Although “Birthday” is one of the most familiar songs in the Beatles’ catalog, they never scored a hit single with it. That distinction belongs to Underground Sunshine, whose bubblegum version of “Birthday” reached #26 on the Hot 100 in September 1969. It was a bigger hit in several places, hitting #1 at KIRL in St. Charles, Missouri, and reaching the Top 10 at both WLS and WCFL in Chicago, and also in St. Louis, Washington, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Raleigh, Buffalo, New Orleans, Portland, Birmingham, Edmonton, Clarksburg (West Virginia), Gary (Indiana), and Council Bluffs (Iowa).
Underground Sunshine began as a three-piece band from Montello, Wisconsin, 65 miles north of Madison, made up of two brothers, drummer Frank and bassist Bert Koelbl (brothers who later changed their surname to Kohl) and guitarist Rex Rhode. They were managed by Madison radio personality Jonathan Little. Stories vary as to how they became a quartet. In Do You Hear That Beat?: Wisconsin Pop/Rock in the 50s and 60s, Little told author Gary E. Myers that he wanted the band to add keyboards to get a Doors-type flavor; Bert Kohl told Myers they needed a keyboard to play the solo on “Birthday.” However the need arose, the band ultimately met it within the family—Little’s sister Jane, a senior in high school who was dating Frank Kohl, got the gig. After Underground Sunshine recorded “Birthday” in Milwaukee and Little released it on his own label, he took advantage of his radio connections to get airplay for it. Before long, Mercury Records picked it up for national release on its Intrepid label.
After “Birthday,” Underground Sunshine bubbled under with a second single, “Don’t Shut Me Out.” An album, Let There Be Light (said to have been recorded in seven hours), reached #161 on the Billboard 200 in November 1969. It contained a cover of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” as well as “Bad Moon Rising,” “Proud Mary,” and “Gimme Some Lovin'” (an eight-minute fuzz-tone guitar/organ freakout), plus an 11-minute psychedelic opus called “Take Me Break Me,” which appears in a short version on the B-side of “Don’t Shut Me Out.”
The seeds for Underground Sunshine’s sunset were planted practically from the beginning, when they made an agreement with a local backer who paid for their equipment in exchange for a 20 percent commission on whatever they made. That was fine for a band playing central Wisconsin bars for $100 a night, but not for a group with a national hit. Their lawyer advised them to break the agreement, which they did—although it cost them Rex Rhode, a close friend of the original backer, who quit only weeks before the band was scheduled to appear on American Bandstand. Rhode’s replacement was recruited via an ad in the Milwaukee Journal, a musician named Chris Connors. According to one member, Connors would play a key role in the band’s demise.
The story, as told to Myers, is a small-town rock ‘n’ roll Rashomon. Jonathan Little blamed substance abuse. Jane said it was partly a culture clash between “pretty innocent Montello High School kids” and Connors’ “Milwaukee ideas and big-time thoughts,” and partly her own distaste for the groupie scene they encountered on tour. “The whole thing was really tacky to me,” she said. Bert Kohl told Myers that Jane’s parents made her quit “because the rest of the band was using pot,” and that after Jane and Frank got married, she made Frank quit. Frank said that weed had nothing to do with it. “We did some pot but none of us are pot-heads,” he said. “How many bands back in the 60s did, in fact, smoke pot?” Frank blames the breakup on conflicts over the fact that Jonathan Little was making more money than the band members, a situation Bert echoed: “The biggest paycheck I ever got was $325, and I was doing an awful lot of work.”
Whatever the reason, Underground Sunshine was over by the end of 1970. By the early 90s, when Myers interviewed the members for his book, they looked back on it fondly. “I had a lot of great opportunities,” said Frank Kohl. “Got to see a lot of the country, got to see a lot of different things.” Bert Kohl said, “Even the way it was done, I would not trade anything for it.”
Those big radio hits and favorite albums woven into the tapestry of memory, the songs that illuminated our nights and commented upon our days as we were living them? That whole thing was a series of happy accidents. The radio doesn’t really talk to us. Start taking the memories apart and the butterfly effect is suddenly real. The DJ who played that song in the moment you have never forgotten was no agent of the universe; he was just some poor sap making a living, and it was his job to play one song then and not another. He had no more connection with you than you have with some random teenager in Bangalore.
It’s only later, when you sift through the memories, that the elements converge, and only then that you realize that the perfect moment with the perfect song might never have happened—should never have happened, probably. That it happened at all is thanks to a series of coincidences: a record executive chooses one song as a single over another; a radio station tweaks its format today instead of tomorrow or yesterday; the station’s music director forgets to put a record into a particular bin, or take one out; the DJ screws up and plays a record out of order. And so on.
You, out there on the receiving end of the signal, never know any of this. You know only the perfection of the moment—and it may be months or years before you know it, after a further series of happy accidents has imposed its own layers of meaning on your life, and becomes the prism through which you view everything that ever happened to you.
It could have been entirely different, is what I’m saying.
In June 1976, a British group called the Real Thing hit #1 in the UK with “You to Me Are Everything,” a soul-on-the-edge-of-disco sing-along that glides happily in summery Philly-style perfection. At the moment of its UK success, it was released in the States, charting on the Hot 100 36 years ago this week. It should have been on the radio every couple of hours alongside the other hits of August, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “Turn the Beat Around,” “Baby I Love Your Way,” and all the rest. So why wasn’t it? There’s no way to tell for sure, because of the number of accidents that have to happen for a record to become a hit in the first place. But in the case of “You to Me Are Everything,” we can guess.
Despite the Real Thing’s British success—and probably because of it—two competing versions of “You to Me Are Everything” were released at almost precisely the same moment. If a radio station was going to play one, it wouldn’t play the others. A New York soul group called Revelation cut a near-soundalike version produced by Freddie Perren and released on RSO, then best known for releasing albums by the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton. No doubt its pedigree helped it get some adds to radio station playlists, although it’s perfectly fine on its own. An obscure group called Broadway released a busier arrangement of it on the Granite label, an American subsidiary of European giant ATV. Some music directors may have preferred it to the others—or preferred the record rep working Granite releases to the ones working releases from RSO or United Artists and added the song as a favor to a friend.
There are no listings for any of them at ARSA, so I suspect much of the three versions’ airplay came on soul and R&B stations, which are not well represented there. During the week of July 31, 1976, the three versions crowded together in the lower reaches of the Hot 100: the Real Thing at #86, Broadway at #88, and Revelation at #98. At the end of August, the Real Thing would top out at #64 after the other two had left the chart, but the damage was done.
It’s easy to say it should have been otherwise, that the Real Thing’s “You to Me Are Everything” should have been one of the indelible hits of the summer of 1976. But maybe it should have been the one by Revelation, or the one by Broadway. Knowing what we know about accidents and coincidence, maybe it happened exactly the way it should have. Or it shouldn’t have happened at all.
So I am in the car listening to the American Top 40 show from April 9, 1977. At #40, “Spring Rain” by Silvetti might be the single most generic disco record of all time. At #39 is Ambrosia’s cover of “Magical Mystery Tour,” which must have seemed like a good idea at the time. But then things take a turn: at #38 is the magnificent “Dancin’ Man” by Q. And up next, debuting at #37, Casey introduces “Sometimes” by Facts of Life.
After all this time, I expect to have heard, or at least heard of, everything that might turn up on an AT40 show, but somehow “Sometimes” slipped by. Obscure as it is, if AT40s modern-day producers needed to cut something for time, “Sometimes” was the thing to cut. So the song runs for maybe a minute-and-a-half at the most. And as Casey comes back on and I realize what is happening, I’m sitting there behind the wheel thinking, “No, dammit, let the thing play, this is great.”
Casey mentioned that Facts of Life was produced by soul singer Millie Jackson, who was big enough in the mid-to-late 70s to choose her own projects. But there’s more to Facts of Life than a star’s side project. Jackson credited Keith Williams (who had been with Little Anthony and the Imperials and the Flamingos) and Chuck Carter, two-thirds of the group, with having taught her how to sing. The third member, Jean Davis, was a friend Millie made on the road, and the sister of Chicago soul singer Tyrone Davis. Jackson was too busy to produce individual records for the three singers, so she suggested they form a group (which she managed). They eventually got a record deal with the fabulously named Kayvette Records, owned by Jackson’s manager.
At first, they were called Gospel Truth, and they released one single under that name. After becoming Facts of Life, their splendid “Caught in the Act (Of Getting It On)” hit the R&B top 20 in 1976, in which a trysting couple learns that their spouses are down in the hotel lobby looking for them: “We were in the midst of heaven when all hell broke loose.” Their next single was “Sometimes,” which had been a #1 country hit for Bill Anderson and Mary Lou Turner. It’s a magnificent cheatin’ song with a couple of spoken interludes, delivered at an adulterous tempo, the sort of Southern soul that was out of fashion by 1977, and in fact a lot closer to country than what was considered soul music there on the cusp of the disco era. (Considering how down-home it is, maybe Casey’s producers cut it short in 1977.) “Sometimes” went to #3 on the R&B charts, and #1 at soul station KATZ in St. Louis. It spent four weeks on AT40, peaking at #31, falling to #96 on the Hot 100 the next week, and vanishing into the void the week after that.
The Facts of Life album Sometimes came in a sleeve riddled with typos, and with a cover photo that looks a Polaroid snapped at a wedding. It managed to get up to #146 in a seven-week run on the Billboard 200, but a second album sank without a trace. After that, Millie Jackson found other fish to fry. One of the facts of life is that nothing lasts forever, and so the group disappeared.
There’s a mysterious alchemy in popular music, something none of us—fans, artists, producers, disc jockeys, record executives—can completely understand, when a moment’s union of people and talent and time and circumstances produces three-and-a-half minutes of magic as ephemeral as a soap bubble. Which describes “Sometimes” pretty well.
Right around the time of the Gulf War, I got a phone call from a singer who was trying to get her self-produced record on the air. She was working off an outdated list of Iowa radio stations that showed us as a country station (which we hadn’t been for many years), and even as I patiently explained that we weren’t interested in her record, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Let me send you a cassette,” she said. A couple of days later, it arrived, a C-90, the kind you’d buy in three-packs at Walmart, no plastic box, just a naked cassette in a padded envelope. A handwritten file-folder label was stuck to the tape with the singer’s name and the song title, and I could see that another, earlier label had been ripped off below it. I would like to be able to tell you that I put the cassette into the player and was blown away by a beautiful song, but I was not. It was a horrid, cliché-ridden country joint that indicted the listener for shameful neglect of war veterans, sung in a draggy drawl with no control over its dynamics, so godawful that I reddened in embarrassment for the woman. I got through about 45 seconds before the cassette got tossed into the discard box.
It never had a chance anyhow. By 1991, the era of local radio music programming was largely dead, particularly at stations in the middle of nowhere, where we relied on syndicated national formats instead of paying local disc jockeys, but also in larger markets, where the stakes had become too high to entertain much musical risk. Although occasional brushfire hits would still break out from a single radio market, it was nothing like a decade or two before. In the 60s and early 70s, it was still possible for local bands to benefit from radio play in their home area, and to become household names in a relatively small number of households.
It didn’t have to be local bands, however. Local programmers could make local hits out of records that got national release without catching on nationwide. This happened at stations as big as WLS, where songs including “Love’s Made a Fool of You” by Cochise, Fanny’s “Charity Ball,” “Jimmy Loves Mary Anne” by Looking Glass, and “All Day Music” by War climbed to the top of the WLS survey while barely scratching the Billboard Top 40 (or in the case of Cochise, the Hot 100).
I started thinking about all this the other day after looking at a radio survey from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, an hour or two north of Madison. In March 1971, right there with “Just My Imagination” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” the Partridge Family and Bobby Sherman, is a record called “Hot Pants” by Salvage. It’s a Paul Vance/Lee Pockriss production, two guys fabled for novelty-style records, most notably “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and “Leader of the Laundromat,” but also Perry Como’s “Catch a Falling Star” and the marvelous “Tracy,” recorded by the Cuff Links. It was on the Odax label, owned by Vance.
And it’s easy to understand how it ended up on the air. It was topical in the spring of 1971, as hot pants became a fashion fad. It’s got a catchy and non-threatening pop-rock feel, sung with a wink and a smile, extolling the virtues of all the women “strollin’ in their hot pants,” and closing the deal with “Jumpin’ catfish I can’t believe my eyes / Here comes Grandma / She found a pair in her size.” Stevens Point wasn’t the only place it did good business. A February 1971 item in Billboard touts strong sales in Milwaukee, and “Hot Pants” would make the top 10 in Kansas City and Indianapolis, and the top 20 in Denver, Columbus, and Youngstown, Ohio. After bubbling under a couple of weeks in early March, it made the Hot 100 and spent seven weeks there, peaking at #54 early in April. You can hear it right here.
I don’t try to eulogize every prominent musician who passes away. This is mostly because other people generally do it better. Every now and then, however, I feel uniquely qualified to say something about somebody.
Sammy Johns is dead. His funeral is today.
If we had some kind of tournament for the most quintessentially 70s songs—those that most effectively capture the essence of the times in the way they sound and the things they say—wouldn’t Johns’ lone big hit, “Chevy Van” have to be in the semifinals?
The song is sung by a guy driving one of those vans, and if you remember the 70s, you know the kind I mean: elaborately painted on the outside and big enough to live in on the inside, or at least big enough to sleep in, or not sleep in, when necessary.
I gave a girl a ride in my wagon / She crawled in and took control / She was tired cuz her mind was a-draggin’ / I said “get some sleep and dream of rock and roll”
What a perfectly 70s line: “get some sleep and dream of rock and roll.” It’s quite lovely, actually—dream of something utterly out of this world and time, something simple and unthreatening, purely pleasurable and fun. It’s obvious he’s not suggesting she dream of Black Sabbath or Emerson Lake & Palmer, but rather of something that rocks easy, like “Chevy Van” itself.
While the girl is sleeping, Sammy is checking her out, the moonlight on her hair, her angel’s face, her long and tanned legs. Because this is the 1970s, however, she’s not entirely down with being objectified: “Better keep your eyes on the road, son / Better slow this vehicle down.” Yet at the same time, she needs a lift to the next town, and she’s willing to use what she’s got to get what she wants: She’s gonna love me in my Chevy van and that’s all right with me
And because this is the 70s, we turn discreetly away from the scene and listen to a gentle wah-wah guitar against a wall of acoustic guitars before Sammy fast-forwards to the end of the story. I put her out in a town that was so small / You could roll a rock from end to end / A dirt road main street / She walked off in bare feet / It’s a shame I won’t be passing through again
Then Sammy sings the refrain one last time, slightly altered, in which we learn that what was going to happen has just happened: We made love in my Chevy van / And that’s all right with me
An easy-rockin’ song of the road about a casual sexual encounter in the back of a van with a beautiful, nameless, barefoot hitchhiker. It doesn’t get more 70s than that.
“Chevy Van” bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 the week of January 25, 1975, and hit the big chart the next week. It peaked at #5 in Billboard and Cash Box during the week of May 3 but plunged swiftly off both charts, gone by June. Its chart run roughly coincides with the time when I was involved with my first serious girlfriend. We could imagine what Sammy and the stranger were doing in there, but what it had to do with us—how we might contrive to get to that point—wasn’t entirely clear. I had no van—no driver’s license yet—and certainly no line as smooth as “get some sleep and dream of rock and roll.”
Sammy Johns had charted one single before “Chevy Van” and would chart one more afterward. In their wake, he lived a rock star’s life—broke and in rehab by the end of the 70s. By the 80s, he was back writing songs, however, many of which were country hits, including the #1 single “Common Man,” recorded by John Conlee in 1983. The refrain of “Common Man” includes the lines I’m a common man / Drive a common van
“I’ve had it since the 70s. You shoulda seen it then.”
Once again this year I have forgotten that September 25th is One Hit Wonder Day. Because I don’t have sufficient time to put together a decent original post about it, here’s an update of one that first appeared on March 3, 2009.
We have been occasionally heard to gripe here about the fact that some artists get pigeonholed as one-hit wonders even though they aren’t. I can name a handful who have one record that lives on in the hot rotation of oldies and/or classic-rock radio stations but who scored other hits in their heyday, some quite substantial.
The example that first inspired the gripe was “Brandy” by the Looking Glass. It’s one of the truly glorious records of the 1970s, yes, but not the only Top-40 hit the band ever had, and perhaps not even the best one: Lots of people we know also dig “Jimmy Loves Mary Anne,” which hit a year later. The Five Man Electrical Band is another. “Signs” was enormous in the summer of 1971, but “Absolutely Right” also made the Top 40 later that year (wicked good live performance here), and they scored three other Hot 100 hits over the next three years. Lighthouse is best remembered by the frequently anthologized “One Fine Morning,” but they made the Top 40 after that with “Sunny Days,” and missed it with “Pretty Lady”—which is one of the great lost hits of the 1970s, a superb record that should have been a monster. . . .
Here’s one of the best examples I can think of: Brownsville Station. They are indelibly associated with “Smokin’ in the Boys Room,” and because that’s the only Brownsville song you ever hear on the radio, it seems like it should be their only hit song. It isn’t, of course. They followed “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room with “I’m the Leader of the Gang,” a cover of Gary Glitter’s glam-rock UK Number One, which was a somewhat-odd choice for a boogie band from Michigan. While it just missed the Top 40 in Billboard, it just missed the Top 10 at WLS in Chicago. Up next was “Kings of the Party,” which returned Brownsville to the Top 40, albeit just barely at Number 31. It’s structured a lot like “Smokin’,” with a spoken part to set up the action, and while it’s not quite as compact and hooky as its predecessor, it rocks plenty. (Honorable mentions from the Brownsville Station oeuvre: “Lady Put the Light on Me” and “The Martian Boogie,” both Hot 100 hits, both on the band’s self-titled album, released in 1977.)
So I guess this post isn’t really about one-hit wonders after all. I’ll have to try to do better next year.