Category Archives: American Top 40

Who You Are

(Pictured: Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods on American Bandstand, 1974.)

One of my nephews started his freshman year in high school last week. On his first day, I found that I couldn’t remember a single damn thing about my first day in high school, which would have been in 1974. (I’d like to think it’s because my memory is full rather than failing, but anything’s possible.) Then I listened to the American Top 40 show from September 7, 1974. I didn’t remember specific incidents as much as I remembered who that freshman was, and how it felt to be him: game for a challenge but nervous about it, optimistic but wary, holding on to what was familiar as a compass for navigating the stuff that wasn’t.

This chart sits right between the seasons, with songs I’d been hearing on AM all summer and songs I would be hearing when I discovered FM that fall. The latter also provide the soundtrack for one of those autumns I remember as especially happy and secure, although it almost certainly was not. The usual handful of notes is on the flip.

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Golden Ages

(Pictured: Kenny Loggins in the “Danger Zone” video.)

(Quick and late edit below.)

If you are a friend on Facebook or you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I went to see the total eclipse on Monday. I drove 10 hours each way to visit friends in Kentucky. As spectacular as the eclipse itself was, sharing it with those people made it even better. I wrote about the experience for my radio station, and you can read that piece here.

I packed a bag of CDs for the trip, including a couple of American Top 40 shows from the 1980s. The summer of 1984 was a golden age for the Top 40, and the August 18, 1984, AT40 is pretty strong from top to bottom—in other words, from “Ghostbusters” to Bruce Springsteen’s second single from Born in the USA, “Cover Me,” which debuts at #40. A few notes follow:

—Slade’s “My Oh My” is at #37. Although the group’s Noddy Holder and Jim Lea take songwriting credits, “My Oh My” sounds exactly like “Let Us Break Bread Together,” a communion hymn I hear when my Lutheran relatives drag me to church.

—Fewer hits from 1984 have gone farther down the memory hole than “Alibis” by Sergio Mendes, his first major chart entry since “Never Gonna Let You Go” the year before. “Never Gonna Let You Go” has long since disappeared from radio playlists itself, although it was the distilled essence of adult radio pop in 1983.

—Casey corrects an error on an earlier broadcast, in which Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly” was omitted from a list of foreign acts who had hit #1 on the soul chart. Given that “Fly Robin Fly” hit #1 on the pop chart, that strikes me as a rather big mistake. Casey blamed himself, although the researcher who actually messed it up was taken out beneath the Hollywood sign and beheaded.

Casey is hard to listen to this week. I’ve written about it before—how his 1984 delivery is extremely slow and announcer-y, often unnecessarily repetitive, every syllable carefully enunciated, pretty much the opposite of the way all of us in radio are taught to communicate, and in the aggregate annoying as hell. Casey had broken himself of this habit by August 9, 1986, the second show I took along for the ride. Although he’s still The Most Famous Voice in America, he’s not nearly so stiff and mannered.

The music mix isn’t quite as strong on the 1986 show—there are some now-forgotten records pretty far up the chart, like “Suzanne” by Journey, “All the Love in the World” by the Outfield, and “Rumors” by the Timex Social Club, and it includes one of the worst records Rod Stewart ever made, “Love Touch,” all the way up at #6. But just as the 1984 show has “When Doves Cry” and “Dancing in the Dark” and “Missing You” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and other classics, the 1986 show has its share of songs that haven’t been off the radio in over 30 years: “Sledgehammer” and “Higher Love” and “Take My Breath Away” and “Invisible Touch” and “Danger Zone.”

Someday I’m going to write about the golden age of the movie song, which the 1984-1986 period certainly is. Movies and MTV had a synergistic relationship: put a song that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie over the closing credits (like “Love Touch” in the Robert Redford movie Legal Eagles), make a video with scenes from the movie (like “Love Touch”), and everybody profits. I count at least four movie songs in the 1984 show and eight in 1986, and that’s not counting songs that were featured in movies after their chart runs were through. In the week of the 1986 show, the Top Gun soundtrack was #1 on the album chart. (Late afterthought: and Purple Rain in 1984, too.)

Coming Friday: in the summer of 1977, CBS aired a music-related TV show that few have ever seen. I watched the whole thing, and I lived to tell the tale.

Rough Draft of the Top 40

(Pictured: very hairy Mungo Jerry, whose “In the Summertime” was climbing the charts in the summer of 1970.)

We’ve spent a fair amount of time here over the years on the American Top 40 shows from 1970, the era in which Casey and company are trying to figure out what the show should be. The fourth edition in the program’s history, from July 25, 1970, was recently offered as a weekend repeat, and I’ve been listening to it.

I get a strong sense that Casey is winging it—that aside from a few features, he and his producers haven’t mapped out anything else, and he’s saying whatever pops into his head when it’s time to introduce a song or to back-announce it. He’s still not announcing chart positions, which is something we noticed when listening to the first show—he leaves it to the jingle singers, almost as if the producers were leaving themselves open to reusing his introductions on future shows, although that seems crazy. And he sometimes talks so fast you can miss what he’s saying, which strikes me as more evidence that they’re winging it—that they don’t know exactly how much time each segment of the show is going to take, so they’re saving seconds wherever possible, figuring it will be easier to fill than to cut.

Compared to the way the show would eventually sound, the shows from the summer of 1970 sound almost like rough drafts, which I suppose they are.

Something that doesn’t help this and other early shows is that in the summer of 1970, radio playlists were liberally sprinkled with dogs. We noticed this a few years back when listening to the show from August 1. There are a lot of records that do little to make you pay attention (“Trying to Make a Fool of Me” by the Delfonics, “Save the Country” by the Fifth Dimension, and “Check Out Your Mind” by the Impressions, for example), or the reaction they provoke is strongly negative: “Maybe” by the Three Degrees is an overblown weeper with a spoken introduction that lasts forever, and “A Song of Joy” by Miguel Rios spends four minutes trying to go somewhere but never really does. The stronger songs near the bottom are the kind of thing only chart geeks will remember: “Mississippi” by John Phillips, Mark Lindsay’s “Silver Bird,” “Are You Ready” by Pacific Gas and Electric, and “Westbound #9” by Flaming Ember.

Apart from “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry, you have to get pretty far up the chart before you start finding stuff that endured into the age of oldies radio: “Ohio,” “Teach Your Children,” “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “Spill the Wine,” “Signed Sealed Delivered,” “Ride Captain Ride,” “Make It With You,” “I Want You Back,” and “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” The Top 10 is solid, although the #1 song of the week, “Close to You” by the Carpenters, in its first of four straight weeks at #1, never really fit what oldies radio would become; it found an afterlife on MOR and soft-rock radio for a while, but nobody plays it anymore.

But just when I am getting ready to dismiss this show, something magical happens. Casey comes out of a jingle and straight into “Gimme Dat Ding” by the Pipkins, a weird little novelty that matches a falsetto singer with what sounds like Arte Johnson’s dirty old man character from Laugh-In, and it’s the single hottest moment of the show. Then it’s straight into the irresistible pop glide of Vanity Fare’s “Hitchin’ a Ride.” Audiences in 1970 had to sit through a commercial break after that, but in 2017 we roll straight into “Tighter and Tighter” by Alive ‘n’ Kicking, and there I am, in the car, at a stoplight, and it is, as I have said before, like I’m looking at my life in the test tube, mixed up but not yet poured out. What’s in there are not just songs I will love, on the air in 1970 and in years to come, but the way they sound on the radio, which I will love just as much.

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.)

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