Mr. October

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(Pictured: Van Morrison and his harmonica, 1999.)

Many years ago, a reader suggested—and not in an especially complimentary fashion, if I’m recalling correctly—that I should just call myself Mr. October and stop talking about it. Anybody who’s read this blog for the 13 years (!) of its existence probably remembers that October has a hold on me that other months do not (but read this if you’d like to know why). Certain music soundtracks this month for me every year: songs from the most significant Octobers of long ago (1976, 1974, 1971, 1970) and others that simply sound like October to me regardless of when they came out. Some full albums make the list, too.

Van Morrison’s 1999 album Back on Top is in heavy rotation at my house every October, but two songs travel with me the rest of the year as well. “The Philosopher’s Stone” sounds like a song about life on the road. The other day, however, I heard it differently, and the following lines in particular: “Even my best friends / Even my best friends / They don’t know / That my job is turning lead into gold.” It strikes me that “The Philosopher’s Stone” is also about the desire for somebody to listen to us, the desire to be heard, and ultimately the desire to be understood. You don’t know what I’m doing here, what I’m going through, what I have to face every day, and I wish you’d take the time to find out. Van’s wheezy harmonica tone doesn’t always serve his songs well, but he sounds great here, expressing a desire for connection so powerful it knocks you sideways.

And by “you,” I mean me.

In “When the Leaves Come Falling Down,” Van remembers colorful autumn days and asks his lost love (for surely she is lost) to “follow me down to the space between the twilight and the dawn,” an image not unlike one in “Stardust,” from the introductory verse about the purple dusk of twilight time: “You wander down the lane and far away / Leaving me a song that will not die.” All we have left to remember—you, me, Van, and Nat King Cole in his magnificent 1957 recording of “Stardust”—is the music of the days gone by.

If I misted up a bit in the car on a golden October afternoon while listening to these songs, you shouldn’t be surprised.

Other songs on Back on Top reflect an autumnal theme: “Reminds Me of You,” “High Summer,” “Precious Time,” “In the Midnight.” One song that seems like it should, “Golden Autumn Day,” doesn’t, really—although the music is gorgeous and the refrain is perfect, the verses were inspired by a mugging and are mostly about Van’s desire to get revenge on his attackers. On any album, no matter how beautiful, Van’s gotta Van.

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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.

After the Fire Has Gone

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(Pictured: Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn at the American Music Awards in 1975.)

Unlike many radio stations, we take requests here. A reader asked about Conway Twitty: “One of the most successful country artists of all time. Now virtually forgotten. No legacy. How come?” What follows is my typical half-assed guess.

Harold Jenkins had an offer to play baseball from the Philadelphia Phillies, but he was drafted for service in Korea first. When he got home, he got a record deal from Sam Phillips, although nothing he recorded for Sun was released at the time. He became a rockabilly singer in 1956, changed his name to Conway Twitty (combining the names of two towns in Arkansas and Texas) and eventually hit the Hot 100 14 times between 1957 and 1962, including “It’s Only Make Believe,” which hit #1 in 1958 thanks in part to A) being a really good song and B) sounding remarkably like Elvis. Twitty was popular enough over the next couple of years to appear in three drive-in quickie films in 1960, including an appearance as himself in Sex Kittens Go to College starring Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld.

In 1965, Twitty began working with Nashville producer Owen Bradley, and after a handful of chart-scrapers, started hitting the country Top 10 in 1968. Over the next 25 years, until his death in 1993 at age 59, he charted an astounding 84 singles on his own and as a duet partner with Loretta Lynn. Only eight of them—eight!—missed the country Top 10, and two of those were separately listed B-sides of Top-10 hits. Of those 84 charted singles, 40 hit #1 (only George Strait has more) and 12 more peaked at #2.

Successful? Ya think?

A few of Twitty’s biggest country hits crossed to the pop chart, including: “Hello Darlin’,” “Fifteen Years Ago,” “Linda on My Mind,” and “Don’t Cry Joni.” In 1973, “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” became Conway’s biggest pop hit since 1960, reaching #22 on the Hot 100, although it’s pretty skeevy and hard to listen to now. His duet with Loretta, “After the Fire Has Gone,” also made the Hot 100, and you might recognize the duets “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” “As Soon As I Hang Up the Phone,” or “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” (Even though the latter was a B-side, it got a great deal of airplay in 1978.) For a stretch in the 1980s, Twitty scored #1 country hits with pop covers: “Rest Your Love on Me” (a Bee Gees song), the Pointer Sisters’ “Slow Hand” (also kinda skeevy), “The Rose,” “Heartache Tonight,” and “Three Times a Lady.”

With such success—a solid four or five hits a year, every year, for over two decades—how come Conway Twitty isn’t an icon on the order of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, George Jones, or Merle Haggard? Here’s my guess: outlaws will always be cooler than law-abiding citizens. Cash and Jones were famous for livin’ hard, and in Hank’s case, dying young; Haggard was famous for having done time. Outside of his music, Twitty was probably best known for Twitty City, a Nashville entertainment complex that was also his home from 1982 until his death. Some of his songs were pretty cheesy, and by the end of his career, his distinctive delivery, with the famous crack in his voice, sometimes seemed like a parody of itself. His inclusion as a running joke in the TV series Family Guy doesn’t help his dignity any either. Neither does that name, to be honest.

His lack of legacy is also a function of time and style. Today’s young country stars invoke Hank, Cash, Jones, and Haggard as little more than catch-phrases. The artists they emulate and recognize as icons are people like Keith Urban, who had his first American hit in 1999, and Jason Aldean, who came on the scene in 2005, and not a guy who’s been dead for nearly a quarter of a century. Today’s country music has far more in common with the stadium rock of Bon Jovi and the R&B stylings of Bruno Mars than it does with polyester-clad love men like Conway Twitty.

All of the songs mentioned in this post are worthwhile listening, but if you want to hear a particular favorite of mine, check out “I Am the Dreamer (You Are the Dream),” the charting B-side of the #1 hit “Rest Your Love on Me” from 1981. It’s Conway Twitty the way he most often sounded: the signature twang in his voice and the sensual lyrics, plus an uncommonly pretty arrangement.

You Got That Right

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(Pictured: Ronnie Van Zant on stage, 1975.)

The other morning I was reminiscing with somebody about how radio newsrooms used to be staffed. When I was at KDTH years ago, there were at least two and sometimes three reporters on duty in morning drive-time, plus a farm guy and a sports guy. They called various local law enforcement agencies to see what the cops had dealt with overnight, wrote stories about meetings held the night before, updated stories from the previous afternoon, worked ahead on stories for later in the day or later in the week, and covered spot news as needed. If the local paper or a local TV station had a big story first, it was rarely lifted verbatim—more often, one of the reporters would make his or her own calls so that the station’s coverage had its own unique quotes or angle. The news department generated everything that didn’t come off the Associated Press or United Press International wire—and even that stuff would occasionally be fleshed out by local reporting. And KDTH wasn’t alone in this. Nearly every radio station had one or more people whose job this was.

Today, of course, lots of radio stations don’t have their own news departments. If they do any news at all, it’s likely delivered by a news reader, whose job it is to gather stories from the Internet, the wire, or whoever’s writing them, and to deliver them once or twice an hour. Their job isn’t to call up the mayor’s office for a comment on the city budget, or the county sheriff for details on a traffic fatality. If big news breaks during the day, they don’t report it. The jock on the air keeps an eye on CNN’s website, or one of the local TV station websites, and passes along their reports second-hand.

I am not criticizing this. It’s the way radio and technology have evolved. But such evolution makes a plausible argument that the vast run of radio stations needn’t bother with reading news at all anymore (or reporting sports or weather or traffic). When everyone has an Internet device in their pocket or purse, listeners have access to more comprehensive sources of information than an intern reading a 90-second newscast on the morning show, and they can get it on demand instead of waiting for the top of the hour.

But I’m an old radio guy, and I remain fervently nostalgic for the way it used to be.

Forty years ago tonight, a plane carrying the members of Lynryd Skynyrd crashed in Mississippi, killing three members of the band plus three members of the plane’s crew. A friend of mine was a freshman at our small college in Wisconsin then, an eager young radio geek working a late-night news shift at the college station. When news of the plane crash first came in, he and a fellow student decided not to wait for the Associated Press—they got on the phone and started reporting the story themselves. The first wire reports quoted a radio station in McComb, Mississippi, so “We got hold of a newscaster from that station and he gave us a few reports,” my friend said. “I’ll never forget his Southern drawl and his words, ‘I know for sure that the pilot is dead and there are several others who are dead.'”

I don’t remember October 20, 1977, which was a Thursday. I was a senior in high school. I probably had the radio on at some point, and if I did, I’d probably have heard about the crash, although it may not have registered with me if I did. I knew “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird” by then, but I wasn’t a Southern rock fan generally; I didn’t hear anything beyond those two songs until I got to college a year later.

But memorializing Skynyrd 40 years later is not the point of this post. Others will do that better than I can. Instead, I’m memorializing good old fashioned news-gathering, and the initiative of a couple of young radio guys from the middle of nowhere who decided that if they wanted a major national story done properly, they’d have to do it themselves.

The Music You Grew Old With

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The first baby boomers are past 70 now. The youngest of us are well into our 50s. And while we have valiantly struggled to hang on to our hipness since we started turning 35 (in the early 80s, when “soft rock” became a thing and the music of the 60s became cultural shorthand for a whole constellation of past and present self-images), it’s a harder sell as time goes by. The TV channels devoted to the shows we grew up on and cherished, including MeTV and Antenna TV, are clogged with ads for miracle drugs, medical supplies, and term insurance, all featuring people we’d like to think we are not, not yet. But they are us.

Radio stations playing music of a similar vintage haven’t gone so far down that road. Classic-rock stations are now mixing in the likes of Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Green Day, and other acts of the 90s, and for the most part, the stuff fits nicely alongside Lynryd Skynryd, Pink Floyd, and the rest of the canon. These stations remain somewhat contemporary, because so many of the core artists are still working. The music itself is largely timeless—although a significant percentage of the audience for classic rock can’t remember the 60s, 70s, or even in some cases the 80s, they love it just the same. Nostalgia doesn’t have to be an overt part of the station’s appeal, although for older listeners, it’s a factor.

Oldies stations have always been a bit more willing to talk about throwing back: “the music you grew up with” has been a familiar oldies-radio slogan practically from the beginning. The term “oldies” once referred to a particular style of music, and that music created an atmosphere that was clearly something of another time.

Classic-hits stations, which are basically classic rockers without the album cuts, relying heavily on big singles by rock artists and exclusively 70s and 80s-based, are somewhere in the middle. Like classic rockers, they don’t have to traffic in nostalgia. Without the deep cuts and 90s music, they don’t come off quite as hip, but they can still pull it off, depending on their imaging.

All of this is a windy introduction to what I want to write about: a station I heard while traveling recently. It was a small-town classic hits station, the kind of place that does the high-school football games on Friday nights. It was heavily voice-tracked, and because the jocks lacked the big pipes and smooth delivery of syndication, they were probably local, although you couldn’t tell by what they said. There was nothing remotely local in any of the talk breaks I heard over a couple of days—just lots of national entertainment and feature bits ripped straight from the AP wire.

But what stood out about this station beyond that was its imaging. A remarkable number of its recorded liners played up the fact that anybody listening must be old: “You can remember the first time you heard these songs, but you can’t remember where you put your car keys,” and “You know all the words, but you can’t remember what you had for breakfast this morning.” For somebody in the target demo (which I certainly am), this sort of thing can be funny the first time, because it has a ring of truth. It gets less funny the more it’s repeated, however. And after a couple of hours, it had the effect of turning the station—despite its basic classic-hits library of rockin’ good records, Steve Miller and Heart and Huey Lewis and so on—into a bleak reminder of human mortality. The music didn’t seem hip in that context. It was kind of pathetic, and almost sad.

I am pretty sure this isn’t what they’re going for.

Part of the appeal of this music is in the way it speaks to those of us who grew up with it, not just because it soundtracked days we remember and years we cherish, but also because it tells us who we are now, as art will do. We know we’re aging. We know our time is limited. It’s neither necessary nor right to remind us too frequently of that, especially when you’re doing it with the very music that allows us to forget it for a while.

American Schlock

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(Pictured: Debby Boone, #1 with a bullet, 1977.)

Maybe it was the thinning ozone thanks to aerosol deodorant and hair spray. Maybe it was all that polyester. Or maybe there was a deeper reason, something that’s always been part of who we are, and is still part of us today.

“You Light Up My Life,” recorded by Debby Boone, was released on August 16, 1977. (That’s the same day Elvis Presley died, although the autopsy showed no correlation.) Its chart debut came on September 3rd at #71. It went to #58 the next week, then into the Top 40 at #35 for the week of September 17th. It zoomed from #35 to #21 the next week, then to #15, and then, during the week of October 8, took a mighty leap from #15 to #3. The song hit #1 40 years ago this week, on October 15, 1977, where it would stay for 10 weeks, the longest stretch at the top for a single song since 1956.

Week after week during the fall of 1977, other songs stormed the heights of the Hot 100 but none could take it: “Keep It Comin’ Love” by KC and the Sunshine Band, “Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon, “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave, and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle all peaked at #2, Carly and Crystal for three weeks each. Finally, during the week of December 17, the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” reached the second spot, and it took out the queen on December 24, 1977.

It may surprise you to learn that “You Light Up My Life” spent but a single week at #1 on the adult contemporary chart. Nevertheless, its pop-chart dominance makes it the #1 single of the 1970s.

After the song fell out of the Hot 100 in February 1978, it stayed topical for a while. It won the Oscar for Best Original Song (from a movie also called You Light Up My Life). It tied for the Song of the Year Grammy with “Evergreen,” and was nominated for Record of the Year but lost; Debby Boone won the Best New Artist Grammy. But after the spring award season, “You Light Up My Life” seemed to vanish from history, like a Soviet official declared a nonperson who never officially existed. It never had the kind of afterlife on radio playlists that such an enormous hit would be expected to have. It’s as if collective embarrassment over the embrace of such bland schlock caused people to repress the memory entirely.

It’s arguable that the same impulse repressed Debby Boone’s career. She returned to the Hot 100 only twice, with “California” and “God Knows,” both in 1978. She did a bit better on the country charts, where “You Light Up My Life” had peaked at #4, scoring a #1 hit in 1980 called “Are You On the Road to Lovin’ Me Again.” Eventually, she moved into Christian music (no surprise given that she had imagined the “you” in “You Light Up My Life” to be God), acted on the stage, raised a family, and wrote children’s books.

“You Light Up My Life” got back into the news in 2009 when songwriter Joe Brooks, who also wrote and directed the You Light Up My Life movie, was accused of 91 counts of sexual assault against 11 women, some of whom he had lured to his New York apartment by dazzling them with his Oscar. He committed suicide before the cases could come to trial.

Despite the fact that many claimed to hate “You Light Up My Life” during its chart run, it was on most of the country’s radio stations every 90 minutes for a reason: millions of people absolutely fking loved it. Even with all that airplay, Mr. and Mrs. Average American, and more than a few of their children, bought the single or the album or the cassette because they couldn’t get enough of it on the radio.

“You Light Up My Life” has not endured all that well, but what it represents certainly has. Schlock remains one of America’s favorite mind-altering substances, as it always has been.

(Rebooted from posts first appearing in 2009 and 2010.)

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