Over the Line

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(Pictured: Sammi Smith sings with Johnny Cash, 1971.)

I have written a fair amount about the spring of 1971 at this blog, and I was glad to revisit recently it via the American Top 40 show from April 10, 1971.

38. “Friends”/Elton John. This is one of five debut songs on the show, one of which, Casey teases, is way up at #15.  “Friends,” the beautiful title song for an obscure film, was the followup to “Your Song” and would get only to #34.

(The other debuts besides the one at #15: John Lennon’s “Power to the People” at #40, “Chick-a-Boom” by Daddy Dewdrop at #39, and Dawn’s “I Play and Sing” at #30.)

Special: “My Way”/Frank Sinatra. Casey mentions Sinatra’s then-recent announcement that he intended to retire, and he plays this as a tribute. As you read earlier in the week, “My Way” was written after Sinatra told lyricist Paul Anka in 1968 that he intended to quit. He did not quit, of course, but he took a year off before returning to work. In the fall of 1973, he released a new album called Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back.

20. “Temptation Eyes”/Grass Roots. There were few records on the radio in 1971 that sounded better than the Grass Roots’ three big hits that year, this one, “Sooner or Later,” and “Two Divided by Love.”

Special: “Honky Tonk”/Bill Doggett. I suspect that the vast majority of people who heard “Honky Tonk” on the recent repeat of this show couldn’t identify it. Even I had a hard time placing it for a moment until the sax started honkin’. But in 1971, as Casey told his listeners, it was the largest selling rock ‘n’ roll instrumental in the history of the charts, having moved four million copies in two different chart runs, in 1956 (when it went to #2 for three weeks behind Elvis Presley’s unassailable “Hound Dog”/” Don’t Be Cruel”) and again in 1961.

15. “Never Can Say Goodbye”/Jackson Five. After “Never Can Say Goodbye” vaulted to this lofty position after debuting on the Hot 100 the previous week at #57, Casey says it’s headed for #1, and if you were him, you’d probably say the same thing. But “Never Can Say Goodbye” didn’t make it. It went to #13 the next week, then made another impressive leap to #4, and then #2, where it got stuck for three weeks. Read on to find out what stuck it.

14. “What Is Life”/George Harrison. I got my first 45s for Christmas in 1970, but by the spring of ’71 I was buying them myself, 94 cents apiece at S&O TV in my hometown. At some point late in this winter or in the spring I bought “What Is Life” and three others on this chart: “I Play and Sing” and the Partridge Family’s “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted” (at #7 this week) because of course I did, and also Brewer and Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line,” about which there’s more below.

13. “Where Do I Begin (Love Story)”/Andy Williams. Multiple versions of this song charted during the winter and spring of 1971, and you’ll read more about them next week.

12. “Help Me Make It Through the Night”/Sammi Smith. If you do not dig this, I don’t think we should see each other anymore.

10. “One Toke Over the Line”/Brewer and Shipley. A couple of songs before this, Casey teased that he would explain what a toke is. And although I was skeptical about whether he’d tell the whole truth, he did: “It refers to a puff of a marijuana cigarette in some places.” But he goes on to explain that it can also mean a ticket, and that if you are in Las Vegas and you ask for a toke, you’ll get a gambling chip. Brewer and Shipley meant “one toke over the line” to be an expression of regret for having gone too far, he says. Perhaps, but the lyrics make more sense if a toke is a smoke.

3. “Joy to the World”/Three Dog Night
2. “What’s Going On”/Marvin Gaye
1. “Just My Imagination”/Temptations
That’s a solid way to end a show. “Joy to the World” had gone from #34 to #11 to #3 this week, and will start at six-week stretch at #1 next week, three of them with “Never Can Say Goodbye” at #2. As for “What’s Going On” and “Just My Imagination,” it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when stuff so magnificent was an everyday thing.

10 thoughts on “Over the Line

  1. Wesley

    Interesting (at least to me) that “What’s Going On” was kept out of #1 by another Motown song. The last (or rather first) time that happened in 1969, it was Marvin Gaye at the top with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which during its seven-week run at the top fended off challenges from Stevie Wonder’s “For One in My Life” for three weeks and “I’m Going to Make You Love Me” by Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations. Guess the Temptations avenged themselves here, if you consider it that.

  2. John Gallagher

    I was 12 in 1971 and this was the first year I started buying (with Mom’s money, lol) 45’s. It was also the year I began to be aware of DJ’s on the radio and knew eventually that’s what I wanted to do in life, starting with my “make believe” station in my bedroom in 1972. LOL. I would eventually make it behind a real microphone when I was 15.

  3. T.

    The thing that hits me about all these recordings is the great sound. All these records had great production, which goes with the great writing. Everything equals one.
    This is a lost art form.

    1. So much of the music I play on both of my radio stations simply sounds like hell. It’s not just the lack of dynamic range, which is a hill I’ve been dying on for years. Intros are shorter and instrumental solos and fadeouts have mostly disappeared (Rolling Stone wrote a piece just last week about the disappearing guitar solo). In country music, we’re amid a plague of pointless fade-ins and cold endings on which the records just stop, sometimes in mid-measure, as if the recorder just quit. I assume there are Spotify/Pandora/earbud-related reasons for all of this stuff. I get little sense that any of it is being done for creative or artistic reasons.

  4. mikehagerty

    Amen to “Just My Imagination” and “Friends”.

    “I Play and Sing” was the first record I played on the air at age 15. No idea why I led with that—most likely panicked realizing the five minutes of news before I had to crack the mic was a lot shorter than I thought and grabbed the first thing in the box.

    1. I can feel a good DJ thread coming on here: first song you ever played on the air. Mine was “Everybody Needs Love” by Stephen Bishop.

      1. mikehagerty

        From job 2 (KSLY, San Luis Obispo) onward (until I got to a station where I didn’t have a choice), I always began with Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me.” But that hadn’t been recorded yet when I started at KIBS in ’71.

        Always liked “Everybody Needs Love”—thought it should have been bigger. And the album it’s from (BISH) is way underrated.

        And (I’ll save it in case you do this thread): I had a last song for a station/market, too.

  5. mikehagerty

    As for “One Toke Over The Line”, I always bought it as a drug song, too—but reading the lyrics, I’m inclined to buy the Vegas meaning more and more. He’s heading home, to the girl he hopes still loves him, because he’s gone off, being Mr. Big Shot—and it didn’t end all that well:

    Whoooo do you love, I hope it’s me
    I’ve bin a changin’, as you can plainly see
    I felt the joy and I learned about the pain that my momma said
    If I should choose to make a part of me, surely strike me dead
    Now I’m one toke over the line sweet Jesus
    One toke over the line
    Sittin’ downtown in a railway station
    One toke over the line
    I’m waitin’ for the train that goes home sweet Mary
    Hopin’ that the train is on time
    Sittin’ downtown in a railway station
    One toke over the line
    I bin away a country mile
    Now I’m returnin’ showin’ off a smile
    I met all the girls and loved myself a few
    Ended by surprise like everything else I’ve been through
    It opened up my eyes and now I’m
    One toke over the line sweet Jesus
    One toke over the line

    Having spent 18 months of my career in Vegas, I can tell you that’s pretty much how it felt as I figured out where to go next—except a hometown of 3,000 people was not gonna do, and there was nobody waiting there even if it was.

  6. John Gallagher

    My first 45 played on commercial radio in 1977 – Smiling Faces Sometimes. The mono 45 mix jumped out of those speakers.

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