(Pictured: Tommy James, social distancing in 1968.)
We are creeping closer to the 50th anniversary of the fabled fall of 1970, the season in which fifth-grade me discovered the radio and pop music and started on the road to becoming whatever the hell it is that I am now. The period of discovery itself would have begun in the first half of September, but some of the records I heard during those first pivotal weeks were on the chart long before that. Since WLS from Chicago was the station that captured me, I dug back into the station’s music surveys from the summer of 1970, trying to find the first appearance of some of the songs that made a strong impression on me that fall.
At 50 years’ distance, it’s hard for me to know which songs I remember hearing while they were current hits, and which would have been what is known in the radio biz as “recurrents,” recent hits that get less regular airplay than current hits, but more than songs from months or years earlier. Any distinction between recurrents and currents is drawn from radio surveys and memory, so it will be a thin and wavy line, and it may end up not meaning anything at all.
Let’s assume for purposes of this discussion that any song listed on the WLS Hit Parade is a current hit and not a recurrent. (Yeah, I know, big leap, and not true at WLS later in the 70s, but go with it today.) Two songs I associate with those very first days of listening in September are “The Wonder of You” by Elvis and “Band of Gold” by Freda Payne. Both were gone from the chart by early September, however, so I could have heard them as recurrents. “The Wonder of You” first appeared on the Hit Parade on May 25, 1970, and “Band of Gold” a week later on June 1. Likewise “Ooh Child” by the Five Stairsteps, which debuted on June 15, and “Are You Ready” by Pacific Gas and Electric, which debuted on June 22. Both of the latter were gone from the chart by September.
Also among the debuts 50 years ago today, on June 22, 1970, are “Lay a Little Lovin’ on Me” by Robin McNamara and “Tighter, Tighter” by Alive and Kickin’. And if we flash forward to the chart of September 7, 1970—a Monday, the day of the week on which WLS surveys were issued in this period—we see that “Tighter, Tighter” is the oldest record on the survey, in its 12th week. If we make the entirely reasonable assumption that I first heard WLS sometime during the week of September 7, 1970, “Tighter, Tighter,” produced and eventually also recorded by Tommy James, is probably the record we’re looking for, the earliest summer debut that would still have been a current hit in September, and therefore Record Zero for a lifelong obsession. (“Lay a Little Lovin’ on Me” loses this race by a nose, having appeared on the Hit Parade for the final time during the week of August 31.) But it’s a thin line. If September 14 was the magic week instead of September 7, “Make It With You” by Bread, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” by Stevie Wonder, and “Close to You” by the Carpenters, all of which debuted during the week of June 29, could be Record Zero as well.
But that is not to say that “Tighter, Tighter” or “Lay a Little Lovin’ on Me” or any of the other candidates are the biggest or the best or the most evocative or the most impactful current hits from that first season, only that they’re the oldest. Several songs on the 9/7/70 survey would be among the first 45s I ever owned: the inestimable “Candida,” “Julie Do Ya Love Me,” and “Cracklin’ Rosie.” Some of the songs I didn’t own are incredibly vivid in memory also: “War,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Patches,” “Groovy Situation, “Spill the Wine. ” I can see myself there, close to the school bus radio speaker, or in my bedroom after I scrounged Dad’s old green Westinghouse tube-type AM radio, listening to them. All debuted in July or August 1970.
Other songs don’t register at all, at least not as memories from the beginning of time: “Neanderthal Man,” “I Who Have Nothing,” “Hi-De-Ho.” I might have heard them just as often, but they didn’t stick, and half-a-century later, they’ve been erased from the canon. So it goes when we’re back in a country of the heart where history mingles with myth. In a land such as that, faith and feelings count as much as data.