(Don’t forget: Starting Monday, you’ll be able to read my interview with Mister Zero of the Kings at this blog. But now, our regularly scheduled presentation.)
I haven’t forgotten that April is Jazz Appreciation Month, and I appreciate it plenty. Jazz has occasionally made inroads to the pop charts during the rock era—Louis Armstrong’s “Hello Dolly” made Number One in 1964 while Beatlemania was raging (although nobody would rank it among the top 100, or 500, records Armstrong ever made); pianist Ramsey Lewis had a sizeable hit with “The In Crowd” a year later. Bands like Blood Sweat and Tears, Chicago, and Earth Wind and Fire owed a debt to the jazz bands of earlier eras as well. Just off the top of my head, here are five people better known as jazz players and their pop-radio hits:
Breezin’/George Benson. If this wasn’t the largest-selling jazz album of the 1970s, and one of the biggest of all time, I don’t know what is. It spent two weeks at Number One in the summer of 1976 and featured two hit singles, “This Masquerade” and “Breezin’.” Over the next seven or eight years, Benson would return to the singles chart repeatedly, including three trips into the Top 10 (“On Broadway,” “Give Me the Night,” “Turn Your Love Around”), although those records would be more pop than jazz.
Feels So Good/Chuck Mangione. Here’s another jazz album frequently found on the shelves of people who don’t know or care much about jazz. Now, we can safely say it’s one of the founding documents of smooth jazz—the jazz genre for people who don’t know or care much about jazz—although it’s a little more challenging than most of that stuff. I haven’t listened to it, or anything else by Mangione, for a long time, but the title track still sounds pretty good when it comes on the radio. I saw Mangione play live in 1980, although I don’t remember much about it. Maybe this will jog my memory:
“Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)”/Deodato. One of the most unlikely hits of all time, a five-minute edit of a nine-minute original, this actually made it all the way to Number Two on the Hot 100 in the spring of 1973, right behind the O’Jays “Love Train.” There’s some high-powered jazz talent on the album it comes from (Prelude), including Ron Carter, Hubert Laws, Billy Cobham, and Stanley Clarke. Deodato never made the Top 40 again, just missing with a version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” later in ’73, and was making disco records by the end of the decade. (But wasn’t everybody?) He also produced several hits by Kool and the Gang in the early 80s.
“Gonna Fly Now”/Maynard Ferguson. In a decade famed for excess, Ferguson amplified his band to ear-splitting levels and then blew harder than anyone else, all while dressed in costumes as loud as his music. After “Gonna Fly Now” hit the radio in 1977, his shows drew appreciative audiences of rock fans (and I know, because I was part of one at college a couple of years later), although jazz fans started abandoning him at the same time. His “Gonna Fly Now” is every bit as good as the one by Bill Conti—albeit just as cheesy in its own way. (The vocal line on both records is just awful.) But Conti’s version hit Number One and Ferguson’s stalled at 28 nationally.
Touchdown/Bob James. You have probably heard every song on this album—or at least the first 60 seconds of each song on this album—although you might not know it. Touchdown contains “Angela (Theme From Taxi),” which managed to miss the Hot 100 entirely despite getting a fair amount of airplay in 1979, but it’s familiar to you because like many instrumental albums of the 1970s, it found its way into the production studios of radio stations. Songs on Touchdown were used as background music for radio spots at stations across the country. Such a thing is technically illegal—you can’t use a piece of music in a commercial without the permission of the copyright holder—but everybody who came up in radio during the vinyl era remembers a big stack of instrumental albums that were used for production purposes. Many were by Deodato, Chuck Mangione, and Maynard Ferguson, actually.
I am sure that I have missed some big, obvious pop hits by jazz players, but I’m also sure you’ll tell me what they are.