(Pictured: Dinah Washington.)
(This is a remarkably old repeat. I have updated it with YouTube links to some of the songs mentioned, because YouTube didn’t exist when this post originally appeared here, back on January 3, 2005. I have revised it a little, too.)
Our current guardians of virtue would have you believe that before those damn hippie kids screwed everything up in the 1960s, American pop culture was largely benign. But there’s never been a time when nothing unfit for either your grandma or your eight-year-old niece ever crept into public consciousness. Cliff Edwards, a star of the 20s and 30s known as Ukulele Ike, recorded such tunes as “I’m a Bear in a Lady’s Boudoir” and “I’m Going to Give it to Mary With Love.” Edwards and other white artists recorded such material with a wink and a nudge, as euphemistic as Seinfeld‘s “master of your domain.” In the blues and R&B fields, performers were often far more blunt. Songs dealing with a lot more than mere sexual innuendo were common, as was a more rough-and-tough style.
Certain songs from the genre sometimes known as “dirty blues” are better known by title than by any specific performance, such as “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion,” and “If It Don’t Fit, Don’t Force It.” A performer such as Bo Carter could make a career out of records like “My Pencil Won’t Write No More,” “Banana in Your Fruit Basket,” and “Please Warm My Weiner.” Women did the dirty too, such as Lil Johnson with “Press My Button, Ring My Bell,” Julia Lee with “King Size Papa” and “My Man Stands Out,” and Lucille Bogan with “Shave ‘Em Dry.” In a genre all about envelope-pushing, “Shave ‘Em Dry” was considered too far out for a long time–it remained unreleased for over 30 years, until the 1970s. It’s not safe for work even today.
Better-known blues and R&B artists also recorded material we’d rate as PG or R, like Bessie Smith’s “I Want Some Sugar in My Bowl” or Alberta Hunter’s “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark.” Wynonie Harris recorded “Keep On Churnin’ (Til the Butter Comes),” Dinah Washington waxed “Big Long Slidin’ Thing,” and Memphis Slim once recorded a song called “If You See Kay.” Most such records were underground hits—the musical equivalent of Playboy magazines under the mattress—but a few reached a mass audience: “Sixty Minute Man” by the Dominoes, for example, and “Work With Me Annie” by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.
If a listener’s taste ran to songs about homosexuality, they were out there, too—like Kokomo Arnold’s “Sissy Man Blues” (“Lord if you can’t bring me no woman / Send me some sissy man”). Drugs? How about Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher”—what could she be mooching, I wonder?—or the fairly well-known novelty “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine”?
Outside the blues and R&B fields, if you dig into your father’s or grandfather’s vinyl albums, you might find some nightclub recordings by Rusty Warren or Ruth Wallis. They were more suggestive than obscene, and what made them seem so risque was Warren and Wallis’ frequent use of the word “boobs.” (Warren’s most famous tune is probably “Bounce Your Boobies,” which occasionally surfaced on the Dr. Demento radio show). They sound fairly tame now, but they were hot stuff for adults only in the 1950s and early 60s.
Yep, wherever there have been human beings and live microphones, sooner or later there have been songs sold in plain brown wrappers. A fabulous essay on “dirty blues” is here. Another about drug-related blues songs is here.
(Pictured: the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with John McLaughlin on guitar, second from left, Billy Cobham on drums and Jan Hammer on keyboards.)
If you are sick and tired of my obsession with 1976, this post isn’t going to help any. In my defense, it comes from a different angle than the usual—it’s the survey from KCR, the college station at San Diego State University, dated March 1, 1976. It’s got a handful of the major hits of the moment: Frampton Comes Alive, A Night at the Opera, Bad Company’s Run With the Pack, David Bowie’s Station to Station, and Desire by Bob Dylan. Here are other interesting entries from a list that’s divided between “daytime” and “nighttime,” although there’s plenty of overlap between ’em:
1. (daytime)/8. (nighttime) How Dare You/10cc. This album comes between The Original Soundtrack (with “I’m Not in Love”) and Deceptive Bends (with “The Things We Do For Love”) without a big single, although “I’m Mandy Fly Me” and “Art for Art’s Sake” made the lower reaches of the Hot 100. The band’s sense of humor undercut any pretensions they had to being a serious prog rock band—not that there’s anything wrong with that.
5. (nighttime) Maxophone/Maxophone. Chances are good that if you are able to name one Italian prog rock band, it’s PFM (Premiata Forneria Marconi). Now you can name two. Maxophone was a six-piece band made up of avant-garde classical musicians and rockers. They released their debut album in both Italian and English; the Italian version has been re-released in the CD era. You can listen to the whole dang thing here.
6. (daytime)/9. (nighttime) Paris/Paris. This is how Bob Welch spent his time between leaving Fleetwood Mac and launching his solo career, in a power trio with former Jethro Tull bassist Glenn
Cornish Cornick and Nazz drummer Thom Mooney. Welch made two albums under the Paris name (the second with a different drummer, Hunt Sales, son of Soupy and future collaborator with David Bowie in Tin Machine), but the band would be defunct by the end of ’76.
6. (nighttime)/Inner Worlds/Mahavishnu Orchestra. No self-respecting album-rock radio station of the late 1970s would fail to play a bit of jazz fusion, although Allmusic.com notes in its biography of the Mahavishnu Orchestra that the band was considered a rock band in its prime. Inner Worlds was the last album John McLaughlin would make under the Mahavishnu Orchestra name until 1984. Stoners of 1976 would probably have dug “Miles Out,” on which McLaughlin creates various otherworldly noises with his guitar.
7. (nighttime) When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease/Roy Harper. You have heard Roy Harper sing, even if you don’t realize it—that’s him on Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar.” He’s also the inspiration for Led Zeppelin’s “Hats Off to Harper,” and he is in general a lot better known and more influential in the UK than over here. When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease (one of the great album titles of the 1970s) was released in the UK, it was known as HQ. The somber, stately title song is here.
15. (nighttime) King Brilliant/Howard Werth and the Moonbeams. During the early 70s, Werth had been in the British band Audience; according to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), the surviving Doors asked him if he’d be interested in replacing Jim Morrison. (Spoiler: he didn’t.) King Brilliant was produced by Elton John’s longtime producer Gus Dudgeon, and it’s not hard to imagine its lead single, “Midnight Flyer,” as an Elton hit.
It seems pretty clear that like many college radio stations then and now, KCR was Very Serious About the Music, and in a way you can only be when you’re of college age.
One Other Thing: Radio geeks are mourning the demise of the Loop, the Chicago album-rock station purchased by a non-commercial group that will put a syndicated Christian format on it, perhaps by the time you read this. The Loop was owned by a group that was in over its head and thereby ripe for the kind of picking it got. But in its heyday, it was a station that mattered to people. There aren’t too many stations like that; in every market in the country, half the stations could go dark and in 48 hours, it would be like they never existed. But the Loop was a tastemaker, as Professor O’Kelly put it. It was a special place to work, as Rick Kaempfer noted. And in Chicago, it will be missed.
(The main part of this post was rebooted from one that first appeared in March 2013.)
(Pictured: Bobby Goldsboro and his remarkable helmet of hair.)
Fifty years ago today, according to the ARSA database, Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” made its first appearance on a radio survey, listed as a pick hit at WKIX in Raleigh, North Carolina. In 2012, I wrote about the song at Popdose as part of a feature called World’s Worst Songs. It’s been edited a bit.
The farther back we go in time, the harder it is to fairly judge what sucks, because tastes and styles change. Complicating matters is the post-modern ironic distance through which we look at almost everything. I provide this caveat because this week’s entry in World’s Worst Songs was staggeringly popular in its day, blasting up the charts to #1 and staying there for five weeks, beating back all comers in one of the greatest years popular music ever experienced. To listeners in 1968, Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” was not as awful as it seems to us now.
But holy crap it seems awful to us now.
“Honey” was written by Bobby Russell. He also wrote “Little Green Apples,” which won a 1969 Grammy for Song of the Year and briefly threatened to become a standard, and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” a #1 hit in 1973 for his then-wife, Vicki Lawrence. He also scored a handful of minor hit singles as a singer. Many of his songs were sketches of middle-class domestic life in the 60s, and “Honey” is the ne plus ultra of the form.
“Honey” is told in the voice of a husband describing life with his wife, who is “always young at heart / Kinda dumb and kinda smart.” And right there we get at what drives modern listeners to “Honey” around the bend: the singer condescends to nearly everything his wife does, and everything he does for her. She wrecks the car and fears his wrath; after he pretends to be angry for a while, he forgives her, and (instead of being pissed off at his emotional manipulation) she hugs him. He buys her a puppy, but the goddamn thing keeps him awake all night. She cries over sad movies and he thinks it’s silly. You half-expect him to eventually say, “Women—what are you gonna do?”
But then the proceedings take a dark turn: “I came home unexpectedly and caught her crying needlessly / In the middle of the day.” And within half-a-verse more, she’s dead: “One day while I was not at home / While she was there and all alone / The angels came.” (Perhaps if he’d paid more attention to her as a human being, he might have known her crying wasn’t needless.) We do not know what happened, whether she had some disease he couldn’t be bothered to find out about, or whether she killed herself in despair over being treated like a child. In any case, once she’s gone, he realizes he’s lost, well, something: “Honey, I miss you / And I’m being good / And I’d love to be with you / If only I could.”
“Honey” is produced to tug the heartstrings, with an angel choir and chimes that ring out when Honey departs this vale of tears. And at the fade, when Goldsboro repeats the song’s first verse, he does so with an audible lump in his throat. It’s a fine performance for its time, but you probably wouldn’t do this song now, and if you did, you probably wouldn’t do it this way.
“Honey” had already reached #1 in several cities by the time it debuted on the Hot 100, on March 23, 1968. It would blast to #1 on the Hot 100 in just its fourth week, on April 13, and stay five weeks. It would spend three weeks at #1 on the Billboard country chart and two atop the Easy Listening chart. ARSA shows it as the #1 song of the year at stations in Flint, Pensacola, and other medium-sized markets, and #2 at several of the biggest Top 40 stations, including KNUZ in Houston, WRIT in Milwaukee, KJR in Seattle, WCOL in Columbus, and KGB in San Diego. In Chicago, both WLS and WCFL ranked it at #3 for all of 1968. In one of music’s most magical, innovative years, “Honey” stood tall above almost everything else.
Eight-year-old me absorbed “Honey” from hearing it on my parents’ radio stations, and it lingers 50 years later as the sound of spring awakening after the long winter. And although I was pretty snide about the song in this Popdose piece, honesty compels me to report that there’s another reason why “Honey” lingers: it gave eight-year-old me an excuse to think, for the first time, about love and loss. But not for the last.
I often say that certain repeat posts are “rebooted,” meaning that I have tweaked them a bit to add or remove content, or to make cosmetic changes. This post is a straight-up repeat, as it appeared on January 5, 2010, eight years ago today. Only the title is different.
They say that people with terminal diseases tend to hang on through the holidays and then expire in January. I don’t doubt it. Before the holidays, you move through your days with a lightness of spirit. You feel like giving and forgiving. After the holidays, you’re back on the treadmill, and everything reminds you of the various traps you’re in. December snow is magical; in January, it’s just something that can damn well get you killed if enough of it falls.
When I was in radio full-time, January had a couple of defining characteristics beyond free-floating misery. As the slowest advertising month of the year, January meant less time spent writing or producing commercials, which freed up more time for tasks that were often neglected the rest of the year. What I called “January jobs” included throwing out old tapes that were no longer needed, catching up on filing, or maybe just trying to find the surface of my desk underneath the debris of the past year. The best thing about the January jobs is that they required relatively little concentrated attention, and they left plenty of time for two-hour lunches.
Frequently January would bring a boat show or a bridal show. The best kind were the ones that the station did not have to plan, where we could just promote them and do a remote broadcast or two. Such broadcasts should not be confused with entertainment, however. Unless a listener is immediately interested in buying a boat or getting married, the live broadcast from the boat show or the bridal show can be spectacularly dull. And there’s something vaguely obscene about encouraging people to drop 20 large on a boat or a wedding, particularly during those periods when the economy’s gone to hell—which, in small-town Iowa during the 1980s and early 90s, was every year.
Many stations do a January promotion geared to the Super Bowl. At a couple of the places I worked, this involved giving away a catered Super Bowl party for 12 or 20 people along with a big-screen TV rental for the day, back when big-screen TVs were monstrosities few people owned, and not something you could hang on a wall, as they are today. That’s a pretty good prize by the standards of small-market radio, but the winners weren’t necessarily immunized against the misery of January. One year, our winner was extremely unhappy about getting the big TV for only one day, even though the contest promos and official rules had made it very clear. Eventually, she made us feel like she was doing us a favor by accepting the prize, and I wanted to have the sponsor deliver the damn thing to my house.
People can be surprisingly petty when they’re getting something for nothing. One of my stations gave away a ski weekend in Colorado once—airfare to and from Denver, transportation to the resort, weekend accommodations, ski equipment, a package so great we wondered how we’d ever gotten it to give away in the first place—only to have the winner complain that it didn’t include the 10-minute ride from his house to our local airport. “You mean I have to get to the airport on my own?”
But maybe the cantankerous contest winners were cantankerous because it’s January. This month sucks.
Here’s another Christmas post from the past, specifically 2009, slightly edited.
There’s no time of the year when the shades of the past crowd around us like they do on Christmas. People we’ve loved and lost, memorable days spent with the people who still share our lives with us, moments we can’t forget—they’re all coming back this weekend, if they haven’t come back already.
I remember . . . when I learned the truth about Santa Claus. In our town, Santa met his public in a lovely double-wide donated by the local mobile home dealer and parked on the town square. One night my brother and me, maybe aged six and four at the time, shyly walked in with our parents. Santa took one look at us and then called us by name: “Well, it’s Jim and Dan Bartlett!” Since then, I have never doubted the jolly elf’s existence.
I remember . . . that first magical radio Christmas, the one that changed everything.
I remember . . . when I sent a half-dozen roses to a girl I was trying to lure away from another guy, making sure they’d arrive on Christmas Eve. It worked. Three years later she moved in with me just before Christmas, and we went to the local discount store to buy Christmas decorations for the apartment. We bought a “first Christmas together” ornament that we still have, 35 years later.
I remember . . . the year I picked up my brother and his girlfriend at the airport on Christmas Eve. When I arrived, there was a crisis. When the luggage came off the plane, one piece was missing: the carrier with her dog. It turned out that instead of running him through the baggage carousel, they put him out at a different door nearby. He wasn’t missing for more than a few minutes, but they were some long and upsetting minutes.
I remember . . . waking up with the flu one Christmas morning. That was the year my grandfather was in the hospital, and my grandmother was staying at our house. So in my misery on that day, I was ministered to not only by The Mrs., but also by my mother and my grandmother. If you have to get sick, that’s definitely the way to go.
That Christmas was the last one with my grandfather, who died the next summer. The rest of my grandparents have followed him now. They were always such an important part of the holiday, Christmas Eve with my father’s parents and Christmas Day with my mother’s, that in certain ways the holidays have never felt right without them. But life requires us to adjust, and so we have. Year by year, we’ve made new memories. They may not seem as vivid as the memories from earlier years, but give ’em time.
To bring this discussion back to the ostensible subject of this blog: “Remember (Christmas)” by Nilsson made the Billboard and Cash Box charts in late December 1972 and stuck around well into January ’73. It lasted that long partly because the lyrics don’t mention the word “Christmas” or contain any sort of holiday imagery. But it’s a Christmas song nevertheless, because it’s all about calling up the shades that crowd around. The people we’ve loved and lost. Memorable days spent with the people who still share our lives with us. Moments we can’t forget.
They’re all coming back this weekend.
Listen . . . they’re here now.
(Note to patrons: I’ll be on Magic 98 for a little slice of “98 Hours of Christmas Magic” on Sunday between 9AM and noon. This feature will be on hiatus until the New Year unless somebody important dies (rest well, Dick Enberg, one of the voices that will forever echo in the ears of sports fans my age). New posts will appear at One Day in Your Life tomorrow, on Christmas Day, and on New Year’s Day, so be sure to stop over there.
I don’t know which of the thousands of posts that have appeared here since 2004 is my favorite. If forced to choose, I might pick this one, which first appeared in 2011. It’s appropriate to repeat this year, the 50th anniversary of the release of the song that provides the title.
On December 24, 1969, the Capital Times, the afternoon newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, hit the streets with the words “Merry Christmas” emblazoned above the masthead. Its front page, however, was not so merry. Headlines included “Children’s Doctor Shortage Becomes Acute in Madison,” “Arab Summit Breaks Apart in Disarray,” and “Plane, Missile Firms Get ‘Christmas Gifts.’” Its page-one feature story began with the following lede: “Bringing up a retarded child is a challenge to love, to care, and to sacrifice. At Central Colony, there are six children waiting for someone willing to meet that challenge.” The story was headlined, “‘Have You Found a Family For Me?,’” and included pictures of Brenda, Pauncho, Jeffrey, Tom, Jerry, and Wally, all under the age of 12, all of whom would be spending another Christmas at the state home for the developmentally disabled.
I was reading that paper in my office the other day, in the deepening dark of winter twilight, thinking about what a remarkably depressing picture it paints of the world on Christmas Eve 1969, a day of loneliness and want, failure and war. And at that precise moment, the laptop music stash shuffled up Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas”: “Someday at Christmas men won’t be boys / Playing with bombs like kids play with toys” and “Someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars / When we have learned what Christmas is for” and “Someday at Christmas we’ll see a land / With no hungry children and no empty hands.”
Stevie, you son of a bitch.
I had to stop reading, turn off the computer, and go do something else. I couldn’t take any more.
The next morning, I looked up the same day’s edition of the Wisconsin State Journal, Madison’s other daily paper. Its front page bannered an article about the success of the paper’s annual Empty Stocking campaign to benefit the needy, and it included items about gifts being airlifted to POWs in North Vietnam and poor families in Mississippi, plus a photo of an Amish man driving a horse-drawn sleigh in Kalona, Iowa, which received six inches of snow the day before. Also on the front page was the King James version of the Christmas story.
Why was this front page so different from the one on the Capital Times the same day? The answer was under the headline “On This Day, All the News Is Good.” “In keeping with a long Christmas tradition, The Wisconsin State Journal today carries no stories of disaster, crime, or violence on this front page.”
On December 24, 1969, which front page was more truthful? Was it the Capital Times, with its stories of the challenges faced by individuals, the Madison community, and the world, challenges that pay no attention to the calendar? Or was it the State Journal, telling of children who get what they need, of kindness in the midst of hardship and war, and of the birth of Jesus?
I don’t know. Surely the State Journal describes the world as we would like it to be, fitting on Christmas, when we are closer to being the people we imagine ourselves to be than on any other day of the year: filled with love for our fellow creatures, warm and secure in our traditions, caring and generous toward the whole world. And it feels so good and so right that we start thinking that maybe we can learn to live in that light the other 364 days of the year.
Stevie feels it, too: “Someday all our dreams will come to be / Someday in a world where men are free.” But just as the Capital Times’ editors understood that our challenges don’t cease to challenge us just because it’s Christmas Eve, Stevie Wonder knows it too. And he knows that on December 26th, we’ll be back in a place that’s a long way from where we wish we were. Sure, it could happen: Someday all our dreams could come to be. Sure, the world could be made free from loneliness and want, failure and war. But not on a happy timetable: “Maybe not in time for you and me.”
“But someday at Christmastime.” Because as sure as Christmas comes again, we never stop dreaming of the things that could be.