(Pictured: Yvonne Elliman and Jeff Fenholt, from the Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar.)
I have mentioned before that the summer of 1971 was my last as a full-time child. I filled my days seeking adventures outside with my brother, taking saxophone lessons, and playing Little League baseball. The next year, I was expected to drive a tractor on the farm, and although Dad did not expect me to do it for free, he did expect me to do it, and so for the first time I did what a friend referred to years later as “trading your life for money.”
I also spent a lot of time listening to the radio in the summer of 1971—not to American Top 40 yet, but to WLS from Chicago, where I heard some, but not all of the songs featured on the AT40 show dated June 26, 1971.
40. “Cool Aid”/Paul Humphrey and His Cool-Aid Chemists. Paul Humphrey was a drummer who first worked as a sideman with a number of New York-based jazz artists including John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Jimmy Smith. After relocating to Los Angeles, he became a session player for R&B, pop, and rock acts from Natalie Cole to Steely Dan, and he toured and recorded with Marvin Gaye. While he was based in LA, he also played in Lawrence Welk’s orchestra. “Cool Aid” had made #29 during the week of June 12, 1971, was also a mid-level R&B hit, and got Humphrey’s group on American Bandstand.
37. “Escape-ism (Part 1)”/James Brown. Brown’s airplay on R&B stations drove enormous sales, and as a result he frequently made the pop Top 40 with records that had little pop appeal, like “Escape-ism.”
35. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”/Yvonne Elliman
23. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”/Helen Reddy
22. “Superstar”/Murray Head
We reached peak Jesus Christ Superstar during the first half of June 1971, with Reddy and Head topping out at #13 and #14 respectively and Elliman reaching #28. The Superstar album had spent a week at #1 in February and two more in May, and it was still at #5 in this week. For what it’s worth, Elliman’s version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” which appears on the original Superstar album, has got it all over Reddy’s more successful cover, which was her breakthough single.
38. “Draggin’ the Line”/Tommy James
36. “Take Me Home Country Roads”/John Denver with Fat City
33. “Bring the Boys Home/Freda Payne
EXTRA: “I Feel the Earth Move”/Carole King
19. “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be”/Carly Simon
Casey refers to each of these female artists as “girls,” even though Freda Payne was 28, Carole King was 29, and Carly Simon was 26. He does not refer to 24-year-old Tommy James or 27-year-old John Denver as “boys.”
EXTRA: “Teen Angel”/Mark Dinning. Casey tells the story (which was offered as an optional extra during the recent national repeat of this show) of how Dinning and his family whomped up “Teen Angel” at a family dinner. He says that it was intended as a joke, but a record producer heard it and thought it could be a hit—which it was, going to #1 in February 1960. The joke part of the story isn’t supported by the author of The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, but whatever the case, the fate of “Teen Angel” is an oft-told tale in American pop: a song that is intended to be disposable gets made a little too well to be discarded. Although the lyric is contrived and melodramatic, the tune and arrangement are lovely.
31. “Sooner or Later”/Grass Roots
28. “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again”/Fortunes
18. “Mr. Big Stuff”/Jean Knight
The sound of these records, the way they jump off the radio and make you want to sing along, is one of the purest pleasures from the classic Top 40 era.
We’ll need another installment to get this whole show in (plus the obligatory American Bottom 60 to come), and I am not especially surprised. The summer of 1971 is one of my favorite Top 40 seasons, and there’s plenty to say about a lot of that season’s songs.