Bird of Many Nations

(Pictured: Hans Bouwens, better known as George Baker.)

You live with a radio in your ear every hour you can, and some weird stuff is gonna get stuck in your head.

Take as an example the international smash that topped charts in a dozen-or-so countries (including the Easy Listening chart in America) beginning in 1975. Since then, it’s been covered by polka bands and Hispanic artists. Although its title is a Spanish phrase meaning “white bird,” the song is otherwise in English. It was written by a Dutchman about, he says, a South American farmer.

It’s the damn United Nations is what it is.

There is no justifying “Paloma Blanca” by the George Baker Selection, not really, except to say that it was the 1970s and we couldn’t help ourselves. That thumping bass line, the piccolo trills, and Baker’s heavily accented English, as well as the almost phonetic English of female singer Nelleke Brzoskowsky, who takes the last verse—there are lots of reasons why it never should have amounted to anything more than a novelty or curiosity in the United States. And yet there’s something irresistible about it nevertheless.

Lots of Dutch acts appeared on the American charts in the late 60s and 1970s, including the Shocking Blue (“Venus”), Mouth and MacNeal (“How Do You Do”), Golden Earring (“Radar Love”) and others I’m certainly forgetting. Baker himself had charted in 1969 with “Little Green Bag.”

“Paloma Blanca” was not just an easy-listening hit—it also made the Hot 100. It bubbled under for a couple of weeks in November 1975 before breaking in during the week of November 29. It cracked the Top 40 during the week of January 10, 1976, in the same quarter-hour of American Top 40 with “Slow Ride,” “Golden Years,” and “Squeeze Box.” (That week’s chart is one of the half-dozen most 70s weeks of the 70s.) It reached its peak of #26 for the week of January 31 (the same week it reached #1 at WVOK in Birmingham, Alabama) and fell out of the 40 on February 14, although it spent the next three weeks trying to get back in, going from 44 to 42 to 41—just after it had gone to #1 on Easy Listening. “Paloma Blanca” also made an unlikely run up Billboard‘s country singles chart going 95, 84, 74, 66, 55, 45, 39, 39, 36, 33, 40, 44, 69, 82, and out, reaching its peak of #33 on March 20, 1976, shortly after it exited the Hot 100.

The country chart run of “Paloma Blanca” roughly corresponds with the period in which I was doing the behind-the-wheel part of driver education. We didn’t have a simulator at my school in those days; we did 12 hours with an instructor in a real car over the course of several weeks, often on Saturday mornings. One of the instructors kept Chicago country station WMAQ on in his car—even when his students were driving—so I have associated “Paloma Blanca” with driver’s ed ever since.

You live with a radio in your ear every hour you can, and some weird stuff is gonna get stuck in your head. Like a country station playing a polka written by a Dutchman about a South American farmer.

(Rebooted from a post that first appeared in January 2014.)


(Pictured: John Kay and Steppenwolf. History does not record whether they had to be restrained from smoking the backdrop.)

Since the last installment of One Week in the 40 dealt entirely with songs from the 1960s (all but one), let’s look at some 70s entries from the list. As before, all of these records spent a single week in the Billboard Top 40—so not big hits, but not complete busts, either.

In 1970, three songs made the list, including “Trying to Make a Fool of Me” by the Delfonics, which was the non-60s ringer in our previous installment. “Cupid” by Johnny Nash, a reggae take on the familiar Sam Cooke original, hit #39 on January 24, 1970. Two weeks later, something completely different occupied the #39 position: Steppenwolf’s “Monster.” Edited to 3:45 from an original running over nine minutes, “Monster” strongly criticizes the way America’s founding idealism had been corrupted by imperialism and war by 1970: “It’s a monster and will not obey.”

Of the 10 songs on the list from 1971, we’ve already mentioned four, by Ashton Gardner and Dyke, B. B. King, Freddie North, and James Taylor. Of those remaining, two are particular favorites of mine: “Charity Ball” by Fanny may have only made #40 for the week of November 6, 1971, but it went all the way to #3 on WLS and WCFL in Chicago. It was also Top 10 in Denver, Cleveland, and Wichita, among other places, and #1 at Wonderful WFOM in Marietta, Georgia. And no wonder: even in one of the Top 40’s finest seasons, it absolutely smoked everything else on the radio. The same week “Charity Ball” hit #1 in Marietta, the #2 song in town was “What Are You Doing Sunday” by Dawn. It, too, was a big hit in Chicago (#3 on WCFL and #10 on WLS), made the Top 10 in Milwaukee, Honolulu, Tucson, and Vancouver, and was #1 at WENY in Elmira, New York. “What Are You Doing Sunday” came at the end of a 14-month period in which Dawn put five singles into the Top 40. There was even a video, in which Tony Orlando appears to propose to both of his singing partners in Dawn—but the song is such perfect pop cheese that it doesn’t seem weird at all.

Although many scholars (and low-rent amateurs such as I) place the beginning of the disco era circa 1974, you could make a decent argument for—and here’s that season again—the fall of 1971. “K-Jee” by the Nite-Liters, which spent the week of September 11, 1971, at #39, has the formula in the test-tube. (“K-Jee” would appear in Saturday Night Fever later in the decade, in a version by MFSB.) But disco’s time was not quite yet; more traditional forms of R&B were still dominant, such as the sweet soul of the Stylistics. “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)” hit #39 on July 17, 1971, but it spent the next two months trying to get back that high, bouncing up and down in the 40s. One month after it left the Hot 100, “You Are Everything” would make its debut, and eventually become the Stylistics’ first Top 10 hit.

In 1971, Barbra Streisand was a rock singer. She’d started the year with a Top-10 version of Laura Nyro’s “Stoney End,” and on August 28, her version of Carole King’s “Where You Lead” spent a single week at #40. Although it would briefly return to the Top 40 one year later in a medley with “Sweet Inspiration,” the 1971 single is the one you want. It’s from the album Barbra Joan Streisand, which includes covers of John Lennon’s “Mother” and “Love” and King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” as well as “I Mean to Shine,” a song written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker before anybody knew who they were.

Lee Michaels hit the Top 10 in the fall of 1971 with “Do You Know What I Mean.” On the chart dated December 25, 1971, “Can I Get a Witness” sneaked to #39. If your reaction as you listen is, “Damn, I want to hear more Lee Michaels,” you’re coming correct.

There are many songs from the 70s on my list, and I’ll cover more in the next installment.

As It Must Come

(Pictured: Don Henley and Glenn Frey, onstage in 2015.)

(I banged out this post yesterday afternoon within an hour of hearing about the death of Glenn Frey. In breaking with my usual custom of revising the bejeezus out of everything before hitting the “publish” button, I’m going to post this as I wrote it and leave it alone.)

As best I can tell, it was Rod Serling who first used the phrase, in an episode of The Twilight Zone: “Death, as it must come to all men, came to talented musician Johnny Foster.” It’s easy to imagine the phrase being portentously declaimed by a newsreel narrator, Lowell Thomas or Ed Herlihy, telling about the death of some great leader, ruler of all he surveyed, yet laid low nevertheless.

Death, as it must come to all men. . . .

Last Monday it it came to David Bowie. This Monday it was Glenn Frey.

I am not going to try to eulogize Frey; others will do it better. Better writers than I will have more pithy and perceptive words to say about Frey’s place in history and that of the Eagles. I do not expect those obituaries and retrospectives to overflow with universal love and respect, as Bowie’s did. Frey was co-founder of a band as famous for being hated as for being loved and co-writer of a body of a polarizing body of work. By the time you read this post, the Internets will be full of Eagle-hating hot takes—but I can’t recall seeing a single one critical of Bowie.

I have said it before and will say it again: at my house, we like the Eagles, and we have for 40 years. I am sick of neither “Hotel California” nor Hotel California. I rank On the Border among my favorite albums. My wife’s very favorite album is The Long Run, and “The Sad Cafe” from that album is going with me to the Desert Island if and when I have to go.

Yes, Frey and Don Henley were not very good people some of the time. Blame fame and drugs in the 70s, blame fame and good old fashioned cussedness after that. They screwed Don Felder out of a legitimate claim to the band’s legacy, and they reformed in the 90s not because they had any great desire to play together anymore, but for the money. They were not the first and they won’t be the last to commit any of these transgressions—but they sometimes seem to me to get a disproportionate share of abuse for it from critics and listeners.

None of that is the point of this post.

Death, as it must come to all men, came to Glenn Frey this week, to David Bowie and Alan Rickman last week, to jazz pianist Paul Bley and avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez the week before that. (Last Friday, it came to my wife’s Uncle Dallas. You probably didn’t read about him on the Internet.)

And it’s coming to somebody else next week. Maybe you, maybe me.

Most people don’t think much about dying, or at least they don’t admit to thinking about it. I know a few people who are openly terrified by their eventual death, which seems like a very unhappy way to live. I used to be like that, back when I was still worried about being judged by some omnipotent being after it was over, damned to hell for the crime of being human. But now, I take the view of Epicurus, the ancient Greek, who said (depending on the translation), “Where we are, death is not; where death is, we are not.” When the time comes, I will sleep and wake no more, and I’m perfectly content with that.

And so I think of David Bowie, and Glenn Frey, and Ann’s Uncle Dallas (who, according to another of his nieces, was ready to go, feeling his age and tired of his infirmities, with the strong opinion that he’d seen and done enough in his 94 years), their labors done, asleep to wake no more.

“They’re not dead as long as we remember them” is apparently a line from Star Trek, a bit on the nose and sometimes mocked for it, but true nevertheless. The legacies of those who cross over are in our hands now, to love or hate, to forget or remember.

Casey Kasem’s Album Rock Party Hour

Radio used to be a lot more adventuresome. To regular readers of this pondwater, that’s news on par with the sunrise. Narrowly targeted formats and sophisticated research methods have mostly put an end to real variety. Even the “we play everything” formats that were fashionable for a while a decade ago were carefully programmed, and didn’t really play everything.

The first hour of the recent American Top 40 repeat from January 15, 1972, is an excellent artifact of a time when radio was not nearly so circumscribed. On the flip, behold the playlist for Casey Kasem’s Album Rock Party Hour:

Continue reading →

In the Sunshine

(Pictured: Roger Miller, whose string of mid-60s hits includes several you would probably know: “Dang Me,” “King of the Road,” and “England Swings” among them.)

After a holiday break, it’s time for another installment of One Week in the 40, a series devoted to songs that spent a single week in the Billboard Top 40 between 1964 and 1986. Certain artists have accomplished the feat more than once—we have already mentioned B. B. King and the Beach Boys in this regard—and this post is devoted to the rest, all but one song from the 1960s.

Glen Campbell is on the list twice, and one of his entries is a song you’d never guess: the Grammy-winning “Gentle on My Mind,” which was Campbell’s TV theme and signature song. It peaked at #39 for the week of November 2, 1968, having gone from #50 to #39 and back to #50 again. It outperformed its Hot 100 number on both the Easy Listening chart (#8) and the country chart (#30). His version of “Let It Be Me,” a duet with Bobbie Gentry, was also much bigger on the other charts—#7 Easy Listening and #14 country—reaching a Hot 100 peak of #36 on March 8, 1969.

On the subject of famous songs, two Monkees B-sides are here: “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” made #39 on April 15, 1967, while the A-side, “A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You” was in the Top 10. A year later, “Tapioca Tundra” went from #49 to #34 to #45, reaching its peak on March 30, 1968, while its A-side, “Valleri,” was in the Top 10.

On the subject of successful acts crossing over, country humorist Roger Miller is on the list with two songs following in the wake of his most excellent year (five Top-10s between the summer of ’64 and the end of ’65, and five Grammys for 1965 as well). The goofy “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd” was at #40 on July 23, 1966. The more conventional “Walkin’ in the Sunshine,” which hit the Top 10 on both Easy Listening and country, topped out at #37 on the Hot 100 on May 6, 1967. I am pretty sure I hadn’t heard it since the 60s, but I recognized it immediately the other day.

Gene Chandler appears on the list with back-to-back hits. “Bless Our Love,” a gorgeous slow dance, hit #39 on November 14, 1964, while “What Now,” a song written by Curtis Mayfield, reached #40 on January 16, 1965. So does Chubby Checker, whose better-than-you’d-guess “Lazy Elsie Molly” spent the whole month of July 1964 hovering in the low 40s, hitting #40 for the week of July 11. An attempt to cash in on the British Invasion, “Let’s Do the Freddie,” made #40 on May 22, 1965. It’s got nothing to do with Freddie and the Dreamers’ “Do the Freddie,” which sat at #24 the very same week, and Chubby sounds fairly disinterested in the whole thing.

Another Philadelphia act, the Delfonics, put two hits into the 40 for a single week. “Ready or Not Here I Come,” which you probably wouldn’t spot as a Thom Bell production, was #35 for the week of January 25, 1969. “Trying to Make a Fool of Me,” the followup to the exquisite “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),” hit #40 for the week of July 25, 1970.

I was sorry to hear of the recent death of William Guest, a member of Gladys Knight and the Pips from the day the group was formed in 1952. When I was a kid, I couldn’t decide if I’d rather be a Pip or a Spinner and now that I’m old I still don’t know. Gladys and the Pips hit the 40 for a single week with “Giving Up,” which hit #38 on July 4, 1964, and “It Should Have Been Me,” which must have sounded great on the radio during one of radio’s greatest summers. It hit #40 on July 6, 1968.

Nobody remembers it now, but Bobby Vinton was one of the most successful stars of the 60s, with a string of smashes that included three #1 hits between the summer of 1962 and the end of 1964. Changing fashions kept him away from the top of the chart after that, although he continued to hit the middle of the charts into the middle of the 1970s. One way to get there was with socially relevant lyrics: the folk-rockish “What Color (Is a Man)” hit #38 for the week of October 16, 1965; another record with a folk-rock feel, “Dum-De-Da,” hit #40 on May 28, 1966.

We have scarcely begun exploring this list, so watch for future installments.

David Bowie and the Purpose of Art

(Pictured: David Bowie, Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and Gladys Knight Roberta Flack [my bad] in a most excellent shot from the 1975 Grammy Awards.)

This is not the post I’d planned to put up here today. A few years ago, I wrote about my home 8-track deck, which I bought sometime late in 1975 or early in 1976. I was going to reboot that post as part of the 1976 Project, since it also included a mention of David Bowie’s Station to Station album, which came out 40 years ago this month. Even after getting the news of Bowie’s passing on Monday, I intended to stay with it—but I can’t. Bowie deserves better than playing second fiddle to another damn 70s story of mine, and better than the post I cobbled together on Monday within an hour of learning about his death. So here’s another try.

When Lemmy Kilmister died a couple of weeks ago, the level of grief and celebration on social media was remarkable. I couldn’t recall another celebrity whose death touched so many different people, from political commentators to country music bloggers to people who wisecrack about sports on Twitter. But the response to Bowie’s death dwarfed it. So many tributes, so much historical perspective, so much love from average fans—I find myself hoping that Bowie somehow grasped just how beloved he was, because it would be a shame if he died without knowing it.

I cannot tell you that David Bowie changed my perception of the music I love. The trajectory of my life was not altered by one of his albums. (He did inspire me to try and sneak into an R-rated movie before I was old enough: in 1976, my cousin and I badly wanted to see The Man Who Fell to Earth.) I was not one of those 70s kids who saw in Bowie a validation for their feelings of being “different,” whatever “different” meant. But after reading stories from people who were affected in such ways, I understand now how incredibly important that was. It gets to the very purpose of art.

It’s our view at this blog that the job of the artist—whether he or she is a musician, an actor, a sculptor, a writer, or somebody who makes balloon animals—is to reveal to people stuff they can’t see for themselves. It can be a simple act: in the case of this low-rent blog, I’m happy if I can share a half-assed insight that makes you go, “hmm, I never thought of that.” Some artists aim far higher: think Picasso’s Guernica or “Like a Rolling Stone,” works undertaken with the intent of turning the world upside down. One use of David Bowie’s art is to say to people, “you be you.” Let others adjust to how you are. Don’t always be the one who conforms, the one who does what’s expected of you. It’s OK to live by your own lights, whatever those lights are.

David Bowie’s constant reinventions—his insistence on taking his audience to new places—wasn’t easy on some of us. As I wrote back on Monday, I adored the Thin White Duke, but when Bowie moved to Germany and started hanging out with Brian Eno, I had trouble following. And just when people were getting their minds around the Berlin Trilogy of Heroes, Low, and Lodger, Bowie swerved back toward a more commercial sound on Scary Monsters before going all-in on Let’s Dance. And after a few years of that, he upset the applecart again, with Tin Machine.

But that’s modern life, right? Nobody takes a job at age 21, puts in 40 years doing the same thing every day, and retires with a gold watch and a pension anymore. More often, we take what we know and what we hope and we reinvent ourselves, sometimes by necessity and sometimes by choice, often more than once. Many of us end up in a place far from where we began. And it’s OK to live like that.

I am not sure this post is an acceptable tribute, either. One of the things this week has shown me is that there are many, many people in the world with more and better things to say, and they say them more eloquently than I do. (That’s why I don’t write a lot of obituary/tribute-type posts here.) But this week has taught me, as Joni Mitchell first taught long ago, that often, you really don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.


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