Category Archives: American Top 40

Confess Your Unpopular Opinion

(Pictured: Rita Coolidge.)

(There is a new post at One Day in Your Life today, and there will be another new one on Sunday.)

“Confess your unpopular opinion” is a hashtag game people play on Twitter sometimes. What follows are several potentially unpopular opinions, inspired by the American Top 40 show from June 25, 1977.

Shaun Cassidy’s version of “Da Doo Ron Ron” is far better than you remember. It helps to hear it in its natural habitat, on the radio, amidst jocks and jingles. (Or to remember having heard it that way.) It’s got one of those introductions that requires a self-respecting DJ to bring it: you don’t just read the weather forecast over something that hot.

One does not listen to Barry Manilow for the words, but one should. “Looks Like We Made It,” a future #1 hit with lyrics by Will Jennings, is a short story in three minutes: old lovers meet for the first time in years, claiming they’re pleased to have gotten over one another and fallen in love with others, only to realize that the two of them aren’t past their old feelings at all. A year later, Manilow would add another, more devastating chapter on “Even Now,” a #19 hit with lyrics by Marty Panzer: what sounds like the same guy, long married now, spending every day longing for the woman he really loves, suffering eternal romantic damnation. Barry Manilow, people. Who knew?

The Rita Coolidge version of “Higher and Higher” is a great record. The key to hearing it that way is not thinking about the original. It may be easier for me than it is for some people; when this was a hit, I’d didn’t know Jackie Wilson’s joyous, electrifying version. Compared to that, anybody would sound flat. But Rita’s version was arranged by Booker T. Jones, who doesn’t make junk, and he does some great stuff with it, including the interplay between the guitarist and the drummer and the way he sweeps a string section in from nowhere. But the best part (if it’s not his own solo on the organ) is the way he handles the key changes. Of course “Higher and Higher” should get higher and higher.

The Bill Conti/original soundtrack version of “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky is inferior to Maynard Ferguson’s version. Listen to the Ferguson version, which peaked at #28, and you’ll hear it. Conti’s version is contemporary enough, although whoever arranged the chorus vocals made them sound stiff and white and weird. Ferguson’s is square in the pocket for 1977, with a disco beat, sassy singers, and Ferguson’s way-up-there trumpet soloing. (He played a gig at my college sometime around 1979, and “Gonna Fly Now” nearly blew the roof off.) Nevertheless, it was Conti’s version that would get to #1, having gone 7-6-5-4-3-2-1 to reach the top, 40 years ago this week.

A couple of other observations about the 6/25/77 chart:

—My general fondness for this summer’s music is always tempered by the presence of Kenny Rogers’ “Lucille,” which I disliked in 1977 and still don’t care for today. I suspect it rose to #5 (and #1 in the UK, believe it or not) wholly on its earworm of a refrain, which you can most likely sing to yourself right now:  “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille / With four hungry children and a crop in the field”.

—10cc’s “People in Love” spent the week of 6/25/77 at #40, its lone week on the chart. It was followed by the crazy-good threesome of the Commodores’ “Easy,” Boston’s “Peace of Mind” (heard it its 45RPM configuration), and “Couldn’t Get It Right” by the Climax Blues Band. There’s another fine stretch later on: Ferguson’s Rocky theme, ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Ariel” by Dean Friedman, Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” “Whatcha Gonna Do” by Pablo Cruise, and “Higher and Higher.”

All of this is another reminder, as we have noted before, how much damn fun it could be listening to the radio during the glory days of Top 40.

Maybe you don’t hear it like I do. Maybe you had to be there. In the summer of 1977, more than in most seasons, I’m grateful that I was.

Book of Records

(Pictured: Diana Ross onstage, 1982.)

American Top 40 debuted on the weekend of July 4, 1970. Starting in 1972, it became customary for AT40 to air a special countdown sometime around the Fourth. Such shows could be recorded in advance, giving Casey Kasem and his staff the chance to take some time off.

—The first summer special ran on the weekend of July 1, 1972, and charted the top 40 songs of the rock era. Your top three: “The Twist,” “Hey Jude,” and Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife.” The latter two did nine weeks each at #1; “The Twist” had two separate runs to the top.

—On the weekend of July 7, 1973, AT40 counted down the Top 40 one-hit wonders of the rock era, including some fabulously obscure records. The list is topped by Zager and Evans’ 1969 hit “In the Year 2525.”

—On the weekend of July 6, 1974, the show featured the top singles artists of the 1970s. Top three were the Carpenters, the Jackson Five, and Three Dog Night. This was the week following the infamous show that counted down AT40‘s own estimate of what the chart would be, and not the actual Billboard Top 40.

—On the weekend of July 5, 1975, to celebrate the show’s fifth anniversary, the summer special was a repeat of the first AT40 show.

—On the Bicentennial weekend of July 3, 1976, AT40 featured the #1 songs on the Fourth of July from 1937 through 1976, starting with “It Looks Like Rain in Cherry Blossom Lane” by Guy Lombardo. The show also featured Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, the Ink Spots, and Perry Como before the rock era arrived with Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” from 1955. The show gradually makes its way to July 4, 1976, and “Silly Love Songs.” I think I heard at least part of this show back then, but I can’t remember. (This is one that AT40 geeks long to hear repeated, but never, ever will.)

—The 1977 summer special, “The 40 Most Popular Girls of the Rock Era,” aired on the weekend of July 2, playing the top songs with girls’ names in the titles, based on chart performance of each record. If you peruse the list, you may find #1 to be as big a fizzle as I did.

—On the weekend of July 1, 1978, the summer special was the Top 40 hits of the 1970s, which might be the single greatest all-killer, no-filler edition of AT40 ever. (It was offered to stations around the country this July 4th weekend as an alternate show.) In 1987, the summer special would cover the Top 40 hits of the 80s, and it’s just as solid.

—The Top 40 hits of the disco era was the entirely predictable topic for the weekend of July 7, 1979. A memo from executive producer Tom Rounds, attached to the cue sheet for the week, asks stations to keep the special on hand after the weekend as an emergency show, in case the regular weekly program fails to arrive in the mail. (Old emergency shows became obsolete when the show went from three hours to four the previous October.)

—On the weekend of July 5, 1980, Casey looked into the AT40 Book of Records, maybe the most unconventional edition in the show’s history. It was the subject of a recent series at My Favorite Decade.

—On the weekend of July 4, 1981, the summer special featured the 40 biggest hits of the Beatles, together and separately. Your top five: “Hey Jude,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Silly Love Songs,” and “My Sweet Lord.” (Poor Ringo’s highest-rated hit was “You’re Sixteen,” down at #20.) This one is also rock solid from beginning to end.

—There was no July 4 weekend special in 1982, 1984, or 1985 that I can find. On the weekend of July 2, 1983, the show featured “The Top 40 Acts of the 80s So Far.” Your top three: #1 Hall and Oates, #2 Diana Ross, and #3 Air Supply, which you probably did not see coming. In 1986, it looks to me as though AT40 produced a regular countdown for the July 4 weekend as well as a special based on a poll of DJs around the world regarding the most influential artists of all time. The show was anchored by Pink Floyd, the Four Tops, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and concluded with the Beatles at #1, followed by Elvis and the Rolling Stones.

The tradition of summer specials continued through the end of Casey’s run at American Top 40 in 1995. If you’re interested in later years or other specials, look for them in the archive of weekly AT40 cue sheets at Charis Music Group, which is an excellent time-waster, on a holiday weekend or any other day.

Do Your Thing

(Pictured: the man of the hour, turbanized.)

I have said before how much I like American Top 40 shows from 1972. Casey and his staff have figured out how they want the show to sound, and his delivery is easy and friendly, just a guy talking to the people and playing some tunes, as on the show from April 22, 1972.

—Introducing “Do Your Thing” at #39, Casey calls Isaac Hayes “the man of the hour.” The show would have aired less than two weeks after Hayes appeared on the Oscars, singing his award-winning “Theme From Shaft” in a shirt made of chain mail, a performance that left the whole country abuzz.

—Casey back-announces “The Candy Man” by Sammy Davis Jr., as “the happiest song in the countdown,” and misspeaks when he says it’s at #38, up five spots. It’s actually up five from #38 the week before. Since AT40 shows were still being recorded live on tape at this time, I’m not surprised that they left in such a minor fluff. Better that than having to re-record an entire segment of the show in real time.

—I don’t know if, or how often, the most egregiously out-of-time extras included in the original broadcasts are snipped from the modern-day repeats. On this show, listeners in 2017 are treated to “Wheel of Fortune” by Kay Starr—a perfectly fine record by the standards of 1952 (“the #1 hit of 20 years ago,” as Casey calls it), but one that seems egregiously out of time in 1972 as well, at least until the countdown gets to #25 and the resolutely old-fashioned “Every Day of My Life” by Bobby Vinton.

“Jump Into the Fire” by Nilsson is at #28, up two spots for the week. I have always pronounced the man’s name to rhyme with “Wilson,” which is how the WLS DJs pronounced it back in the day. In intervening years, I have heard it pronounced as if it were spelled “Nielsen.” Casey does it both ways, once introducing the record and once back-announcing it.

—The highest-debuting song of the week is “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens up at #27, featuring (not mentioned by Casey) Rick Wakeman, then of Yes, on piano. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), Wakeman helped develop the distinctive piano opening and the instrumental break in the middle but didn’t receive a credit, or royalties beyond the 10 British pounds he was paid for the session.

—The two biggest movers within the 40 this week are “Oh Girl” by the Chi-Lites, up 15 spots to #20, and “I’ll Take You There” by the Staple Singers, up 14 spots to #23. Both will reach #1, “Oh Girl” on May 27 and “I’ll Take You There” on June 3, and both are on the short list of things in this life that are perfect. Also on that list: “Suavecito” by Malo, up five spots this week to #21.

—At three different points in the last half of the show, Casey does brief announcements encouraging young people to register and vote. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 had been ratified the previous July, but with the presidential primary campaign underway, such a reminder was especially timely.

—Casey was famous for what AT40 staffers called the “tease and hook,” which would keep listeners from tuning away during a commercial break. This show contains a near-perfect example involving a star who lost a trunk full of shoes while being mobbed after a show. Casey doesn’t reveal the star’s identity until the very end, and I found myself caught up in the story even though it turned out to be fairly trivial. (The shoes belonged to Al Green.)

—The top of this chart is pretty solid: “Doctor My Eyes” (#10), “Heart of Gold” (#8), and “A Horse With No Name” (#4) haven’t been off the radio in 45 years, and there’s soul music in several different flavors: Aretha Franklin’s “Day Dreaming” (#7), the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow” (#6), the Dramatics’ “In the Rain” (#5),  “I Gotcha” by Joe Tex (#3), and “Rockin’ Robin” (#2).

—Roberta Flack’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is in its second of six straight weeks at #1. Although Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” will spend six non-consecutive weeks at the top later in 1972, no song will have a longer uninterrupted run until Rod Stewart keeps “Tonight’s the Night” around for eight weeks at the end of 1976. Even though the 45 edit of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is only about a minute shorter than the original, it tightens the record considerably. What’s left is not as much romantic as it is erotic. Not that I could tell in 1972, but still.

(Edited since first posted to fix some stuff, because this is not a very good blog, really.)

Tryin’ to Hold On

(Pictured: Elton John listens at home, 1974.)

I said it in the very first post at this blog: the record charts, from about 1970 through about 1986, are the calendar of my life: name a date and I’ll give you a song; name a song and I’ll give you a date. I used to be able to tell you the #1 song on any given date of the 1970s, but some pages of the calendar are getting a little dim.

I was listening to the American Top 40 show from April 13, 1974. That’s the season in which I discovered AT40 as a listener, picking it out of the static on WROK from Rockford, Illinois. Several of my favorite songs that spring were ones I heard only on AT40, as none of my favorite stations were playing them. I had never heard anything like “The Payback” by James Brown, and I dug it. Neither WCFL or WLS in Chicago charted Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” WLS didn’t chart the Staple Singers’ “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend” either; WCFL did, but they never played it as much as I wanted to hear it. Other obscure songs from that show still stick in my mind after all this time, including Lamont Dozier’s “Tryin’ to Hold on to My Woman” and the fabulous country soul of “Tell Me a Lie” by Sami Jo, another song I heard nowhere else.

As I listen, I’m on parallel tracks—geeky 14-year-old in the spring of eighth grade, making his own handwritten list of the hits, one song at a time, and geeky 57-year-old in the autumn of his life, remembering those songs and others he expects to hear. But this is where the calendar page gets dim.

As the show goes on, I start thinking, “Where’s ‘Band on the Run’?” The album hit #1 during the very April week of this AT40 show, and I keep expecting to hear the title song. When Casey gets to #14 and plays “Jet,” I realize that I must have misremembered when “Band on the Run” hit the radio. It wouldn’t reach the Hot 100 until the week of April 20, at #68. It would hit #41 the next week, blast onto AT40 at #22 during the week of May 4, and go 14-7-5-2 and finally to #1 on June 8, 1974.

(Digression: I would like to be able to tell you when “Band on the Run” first appears at ARSA, the Airheads Radio Survey Archive, but a recent update to the site has removed that functionality, in which you could click on a title and see all the listings for that title, an invaluable research aid. I have asked the site proprietor why, but have yet to hear back. I hope there’s an explanation. This is a serious loss to geeks such as I.)

By the time Casey reached the Top 5, I felt pretty confident in being able to predict what I was going to hear. It was the spring of 1974, I’d heard this show the first time it aired, and after 43 years I know the territory: “Come and Get Your Love,” “The Lord’s Prayer,” “TSOP,” and “Hooked on a Feeling.”

That left only the week’s #1 hit. I was sitting at a stop sign when it came on: “Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John. And I said out loud to nobody, “Where the fk is ‘The Streak’?” The answer: at #84, where it debuted during the week of April 13. It would go 84-54-19-6-2 before hitting #1 during the week of May 18, staying two weeks and remaining in the Top 10 til the end of June and in the Hot 100 until August.

So maybe those nights I remember, up there in my bedroom at home, trying to keep my radio locked on that sketchy AM signal from Rockford, were later in the spring than I thought. Perhaps May instead of April.

It seems like a small thing, being off by one month after 43 years. And besides, a man my age sees many of his abilities begin to decline. Nevertheless, I wasn’t expecting that this—my idiot-savant-like memory for record charts, something that defines who I am and what I care about—would be one of them.

Born to Lie

(Pictured: 1975 collaborators Elton John and Neil Sedaka.)

Listen: it is a Saturday evening in the fall of 1975. My family—Mother, Dad, 15-year-old me, and my brothers, who are 13 and 9—gathers around the kitchen table for supper, pot roast and mashed potatoes with canned peas, and ice cream for dessert. We eat, and Dad goes back outside to milk his cows. While Mother cleans up in the kitchen, the TV comes on in the living room, and my brothers bicker over what to watch. To avoid their ruckus, I take the book I am reading onto the sunporch, a room on the south side of the house, where the console stereo sits. Thanks to the windows on three sides, I can see into the night, the well-lighted barn to the west, the lights of neighboring farms to the east, the occasional passing car that zips quickly along Melvin Road.

In my head, the scene has a soundtrack, and it is found on the American Top 40 show dated November 1, 1975: “Island Girl,” “Miracles,” and “Who Loves You,” “Bad Blood,” “Heat Wave,” and “Low Rider,” “It Only Takes a Minute,” “Fly Robin Fly,” and all the rest.

The music plays, and I watch the scene from 41 years’ distance. The good smell of supper is still in the air, and the house is warm, thanks to the old oil-burning furnace. Warm, too, is the enveloping embrace of family, five of us as one, a whole greater than the sum of its parts, one that never wavers in its love or its peace.

Whenever I think of the fall of 1975, that is always the image I recall.

In his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut created Bokononism, a religion based on the concept of foma, or harmless untruths. The main tenet of Bokononism is, “Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” It’s OK to believe in lies, then, as long as they make you a better person and nobody gets hurt.

That scene of a family Saturday night? Almost certainly it’s one of my foma. The scene may have played out that way once, starting with pot roast and ending with me and my book, but it’s wrong to remember all of them that way. We did not always love each other. We were not always peaceful.  Both my 13-year-old brother and I squabbled with Mother (he remembers it was more frequently me; I remember that it was more frequently him), and there were certainly some nights when supper would have been possible only after we called a truce. After supper, one or the other of us would have stomped back upstairs, turning up the music to hide in or sullenly watching the old black-and-white, all the while grousing about terrible life was.

But after all these years, what does it hurt to remember it a better way? Bokononists believe that because everything is a lie anyhow, a lie that does no harm is something a person can live by, and live very well.

I can’t evaluate the music on the 11/1/75 AT 40 dispassionately; it’s so potent as a whole that it’s hard to separate into parts. It feels to me like there are damn few clunkers. The show is edited strangely, although whether it was in 1975 or by its present-day producers, I don’t know: we get barely a minute of “It Only Takes a Minute” and “Fly Robin Fly,” but two songs Casey bills as “oldies” (the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and the Raiders’ “Indian Reservation,” with which Casey tells the bogus story of its creation), and four full minutes of Leon Haywood’s “I Wanta Do Something Freaky to You,” which is two minutes too much.

And on the subject of edits: Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood,” in which the line “the bitch is in the smile” is changed to “the promise in the smile.” I don’t remember hearing “Bad Blood” edited like that on other AT40s I’ve written about, or on any radio station, ever. Odder still: a few weeks later, when AT40 counted down the top hits of 1975, the bitch was back.

The Revenge of Chief Bloody Bear Tooth

(Pictured: the Raiders, whose 1971 hit “Indian Reservation” has an interesting backstory.)

In this cursed year of 2016, which has cost us so many people we love and led to so much misery besides, you may have failed to notice the death of singer/songwriter John D. Loudermilk in September. He was 82, and he died having written or co-written a number of songs in the late 50s and early 60s that were once quite familiar, and may still be familiar to the sort of geek who hangs out in these parts: the garage-rocker “Tobacco Road,” first recorded by the Nashville Teens; “Waterloo,” a big country hit for Stonewall Jackson; “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” recorded by the Casinos and later by Eddy Arnold; “Abilene” and “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” both hits for country-pop singer George Hamilton IV; the Everly Brothers’ “Ebony Eyes”; “Sittin’ in the Balcony,” made famous by Eddie Cochran; “Norman,” “Paper Tiger,” and “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry),” recorded by Sue Thompson; and the country smash “Talk Back Trembling Lips,” a #1 country hit for Ernest Ashworth, with pop covers by Johnny Tillotson and others.

(Digression: listening to some of these songs while writing this post, I found it remarkable how many of them I remember hearing on Mother and Dad’s radio before I had one of my own. You couldn’t turn on country radio in the late 60s without hearing something by John D. Loudermilk, apparently.)

Loudermilk hit the Hot 100 four times himself: his version of “Sittin’ in the Balcony,” released under the name Johnny Dee, hit #38 in 1957, and “Language of Love” reached #32 in 1961. He also hit the country chart twice between 1963 and 1965. Loudermilk’s most famous song, however, is “Indian Reservation (Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian).” He recorded it himself in 1960, and Englishman Don Fardon hit #20 on the Hot 100 with his version in 1968. In the summer of 1971, “Indian Reservation” became a #1 hit for the Raiders in a version that sounds a lot like Fardon’s.

“Indian Reservation” plays a part in one of the most infamous moments in the history of American Top 40. Casey Kasem considered Loudermilk’s story of how the song was written to be the most incredible tale he ever presented. Loudermilk told AT40 that after his car got stuck in a mountain snowdrift during a blizzard, he was kidnapped by a group of Cherokee Indians, including one who called himself Chief Bloody Bear Tooth. They held him hostage, performing Indian rituals and torturing him. When they found out he was a songwriter, they asked him to write a song about the struggles faced by American Indians. He refused, and the torture got worse. Finally, figuring it was his only chance at survival, Loudermilk consented to write the song, and his captors let him go after four days. After a few years, when the song became a big hit, the Cherokees’ message finally got out.

Casey told the story on a 1971 edition of the program and repeated it in November 1975 (on an edition of AT40 recently rebroadcast around the country), emphasizing again how it was the most unbelievable tale AT40 had ever told.

Unbelievable is right. The story was a complete fabrication, a trick played by Loudermilk on his AT40 interviewer. This much is true: he was asked by a Cherokee tribal leader to write a song about the Indians’ plight, but it didn’t require any torture to get him to consent. Years later, Loudermilk learned that his great-great grandparents were Cherokee, and that they had been marched west on the infamous Trail of Tears.

John D. Loudermilk didn’t really try to hide the fact that he made the whole thing up. According to his New York Times obituary, the liner notes of his 1971 album Volume 1: Elloree include the words, “P.S. My regards to Bloody Bear Tooth.”

%d bloggers like this: