The Bird of Many Nations

You live with a radio in your ear every hour you can, and some weird stuff is gonna get stuck in your head.

Take as an example the international smash that topped charts in a dozen-or-so countries (including the Easy Listening chart in America) beginning in 1975. Since then, it’s been covered by polka bands and Hispanic artists. Although its title is a Spanish phrase meaning “white bird,” the song is otherwise in English. It was written by a Dutchman about, he says, a South American farmer.

It’s the damn United Nations is what it is.

There is no justifying “Paloma Blanca” by the George Baker Selection, not really, except to say that it was the 1970s and we couldn’t help ourselves. That thumping bass line, the piccolo trills, and Baker’s heavily accented English, as well as the almost phonetic English of female singer Nelleke Brzoskowsky, who takes the last verse—there are lots of reasons why it never should have amounted to anything more than a novelty or curiosity in the United States. And yet there’s something irresistible about it nevertheless.

“Paloma Blanca” was not just an easy-listening hit—it also made the Hot 100. It bubbled under for a couple of weeks in November 1975 before breaking in during the week of November 29. It cracked the Top 40 during the week of January 10, 1976, in the same quarter-hour of American Top 40 with “Slow Ride,” “Golden Years,” and “Squeeze Box.” (That week’s AT40 was a recent weekend rerun, and I may have to live blog it before January is over. It’s one of the half-dozen most 70s weeks of the 70s.) It reached its peak of #26 for the week of January 31 (the same week it reached #1 at WVOK in Birmingham, Alabama) and fell out of the 40 on February 14, although it spent the next three weeks trying to get back in, going from 44 to 42 to 41—just after it had gone to #1 on Easy Listening, and while it was peaking in an unlikely five-week run to #33 on the Billboard country chart. It finally took a turn down to #68 for the week of March 6 before dropping out of the Hot 100 altogether the week after that.

The Billboard archive at Google Books is sadly missing most of 1976, so I can’t track the exact arc of “Paloma Blanca” on the country chart, but I certainly remember hearing it on one particular country station. In 1975, WMAQ, a 50,000-watt AM in Chicago that had been on the air since 1922, adopted a country format. By 1976 it was on the way to becoming one of America’s great radio stations, programmed by radio wunderkind Bob Pittman, with a Hall-of-Fame lineup of jocks including Nancy Turner, Lon Helton, and Lee Sherwood. Even Fred Winston worked there briefly in 1976. Unlike a lot of country stations, it didn’t try to be down-home—its formatics were pure Top 40, only with music by Waylon and Willie and Merle and Dolly. It took the market by storm, giving away huge cash prizes to people who answered the telephone by saying “WMAQ’s gonna make me rich.” It swiftly became one of Chicago’s top-rated stations.

And WMAQ played “Paloma Blanca” a lot. Although my parents were regular WMAQ listeners, I associate “Paloma Blanca” not with them, but with one of the behind-the-wheel instructors from the semester I took driver’s ed, the spring of 1976. He kept WMAQ on in the car all the time, so several of us were captives to it. I didn’t mind, though. Even then, I could recognize when a radio station was doing it right—and sometimes, when I had control of the radio, in my car or in the house, I’d choose to listen to them.

You live with a radio in your ear every hour you can, and some weird stuff is gonna get stuck in your head. Like a country station playing a polka written by a Dutchman about a South American farmer.

6 thoughts on “The Bird of Many Nations

  1. Milton Butler

    On Billboard’s Country chart, Paloma Blanca debuted on January 10, 1976 at #100 and subsequently went to 95, 84, 74, 66, 55, 45, 39, 39, 36, 33, 40, 44, 69 and 82 before dropping off the chart. The peak position of#33 was reached on March 20, 1976.

  2. Not really my cup of tea, but an entertaining video. Loved watching him sincerely singing the opening verse to a perched bird, and the band members look as if they were given the leftover costumes from Heart’s Little Queen photo shoot. Nice slice of time.

  3. I remember WMAQ’s country format well — among other things, it introduced me to Eddie Rabbitt’s “We Can’t Go On Living Like This,” a good couple of years before “Every Which Way But Loose” put him on AT40.

  4. Pingback: Etched Into History | The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

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