Polyester Glory

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I have written before of my borderline-irrational love for “Moonlight Feels Right,” the 1976 hit by Starbuck, the distilled essence of my favorite year.

Founding Starbuck member Bo Wagner started in showbiz as a child. He was a tap dancer and singer with various big bands in the early 50s, and frequently appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club as a musician, although he was never a Mouseketeer. He was in the cast of The Lawrence Welk Show for three seasons and acted in TV commercials. In the 60s, he played with future Starbuck bandmate Bruce Blackmon in a couple of bands including Eternity’s Children. (I wrote about them earlier this year.) After Eternity’s Children broke up, Wagner went on the road as a percussionist, including a stretch backing Liberace. Blackmon worked as a studio and touring musician and as a songwriter. Wagner eventually formed a band called Extravaganza, which Blackmon eventually joined, and which morphed into Starbuck.

“Moonlight Feels Right” was part of a four-song demo of Blackmon’s songs that Starbuck cut in November 1974. A dozen record companies rejected them before Private Stock took a flyer, releasing the demo of “Moonlight Feels Right” as a single in the fall of ’75. The record, which had been made for a total cost of $300 and laid down on used recording tape, flatlined almost immediately. (It shows up on a single survey at ARSA, from WANS in Anderson, South Carolina, dated November 24, 1975.) But Blackmon and Wagner believed in it, and in early 1976, they put 8,000 miles on a car hand-delivering it to radio stations across the country. The only one to bite was in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Blackmon’s telling, it took exactly one day for “Moonlight Feels Right” to become a local hit. It started charting around the country in April, eventually reaching #3 on the Hot 100 and #1 in Record World, and the Moonlight Feels Right album followed. From that album, the ultra-smooth “I Got to Know” made #43 in October of 1976; a third single, “Lucky Man,” stalled at #73 during Christmas week.

Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, writing at Allmusic.com, describes “Moonlight Feels Right” as “a slick slice of soft rock that captures the mid-’70s in all its feathered, polyester glory” and the rest of the Moonlight Feels Right album as “gauchely bewitching soft pop.” Starbuck’s second album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Rocket, released in early 1977, is a similar kind of thing, updated for the burgeoning disco era. It makes me think of mustachioed nightclub dudes trailing clouds of Hai Karate, Qiana shirts open to the waist and zodiac sign medallions around their necks, who try to charm halter-dressed hotties up to look at their etchings. If you like that kind of thing (and I do), Rock ‘n’ Roll Rocket isn’t bad, although its cheese factor is also pretty high. “Everybody Be Dancin'” was the album’s lone hit single, sneaking into the Top 40 for two weeks as May turned to June 1977, peaking at #38.

Although Moonlight Feels Right had been a modest success on the Billboard 200 album chart (#78 in a 14-week run), Rock ‘n’ Roll Rocket was not (#182 in a two-week run). After that, Starbuck moved on from Private Stock to the United Artists label, releasing the album Searching for a Thrill in 1978. A lot of the songs are in the slick, poppy style of the band’s two previous albums, but several expand the group’s sonic palette, none more than title song and lead single. “Searching for a Thrill” starts out like a prog-rock record and ends up sounding like a completely different band. It’s pretty great, actually, and it made #58 on the Hot 100 40 years ago this month.

The Starbuck story continues after that, but I’m short of space and can’t tell it here. The group played some reunion shows between 2013 and 2016, and made the news briefly in 2017 when Bo Wagner died at the age of 72. “Moonlight Feels Right” is cheesy pop glory, but nothing about it is more glorious than the decision to put a marimba solo where lots of bands would have put a guitar. That marimba solo is Bo Wagner’s monument.

One Other Thing: On Friday. I posted part of a post I once tried to write about the way radio music changed between 1973 and 1974,. A couple of readers, Mike and Wesley, wrote that very post in the comments section, and you should read it. Thanks to the both of you, gents.

3 responses

  1. Great piece as usual, JB.

    My only quibble is with calling the Starbuck album a “modest success”, peaking at #78.

    I know you know this, but some readers may not:

    Chart numbers are not cumulative—in other words, an album doesn’t build up to being number whatever. Each week is a snapshot of that album’s sales in comparison to the other 199 albums on the chart.

    A peak of #78 means that on its best week, there were 77 albums that sold better. In each of the 13 other weeks it was on the charts, it sold worse. I’m betting fewer than 50,000 copies found homes with paying buyers and the royalty check was pretty small.

  2. Thank you for your kind words to me about your previous post, JB. Loved this one too. For those who are curious and lazy (as I can be both sometime), “Moonlight Feels Right” was kept out of #1 on Billboard the week of July 31, 1976 by two biggies still played on most top oldies station: the Manhattans’ “Kiss and Say Goodbye” at #1 and Gary Wright’s “Love is Alive” at #2 (where it peaked as well). And since we’re coming close to end-of-year rankings, Billboard put this at #34 overall for 1976, three spots ahead of “Dream Weaver” (Billboard end-of-year chart tabulations are a different subject altogether, so I’ll just leave this here for now).

  3. To me there is a tie between 70’s pop records with unusual back-to-back solos (that I never tire of, BTW), this one and the electric sitar and synthesizer ( Wikipedia calls it a “plastic organ”) solo on Steely Dan’s “Do It Again.”

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