Real Love

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(Pictured: Amy Holland, who has been Mrs. Michael McDonald since 1983.)

I have had my issues with American Top 40 shows from 1980 in the past, but what the hell, let’s take a bash at another one. It’s from September 13, 1980.

Casey starts the show by thanking last week’s fill-in, Australian personality Gordon Elliott, who would later become a fixture on American TV by producing various cooking and talk shows and hosting his own. After a recap of the previous week’s top three, it’s on with the countdown—which, among other things, represents a sort of high-water mark for a particular style.

40. “Who’ll Be the Fool Tonight”/Larsen-Feiten Band
39. “First Time Love”/Livingston Taylor
38. “How Do I Survive”/Amy Holland
29. “Look What You’ve Done to Me”/Boz Scaggs
28. “Real Love”/Doobie Brothers
20. “Hot Rod Hearts”/Robbie Dupree
14. “You’re the Only Woman”/Ambrosia
11. “Into the Night”/Benny Mardones
6. “Give Me the Night”/George Benson

I like a lot of yacht rock, but I don’t care for the term “yacht rock” itself. A lot of the people who use it, up to and including Sirius/XM on Yacht Rock Radio, do so to demean or belittle a certain group of artists and a musical style, as if it had been quaint and vaguely cheesy even in 1980 but we poor benighted simpletons weren’t able to tell. Holier-than-thou postmodern hipness makes me tired. Americans have difficulty correctly remembering stuff that happened six months ago; we misunderstand the world of 1980 as profoundly as we misunderstand the Middle Ages.

27. “He’s So Shy”/Pointer Sisters
26. “Never Knew Love Like This Before”/Stephanie Mills
15. “One in a Million You”/Larry Graham
While a white dude such as I needs to tread lightly around this topic, and I could be completely wrong, isn’t there an argument that the yacht rock canon is kinda racist? To the extent that I care about it, I’m struck by just how white it is. There’s a lightly rhythmic feel to a lot of it, but not so much that you’d call it funky. “Give Me the Night” represents the far extreme of yacht-rock funkitude, so George Benson may be the exception that proves the rule. I suspect you’d get some debate about whether the Pointers, Stephanie, and Larry Graham are yacht—and might that be due to their obviously black voices? But if you strip the vocals and listen only to the backing tracks, they’re clearly on the boat. In fact, if you strip the vocals from “He’s So Shy,” it becomes “What a Fool Believes.”

36. “More Love”/Kim Carnes. Casey introduces this with a tic that drives me nuts: “Kim Carnes is the biggest dropper in the countdown this week, tumbling 22 notches from #14 to #36. Kim Carnes, with “‘More Love’,” repeating her name as if we wouldn’t be able to remember it from literally five seconds before.

Casey opens the AT40 Book of Records to find which act had the most Top-10 hits in a calendar year. Jimmy Dorsey and the Beatles tied for third place with 11; Bing Crosby once had 12. The leader: Glenn Miller, who hit the Top 10 15 times in 1942 alone. That record has since been smashed by Drake, who has 25 Top 10s—but to climb back up on a hill I would die on, such achievements during the streaming-and-download era cannot be directly compared to the era when you had to put on pants, go to a store, and buy a piece of plastic.

35. “You’re Supposed to Keep Your Love for Me”/Jermaine Jackson. Before listening to this show, I’d never heard “You’re Supposed to Keep Your Love for Me,” or even heard of it. It’s a Stevie Wonder production that did four weeks in the Top 40, peaking at #34.

EXTRA: “Moody River”/Pat Boone
EXTRA: “Quarter to Three”/Gary U.S. Bonds
EXTRA: “Tossin’ and Turnin'”/Bobby Lewis
Casey is playing all of the #1 songs of the 60s, like ’em or not. “Quarter to Three” and “Tossin’ and Turnin'” rock harder than all but a couple of the hits on this week’s chart.

30. “How Does It Feel to Be Back”/Hall and Oates. Repeating myself here: as many iconic songs as Voices contained, “How Does It Feel to Be Back,” the first single, is still the best thing on it.

LDD: “You Are So Beautiful”/Joe Cocker. With a letter from Dawn in Davenport, Iowa, to Fred (“both my fiance and my very special friend”) in South Korea. The letter is standard-issue I-miss-the-father-of-my-baby junk. For chrissakes, Dawn, buy a damn airmail stamp, write to Fred yourself, and spare us.

25. “Jesse”/Carly Simon Is this yacht? I’m about an hour-and-a-half into the show and I’m losing interest in the basic premise of this post. So I’ll stop here and pick it up again on Monday.

No Gal Made Has Got a Shade on Sweet Georgia Brown

Certain pieces of music stop time, take you places, call up images that are indelible. When you play the song at the top of this post, what do you see? If you are of a particular age, you can probably picture the famous Harlem Globetrotters “weave,” the warmup the team does when they first hit the court, which has been accompanied by the sound of “Sweet Georgia Brown” since 1952.

“Sweet Georgia Brown” was already an oldie by 1952. The original recording by Ben Bernie and His Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra spent five weeks at #1 on the primordial charts of 1925, while competing versions by Isham Jones and Ethel Waters also charted. Bing Crosby took it to #2 in 1932. But the recording you know, the one that the Globetrotters use, came along at the end of the 1940s.

Freeman Davis was born in Alabama in 1902 but discovered in California. His prowess as a whistling shoeshiner earned him the nickname Whistling Sam, but he was also proficient on the bones, a percussion instrument often made from real animal bones, but also of wood. (They’re cousins to castanets and spoons.) In the late 40s—maybe 1947—Davis got a chance to record for the Hollywood label Tempo, laying down “Sweet Georgia Brown” and three other sides, which were credited to Brother Bones and His Shadows. In addition to Davis on bones and whistling, two other musicians are heard on “Sweet Georgia Brown”—a tenor saxophonist whose name is unknown, and Herb Kern on Novachord.

Herb Kern on what?

The Novachord was the original electronic synthesizer, manufactured by the Hammond Company and introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair as yet another avatar of times to come. It was a cousin to the Mellotron, capable of recreating a high-pitched flute or a deep theater organ, with 120 presets to create other, more exotic sounds in between. But the Novachord was not destined for mass popularity. Each one weighed 500 pounds, contained 163 vacuum tubes, and had miles of cable and hand-tied wiring. It required the skills of an electronic tinkerer to operate and maintain. A new one cost $1,900—which is equivalent to about $35,000 today. Only about a thousand Novachords were manufactured between 1938 and 1942. But one of them belonged to Tempo Records, which released a number of Novachord-and-organ duets in the 40s featuring Kern and a guy named Lloyd Sloop. Kern was the organist of the duo, but he moved over to the Novachord to provide the bassline for “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

“Sweet Georgia Brown” sat in the Tempo vault until the summer of 1948, when it finally was released to what was known as the “race” market. After it caught on among black audiences, it crossed over to pop, eventually hitting #10 on Billboard‘s main chart early in 1949. Brother Bones got his picture on the covers of Billboard and Cash Box, and a 1951 starring role in a blackface musical called Yes Sir Mr. Bones.

(In his Pop Memories: 1890-1954, Joel Whitburn says that the Brother Bones “Sweet Georgia Brown” features not sax and Novachord but organ and a clarinet played by Joe Darensbourg. Darensbourg was a prominent New Orleans-born clarinetist who worked in Los Angeles during the late 40s, and he played on some of Brown’s other recordings, apparently, but I’m pretty sure he’s not on this “Sweet Georgia Brown,” mostly because there’s no clarinet. On another matter, Whitburn says that Davis charted a version of “Ain’t She Sweet” in 1949. It was a duet with organist Barney Lantz but was released under the bizarre, awkward name of Mr. Goon Bones and Mr. Ford.)

Brother Bones does not appear to have had any connection with the Harlem Globetrotters apart from his performance of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” which has granted him a peculiar combination of immortality and obscurity. Freeman Davis died in 1971 and is buried in his longtime home of Long Beach, California.

The Novachord was used to score movies and TV shows as late as the 1960s, but apart from “Sweet Georgia Brown,” its most famous appearance on record might be on Vera Lynn’s original 1939 recording of “We’ll Meet Again.” Her more famous recording, which did not hit in America until 1954, was backed by a conventional orchestra, but her first recording features Arthur Young on the Novachord, sounding very much like an organ, but also very much not.

Additional postscript: it was easy to miss in the frantic 2020 news cycle, but Vera Lynn, who was one of the most popular performers in Britain during World War II and through the 50s, died in June at age 103. 

Past Masters

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The Beatles released their last album of new material, Let It Be, in April 1970. But by that time, the re-purposing of Beatles content (not a phrase anyone would have used, but an idea whose time had come nevertheless) was underway.

—Even before Let It Be, in February 1970, Apple released Hey Jude, a compilation mostly of singles and B-sides that had been hard to find in America since their original release, thanks to Capitol’s practice of reprogramming Beatles albums for North America. Although it’s completely forgotten today, Hey Jude went to #2 on the Billboard 200.

—In 1973, in response to the success of a copyright-violating Beatles compilation called Alpha Omega, came the fabled “red” and “blue” releases: The Beatles: 1962-1966 and The Beatles: 1967-1970. During the week of May 26, 1973, the two albums sat at #3 and #1 respectively on the Billboard 200. They were critical in the musical education of kids who had missed the 60s. Young me bought the blue one; the young Mrs. bought the red one.

—In 1976, responding to the success of a couple of Beach Boys compilations and a cresting wave of nostalgia for the 50s and early 60s, Rock and Roll Music hit the stores. It was boosted by an honest-to-goodness hit single, “Got to Get You Into My Life,” repurposed from Revolver. Rock and Roll Music went to #2 on the Billboard 200; Wings at the Speed of Sound kept it from #1.

—A year later, some sketchy 1962 recordings made at the Star Club in Hamburg and released on a couple of obscure European labels started getting some traction, to the point at which the Beatles sued to keep them off the market. Capitol dipped into its vaults for The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, recorded in 1964 and 1965. Although prominent critics praised it, what listeners heard most clearly was the frenzied screaming of the audiences. It went to #2 on the Billboard 200 during the summer of 1977, but was quickly forgotten and fell out of print for 30 years. (The album was reissued in 2016, remixed to clean up the sound.)

—At the end of 1977 came another two-disc compilation in the mold of Rock and Roll Music: Love Songs. (In his book Dreaming the Beatles, Rob Sheffield differentiates the two albums as the one with fast songs and the one with slow ones.) It hit record stores just in time for Christmas, but made it only to #24—the first Beatles album of any sort to place below #3 on the American charts since Capitol’s first repurposing effort, the 1964 album The Early Beatles.

—In 1980, Rarities collected songs that were, for various reasons, hard to find in America, including alternate versions and rare mono or stereo mixes. Most notable among these were “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” which had been the flipside of “Let It Be,” and the German-language version of “She Loves You,” “Sie Liebt Dich.” Rarities went to #21 in Billboard.

—In 1982, Reel Music collected songs from the soundtracks of A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, and Let It Be. Several songs appeared in stereo for the first time in America. Released with the album but not appearing on it was “The Beatles Movie Medley,” a cheesy and overlong montage that rose to #12 on the Hot 100 mostly on curiosity value at the height of the medley craze. (On the whole it’s not good, but some of the transitions from one song to another are well done.) This was Capitol, and its British parent company, EMI, scraping the bottom of the Beatle barrel: the band remained the most popular of all time, but EMI was running out of ways to monetize them.

—At the end of 1982, purportedly to celebrate the 20th anniverary of the band’s first hits but also just in time for holiday shopping, came 20 Greatest Hits which, in pure Capitol/EMI fashion, was released in separate UK and US configurations. Perhaps America was Beatled out at that point, as the album made it only to #50.

—In 1987, the Beatles’ original albums began coming out on CD, in their UK configurations. This necessitated a series of albums to catch up on the non-album singles: Past Masters Volumes 1 and 2, which were released in 1988.

—In the CD era, Beatles compilations remained thick on the ground. Three volumes of Anthology went to #1 in 1995 and 1996; the compilation titled simply 1 went into millions of Christmas stockings in 2000 and was Billboard‘s #1 album of the year in 2001.

Fifty years after the Beatles’ breakup, with streaming the main mode of musical consumption, this kind of catalog chopping and channeling will happen no more. (At least not at the behest of a record company. Playlisting is another thing altogether.)

The Other Side of the Clock

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I’ve done a lot of stuff in radio, with one peculiar omission: in all my years, I’ve done one overnight. Not one overnight gig, but  a single overnight shift. I was simply never asked to do one. I did lots of 6- and 7-to midnights and on-air and automation-tending shifts that ran until 2AM, but the opportunity to do a full overnight show just never came up, except the one time. It was an 11P-to-5A shift if I’m recalling correctly, sometime in 1994 or 1995, when I was working part-time before trying to get out of the biz altogether.

Overnight radio today ain’t what it used to be, thanks to syndication and voice-tracking and auto-pilot. In big cities, you still hear a few live-and-local overnight shows, but even they are growing increasingly rare. Years ago, practically every voice you heard on stations large and small was live, local, and in real time.

The overnight shift could be a proving ground, where young talents earned their stripes, or a dumping ground, a place to put somebody good enough to hire but not good enough to promote. There were, however, certain people who became stars on overnights and never left. In the Midwest, Yvonne Daniels, Eddie Schwartz, Jay Andres, Franklyn MacCormack, and Mike Rapchak all became known far beyond Chicago thanks to long tenures on AM stations that blanketed much of North America. But other cities had overnight stars whose regional reach was enormous—Franklin Hobbs on WCCO in Minneapolis and John R on WLAC in Nashville are two from the middle of the country who have been mentioned here in the past. But overnight stars weren’t heard only in big cities. In smaller markets, too, there was almost always somebody with a sizeable following “east of midnight,” a phrase that seems to have originated at WLS in Chicago sometime around 1960, but was widely borrowed.

Midday jocks can often work a normal 7:30-to-3:30 or 8-to-5 day. Everybody else has to adjust. Morning people go in while it’s dark and are often home by noon; afternoon jocks get used to eating dinner at 8 or 9PM. But doing overnights is not merely an adjustment, it’s a lifestyle. Some overnighters sleep in shifts—a few hours after getting home in the morning and a few more before going back at night, which leaves time in the middle of the day for normal day-side life and/or a few hours of office work back at the radio station. Others take up full-time residence on the other side of the clock. If the working day runs from, say, 10PM to 6AM, they find it easier on their bodies to keep to something like those hours on their days off. Back in the day, stations themselves didn’t always make this easy—you wouldn’t give your afternoon jock a regular weekend shift from 2 until 6 on Sunday morning, but overnighters were frequently asked to do a regular Saturday or Sunday afternoon. But not everyone can live entirely on the night side. One big example: when you’re married to a day-sider. One overnight guy of my acquaintance reset his body clock every weekend because his wife insisted, so on Monday and Tuesday, he’d be half in a fog.

(Most of those who are married to radio people understand the life and accept its peculiarities. This woman did not, really. I suspected that she found her husband’s east-of-midnight job embarrassing, and radio itself vaguely disreputable.)

Overnight jocks frequently heard from truckers, nurses, shift workers, and other people who were grateful to have a friendly voice keeping them company during the long dark hours. What those listeners didn’t always realize is that the overnight jocks appreciated them too. It was (and is) a solitary occupation, being on the air after hours, especially in the overnight hours. It’s good for a jock’s morale to know that yes, there is somebody else up at this hour, and that what you do matters to them.

Overnight jocks tend to have the best radio stories, because weird stuff happens in the middle of the night. Unusual interactions with listeners on the phone were almost routine, but sometimes listeners would actually come knocking on the station door, like Richard Dreyfuss in American Graffiti. Since some amongst the readership have been overnight jocks (for more than one night), let’s hear some stories.

Grease Is the Way We Are Feelin’

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(Pictured: Frankie Valli and Olivia Newton-John at the Grease premiere, 1978.)

The date is June 17, 1978. “You’re the One That I Want” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, from the Grease soundtrack, falls from #1 to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and “Grease” by Frankie Valli debuts in the Top 40. That’s one day after the movie opens in theaters and grosses $16 million the first weekend on the way to its 1978-leading gross of $150 million.

On August 26, 1978, “Grease” hits #1 on the Hot 100. Three other Grease songs are on the big chart: “Hopelessly Devoted to You” by ONJ is #7 and “Summer Nights” by Travolta and ONJ is #20. “You’re the One That I Want” spends a second consecutive week at #60 in its 22nd week on the chart.

On September 9, 1978, America reaches peak Grease. After two weeks at the top, “Grease” falls from #1 to #6 on the Hot 100 and two more Grease hits are sandwiched around it, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” at #4 and “Summer Nights” at #8. “You’re the One That I Want” is in a second week at #83 in its last of 24 weeks on the Hot 100.

On September 30, 1978, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “Summer Nights” reach their peak positions at #3 and #5, while “Grease” drops from #23 to #45. A fifth Grease hit, “Greased Lightnin’,” credited to Travolta alone, debuts at #73 on the way to a peak position of #47 in late October.

Three of the five Grease hits did not appear in the original Broadway musical. “You’re the One That I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” were written and produced by Newton-John’s longtime collaborator John Farrar. “Grease” was written and produced by Barry Gibb. The film’s director, Randal Kleiser, didn’t like the new songs, but the musical’s original writers, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey (who never wrote another Broadway show), were probably too busy cashing royalty checks to worry much about them.

(When Grease is performed on stage today, some productions use “Grease” near the beginning and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” either before or after the act break. “You’re the One That I Want” often replaces “All Choked Up” near the end of the show.)

Getting a Barry Gibb song into the movie was good business for the movie’s co-producer, the Robert Stigwood Organisation, which was releasing the soundtrack. The Brothers Gibb and RSO had dominated the pop charts through all of 1978, and not just with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. On June 17, “Shadow Dancing,” written by the Bee Gees and recorded by Andy Gibb, was in its first of seven weeks at #1; “Night Fever” was in its final week on the Hot 100 at #95; and oddest of all, Rare Earth was back in the Top 40 for the first time since 1972 with the Bee Gees-written “Warm Ride.” A Gibb-written/produced record from a movie as hyped as Grease couldn’t miss no matter who was singing it, and it didn’t. No matter that it has nothing to do with the movie, or that the lyrics make no sense at all.

Tom Breihan’s article about “Grease” at Stereogum is highly worth your time, as is the entire series on The Number Ones. Breihan is boggled by the fact that Valli does not use his famous Four Seasons falsetto:

So you’d think that a team-up from Frankie Valli and Barry Gibb would be an all-time scream-off, a psychedelic kaleidoscope of inexplicably confident helium squeals. Instead, Frankie Valli sings the song in what passes for a normal voice. It’s just weird. Imagine if Al Pacino and Robert De Niro got together in 1995—not to make an all-time-great cops-and-robbers film but to start a juggling act. But that’s “Grease.”

“Grease” ended up with Valli in a roundabout way. Breihan says the producers offered him a choice: appear in the movie and sing “Beauty School Dropout” or don’t appear in the movie but do the new title song. He opted for the latter (and Frankie Avalon ended up with the former). Valli didn’t even have a record deal in 1978, despite his mid-decade success with the revitalized Four Seasons and solo, but he soon got one.

The radio reach of the singles from Grease was vast. “You’re the One That I Want” first hit the radio in mid-March 1978, “Grease” in mid-May, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “Summer Nights” in early July. All of them remained in current or recurrent rotations through the end of the year. As inescapable as the Bee Gees had been during the first half of 1978, songs from Grease were just as pervasive during the last half.

No Mountain High Enough

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(Pictured: Diana Ross.)

I have already written over 1500 words about the American Top 40 show from September 5, 1970, and here are a few hundred more.

EXTRA: “Second Hand Rose”/Barbra Streisand
EXTRA: “Mr. Businessman”/Ray Stevens

When this show originally aired in 1970, it contained several extra songs beyond the week’s Top 40. They included “Hey Little Girl” by Dee Clark and “Dominique” by the Singing Nun, which were snipped from the modern-day repeat, along with CCR’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which was probably spotlighted as a track from the #1 album that week, Cosmo’s Factory, something Casey did regularly during the show’s earliest days. “Second Hand Rose” was left in the repeat, however, and before playing it, Casey explains that Barbra’s then-husband, Elliott Gould, fell in love with her partly because she reminded him of a combination of his two favorite people: Sophia Loren and former New York Giants quarterback Y. A. Tittle. With “Mr. Businessman,” Casey says that Ray Stevens is the great-great grandson of Alexander Stephens, who was the vice-president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Although Stevens has gone full Trumper in recent years, “Mr. Businessman” criticizes the soulless pursuit of success in period-appropriate fashion.

I wrote last week about how American Top 40 was developing in real time during 1970 and 1971, gradually becoming the show we know today. Beyond extra songs, there’s other stuff in the earliest shows that is edited out of the repeats. Teases for those extra songs are only a part of it. In the show’s first year or so, certain promos and national commercials were placed outside of the local break structure. They are usually removed from the repeats, although there was one show from May 1971, if I’m recalling correctly, that left ’em in, and it was fascinating to hear them. I am guessing there were some in the 9/5/70 show, although they aren’t shown on the cue sheet (which may be a modern-day recreation of the original). Because Casey talks so fast on this show, some of the edits are very abrupt. I’m not sure the average listener would notice them, but I do.

13. “Julie Do Ya Love Me”/Bobby Sherman. Have I ever admitted at this website that that this was one of the first 45s I ever owned?

10. “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”/CCR. The fifth and final CCR hit to eventually stall at #2. Despite its success, it was never played live, apparently—not until John Fogerty put it into a solo setlist in 1989.

9. “Spill the Wine”/Eric Burdon and War. I said on Twitter a couple of weeks ago that there is not enough alcohol in the world to get me to do karaoke, but if there was, “Spill the Wine” would be my song.

8. “Why Can’t I Touch You”/Ronnie Dyson
7. “Patches”/Clarence Carter
6. “25 or 6 to 4″/Chicago
5. “Close to You”/Carpenters
4. “In the Summertime”/Mungo Jerry
3. “Make It With You”/Bread
Top to bottom, the variety on this show is impressive, typified by this stretch: a glorious pop/soul production, a deep Southern soul story song, the hardest-rockin’ hit of the week, a Burt Bacharach/Hal David joint made immortal by a brilliant singer/producer duo, some thoroughly English pop oddness, and the template for 70s soft rock, one after the other.

2. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”/Diana Ross. Up from #9 last week and headed for #1 two weeks hence, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” does not unstick me in time like other songs on this chart do. I’ve heard it too many times in 50 years for that to happen anymore. But it might be the best thing on the show nevertheless.

1. “War”/Edwin Starr. In 2020, a year of unchecked pandemic, economic ruin, racial hatred, and the looming threat of a fascist takeover, popular music has doubled down on escapism, to the point at which turning on the radio can be an embarrassment. Who are these vapid, singing nitwits, and what planet do they live on? Look, I get it. Music is a diversion for most people, a way to stop having to think about our collapsing society. But there’s a point at which seeking nothing but diversion becomes a lie you tell to yourself.

Here in 2020 there is no equivalent to “War,” a massive hit record that cries out in disbelief while it churns with rage. There is nothing, and there likely will be nothing, that says, “You might have the power to kill us, but we won’t go without telling how much we hate you.”

But there damn well ought to be.