Category Archives: American Top 40

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.”

44 Years and a Million Miles

(Pictured: Roland Kent Lavoie, better known as Lobo, the bard of unrequited lovers.)

Certain seasons of the 1970s make me feel fortunate to have been listening to the radio then, and the fall of 1972 is one of them. The American Top 40 show from October 28, 1972, displays that season’s remarkable richness: James Brown (“Get on the Good Foot”) and Alice Cooper (“Elected”) sit back to back, while Emerson Lake and Palmer’s “From the Beginning” is bracketed by “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (new that week) and “Back Stabbers.” Nilsson’s “Spaceman” sits next to Hot Butter’s “Popcorn.” The show has famous songs—“City of New Orleans” and “I Believe in Music”—and early performances by acts that would help define the sound of the 70s: the Doobie Brothers (“Listen to the Music”) and the Eagles (“Witchy Woman”). While it’s true that the chart is topped by one of the worst records of all time—“My Ding-a-Ling” by Chuck Berry, spending its second week at #1—the preceding 39 records are more than strong enough to make up for it.

(Well, maybe not Donny Osmond’s double-sided “Why” and “Lonely Boy,” which was sitting at #13, but that still leaves 38.)

During the week of October 28, 1972, “I’d Love You to Want Me” by Lobo was blasting up the chart, tied with Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” as the fastest-moving song of the week, leaping to #15 from #30 in its third week on. I wouldn’t buy the 45 until later, probably sometime toward the end of November, when it reached #2 on the both the Hot 100 and on WLS, held out of the #1 slot on both charts by “I Can See Clearly Now.”

I bought “I’d Love You to Want Me” while I was living it.

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According to Plan

(Pictured: Melanie, archetypal hippie chick.)

(Here we are at the end of September in 1970 for the second post in a row. Quelle surprise.)

I am starting to think that my favorite American Top 40 shows are the earliest ones, because they’re so odd compared to the way the show would sound by the time it was heard around the world a few years hence.

The 12th show, for the week of September 26, 1970, is weirdly paced. Casey goes quickly from point to point, often barely even pausing as he back-announces one song and front-announces another, like he’s hurrying to shave off a second here or a second there. His inflections change from song to song, punching into boss-jock mode sometimes and dipping down to FM-radio whisperer at other times. The latter is unintentionally hilarious when he uses it at one point to say, “Something happens to a woman over 35 when she hears the voice of Tom Jones.”

It wouldn’t be long before the shows were entirely scripted, but there are moments in the 1970 shows that feel like a guy winging it on live radio, throwing in bits on the fly. For example, on the 9/26/70 show, introducing “Long Long Time” by Linda Ronstadt, Casey offhandedly mentions that she will be singing the theme to Andy Griffith’s new TV series that fall. In 1970, Griffith, two years removed from playing Sheriff Andy Taylor, starred in The Headmaster. The show was a 30-minute drama in which Griffith played the headmaster of a private school in California, a role intended to be far removed from the kindly North Carolina dude he played throughout the 60s. It was not a hit, roundly spanked by another new show airing that fall, The Partridge Family, and barely made it to January, At that point, it was retooled as The New Andy Griffith Show, in which he went back to playing a kindly North Carolina dude—and it bombed, too.

Long story short: Linda did indeed sing the Headmaster theme, a song called “Just a Man.” It’s not particularly good, but you can hear a bit of it here.

During the first year of American Top 40, Casey occasionally refers to songs moving up or down on the chart by specific number of “points,” which is a word I’ve not heard anyone else use when talking about chart positions. On the 9/26/70 show, two records went up a remarkable number of points. Casey mentions that since their debut in 1969, the Jackson Five have never failed to make #1. Their latest hit, “I’ll Be There,” certainly seems destined to reach the summit, having debuted the previous week at #40 before moving up 21 points to #19. But they have company: another debut from the previous week, “Green Eyed Lady” by Sugarloaf, is also up 21 points, from #39 to #18.

Certain records on this chart make me wish I could get inside the heads of radio station music directors and find out what they were thinking. Melanie’s “Peace Will Come (According to Plan)” is hippie drivel, but there it is at #35 in the nation anyhow. (Melanie was 23 years old in 1970, but she sings like a 75-year-old woman.) “Neanderthal Man” by Hotlegs is a record we’ve noted before, little more than a drum track with the vocal barely intelligible in the mix and positively interminable, yet there is is up five points to #22. And at #19, it’s “Rubber Duckie” by Ernie, the Sesame Street character, which is just painful.

On the twin subjects of “what were you thinking?” and “sweet mama that’s painful,” one of the extras heard on the original version of the show in 1970 was “Old Rivers” by Walter Brennan, in which the famous Western actor recites the story of a poor farmer’s mule. (It had reached #5 on the Hot 100 in 1962, which is more evidence that the British Invasion had to happen.) “Old Rivers” was snipped from the recent syndicated repeat, along with “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own” by Connie Francis and “Lay Lady Lay” by Bob Dylan. All three were offered to current affiliates as optional fillers. The repeat included another extra, “Your Precious Love” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, fitting given that the top two hits of the week were both Motown hits: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Diana Ross at #1 and “War” by Edwin Starr at #2.

I’ve said it before: it’s fascinating to eavesdrop as Casey Kasem and his producers figure out what American Top 40 is supposed to be, in real time, a week at a time.

If I’m Honest

(Pictured: Night Ranger, motorin’ on American Bandstand.)

I have linked many times over the years to a Salon piece that posited Christmas week 1969 as the single greatest week in rock history, with an incredible variety of legendary albums and singles on the radio, music that endures today as foundation stones of the rock canon. Last summer, I argued that a particular week in June 1977 deserves a similar place concerning the classic-rock radio canon, when some of the format’s most enduring warhorses were at their radio peaks.

I have been listening recently to the American Top 40 show from July 7, 1984, and it occurs to me that one could argue for that week as one in which the pop-rock canon for the 80s was being laid down. The top two singles of the week were “When Doves Cry” by Prince and “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen. Also in the Top 10: “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper, ZZ Top’s “Legs,” and “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News. (You might argue either way for the canon-worthiness of “Almost Paradise” by Mike Reno and Ann Wilson or “Eyes Without a Face” by Billy Idol, also in the Top 10.) Below the Top 10 are “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” by Deniece Williams, “Magic” by the Cars, Madonna’s “Borderline,” “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” by Elton John, and “Oh Sherrie” by Steve Perry, which would also rightfully be in the argument, were you making a list of 80s essentials. So might Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “Sunglasses at Night” by Corey Hart, which were on the climb, and “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger, on the way down.

(The hook in “Sister Christian”—“You’re motorin’ / What’s your price for flight / In finding Mr. Right” strikes a perfect balance between dumb and awesome. I leave it to the readership to contribute other examples of gourmet cheese, where something that should be laughable actually turns out pretty great.)

Other Matters: Country music’s A-list couple, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, broke up last year. Shelton’s most recent album, If I’m Honest, could not help but be marketed as his response to the divorce (even though he wrote only one of the songs, a collaboration with Gwen Stefani). The first single, “Came Here to Forget” is your basic post-breakup lament as presently constructed by the Nashville machine, with references to drinking and texting. (One of the most tiresome tropes in country music right now is the cellphone, surpassed only by the pickup truck as a lifestyle signifier.) The second one, “She’s Got a Way With Words,” is different:

Little words like “I” and “do”
Lying, cheating, screwed
Yeah all the words I thought I knew
They got a brand new meaning now

At the time of the breakup, Shelton and Lambert both said all the right things about being sad and sorry and hoping to remain friends. Which makes “She’s Got a Way With Words” problematical. Either the stuff about being sad and sorry was BS, or “She’s Got a Way With Words” is an attempt to cash in on the breakup, and a crass, unsubtle one at that. My money is on the latter; for all his success, Blake Shelton doesn’t seem especially bright; my guess is somebody pitched him this song, he said hell yeah, never thought for a moment about how it would look, and that was that.

Miranda Lambert has yet to do a song about the breakup. Given the way she has enthusiastically embraced the crazy-ex role in many of her other songs, I am guessing that she’ll use a razor to greater effect than Blake uses a sledgehammer.

Other Other Matters: I am grateful to Mark, proprietor of My Favorite Decade, for sending me a package of 1976 memorabilia last week: two Falstaff Bicentennial beer cans and one of those bowls made from an old vinyl record (Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 by the Eagles). In 12 years, this blog thing has led to several relationships, real and electronic, that I value a great deal. If I’m honest, I have to say that I have been more on the receiving end of kindnesses than the sending end, but I hope to work on that.

Outstandingly Average

(Pictured: dudes with bagpipes, for which there was room on 70s Top 40 radio playlists.)

A few years ago I wrote about listening to the radio in the summer of 1971, and how it was like going to school. I began trying to figure out what the WLS DJs were doing and why they were doing it, because they were what I wanted to be. By the summer of 1972, I was a more advanced student. In any study of any thing, once you get the basics down, you start to concern yourself with the nuances. On WLS, I had a great set of teachers: Larry Lujack, Fred Winston, John Landecker, and all the other guys.

I was not listening to American Top 40 in 1972, but had I been, I could have learned a lot from it, too. Every time I hear a 1972 show today, I like it. The music mix walks the line between eclectic and schizophrenic, but it’s Casey I’m responding to. He’s at his most natural; now that the show has figured out what it’s supposed to be, he’s less stiff than during 1970 and 1971. More important, he’s less mannered and announcer-y than he would become. I suspect the latter was because the show was still being recorded in real time for much of 1972, as opposed to being pieced together from voicetracks, a practice that began after Dick Clark guest-hosted a show that year. Casey’s pre-voicetrack shows have an immediacy that the later shows don’t. That doesn’t mean the later shows are inferior—only different.

The show from June 24, 1972, starts off with a bang: Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” debuts at #40. The first hit by a new group, the Eagles, is new at #35: “Take It Easy.” The highest-debuting song of the week is all the way up at #19: “I Don’t Want to Be Right” by Luther Ingram, zooming in from #41. “Tumbling Dice” at #24 and “Layla” at #23 make for a fine segment. There is the customary ration of dreck: at #28, a song I don’t recognize starts with a Philly-soul style orchestra but turns out to be Donny Osmond’s helium-huffing cover of Nat King Cole’s “Too Young.” And David Cassidy’s cover of the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure” (#26) is a mess. But the Top 20 is mostly pure AM-radio pleasure: “Morning Has Broken,” “I Saw the Light,” “Rocket Man,” “Sylvia’s Mother,” “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” “Lean on Me,” “Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep At All,” “I’ll Take You There,” “Outa Space.” True, the #1 and #2 songs in the land are “The Candy Man” by Sammy Davis Jr. and “Song Sung Blue” by Neil Diamond, but the show’s so good up until then that you have to forgive it.

During the early years of AT40, Casey occasionally explained that an individual station’s playlist was tailored to the taste of its own market, which is why some songs heard locally never made AT40, and vice versa. A shining example of one of those songs sat at #12 on the 6/24/72 show: “Amazing Grace” by the Pipes and Drums and Military Band of the Royal Scotch Dragoon Guards. (It would peak at #11 on the Hot 100 the next week.) According to ARSA, it made #1 in various outposts of the British Empire, including Vancouver and Toronto, and it was a Top-10 hit on WCFL in Chicago. But WLS didn’t chart it, and I am guessing that many other radio stations around the country felt that fking bagpipe music didn’t fit their format.

Casey told the story of the band’s formation, which was long and involved and ultimately not very interesting. He concluded by noting that the band had recently passed its military inspection with a grade of “outstandingly average.” That’s a grade we can relate to around here.

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