The Foundation That Did Not Rumble

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(Pictured: Robert Kennedy campaigns in Indiana on May 7, 1968.)

We can never know how it really was. We try, in our own lives, to remember how it really was. We study the history of bygone times in hopes of learning how it really was. What was it really like to come ashore on D-Day, or to be a peasant farmer on a 14th century English manor? We read memoirs and news reports, we study the evidence and the reconstructions, and we get a sense of it, but we can never know how it really was, in the moment, for the people who were living it.

What do we know, for example, about the spring of 1968? Mostly broad outlines. A bitter presidential campaign is underway. Social movements are blooming: minorities continue work for racial justice, and we perceive stirrings of women’s liberation and gay liberation. We see hippies trying to get back to the garden, and well they might, for it is a violent age, and not just in Vietnam and on the front lines of protests around the world. In the month of May, Martin Luther King has just been shot, and Robert F. Kennedy soon will be.

As we look back from here, in 2023, it seems that seismic shocks were rumbling the nation’s foundations. But were they, really?

A few years ago, I wrote about Los Angeles radio personality Dick Whittinghill, and my piece included an aircheck of his KMPC show from June 10, 1968, which I described as “a remarkably calm half-hour of radio.” Recently, I spent some time noodling with the Billboard Easy Listening chart dated May 18, 1968.

And I thought about my parents.

Over the years, I have asked them what they remember about various historical events, but their impressions are often fragmentary. Dad was cleaning manure out of the chicken house on the day of JFK’s assassination; they woke up my youngest brother, who was not yet three, to watch the astronauts walk on the moon. But they cannot tell me how it really felt to be alive in the moments when history was made, not the way I crave to know it.

That they cannot do so used to strike me weird, but it shouldn’t have. The big events of our times are always projected against a backdrop of the mundane (which is the One Day in Your Life mission statement, basically). And certainly, what looks mundane to us now didn’t seem that way to them then.

In the spring of 1968, my parents were 35 and 32 years old. They had been married not quite 10 years. They had three sons aged eight, six, and almost two. Dad ran a dairy farm with his father; Mother was busy taking care of the house and raising their boys. Such responsibilities were anything but mundane, not if they wanted the kids to eat, and to grow up into civilized adulthood. In the spring of 1968, as in every other spring, Dad had cows to milk (twice a day, seven days a week), crops to plant, and literally dozens of other tasks contending for his time; Mother had chores of her own, plus kids to wrangle.

For them, the news was something that came on the radio at 7:25 and noon, and on TV at 6 and 10, but if it wanted significant attention from them, it had to elbow its way past the responsibilities of their everydays. They did not kill time  contemplating their place in the great sweep of history, not like their oldest son would do one day. They may have, from time to time, considered how much trouble there was in the world, and how much change. But as long as they kept doing what they needed and wanted to do each day, the foundation they were building—a farm, a home, and a family—did not rumble, and would not.

No doubt there was privilege involved in not having to concern themselves overmuch with Vietnam, or civil rights, or gay rights, but in their defense, Dad and Mother were not alone. Millions of people like them went about their days focused on running their businesses and their households, and raising their kids. And they often did so while listening to their local equivalents of KMPC and Dick Whittinghill.

What were they hearing, specifically ? I am up against my self-imposed, completely arbitrary word limit for this post and I have not even begun to discuss that. So tune in again later this week.

Here’s to the Winners

Years ago, I produced a public service campaign for the United Way of McDonough County, Illinois. I used audio clips of people the United Way had helped in the community and people talking about why they support the United Way. The Frank Sinatra song “Winners” was the musical theme the agency had chosen (“Here’s to the heroes / Those who move mountains”). The pieces went together beautifully, and as I listened back to the finished spots it was, as best I can recall at this distant date, an out-of-body experience: “My god, that’s fantastic. Did I do that?” When the spots hit the air, the United Way people liked them and other people at the radio station liked them, so we decided to enter them in the Illinois Broadcasters Association awards contest.

You have to enter a contest like this. Such awards are not given by an omnipotent deity that reaches down from the sky and says, “You have been chosen.” You have to have ego enough to say, “Yeah, this is worth some kind of honor, and I want it.” And it helps if you work for someone who is willing to pay the entry fee, because nobody rides for free.

The banquet in Springfield was an exciting night, because I was sure I was going to win, and in front of industry big shots, too. There would be people from Chicago there. What if one of them heard my stuff and said, “We have to hire this guy”?

I didn’t win. I came in second to what I described at the time as “a melodramatic series of drunk driving PSAs,” at a moment in history when the war on drunk driving was in high gear. I must have received a certificate of merit or something, but I don’t remember; if I did, it stayed at the station and didn’t come home with me. I was disappointed. I honestly felt that my stuff was an order of magnitude better than the PSAs that won.

In 2022, my radio station’s all-day Saturday at the 70s feature was cut back to five hours on Saturday night and given to me to host and produce. At the end of the year, I entered the show in the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association awards contest. WBA radio awards are divided into two divisions, music and news/talk, and three market sizes, small, medium, and large. (Large is Madison and Milwaukee only.) I found out last month that my show was a finalist in the Best Specialty Show category for large market music radio. I am under no illusions that I vanquished a bunch of inferior competitors to make the finals; I don’t know how many entries there were, or even how many finalists. But I had made whatever cut there was, so I went to the banquet last weekend with a few other people from the company who were also up for awards.

In the days leading up to the banquet, I said to myself that I was indifferent to how it might turn out. I would be happy if I won but neither surprised nor disappointed if I didn’t. But when they finally got to my category, I changed my mind. I really wanted to win.

But I didn’t win. I came in second. I was disappointed—for literally five seconds. I swiftly recognized that it’s a great honor regardless, and I’m very pleased with it.

Ego is an inescapable part of a career on the air, in radio or TV. You have to believe that you, personally, are entertaining and interesting and/or worthy of other people’s attention. Young broadcasters tend to have a lot of unearned ego; I certainly did. The older me has tried to tame that ego, but I still have it. After all, I entered my show in the contest. I had the thought, “Yeah, this is worth some kind of honor.” But a lot of people in radio think that way about their work, and about themselves, and it just isn’t true. I have known people who think they’re special but are simply not, and they’re insufferable; I don’t want to be one of them.

Hearing that your work is good from somebody else—like the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, even in the form of a second-place certificate instead of a first-place plaque—is different from telling yourself that your work is good. It says, “You’ve earned the right to a little bit of ego.” Maybe I have. If I become insufferable, let me know.

Snapshots From 1983

Forty years ago this spring, I was music director at KDTH in Dubuque, Iowa. My role was mostly clerical, but I got to shape the sound of the station in a modest way, and I had a lot of fun doing it. What you see here is the Billboard Hot Country singles chart from May 7, 1983. (Click to embiggen.) Some random observations follow.

1. “José Cuervo”/Shelly West. To use a 2023 term, Shelly West was a nepo baby, the daughter of country star Dottie West. She came to prominence a couple of years earlier in duets with David Frizzell, brother of Lefty. “José Cuervo” is not especially subtle, but it was never not going to be a hit.

2. “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love”/B. J. Thomas. Thomas had a nice little renaissance in the early 80s, with a couple of #1 country hits, although “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love,” which also crossed over to adult contemporary, is not as good as I remember.

3. “Common Man”/John Conlee. This is the closest I will ever get to a John Conlee appreciation post, but he deserves one: “Lady Lay Down,” “Backside of Thirty,” “Baby You’re Something,” “Friday Night Blues,” “She Can’t Say That Anymore,” “Common Man,” and “I’m Only in It for the Love” are all terrific. Bonus John Conlee fact: before getting into the music business, he was a licensed mortician and radio DJ, although maybe not at the same time.

14. “Amarillo by Morning”/George Strait. George Strait might be the only artist to emerge in the last 40 years who truly belongs in the pantheon of genre-shaping, world-changing country stars. Although he had been scoring hits for nearly two years by May 1983, “Amarillo by Morning” was his first inarguable classic.

15. “It Hasn’t Happened Yet”/Rosanne Cash
20. “Our Love Is on the Faultline”/Crystal Gayle
If you asked me to name a single favorite Rosanne Cash song (and please don’t), I could ride with “It Hasn’t Happened Yet.” Same for Crystal Gayle and “Our Love Is on the Faultline,” actually. Rosanne has written that her main memory of “It Hasn’t Happened Yet” was being hugely pregnant while recording it and straining to reach the high notes.

23. “American Made”/Oak Ridge Boys. This later became a Miller Beer commercial over the group’s objections, and they supposedly stopped performing it as long as the ad campaign was running.

24. “Stranger in My House”/Ronnie Milsap. Between 1980 and 1990, Milsap hit #1 with 25 of 29 charting singles. “Stranger in My House,” which was not only different from all of his other stuff but from everything else on country radio at the time, was one that didn’t, although it got to #23 on the Hot 100.

48. “Pancho and Lefty”/Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. This is country music for people who say they don’t like country music.

59. “Snapshot”/Sylvia. Sylvia got to #15 on the pop chart with “Nobody” in 1982, and “Snapshot” is a rewrite of it, but with an even better hook. The video at that link is 1983-perfect. Sylvia can’t act at all—she spends most of the video wearing a frowny stare that’s probably intended to be sexy—but she’s got some impressive 80s hair.

I remain immensely grateful for my experience at KDTH. Even though I was a young idiot whose gaze was firmly locked on his own navel, it taught me a lot. I learned what it meant to be a pro by watching talented pros. I learned how powerful local radio can be when it’s truly committed to its community. And I learned that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like Willie Nelson and those who are wrong.

On Gordon Lightfoot: I first heard “If You Could Read My Mind” at the end of 1970, in that liminal space of time where I was becoming what I was going to be. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” means more to me than it does to many, since I actually saw that ship at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, the summer before she went down. When I got to college, I heard “Dreamland” and “Daylight Katy” for the first time, and they became favorites. And in the early 90s, Gordon Lightfoot played live in our town, and we sat in the theater for two hours wrapped in that warm, resonant voice like it was a blanket.

I have written before about how as we sail on our way, certain people stand like beacons on the shore. We don’t always think about them, but if we look back, they’re always there. Only when those beacons wink out do we realize what they meant to us.

May 1, 2011: Sinners and Saints

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(Pictured: In the Situation Room on May 1, 2011, President Obama and his team, including Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, get an update on the attack on Osama bin Laden.)

Before we begin: this post is by reader request, and it represents the most recent date I’ve ever featured in the One Day in Your Life series. If you’d like me to write about a particular date, or anything else, get in touch.

May 1, 2011, was a Sunday. After attending the White House Correspondents Association dinner last night, where he made business mogul and TV personality Donald Trump the butt of his jokes, President Obama has no public events on his schedule today. He spends the day in the White House Situation Room following a group of Navy SEALs making a raid on a location occupied by terrorist Osama bin Laden. Tonight, he speaks to the nation to announce that bin Laden has been killed. In Riverside, California, local plumber and regional Nazi party leader Jeff Hall is shot to death by his 10-year-old son. The boy tells authorities that he’s tired of his father’s violence toward him and his stepmother. At a Vatican ceremony today, Pope Benedict XVI beatifies Pope John Paul II, the first step on the road to declaring him a saint.

Boxer Henry Cooper, a British champion who twice fought Muhammad Ali and lost both on TKOs, dies two days short of his 77th birthday. Two NBA playoff conference semifinal series open today. In the East, Miami takes a 1-0 lead on Boston with a 99-90 win. In the Western semis, Memphis beats Oklahoma City 114-101. Two other series will begin tomorrow: Dallas vs. the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago vs. Atlanta. On a busy Sunday of baseball, the Cleveland Indians run their majors-best record to 19-and-8 with a 5-4 win over Detroit. The best record in the National League belongs to the Philadelphia Phillies, who are 18-and-9 after a 2-1, 14-inning loss to the last-place New York Mets tonight in ESPN’s nationally televised game.

The top movie at the box office is the new Fast Five, the fifth movie in the Fast and the Furious series, starring Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. It knocks last week’s box office leader, the computer-animated Rio, to #2. On TV tonight, 60 Minutes is the highest-rated show; CBS follows it with episodes of The Amazing Race, Undercover Boss, and CSI: Miami. NBC airs episodes of Dateline NBC, America’s Next Great Restaurant, and Celebrity Apprentice starring Donald Trump and Meat Loaf. ABC has its own slate of reality shows, including America’s Funniest Home Videos and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Also on ABC are episodes of Desperate Housewives and Brothers and Sisters, a family drama starring Sally Field and Calista Flockhart. Fox presents its Sunday animation block: Family Guy, The Simpsons, The Cleveland Show, a second episode of Family Guy, and American Dad. HBO airs episodes of Game of Thrones and Treme.

Ted Nugent speaks to the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Pittsburgh. Bruno Mars plays a stadium show in East Rutherford, New Jersey. On the Billboard Hot 100, “S&M” by Rihanna with Britney Spears is #1, knocking “E.T.” by Katy Perry with Kanye West to #2 after three weeks at the top. Katy’s former #1 “Firework” is at #22.  Lady Gaga has the week’s highest Hot 100 debut, “Judas,” at #10, and “Born This Way” at #13. Bruno Mars is represented by “The Lazy Song” at #11 and “Grenade” at #23. The week’s Top 10 also includes Cee-lo Green’s “Fuck You (Forget You)” and “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele. The F-word is also represented this week by Pink’s “Fuckin’ Perfect” at #16. Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” is at #42. Several country records are riding relatively high on the Hot 100, including the magnificent “Colder Weather” by the Zac Brown Band.

Perspective From the Present: On this day, I managed to arrange a surprise birthday dinner for my mother, who turned 74 three days before. Late on this night, I wrote in my journal:

A note for history: We got Osama Bin Laden today. Story broke on Twitter at about 9:30, but it took another half-hour for the TV networks to get it and almost 30 minutes after that for the president to get on the air and confirm it. It will be interesting to see how our right-wingers deny credit to Obama.

Which they did.

Jeff Hall’s son, Joseph, was convicted of murder and confined to a juvenile facility until age 23, which he must be close to by now.

Meet the Swingers

By 1966, the youth market was growing exponentially. Moguls and money-men had dollar signs in their eyes. For The Youth themselves, there was the allure of stardom, of hearing your songs on the radio, singing on TV, posing for magazine covers, being the name on everyone’s lips. (And dollars, too.)

And into this exciting era came the Swingin’ Six. Their album For the First Time!, released in January 1967, was a mix of original songs and covers. The music is mostly in the pocket for 1967, if not all that distinctive; a couple of Internet writers compare them to the Jefferson Airplane and the Mamas and the Papas, but they lack the edge of those groups, and some of their song choices are a little suspect. At the time, absolutely everybody was recording “The Impossible Dream” regardless of whether it was a good idea, and there is no way to make “Round and Round” sound like anything other than ripe cheese. Their busy cover of Ray Charles’ “Leave My Woman Alone” is, well, I don’t know what the hell to call it.

But it isn’t all uncomfortable. A couple of originals give the group a more interesting personality, especially “Pack Your Bag” (which was released as a single) and “For the First Time.” Another original, “Bad News,” wants to be trippy but doesn’t really get there, although I like it. The contrast between the folk rock the Six wrote and the adult standards they covered indicates that may have been some push-and-pull between what the Six themselves wanted to do and be, and what their producer, record-industry veteran Harry Meyerson, and their label, Decca Records, wanted them to do and be. If so, it’s a familiar story.

The Swingin’ Six were put together by a wannabe mogul named Ronn Cummins, and nearly all of what we know about them comes from the liner notes Cummins wrote for their album. Steve Burnett, John Fisher, Pat Lanigan, and Richard Neives were all musicians who had done Broadway, television, and nightclub work. Ann Rachel and Carol Richards were stage actresses and sang on commercial jingles. If Cummins inflated the significance of his group’s credits (and he almost certainly did), he also makes clear that the Six were ambitious kids who were already putting in the work, chasing success in showbiz. Cummins himself had been such a person, with Broadway and recording credits of his own before (and after) becoming a talent manager.

On December 24, 1966, Billboard reported that the Swingin’ Six would appear at a New York club before the release of their album in January. Cummins was confident that they would be big. Billboard wrote that he was already auditioning musicians for two more groups, “and he will also create a ‘farm system’ for the Swingin’ Six to provide replacements for the group should it become necessary.”

Spoiler alert: it would not become necessary. The Swingin’ Six made some TV appearances, but their single did not hit (although WWDC in Washington listed the B-side, “The Green Door,” for at least one week). Their album did not hit. In fact, no member of the Swingin’ Six went on to anything like stardom, although Burnett had a few post-Six musical credits.

The only reason to remember them today is for a separate gig. In 2021, I wrote about how the federal government enlisted popular TV shows to promote savings bonds. Shows from Father Knows Best to WKRP in Cincinnati were part of the effort. But the feds produced public service announcements and short films for many other purposes. The short films might appear on TV as interstitials, to fill time between the end of a game or a movie and the next scheduled program, or they might be shown by community groups for public education. In 1967, the Post Office was launching the ZIP Code program, and part of the task was explaining to Mr. and Mrs. Average American what the codes were and why it was important to use them. So they hired the Swingin’ Six to appear in a 15-minute film introducing ZIP Codes, with production numbers and original songs by Steve Burnett. The film is both cheesy and charming, and it’s educational, too: I was today years old when I learned that each five-digit ZIP Code breaks down into three parts with specific meanings.

I am not the person to write a book about how governments use popular culture to sell programs and ideas to the governed, but I’d read it. And if somebody wrote it, the Swingin’ Six should be in it.

Stagger Lee Is Everywhere

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Here’s a 2009 post from the archives that seems worth repeating. As usual, it has been edited a bit to update the hyperlinks and to eliminate some writerly tics from the past. 

“Stagger Lee” is one of the great American folk songs. It’s derived from the story of a man named Lee Shelton, a ghetto figure in St. Louis just before the turn of the 20th century. He was known as Stagger Lee, or Stagolee, or Stack-o-Lee, or something similar, and on Christmas Eve 1895, he murdered a man named Billy Lyons in a bar. According to author Cecil Brown, who wrote a book on the song and its history, Shelton was a well-known pimp in a rundown area of the city called Deep Morgan. Shelton and Lyons were drinking together amicably until an argument erupted and Lyons took Shelton’s hat. Shelton demanded it back, Lyons refused, Shelton pulled a .44, Lyons pulled a knife, and Shelton shot him dead. Shelton ended up in prison, dying there in 1912, age 41.

A murder ballad telling the story of Stagger Lee began circulating through the south and west in the early 20th century. Versions were cut as early as the 1920s, and Brown reports that there are over 120 blues and jazz versions of it. Folklorists John and Alan Lomax recorded it during their field expeditions in the 30s and 40s. It reached the pop market when Lloyd Price took his version to #1 in 1959. Since then, it’s been recorded by, well, everybody, including Bob Dylan, Bill Haley and the Comets, Wilson Pickett, Neil Diamond, Ike and Tina Turner, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Huey Lewis and the News, James Brown, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The Grateful Dead and the Clash are among the artists who have done variations on the original, although to talk in terms of variations doesn’t mean very much—as a folk song, “Stagger Lee” varies by definition. Each artist who tackles it tends to make it his or her own, although versions from Lloyd Price on down have usually focused on Stagger Lee and Billy as gamblers rather than murderer and victim.

Lee Shelton was said to be a powerful and charismatic man, tough and fearless. In some early versions of “Stagger Lee,” he does battle with the Devil himself. A figure of such rough independence is naturally attractive to young men who want to be like him. Author Greil Marcus suggests that the figure of Stagger Lee appears over and over in African-American culture. Brown quotes Marcus:

Stagolee was ‘Muddy Waters’s cool and elemental ‘Rollin’ Stone’; Chuck Berry’s ‘Brown-Eyed Handsome Man’; Bo Diddley with a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind; Wilson Pickett’s ‘Midnight Mover,’ Mick Jagger’s ‘Midnight Rambler’ . . . When the civil rights movement got tough, [Staggerlee] took over. And Staggerlee would come roaring back to the screen in the 1970s, as Slaughter, Sweet Sweetback, Superfly.’

Brown also links Stagger Lee to rap music and hip-hop style.

You almost certainly have a version or two of “Stagger Lee” in your music library. For example, Samuel L. Jackson performed it in the 2007 movie Black Snake Moan. Jackson’s version (which is extremely NSFW) focuses on the murderous part of the story. One version that focuses on the gambling tale is as far opposite of Jackson’s performance as it’s possible to get: the one by Tommy Roe, his last Top 40 hit, in the fall of 1971. I suspect that if Jackson’s character in Black Snake Moan ever heard it, he would likely want to pop a few motherfkin’ bullets into Roe for blasphemy, but anyone who digs the bubblegum like I do should be OK with it.

Listening to the two versions back to back is a vivid illustration of how malleable a folk song can be.

On Another Matter: I have written here over the years about a handful of albums I consider to be my all-time favorites, but I lack the work ethic to make anything like a definitive list. So I respect what Eric Berlin is doing at Pop Thruster: a “personal super biased, incredibly subjective take on what my best 1,000 albums are, ranked in painstaking order over the course of doing research for nearly a year, Rob from High Fidelity style.” You will agree with some choices and argue with others, which is really the point of such a project. Get started with the list here.