Category Archives: American Top 40

The Same Old Song

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: KC and the Sunshine Band on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, December 31, 1977.)

Recently I mentioned that I was not willing to listen to a full American Top 40 show from May 1978 because I was not eager to relive my last month of high school. However, I recently decided to risk the one from June 24, 1978.

40.  “If Ever I See You Again”/Roberta Flack. Well shit, maybe this was a bad idea after all.

38.  “Dance Across the Floor”/Jimmy “Bo” Horne and 36. “It’s the Same Old Song”/KC and the Sunshine Band. The best KC record on this countdown is credited to some other guy, Jimmy “Bo” Horne, a Florida native who kicked around the Miami music scene in the 70s. “Dance Across the Floor” was, however, produced by Harry Casey and Richard Finch. KC and the Sunshine Band had been an unstoppable force between 1975 and 1977, with four #1 hits, but their momentum cooled in 1978. “Boogie Shoes” deserved better that its #35 peak in the spring, but “It’s the Same Old Song” was lucky to get that far. It just kinda happens for three minutes and then it’s over and you don’t remember it.

35.  “Runaway”/Jefferson Starship. On certain days, I like this better than “Miracles.”

32.  “Deacon Blues”/Steely Dan. An unlikely Top 40 hit, just off its chart peak of #19. The single edit seems kind of pointless, mostly by shortening the sax solo to cut the total length from 7:37 to 6:40.

28.  “Almost Summer”/Celebration Featuring Mike Love. I hadn’t heard “Almost Summer” in a long time before it turned up on this countdown, and I was positively shocked at how flimsy it is. It sounds like it took five minutes to write and one take to record, which may actually have been the way Mike Love preferred to work.

27.  “Wonderful Tonight”/Eric Clapton. If I were to make a list of songs I never never ever need to hear again, this might be #1. The single edit of 3:13, which is what I think Casey played, helps it a great deal, though.

24.  “Oh What a Night for Dancing”/Barry White. Before playing this song, Casey runs down White’s chart accomplishments, having produced 12 gold records in a single year between his groups Love Unlimited, the Love Unlimited Orchestra, and his own solo work. You’d be better off listening to any one of those than to “Oh What a Night for Dancing.”

22.  “I Was Only Joking”/Rod Stewart. I have written before of my fondness for this record, and the way I heard it in the summer of 1978, although it occurs to me now that my interpretation of it doesn’t match the plain words on the page. But the regret in Rod’s voice is real, as was mine in the summer of 1978.

20.  “Last Dance”/Donna Summer. The week of May 6, 1978, was the first week without a Donna Summer song on the Hot 100 since “I Feel Love” charted the previous August. “Last Dance” charted the next week, May 13, and there would not be another Summer-less week on the Hot 100 for almost exactly two years, until “On the Radio” fell off in May 1980. That’s 142 out of 143 weeks. It may surprise you to learn that “Last Dance” never made #1 on the Hot 100. It peaked at #3 in August.

11.  “The Groove Line”/Heatwave. This band could play. First hit “Boogie Nights” is iconic, or ought to be. Their second hit, “Always and Forever” was the soundtrack to thousands of lost virginities (“the best slow jam of all time,” My Favorite Decade says), and “The Groove Line” is a burner.

9.  “Still the Same”/Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. I wrote about this song a few years ago, and when I heard it the other day, it gave me a strong sense of the kid I was that summer, working at the gas station with no customers, absorbing the radio hour after hour, poised on the edge between past and future.

7.  “Use Ta Be My Girl”/O’Jays and 6. “You Belong to Me”/Carly Simon. Will say again: maybe relistening to this countdown this wasn’t such a good idea.

2.  “Baker Street”/Gerry Rafferty and 1. “Shadow Dancing”/Andy Gibb. A few years ago, we got acquainted with former AT40 staffer Scott Paton. He told us how “Baker Street,” which famously spent six consecutive weeks at #2 on the Hot 100 behind “Shadow Dancing,” was actually #1 for maybe 18 hours, until some shenanigans took place. It’s quite a tale.

Advertisements

How I Spent Somebody Else’s Vacation

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Al Green, 1989.)

The period around the Fourth of July is usually a busy one for me. It’s a big week for vacations, so I did a lot of filling in at my radio stations. As of today, I’ll have worked 12 days in a row, and after today I have at least 11 more to go.

You may recall that I once tried to get out of radio entirely.

I rarely have to be at the office all day, however, and last week I had time to devote to other stuff.

To name one: Jimmy McDonough’s 2017 biography of Al Green, Soul Survivor. McDonough is incredibly thorough, having tracked down every living soul who might be able to contribute to the story. The Green that emerges in the book is temperamental, infuriating, and frequently inhabits another plane entirely, although he’s just as easily capable of being compassionate, funny, and reflective. Unlike similarly gifted artists (Van Morrison, hello), Green recognizes the existence of his negative side, often speaking of himself in the third person, or in terms of multiple Al Greens. The various Greens uneasily coexisted back in the day, and they still conflict inside 72-year-old Al Green today.

In 2003, Green headlined an all-day blues festival here in Madison, topping a bill that also featured Canned Heat, Sonny Landreth, Susan Tedeschi, and Dr. John. I would like to remember it as a dream-come-true, bucket-list event, but I don’t. Maybe it was the lateness of the hour, or the heat of the long day, but more than likely, it was because I realized on that day that what I love most about Al Green’s great 70s records is the brilliance of Hi Rhythm, the band backing him on those records, and the production work of Willie Mitchell. Even in the 70s, Hi Rhythm was not his touring band, and without them, the Al Green you got on stage was not necessarily going to be the Al Green you hoped to hear.

I’d like to read a full biography of Mitchell, actually. His brilliance in consistently getting the best out of Green even when the singer wasn’t immediately willing to give it is the greatest accomplishment of his career. The most revealing scene involving Mitchell in Soul Survivor is set sometime in the early 70s, when singer Denise LaSalle observes that all of his stuff with Green sounds alike. Mitchell responds: “I will ride this horse until it falls dead.”

And he did.

I spent part of the week listening to the American Top 40 show from July 3, 1971, the first anniversary of the franchise. Casey says it started with seven stations (the number most commonly reported today is five), but a year later, the affiliate list was up to 118. The show had become popular enough to inspire the marketing of a 24-song compilation called American Top 40’s Double Dozen Album of Hits, Volume 1, with liner notes featuring Casey’s commentary on each song. The album was promoted as part of the 7/3/71 show, although the promo was snipped from the recent syndicated repeat.

People who bash the 1970s as a decade of silly, stupid music need to account for 1971, and especially the summer. The Top 40 in this week includes soul superstars the Isley Brothers, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, and the Supremes, as well as one-off hits including “Funky Nassau,” “She’s Not Just Another Woman,” “Mr. Big Stuff,” and “Want Ads.” Legendary rock figures are on the list too: the Stones, Ringo Starr, Carole King, James Taylor, Joe Cocker. It’s true that the Carpenters, Donny Osmond, John Denver, and the Partridge Family are a part of it, along with radio candy by the Grass Roots, Tommy James, Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds, and Three Dog Night—but if it doesn’t always fit together smoothly (and it doesn’t), so what? This sort of radio democracy exposed even a casual listener to different stars and styles every single day. And it turned some of us into omnivores—people who wanted to hear everything.

And finally: I learned last week about three young women from New York City who, in 1966, formed a psychedelic trio called the Cake. Although they made only two albums, they wrote some of their own songs at a time when few women did that, and the three members were connected to some of the most famous figures in rock. The Cake was successful enough to appear on The Smothers Brothers Show in October 1967. Their story is fascinating and wild, and you can read it here.

Sentimental Journey

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Bill Haley and Elvis, 1955.)

In 2017, I wrote about American Top 40‘s summer specials. Every year around the Fourth of July, AT40 would run a show that could be recorded in advance to give Casey and his staff some time off. The most unusual of these specials aired on the weekend of the Bicentennial, featuring the #1 song in America on the July 4th holiday, from 1937 through 1976.

The show does not exactly get off to a flying start. Neither “It Looks Like Rain in Cherry Blossom Lane” by Guy Lombardo (1937) nor “Says My Heart” by the Ozzie Nelson Orchestra (1938) is a timeless classic. Neither is “Wishing” by Glenn Miller (1939), although some classics are forthcoming: “I’ll Never Smile Again” by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra fronted by Frank Sinatra (1940), Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1944), and “Sentimental Journey” by Les Brown with Doris Day on vocals (1945). If you want to add the Ink Spots and “The Gypsy” (1946) to the list, I’m good with that.

(Digression #1: You probably didn’t know Ozzie Nelson was a successful bandleader before he became America’s favorite sitcom dad. According to Joel Whitburn, he charted 38 times between 1930 and 1940, but they’re all pretty obscure. One of the singers in his band was his wife, Harriet, whom he married in 1935. She’s the singer on “Says My Heart.”)

(Digression #2: Imagine hearing “I’ll Be Seeing You” in the summer of 1944, the summer of D-Day, if you had a loved one fighting on some distant shore. I suspect it would have been either a comfort or impossible to bear, with no in-between.)

Some of this stuff is pretty cheesy, including Sammy Kaye’s “Daddy” (1941), “Chi-Baba Chi-Baba” by Perry Como (1947), and “Woody Woodpecker” by Kay Kyser (1948). Vaughn Monroe’s upright and studly baritone on “Ghost Riders in the Sky” (1949) sounds like a novelty nearly 70 years later, but Monroe was quite a big deal in his day, charting 67 times between 1940 and 1954, hitting #1 nine times in all.

There’s a nice little stretch of songs to usher in the 1950s: Nat King Cole’s “Too Young” (1951), “Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart” by Vera Lynn (1952), “Song From Moulin Rouge” by Percy Faith (1953), and Kitty Kallen’s “Little Things Mean a Lot” (1954). In that company, rock ‘n’ roll makes a hell of a splash in 1955 with “Rock Around the Clock.” In 1956, it appears that the pre-rock order is restored with Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind,” but one year later, Elvis emphatically signals a new era that’s here to stay with his two-sided #1 hit, “Teddy Bear” and “Loving You.”

After more novelty cheese (Sheb Wooley’s “Flying Purple People Eater” from 1958) we commence Casey Kasem’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Oldies Party, starring the Coasters and Gary U. S. Bonds and the Beach Boys and Connie Francis and the Four Tops and the Association and others. However: the #1 songs of the 1960s are a worthy reminder that Elvis and the pop stars in his wake didn’t burn the old order entirely to the ground. “Satisfaction” is followed by Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” then two songs later it’s “This Guy’s in Love With You” by Herb Alpert and Henry Mancini’s “Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet” before “I Want You Back” ushers in the 70s.

Casey has padded the third hour a little, with two hits from 1965, “Satisfaction” and “I Can’t Help Myself,” and two from 1966, “Strangers in the Night” and the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer.” The latter is the only Beatles song on the show. The last half-hour of the show sounds like any other edition of AT40, with #1 hits from the 70s by Carole King, Bill Withers, Billy Preston, the Hues Corporation, the Captain and Tennille, and the then-current #1 hit, “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney and Wings.

The 1976 summer special is one the AT40 Facebook group/message board crowd longs to hear repeated on terrestrial radio, but I don’t expect it to happen. Practically none of the adult-contemporary or oldies stations caryring the repeats today want anything to do with the music in the first two hours of the program, and few people beyond hardcore Casey fanatics would be willing to sit through it. (I suspect there were program directors in 1976 who didn’t want the big-band and pre-rock stuff either.) It’s a show that better belongs on iHeart’s dedicated AT40 streaming channel, but don’t hold your breath for that, either.

A Slightly Drunk Guy Listens to American Top 40

Embed from Getty Images

Slightly Drunk Guy joins the program from June 26, 1976, somewhere in the second hour.

24.  “If You Know What I Mean”/Neil Diamond. 
Here’s to the songs we used to sing
Here’s to the times we used to know
It’s hard to hold them in our arms again but
Hard to let them go

HELL YEAH MAN SING IT

23.  “Get Closer”/Seals and Crofts. Slightly Drunk Guy (hereinafter SDG) remembers hearing this song a few years back on some perfect summer day and feeling like the portal that could take him back to 1976 was very close, but he couldn’t find it. Would he have walked through it without a moment’s thought or a second’s regret? Was Lincoln a car?

22.  “You’re My Best Friend”/Queen. SDG finds himself compelled to admit that there are only like six Queen songs that leave any impression on him, and they’re almost all on A Night at the Opera.

21.  “Shannon”/Henry Gross. DAMN this is cheesy, but SDG is from Wisconsin, and his father fed, clothed, and educated him as a youth with a herd of dairy cows whose milk went for cheese. 10/10 can handle.

20.  “The Boys Are Back in Town”/Thin Lizzy.
Jukeboxinthecornerblastinoutourfavoritesongs
Thenightsaregettinwarmeritwon’tbelong

19.  ”Rock and Roll Music”/Beach Boys. Casey says this is the biggest mover of the week, up from #40 last week, but then he says it’s up 19 from last week. It seems to SDG that 40 to 19 is 21 spots, but he won’t vouch for his math skills sober, either.

18.  “Got to Get You Into My Life”/Beatles. The Beach Boys and Beatles back to back, how the 60s sounded on Top 40 radio in real time, and SDG is HERE FOR IT.

17.  “Take the Money and Run”/Steve Miller Band. SDG tips his hat to a long-ago colleague at a classic rock station who once teased the story of Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue thusly: “Coming up next, two kids with four names and plenty of cash for their road trip.” Has stolen for use on his radio show before, will steal again.

16.  “Moonlight Feels Right”/Starbuck. SDG has a big stupid smile on his face because this record makes him happy, although there’s another feeling behind it also, a thing he’s written about before, the way certain songs let you see your life whole, everything that was, everything that is, and everything that is going to be. We never know what songs are going to do it.

Slightly Drunk Guy goes to the bathroom and then to the kitchen and gets distracted on the way back.

10.  “Kiss and Say Goodbye”/Manhattans. SDG’s falsetto cannot break glass, but it scares the cat.

9.  “I’ll Be Good to You”/Brothers Johnson. SDG loves this song but hates the 45 edit with the fire of a thousand suns. Album version or GTFO.

8.  “Love Hangover”/Diana Ross
7.  “Afternoon Delight”/Starland Vocal Band
6.  “More More More”/Andrea True Connection
SDG notices that in this stretch of the countdown, lots of people are having sex, and he further notices that he is not one of them.

The cat that fled the room five songs ago can now be heard throwing up somewhere in the house. Slightly Drunk Guy goes to investigate.

3.  “Misty Blue”/Dorothy Moore. SDG is sober enough to be knocked sideways by the emotion Dorothy Moore puts into the first line: “Oh, it’s . . . been such a long long time.” There’s a flash of pain in that “oh,” and that pause says a lot without saying anything at all.

2.  “Get Up and Boogie”/Silver Convention. SDG refers you to his comment on “Shannon.”

1.  “Silly Love Songs”/Paul McCartney and Wings. Those who know him well will tell you that of the many types of drunks in this world (belligerent, weepy, etc.), SDG is a happy drunk. And so he merrily bops along to this, as he has done many times over these many years since 1976. He has several friends who think it’s a bad song, but he resolves to keep liking them nevertheless, in spite of their wrongness.

Celebrate Youth

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Rick Springfield, 1985.)

What do you do after a dream comes true?

Think a moment before you answer. Achieving the dream is never an end in itself. It can lead to consequences you never imagined as part of the dream, and you’ll have to deal with them. Also, you’ll have to live in the world the dream created, for good or ill. Now that I’m old, and I’ve experienced both dreams coming true and the crash that can happen afterward, I have learned to be careful what I dream of.

But when you’re young, and one of your oldest dreams comes true, you don’t worry about the consequences.

The American Top 40 show from May 11, 1985, represents that moment exactly. I was the 25-year-old program director of a Top 40 station in a college town. The year 1985 was one of the most solid musical years of the 1980s, so my station sounded hot and hip. My boss was committed to doing good radio, and part of his philosophy was to let the people he hired do their jobs without micromanaging them. In 1985, as spring shaded toward summer, I was living the radio dream I had nurtured since I was in fifth grade.

The show is pretty solid from #40 (“Would I Lie to You” by Eurythmics) to #1 (“Crazy for You” by Madonna). Even the songs I couldn’t remember right away turned out to be familiar: “Celebrate Youth” by Rick Springfield, “When My Baby Comes Home” by Luther Vandross, “Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid” by Hall and Oates. Some of them, thanks to their longevity since 1985, were as familiar as the weather: “Heaven” by Bryan Adams and “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves were back to back at #25 and #24; other ultra-familiar hits included “The Search Is Over” by Survivor, “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen, “Rhythm of the Night” by DeBarge, and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears. Back then, on beautiful spring days, I liked to go for a ride on my lunch hour, cruising into the country blasting the the station on my car radio. Certain songs on the 5/11/85 show were perfect for that: Chicago’s “Along Comes a Woman,” Glenn Frey’s “Smugglers Blues,” “Fresh” by Kool and the Gang, and Don Henley’s “All She Wants to Do Is Dance.”

This show comes from the height of Casey’s “announcer-y” period, where he sometimes doesn’t speak to the people as much as he speaks at them. He’s pretty personable on the show, however, if a bit repetitive. The answer to a question about the country act with the most #1 hits, Conway Twitty, gets repeated three times in the span of 30 seconds, and another trivia feature about the biggest #1 hit of the 50s, 60s, and 70s is delivered in a similarly repetitious manner. Casey has a tic in this period that drives me wild: Over a song intro he’ll say something like, “Patti Labelle, formerly of the group Labelle, has her first solo hit with ‘New Attitude.’ Patti Labelle.” It’s not necessary to give the artist’s name twice (or in this case, three times) in four seconds. We got it the first time.

The show also features the usual time-fillers: before introducing Alison Moyet’s “Invisible,” Casey talks about the concept of invisibility and name-checks H. G. Wells and Claude Rains; he uses a collection of trivial facts about the sun to introduce Katrina and the Waves. They’re harmless, but they’re also irrelevant. I have said dozens of times over the years that the AT40 shows in this era don’t need to be four hours long as much as they need to be 3 1/2. Long Distance Dedications are read at a painfully show pace. And the show uses less-familiar full-length album versions of certain songs rather than radio versions, all in the name of filling time.

But back to the note on which this post began. I was living the dream in the spring of 1985, making $230 a week and rockin’ the hell out of my town on the radio. But that dream did not prove to be sustainable. Time passes and things happen with no regard for dreams. And 18 months later, I’d be eager to quit that job and move on to the next one. And it wouldn’t be long before my full-time radio career—the only thing I had dreamed of since I was 11 years old—would be closer to its end than to the beginning.

Some Time

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: the Moody Blues onstage in 1972.)

I have been listening to the American Top 40 show from May 13, 1972. I don’t know if I’m going to write about it beyond the first hour, but here’s what I’ve heard so far.

—New among the 40 this week is the Moody Blues’ “Isn’t Life Strange” at #39. Although there was a promo edit that ran 4:25, Casey played the whole six minutes—and as lovely a song as it is, it’s a long six minutes. It’s one of my favorite songs on Seventh Sojourn, but even so, an edit could only help it.

—In the early 70s, it wasn’t uncommon for major pop hits to be covered by R&B acts. Such covers made pretty good business sense for songwriters and publishers, extending the reach of already-popular properties. Just off the top of my head for 1971 and 1972, I can think of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway doing “You’ve Got a Friend” and the Isley Brothers doing both “Love the One You’re With” and “Summer Breeze.” In this week, Gladys Knight’s version of “Help Me Make it Through the Night” debuts at #38. The song had gone #1 country and #8 pop for Sammi Smith in 1971. The sparse arrangement is beautiful, and although I could do without the spoken introduction, it’s generally aces.

—At #37, in its last week not only among the Top 40 but on the Hot 100, is Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” which charted between “Without You” and “Coconut,” and which I missed completely in 1972. I didn’t know it until I heard it on the legendary Freedom Rock compilation in the late 80s. Freedom Rock was sold on TV with a memorably cheesy ad, but coming as it did at the moment when the Baby Boomers were upgrading vinyl to CD, it represented an easy way to build a classic-rock collection, and you could still party to it today.

—Another of the week’s debut records was “Ask Me What You Want” by Millie Jackson at #36. It’s right in the pocket for the summer of 1972 and was the first of her two Top 40 hits (although she would make the Hot 100 several more times, and the R&B charts more times than that). Today, Millie Jackson is remembered for a string of R- or X-rated albums with titles like Live and Outrageous (Rated XXX), E.S.P. (Extra Sexual Persuasion), and Back to the S**t!, which is Internet-famous for its cover photo, apparently real. From 1999 to 2012, she did an afternoon radio show on a soul station in Dallas.

—Sometimes we listen to old music because we choose to revisit a time and place we remember. But sometimes old music takes us places involuntarily. I wrote about this phenomenon just last week, about being unable to listen to an AT40 show from May 1978 because of the time-travel trip it was likely to inspire. The 5/13/72 show sent me briefly back in time as well, thanks to the #34 song of the week, “It’s Going to Take Some Time” by the Carpenters. I started playing organized park-and-rec baseball in the summer of 1969, if I’m recalling correctly. By the summer of ’72 it would have been clear that I was never going to be any good. But my enthusiasm was immune to that reality, and I kept at it. So Mother and/or Dad would take time out from their busy summer days to chauffeur me to the park for practice or a game and then come get me an hour or two later. On those trips, I would always ask if I could turn the car radio to WLS, and they would oblige me. At some point that summer—probably more than one point—we heard the Carpenters’ “It’s Going to Take Some Time.” For reasons I can neither understand nor explain, the memory of having heard it there and then has stuck with me, and it pops into my head when I hear the song again so many years later.

Isn’t life strange?

Programming Note: There’s a new post at One Day in Your Life today. Those are fun to write and I hope they’re interesting. If you think so, please consider becoming an e-mail subscriber to that site, so you don’t miss anything. 

%d bloggers like this: