(Pictured: Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, 1978.)
Forty years ago this week, Waylon Jennings was enjoying the biggest hit of his legendary career in country music. “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” wrapped up a six-week run at #1 on the Billboard country chart, finally knocked off on July 2, 1977. It was his fifth #1 country single in the last three years; over the next three, he’d score six more, and add three on top of those by 1985.
As a member of Buddy Holly’s band in 1959, Waylon famously gave up his seat on the fateful airplane to the Big Bopper, thereby surviving the crash. He scored his first country hit in 1965 and took Gordon Lightfoot’s song “For Lovin’ Me” into the country Top 10 in 1966. His first #1, “This Time,” came in 1974. In 1976, he appeared on Wanted: the Outlaws with Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, an album that helped make “outlaw country” fashionable. Wanted: the Outlaws made the Top 10 on the Billboard 200 and included “Good Hearted Woman,” which went #1 country, made the Hot 100, and peaked at #25.
Before “Good Hearted Woman,” you’d have to go back several years, to Donna Fargo’s “Funny Face” and “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” or maybe Charley Pride’s “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” to find a Top 40 hit so unapologetically country. “Luckenbach, Texas” is even more country than “Good Hearted Woman,” but it also reached #25 on the Hot 100, spending 16 weeks on the chart and seven in the Top 40, peaking during the week of July 16, 1977.
Some big-time Top 40 stations were playing “Luckenbach” during the summer of 1977. Its highest position was #6 at WHBQ in Memphis in early June, charted between Bill Conti’s Rocky theme and “Undercover Angel.” It made #10 at KLIF in Dallas, comfortably tucked between “Life in the Fast Lane” and Marshall Tucker’s “Heard It in a Love Song” during the week of June 17. (KLIF ranked the album from which it came, Ol’ Waylon, at #6 for the week on a chart topped by Rumours and Hotel California, ahead of Steve Miller’s Book of Dreams, Live From the Hollywood Bowl by the Beatles, and Foreigner.) It was also a Top-10 hit at WNIN in Wichita Falls, Texas. “Luckenbach, Texas” rose as high as #31 at WLS in Chicago in a five-week run during July and early August; although WLS would in later years chart songs without playing them, I don’t know if the station was doing that as early as 1977. It also charted at WPGC in Washington, D.C., KTKT in Tucson, and WAKY in Louisville.
In the next couple of years, “Luckenbach” would be followed up the charts by singles that still define Waylon’s career nearly 40 years later, and 15 years after his death: “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” (co-credited to Willie), “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang,” “I’ve Always Been Crazy, “Amanda,” and Waylon’s recording of the theme from the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, which went to #21 on the pop chart in 1980, among them.
(It has always surprised me a little that the followup to “Luckenbach, Texas,” which went #1 country in November 1977, didn’t cross over. According to ARSA, no pop station charted “The Wurlitzer Prize (I Don’t Want to Get Over You),” a melancholy number that would have fit reasonably well in a year when Kenny Rogers’ twangy “Lucille” was a big hit and Ronnie Milsap’s “It Was Almost Like a Song” did big business, and in the same season with Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” The song, written by Chips Moman and Bobby Emmons, is built around a brilliant jukebox metaphor any writer would love to have written: “They ought to give me the Wurlitzer Prize / For all the silver I let slide down the slot / Playin’ those songs sung blue.”)
As one of the pivotal figures of the outlaw country movement of the mid-1970s, Waylon’s legacy is audible in the work of Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and other alt-country figures today. Just as those guys have trouble getting on mainstream country radio (except for Stapleton), Jennings himself isn’t heard on the air anymore either. But some of us still think he’s the real thing.
(Pictured: Stevie Wonder at work, 1974.)
On May 17, 1973, the Senate began televised hearings into the Watergate scandal. I was in Miss Alt’s seventh-grade social studies class that spring, and I can remember watching the hearings in class. I am not sure how well anybody understood what we were seeing. The scandal had been in the headlines for only a few weeks, even though the break-in happened the previous June. A kid such as I, obsessed with radio in an era when that meant I heard a newscast every hour, was probably better informed than many of my classmates, but I wouldn’t have been up on the nuances, either.
When we look back on the Vietnam Era, pop and rock music is inextricably a part of it. When the story of Watergate is told, there’s no obvious soundtrack, although the scandal inspired several songs.
—One of the first Watergate-themed songs was David Allan Coe’s May 1973 single “How High’s the Watergate, Martha” backed by “Tricky Dickey, the Only Son of Kung Fu.” Both songs name-check prominent Watergate figures, but “How High’s the Watergate” is the much better of the two.
—Tom T. Hall’s “Watergate Blues” came out in June 1973, made it up to #16 country, and bubbled under at #101. It’s not among Hall’s best songs, although it does contain one nice line, referring to Nixon’s 1972 landslide: “The USA bought a new used car.”
—Also in the summer of 1973, Chicago DJ John Landecker recorded “Make a Date With the Watergate,” based on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Early in 1974, Landecker did another political novelty, “Press My Conference,” a break-in record featuring clips of then-current hits and the voices of other WLS personalities. (Hear them both here.)
—Don Imus cut his own Watergate break-in record, “Son of Checkers,” in 1973, which is not at YouTube.
—On impressionist David Frye’s 1973 single “Nixon Meets the Godfather,” the embattled president consults Don Corleone for advice.
—Phil Ochs’ “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon,” released in 1974, was overtly a protest song, a rewrite of Ochs’ song “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.”
—Fred Wesley and the J.B.’s put Watergate in two songs, neither of which had much to do with the scandal: the nominally anti-poverty 1973 release “You Can Have Watergate (Just Give Me Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight),” and 1974’s“Rockin’ Funky Watergate,” the entire lyric of which is the phrases “rockin’ Watergate” and “funky Watergate” over and over.
—Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” is not so much a Watergate song as it’s a general indictment of Nixon. It hit the Hot 100 during the week of the resignation in August 1974 and slow-cooked its way to a single week at #1 in November.
—Running the chart with “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” was Lynryd Skynryd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” with the lines “Now Watergate does not bother me / Does your conscience bother you?”
—Frank Zappa’s “Son of Orange County,” from the 1974 live album Roxy and Elsewhere, pegged Nixon as a megalomaniac and quotes his famous line “I am not a crook.” It came out in September, almost exactly a month after Nixon went home to San Clemente.
—In 1975, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes mentioned Nixon obliquely in “Bad Luck,” although you don’t hear it on the single. On the full-length version of the song, Teddy Pendergrass testifies about how he opened his newspaper and saw that the President of the United States “was gonna give it up.” “They say they got another man to take his place / But I don’t think that he can satisfy the human race.”
—James Brown had been more slightly optimistic about Gerald Ford on “Funky President,” which peaked at #44 on the last chart of 1974.
During the 16 months when Watergate was at its peak, the pop charts were notable for their escapism. The most topical record of the times might have been “The Streak,” Ray Stevens’ #1 novelty hit. Compared to Vietnam, Watergate lagged far behind as an inspiration to artists.
Four decades later, the careful tuning of political radar makes it unlikely than an anti-Trump song could become a radio hit at all, let alone reach #1. And while we might hope that Trump will fall as Nixon did, it’s hard to be optimistic right now. In Nixon’s day, members of his own party declared that certain lines could not be crossed, which led to discussions of impeachment and Nixon’s eventual resignation. In contrast, today’s Congressional Republicans haven’t done nothin’.
(Pictured: the Rubettes—John Richardson, Tony Thorpe, Mick Clarke, and Alan Williams—in 1976.)
Over the years, we have occasionally mentioned the Rubettes, who, in the middle of the glam-rock era, were one of the most popular groups in Britain. The awesomely cheesy and insanely great “Sugar Baby Love” was a #1 single in the UK in May 1974, followed by “Tonight,” “Juke Box Jive,” “I Can Do It,” and “Foe-Dee-Oh-Dee,” all of which made the UK Top 20 during the next year-and-a-half. Only “Sugar Baby Love” charted in the States, and only for a moment, spending two weeks in the Billboard Top 40 during September 1974, reaching #37.
The Rubettes started as a creation of producer Wayne Bickerton, who in 1973 assembled a bunch of studio cats to make a demo of some songs he had written with Tony Waddington, a childhood friend. (Bickerton and Waddington had also been bandmates of erstwhile Beatle Pete Best in the mid 60s.) Polydor Records liked the sound of them and wanted to release one as a single, but told Bickerton he would need to have an actual band to promote the record on TV and on the road. The lead singer on the demos was under contract to another label, so he couldn’t join, but three of the other studio musicians were willing; they rounded up three of their mates, and the Rubettes were launched, their name intended to conjure up the sound of 50s American rock ‘n’ roll.
After a couple of years, the band shrunk to five members, and eventually four. Although the hits began to thin out at the end of 1975, the Rubettes remained a popular concert draw, especially in France, into the early 80s. (Rubette Alan Williams told a reporter in 2015 that Paul McCartney told him of sitting down with a French interviewer whose first two questions were, “Are you Paul McCartney?” and “Do you know the Rubettes?”)
In 1976, the newly four-piece Rubettes decided to change their sound, as Williams says “the glam thing” was mostly at the behest of Bickerton and Waddington. The single “Under One Roof” was intended to be different—not only its sound but its subject matter. “Under One Roof” is the story of a neglected teenage boy who runs away from home, is taken in by a man, and falls in love with him, only to be murdered by his own father.
“Under One Roof” ran up against resistance almost immediately. The BBC pop-music station wouldn’t play it because of its subject matter, which Williams and his bandmates found frustrating because the same station didn’t blink at Rod Stewart’s similarly themed “The Killing of Georgie.” Rubette John Richardson remembered that the band was booked to play their new single on Top of the Pops, only to have the billing canceled when producers got wind of the song’s theme. While some singles managed to climb high on the charts without BBC exposure, “Under One Roof” wasn’t one of them. It stalled at #40 late in 1976.
My laptop music stash includes a Rubettes compilation, which I own entirely because I dug “Sugar Baby Love” the handful of times I heard it over the years. One recent afternoon, “Under One Roof” came up on shuffle, and it cut through the clutter of the day like few records have lately. It’s a compelling story with a beautiful melody, sensitively sung. As is usually the case with Rubettes records, it’s extremely well made. If you can listen to the end without feeling a surge of emotion, I don’t know what to say to you.
“Under One Roof” is worth hearing 40 years later not just as a historical curiosity. For the last few years, we have bent the arc of history toward justice, with gays and lesbians no longer singled out for discrimination—but we are governed now by bigots eager to return us to more backward times. “Under One Roof” is a reminder of just how much ignorance and cruelty can cost.
(Pictured: the Irish Rovers, circa 1968.)
One St. Patrick’s Day, my boss took me out for dinner at a bar owned by his wife’s family, and I got loaded on green beer. (I don’t recommend it.) Another year, the station’s jocks were scheduled to walk in our town’s St. Pat’s parade, dressed in green-trimmed tuxedos and handing out green-tinted carnations. However, a strong thunderstorm rolled through just as the parade was lining up. We got caught in it, trying to take refuge at one point under the overhanging back end of the nearby Oscar Meyer Wienermobile. (I don’t recommend that, either.) Although the parade went on after a delay, it went on without the four of us, who had gone back to the station to wring out our rented suits.
I don’t have any other St. Patrick’s Day memories, and the most Irish thing about me is all the Van Morrison records I own. But I’m not writing about Van today.
(Pictured: Vince Taylor at work.)
“Goin’ Down Geneva” is one of my favorite Van Morrison songs. It opens his 1999 album Back on Top, and the groove is a killer. The words have been chosen more for sound than for sense (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but as far as it’s about something, that something seems to be a bluesman’s lament about life on the road and a fear of being forgotten. At one point, Van sings, “Vince Taylor used to live here / Nobody’s even heard of him / Just who he was / Just where he fits in.”
Van’s right. It’s likely you don’t know who Vince Taylor was, or just where he fits in. He never had a hit in America; his best-known song, “Brand New Cadillac,” is famous for being covered by the Clash. Should you know one thing about him, it’s this: he is said to have been the inspiration for Ziggy Stardust. “I met him a few times in the mid-Sixties,” David Bowie told a reporter in 1996, “and I went to a few parties with him. He was out of his gourd. Totally flipped. The guy was not playing with a full deck at all.” But that was after Taylor has developed a famous taste for booze and acid.
Taylor was born Brian Holden in England in 1939, but his family emigrated to New Jersey and eventually to California, where he attended Hollywood High School. Like others in the late 50s, he was seduced by rock ‘n’ roll, adopting a performing style patterned after Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, and played a few gigs in the Los Angeles area. On a trip to London, he met a couple of other musicians at a concert, and they impulsively decided to form the Playboys. It was at that point Holden ditched his birth name and became Vince Taylor, a leather-clad hip-shaker. This was a time when British “rockers” tended to be clean-cut boys a young girl could take home to Mother—your Tommy Steeles and Billy Furys—but Vince Taylor was a lot more kinetic, a lot more dangerous, a lot more everything.
It was never a smooth ride for Taylor and the Playboys—Taylor was famous for missing shows, leaving his bandmates to perform without their charismatic front man. (The original Playboys included Tony Sheridan, who would be backed by the Beatles within a few years, and Tony Meehan, later of the Shadows.) After the group split, Taylor went to Paris, where one memorable 1961 gig turned him into a star. He got a record deal from a French label and laid audiences dead in the aisles during the first half of the 60s. That he was called “the French Presley” should surprise nobody. He sang original songs, but his setlists were peppered with covers, including “Memphis Tennessee,” “Peppermint Twist,” and “Tutti Frutti.”
In 1965, Taylor and his band opened for the Rolling Stones at a show in Paris, but his career was about to crash. He had discovered LSD earlier that year, and it wasn’t long before his drug habit was consuming most of his bankroll. A month after the Stones show, he went onstage claiming that he was a Biblical prophet, or the son of Jesus, or somebody, and nothing was ever the same after that. Although Taylor would continue to perform from the late 60s into the 80s, he was a classic acid casualty, often put on stage by unscrupulous promoters, and occasionally rumored to have died. He spent the last few years of his life as an airplane mechanic in Switzerland, and died of lung cancer in 1991 at age 52.
Honesty compels me to report that it’s a little hard to hear why Taylor drove the kids so nutty, at least from “Brand New Cadillac,” which has a rockabilly clatter that sounds pretty generic nearly 60 years later. (It was originally released as a B-side, so even Taylor and his label likely considered it a throwaway.) His appeal is easier to grasp when you can see him, as on this Scopitone performance of “Twenty Flight Rock” and a TV performance of “Shakin’ All Over.”
But even those clips fail to get at why Dangeous Minds described Taylor as “the essence of rock ‘n’ roll. He was Iggy before Iggy Pop.” For that you apparently had to be there. For those who were, as Morrison’s 1999 invocation of him indicates, Vince Taylor left an impression that lingered for years.
(Pictured: Don Ho on ABC’s Hollywood Palace, January 21, 1967.)
The_60s_at_50 Twitter feed has it right, referring to “a decade of anniversary fatigue.” We’ve been drinking from that particular firehose for a long time now, and sometimes certain anniversaries slip through unnoticed. For example: 50 years ago this past weekend, Don Ho appeared on the TV show Hollywood Palace to perform his then-current hit, “Tiny Bubbles.”
You probably need to be at least somewhat elderly for “Tiny Bubbles” to resonate, or to find the name of Don Ho in your internal informational filing system. Neither he nor his song is as well-known today as it used to be. But for a long time, Don Ho was to Honolulu what Wayne Newton is to Las Vegas—the city’s unofficial official entertainer, the must-see act for tourists—and “Tiny Bubbles” was his theme song.
Ho was born in Honolulu in 1930, attended college on the mainland, and then spent six years in the Air Force flying cargo planes. In 1960, he started playing music in a bar owned by his parents. His Hawaiian fame grew during the first half of the 60s, and a series of gigs at the Coconut Grove in Hollywood in 1966 made him a mainland star. He eventually played big American nightclubs (including Las Vegas) and made lots of TV appearances, including cameos on Batman and The Brady Bunch. He had his own 30-minute daytime variety show on ABC between October 1976 and March 1977, taped in Hawaii. During the 1980s, Don Ho’s broader fame diminished, but not in Hawaii, where he remained a popular entertainer and restaurant owner until his death in 2007 at age 76. He fathered 10 children; one of them, Hoku, has a recording career of her own.
“Tiny Bubbles,” billed to Don Ho and the Aliis, hit the Billboard Hot 100 on November 26, 1966, rose to #57 during the week of March 25, 1967, and topped out at #14 on the Easy Listening chart. Seventeen weeks on the Hot 100 without making the Top 40 is the longest such run of any song released during the 1960s (according to Wikipedia, so who the hell knows). Fifty years ago this winter, “Tiny Bubbles” was a Top-10 hit in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Troy, New York; Des Moines, Iowa; Stevens Point, Wisconsin; Atlantic City, New Jersey; and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Ho often said from the stage that he didn’t like the song, although he opened and closed his shows with it. “We sing it twice because people my age can’t remember if we did it or not,” he would joke, and “I sing it at the beginning in case some of you don’t make it to the end of the show.”
If you know anything else by Don Ho, it’s probably “Pearly Shells” (which was nicked for a C&H Sugar jingle at some point in the 70s), or maybe “I’ll Remember You.” But given that some amongst the readership may not even know “Tiny Bubbles,” that may be a moot point.
Listening to “Tiny Bubbles,” “Pearly Shells,” “I’ll Remember You,” and others, it’s easy to hear how Don Ho became a star. His voice is soft and expressive, and he’s just ethnic enough to seem exotic to mainlanders. His songs, “Tiny Bubbles” chief among them, are pleasant earworms. There may even be an argument that “Tiny Bubbles” benefited from appearing in an era when casual drinking, even in the workplace during the day (as on Mad Men) was never more popular. Ho himself was famous for sipping Chivas Regal onstage. But that’s more half-assed social history than I want to attempt today.
(Tip of the cap to The_60s_at_50, on Twitter and Blogspot, a fabulous work of ongoing scholarship, for posting periodic snippets from Billboard, one of which inspired a Twitter exchange that led to this post.)