Let Them Truckers Roll

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I ride certain hobby-horses at this blog that you might find inexplicable. My obsession with “Afternoon Delight” is one of them. And I think maybe my praise of C. W. McCall’s “Convoy” represents another. That extremely well-told story of truckers crossing the country dodging the cops is one I’ve heard a million times since 1975 without getting tired of it.

C. W. McCall was a character created for bread commercials in the Midwest and sung by adman Bill Fries. Jingles, and later songs, were co-written with Chip Davis of eventual Mannheim Steamroller fame. Four McCall records were mid-level country hits in 1974 and 1975; two made the Hot 100: “The Old Home Filler-Up an Keep-on-Truckin’ Cafe” and “Wolf Creek Pass.” The latter spent a single week (March 22, 1975) at #40 and is legitimately funny. And then came “Convoy.”

To understand why “Convoy” detonated in American popular culture, recall how citizens band radio was becoming a thing at the end of 1975. It had long been a tool of truckers. After the oil shock of 1974, they communicated by CB to find cheap fuel and after the national speed limit was lowered to 55 in 1975, to help avoid speed traps. They also used CB to organize protests against new traffic laws and high gas prices. The outlaw spirit of the open-road truckers was appealing, and before long, people other than truckers wanted CBs in their vehicles. Radio Shack and other retailers were advertising CB radios heavily. So CB was cool and exotic, and in a golden era for mass-appeal novelty records, “Convoy” was right on time.

“Convoy” first appears at ARSA on a survey from WIXY in Cleveland dated November 14, 1975. It hits the Billboard country chart at #79 on November 29, and country stations across the nation are reporting it as one of their top adds. (It’s already #1 at one Top 40 station, WZGC in Atlanta.) On December 6, it roars up to #28 on the country chart and debuts on the Hot 100 at #82. The week of December 13, it’s #1 at WLCX in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and KCPX in Salt Lake City, and it gets adds at prominent Top 40 stations, including WLS in Chicago. On the country chart, it moves to #12 and blasts into the Top 40 at #39. On December 20, “Convoy” makes a giant leap from #12 to #1 country. It also makes the Easy Listening chart for the first time at #49, and goes to #14 on the Hot 100. During that pre-Christmas week, it hits the top in Pittsburgh, Tucson, Louisville, and Birmingham.

“Convoy” goes to #1 in Kansas City on Christmas Day 1975, and in the next week records #1s at WLS and at KTLK in Denver. On the Hot 100, it slows its roll over the holidays, going to #7 and #6 before taking the #1 spot on January 10, 1976. In that week, still #1 country, it peaks on the Easy Listening chart at #19.

But after a single week, “Convoy” falls to #2, then #3, #7, and back up to #6 on February 7. By then, it was or had been #1 in Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, Washington, Philadelphia, and in other cities large and small. On February 14, it falls to #11 and then to #29 on February 21 (a week when it was still #1 in Hartford, Connecticut). From there it goes 55-62-72-93 and out, gone from the Hot 100 dated March 27, 1976. (It spent six weeks atop the country chart, through the week of January 24.)

By the time “Convoy” completed its chart run, the FCC office responsible for issuing CB licenses was backlogged with a million applications a month, so thousands of CB owners went on the air without one.

“Convoy” was big enough in December 1975 to appear on a few year-end radio surveys. It was #8 for the year at WLCX in LaCrosse and #19 at WLS. Many more stations ranked it among the top songs of 1976; it was in the year’s Top 10 at KILT in Houston, WIND in Chicago, and in a couple of smaller cities. On Billboard‘s year-end list for 1976, it was #57. CB radio inspired a few other hit songs, but none had the astounding impact of “Convoy.”

I’m not the first to suggest that CB was the first social medium. You broadcast yourself to both friends and strangers; as on Facebook and Twitter today, maybe other people would respond to you and maybe they wouldn’t. You used a “handle” rather than your name, so you could be relatively anonymous. And while the social communication fostered by CB could be useful and valuable, it could also be vapid and annoying. So not much has changed in 40 years, then.

Although I never owned a CB, a friend had one I used when riding with him, so I adopted my own handle: “Captain Fantastic.” What else?

That’s The Way I Like It

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(Pictured: KC and the Sunshine Band.)

I wrote a few years back how Kurt Vonnegut was onto something with the concept of foma, or harmless untruths. What does it matter if your memory of some personal event is wrong, as long as the memory makes you happy and nobody gets hurt? Behold the soundtrack for one of my fomathe American Top 40 show from December 20, 1975. The family was happy, I was doing well in school, and I was secure in my friendships—because at this distance, why not?

39. “Fire on the Mountain”/Marshall Tucker Band. This song would become an album-rock radio staple, but this is its only week on AT40. It would peak at #38 the week of 12/27 and then fall out of the 40, but the 12/27 show was the first part of AT40‘s 1975 year-end countdown.

35. “Winners and Losers”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds. There is nothing about “Winners and Losers” that’s not awesome, and if you do not dig it, we shouldn’t see each other anymore. It’s a great big Hollywood production with the piano player getting his Liberace on amidst an oceanic orchestra arrangement. Also, the introduction dares a radio jock to be great.

33. “Volare”/Al Martino. In which one of the great Italian-American saloon singers hits a mid-70s pop chart with a famous Italian song. Might it be a disco version of said song? Hell and yes. (See also Frankie Valli’s disco version of “Our Day Will Come” at #11.)

The original 1975 broadcast of this show contained two Christmas warhorses: “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Feliz Navidad,” both of which were edited from the pre-Christmas repeat. Subject for further research: how AT40 programmed Christmas music during its heyday.

24. “You Sexy Thing”/Hot Chocolate. This is the good stuff right here.

19. “The Way I Want to Touch You”/Captain and Tennille. When I wrote about C&T last week, I mentioned that I didn’t like this song much in 1975. It liked me, however, and now it’s one of the songs that most strongly evokes my late-’75 foma.

18. “The Last Game of the Season”/David Geddes. The story of a scrub football player who performs heroically after his blind father dies during the game. Asked why he played so well he says, “It’s the first time my father’s seen me play.” Geddes, just off the craptastic “Run Joey Run,” sings “The Last Game of the Season” with the same melodramatic manliness, backed by the same angel chorus. In storytelling terms it makes “Run Joey Run” sound like “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”—but schlock sells, and it always has.

14. “Convoy”/C. W. McCall. “Convoy” was, at Christmas of 1975, the one record nobody could get enough of, and I’ll have more to say about it on Monday.

10. “Nights on Broadway”/Bee Gees. What you want is the radio edit, without the verse in the middle (“I will wait / Even if it takes forever”), because that way, the Bee Gees’ hellaciously good band never has to let off the throttle.

4. “Saturday Night”/Bay City Rollers. Casey talks over the “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y night!” cold vocal opening here.

3. “Fly Robin Fly”/Silver Convention. On both the original shows and the repeats, songs are sometimes edited to save time. “Fly Robin Fly” is loaded with obvious edit points, so I have no idea why this show used a smash cut so abrupt it sounds like the record skipped.

1. “That’s the Way I Like It”/KC and the Sunshine Band. My memory is either full or failing, so I didn’t remember that this song made #1 for a week, spent three weeks out of the top spot (falling as far as #4), and then went back for a week. Casey calls it a “yo-yo” record. Second subject for further research: how many yo-yo records there were during the rock era, and how far they bounced.

The truth, as 1975 turned to 1976, school wasn’t so great. I had a chemistry course in which I was barely hanging on, a speech class I didn’t like, the tedious classroom part of driver education, and the routine horror of physical education. A couple of my friends were prone to turn on me when we were in a group. I could talk to girls, but couldn’t bring myself to ask one of them out. And our family, with two teenage boys whose desires were occasionally selfish, was every bit as fractious and no more harmonious than any other. But all of that is overshadowed now by the songs that were on the radio, because that’s the way I like to remember it.

Hard to Turn the Radio Off

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(Pictured: I never need a reason to post a picture of Linda Ronstadt.)

I had so many Christmas and end-of-the-year posts lined up in the last half of December that there was no room to write about one of the American Top 40 shows rebroadcast around the country during that time. The show from December 17, 1977, was ridiculously entertaining.

—We know that at some moments in history, radio music is better than at other moments. It’s important to define “better” or “good”—I’m not talking about records that speak to us personally in some way, or that recapture a time, or perform some other sort of psychological function in our lives. I’m talking about records that are critically acclaimed, or are otherwise “good,” with a timeless, mass-appeal sound. (We can recognize certain records as “good” without adding them to our personal canon, and that’s the kind of thing I mean.) As reader Mike pointed out before Christmas, the 60s had that mark of quality, when the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys and the like were firing on all cylinders. As 1977 turned to 1978, the top acts of that era made it similarly hard to turn the radio off. Your mileage may vary, but I count at least 15 records that represent the best work of the artists who recorded them, or close to it: “Turn to Stone,” “Just the Way You Are,” “Serpentine Fire,” “Your Smiling Face,” “Swingtown,” “You’re in My Heart,” “Come Sail Away,” “Sentimental Lady,” “Isn’t It Time,” “Slip Slidin’ Away,” “You Make Lovin’ Fun,” “Baby Come Back,” “We’re All Alone,” “Blue Bayou,” and “How Deep Is Your Love.”

—I didn’t like Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” as 1977 turned to 1978, but it sounded surprisingly good to me here, at #10.

—The 12/17/77 show originally contained three Christmas songs, one per hour, although only one of them was heard on the recent repeat: Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and “Little St. Nick” by the Beach Boys were snipped, although the segments were offered to stations as optional extras. By the week of December 17, 1977, most AT40 affiliates would have been playing a good bit of Christmas music, and I suspect most program directors welcomed those three songs.

—On the original show, “Blue Christmas” was followed by the Elvis version of “My Way,” which was sitting at #28 in that week. (It would peak the next week at #24.) Elvis had been singing “My Way” on stage for several years, including on the Aloha From Hawaii special in 1973. The hit version had been recorded in June, less than two months before his death. It would go to #2 on the Billboard country chart and #6 on Easy Listening. I hadn’t heard it in years before this show, and it’s better than I remember. A lot of Elvis performances toward the end of his life are big and airy but emotionally empty; on “My Way,” he seems to be really feeling it.

—The week of 12/17/77 was the high-water mark for Linda Ronstadt, with two singles at their peaks in the Top Five, and her album Simple Dreams at #1 for the third of what would be five weeks. “Blue Bayou” (#3) and “It’s So Easy” (#5) had been released as separate singles; “Blue Bayou” had debuted on the Hot 100 on September 10 and “It’s So Easy” on October 8, which was the week “Blue Bayou” cracked the Top 40. Each song spent four weeks at its peak position; for three of those weeks, they peaked together (12/17 and 12/24, plus a third week’s credit for the frozen chart of 12/31).

—As sometimes happens with AT40 shows, the #1 hit is a fizzle: Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life,” which is in its 10th week at the top, the longest run at #1 since 1957. Four songs made it to #2 during those 10 weeks and failed to knock Debby out, but the fifth, the Bee Gees “How Deep Is Your Love,” #2 in this week, would hit #1 on the chart dated December 24, 1977. Although the song would hold the top spot for three weeks, it would be heard at #1 on only one AT40 show, for the week of January 7, 1978; the shows for the weeks of 12/24/77 and 12/31/77 counted down the year’s top 100 hits.

It’s a waste of time defending opinions about what’s good, of course. We are all chauvinistic about the music of the times we love best. Forty years from now, some guy will wax lyrical about how the very best time to listen to music was when he was 17, when Drake and Ariana Grande ruled.

He’ll be wrong, of course. I’ll be long dead, and still right.

Do That to Me One More Time

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In the summer of 1975, I did not like the Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” even as it did a month at #1, the first record to last that long at the top in over two years. I did not like “The Way I Want to Touch You” that fall, even as it insinuated itself into my head and now inspires strong flashbacks to the end of that year. (Which is omething I intend to write about next week.) The Captain and Tennille were woven into my favorite year, 1976, with three big hits. “Shop Around” didn’t bother me, but “Muskrat Love” and “Lonely Night (Angel Face)” did. (Click the link for Professor O’Kelly’s thoughts on the latter, and several C&T songs.) By 1977, however, they ceased to register much at all with me. By the end of 1980, they were gone from the charts, never to return, and I felt no void because of it.

As the years went by, I called them a cocktail-lounge act. I called Toni Tennille’s voice an in-your-face bleat, and I said that she reminded me of that mouthy cheerleader you hated in high school. I described the Captain’s style on keyboard as “blips and farts.” I even criticized them on a sociological basis. In their last two big hits, “You Never Done It Like That” and “Do That to Me One More Time” (which went to #1 in February 1980), I heard Toni criticizing the Captain’s prowess in the sack. “You Never Done It Like That” contains one of the most demeaning things a woman ever said to a man after he’s made love to her: “Hey little man, I want to shake your hand.” In “Do That to Me One More Time,” Toni seems mildly surprised to have gotten off.

Even in the early days of this blog, I was prone to snark. Back in 2005, I wrote:

September 20, 1976: The Captain and Tennille’s variety show premieres on ABC. It becomes one of the most enduring hits in the history of television, remaining on the air until 1994. Its staggering popularity results in seven consecutive number-one albums, 24 top-10 singles, and the 1997 induction of Daryl Dragon and Toni Tennille into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Wait, maybe not.

Now, all these years later, “Wait, maybe not” is right.

The variety-show crack gets at something truthful in a backward way: a network variety show did not often boost an act’s hitmaking profile. Sonny and Cher, Roy Clark and Buck Owens (with Hee Haw), Tony Orlando and Dawn, Donny and Marie, and the Captain and Tennille never scaled the charts after their TV shows like they had before. And if the Captain and Tennille’s show was cheesy, it wasn’t much more so than its contemporaries. As a time capsule of what TV celebrity looked like in 1976 and 1977, you can scarcely do better.

As for the rest of it—in-your-face bleat, mouthy cheerleader, and so on? Nah, that’s not fair, and I don’t believe it anymore.

Toni Tennille and Daryl Dragon were hipper than people knew, as Ultimate Classic rock summarizes here, including the funny story about the Pink Floyd fan who discovered Toni is on The Wall, and the Captain’s history with the Beach Boys. In the middle of the 1970s, they cut some great songs: several by Neil Sedaka and one (“Shop Around”) by Smokey Robinson. They were backed on record by the LA superstars known as the Wrecking Crew. And they hit in an era that was perfectly perfectly primed for solidly built pop music, lightweight and catchy and fun.

(One of their records was more than just fun. “Shop Around” contains advice no young man ever needed. But by gender-flipping it, the Captain and Tennille told young women of the 70s that they could control their own lives and make their own choices—topical and significant advice amidst the changes of that decade. It’s my favorite record of theirs by a mile, but I like this one a lot, too, speaking of lightweight and catchy.)

No, the Captain and Tennille aren’t getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And no, I’m not going to buy their complete-works box set, should there ever be one. But it’s hard to imagine the 1970s without them, and that’s the biggest tribute I can pay anybody. Rest well, Captain, and thank you for the music.

Hi Always, Ray Sawyer

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(Pictured: Ray Sawyer, in profile, and Dennis Locorriere of Dr. Hook.)

The thing I found most surprising about the death of Ray Sawyer, the guy who wore the eye-patch in Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, is not so much that he died, but that he was 81 years old. He was no baby-boomer; while “Cover of the Rolling Stone” was riding the charts in 1973, he turned 37 years old. Chronologically, he was more a member of my parents’ generation than of mine.

As it happens, I met Ray Sawyer once.

Dr. Hook formed in the late 60s and for several years specialized in amiable stoner rock. They performed some Shel Silverstein songs in the 1971 Dustin Hoffman movie Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me, and scored a Top-10 hit with Silverstein’s “Sylvia’s Mother” in 1972. The 1973 album Sloppy Seconds consisted entirely of Silverstein songs, not just “Cover of the Rolling Stone” but such PG-rated fare as “Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball,” “Get My Rocks Off,” and “Lookin’ for Pussy.” In 1975, however, they dropped the Medicine Show from their name. As Dr. Hook, they became a reliable pop act. Between 1976 and 1979, “Only Sixteen,” “Sharing the Night Together,” and “When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman” all hit the Top 10, and “A Little Bit More” reached #11. Released late in 1979, the album Sometimes You Win produced two more Top-10 hits, “Better Love Next Time” and “Sexy Eyes.”

(In terms of chart performance, “Sexy Eyes” ended up their biggest Hot 100 hit, equaling “Sylvia’s Mother” at #5 but charting for 21 weeks compared to 15 for “Sylvia.” Nevertheless, I bet you don’t remember it at all.)

And so it came to pass that in the summer of 1980, Dr. Hook’s itinerary bought them to the Stephenson County Fair in Freeport, Illinois, and I got to interview Sawyer and lead singer Dennis Locorriere.

I was the night jock at WXXQ in Freeport. One afternoon, I went with a guy from our AM sister station to a hotel room in Freeport (which may in fact have been a motel room in Freeport), and there they were: Sawyer with his eye-patch and cowboy hat, and Locorriere looking no different than other thirtyish dudes one might pass on the street. They were, as best I can remember, very gracious, greeting us with big smiles and handshakes, and quite gregarious.

At the age of 20, I hadn’t met anyone remotely famous. I didn’t want anybody to know that, of course, and furthermore, I wanted to come off as the hip rock jock I saw when I looked in the mirror. But these guys were real rock stars, and I was scared shitless.

I remember only two things about the interview. First was a line that Sawyer probably repeated in every interview: “I lost my eye in a car accident. I went back to look for it but I couldn’t find it.” The other thing is asking them how they would describe a typical Dr. Hook song. What they said, I don’t remember—but I do remember that in my flustered-ness, I asked the question twice.

I don’t remember how we used the interview. My station was an album-rocker, although we may have added “Cover of the Rolling Stone” for the duration, and we probably played at least some of the interview to help plug the concert. The AM station played soft rock, mostly, and the interview probably got more prominent play over there.

I didn’t go to the Dr. Hook show at the county fair, because I was on the air that night. But when I hear a Dr. Hook song today, I sometimes think of that interview. Were I to go digging through my boxes of tapes, I could probably find a copy of it—but I’d be afraid to listen to it.

Before we left that day, we asked Sawyer and Locorriere to autograph copies of Sometimes You Win for giveaways. We were embarrassed to have only ballpoint pens for them to sign with, which don’t write well on covers. One of the better-looking copies ended up in my collection; it’s pictured here. Although you can’t see it, Sawyer signed, in a nice throwback to his stoner-rock days, “Hi Always, Ray Sawyer.”

Coming tomorrow: another tribute post.

You Prob’ly Think This Song Is About You

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(Pictured: Carly Simon.)

For this final post of 2018, here are the top 10 songs of 1973—the year I turned 13—as listed by KSTT in Davenport, Iowa.

10. “Touch Me in the Morning”/Diana Ross. A classmate of mine died last week. We were close in grade school, but by the time we were 13, we’d drifted apart. It’s a pattern many of us repeat all our lives. Some friendships we deliberately break; others just stop. A few crumble in slow motion; like Diana Ross in “Touch Me in the Morning,” we know it’s over, or soon will be, but we resolve to hang on to it just a little bit longer.

9. “Playground in My Mind”/Clint Holmes. I had a “girlfriend” in kindergarten. I lost track of her when we moved to different schools, but our town had only one junior high, so when we got to seventh grade, there she was again. We went on a single date at some point that year. As we talked, it came out that she had no memory of me from kindergarten. We never went out again.

8. “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”/Vicki Lawrence. My seventh-grade English teacher required us to keep a journal in which we could write anything, as long as we wrote two pages a week. I wrote stories almost exclusively. Even though I no longer have the journals, I’m pretty sure they were pretty terrible. As an adult writer, I admire “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” although it didn’t make sense to me at first. I was never sure exactly who was dead or who committed adultery with who.

7. “You’re So Vain”/Carly Simon. Teachers liked me, administrators like me, most other kids liked me, their parents liked me, and I knew it. So I was not lacking in self-esteem, and it made me an insufferable ass as years went by. If there is one fault I have worked to eradicate in adulthood, it’s to rid myself of that level of ego. But I have two blogs in which I talk about myself constantly, so there’s still work to do, apparently.

6. “Will It Go Round in Circles”/Billy Preston. My only contact with black people came through listening to soul music and watching black athletes, with one exception. One summer (1969?), an inner-city kid from Milwaukee spent a week on the farm through some program our church was sponsoring. It was not an exchange program; we did not get to spend a week in the ‘hood, however enlightening it might have been to do so. And however racist it might have been that we didn’t.

5. “Crocodile Rock”/Elton John. Me, earlier this year, upon re-listening to this song: “Its goofy extravagance—not so much in sound as in attitude—came from a well Elton would return to repeatedly over the next several years.”

4. “My Love”/Paul McCartney and Wings. I don’t hate this record, although we’re all supposed to.

3. “Killing Me Softly With His Song”/Roberta Flack. All I remember of the ed psych I took is that adolescents often perceive themselves as actors on a stage with everyone watching, and often the part one plays is not one’s true self. That’s what made certain friends so important: you could drop the mask with them and let them see right through you, in all your dark despair.

2. “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”/Jim Croce. Maybe I’ve repressed memories of the worst of it, but I don’t remember being bullied in any significant way when I was a kid. A handful of socially prominent jocks used to lord their position and their prowess over those of us who possessed neither. My main defense mechanism was my smart mouth and a willingness to make jokes with it, and a lot of the time, it worked.

1. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree”/Tony Orlando and Dawn. “I’m comin’ home, I’ve done my time / And I’ve got to know what is and isn’t mine.” At the end of this year in which I hoped to figure out why my 1973 seems jumbled and confused, I’m right back where I started: the year was jumbled and confused because that’s what it is to be 13 years old, dealing with a world that is bigger and more complicated than you ever suspected, making up your life as you live it, day by day.

(Please visit One Day in Your Life today for a new post, and for a programming announcement.)

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