(Pictured: Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong.)
Comedy albums sold decently well in the 60s and 70s, but only a handful of acts sold ’em like rock stars. Bob Newhart hit #1 twice between the summer of 1960 and the spring of 1961 with his Button-Down Mind albums. In 1965, the ethnic comedy album You Don’t Have to Be Jewish went to #9; a few months later, Welcome to the LBJ Ranch!, which featured the actual voices of Lyndon Johnson, Everett Dirksen, Robert Kennedy, and other prominent political figures mashed up for comedic purposes, went to #3. (It was held out of the #1 spot around Christmastime by the Tijuana Brass album Whipped Cream and Other Delights and the soundtrack from The Sound of Music.) Impressionist David Frye’s I Am the President, featuring his Nixon impersonation, made the Top 20 in 1970. Richard Pryor scored several substantial hits on the album chart between 1974 and 1982 including the #12 Is It Something I Said? in 1975. Eddie Murphy: Comedian was double-platinum in 1984 and topped out at #35. (Late update: Bill Cosby belongs on this list too; see this comment below.) But apart from Newhart, nobody rode the charts higher than Cheech and Chong. In 1972 and 1973, their albums Big Bambu and Los Cochinos both made #2 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
In the fall of 1973, Cheech and Chong’s “Basketball Jones,” from Los Cochinos, became a monster single. It first hit the radio in September and peaked at #15 on the Hot 100 in October, although it was a Top-10 hit in Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee, and some smaller cities. It was probably biggest of all in Chicago, where it went to #2 at WLS and WCFL and #1 on FM rocker B96. (There was an animated video that went with it, which I’m not going to link to. No good version exists online, and the video’s casual racism and sexism, which was no big deal 45 years ago, is pretty offensive now.)
On November 24, 1973, one week after “Basketball Jones” dropped off the Hot 100, Cheech and Chong charted again. Despite the success of Los Cochinos, the duo’s label chose to take another run at radio airplay with “Sister Mary Elephant” from Big Bambu. It had been released as a single the year before but went nowhere (except at WDRC in Hartford, where it was their #1 request for a while). But this time, in my town, “Sister Mary Elephant.” became the hottest thing to hit the eighth grade. I bought it, most likely sometime in December as it headed to the top in Chicago (#3 on WLS, #2 on WCFL) and #24 on the Hot 100, and (I think) the last spoken-word comedy cut to become a significant hit single. But by then, lots of people I knew were talking about the Big Bambu album. I borrowed a copy from a friend who had one, and then went out and got one of my own.
In 1973, parents of small-town eighth-graders wanted their kids to grow up right, but they didn’t give a damn what we listened to. I suspect now that if they’d paid attention to Big Bambu, they’d have confiscated it. Take, for example, “The Bust,” in which a couple of dealers flush their stash, a radio spot in favor of the legalization of marijuana featuring a stoner named Ashley Roachclip, or a game show called “Let’s Make a Dope Deal.” At the time, however, it never occurred to me, or to anybody else in the eighth grade, that adults would have the slightest interest in the frivolous crap we liked.
Cheech and Chong’s most successful single was yet to come: “Earache My Eye,” which went all the way into the Billboard Top 10 (and to #1 on WLS and at KHJ in Los Angeles) in the fall of 1974. The album containing “Earache My Eye,” Cheech and Chong’s Wedding Album, would go to #5. The duo would hit the singles chart five more times; “Framed” and “Bloat On” would both peak at #41. Their movie career began in 1978 with Up in Smoke, and they were fairly reliable box-office performers for the next seven years. Their record-chart career ended with “Born in East L.A.,” a Bruce Springsteen parody, in 1985.
Although Big Bambu‘s content would give parents and school officials an attack of the vapors today, it’s doubtful that it warped anybody I knew. To us, it was just funny. It certaintly didn’t make a stoner out of me. The giant-size rolling papers that came with the album, featuring a picture of Cheech and Chong, are still inside my copy today.
(Extensively rebooted from a post first appearing in 2004.)
My first radio was a green plastic Westinghouse box (not the radio pictured above) with a big AM tuning dial on the front and tubes inside. It had belonged to my father. At some point in the fall of 1970, I scrounged it out of the basement, and it remained my radio until I got my multi-band Audiovox, which must have been for Christmas in 1972. My younger brother inherited the Westinghouse after that, although he didn’t listen to it as obsessively as I did. On a Sunday morning in the spring of 1974, it shorted out and presumably caught fire. We came home from church to a house full of smoke, and although there was no fire damage, we were displaced from the upstairs of the house for several months.
The life and death of that radio is a critical bit of my personal mythology. That mythology also includes my childhood bedroom, at the end of the hall across from Mother and Dad’s. From the time my brother and I were big enough to sleep in regular beds until I was 12 or 13, we shared the room. Sometimes we had twin beds on either side, separated by a cheap wooden toy chest on which my radio would sit. We also had bunk beds for a time; I claimed the top bunk by right of being the oldest, but it was only feasible after my 11th birthday, after I got my little transistor radio, so I could listen up there. The mythology of this blog also includes that radio. Of all the artifacts of my childhood that I have lost, it’s the one I miss the most—your basic AM transistor model, but with a little Green Bay Packers logo on the front.
I don’t think I’m writer enough to effectively explain the sensation I felt listening to AM Top 40 radio in that room. AM had a distancing aspect. It was like you were consciously listening to a performance, as you’re conscious of watching actors on a stage. You can get lost in such a performance, but there remains an unreality about it that is difficult to ignore. The better fidelity of FM radio or vinyl made it easier to suspend disbelief and imagine the artists right there in the room, but on AM radio, they were larger than life, better than real. AM radio made my sports teams seem larger than life, too. In the winter I listened to the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Blackhawks; in the spring and summer, the Chicago Cubs; in the fall, the Wisconsin Badgers. When I finally got to see the Bucks and the Cubs and the Badgers in person, the reality of them, there in front of my eyes, actually seemed to diminish them a little.
Many Top 40 stations processed their audio to take advantage of the sonic limitations of the AM band and the tiny speakers through which the sound would reach the listener. Some stations, including WLS, processed their audio especially for car radios. It wasn’t just loud, the way radio stations process audio today—the best word to describe it is big. There’s a YouTuber who posts audio that he claims is processed like New York City’s WABC back in the day. Although the audio isn’t perfect—there’s a distinct hum on many of the tracks—you’ll understand right away that this stuff is different. Songs sound massive, as on this version of the Raspberries’ “Go All the Way” and this incredible “Be My Baby” by Andy Kim. If I could tweak my computer speakers to approximate the fidelity of the old Westinghouse, I’d never listen to anything but that channel.
AM radio also sounded different at night than it did during the day. A distant signal would fade in and out; if there was a thunderstorm anywhere in the vicinity, you’d hear the crackle of the lightning, and a nearby storm would make listening impossible. But even when the signal was strong and clear, nighttime made me feel the distance from the origin of the signal in a way I didn’t feel it during the day. And certain songs, conceived as they were by the artist, recorded as they were by the producer, and processed as they were by the radio station, sizzled straight into my brain so that almost a half-century later, I’ve never forgotten how they sounded, and how it felt to hear them.
(For a technical explanation of why it sounded that way, read this comment from the Yah Shure, who is, as we have noted several times over the years, The Man.)
P1 Media Group has published its list of the 40 top-testing Christmas records for 2018. The document, which you can see here, is pretty interesting. Records were tested for familiarity and love it-or-hate-it across various age groups and both genders to yield “appeal scores.” Radio stations can use the data to tweak their Christmas libraries for the season. The most appealing for 2018 is . . . “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms, a record first heard 61 years ago.
We can safely say that “Jingle Bell Rock” is one of the most incredible success stories in pop music history. In 1957, it made #6 in Billboard and #13 country, and it returned to the Hot 100 in 1958, 1960, 1961, and 1962. It appeared on Billboard‘s Christmas chart fron 1963 through 1973, with the exception of 1971. It hit #1 on that chart only once, in 1969, a year in which there were two versions of it in stores, the 1957 original and a 1965 re-recording. When Billboard briefly revived the Christmas chart in the mid 80s, it never missed. After it was featured in the 1996 movie Jingle All the Way, it returned to the Hot 100, country, and AC charts. As recently as 2016, it made the Hot 100 again.
On the local charts at ARSA, “Jingle Bell Rock” was #1 in Baltimore, Toronto, and Springfield, Massachusetts in 1957, and it appears on a handful of local charts in 1958, ’59, ’60 and ’61. (A station in Spokane, Washington, charted it at #1 in 1961.) It disappears from local charts after 1963, except for one listing in 1968, 1971, and 1974. By then, its place in the holiday pantheon was secure.
Why Bobby Helms? It’s not like he was as big as Elvis. He was a 24-year-old Indiana native whose first two hits, “Fraulein” and “My Special Angel,” had each topped the country charts for a month earlier in 1957. “My Special Angel” had crossed to the pop Top 10, peaking in November just as “Jingle Bell Rock” was getting traction. So it’s easy to figure why it became a significant hit in 1957. That success brought it back the next year, and the year after that, and after a few years, it apparently became impossible for listeners to imagine the holiday season without it.
A second version of “Jingle Bell Rock” appears in P1 Media Group’s Top 10: the one by Hall and Oates. It was first released in 1983, although P1 Media Group shows its debut year as 1984. On the original single, Daryl Hall sang it on one side and John Oates on the other. And although I was doing pop-music radio in the 80s, I don’t remember hearing it until sometime in the new millennium. H&O did a version on their 2006 album Home for Christmas, and I think that’s the version you hear most often today, but I could be wrong about that. It’s pleasant enough, although it lacks the indefinable something that puts the Bobby Helms original into a completely different league.
As for the rest of the P1 Media Group list, you can look it over and see for yourself. The newest record on it is Taylor Swift’s cover of “Last Christmas,” which came out in 2007. It is one of only four records on the list to be released in the new millennium. The oldest is Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” from 1942. And so it confirms what we already know: the American Christmas canon is largely set in stone and has been for a long damn time.
Some radio stations won’t dip into the Christmas library even a little bit until today, but across the country, others have been flipping to all-Christmas since approximately Halloween. Such early flips are traditional now, a tradition that is accompanied by people bitching about it. I have seen people online confidently proclaiming that such stations have no idea what they’re doing and that nobody wants to hear Christmas music so early. Which is wrong. Stations going all-Christmas often see huge ratings jumps for the fall ratings period—double, triple, even quadruple their numbers during the other three quarters of the year. That’s why they do it. A station in the Philippines went all-Christmas in September, and I suspect that if it weren’t for the presence of Halloween, many American stations would flip even earlier.
The enduring popularity of Christmas music on the radio—and the same music year after year besides—is a good reminder of how regular people (as opposed to music nerds or radio nerds) listen to the radio. They’re looking for something familiar to enhance or elevate their mood in the moment. For many, Christmas music does it, even the same old warhorses, even if it’s not Thanksgiving yet.
I’m gonna climb out on a limb here and risk somebody sawing it off behind me by making the following declaration: all of the truly great songs about food come from performers who are A) Southern; B) black; or C) both. As tasty as Chicago-style pizza, Philadelphia cheesesteaks, or the Wisconsin fish fry can be, they’re apparently not tasty enough to inspire widespread musical inspiration. But how many songs have been written that involve Southern staples like grits, ribs, black-eyed peas, or fried chicken? During this Thanksgiving week, I offer you one of my favorite food songs, and it doesn’t mention a food item in the title at all.
Wet Willie was formed in Mobile, Alabama, and rose to fame on the Capricorn record label out of Macon, Georgia. They never reached the heights climbed by their labelmates, the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band, but they weren’t especially comparable to either of those bands anyhow. Wet Willie was a Southern soul band; had they formed in Memphis instead of Mobile, they’d have likely found their way to Stax and could have fit right in there without changing much.
The band recorded its first album in 1971, but only sharp-eared listeners would have heard of them before 1973, when they released a live album called Drippin’ Wet. Greater fame arrived in 1974 when their first hit single, “Keep on Smilin’,” made the Top 10. Dixie Rock and The Wetter the Better came in ’75 and ’76. Another live album followed (what “special editions” are to artists today, live albums were in the 1970s), and then the original lineup splintered. The new lineup produced two more albums and two more modest hit singles, “Street Corner Serenade” and “Weekend,” before going out of business in 1979—at least until the inevitable new-millennium reunion, which has resulted in a shifting lineup producing a couple more live albums.
(Digression: I am guessing that the cover of The Wetter the Better was a popular adornment on teenage bedroom and college dorm-room walls, at least until the Farrah poster came along. The Wetter the Better also features the superb “Everything That ‘Cha Do (Will Come Back to You”), #66 on the Hot 100, and “Baby Fat,” the lyric of which is skeevy as hell, but which also rocks like crazy.)
But let’s turn back to 1975 for a moment. For a band that could be plenty funky, it’s really saying something to call “Leona,” Dixie Rock‘s lead single, the greasiest thing they ever made—not just in sound, but in subject matter, too. It’s sung by a guy who stops in at a café that doesn’t look like much on the outside, but is heaven within:
She fixed a good ol’ golden brown Southern fried chicken
That would make the Colonel run and hide
I had collard greens and fresh snap beans
And sweet potatoes on the side
I had homemade biscuits just as big as your fist
A-drippin’ with sweet creamy butter
A Mason jar fulla cold ice tea
So good it make you run home to Mother
By 1975, disco was on its way in and Southern soul was on its way out. That’s probably why “Leona” lasted only five weeks on the Billboard chart, peaking at #69 in March. But nothing more scrumptious ever hit the Hot 100. Here’s hoping your Thanksgiving dinner this year is at least that tasty.
(Rebooted from a post first appearing in 2007.)
I have written before of my borderline-irrational love for “Moonlight Feels Right,” the 1976 hit by Starbuck, the distilled essence of my favorite year.
Founding Starbuck member Bo Wagner started in showbiz as a child. He was a tap dancer and singer with various big bands in the early 50s, and frequently appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club as a musician, although he was never a Mouseketeer. He was in the cast of The Lawrence Welk Show for three seasons and acted in TV commercials. In the 60s, he played with future Starbuck bandmate Bruce Blackmon in a couple of bands including Eternity’s Children. (I wrote about them earlier this year.) After Eternity’s Children broke up, Wagner went on the road as a percussionist, including a stretch backing Liberace. Blackmon worked as a studio and touring musician and as a songwriter. Wagner eventually formed a band called Extravaganza, which Blackmon eventually joined, and which morphed into Starbuck.
“Moonlight Feels Right” was part of a four-song demo of Blackmon’s songs that Starbuck cut in November 1974. A dozen record companies rejected them before Private Stock took a flyer, releasing the demo of “Moonlight Feels Right” as a single in the fall of ’75. The record, which had been made for a total cost of $300 and laid down on used recording tape, flatlined almost immediately. (It shows up on a single survey at ARSA, from WANS in Anderson, South Carolina, dated November 24, 1975.) But Blackmon and Wagner believed in it, and in early 1976, they put 8,000 miles on a car hand-delivering it to radio stations across the country. The only one to bite was in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Blackmon’s telling, it took exactly one day for “Moonlight Feels Right” to become a local hit. It started charting around the country in April, eventually reaching #3 on the Hot 100 and #1 in Record World, and the Moonlight Feels Right album followed. From that album, the ultra-smooth “I Got to Know” made #43 in October of 1976; a third single, “Lucky Man,” stalled at #73 during Christmas week.
Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, writing at Allmusic.com, describes “Moonlight Feels Right” as “a slick slice of soft rock that captures the mid-’70s in all its feathered, polyester glory” and the rest of the Moonlight Feels Right album as “gauchely bewitching soft pop.” Starbuck’s second album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Rocket, released in early 1977, is a similar kind of thing, updated for the burgeoning disco era. It makes me think of mustachioed nightclub dudes trailing clouds of Hai Karate, Qiana shirts open to the waist and zodiac sign medallions around their necks, who try to charm halter-dressed hotties up to look at their etchings. If you like that kind of thing (and I do), Rock ‘n’ Roll Rocket isn’t bad, although its cheese factor is also pretty high. “Everybody Be Dancin'” was the album’s lone hit single, sneaking into the Top 40 for two weeks as May turned to June 1977, peaking at #38.
Although Moonlight Feels Right had been a modest success on the Billboard 200 album chart (#78 in a 14-week run), Rock ‘n’ Roll Rocket was not (#182 in a two-week run). After that, Starbuck moved on from Private Stock to the United Artists label, releasing the album Searching for a Thrill in 1978. A lot of the songs are in the slick, poppy style of the band’s two previous albums, but several expand the group’s sonic palette, none more than title song and lead single. “Searching for a Thrill” starts out like a prog-rock record and ends up sounding like a completely different band. It’s pretty great, actually, and it made #58 on the Hot 100 40 years ago this month.
The Starbuck story continues after that, but I’m short of space and can’t tell it here. The group played some reunion shows between 2013 and 2016, and made the news briefly in 2017 when Bo Wagner died at the age of 72. “Moonlight Feels Right” is cheesy pop glory, but nothing about it is more glorious than the decision to put a marimba solo where lots of bands would have put a guitar. That marimba solo is Bo Wagner’s monument.
One Other Thing: On Friday. I posted part of a post I once tried to write about the way radio music changed between 1973 and 1974,. A couple of readers, Mike and Wesley, wrote that very post in the comments section, and you should read it. Thanks to the both of you, gents.
(Pictured: Robert Klein, in an acting role on Love American Style, 1973.)
It’s time again to plunder my drafts file for fragments that never added up to a full post.
If you read the history of modern stand-up comedy, you’ll notice how many major stars, up to Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld, mention Robert Klein as an influence. His most famous of several albums is Child of the 50s, which came out in 1973. Comedy does not always translate over time. Styles change, context gets lost, new comics shift the paradigm of what’s funny. But Child of the 50s is still consistently hilarious 45 years after its original release. Although Klein’s growing-up stories are set in a faraway time and for many of us, a faraway place—the Bronx—they’re still relatable, because we all dealt with school discipline, subtitute teachers, and lunch ladies. We all watched TV shows that annoyed us, listened to the radio, dealt with surly retail clerks, and tried to get a date. The reference points have changed, but the experiences remain universal.
You can hear all of Child of the 50s here. It’s observational like Seinfeld and absurdist like Martin, but at the same time firmly in the stand-up mainstream of the early 1970s. Klein’s act wasn’t so foreign that a network variety show couldn’t book him.
On the subjects of television and of lost context, there’s this:
The CBS reboot of Murphy Brown was big news at our house because we loved the original series. But boy is the new Murphy not good. At its best, the original series delivered uprorariously funny takes ripped from the headlines; the reboot just can’t. The show’s attempts to mock and/or parody Trump, Republicans, and conservative media come off either too broad or just toothless. Yes, our current reality is hard to satirize. But the new Murphy Brown is positively wheezing; you can almost see the cast worrying that it just ain’t funny.
It seems obvious that Murphy Brown‘s audience will be people who watched the show 25 years ago, but the producers, and possibly CBS too, are reluctant to accept it. In fact, the single best joke in the entire reboot so far was ruined because of that reluctance. Tyne Daly, who plays the crusty owner of Phil’s, the bar where Murphy and her colleagues hang out, delivers a speech about her toughness that ends with “I spent 20 years in one of the toughest divisions of the NYPD.” The audience in the studio—and in the living room at our house—laughs uproariously at the cleverness of the callback to Daly’s role as a detective on Cagney and Lacey. Instead of leaving well-enough alone, however, the writers add the line, “Parking enforcement.” Which turns a funny bit of fan service into a lame joke that could have been on Sgt. Bilko 60 years ago.
And finally: last summer, somebody tweeted a record chart from 1974 and asked, “Worst year ever?” This bit was a response that never went anywhere.
When the list of #1 hits includes “The Streak,” “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” “Annie’s Song,” “The Night Chicago Died,” and “You’re Having My Baby,” all of which topped the Hot 100 between Memorial Day and Labor Day 1974, it makes you wonder. American taste had gotten mushy during that Watergate year. It would take somebody smarter than me to explain what happened between the spring of 1973 and the summer of 1974 to make this happen to the Top 40. Soul music was turning to disco, novelty records and earworms with the artistic depth of commercial jingles were becoming massive hits, and straight-up rock ‘n’ roll was scarce. Maybe the news from Washington was so bad that we thought silly, non-threatening music could take our minds off of it.
I was about to say that if that last bit had been true in 1974, we’d be up to our ears in silly, non-threatening music in 2018. But a recent piece at Pitchfork argues that today’s hits actually reflect our morose times and our uncertain future pretty well. But those reflections are far more passive than those of two generations ago. In a world of streaming, shuffling, and skipping, music doesn’t get in our faces like it used to. Neither do the people who make it. Their main job, and the job of their music, is simply to be there when we turn it on.
Please tune in again next time for another edition of Short Attention Span Theater, or whatever the hell this is.