Bird of Many Nations

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(Pictured: Hans Bouwens, better known as George Baker.)

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.

Lots of Dutch acts appeared on the American charts in the late 60s and 1970s, including the Shocking Blue (“Venus”), Mouth and MacNeal (“How Do You Do”), Golden Earring (“Radar Love”) and others I’m certainly forgetting. Baker himself had charted in 1969 with “Little Green Bag.”

“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 chart is 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. “Paloma Blanca” also made an unlikely run up Billboard‘s country singles chart going 95, 84, 74, 66, 55, 45, 39, 39, 36, 33, 40, 44, 69, 82, and out, reaching its peak of #33 on March 20, 1976, shortly after it exited the Hot 100.

The country chart run of “Paloma Blanca” roughly corresponds with the period in which I was doing the behind-the-wheel part of driver education. We didn’t have a simulator at my school in those days; we did 12 hours with an instructor in a real car over the course of several weeks, often on Saturday mornings. One of the instructors kept Chicago country station WMAQ on in his car—even when his students were driving—so I have associated “Paloma Blanca” with driver’s ed ever since.

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.

(Rebooted from a post that first appeared in January 2014.)

6 thoughts on “Bird of Many Nations

  1. OK, you’ve posted about some top-40 hits that I’ve never heard before, but this may be the first one that I’ve never even heard of. In ’75 I caught AT40 pretty religiously, so I must have heard this – perhaps my brain just refused to keep the memory.

  2. porky

    with a July birthday I could have taken summer school for driver’s ed but chose to work instead and take it in the fall (of ’76). We (mostly likely) had WLS on in the car and my driver’s ed tunes were “Edmund Fitzgerald” “Disco Duck” “Rockin’ Me” and “Year of the Cat.” At least those are the ones that always remind of driver’s ed when I hear them these days.

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