The Ravens, the Angels, and Me

The last time I was in a hospital overnight, it was when I was born, and never since—not until the end of October. I was there five nights, four of them in the ICU. It sucked, and I don’t recommend it. But it was not an entirely negative experience, either.

I had a hard time figuring out how to share my experience with you. The piece I wrote about it (which I’d actually started composing in my head before I got home) ended up being too long for this website. It was even too long for my e-mail list, the Sidepiece. So I decided to make a podcast episode out of it. I know that not everyone who reads this website listens to my podcast (and I have the traffic numbers to prove it). Still, I hope that even if you are podcast-averse, you’ll give this episode a listen. There’s some funny stuff in it, and some stuff that’s deadly serious, too. You can stream it right here, or you can download it and listen to it at your convenience.

Other episodes of my podcast are available at my archive, and at my Soundcloud. Episodes are also available at Apple Podcasts, Google PodcastsTuneIn, and Stitcher. In my podcast archive and at my Soundcloud, there is a link you can use if you would like to kick in a couple of bucks to help defray the cost of producing the podcast and maintaining this website. You’re under no obligation. There’s evidence to suggest that all of this material is fairly priced by being free.

November 24, 1966: Hazy Shade

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(Pictured: Bullwinkle J. Moose floats above the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.)

(In the very first post on this website, I warned you that sometimes it was going to be so personal that only I would care about it. This is an example of what I meant. This may not be one day in your life, but it’s one day in mine.)

November 24, 1966, is a Thursday. It is Thanksgiving Day. All over America, families gather to celebrate. For a second straight day, elevated smog levels are recorded on the East Coast. After a stretch of Indian summer weather, a stagnant air mass is held in place by a cold front, which has allowed the buildup of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and smoke. New York City is positively choking. Today, in hopes of minimizing the smog, the city closes its garbage incinerators, and utilities cut back on the use of fuel oil to generate electricity. Despite the smog, one million people attend the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, where the haze is noticeable.

There are also Thanksgiving Day parades in Detroit and Philadelphia, also sponsored by department stores, J. L. Hudson’s and Gimbels. This afternoon, in Detroit’s traditional Thanksgiving Day NFL game, the Lions are blown out by the San Francisco 49ers 41-14. For the first time, the Dallas Cowboys play on Thanksgiving, beating the Cleveland Browns 26-14. There’s also an AFL game today: Buffalo beats Oakland 31-10. On TV tonight, CBS airs the 1963 theatrical movie Jason and the Argonauts at the conclusion of the Cowboys/Browns game. ABC presents Batman, F Troop, The Dating Game, Bewitched, That Girl, and Hawk, a police drama starring Burt Reynolds. On NBC, it’s the anthology show GE Fantasy Theater, Star Trek, The Hero (a sitcom with Richard Mulligan as an actor who stars in a TV Western, with Mariette Hartley as his wife), and The Dean Martin Show.

The current Cash Box magazine chart is led by the Beach Boys and “Good Vibrations.” “Winchester Cathedral” by the New Vaudeville Band is #2; last week’s #1, “Poor Side of Town” by Johnny Rivers, is #3. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by the Supremes and “Last Train to Clarksville” by the Monkees round out the Top Five. Two songs are new in the Top 10: “I’m Your Puppet” by James and Bobby Purify (currently #1 on the Cash Box R&B chart) and a medley of “Devil With a Blue Dress” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. Elsewhere, “I’m Ready for Love” by Martha and the Vandellas is up 16 spots to #24; “Mellow Yellow” by Donovan is up 26 spots to #33; “A Hazy Shade of Winter” by Simon and Garfunkel is up 19 spots to #35. Two Motown hits are the highest-debuting songs of the week: “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Jr. Walker and the All-Stars at #61 and “(I Know) I’m Losing You” by the Temptations at #67. The #1 song on the Cash Box country chart this week is “Open Up Your Heart” by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. The self-titled debut album by the Monkees is atop the Cash Box album chart.

Perspective From the Present: On Friday, November 25, New York City issued a first-stage smog alert, asking people to avoid driving, turn thermostats down, and stop burning their own garbage. Similar alerts were issued in New Jersey and Connecticut. On Saturday morning, the weather turned, and a northeast wind dispersed the smog. Although precise figures are impossible to calculate, some experts said that the smog likely caused as many as two dozen excess deaths in the city per day.

Six-year-old me did not celebrate Thanksgiving with my whole family on this day. A few days earlier, I had been kicked on the playground, and as a result, I developed some sort of infection in one leg. I had already missed a couple of days of school because I had keep it elevated and under hot towels. That meant I couldn’t go to Grandma and Grandpa’s for Thanksgiving dinner with my aunts, uncles, and cousins. So Mother, my two-month-old brother, and I stayed home while Dad and my other brother, age 4, went to the dinner. Mother prepared turkey noodle soup for  us, entertained me with board games, and did all she could to lessen my disappointment and, most likely, hers.

Even though we didn’t particularly like the circumstances, we made the best of what we had to deal with—a good lesson for Thanksgiving 2020.

Super Soul Sure Shot

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(Pictured: Pete Wingfield.)

Forty-five years ago this week, an especially beloved but still obscure 70s hit achieved a bit of perfection that was too good to be an accident.

Pete Wingfield is one of the most prolific musicians in the history of rock. He came up as a blues musician in a band called Jellybread, but when it failed to find success, he got into session and concert work as well as songwriting and production. His list of credits is extremely long: B. B. King, Lightnin’ Slim, Memphis Slim, Nazareth, Keef Hartley, Colin Blunstone, Van Morrison, the Hollies (with whom he was associated for a very long time), Freddie King, Al Stewart, Maggie Bell, Edwin Starr, Lindisfarne, Richard and Linda Thompson, Bonnie Tyler, Olivia Newton-John, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, the Everly Brothers (whose band he joined for its 1980s reunion), the Alan Parsons Project, and Paul McCartney—and that is undoubtedly an incomplete list. He played so many sessions—over a thousand sessions in all—that he can no longer remember them all. He once told a journalist, “Well, I must have been there because my name’s on the sleeve.”

But apart from the long list of credits, what most people best remember about Pete Wingfield is one indelible record: “Eighteen With a Bullet.” In Billboard chart jargon, records that show potential for greater growth and a higher chart position are marked with what’s known as a bullet. So the phrase “eighteen with a bullet” refers to the #18 position on the chart, with the potential to go higher. Wingfield uses it as a metaphor for a budding relationship with the potential to get stronger.

“Eighteen With a Bullet” was a big hit in the UK during the summer of 1975. It first shows up at ARSA on a survey from WWIN in Baltimore at the end of June, but it takes a while to catch on. It starts getting traction across America in mid-September, and becomes particularly big at WCFL in Chicago, where it gets to #3 as October turns to November—although WCFL’s crosstown rival, WLS, didn’t chart it at all. It’s even bigger at KMBY in Monterey, California, where it spends a couple of weeks at #1 in November. In December, it tops local charts in San Bernardino and Sacramento.

There is little doubt that lots of radio stations would have been sorely tempted to rank “Eighteen With a Bullet” at #18 on their weekly music surveys at some point, and many of them did. WWIN was first, then KYA in San Francisco, WRKO in Boston, KTKT in Tucson, WHB in Kansas City, WFIL in Philadelphia, KTLK in Denver, KRIZ in Phoenix, and a few smaller stations. And Billboard gave in to the temptation too. During the week of November 22, 1975, “Eighteen With a Bullet” ranked #18, with a bullet. During the week of November 29, “Eighteen With a Bullet” peaked at #15 in Billboard—a remarkably high placing for something so quirky and original. I suspect that radio stations and record-industry people loved it more than the public did, and that couldn’t have hurt it one bit.

The lyrics to “Eighteen With a Bullet” could only have been written by a man with experience in the music business, somebody who spoke the language of records, record marketing, and radio, and who had the talent to turn that jargon into a love song. The music could only have been written by somebody who knew his way around the blues, New Orleans R&B, and doo-wop. In a world where every piece of music is described by comparing it to something else, there’s nothing quite like “Eighteen With a Bullet.”

I first wrote about “Eighteen With a Bullet” in 2006, and it was this website’s most popular post for a long time. This post is partially rebooted from material posted in 2012.

You’re Reading It, You Title It

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(Pictured: Badfinger.)

It is time for some Links and Notes, with worthwhile stories I’ve highlighted on Twitter recently. 

—Our Internet friend Scott Paton, a former researcher at American Top 40, has had a long and varied career in broadcasting and publishing. His first-person stories of meeting and hanging out with Brian Wilson and other stars in the Beach Boys’ orbit are golden.

—This conversation between Mavis Staples and country star Chris Stapleton is great and highly worth your time. So are the stories from Mark Rivera, longtime sax player in Billy Joel’s band.

—Several Motown and Stax artists participated in an oral history of touring life in the South during the days of legal segregation. Key quote from soul singer William Bell: “Three or four years ago, you started seeing the attitudes popping back up. And I’m going, ‘Have we not learned anything yet?'”

—For a while in the late 60s, the R&B editor of Billboard was a white guy, and it occasionally got awkward.

—I took a music appreciation course in the seventh grade, and when the teacher played Switched-On Bach for us, it blew my mind. It’s still a remarkable piece of work, and the story of its creator, known then as Walter Carlos and today as Wendy Carlos, is just as remarkable.

—Please Kill Me is a website that covers music, art, culture, fashion, poetry, and movies from the 60s to now. Read their recent story on the difficult and sad history of Badfinger.

—It got swamped by the news during Election Week, but the death of original Rolling Stone photographer Baron Wolman is worth noting, because he took some very famous pictures of very famous people.

—Last week was the 50th anniversary of the Exploding Whale of Oregon. This is truly one of the weirdest stories you will ever read, and it is extremely well-told here.

—Although WRIT was the first Top 40 radio station in Milwaukee, WOKY is the more fondly remembered. The building in which it was located still stands today, converted mostly to offices, although vestiges of the old radio days remain in what the building’s owner calls the MilWOKY Center. OnMilwaukee.com’s excellent Urban Spelunking series took a look.

—The return of Stevie Nicks’ composition and Fleetwood Mac’s recording of “Dreams” to the Hot 100, thanks to that viral video of the skateboard guy, is a reminder that songs written by a single person have grown rare, and nothing is more rare than a #1 song written by one person. Billboard ran down the numbers: In the 1970s, 44 percent of #1 hits were written by a single writer; in the 2010s, just four percent; in the last three years, none. Hit songs today routinely credit a half-dozen people or more. A geezer such as I thinks to himself that an individual human vision is more likely to result in worthwhile art than something bolted together by committee, although there’s an alternate viewpoint. Author Ted Gioia points out that the creation of ASCAP meant that songwriters were assured of getting paid for their creative contributions, but musicians, engineers, and producers might not be. Crediting them as writers allows them to get fair compensation in the form of performance royalties from radio airplay.

—Gioia wrote about one of the most unlikely interpreters of the Great American Songbook: Willie Nelson. His 1978 standards album Stardust is a masterpiece, but Willie has recorded standards frequently ever since, and he’s got a gift for it.

—When Rolling Stone came out with its revised list of the Top 500 albums of all time earlier this fall, I was torn. As a Guy With Opinions About Music, I felt like I should read it. But at the same time, I’m not as young as I used to be, and my clock is ticking. So I didn’t read the whole thing. I did read a couple of articles about it, however, including this one from the New Yorker about the futility of the whole enterprise. They ask: how can you rank Joni Mitchell, the Notorious B. I. G., and Ornette Coleman side-by-side?

That’s all I’ve got today. Thank you for your continued support of this Internet feature, even when it sucks. 

The Total Sinatra

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I wrote this last summer after reading James Kaplan’s monumental Frank Sinatra biography. I didn’t post it then, but here it is now. 

Frank Sinatra was the first musical celebrity in the modern sense, the first to excite mobs of screaming teenagers like Elvis Presley and the Beatles and a gaggle of lesser stars would eventually do. While his popularity in the 40s rivaled that of Bing Crosby, his celebrity was of a different degree. Bing was cool and understated; Sinatra was hot, and he made other people hot. Nobody was going to tear up a theater or rush a police line to get their hands on Crosby, but Sinatra pushed people’s emotional buttons in an entirely different way.

That fundamental difference between the two men crossed all forms of media. Every week for a decade (1936-1946), millions of American radio listeners settled down for a comfortable hour or half-hour of Bing as host of Kraft Music Hall, while Sinatra hosted several different shows that struggled. Similarly, Crosby was more visible and successful on TV. Crosby’s easy charisma translated to the movie screen; as a screen presence, Sinatra was more intense. (Crosby won his Oscar for playing a kindly priest in Going My Way; Sinatra won his for playing a sawed-off troublemaker in From Here to Eternity.) Some of the differences work in Sinatra’s favor, however. Crosby disliked singing songs containing the phrase “I love you,” although he would sing of love obliquely; Sinatra was far more swooningly romantic. On the other hand, Bing could sell Christmas songs from the heart, while Sinatra never seemed comfortable with them.

While biographers have revealed that Crosby was cold, harsh, and unfeeling in his private life, there was almost never a hint of it while he was alive. By the late 40s, Sinatra was frequently in the papers for hanging out with mobsters and punching out photographers. His love life was also a familiar topic, although as Kaplan reveals, the women whose names made the papers were only a tiny fraction of the total. Eventually, many would be decades younger than he. Sinatra feuded with reporters and columnists over the way he was covered but he didn’t change his behavior, which ensured that the papers would continue to write stories that angered him, over and over again.

It has been the official position of this website for many years that while it’s appropriate to discuss the private lives and behavior of artists, we should not use private lives and behavior to judge their art. As soon as we start discounting artistic merit because of personal failings, the slope gets very slippery. Some of our greatest artists were drug users, child abusers, or simply jerks for their own private reasons. Does any of that affect the intrinsic value of their art? It should not. What’s in the grooves is what should count.

Outside of the grooves, Frank Sinatra was not an especially nice man, and often barely an admirable one. It’s all part of the historical record: he was capable of great personal kindness, but he also treated both friends and strangers callously, and he squabbled childishly with lovers. He donated time and money to charity, but he also used people selfishly and then cruelly cast them away. He hung out with mobsters, knew exactly who they were, and took professional and personal advantage of those relationships. And he did it all as if it were his due. Don Hewitt was onto something when he promised that Walter Cronkite would treat him like a president. By the time of that 1965 Cronkite interview, Sinatra had long since expected head-of-state deference from everyone in his life.

Was Frank Sinatra, in totality, a good person? Your mileage may vary. But was he a great singer, perhaps the best America has ever heard? Listen to his music and there’s only one answer: indisputably yes.

The Song Is Too Long

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(Pictured: the Jackson Five.)

Not long ago, I paged through Billboard magazine from the week of November 7, 1970, as one does.

A headline story on page 1 says that in response to the recent drug-related deaths of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Al “Blind Owl” Wilson of Canned Heat, MGM Records president Mike Curb has terminated the contracts of 18 MGM artists he accuses of promoting hard drugs. The artists are not listed by name, although Curb claims that some of them are top sellers. History would show that most of them were marginal at best.

Elsewhere, jukebox operators are concerned about the increasing length of records and its impact on their revenue. More than half of the songs on the current Hot 100 run more than three minutes, and the average song runs 3:32. “Green Eyed Lady” by Sugarloaf runs 5:58, and both “Closer to Home” by Grand Funk Railroad and “Fresh Air” by Quicksilver Messenger Service run in excess of five minutes. (Anne Murray’s “Snowbird” is the shortest, at 2:08.) Some operators have refused to program the longest popular singles, but most admit that if a record gets big enough, they have no choice. The long-song trend is not expected to reverse. Bill Prutting of jukebox manufacturer Seeburg says, “You can write about long singles until doomsday, but labels cannot tell their artists how long their singles should be.”

The magazine reviews a number of new albums, including Bob Dylan’s New Morning, Greatest Hits by Sly and the Family Stone, and I (Who Have Nothing) by Tom Jones. Several new Christmas albums are reviewed, by the Williams Brothers (Andy and his siblings), Ed Ames, Buck Owens, Charley Pride, and Jose Feliciano. The review of Feliciano’s album says he “adds interesting new dimensions to old Christmas favorites,” but doesn’t mention a new song from the album that will remain on the air for the next half-century: “Feliz Navidad.”

Charley Pride is #1 on the Hot Country Singles chart with “I Can’t Believe That You’ve Stopped Loving Me.” Among the other songs in the Top 10 are “Sunday Morning Coming Down” by Johnny Cash and “It’s Only Make Believe” by Glen Campbell, which have crossed over to pop. Other pop crossovers include “Snowbird,” “For the Good Times” by Ray Price, “Amos Moses” by Jerry Reed, and Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden.” The hottest record on the chart, up 30 spots to #37 in its second week on, is “Coal Miner’s Daughter” by Loretta Lynn. Merle Haggard’s Fightin’ Side of Me is #1 on Hot Country LPs.

Billboard‘s Top Soul LPs chart is dominated by Motown: Third Album by the Jackson Five, Temptations’ Greatest Hits Volume 2, and Still Waters Run Deep by the Four Tops are in the top three positions. Also riding high: Signed Sealed Delivered by Stevie Wonder, the self-titled solo debut by Diana Ross, and Ecology by Rare Earth.

Rare Earth, signed to a Motown subsidiary, is not the only rock act on the Soul LPs chart. Santana is at #6 with Abraxas, Cosmo’s Factory by CCR is #13, Band of Gypsys by Jimi Hendrix is at #16, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen is at #24, and Led Zeppelin III debuts at #44. (Led Zeppelin III and Abraxas are #1 and #2 on the Top LPs chart; the Jackson Five and Creedence Clearwater albums are in the Top 10.)

On Easy Listening, “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters continues to dominate, in its fifth week at #1. Also in the Top 10: “It Don’t Matter to Me” by Bread, James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” and the hottest record on the Easy Listening chart, “Stoney End” by Barbra Streisand, up 14 spots to #8.

The #1 song in Britain is the Matthews’ Southern Comfort cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” In Canada, it’s “Cracklin’ Rosie” by Neil Diamond. In Singapore, “Candida” by Dawn is #1, and in Spain it’s “El Condor Pasa” by Simon and Garfunkel. In the United States, “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson Five is #1 for a fourth week; “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Fire and Rain” hold at #2 and #3. One song is new in the Top 10: “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family, up from #17 last week.

The magazine’s radio column, Vox Jox, runs down the on-air lineup at WLS in Chicago: Larry Lujack, Joel Sebastian, Chuck Buell, Scotty Brink, Kris Stevens, Jerry Kaye, new arrival Steve Lundy, and weekender Bernie Allen. On the other end of the wave in his Wisconsin bedroom, a 10-year-old kid listens to them, and it won’t be long until he wants to be like them.