Author Archive: jb

Rock Steady

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(Update: Aretha passed this morning, August 16th.)

As I write this post [on August 15], Aretha Franklin is still with us, and maybe she’ll be with us for a while yet. The fact that she’s receiving hospice care, as was reported this week, doesn’t necessarily mean she’s going to die within days. I lost an uncle recently who had received hospice care for a couple of months.

When her time comes, other people are going to write about Aretha, and I look forward to those tributes. In this post, premature though it is, I’ll do what I can.

Although “Don’t Play That Song” peaked at #11 on the Hot 100 in the fabled fall of 1970, WLS didn’t chart it, so I didn’t hear it then. My introduction to Aretha came in the spring of 1971, when her glorious version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” went to #6 on the Hot 100 and #11 on WLS. My favorite Aretha record was a few months away. Forty-seven years ago this week, “Spanish Harlem” was blasting up the Hot 100, jumping from #29 to #19 in its third week on, although it was already #1 on soul station WWRL in New York City and at CKLW in Detroit. In September, it would peak at #2 on the Hot 100 where, in one of the great miscarriages of Top 40 justice, it got stuck behind Donny Osmond’s “Go Away Little Girl,” although it did reach #1 at WLS in Chicago and WABC in New York.

Aretha followed “Spanish Harlem” with “Rock Steady,” hot enough by itself, but positively smokin’ as processed for AM radio here, and in the spring of 1972, “Day Dreaming,” which is soul music as the pure, clear water of life—you could live on it for weeks if need be, with a shot of “Until You Come Back to Me” (1973) as a chaser. Although “I’m in Love” (1974), “Something He Can Feel” (1976), and “Jump to It” (1981) were significant hits, “Day Dreaming” would be Aretha’s last Top-10 single until “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” in 1985.

When I went to the record books, I was a bit surprised to find that Aretha hit #1 on the pop chart only twice, with “Respect” in 1967 and “I Knew You Were Waiting” with George Michael 20 years later. “Chain of Fools” and “Spanish Harlem” both made #2; “Until You Come Back to Me” and “Freeway of Love” each peaked at #3. In 1967, the album I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You, which started with the famously aborted recording session at Muscle Shoals, made #2. In 1968, Aretha: Lady Soul made #2 and Aretha Now made #3. Her scorecard: 17 Top-10 pop singles and six Top-10 albums.

(Links in the previous paragraph go to posts at The ’68 Comeback Special, a blog by Charles L. Hughes, author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South. Go read them, and the book too.)

Aretha had two babies before she turned 15, troubled relationships with difficult men, financial problems, concert no-shows, and rivalries with family members and fellow performers. Her career cratered a couple of times, but she always managed to come back. The 2014 biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz is the definitive telling of her story, although Aretha called it “trashy,” and she accused Ritz, collaborator on her 1999 autobiography, of being “vindictive.” Ritz says that because certain subjects were off-limits in 1999, that book failed to tell Aretha’s story as it should have. Respect addressed those subjects, with the cooperation of three Franklin family members. It’s not flattering and it’s hard to read in spots, but it also gives Aretha her due as an artist. And at the end of an artist’s life, the art is the thing that matters, because the art is what will endure.

The greatest art has a natural quality that makes it seem as though it sprung forth, like a redwood tree or a glacier does, willed into being by something primal and more powerful than than the conscious choices and actions of fallible human beings. Humans like Aretha Franklin make art that proves humanity can achieve the highest heights to which we aspire. We aren’t here just to suck up natural resources and die wanting more. We can do better.

I’m in You

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(Pictured: Andy Gibb.)

After my class reunion last month, we spent the night at Mother and Dad’s house. They put us in the bedroom that I occupied from 1972 until I moved away in 1980. It’s not their regular guest room, and so it had been a few years since we slept up there. It’s been painted and recarpeted since 1980, and there’s none of my stuff left in it, but the upstairs hallway and bathroom look pretty much the same. (My brother’s room, on the north side of the house, hasn’t changed at all; it has the same paint from the 70s and the same posters on the walls.) My room has two windows and a screen door out to a porch. The view of the dooryard and farm fields to the south and southeast is still beautiful, especially in the morning.

When I project myself back in time, I tend to have some standard landing spots. When I return to the summer of 1977, it’s almost always to that room. I had a little stereo system I’d gotten a couple of years before, which sat on my dresser. I also had a portable radio which sat on a nightstand near my bed. A black-and-white TV on a rolling cart went back and forth between my room and my brother’s. An antique table pushed up against one wall, and on it sat my typewriter—actually Dad’s, vintage late 40s or early 50s, which is here in the house somewhere now—although I didn’t use it much. Letters to my girlfriend in Europe were handwritten, and so was anything else I may have felt like composing.

In an earlier post, I started listening to the American Top 40 show from the week of July 30, 1977. Let’s go back and pick up the rest of the notable songs on that show, and in that room.

13.  “Easy”/Commodores. Either this or “Sweet Love” is my favorite thing by the Commodores. I love the line “easy like Sunday morning,” even though in the context of the song, I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean.

10.  “Whatcha Gonna Do”/Pablo Cruise. “Whatcha Gonna Do” is one of the great summer records of any decade; put it on even in the dead of winter and I’m looking out my southern windows at sunny skies and 80 degrees.

9.  “Higher and Higher”/Rita Coolidge. I will always fanboy hard for this record.

8.  “Margaritaville”/Jimmy Buffett. As great as “Margaritaville” sounded on the radio in 1977, it’s another song I never need to hear again. Casey played an edit, however, which provided a little novelty value. As best I can tell, there are a couple of edited versions: both snip out the instrumental bit in the middle and shorten the ending, but one of them speeds the song up a half-step. I am pretty sure Casey played the speeded-up one.

2.  “I’m in You”/Peter Frampton. Although “I’m in You” would spend three weeks at #2, I don’t recall hearing it much after it fell out of recurrents that fall. It’s not bad, really, just not as memorable as the hits from Frampton Comes Alive! had been. (Frampton’s followup single, a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed Sealed Delivered” is much, much better.)

1.  “I Just Want to Be Your Everything”/Andy Gibb. Pffft. “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” is catchy enough, but there’s nothing to it. Nevertheless, it spent nine straight weeks as one of the three most popular songs in the land, including four non-consecutive weeks at #1. It would stay in the Top 40 until late October and spend 31 weeks on the Hot 100 in all, from April to November.

Billboard doesn’t list “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” as the #1 song for all of 1977, although at least nine radio stations did, according to ARSA. (Billboard‘s November-through-October chart year made Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” #1 for all of 1977 when it more properly belonged in 1976.) There’s a case for Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” as the #1 song of 1977 as well, although it, too, got shorted by Billboard‘s chart rule. WLS in Chicago seems to have gotten it right, with Boone at #1 and Andy at #2 on the Big 89 of 1977.

Don’t Stop

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(Pictured: Fleetwood Mac in the summer of 1977.)

People listen to American Top 40 for lots of reasons. You’re guaranteed three or four hours of highly familiar music and interesting oddities. Casey Kasem’s personality is engaging, and his feature bits are usually interesting. I enjoy all of those things, but I also use the shows to try and project myself back in time, to feel what it was like to live in that bygone week, whenever it was.

I have been listening to the American Top 40 show from the week of July 30, 1977, and in that bygone week, life was difficult, or it seemed that way to 17-year-old me. My girlfriend was in Europe and I missed her. While she was there, I lost both of my part-time jobs off the farm, each in the span of a couple of weeks. (I didn’t like either one of them, but still.) I must have spent the first couple of weeks of August, before my GF got home, lonely and feeling sorry for myself.

So I believe I will tread lightly around this show and try to think of some things I haven’t already said about the songs of that summer.

40.  “Float On”/Floaters. I don’t recall hearing “Float On” on the radio stations I was listening to back then, even after its unlikely rise to #2 on the Hot 100 in September. I hated it when I finally heard it, although now I respect its easy groove and the earnestness of the individual Floaters describing the kind of girl they like.

39.  “Christine Sixteen”/KISS. In 1977, “Christine Sixteen” wasn’t a cultural outlier; rapey crap of this type was mainstream. In the #MeToo Era, it’s unacceptable.

31.  “Black Betty”/Ram Jam. One of the classic-rock stations I worked for used to play this as part of its Southern rock weekends, even though Ram Jam was formed in New York City. Fine by me.

29.  “Smoke From a Distant Fire”/Sanford-Townsend Band. This is a record that cannot be improved upon, and its very existence in a state of such perfection is a sort of miracle.

25. “Give a Little Bit”/Supertramp. Casey played the 45 edit, which is labeled at 3:20, and which I had completely forgotten.

24.  “Telephone Man”/Meri Wilson. “Telephone Man” would make #18 on the Hot 100 later in August. It’s the kind of novelty that’s mildly humorous once, annoying the second time, and get-it-the-fk-off-my-radio after that. By the time it reached its Hot 100 peak, however, it had been to #1 at WCOL in Columbus and WKTQ in Pittsburgh, as well as at stations in Kalamazoo and Muskegon, Michigan. In an era when many Top 40 stations played their top hits every 75 to 90 minutes, you can imagine the horror of that.

22.  “Don’t Stop”/Fleetwood Mac
21. “Jet Airliner”/Steve Miller Band
20. “Barracuda”/Heart
This is a damn fine stretch of music right here, even though the AT40 engineer, either in 1977 or today, made a godawful edit in “Barracuda.”

Casey delivers more news than usual on this week’s show. He does a feature on the world’s most expensive single record, a 10-inch 78 of “Stormy Weather” by the Five Sharps, for which its owner recently turned down an offer of $2,000. (I found a couple of recent articles suggesting that the value of “Stormy Weather” is now $25,000, and there are only three copies in existence.) He updates the condition of Jackie Wilson, who suffered brain damage after a heart attack in 1975 and was still, as of 1977, confined to a rehabilitation center. And in a particularly rare move, he plugs two acting roles he has on NBC in the coming week, on Police Story and Quincy. (Late edit: be sure to read the comment from our friend and former AT40 staffer Scott Paton about these parts of the show.)

15.  “Undercover Angel”/Alan O’Day. Call this 70s cheese if you want, but the last verse, in which Alan hits the sheets with the girl of his dreams hoping to see the angel again, strikes me as truthful in a particular way. He tells her his story, to which she responds, “Whaaaat?” He says, “Ooo-wee.” She says, “All right!” The exclamation point is critical. She’s not angry or confused by his wild-ass story; she’s happy to go with it because she is ready and willing to get it on as he is. How many pop songs depict sex as playful, or fun? Songwriters are usually most comfortable imbuing it with more “significant” emotions—passion, contentment, regret. They’re less likely to acknowledge, as O’Day does here, that sometimes, we make love with laughter in our hearts.

Coming in the next installment: the room where most of the summer of ’77 happened, and more of what I heard there.

What the Good Ones Do

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It was around 2:30 in the morning. I was on my way from my radio job at KDTH in Dubuque back to my apartment in Platteville. I crested a hill, and a man came running into the road to flag me down. Behind him was a crashed car. A second man was lying in the middle of the road, and I knew from looking at him that he was dead. “There’s been an accident!” the first man cried, somewhat obviously. I stopped my car and got out, and I saw a porch light come on at a nearby house. “Call the sheriff!” I yelled.

This happened a long time ago, so I can’t remember much more. I do recall that I parked my car at the crest of the hill with the hazard lights on to slow other drivers who might come on the scene. I don’t know how long it took a sheriff’s deputy to arrive—10 minutes, maybe? Several cop cars and an ambulance came out eventually, and once I had determined that they didn’t need me to hang around, I went on my way.

It must have been 4AM until I got home. Before I went to bed, I called the KDTH newsroom and left a message. “When you call the Grant County Sheriff this morning, they’re going to tell you about a one-car accident in Maryvale Heights. I saw it driving home, and I’m pretty sure that there’s at least one fatality. A guy was lying in the middle of the road and he looked in pretty bad shape.”

Within a day or two, one of the news guys thanked me for calling in the story. “We had the fatality before anybody else in town,” he said, meaning the other radio station and the newspaper.

It was my greatest moment in journalism.

I have written before about how much I learned by watching various reporters at KDTH and elsewhere. Not every newscaster was a legend, although some were; some of them were pedestrian writers and others didn’t sound all that great on the air. But all of them, the legends and the lesser, had one thing in common: they took their jobs seriously. Not a one of them was half-assing it. They called up public officials and asked them to comment on stories, even when they knew the public officials might not want to talk. They went to press conferences and asked questions. The 40-hour week was just a rumor to them, because they had to attend evening school board and city council meetings after working a full day. They came in on weekends and holidays to cover severe weather and other disasters. They wrote with care, and they stacked their newscasts with care.

They did not report what they did not know. On those rare occasions when I am called upon to read news on the radio, I try to emulate them as best I can.

Two pieces I read over the weekend will give you good insight into how hard reporters work. One discusses how former ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy broke the story about Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer’s knowledge of domestic violence committed by an assistant; the other is a first-person account by Robert Klemko about his attempt to get inside the bubble that has protected NFL star Ray Lewis since he was convicted of obstruction of justice after a double murder in Atlanta. Both stories make clear that these guys busted their asses to get the story. McMurphy spent hours and days and miles tracking down scraps of information to corroborate his story. Klemko had the courage to ask questions that absolutely nobody, from Lewis on down, wanted to hear, let alone answer, and he persisted in asking them.

Of all the crises Donald Trump has wrought, his war on journalism may end up being the most destructive. And not only that: it’s the most absurd. He insists that CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, Washington Post, and any news outlet that isn’t Fox, is simply making shit up; that nothing they say is true. He calls the press the enemy of the people, which is a loaded and violent phrase that’s eventually going to lead to more incidents like the newspaper shootings in Maryland last June. And it’s garbage, and not just because every word out of Trump’s mouth is garbage. Even less-talented reporters don’t simply make shit up. What the good ones do is precisely the opposite.

The Top of the Other Charts

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(Pictured: the original caption on this pic claims it’s the Enchanted Garden Disco in New York and not a church basement somewhere.)

(Note about pictures: If you see a caption but no picture, reload the page. Since I switched to the domain, pics don’t always load properly the first time.)

On American Top 40, Casey Kasem would frequently say, “Before we hear the #1 song, let’s take a look at the top of the other charts.” From the edition of Billboard dated July 31, 1976 (in which “Kiss and Say Goodbye” by the Manhattans is in its second week atop the Hot 100), here are the tops of some of the other charts.

The Top Box Office chart does not refer to movies, but concerts. Billboard puts them in three categories and ranks by grosses. “Stadiums and Festivals” are shows in venues that seat 20,000 or more; the list is topped by a bill starring Yes, Peter Frampton, Gary Wright, and Gentle Giant, which grossed $550,000 at Anaheim Stadium in California on July 17. (The same show in San Diego the next day is #2 on the list.) “Arenas” are venues that seat from 6,000 to 20,000; Elton John’s show in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on July 19 was the top grosser at just under $149,000. Two Wisconsin appearances by Fleetwood Mac and Starcastle are on this list, in Green Bay on July 16 and Madison on July 17. “Auditoriums” are venues that seat less than 6,000. A six-night stand in San Francisco by the Grateful Dead tops this list. Tickets for most shows regardless of venue size ranged primarily from $5.50 to $8; the festival shows in Anaheim and San Diego cost $10 to get in. None of that seems like very much now, but it seemed pricey then: a movie ticket was generally around $2 in 1976; when I bought my first “real” concert ticket in 1977 for $7.50, it seemed like a fortune.

The Disco Action chart ranks by sales figures from various retailers and “top audience response” from discos in various cities. Top sellers are the eponymous album Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and the singles “You Should Be Dancing” by the Bee Gees and “The Best Disco in Town” by the Ritchie Family. “You Should Be Dancing” leads the audience response charts in New York and in the combined Los Angeles/San Diego area; in Washington, it’s “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel” by Tavares. The charts appear on the same page with an article headlined “Is the Disco Scene in a Rut?” The answer is, of course, yes and no. One radio insider says, “Disco hits aren’t crossing over [from clubs to radio] the way they used to.” But even if the music becomes less popular, he says, discos themselves will remain popular places to go because they represent “an adult record hop.”

(The lead single from the Dr. Buzzard album, “Cherchez la Femme,” hasn’t charted yet, but it will. If you can get past the misogynistic lyric—which is hard to do, I grant you—it sounds great, and this performance from the Tony Orlando and Dawn TV show is fun to watch.)

The top four songs on the Hot Country Singles chart are in the same positions as last week: Red Sovine’s novelty “Teddy Bear” is #1 for a third week, followed by George Jones and Tammy Wynette on “Golden Ring,” “Say It Again” by Don Williams, and “The Letter” by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. (“Golden Ring” will go to #1 the next week and “Say It Again” the week after that.) There’s not much action on Hot Country LPs. From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee by Elvis is #1 again this week. United Talent by Loretta and Conway moves up to #2 with a bullet. The only other album getting a bullet in the Top 10 is Are You Ready for the Country by Waylon Jennings at #4.

Billboard‘s Hits of the World chart covers several countries. The #1 song in Britain is “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee, which will reach #1 on the Hot 100 next week; the top album in Britain is 20 Golden Greats by the Beach Boys. “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers is the #1 single in West Germany and Switzerland. In Sweden, the #1 hit is “Barretta’s Theme” by Sammy Davis Jr.

Starting on page 43, a feature in the Tape/Audio/Video section spotlights WISM-FM in Madison and its successful, automated MOR/gold/easy rock format, which is also running on the company’s stations in Oshkosh and LaCrosse. The station creates its own automation tapes, a process which the article describes in great detail. In 1976, I listened to that station occasionally. Forty-two years later, I work at that station’s direct descendant. Occasionally.

The Faded Festival

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(Pictured: Janis Joplin, 1969.)

The telling of rock-festival history tends to start at Monterey Pop in 1967 before jumping to Woodstock in 1969—but there were festivals in between. I’ve written about the Atlanta Pop Festival over the weekend of July 4, 1969, and the Midwest Rock Festival, held in Milwaukee later that month. The weekend after Milwaukee, the festival focus shifted to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and another event now largely forgotten.

The Atlantic City Pop Festival opened on Friday, August 1, 1969, at the Atlantic City Race Course, normally a horse-racing venue. The event featured a rotating stage, supposedly designed by R. Buckminster Fuller. The biggest stars of the first day were Iron Butterfly and Procol Harum; Joni Mitchell played too, but only four songs; it’s unclear why she cut her set short, although she said from the stage that she’d sung the same verse of one song twice and nobody noticed, so it’s presumed she thought the audience wasn’t paying attention. Crosby Stills and Nash were billed but didn’t show (Graham Nash had vocal-cord trouble, it was said); Johnny Winter got there but was unable to play due to some sort of equipment problem. Santana, then known as the Santana Blues Band, was introduced by MC Biff Rose as the “Santa Ana Blues Band.” Chicago and Booker T. and the MGs were also scheduled for Friday (but may also have played on Saturday), and the show was closed that night by the Chambers Brothers. On Saturday, the Jefferson Airplane, the Byrds, and Creedence Clearwater Revival were the top acts; B. B. King, Paul Butterfield, and Tim Buckley were also on the bill. Sunday’s lineup was star-packed: Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Frank Zappa, and Three Dog Night were among them (although the Moody Blues were advertised, they didn’t appear). The show was closed on Sunday night by Janis Joplin and Little Richard, jamming together.

Among the reasons why Atlantic City Pop has largely been forgotten is because of what it wasn’t. It wasn’t the giant mudhole freakout of a generation; it wasn’t a place where babies were born and legends were made; it wasn’t mythologized by a movie or an album. It was just a show, for $6 per day or $15 for all three. There was no camping on the site (although many attendees slept in their cars in the parking lot). The three-day crowd of over 100,000 came from as far away as Texas and Florida. The weather was hot, and the crowd was occasionally hosed down by water trucks; a pond on the grounds of the track was a popular cooling-off spot as well. At one point, a stage announcement was made that if there were narcs in the crowd, they were unlikely to cause trouble. How anybody could know that isn’t clear, but it was true. Rolling Stone reported that there was so much marijuana smoke that a contact high was nearly guaranteed, at least near the stage.

There was a police presence, however, but according to one of the promoters, none of the cops were armed. Officers patrolled the site on 12-hour shifts, and the track’s owners hired a private security force to make sure nothing would happen that might interfere with the next week’s opening of the racing season. State troopers waited in reserve in case they were needed. Apart from the customary heavy drug use and a few attendees climbing the light towers above the stage on Friday night, the only serious incident occurred when a group of concertgoers ransacked a vendor area on Sunday, making off with about $20,000 in swag.

Approximately 70 vendors were on site, selling art, food, musical instruments, albums, and other merchandise, for Atlantic City Pop seems to have been very well planned in advance. The show was promoted by Electric Factory Concerts of Philadelphia, one of the top promoters on the East Coast. That made it quite different from other festivals, where it was sometimes assumed that quotidian details involving parking and sanitation and concessions would magically work themselves out thanks to the Aquarian spirit, or something.

Another reason why Atlantic City Pop has faded into history is Woodstock’s tendency to overshadow everything in proximity to it. It started on that very weekend 49 years ago: one attendee remembers being handed a flyer on his way out of the race track advertising the upcoming Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

My rock-festival posts often spike in traffic on weekend nights, when old hippies go a-Googling in search of their youth. If you were at Atlantic City, please tell us what you saw and did. I welcome your recollections.

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