Author Archive: jb

Tell the Story of How Great a Love Can Be

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(Pictured: Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, stars of Love Story.)

Honk if you remember how big a deal Love Story was.

The novel, by Erich Segal, hit the top of the New York Times Fiction Bestsellers List in May 1970 and stayed there for 41 straight weeks, into February 1971. Just before Christmas 1970 came the film adaptation of the novel, starring Ali MacGraw as Jenny and Ryan O’Neil as Oliver, with a screenplay by Segal. It topped the grosses for 11 non-consecutive weeks from December to March and got seven Oscar nominations: three for acting, one each for direction, screenplay, and score, and for Best Picture. And in early 1971, the movie’s theme song was inescapable. Four different versions charted on either the Hot 100 or the Bubbling Under chart.

—The first to hit was Henry Mancini’s version, which made the Easy Listening chart on December 19, bubbled under the Hot 100 on 12/26/70 and 1/2/71, and cracked the big chart on January 9, 1971.

—Francis Lai, who had scored the movie, charted with his version of the theme on January 30.

—Andy Williams charted a vocal version of the theme, officially titled “Where Do I Begin,” on February 6.

—Tony Bennett bubbled under the Hot 100 for five weeks in February and March, never getting above #114.

Mancini’s version made the Top 40 on February 6. It climbed swiftly, from #30 in its first week to #21, then #14 for the week of February 27. In that same week, the Francis Lai and Andy Williams versions both cracked the Top 40 for the first time, at #33 and #35 respectively. The three versions rode the Top 40 together for four weeks in all, through the week of March 20.

How did American Top 40 handle this glut of Love Story themes? As it happens, I have the February 27 show in my archives. Introducing Andy Williams, Casey says, “Here’s the first vocal of a song to hit the Top 40 that’s a hit in three different versions. We got two more to go.” Moments later, he introduces Francis Lai, also debuting that week, by saying, “We’ve already heard one version of ‘Theme from Love Story.’ Here’s the second of three versions.” Later on Casey says, “The countdown continues with the third version we’ve heard today of the song from the motion picture Love Story. First, it was Andy Williams with the new vocal version. Then Francis Lai with the soundtrack from the picture. And now here’s Henry Mancini with his arrangement of that same theme.” I also have the March 13 show, and Casey played all three versions on that show too. Based on the cue sheets from the shows, I’m pretty sure he did the same on March 6 and March 20.

According to listings at ARSA, other versions of the Love Story theme got some airplay, including versions by Roger Williams, Peter Nero, and, inevitably, the Ray Conniff Singers. Roy Clark performed a version that’s not very country, and Eddie Holman did an R&B version. I would really like to hear “(The Answer) To a Love Story” by a group called Brand X, which got a one-line mention in Billboard and two weeks of airplay at WAVZ in New Haven, Connecticut, in June of ’71, but the Internet knows nothing apart from those two factoids.

The final Billboard scoreboard: Andy Williams topped out at #9, Mancini at #13, and Lai at #31. America reached peak Love Story during the week of March 20, when both Williams and Mancini were in the pop Top 20, and Williams spent the first of four non-consecutive weeks at #1 Easy Listening. (Mancini peaked at #2 on Easy Listening, Lai at #21.)

Unless I’m missing something (which is always a possibility), I believe it would be 1977 before multiple versions of the same movie theme again charted so high together. For three weeks in May, three versions of “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky, by Bill Conti, Maynard Ferguson, and Rhythm Heritage, were on the Hot 100 at the same time; in June, Conti and Ferguson would run the Top 30 together. In September, two versions of the Star Wars theme, the disco version by Meco and the main title by John Williams, were in the Top 20 at the same time. In February 1978, the same two artists put themes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind into the Top 30 at the same time.

There have been other instances of multiple versions of the same song running the charts at the same time, especially in the 50s and 60s, but you don’t want to read a 2,000-word post today and I don’t especially want to write it. So we’ll deal with that another time.

Over the Line

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(Pictured: Sammi Smith sings with Johnny Cash, 1971.)

I have written a fair amount about the spring of 1971 at this blog, and I was glad to revisit recently it via the American Top 40 show from April 10, 1971.

38. “Friends”/Elton John. This is one of five debut songs on the show, one of which, Casey teases, is way up at #15.  “Friends,” the beautiful title song for an obscure film, was the followup to “Your Song” and would get only to #34.

(The other debuts besides the one at #15: John Lennon’s “Power to the People” at #40, “Chick-a-Boom” by Daddy Dewdrop at #39, and Dawn’s “I Play and Sing” at #30.)

Special: “My Way”/Frank Sinatra. Casey mentions Sinatra’s then-recent announcement that he intended to retire, and he plays this as a tribute. As you read earlier in the week, “My Way” was written after Sinatra told lyricist Paul Anka in 1968 that he intended to quit. He did not quit, of course, but he took a year off before returning to work. In the fall of 1973, he released a new album called Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back.

20. “Temptation Eyes”/Grass Roots. There were few records on the radio in 1971 that sounded better than the Grass Roots’ three big hits that year, this one, “Sooner or Later,” and “Two Divided by Love.”

Special: “Honky Tonk”/Bill Doggett. I suspect that the vast majority of people who heard “Honky Tonk” on the recent repeat of this show couldn’t identify it. Even I had a hard time placing it for a moment until the sax started honkin’. But in 1971, as Casey told his listeners, it was the largest selling rock ‘n’ roll instrumental in the history of the charts, having moved four million copies in two different chart runs, in 1956 (when it went to #2 for three weeks behind Elvis Presley’s unassailable “Hound Dog”/” Don’t Be Cruel”) and again in 1961.

15. “Never Can Say Goodbye”/Jackson Five. After “Never Can Say Goodbye” vaulted to this lofty position after debuting on the Hot 100 the previous week at #57, Casey says it’s headed for #1, and if you were him, you’d probably say the same thing. But “Never Can Say Goodbye” didn’t make it. It went to #13 the next week, then made another impressive leap to #4, and then #2, where it got stuck for three weeks. Read on to find out what stuck it.

14. “What Is Life”/George Harrison. I got my first 45s for Christmas in 1970, but by the spring of ’71 I was buying them myself, 94 cents apiece at S&O TV in my hometown. At some point late in this winter or in the spring I bought “What Is Life” and three others on this chart: “I Play and Sing” and the Partridge Family’s “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted” (at #7 this week) because of course I did, and also Brewer and Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line,” about which there’s more below.

13. “Where Do I Begin (Love Story)”/Andy Williams. Multiple versions of this song charted during the winter and spring of 1971, and you’ll read more about them next week.

12. “Help Me Make It Through the Night”/Sammi Smith. If you do not dig this, I don’t think we should see each other anymore.

10. “One Toke Over the Line”/Brewer and Shipley. A couple of songs before this, Casey teased that he would explain what a toke is. And although I was skeptical about whether he’d tell the whole truth, he did: “It refers to a puff of a marijuana cigarette in some places.” But he goes on to explain that it can also mean a ticket, and that if you are in Las Vegas and you ask for a toke, you’ll get a gambling chip. Brewer and Shipley meant “one toke over the line” to be an expression of regret for having gone too far, he says. Perhaps, but the lyrics make more sense if a toke is a smoke.

3. “Joy to the World”/Three Dog Night
2. “What’s Going On”/Marvin Gaye
1. “Just My Imagination”/Temptations
That’s a solid way to end a show. “Joy to the World” had gone from #34 to #11 to #3 this week, and will start at six-week stretch at #1 next week, three of them with “Never Can Say Goodbye” at #2. As for “What’s Going On” and “Just My Imagination,” it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when stuff so magnificent was an everyday thing.

Behind the Final Curtain

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Certain records are so iconic, so much a part of popular culture, that it’s like they’ve always existed. But as I frequently note, there was a time when they were current radio hits competing for airplay like everything else. One of them is Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” which was all over the radio 50 years ago this month.

(Did I need to link to that?)

The story goes that after a dinner with Sinatra at which Frank expressed a desire to retire, lyricist Paul Anka started imagining what Sinatra might say at the close of his remarkable career. He channeled Frank’s tough-guy patois into a lyric of defiance and triumph and married it to a melody he’d purchased from a couple of French songwriters. Sinatra recorded it on December 30, 1968.

“My Way” hit the Billboard Easy Listening chart on March 28, 1969, at #12, went to #4 the next week, and to #2 on the chart dated April 12, 1969, tucked in behind Glen Campbell’s “Galveston.” It spent the next three weeks at #2, behind “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by the Fifth Dimension for two weeks and Andy Williams’ “Happy Heart” for one. After that, it stayed at #3 for three weeks before falling to #6, then #7, and finally out of the Easy Listening Top 10 during the week of June 7, 1969.

“My Way” wasn’t as big at Top 40 stations. It first appears on surveys at ARSA early in March, and it first cracks the Top 10 at WRKO in Boston on March 27. It took a while to catch on, with some Top 40 stations charting it high at the same time others were just debuting it. Over the course of its chart run, it was a Top-10 hit on Top 40 stations in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas/Fort Worth, St. Louis, and Denver. On the Hot 100, it debuted on March 29 and topped out at #27 during the week of May 10, 1969.

Sinatra may have been contemplating retirement at the end of the 1960s, but at that moment, he was not far removed from one of his most successful periods, commercially and artistically. He hit #1 on the Easy Listening chart six times in 1966 and 1967, and two of those went to #1 on the Hot 100 as well: “Strangers in the Night” and “Somethin’ Stupid.” Another three of those six would rank near the top of any respectable list of Greatest Sinatra Performances: his voice may never have sounded better than on “It Was a Very Good Year”, and on “Summer Wind,” he’s equally good, backed by a slinky orchestra arrangement that’s almost unbelievably cool. On “That’s Life,” like “My Way” a backward-looking tale of how he got over, Sinatra seems truly amused by it all.

On “My Way,” Sinatra sings of his victories and defeats, “I find it all so amusing,” but he doesn’t sound amused at all. And compared to those songs of a couple of years before, “My Way” is a little off the peak. His glorious tone and phrasing isn’t quite up to those earlier examples. Maybe he rushed it a little: the 12/30/68 session was held in the afternoon before he took off for New Year’s in Las Vegas. Maybe he didn’t really believe what he was singing. Although Anka once said, “I knew he liked it,” one of his daughters said he found its lyric self-serving and egotistical, and in the late 70s he told an audience, “I hate this song,” even as he continued to perform it.

At least two other versions of “My Way” have charted. Brook Benton’s soulful uptempo version made #72 in 1970, and the 1977 live recording by Elvis Presley, which hit after his death, out-performed Frank’s original on the Hot 100. Over five decades, the song has developed a cult of haters, and their reasons for dislike are legitimate enough. It was played for the first dance at Trump’s inaugural ball, and it’s likely that nobody in the world believes the central conceit of “My Way” pertains directly to him more than Donald J. Trump.

But to Mr. and Mrs. America, turning on their radios in the blooming spring of 1969, knowing what they knew about Frank Sinatra during his 30-plus years as a central figure of American popular culture, knowing the story of the kid from Hoboken who became an idol to millions of women, a role model for the mid-century man, and the confidante of both presidents and mobsters, the story he told in “My Way” resonated. It became an anthem for anybody who ever got punched and got back up again.

Roll It

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(Pictured: Linda, Paul, and Denny Laine at work in the studio, 1973.)

This post has appeared here before, I think, or parts of it. Since it has been 45 years this week since Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run spent its first of four non-consecutive weeks at #1, I’m going to bring it back, or out, or whatever, for another installment in our ongoing series, The Re-Listening Project. This time we’ll start ranking the tracks at the top instead of counting them down.

1.  “Band on the Run.” Nobody ever lists the opening of “Band on the Run” among the all-time great guitar riffs, but they should. It sounds great on the radio off a jingle, in a song-to-song transition, or as a segue. When you put in the CD or play the album, there’s that second of two of anticipation before the riff comes knifing out of your speakers, and that’s pretty great, too. (Both Paul and Denny Laine are credited as guitarists on the album, but I don’t know who played it.) The transition to the middle section (“If I ever get out of here”) and “Well the rain exploded with a mighty crash / As we fell into the sun” are further proof that Paul is better at crafting songs than everybody else who crafts songs.

2.  “Jet.” Like “Band on the Run,” “Jet” has a radio-ready opening riff that sounded hotter than hell, especially on AM radio. The song itself is surely more about sound than sense, because the lyrics don’t make any. Over the years, Paul has offered several different explanations for what it’s supposed to be about, none of which seem especially convincing.

3.  “Bluebird.” One of the loveliest songs Paul ever wrote, no matter which band he was in.

4.  “Helen Wheels.” In the UK, this was a non-album single in 1973 and didn’t appear on Band on the Run at all. It was in the middle of Side 2 on the original vinyl release in the States, although on the 1993 and 1999 CD reissues, it was moved to the end to reflect its status as a UK bonus track. On the 2010 Archive Edition, it’s exiled to a second disc of extras. And it makes three of Paul’s greatest riffs on the same album.

5.  “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five.” This was never released as a single (except as the B-side of “Band on the Run”), but classic-rock stations played it far more often than anything else on the record except for the title song. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), Paul never played it in concert until 2011.

6.  “Mrs. Vandebilt.” That rolling, thumping bass and “ho . . . hey ho.”

7.  “Let Me Roll It.” In his original 1974 review of Band on the Run, Jon Landau calls this “a parody of and tribute to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band style.” I suppose one can hear it that way.

8.  “Mamunia.” Imagine being so talented that you can knock off something this good for a middle-of-Side-2 filler spot.

9. “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me).” This is OK, I guess, although the bits that reprise “Jet” don’t do much for me. On the 1976 Wings Over America tour, the band performed it as a medley with Paul Simon’s “Richard Cory,” and there’s something about that juxtaposition that makes “Picasso’s Last Words” work better. Maybe it’s that there’s simply less of it.

10.  “No Words.” I listen to Band on the Run a couple of times a year, and whenever “No Words” comes on, it’s like I’ve never heard it before. It makes no impression whatsoever.

The reason I chose to list from top to bottom instead of bottom to top, countdown-style, is that my ranking of the album tracks is basically the track listing, except “Helen Wheels” and “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” get moved up and “Picasso’s Last Words” and “No Words” are flipped.

Band on the Run was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys awarded in 1975, part of a group that also included Elton John’s Caribou, Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell, Back Home Again by John Denver, and the eventual winner, Fulfillingness’ First Finale by Stevie Wonder. It was the first of four Album of the Year nominations Paul would receive as a solo artist. Band on the Run remains his best-selling and best-reviewed album, and if any of Paul’s 1970s albums is going to endure for a hundred years, it will probably be the one.

The Rhythm of the Day

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(The first part of this post has been sitting in my drafts file since at least 2015. I used part of it for a post at my radio station’s blog, back when I used to contribute to that, but this is its first time here. I have added some relevant links that have appeared since I first wrote this.)

I am a big fan of Mitchell Hadley’s It’s About TV, especially his posts digging into old editions of TV Guide. They’re the spiritual cousin of my One Day in Your Life posts. The big events get attention in history class, but perhaps we can better understand how it really felt to live while those big events were unfolding if we imagine them projected against the backdrop of life’s daily details. After all, that’s how we actually experienced them.

There are two kinds of TV Guide posts at It’s About TV—discussions of a particular week’s issue and day-by-day summaries of the listings themselves. Educational programs and news early in the morning, soap operas and game shows all day (with a break for local news at noontime), cartoons and off-network repeats for kids in the late afternoon (and a surprising number of movies—it was once common practice for stations to air a movie from, say, 3:30 to 5:00), network primetime, and a couple of shows or a movie after the late local news before sign-off.

The rhythm of our days is defined more by television than we realize, I think. For many Midwesterners, the 10:00 local news marks the end of the evening and time to go to bed, so you get in your eight hours before rising at 6 for another day. When I travel in the Eastern time zone, I never get used to the idea that primetime is an hour later out there.

Television used to define the rhythm of our days in other ways. During the week, the TV stations marched in step, with a different program every 30 or 60 minutes. Saturdays were not entirely like that. Game of the Week started at 1:00 and got over sometime between 3 and 4, and it would be left to the local affiliates to pick up afterward. Ours would frequently start an episode of Star Trek right after the game and show it without commercials so it would end at 4:00. One of our local stations would occasionally bust out an episode of Twilight Zone as a time-filler, and it was always a treat to stumble upon it, unlisted in TV Guide. 

Late at night, TV stations stopped bowing to the tyranny of the half-hour. They’d start a movie at 11:40 or 12:20, as if to say, “It’s late, we’re off the clock, who cares.” Late-night TV looked different, too. There were not nearly as many regional and national commercials as there are now. Most of the ads you saw late at night were for local businesses, produced by local stations. It was common for a single business, often a car dealer, to sponsor the late movie, and get a spot—often repetitive, silly, or annoying—in every break. You’d see a lot of public service announcements, too, often on grainy film scratched from repeated use, or slightly out of focus.

I liked to watch the TV stations sign off, play the National Anthem, maybe put up color bars, or just go to static. At that point, there was nothing left to watch, and you might as well go to bed. Or fall asleep with the light of the unblinking screen until the early news, Sunrise Semester, or some noisy cartoon restarts the rhythm for yet another day.

One More Different Thing: I was sorry to learn of the passing this week of Earl Thomas Conley. During the 1980s, only Alabama and Ronnie Milsap recorded more #1 country hits than Conley. His 1981 #1 hit “Fire and Smoke” is an all-time fave of mine, as is the insanely great “Your Love’s on the Line” from 1983. As a country-radio jock during the first half of the 80s, I knew that whenever a new Conley record showed up in the studio, it was going to be good. While I didn’t love every one of them, few stars of the time had a higher batting average with me.

When a new generation hit at the end of the 80s—the Class of ’89, which included Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson—Conley’s star dimmed, but he stayed on the road for years thereafter. He’d suffered from dementia in recent years and died at 77.

A Piece of the Action

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(Pictured: David Bowie onstage in Detroit, February 29, 1976.)

I have several American Top 40 shows riding with me in the car these days. First up is the one from March 27, 1976. (Bad link fixed. –Ed.) I have written a lot about this season in the past, so I’ll do what I can to avoid repeating myself.

40. “Fopp”/Ohio Players
39. “Lorelei”/Styx
38. “He’s a Friend”/Eddie Kendricks
37. “Livin’ for the Weekend”/O’Jays
36. “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do”/ABBA
35. “You’ll Lose a Good Thing”/Freddy Fender
34. “Looking for Space”/John Denver
33. “Love Fire”/Jigsaw
32.  “Inseparable”/Natalie Cole
The first two segments of this repeat are fine if you’re a pop nerd, but an average listener might get a little impatient. ABBA and John Denver at least sound familiar, and “I Do” did make it to #15. “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” and “Inseparable” are pretty good, but neither “Fopp,” “He’s a Friend,” nor “Livin’ for the Weekend” is remotely close to its performer’s best work. And more people know “Love Fire” from being anthologized over the years than they do from hearing it on the radio in ’76. The best-remembered record of the bunch nowadays is probably “Lorelei,” although it wasn’t a particularly big hit back then, peaking at #27.

31. “Slow Ride”/Foghat
30. “Only Love Is Real”/Carole King
29. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”/Paul Simon
28. “Theme from SWAT“/Rhythm Heritage
27. “Love Hurts”/Nazareth
That’s how the first hour wraps up, and it’s much better. Thank the gods that “Inseparable” and “Slow Ride” were separated by a commercial break, both in 1976 and on the recent repeat. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is weirdly holding at #29 for a second straight week; “SWAT” and “Love Hurts” also on their way off the chart.

23. “Action”/The Sweet
19. “Bohemian Rhapsody”/Queen
11. “Golden Years”/David Bowie
Each of these three was my favorite song of the moment in the spring of 1976, depending on the moment.

22. “Cupid”/Tony Orlando and Dawn
13. “Only Sixteen”/Dr. Hook
A Sam Cooke revival was on and we barely knew it. “Cupid” was the last Top 40 hit for Dawn; they’d scored 14 of ’em since “Candida” in the fall of 1970. Three went to #1, including “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree,” which was Billboard‘s #1 single for all of 1973.

9. “Right Back Where We Started From”/Maxine Nightingale
8. “Let Your Love Flow”/Bellamy Brothers
Casey says that “Right Back Where We Started From” has the chart action of a #1 record, having gone from #25 to #14 to #9 this week, although he doesn’t say that about “Let Your Love Flow,” which has gone 28-17-8 in the same period. But come May 1, it would be “Let Your Love Flow” at #1 and “Right Back Where We Started From” at #2. And although she would spend eight weeks in the Top 10, Maxine would never get above #2.

1. “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”/Four Seasons. Casey notes that this record, in its third and final week at #1, is the Four Seasons’ biggest hit since 1963 (when “Walk Like a Man” spent three weeks at #1). Its fall out of the 40, which will begin next week, is weird: it goes from #1 to #8, then to #14 for three straight weeks, then to #16, then to #25, and finally to #44. It will linger below the Top 40 for seven weeks after that, including three straight weeks at #95 and a final week—June 26—at #98. It had debuted on December 27, 1975, and would spend 27 weeks on the Hot 100 in all.

There are some enduring hits on this chart (“Dream Weaver,” “Dream On,” “Take It to the Limit,” “Show Me the Way”), a couple of under-appreciated gems (“Sweet Thing,” “Sweet Love”), and some guilty pleasures (“Lonely Night,” “Money Honey,” “Fanny”), but in the interest of keeping this post from being 2,000 words long, I’m gonna leave ’em un-mentioned. And I could go on: among the indelible 1976 hits outside the Top 40 ready to debut within the next couple of weeks include “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” “Sara Smile,” “Strange Magic,” “Rhiannon,” “Misty Blue,” and “Welcome Back.”

One More Thing: My hometown, Monroe, Wisconsin, briefly had a record label. During the 1920s, a local businessman founded Helvetia Records, which released traditional Swiss, German, and Austrian music. University of Wisconsin folklorist Jim Leary and Archeophone Records searched quite literally the entire world to find 36 Helvetia sides recorded between 1920 and 1924, which Archeophone has released in a collection called Alpine Dreaming. I went home last night to attend a talk about the album given by Leary, whose liner notes were nominated for a Grammy. The talk was held in the same hall where The Mrs. and I had our wedding reception 36 years ago . . . to the day.

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