(Pictured: Elton John listens at home, 1974.)
I said it in the very first post at this blog: the record charts, from about 1970 through about 1986, are the calendar of my life: name a date and I’ll give you a song; name a song and I’ll give you a date. I used to be able to tell you the #1 song on any given date of the 1970s, but some pages of the calendar are getting a little dim.
I was listening to the American Top 40 show from April 13, 1974. That’s the season in which I discovered AT40 as a listener, picking it out of the static on WROK from Rockford, Illinois. Several of my favorite songs that spring were ones I heard only on AT40, as none of my favorite stations were playing them. I had never heard anything like “The Payback” by James Brown, and I dug it. Neither WCFL or WLS in Chicago charted Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” WLS didn’t chart the Staple Singers’ “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend” either; WCFL did, but they never played it as much as I wanted to hear it. Other obscure songs from that show still stick in my mind after all this time, including Lamont Dozier’s “Tryin’ to Hold on to My Woman” and the fabulous country soul of “Tell Me a Lie” by Sami Jo, another song I heard nowhere else.
As I listen, I’m on parallel tracks—geeky 14-year-old in the spring of eighth grade, making his own handwritten list of the hits, one song at a time, and geeky 57-year-old in the autumn of his life, remembering those songs and others he expects to hear. But this is where the calendar page gets dim.
As the show goes on, I start thinking, “Where’s ‘Band on the Run’?” The album hit #1 during the very April week of this AT40 show, and I keep expecting to hear the title song. When Casey gets to #14 and plays “Jet,” I realize that I must have misremembered when “Band on the Run” hit the radio. It wouldn’t reach the Hot 100 until the week of April 20, at #68. It would hit #41 the next week, blast onto AT40 at #22 during the week of May 4, and go 14-7-5-2 and finally to #1 on June 8, 1974.
(Digression: I would like to be able to tell you when “Band on the Run” first appears at ARSA, the Airheads Radio Survey Archive, but a recent update to the site has removed that functionality, in which you could click on a title and see all the listings for that title, an invaluable research aid. I have asked the site proprietor why, but have yet to hear back. I hope there’s an explanation. This is a serious loss to geeks such as I.)
By the time Casey reached the Top 5, I felt pretty confident in being able to predict what I was going to hear. It was the spring of 1974, I’d heard this show the first time it aired, and after 43 years I know the territory: “Come and Get Your Love,” “The Lord’s Prayer,” “TSOP,” and “Hooked on a Feeling.”
That left only the week’s #1 hit. I was sitting at a stop sign when it came on: “Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John. And I said out loud to nobody, “Where the fk is ‘The Streak’?” The answer: at #84, where it debuted during the week of April 13. It would go 84-54-19-6-2 before hitting #1 during the week of May 18, staying two weeks and remaining in the Top 10 til the end of June and in the Hot 100 until August.
So maybe those nights I remember, up there in my bedroom at home, trying to keep my radio locked on that sketchy AM signal from Rockford, were later in the spring than I thought. Perhaps May instead of April.
It seems like a small thing, being off by one month after 43 years. And besides, a man my age sees many of his abilities begin to decline. Nevertheless, I wasn’t expecting that this—my idiot-savant-like memory for record charts, something that defines who I am and what I care about—would be one of them.