Fifty Years Have Come and Gone Since We Heard the News ‘Bout Billie Joe

(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.)

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Sunday Night Delight

(Pictured: L to R, Margot Chapman, Jon Carroll, Taffy Danoff, and Bill Danoff of the Starland Vocal Band.)

The limited-run summer variety series was a staple of 70s TV. Networks signed various performers to appear in four- or six-episode shows to burn off airtime in the season when viewership was the lowest. A sure-fire way to draw eyeballs was to surround a popular singer with a company of actors. Since many of the summer series were a half-hour long, all it took to make an episode was two or three songs linked with a handful of comedy bits.

In the summer of 1976, the Starland Vocal Band took “Afternoon Delight” to #1. The next winter, they won two Grammys, including Best New Artist. So in the summer of 1977, CBS gave them a six-week variety show. The Starland Vocal Band Show premiered on Sunday, July 31, tucked between Rhoda and the CBS Sunday Night Movie. Each episode features several performances by the group, shot in various places: a club in Washington, DC (the group’s hometown), a concert at Pepperdine University, an outdoor stage in Great Falls, Montana, and a recording studio in Los Angeles. Other recurring bits have the group attending a Renaissance fair, and exploring an abandoned amusement park in surreal video bits.

Linking all of these are comedy segments, often performed by a young man who functioned as the program’s host: David Letterman. (Some of Letterman’s stuff, collected here, will remind you of bits he would do in years to come.) Also in the cast is Jeff Altman, who plays several recurring characters including Billy Carter and a nature-show host; he and Letterman do a recurring bit in which Letterman interviews a character played by Altman and ends up punching him in the stomach. The show also includes brief segments by political humorist Mark Russell taped at a Washington hotel with the members of the group in the audience, and scattered appearances by Firesign Theater veterans Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman.

So The Starland Vocal Band Show was not the traditional Hollywood soundstage variety show. That doesn’t mean it worked, though. A regular viewer would quickly learn the difference between “recurring” and “repetitive.” The opening and closing credits are exactly the same pieces of tape each week. The musical numbers come from the same four venues. Some of the recurring comedy bits, and many of the jokes, land with a thud. Proctor and Bergman’s stuff seems particularly toothless given their background, and while Russell could be razor-sharp (as on his long-running series of PBS comedy specials), he’s fairly tame on this show. Letterman is always watchable, but he had a lot of clunkers to dismiss, in the same way he would for the rest of his network TV career: with an expression, an inflection, or a throwaway line that makes clear how dumb something is, just as the viewer is having the same thought. In 2015, group member Jon Carroll told USA Today, “It wasn’t all bad. It was mostly bad.”

I watched all six episodes, which are available at YouTube and linked in the Jon Carroll interview above. The producers missed a bet by not featuring Margot Chapman and Taffy Danoff more than they did, because Margot has some acting chops and Taffy is gorgeous. But there is one moment that blew me away: in the final episode, aired September 5, 1977, the group performed a stunning acapella version of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.”

Given its oddball comedic tone, the surreal amusement park videos, and some weird linking bits featuring a squawking goose and the group watching a video monitor in the middle of a hayfield, it’s clear that the show was aimed at a sophisticated viewing audience—young, urban, hip. The problem with that is the Starland Vocal Band itself. Some of their songs are almost comically bland, and at one venue, Taffy and Margot wear long dresses like something from Little House on the Prairie. Their rock songs sound OK, but rockin’ or not, they tend to come off pretty square. If CBS hoped to capture the young, urban, hip crowd that stayed up late for Saturday Night Live, The Starland Vocal Band Show wasn’t going to get much of it.

Golden Ages

(Pictured: Kenny Loggins in the “Danger Zone” video.)

(Quick and late edit below.)

If you are a friend on Facebook or you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I went to see the total eclipse on Monday. I drove 10 hours each way to visit friends in Kentucky. As spectacular as the eclipse itself was, sharing it with those people made it even better. I wrote about the experience for my radio station, and you can read that piece here.

I packed a bag of CDs for the trip, including a couple of American Top 40 shows from the 1980s. The summer of 1984 was a golden age for the Top 40, and the August 18, 1984, AT40 is pretty strong from top to bottom—in other words, from “Ghostbusters” to Bruce Springsteen’s second single from Born in the USA, “Cover Me,” which debuts at #40. A few notes follow:

—Slade’s “My Oh My” is at #37. Although the group’s Noddy Holder and Jim Lea take songwriting credits, “My Oh My” sounds exactly like “Let Us Break Bread Together,” a communion hymn I hear when my Lutheran relatives drag me to church.

—Fewer hits from 1984 have gone farther down the memory hole than “Alibis” by Sergio Mendes, his first major chart entry since “Never Gonna Let You Go” the year before. “Never Gonna Let You Go” has long since disappeared from radio playlists itself, although it was the distilled essence of adult radio pop in 1983.

—Casey corrects an error on an earlier broadcast, in which Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly” was omitted from a list of foreign acts who had hit #1 on the soul chart. Given that “Fly Robin Fly” hit #1 on the pop chart, that strikes me as a rather big mistake. Casey blamed himself, although the researcher who actually messed it up was taken out beneath the Hollywood sign and beheaded.

Casey is hard to listen to this week. I’ve written about it before—how his 1984 delivery is extremely slow and announcer-y, often unnecessarily repetitive, every syllable carefully enunciated, pretty much the opposite of the way all of us in radio are taught to communicate, and in the aggregate annoying as hell. Casey had broken himself of this habit by August 9, 1986, the second show I took along for the ride. Although he’s still The Most Famous Voice in America, he’s not nearly so stiff and mannered.

The music mix isn’t quite as strong on the 1986 show—there are some now-forgotten records pretty far up the chart, like “Suzanne” by Journey, “All the Love in the World” by the Outfield, and “Rumors” by the Timex Social Club, and it includes one of the worst records Rod Stewart ever made, “Love Touch,” all the way up at #6. But just as the 1984 show has “When Doves Cry” and “Dancing in the Dark” and “Missing You” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and other classics, the 1986 show has its share of songs that haven’t been off the radio in over 30 years: “Sledgehammer” and “Higher Love” and “Take My Breath Away” and “Invisible Touch” and “Danger Zone.”

Someday I’m going to write about the golden age of the movie song, which the 1984-1986 period certainly is. Movies and MTV had a synergistic relationship: put a song that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie over the closing credits (like “Love Touch” in the Robert Redford movie Legal Eagles), make a video with scenes from the movie (like “Love Touch”), and everybody profits. I count at least four movie songs in the 1984 show and eight in 1986, and that’s not counting songs that were featured in movies after their chart runs were through. In the week of the 1986 show, the Top Gun soundtrack was #1 on the album chart. (Late afterthought: and Purple Rain in 1984, too.)

Coming Friday: in the summer of 1977, CBS aired a music-related TV show that few have ever seen. I watched the whole thing, and I lived to tell the tale.

What’s the News?

On a recent morning, I was on news duty at the radio station. It was the day after Trump tweeted his directive that transgender soldiers no longer be permitted to serve, and on that day, the Senate was getting ready to vote again on repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

The Associated Press radio wire moved a couple of versions of the same story on transgender soldiers, and it was in the classic Associated Press form. It quoted two military veterans serving in Congress, one a Democrat and one a Republican, expressing contrasting views. The AP’s stories on the healthcare vote were even sketchier—“another vote is expected today as the GOP tries again to repeal Obamacare after recent failed attempts,” basically. That’s true as far as it goes, but it barely qualified as news on that morning. It’s as if the AP reported that the sun had risen in the East.

Thank you for reading this far. I have now arrived at the point I want to make: during the same couple hours that morning, while the AP was reporting in perfunctory fashion on two critically important stories—and repeating the same basic story without additional information in several consecutive hourly updates—the agency moved four different, updated versions of a story about a European soccer league’s corruption scandal.

On any given day, it’s clear that the AP is most comfortable with breaking stories: new developments in a scandal, a carnival accident or bus crash, the government’s release of monthly economic indicators. There was a time when being a well-informed citizen required little more than being up on breaking news. But that time is past. The world is exponentially more complicated than it used to be. Knowing only the headlines means that you know very little about what matters. Complex stories with profound effects on millions of people, such as those involving LGBTQ issues or the healthcare debate, are hard to fit into the AP’s headline-service template—so you end up with binary, he-said/she-said reporting offering a single sentence to two contrasting views, as on the transgender military story, which simplifies the story to the point of distorting it.

Here’s another example of how headlines distort reality: during debate on the healthcare bill in the House of Representatives last spring, it was reported that Republicans were stalling passage of a bill many of them had promised to support. The he-said/she-said template left a listener with the impression that those opposed to the new bill must naturally support the status quo. Therefore, it was big news if Republicans preferred Obamacare to their own party’s bill. But that was not what was happening. The Republicans opposed to their party’s bill were against it not because they preferred Obamacare, but because the new bill didn’t go far enough in demolishing Obamacare and salting the earth where once it stood.

The problem today is that context is perceived as bias. For a news outlet to report that Republicans in Congress want their healthcare bill to be even harder on the poor and the needy, even if it can be proven by quotes from the legislators’ own mouths, would be considered a partisan act. The context problem becomes even more severe when journalists are required to deal with obvious lies. Call something bullshit, even if it irrefutably is, and you commit what is perceived by the liars as a partisan act. So media outlets don’t do it. They report the lie and the truth side-by-side and hope the audience can tell the difference—which, as we know all too well, it often cannot.

What the solution is, I do not know. The AP radio wire and its sketchy, context-free service meets the needs of most member stations quite nicely, since so many want little beyond 60 seconds of headlines and a few sports scores every morning. Which is part of the reason we’re in the trouble we’re in, I guess. People don’t want to know what’s really going on, and if they do, it’s an awful lot of work to find out.

Family Vacation

(Pictured: Henry Ford’s original factory building, preserved at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, the site of many a Midwestern family vacation.)

I have written a lot about the summer of 1971 at this blog, and I’ve been listening to it again via the American Top 40 show dated August 7, 1971. Much of that week’s music is pretty great: a treasure chest of soul performances (Aretha, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five, Jean Knight), singer/songwriter pop (James Taylor, Carole King), and radio-ready records (“Don’t Pull Your Love,” “Sooner or Later,” “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again”) that jumped out of the box and have stayed there nearly half-a-century now.

The summer of 1971 was the first one I ever lived through with the radio on. Because I was not yet old enough to be press-ganged into farm work (that would be the next summer), I could devote 100 percent of my attention to various kid adventures, playing baseball, learning the saxophone, and listening to WLS. After absorbing the station religiously for only a few months, I knew that I wanted to do that. I didn’t know how, I only knew what, and it would be over 20 years before I would think about doing anything else.

One of that summer’s adventures was a family vacation. It’s a wonder that we were able to take them at all: Dad was a dairy farmer, and dairy farming means you milk cows twice a day, seven days a week. Before we could go, Dad would have to find somebody to help Grandpa with the milking, as he was past 70 and it was more than he could manage by himself. In those days, people who knew how to milk cows generally had cows of their own, but Dad found a young guy he could trust, and he milked for us more than once in the early 70s.

We kids would eagerly count down the days before we left, and the night before, we’d be so charged up that we couldn’t sleep. We’d get up too early the next morning and help pack the car. The logistics involved in getting several days’ worth of clothing and provisions for a family of five into the trunk of a 1965 Mercury Comet could be tricky. Provisions included a big metal ice chest with sandwiches and drinks, because we liked to stop at roadside picnic tables for lunch. Mother also packed a treat box that she opened during the ride. She took special care to pack surprises, so we discovered types of candy we never knew before, and travel games too. We counted license plates and gas stations and played “I’m thinking of something,” which was one of Mother’s simple games, in which she would describe an object and we had to guess what it was. It occurs to me now that her training as a schoolteacher came out strongly on these trips—the way she kept us entertained but sneaked learning by us at the same time, and refereed the inevitable kid squabbles.

And on the subject of learning: we did not go on trips to hang out at the beach or be lazy; we went to see stuff, and we covered lots of miles doing it. During those late 60s and early 70s summers, we visited the Mark Twain sites in Hannibal, Missouri, Abe Lincoln’s boyhood home in New Salem, Illinois, and the Wisconsin Dells. We went up to the Iron Range in Minnesota and toured the harbor at Duluth. We went to the Black Hills of South Dakota and Mackinac Island in Michigan. And in August 1971—and it must have been August because the songs tell me so—we packed the car and went to Detroit. We toured the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, and I remember one other thing: at some point on the trip, I picked up a radio survey (for I was collecting them by then) from WKNR, the fabled Keener 13. Because I insisted we find the station on the car radio, I heard the same songs on our trip that I had been hearing on WLS at home.

Forty-six summers later, I have been listening to those songs again, and they have been telling me the story not only of that specific vacation, but of all the vacations we took together, and the gift our parents gave us through them, a gift of places and experiences but also the gift of family itself. We were lucky to have what we did, and the songs won’t let me forget.

Burning Love

(Pictured: Elvis in the 70s.)

On the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, we present 40 things about Elvis, observations personal and otherwise:

1.  We heard about the death of Elvis while on our last-ever family vacation.
2.  I didn’t want to go, but there was no way I was going to be left unchaperoned for a week with my girlfriend just back from Europe.
3.  The public brouhaha surrounding the death of Elvis looks familiar now, but in 1977, it was something new.
4.  Elvis’ death was not mentioned in People magazine until three weeks later.
5.  There are a lot of people who think he’s not really dead.

6.  In 1954, when young Elvis was interviewed on WHBQ in Memphis, one of the most important questions concerned what high school he attended.
7.  When he said, “Humes,” the audience instantly knew that Elvis was white.

8.  Elvis’ first national TV appearances were on the The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show, six times between January and March 1956, followed by two appearances with Milton Berle.
9.  He appeared on The Steve Allen Show in July 1956, when Allen made him sing “Hound Dog” to a basset hound wearing a tuxedo, the sort of dick move for which Allen was famous.
10.  January 6, 1957, the night Elvis appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and was shot only from the waist up, was the day my wife’s parents got married.
11.  The 1/6/57 show was Elvis’ third appearance on Sullivan in four months.
12.  The opening track of his Christmas album, “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” was pretty strong stuff for 1957, although the moaning, heavy breathing, and other lascivious noises some critics claimed to hear throughout the album just aren’t there.
13.  The oft-told tale that Irving Berlin hated the Elvis version of “White Christmas” and tried to get it banned is apparently false.

14.  The only Elvis movie I have seen start-to-finish is Girl Happy.
15.  It’s terrible, all except for Shelley Fabares, who is perfection.
16.  Throughout the 1960s, long as Elvis’ movies laid golden eggs, Colonel Tom Parker wouldn’t kill the goose, even when Elvis began to object.
17.  Imagine if he’d been managed by a forward-looking businessman like Brian Epstein.
18.  All of Elvis’ most famous songs of the 50s were enormous country hits, but he was entirely absent from the country charts during the movie years between 1961 and 1970.

19.  Between the summer of 1969 and the fall of 1970, Elvis hit the pop Top 10 with “In the Ghetto,” “Don’t Cry Daddy” and “The Wonder of You,” and #1 with “Suspicious Minds.”
20.  During this period, “Kentucky Rain” made it only to #16. If you are surprised by anything you are reading here, that might be it.
21.  “The Wonder of You” is the first Elvis record I can remember hearing on the radio.
22.  This was not long before Elvis made his famous visit to the White House.
23.  “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” which charted early in 1971, is one of my favorite Elvis performances, but “Suspicious Minds” is #1.
24.  During the week of October 28, 1972,  “Burning Love” was kept out of the #1 spot on the Hot 100 by Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling.”
25.  Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” was in the Top 10 the same week, a good one for 50s icons.

26.  On June 25, 1977, Elvis hit the Hot 100 with “Way Down,” which was listed along with its B-side, “Pledging My Love.”
27.  The record hit #40 on July 16, then went 36-35-31-31 before falling to #47 on the chart dated August 20, four days after Elvis died.
28.  Because Billboard was always behind the street, “Way Down” fell to #53 on August 27, but zoomed back to #35 on September 3.
29.  During the week of September 10, the two hottest records within the Top 40 were “Way Down” and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” both up 11 spots.
30.  “Way Down” peaked at #18 on September 24 and remained in the Hot 100 until November.
31.  It hit #1 on the Billboard country chart of August 20, 1977.
32.  The first Elvis tribute record, “The King Is Gone” by Ronnie McDowell, debuted on September 10 and reached #13 on the Hot 100 at the end of October.
33.  The greatest of all Elvis tribute songs, however, is Mojo Nixon’s “Elvis Is Everywhere.”

34.  During a 1977 visit to my town, Madison, Wisconsin, Elvis saw two guys fighting outside a gas station and got out of his limo to stop it.
35.  There’s a historical marker on the site.

36.  If you have not read Peter Guralnick’s two-volume Elvis biography, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, you must.
37.  Also worth reading today: Professor O’Kelly talks about seeing the ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue; Any Major Dude With Half a Heart has two Elvis posts with music: one featuring Elvis covers and another featuring movie songs.
38.  The second post in the history of this blog was about Elvis.
39.  One of the few music pieces I ever sold was about our 1997 visit to Graceland (first part here, second part here, third part here).
40.  As I argue in my Graceland piece, Elvis represents both what Americans dream of and what we fear. If he had not existed, we’d have had to invent him.

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