A Summer on the Radio

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The response to my first podcast episode was gratifying. My thanks to everyone who listened, downloaded, and/or sent comments. Episode #2 is now up. It’s called “A Summer on the Radio,” and it’s about my first full-time radio job, which I had while I was in college. You can find it at my Soundcloud. It’s also available at Stitcher and TuneIn. Or you can simply listen to it below.

There will be a new post at this website tomorrow, which is unusual for a Saturday. If you take one guess regarding what it will be about, you’ll probably guess right.

“Moonflight” and Other Spacey Songs

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We have written from time to time around here about music and the space program. In 1962, the Telstar communications satellite inspired a number of records, including the #1 hit of the same name by the Tornadoes.  The tradition of the musical space wake-up began during the Gemini era and continued through the end of the space-shuttle program. In early 1972, with nine Apollo missions in the books and two more set to fly that year, a group of British studio musicians called Apollo 100 scored a Top-10 hit with “Joy.” In 1973, the Ventures (who had cut a version of “Telstar” back in the day) recorded “Skylab (Passport to the Future),” which spent a couple of weeks on the Easy Listening chart. Other space-inspired songs from the 60s and 70s include “Space Oddity” and “Rocket Man” and “Space Truckin’,” the 80s hit “Major Tom (Coming Home)” and a number of spacey film soundtracks that span the decades. But the historic flight of Apollo 11 was especially inspirational, as you’ll see on the flip.

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From the Pen of a Poet

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(Pictured: Apollo 11 takes off, 50 years ago this morning.)

The earliest space mission I remember is the joint Gemini 6 and 7 flight in December 1965, which was followed by Gemini 8 in March of 1966; the latter was just after I turned six. Our family watched the launches and the splashdowns on TV whenever we could, and TVs were sometimes rolled into our classrooms to watch them in school. By the time Apollo 7 flew in October 1968, I knew that each of the succeeding missions was intended to push us closer to the moon. I remember seeing the Apollo 8 TV broadcast from moon orbit on Christmas Eve 1968, and I thrilled along with Apollo 9 and 10 in the spring of 1969. Apollo 11 launched on the morning of Wednesday, July 16, 1969. It was the middle of summer vacation, but I was not a late-riser, so I was up and tuned into Walter Cronkite long before the 8:32AM liftoff, 50 years ago this morning.

During the intervening three days, life went on for nine-year-old me. I probably had a Midget League baseball game or piano lessons to go to, and we would have have had the little swimming pool filled up in the dooryard. In mid-July, Dad would have been making hay, one of the few farm jobs Mother helped with, and so we may have been packed off to Grandma Vera’s or to friends in town for an afternoon or two so that work could be done.

On the day of the landing, Sunday, July 20, we went to a family gathering at a farm belonging to one of my mother’s cousins near Evansville, Wisconsin. It was a large gathering—not just my cousins but a bunch of second cousins too, maybe 50 people in all, for what must have been a spectacular potluck picnic. The weather was hot and sunny, and I remember us outside most of the afternoon. At some point, I came inside for a moment and saw the adults in the living room watching TV coverage of the landing, although I didn’t watch for long myself. On that day, playing outside took priority over everything else.

Because Dad had cows to milk, we would have left for home not long after the landing itself, which took place at 3:18 in our time zone. We watched TV from the moment we got home, waiting for Neil Armstrong to get out. Dad came in from the barn and Armstrong still hadn’t gotten out. Regular bedtime came and Armstrong still hadn’t gotten out. My youngest brother, who was not yet three, had gone to bed long before, but Mother and Dad decided to wake him up to watch with us, even though they knew that he probably wouldn’t remember what he was seeing.

Finally, at about 9:30, the astronauts opened the hatch. We watched the blurry picture and listened to the communications between the Earth and the moon for 10 minutes until Armstrong finally came out. It took him five minutes to reach the surface and deliver his famous line about one small step and a giant leap. We saw Buzz Aldrin come out, and we watched them plant the American flag. I believe we also heard President Nixon’s call to them. What I don’t remember is seeing them get back aboard the Lunar Module. It was midnight when they closed the hatch, and little boys, even those who were space-crazed, had surrendered to sleep by then.

If you visited my parents’ house today, I could show you the exact spot on the floor of the living room where I sat and watched it all happen.

During the 1960s race to the moon, NASA PR did a fair amount of mythmaking. Looking back 50 years, from the ruined world of 2019, the Apollo program really is almost mythological: the magnitude of the challenge, the commitment of the political leaders, the brains of the scientists, the ingenuity of the engineers, and the bravery of the astronauts. Such heroic exploits could happen only in Greek hero-tales or Viking sagas. They could come only from the pen of a poet.

If you remember Apollo 11, where were you, and how did you see it?

If you’d like to follow Apollo 11 this week as it happened 50 years ago, you have options. Apollo 11 in Real Time is a remarkable simulation; the Apollo 50th Twitter feed will keep your timeline stocked every hour of the day. If you would like to relive the flight in 90 minutes, CNN’s documentary Apollo 11, which played in theaters earlier this year, is riveting. The six-hour PBS documentary about the U.S. space program from the Mercury Seven to Apollo 11, Chasing the Moon, is worthwhile also. 

Casey by the Numbers

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(Pictured: Casey Kasem at work, 1998.)

Because I work for a radio station that’s an American Top 40 affiliate, I have been able to assemble a personal collection of shows. I have not been systematic about it at all. I look at the rundown, see a list of songs I’d like to hear, and rip a copy of the show. The breakout of my collection by year is both interesting and entirely predictable.

1970: 13
1971: 16
1972: 16
1973: 6
1974: 13
1975: 16
1976: 29
1977: 15
1978: 4
1979: 2
1980: 9
1981: 7
1982: 1
1983: 2
1984: 4
1985: 6
1986: 6
Specials: 3 (1986 Giants of Rock, 2014 Casey tribute, and one I’m going to write about in the near future and will not spoil here)

That I have collected nearly twice as many 1976 shows as any other year should surprise nobody. For what it’s worth, that year breaks down by month as follows:

January: 3
February: 2
March: 2
April: 0
May: 3
June: 4
July: 3
August: 3
September: 4
October: 2
November: 1
December: 1
Top 50 countdown: 1

I need only the July 17 and August 7, 1976, shows to give me a complete run of the show from May 22 through September 25. I thought I would have more from October, November, and December, but that’s the way it goes. What’s up with April I have no idea.

That I have few shows from 1973, 1978, and 1979 is not a surprise either. I spent a whole year at this website trying to parse 1973, and while I didn’t learn much, I did find that the music was better than I remember. I find it difficult to listen to the shows from 1978, as I have mentioned before. As for 1979, my musical tastes changed in that year, thanks to my involvement in college radio and country radio; also, as I’ll discuss in a future post, the popularity of disco did not square with my self-perception at that moment.

When we get to the 80s, a couple of things happen. In 1982 and 1983, for example, I started working full-time in radio, at country stations. I was not mainlining pop and rock music the way I had for a dozen years before. Instead, I experienced those years as a casual spectator, and I wasn’t hearing very much that I liked. For that reason, 1982 and 1983 countdowns have little appeal to me. From 1984 through 1986, I was a jock and program director at a Top 40 station. Two of those years, 1984 and 1985, are two of the best years pop music ever had—to look back at the record charts from 1984, especially in the summer and fall, is to look into a treasure chest of music that seems almost unreal. And 1985, while not as transcendently glorious, is still pretty dang solid.

But there’s a reason why I haven’t rushed to fill out my collection from those years: the 1980s shows are hard to listen to. I have said it several times: when the show went to four hours starting in October 1978, it didn’t need to be four hours as much as it needed to be 3 1/2. The #1 songs of the 60s and 70s, which were used as filler at first, are fine—many of the songs would have been in the libraries of affiliate stations already. But the Long Distance Dedications, popular as they were, iconic as they became, are my least-favorite part of the show. I often play a guessing game as I listen: first, how long is this letter going to be? I’ve heard ’em run better than two minutes, which is an eternity in radio bit time. And second, what sappy, clichéd record will the letter-writer ask for?

But beyond that, the four-hour shows can drag badly for other reasons. One I heard a while back played only six of the Top 40 in the first hour, and two of those were album versions that ran five and six minutes apiece. I have also been critical of Casey himself on some of these shows. He speaks slowly and repeats himself to fill time, but what’s worse is when he talks at a gathered audience of millions rather than communicating one-to-one. And it’s a particular shame, because one-to-one communication is one of his great strengths. Pick any show from 1972 through the early 80s and you’ll mostly hear a guy just playing records and talking. A lot of shows from the mid-80s sound like they’re intended to showcase The Most Famous Voice in America.

And so we conclude this narcissistic exercise. Starting tomorrow, we’ll take a break from the ongoing July Casey-thon. When we return to Casey next week, it will be to deal with the two subjects teased in this post.

Don’t Bother, They’re Here

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(Pictured: Judy Collins does a radio interview, 1975.)

As we do, let’s find a few records to talk about below the Top 40 from the week of June 28, 1975.

45. “I Wanna Dance Wit’ Choo”/Disco Tex and the Sex-o-Lettes. The people behind Disco Tex and the Sex-o-Lettes are not the sort of people you would expect: writer/producers Bob Crewe, Denny Randell, and Kenny Nolan, plus a few prominent Los Angeles studio musicians and erstwhile Sugarloaf guitarist and singer Jerry Corbetta. The group was fronted by Sir Monti Rock III, a showbiz character who (according to Wikipedia, so who the hell knows) first came to prominence as a TV talk-show guest in the 60s. You can’t really call what he does “singing”; he’s more the ringmaster. Neither “I Wanna Dance Wit’ Choo” nor the single that preceded it, “Get Dancin’,” (which made the pop Top 10 in February of 1975) was ever gonna make it onto your typical oldies station, but they were a hell of a lot of fun.

49. “Me and Mrs. Jones”/Ron Banks and the Dramatics. Some songs probably shouldn’t be covered because the original recordings are so definitive and/or just so damn good. Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” is one of them, although the Dramatics’ version did go to #4 on the R&B chart.

58. “Mister Magic”/Grover Washington Jr. We prefer straight jazz to smooth jazz at this website, but nobody called smooth jazz “smooth jazz” in 1975, and Washington’s Mister Magic album was a smash everywhere it went: #1 on both the jazz and soul album charts and #10 on the Billboard 200. It has all of the smooth jazz ingredients, however, and a lot of the major players, including Bob James, Harvey Mason, Eric Gale, and Ralph McDonald. The single edit of the title song ran 3:19, but here’s the whole nine minutes from the album (which had only four tracks in all.)

62. “I Don’t Know Why”/Rolling Stones. This is a Stevie Wonder song the Stones cut in 1969, during the Let It Bleed sessions, supposedly on the day they learned of Brian Jones’ death, in July of that year. “I Don’t Know Why” wasn’t released until Allan Klein cleaned out the vaults in 1975 for the compilation Metamorphosis. [Previously bad link fixed. —Ed.] It doesn’t sound like hit single material at all, although it’s got some fabulously bent slide guitar. There’s some question, apparently, about whether the slide was played by Mick Taylor or Ry Cooder.

74. “Jackie Blue”/Ozark Mountain Daredevils. In its 21st week and final week on the Hot 100, the oldest record on the list.

75. “Send in the Clowns”/Judy Collins. “Send in the Clowns” was offered to radio stations as an optional extra when the 6/28/75 American Top 40 show was repeated around the country last month. It may be one of the last new entries into the Great American Songbook before that ceased to be a thing. There were many, many cover versions of it for several years thereafter. As a single, it would sneak into the Top 40 of the Hot 100 for three weeks in August 1975 but reach #8 on Easy Listening; two years later the very same recording was reissued and spent eight weeks in the Top 40, reaching #19. A program director of mine once told me that the Eagles’ “Desperado” is one of the most difficult records to schedule on the radio because it’s so slow and so sparse. I am guessing that if there’s a difficult-to-schedule list, “Send in the Clowns” is probably on it for the same reasons.

78. “Third Rate Romance”/Amazing Rhythm Aces
79. “Fallin’ in Love”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds
80. “Ballroom Blitz”/Sweet
I could listen to this kind of thing all day.

107. “Top of the World (Make My Reservation)”/Canyon. A late period Kasenetz/Katz production, released on their Magna Glide label. Magna Glide seems to have released only a handful of singles, including two by Canyon, one by soul singer J. J. Jackson (famed for “But It’s Alright”), and, most intriguing of all, one by Tony Conigliaro, the Boston Red Sox slugger. As it turns out, Tony C was a clubhouse doo-wop harmonizer with some of his Red Sox teammates and got his first chance to record in 1964. He released several singles between 1964 and 1967—the same year he took a fastball to the face, which short-circuited his baseball career. His final single, “Poetry,” was released on Magna Glide in 1975, the same year he made his last appearance in the majors.

I seem to have drifted from Canyon. They were from Ohio, they released two singles on Magna Glide, and “Top of the World” would eventually get to #98.

The Place Where It Happened

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Today marks 15 years since this website began. Over 2,300 posts later, I have put a second website of mine to sleep, but I have also started a podcast, so I am in no immediate danger of running out of ways to waste time I could be spending on personal enrichment or professional advancement (or just cleaning up my office). In keeping with anniversary custom, here are some of my favorite posts since last July 11:

—I wrote about several 40th anniversaries this past year, none more personally meaningful than my 40th high-school class reunion. (I keep looking for reasons why that post is too revealing, too sappy, too something, but I can’t find any, so it must be OK.) There was also the 40th anniversary of my first real radio show, the 40th anniversary of my first paying radio job (as distinct from college radio), and an incident of radio conflict from the spring of 1979.

—After former Los Angeles DJ Humble Harve Miller died in June, my old posts about the 1971 murder he committed spiked in traffic—the day after his death I got 10 times the visits I usually do. I wrote a new post intended to summarize information from the original posts, and it’s still getting hits.

—Also among the most heavily trafficked posts in the history of this site are the ones about the Iola People’s Fair, a 1970 Wisconsin rock festival (which is one of the subjects of my first podcast episode). Late last winter I found myself in central Wisconsin, so I went looking for the place where it happened.

—There were other radio stories: about the craft of radio news, about disc jockeys who talk too much, about the current state of the AM band, about an absurd job description, and about the birth of the classic-rock radio canon in the late 70s. Last fall, in the runup to a controversial “presidential alert” from the Emergency Alert System, I wrote about the history of early warnings by radio, and the plan to create a network of radio stations immune to apocalypse.

—On the subject of controversy, I waded into last December’s kerfuffle over “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and started a small amount of ferment amongst the readership with my take on the Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes.”

—I like writing deep dives into the history of individual hit songs. Over the past year some of the better ones involved “Moonlight Feels Right,” Ronnie McDowell’s Elvis tribute “The King Is Gone,” Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” and an obscure oldie from the 50s, in a post that inspired a surprising number of comments.

—Here in Madison, local author, historian, and broadcaster Stu Levitan published the great Madison in the Sixties last fall, and I wrote about it. Part of my radio gig involves producing a talk show that runs on one of the stations in our group; I moved over to the host microphone for two interviews with Stu, one on the book in general and another on Madison’s history of protest. I am not much of a talk-show host, but I had a blast doing them. You can hear them at the latter two links.

—I wrote a bunch of tributes again this year: to Daryl Dragon of the Captain and Tennille; to Dr. Hook’s Ray Sawyer; to the quintessential Man of the 70s, Burt Reynolds; to one of the few real heroes I’ve ever had in my life; and to three stars who passed more-or-less together in May.

—After finishing the second volume of Gary Giddins’ biography of Bing Crosby last spring, I made some notes about Bing’s career.

—I crossed “seeing Booker T. Jones” off my bucket list, and I posted a bit of short fiction about another significant musical event (part 1 here, part 2 here).

—In the winter of 1971, the movie Love Story and its theme song dominated popular culture like nothing else. I also wrote about the modern-day reboot of a TV program that first premiered in the same season, and one of its spinoffs.

—We looked into old Billboard magazines several times over the year. In one of them, we found out how jukebox operators were stocking their machines at Christmas 1972.

I thought for a while I was going to get through this post without using the editorial “we,” but nah.

To see more of the best stuff on this site over its many years, click “jb’s greatest hits” at the top of this page.

The readership has commented than 8,000 times since 2007, making me and everybody else who reads this stuff smarter. As always, my thanks to each of you.

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