Groovy Situation

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(Pictured: Melanie.)

Here’s more about the American Top 40 show from September 5, 1970—a half-century ago, and feeling every minute of 50 years gone, although maybe that’s just me.

The cue sheet for this show marks it as an artifact of a bygone time. The show is made up of 10 segments per hour and has about nine minutes of local commercial availability per hour. So the assumption was that the breaks would contain only a spot or two. Not only that—more than half of the show’s segments consist of a single song. The rest have two. The show would seem pretty choppy to a modern audience: a song, two spots, two songs, two spots, and so on. This was not terribly uncommon for Top 40 radio then. There was no premium on uninterrupted music, and “less talk” was not yet in anyone’s vocabulary. But anybody who’s grown up with radio since the 1980s would find it cluttered and frustrating. (Today’s edited repeats are structured with three breaks per hour.)

Now let’s talk about the music.

40. “All Right Now”/Free
39. “Summertime Blues”/The Who
38. “Neanderthal Man”/Hotlegs
37. “Peace Will Come (According to Plan)”/Melanie
This show starts out great, with the short radio edit of “All Right Now” in its first week on, but the next three are a slog. “Summertime Blues,” the single from Live at Leeds, has always seemed pointless to me, while “Neanderthal Man,” for what it is, is twice as long as it needs to be. Melanie’s appeal has always eluded me—her music is redolent of patchouli oil and wet dog, and I have never understood why, at age 23, she sounded like somebody’s grandmother.

36. “Closer to Home”/Grand Funk Railroad
35. “Joanne”/Michael Nesmith and the First National Band
30. “Lay a Little Lovin’ on Me”/Robin McNamara
29. “Cracklin’ Rosie”/Neil Diamond
24. “Groovy Situation”/Gene Chandler
23. “Solitary Man”/Neil Diamond
This, on the other hand, is some of the stuff that got me started, on pop music, on radio, on everything that came after.

31. “(Get Up I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine”/James Brown. Contrary to urban legend, Casey gives the title of this. In later years, he would announce other PG-rated titles including “The Bitch Is Back” and “I Want Your Sex,” also contrary to urban legend. Sometimes he would gloss over or omit them, but not 100 percent of the time.

28. “Tighter, Tighter”/Alive and Kicking. Casey says that this song is one of his favorites. In later years, he would rarely, if ever, be so explicit about which songs he liked. On a show that would become laser-focused on the music and the listener, the host’s opinion about what’s good is irrelevant.

26. “Rubber Duckie”/Ernie (Jim Henson). I haven’t been a program director for 25 years, but I still have that spidey sense. If some hilariously terrible record takes up three minutes of AT40 airtime with an audience that knows what they’re getting when they tune in, I’m fine with that. There are a couple of exceptions, however. A few years back, at my suggestion, my station snipped the full four minutes of Bloodrock’s godawful “D.O.A.” down to a minute. Were I programming an AT40 affiliate today, I’d do the same thing with “Rubber Duckie.” Although it got to #16 on the Hot 100, was #1 in Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and smaller cities, top-five in other major markets, and top-10 at WLS in Chicago, the precise nature of its appeal is mystifying now.

Digression: “Rubber Duckie” is on The Sesame Street Book and Record, which came out in the spring of 1970. It would be my four-year-old brother’s gift from Santa at Christmas that year, so I would come to know it well. It has Kermit the Frog’s performance of “Bein’ Green,” the funky “Rub Your Tummy” by Gordon, and “ABC-DEF-GHI,” in which Big Bird reads the entire alphabet as a single word, pronounced: “abkadeaf-gheejekyllminop-qurrstoovwicksizz.” They’re all infinitely more listenable than “Rubber Duckie.”

18. “Candida”/Dawn. The biggest mover on the 9/5/70 show, up 15 “points,” to use Casey’s formulation from the early days.

The place of “Candida” in my personal mythology has been well-established at this website. I was listening to this show on a particularly horrible day this week, a day on which I was sick of my work, sick of this sad world, sick of everything from morning til night—and all I could think was how badly I wanted to be young again, my discoveries yet unmade and my roads yet untraveled, to be able to love my cherished songs again for the first time.

And I couldn’t get through it. But I will, and we’ll finish off this show in the next installment.

Tell It All Brother

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(Pictured: Kenny Rogers and the First Edition with drummer Mickey Jones on the right, 1970.)

It’s easy to forget that ubiquitous institutions, things that have been familiar forever, had to be conceived, built, and developed. It’s a rare vision that springs complete from the minds of its creators. The unfolding of that developmental process is why I am fascinated by the earliest editions of American Top 40.

The show from September 5, 1970, displays some serious growing pains, and its biggest problem is with its host. By the time the show launched in 1970, Casey had been a major-market radio jock for a decade in Buffalo, Cleveland, Oakland, and Los Angeles. But on this show, he just doesn’t sound good. He’s ragged and weird and amateurish at times, far more than on other shows from the late summer and early fall of 1970.

At the height of his career, Casey was one of the great communicators in media. You got the sense that he cared that you really heard what he had to say. But he wasn’t consistently that way during the first year of American Top 40. It’s not just his early tendency to rush—to move from point to point too quickly. On this show, the problem is greater. Often, he’s just saying words without being especially mindful of what they are, like his brain has already moved on, thinking of what he’s going to say or do next. Which is what radio jocks do when they’re winging it.

Just as important as what you say is how you say it. And mindfulness is the difference between somebody who is talking with you and somebody who is just talking at you. This is why I have come to rely so much on scripting my radio shows. I almost always have what I’m going to say in front of me before I say it, so when I say it, I can concentrate on communicating the intention of a thought I’ve already had, instead of having to simultaneously come up with a thought and how to communicate it.

(This is something I didn’t learn until I was literally 50 years old, which was about 25 years too late to advance my career.)

If you know what you’re going to say, and how, before you say it, you avoid poorly thought-out ideas like Casey’s tease for Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie,” which he says was inspired by a bottle of wine—only he sings the word “wi-i-i-i-ne.” I have to forgive that one, though, because I’ve done that: some combination of firing synapses makes you think something is a good idea in the moment, but the tape reveals that it was not.

Eventually, Casey’s shows would be largely scripted, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the show became The Show and the man became The Man only after that.

To the extent that this week’s show was scripted in advance, however, the writing is just not very good. An example: introducing “Tell It All Brother” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, Casey wants to mention that the group’s drummer, Mickey Jones, recently played the vice president in a movie. But the way he does it is a horrible botch. He says, “The group’s drummer, Mickey Jones, told it all in a recent interview. Let me make this perfectly clear. He was vice president of the United States. Not in a dream, but in a movie, Wild in the Streets.” Which is horrid writing. Trying to get “tell it all” and an irrelevant Nixon catchphrase into the bit makes it incoherent. I had to go back and re-listen to the segment to decipher it, but listeners of 1970 did not have the luxury of rewind.

Eventually, Casey would become a master of the tease. But on this show, several teases hang awkwardly in space. It’s as if he has notes he wants to use somewhere but decides on the spur of the moment where to put them. One tease that is well-placed describes Tom Jones as “a guy who could stop the women’s liberation movement, if he wanted to, with a shake of his hips,” which is in keeping with the unconscious sexism of 50 years ago, but is also crappy writing. (And not the only time Casey would refer to the inability of women to keep from swooning over Tom Jones.) Also sexist, and also something he would do on other shows: he refers to 23-year-old Melanie and 25-year-old Anne Murray as “girls.”

Coming next: I stop banging on the host and start banging on the music. Some of it, anyhow.

Stuck With You

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(Pictured: Huey Lewis and the News show off an award in Britain, 1986.)

I cannot tell you the first time I heard “Stuck With You” by Huey Lewis and the News. I am not sure anybody could, actually, because it’s the kind of thing that you feel like you’ve heard before even when you’re hearing it for the first time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—instant familiarity combined with freshness is how many mega-gazillion-selling hits are made. “Stuck With You” was guaranteed to be a mega-gazillion-selling a hit for another reason: it had been three years since the release of the mega-gazillion-selling album Sports, and in that time, the band had released only “The Power of Love,” which became the band’s first #1 single in the summer of 1985. People were ready.

“Stuck With You” shows up on a couple of radio surveys from Canadian stations in mid-July 1986. A few days later, stations in Hartford, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Providence, and Los Angeles are on it. Indicative of just how hotly anticipated it was, it enters the Hot 100 way up at #42 on August 2, 1986. It cracks top tens across the country in mid-August, and makes #1 in Buffalo, Providence, Minneapolis, Louisville, and a few smaller cities in early-to-mid September. Despite its hot start, it takes a while before it gets to the top of the Hot 100, on September 20, 1986, where it stays for three weeks. After that, the record then slow-cooks its way out, not gone from the big chart until mid-December. At WPHD in Buffalo, it ranks #3 for the entire year; at WNTQ in Syracuse, it’s #4. On Billboard‘s Top 100 of 1986, it ranks #21, behind several records that never made #1 at all. (It was somehow four slots behind “Alive and Kicking” by Simple Minds.) “Stuck With You” was also all over MTV that summer and fall, and it couldn’t be more typical of the music video form at that moment in history, full of whimsical images and beautiful women.

The album Fore! followed the single, released on August 20. Like Sports, it also hit #1, but unlike Sports, it didn’t take nine months to get there. It spent the week of October 18, 1986, at #1, just as the second single “Hip to Be Square” started up the chart. The third single, “Jacob’s Ladder” would also make #1, and two succeeding singles would hit the Top 10 as well.

(When I was writing for Popdose, I proclaimed “Hip to Be Square” to be one of the world’s worst songs. “The protagonist of ‘Hip to Be Square’ is the same guy from ‘Stuck With You,’ although he’s no longer enjoying a self-deprecating laugh with his spouse over their life together,” I wrote. “Now, he wants everybody to know how he’s achieved that life: by cutting his hair, working out, eating better—giving up that old hippie bullshit, in other words—and thereby reaching a new level of cool through middle-class conformity. And although he never says it, he is clearly a guy who never voted Republican in his life until Ronald Reagan came along.”)

Fore! is not an album I listen to much. It sounds great, sure, even more commercial than Sports, which is really sayin’ something. But “Stuck With You” is head-and-shoulders the best song on it, which is not the case with Sports—I could be argued into naming any one of several songs as the best on that album. There’s a sameness to the tracks that Sports doesn’t have. I should listen to Fore! backwards sometime, because the album-ending tracks, “Forest for the Trees,” “Naturally,” and “Simple As That” might be better than they seem by the time I get to them. (The band’s next album, Small World, is much more likely to get into the player around here, as is Plan B, which nobody heard when it came out in 2001 despite the fact that it’s got some of the band’s best songs and Huey’s most likeable performances. Hear it all here.)

But “Stuck With You”—dang, that record is still such a pleasure after all this time. I remember hearing it over and over again on one particular weekend, about the time it went to #1, married three years with my life and career figured out (or so I thought), and thinking that if I ended up as happy as Huey sounded, everything in the world would be all right. Thirty-four years later, everything in the world is most certainly not all right, but “Stuck With You,” the most perfectly constructed four minutes in the Huey Lewis catalog, is still great.

Adrian Smith, Phone Home

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We’re up over 2,500 posts in the life of this website since its birth in 2004. Most of those posts go unread, day after day, and that’s fine. It’s the nature of a website like this one. But all 2,500 of ’em live somewhere in the Google-verse, so at some point, any one might end up finding a reader again one day.

Back in 2009, in a post about a WCFL radio survey from the summer of 1973, I wrote the following:

I have been able to learn practically nothing about Adrian Smith, except that she’s not the guitarist with Iron Maiden. The phrase “tiny lady, big voice” pops up in a significant number of web citations about her self-titled album, but that’s it. “Wild About My Lovin’” rode the charts at WCFL for at least 12 weeks in the summer of 1973, and it got some play on other Chicago stations as well. If you know anything more, help a brother out.

Apart from one comment that linked to an eBay listing for Smith’s self-titled album, I never learned anything else about Adrian Smith.

One morning recently, I opened my e-mail to find some scans of newspaper clippings about Adrian Smith, sent to me by Drew, who was working on a research project and googled his way to my mention of her. An August 1973 clipping from what is probably a suburban Chicago paper reveals that Smith was from Harwood Heights, Illinois; local interest helps explain why WCFL gave her airplay. The clipping also reveals that after she cut her self-titled album, MCA Records wanted her to tour with the studio musicians who had backed her. But she wanted her own touring band, so she recruited a number of Chicago-area musicians for it. After losing out on a gig with Dr. John for some reason (the clip doesn’t elaborate, as if the story had already been well-reported and any reader would know what had happened), Smith and her band opened some shows for Sha Na Na, during which they were very well-received.

Two September 1974 clips from Indiana newspapers discuss an upcoming show at Ball State University starring Richie Havens, and mentions Smith as his opener. One article describes her as “a forceful, dynamic act that employs stage antics and ‘raw emotional energy.’ She combines pop, country, gospel, and rhythm and blues into a volatile mixture of powerful proportions.” That sounds like a direct lift from a record-label or management-company press release, but it fits the “little lady, big voice” characterization. It also fits with a quote from her bass player, Mark Beringer, in the 1973 article: “You’d have to see her to believe how much voice is in that body.”

Beringer also told the reporter in 1973 that the band and would be going to Los Angeles to cut a second album. The 1974 article mentions Smith’s first album (the one with “Wild About Your Lovin'” on it), but not a second one. Drew has a theory that the 1973 interview may have had more to do with promoting Mark Beringer than Adrian Smith—that he hoped the album to be made in Los Angeles would end up being his. Drew also suggests that Beringer’s mother, who worked for one of the major Chicago advertising agencies, might have used whatever clout she could muster to get WCFL to play Smith’s record. While it’s true that radio stations frequently played records that were not and would never be actual hits, and they jiggered airplay numbers reported to trade magazines, it was usually done at the behest of record labels and not advertisers. In any event, it does not appear that the second album was ever made, with Smith, Beringer, or anybody else.

ARSA listings show “Wild About My Lovin'” got to #13 at WCFL. WBBM-FM in Chicago listed it for a while, along with a couple of other small-market stations. It bubbled under at #114 in Billboard. But the trail of Adrian Smith goes cold after that, because she’s hard to search. The world is full of prominent Adrian Smiths, not just the heavy-metal guitarist but a Congressman, a body builder, an architect, and others. The only new-to-me bit of info I found about the singing Adrian Smith was a mention in Cash Box that she was 18 when her album came out. So if she’s still out there somewhere, she’d be 75 65. (Math is hard. Ed.) But if she were still out there somewhere, some Internet music aficionado would surely have found her by now.

Thanks to Drew for reading my old piece and helping a brother out. He’s recently posted the 45 of “Wild About My Lovin'” at YouTube, and it’s great. Listen here.

Sunsets and Shellfish

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(Pictured: sunset in the Virgin Islands.)

When I was writing about WIBS, the radio station in the U.S. Virgin Islands that changed its call letters to WGOD back in 1985, it slipped my mind that my old boss, Gene, was doing radio in the Islands back in the 80s. He e-mailed to say that he was a friend of the man who built WIBS, and that after the station was sold, he told the new owner that there was no way that the WGOD call letters would be approved. “I nearly dropped over when I heard he got them.”

Gene said the new owner asked him to train his sales people. (“He had no clue about radio, he owned a trucking company.”) But the owner needed some training himself. Gene says that for religious reasons, the guy didn’t want to advertise restaurants that sold shellfish. “I told him then, you might as well beg for money because this is one of the top vacation destinations with abundant seafood, many of which have shells. You’re eliminating more than half of your prospective advertisers.” Swiftly, the owner got over his Old Testament issue, and WGOD is still on the air today.

The original WIBS “had beautiful views from one of the highest peaks in the VI,” Gene says. “The station had a large free-standing tower and the studios were built under the legs. The tower eventually came down in one of the hurricanes.”

(When I was working for Gene in the early 90s, I wondered why he’d leave the Virgin Islands for Iowa. I remember him telling me that he missed the weather. In the Islands, he said, it was sunny and 82 every single day except for three days in August when there would be a hurricane. That wasn’t the only reason he came back to the continental U.S., but for an old radio guy, it’s a persuasive one.)

Continue reading “Sunsets and Shellfish”

Sex and God

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(Pictured: Whitney Houston at her mother’s house in the summer of 1985.)

Let’s go inside the edition of Radio and Records dated August 23, 1985. This one would certainly have ended up on my famously messy desk at the Top 40 station in Illinois 35 years ago this week.

Item: Citing the First Amendment, the FCC has reaffirmed that a radio station in Dodge City, Kansas, should not be punished for broadcasts encouraging violence agains Jews, blacks, and other minority groups. The commission will hold a hearing on whether the station’s license should be renewed, however, but that hearing will not consider the racist broadcasts, only the legal difficulties of the license holders, Charles and Nellie Babbs, including suits against them for copyright infringement and defamation, and garnishments for failure to pay state taxes. Civil rights groups are outraged. One attorney says that the facts of the hearing order alone are enough to revoke the station’s license.

Comment: A competing company persuaded Charles Babbs to drop the station’s renewal bid in exchange for $10,000, and the station went dark.

Item: WZKS in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, has been fined $10,000 by the FCC for failure to maintain a main studio in Murfreesboro. The “main studio rule” is, according to the Commission, “one means of assurance that the needs and interests of the community are met and that the station serves as an outlet for local self-expression.” WZKS had a waiver that allowed it to program mostly from Nashville, 30 miles away, but it was required to maintain a full-time management-level employee in Murfreesboro and originate news and public affairs programming from there. The FCC charged that the station had been violating the main studio rule for a year before the waiver was issued, and that afterward, it stuck to the conditions of the waiver for only about a month.

Comment: The FCC eliminated the main studio rule in 2017 because of course it did.

Item: A column titled “Employee Turnover—Who’s at Fault?” discusses some of the problems radio stations face in hiring and retaining good talent, on the air and off. Columnist Charles Warner suggests “strong leadership, clear lines of authority, and exact directions” are better than “do as I say, not as I do” management. He says says managers should be more realistic with potential employees about what each job entails: “Too often managers sell their dream, not the job’s reality.” Stressing experience over raw talent in hiring can “perpetuate other people’s mistakes.” He lists a number of areas in which managers could be more sensitive to the needs of their employees: work environment, social dynamics, recognition, job expectations, and even self-actualization.

Comment: At no point in Warner’s 1200-word piece does he say “Pay them more damn money.”

Item: Owners of KFRZ-FM in Brigham City, Utah, have decided not to change call letters to KSEX-FM. Meanwhile, in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, WIBS has tweaked its format to play 75 percent Christian music, and has changed its call letters to WGOD.

Comment: There is no KSEX, although a station in suburban Chicago used WSEX through much of the 80s, and there was a WSEX in Puerto Rico as recently as 2016. WGOD is still on the air in the Virgin Islands.

Item: The #1 adult-contemporary song this week is “Cherish” by Kool and the Gang; #1 urban is “I Want My Girl” by Jesse Johnson’s Revue, nosing out “Saving All My Love for You” by Whitney Houston, which has been #2 for four weeks. “Lonely Ol’ Night” by John Cougar Mellencamp is the #1 AOR track. On the AOR albums chart, Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits, Dream of the Blue Turtles by Sting, and the Back to the Future soundtrack have been 1-2-3 on the chart for the last four weeks, the latter on the strength of two Huey Lewis cuts, “Back in Time” and “The Power of Love.” “The Power of Love” is #1 on the Contemporary Hit Radio chart for a second week; the rest of the Top Five are also holding: “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” by John Parr, “We Don’t Need Another Hero” by Tina Turner, “Summer of ’69” by Bryan Adams, and Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love.”

Comment: A number of records from 35 years ago this week have never been off the air since then, and not just “The Power of Love,” “Summer of ’69,” and “Freeway of Love,” but “Money for Nothing,” “Cherish,” “Who’s Holding Donna Now,” “Take on Me,” and others. They’re heard so much today that they’ve lost their ability to evoke that bygone summer, but that’s OK. Other songs still do.