(Pictured: very hairy Mungo Jerry, whose “In the Summertime” was climbing the charts in the summer of 1970.)
We’ve spent a fair amount of time here over the years on the American Top 40 shows from 1970, the era in which Casey and company are trying to figure out what the show should be. The fourth edition in the program’s history, from July 25, 1970, was recently offered as a weekend repeat, and I’ve been listening to it.
I get a strong sense that Casey is winging it—that aside from a few features, he and his producers haven’t mapped out anything else, and he’s saying whatever pops into his head when it’s time to introduce a song or to back-announce it. He’s still not announcing chart positions, which is something we noticed when listening to the first show—he leaves it to the jingle singers, almost as if the producers were leaving themselves open to reusing his introductions on future shows, although that seems crazy. And he sometimes talks so fast you can miss what he’s saying, which strikes me as more evidence that they’re winging it—that they don’t know exactly how much time each segment of the show is going to take, so they’re saving seconds wherever possible, figuring it will be easier to fill than to cut.
Compared to the way the show would eventually sound, the shows from the summer of 1970 sound almost like rough drafts, which I suppose they are.
Something that doesn’t help this and other early shows is that in the summer of 1970, radio playlists were liberally sprinkled with dogs. We noticed this a few years back when listening to the show from August 1. There are a lot of records that do little to make you pay attention (“Trying to Make a Fool of Me” by the Delfonics, “Save the Country” by the Fifth Dimension, and “Check Out Your Mind” by the Impressions, for example), or the reaction they provoke is strongly negative: “Maybe” by the Three Degrees is an overblown weeper with a spoken introduction that lasts forever, and “A Song of Joy” by Miguel Rios spends four minutes trying to go somewhere but never really does. The stronger songs near the bottom are the kind of thing only chart geeks will remember: “Mississippi” by John Phillips, Mark Lindsay’s “Silver Bird,” “Are You Ready” by Pacific Gas and Electric, and “Westbound #9” by Flaming Ember.
Apart from “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry, you have to get pretty far up the chart before you start finding stuff that endured into the age of oldies radio: “Ohio,” “Teach Your Children,” “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “Spill the Wine,” “Signed Sealed Delivered,” “Ride Captain Ride,” “Make It With You,” “I Want You Back,” and “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” The Top 10 is solid, although the #1 song of the week, “Close to You” by the Carpenters, in its first of four straight weeks at #1, never really fit what oldies radio would become; it found an afterlife on MOR and soft-rock radio for a while, but nobody plays it anymore.
But just when I am getting ready to dismiss this show, something magical happens. Casey comes out of a jingle and straight into “Gimme Dat Ding” by the Pipkins, a weird little novelty that matches a falsetto singer with what sounds like Arte Johnson’s dirty old man character from Laugh-In, and it’s the single hottest moment of the show. Then it’s straight into the irresistible pop glide of Vanity Fare’s “Hitchin’ a Ride.” Audiences in 1970 had to sit through a commercial break after that, but in 2017 we roll straight into “Tighter and Tighter” by Alive ‘n’ Kicking, and there I am, in the car, at a stoplight, and it is, as I have said before, like I’m looking at my life in the test tube, mixed up but not yet poured out. What’s in there are not just songs I will love, on the air in 1970 and in years to come, but the way they sound on the radio, which I will love just as much.