Behold the music survey from WLS in Chicago dated 50 years ago today. (Click to embiggen.) I wish I had a fuller picture; at some point during the spring or summer of 1971, the station converted its survey from a single long sheet of heavy paper to a folded sheet that allowed a cover with a photo, which opened to reveal the week’s list inside. I have never seen a more pleasing survey design from any radio station anywhere: clean, easy to read, and distinctive in red and blue.
If I were to attempt to rank the seasons of the 70s—a project I really should take on—the fall of 1971 would probably be in the top five. The chart of October 25, 1971, contains songs and stars familiar even to people who can’t remember 1971: Cher, Rod Stewart, “Shaft,” Stevie Wonder, the Carpenters, Marvin Gaye, “Imagine,” Carole King, Santana, Bread, the Bee Gees. But as is our custom here, we’re more interested in the songs that are less well-remembered.
3. “Charity Ball”/Fanny
10. “What Are You Doing Sunday”/Dawn Featuring Tony Orlando
These records barely squeaked into the Billboard Top 40 (#40 and #39 respectively), and only for a brief time (one week each, 11/6 and 11/13/71), but in this week, they are both at their chart peaks on WLS. “Charity Ball” was also a Top-10 hit in Denver and a few other places. “What Are You Doing Sunday” looks to have been a somewhat stronger performer nationwide, although Chicago was its strongest market. (On a survey dated October 21, from WFOM in Marietta, Georgia, they’re #1 and #2.) “Charity Ball” has a Van Halen swagger and is an unjustly lost hit. “What Are You Doing Sunday,” meanwhile, sits at the intersection of cheese and bubblegum. But Tony Orlando, who gets separate billing for the first time, had a gift for selling that very thing. Dawn had bigger hits, but few that were more purely joyful. It’s easy to understand why listeners of 1971 gravitated to it.
(Fifty years later, Fanny is the subject of a new documentary that reveals just how much ground they broke, not just as women in a male-dominated business but as Filipina Americans in a racist society.)
12. “Never My Love”/Fifth Dimension. The Fifth Dimension’s version of the Association’s 1967 classic is a live recording produced by Bones Howe, who also produced the original. It’s far more supper-club than soul music, although we get a hint of what could have been when Marilyn McCoo starts ad-libbing over the last 45 seconds or so (including a spectacular long, high note). It made #1 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart and #12 on the Hot 100.
21. “Trapped by a Thing Called Love”/Denise LaSalle
22. “You Think You’re Hot Stuff”/Jean Knight
It did not hurt WLS one bit to latch on to the housewife appeal of “Never My Love.” Neither would it have been bad for them to play straight-up R&B records. In an era with fewer signals for listeners to choose from, mass appeal was not only possible, it was the goal. “Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” a Willie Mitchell production of a song LaSalle wrote, made the Billboard Top 40. “You Think You’re Hot Stuff” peaked at #57 despite sounding remarkably like “Mr. Big Stuff,” Knight’s #2 hit from earlier in the year. Like “Mr. Big Stuff,” it’s a Wardell Quezergue production licensed by Stax from the Mississippi label Malaco.
The fall of 1971 is less purely magical than the fall of 1970; September to December 1970 will always be a liminal space to me, a wondrous passageway that pointed the little boy I was toward the person I am now. One year later, I had listened through a full procession of the seasons and discovered a powerful link between music and time. For me to even talk about “ranking the seasons” shows how strong is the association between the songs I heard and when I heard them.
But 1971 represented another passageway, another space between. I never wanted to be a farmer like Dad when I grew up, not for a minute. Like many boys, I wanted to be a pro football player for a while. But by the fall of 1971, I had lived a year with the radio in my head. I loved the music, but I was also fascinated with how the music and the jingles and the newscasts and the commercials weaved together to create a complete, enormous thing, orchestrated by the jocks, who seemed like the coolest people in the world to me. And by the fall of 1971, I would say to everybody (even if they didn’t ask), I want to do that.