Record Zero

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(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.

7 thoughts on “Record Zero

  1. For me, the song that I heard on WLS in 1970 that got me hooked was “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago. I swear that WLS played that song every hour during the summer of 1970, but, as you put it, “history mingles with myth” becasue it was released earlier in 1970. “Band of Gold” by Freda Payne was another song that makes me remember 1970.

  2. mikehagerty

    1970 was chock full of hooks and riffs, that’s for sure. While I’m a bit older than JB (14 in March of ’70), and started listening to Top 40 in 1967, it really wasn’t until ’70 that I was all in and plunking down serious money (at the time) for records.

    In Inglewood and a couple of other L.A. suburbs at that time were hole-in-the-wall record stores called Crane’s. Crane (first name lost to the mists of time) was a rack-jobber, a middleman who buys records wholesale from the distributors and then sells them at a markup to other record stores, who mark them up even further. That could be everything from Wallach’s Music City, which was the most famous of the L.A. record chains until The Wherehouse and Tower Records arrived nearly simultaneously—but more often the record departments of department stores like Sears, The Broadway and May Company, of discount stores like Zody’s and Fedco (now Target) and of left-field choices like Singer Sewing Centers.

    Anyway, Crane figured out that he could make some money undercutting his customers by renting storefronts on side streets and dispensing with furniture other than the counter where the cash register was. Bins? We don’t need bins! Stack five cases of 25 copies of each album on top of each other, cut the top one open and sell the LPs fresh out of the box.

    Wallach’s sold at list price ($4.98 for LPs, a buck for singles). A sale at Music City was a buck off list. The Wherehouse landed with $4.98 LPs for $3.49 and singles for 80 cents. The department stores would usually go $3.29 for LPs and 75 cents for singles.

    Crane’s? $2.49 for LPs and every single (including hitbounds) on the KHJ Boss 30 for 53 cents. How did he do it? Volume! Cheap rent, no overhead, no advertising, just word of mouth at each of the three stores which just happened to be within walking distance of nearby high schools and middle schools.

    I walked into Crane’s one day in 1970 with $40 in birthday money and walked out with the every record on the KHJ Boss 30 (including the three hitbounds) and eight albums and had a couple bucks left over after tax.

    Crane’s lasted until one day in the mid-70s when they were just gone. I had less and less reason to go in—I was on the promo copy gravy train by April of ’72.

    A guy on a forum a few years ago told me he used to work at Crane’s and if jail was involved in the rapid closure, he wouldn’t have been surprised. But it was fun while it lasted.

  3. Gary Omaha

    Good story! One song that didn’t stick with you but stuck with me was “Hi-De-Ho.” Why? Because the station I then worked for had all music on carts and the cart with “Hi-De-Ho” had not been properly erased. During the pause after the first three notes, the limiter/compressor pulled up the “silence” every time the song played, and to this day whenever I hear “Hi-De-Ho” I hear in my head those notes then WHOOMP…WHOOMP…WHOOMP.

  4. I barely knew any station existed other than WOWO in Fort Wayne, Indiana before 1967. It was on in the kitchen and in the car. The first record I ever bought (or asked to be bought on my behalf) was “Sherry” by the Four Seasons. Fortunately, even with WOWO being the full service station (and the 50,000 watt voice of the big business of farming), WOWO’s music was straight from the top 40, even playing raucous titles like “Light My Fire” and “Somebody to Love” later in the 60s, which the WJRs, WLWs and WGNs of the world wouldn’t have been caught dead playing. I couldn’t find any chart data from WOWO from the time “Sherry” came out, so I looked at WLS. It’s hard to remember what I actually heard as a current because it’s so much a blur, but on the chart was “Locomotion” by Litte Eva at No. 2, Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” at #3 and “Sheila” at number 5. I seem to remember more of the hits of ’63 and ’64, particularly The Angels “My Boyfriend’s Back”. The Beatles were still a year away, and my 7 year old mind would have to digest the JFK assassination before then. My “Second Coming” was 1967, after moving to Ohio, with WOWO still blasting and discovering The Big 8, CKLW’s massive daytime signal, aiming the Motown Sound straight at my lily-white little town.

  5. My Record Zero would have come about a year earlier, likely in the trainer’s room at St. Cloud Tech, hanging out with the football team between practices. Without looking at the KDWB surveys at Oldiesloon, I’m going to guess that the first record that took me to Top 40 Land was . . . Oh, hell, let’s look! Well, I wonder about “Sweet Caroline,” but I’m going to say “Lay Lady Lay” because I have a clear memory of hearing it in the trainer’s room. Not long after that, I brought Grandpa’s old RCA up from the basement and parked it on my nightstand, and tuned it that evening to WJON.

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