(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: 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.)
From approximately 2003 through sometime in 2009, I contributed to a political blog called Best of the Blogs, which no longer exists. While it lasted, it was great fun: one of the contributors had been one of the first staff writers at Rolling Stone; another was a former military man based in Japan; still another punctuated his opinions with different colored fonts and occasionally feuded with his fellow contributors. (He’s still online, and still quirky, as I discovered entirely by accident a few days ago.) On the flip, there’s another post I wrote for the site back in 2007, which might still be of interest to readers a decade later. It’s got nothing to do with the usual run of stuff around here, so read it if you want, or don’t.
My first blog, The Daily Aneursym, existed from 2003 through 2006. I still think some of the best writing I ever did was at that site, even though it had only about a half-dozen regular readers. From approximately 2003 through sometime in 2009, I also contributed to a political blog called Best of the Blogs. It no longer exists, but I found an online archive of posts a while back, and killed most of a day reading through it. Most of my stuff there was highly topical (for example, lots of detailed inside baseball about the 2008 presidential campaign, from the early primary process through Election Night), but I found one piece that might be of interest a decade later. It’s got nothing to do with the usual run of stuff around here, so read it if you want, or don’t.
(Pictured: Blood Sweat and Tears.)
I have over 28,000 songs on my laptop. The other day, the album version and single edit of BS&T’s “And When I Die” shuffled up within about 50 songs of each other, which struck me as an excuse to reboot this post from 2011. Rereading it now, I think it might be one of the better things I ever wrote.
I can’t remember the first time I heard Blood Sweat and Tears’ “And When I Die,” which went to #2 in the fall of 1969.
I’m not scared of dyin’ and I don’t really care
If it’s peace you find in dyin’, well then, let the time be near
That seemed pretty odd to me. How could someone be unafraid of dying—and even go as far as to wish the time was near? I tried not to think about what it implied.
Eventually, BS&T’s music got too old for Top 40 and A/C and they were relegated to oldies stations, and apart from “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” and “Spinning Wheel,” their songs were rarely anthologized. I’ll bet I went a decade or more without hearing “And When I Die.” But then came the day I heard it again.
If it’s peace you find in dyin’ and if dyin’ time is near
Just bundle up my coffin ’cause it’s cold way down there
I hear it is cold way down there, yeah
Crazy cold way down there
I was past 40 years old now, much different from the person who’d first heard the song, and I couldn’t believe how different it sounded to me.
And when I die, and when I’m gone
There’ll be one child born in this world to carry on, to carry on
It was like learning that a knick-knack that had sat on a shelf for years was actually a valuable relic. It took on a significance I never knew it possessed.
Now troubles are many, they’re as deep as a well
I can swear there ain’t no heaven but I pray there ain’t no hell
Swear there ain’t no heaven and I pray there ain’t no hell
But I’ll never know by livin’, only my dyin’ will tell, yes only my dyin’ will tell, yeah
Only my dyin’ will tell
When I was first hearing the song, I still believed in Heaven, Hell, God, all of it. By the time I reached my 40s, I believed in none of it—but I also believed, as I do today, that we’ll never know by dying. The Greek philosopher Epicurus said something like, “Where we are, death is not; where death is, we are not.” I don’t believe we’re going to perceive what’s happened to us, or even that something has happened to us. We’ll just go and be troubled no more, and that sounds like peace to me.
Freed from the need to live in preparation for where we think we’re going after life is over, why wouldn’t we want to get the most out of the only world we know?
Give me my freedom for as long as I be
All I ask of livin’ is to have no chains on me
All I ask of livin’ is to have no chains on me
And all I ask of dyin’ is to go naturally
The phrase “no chains on me” is a phrase of the time in which Laura Nyro wrote “And When I Die,” although the sentiment is timeless. And the wish to go naturally is something that’s existed in all of us since each of us figured out that there are nastier ways to go.
But the most profound wisdom in “And When I Die” is this:
And when I die, and when I’m dead, dead and gone
There’ll be one child born in our world to carry on, to carry on
So there I am, a man in his 40s, hearing a familiar song transformed, and being transformed by it. Why yes—if it’s peace you find in dying, well then, yes, let the time be near. All I ask of dying is to go naturally. And when I’m gone—when each of us is dead, dead and gone—there’ll be one child born in the world to carry on. The children that follow us might tread more lightly than we, they might be wiser than we, and they might acquire the vision and the wisdom to solve the problems our generation lacks the will to face.
Far from being odd—or scary, or delusional, or demented—“And When I Die” is actually a damned optimistic song.
(Pictured: the Irish Rovers, circa 1968.)
One St. Patrick’s Day, my boss took me out for dinner at a bar owned by his wife’s family, and I got loaded on green beer. (I don’t recommend it.) Another year, the station’s jocks were scheduled to walk in our town’s St. Pat’s parade, dressed in green-trimmed tuxedos and handing out green-tinted carnations. However, a strong thunderstorm rolled through just as the parade was lining up. We got caught in it, trying to take refuge at one point under the overhanging back end of the nearby Oscar Meyer Wienermobile. (I don’t recommend that, either.) Although the parade went on after a delay, it went on without the four of us, who had gone back to the station to wring out our rented suits.
I don’t have any other St. Patrick’s Day memories, and the most Irish thing about me is all the Van Morrison records I own. But I’m not writing about Van today.