Author Archive: jb

As It Happened

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(Pictured: pop-culture icons collide in August 1977.)

Let’s take a look inside the edition of Billboard magazine dated August 13, 1977.

There’s been a drastic fall-off in patronage at certain New York City discos due to the .44 Caliber Killer, or as he’s better known, Son of Sam. Although at least four of Sam’s victims have been shot after leaving discos, police don’t think he’s targeting disco patrons specifically. It’s more likely that discos provide easy access to his preferred type of young victim. Police have increased patrols around discos in Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. Meanwhile, clubs in Manhattan and on Long Island have seen increased patronage, likely from people fearful of patronizing clubs in their own neighborhoods.

As it happened, the killer, real name David Berkowitz, was captured on August 10.

On September 1, New York’s WNBC will switch to a rock format, according to new program director Bob Pittman. Pittman, age 23, is best known for his recent success at country station WMAQ in Chicago; he’s bringing WMAQ personality Ellie Dylan with him to do mornings on WNBC. The current WNBC air staff, including morning host Don Imus, has been sacked, although WNBC will continue to be the national radio flagship for NBC News. Another prominent WNBC personality, Cousin Brucie Morrow, broke off contract talks after being told the new format “didn’t require a high-priced voice.” He plans to continue contributing music features to WNBC-TV and to write an autobiography. He also wants to “shop around for a metro-area radio station he can own and operate the way he thinks radio should be run.”

Among the winners at the recent 10th annual International Radio Programming Forum Awards in Toronto: WROK in Rockford, Illinois, as the Grand International Radio Station of the Year, “for its community leadership and its high levels of programming excellence.” Gary Owens of KMPC in Los Angeles was honored as Grand International Personality of the Year. The award for major-market Top 40 personality of the year was a tie between John Landecker of WLS in Chicago and Dan Ingram of WABC in New York. American Top 40 took the award for best regularly scheduled syndicated program. In a related item, American Top 40 has once again been named the most popular program on Armed Forces Radio by AFRTS program directors around the world.

An all-day bill headed by Peter Frampton smashed the concert attendance record at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium on July 31, drawing nearly 60,000 fans. Also on the bill that day: the Steve Miller Band, Styx, and Rick Derringer. Ticket prices ranged from $10 to $12.50. Other recent top-drawing shows included Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, who attracted 40,000 during a four-night stand in suburban Detroit, and Emerson Lake and Palmer with opening act Journey, who drew 10,000 on one night in Vancouver and 15,000 the next night in Seattle. Other major bills on tour at the moment: Bad Company with the Climax Blues Band, Alice Cooper with Burton Cummings, and America with Poco.

On the Hot 100, the top three songs are the same this week as last: “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” by Andy Gibb, “I’m in You” by Peter Frampton, and “Best of My Love” by the Emotions. The highest debut within the Top 40 is the London Symphony Orchestra recording of the Star Wars theme at #28. The highest Hot 100 debut is “Cat Scratch Fever” by Ted Nugent at #70. On Top LPs and Tape, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is #1 again. CSN by Crosby Stills and Nash makes a strong move to #2. Barbra Streisand’s Superman, Frampton’s I’m in You, and Love Gun by KISS round out the Top Five.

On Billboard‘s Hits of the World charts, “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer is #1 in Britain. On the Hot Soul Singles chart, “Float On” by the Floaters takes over the #1 spot from the Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23,” which slips to #2. The top two songs on the Easy Listening chart are the same this week as last: “My Heart Belongs to Me” by Barbra Streisand at #1 and “It’s Sad to Belong” by England Dan and John Ford Coley at #2. “Rollin’ With the Flow” by Charlie Rich is #1 again on the Hot Country Singles chart, just ahead of Elvis Presley’s double-A sided hit “Way Down”/”Pledging My Love.”

As it happened, Elvis would die on August 16.

A correction of a story from the August 6 edition says that contrary to what was reported, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” is not in the public domain. “A federal judge ruled that the tale of the old tree is not copyrightable. The song is.”

Teacher Needs a Beer

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If you have read this website for a while, or if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you have heard me talk about the teaching job I have, which puts me on the road for a few weeks every spring and fall to help high-school students prepare for the ACT and SAT college entrance exams. Another season will begin in September.

When I launched this podcast in June, I said that some episodes would not have anything to do with either music or radio, and the latest episode is the first one that does not. It’s about that teaching job and my life on the road doing it, and it’s called “Teacher Needs a Beer. ” You can listen to it right here.

You can find all episodes, old and new, at my Soundcloud. The podcast is also available at Google Play, TuneIn, and Stitcher, if you happen to use any of those platforms. I have been asked about its availability via Apple Podcasts; they won’t currently validate it, and I’m not sure if they ever will, but keep hope alive, I guess.

However you listen to the latest episode, I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please consider giving it a good rating or review on whatever platform you use.

Bubbles in the Wine

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(Pictured: a late-period shot of Lawrence Welk. Dig that wild background, man.)

Me, 2011: “History is written by the winners. So when the history of pop music on television is written, that history focuses on the shows that featured rock music.” Which is why, I went on to say, Lawrence Welk doesn’t get the recognition he deserves for what is now, in 2019, nearly 70 years on television.

Neither is he remembered for hit records, although had a few.

You might be surprised to learn that Welk scored his first hit songs as far back as 1938. In those days, his band was known as a “sweet” band, a term that distinguished bands playing pop music from “hot” bands that played jazz. At some point in the 30s, Welk nicknamed his style “champagne music,” light and bubbly with a steady beat for dancing. (His theme song to the end of his career was “Bubbles in the Wine,” which became a modest hit in 1939.) During the 40s, his band was especially popular in the Midwest, and they played regular, extended engagements at big-city hotels, including a 10-year residency at a ballroom in Chicago. Welk also recorded a number of “soundies”—early music videos—during the 1940s. Welk’s biggest hits in this period came in 1944 and 1945: “Don’t Sweetheart Me,” which was not in the “champagne” style at all, spent 20 weeks on the Billboard chart in 1944 and got as high as #2; in 1945, the country song “Shame on You,” recorded with Red Foley, went to #1 on what Billboard then called the “Juke Box Folk” chart. (The song had been a bigger hit earlier in the year for singer Spade Cooley, thus establishing Welk’s rep as a cover act.)

After Welk relocated to Los Angeles, he started appearing on local TV in 1951, going national in 1955. At about this time, he began visiting the pop charts again. His best year was 1956, when he hit the Top 20 three times, all with covers: “Moritat,” “Poor People of Paris,” and “Tonight You Belong to Me.” His biggest hit was yet to come, however: “Calcutta” hit #1 in a couple of cities before the end of 1960, racked up more local #1s in January 1961, and finally reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in February.

I can’t describe the appeal of “Calcutta” any better than I did in 2011: “The song features a harpsichord, a unique sound that gets a listener’s attention. ‘Calcutta’ clocks in at a compact 2:13, with a melodic and rhythmic drive that would not alienate parents even as it attracted their kids. And speaking of attracting the kids: What’s that there, leading into the final reprise of the main theme, about 1:40 into the record? Is that a backbeat?”

After “Calcutta,” 10 more Welk singles would scratch into the Hot 100 by 1965. One might be familiar to you today: his version of Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk,” which did decent business on Easy Listening in 1962. On the Billboard album chart, Welk charted 42 times between 1955 and 1973. Calcutta! was #1 for 11 weeks in 1961; later that year, Yellow Bird made #2. As late as 1967, his album Winchester Cathedral went to #12; it was one of the albums in my parents’ collection.

One of the more significant shifts in American cultural history took place around the turn of the 70s, when television shows that appealed to older and/or rural audiences were systematically dumped in favor of those intended to appeal to younger, urban viewers. Pat Buttram of Green Acres famously cracked that CBS “canceled everything with a tree,” although the “rural purge” also claimed shows on other networks, and several variety shows. One of them was The Lawrence Welk Show, which still drew decent numbers, although not the “right” ones, and it aired for the last time on ABC in September 1971. The show went immediately into first-run syndication for 11 more seasons. After that, the shows were repackaged, sometimes with new introductions by Welk and other members of the show’s cast. They continue to run down unto this very day, even though Welk himself has been dead since 1992.

If you want to know why Lawrence Welk had such a powerful appeal to his target demographic, listen to this version of “Bubbles in the Wine,” recorded in 1956. Welk (and/or his longtime featured player and assistant conductor Myron Floren) fills with accordion lines like a lead guitarist on a rock record, and it’s a perfect distillation of the classic Welk sound. “Bubbles in the Wine” makes it easy to understand why, whenever you were at your grandmother’s house on a Saturday night, she made you tune the TV over to the Lawrence Welk channel.

A Life in Folk Rock

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(Pictured: Steve Forbert, 2019.)

In the 70s, rock station WIBA-FM in Madison had a show called The Quiet Hour. Every night between 6:00 and 7:00, they played nothing but acoustic music, including lots of folk and jazz. During our first semester in college, my dormitory roommate and I loved it, as an antidote to the junk favored by many of the other guys on the floor. In the fall of 1978, an album frequently heard on The Quiet Hour was Alive on Arrival by a new singer/songwriter named Steve Forbert. I liked it.

A year later, Forbert’s second album, Jackrabbit Slim, arrived with a complete helping of new-Dylan hype on the side. It was in the hot rotation at the campus radio station for quite a while, and in the hot rotation at my apartment for months also. Cut one on side one, “Romeo’s Tune,” became a big radio hit. At the end of 1980 came Forbert’s third album, Little Stevie Orbit. I adored the lead single, “Get Well Soon,” but when I brought the album home, I found it a lot less distinctive than Jackrabbit Slim and Alive on Arrival, and it didn’t get played much after the first few times.

I lost track of Forbert after that. So did everybody else, as a dispute with his label limited him to just two albums between 1982 and 1992. (A third album, originally set for release in 1983, didn’t see daylight until 2009.) Streets of This Town (1988) and The American in Me (1992) were critically acclaimed, if not big hits. They did, however, mark his return to regular recording. Since 1995, he’s released 12 studio albums and three live ones. [Late edit: Depending on how you count compilations and special editions, it’s more than 15 albums. Let’s just call it “a lot.”] Last fall came his most recent record, The Magic Tree, and a memoir called Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock.

Forbert tours almost continuously—this year, according to his website, through the beginning of August he’s played 65 shows in the United States and Europe. He plays both big cities—Minneapolis, Chicago, and Cleveland just within the last couple of months, for example—and small towns, like Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, where I saw him on Friday night. Fort Atkinson is an old river town about 45 miles east of Madison, and he played a charming joint called Café Carpe. (Not “car-pay,” as in something French, but “carp” as in the fish.) The performance space is in the middle of the building, between the bar/dining room and a spacious screened-in deck that overlooks the Rock River. Capacity is 60 people, so small that if you buy a ticket in advance, they put a sticker with your name on the back of your seat. (I had to wait a bit before I could find mine; the woman who ushered me to it had to finish washing some dishes in the kitchen first.) I was in the second row, maybe six feet from the stage, which is only a step, raised maybe six or eight inches. The room was full of Forbert fans, many of them more serious than I, some in Forbert T-shirts. They bantered with him and he bantered back, performing songs from past and present in a show that ran a little under two hours with an intermission. It had the feel of a guy showing up in your living room to play some tunes, and I’ve never been to a show quite like it.

Forbert is 65 years old now, but he sounds pretty much the same as he did when he first came to New York from Mississippi. He has played Café Carpe before; “four or five times,” he told me as we talked briefly after the show. It’s a fitting venue for a guy with guitar and a bag full of harmonicas, which is how he started out, busking in the streets of the nation’s biggest city during the late 70s, a time and place where you would not have bet on his brand of folk-rock as a growth stock.

As it happened, Alive on Arrival is just long enough that I was able to listen to nearly all of it on the drive down to Fort Atkinson, and most of Jackrabbit Slim on the way back. I was listening to the 2013 reissues of both, which feature some fine songs that got left in the vaults. Little Stevie Orbit has since gotten a similar archival reissue, and I wonder if I should go get that one and give it another chance. I definitely want to check into some of the other Steve Forbert records I have missed since the 80s.

Casey’s Triathlon of Rock

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(Pictured: Paul, Linda, and Michael, 1983.)

(We here conclude our July Casey-thon.)

For the July 4 weekend in 1988, American Top 40 presented a holiday special in addition to the regular countdown. “The Triathlon of Rock ‘n’ Roll” (which was offered to modern-day affiliates for the holiday last month) is a ranking of artists who could demonstrate a specific type of career longevity: Top 40 hits in the 60s and 70s and Top 10 hits in the 80s. In addition to the usual AT40 theme music, Casey uses the familiar Olympic theme from TV coverage. He also uses interview clips from some of the artists in the countdown, talking about their careers and their songs. The list follows:

40. Jimmy Page. Getting 60s credit for “Whole Lotta Love” and 80s credit for being in the Honeydrippers, as will one of his bandmates, shortly.

39. Cliff Richard. Casey says that Richard scored hits in four decades, having first charted in the 50s. It seems to me that should place him near the top of this list, which he ain’t.

38. Crosby Stills and Nash
37. Marty Balin
36. Robert Plant
35. Moody Blues
34. Patti Labelle
33. Graham Nash
Why Marty Balin (represented by “Hearts”) and not the rest of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship collective?, I asked myself. Then Casey got to Nash and explained that he gets credit for his years in the Hollies. OK, so maybe the whole Airplane/Starship will be on later.

As I will learn, thinking too hard about the logic of this show gets a person nowhere.

32. Kinks
31. Billy Preston
30. Bill Medley
29. Jermaine Jackson
28. Herb Alpert
The qualifications for this show are as thin as homeopathic soup. Preston is considered a 60s hitmaker thanks to his co-credit with the Beatles on “Get Back.” Medley gets credit for the Righteous Brothers and one 80s hit, the duet with Jennifer Warnes on “The Time of My Life.” Alpert’s 1987 duet with Janet Jackson, “Diamonds,” is enough to get him on.

27. Tina Turner
26. Eric Clapton
Casey mentions all the groups with whom Clapton has charted since the 60s including the Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek and the Dominos, then plays “I Can’t Stand It,” which is in the same league with none of them.

25. Linda Ronstadt
24. Spinners
23. Bob Seger
Most artists on the show are represented by big 80s hits, which means “Shakedown” here. Ugh.

22. Jefferson Airplane/Starship. Represented by a montage of hits, the first artist on the list to be so honored.

21. John Fogerty
20. James Brown
Brown gets a montage too, and Fogerty could have.

19. Gladys Knight. The gruel is pretty thin here too. Doing one of the vocals on “That’s What Friends Are For” is enough to get Gladys on the show, Pipless.

18. Smokey Robinson
17. Dionne Warwick
16. Barbra Streisand
15. Cher
14. Paul Simon
13. Kenny Rogers
12. Neil Diamond
11. George Harrison
10. Aretha Franklin
9. Marvin Gaye
OK, sure, fine.

8. Barry Gibb. Just Barry, not Robin or Maurice, thanks mostly to Barry’s successful 80s duets with Barbra Streisand. He gets the montage treatment as well, starting with the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” and ending with his extremely minor 1984 hit “Shine Shine,” which few people would have remembered in 1988, let alone now.

7. Rolling Stones
6. Mick Jagger
Mick gets credit for everything the Stones did, but because “Dancing in the Street” with David Bowie was a Top-10 hit in the 80s, that’s enough to leap-frog him over his bandmates. OK, sure, fine. But by the same logic—hits in the 60s and 70s and at least one Top 10 in the 80s—the Beatles could have been #1 on this list if “The Beatles Movie Medley” had made it to #10 instead of #12.

5. Stevie Wonder
4. Michael Jackson
3. Diana Ross
Casey says there are eight Motown acts on this list in all. I count seven. The eighth mjust be Billy Preston, who was on Motown when he recorded “With You I’m Born Again” (which was on the show earlier because of course it was).

2. John Lennon
1. Paul McCartney
Paul gets a long, long montage of both Beatles songs and solo records, followed with all of “Say Say Say.”

One big thing that makes AT40 compulsively listenable is the stakes on it. Being #1 on the chart matters each week. The best of the special shows have stakes too: What’s the #1 hit of the disco era? Who are the most influential artists in history? Who’s the greatest one-hit wonder of the rock era? Which song with a girl’s name in the title was the biggest hit? But “The Triathlon of Rock ‘n Roll” falls flat because the stakes are so arbitrary. You get to the end and think, “Well that’s nice, but who cares?”

In the Air

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(Pictured: ELO performs “Mr. Blue Sky,” 1978.)

After the post earlier this week about the AT40 show from July 15, 1978, here’s the inevitable Bottom 60—songs on their way on to and off of Casey’s show, and plenty that never got there at all.

46. “Shame”/Evelyn “Champagne” King
52. “Boogie Oogie Oogie”/A Taste of Honey
56. “Macho Man”/Village People
76. “I Love the Nightlife”/Alicia Bridges
The disco train was rolling and some iconic records were aboard.

47. “I Need to Know”/Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. “Breakdown” had spent a single week at #40 in February; “I Need to Know” would eventually peak at #41. “Listen to Her Heart” would get to #59 in the fall. After all that scratching at the door of the big chart, Petty would finally kick the door down in December 1979 with “Don’t Do Me Like That.”

49. “Mr. Blue Sky”/Electric Light Orchestra. I have never thought of it as a favorite album, but whenever ELO’s Out of the Blue comes up on shuffle or in the car, I find myself thinking, “Damn, this is great.” Also great: the 45 edit of “Mr. Blue Sky,” which omits the long ending and works a lot better as a result. It was available, at least for a while, on blue vinyl.

62. “Hot Child in the City”/Nick Gilder
64. “Just What I Needed”/Cars
72. “Kiss You All Over”/Exile
I associate these records (and several others on this chart, to be sure) with my first semester in college. I didn’t know it in the summer, but in December, “Hot Child in the City” would be one of the first songs I would ever play on the radio.

73. “An Everlasting Love”/Andy Gibb. It seems absurd that Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing” kept “Baker Street” at #2 for six weeks, but taken on its own, “Shadow Dancing” is a pretty good radio record, and so is “An Everlasting Love.”

78. “Love Is in the Air”/John Paul Young
79. “Fool (If You Think It’s Over)”/Chris Rea
There has never been anything else that sounds quite like these two records. “Love Is in the Air” repeats the same couple of ideas for several minutes to good effect, and the Disco Purrfection remix goes to another plane of existence entirely. It’s a shame that Rea’s album Whatever Happened to Benny Santini, produced by Gus Dudgeon, is officially out of print, because it’s really good, and “Fool (If You Think It’s Over)” is a record I never get tired of.

80. “I Can’t Wait Any Longer”/Bill Anderson. I’m glad to have a reason to write a little appreciation of Bill Anderson, who is one of the most likeable performers ever to come out of Nashville. Starting in 1960, Anderson hit consistently for nearly 20 years. His biggest country hits came back-to-back in 1962 and 1963, “Mama Sang a Song” and “Still,” each of which spent seven weeks at #1. “Still” went to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1963. Between 1966 and 1974 he hit #1 or #2 country 12 times with songs that emphasized his soft-spoken style and frequently, clever wordplay. The latter is the major appeal of “My Life (Throw It Away If I Want To),” a #1 hit from 1969; “Quits,” which went to #3 in 1971; and “Sometimes,” an adulterous duet with Mary Lou Turner that was his last #1 country hit in 1976. “I Can’t Wait Any Longer,” with its big proto-disco beat and lustful lyric, was his final major country hit and pop crossover. In the late 70s, Anderson became a ubiquitous TV personality, appearing on Match Game and doing a three-year run on One Life to Live. He also hosted TV game, talk, and variety shows in the 80s, 90s, and the new millennium, and he’s still working today, at the age of 81.

97. “Roll With the Changes”/REO Speedwagon
98. “He’s So Fine”/Jane Olivor
99. “Trans-Europe Express”/Kraftwerk
100. “Shaker Song”/Spyro Gyra
More music, better variety: a heartland rock rager that became a classic-rock standard, a New York cabaret singer covering the Chiffons, and a pair of instrumental pioneers, one in electronic music and the other in smooth jazz. All four were on their way out of the Hot 100 in this week.

Experiences with the music can color our perception of the music. We can’t always tell if we like it or dislike it on the basis of what’s in the grooves, or because of the associations we have with it: who we were with and what we were doing while it was on the radio. I have that problem—if it’s a problem—with 1976, and I wonder if 1978, or at least the summer of 1978, isn’t the same way.

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