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Every 1’s a Winner

(Pictured: Hot Chocolate plays Top of the Pops in 1974. Errol Brown is second from left.)

I was saddened to hear of the death earlier this week of Errol Brown, lead singer of Hot Chocolate. I don’t write about every musician who passes, but this particular passing is one that smacked me harder than most, because I have been a Hot Chocolate fan from the first time I ever heard them, 40 years ago this spring, when “Emma” climbed into the American Top 10.

By 1975, Hot Chocolate was already well established in the UK. They’d hit the British charts seven times between the summer of 1970 and the end of 1974. “Emma” and three other singles made the Top 10. Between 1975 and 1998, they would chart 29 more times in the UK (including remakes and reissues). Their lone British #1 was “So You Win Again” in 1977, but “You Sexy Thing” had the distinction of making the Top 10 three different times: in 1975, 1987, and 1997, the last time thanks to its inclusion in the movie The Full Monty. They made the British charts every year between 1970 and 1982, a feat managed by only two other acts: Elvis and Diana Ross (and Hot Chocolate’s streak lasted through 1984).

Hot Chocolate’s tally of hits in the States is far smaller: eight Hot 100 singles between 1975 and 1982, three hitting the Top 10: “Emma” and “You Sexy Thing” along with “Every 1’s a Winner” in 1979. “So You Win Again,” which ran three weeks at #1 in the UK, managed only #31 in the States. The ferocious “Disco Queen” got only to #28 on the Hot 100. The group’s other three singles failed to make the Top 40.

Hot Chocolate was the first to hit with two songs that became familiar in the United States by others. “You Could Have Been a Lady,” which was a modest American hit for the Canadian band April Wine in 1972, had been a modest UK hit for Hot Chocolate almost exactly one year before. (Go watch the video and notice how incredibly hard their version rocks. Notice also the deeply weird setting for the video.) Their “Brother Louie” made the UK Top 10 a few weeks before Stories’ version hit #1 in the States. Where Stories hints at racist reactions to “Brother Louie”‘s interracial romance, Hot Chocolate’s version is explicit about them. We hear the fathers tell their children, “I don’t want no honky/no spook in my family.”

If you do not love “You Sexy Thing,” we should probably stop seeing each other. Likewise “Emma.” But if you’re looking for good songs you don’t know, I can recommend “It Started With a Kiss,” which hit #5 in the UK in 1982. “No Doubt About It,” which went to #2 in 1980, is an oddball in the Hot Chocolate catalog—not a love song or a song about dancing—it’s sung by a guy who’s seen a flying saucer. “I’ll Put You Together Again,” which reached #12 in the UK at the end of 1978, is the classic that got away, at least from American audiences. It’s simple and lovely and a tremendous performance.

Errol Brown’s story is quite interesting: a native of Jamaica, he got his first break in music when he cut a reggae version of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and got it released with Lennon’s blessing. Brown and his songwriting partner, Tony Wilson, were signed to Apple’s publishing arm, and the name of the group they formed was suggested by Apple executive Derek Taylor’s secretary. Hot Chocolate performed at a pre-wedding reception held for Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981. Brown left Hot Chocolate in 1985 to spend more time with his family, although he also worked as a solo artist. In 2003, he was awarded an MBE. He’s survived by his wife of 35 years and two daughters. He was 71 years old.

Dissimilar Adaptations

(Pictured: azure choker hero Bob Seger.)

(Slight edit since first posted)

I was noodling around on the Internet the other morning, doing a bit of research about “More Than a Woman,” the Bee Gees song also recorded by Tavares. My searching brought me a Google Books link to Bee Gees 194 Success Facts: Everything You Need to Know About Bee Gees by Francis Dejesus. The bit of the book pertinent to my research read as follows:

Such was the reputation of Saturday Night Fever that 2 dissimilar adaptations of “More Than a Woman” (Bee Gees song) experienced airplay, one by the Bee Gees, that was demoted to collection trail, and one other by Tavares that was the hit. The Gibb sound was ineluctable. During an 8-month time starting in the Christmas season of 1977, 6 tunes authored by the bros held the #1 placing on the US graphs for 25 of 32 successive weeks—three of their personal deliverances, 2 for male sibling Andy Gibb, and Yvonne Elliman sole.

Fueled by the movie’s triumph, the sound recording smashed numerous business records, getting to be the highest-selling collection in transcriptioning past to that point. With further compared to 40 million duplicates traded, Saturday Night Fever is amid music’s highest 5 finest vending sound recording collections.

The book went on like this for 114 pages.

What the hell?

As it turns out, there are dozens of books in the Success Facts series, published by an outfit called Emereo Publishing. They are mostly musician and showbiz biographies, but I was also able to find titles about Nikola Tesla and Haile Selassie. Further googling reveals that Emereo’s stock is text harvested from Wikipedia, dumped into a spambot blender, and regurgitated as e-books for sale at Amazon.com, without ISBN numbers, and selling for $15. They appear under many different generic author names—Linda MacIntosh, Diane Sanders, Steven Steele, Kevin Hammond—but they’re the same hash. The books sometimes start like a legitimate bio—“Close acquaintances via youth, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel matured up in the mainly Jewish Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, New York, simply 3 blocks as of every one other”—before veering off into lists of nuclear holocaust fiction, hitchhiking in popular culture, and everything else that’s linked in the Simon and Garfunkel Wikipedia entry. Some don’t even do that. The Kenny Loggins, Neil Diamond, and Lou Rawls volumes start with lists of Wikipedia articles and never even try to assemble a narrative.

Emereo’s website entries for various volumes do specify that the text consists of “relevant selected content from the highest-rated wiki entries,” and that “a portion of the proceeds of each book will be donated to the Wikimedia Foundation to support their mission.” Nevertheless, the whole thing comes off pretty skeevy. Emereo, as you would expect, is a shadowy operation, doing lots of print-on-demand and vanity publishing, in addition to the Wikipedia scams. Amazon has tried to police these quickie content mill books, although it’s not clear whether Wikipedia has. Nevertheless, as of last fall, there were over 2,400 Success Facts books for sale at Amazon. The likely market for these “books” are people who want to read something about a favorite star but aren’t too picky as to what.

Just as it is possible to appreciate the accidental poetry of Internet spam, one can occasionally find intriguing bits of verbiage in these books too. Explaining Bob Seger’s waning popularity in the 1990s, “Paul Hart” writes: “Heartland rock weakened off as an acknowledged category by the first 1990s, as rock tunes in common, and azure choker and white functioning grade subjects in specific, missed impact with junior viewers, and like heartland’s creators, turned to further private functions.” I couldn’t figure out what “azure choker and white functioning grade subjects” meant until I googled “azure choker” and found it also appears in Emereo books about John Mellencamp, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Milwaukee.

Then I got it: “blue-collar and white working classes.”

Traffic Jam

(Pictured: Steve Winwood dressed with a bit more color at Red Rocks in Colorado last fall than he did in Milwaukee on Sunday night.)

Last Sunday night, we went to the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee to see Steve Winwood. We’d seen him once before, in 2003, on one of the grounds stages at Summerfest in Milwaukee, but since then, I’ve become a far bigger Winwood fan than I was 12 years ago. My laptop music stash includes tons of Traffic, official releases and bootlegs, and as much of Winwood’s other work, in groups and solo, as I can lay my hands on. So I was a little better equipped to appreciate him Sunday night.

If you go to a Steve Winwood concert because you liked his hits in the 80s, “While You See a Chance” and “Roll With It” and “The Finer Things” and the like, you’re going to be disappointed, because he doesn’t seem particularly interested in playing those songs. In 2003, he did “Back in the High Life Again,” and on Sunday night, he closed the main part of the show with “Higher Love,” but they were the only songs from his 80s catalog. It’s clear he’d rather play stuff that lets him and his bandmates stretch out—and nothing’s better for that than songs made famous by Traffic, one of the original jam bands. So he opened with “Rainmaker” and played “Pearly Queen,” “Glad,” “The Low-Spark of High-Heeled Boys,” and a blazing version of “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” that allowed each band member a lengthy solo. Guitarist José Neto and multi-instrumentalist Paul Booth really stood out—at one point, Booth was playing a keyboard with one hand and holding a sax in the other, periodically blowing a couple of notes in the midst of providing backing vocals. Another time, he was alternating soprano sax and tenor sax on the same song.

When Winwood strapped on a guitar, Booth moved over to Winwood’s keyboard spot—and when Winwood strapped on a guitar, the highlights of the show followed. He did a terrific plugged-in version of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and he burned through the solos on “Dirty City” that were originally played by Eric Clapton on the 2008 album Nine Lives. But his best moment was on the first encore, “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” in which he and the band reduced the theater to a smoking pile of rubble. Then it was a quick segue into “Gimme Some Lovin’,” and the show was over barely 90 minutes after it had begun.

Give the man credit: he must have grown sick of playing “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “Gimme Some Lovin'” long, long ago, but far from going through the motions (as he did on “Gimme Some Lovin'” when we saw him in 2003), he seemed to be fully engaged in both of them Sunday night. In 2003, he barely spoke to the audience or acknowledged us before disappearing backstage at the end. This time, he was more talkative, and he seemed genuinely pleased by the ovation the band received while taking its bows at the end.

The Riverside was built in 1928 and renovated in 1984. We’ve seen several shows there in the last four or five years, but honesty compels me to report that the sound isn’t always great. We would have appreciated a little more attention to mixing—the one thing that should never be swamped at a Steve Winwood show is the organ, and it often was—and a little less volume. But the venue is easy to get to, easy to get around in, and in close proximity to many fine bars, so it’ll always be a favorite of ours.

Winwood’s daughter Lilly opened the show, as she’s doing for just a couple of shows this week. She was born in Nashville and relocated there in 2010 to pursue her own career in roots music. She played half-a-dozen songs, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. She sounds like she’s still figuring out a style, but that’s OK. She’s 19. Her old man had it figured out by the time he was 19 (in 1967), but not everybody’s Steve Winwood.

Freberg on 45

stan-freberg-shboom-1954-78

(Edited.)

The death of humorist Stan Freberg yesterday hit a lot of radio people hard. Many of us either wanted to get into radio, or wanted to be creative in a particular way, because of an early exposure to Freberg’s work. A lot of us (and I put myself in this category) admired him because his vision was so uniquely bent, and his critiques of media, music, and advertising were so perfect. I’ll let other people on the Interwebs talk about his brilliant radio commercials or his groundbreaking album Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America. Instead, I’ll write about Freberg’s appearances on the singles chart over the years.

Freberg scored with both comedy bits and parody songs. His first chart single, “John and Marsha,” (1951) was the former; his next four were the latter. His biggest hit came in 1953, when the Dragnet parody “St. George and the Dragonet” spent three weeks at #1. Freberg employed two of the most famous voice actors in history, Daws Butler and June Foray, who also appear on the single’s B-side, “Little Blue Riding Hood.” Only a few weeks after “St. George” hit #1, Freberg went back to the Dragnet well with Butler for “Christmas Dragnet,” and he started 1954 by recycling his first hit into “John and Marsha Letter,” which charted briefly. Later in 1954, the topical “Point of Order” would parody the Army/McCarthy hearings.

(Late edit: Joel Whitburn misidentifies “John and Marsha Letter.” It’s actually “A Dear John and Marsha Letter,” which does revisit Freberg’s 1951 hit, but also parodies the 1953 country hit “A Dear John Letter” by Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard.)

At the end of 1954, Freberg charted with a parody of “Sh-Boom,” the original of which had become one of first big hits of the rock ‘n’ roll era. Freberg plays a record producer who repeatedly warns his singers that if they expect to have a hit, they need to mumble. Freberg would frequently skewer the kids’ music, releasing versions of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “The Great Pretender.” Freberg’s last chart hit, “The Old Payola Roll Blues,” (1960) is explicit in its belief that rock ‘n’ roll success requires no real talent—just a smart producer and payments to disc jockeys.

In 1957, Freberg hit with a single that most people (of a certain age) have heard: “Banana Boat (Day-O),” a takeoff on the Harry Belafonte hit that features another famous voice, that of Peter Leeds, as a man who keeps interrupting the singer for being too loud, shrill, and/or piercing. It made #25 on Billboard‘s Best Sellers chart and #43 on the Hot 100.

Freberg starred in a radio sitcom in 1954, but his creative vision was constrained by the sitcom format. The Stan Freberg Show, co-starring Butler, Foray, and Leeds, ran briefly in 1957, but couldn’t attract a sponsor and ran only 15 episodes. The show was the launching pad for the Lawrence Welk parody “Wun’erful, Wun’erful,” which charted at the end of 1957. It’s my favorite Freberg record, featuring a runaway bubble machine and an irreparably damaged accordion.

Although he would win lot of honors and make a lot of money from advertising, he could also take a dim view of it. He turned down tobacco advertising for his 1957 radio show, contributing to its eventual cancellation. And at Christmas 1958, “Green Chri$tma$” sharply criticized companies trying to cash in on Christmas, suggesting they’d forgotten the real meaning of the season. Radio jocks, who knew how clever it was, loved it; radio sales executives did not. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), a DJ in New York City who played it was told he’d be fired if he played it again, and a station in Los Angeles made sure it didn’t air within 15 minutes of any commercial break. Twenty-five years later, the radio station I worked for played it a few times, but only after a great deal of soul-searching, and, if I’m recalling correctly, with a disclaimer.

It really is remarkable how harsh Freberg’s criticism of Christmas commercialism is. “Green Chri$tma$” simply destroys the cynicism of advertisers looking to make a buck on the holiday. (It still hits pretty hard today—or it would, if anyone still cared about such a thing, which no one does.) Despite the record’s merciless tone—it ends with the ringing of cash registers—Coca-Cola and Marlboro, both recognizably satirized in it, responded by asking Freberg to design ad campaigns for them. Freberg had done parody commercials on his 1957 radio show—and the lengthy career in advertising that resulted would win him 21 Clio awards, the highest honor in the ad game.

Stan Freberg started as a voice actor in animation before his 20th birthday, and he was still doing it in the 21st century. He was 88 years old.

A Terrible Place

Forty years ago, in the winter of 1975, I was a freshman in high school. My first girlfriend and I were falling for each other, and on Valentine’s Day, we would pledge our devotion. I had discovered FM radio the previous fall, and so I frequently listened to my new favorite stations on Mom and Dad’s gigantic console stereo. I know I must have had day-to-day concerns, but they’re forgotten now. All that remains is another treasured season of my childhood, safe and protected in a world that seemed manageable, and that held out to me the promise that I could do and be whatever I chose. There were a lot of seasons like that in the middle of the 1970s. Collectively, they were the Best Time of My Life.

Rick Perlstein’s book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan is the second of a trilogy that will ultimately tell the story of the unraveling of the post-World War II liberal consensus and the more fractious, more conservative state that arose in its wake. (Perlstein’s first book, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, covers the years 1965 through 1972; a future volume will tell about the Carter years and Ronald Reagan’s eventual election to the presidency.) The Invisible Bridge is a political history of the period between Watergate and the election of Jimmy Carter, but it also paints a vivid picture of American culture in the middle of the 1970s.

And in the middle of the 1970s, Americans weren’t just in a terrible place—America was a terrible place. Culture wars threatened to crack society wide open, over textbooks in West Virginia and school busing in Boston, to name but two places where liberal notions about progress were coming into direct conflict with people who had no desire for that kind of progress. Crime rates rose. The economy shuddered and shook—food and energy prices skyrocketed, growth stopped, unemployment rose, and President Ford (pictured) told New York to drop dead. The superpower that had once stood astride the world was forced out of Vietnam with its tail between its legs. Between 1973 and 1976, Americans came face-to-face with the likelihood that its best days were behind it.

The Invisible Bridge traces Ronald Reagan’s life story from his Illinois boyhood to Hollywood to the California governor’s mansion and afterward, when he used a nationally syndicated radio program and newspaper column to argue that no, America’s best days were not behind it, and ultimately, that his leadership could restore America’s greatness. The climax of the book involves Reagan’s unsuccessful campaign for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. After Ford was defeated by Carter, most commentators believed Reagan’s political career was over. But as we know, it was not. Reagan would harness the resentments unleashed in the middle of the 1970s—and, to be fair, the hopes of Americans battered by the cultural and economic storms—and ride into the White House four years later.

I have said, and may even have written here, that I always felt as though nothing bad would happen while Jerry Ford was in office; in Perlstein’s telling, Ford was a well-meaning man for whom the presidency was probably too much. In other words, a lot of bad stuff really did happen, and we were lucky there wasn’t more. Even though I heard the news on the radio every day, watched it on TV every night, and read the paper most days, the creeping awfulness of that time somehow escaped me then. What The Invisible Bridge made clear to me that the Best Time of My Life was not nearly so safe and secure as I felt it to be.

Forty years ago this week, a record called “Please Mr. President,” written (apparently) by a news reporter at CKLW in Detroit and recorded by a 10-year-old girl named Paula Webb, debuted on the Hot 100. It would reach #60 in a four-week run. Little Paula explains how times are hard for her family, and she asks Ford to do something to help her unemployed father get his job back. It’s probably a more truthful snapshot of American reality in February 1975 than anything you’re going to read from me.

I’d Love You to Want Me

Going through my journal, I found this from 2001. It was music blogging before I ever had—or likely read—a music blog. I’ve added some links to it and edited it a little bit.

Today was as gray and gloomy as yesterday was clear and bright. I drove through the rain to Oregon Middle School to observe a teacher at work in a classroom this morning.

The kids were seventh graders, but they looked so impossibly young. Most voices were still high and soft, most features still childlike. They are the same age I was in the fall of 1972. That fall I was in seventh grade. I was going to manage the basketball team, mostly because I liked the coach, who was also my English teacher. I had probably begun writing a sports column for the school newspaper. But what frames the period most is what always frames the period—music.

That fall, I bought Lobo’s “I’d Love You To Want Me” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” on 45s—my taste was just as eclectic then as it is now. If I’d scan the charts from that season, I’d stop on “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” by Danny O’Keefe, a song I recall having liked, but a song I couldn’t possibly have understood until much later (“You know my heart keeps telling me / You’re not a kid at 33”). The Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool,” which is on my Desert Island tape today, was hitting recurrents. Michael Jackson’s “Ben” would enter my personal mythology the next spring—it was on for my first slow dance with a girl. Climbing the charts were the Stylistics’ exquisite “I’m Stone in Love With You,” and the infinitely singable “Operator” by Jim Croce and “Something’s Wrong With Me” by Austin Roberts. Songs I have since come to admire were on the radio late that fall as well—Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” which didn’t have much of an impact on me then, sounds pretty good now. “Dialogue” by Chicago is one of my all-time favorites today, one of the most monumental records of the 1970s. And while I wouldn’t have heard Clean Living’s “In Heaven There is No Beer” back then, it would become a Friday-morning fixture years later on my radio shows in Macomb. . . .

If the paranormal researcher and author T.C. Lethbridge is correct, inanimate objects can record powerful emotions felt in their presence. Rocks on a battlefield, for example, can be found using his methods to have recorded pain and fear. And if Lethbridge is correct, the walls of my junior high school—indeed, of every junior high or middle school—would have to be literally alive with pain and fear, and lust and confusion and heartbreak and bravado and mirth and every other emotion adolescents can experience. . . .

So anyway—I felt empathy for those kids this morning, awkward and geeky and unsure of themselves. Although they face very different challenges in a world so different from mine as to be unrecognizable, I’m wagering some very universal, very human stuff is happening to them now, just as it happened to me. And some of it will linger in their hearts and minds years from now, when they’re not young anymore.

Coincidentally, about the time I found this old journal entry, I listened to an American Top 40 show from mid-November 1972, which contained most of these songs. Read about that in a future installment.

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