The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be

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(Pictured: Linda Ronstadt in a Boy Scout getup is quite a vibe.)

Not long ago, I listened to American Top 40‘s special countdown of the Top 40 acts of the 1970s. I may have heard this show when it first aired in 1978, although I don’t recall specifically. A few years ago, based only on looking at the cue sheet, I called it the single greatest all-killer, no-filler edition of AT40. Let’s see if that’s true.

40. Earth Wind and Fire
39. Electric Light Orchestra
38. Grand Funk
37. ABBA
36. Steve Miller
35. Ringo Starr
34. Captain and Tennille
33. Stylistics
32. Carly Simon
31. Donny Osmond
Casey plays “Go Away Little Girl” because he had to play something, and most of Donny’s solo hits are equally objectionable. I never noticed it before, but the vocal on “Go Away Little Girl” is double-tracked.

30. Linda Ronstadt. Casey says that in the 23 years of the rock era (to 1978), nine acts have managed two Top-10 hits at the same time, but Linda is the first woman to do it, with “It’s So Easy” and “Blue Bayou” in December 1977.

29. Rod Stewart
28. Roberta Flack
More good trivia: Casey says Roberta Flack has spent more weeks at #1 than any other female act of the 70s so far, 12 in all: six for “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” five for “Killing Me Softly,” and one for “Feel Like Makin’ Love.”

27. Temptations. A lot of songs on this show are shortened. Casey plays about two-and-a-half minutes of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” although he had managed to play all of “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” and “Killing Me Softly,” and most of “Maggie May.”

26. James Taylor. “You’ve Got a Friend” loses a verse. Casey discusses Taylor as a pioneer of the “soft sounds of the 70s.” Several others are yet to come.

25. Paul Simon
24. War
Casey plays “The Cisco Kid,” which, against all odds, is the single most evocative time-and-place record on this list for me, with the exception of the one he plays at #14.

23. Bread
22. Olivia Newton-John
21. Elvis Presley
20. Spinners
Casey plays “The Wonder of You” and notes that Elvis is the #1 recording artist of all time. The Spinners are the lone answer to the following question: name the acts that hit the Top Five in five consecutive years at any point between 1970 and 1978.

19. Marvin Gaye
18. Barry Manilow
17. Aretha Franklin
16. Neil Diamond 
15. John Denver
Casey notes how most of Neil Diamond’s songs are about “heavy” subjects, and he calls John Denver “Mr. Clean.”

14. Eagles
13. Al Green
12. Diana Ross
Casey plays “New Kid in Town,” which was the #1 song on my 17th birthday with all such a thing implies, and I’ve never gotten tired of it. He also plays “Let’s Stay Together” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and at this point, the show becomes radio comfort food. At the moment I listen, there’s nothing I need more.

11. Tony Orlando and Dawn
10. Helen Reddy
This list shows that Helen Reddy is the #1 female solo star of the 1970s. But like Olivia Newton-John back at #22, she was not invited to the party when oldies and classic hits radio started playing 70s hits. (Dawn was slightly more welcome: “Knock Three Times” fit the vibe pretty well, at least for a while.) Both Reddy and ONJ moved not just singles but albums by the barge-load during the 1970s, so audiences clearly liked them. But when the oldies boom began, maybe they were perceived as dated or unhip or something else. Beats me.

9. Gladys Knight and the Pips 
8. Three Dog Night
Casey notes how Three Dog Night consistently chose the work of unknown songwriters who later became famous, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Paul Williams, and Laura Nyro among them. It doesn’t really work that way now, when Max Martin writes pretty much everything for everybody.

7. Chicago. Casey says that Chicago’s 11 million-selling albums since 1970 makes them the most successful album group of the 70s so far.

6. Jackson Five
5. Stevie Wonder
4. Carpenters
3. Paul McCartney and Wings
Although Paul far outdistanced his bandmates for solo success by 1978, he wasn’t always out front. Up until 1974, George and Ringo had done about as well.

2. Bee Gees
1. Elton John
Casey says that based on the point system AT40 used to determine this list, Elton placed #1 by an enormous margin. But in July 1978, it had been a year-and-a-half since he’d had a significant hit. We know now that he would never again scale the heights he achieved during the period of this survey.

All killer, no filler? Donny Osmond’s got some things to answer for, but otherwise, yeah.

10 thoughts on “The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be

  1. Scott Paton

    JB, as an AT40 staffer who otherwise enjoyed working on this special countdown, I can assure you that the inclusion of “Go Away Little Girl” pained me at the time, too. At least in the hands of its (hit) originator, Steve Lawrence, it at least had implications of “older man/young girl” questions of propriety. Donny cut this at age 13. How old was the object of his affection? Ten? As a newly-minted teen myself at the time of its release, it seemed ludicrous to me even. Pure torture and a playlist killer seven years later!

  2. Scott Paton

    (Edited, sorry!)

    JB, as an AT40 staffer who otherwise enjoyed working on this special countdown, I can assure you that the inclusion of “Go Away Little Girl” pained me at the time, too. At least in the hands of its (hit) originator, Steve Lawrence, it at least had implications of “older man/young girl” questions of propriety. Donny cut this at age 13. How old was the object of his affection? Ten? As a newly-minted teen myself at the time of its release, it seemed ludicrous to me even then. Pure torture and a playlist killer seven years later!

    1. Chris Herman

      Also, to say “Go Away Little Girl” has aged badly would be an understatement. Over at Stereogum’s tri-weekly “The Number Ones” column by Tom Breihan, both versions of “Go Away Little Girl” rank at or near the bottom with Lawrence’s version rated only about a hair higher.

      https://www.stereogum.com/category/columns/the-number-ones/

      https://www.stereogum.com/2031117/the-number-ones-donny-osmonds-go-away-little-girl/columns/the-number-ones/

      https://www.stereogum.com/1995469/the-number-ones-steve-lawrences-go-away-little-girl/columns/the-number-ones/

  3. Wesley

    Always great to hear from the great Scott Paton as well as read your summary and take on classic AT40, jb. As for why Helen Reddy has had the least legacy on radio of all the acts listed, here are my theories:
    1. Her hitmaking years were relatively short for a top 40 act in the 1970s, basically 1972-75 unless you want to count the top 20 entries “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” in 1971 and “You’re My World” in 1977.
    2. Those hits were often ballads with little rock credibility, making her a rare easy listening/cabaret style singer to cross over. The others listed here like Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt had more rock credibility or crossover appeal in other genres, like Diana Ross and Gladys Knight in R&B. When interest in that type of niche Helen filled waned, her career cratered.
    3. Helen herself seemed to “age herself out” rather quickly so to speak, by taking unhip movie roles like the nun who sang to heart patient Linda Blair in Airport 1975 and the lead in the 1977 Disney musical disaster Pete’s Dragon. In contrast, ONJ was playing a teenager in Grease in 1978.
    4. She basically was out of the public eye from the 1980s onward, with no long-term recording contracts and relatively few in-person appearances. And as her brand of “housewife pop” faded in the music industry, so did her standing.
    Even with all that, I’d rather hear any of her hits over “Go Away, Little Girl” anytime anyplace.

    1. porky

      Odd that Helen hooked up with Kim Fowley on some of her records, talk about oil and water. Maybe in a bid to rock a little more, in 1978 she covered The Beatles’ “One After 909.” Helen lets out a scream before a hot Steve Lukather guitar solo. Released as a single in the UK but album track here.

  4. It would have been fun to have randomly listed the forty acts and then try to predict their actual rankings. Some performers definitely ranked higher than I would have thought (Helen Reddy, Tony Orlando & Dawn), others much lower (Ronstadt, Earth Wind & Fire, ONJ).

    Interesting factoid about Linda Ronstadt: When you mentioned two simultaneous top tens, did anyone else think of Diana Ross or Donna Summer?

  5. My thanks to all who have commented here. Wesley’s point about Helen Reddy being more housewifey than ONJ and other female stars of the same period is spot-on, although I will always believe that “Delta Dawn” deserves to be heard as much as anything else from 1973. So is Mike’s suggestion that “The Twelfth of Never” is a far better record than “Go Away Little Girl.” I’d like to know the process through which somebody at the Osmonds’ record label decided it would be good to put “Go Away Little Girl” and “Sweet and Innocent” into the mouth of a 12-year-old boy.

    1. It was a tone-deaf reaction to 10 and 11-year-old Michael Jackson singing lyrics like these:

      “ Oh, baby, give me one more chance
      (To show you that I love you)
      Won’t you please let me
      Back in your heart
      Oh, darling, I was blind to let you go
      (Let you go baby)
      But now since I see you in his arms
      (I want you back)”

      “ Sit down girl, I think I love ya’
      No, get up girl, show me what you can do
      Shake it, shake it baby, come on now
      Shake it, shake it baby, oooh, oooh
      Shake it, shake it baby, yeah
      1 2 3 baby, oooh oooh
      A B C baby, ah, ah
      Do re mi baby, wow
      Thats how easy love can be”

      “ When Alexander called you
      He said he rang your chimes.
      Christopher discovered
      You’re way ahead of your times!
      Stop! The love you save might be your own.”

      By LDS standards of the 1970s, what Donny sang was more….”wholesome”. He was saying no. Michael was trying to get to yes.

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