(Pictured: Bill Haley and Elvis, 1955.)
In 2017, I wrote about American Top 40‘s summer specials. Every year around the Fourth of July, AT40 would run a show that could be recorded in advance to give Casey and his staff some time off. The most unusual of these specials aired on the weekend of the Bicentennial, featuring the #1 song in America on the July 4th holiday, from 1937 through 1976.
The show does not exactly get off to a flying start. Neither “It Looks Like Rain in Cherry Blossom Lane” by Guy Lombardo (1937) nor “Says My Heart” by the Ozzie Nelson Orchestra (1938) is a timeless classic. Neither is “Wishing” by Glenn Miller (1939), although some classics are forthcoming: “I’ll Never Smile Again” by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra fronted by Frank Sinatra (1940), Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1944), and “Sentimental Journey” by Les Brown with Doris Day on vocals (1945). If you want to add the Ink Spots and “The Gypsy” (1946) to the list, I’m good with that.
(Digression #1: You probably didn’t know Ozzie Nelson was a successful bandleader before he became America’s favorite sitcom dad. According to Joel Whitburn, he charted 38 times between 1930 and 1940, but they’re all pretty obscure. One of the singers in his band was his wife, Harriet, whom he married in 1935. She’s the singer on “Says My Heart.”)
(Digression #2: Imagine hearing “I’ll Be Seeing You” in the summer of 1944, the summer of D-Day, if you had a loved one fighting on some distant shore. I suspect it would have been either a comfort or impossible to bear, with no in-between.)
Some of this stuff is pretty cheesy, including Sammy Kaye’s “Daddy” (1941), “Chi-Baba Chi-Baba” by Perry Como (1947), and “Woody Woodpecker” by Kay Kyser (1948). Vaughn Monroe’s upright and studly baritone on “Ghost Riders in the Sky” (1949) sounds like a novelty nearly 70 years later, but Monroe was quite a big deal in his day, charting 67 times between 1940 and 1954, hitting #1 nine times in all.
There’s a nice little stretch of songs to usher in the 1950s: Nat King Cole’s “Too Young” (1951), “Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart” by Vera Lynn (1952), “Song From Moulin Rouge” by Percy Faith (1953), and Kitty Kallen’s “Little Things Mean a Lot” (1954). In that company, rock ‘n’ roll makes a hell of a splash in 1955 with “Rock Around the Clock.” In 1956, it appears that the pre-rock order is restored with Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind,” but one year later, Elvis emphatically signals a new era that’s here to stay with his two-sided #1 hit, “Teddy Bear” and “Loving You.”
After more novelty cheese (Sheb Wooley’s “Flying Purple People Eater” from 1958) we commence Casey Kasem’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Oldies Party, starring the Coasters and Gary U. S. Bonds and the Beach Boys and Connie Francis and the Four Tops and the Association and others. However: the #1 songs of the 1960s are a worthy reminder that Elvis and the pop stars in his wake didn’t burn the old order entirely to the ground. “Satisfaction” is followed by Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” then two songs later it’s “This Guy’s in Love With You” by Herb Alpert and Henry Mancini’s “Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet” before “I Want You Back” ushers in the 70s.
Casey has padded the third hour a little, with two hits from 1965, “Satisfaction” and “I Can’t Help Myself,” and two from 1966, “Strangers in the Night” and the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer.” The latter is the only Beatles song on the show. The last half-hour of the show sounds like any other edition of AT40, with #1 hits from the 70s by Carole King, Bill Withers, Billy Preston, the Hues Corporation, the Captain and Tennille, and the then-current #1 hit, “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney and Wings.
The 1976 summer special is one the AT40 Facebook group/message board crowd longs to hear repeated on terrestrial radio, but I don’t expect it to happen. Practically none of the adult-contemporary or oldies stations caryring the repeats today want anything to do with the music in the first two hours of the program, and few people beyond hardcore Casey fanatics would be willing to sit through it. (I suspect there were program directors in 1976 who didn’t want the big-band and pre-rock stuff either.) It’s a show that better belongs on iHeart’s dedicated AT40 streaming channel, but don’t hold your breath for that, either.
[Note from 2021: a year or two ago, AT40 restoration expert Ken Martin recreated a version of the show that ran well into the 21st century. If you think it’s jarring to have Glenn Miller and the Rolling Stones on the same show, try adding Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Iggy Azalea.]