Category Archives: American Top 40

Back to ’75

(Pictured: Elton John, whose Greatest Hits was among the top albums in the winter of 1975, even though it didn’t contain his current hit single.)

So not long after I posted my cri de coeur about the winter of 1975, how it was an awful time in America despite my pleasant memories, I listened to the American Top 40 show from January 25, 1975.

The show started with Joni Mitchell’s great live version of “Big Yellow Taxi,” far better than the studio version from years before. The first hour also included Billy Joel’s “The Entertainer,” in which he gripes about being a star even though at the time the song was recorded he wasn’t, really. As it sometimes does, the first hour contained some hot garbage: “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” by Paul Davis, a record so wimpy it makes Neil Sedaka sound like Ted Nugent, and “Your Bulldog Drinks Champagne” by Jim Stafford, which I don’t know what the hell to think. Also in the first hour was the rarest of rarities, a 70s Top 40 hit I can’t remember hearing before, “I Belong to You” by Love Unlimited.

Casey also read a letter from Alan O’Day, writer of Helen Reddy’s “Angie Baby,” the former #1 single that was still hanging on at the bottom of the 40. The letter was a belated Christmas card telling the AT40 staff that he had often dreamed of hearing Casey talking about one of his songs on the show. Casey said that he was looking forward to talking about Alan O’Day’s next hit—which would be under his own name a couple of years hence, “Undercover Angel.”

The show featured another one of those fabulously pleasurable hot streaks:

18. “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything”/Barry White
17. “Junior’s Farm”/Paul McCartney and Wings
16. “Rock and Roll (I Gave You the Best Years of My Life)”/Mac Davis
15. “Best of My Love”/Eagles
14. “Get Dancin'”/Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes
13. “Doctor’s Orders”/Carol Douglas
12. “Some Kind of Wonderful”/Grand Funk
11. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”/Elton John
10. “Pick Up the Pieces”/Average White Band
9. “Never Can Say Goodbye”/Gloria Gaynor

On “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” the Love Unlimited Orchestra glides like a finely-tuned limousine on the Interstate. “Junior’s Farm” is the hardest-rockin’ record on the show by a mile. (Probably woulda killed Paul Davis.) “Rock and Roll,” about the life of a struggling musician, is impossible to resist singing along with (or at least it is for me). “Best of My Love” was heard in its rare 45 configuration, which nobody plays anymore. Some powerful pharmaceuticals were involved in the creation of “Get Dancin’,” or my name isn’t whatever my name is. Next to the Tavares song “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel,” my favorite disco song is “Doctor’s Orders,” which positively jumps out of the radio. Grand Funk, Elton, and AWB have had 40 years of continuous exposure, but hearing and remembering them in the context of early 1975 was a reminder of how solid they were, and are. “Never Can Say Goodbye” barrels down the track like a runaway train.

The remainder of the Top 10 is all over the place: Donny and Marie (“Morning Side of the Mountain” at #8), Paul Anka and Odia Coates (“One Man Woman, One Woman Man” at #7), Barry Manilow (“Mandy,” #3), and Neil Sedaka (“Laughter in the Rain,” #2) sit sap-tastically alongside the Ohio Players’ “Fire” (#4) and “Boogie On Reggae Woman” (#5). Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” holds its own with those two a little better, and is the hottest record on the chart (up to #6 from #21).

At #1 is what Casey says is only the third song in history to reach #1 by two different performers. “Please Mr. Postman” by the Carpenters, originally recorded by the Marvelettes in 1961, joins “Go Away Little Girl” and “The Locomotion” with that distinction. (Earlier in the show, when Casey played Carole King’s “Nightingale,” he told us that King had co-written the only two songs to reach #1 by two different artists. At that time, he chose not to tease the coming third one, which strikes me as an opportunity missed.) There’s a video for “Please Mr. Postman,” which I posted here years ago. Back then, I said that it looks like the trailer for a movie called Virgins in Disneyland. It still does.

The winter of 1975 sounds a lot better in memory than it reads in history. Perhaps now, 40 years later, that’s what really matters.

New to the Family

(Pictured: Prince, whose distinctive sound was on the radio in 1986 under names not his own.)

I am not sure why it took me as long as it did, back there in the middle of the 1980s, to pick up American Top 40 for my radio station. We’d thrown the switch on the Top 40 format in September 1984, but we didn’t add AT40 until a year later, about the same time I took over the morning show. Almost every week, Casey would welcome new members of “the AT40 family of stations.” And on the show dated January 18, 1986, he finally got around to welcoming us: K100 in Macomb, Illinois.

At its peak, AT40 was on something like 500 radio stations around the country, and there’s evidence to suggest the syndicator, Watermark, wasn’t big on exclusivity. I am pretty sure you could have materialized at random anywhere in the United States on a Sunday in the mid 80s and found the show on your radio. On the 1/18/86 show, Casey also saluted an affiliate in Galesburg, Illinois, just an hour north of Macomb, and I would not at all be surprised if the show had aired on Top 40 stations in Burlington, Iowa, and Peoria, Illinois, also close by.

The 1/18/86 show was quintessentially 80s: Wham and Survivor, the Cars and Bruce Springsteen, Pat Benatar and Mr. Mister, Corey Hart and John Mellencamp, Scritti Politti and Arcadia. (So much reverb and so few real drums.) It also included two now-forgotten dance numbers in the same quarter-hour, “Everybody Dance” by Ta Mara and the Seen and “Sidewalk Talk” by Jellybean. Each gained popularity thanks to its connections to other, bigger stars: Ta Mara and the Seen were a Minneapolis group produced by Jesse Johnson, who had been in the Time, and “Everybody Dance” sounds like a Prince record. Jellybean was producer John “Jellybean” Benitez. Madonna wrote “Sidewalk Talk” and sings backup on it. Give her credit for a decent lyric (“watch where you walk cuz the sidewalks talk”), even though 45 version seems to go on forever. Give nobody credit for “Everybody Dance,” which was flat terrible. I hated hearing both of them on my air.

Shortly before the show aired, The Mrs. and I had moved to a rented house, the first house we’d ever lived in together. It was a fabulous old thing with two bedrooms, a formal dining room, a huge living room, and a screened porch on the front. The main bathroom was spectacularly ugly, with tile in pink, green, and gray. The walk-up attic wasn’t finished, but the downstairs had four or five different rooms—it wouldn’t have been difficult to rent it out as an apartment if we’d enclosed the toilet and shower that stood in the open down there. We would have to mow the lawn come spring, but I don’t remember shoveling snow in the winter, so the landlord, a local judge, must have taken care of that.

The house had apparently been the judge’s family home when his children were little, and as a result he was reluctant to do anything with it—like replace the damn ugly tile, or let us strip the paint off what we guessed were lovely hardwood cabinets in the kitchen. Had we intended to stay in Macomb—and, I suppose, had I been making real money instead of radio money—we’d have been happy to buy it. It needed some work—all new windows for one thing, and a new furnace. But we came to suspect that he didn’t really want to part with it, and we ended up leaving town at the end of 1986 anyway. We wouldn’t live in a house again for 12 years.

Sucked Into the Radio

(Pictured: Bachman-Turner Overdrive, beloved above all other bands by teenage boys of my acquaintance 40 years ago this fall.)

Recently I said this about American Top 40: “Every now and then [the show] hits a streak that captures the full, glorious panoply of 70s music, and even more than that, demonstrates just how much damn fun it was to listen to the radio back then.” It was like that on practically the whole show dated November 30, 1974—one of the most entertaining AT40s ever.

The first hour contains a few clunkers: “Whatever You Got, I Want” by the Jackson Five, in which a really good funk track is undercut by Michael’s pre-pubescent vocal; “Fire Baby, I’m on Fire” by Andy Kim, in which the guy who had asked you to rock him gently only a few months before now wants to burn you down like General Sherman; and “The Need to Be” by Jim Weatherly, in which a man of the Me Decade disappears up his own external orifice. But the show catches fire in the second hour with some quintessentially 70s radio songs and just keeps rolling right to the end. They’re on the flip.

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Listen to the Music

(Pictured: delegates to the 1972 Democratic National Convention listen to George McGovern accept the nomination. Not pictured: reporters Walter Klondike and David Stinkley.)

Every now and then American Top 40 hits a streak that captures the full, glorious panoply of 70s music, and even more than that, demonstrates just how much damn fun it was to listen to the radio back then. The show from November 18, 1972, contains one such sequence:

23. “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues”/Danny O’Keefe
22. “Operator”/Jim Croce
21. “It Never Rains in Southern California”/Albert Hammond
20. “I’m Stone in Love With You”/Stylistics
19. “Burning Love”/Elvis Presley
18. “Ventura Highway”/America
17. “Thunder and Lightning”/Chi Coltrane
16. “Listen to the Music”/Doobie Brothers
15. “You Ought to Be With Me”/Al Green

It all came crashing to a halt at #14 with Chuck Berry’s execrable “My Ding-a-Ling,” but at least Casey’s modern-day producers had the good sense to shorten it.

They might have done the same down at #27 with Cashman and West’s “American City Suite.” Made up of three different songs patched together (“Sweet City Song,” “All Around the Town,” and “A Friend Is Dying”), “American City Suite” is an arty and ambitious record obviously striving for Relevance—a tribute to New York City fraught with fears about its future, apparently. It’s a big, unwieldy mess that runs 7:42 (edited down from nearly 11:00), and Casey played nearly every second of it.

Casey also played all five minutes of “Convention ’72” by the Delegates. It’s a break-in record detailing “the first get-together convention of Republicans and Democrats,” and it must have sounded mighty odd to listeners who happened to hear the November 18 show when it was rebroadcast around the country last month. (Those who didn’t remember the controversy surrounding the replacement of George McGovern’s original choice for running mate, Senator Thomas Eagleton, with Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver likely found it even more incomprehensible.) “Convention ’72” features “David Stinkley,” “Walter Klondike,” and “Sidney Bruntley,” the latter of whom is for some reason portrayed as a flaming homosexual, talking to famous political figures, who respond in clips from 1972 hits.

“Convention ’72” was written by Nick Censi and Nick Kousaleous, a couple of record moguls in Pittsburgh. Local DJ Bob DeCarlo of KQV provided the reporters’ voices. In 1984, DeCarlo told a reporter for Radio and Records that the three of them put the record together “for fun in my kitchen.” The three men worried about getting permission to use the song clips they had chosen for the record, so they asked the king of the break-in record, Dickie Goodman, for advice. Goodman told them, “You just do it and wait for the suits to come in.” Only one did.

For a few weeks around the 1972 presidential election, “Convention ’72” was a rage. It hit the Hot 100 on October 21 at #80 and cruised up the charts, going to #57 to #26 to #9 and finally to #8, its chart peak, for the week of November 18. It slipped to #11 for the week of the 25th, then to #28, and crashed then out of the Hot 100 altogether, as novelties will do. The song outperformed its national number in Seattle, DC, Phoenix, San Francisco, Cleveland, and Chicago, where it reached #5 at WCFL. Across town, WLS didn’t play it—like KQV, WLS was owned by ABC, and to avoid conflict-of-interest charges, no ABC owned-and-operated station played it. (I can’t verify whether KQV did.)

Elsewhere, the November 18, 1972, AT40 show includes weirdly un-commercial rock singles (Grand Funk’s “Rock and Roll Soul,” Alice Cooper’s “Elected,” the Band’s “Don’t Do It”), magnificent Philly soul classics (“Me and Mrs. Jones,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “I’ll Be Around”), a couple of nods to the women’s liberation movement (Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” and Bread’s “Sweet Surrender,” which contains the lines “you keep your rights / I’ll take your nights”), and an Osmonds record heavy enough to impress Led Zeppelin (“Crazy Horses”). All in all, it’s one of the most purely entertaining AT40 shows I’ve ever heard.

Great on the Radio

(Pictured: Rick Dees, which rhymes with cheese.)

I was driving the other morning, golden September light all around me, listening to an American Top 40 show from September 1976. I was not really paying attention, I have to say—there are other things on my mind this September, with more than enough weight in the here and now to make it less attractive to deliberately take on the weight of the past. I was distracted enough so that only a few bits of the show were able to break through.

—On that September weekend, eight new stations had joined the AT40 family, including WINO in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. WINO, of course, was the call sign in George Carlin’s famous Top 40 parody, “Wonderful WINO,” such an indelible performance that it seems strange for any real-world radio station to have those call letters. It turns out that Casey’s new affiliate was a student station at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, but I have learned nothing else about it.

—The Rick Dees novelty “Disco Duck” was on its way to #1 in September 1976. A couple of years ago at Popdose, I described it like this: “It’s just a guy singing about turning into a duck and then, another guy who can do a duck voice speaks in a duck voice.” But the first 10 seconds sound insanely great on the radio, and the record is rich with Memphis connections. Dees worked for a Memphis radio station when he recorded it; it was produced by Bobby Manuel, who had been a studio musician at Stax and became a business partner of Stax co-founder Jim Stewart after Stax went broke. Before it was picked up by RSO Records, it was released on the local Fretone label, owned by the other Stax co-founder, Estelle Axton. So dim as it is, there are several reasons it sounds as good as it does.

—There are different schools of thought on how DJs should handle their levels. My preference is to run the music hot and my microphone hotter, so that the music is always very, very present. If a record is mastered to be really loud—as many records are nowadays—I drop the level of the music a little, but only a little. Other jocks will start with the music up, turn it way down when they talk, then quickly crank it back up to 100 percent. Casey’s producers liked to mix him with his voice at 100 percent and the music barely audible behind him. Only when he’s done talking does the music zoom up to 100 percent. This is fine if you’re listening in a quiet place, but not in the car. Unless you make an effort, you often can’t tell what he’s playing until he stops talking. It sounds somewhat better on the radio, where audio is processed to smooth out the dynamics, but on a CD in the noisy audio environment of the car, not so much.

—Also on the radio in September ’76 was the group Silver. It featured a future Grateful Dead member, Brent Mydland, on keyboards; singer/guitarist John Batdorf had been one-half of Batdorf and Rodney, known primarily to denizens of the cutout racks; bassist Tom Leadon was the brother of founding Eagle Bernie Leadon; the other dudes in the band were known only to their friends and family. The most famous person associated with the group turned out to be future comic actor Phil Hartman, who designed the cover of the band’s lone album during his days as a freelance graphic designer. The band’s lone hit, “Wham Bam (Shang-a-Lang,)” riding the chart in September 1976, is one of the most splendiferously 70s records there is, from the opening drum pickup and the big fat lead guitar to the sunny 70s harmonies and the singalong refrain. And it has one other distinctly 70s thing:

Now that it’s said and we both understand
Let’s say our goodbyes before it gets out of hand

It’s about keeping a one-night wham-bam from becoming more than that.

The First Chapter of Genesis

(Pictured: the marquee for Elvis Presley’s 1969 Las Vegas debut. A future radio icon was in the audience.)

Over Labor Day weekend, the American Top 40 repeat on stations around the country was from August 29, 1970. It was a rarity in that most of the time, when Premiere Radio Networks offers shows from 1970, 1971, or 1972 to affiliates, it also offers an alternate show for those stations who’d rather not air something quite so ancient. Not this time.

The show was the eighth one in AT40 history. Technically, this one is pretty sketchy, like the engineer was having trouble balancing Casey’s audio level with the music, jingles, and sounders. The timing is occasionally off—a record fades before Casey comes on, or a jingle or record starts a split-second sooner than it should. And the beeping synthesizer sounder so frequently heard on the early shows is everywhere on this edition, as if Casey doesn’t want to talk without some kind of sound behind him, even for a couple of seconds. Casey himself doesn’t seem particularly well-scripted—a song will play for three or four seconds before he comes on mike, hurriedly says something that sounds like he just thought it up, and barely gets out of the way of the vocal. He’ll give a title without the artist’s name, or fail to mention the chart position of a song—which is kinda bad on a countdown show.

This show contains a couple of random oldies. I missed Casey’s intro of the first one, due to a combination of bad levels and his tendency to hurry unnecessarily. All I heard was that it was from 1966, and I didn’t recognize it at all—some female R&B singer from Memphis, I guessed. But it turned out to be this. The other featured oldie was “Chances Are” by Johnny Mathis, a vivid example of why many program directors today aren’t wild about the shows from the early 70s.

I can only think of a couple of instances in which Casey mentioned his personal life on American Top 40—and one of them was on the August 29, 1970, show. He told the story of seeing Elvis in Las Vegas in 1969, and how Elvis came down to his ringside table to sing to his date and ended the song by kissing her. “It was the only thing she talked about for weeks,” Casey remarked. Then he told how he’d seen Elvis again a few weeks ago with a different date, and how he was careful to sit several tables away from the stage this time. The only similar instance I can recall was on a 1976 show, when Casey told about being a high-school classmate of future jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd and playing in a band with him.

(Listen to most radio shows for several years and you’ll eventually learn something about the person or people behind the microphone. But little of Casey Kasem the man, as opposed to the radio icon, ever leaked over into AT40. He was politically active, a vegan, a baseball fan, and an actor who appeared on Hawaii Five-O, Emergency, and Charlie’s Angels in addition to dozens of voiceover gigs during AT40‘s heyday, but he never betrayed a hint of it on the show.)

A person of scientific mind might find themselves in speechless awe when contemplating the Big Bang. A religious person might get a similar sense of wonder when reading the first chapter of Genesis. In my world, the ur-text is the Hot 100 from the fall of 1970. It’s where the things that have mattered the most throughout my life began to begin. And although I’ve written about that subject many times before, I intend to go to the well again in the next post.

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