Category Archives: American Top 40

Casey Country

(Pictured: Johnny Cash as Grand Marshall of the Grand Bicentennial Parade in Washington, July 4, 1976.)

(Before we begin: watch this space on Memorial Day Monday for a special programming announcement.)

I have often written here how forgotten records of various genres populate the first hour of many American Top 40 repeats, and that they sometimes clash weirdly when played back to back. Those clashes are part of the fun of hearing the reruns today, although I’m sure they make program directors squirm a little bit—and to be fair, they may have made program directors squirm a little back in the day, too.

I’ve been listening to the May 22, 1976, show over the last few days, and there’s a stretch of that broadcast that makes you wonder just what format you’re listening to. It starts innocuously at #36 with Olivia Newton-John’s “Come on Over,” a song by Barry and Robin Gibb that was also a Top-10 hit on the country charts. Up next at #35 is the highest-debuting song of the week, “I.O.U.” by Jimmy Dean. At the time, Dean was known to most as the star of commercials for his sausage company, although he had been a TV star for years before that, and he scored a number of sizable spoken-word hits in the 1960s, including “Big Bad John” and “P.T. 109.”

May 22, 1976, was a Saturday; the previous Sunday would have been Mother’s Day, which explains why “I.O.U,” in which Dean describes how grateful he is for all the services his mother provided him over a lifetime by reciting them over a weepy string track, would have zoomed into the 40 from #83.

After “I.O.U,” which runs 5:57 (and which seems twice as long), Casey teases that he’s going to answer a question from a listener about the highest-charting answer record in pop history. Then he kicks into Gary Wright’s latest, “Love Is Alive,” at #34, and normalcy seems to return. After the record’s over, he answers the question: the top answer song of all time is Jeanne Black’s “He’ll Have to Stay,” a response to Jim Reeves’ 1960 classic “He’ll Have to Go.” Two more country songs, although both went Top 5 on the pop chart as well. (Hear ’em both here.) And after this bit of trivia, Casey moves on to #33: “One Piece at a Time” by Johnny Cash.

By this point, a Top-40 listener could scarcely be blamed for thinking he’d tuned in the wrong station, at least until the Doobie Brothers (“Takin’ It to the Streets”) and Rhythm Heritage (“Baretta’s Theme”) set things aright, although Elvis and the Bellamy Brothers will be heard shortly with songs that were also big country hits.

Up at #24, Casey plays “Union Man” by the Cate Brothers, not a country song but one with the working-man sensibility country audiences would recognize. As I listen, I remember that in 2006, National Review published a widely mocked list of the Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs, and I wonder why “Union Man” didn’t make the list. It’s highly ambivalent on the subject of labor unions, and the song’s protagonist would probably have ended up a Reagan Democrat.

Well I know I need to help get that raise
There’s one thing I don’t like
Tell me how can I feed my hungry family
When you say I’m going on strike
Hey hey Mr. union man
How’m I gonna pay my dues
Owe more money than I can pay
Looks like I’m bound to lose

YouTube DJ Music Mike has more on the Cate Brothers and “Union Man” here.

Both “I.O.U” and “Union Man” were at their chart peaks on May 22, 1976. “I.O.U.” would bring AT40 to a dead stop again the next week at #35 and “Union Man” would hold at #24. “I.O.U.” would be gone from the countdown (and the Hot 100) the week after that, while “Union Man” would spend one last week on the 40 during the week of June 5 before plunging to #96 and out. And 40 years after they ran the charts together, “I.O.U.” and “Union Man” stand as dusty, forgotten monuments to the unparalleled diversity of 70s radio pop.

(Rebooted from a post originally appearing in 2010.)

Can’t Fight This Feeling

(Pictured: Kevin Cronin and Gary Richrath of REO Speedwagon, on stage at Live Aid in 1985. You forgot they played that show, didn’t you?)

I have written before about how off-putting I find Casey Kasem’s style on AT40 shows from the middle of the 1980s. He speaks at a noticeably slow pace, as if he’s always trying to stretch, and rather than just talking to the audience, he sounds like he’s announcing at them. He’s doing both on the show from February 23, 1985, but the music is good enough to make up for it, as we discovered in an earlier installment. More of the songs, with links to videos, are on the flip.

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For the Very First Time

(Pictured: Madonna, touring in support of Like a Virgin, circa 1985. What the hell are those extra hands doing?)

In the winter of 1985, I was program director of a Top 40 station. In retrospect, the actual job was less glamorous than the title makes it sound. I wasn’t doing much programming, really. Our station was run by a roomful of automation equipment playing back tapes from a syndicator. I wasn’t doing a regular airshift yet, either. But it was by-god rock ‘n’ roll radio, it was mine, and that was something. I’d sit at my desk in the same room with all that equipment, bathed in machine noise and music, and I felt like I had arrived.

(Digression: with all of the reel-to-reel decks and cartridge machines broadcast automation required, the whir of motors never stopped, even when the station wasn’t broadcasting. In the early 90s, my station replaced its equipment with the first generation of digital automation, and for the longest time after the changeover it was positively disorienting for me to walk into that room. An utter lack of sound had always equated to catastrophic mechanical failure to an old radio hand such as I, and it took a while to get over it.)

(Digression from the digression: room-size automation systems such as ours had a large beeping alarm called a “silence sensor,” which would go off if a period of seconds went by with no audio. It could be heard from anywhere in the building, and when it sounded, it was a drop-everything-and-run-to-fix emergency. At one of my stations, the silence sensor beep was exactly the same as the beep on the french-fry machine at McDonalds. More than once I involuntarily, automatically jumped up and got ready to run in mid-bite at lunchtime.

The American Top 40 show from February 23, 1985, contained some songs that vividly took me back to that first rockin’ winter, as described on the flip, with links to the official music videos for each.

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Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing

(Pictured: George Harrison, doing an interview publicizing his album Thirty-Three and 1/3, circa 1977.)

I am entirely irrational about the songs on the radio during the winter of 1977. Most of them sound great to me, and you can’t persuade me otherwise, even if you use evidence and logic. So I got lost in the American Top 40 show from February 12, 1977, which was rebroadcast recently.

39. “Crackerbox Palace”/George Harrison. It’s appropriate that in a season when I felt alive in a way I never had before—head over heels in love for the first time—that Harrison’s latest hit sounded more alive than anything he’d done in years. (Video from 1976 directed by Eric Idle here.)

37. “Moody Blue”/Elvis Presley. I liked “Moody Blue” then and I like it now, although in the pantheon of Elvitude, it’s a trifle. What strikes me now is how old Elvis sounds. He would have been only 41 when he recorded it, on a portable rig in the Jungle Room at Graceland, but he sounds far less vital than he did earlier in the 70s. In February, we did not know what would happen to him in August.

31. “Somebody to Love”/Queen
22. “Boogie Child”/Bee Gees
This edition of AT40 contains a couple of strange technical glitches. By this point in the show’s history, Casey recorded his voice tracks separately and they were spliced into the show with the records. His introduction of “Somebody to Love” plays over the acapella vocal opening. Later, “Boogie Child” comes on a full two seconds early, over the end of a “hits from coast to coast” jingle. I wonder if these errors were left over from 1977, or if they came about during the modern remastering process—but either way, I wonder how they possibly got left in.

27. “The Things We Do for Love”/10cc. Although the words talk about what it takes for a long relationship to endure, the music is pure first-time rush.

21. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”/Donny and Marie. Casey notes that “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” is D&M’s fourth straight cover of a classic duet, but it’s one they should never have attempted. Although Donny manages to channel as much Marvin Gaye as he can, Marie is far too white to get anywhere near Tammi Terrell. But never mind: none of the radio stations we listened to in the winter of 1977 were playing it anyway.

16. “Dancing Queen”/ABBA
15. “Year of the Cat”/Al Stewart
14. “Night Moves”/Bob Seger

A wondrous three-set, broken up by a commercial break in 1977 but part of a single segment on the repeat. She and I adored “Dancing Queen.” I have written before how “Year of the Cat” puts me back into her car (a sweet ’66 Mustang) on our way to adventure. Our night moves were different from Seger’s, who sang “I used her, she used me, but neither one cared.” But like he did in 1977, I too would eventually find myself thinking how strange the night moves, with autumn closing in.

13. “Weekend in New England”/Barry Manilow
10. “Lost Without Your Love”/Bread

As I have mentioned many times before, the radio frequently spoke to us—and for us—back in the day. But sometimes what it said we did not hear, not right away.

9. “I Like Dreamin'”/Kenny Nolan. In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby wondered what it does to the human psyche to listen to thousands of love songs, over and over for years on end. It led Kenny Nolan to ecstatically describe a dream world so perfect that reality couldn’t touch it. I was about to say that “I Like Dreamin'” was as sappy as 1977 got, until I remembered that David Soul’s “Don’t Give Up on Us” was a week away from hitting the Top 40.

1. “Torn Between Two Lovers”/Mary Macgregor. As so often happens on charts of the 1970s, the #1 song is a fizzle compared to the rest of the chart. The performance and production on “Torn Between Two Lovers” are so bland they make Anne Murray sound like Janis Joplin, but the lyric is arguably hip. In an era when people were exploring all kinds of new social arrangements, having two lovers and not wanting to give either one of them up is not scandalous as much as it’s just another way to live.

For an entirely different look at the week of February 12, 1977, visit this post at Mitchell Hadley’s site, It’s About TV.

Some Funk of Your Own

(Pictured: Elton John gets his Bicentennial on during a July 1976 performance in Atlanta.)

(Late-night live-blogging of a Casey Kasem rerun from February 14, 1976, at least until I fell asleep on the couch.)

40. “Tangerine”/Salsoul Orchestra. Disco records from 1975 and 1976 have a distinct charm. The beat has yet to become mindless; the R&B/showband roots of the music are still audible. The Salsoul Orchestra was made up of players from MFSB, including Salsoul conductor Vince Montana Jr., so there you go.

36. “Only Sixteen”/Dr. Hook. I always think of a former radio colleague of mine whenever I hear this. He used to sing it thusly: “She was too fat to fall in love / And I was too drunk to know.”

33. “Bohemian Rhapsody”/Queen. I adored this record from the first time I heard it, in the way you do only when you’re 16. I’ve heard it too many times since to care whether I hear it again, but it remains a remarkable feat of creativity and performance.

Between Barry White’s “Let the Music Play” and “Sweet Thing” by Rufus, Casey does a feature on Enrico Caruso’s “Vesta la guibba,” which was the first million-seller back in 1906. It does not bring the funk.

30. “Deep Purple”/Donny & Marie Osmond. I find this weirdly charming, the wheezing chorus of harmonicas, the vigorously whacked drums, and Marie’s dreamy/stoned spoken verse.

Big-ass train wreck to end the first hour: “Junk Food Junkie” by Larry Groce followed by Foghat’s “Slow Ride.”

26. “Tracks of My Tears”/Linda Ronstadt. Casey notes that there are six remakes in the countdown this week. It’s not cool to like this one, but I do, particularly the lovely steel guitar that takes it out.

25. “The White Knight”/Cledus Maggard. The winter of 1976 was the height of the CB craze, and there are two CB records on the show. (“Convoy” is the other one.) “The White Knight” was the #1 country song in the nation this week. Inspirational lyric: “On the list of the ten best things in life / Your CB’s gotta rate right around number four / ‘Course beavers, hot biscuits, and Merle Haggard come one, two, three.”

In 1973, nine female artists or groups with female lead singers (we’re lookin’ at you, Gladys Knight & the Pips) hit #1, an all-time record. I am not particularly compelled by this statistic, but it did break up what would have been another epic train wreck, for #24 is David Bowie’s “Golden Years.”

21. “Lonely Night (Angel Face)”/Captain and Tennille. Casey almost cracks himself up while telling a story about the Captain and Tennille’s wedding, then introduces the song, which I like much better now than I did in 1976. While Toni is unsubtly declaming the lyric, there’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on behind her.

17. “Grow Some Funk of Your Own”/Elton John. Casey says Elton is “headed for another big #1.” No he wasn’t. This was a double-sided hit, backed by “I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford).” I like ’em both, but if they give you the feeling that Elton and Bernie were starting to try a little bit too hard, you’re not alone.

16. “Squeeze Box”/The Who. I am the only person I know who likes this song.

15. “Wake Up Everybody”/Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Nicely introduced by Casey, who talks about how it’s a former #1 soul song and then says, “it’s called . . .” and gets out of the way for Teddy Pendergrass to sing the title line.

14. “All By Myself”/Eric Carmen. I am getting very sleepy, and it’s not just the lateness of the hour. This record seems to take forever to play. Just as Paul McCartney needed John Lennon to cut his most syrupy impulses, Carmen needed the other Raspberriesssszzzzzzzzzzz

The next morning, I looked up the remaining 13 records, which contain some highly pleasurable Top 40 nuggets, including “Evil Woman,” (#10) another definitive example of ELO’s art, and Neil Sedaka’s ballad version of “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” (#9) which is the way the song should have been done in the first place. Although Casey introduced the show by saying “there’s a lotta action” on the chart, the top 8 are mostly unchanged from the previous week, and the top 3 are exactly the same: “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate, “Love to Love You Baby” by Donna Summer, and at #1 on Valentine’s Day 1976, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon.

(Rebooted from a post that originally appeared in February 2013.)

The Soul of ’71

(Pictured: the Staple Singers.)

The standard narrative of pop music in the 1970s is that it was escapist, shallow, goofy, and not as all as serious as the pop music of the 1960s had been. That’s halfway accurate, but the shallow, goofy escapism doesn’t arrive in earnest until after we cross a certain dividing line in the middle of the 1970s.

The sociopolitical dividing line starts to draw itself with the oil shock of late 1973, through the unraveling of Watergate in 1974 and the deepening recession in 1975. In pop culture, TV turns away from relevance (All in the Family) to escapism (Happy Days), and the formula for a hit movie changes from literary storytelling (Chinatown, The Godfather Part 2) to spectacle (Jaws). In pop music, the gritty realities of soul music are replaced by the dance-don’t-think ethos of disco.

These are all generalizations, and therefore prone to being wrong. And it’s true that there were continuities from one half of the 70s and the other (the enduring popularity of classic rock, for example). But it’s nevertheless striking just how different pop culture and especially pop music became in the last half of the 70s compared to the first half.

I thought about this while listening to the American Top 40 show from November 20, 1971, about which I wrote a bit last week. The ratio of serious to silly is far greater than what we sometimes perceive the 70s norm to be. Top to bottom, it’s one of the strongest shows I’ve ever heard.

The quantity of great soul music is astounding. In the previous installment, I singled out Denise LaSalle, the 8th Day, the Temptations, and Donnie Elbert. But from the last two hours, you can add the Staple Singers (“Respect Yourself”), Lou Rawls (“A Natural Man”), Al Green (“Tired of Being Alone”), Aretha Franklin (“Rock Steady”), Marvin Gaye (“Inner City Blues”), Sly and the Family Stone (“Family Affair,” the hottest record in the nation at that moment), Michael Jackson (“Got to Be There”), the Chi-Lites (“Have You Seen Her”), and Isaac Hayes (whose “Theme from ‘Shaft'” was the new #1 song). In addition, several artists not strictly considered soul acts wear their influences proudly: Dennis Coffey, Van Morrison, and Delaney and Bonnie from the first hour, plus Lee Michaels (“Do You Know What I Mean”), Santana (“Everybody’s Everything”), and even the Osmonds (“Yo Yo”).

(“Everybody’s Everything,” from the week’s #1 album, Santana III, is a wonder, rockin’ with such wild abandon it feels like it’s going to fly apart into a million pieces, but it never does.)

A handful of classic-rock staples were among that week’s top hits: “Imagine,” “Maggie May,” “Questions 67 & 68,” “I’d Love to Change the World.” Neither the Five Man Electrical Band’s “Absolutely Right” nor “One Fine Morning” by Lighthouse entered the classic-rock canon, but both would be frequently anthologized come the CD era, which is a different type of eternal life. Future oldies-radio hits are many as well: “Old Fashioned Love Song,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “One Tin Soldier,” “Two Divided by Love,” “Baby I’m-a Want You,” “Gypsies Tramps and Thieves.”

Any given week of the 1970s has its share of amber-trapped moments, songs destined to disappear from history after being dropped from the current rotation. This week they are remarkably few: “Desiderata” and “Easy Loving,” the David Cassidy cover of “Cherish” and the Fifth Dimension cover of “Never My Love,” plus the theme from Summer of ’42.

Not all of the songs on the radio during that Thanksgiving week—when D. B. Cooper jumped out of the airplane, war threatened between India and Pakistan, and Nebraska and Oklahoma played one of college football’s most famous games—remained part of the pantheon for years to come. Nevertheless it’s striking just how great they were, all at once.

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