and $10 a ticket. In second place is Emerson Lake and Palmer, whose Boston Garden show on February 4 drew 15,500, with tickets priced from $7.50 to $10. Other big concert bills include Ted Nugent with Golden Earring and Sammy Hagar, Nazareth with Wet Willie, Rush with Pat Travers, and Gary Wright with Starcastle and Clover. Foreigner is on the road as well, with Eddie Money opening some shows and LeBlanc and Carr opening others.

“What a Wonderful World” by Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, and James Taylor is #1 on the Easy Listening chart again this week, but the hottest mover by far is “Can’t Smile Without You” by Barry Manilow, which moves to #4 from #22. (Manilow will star in a network TV special on February 24; his guest will be Ray Charles. Also appearing: Manilow’s mother, in a comedy sketch. She’ll try to convince a cab driver that her son is famous.) The #1 song on the country chart is “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You” by Margo Smith. “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson makes a strong move from #8 to #3. The new #1 on the Hot Soul Singles chart is “Too Hot ta Trot” by the Commodores. Saturday Night Fever remains #1 on the Soul LPs chart and the list of Top LPs and Tape. Billy Joel’s The Stranger moves from #5 to #2 on the latter, and News of the World by Queen is #3. On the Hot 100, “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees is #1.

Forty years ago this week, I was a senior in high school, counting the days until graduation in May. I showed signs of senior-itis because it was fashionable. Inside, however, I was far less excited to see the time slip away. But that’s a story to be told later on.

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A Thing or Two About Vic Damone

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(Pictured: Diahann Carroll and Vic Damone, 1986.)

If this blog has a motto in recent years, it might be “you gotta pick your spots.” I don’t write memorial posts for every musician who passes from the scene because in many cases, other writers are better qualified than I. However, as somebody who grew up with easy-listening music and as a former elevator-music DJ, I think I might be entitled to write about Vic Damone, possessor of the easy-listeningest name ever, who died this week at the age of 89.

It wasn’t his real name: he was born Vito Farinola, a first-generation Italian-American from Brooklyn. Damone was his mother’s maiden name. An usher’s job at the Paramount Theater in New York City brought him into contact with various celebrities including Perry Como, who is said to have encouraged him to pursue a singing career. In 1947, 19-year-old Damone was the winning contestant on the radio show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, and that same year he scored two Top-10 hits, “I Have But One Heart” and “You Do.” In 1949, as his TV and nightclub career was taking off, he hit #1 with “You’re Breaking My Heart.” Between 1947 and 1954, he charted 36 times, including the #4 hit “My Heart Cries for You” in 1951.

(“My Heart Cries for You” was a monster. At least seven competing versions of it were out at the same time; Guy Mitchell did it first and took it to #2 while Dinah Shore hit #3.)

The coming of rock ‘n’ roll in the middle of the 1950s made it harder for crooners like Damone to score radio hits, although his best-known hit came in 1956: “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady, which made the Top 10 on three Billboard charts in that pre-Hot 100 day. Its position of #8 on the Best Sellers chart came in July, alongside Elvis, Pat Boone, and Fats Domino in the Top 10 (but also with Perry Como, Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind,” and two versions of “Moonglow” from the movie Picnic). As the hit songs became scarcer, it’s possible he got his most consistent airplay from a couple of Christmas songs that appeared on those Firestone collections so popular in the 60s.

By the middle of the 1950s, Damone had launched an acting career, appearing in stage musicals, on TV, and in the movies well into the 1960s. He also hosted a couple of variety shows in the late 50s and early 60s. His best-known acting role today is probably from The Dick Van Dyke Show, where he guested as singer Ric Vallone. He is said to have turned down the role of Johnny Fontaine in The Godfather.

Vic Damone retired from performing after a stroke in 2002, although he gave one last public performance in 2011. He was married five times. His first wife, actress Pier Angeli, reportedly left James Dean to marry him; after their divorce, he was involved in a messy custody battle over the couple’s son. Wife #4 was actress Diahann Carroll; they were married from 1987 to 1996.

The phenomenon of the Italian-American crooner is an interesting one: Damone, Como, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Al Martino, and Jerry Vale are the most famous, but there were quite literally dozens of others, first coming up in the 1930s and remaining fixtures in nightclubs and on TV for the next 40 or 50 years. While many of them sound remarkably bland to our ears today (as a callow youngster, I used to call Damone “the whitest man in show business”), they worked with legendary composers and arrangers. Damone, for example, made two of his best-selling and most-acclaimed albums with famed Sinatra collaborator Billy May in the early 60s.

We have said around here in the past that one of the purposes of art is to show people things they can’t see for themselves. But it can also be to take people out of a moment and away to some other place. That’s the art of the Italian-American crooner. As you sit in a club with your date, with gin and tonics and a candle on the table, or in front of the TV at home, while the dog barks in the kitchen and traffic rumbles outside, the crooner takes you to romantic places, idealized places, lonely places, and for five minutes or 15 minutes or an hour, you can live lives other than your own.

As artistic gifts go, that’s not a bad one to have.

Chart Action

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(Pictured: Melanie, on stage in 1971.)

When Casey Kasem introduced the American Top 40 show from January 29, 1972, by saying, “There’s not a lot of chart action this week,” I thought, “If you want to make people listen, you should probably think of something else to say.” And as I listened, that teaser seemed even stranger.

Not a lot of chart action? Six new songs debuted on the 40 in that week. Three of them would become sizable hits: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by Robert John, “Bang a Gong” by T. Rex, and “Down by the Lazy River” by the Osmonds. One sticks in history (my version of history, at least) as a notable oddball: “Floy Joy” by the Supremes, in which Jean Terrell continues to sound exactly like Diana Ross and delivers a monster earworm. One had a longer afterlife in classic rock than on Top 40, “Feelin’ Alright” by Joe Cocker, and one didn’t last much beyond its chart run, “Together Let’s Find Love” by the Fifth Dimension.

Not a lot of chart action? Several songs took enormous drops within the 40: “Once You Understand” by Think (a record we’ve written about before and that must be heard to be believed) was down 12 to #35; “Hey Big Brother” by Rare Earth was down #15 to 34. Michael Jackson’s “Got to Be There” was down 12 to #31 and “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” by Honey Cone was down 13 to #30. The double-sided hit “Hey Girl” and “I Knew You When” by Donny Osmond was down 10 to #26. (And of the six songs that fell out of the 40, four fell clear out of the Hot 100.)

Not a lot of chart action? The single biggest mover in the countdown was an absolute rocket: “Hurting Each Other” by the Carpenters had hit the Hot 100 just two weeks before at #76; it went to #38 for the week of January 22 and was at #13 this week. And at #15 and #16 sat “Joy” by Apollo 100 and “Precious and Few” by Climax, up 20 and 18 places respectively.

But the truth of Casey’s tease became apparent as the countdown reached the Top 10. Seven of the 10 were in the same positions as the week before, including the top 5. The top 4, “American Pie,” Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green, and “Sunshine” by Jonathan Edwards, remained locked in those positions for a third consecutive week. “Brand New Key” had done three weeks at #1 starting in late December; it would be either the #1 or #2 song on the Hot 100 for seven straight weeks; “American Pie,” with four weeks at #1 in January, would be #1 or #2 for seven weeks in a row as well.

Some other factoids:

On this show, Casey plays two versions of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” The New Seekers’ version is at #12 and the Hillside Singers’ version is at #19, both on the way down. In an AT40 Facebook group run by show historian Pete Battistini, he recently noted that when two versions of the spoken-word hit “The Americans” were in the Top 40 in early 1974, Casey eventually started playing only one of them. In March 1971, three versions of the theme from the movie Love Story spent three straight weeks in the Top 40, by Henry Mancini, Andy Williams, and Francis Lai. From looking at the original cue sheets for those shows, it’s not clear to me whether Casey played all three every week, or whether he played just a clip from one or more of them from time to time.

The 1/29/72 show features one of the all-time great AT40 train-wrecks: at #23, Casey plays Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” which is immediately followed by Charley Pride’s “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” at #22. On the original show, a commercial break followed Pride; the next segment opened with #21, “Stay With Me” by Rod Stewart and Faces. If forced to defend my love for Top 40 radio and Top 40 music of the 1970s, that three-set right there might be the hill I’d die on.

No radio jock likes every song that he or she plays. We don’t usually come right out and tell you, although you can sometimes pick it up. Casey rarely betrayed it, but I suspect he disliked Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair,” which was down to #18 on this week’s show. When it hit #1 the previous December, he’d announced it with a weirdly flat affect, and on this show, I thought I heard something in his voice again.

You can listen to American Top 40 in its totality, or you can listen for the little things. Either way, it’s three hours of fascinating chart action, guaranteed.

A Brother or a Mother

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(Above, L to R: Maurice, Robin, and Barry Gibb meet the press in 1979.)

(A draft of this post has been sitting in my files for something like four years, so here it is, for the 40th anniversary of “Stayin’ Alive” hitting #1.) 

The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” is a record I have adored from the first time I heard it—and in fact, I can remember precisely where I was the first time I heard it, the street I was on and the approximate block I was in when it came blasting out of my car radio. Take your experience out of it, where you’ve been since 1978 and what you know, and try to hear it with none of that baggage attached: “Stayin’ Alive” is one damn great record.

The Bee Gees’ band doesn’t usually get much love for the work they did, but they clearly deserve it. A few years ago, the isolated vocal track for “Stayin’ Alive” surfaced online, and it’s pretty difficult listening. But when melded with the band, alchemy happens. Dismissed as disco in its time and since, it’s not, really—every rock band in the world would like to write an opening riff that arresting, or hooks so enormous.

I remember “Stayin’ Alive” as something that zoomed up the charts, but when I dug into its chart profile, I didn’t find quite what I expected to see. (We’re going full geek here, so buckle up.)  It debuted at #65 on December 10, 1977, and went to #52 the next week. It reached the Top 40 at #39 for the week of December 24. There was no chart for the week of December 31, and for January 7, 1978, it made a modest move to #28. From there, it steadily moved up: 17-10-3 and finally #1 on February 4, 1978—40 years ago this week. It would stay at #1 for four weeks before falling to #2 for a week, then to #6. But for the week of March 18, it moved back to #2, coinciding with “Night Fever”‘s move to #1, and it would stay there for five of “Night Fever”‘s eight weeks at #1. So “Stayin’ Alive” was either the #1 or #2 song in the land for 10 out of 11 weeks in the winter and spring of 1978. Another indication of its popularity was its slow move out of the Hot 100: #2 to #13 for two weeks, then 26-28-40 to #71 for two weeks to #98 (for the week of June 10) and out.

By chart guru Joel Whitburn’s accounting, based on weeks at #1, in the Top 10, Top 40, and Hot 100, “Stayin’ Alive” was the #4 song of 1978 (behind “Night Fever,” Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing,” and “Le Freak” by Chic). Other records charted longer but weren’t #1 as long: Player’s “Baby Come Back,” Andy’s “Love Is Thicker Than Water,” and “Hot Child in the City” by Nick Gilder. According to Whitburn, “Stayin’ Alive” ranks as the #20 song of the 1970s. If you expect it to be higher, so did I. Its four weeks at #1 put it well down the list, although only one of the records clocking in ahead of it had longer runs on the Hot 100 and and in the Top 40: Andy’s “I Just Want to Be Your Everything.”

Barry, Robin, Maurice, and Andy Gibb, who sang on four of the top five Hot 100 hits during a single week in March, were so ubiquitous that spring that I wonder if their proliferation of records may have tamped down the performance of any one of them. Strange to say given that the brothers spent 14 weeks at #1 in February and March alone (and 17 out of 20 weeks if you count “How Deep Is Your Love” as 1977 turned to 1978), but what if the record buyers’ Bee Gees mania had been concentrated on a single 45, instead of several? They’d likely have outdone Debby Boone for the longest-running #1 single of the 70s, and it could have been done with either “Night Fever” or “Stayin’ Alive.”

But if the Bee Gees didn’t win the battle, they won the war. Both songs, but especially “Stayin’ Alive,” have persisted from 1978 into a fifth decade as shorthand for all of 70s pop.

A Long Afterlife

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(Pictured: Julian Lennon with Dick Clark on American Bandstand, December 1984.)

Behold the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 for the week of January 26, 1985:

1.  “Like a Virgin”/Madonna
2.  “I Want to Know What Love Is”/Foreigner
3.  “You’re the Inspiration”/Chicago
4  “Easy Lover”/Philip Bailey and Phil Collins
5.  “Careless Whisper”/Wham
6.  “All I Need”/Jack Wagner
7.  “Run to You”/Bryan Adams
8.  “The Boys of Summer”/Don Henley
9.  “Loverboy”/Billy Ocean
10. “I Would Die 4 U”/Prince

That is pretty dang solid right there. The Foreigner, Chicago, Adams, and Henley records haven’t been off the radio a single day in 33 years, and even the ones you don’t hear so much anymore had a long afterlife, if not as long as those four. Casey Kasem counted ’em down on a recent American Top 40 repeat, and it made for a mighty entertaining show. Some other notes follow:

11.  “Born in the USA”/Bruce Springsteen. That Springsteen made this sound like a patriotic anthem, with those majestic, ringing chords and shouts of “Born in the USA,” was a remarkably subversive act, especially in the middle of the Reagan 80s. As brazen as the current White House crowd is, somebody’s liable to mistake it for what it isn’t any day now, and then claim that the plain meaning of the words on the page is wrong.

13.  “Neutron Dance”/Pointer Sisters. Sweet mama “Neutron Dance” still sounds hotter than hell to me. January 1985 was early in my days as program director of a Top 40 station, and I loved hearing it on my air.

17.  “Do They Know It’s Christmas”/Band Aid. Still on the air on a month after Christmas and as welcome as stale fruitcake. This edition of AT40 aired during the same week that a gaggle of American stars assembled to record “We Are the World.”

18.  “Cool It Now” and 35. “Mr. Telephone Man”/New Edition. In 1985, hip-hop was still several years away from conquering the world, but the new jack swing of “Cool It Now” helped point the way. On the other hand, “Mr. Telephone Man,” produced by Ray Parker Jr., points in the opposite direction.

24.  “Sea of Love” and 39. “Rockin’ at Midnight”/Honeydrippers. “Sea of Love” became a Top-10 hit on sheer oddity value; “Rockin’ at Midnight” wasn’t going to match it, although it did prompt Casey to name-check Louis Jordan and other jump blues stars of the 1940s.

28.  “Valotte”/Julian Lennon. I don’t know how I missed knowing this, either back in the day or in all the years since, but according to Casey, the “Valotte” video was one of the last projects of ultra-violent film director Sam Peckinpah before his death in December 1984. Peckinpah also directed Julian’s “Too Late for Goodbyes” video.

32.  “Money Changes Everything”/Cyndi Lauper. Casey says that while several male acts have scored five Top 40 hits from a single album, Lauper becomes the first female to do so with “Money Changes Everything,” but holy smokes, it’s just awful. What Cyndi was going for with that alternately slurred and grating vocal I cannot imagine, and the production—first-generation Moog synthesizer and somebody beating the living hell out of a drum—gives me a headache.

33.  “California Girls”/David Lee Roth. This song and its iconic video became the epitome of Top 40 hipness by the early spring of 1985. I liked hearing it on my air because people thought it was cool, and if it was on my air, it made me seem cool by association. (This is precisely how you think when you’re not cool.)

36.  “Mistake No. 3″/Culture Club. Until I heard it on this show, I had almost entirely forgotten “Mistake No. 3,” a ballad after Culture Club’s long string of uptempo records. It wasn’t a big success.

38.  “In Neon”/Elton John. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” had been big hits in 1984 and “Nikita” would do big business later in 1985. But Elton’s singles were stiffing more often than they used to, and “In Neon,” which peaked at #38, is nothing special.

While counting down the Top 10 during this show, Casey paused for a feature on 50s crooner Johnnie Ray, the first singer to top both the pop and soul charts with the same record, his 1952 hit “Cry.” Casey played a clip from the song, and as I marveled at the change in styles from 1952 to 1985, I did the math. In 1985, it was as far back to 1952 as it is from 2018 back to 1985. It doesn’t seem like styles have changed as much in the latter period of time as they did between 1952 and 1985, but perhaps you and I aren’t the ones to judge.

This Song Is About You

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(Pictured: Carly Simon, 1972.)

We continue here with a rundown of the American Top 40 show from the week of January 20, 1973, at the beginning of an intermittent series about 1973.

26.  “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend”/Lobo. All of the elementary schools in our town fed into a single junior high, so when I got to seventh grade, there were lots of new people to meet, and many of them were girls. I wrote about one of them in 2006.

She had all the necessary attributes—short brown hair framing a pretty round face, a body that curved in all the best places and a wardrobe that proved it. From the moment I saw her in math class, I was head-over-heels in like. However, if I had developed a crush on someone from another planet, I’d have had about the same chance I had with [her]. Never mind the gulf between us in terms of social class. . . . My immediate problem was that I knew that even if I lived to be 100, I was never going to work up the courage to talk to her. 

She eventually faded out of the picture, as crushes do. A friend who searches for former classmates on Facebook told me recently that he had found her. I am not sorry to say I went and stalked her profile. I don’t think I would have recognized her, but I can’t be sure. I am not tempted to friend her, though. Not even a little bit.

(I notice I haven’t said anything about “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend.” Or have I?)

For a brief time in 1972 and 1973, when Casey name-checked affiliate radio stations, he gave their call letters as if they were words. Sometimes this worked fine, as with KERN in Bakersfield, California. On this show, Casey mentioned “wixy in Madison, Wisconsin,” and it took me a moment to remember he was referring to WYXE, which was actually licensed to suburban Sun Prairie. It put a Top 40 format on the air in 1972 and was an FM competitor for market leader WISM-AM. The station did indeed refer to itself as “wixy” occasionally, as on this aircheck of overnight guy Bob Billings from March 1973.

18.  “Do It Again”/Steely Dan
17.  “I Wanna Be With You”/Raspberries
16.  “Keeper of the Castle”/Four Tops
15.  “The World Is a Ghetto”/War
14.  “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”/James Taylor
13.  “Trouble Man”/Marvin Gaye
12.  “Hi Hi Hi”/Wings

Here’s another stretch of songs that bring home the remarkable variety of music on the radio in those days, and how much fun it was to listen. Depending on you feel about “Funny Face” by Donna Fargo at #11 (which I do not dislike, but it’s weird in this company), you could extend the streak even farther:

10.  “Oh Babe What Would You Say”/Hurricane Smith
9.  “Why Can’t We Live Together”/Timmy Thomas
8.  “Superfly”/Curtis Mayfield 

In the midst of all this, Casey answers a listener question about which day of the week is mentioned in the greatest number of song titles. This is something that would have taken a great deal of effort to find in the days before searchable electronic databases—and the AT40 staff apparently didn’t invest too much. Casey says that they don’t have exact figures, but that there are “about 12” songs mentioning Saturday and “about 20” mentioning Sunday. I would have bet on Monday, myself.

6.  “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”/Johnny Rivers. Casey flubs his introduction, saying the record is at #7 and then correcting himself to say #6. Several months after guest host Dick Clark proposed the idea of voice-tracking the show instead of doing it live on tape, the idea hadn’t taken hold yet.

4.  “Crocodile Rock”/Elton John. During this very week in 1973 (January 26th, to be exact), Elton released Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player. It’s not as good as Honky Chateau or the four studio albums that would follow it, but it’s not bad, either. Today, nobody needs to hear “Crocodile Rock” again, but it sounded pretty good in the winter of ’73.

3.  “Me and Mrs. Jones”/Billy Paul
2.  “Superstition”/Stevie Wonder
1.  “You’re So Vain”/Carly Simon

The top three are unchanged from the previous week; Carly and former #1 Billy hold their positions for the third week in a row while Stevie holds at #2 for a second week. “Superstition” will go to #1 the next week. “You’re So Vain” will spend the next four weeks at #2.

I have said that 1973 is my least-favorite year for 70s music, but you couldn’t tell it by this list. There’s some serious AM radio pleasure here. Nearly all of it first charted in 1972, but still.

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