Category Archives: American Top 40

Only Sixteen

(Pictured: How I remember my 16th birthday. There was cake, but the rest of it is hazy.)

Sooner or later, this blog always comes back to 1976. A couple of weekends ago, AT40 repeated the show from February 28, 1976—the week of my 16th birthday—and I’ve been listening to it in the car this week.

I remember coming down for breakfast on February 29th—a Sunday—and hearing my mother say, in the gently mocking tone she occasionally took with us when we were kids, “There’s Jim, sweet 16 and never been kissed.” I didn’t think she was particularly funny, however. I had been kissed by then, although not often enough to suit me, and not by anyone recently.

Mom would always make us a cake for our birthdays, or something other than a cake if we wanted it; one year she made me a fabulous chocolate pudding dessert with graham-cracker crust, and I think we put candles on a pizza for one of my brothers once. We were usually photographed holding our cakes, standing in the same general spot in the dining room every year, so a picture was probably taken that day. Birthday custom also permitted us to either request a favorite meal at home or to go out someplace to eat. I seem to recall that I chose dinner (which would have been the noon meal back then) at a little hole-in-the-wall pizza joint on the edge of town.

During the very week of my birthday—starting on Thursday and continuing through the next weekend—we’d experience an epic ice storm that remains one of my most vivid memories of growing up. But the Sunday of that week is mostly blank.

The February 28, 1976, edition of AT40 doesn’t help much. In fact, the show isn’t particularly memorable at all. It gets off to a slow start, with five songs in a row that were all relatively new, none of which became a significant hit then or is especially memorable now. The first hour ends with a backward-looking streak: the Salsoul Orchestra’s disco version of the 1942 Jimmy Dorsey hit “Tangerine,” Tony Orlando and Dawn covering Sam Cooke’s “Cupid,” the Beach Boys’ 1966 hit “Good Vibrations” as an extra, and Dr. Hook’s cover of Cooke’s “Only Sixteen.” Hour #2 starts better, with Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” ELO’s “Evil Woman” (heard in its rare 45 edit with what I think is an extra snip by the AT40 engineer) and Linda Ronstadt’s cover of “Tracks of My Tears.” That’s followed by one of my favorite AT40 train wrecks, Foghat’s “Slow Ride” followed by Donny and Marie’s “Deep Purple.” Casey breaks them up with an anecdote about record mogul Mike Curb, noting that Curb can identify “all of the chart hits of the last 20 years by artist and record label.” Up at #21, listeners are once again forced to sit through the CB-themed novelty “The White Knight” by Cledus Maggard. (Everyone has some shameful things in their past that defy explanation, and the popularity of “The White Knight” is one of America’s.) At #15, Casey spends a minute or two sketching the career of singer/actor Al Jolson while introducing the disco version of “Baby Face,” a song first published in 1926 and made famous by Jolson in the early 30s. As always, the hits get bigger as the numbers get smaller. Some of the songs in the Top 10—“All By Myself,” “Dream Weaver,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”—are still capable of snapping me back to the ice storm, but not the Sunday before.

I suppose that the lesson is this: not everything we’d like to consider a totem is really a totem. Not every artifact is sacred. I’d like the AT40 show from my 16th birthday, back there in the year that means more than all the others, to be one of the treasures in the museum of my personal history. But it’s not going to be. Some things are just amusing old junk.

A Super Star

(Pictured: Gary Owens in 2008.)

As a tribute to the late Gary Owens, Premiere Radio Networks recently offered its American Top 40 affiliates a show Owens guest-hosted, his only time filling in for Casey Kasem, on the weekend of September 12, 1981. We started live-blogging it in the previous installment—part 2 is on the flip.

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Gary Owens on AT40

(Pictured: Gary Owens at KPRZ in Los Angeles, 1983.)

When Gary Owens died three weeks ago, I was on the road and unable to cobble together a tribute to one of America’s most famous radio DJs. Fortunately, Premiere Radio Networks, the company that syndicates American Top 40, helped out last weekend by offering affiliates the show from September 12, 1981, which was guest-hosted by Owens. It was the third option for AT40 80s affiliates on that weekend, so I doubt many of them aired it, but I got me a copy of it, because of course I did. The first part of a two-part live blog is on the flip. We’ll do part 2 on Monday.

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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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