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.

The Wreck

(Pictured: Gordon Lightfoot in 1978.)

Back in 2009, I wrote about the Edmund Fitzgerald for I have never repeated that post at this blog, so here it is, with some editing from the original. A big part of my gig at WNEW was explaining major events and personalities in rock history to people either too young to remember or not particularly obsessed by that kind of thing. So regular readers of this pondwater probably won’t learn much from it, but that’s the chance you take around here. 

To be human is to love a story. We like to be transported to different places and times and to vicariously experience the lives of others. Although our methods of storytelling have grown more sophisticated—novels and short stories and movies and TV—our fascination with a good story hasn’t changed since the storytellers were our fellow humans around the campfire, hundreds or thousands of years ago.

On November 9, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald, once the largest ship on the Great Lakes, set sail from Superior, Wisconsin, bound for Detroit with a load of taconite, an iron ore-bearing mineral. On the afternoon of the 10th, a powerful early-winter storm struck the eastern end of Lake Superior with hurricane-force winds and heavy snow. The Fitzgerald lost its radar in the storm; worse, it began taking on water. Another ship traveling about 10 miles behind, the Arthur Anderson, kept in touch with the Fitzgerald throughout the long day. Early that evening, the Anderson found that it could no longer reach the Fitzgerald by radio or see it on radar. It is believed that the Fitzgerald, weakened by the battering it had taken from the storm, was struck by a giant wave and snapped in half. The crew of 29 was lost.

A couple of weeks later, Newsweek magazine published a story about the Fitzgerald that began with the following line: “According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee never gives up her dead.” When Gordon Lightfoot read the article, he was inspired, and by the time he returned to the studio in December to record a new album, he had written a song that told the story. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” would reach the top five of the Billboard singles chart for the first anniversary of the sinking, eventually peaking at #2. In the years since, it’s become more than merely a song—Lightfoot says that it’s the most significant song of his career.

Although there were other story songs before and there have been others since, there’s never been one better. Although I’ve heard it a million times in the last 39 years, I find myself caught up in it every time. There may be a reason for that apart from the song itself, however. On a family vacation at some point in the middle of the 1970s—maybe as late as 1975—we toured the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The ship that was going through the locks that afternoon was the largest man-made object I had ever seen; from our vantage point in the visitors’ area, the few people looking down at us from the deck of the ship seemed extremely tiny in comparison. Because the ship was so enormous, I remembered its name: it was the Edmund Fitzgerald, of course. I’ve always wondered if any or all the people we saw on board that day were among those who were lost in the Great Lakes’ most famous shipwreck, on November 10, 1975.

Deep Autumn

(Pictured: Silver Convention performs on a basketball court just as whatever drug you’ve taken begins to kick in.)

I mentioned just yesterday that I had one more October American Top 40 in my CD bag. It’s the one from October 25, 1975, and here we go.

40. “Rocky”/Austin Roberts. Gains extra points for its truck driver’s key change; loses them for being titled “Rocky” and never mentioning the name of Rocky’s dead wife.

After “Rocky,” Casey does a rare thing: he talks about his work outside of the show. Casey tells us he does voiceover work on a couple of cartoon series, Scooby-Doo and Josie and the Pussycats, and notes that Austin Roberts wrote and recorded some songs used on Scooby-Doo before he scored his first hits.

38. “The Agony and the Ecstasy”/Smokey Robinson. Here’s something as rare as Casey talking about himself: a song that I am hearing for the first time ever as I listen to this repeat. “The Agony and the Ecstasy” would spend three weeks on the show, peaking the week of November 1 at #36 before dropping off the next week.

37. “Just Too Many People”/Melissa Manchester. Somebody smarter than I will have to explain why “Just Too Many People,”  a #2 hit on the AC chart, could make it only to #30 in five weeks on the Top 40.

36. “Eighteen With a Bullet”/Pete Wingfield. A record much beloved around these parts.

35. “Mr. Jaws”/Dickie Goodman. Goodman’s second most successful break-in record (behind only “The Flying Saucer” in 1956), “Mr. Jaws” is a perfect example of the form. It’s actually funny: I remember laughing out loud the first time I heard Goodman ask the shark, “Why are you taking my hand?”, followed by “Wouldn’t you give your hand to a friend” from Melissa Manchester’s “Midnight Blue.” And the other day in the car, it made me smile again.

32. “Fly Robin Fly”/Silver Convention. Less is more: a bass guitar and a drummer, a string section, a couple of keyboards, and three singers chanting “fly robin fly up up to the sky” over and over. It was so hypnotically simple it had to end up at #1.

31. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”/Willie Nelson. Casey occasionally intros or back-announces a song by reciting a snippet of the lyrics. For “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” he quotes a verse that doesn’t appear in the version he just played (“Now my hair has turned to silver / All my life I’ve loved in vain”), although it’s in hit versions by Roy Acuff and Hank Williams.

Train wreck alert: between David Bowie’s “Fame” (#29) and John Fogerty’s “Rockin’ All Over the World” (#28, on which Fogerty sounds even more screechy than usual), Casey features “Something Stupid” by Frank and Nancy Sinatra.

27. “I Only Have Eyes for You”/Art Garfunkel. Art’s gorgeous voice soars over a dreamy, romantic arrangement rich with electric piano. If there’s such a thing as a deep autumn sound, the shimmering “I Only Have Eyes for You” is it.

26. “Born to Run”/Bruce Springsteen. In its third week on the chart, the same week that Springsteen appeared on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, evidence for Casey’s contention that Springsteen is “the most talked-about new artist of the last five years.”

24. “What a Difference a Day Makes”/Esther Phillips. Esther’s voice favors that of Dinah Washington, who recorded the most famous version of “What a Difference a Day Makes,” but this disco version is at a breakneck tempo that’s a poor match for a jazz singer.

23. “You”/George Harrison. I have heard it said that every song you play on your radio station should be somebody’s favorite. I am not sure what kind of person would consider the godawful hash of “You” to be his or her favorite song, but there must have been somebody.

21. “Carolina in the Pines”/Michael Murphey. More prolific than just “Wildfire,” Murphey had five Top 40 hits between 1972 and 1982. He also was in a pre-Monkees band with Michael Nesmith, and he was cast in The Kowboys, a 1969 television pilot that was supposed to be a Western version of The Monkees.

We’ll discuss the second half of this show in a future installment.

Back Home Again

(Pictured: John Lennon, performing live with Elton John in November 1974, an appearance made possible by the success of “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.”)

I have spent most of the last month riding with Casey Kasem, listening in the car to American Top 40 shows from Octobers gone by. The show dated October 12, 1974, was wildly entertaining, with fine songs from top to bottom.

There were some oddities, though, starting with a great train wreck at #40 and #39: ABBA’s helium-huffing “Honey Honey” followed by James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” which was #1 for the week on the soul chart. The lower reaches of this chart are full of that kind of thing, records that would be off the radio by the time 1975 began, but which stick in the memory of a certain type of geek: like “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)” by the Raspberries, “Higher Plane” by Kool and the Gang, and “Kings of the Party” by Brownsville Station. A few slightly more enduring hits are getting a foothold, like Carl Carlton’s “Everlasting Love.” But as we climb, more memorable hits appear, including John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” BTO’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” and “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

There would be another brain-rattling collision at #11 and #10: Tony Orlando and Dawn’s vaudeville “Steppin’ Out (Gonna Boogie Tonight) followed by Bad Company’s “Can’t Get Enough.” In itself, that captures that captures the full panoply of 70s radio variety, but the display continues the rest of the way up. At #9 and #8 sit Cheech and Chong’s “Earache My Eye” and Blue Swede’s cover of “Never My Love,” which sounds like Phil Spector on a caffeine high; at #7 through #5 there’s the solid threesome of Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back,” “Another Saturday Night” by Cat Stevens, and “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” by Stevie Wonder. (And yes, Casey gave the title of Elton’s hit.) At #4 the great Tony Burrows, recording under the name First Class, gets a final moment in the sun—so to speak—with “Beach Baby.” Then at #3 it’s the slow-cooking “Then Came You” by Dionne Warwick and the Spinners, which would eventually set a record for taking the longest to reach #1, followed by Billy Preston’s “Nothing From Nothing” at #2.

And then, as so often seems to happen with charts of the 1970s, we reach #1 and it’s a bit of a fizzle compared to what preceded it: “I Honestly Love You” by Olivia Newton-John. Intensely romantic sap always has a certain appeal; in an era when everybody was listening to the same radio stations, its appeal spread further. “I Honestly Love You” is not a terrible record, really—just not as good as those it surmounted to reach #1.

Whenever this blog deals with music from Octobers gone by, I feel like I need to include a disclaimer: my fondness for the stuff has only somewhat to do with the stuff itself, and much more to do with the associations that come with the stuff. In the specific case of October 12, 1974, I’ve written about that before. The fall of 1974 is season that endures in memory as a particularly happy one, even though that’s—well, not a lie, really, but surely a fantasy, or a fabrication. So as I was driving around on recent October afternoons, with the fall colors crowned by that singular autumn light, it’s not a surprise that John Denver’s “Back Home Again” Carole King’s “Jazzman,” and “You Little Trustmaker” by the Tymes scratched a very particular itch that you might not share. But that’s the chance you take when you frequent this place.

(I have one more October show left in my CD bag, so we’re not done here.)

How I Became an Ex-Saxophone Player

(Pictured: Arturo Toscanini conducts the NBC Symphony Orchestra, circa 1944. My relationship with a putative Toscanini did not end well.)

Let’s file this under Off-Topic Tuesday, since it is.

A picture showed up on Facebook the other day. It was a newspaper photo from 1978, a picture of the senior band members at my high school who were about to take part in their final week of concerts. It didn’t matter that the picture was very hard to read—I could recognize the faces. Many of my closest friends were in it—a couple of whom I’m still fairly close to today.

I am not in the picture.

Continue reading →

A Moment of Peak Popularity

(Pictured: Do I really need to say?)

It has been over two months since I did one of these Links and Notes posts recapping worthwhile reading from my Twitter feed. What follows won’t be everything, but it’ll be plenty.

—The great Rebeat Magazine retweeted an old story examining the 1970s revival of interest in the 1950s, from American Graffiti to Grease to the rise of Ronald Reagan. This is the kind of thing Rebeat does very well, and something I profoundly wish I had written. Also at Rebeat: Dickie Goodman and the history of the break-in record.

—The year 1970 is a distant planet, one where Iggy Pop played a gig at a high-school gym alongside Mitch Ryder and Brownsville Station. The pictures are pretty great. This is the kind of thing does all the time. They also recently published an exhaustive list of 70s songs with “boogie” in their titles, an exposé of the sensual passions on Gilligan’s Island, and a fine selection of photos featuring Julie Newmar, who will always be Catwoman to many of us.

—A filmmaker decided to drive from Iowa City to Chicago, a trip that took him about five hours with the traffic, while listening only to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.” It was an adventure.

—“Why Can’t We Live Together” by Timmy Thomas has recently resurfaced, sampled in Drake’s new “Hotline Bling.” An NPR Music story discussed the making of “Why Can’t We Live Together” and the historical moment (late 1972/early 1973) at which it became at hit. On the subject of makings-of, the Wall Street Journal‘s Anatomy of a Song series featured an interview with Rod Stewart about the making of “Maggie May.”

—In the runup to Halloween, journalist Eamonn Forde found an old book called Backward Masking: Backward Satanic Messages of Rock and Roll Exposed and tweeted some of its best bits. Bottom line: you’re going to Hell, and I’ll see you there.

—Also just before Halloween, we passed the anniversary of Elton John’s 1975 Dodger Stadium concerts, which might have represented the moment of his peak popularity. Ultimate Classic Rock had a good look back, which linked to an even better one from a guy who was there, a 15-year-old at his first concert.

—The 50th anniversary of the great New York City blackout of 1965 is just a few days away. That Eric Alper found an aircheck from that evening on WABC featuring radio legend Dan Ingram, in which you can actually hear the power starting to fail and Ingram wondering what’s happening.

—Chicagoland Radio and Media has an extensive audio section. Recently, it added a Larry Lujack WLS aircheck dated October 19, 1970. I can’t be sure at this distance, but I believe I remember listening that morning. You can also hear well-traveled legend Big Ron O’Brien burning the joint down at WCFL in 1973. That includes a promo for the Last Contest, one of the most famous promotions in radio history.

—Bill Vancil is a well-traveled legend himself, a Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Hall of Famer and longtime Madison radio programmer, now retired. He’s recently started a blog, and one of his first posts told a great rock and roll radio story about a new duo who could maybe fill a hall.

—Writing about my recent East Coast trip, I told the story of listening to Bruce Springsteen’s The River for the first time. For its 35th anniversary, the album is getting a super-deluxe reissue. I’m probably not going to buy it, but I’ll damn sure listen to the album again.

—I have written a little bit about the state of contemporary country music. The Guardian‘s Grady Smith, a wise observer of the country scene, wrote about how some of today’s biggest stars are afraid to make music they actually like—how they’re caught between their personal taste and the demands of the starmaker machinery that’s propelled them to where they are.

—Two non-music, non-radio stories that have both been around a while came to my attention recently, and both are definitely worth your time. We’ve all seen the photo of John Carlos and Tommie Smith doing the black-power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics. But there’s a third person on that stand, and his story is remarkable. And on Christmas Eve 1945, a family in West Virginia lost five children in a fire. Or did they?

And that gets us back to the first of October, which is far as your patience and mine will stretch. To see more like this, you know what to do.


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