Category Archives: American Top 40

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.)

Tryin’ to Hold On

(Pictured: Elton John listens at home, 1974.)

I said it in the very first post at this blog: the record charts, from about 1970 through about 1986, are the calendar of my life: name a date and I’ll give you a song; name a song and I’ll give you a date. I used to be able to tell you the #1 song on any given date of the 1970s, but some pages of the calendar are getting a little dim.

I was listening to the American Top 40 show from April 13, 1974. That’s the season in which I discovered AT40 as a listener, picking it out of the static on WROK from Rockford, Illinois. Several of my favorite songs that spring were ones I heard only on AT40, as none of my favorite stations were playing them. I had never heard anything like “The Payback” by James Brown, and I dug it. Neither WCFL or WLS in Chicago charted Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” WLS didn’t chart the Staple Singers’ “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend” either; WCFL did, but they never played it as much as I wanted to hear it. Other obscure songs from that show still stick in my mind after all this time, including Lamont Dozier’s “Tryin’ to Hold on to My Woman” and the fabulous country soul of “Tell Me a Lie” by Sami Jo, another song I heard nowhere else.

As I listen, I’m on parallel tracks—geeky 14-year-old in the spring of eighth grade, making his own handwritten list of the hits, one song at a time, and geeky 57-year-old in the autumn of his life, remembering those songs and others he expects to hear. But this is where the calendar page gets dim.

As the show goes on, I start thinking, “Where’s ‘Band on the Run’?” The album hit #1 during the very April week of this AT40 show, and I keep expecting to hear the title song. When Casey gets to #14 and plays “Jet,” I realize that I must have misremembered when “Band on the Run” hit the radio. It wouldn’t reach the Hot 100 until the week of April 20, at #68. It would hit #41 the next week, blast onto AT40 at #22 during the week of May 4, and go 14-7-5-2 and finally to #1 on June 8, 1974.

(Digression: I would like to be able to tell you when “Band on the Run” first appears at ARSA, the Airheads Radio Survey Archive, but a recent update to the site has removed that functionality, in which you could click on a title and see all the listings for that title, an invaluable research aid. I have asked the site proprietor why, but have yet to hear back. I hope there’s an explanation. This is a serious loss to geeks such as I.)

By the time Casey reached the Top 5, I felt pretty confident in being able to predict what I was going to hear. It was the spring of 1974, I’d heard this show the first time it aired, and after 43 years I know the territory: “Come and Get Your Love,” “The Lord’s Prayer,” “TSOP,” and “Hooked on a Feeling.”

That left only the week’s #1 hit. I was sitting at a stop sign when it came on: “Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John. And I said out loud to nobody, “Where the fk is ‘The Streak’?” The answer: at #84, where it debuted during the week of April 13. It would go 84-54-19-6-2 before hitting #1 during the week of May 18, staying two weeks and remaining in the Top 10 til the end of June and in the Hot 100 until August.

So maybe those nights I remember, up there in my bedroom at home, trying to keep my radio locked on that sketchy AM signal from Rockford, were later in the spring than I thought. Perhaps May instead of April.

It seems like a small thing, being off by one month after 43 years. And besides, a man my age sees many of his abilities begin to decline. Nevertheless, I wasn’t expecting that this—my idiot-savant-like memory for record charts, something that defines who I am and what I care about—would be one of them.

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.

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