(Pictured: Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods on American Bandstand, 1974.)
One of my nephews started his freshman year in high school last week. On his first day, I found that I couldn’t remember a single damn thing about my first day in high school, which would have been in 1974. (I’d like to think it’s because my memory is full rather than failing, but anything’s possible.) Then I listened to the American Top 40 show from September 7, 1974. I didn’t remember specific incidents as much as I remembered who that freshman was, and how it felt to be him: game for a challenge but nervous about it, optimistic but wary, holding on to what was familiar as a compass for navigating the stuff that wasn’t.
This chart sits right between the seasons, with songs I’d been hearing on AM all summer and songs I would be hearing when I discovered FM that fall. The latter also provide the soundtrack for one of those autumns I remember as especially happy and secure, although it almost certainly was not. The usual handful of notes is on the flip.
(Pictured: bluegrass icons Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who gained fame recording music for the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, put on gangster garb for themselves.)
I started in country-music radio in the late 70s. At that time, unlike pop and rock stations, country stations didn’t seem to be playing much from the late 60s. Look at the survey from WLBI in Denham Springs, Louisiana, a small town just east of Baton Rouge, dated September 1, 1968. I count only four songs—“Harper Valley P.T.A.,” Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” by Eddy Arnold, and Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”—that were getting much airplay in the late 70s and early 80s, at least at the stations I was familiar with. The rest—not just the songs, but many of the performers who sang them—were becoming footnotes to country music history then. Today, they’ve been footnotes for a long time. Among the footnotes, we find the following:
5. “Clean the Slate in ’68″/Jim Nesbitt. Nesbitt was a South Carolina radio and TV personality who first hit with a talk/singing novelty called “Please Mr. Kennedy” in 1961. He later recorded a string of politically themed talk/singing novelties, including “Lookin’ for More in ’64,” “Still Alive in ’65,” and “Heck of a Fix in ’66,” all of which made the Billboard country chart. “Clean the Slate in ’68” was not so big (except in Denham Springs), and “Still Havin’ Fun in ’71” was even less so. “Clean the Slate” name-checks several major 1968 presidential candidates including “bushy haired Bobby,” who had been assassinated in June—and which might account for the fact that few stations touched the record. WLBI is the only one shown at ARSA.
10. “It’s All Over But the Crying”/Hank Williams Jr. Until the late 70s, when he took on the outlaw persona he still maintains today, Hank Williams Jr. was a fairly conventional country star. In 1968, he starred in the film A Time to Sing, in which he plays a young man who becomes a professional singer to help save the family farm—and gets to romance the completely delicious Shelley Fabares while he’s doing it. Based on the trailer, Hank Jr. doesn’t appear to be much of an actor, although the movie is admirably diverse, co-starring the Clara Ward Singers and an R&B group called the X-Ls. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), it was originally to be titled The Hank Williams Jr. Story, despite the fact that its plot isn’t biographical in the slightest. “It’s All Over But the Crying” is from the soundtrack.
19. “Happy State of Mind”/Bill Anderson. If you remember Bill Anderson at all, it’s probably as a TV personality: a frequent game-show panelist in the 70s, and 40 years ago this fall the co-host with Sarah Purcell of a game show called The Better Sex. In the 80s and 90s, he hosted cable TV talk shows. But before all that, between 1958 and 1980, Anderson hit the country charts 58 times, including seven #1 hits and seven more that peaked at #2. Five of his songs crossed over to pop; the biggest was “Still,” which went to #8 in 1963. Bill Anderson is pretty much the Platonic ideal of the 60s “countrypolitan” sound, which was intended to have upscale appeal: tasteful orchestrations, little or no twang, and soft-spoken Southern accents. (Not for nothing is he known as “Whispering Bill.”) This November he’ll turn 80, and he’s still performing.
21. “Destroyed by Man”/Mel Tillis. The depressing tale of a girl gone wrong, and I mean really depressing: “Men don’t respect her / But still they hold her hand / She was created by Heaven / Now destroyed by man.” Jesus, Mel.
25. “Like a Rolling Stone”/Flatt and Scruggs. The famed bluegrass pickers recorded an album called Nashville
Submarine Airplane, in which they covered familiar pop songs of the day including “Catch the Wind,” “Universal Soldier,” “Gentle on My Mind,” and four Dylan songs: “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “The Times They Are a-Changing,” “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35,” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” The latter would get as high as #2 at WLBI and make the Top 10 at a country station in Boston. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), Lester Flatt disliked this change in the duo’s direction so much that it led to his 1969 split with Earl Scruggs after nearly 25 years.
Go on, click that last link. You know you want to.
(Pictured: Bobbie Gentry.)
Fifty years ago this week, Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” hit #1 on the Hot 100. I submit to you that it’s one of the greatest short stories American literature has ever produced. Gentry sketches the scene around the family dinner table so effectively that we can almost smell the biscuits and coffee, and her closing image of the narrator throwing flowers off the Tallahatchie Bridge is haunting.
But good writing isn’t just knowing what to put in, it’s knowing what to leave out, and what Gentry leaves out is what makes her song a classic. Why did Billie Joe McAllister commit suicide, and why so suddenly? What were Billie Joe and the narrator spotted throwing off the bridge? As Mississippi cotton farmers might have said back then, what in the Sam Hill is going on here?
In 1976, the movie Ode to Billy Joe filled in the gaps: the narrator, named Bobbie Lee in the movie, and Billy Joe (spelled that way in the movie) are in love, but her family objects, claiming they’re too young. Billy Joe eventually jumps to his death out of homosexual guilt, and what the two of them threw off the bridge was Bobbie Lee’s ragdoll, a symbol for discarding her childhood.
And that’s the difference between good writing and bad writing right there.
Gentry once said that the song is “sort of a study in unconscious cruelty.” The family talks idly about Billie Joe’s death without realizing that the narrator was in love with him. Gentry also said, “What was thrown off the bridge isn’t that important.”
“Ode to Billie Joe” was apparently seven minutes long, originally—and who reading this now wouldn’t like to hear that? The final version, edited to four minutes, is Gentry’s demo with strings dubbed over, according to a fantastic Rolling Stone retrospective. It bubbled under the Hot 100 during the week of July 29 and went to #71 the next week. It rocketed to the top of the chart, going 71-21-7 and hitting #1 on the chart dated August 26, 1967. It spent four weeks at #1 and four more weeks in the Top 5 before going 14-29-43 and out in November. On October 14, the Ode to Billie Joe album knocked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from the top of the Billboard 200 and stayed for two weeks.
Most sources claim the song was recorded on July 10, 1967, but the first two listings for “Ode to Billie Joe” at ARSA are dated July 7 and July 9. The only way these listings make sense is if the song was recorded sometime earlier and released officially on the 10th, and that seems a far more likely scenario to me. WSGN in Birmingham, Alabama, which charted the song on July 7, shows it at #28 for the week of July 14 and #1 for the week of July 21.
In 1968, Gentry won three Grammys, including Best New Artist, and she was frequently seen on TV variety shows in succeeding years. She had a brief run with her own variety shows on the BBC and CBS in the early 70s, and was credited as co-writer of the Ode to Billy Joe movie. She hit the Hot 100 eight more times by 1970 and twice in 1976, with a re-release of her 1967 recording and a new version cut for Ode to Billy Joe.
In 1969, Gentry bought a piece of the NBA’s new Phoenix Suns, which she kept until 1987. (Other original partners in the Suns included Andy Williams, Henry Mancini, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, and Ed Ames. Original coach Johnny “Red” Kerr joked before the first game that he wasn’t worried about his starting lineup, but “who’s going to sing the National Anthem.”) In 1978, she married fellow singer Jim Stafford, and they had a son together. Gentry filed for divorce after 14 months, but the two stayed friendly and were spotted together by paparazzi as late as 1981.
On December 24, 1978, Gentry appeared on the Tonight Show. It was her last TV performance. She’s been out of the public eye entirely since 1982, and today, at the age of 73, she lives in a gated community in Tennessee. In 2016, a reporter tracked her down and called her house, asking for the person who is listed as the property owner of record. “There’s no one here by that name,” said the woman who answered the phone. Then, “she hung up,” the reporter wrote. “But there really isn’t any doubt. I talked, for about 13 seconds, to Bobbie Gentry.”
(Rebooted with much new material from a post originally appearing at Popdose in 2012.)
(Pictured: Glen Campbell on The Johnny Cash Show, 1969.)
I need to write a little about Glen Campbell, but it’s daunting. My Twitter timeline exploded with goodness in the hours following the announcement of his death yesterday. I couldn’t possibly summarize it, or do as well as other writers. (The image of the Internet as a firehose of information has rarely seemed more appropriate.) But I can cobble together an annotated list. Campbell enjoyed great success on the pop and country charts, but his strongest performance came on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart, including a run of 14 out of 15 singles making the Top 10 between 1968 and 1971. So according to those numbers, here are the Top 10 Glen Campbell hits:
10. “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)” (#2 EL, #31 pop, #7 country, 1971). A Roy Orbison cover in which Campbell, his backup singers, and an orchestra get their Ray Charles on.
8. “Don’t Pull Your Love”/”Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” (#1 EL, #27 pop, #4 country, 1976). More than a lot of the other songs on the list, this medley is clearly an artifact of its time. “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” fits Campbell’s voice and style better than “Don’t Pull Your Love.”
6. “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L. A.)” (#1 EL, #11 pop, #3 country, 1976). One night early in my radio career a kid called the studio to ask for it, except he referred to it as “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in a Lake).”
5. “Sunflower” (#1 EL, #39 pop, #4 country). Written by Neil Diamond, and maybe a little too country for the Top 40 stations that had propelled “Southern Nights” to #1 a couple of months before.
4. “Rhinestone Cowboy” (#1 EL, #1 pop, #1 country, 1975). The Mrs. tells the story of going on a family vacation during this song’s summertime chart run, and how her four-year-old sister picked it off the radio and sang it, continuously, until it came up in the radio station’s rotation again.
3. “Southern Nights” (#1 EL, #1 pop, #1 country, 1977). The first time you heard this, it burned itself into your brain, and every time you heard it after that, it stayed with you, continuously, until it came up in the radio station’s rotation again.
2. “Galveston” (#1 EL, #4 pop, #1 country, 1969). “Galveston” is perfect; there’s not one thing you can imagine that could make it any better. It did six weeks at #1 Easy Listening and three weeks at #1 country. The week it reached #4 on the Hot 100 (4/12/69), it trailed only the Fifth Dimension’s “Aquarius,” “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” by Blood Sweat and Tears, and “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe. (“Dizzy” had recently kept CCR’s “Proud Mary” out of the #1 spot, so Tommy Roe will have a lot to answer for on Judgment Day.)
1. “Wichita Lineman” (#1 EL, #3 pop, #1 country, 1968/69). This, too, is what perfection sounds like. “I am a lineman for the county / And I drive the main road / Searching in the sun for another overload.” Dude works for the telephone company, or maybe it’s the power company, neither of which is a profession that often makes its way into song. But Jimmy Webb’s genius is that he took this not-easy-to-relate-to job and mined it for metaphors (“I hear you singin’ in the wires”) that anybody could understand. Like “Galveston,” it did six weeks at #1 Easy Listening, and it was a #2 country hit. The week “Wichita Lineman” hit #3 on the Hot 100 (1/11/69), giants walked the earth: it stood behind only “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and the Supremes/Temptations collaboration “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” Also in the Top 10 that week: Stevie Wonder, the Temps and Supremes as individual acts, and “Crimson and Clover.”
(Back in 2012, I wrote a thing for Popdose about Campbell’s Wichita Lineman album, which you can read here.)
If you expected to find “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” here, so did I. But it made only #12 on the Easy Listening chart and #26 on the Hot 100, although it was a #2 country hit in 1968. “Gentle on My Mind,” Campbell’s famous theme song, was #8 Easy Listening, but reached only #30 on the country chart in 1967, and #39 on the Hot 100 when it was re-released a year later.
People drinking from the firehose today are either being reminded or learning for the first time of Glen Campbell’s towering importance to popular music in the last half of the 20th century. We shall not see his like again.
(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: The Osmonds, whose 1972 single “Hold Her Tight” is a rager based on a Led Zeppelin riff, and an unlikely acquaintance.)
Here’s a whole bunch of music trivia, culled from the Billboard Hot 100 dated July 8, 1972:
In this week, there are seven songs new to the Top 40, which is kind of a lot: “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent, “Hold Her Tight” by the Osmonds (zooming to #39 from #76 the week before), “Mary Had a Little Lamb” by Wings, “Sealed With a Kiss” by Bobby Vinton, Donna Fargo’s “Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.,” Nilsson’s “Coconut,” and “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by the Hollies, which debuts up at #30.
In an idle moment the other day, I decided to see which songs had fallen out of the 40, and I found something quite interesting. Of the seven drop-outs, six of them fell out entirely out of the Hot 100.
“Morning Has Broken”/Cat Stevens (from #24)
“Walking in the Rain With the One I Love”/Love Unlimited (from #31)
“Tumbling Dice”/Rolling Stones (from #33)
“It’s Going to Take Some Time”/Carpenters (from #35)
“First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”/Roberta Flack (from #36)
“Immigration Man”/Graham Nash and David Crosby (from #40)
Only Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light” exited the 40 and remained on the Hot 100, down to #54 from #37.
Somebody with a more searchable and sortable database (as opposed to my half-assed eyeball technique) could probably determine how unusual this is. Not so much that a song should fall from the 40 into oblivion, but that so many should do it in the same week.
Several other hits that will indelibly stamp the late summer and early fall of 1972 sit just outside the Top 40 during the week of July 8, 1972. The most famous are Jim Croce’s debut single, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” at #50 in its second week on, and at #57 in its first week on, “I’m Still in Love With You” by Al Green. Others less well-remembered but just as vivid (at least to me) include Joey Heatherton’s “Gone,” “Motorcycle Mama” by Sailcat, and the Detroit Emeralds’ “Baby Let Me Take You.”
“In a Broken Dream” by Python Lee Jackson is at #60 in its seventh week on. In 1968, the Australian band had recorded a version they didn’t particularly like, believing it needed a stronger lead vocal. So they hired a session singer from England named Rod Stewart to give it a try. Although it stiffed on its original release in 1970—before Stewart got famous—it did better in 1972, reaching #56 in the States.
A couple of future monsters lurk further below: “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” by Mac Davis, which will spend the entire month of September at #1, is at #73 in its second week on; “I Am Woman,” Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem, is at #97 in its third week on. “I Am Woman” is a slow starter: it will fall out of the Hot 100 the next week, but will re-enter in September, break the Top 40 in October, and hit #1 on December 9, 1972.
Two very different examples of glorious 70s radio music sit side-by-side: the singalong soul of “Starting All Over Again” by Mel and Tim is at #83 in its first week on; “Go All the Way” by the Raspberries, burning with teenage lust, is at #84 in its second week on. Also found down toward the bottom: Bob Seger’s version of “If I Were a Carpenter” at #87 and David Bowie’s “Starman” at #96, both in their second week on. “If I Were a Carpenter,” yet another example of the accomplished artistry everybody but Seger himself hears in his early work, would reach #76; “Starman” would get to #65.
Sitting at #99 in its first week on is “When You Say Love” by Sonny and Cher. Based on the Budweiser jingle, “when you say Budweiser, you’ve said it all, “When You Say Love” was a smash country hit for Bob Luman before Sonny and Cher covered it. Their version eventually crept into the Hot 100 at #32. “The Bud Song,” as it is known here in Wisconsin, is a staple of University of Wisconsin sporting events: “when you say Wisconsin, you’ve said it all.”