(Pictured: Prince, underrated in the 80s.)
(Note to patrons: welcome to our July Casey-thon. This month, the vast majority of posts will have something to do with various editions of American Top 40.)
Back in the middle of the 80s, when I was program director of a Top 40 station, I ran a lot of syndicated holiday music specials that focused on rock ‘n’ roll history. On Memorial Day or the Fourth of July or Labor Day, I loved to hear my station blasting classic oldies, many of which were still part of Top 40 playlists then.
My station’s sales department loved the specials, too. They’d offer package deals to car dealers, boat dealers, pizza restaurants, ice cream shops, and anybody else who might benefit from blanket coverage on a holiday weekend. The ads were cheap and the sponsors got a lot of them—too many, on one holiday one year. Due to a math error, the sales department oversold the show we were running, and I was forced to schedule commercial breaks with as many as 16 30-second spots in them. It was not good radio. But when everything worked out right, my station would sound hot and fun and irresistible all weekend long.
For the July 4 weekend in 1986, American Top 40 produced a four-hour summer special called “The Giants of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which was based on a “worldwide DJ poll,” counting down the 40 most influential artists of the rock era going back to 1955. The show was a lot of fun to listen to, although I’ve got some issues with the list of artists. The original cue sheet is here.
40. Pink Floyd
The songwriting and production team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland, who started at Motown and later founded their own Hot Wax label, is my favorite unexpected inclusion on the list. But Smokey Robinson should have gotten on ahead of them, and he didn’t make it at all.
38. Jerry Lee Lewis
37. David Bowie
36. Mick Jagger
Mick is represented by the Stones’ then-recent hit “Harlem Shuffle,” which is the most obscure record on the show today.
35. Prince. If we re-ranked this list today, Prince would be a lot higher. David Bowie too.
34. Ray Charles
33. Marvin Gaye
32. Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship
Given that Brother Ray basically invented soul music, he’s probably a tad underrated. And of these three songs in a row—“What’d I Say,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” and “We Built This City”—see if you can pick the oddball.
31. Fleetwood Mac
30. Hall and Oates
29. Quincy Jones
Jones’ inclusion makes me want to argue for Phil Spector and/or Gamble and Huff, both of whom invented entire genres, which Jones did not.
28. Little Richard. The rock-star moves of Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Elton John, and the like started here.
27. Bill Haley and the Comets. It’s eye-opening to listen to Bill Haley’s pre-“Rock Around the Clock” singles with the Saddlemen, some going back as far as 1951. His fusion of western swing with R&B is rock ‘n’ roll before it had that name.
26. Michael Jackson
25. Simon and Garfunkel
If we’re talking about influence on singer/songwriter pop, I wonder where James Taylor is.
24. Billy Joel. By this point in the show, the word “influential” has gotten pretty slippery. The show means to define “influential” in the usual way: artists who affected the work of other artists and helped to shape the sound of pop music. But in that case, who, precisely, was influenced by Billy Joel or Hall and Oates, and in what way? If by “influential” we mean “influenced a lot of people to buy a lot of their records,” these two acts aren’t the only ones on this list who are more influential by that definition.
23. Jimi Hendrix
22. Eric Clapton
21. Diana Ross and the Supremes.
Casey mentions that no female solo performers made the Top 40, so the Supremes are the only women on it. Where in the world is Aretha Franklin? There are also arguments for Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, and even Madonna, despite it being so early in her career. The Supremes probably belong on the list—although not ahead of Clapton and Hendrix—but the omission of other worthy female artists is shameful.
Coming later in the week: the remainder of the list, and some additional comments about it.