(Pictured: Young Rod Stewart, performing with Faces in London on September 18, 1971.)
When I was a kid, I rode the school bus for over an hour every morning. If I go out and lose myself on those town roads now, I can find places that were on the route, but I have never been able to reconstruct the whole thing. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t really paying attention. That long morning bus ride is a critical part of my personal mythology, because in the fall of 1970, I started sitting under the radio speaker every morning, absorbing WLS like a sponge. By the time I got back on the bus in the fall of 1971, I knew that listening to the radio wasn’t going to be enough for me. I wanted to be on the radio.
American Top 40 recently repeated the show from September 18, 1971, and as I listened, I found myself looking out the window of the bus. That, and being fairly impressed by just a remarkable list of songs. It’s as close to all killer and no filler as any AT40 ever gets. It’s loaded with soul classics: “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” James Brown’s “Make It Funky,” Stevie Wonder’s “If You Really Love Me,” “Tired of Being Alone” by Al Green, plus “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Spanish Harlem.” Apart from those, the radio was rockin’ in that bygone late-summer week. Some notables are on the flip.
(Pictured: Michael Jackson and Casey Kasem, 1993.)
Even though radio personalities are sometimes called “announcers,” that’s exactly the wrong way to think of the task. You’re not speaking to a crowd in a theater; you’re talking to one person in a car over here, three people in an office over there, and so on. You should talk on the radio like you were in that car or in that office, conversing directly with those people. The greatest radio communicators, with very few exceptions, do exactly that.
I still struggle with this from time to time. The ham in me wants to perform, to show how cool and funny I can be. A talent coach once told me I should not try to be funny at all, despite the fact that it’s how I relate to people off the air, too. A more useful approach might have been to tell me that every radio show is a performance, and that one of my goals should be to hide the fact that I’m performing—to do what I do and be who I am without being obvious about it.
(Someday perhaps I will do an entire post about that particular coaching session, a 45-minute rubber-hose beating that was one of the low points in my broadcasting career.)
A jock who’s coached frequently, or is savvy enough to listen to his own airchecks and critique himself, can usually figure out how to just talk. But those who aren’t coached can get completely lost in their performance. There are thousands of jocks whose schtick is larded with weird inflections, verbal tics and crutches, and stuff that real human beings would never say to one another. (“Twenty-six minutes now past the hour of eight o’clock on this Wednesday morning.”)
So the ideal is just to talk.
I listened to a couple of American Top 40 shows over the weekend, both from the last week in August, one from 1972 and one from 1984. In 1972, AT40 had been on the air for only a couple of years. Casey still sometimes dipped into what I call his FM radio voice, softer and lower than we’re used to hearing from him, an inflection that he stopped using long about 1973. But even with that, the show was a master class in how to talk to people on the radio. His stories about the artists were delivered casually but with humor or seriousness as appropriate; he integrated the various elements of the show skillfully without drawing attention to what he was doing. It was a performance, but you didn’t catch him performing.
Flash forward to 1984. AT40 is by this time an international institution, and Casey possesses one of the most famous voices on Earth. And every time he opened his mouth, on this particular late-August show at least, a listener could not help but be conscious that this man was performing.
Part of the problem came from the padded nature of the four-hour shows. Casey’s bits were written to take up more time, so the first Long Distance Dedication on the show seemed as long as a Russian novel; his chart trivia bits were repetitious, belaboring the main point two or three times. But the problem can’t be laid entirely at the feet of the writers. For this show, Casey slowed his pace noticeably, speaking far more slowly than he usually did, to the point at which he was no longer merely talking on the radio; he was Addressing the World.
Toward the end of the show, he did a bit (a press release, actually) from a group of optometrists who had chosen the best celebrity eyes. It was meaningless twaddle not worth the airtime, but Casey read it at a remarkably slow pace, portentously lingering over every syllable, on and on through a half-dozen different types of eyes, trying to build drama for what had to be a full minute before finally reaching “best doe-eyed celebrity,” Michael Jackson, and using the bit to introduce the Jacksons’ then-current “State of Shock.”
I wanted to pull the radio out of the dash and chuck it out the window.
That particular 1984 show was an outlier. I’ve listened to dozens of AT40s in recent years, and I’ve never heard anything quite like it. It was a master class in how not to talk to people on the radio.
(Pictured: KC and the Sunshine Band in action. Get down tonight, baby.)
Here we go with the second half of the American Top 40 show from August 23, 1975.
19. “That’s the Way of the World”/Earth Wind & Fire and 18. “Holdin’ on to Yesterday”/Ambrosia. About as classy as the Top 40 got in the 70s.
17. “Feel Like Makin’ Love”/Bad Company. After which Casey does a “where are they now” feature on Dee Dee Sharp, who had hit in the early 60s with “Mashed Potato Time.” She was married to Philadelphia mogul Kenny Gamble by 1975 and was preparing to make her first record in 10 years. What Color Is Love was released in 1977.
Extra: “Eighteen With a Bullet”/Pete Wingfield. I will never fail to be impressed whenever anybody busts out this record, although AT40 announcer Larry Morgan botched the definition of “bullet” and missed an opportunity to mention that during one week in November 1975, “Eighteen With a Bullet” was actually #18 with a bullet on the Hot 100.
13. “Love Will Keep Us Together”/Captain and Tennille. In 1975, 35 different records would reach #1. In such a volatile era, “Love Will Keep Us Together” staying four straight weeks at the top back in June and July was a remarkable accomplishment.
12. “Midnight Blue”/Melissa Manchester. I could listen to the first nine seconds of “Midnight Blue” on a loop for about an hour, but that would delay the gratification that comes from hearing the rest of the song.
11. “Fight the Power”/Isley Brothers. With which Casey corrects an error that was caught by a listener. The previous month, Casey had said that the Miracles had the longest current span on the charts, going back to 1959. But a radio station GM in South Carolina wrote to say that the Isley Brothers had put their first hit on the chart two weeks before the Miracles’ first hit, which gave them the longest span. That’s an impressive fact to command, especially in an era when it was necessary to dig into actual issues of Billboard to do such research.
10. “Please Mr. Please”/Olivia Newton-John. In its eighth consecutive week in the Top 10. It was the 1970s. We couldn’t help ourselves.
6. “Why Can’t We Be Friends”/War. Like “Black Superman,” this is another record that never fails to amuse me.
4. “Jive Talkin'”/Bee Gees. Last week’s #1. It’s worth remembering that this was a modest comeback record for the Bee Gees, who hadn’t scored a big hit in the States since “Run to Me” nearly three years before, and a major change from their Beatle-inspired acoustic style. It wasn’t Saturday Night Fever yet, but that was coming.
Extra: “Miracles”/Jefferson Starship. Three minutes of crazy-good sex, happening right there on your radio. Seven minutes if you get A) the album version or B) lucky.
3. “Get Down Tonight”/KC and the Sunshine Band. Reporting that this record made a mighty leap from #12 to #3, Casey says that it looks like it’s headed for #1, and it would get there the next week. It’s no wonder, really—the Sunshine Band lays down a smokin’ hot groove, and KC sounds like he’s got all he can do to escape the party so he can sing.
2. “One of These Nights”/Eagles. From the #1 album in the country for a fifth week. In a piece earlier this month in Rolling Stone, Cameron Crowe said that one of the proposed titles for the album was Wallet on the Snare, after a production trick Philadelphia super-producer Thom Bell is said to have used. Glenn Frey read that Bell would get the sound he wanted by having the drummer set his wallet on the snare drum. In a radio interview clip found on the Eagles Selected Works box set, Frey tells a DJ the same thing.
1. “Fallin’ in Love”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds. Casey reports that Tommy Reynolds is no longer in the group, replaced by Alan Dennison, but that the group continues to use Reynolds’ name “with Tommy’s permission.” And why not? “Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds” is the single most euphonious group name in pop history.
(Pictured: James Garner and Joe Santos in The Rockford Files.)
In my hometown, school is starting before Labor Day this year. That used to be the norm, but not anymore; Wisconsin obliged the tourism industry’s workforce requirements a few years ago by passing an idiotic law forbidding school to start before September 1, apparently without realizing that it takes only a couple of snow days before schools are in session until Father’s Day. In most years, it’s September 4th or 5th before schools open. But Labor Day is as late as it can be this year, so kids go can go back next Tuesday.
I was always ready to go back in the fall. Before I had a driver’s license, I saw very little of my friends during the summer because I was out on the farm, and I missed them. The opening of school also got me out of having to do farm work, which I mostly hated.
So: 40 years ago this week, I was about to begin my sophomore year in high school. I was listening to the radio all the time during the last days of summer, but I don’t recall whether I listened to American Top 40 in that season. I don’t think so; it was never on one of my primary radio stations, so I had to go looking for it, and I don’t remember doing so. The odds are good that I was hearing the August 23, 1975, show for the first time when it was a recent rerun. Some notable tunes are on the flip.
(Pictured: “Oh, God, there’s that idiot with the Leo Sayer record again.”)
As time passes, we learn new things, we gain new perspectives, and we sometimes find that what we once believed isn’t quite true. So we recalibrate what we once believed, in hopes of being wiser in times to come. It’s what most intelligent people do (except for some intransigent political creatures who equate virtue with believing in the same things you believed 10 or 30 or 50 or 500 years ago, even in the face of evidence to the contrary).
American Top 40 recently repeated the show from July 21, 1979, the very same week that inspired a 2011 post I wrote called “Summer of Schlock”, but I am finding it not quite so schlocky another time around.
(Pictured: the Hues Corporation.)
In the summer of 1974, Casey Kasem landed a guest role on Hawaii Five-O, playing a crooked furniture store owner. American Top 40 was preparing its annual summer special (“The Top 40 Singles Artists of the 1970s”) for the weekend of July 6th, which could be recorded far in advance, and Casey had already arranged for Humble Harve Miller to fill in for him on the weekend of the 13th. But Casey’s shooting schedule required him to be in Hawaii in late June—which would interfere with the recording schedule for the show airing on June 29th. The new Billboard Hot 100 wouldn’t be available in time. So the AT40 staff made a fateful decision. Instead of rounding up yet another substitute host, they would estimate the chart positions for the week of June 29th and count down that chart instead. They didn’t make a big deal about it. They presented the songs just as if Billboard had placed them, with only a disclaimer at the end saying that the chart was based on staff estimates.
What follows is the chart Casey counted down that weekend, with the actual Hot 100 position in parentheses and various random observations.