Category Archives: American Top 40

The Soul of ’71

(Pictured: the Staple Singers.)

The standard narrative of pop music in the 1970s is that it was escapist, shallow, goofy, and not as all as serious as the pop music of the 1960s had been. That’s halfway accurate, but the shallow, goofy escapism doesn’t arrive in earnest until after we cross a certain dividing line in the middle of the 1970s.

The sociopolitical dividing line starts to draw itself with the oil shock of late 1973, through the unraveling of Watergate in 1974 and the deepening recession in 1975. In pop culture, TV turns away from relevance (All in the Family) to escapism (Happy Days), and the formula for a hit movie changes from literary storytelling (Chinatown, The Godfather Part 2) to spectacle (Jaws). In pop music, the gritty realities of soul music are replaced by the dance-don’t-think ethos of disco.

These are all generalizations, and therefore prone to being wrong. And it’s true that there were continuities from one half of the 70s and the other (the enduring popularity of classic rock, for example). But it’s nevertheless striking just how different pop culture and especially pop music became in the last half of the 70s compared to the first half.

I thought about this while listening to the American Top 40 show from November 20, 1971, about which I wrote a bit last week. The ratio of serious to silly is far greater than what we sometimes perceive the 70s norm to be. Top to bottom, it’s one of the strongest shows I’ve ever heard.

The quantity of great soul music is astounding. In the previous installment, I singled out Denise LaSalle, the 8th Day, the Temptations, and Donnie Elbert. But from the last two hours, you can add the Staple Singers (“Respect Yourself”), Lou Rawls (“A Natural Man”), Al Green (“Tired of Being Alone”), Aretha Franklin (“Rock Steady”), Marvin Gaye (“Inner City Blues”), Sly and the Family Stone (“Family Affair,” the hottest record in the nation at that moment), Michael Jackson (“Got to Be There”), the Chi-Lites (“Have You Seen Her”), and Isaac Hayes (whose “Theme from ‘Shaft'” was the new #1 song). In addition, several artists not strictly considered soul acts wear their influences proudly: Dennis Coffey, Van Morrison, and Delaney and Bonnie from the first hour, plus Lee Michaels (“Do You Know What I Mean”), Santana (“Everybody’s Everything”), and even the Osmonds (“Yo Yo”).

(“Everybody’s Everything,” from the week’s #1 album, Santana III, is a wonder, rockin’ with such wild abandon it feels like it’s going to fly apart into a million pieces, but it never does.)

A handful of classic-rock staples were among that week’s top hits: “Imagine,” “Maggie May,” “Questions 67 & 68,” “I’d Love to Change the World.” Neither the Five Man Electrical Band’s “Absolutely Right” nor “One Fine Morning” by Lighthouse entered the classic-rock canon, but both would be frequently anthologized come the CD era, which is a different type of eternal life. Future oldies-radio hits are many as well: “Old Fashioned Love Song,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “One Tin Soldier,” “Two Divided by Love,” “Baby I’m-a Want You,” “Gypsies Tramps and Thieves.”

Any given week of the 1970s has its share of amber-trapped moments, songs destined to disappear from history after being dropped from the current rotation. This week they are remarkably few: “Desiderata” and “Easy Loving,” the David Cassidy cover of “Cherish” and the Fifth Dimension cover of “Never My Love,” plus the theme from Summer of ’42.

Not all of the songs on the radio during that Thanksgiving week—when D. B. Cooper jumped out of the airplane, war threatened between India and Pakistan, and Nebraska and Oklahoma played one of college football’s most famous games—remained part of the pantheon for years to come. Nevertheless it’s striking just how great they were, all at once.

Old-Fashioned Love Songs

(Pictured: Van Morrison at work in the studio in 1971.)

I have written before about how weird the first hour of the typical American Top 40 show can be, thick with hits that never were, novelty records, oddball format crossovers from country or R&B—fun listening for geeks, even as they make radio station program directors cringe. The early 70s shows often have a lot of these, and often beyond the first hour. For that reason, a lot of AT40 affiliates rarely carry shows from 1970 through 1972. In weeks when Premiere Radio Networks offers a show from one of those years, it also offers an alternate show from later in the decade, and stations are free to choose the one they want. (In 2015, they’ve started doing this with 80s shows, too.)

This past weekend, Premiere offered the show from November 20, 1971—and the alternate was a Christmas show. AT40 has offered Christmas alternates in years past, but this is the first year they’ve started doing so in November, likely responding to the number of affiliates who go all-Christmas well before Thanksgiving Day. Fortunately for the stations who rarely carry an early 70s show, the 11/20/71 show is remarkably solid. In fact, you’d have a hard time finding an AT40 show from any year that started stronger than this one. The first hour is remarkable.

40. “I’d Love to Change the World”/Ten Years After. Spending just two weeks at #40, “I’d Love to Change the World” would nevertheless become one of the core songs of the album-rock format, played over and over and over again for the next 25 years or so.

39. “An Old Fashioned Love Song”/Three Dog Night. In its first week on the chart, and heard in its great 45RPM configuration, which is different from the one heard widely on oldies radio, at least until Three Dog Night got too old for oldies radio. Listen for the differences in the guitar, the backing vocals, and the fade.

38. “Trapped By a Thing Called Love”/Denise LaSalle. Fine Southern soul. Dig it or GTFO.

37. “You’ve Got to Crawl (Before You Walk)”/8th Day. Another deep soul trip from the group who sang “She’s Not Just Another Woman” earlier in 1971.

36. “Wild Night”/Van Morrison. “The inside jukebox blows out just like thunder.”

35. “Only You Know and I Know”/Delaney and Bonnie. Right at the nexus of country and blues, and a song that would have sounded weird and dated had it come along a year later.

On the original show, there were two commercial breaks within these five songs. On the recent repeat, all five were in the same segment. That’s how you start a radio show.

34. “One Fine Morning”/Lighthouse. Heard in its 45 configuration, which is in mono.

33. “Scorpio”/Dennis Coffey & the Detroit Guitar Band. Hot damn, this show has been smokin’ for like 20 minutes now.

32. “Superstar”/Temptations. Casey notes that this is the third different song titled “Superstar” to hit the Top 40 in 1971, preceded by the Murray Head “Superstar” from Jesus Christ Superstar and the Carpenters’ cover of Leon Russell’s “Superstar.”

At #31, the spell is broken with pianist Peter Nero’s instrumental “Theme From ‘Summer of ’42’.” But not for long.

30. “Where Did Our Love Go”/Donnie Elbert. A thumpin’, keyboard-driven version of the Supremes hit. Forgotten now, but insanely great.

The David Cassidy version of “Cherish,” a Partridge Family record in all but name, is at #29. It’s not remotely as good as the Association’s original, but what is?

28. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”/Joan Baez. Your mileage may vary on this; Joan changed up the lyric and softened the power of the Civil War story the Band originally told, but I didn’t know that in 1971.

27. “One Tin Soldier”/Coven. From the movie Billy Jack, which was released in 1971 but did not become a hit until it was re-released in 1973. We have noted before how “One Tin Soldier” is an artifact from a very specific moment in pop-culture history.

And with that, the first hour of the November 20, 1971, AT40 show comes to a close. I may write about the rest of it, or I may not. I haven’t listened to it yet.

Gotta Get Away Gotta Get Away

(Pictured: the Spinners on The Midnight Special, circa 1975.)

I was in the car the other day, and on the run. On the run from work I don’t want to do,  from decisions I don’t know how to make, from the clutter in my office, from my stupid face in the mirror. Casey Kasem and I hit the road for the last part of the AT40 show from October 25, 1975.

There were some solid songs in the second half of the show: “S.O.S.,” “Low Rider,” “Lady Blue,” “It Only Takes a Minute,” “Ballroom Blitz,” “Who Loves You.” Casey busted out some good trivia: Chicago has the most Top-10 hits without reaching #1, and Elton John’s “Island Girl” (which jumped from #36 to #8) is his 13th Top-10, moving him ahead of the Carpenters for the most Top 10s in the 70s. He noted Linda Ronstadt’s double-sided hit at #12 and played “Love Is a Rose” instead of “Heat Wave” (which showed up as an optional extra later in the hour), and he reminded us that the Ritchie Family’s “Brazil” is a remake of the 1943 Xavier Cugat hit. For the second time this week, he mentioned his work outside of AT40, plugging the made-for-TV movie The Night That Panicked America, scheduled for Halloween night, in which he had a small role.

All very interesting, yes. Enough to dispel the gloom, no.

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Deep Autumn

(Pictured: Silver Convention performs on a basketball court just as whatever drug you’ve taken begins to kick in.)

I mentioned just yesterday that I had one more October American Top 40 in my CD bag. It’s the one from October 25, 1975, and here we go.

40. “Rocky”/Austin Roberts. Gains extra points for its truck driver’s key change; loses them for being titled “Rocky” and never mentioning the name of Rocky’s dead wife.

After “Rocky,” Casey does a rare thing: he talks about his work outside of the show. Casey tells us he does voiceover work on a couple of cartoon series, Scooby-Doo and Josie and the Pussycats, and notes that Austin Roberts wrote and recorded some songs used on Scooby-Doo before he scored his first hits.

38. “The Agony and the Ecstasy”/Smokey Robinson. Here’s something as rare as Casey talking about himself: a song that I am hearing for the first time ever as I listen to this repeat. “The Agony and the Ecstasy” would spend three weeks on the show, peaking the week of November 1 at #36 before dropping off the next week.

37. “Just Too Many People”/Melissa Manchester. Somebody smarter than I will have to explain why “Just Too Many People,”  a #2 hit on the AC chart, could make it only to #30 in five weeks on the Top 40.

36. “Eighteen With a Bullet”/Pete Wingfield. A record much beloved around these parts.

35. “Mr. Jaws”/Dickie Goodman. Goodman’s second most successful break-in record (behind only “The Flying Saucer” in 1956), “Mr. Jaws” is a perfect example of the form. It’s actually funny: I remember laughing out loud the first time I heard Goodman ask the shark, “Why are you taking my hand?”, followed by “Wouldn’t you give your hand to a friend” from Melissa Manchester’s “Midnight Blue.” And the other day in the car, it made me smile again.

32. “Fly Robin Fly”/Silver Convention. Less is more: a bass guitar and a drummer, a string section, a couple of keyboards, and three singers chanting “fly robin fly up up to the sky” over and over. It was so hypnotically simple it had to end up at #1.

31. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”/Willie Nelson. Casey occasionally intros or back-announces a song by reciting a snippet of the lyrics. For “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” he quotes a verse that doesn’t appear in the version he just played (“Now my hair has turned to silver / All my life I’ve loved in vain”), although it’s in hit versions by Roy Acuff and Hank Williams.

Train wreck alert: between David Bowie’s “Fame” (#29) and John Fogerty’s “Rockin’ All Over the World” (#28, on which Fogerty sounds even more screechy than usual), Casey features “Something Stupid” by Frank and Nancy Sinatra.

27. “I Only Have Eyes for You”/Art Garfunkel. Art’s gorgeous voice soars over a dreamy, romantic arrangement rich with electric piano. If there’s such a thing as a deep autumn sound, the shimmering “I Only Have Eyes for You” is it.

26. “Born to Run”/Bruce Springsteen. In its third week on the chart, the same week that Springsteen appeared on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, evidence for Casey’s contention that Springsteen is “the most talked-about new artist of the last five years.”

24. “What a Difference a Day Makes”/Esther Phillips. Esther’s voice favors that of Dinah Washington, who recorded the most famous version of “What a Difference a Day Makes,” but this disco version is at a breakneck tempo that’s a poor match for a jazz singer.

23. “You”/George Harrison. I have heard it said that every song you play on your radio station should be somebody’s favorite. I am not sure what kind of person would consider the godawful hash of “You” to be his or her favorite song, but there must have been somebody.

21. “Carolina in the Pines”/Michael Murphey. More prolific than just “Wildfire,” Murphey had five Top 40 hits between 1972 and 1982. He also was in a pre-Monkees band with Michael Nesmith, and he was cast in The Kowboys, a 1969 television pilot that was supposed to be a Western version of The Monkees.

We’ll discuss the second half of this show in a future installment.

Back Home Again

(Pictured: John Lennon, performing live with Elton John in November 1974, an appearance made possible by the success of “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.”)

I have spent most of the last month riding with Casey Kasem, listening in the car to American Top 40 shows from Octobers gone by. The show dated October 12, 1974, was wildly entertaining, with fine songs from top to bottom.

There were some oddities, though, starting with a great train wreck at #40 and #39: ABBA’s helium-huffing “Honey Honey” followed by James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” which was #1 for the week on the soul chart. The lower reaches of this chart are full of that kind of thing, records that would be off the radio by the time 1975 began, but which stick in the memory of a certain type of geek: like “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)” by the Raspberries, “Higher Plane” by Kool and the Gang, and “Kings of the Party” by Brownsville Station. A few slightly more enduring hits are getting a foothold, like Carl Carlton’s “Everlasting Love.” But as we climb, more memorable hits appear, including John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” BTO’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” and “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

There would be another brain-rattling collision at #11 and #10: Tony Orlando and Dawn’s vaudeville “Steppin’ Out (Gonna Boogie Tonight) followed by Bad Company’s “Can’t Get Enough.” In itself, that captures that captures the full panoply of 70s radio variety, but the display continues the rest of the way up. At #9 and #8 sit Cheech and Chong’s “Earache My Eye” and Blue Swede’s cover of “Never My Love,” which sounds like Phil Spector on a caffeine high; at #7 through #5 there’s the solid threesome of Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back,” “Another Saturday Night” by Cat Stevens, and “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” by Stevie Wonder. (And yes, Casey gave the title of Elton’s hit.) At #4 the great Tony Burrows, recording under the name First Class, gets a final moment in the sun—so to speak—with “Beach Baby.” Then at #3 it’s the slow-cooking “Then Came You” by Dionne Warwick and the Spinners, which would eventually set a record for taking the longest to reach #1, followed by Billy Preston’s “Nothing From Nothing” at #2.

And then, as so often seems to happen with charts of the 1970s, we reach #1 and it’s a bit of a fizzle compared to what preceded it: “I Honestly Love You” by Olivia Newton-John. Intensely romantic sap always has a certain appeal; in an era when everybody was listening to the same radio stations, its appeal spread further. “I Honestly Love You” is not a terrible record, really—just not as good as those it surmounted to reach #1.

Whenever this blog deals with music from Octobers gone by, I feel like I need to include a disclaimer: my fondness for the stuff has only somewhat to do with the stuff itself, and much more to do with the associations that come with the stuff. In the specific case of October 12, 1974, I’ve written about that before. The fall of 1974 is season that endures in memory as a particularly happy one, even though that’s—well, not a lie, really, but surely a fantasy, or a fabrication. So as I was driving around on recent October afternoons, with the fall colors crowned by that singular autumn light, it’s not a surprise that John Denver’s “Back Home Again” Carole King’s “Jazzman,” and “You Little Trustmaker” by the Tymes scratched a very particular itch that you might not share. But that’s the chance you take when you frequent this place.

(I have one more October show left in my CD bag, so we’re not done here.)

Key Changes

(Pictured: Cornelius Brothers—Carter and Eddie—and Sister Rose, who were pretty great for a very short time. Also pictured: sister Billie Jo, who joined in 1972.)

A few years ago, I discovered a site (which no longer exists) called the Truck Driver’s Gear Change Hall of Shame, which catalogued instances of what it called the “utterly appalling and unimaginative admission that you’ve run out of inspiration and the song should have ended one minute ago; but you’re under pressure to make something which can be stretched out to the length of a single.”

Obviously, not everyone digs key changes. There’s no denying they have been cheapened in the last few years by TV singing competitions, where wannabe stars try to dazzle the judges and provide a simulacrum of emotion by cranking it up a notch. But in the 1970s, a well-placed key change could turn a good record into a great one. And on the American Top 40 show from October 7, 1972, several of the most pleasing key changes of the 1970s were stuffed into the same half-hour.

(All hyperlinks go directly to the key changes I’m discussing.)

26. “Don’t Ever Be Lonely”/Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose. You likely remember only two of this quartet’s five Hot 100 hits (“Treat Her Like a Lady” and “Too Late to Turn Back Now”). If you remember a third one, this is probably it. The Mrs., an experienced singer and musician, heard the key change and said, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that.”

25. “Starting All Over Again”/Mel and Tim. This is some grade-A Muscle Shoals soul that not only features a glorious key change, but starts with Mel and Tim talking about how hard it is to make up with a woman before they start singing about it. (Like key changes, spoken interludes could be another hallmark of 70s awesomeness, although this one goes on a bit too long.) Hall and Oates covered “Starting All Over Again” in 1990, and it was a perfect fit. Wonder why it took them so long.

22. “Beautiful Sunday”/Daniel Boone. This is most likely what the erstwhile proprietor of the Truck Driver’s Gear Change Hall of Shame had in mind—the key change really does feel like somebody slamming a manual transmission into a higher gear—but if your taste for Top 40 cheese is anything like mine, you won’t care one bit.

On the flip, some other key changes I have dug.

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