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.

Starstruck

me and Kate Mulgrew_CBS This Morning screenshot_smaller

This 1982 picture of me with actress Kate Mulgrew is one I have had in my archives for quite a while. The version you see here, however, appeared on national television last month, when CBS News Sunday Morning profiled her and discussed her new memoir. She grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, where I worked my first radio job, and as CBS sketched her biography, they flashed that picture, which is presumably in her book. It was taken when she appeared on a radio show I co-hosted at KDTH. She had already appeared on Ryan’s Hope and starred in Mrs. Columbo by then. Her role as Captain Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager and her current role on Orange Is the New Black were yet to come. Through all the years, apparently, that photo has been among her souvenirs.

My co-host, Bob (who had been doing the show for several years before I came aboard), frequently landed celebrity interviews. His practice was to take pictures and send them to the guest along with return postage, asking them to autograph the pictures and send them back. He e-mailed recently: “The biggest celebrities—Bob Hope, George Burns, Wolfman Jack, Helen Hayes, Tony Randall, and Loretta Lynn—graciously returned them.” But Kate apparently did not.

In the picture, I am trying very hard not to look starstruck. I listened to the interview not long ago, and I sounded that way, too, trying to come off sophisticated and cool while choking out questions through my nervousness. All I remember of Kate Mulgrew is that she had the extreme self-confidence and laser-like career focus that’s sometimes hard to distinguish from runaway narcissism. She wasn’t particularly warm. Bob remembers her as coming off utterly consumed by her career as well. He also remembers that he landed the interview with the help of Kate’s mother, who told us hilarious stories during the commercial breaks but refused to go on the air.

As I think back on my tenure at KDTH (part-time guy starting in 1979, afternoon guy for about a year-and-a-half starting in 1982), I realize how lucky I was to start my career there. It was incredibly well-equipped and full of broadcasters any kid would be lucky to learn from. Whether I knew any of this at the time is much less certain, because I was very green, quite naive—and pretty much unaware of everything going on around me. For example, I didn’t realize that Bob and I were in what he calls a “forced marriage.” He was simply told one day, “Jim’s going to be on the show.” To his eternal credit, he was remarkably gracious about it, making me feel welcome and tolerating my inexperience. We did the show together for only a few months before he went into copywriting and production full-time. (He’s still got a remarkable collection of tapes, pictures, and other memorabilia from his radio days, and it’s been fun dipping into it with him now and then over the years.)

I never would have known about my brief moment on national TV if a friend in Florida hadn’t seen it and screencapped it. He says he recognized me immediately, even though I was only on-screen a couple of seconds. After I posted the picture on Facebook, I heard from a couple of other people who had seen the segment—one recognized me, but another did not.  I was still in my big bushy beard/long 70s hair phase, and I can’t believe I wore that shirt. The Mrs. points out that I had a lot of shirts like that back then, which may be true, but that doesn’t mean I was right.

Horizontal stripes? Really?

Fifty Years On

(Pictured: a family—not mine—in the middle of the 1960s.)

In the early 1950s, as track athletes came closer and closer to breaking the four-minute mile, some people wondered if it could be done, or did the mark represent a barrier human beings were physiologically unable to surmount? Such talk was misbegotten, though. The concepts of “four minutes” and “one mile” are arbitrary numbers on independent scales. If writers in 1954 had framed the question as “can a human being run 5,280 feet in 240 seconds,” it would have had no allure at all. The neat symmetry of “four minutes” and “one mile” made all the difference.

I have been thinking about the arbitrary nature of numbers recently as the avalanche of 50th anniversaries from the 1960s continues. So many significant events: from “I Have a Dream” to the Kennedy assassination to Beatlemania to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution to the election of LBJ to the march on Selma to the personal ones I blogged about in March and April to the many more still to come (the first teach-ins, Dylan goes electric, passage of Medicare and the Voting Rights Act, the Watts riots, and that takes us only through the summer).

Fifty is just a number—no more intrinsically significant than 49 or 51—but because we live in a base-10 world, we endow it with special characteristics. And so these 50th anniversaries resonate strongly with us. Fifty is important too because of what it represents in the human lifespan. Fifty years is enough to pass from young to old, from mature to elderly. Those of us who can claim to have lived through 50 years know that it brings changes unimaginable by one end from the other. But so do 49 and 51.

Fifty years is useful to us as an aesthetically pleasing mirror that shows where we’ve gone, its corners more nicely rounded than 49 or 51.

Fifty years ago this week, the Beatles were #1 at WOKY in Milwaukee, as they had been so often in 1964. “Ticket to Ride” is different from those moptop-shaking pop songs of ’64, however, pointing in a direction that seems logical and inevitable to us now, but certainly did not seem so then. The Rolling Stones have birthed their first monster riff on “The Last Time,” but in a few weeks will unleash another, more iconic one on “Satisfaction.” The Moody Blues are a pop group on “Go Now,” but they could not have imagined then that 50 years in the future they might still be trading on the name, playing a sort of pop music unimaginable in 1965. Herman’s Hermits, Petula Clark, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Dave Clark Five, Peter and Gordon, the Searchers, the Zombies—it’s no wonder people thought the Sir Douglas Quintet was British, because everybody else was.

“Wooly Bully,” “Help Me Rhonda,” the Supremes’ “Back in My Arms Again,” “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones—we occasionally have to remind ourselves that these, too, were once current hits, new on some music director’s desk, jockeying for position on the radio and the record charts like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry today, because now they’re as elemental as the sun and the air. That’s because for us—children of the baby boom and slightly later—they always have been.

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.”

Take a Look Around

(Pictured: J. J. Cale in the early 70s, slightly bemused by all the attention.)

And now, a twist on my usual routine with American Top 40 shows. Here are the seven strangest records on the show from April 1, 1972, in order from least to most:

7. “Crazy Mama”/J. J. Cale (#25). This is Cale’s lone Top 40 hit, a down-home, laid-back blues shuffle spiked with wah-wah guitar. Nobody talked about “roots music” back then, but “Crazy Mama” is clearly an example of it. From Naturally, the Cale album with “Call Me the Breeze,” “After Midnight,” and “Magnolia” on it.

6. “Take a Look Around”/Temptations (#30). I am pretty sure I never heard this song before, and if I did, I don’t remember it. “Take a Look Around” was from Solid Rock, the first album by what you could call Temptations Mark II—Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams were out of the group, replaced by Richard Street and Damon Harris. The socially conscious lyric is straight out of producer Norman Whitfield’s playbook and the vocals are fine, but it doesn’t seem particularly commercial, and it got to #30 pretty much on the power of the Temptations’ brand.

5. “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done”/Sonny and Cher (#16). Not since 1965 had Sonny and Cher had back-to-back Top 10 singles, and the one-of-a-kind “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done” (which followed “All I Ever Need Is You”) would be their last one, even as The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour became one of the biggest hits on TV.

4. “Jungle Fever”/Chakachas (#8). The appeal of beat and the riff on “Jungle Fever” is obvious. The appeal of the vocal takes longer to sink in.

3. “Give Ireland Back to the Irish”/Wings (#22). Amazingly, this Top 40 contains only three songs by British acts (T. Rex and Yes were the others), and it’s fitting that this should be one of them. It was recorded two days after the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland and released about three weeks later, the first record single under the Wings name. EMI executives told Paul that British media outlets would refuse to play it, even though he naively believed that singing “Great Brit, you are tremendous / And nobody knows like me” would take the curse off of it. “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” would peak at #21 on the Hot 100. As a historical document, it’s interesting, but everything else released under the Wings name is better.

2. “Every Day of My Life”/Bobby Vinton (#29). A remake of a song first popular in the 1950s, “Every Day of My Life” sounds like it was recorded in 1958, all swelling strings and big backing chorus, perfect for sock-hop dancing. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), it was the most-played record on jukeboxes for the whole year of 1972. Vinton was more popular throughout all of the 1960s and into the 70s than anybody remembers, scoring widely played radio hits almost every year from 1962 through 1974, even though the later ones never made it onto your local oldies station.

1. “King Heroin”/James Brown (#40). The strangest record on the countdown, and one of the stranger ones in the history of American Top 40. “King Heroin” started as a poem written by Manny Rosen, a working stiff from Manhattan who had lost a daughter to drug abuse. Somehow, the poem found its way to Brown, who had it set to music. Brown describes a dream he had, in which heroin spoke to him and talked about all the drug is capable of, concluding with “the white horse of heroin will ride you to Hell.” It would anchor the countdown the next week, too. It shows up on 19 surveys at ARSA, all but one on soul stations, because there’s no way to make it fit alongside Bobby Vinton or Sonny and Cher.

However you want to describe them—strange, obscure, forgotten—these songs were once among the most popular in America, but their popularity barely outlasted the season in which it occurred. A lifetime later, however, some of us still remember them. Except for “Take a Look Around.”

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.

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