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More #13s

(Pictured: ABBA on The Midnight Special, deep in the 70s.)

Here’s the second part of my completely arbitrary and therefore highly debatable list of the best #13 hits of the Hot 100 era, the first part of which appeared on Friday the 13th.

1972: Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well” is the pick by by the thinnest of margins over “Roundabout” by Yes and “Anticipation” by Carly Simon.

1973: Only two songs peaked at #13 in this year. I’m going with King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” over Pink Floyd’s “Money” because of course I am.

1974: Here I’m going off the board again, ignoring Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” and “Skin Tight” by the Ohio Players in favor of the Pointer Sisters’ “Fairytale.” That’s one you’re gonna want to click if you’ve never heard it.

1975: In yet another close call, I’ll take Al Green’s “L-O-V-E (Love)” over Chicago’s “Harry Truman.”

1976: “Fernando” by ABBA gets the call here, as much for the associations I have with the song as for the song itself, but you should be used to that line of thinking by now.

1977: “Livin’ Thing” by the Electric Light Orchestra.

1978: “Turn to Stone” by the Electric Light Orchestra.

1979: “Suspicions” by the Electric Light Orchestra—er, Eddie Rabbitt—for its sultry summery vibe.

1980: The much-beloved-around-here “Pilot of the Airwaves” by Charlie Dore, about which I have written before.

1981: There are only two to choose from in this year, “Somebody’s Knockin'” by Terri Gibbs and “Cool Love” by Pablo Cruise. I’m going with “Somebody’s Knockin’,” but you could talk me out of it.

1982: “Waiting on a Friend” by the Rolling Stones.

1983: “Lawyers in Love” by Jackson Browne. (Off topic: The Mrs. and I got married in 1983, and we had a giant poster of the Lawyers in Love cover hanging over the couch in one of our first living rooms. Even though neither of us is a particularly big Jackson Browne fan, we really loved that cover.)

1984: I’m not wild about any of the seven records that peaked at #13 in this year, but Culture Club’s “It’s a Miracle” is the most distinctive of the bunch.

1985: One way to play this game is to ask yourself, “Which of these songs would I like to hear right now?” Answer for 1985: “Don’t Come Around Here No More” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

1986: Three to choose from, and I’m going with Jeffrey Osborne’s “You Should Be Mine” over Bob Seger’s “American Storm” and “Tarzan Boy” by Baltimora, because that “can you woo-woo-woo” hook is too big to ignore.

1987: “Back in the High Life Again” by Steve Winwood.

1988: Any list of “world’s most boring” that doesn’t include Glenn Frey’s solo work is incomplete. “True Love,” in which he gets his Detroit soul man on, is a bit of an exception.

1989: “Sacred Emotion” was part of Donny Osmond’s off-the-wall late-80s comeback, and is better than it has any right to be.

1990: It’s probably cheating, but I’m going with the Righteous Brothers’ reissue of their 1965 hit “Unchained Melody,” from the Ghost soundtrack.

1991: “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn.

1992: “Would I Lie to You” by Charles and Eddie is a classic one-shot, reaching #1 or #2 in nine countries around the world without resulting in a successful followup.

By 1993, I had grown so unfamiliar with the current music scene that I don’t recognize a lot of songs that charted far higher, let alone the #13s. So that’s where we’ll bring this thing to a close.

Insert Clever Title Here

(Pictured: Clarence Carter, performing at the Chicago Blues Festival earlier this summer, can’t believe how weak this post’s title is.)

On this Friday the 13th, I’m stealing a riff from our man whiteray and playing a game with numbers: a completely arbitrary and therefore highly debatable list of the best songs to peak at #13 in Billboard beginning in 1955.

1955: All of the #13s in 1955 are pre-rock hits by pre-rock stars, including Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Julius LaRosa, and two by Nat King Cole. Jo Stafford’s version of “Suddenly There’s a Valley” is very pretty, though.

1956: “St. Therese of the Roses” by Billy Ward and the Dominoes features Jackie Wilson on a powerful lead vocal, and while it’s a throwback to pre-rock styles, the soul is there.

1957: “Lotta Lovin” by Gene Vincent & the Blue Caps is textbook early rock ‘n’ roll. The flipside, “Wear My Ring,” also charted.

1958: Ed Townsend’s “For Your Love,”  a song Townsend originally pitched to Nat King Cole, but which is much better suited to his own more dramatic style. Townsend would later co-write “Let’s Get It On” with Marvin Gaye.

1959: “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” by Buddy Holly noses out Jackie Wilson’s “That’s Why,” an early Berry Gordy joint.

1960: Only three singles peaked at #13 in this year, “Down by the Station” by the Four Preps, “Sleep” by Little Willie John, and “Tracy’s Theme” by Spencer Ross. Since “Tracy’s Theme” holds a modest place in the mythology of this blog, so we’re going with that.

1961: “Barbara Ann” by the Regents, which predated the more famous Beach Boys version.

1962: Well, damn, this is a tough one. Gonna go with “Uptown” by the Crystals over Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity” and “Bring It on Home to Me” by Sam Cooke. (And Billy Vaughn’s “A Swingin’ Safari,” too.)

1963: The most recognizable #13 of 1963 is “Danke Schoen” by Wayne Newton, but I’m not going there. Dig “Hey Little Girl” by Major Lance instead.

1964: It’s hard to pick it over “Needles and Pins” by the Searchers, but I’m going with Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts.”

1965: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by the Animals, but if you ask me tomorrow, it might be “She’s About a Mover” by the Sir Douglas Quintet.

1966: The fact that “634-5789” by Wilson Pickett, “Over Under Sideways Down” by the Yardbirds, the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “A Well Respected Man” by the Kinks, “A Hazy Shade of Winter” by Simon and Garfunkel, and the Four Seasons’ “Opus 17 (Don’t You Worry ‘Bout Me)” couldn’t get above #13 speaks to the monumental nature of this year’s music. But I’m going off the board for “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” by the Walker Brothers.

1967: “Thank the Lord for the Night Time” by Neil Diamond. (I thought 1967 was going to be harder.)

1968: Only three songs peaked at #13 in this year, so “Different Drum” by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys is an easy choice.

1969: “Too Weak to Fight” by Clarence Carter, which should be a lot better remembered than it is.

1970: “My Baby Loves Lovin'” by White Plains, because prime-quality bubblegum always goes to the front of the line around here.

1971: Rivaling 1966 for quality, 1971 makes me choose among the deep Southern soul of Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” the Hot Wax sound of “Pay to the Piper” by Chairmen of the Board, Wilson Pickett’s Delta smoker “Don’t Knock My Love,” and Stevie Wonder’s Motown cover of “We Can Work It Out.” I bought the latter on a 45 in 1971, so “We Can Work It Out” it is. (The 45 version is hotter than the pallid version at that YouTube link, but we don’t always get what we want.)

We will continue along this line on Monday.

Play Something Sweet

(Pictured: Three Dog Night in 1972. Back row from left: Jimmy Greenspoon, Danny Hutton, Floyd Sneed, and Joe Schermie; front row from left: Chuck Negron, Mike Allsup, and Cory Wells.)

Cory Wells, one of Three Dog Night’s three lead singers, died this week at the age of 74. He was the one with the rasp in his voice, heard on a preponderance of the band’s biggest hits, including “Eli’s Coming,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” “Never Been to Spain,” “Shambala,” “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here,” and “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues).” He and fellow singer Danny Hutton, along with original keyboard player Jimmy Greenspoon (who died last March), kept the band together following its reformation in 1981; original guitarist Mike Allsup returned in 1991 and has been with the band ever since. And that’s something people don’t remember about Three Dog Night: they weren’t a trio, they were a fully contained seven- or eight-piece band throughout their 70s heyday.

Here’s something else people don’t remember. Three Dog Night is now considered a quintessential 70s bubblegum act. Songs like “Joy to the World,” “Black and White,” and “Old Fashioned Love Song” ranked high in the good times/great oldies radio pantheon, sparking in-car singalongs by the millions, at least until oldies radio stopped playing songs that old. But during the early 1970s, Three Dog Night was one of the top rock bands in America.

Rock band. I have read that in the first half of the 1970s, Three Dog Night sold more concert tickets than anybody else, at a time when the Rolling Stones mounted two major tours. You can dismiss this if you like by pointing to One Direction’s grosses and the phenomenon of teenyboppers with money, but here’s another piece of evidence: in the summer of 1972, they closed the show at the Concert 10 Festival in Pennsylvania, a blowout that also starred the likes of Rod Stewart, Emerson Lake & Palmer, the J. Geils Band, and Black Sabbath (who were booked but never made it). You didn’t get that spot (and you still don’t) if you’re not a very big deal amongst the paying customers.

This is not to say that you necessarily should run out and buy all of Three Dog Night’s albums. Leaving aside how they may have sounded to fans 40-plus years ago, they have not aged particularly well. On most of them, you can find a song or two that sounds painfully jive. (Seven Separate Fools, from 1972, is probably the strongest from start to finish.) They’re probably best heard on an anthology like The Complete Hit Singles, which collects the 45 mixes and edits of their most famous songs.

Despite their 70s success and their enduring popularity ever since, Three Dog Night will never get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There’s the mistaken perception of them as a bubblegum/singles act. They didn’t write very many of their songs, and almost none of their biggest hits, and that’s the kiss of death to the snobs at the gate. (The Hall has previously inducted interpreters of other people’s songs, but such inductees tend to be female vocalists—you can look it up.)

Forty-five years ago this fall, Three Dog Night’s “Out in the Country” contained the first metaphor I ever admired: “Before the breathin’ air is gone / Before the sun is just a bright spot in the nighttime.” A few months later, thanks to “Joy to the World,” I became a fan and remained one ever after. Back in the early 90s, they headlined the summer festival in the little town I was working in. We spent a lovely evening under the stars listening to their string of hits, and for years thereafter, we hoped to see them again. Earlier this decade, they were scheduled for the Wisconsin State Fair and we got tickets, but a continuous cold rain chased us out of the open grandstand before they hit the stage.

I’m sorry about that now.

The Old Country

(What follows is something I wrote last fall and planned to post before thinking better of it. It still doesn’t seem like it’s finished, but I can’t make any more sense of the main idea and besides, I really like the picture I found for it, so here it is. Read it or don’t. As always, it’s up to you.)

Continue reading →

Men in Blue

(Pictured: a vintage postcard view of Wrigley Field.)

While it’s true that history is written by the victors, songs are written about losers. At least that’s been the case with the Chicago Cubs, the most famous underachievers in sports, currently trying to make it to the World Series for the first time since 1945 and to win it for the first time since 1908.

The most famous song about the Cubs is probably “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” by native Chicagoan Steve Goodman. Goodman wrote a number of songs about the city, including “The Lincoln Park Pirates” and “Daley’s Gone,” as well as “City of New Orleans,” made famous by Arlo Guthrie, and the country hit “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” was first heard in 1981. In 1984, the Cubs would win an unlikely division championship. Less than a week before the clincher, Goodman, who had already been invited to sing the National Anthem before the Cubs’ first playoff game, died of leukemia at age 36.

“A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” was not a favorite of Cubs management because it refers to the team as “the doormat of the National League.” So Goodman wrote another song, “Go Cubs Go,” as a sort of antidote. “Go Cubs Go” became the Cubs’ radio theme in 1984, replacing “It’s a Beautiful Day for a Ballgame” by the Harry Simeone Songsters, which dated back to 1960. (That’s the same Harry Simeone whose chorale recorded the eternal Christmas hit “The Little Drummer Boy” in 1958.) “Go Cubs Go” was heard blasting from Wrigley Field after the Cubs won their playoff series over the Cardinals the other night.

(Read more about “Go Cubs Go” here.)

During two of the Cubs’ most magical seasons, players got together to sing/chant/shout their way onto 45s. In 1984, Rick Sutcliffe, Jody Davis, Leon Durham, Keith Moreland, and Gary Woods recorded “Men in Blue.” The Cubs suffered a painful playoff collapse that year, but as bad as it was, it wasn’t 1969, the year in which the Cubs crashed in slow motion over the last month of the regular season, and the New York Mets won the pennant and World Series that might have been theirs. But while the Cubs were riding high that year, future Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Ron Santo, along with Don Kessinger, Randy Hundley, Nate Oliver, and Gene Oliver, recorded “Pennant Fever,” based on the Little Willie John original made famous by Peggy Lee. It was released on Chicago’s legendary Chess label.

(The flipside of “Pennant Fever” was a blazing organ instrumental credited to the Chicago Cubs Clark Street Band called “Slide.” Larry Grogan looked into the history of “Slide” several years ago, and his best guess is that it was recorded in Philadelphia by studio musicians, licensed to Chess, and ultimately stuck on the flipside of “Pennant Fever” instead of collecting more dust in the Chess vault. It’s likely that “Pennant Fever” was recorded in Philadelphia, too.)

We did not have a copy of “Pennant Fever” at my house. We did, however, have another 1969 favorite, “Hey Hey Holy Mackerel.” The music was written by Chicago musician Johnny Frigo, a jazz player and producer who was heard on Chicago radio for 23 years leading a band called the Sage Riders. The lyrics were written by somebody named I. C. Hoag, who remains obscure. Credited to the Len Dresslar Singers, “Hey Hey Holy Mackerel” gets its title from the home-run calls of Cubs broadcasters Jack Brickhouse and Vince Lloyd. My parents’ copy of the song is not one of their records that made its way into my collection. Neither have I been able to find it among the records they still have, and that disappoints me greatly.

In 2007, Cubs fan Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam wrote “All the Way” at the request of some Cubs players past and present.

And when the day comes with that last winning run
And I’m crying and covered in beer
I’ll look to the sky and know I was right
To think someday we’ll go all the way

The Cubs are already down 2-0 in the National League Championship Series, yet hope springs eternal. After all these years, it has to.

Aurora Rising

madame maries

(Pictured: Madam Marie was not at her Temple of Knowledge the day I visited the boardwalk in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Finally busted by the cops, probably, for telling fortunes better than they do.)

In October of 1975, Bruce Springsteen became a household word thanks to his simultaneous appearances on the covers of both Time and Newsweek. I remember hearing “Born to Run” a few times back then and thinking that I’d never heard anything that sounded quite so big. Darkness on the Edge of Town came out just before I went off to college in 1978, and one of the songs I played my first morning on the air in December was “Candy’s Room.” But neither one of those made me a fan.

At college, I met several fellow students who were Springsteen acolytes, but it wasn’t until The River came out in 1980 that I became a full-fledged devotee myself. It couldn’t have been out very long before I bought it—at the big grocery store near campus that had a couple of racks of records in the pharmacy department, if I’m recalling correctly. I can see me lying on the floor in our college apartment that first afternoon, listening closely while reading the liner notes and lyrics while my roomie wrote a paper at the dining room table. It remains my favorite Springsteen album today: “Hungry Heart,” “Cadillac Ranch,” “Point Blank,” “The River,” “Wreck on the Highway”—they’d all be on my Springsteen top 10.

Springsteen was an instant buy after that: Nebraska, Born in the USA, Live: 1975-1985, and Tunnel of Love, before other artists moved ahead of Bruce on the list of artists I would run to buy. In the mp3 era, I have added several other Springsteen albums and tons of bootlegs. He’s #14 on my most-played artist list at LastFM, so I’m listening to him more today than I ever did in the 80s and 90s. I saw him perform a couple of songs at a John Kerry rally in Madison in 2004, but a full concert remains the top item on my bucket list.

Forty years after “Born to Run,” instead of sitting in a New Jersey hotel room on a beautiful afternoon doing work I could get paid for, I struck out in search of some of Springsteen’s places. I was pleased to find an AM oldies station for the ride, one playing mostly 50s and 60s—the music that would have inspired him while he was living here.

The highway exit right outside the hotel has a sign for Freehold, the town where Springsteen grew up (although fanatics will quickly remind you he was born at a hospital in Long Branch, New Jersey). I did not go to Freehold looking for the Springsteen manse, or the high school where he skipped his graduation ceremony. It was enough to pass through and to have lunch at the Burger King.

From Freehold, I followed the signs (and the GPS) to Asbury Park, stopping for a while at the boardwalk and the beach, where city crews were cleaning up after the season and the surf was coming in hard. It’s easy to picture the Springsteen of legend there, the guy who painted a beautiful picture of what it’s like on the Fourth of July, and who blew the doors off the Stone Pony across the street.

From Asbury Park, I let the GPS guide me again. A highway exit for Colts Neck reminded me of the oft-told story that Nebraska was a set of demos released as is, back there in 1982. Not true, however; the demos were a home recording, just Bruce and his guitar, made while he was living in Colts Neck. The songs were recorded by the whole E Street Band, but everyone preferred the stark treatments of the demos (on a cassette that Springsteen carried in his shirt pocket for months), so he recut them, and that became Nebraska. (You can hear the original Alone at Colts Neck here.)

The afternoon waned, and it was time for me to be somewhere. As I left Springsteen’s traces behind, the oldies played on. As they do.


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