Record Zero

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Tommy James, social distancing in 1968.)

We are creeping closer to the 50th anniversary of the fabled fall of 1970, the season in which fifth-grade me discovered the radio and pop music and started on the road to becoming whatever the hell it is that I am now. The period of discovery itself would have begun in the first half of September, but some of the records I heard during those first pivotal weeks were on the chart long before that. Since WLS from Chicago was the station that captured me, I dug back into the station’s music surveys from the summer of 1970, trying to find the first appearance of some of the songs that made a strong impression on me that fall.

At 50 years’ distance, it’s hard for me to know which songs I remember hearing while they were current hits, and which would have been what is known in the radio biz as “recurrents,” recent hits that get less regular airplay than current hits, but more than songs from months or years earlier. Any distinction between recurrents and currents is drawn from radio surveys and memory, so it will be a thin and wavy line, and it may end up not meaning anything at all.

Let’s assume for purposes of this discussion that any song listed on the WLS Hit Parade is a current hit and not a recurrent. (Yeah, I know, big leap, and not true at WLS later in the 70s, but go with it today.) Two songs I associate with those very first days of listening in September are “The Wonder of You” by Elvis and “Band of Gold” by Freda Payne. Both were gone from the chart by early September, however, so I could have heard them as recurrents. “The Wonder of You” first appeared on the Hit Parade on May 25, 1970, and “Band of Gold” a week later on June 1. Likewise “Ooh Child” by the Five Stairsteps, which debuted on June 15, and “Are You Ready” by Pacific Gas and Electric, which debuted on June 22. Both of the latter were gone from the chart by September.

Also among the debuts 50 years ago today, on June 22, 1970, are “Lay a Little Lovin’ on Me” by Robin McNamara and “Tighter, Tighter” by Alive and Kickin’. And if we flash forward to the chart of September 7, 1970—a Monday, the day of the week on which WLS surveys were issued in this period—we see that “Tighter, Tighter” is the oldest record on the survey, in its 12th week. If we make the entirely reasonable assumption that I first heard WLS sometime during the week of September 7, 1970, “Tighter, Tighter,” produced and eventually also recorded by Tommy James, is probably the record we’re looking for, the earliest summer debut that would still have been a current hit in September, and therefore Record Zero for a lifelong obsession. (“Lay a Little Lovin’ on Me” loses this race by a nose, having appeared on the Hit Parade for the final time during the week of August 31.) But it’s a thin line. If September 14 was the magic week instead of September 7, “Make It With You” by Bread, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” by Stevie Wonder, and “Close to You” by the Carpenters, all of which debuted during the week of June 29, could be Record Zero as well.

But that is not to say that “Tighter, Tighter” or “Lay a Little Lovin’ on Me” or any of the other candidates are the biggest or the best or the most evocative or the most impactful current hits from that first season, only that they’re the oldest. Several songs on the 9/7/70 survey would be among the first 45s I ever owned: the inestimable “Candida,” “Julie Do Ya Love Me,” and “Cracklin’ Rosie.” Some of the songs I didn’t own are incredibly vivid in memory also: “War,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Patches,” “Groovy Situation, “Spill the Wine. ” I can see myself there, close to the school bus radio speaker, or in my bedroom after I scrounged Dad’s old green Westinghouse tube-type AM radio, listening to them. All debuted in July or August 1970.

Other songs don’t register at all, at least not as memories from the beginning of time: “Neanderthal Man,” “I Who Have Nothing,” “Hi-De-Ho.” I might have heard them just as often, but they didn’t stick, and half-a-century later, they’ve been erased from the canon. So it goes when we’re back in a country of the heart where history mingles with myth. In a land such as that, faith and feelings count as much as data.

December 31, 1969: That’s the Way It Is

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Jimi with Noel Redding, 1969.)

December 31, 1969, was a Wednesday. Although the crime won’t be discovered until next week, union leader Jock Yablonski, his wife, and their daughter are murdered tonight in their Pennsylvania home. Earlier this month, Yablonski lost a controversial election for the presidency of the United Mine Workers union to the current president, Tony Boyle. Vice President Spiro Agnew, currently on a tour of the Phillippines, will make a brief stop in Vietnam tomorrow to meet with President Thieu and American soldiers. Vietnam continues under a New Year’s truce, although each side charges the other with violating it. The Army orders that SSgt. David Mitchell be court-martialed for intent to murder 30 civilians in Vietnam at My Lai. He’s the second soldier bound over for trial, after Lt. William Calley. Tonight, NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report airs a feature on the mating habits of college students amid the growing number of co-ed dormitories. Another NBC story discusses the perception that long hair equates with degeneracy, rebellion, and disrespect for American ideals. ABC concludes its evening news broadcast with commentary by anchors Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith bidding farewell to the 1960s. Reynolds closes the broadcast by saying, “And that’s the way it is . . . good night Walter, good night Chet, good night David, and happy new year everybody.”

The college football postseason continues tonight with the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl in the Houston Astrodome, where the University of Houston defeats Clemson 36-7. Four of the season’s 11 bowl games will be played tomorrow. Undefeated Texas will try to claim the national championship with a win over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Notre Dame has changed its no-bowl-games policy and is playing in one for the first time since 1925. Also tomorrow: Penn State vs. Missouri in the Orange Bowl, USC vs. Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and Arkansas vs. Mississippi in the Sugar Bowl. Four games are played in the National Basketball Association tonight. Among them, the Milwaukee Bucks get 35 points from Lew Alcindor, 32 from Flynn Robinson, and 28 from Bob Dandridge to defeat the San Diego Rockets 143-126. Elvin Hayes leads the Rockets with 26 points.

Even though it’s New Year’s Eve, the TV networks roll out first-run episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, Medical Center, Hawaii Five-O, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Room 222, Then Came Bronson, and The Virginian. Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys open a two-night stand at the Fillmore East in New York City with two shows. After a countdown to the new year, Hendrix and the band play “Auld Lang Syne.” After the show, Jimi goes to a bar in Greenwich Village, where he jams with the James Cotton Blues Band.

The top movie of 1969 is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Although it’s been out only since late October, it’s outdistanced the year’s other top films, which include the Disney comedy The Love Bug, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, True Grit, and Goodbye Columbus. Only four books led the New York Times‘ weekly list of fiction best-sellers this year: The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes, in which government agents pursue Nazi-era secrets; Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth; The Love Machine by Jacqueline Susann; and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. The year’s top nonfiction books include Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) by Dr. David Reuben, and The Sensuous Woman, by an author identified only as “J.” On television, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In ended the 1968-69 season at #1 and is on its way to leading the ratings for the 1969-70 season now in progress. Other top-rated shows this year include Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Mayberry RFD, and Gomer Pyle USMC, which ended its five-season run in May second only to Laugh-In in the ratings. Around the country tonight, radio stations spotlight their top hits of 1969.

Perspective From the Present: The Yablonskis were murdered on the orders of Tony Boyle, who eventually died in prison. David Mitchell was cleared of charges in the My Lai massacre. Texas was voted college football’s national champion by the Associated Press after its come-from-behind 21-17 win over Notre Dame, although other voting bodies awarded titles to Nebraska and Ohio State.

After watching the Bluebonnet Bowl at my grandparents’ house, to which we were usually packed off on New Year’s Eve so our parents could celebrate my father’s December 31 birthday and the new year, I watched the last 10 seconds of 1969 tick away on the clock that sat next to Grandpa’s chair in the living room. As it hit midnight I said to myself, “Now it’s 1970.”

Buckle up, kid. The next 10 50 years are gonna be quite a ride.