Category Archives: Tributes

David and Another Thing

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(Note to patrons: following this post, this blog is going on hiatus. Posting will resume in early December . . . unless somebody else dies before then.)

On November 21, 1970, “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. But because Billboard was always a bit behind the street and is just one chart besides, the charts available at ARSA tell a more complete and accurate story.

The first station to list “I Think I Love You” was WLCY in Tampa, on a survey dated August 31. KREL in Corona, California, followed on September 2. The first city to go nuts over the record was Seattle, where KJR and KOL both debuted it on September 18. Two other major Top 40 stations, KFRC in San Francisco and KOIL in Omaha, charted it days before The Partridge Family debuted on ABC on September 25, 1970. So did KCPX in Salt Lake City, where it blasted to #1 in three weeks, on the chart dated October 6—before the record had even made the Hot 100. KJR moved it to #1 on its survey dated October 9.

“I Think I Love You” debuted on the October 10 Hot 100 at #75 (the same week WRIG in Wausau, Wisconsin, charted it at #1) and slow-cooked for the rest of the month, going from #75 to #60 to #41. But on October 31, it vaulted into the Top 40 at #17, then went to #7, #4, and finally #1. Its reach across the country was fast, and massive: WLS and WCFL in Chicago both charted it at #1 for the week of November 2. By November 21, it had also reached #1 in Seattle, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Vancouver, Houston, Detroit, Akron, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Memphis, Winnipeg, Syracuse, Miami, San Diego, Boston, Fort Wayne, Flint, Grand Rapids, Toronto, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Fresno, Hartford, and Columbus (where WCOL would make it the #1 song for all of 1970, as would KOL in Seattle). It topped charts in smaller cities too, from Altoona, Pennsylvania, to Muncie, Indiana.

“I Think I Love You” would spend three weeks at #1 and six additional weeks in the Top 10 after that before going 11-15-22-25 and out. During its last week on the Hot 100, February 13, 1971, “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted” debuted at #57, and another rocket ride began.

The Partridge Family was must-see-TV at my house; both my brother and I bought Partridge records and other swag in 1971, the year we turned 11 and 9—solidly in the Partridge demographic. I needn’t rehash my adult fondness for the family’s music: played by members of the Wrecking Crew and with vocals by the top session singers in Hollywood, it was far better-made than it needed to be. Neither do I need to revisit its place in the mythology of this blog: “I Think I Love You” was one of the 45s I got for Christmas in 1970.

And on November 21, 2017, 47 years to the day since “I Think I Love You” hit #1, David Cassidy died.

Any online obituary you choose to read will sketch the outlines of Cassidy’s career, so I’m not going to do it here. One thing I will do is suggest you listen to his 1990 Top 40 return, “Lyin’ to Myself,” which is clearly an artifact of its time but worth four minutes nevertheless. I’ll say instead that 47 years after it exploded into American popular culture like a polyester-and-puka-shell bomb, David Cassidy’s Keith-Partridge early-70s young-man cool endures. Who wouldn’t want to look like him, dress like him, or sing like him? I did. And I do.

About that other thing . . . .

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Mel and Another Guy

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(Pictured: Mel Tillis.)

You gotta pick your spots. For example, I am not the person to write an appreciation of AC/DC’s Malcolm Young, who died over the weekend. David Cassidy is more my speed, but he is still with us at this writing, so that piece can wait. Here, then, are a few words about Mel Tillis, who died Sunday at age 85. I do not intend this blog to become a country-music blog, even though this makes something like five country-themed posts in the last couple of months, but as I say, you gotta pick your spots.

Mel Tillis was the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year in 1976, so he fits with a broader obsession at this blog. And he must have been a dark horse to win that year—the other nominees were Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Ronnie Milsap, and Dolly Parton, all of whom scored #1 hits in 1975 and/or 1976, while Mel did not. Up to that point, he’d been #1 only once, with a version of Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never” in 1972, although he’d scored 17 other Top 10 hits between 1969 and 1976. The week after the 1976 CMAs, in October, his “Good Woman Blues” hit #1, and it started the best streak of his career: 15 straight Top 10 hits between 1976 and 1981, including four #1 singles.

In 1979, I was on the radio in Dubuque, playing country music. Mel’s “Coca Cola Cowboy” was one of the biggest songs of that summer, doing a week at #1 in August. Earlier that year, “Send Me Down to Tucson,” a fabulous cheatin’ song, had gone to #2. (Both were heard in the Clint Eastwood movie Every Which Way But Loose.)  Another of his songs, the 1977 hit “I Got the Hoss,” was a frequent request, for reasons that become obvious when you hear it. The Top-10 hits that followed “Coca Cola Cowboy” were successful but not especially memorable—as I look at the list, I can’t call any of then back to mind. Mel cut an album with Nancy Sinatra in 1982, and he hit the country singles chart for the last time in 1989. His last studio album came out in 2010.

Mel did a bit of acting too, first appearing as a country singer in a 1973 episode of Love American Style, if IMDB can be believed. He was in several Burt Reynolds movies: W. W. and the Dixie DancekingsSmokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run, and Cannonball Run II. He also appeared in commercials, most famously for the Whataburger chain. He was a popular guest on talk and variety TV shows during the last half of the 70s, and his visibility likely contributed to his Entertainer of the Year win in ’76. His visibility also made him the most famous stutterer in America, and as a person who shares that affliction (although not to the degree he had it), I admired his perseverance, and his willingness to make fun of it.

In 1981, a group of us from college attended a national radio convention in Chicago. Willie Nelson was supposed to headline a concert one night, but he was taken ill, and the organizers had to scramble to find a replacement. Mel flew in on short notice and did the show, telling the audience that he owed so much of his success to radio that he was happy to make the trip. I used to have an autograph he signed that night, but like a lot of stuff from that era, it’s long gone.

Listening to Mel Tillis again, I’m reminded—and surprised—at just how great so many of his records were, so perfectly in the pocket for their time.

On the subject of those who have recently left the planet . . . .

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You Won’t Believe What the Boys Are Blowin’

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When I wrote about Walter Becker and Steely Dan in September, I said that I’d made a list of favorite Dan songs but then decided to leave it out of the post, partly because it didn’t seem like the proper place for it, but also because any list I make is likely to change depending on what day it is. But a couple of people amongst the readership said they were interested in seeing it, so here it is.

10.  “Change of the Guard.” Included for its bangin’ piano and a stereo-speaker-spanning guitar solo/shred by Skunk Baxter, this track from Can’t Buy a Thrill is the deepest cut on this list, with the possible exception of …

9.  “Snowbound.” This is a ringer; it’s a cut from Donald Fagen’s 1993 album Kamarkiriad, and co-written by Becker, who produced the album. Of all the songs Fagen has recorded as a solo artist, this feels to me like the most Steely Dan-ish, every bit as lush and beautiful as anything on Aja or Gaucho.

8.  “My Old School.” The closest Steely Dan ever got to a rave-up, “My Old School” is snide and joyful at the same time, which is not an easy daily double to hit.

7.  “Parker’s Band.” A track from Pretzel Logic, and a tribute to Charlie Parker (“Kansas City born and growin’ / You won’t believe what the boys are blowin'”) and the jazz players Becker and Fagen grew up on.

6.  “Any Major Dude With Half a Heart.” At least one Becker tribute I read (and there were a lot of them, so I can’t recall which one) labeled Steely Dan a part of the 1970s California rock scene, which doesn’t seem accurate to me. Their music is much more New York: darker, jazzier, and less obviously cocaine-dusted than what I associate with the California sound. But if you’re looking for something in their catalog that sounds like California in the 70s—something with a peaceful, easy feeling, perhaps—“Any Major Dude” is the closest you’ll get.

5. “Midnight Cruiser.” Steely Dan songs are populated by outcasts who, if they aren’t chasing the dragon, are chasing dreams they probably won’t catch. “Midnight Cruiser” finds two of them deciding to make one last run at it, but worrying that “The time of our time has come and gone / I fear we’ve been waiting too long.”

4.  “Deacon Blues.” Practically perfect in every way.

3.  “Glamour Profession.” Even though the song is about a drug dealer in sunny Los Angeles, the icy electric piano texture that’s all over it makes you feel like you’re standing on a dead-white and frozen plain in the middle of winter, accompanied by a clutch of horn players who are being strangled by a howling wind. (Walter Becker once said he wouldn’t mind not appearing on his own albums. He’s famously not on “Peg,” and he’s not on this, either.)

2.  “Doctor Wu.” Which includes my favorite Steely Dan lyric: “Katy lies / You can see it in her eyes / But imagine my surprise / When I saw you.”

1. “Black Cow.” This is the first track on Aja, so it was new to me when I dropped the needle for the first time. It took quite a while before I got past it to the rest of the album. (Becker isn’t on this, either.)

Like I said, this project is possibly a fool’s errand. But I’ve gone on those before.

It’s probably just as foolish, but perhaps more fruitful, to rank Steely Dan’s albums, which I will do below.

1.  Aja
2.  Katy Lied
3.  The Royal Scam
4.  Can’t Buy a Thrill
5.  Gaucho
6.  Pretzel Logic
7.  Countdown to Ecstasy
8.  Two Against Nature
9.  Everything Must Go
10.   Alive in America

If you disagree with me ranking Pretzel Logic and Countdown to Ecstasy behind Gaucho, get in line. This is how I roll. And while the top four feel solidly locked place in today, you never know what might happen tomorrow.

Goin’ Home

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(Pictured: this is Fats Domino and not, as the original caption says, Fats Dimono. You can trust me.) 

Since the death of Fats Domino earlier this week at age 89, I have been trying to remember precisely when I first heard his music and that of the other icons of the 1950s, but I’ll be damned if I can remember.

American Graffiti, which came out in 1973, was the first introduction many kids my age got to 50s music in general and certain icons in particular: Fats, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly were all heard in the movie. The 1950s nostalgia wave swept into TV while American Graffiti was still in theaters with the January 1974 premiere of Happy Days, which used Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” as its original theme song. I have written elsewhere of a suspicion that TV ads for K-Tel oldies compilations might have introduced me to some artists of the 50s I didn’t otherwise know. I can’t say if, or how many, of rock’s founding fathers were in the oldies library at WLS and other Top 40 stations during the 1970s, although some certainly must have been. When I was a little baby DJ, the syndicated radio show Sunday at the Memories taught me a lot. Host Ray Durkee revered the music of the rock ‘n’ roll era, and I soaked up his enthusiasm while I board-opped his show.

But beyond that, specifics about where and how I first heard Fats Domino and other stars of the 1950s are lost to me.

Domino’s collaborations with producer/bandleader Dave Bartholomew were among the most significant records made by anybody anywhere. Their first big hit, “The Fat Man,” rose to #2 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1950, and is said to have sold a million copies. In 1952, Domino’s first #1 R&B hit, “Goin’ Home,” crossed over to the pop chart. When rock ‘n’ roll exploded in 1955, he was there with “Ain’t That a Shame,” the first song George Harrison learned to play, and one of those records that used to be engraved on the DNA of everybody with a radio—as were “Blueberry Hill” and “I’m Walkin’,” which hit in 1956 and 1957 respectively.

(Fats wasn’t the first to record “Blueberry Hill”; it actually went back to 1940. Many kids my age first heard it, or heard about it, on Happy Days, where it was used as shorthand for gettin’ lucky: when talking about their dates, Richie and his friends would sing, “I found my thrill . . .” whether they had or not, in the bragging way of adolescent boys then and now.)

My favorite Fats Domino records both made the pop Top 10 in 1959: the piano-bangin’ “Whole Lotta Loving” and the slower-cookin’ “I Want to Walk You Home.” But by then, his run of monumental hits was nearly over; his last Top 10, “Walking to New Orleans,” came in the summer of 1960, although he made the Top 40 12 more times before the end of 1962. He changed labels after that, splitting with Bartholomew and recording in Nashville. (The latter change didn’t serve him well.) His final Hot 100 hit was a terrific version of “Lady Madonna,” which did two weeks at #100 in September 1968. In 1980, Fats recorded “Whiskey Heaven” for the Clint Eastwood movie Any Which Way You Can, and I remember playing it on KDTH. He released albums throughout the 80s and 90s, mostly live discs (the last one in 2003), and in 1993, he made a Christmas album. The last thing most people heard about Fats before his death this week was of his 2005 rescue in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He rode it out at home in New Orleans, losing all of his possessions in the process.

Of the most iconic stars of the 50s, only three are still alive now: Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Don Everly, all in their 80s, and we all hope they’re taking good care. But as me mourn Fats Domino, let’s rejoice that Dave Bartholomew is still among us. This Christmas Eve, he will celebrate his 97th birthday.

Highway Companion

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So now then, Tom Petty.

For nearly 40 years, Tom Petty’s been there, like the weather. I became a fan in 1979, when I was in college, and especially when Damn the Torpedoes was in the hot rotation both on our campus radio station and in my apartment. Hard Promises insinuated itself into my life even more deeply than Damn the Torpedoes had. I played the hell out it for years thereafter. Long After Dark didn’t sound quite like the Tom Petty I adored. (Years later, working at a classic rock station, I would suggest that a good alternate title for it might be Benmont Tench Buys a Synthesizer.) After that, Petty’s new music would get a lot of play on my radio stations, if not so much in my house anymore. Through the 90s and into the 00s, he would still occasionally come up with a classic. I’m not sure anybody needs to hear to hear “Free Fallin'” again, but it’s a monument. “The Last DJ” is beloved by radio people for obvious reasons (“The top brass don’t like him talkin’ so much when he won’t play what they say to play”). “Saving Grace,” from the 2006 album Highway Companion, is pretty great, too. He remained a viable hitmaker when many of his contemporaries became oldies acts; his last four studio albums all made the Top 10: 2014’s Hypnotic Eye was #1; 2010’s Mojo was #2.

Three more things about Tom Petty:

—The closest thing The Mrs. and I have to “our song” is “Here Comes My Girl.” The popularity of Damn the Torpedoes coincided with our getting hot and heavy. “Here Comes My Girl” would come on at parties (because of course it would) and I’d sing it to her while our friends watched—if I’d had enough to drink, and sometimes even if I hadn’t.

—Petty hosted a show on Sirius/XM called Buried Treasure. Like Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, one of the main pleasures of Buried Treasure was simply listening to the man talk. He obviously knew and loved the music he’d play, and he possessed a sly wit, which he also displayed in interviews and in his songs. For example, “He got an agent and a roadie named Bart / They made a record and it went in the chart,” from “Into the Great Wide Open,” never fails to amuse me. The Bart/chart rhyme doesn’t feel like an easy rhyme—it feels a little joke he couldn’t help making because of who he was.

—Petty played the main stage at Milwaukee’s Summerfest more often than any other artist, and he loved it: a few years ago, it was his only American gig of the entire summer. Reviews of the shows were universally positive, so we decided that we’d better go and see him. In 2008, he appeared with Steve Winwood, which is about as great a concert bill as I can imagine, but we were unable to attend. In 2013, we were there on a rainy night, comfortable under the canopy (as well we should have been for what the tickets cost) to hear him play the hits. He led an audience singalong on “Learning to Fly,” and he nearly brought down the house with “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” His performance of “American Girl” that night ranks on my list of performances I am most grateful to have seen, alongside Paul McCartney singing “Yesterday,” Ray Charles doing “Georgia on My Mind,” Mavis Staples singing “I’ll Take You There,” and Winwood doing “Gimme Some Lovin’.”

I walked away that night thinking I’d go see him again. I wish I had, because now I can’t.

A couple of days after Tom Petty died, I was driving in Chicago and discovered an AM station playing his songs, segued one after another, no jock, no sweepers, no jingles, just music. I listened for a half-hour before a station ID, and then another half-hour before I lost the signal out in the suburbs. Talk about a highway companion: I’d been mired in gloom since hearing the news of his death, but hearing his music blew the clouds away.

That’s why anybody makes art, I guess—to lift people out of themselves and take them somewhere else, and/or to show people things they need to see. Tom Petty did that. As we re-explore and rediscover his 40-year body of work, he will continue to do it, thank the gods. He’s going to be in our hot rotation for a good long time to come.

Change of the Guard

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(Pictured: Walter Becker, onstage in 2016.)

I really don’t know what to say.

Through the middle of the 1970s, Steely Dan was merely a band I heard on the radio, although I liked whatever I heard. Under the right conditions, “Do It Again” can still transport me back to the winter I turned 13 and how I tried to figure out just what the hell it was about—and not just the song, but everything else that was happening to me in that season. “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” reminds me of the summer of 1974, and how I spent it hanging out in the musty basement of our house after the fire in the upstairs that spring. In each of the next two summers, there were Steely Dan songs on the radio that I didn’t hear nearly often enough to suit me: “Black Friday” and “Kid Charlemagne.”

Then came “Peg,” at the end of 1977. I had never heard a sound like that sound—not from Steely Dan or anybody else—and it blew my mind. I got Aja for Christmas that year (after a couple of months of begging, no doubt), and I played it constantly for the next several months. I went out and bought every other Steely Dan album I could get my hands on, and by the summer of 1978 I had them all, and I got everything new that came out after. When I got my first CD player in the late 80s, one of the first discs I bought was a Steely Dan compilation. One of the most pleasing gifts I ever received was the Citizen Steely Dan box set. In the download era, I have acquired literally dozens of bootlegs. For 40 years this fall, Steely Dan has been my favorite band of them all.

I have been fortunate enough to see the band live three times: in 2000, in 2007, and again in 2013. At the 2013 show, it was clear that Walter Becker wasn’t moving particularly well—in fact, he didn’t move much at all, standing stiffly and sometimes looking uncomfortable, and I recall reading that in succeeding years, he would sometimes perform sitting down. He had missed shows earlier this summer, but all indications were that he would return to the band. Now, of course, he will not.

Steely Dan started as a conventional band, but by Katy Lied in 1975 was down to Becker, Donald Fagen, and the best session players in New York and Los Angeles. Sometimes Becker was like a session cat himself—he’s not on “Peg” at all—and Steely Dan’s ever-shifting studio lineup was such that I couldn’t tell you if he played some famous solo, or if it was some other big-time player. (He never took a lead vocal until the band’s tours in the 1990s.) I was not too concerned with who played what. To me, Becker and Fagen were a hive-mind, architects of a sound that nobody else could hear. That sound—which eludes my ability to describe, although I know it when I hear it, words and music, cool and funky, dissonant and harmonious, funny and cynical and ominous and ultimately inscrutable—has been in my head and heart since I was a teenager. And it’s always going to be there, at least until I follow Walter Becker to wherever he went yesterday.

The first iteration of this post included an attempt to rank my favorite Steely Dan songs. (The list included “Change of the Guard,” a track from Can’t Buy a Thrill, which gave this post its title.) I might post the list eventually, but this is not the day for it. And it’s likely that such a ranking is a fool’s errand. Ask me tomorrow and I’d probably rank today’s list in an entirely different order, and the day after that, the list might be 10 entirely different songs. Steely Dan is like that with me. I never get enough, and I never want the same thing twice in a row.

Rest well, sir. And thank you for everything.

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