Keep It Comin’, Love

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(Pictured: Gloria Gaynor with Clifton Davis, writer of “Never Can Say Goodbye.”)

Here’s another ancient rerun, from August 12, 2005, slightly condensed.

Making a list of disco songs that do not suck is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. It took finishing Peter Shapiro’s Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco to get me off the dime. Shapiro believes that the best disco never made it to the radio, and what made it to the radio was often drained of disco’s passion and/or artistry. Nevertheless, I’m picking from what I heard on the radio, and here we go (in chronological order).

“The Love I Lost”/Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. I never really thought of this as a disco record—mostly because what Teddy Pendergrass is doing with the vocal is more gospel testifyin’ than disco crooning. In Shapiro’s opinion, “The Love I Lost” is one of the most important early examples of the form. And he’s right—it’s got the gliding orchestra, the chugging bass line, and the hard-working high-hat cymbal. And its full-length version runs over six minutes, gloriously extending the groove. [The Tom Moulton mix takes it to nearly 13 minutes, and to heaven. —Ed.] (Hot 100 peak: #7, December 8, 1973)

“Love’s Theme”/Love Unlimited Orchestra. According to Shapiro, this was the first song to reach #1 on the pop charts thanks in part to its exposure in discos. On the one hand, it’s elegant and sophisticated, but on the other, he says, it’s as drenched in funk as Ron Jeremy‘s basement. (#1, February 9, 1974)

“Rock Your Baby”/George McCrae. If you wanted to pick a spot where disco began to make inroads into the Top 40 and neither of the two previous records suited you, this would work. “Rock Your Baby” sounds cheap and cheesy, but similar limitations didn’t stop a lot of disco records from becoming enormous hits. (#1, July 13, 1974)

“Never Can Say Goodbye”/Gloria Gaynor. One of the first major pop hits that sounded like disco as we remember it now—a big flashy orchestra chugging at a hundred miles an hour with a diva soaring above it. And another cymbal player working his ass off. (#9, January 25, 1975)

“Doctor’s Orders”/Carol Douglas. My favorite disco record. The medical metaphor is cute without being too forced, and Douglas is a charming singer. The rhythm guitarist, whoever he is, deserves some kind of award for persistence. (#11, February 8, 1975)

“Disco Queen”/Hot Chocolate. No happy-happy-everybody-dance vibe here. It’s more like, “You will dance, or else.” Hot Chocolate’s signature noise, that ominous, low guitar buzz, runs all through it; the horns could demolish entire buildings; and the drummer damn well means business, too. (#28, July 19, 1975)

“Fly Robin Fly”/Silver Convention. This record gets its unique sound from the soloing string section, but the part was originally intended to be played by horns. According to Shapiro, there was a shortage of competent horn players in Germany at the time “Fly Robin Fly” was recorded. Thus, the producers used string players from the Munich Philharmonic instead. (#1, November 29, 1975)

“Disco Lady”/Johnnie Taylor. Controversial in its time for “shake it up, shake it down, move it in, move it around.” (It’s kind of cute what passed for controversial back in the Paleozoic Era.) But if you stripped off the lyrics entirely, you’d be left with one of the most gorgeous instrumental tracks of any era, disco or otherwise. Plus it’s got one of the all-time great intros for DJs to talk over. (#1, April 3, 1976)

“Whispering-Cherchez La Femme”/Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. Shapiro devotes a great deal of space to the work of August Darnell, the man behind Dr. Buzzard and later, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, as an example of the artistic possibilities of disco.  (#27, January 29, 1977)

“Stayin’ Alive”/Bee Gees. Shapiro disposes of the Bee Gees with a handful of dismissive comments, which is quite an omission for a history of disco. Although Saturday Night Fever was the most potent expression of disco in the marketplace, let’s not equate “commercial” with “crap” in this case. “Stayin’ Alive” is one of the most exciting records of the 1970s, and possibly of all time. There’s no question about it. (#1, February 4, 1978)

After this post first appeared, several amongst the readership wrote in to ask where KC and the Sunshine Band were, and I was forced to write an entire mea culpa. Either “Get Down Tonight” or “Keep It Comin’ Love” should have been on this list. Of the many reasons to dig KC I wrote, “[E]ven white men who claim they can’t dance can dance to KC.”

The King Is Gone

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(Pictured: Ronnie McDowell with Dick Clark on American Bandstand.)

On my travels this spring I am carrying a 16-gig USB stick on which I have loaded most of the compilations I have. And so it came to pass that I was on a deserted highway somewhere in rural Minnesota when “The King Is Gone” by Ronnie McDowell came up.

McDowell was a self-described “working boy earning a living in clubs around Bowling Green, Kentucky,” 27 years old, on August 16, 1977, when he heard about Elvis Presley’s death on the radio. Within 15 minutes, he started composing a song in his head; two days later he played what he had for another musician, and together, they finished the song. Not long after, McDowell recorded it with a band including a guitarist named Bucky Barrett, who had been scheduled to join Presley’s band for some tour dates in late August. In a classic showbiz story, McDowell took an acetate to a radio station in Madison, Tennessee, and asked them to play it. He had to talk his way past the receptionist but finally got “The King Is Gone” on the air. The response made McDowell and his record company believe they were onto something.

“The King Is Gone” was released on Scorpion, an independent label whose most famous acts in 1977 were country veterans Roy Drusky and Jean Shepard. McDowell, who had begun writing songs while serving in the Navy, had placed songs with both artists, as well as the Wilburn Brothers and Porter Wagoner. He had recorded only a couple of singles himself before “The King Is Gone.”

“The King Is Gone” first shows up at ARSA on a survey from KFI in Los Angeles on August 29, less than two weeks after Presley’s death. On September 12, WAKY in Louisville debuted it at #1. The same week, in Kansas City, it went from #10 to #1 at KBEQ and from #34 to #1 at WHB. (In November, it recorded its only other #1 listing, at CFGO in Ottawa.) It made the Top 10 at a number of influential stations, including WLS in Chicago, KTKT in Tuscon, and WDRC in Hartford. It peaked at #13 on both the Hot 100 and on Billboard‘s country chart, and it crept into the lower reaches of the Easy Listening Top 50.

The record’s success led McDowell to appearances on American Bandstand and The Midnight Special in the fall of 1977. He says it sold six million copies, a million of them in a single week shortly after its release, but he banked only about $28,000 from it. (He jokes that he’s grateful that his manager/label owner Slim Williamson covered the hot checks he wrote to pay the session musicians.) He has enjoyed some good paydays since then, however, because “The King Is Gone” led to a successful career. He performed the voice of Elvis in numerous commercials, movies, and TV programs, and was one of the top stars in country for a while. He put 15 singles into the Billboard country Top 10 between 1981 and 1987, and a 16th peaked at #11.

Unlike many country stars from the 70s to the 90s, who have given up recording new music and rely on touring to make a living, McDowell has embraced the Internet as a way of reaching the audience. He calls it “an outlet that has nothing to do with radio and all those omnipotent God program directors” who won’t play songs by older artists.

McDowell still performs “The King Is Gone” at every show, but it’s never been a part of radio oldies libraries. In fact, I don’t remember hearing it after it dropped off the air at the end of 1977. Its greatest exposure after that might have been in the early 90s when Rhino put it on a late volume of their Super Hits of the 70s: Have a Nice Day series. To our ears today, it sounds overwrought and cheesy. But in the fall of 1977, we did not have much experience losing cultural icons, and certainly not icons as big as Elvis Presley. And “The King Is Gone” helped us cope.

The Long and the Short of It

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(Pictured: Wolfman Jack, who could put more of himself into 10 seconds on the radio than practically anybody.)

Tuesday’s post, about oldies radio in general and WDGY in the Twin Cities in particular, seems to have struck a chord amongst the readership, and I’ve been thinking about some other stuff in response to the response.

WDGY’s competitor for the Twin Cities oldies audience is Kool 108, which is part of the iHeart empire. Our friend Yah Shure (who worked at the original WDGY back in the day) points out that “Without [60s music], there’d be nothing to differentiate WeeGee from its far more powerful FM competitor.” That Kool 108’s ratings dwarf WDGY’s is no surprise. Yah Shure observes that WeeGee’s signal isn’t very good—I have never been able to pick up the FM translators after the AM goes dark at sundown—and their ownership isn’t doing much to promote the station. It seems entirely likely to me that some of the people who listen to Kool 108 would very much like to hear some 60s music alongside the 70s and 80s stuff, but they either don’t know that WDGY exists, or they can’t pick it up.

Yah Shure notes that WDGY is mostly a jukebox outside of morning drive. On some of my visits to the Twin Cities, I’ve also heard a jock on weekday afternoons, and sometimes not. I am not bothered by the jukebox aspect. In fact, I’m bothered more by the quality of the on-air work I’ve heard, which segues into another comment I got on my original post.

Larry Grogan tweeted me to say, “I was thinking about your piece, and then turned on Sirius only to be greeted by the 60s morning DJ, who drives me nuts. Then it occurred to me that his style and the style of his show is aimed at old folks. Very chatty, lots of talking to callers at length.” I hear similar stuff on WDGY. The morning guy is very talky, and I often find myself exasperated when he goes on past the point at which I need to hear anymore about whatever his topic is.

Going on at length does not make you a stronger personality. And it’s not what the old-school jocks did all the time anyhow. The best of the jocks I grew up with could express themselves uniquely over a 10-second intro. A worthwhile short bit can be more challenging to create than a long one. A lot of jocks either forget that, or they never knew it. A lot of the yammering you hear today is intended to express personality, but it doesn’t add any value: chattering at length about the obvious (ordinary weather, for example) or something not especially interesting (“Don’t you love corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day?”).

The Sirius/XM 60s on 6 morning guy is Phlash Phelps, who’s spent the majority of his career replicating a madcap style of 60s Top 40 despite being six years younger than I am. I haven’t heard his show, so I can’t speak to it. I occasionally hear the jocks on 70s on 7, and they, too, are replicating an older style: that of the ballsy-voiced “puker.” And these stations aren’t the only ones. When I was in New York a couple of years ago, I listened to the fabled WCBS-FM and noticed how jokey every jock was. After a while, it was off-putting. I wanted them to stop trying to hard to entertain me and just let the music do it.

A lot of DJs are tempted to constantly show off how cool and funny they are. (I certainly am.) But not everything has to be a bit. Sometimes, as my former program director Pat O’Neill frequently reminded me, title and artist is enough. And as Larry’s comment makes clear, that talky old-school style can drive away a listener for whom it isn’t an attraction to begin with.

It does not occur to me, when I’m on the air doing Saturday at the 70s (or at any other time), to ape the style of a 70s jock. At most, that style inspires me—the compact wisecracks of a Larry Lujack, the effortless delivery of a Casey Kasem, the boss-jock talkup skills of a Kris Erik Stevens. But I’m doing the show in 2019. We know stuff today, about how people listen and what people like, that we didn’t know in 1969 or 1979. The things we know include A) not everything has to be a bit and B) title and artist is sometimes enough.

What a Day for a Daydream

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I wrote here last winter about the experience of listening to music on AM radio. There’s just something about that sonic atmosphere, and the oddly backward way that the lesser fidelity of the AM band makes the music sound better than it does on FM or CD. I have also written in the past about WDGY, an oldies station in the Twin Cities, which is one of my favorite stations anywhere in the country. It’s not the original “Wee Gee,” it’s a modern-day reboot with the same call letters, actually licensed to Hudson, Wisconsin, with a daytime-only AM signal on 740 and a couple of low-power FM translators.

I notice, on my yearly trips to Minnesota, that the close edge of the WDGY library keeps advancing—a couple of years ago you wouldn’t hear music made after 1978, last year it was 1979, and I expect to hear a song or two from 1980 on this trip. But unlike a lot of oldies stations, it has yet to age past the music of the 1960s, which is still a vital part of the station’s library.

Your typical good times/great oldies radio station has long since dumped music from the 60s. If you graduated from high school in 1968, you’re pushing 70 now, and few stations are interested in programming to you. The received wisdom is that if a listener is going to be with them for only nine minutes at a time, they’d better not risk playing any song that isn’t part of that listener’s direct experience. (I have no doubt that there’s audience research showing that oldies radio target demos prefer 70s and 80s music. Radio stations put a lot of faith in audience research and finding out what people like—but people can’t like what you don’t ask them about, and I wonder if stations are even asking about 60s music anymore.)

The assumption that people aren’t interested in music they did not directly experience is a faulty one anyway. When the Beatles first appeared on Spotify in 2015, they quickly became one of the most-streamed artists on the platform, and it’s unlikely that all those streams were coming from people who could remember the 60s. At some point in the 00s, I met a twentysomething bartender whose favorite band was Led Zeppelin and whose favorite radio station was 93.1 The Lake. He was born after John Bonham died and the band ceased to be. Classic-rock stations recognize that even as they incorporate 90s bands like Pearl Jam and Green Day, 60s acts are still necessary for their success.

Nobody who’s into classical music would say that Bach and Beethoven are irrelevant because their music is too old. And it occurred to me the other day that the music of the 1960s is a sort of classical music now. The greatness of Bach and Beethoven is undisputed; their music continues to be acclaimed, and anyone claiming classical musical literacy had better know something about who they are and what they wrote. The same is true of the top 1960s stars: if you like hip-hop, you’d best know about James Brown and Sly Stewart; if you like Ed Sheeran and other singer/songwriter types, you’d best know about Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell; if you like the brand of girl power espoused by Taylor Swift, Pink, and Beyoncé, you’d best know about Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield.

In 2017, after another trip up here and more time spent listening to WDGY, I wrote about the way pop music has gotten slower and sadder as time has passed, and how pop records are more likely to be in a minor key today than at any time in history. The percentage of major keys and sprightly tempos was far higher in the 60s. The world was full of trouble back then, too: kids were getting shipped off to the ‘Nam, their parents were getting divorced, war and famine were on the front pages every day—but pop music was not nearly so bereft of joy as it’s been for nearly a generation now.

Sixties AM-radio pop is one of the best mood elevators I know. Flying down the interstate on a bright afternoon, car window cracked, spring in the air (should spring ever come), who wants to gaze at one’s navel feeling morose when you could ride with the Lovin’ Spoonful? What a day for a daydream, indeed.

If I have missed something, big and obvious or small and subtle—always a possibility—I hope the radio programmers and knowledgeable bystanders in the crowd will weigh in.

Lost Art

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It’s time for another edition of Short Attention Span Theater, when I dust off fragments of posts that have been sitting in my drafts file waiting to see the light. First up, some outtakes from a post I wrote late last year about listening to music on AM radio. 

33. “For the Good Times”/Ray Price. At what age do we realize what love songs are actually about? In this beautiful Kris Kristofferson song, lovers who are breaking up decide to spend one last night together. Ten-year-old me understood that men and women fall in love (and fifth-grade me had already fallen hard for somebody), but to what actual extent I understood what Price was singing about, I can’t say.

28.  “One Less Bell to Answer”/Fifth Dimension. How deeply I understood the “one less bell to answer / one less egg to fry” metaphor back then I don’t know either, but the writer in me today likes it, even if it makes the singer sound not so much like a jilted lover but like fired domestic help.

25. “Yellow River”/Christie. Sometime in 1970, my parents bought an enormous console stereo, a giant piece of furniture that took up an entire wall of the living room. It had a turntable, and also the first FM stereo radio they’d ever owned. Because they liked country music, they found an FM stereo country station and would frequently fill the house with it. One of the songs the station played that fall was “Yellow River.” I am pretty sure I didn’t hear it again until Rhino put it on a volume of the Super Hits of the 70s: Have a Nice Day series at the end of the 80s, and the first time I played that disc, it was quite the “holy shit I remember that song” moment. (WABC-processed version here.)

There was a time when a radio jock manually played every element you hear on the air—started every record, punched every commercial, fired every jingle. Many of us prided ourselves on what was known as “board work.” I still take pride in mine, to the extent that I am required to do it nowadays. The stitching-together of programming elements can be done creatively, when one cares enough to think about it that way. The following paragraph is one example of a topic I should probably expand upon someday.

Some programmers would tell you to put a jingle between Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonite” and Julian Lennon’s “Valotte,” since “Valotte” is a far different tempo and starts with a cold vocal open. But you could also crank the cold vocal open so it starts really hot and take out the fade of “Rock Me Tonite” the instant the vocal starts without mixing the two. Trust me, it’ll be awesome. In this age of digital automation, creative radio board work is a lost art, but it doesn’t have to be.

This bit was, believe it or not, the introduction to a post about an edition of American Top 40 that I later changed to something else because I came to my senses.

We can’t really know how anything in life truly looks and feels to other people. One can describe the taste of chocolate or the sight of the color red, but what happens physically when one eats or looks—not to mention the constellation of mental images one experiences at the same time—would be different for each of us. And I am guessing my perceptions, if you could compare them to your own, would astound you, and vice versa. When we try to describe feelings, we’re on similarly shifting terrain. When I talk about love or trust or despair, you know the concept, but you almost certainly don’t feel those things the way I do.

We know this is true. We’ve experienced it when reading a review or a column or a blog post in which an author writes about a song, an album, a movie, or a book that affected him or her deeply—a work we’re familiar with, but one that does little or nothing for us personally. By whatever alchemy it happens, what that person experiences is vastly different from what we experience.

So when I write about how a single radio show feels to me like an organic whole that brings an entire season of my life into vivid detail, I need to remember that it probably doesn’t do the same thing for you.

Please plan to join us for a future edition of this feature, after my creative process fails a few more times.

Not So Down Home After All

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(Pictured: Charley Pride on The Johnny Cash Show, circa 1969.)

The PBS series American Masters, which has been profiling prominent American artists (along with the occasional athlete and journalist) since 1986, is generally awesome, and not enough people talk about how awesome it is. Last month, the show spotlighted Sammy Davis Jr., and Charley Pride during the same week. Davis, whose array of talents is matched by very few in the history of American showbiz, came off as a man always desperate for approval, not just of the audience but of his peers, and willing to make questionable choices in hopes of receiving it. That he stoically endured countless hours of racist abuse onstage from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin indicates to me that he felt it was part of the price he had to pay for their friendship, and by extension, for his popularity with white America. His literal embrace of Richard Nixon feels as if it came from the same needy place.

As for Pride, somebody said on Twitter the other day that the only person who doesn’t think Charley Pride is one of the coolest cats on Earth appears to be Charley Pride himself. His music is the essence of country, and his journey—from Mississippi sharecropper to Montana-based professional baseball player to stardom in a genre where he literally stood alone—is the kind of biography nobody will ever have again. His American Masters profile was one of the best hours of television I’ve watched in ages, and you can watch it right here

Back in 2011, I wrote about one of Pride’s iconic hit records, and how it told a truth that a lot of today’s country-music fans don’t want to acknowledge about themselves. What follows is a piece of that post. 

There’s a whole subgenre of country music devoted to songs about the simple pleasures of small town or rural life, songs that idealize the places where the high-school team nickname is painted on the water tower, where everybody believes in Jesus, etc. It’s easy to view the popularity of this sort of thing as a reaction to the world we live in. Compared to our harried urban existence, with its tenuous prosperity and impermanent personal relationships, and the way it randomly deals out fortune and tragedy, a world bounded by solid, simple, unchanging values is extremely attractive. It’s no wonder people caught in the former might want to gravitate to the latter. Because music has such power in our lives, songs about those values grab hard and hold on tight.

But, if given the chance, would people really give up modern urbanized life for a country idyll? Would they give up satellite TV and the Internet for sitting on the front porch at sunset? Would they give up the multiplex for the fishing hole, the megamart for the small-town general store, the sports bar with HD flat-screens for the Dew Drop Inn? Some might, but others may find that in their souls, they’re not so down-home after all.

There’s a song about this. Charley Pride, who’s as down-home as they come, recorded “Wonder Could I Live There Anymore,” which sounds like a nostalgic encomium to a simple life on the farm—beautiful rural vistas, Uncle Ben milking the cows, Mama in the kitchen. But it’s revealed that Uncle Ben is working the farm because Daddy is working a second job in town “to pay our bill at the grocery store.” And in the final verse, Pride says that when he thinks about his childhood and his old hometown, he doesn’t miss them like before. “It’s nice to think about it,” goes the refrain, “Maybe even visit, but I wonder could I live there anymore?”

“Wonder Could I Live There Anymore” isn’t a postmodern song recorded recently—it was a #1 country single for Pride in the summer of 1970. And it’s a cautionary tale for anybody who finds themselves tempted by what looks like the simple life.

The days we romanticize as simpler and easier were neither. A lot of the trouble we get into, both in our personal lives and as a nation trying to govern itself, comes from our failure to remember. 

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