Hard to Turn the Radio Off

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(Pictured: I never need a reason to post a picture of Linda Ronstadt.)

I had so many Christmas and end-of-the-year posts lined up in the last half of December that there was no room to write about one of the American Top 40 shows rebroadcast around the country during that time. The show from December 17, 1977, was ridiculously entertaining.

—We know that at some moments in history, radio music is better than at other moments. It’s important to define “better” or “good”—I’m not talking about records that speak to us personally in some way, or that recapture a time, or perform some other sort of psychological function in our lives. I’m talking about records that are critically acclaimed, or are otherwise “good,” with a timeless, mass-appeal sound. (We can recognize certain records as “good” without adding them to our personal canon, and that’s the kind of thing I mean.) As reader Mike pointed out before Christmas, the 60s had that mark of quality, when the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys and the like were firing on all cylinders. As 1977 turned to 1978, the top acts of that era made it similarly hard to turn the radio off. Your mileage may vary, but I count at least 15 records that represent the best work of the artists who recorded them, or close to it: “Turn to Stone,” “Just the Way You Are,” “Serpentine Fire,” “Your Smiling Face,” “Swingtown,” “You’re in My Heart,” “Come Sail Away,” “Sentimental Lady,” “Isn’t It Time,” “Slip Slidin’ Away,” “You Make Lovin’ Fun,” “Baby Come Back,” “We’re All Alone,” “Blue Bayou,” and “How Deep Is Your Love.”

—I didn’t like Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” as 1977 turned to 1978, but it sounded surprisingly good to me here, at #10.

—The 12/17/77 show originally contained three Christmas songs, one per hour, although only one of them was heard on the recent repeat: Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and “Little St. Nick” by the Beach Boys were snipped, although the segments were offered to stations as optional extras. By the week of December 17, 1977, most AT40 affiliates would have been playing a good bit of Christmas music, and I suspect most program directors welcomed those three songs.

—On the original show, “Blue Christmas” was followed by the Elvis version of “My Way,” which was sitting at #28 in that week. (It would peak the next week at #24.) Elvis had been singing “My Way” on stage for several years, including on the Aloha From Hawaii special in 1973. The hit version had been recorded in June, less than two months before his death. It would go to #2 on the Billboard country chart and #6 on Easy Listening. I hadn’t heard it in years before this show, and it’s better than I remember. A lot of Elvis performances toward the end of his life are big and airy but emotionally empty; on “My Way,” he seems to be really feeling it.

—The week of 12/17/77 was the high-water mark for Linda Ronstadt, with two singles at their peaks in the Top Five, and her album Simple Dreams at #1 for the third of what would be five weeks. “Blue Bayou” (#3) and “It’s So Easy” (#5) had been released as separate singles; “Blue Bayou” had debuted on the Hot 100 on September 10 and “It’s So Easy” on October 8, which was the week “Blue Bayou” cracked the Top 40. Each song spent four weeks at its peak position; for three of those weeks, they peaked together (12/17 and 12/24, plus a third week’s credit for the frozen chart of 12/31).

—As sometimes happens with AT40 shows, the #1 hit is a fizzle: Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life,” which is in its 10th week at the top, the longest run at #1 since 1957. Four songs made it to #2 during those 10 weeks and failed to knock Debby out, but the fifth, the Bee Gees “How Deep Is Your Love,” #2 in this week, would hit #1 on the chart dated December 24, 1977. Although the song would hold the top spot for three weeks, it would be heard at #1 on only one AT40 show, for the week of January 7, 1978; the shows for the weeks of 12/24/77 and 12/31/77 counted down the year’s top 100 hits.

It’s a waste of time defending opinions about what’s good, of course. We are all chauvinistic about the music of the times we love best. Forty years from now, some guy will wax lyrical about how the very best time to listen to music was when he was 17, when Drake and Ariana Grande ruled.

He’ll be wrong, of course. I’ll be long dead, and still right.

2 responses

  1. Oh my gosh, JB, I heard this show a few weeks ago and missed its greatness until you brought it up now. Maybe my mind was on Christmas more while listening to it. Maybe it was because hearing Leif Garrett mangle “Runaround Sue” and Paul Davis doing “I Go Crazy” for the umpteenth time put a pall on my efforts. Or maybe it was because I missed the first half hour, which I’d say was unusually strong for positions #31-40. Besides the Billy Joel and ELO faves you mentioned, “Native New Yorker,” “As,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “Gettin’ Ready for Love” hold up magnificently to my ears, and even if “It’s Ecstasy” may not be prime Barry White, it’s still better than the best efforts of at least half of all charting artists. Heck, I can even take the overexposed Andy Gibb doing “Love is Thicker than Water,” even though it does sound like Barry Gibb just gave up writing lyrics for the last minute of it.

    Sorry, kids of today, but when you’re up against a top 40 chart that has Stevie Wonder, Chic featuring Nile Rodgers, Barry White, Diana Ross, ELO, Billy Joel, Elvis Presley, Santana, Earth Wind and Fire, Queen, James Taylor, Steve Miller, Rod Stewart, Paul Simon, Chicago, Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt and the Bee Gees, there’s no comparison. This was one of those weeks where top 40 radio was definitely at the top of its game.

  2. […] the Jackson Five version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” For December 17, 1977 (a show I wrote about after it was repeated last year), “Blue Christmas” by Elvis, “Little Saint Nick” by the Beach Boys, and Bing […]

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