Veteran of the Talk-Up Wars

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A colleague of mine, who spent most of his long on-air career in album rock and adult alternative radio, said to me one day, “Before I started working here, I had never talked over the introduction of a song.”

Really? I kinda felt sorry for him.

I do not know if anyone has ever done a history of the DJ talkover, also known as a talk-up. Announcers talked over music during big-band broadcasts in the 30s and 40s, but it’s wasn’t what we’d recognize as the modern style. If Alan Freed wasn’t the first with that, whoever was first must have pioneered it at around the same time, when hot-rockin’ radio first became a thing, integrating jock-talk into the flow to keep the vibe going. I doubt that the announcers on my parents’ radio stations did it much, however. I probably heard it for the first time when I started listening to WLS 50 years ago. It couldn’t have been long before I learned that a well-executed talkover is really cool. By sometime in 1971, 11-year-old me could do it, and did.

The Holy Grail of the talkover is “hitting the post”—going all the way to the vocal, wrapping up with the call letters or the punchline of your bit just as the singer starts. Believe me when I tell you that it’s one hell of a rush—so much so that some jocks do talk-ups just to amuse themselves when they aren’t even on the air. (I do it in the car. Many years ago, I was in a group of jocks drinking beer and playing “talk-up wars” with the songs coming on the stereo, trying to outdo one another. )

But consultants and program directors will tell you not to try to hit the post all the time. They give you lots of reasons for this, chief among them that “it makes you sound too much like a DJ.” Styles change, best practices change, listener expectations change, and the boss jock style of bygone days no longer represents the ideal. Some consultants and PDs will tell you never to do it—but you still can. Lots of introductions contain posts other than the start of the vocal—places where a new instrument comes in, where a singer whistles or shouts or grunts, something like that—and hitting those posts is just much fun. And if you manage to time out whatever you’re saying to hit all of the posts in an introduction on the way to the vocal—two or three of them, maybe—the rush is practically orgasmic. In radio nerd terms, it’s like hitting a home run.

I do not know if young jocks have an affinity for the talkover. I do not know if they get a rush from doing it, like those of us who were raised by the Top 40 jocks of the 60s and 70s, masters of the art. So I cannot say for certain that the art of the talkover is dying. I can say, however, that it’s getting more difficult.

A well-executed talkover requires an economy of language. It was (and on old airchecks, still is) amazing how much personality old-school jocks could project into so little time. But today, introductions are shorter than ever. Eight or nine seconds is common now. It’s challenging to do something worthwhile in so little time, but possible. The event horizon, for me, is six seconds. Sometimes I can’t even get my call letters, the title, and the artist in six seconds. The record might as well have no intro at all.

(The rationale for shorter intros is the same one that’s killed the mid-song instrumental solo—the thinking goes that people want to hear Ed Sheeran, so why A) waste time waiting for Ed to start and/or B) take time away from Ed to let some other dude play? Anything to avoid the dreaded Spotify skip.)

A radio consultant once told me that no listener ever says, “I like the way that guy talks up a record,” and he was right, yet even he acknowledged how much fun it is. But I once had a colleague say to me, “I wish I could talk up records the way you do.” As old-school DJ compliments go, that’s a pretty good one.

Any questions? I’ll be happy to elaborate, and so will other old radio types amongst the readership.

Pushing the Rock

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(Pictured: until I can again be one of the people in this picture, I’ll have to spend my time writing.)

Tomorrow is this website’s 16th anniversary. Here’s the customary rundown of some of my favorite posts since the last anniversary.

I wrote more about American Top 40 than in any previous year, I think. This post featuring an especially wack Long Distance Dedication was fun to write. So was the one about the Christmas songs Casey played. Find all of my posts about the show here. Find the companion feature about the bottom 60 records on the same week’s Billboard chart here.

The Re-Listening Project continued, in which I write about albums we’ve all heard a million times. Subjects included Tusk, The Stranger, A Night at the Opera, and The Long Run. Find all of those posts here.

With the coming of the plague in March, I started writing Life on Lockdown, which has become an intermittent series now (mostly because I write stuff and then have second thoughts about posting it), but I expect it to reappear eventually. I’m especially proud of what I wrote about the message of the BLM/police brutality protests.

The series Inside Billboard (which is sometimes Inside Radio and Records) is one of my favorite things to write. Find the past year’s trades here.

Shortly before last year’s anniversary, I launched a podcast, which is on indefinite hiatus now. If you’d like to revisit the series, you can find it here.

What follows are some favorite posts appearing here since last July that aren’t covered by any of the categories above:

Continue reading “Pushing the Rock”

Take It Off

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One purpose of art is to show people things they can’t necessarily see for themselves, whether the artist carves a figure out of a block of marble, puts colors on a canvas, words on a page, music on tape, or something else. Similarly, an artist can take people to places they’ve never been, from the bottom of the ocean to the mountains of the moon, create a whole world and then transport us there. The greatest artists do this without being bound by time. Shakespeare, Mozart, Austen—and Howlin’ Wolf and Kurt Vonnegut and Frida Kahlo and others—are long dead but still showing us worlds of theirs.

That is a long-winded and highfalutin way to get to what I really want to write about today: a record made over 60 years ago that still evokes the vivid image of a lost world.

David Rose got into the music business as a teenager in the 1920s and became musical director at MGM Studios in 1941 (the same year he married one of MGM’s biggest stars, Judy Garland). He scored movies and was also the bandleader on Red Skelton’s radio show. When Skelton moved to TV in the 50s, so did Rose, where he scored a number of successful shows. (You may know his themes from Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie.) In the late 50s, Rose began releasing albums of show tunes, movie themes, and mood music to capitalize on the popularity of stereo. Rose’s sound was often heavy on strings; his 1944 hit “Holiday for Strings,” Skelton’s theme and Rose’s best-known song, is a prime example.

In 1958, Rose scored a TV special called Burlesque, where he wrote a bit of incidental music to play offstage while the two lead characters did a scene. Not long after, he was in the studio cutting an album that featured a hired brass section along with strings. With 10 minutes left in the session, he had the brass musicians cut that incidental bit, calling it “a funny piece of music with no title.” He invited them to clown around with it, and then had it pressed into souvenir recordings for them.

Four years later, MGM was getting ready to release Rose’s version of “Ebb Tide” to help promote the movie Sweet Bird of Youth. It needed a B-side, so somebody at MGM looked through Rose’s unreleased masters and found the “funny piece of music with no title.” Los Angeles radio and TV personality Robert Q. Lewis heard the B-side and started using it on his radio show as a joke, and it caught on.

According to author Fred Bronson in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, the song was #1 in Los Angeles before it made the national charts. That could be true, but I can’t confirm it myself. Although Lewis was on the air at KHJ in 1962, the first listings for the song at ARSA are from Bakersfield and San Diego. The first Los Angeles listings are from KFWB and KRLA in late April 1962. KDEO in San Diego is the first to show it at #1 on May 4, 1962; in that same week, it shows up on Billboard‘s Bubbling Under chart at #109. KRLA ranks it #1 one week later. The song would gradually take the country by storm until it reached #1 on the Hot 100 for the week of July 7, 1962.

The song is, if you haven’t figured it out by now, “The Stripper.” And although it was tossed off first as incidental TV music and second as a 10-minute studio goof, it does indeed show listeners a world they can’t necessarily see for themselves. The anonymous studio musicians on “The Stripper” had doubtlessly had spent time in burlesque houses, and through their lascivious horns and sleazy, sensual drumbeats, they give listeners a peek inside that bump-and-grind world as it existed in the late 50s—a very different world than the one you’d see at a modern-day club in your town.

Despite being a #1 hit, “The Stripper” probably reached an even bigger audience thanks to its use in a famous TV commercial that started in 1967 and ran for years after. And for a long time—maybe a whole generation, and as late as the turn of the 90s—movies and TV shows could punctuate a scene, make a joke, or evoke a world with no more than five or ten seconds of “The Stripper.” And that’s a powerful sort of art.

Howdy Again

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(Pictured: Buffalo Bob, Howdy Doody, and Clarabell.)

In 1969, Steve Dworkin, a staffer at the Jerry Kasenetz/Jeff Katz bubblegum factory Super K Productions wrote a song called “Bring Back Howdy Doody.” The Howdy Doody kids’ show, starring Buffalo Bob Smith, his puppet friend Howdy, Clarabell the Clown, and other characters, had been off the air for nine years, and Dworkin says he wrote it as a joke. Then Dworkin and his songwriting partner Gary Willett got a directive to record as many songs as possible in one day for their bosses to use as a tax write-off. They never expected “Bring Back Howdy Doody” would see daylight—“had we known the track was going to be released we would have made it a lot better!” It ended up as the flipside of the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “Indian Giver” under the title “Pow Wow,” but it was pressed backwards, a trick Kasenetz and Katz used to make sure radio stations played the plug side only. The songwriting credit went not to Dworkin and Willett but to Kasenetz, Katz, and Fruitgum Company lead singer Mark Gutkowski. Later, Kasenetz and Katz had the song recut (forwards this time) as “Bring Back Howdy Doody” and released it under the name of the Flying Giraffe. It went nowhere, but Dworkin sent a copy to Buffalo Bob Smith and got a friendly letter in return. “Soon after,” Dworkin says, “he started touring colleges.”

Whether “Bring Back Howdy Doody” actually caused Smith’s comeback is arguable. What is not arguable is that by 1970, many of the kids who had grown up on Howdy Doody, which had aired from 1947 to 1960, were in their late teens and 20s. So in that year producer Burt Dubrow packaged Buffalo Bob and Howdy for a touring show. It was sufficiently popular to result in a live recording, Buffalo Bob Smith Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. (Hand to god, I am not making that up.) The May 29, 1971, edition of Billboard described the album as an “outstanding live performance” of familiar show material. It also “stands out with [Bob’s] unique performance of ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head’.” The tour traded on nostalgia, but new material like “Raindrops” nodded to Buffalo Bob’s older, more sophisticated audiences. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), one popular joke in the live show involved Buffalo Bob finding a package of rolling papers that belonged to Clarabell. Billboard goes on to say that the album is “sure to prove a top best seller.” It did not, however—Billboard was famous for raving like that about almost everything.

(Just once I’d like to read a capsule review that says “this record blows and should be shot immediately into the sun.”)

But in May 1971, there was a Howdy Doody tribute better fitted to Top 40 radio. “Do You Know What Time It Is” by the P-Nut Gallery got its own breathless capsule review in the May 22, 1971, Billboard: “This clever bubblegum item has all the potential to break through and go all the way.” That same week, WLS in Chicago listed it as “hitbound” (along with “Get It On” by Chase, “It’s Too Late” by Carole King, and “Don’t Pull Your Love” by Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds). By the week of June 14, it was in the Top 10 at WLS, eventually making #8. It also made the Top 10 in Milwaukee, Kansas City, and a handful of smaller cities. By mid-July, it made #62 in Billboard and #54 in Cash Box.

“Do You Know What Time It Is” is enthusiastically sung, maybe by one of its two writers, Bobby Flax and Lanny Lambert, but maybe not. It was probably inevitable that it would include a chorus of shouting children. But it’s pure novelty and should be judged as such, and there must have been listeners in the summer of 1971 who punched the dial hard when it came on. Yet as the very existence of this website indicates, nostalgia can make us behave in strange ways.

Flax and Lambert would return to the chart a few months after “Do You Know What Time It Is” with a record that has endured a little better: they wrote and produced “White Lies, Blue Eyes” by Bullet.

Buffalo Bob would revive Howdy Doody briefly in the late 70s. He did some acting, owned some radio stations, and died in 1988 1998 at age 80. Today, Howdy Doody himself is a kind of Jungian archetype: one of those things millions of people know without actually knowing why they know it.

There’s a good story about the role “Do You Know What Time It Is” played in one fan’s life here.

Something Better to Do

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(Pictured: Olivia Newton-John, on the radio.)

(Warning: we are going full chart geek today. It maybe ain’t for everybody.)

Commenting on my post about Roger Whittaker recently, reader Wesley observed that Whittaker’s 1975 hit “The Last Farewell” was one of 24 consecutive adult contemporary hits to spend a single week at #1. But the streak (from Ringo Starr’s “Only You” during the week of January 11, 1975, through Michael Murphey’s “Wildfire” during the week of June 14) is actually part of a more impressive one. In the period between July 27, 1974, and October 11, 1975, 47 songs were #1 for a single week. Seven lasted two weeks. Only “I Honestly Love You” and “Please Mr. Please” by Olivia Newton-John managed three.

I chose the July ’74 to October ’75 period because there was never a time in that period with back-to-back multiple-week AC #1s. In June and July 1974, Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown,” “You Won’t See Me” by Anne Murray, and “Annie’s Song” by John Denver spent two, two, and three weeks at #1 AC. Not until October 1975 did it happen again, with ONJ’s “Something Better to Do” (another three-week #1), “The Way I Want to Touch You” by the Captain and Tennille, and Simon and Garfunkel’s “My Little Town.”

(This may be easier to visualize by looking at the list of Billboard #1 AC hits, which you can find here.)

Some of the songs that made #1 AC during the 24-in-a-row stretch were enormous Hot 100 hits, including #1s “Please Mr. Postman,” “Best of My Love,” “Have You Never Been Mellow” (more ONJ; adult-contemporary stars didn’t come bigger in the mid-70s), “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You),” and “Love Will Keep Us Together.” Others were not. Neil Diamond’s “I’ve Been This Way Before” and “My Boy” by Elvis each made the Top 40, at #34 and #20 respectively, but “99 Miles From L.A” by Albert Hammond and Don McLean’s “Wonderful Baby” barely rippled (#91 and #93).

The same approximate period was fickle on other charts. From July 1974 to October 1975, 47 songs hit #1 on the Hot 100, and all but 12 of them were #1 for a single week. During a 12-week stretch early in 1975, there was a different #1 every week. In both 1974 and 1975, 35 different songs hit #1, which is still the all-time record. So “Love Will Keep Us Together” by the Captain and Tennille, which stayed on top for four weeks in the summer of 1975, was clearly several orders of magnitude bigger than any other record of the time. Not even Elton John, red-hot as he was in this period, could come close; “Philadelphia Freedom” managed two weeks. The act that got closest to C&T territory was Tony Orlando and Dawn, who kept “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)” on top for three weeks.

The R&B singles charts were similarly busy. From December 1974 to March 1976 (another period marked off with back-to-back multiple-week #1s), I count 54 #1 songs. Seven of them managed two weeks at #1 in that period. The only one to last three weeks was “Fight the Power” by the Isley Brothers.

What about the Billboard country chart? Finding strings of single-week #1s is practically redundant. For almost two decades, single-week #1s were far and away the norm.

1973: 35 #1 hits
1974: 40
1975: 43
1976: 36
1977: 30
1978: 31
1979: 33
1980: 43
1981: 47
1982: 47
1983: 50
1984: 50
1985: 51
1986: 51
1987: 49
1988: 48
1989: 49

In a generation of enormous volatility, Waylon Jennings doing six straight weeks at # 1 with “Luckenbach, Texas” and Dolly Parton doing five with “Here You Come Again,” both in 1977, is reeeeeeally something. And as you see, the chart would get even wilder in the 80s. In December 1979 and January 1980, two songs would do three weeks at #1 back to back. After that, to January 1990 and the coming of Billboard‘s methodology-changing BDS system (which monitored what stations actually played instead of relying on the historical practice of what stations said they played), only three songs total would spend three weeks at the top: “My Heart” by Ronnie Milsap and “Lookin’ for Love” by Johnny Lee in 1980, and “Forever and Ever, Amen” by Randy Travis in 1987.

And there’s more:

—Between February 1980 and January 1990, there were only three instances when multiple-week #1s occurred back-to-back on the Billboard country chart.

—Between January 1985 and the coming of BDS in 1990, out of 250 #1 hits in the period, only 11 lasted two weeks at the top, and only Randy Travis made it for three.

I’d like to thank Wesley, a longtime reader and frequent commenter, for sending me down this particular rabbit hole. I did not know until recently that Wesley is the author of The Billboard Book of Adult Contemporary Number One Hits (among other titles), a book that is somehow not in my library but certainly should be. And if you have read this far, it should probably be in yours also.

July 3, 1981: You Cannot Be Serious

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(Pictured: John McEnroe at Wimbledon, July 4, 1981.)

July 3, 1981, was a Friday. It’s the legal holiday before Independence Day tomorrow. President Reagan is among those with the day off. He has no public events, takes only a couple of phone calls, and otherwise spends the day with the First Lady and an old friend from California. Outside the White House today, demonstrators protest a number of issues including budget cuts, defense spending, and Reagan’s foreign policy positions. In Israel, the outcome of Tuesday’s election is still in doubt. It is unclear whether the Likud Party retained enough seats in the Knesset for Menachim Begin to remain as prime minister, or whether the Labor Party’s Shimon Peres will take over. But the lead story on all three network newscasts regards the visit of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to Poland, which has been the site of labor unrest and the Solidarity movement since 1980. Also in the news tonight is the possibility that Reagan might name Arizona appeals court judge Sandra Day O’Connor to become the first woman on the United States Supreme Court. A report on page 20 of today’s New York Times is headlined “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” It refers to a disease currently described as GRID, for “gay related immune disorder.” Actor Ross Martin, best known for playing Artemus Gordon on the 60s TV show The Wild Wild West, dies of a heart attack while playing tennis. He was 61 years old.

Tomorow, the Reagans will travel to Virginia to celebrate the First Lady’s birthday before returning to host a White House staff Independence Day party and to watch the DC fireworks from the Truman Balcony. Also tomorrow, the National Symphony Orchestra will perform on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol for the first time, and the Beach Boys will headline a show on the National Mall.

Chris Evert Lloyd wins the women’s singles championship at Wimbledon, defeating Hanna Mandlikova in straight sets. She is the first woman in 14 years to win the title without losing a set. (Among those watching at Wimbledon today is Lady Diana Spencer, who will marry Britain’s Prince Charles later this month.) Tomorrow’s Wimbledon men’s final matches John McEnroe against Bjorn Borg. There’s no major-league baseball today due to the ongoing players’ strike. Players walked off the job on June 12 over free agency rules.

At the movies this weekend, popular options include Superman II, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, and Bill Murray in Stripes. Rush plays Bloomington, Minnesota, with opening act the Joe Perry Project. The two bands will move on to Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, for a show on the Fourth of July. Def Leppard plays Barcelona, Spain. Santana opens a two-night stand in Hyannis, Massachusetts; their show tomorrow night will be broadcast live on a nationwide network of album-rock radio stations. Bruce Springsteen plays East Rutherford, New Jersey, and Van Halen plays Detroit. In Eugene, Oregon, the Oregon Jam stars Heart, Blue Oyster Cult, Pat Travers, and Loverboy; the same four acts will be joined tomorrow by Ozzy Osborne for the annual Day on the Green in Oakland, California. Ozzy is in Bakersfield tonight. Heart, Travers, and Loverboy will be joined by Jimmy Buffett at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego on Sunday.

At KEZR in San Jose, California, “Hearts” by Marty Balin jumps to #1. “You Make My Dreams” by Hall and Oates is #2 and last week’s #1, “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes, is #3. The hottest record on the survey is the Greatest American Hero theme by Joey Scarbury, up 10 spots to #9. Kraftwerk’s “Pocket Calculator” is up one spot to #12. The highest-debuting song on the survey is “Cool Love” by Pablo Cruise at #24.

Perspective From the Present: the disease once known as GRID would later be named AIDS; the New York Times story on this date is the first mention of the disease in the national media. Baseball resumed with the All-Star Game on August 9. The Capitol lawn concerts continue to this day and are broadcast annually as A Capitol Fourth. John McEnroe won the Wimbledon men’s final but spent most of the match berating the officials. At one point, he disputed a call by shouting “You cannot be serious!,” which became an iconic moment in his career and in 2002, the title of his autobiography. I am guessing I worked a lot of radio over the holiday weekend, and on the Fourth, Ann and I watched the fireworks at the football stadium in our college town. I think. It’s been too long to remember.