(Pictured: Elton John and Rod Stewart on the soccer pitch.)
Radio Rewinder is a fascinating Twitter feed that somehow has only a few more followers than I do. It posts old record charts, pictures of radio personalities, and other ephemera very appealing to a geek such as I. A post the other night was a scan of the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the week of November 13, 1976.
As I look at this chart, I get the same sensation I used to get from reading baseball box scores, standings, and the long lists of hitting and pitching leaders that ran in the Sunday paper. It represents a record of what mattered at that moment, and who, a repository of truths (and illusions), and the raw material from which an infinite number of stories could be told.
I won’t make you wade through an infinite number, but you can find a few on the flip.
(Pictured: country singer Lacy J. Dalton, a muse of sorts, on stage in 1983.)
In November 1982, I was the afternoon guy at KDTH in Dubuque, nine months into my first full-time radio job. I was lucky to start my career at a place like that, a 5,000-watt full-service AM with a storied history, a staff full of talented veterans, and a deep reach into the community’s heart.
Unfortunately, when you are in your early 20s, what you don’t know causes you to think and act in ways you later wish you hadn’t. You choose the roads you take based on where you think they will lead you, even though the destination you imagine is by no means promised to you. What you don’t know is not really ignorance: it’s the stuff that youth and inexperience make it impossible for you to know. So it wasn’t that I failed to appreciate my good fortune, the stroke of luck it took to get the job and the world of stuff I could learn there. I did appreciate it, to the extent that I was able to understand that I should, but I know now that it wasn’t a very great extent.
KDTH played mostly country music by the fall of 1982, although a few pop hits were routinely sprinkled in. As I look at the country chart for this week in that year, I can’t remember some of the songs. For example, the #1 song 35 years ago this week, “You’re So Good When You’re Bad” by Charley Pride, barely registers. I remember “War Is Hell (On the Homefront Too)” by T. G. Sheppard a lot better. It sat at #3 for the week, and is about a young horndog who ends up in the sack with an older woman, the wife of a soldier gone off to World War II. If I’m recalling correctly, KDTH made the decision not to play the record on Veterans Day that year.
Several songs playing on KDTH that November were on the pop chart as well: “Break It to Me Gently” by Juice Newton, “The One You Love” by Glenn Frey, Michael Martin Murphey’s “What’s Forever For,” and “Nobody” by Sylvia (not the same Sylvia famed for “Pillow Talk”). None of them are songs I hear regularly now; on the rare occasions when I do hear them, each of them can turn me, in small ways, back into the 22-year-old kid I used to be. I didn’t listen to KDTH or to country when I wasn’t at work. In the car or at home, if I wasn’t listening to our Top 40 sister station D93, I’d be listening to WLS. Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy,” “Southern Cross” by Crosby Stills and Nash, “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson, “Pressure” by Billy Joel, and Donald Fagen’s “I.G.Y” can take me back to that season as reliably as the songs I was playing on the radio myself.
One of the top country songs 35 years ago this week was “16th Avenue” by Lacy J. Dalton, one of seven Top-10 country hits she scored between 1980 and 1983. Dalton sounded a little like Bonnie Raitt, although her voice was thinner, and she’d occasionally lapse into a Melissa Etheridge rasp that was unusual back then. While not all of her singles were especially memorable, “16th Avenue” was, about dreamers who come to Nashville seeking fame and fortune. Written by Thom Schuyler, it would be nominated for Song of the Year by the Country Music Association.
But then one night in some empty room
Where no curtains ever hung
Like a miracle some golden words
Roll off of someone’s tongue
And after years of being nothing
They’re all looking right at you
And for a while they’ll go in style
On 16th Avenue
Thirty-five years ago this month, I was on the radio at last after dreaming of it for many years, getting paid to make golden words roll off my tongue, I thought. And after a few years of being nothing—an afternoon jock in Dubuque, Iowa, for example—they’d all be looking right at me, I thought.
But the destination I imagined was by no means promised to me. And I didn’t yet know enough to know that.
(Pictured: Country star George Jones in the 1970s.)
So I was looking through radio station music surveys at ARSA, as one does, and I found one from country station KCKN, AM 1340 in Kansas City, Kansas, dated October 30, 1970. Here’s a lot on it that echoes stuff we’ve talked about here recently, so let’s see how much of it we can get to before this post becomes too long for you to stand.
1. “For the Good Times”/Ray Price. On the country charts since 1952 and one of country’s biggest stars in the 1960s, Price crossed over to the Hot 100 11 times, and the beautiful “For the Good Times” went all the way to #11.
2. “Fifteen Years Ago”/Conway Twitty. As mentioned here just last week.
3. “It’s Only Make Believe”/Glen Campbell. Which, as I wrote in my Campbell tribute last summer, stomps Twitty’s original recording into a fine powder.
6. “Thank God and Greyhound”/Roy Clark. The first half is a lament by a man whose lover is leaving him; the second half goes in an entirely different direction. “Thank God and Greyhound” is the kind of country songcraft you don’t hear on the radio much anymore.
11. “Coal Miner’s Daughter”/Loretta Lynn. Not merely a landmark in the history of country, but a great song, period, regardless of genre or era. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is an authentically vivid picture of family life and family love.
12. “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”/Elvis Presley. Debuting on KCKN’s Fabulous 50 at this lofty position, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” didn’t make Billboard‘s country chart at all, but it went to #11 on the Hot 100.
13. “Snowbird”/Anne Murray. Her first American hit, and another highly successful pop crossover; it had reached #8 on the Hot 100 at the end of September.
16. “The Preacher and the Bear”/Jerry Reed. “The Preacher and the Bear” was the flipside of the better-known “Amos Moses,” which would become both a pop and country smash, and a cleaned-up version of a song that was, for a time, the most popular that the American recording industry had ever produced. In 1905, the original recording of “The Preacher and the Bear” by Arthur Collins spent 11 weeks at #1 according to Joel Whitburn’s accounting of the primordial charts. It sold two million copies, a figure not exceeded until the 1920s. Collins’ original refers to the preacher as a “coon” and uses an exaggerated black dialect—which, of course, Reed’s does not. As the racist genre of “coon songs” went, the original was pretty mild, but still.
19. “Morning”/Jim Ed Brown. I have mentioned before that “Morning” was a record my mother adored, so much so that one of us bought her the 45 for Christmas that year. Never mind the fact that it’s a fairly explicit cheatin’ song—it’s a beautiful one.
21. “A Good Year for the Roses”/George Jones. “A Good Year for the Roses” (covered by Elvis Costello in 1981) tells a poignant and powerful story through a series of images and observations, but requires us to interpret them. It’s a superb piece of writing—again, the kind of songcraft that’s largely missing from mainstream country and pop music today—and would probably be the greatest thing George Jones ever did were it not for his 1980 hit “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
37. “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down”/Johnny Cash. Like “A Good Year for the Roses,” “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” leaves its meaning for us to discern, although I’ve been listening to it for 47 years now and I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of it. Like “For the Good Times,” it was written by Kris Kristofferson.
44. “I’ve Cried”/Crystal Gayle. Her first chart hit, as mentioned here not long ago.
49. “Asphalt Cowboy”/Sleepy LaBeef. From Smackover, Arkansas, this legendary rockabilly figure never hit the Billboard pop or country singles charts, and “Asphalt Cowboy” is one of only five listings of his among the 78,690 surveys on file at ARSA. But ever since 1979, when critic Peter Guralnick wrote about him in his book Lost Highway, he’s been considered one of the most important artists nobody knows.
KCKN was one of the first radio stations in Kansas, going on the air in 1925. It adopted a country format in 1957 and added an FM simulcast in the early 60s. In 1982, the AM and FM split, and the country format remained on FM. Today it’s known as KFKF. The station on 1340 in Kansas City today is KDTD, broadcasting a regional Mexican format.
(Pictured: Debby Boone, #1 with a bullet, 1977.)
Maybe it was the thinning ozone thanks to aerosol deodorant and hair spray. Maybe it was all that polyester. Or maybe there was a deeper reason, something that’s always been part of who we are, and is still part of us today.
“You Light Up My Life,” recorded by Debby Boone, was released on August 16, 1977. (That’s the same day Elvis Presley died, although the autopsy showed no correlation.) Its chart debut came on September 3rd at #71. It went to #58 the next week, then into the Top 40 at #35 for the week of September 17th. It zoomed from #35 to #21 the next week, then to #15, and then, during the week of October 8, took a mighty leap from #15 to #3. The song hit #1 40 years ago this week, on October 15, 1977, where it would stay for 10 weeks, the longest stretch at the top for a single song since 1956.
Week after week during the fall of 1977, other songs stormed the heights of the Hot 100 but none could take it: “Keep It Comin’ Love” by KC and the Sunshine Band, “Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon, “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave, and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle all peaked at #2, Carly and Crystal for three weeks each. Finally, during the week of December 17, the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” reached the second spot, and it took out the queen on December 24, 1977.
It may surprise you to learn that “You Light Up My Life” spent but a single week at #1 on the adult contemporary chart. Nevertheless, its pop-chart dominance makes it the #1 single of the 1970s.
After the song fell out of the Hot 100 in February 1978, it stayed topical for a while. It won the Oscar for Best Original Song (from a movie also called You Light Up My Life). It tied for the Song of the Year Grammy with “Evergreen,” and was nominated for Record of the Year but lost; Debby Boone won the Best New Artist Grammy. But after the spring award season, “You Light Up My Life” seemed to vanish from history, like a Soviet official declared a nonperson who never officially existed. It never had the kind of afterlife on radio playlists that such an enormous hit would be expected to have. It’s as if collective embarrassment over the embrace of such bland schlock caused people to repress the memory entirely.
It’s arguable that the same impulse repressed Debby Boone’s career. She returned to the Hot 100 only twice, with “California” and “God Knows,” both in 1978. She did a bit better on the country charts, where “You Light Up My Life” had peaked at #4, scoring a #1 hit in 1980 called “Are You On the Road to Lovin’ Me Again.” Eventually, she moved into Christian music (no surprise given that she had imagined the “you” in “You Light Up My Life” to be God), acted on the stage, raised a family, and wrote children’s books.
“You Light Up My Life” got back into the news in 2009 when songwriter Joe Brooks, who also wrote and directed the You Light Up My Life movie, was accused of 91 counts of sexual assault against 11 women, some of whom he had lured to his New York apartment by dazzling them with his Oscar. He committed suicide before the cases could come to trial.
Despite the fact that many claimed to hate “You Light Up My Life” during its chart run, it was on most of the country’s radio stations every 90 minutes for a reason: millions of people absolutely fking loved it. Even with all that airplay, Mr. and Mrs. Average American, and more than a few of their children, bought the single or the album or the cassette because they couldn’t get enough of it on the radio.
“You Light Up My Life” has not endured all that well, but what it represents certainly has. Schlock remains one of America’s favorite mind-altering substances, as it always has been.
(Rebooted from posts first appearing in 2009 and 2010.)
(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.