(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: Paula Abdul; also pictured: a whole lot of the 80s.)
Because some amongst the readership are not as elderly as I, here’s a record chart that’s not quite as elderly as our charts usually are, from WKTI in Milwaukee, dated February 17, 1989.
In February 1989, I was still doing afternoons on the elevator music station in the Quad Cities. At some point within the previous year, I had half-heartedly pursued the overnight gig at the big Top 40 station in town, which I didn’t get. The program director—who may have been trying to soften the blow—told me that he figured I probably wouldn’t want to go from afternoon drive to overnights, and being the idiot I was, I agreed with him. But the guy who got the job was moved up to afternoons himself within six months—and he wasn’t nearly as good on the air as I was.
So anyway: the songs on WKTI during that February week did not make it on my station, even though we were tweaking the format to make it slightly hipper. We thought hard about adding “The Living Years,” and “Eternal Flame” by the Bangles and Sheriff’s “When I’m With You” could have been made to fit. We would eventually play other hits by New Kids on the Block (“I’ll Be Loving You Forever”) and Breathe (“How Can I Fall”). I was still listening to Top 40 in the car sometimes, so I would have heard many of the hits of the day, and in the early 90s, at another station, I would play a lot of them. Read about a few of them on the flip.
(Pictured: Peggy Lipton with her Mod Squad co-stars Michael Cole (L) and Clarence Williams III (R). Lipton was a singer as well as an actress, and one of her singles was on a few radios 45 years ago this week.)
OK, this is just fantastic: the Fun One Plus 49 survey from WOSH in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 1490 on your AM dial, dated February 1, 1970. The top of the chart includes the big national hits of the moment (Shocking Blue, the Guess Who, the Jackson Five, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Mark Lindsay, the Hollies, Sly and the Family Stone, etc.), a dollop of adult-contemporary flavor (Dionne Warwick, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, and the fabulously trippy “Midnight Cowboy” by Ferrante and Teicher), the Johnny Cash version of “If I Were a Carpenter” right next to “Whole Lotta Love,” and the chart debut of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It also includes the sort of forgotten singles we really dig around these parts. A few of them appear on the flip.
(Pictured: James Brown, photographed in 1968 by Walter Iooss Jr., who did much of his most famous shooting for Sports Illustrated.)
Most of the music surveys at the fabulous Airheads Radio Survey Archive are from Top 40 stations. The ones from other formats open an interesting window into music history. Take the one from WWRL in New York City dated January 27, 1972. The R&B station ranks its top 16 songs (because its frequency was 1600 on AM), but its survey also includes listings of top-selling albums and singles from four different music distributors doing business in the New York area. Since there are so many to choose from, let’s pick 10 instead of our customary five, in no particular order.
“Son of Shaft”/Barkays, “Shaft”/Joe Bataan, and “Shaft”/Chosen Few. Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft” had fallen out of the Hot 100 a couple of weeks before, but other acts were taking advantage of its enormous popularity. On “Son of Shaft,” Hayes’ Stax labelmates re-purposed his scratchy rhythm guitar, heavy beat, horny horns, and cooing background singers. Although the whole thing tends to lose its way at around the two-minute mark, it’s easy to see the appeal to many listeners who dug “Theme From Shaft.” But not as many, as it made only #53 on the pop chart. Joe Bataan’s “Shaft” is a straight-up cover that feels about half again as fast as the original. Bataan, a native New Yorker, would go on to co-found the Salsoul label later in the decade. The Chosen Few version is a reggae take by a Jamaican band that looks to have made a career out of cover songs.
“Gimme Some More”/JBs, “Keep on Doin'”/Bobby Byrd, and “Talking Loud”/James Brown. Besides Shaft, the other major cultural force in early ’72 R&B was James Brown. The JBs were Brown’s band and Byrd his longtime collaborator. “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing (Part 1)” would reach #27 on the pop chart, another in the long string of Brown’s ferocious funk joints that would make it onto American Top 40 without being played by many of the show’s affiliates.
“Taurus”/Dennis Coffey. I did not expect to see Melanie, Rod Stewart, and the Osmond Brothers on this survey, but for a white guy, Dennis Coffey clearly belongs. He’d already scored on the pop and R&B charts with “Scorpio” late in 1971 and played on sessions for everyone, including Motown’s Funk Brothers. Coffey rocks like crazy on “Taurus,” as if he were trying to hold off the Great Mellowing of the 70s all by himself. Dude is on fire.
“The Day I Found Myself”/Honey Cone. The year 1971 had been good to Honey Cone, with “Want Ads” (#1 pop), “Stick-Up” (#11), and “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” (#15). “The Day I Found Myself” is spectacular girl-group soul and should have done as well, or better.
“I Think About Loving You”/Earth Wind & Fire. Two years before their first Top 40 hit (“Mighty Mighty”) and three years before “Shining Star,” EW&F were getting the sound. “I Think About Loving You,” from the group’s second album The Need of Love, didn’t make the pop chart. The horn and organ backing track has some great breaks, and the whole record has a mellow vibe that you can get lost in.
“Chitlins and Cuchifritos”/Joe Thomas. Our friend Larry Grogan pulled this out of his crates about a year ago, so go read his post to learn more about it. For those of you who may be white people of northern European extraction, cuchifritos are Puerto Rican fried dishes containing various pork parts: ears, stomachs, tails, and so forth.
WWRL went on the air in 1926 and had studios at the same location for 79 years. It’s still on the air today with the same call letters, still on 1600. It programmed mostly to an African-American audience until 2006 when it became the New York affiliate of the Air America talk network. In 2014, it went all-Spanish.
(Pictured: the space shuttle Challenger peers through the fog as it awaits launch.)
January 23, 1986, is a Thursday. In men’s college basketball, Minnesota beats Wisconsin 67-65 in Madison. Tomorrow, three Minnesota players will be arrested for sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman at a hotel after the game. Minnesota will forfeit its scheduled game against Northwestern on Sunday, and coach Jim Dutcher will resign over the incident. Scientists examining photos of Uranus taken by the Voyager II spacecraft discover a new moon orbiting the planet, which will be named Bianca. The launch of the space shuttle Challenger is postponed for a second straight day. It will be postponed three more times before being launched on
Monday, Tuesday, when it will explode 73 seconds into its flight, killing the crew. The New York Times reports that claims by Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos that he was a guerrilla resistance leader during the World War II Japanese occupation of the Philippines are false. The federal government reported yesterday that the economy grew in 1985 at the slowest rate since the recession year of 1982. In Gainesville, Florida, police dog Gero is killed in the line of duty while attempting to apprehend an armed robbery suspect. In today’s Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin tries a new plan to get out of going to school.
In Los Angeles, Luther Vandross has been charged with vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving after a crash earlier this month that killed one person and injured four others. In December, he will plead no contest and get probation. The first class is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Alan Freed, Sam Phillips, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Yancey, Robert Johnson, and John Hammond. The Beatles are ineligible because by rule, inductees must be at least 25 years removed from their first hit record. Three days before the Super Bowl, the opposing quarterbacks, Jim McMahon of the Chicago Bears and Tony Eason of the New England Patriots, appear on the Today Show along with NFL wives and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. On TV tonight, ABC airs the movie Grease 2 and 20/20; NBC’s lineup includes The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court, and Hill Street Blues; CBS airs Magnum P. I., Simon and Simon, and Knots Landing.
AC/DC plays Edinburgh, Scotland, and Hot Tuna plays Boston. Motley Crue plays Essen, Germany, and KISS plays St. Louis. Aerosmith plays Reno, Nevada, and Stevie Ray Vaughan plays Utica, New York. At WKTI in Milwaukee, the station’s new music survey comes out tomorrow. “Burning Heart” by Survivor leaps to #1, displacing “Goodbye” by Night Ranger. The biggest mover in the Top 10 is “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston, moving from #7 to #2. New in the Top 10 are “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” by Billy Ocean at #8 and “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister at #9. The biggest mover within the station’s Top 30 is “These Dreams” by Heart (#26 to #19). Also moving up big are “Life in a Northern Town” by Dream Academy (to #12 from #18) and “Nikita” by Elton John (to #23 from #29). The highest debuting new song of the week is “The Sweetest Taboo” by Sade at #26.
Perspective From the Present: In January 1986, I had just begun doing the morning show on WKAI. I pushed the buttons on a 90-minute farm and news block from 5:30 to 7AM, then did what was intended to be a wacky morning show from 7 to 10. As I have noted before, my partner and I weren’t being coached by anybody, and whatever entertaining stuff we came up with was mostly by accident. My working day was usually over between 12:30 and 1:00. The Mrs. was selling advertising for a regional magazine, so I’d get home in the afternoon to a quiet house and usually take a nap. Because I was program director, I was on call 24/7, so my naps were frequently interrupted. In January, I would have still put up with those interruptions. It wasn’t until spring that I started taking my phone off the hook. In later years I’ve realized that my career was never the same after that. I was never again as obsessed with radio as I had been until then.
(Pictured: the Old Capitol, the most iconic of buildings on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City.)
Twenty years ago this week, I made the biggest life change I have ever made: at the age of 34, I re-enrolled in college.
I had been toying with the idea for a while. After losing my full-time radio gig at the beginning of 1994, I worked part-time radio for much of the year while trying to find a job in some other field. At the end of the year, I took a radio job and then gave it right back, and that sealed the decision. Instead of getting a master’s degree (which, in retrospect, I wish I had done), I decided to get a teaching certificate, with the goal of becoming a high-school social studies teacher. I enrolled at the University of Iowa in December, secured a large pile of student loans, and started my classes on what must have been January 17, 1995. And for the next two-and-a-half years, I lived the luxurious life of a full-time student.
I commuted to Iowa City from Davenport, an hour away on Interstate 80. The ride was great in the morning—listen to NPR, eat a donut, think about the day. It was less great on the way back, when I just wanted the day to be over, but I’d crank up Iowa City’s lone classic rock station and ride the wave home. I discovered that it’s immeasurably easier to be a student after you’ve been in the working world for a few years—you know how to prioritize work and manage projects, and you have a degree of responsibility that’s lacking in the average 19-year-old horndog. And what seemed like work to said horndog was actually quite enjoyable to a bookish dude in his mid 30s.
Because I was long removed from my days as a Top 40 listener, the Billboard Hot 100 from 20 years ago this week isn’t the time machine a 70s or early 80s chart can be. Still, there are a lot of records I’ve become quite familiar with in succeeding years: Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do,” “I’ll Stand by You” by the Pretenders, John Mellencamp’s “Wild Night.” And there are a few other noteworthy songs to be found.
1. “On Bended Knee”/Boyz II Men (holding at 1). Boyz II Men had nine top 10 hits between 1991 and 1997, and three of their #1s are among the longest-running #1 hits of all time. “End of the Road” ran 12 weeks in 1992. “I’ll Make Love to You” ran 14 weeks in 1994, and was replaced at the top by “On Bended Knee,” which would hold the top spot for six weeks. (“I’ll Make Love to You” was still in the Top 10 20 years ago this week.) Their collaboration with Mariah Carey, “One Sweet Day,” would be #1 for 16 weeks in 1995 and 1996, and is still the single longest-running Hot 100 #1 in history.
8. “Take a Bow”/Madonna (up from 12). A genuinely lovely record, “Take a Bow” is one of Madonna’s best performances, too. She hadn’t sung with this much sensitivity and soul since “Crazy for You” a decade before.
14. “Short Dick Man”/20 Fingers (holding at 14). A real song that lasted 18 weeks in the Top 40 and 30 on the Hot 100, “Short Dick Man” is about exactly what you think it’s about, done without charm or humor. The radio version was heavily expurgated (“Short Short Man”), but the audio at that link is not.
30. “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”/Four Seasons (down from 29). This is a remix of the 1976 #1 hit by Dutch DJ Ben Liebrand, who remixed a number of 70s hits into substantial hits in Europe. It doesn’t add much to the original.
91. “Get Over It”/Eagles (down from 72). One of the four new studio tracks on Hell Freezes Over, “Get Over It” had reached #31 late in 1994. Its strident putdown of people trying to capitalize on victimhood would have fit better on one of Don Henley’s solo albums. Rush Limbaugh used to play it on his talk show, which tells you all you really need to know about it now, two decades later.