(Pictured: Lt. William Calley, in the center of the three soldiers, leaves his trial at Fort Benning, Georgia. A former colleague of mine, during his years as a military man, was one of the press officers at the Calley trial. I am guessing he was somewhere in the vicinity as this photo was taken.)
In April and May of 1971, the hottest record in America never got above #37 on the Hot 100.
The My Lai Massacre took place in Vietnam during March 1968, but didn’t become public until April 1969. That September, Lt. William Calley, leader of the company of soldiers that had attacked the village of My Lai, where up to 500 people were killed, was charged with murder. In November 1970, Calley went on trial. On March 27, 1971, he was found guilty of the premeditated murder of 29 civilians. Two days later, he was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor, but President Nixon ordered that he be placed under house arrest at Fort Benning, Georgia, instead. He was released in September 1974.
Calley’s conviction was widely unpopular. Millions believed he’d been unfairly singled out among his fellow soldiers at My Lai, and that he shouldn’t have been held criminally liable for following orders. And in true Vietnam Era-fashion, the case provided inspiration for songwriters and singers.
Between 1969 and the end of American involvement in the war in 1973, over 50 records touching on the Calley case were made, and most were supportive of him. The most successful was “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” by a group calling itself C Company Featuring Terry Nelson. Songwriters Julian Nelson and James M. Smith wrote what is mostly a spoken-word recitation to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, but one source says that the musicians were amateurs, so they weren’t the bigtime studio cats at FAME. The recording was picked up by Shelby Singleton’s Plantation label, which had enjoyed massive success with “Harper Valley P.T.A.” in the fall of 1968.
With the trial at its climax, “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” became a hot item, selling 200,000 copies in three days, according to one source. It first shows up at ARSA on April 11, 1971. It bubbled under the Hot 100 at #106 on April 17. The next week it rocketed all the way to #41. For the weeks of May 1 and May 8, it sat at #37 before slipping to #40 during the week of May 15—its final week on the Hot 100. It’s shown on only 15 ARSA surveys, from New Orleans, Orlando, Indianapolis, and a few other places. Its highest position was at KNAK in Salt Lake City, which showed it at #4 for the week of April 19. In Vietnam, the American Armed Forces Radio Network played the song for a while, before the brass declared on April 30 that it be “phased out,” claiming it was improper for air while Calley’s case was on appeal. Capitol Records used the same argument in deciding not to cut a version of the song with country star Tex Ritter.
So meeting demand for the song was left to Plantation, and the label struggled with it. By mid-April, one Atlanta distributor told Billboard it had orders for 100,000 copies and was having trouble getting them from the pressing plant. A competing version on another label, by a singer named John Deer, spent the weeks of April 24 and May 1 on Billboard‘s Bubbling Under chart at #114; an album featuring Deer’s record and other patriotic tunes moved some copies in some places. By summer a third version of “Battle Hymn,” by a North Carolina agglomeration called the Jones Brothers and Log Cabin Boys was released, although it doesn’t seem to have charted anywhere.
Despite its #37 peak, the C Company version was certified gold by the RIAA, the lowest-charting record to be certified gold since 1962, and the lowest until 1976. But 47 years later, “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” doesn’t play well at all. As I wrote in 2013, it “excuses the atrocities at My Lai by using the Nuremberg defense and blaming the goddamn hippies.” When I heard it again the other day, it struck me as positively vile. However: today we hear “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” after Vietnam has been judged at the bar of history. In 1971, that judgment was incomplete. A poll that spring showed 65 percent of Americans disagreed with the Calley verdict. And at least a half-million Americans put down money to buy a song in support of Calley.
You can hear “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” and several other My Lai-themed songs as part of this excellent PBS piece on the music of My Lai.
(Pictured: Bobby Vinton, 1974.)
Between 1962 and 1964, pop stars did not come bigger than Bobby Vinton. He scored four #1 singles and hit the Top 10 on two other occasions. If you don’t know “Roses Are Red,” “There! I’ve Said It Again,” “Blue on Blue,” or “Blue Velvet” by title, you would if you heard them. When oldies stations still played 50s and 60s music, they were on a lot. His style of romantic pop seems like the kind of thing that would have become untenable once the Beatles showed up, and I’ve written as much now and then.
But here’s the thing: that style of romantic pop didn’t die. On December 12, 1964, at the conclusion of a year that supposedly changed everything, the #1 song in America was Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely,” a straight-up weeper in which Vinton’s voice breaks while he’s singing. It was not a hip harbinger of the future, not like the Beatles, Zombies, Kinks, Stones, Supremes, and Beach Boys, with whom Vinton shared the Top 10 in that week.
Amidst the changing fashions, some of Vinton’s mid-60s singles took on a folk-rock sound and/or socially conscious lyrics, such as “What Color (Is a Man)” in 1965. “Coming Home Soldier,” which hit #11 in 1967, sounded as old-fashioned as his early 60s hits, but its lyric resonated in that Vietnam year. But at the end of ’67, Bobby Vinton returned to the Top 10 with more of what had made him a star a half-decade before: “Please Love Me Forever” spent three weeks at #6 in November and December 1967, sharing the airwaves with “Soul Man,” “I Can See for Miles,” “Daydream Believer,” and “Incense and Peppermints.” A year later he did it again: “I Love How You Love Me” peaked at #9 for three weeks in December 1968, alongside “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Hey Jude,” and “Magic Carpet Ride.”
Vinton’s tally for the post-British Invasion 60s is pretty remarkable: 18 Hot 100 hits from 1965 through 1969, 12 of them in the Top 40, and two in the Top 10. Things would slow down a bit after that, but only a bit. Vinton would miss the Top 40 in 1970 for the first time since his career began, although he hit the Top 10 of the Easy Listening chart twice. He’d be back in the Top 40 in 1972 with “Every Day of My Life,” another throwback, which got to #24 in the spring and was by some accounting the most-played jukebox record of the year. His cover of “Sealed With a Kiss” got to #19 in Billboard that summer.
With all the trouble in the world during 1974, radio playlists stuffed with disco, novelty records, nostalgic covers, and/or nostalgic styles went a long way toward helping people escape those troubles. But given his track record, that might not even have been necessary for Bobby Vinton to score big with “My Melody of Love,” a pop song not lacking in cheese, including a refrain that alternates between English and Polish. It cracked the Top 40 on October 12, 1974, and made its big leap on November 9 when it went from #17 to #6. It would peak at #3 the week after that and hold for a second week before falling to #7 for two more weeks. “My Melody of Love” was Bobby Vinton’s biggest hit since “Mr Lonely” exactly 10 years before, as was the album Melodies of Love. The song hit #1 at WABC in New York City and WCFL in Chicago, and at WPOP in Hartford, Connecticut, it ranked #1 for the entire year. Vinton, who was of Polish extraction, quickly earned the nickname “The Polish Prince,” and became as big a star as American popular culture produced as 1974 turned to 1975. Later that year, he got his own variety show produced in Canada and syndicated to American stations through 1978.
Vinton’s next single could have happened only in the 1970s: a version of “Beer Barrel Polka” that made #33 on the Hot 100 and was a big Adult Contemporary hit early in 1975. Although “Beer Barrel Polka” contained a couple of disco flourishes, Vinton didn’t go all the way until 1979, when “Disco Polka” got some adult-contemporary play. (It was based on Frankie Yankovic’s “Pennsylvania Polka” from the 1940s with revised lyrics: at one point, Pennsylvania native Vinton sings, “Everybody has the mania / To do the disco from Pennsylvania.”)
Bobby Vinton’s last chart appearance came on the AC chart in 1981. He opened a theater in Branson, Missouri, sometime after that, although it’s unclear to me whether it still exists, or whether Vinton himself is still performing. If not, he’s entitled to a comfortable retirement. This spring, he’ll celebrate his 83rd birthday.
(Pictured: country singer Henson Cargill.)
The genesis of this post is the weirdest one yet.
Most mornings I wake up with a random song running through my head. I suspect it’s the result of a life spent with music always in my ear—when I’m asleep, my brain plays everything I’ve ever heard on shuffle and I wake up hearing the last one. The other morning it was a country song called “Skip a Rope” by Henson Cargill. But I got sidetracked with other stuff later that morning and eventually, the song disappeared.
Later that afternoon I got a Twitter message from our Houston radio pal Jeffrey Thames with a picture of a soundsheet he’d found in his station’s archives. In the course of a couple of messages, he mentioned that for stability’s sake, the soundsheet had been stuck to a vinyl 45—a copy of “Skip a Rope.”
Well hell, at that level of synchronicity, I have to write about it now.
(Pictured: Ashton, Gardner, Dyke, and Liber, circa 1971.)
“Resurrection Shuffle,” a 1971 single by Ashton, Gardner and Dyke, is one of our all-time favorite bangers. But “Resurrection Shuffle”—the song written by Tony Ashton, as distinct from the record he made with his mates Kim Gardner, Roy Dyke, and the also-appearing Mick Liber—was popular in more ways that one that summer.
After Tom Jones hit #2 with “She’s a Lady” in March 1971, his next single on the Parrot label was “Puppet Man.” It hit the Hot 100 in May and climbed to #26 for the week of June 26. The original release was Parrot 40062, and the B-side was called “Every Mile.” But on the Hot 100 dated July 3, Jones’ current hit, down to #29, is shown under a different catalog number, Parrot 40064, and is listed as “Puppet Man”/“Resurrection Shuffle.” On July 3, Ashton, Gardner, and Dyke’s version of “Resurrection Shuffle” was in its third week on the Hot 100, sitting at #63. Clearly Parrot, a subsidiary of London Records, had seen a chance to capitalize on the rising popularity of the song, and the fact that Tom Jones was a much better-known commodity than Ashton, Gardner and Dyke.
Starting on July 10, 1971, the two versions of “Resurrection Shuffle” danced at arm’s length on the Hot 100. That week, Jones’ double-A sided release was at #29 and AGD sat at #50. On July 17, Billboard flipped the listing and showed “Resurrection Shuffle”/”Puppet Man” at #38 with AGD at #42. (On that week’s American Top 40 show, Casey played “Puppet Man,” as he’d done every week since June 12, and not “Resurrection Shuffle.”) The two Shuffles moved past one another during the week of July 24, with AGD moving to #41 as Jones fell to #47. During the week of July 31, “Puppet Man” disappeared from the listing and Jones’ “Resurrection Shuffle” alone was shown at #50 while AGD held at #41. For the week of August 7, 1971, 46 years ago this week, Ashton, Gardner and Dyke finally cracked the Top 40, but only for a week. That same week, the Tom Jones version of “Resurrection Shuffle” was gone from the Hot 100. AGD wouldn’t be around much longer themselves—on August 14, their “Resurrection Shuffle” fell to #45, then to #73, and then out.
The AGD version outperformed its national chart number in lots of places, and even hit #1 at KWWL in Waterloo, Iowa, but it peaked as early as July in some cities and as late as September in others. In Chicago, WLS took it all the way to #5, but not until the week of August 30. It reached #8 at crosstown rival WCFL in the same week. So it never achieved the sort of critical mass it needed to rise higher up the national chart. But if it was big on WLS, that was good enough for me. I bought the 45 sometime in August, and it’s still around here somewhere.
Ashton, Gardner and Dyke have a Beatles connection. Dyke was the drummer for the Liverpool group the Remo Four, and Ashton eventually joined as a singer and organist. Dyke and Ashton backed George Harrison on his album Wonderwall Music; he returned the favor by playing guitar on “I’m Your Spiritual Breadman,” which eventually became the B-side of “Resurrection Shuffle.”
“Resurrection Shuffle” was covered by Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers in 1983, and that version kicks ass all day. But Ashton, Gardner and Dyke’s version is the one that’s still in my head, another indelible artifact of a long-ago summer.
(Pictured: singer/picker Roy Clark raises a toast to you, just before he runs you over.)
You may remember that I carry a torch for the days of locally programmed, small-town Top 40 radio. Babylon, New York, qualifies as a small town, even though it’s on the urbanized western end of Long Island, only about 25 miles from New York City. And from the 50s to the 70s (as best I can tell given the scanty amount of information online), WGLI was rockin’ Babylon on AM 1290. During the week of July 21, 1969, the station’s Mighty 12 & 90 Survey, published in the Babylon Beacon newspaper, revealed a station doing its own thing, playing the big hits of the day sprinkled with the sort of oddballs we love around here.
19. “Good Old Rock & Roll”/Cat Mother. Full name Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys, this band’s claim to fame is twofold: their album The Street Giveth and the Street Taketh Away was produced by Jimi Hendrix, and they were on the bill at the famous Toronto Rock and Roll Revival concert in September 1969 that included a surprise appearance by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. At its formation, Cat Mother included a fiddle player named Jay Ungar. Although he wasn’t with the group when it recorded “Good Old Rock & Roll,” he rejoined for a 1970 album. Ungar is best known today as a folk musician, and for writing and performing “Ashokan Farewell,” the iconic theme heard in the 1990 Ken Burns documentary The Civil War.
20. “My Pledge of Love”/Joe Jeffrey Group. I’ve written here about Gerry Rafferty Syndrome, where your first hit is the best record you could possibly make, and the rest of your career is spent trying to live up to it. But Rafferty had a successful career before “Baker Street” and for years thereafter. Better we should call it Joe Jeffrey Syndrome. “My Pledge of Love” is utter perfection that made #14 on the Hot 100, the Top 10 in just about every significant radio market in the United States and Canada, and #1 in Atlantic City. The group, based in Cleveland, followed it with four more singles, but nothing caught on and the band drifted into history.
23. “Abergavenny”/Shannon. There are certain titles that have caught my eye on various music surveys over the years but I’ve never looked them up to listen. “Abergavenny” is one. It’s not particularly good, but it’s notable because Shannon was Marty Wilde, part of the first generation of homegrown British pop stars. Impresario Larry Parnes gave them names like Billy Fury, Tommy Steele, Johnny Gentle, Georgie Fame . . . and Marty Wilde, who was born Reg Smith. (Wilde’s daughter, Kim Wilde, scored a handful of American hits in the 80s, including the #1 “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”)
30. “Yesterday When I Was Young”/Roy Clark. I am betting that few people today remember “Yesterday When I Was Young,” although it was a significant multi-format hit in the summer of 1969, peaking at #6 Easy Listening, #9 country, and #19 on the Hot 100. It was also widely covered, by everybody from Bing Crosby to Lena Horne to Dusty Springfield to Andy Williams. The song was written by French crooner Charles Aznavour, which explains the feeling of it: a tired and dissipated man sits alone in the dark, resigned to a fate he knows he deserves. Very continental.
Pick Hit: “True Grit”/Glen Campbell. It couldn’t have hurt WGLI to deliberately program some adult flavor alongside “Mother Popcorn” (#14) and “Honky Tonk Women” (#38). True Grit was one of the top movies of the moment, a western starring John Wayne with Campbell in a supporting role; the title song went #7 Easy Listening, #9 country, and #35 on the Hot 100.
In the summer of 1969, the radio was on at our house, because it was always on. I would have heard Roy Clark and Glen Campbell as I went about my nine-year-old routine, getting ready for the county fair or going off to play park-and-rec baseball. I did not imagine looking back on it from another summer 48 years in the future, because people aren’t wired that way. But here we are just the same.
(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.