A Super Star

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(Pictured: Gary Owens in 2008.)

As a tribute to the late Gary Owens, Premiere Radio Networks recently offered its American Top 40 affiliates a show Owens guest-hosted, his only time filling in for Casey Kasem, on the weekend of September 12, 1981. We started live-blogging it in the previous installment—part 2 is on the flip.

21. “That Old Song”/Ray Parker Jr. and Raydio. I have dismissed the adult pop of 1981 as “melodies that sound familiar from the first time you hear them, easy to bob your head or tap your foot to and perfect for in-office radio listening, innocuous enough to vanish from consciousness until they come up in the rotation three hours later.” But some of them are better than others.

19. “Start Me Up”/Rolling Stones. This song has been so omnipresent these last 34 years that it’s hard to remember when it was just another hit on the way up.

18. “The Beach Boys Medley”/Beach Boys. Edited highlights of eight Beach Boys songs, the first such medley to hit after the the success of Stars on 45 during the summer of ’81. But not the last: the medley craze was just beginning.

15. “The Breakup Song”/Greg Kihn Band. Makes any radio station sound hotter than hell whenever it’s played, which is not often enough.

14. “Hold on Tight”/ELO. Has always seemed to me like a trifle next to the Electric Light Orchestra’s greater singles, but it gets played on the radio more than most of them.

Extra: “Hello Goodbye”/Beatles. When AT40 went to four hours in 1978, it became necessary to pad the shows—and sometimes the padding is painful to listen to, sap-tastic Long Distance Dedications and where-are-they-now features about people nobody wonders about. The padding in this show isn’t especially terrible—at this time, AT40 was featuring a couple of the #1 songs of the 1960s on every show, and once they got to 1964, nearly every one was pretty good. (“Daydream Believer” was the other one on this week’s show.) But this show also has a musical feature about married couples who hit #1 and two Long-Distance Dedications, one of which you’ll read about below. (AT 40 really needed to be padded to 3 1/2 hours, not four.)

10. “Step by Step”/Eddie Rabbitt, 6. Queen of Hearts/Juice Newton, and 5. No Getting Over Me/Ronnie Milsap. By my count, 13 of the 47 singles to hit #1 on the country chart in 1981, which is about 28 percent, were significant Hot 100 hits too. In this week, Milsap had just lost the top spot, and Rabbitt would claim it in October. (“Queen of Hearts” would somehow stall out at #14 country.) Also on AT40 this week: former #1 country hits “I Don’t Need You” by Kenny Rogers back at #31 and “Feels So Right” by Alabama at #20. We were not that far removed from Urban Cowboy, and it showed.

9. “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do)”/Christopher Cross. This is the biggest mover of the week, up 15 spots, which is the strongest possible commentary on the state of the Top 40 in the fall of 1981.

Long Distance Dedication: “Respect”/Aretha Franklin. Owens reads a letter from Mark in Buffalo, who’s tired of people disrespecting his hometown, and who wants everyone to know people there are proud of their city. Smirk if you want, but it’s an immeasurably better dedication than the usual lost or found lovers and dead relatives.

The Top Eight: Last year, a commenter told us that in the early 80s, Billboard had a “super star” designation, different from the regular “bullet” that showed continuing chart potential. It took songs longer to lose the star/bullet, which contributed to some remarkable stasis on the chart, including this week: although Owens doesn’t say so, the top eight songs are in the same positions as the week before, and 16 of the 40. It’s the third straight week that “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie and “Slow Hand” by the Pointer Sisters are locked at #1 and #2. Foreigner’s “Urgent,” sitting at #4 for a second week, would stay there four weeks in all. Such inertia makes the 10-place jump of “Start Me Up” and the 15-place move of “Arthur’s Theme” even more impressive.

As host, Gary Owens didn’t do anything that Casey wouldn’t have done in this week. The producers didn’t script anything special for him (although I suspect he was winging it in a couple of spots). He didn’t sneak a “beautiful downtown Burbank” into Mark’s Long Distance Dedication, even after Mark mentioned the city in his letter. There were none of his famous non-sequiturs or made-up words. On this particular show, he was just a guy doing a job, which is what he did on the radio from the age of 16 and later as a voiceover artist—and that’s admirable, especially when you do your jobs better than almost everybody else, ever.

5 thoughts on “A Super Star

  1. Mike Stenz

    Gary’s style had a formal air about it. I don’t know why or how after 30-plus years, but it still sticks in my head after 30-plus years that he announced the Ronnie Milsap record as “No Getting Over Me” rather than the correct “No Gettin’…”

  2. Mike Stenz

    Chart stasis, indeed: On this same countdown, Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” was #3 for the second of what would turn out to be SIX weeks in a row! In week six, October 10th, the song was already down to #7 in Cash Box (two weeks after peaking at #4) and #12 in Radio & Records (three weeks after peaking at #3). These long holding patterns that begat Billboard’s “super star” system were impressive for sure, but necessary? Not really, IMHO. The Hot 100 was Bill Wardlow’s plaything.

  3. porky

    as far as coverage by bands, “The Break Up Song” was like the “Louie Louie” of the 80’s, everybody covered it because it was easy to play and got people moving.

    A couple of years after charting, “Hold on Tight” was used in a coffee commercial with consumers dubbed The Coffee Achievers. There was a punk band at my college called that.

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