(Pictured: J. J. Cale in the early 70s, slightly bemused by all the attention.)
And now, a twist on my usual routine with American Top 40 shows. Here are the seven strangest records on the show from April 1, 1972, in order from least to most:
7. “Crazy Mama”/J. J. Cale (#25). This is Cale’s lone Top 40 hit, a down-home, laid-back blues shuffle spiked with wah-wah guitar. Nobody talked about “roots music” back then, but “Crazy Mama” is clearly an example of it. From Naturally, the Cale album with “Call Me the Breeze,” “After Midnight,” and “Magnolia” on it.
6. “Take a Look Around”/Temptations (#30). I am pretty sure I never heard this song before, and if I did, I don’t remember it. “Take a Look Around” was from Solid Rock, the first album by what you could call Temptations Mark II—Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams were out of the group, replaced by Richard Street and Damon Harris. The socially conscious lyric is straight out of producer Norman Whitfield’s playbook and the vocals are fine, but it doesn’t seem particularly commercial, and it got to #30 pretty much on the power of the Temptations’ brand.
5. “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done”/Sonny and Cher (#16). Not since 1965 had Sonny and Cher had back-to-back Top 10 singles, and the one-of-a-kind “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done” (which followed “All I Ever Need Is You”) would be their last one, even as The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour became one of the biggest hits on TV.
4. “Jungle Fever”/Chakachas (#8). The appeal of beat and the riff on “Jungle Fever” is obvious. The appeal of the vocal takes longer to sink in.
3. “Give Ireland Back to the Irish”/Wings (#22). Amazingly, this Top 40 contains only three songs by British acts (T. Rex and Yes were the others), and it’s fitting that this should be one of them. It was recorded two days after the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland and released about three weeks later, the first record under the Wings name. EMI executives told Paul that British media outlets would refuse to play it, even though he naively believed that singing “Great Brit, you are tremendous / And nobody knows like me” would take the curse off of it. “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” would peak at #21 on the Hot 100. As a historical document, it’s interesting, but everything else released under the Wings name is better.
2. “Every Day of My Life”/Bobby Vinton (#29). A remake of a song first popular in the 1950s, “Every Day of My Life” sounds like it was recorded in 1958, all swelling strings and big backing chorus, perfect for sock-hop dancing. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), it was the most-played record on jukeboxes for the whole year of 1972. Vinton was more popular throughout all of the 1960s and into the 70s than anybody remembers, scoring widely played radio hits almost every year from 1962 through 1974, even though the later ones never made it onto your local oldies station.
1. “King Heroin”/James Brown (#40). The strangest record on the countdown, and one of the stranger ones in the history of American Top 40. “King Heroin” started as a poem written by Manny Rosen, a working stiff from Manhattan who had lost a daughter to drug abuse. Somehow, the poem found its way to Brown, who had it set to music. Brown describes a dream he had, in which heroin spoke to him and talked about all the drug is capable of, concluding with “the white horse of heroin will ride you to Hell.” It would anchor the countdown the next week, too. It shows up on 19 surveys at ARSA, all but one on soul stations, because there’s no way to make it fit alongside Bobby Vinton or Sonny and Cher.
However you want to describe them—strange, obscure, forgotten—these songs were once among the most popular in America, but their popularity barely outlasted the season in which it occurred. A lifetime later, however, some of us still remember them. Except for “Take a Look Around.”
(Pictured: Roberta Flack, who undoubtedly felt better about herself in 1973 than I did about myself in 1973.)
Were I to rank each of the years during which I lived with Top 40 radio in my ear by the quality of their music (a project I should undertake one day), I expect that 1973 would rank near the bottom. The best explanation for the strange way I view 1973 from this distance has to do with the full onslaught of adolescence and all the fevered craziness it can provoke in a boy—but while that explains the way I remember 1973, it doesn’t explain why I like so little of that year’s music now. Or maybe it does, because I first heard the music of that year while suffering the fever of that year.
So now then: I have spent the last few days listening to the American Top 40 show dated March 31, 1973, and just as I suspected, it didn’t do much for me. Not until it got to the Top 10, anyhow.
(Pictured: Al Green in 1975, with more soul in his little finger than all of us in our whole bodies, combined.)
I have written a great deal about the winter of 1975 at this blog recently, so I’m not going to make you sit through yet another live blog of yet another American Top 40 show from that season—just the first hour of one, specifically the show from March 22, 1975. This part is one that makes program directors cringe. The songs run the gamut as widely as anything can, and a few are pretty obscure now.
40. ‘Wolf Creek Pass”/C. W. McCall. Before “Convoy,” there was “Wolf Creek Pass,” the flat-out hilarious tale of two truckers and a runaway load of chickens. I hadn’t heard it in a while, and I found myself repeatedly laughing out loud as I listened. A longer post on the works of C. W. McCall would seem to be in order.
39. “Jackie Blue”/Ozark Mountain Daredevils. This is a deeply weird record, really—the effeminate vocal, the oddly sliding guitar solo, and the enigmatic Jackie herself.
38. “My Boy”/Elvis Presley. Casey says “My Boy” is one of his favorite Elvis songs. To me, it’s just another one of those windy but emotionally empty Elvis performances so common during the last couple years of his life.
37. “To the Door of the Sun (Alle Porte del Sol)”/Al Martino. This actually made it to #17 on the Hot 100 earlier in March. If your local station didn’t play “To the Door of the Sun,” I’m not surprised—although it’s actually pretty good.
36. “The Bertha Butt Boogie”/Jimmy Castor Bunch. To make sense of “The Bertha Butt Boogie,” it helps to know a little about the universe Jimmy Castor created on his earlier records, lest his references to the Butt Sisters, Leroy, and the Troglodyte leave you baffled. Or you can just surrender to the absolutely ferocious groove and not worry about it.
34. “L-O-V-E (Love)”/Al Green. Which Casey introduces as “Love, Love,” not spelling out the first one, as we’re intended to do. If you don’t dig “L-O-V-E,” we probably shouldn’t see each other anymore.
32. “Satin Soul”/Love Unlimited Orchestra. Writing about “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” earlier this winter, I referred to the Love Unlimited Orchestra as the sound of a finely tuned limo cruising on the Interstate. On “Satin Soul,” it comes on like a freight train, and you best scramble aboard or get run over.
30. “Butter Boy”/Fancy. If you remember Fanny’s bangin’-great “Charity Ball,” the best way to enjoy “Butter Boy” is to forget that. If if it’s the last thing you hear before you turn off the radio, it’ll keep playing in your head for a while afterward.
29. “The South’s Gonna Do It”/Charlie Daniels Band. In which Daniels name-checks a number of Southern rock acts, from Marshall Tucker to ZZ Top and even his own band. Includes a lengthy fiddle solo, which is both awesome and an indication of just how long ago 40 years is. Imagine such a thing now. Even in country music.
28. “Walkin’ in Rhythm”/Blackbyrds. See #34.
There’s one song in the second hour I want to mention.
23. “Emma”/Hot Chocolate. I was hooked on the sound of this from the moment I heard it—the ominous tempo, that low buzzing guitar, and lead singer Errol Wilson’s idiosyncratic voice as he narrates the story of Emmeline, the aspiring actress “searching for that play / That never ever came her way.” Even after 40 years of hearing it, the end of the story remains horrifying. Wilson comes home to “find her lying still and cold upon the bed / A love letter lying on the bedroom floor.” The suicide note tells him that “I just can’t keep on livin’ on dreams no more / Tried so very hard not to leave you alone / I just can’t keep on tryin’ no more.”
He gasps her name. Then he screams it. Over and over.
There’s a 1975-vintage video. Go watch it. And if you are unmoved, see #34.
(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.
(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.
(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.