Category Archives: American Top 40

That’s The Way I Like It

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(Pictured: KC and the Sunshine Band.)

I wrote a few years back how Kurt Vonnegut was onto something with the concept of foma, or harmless untruths. What does it matter if your memory of some personal event is wrong, as long as the memory makes you happy and nobody gets hurt? Behold the soundtrack for one of my fomathe American Top 40 show from December 20, 1975. The family was happy, I was doing well in school, and I was secure in my friendships—because at this distance, why not?

39. “Fire on the Mountain”/Marshall Tucker Band. This song would become an album-rock radio staple, but this is its only week on AT40. It would peak at #38 the week of 12/27 and then fall out of the 40, but the 12/27 show was the first part of AT40‘s 1975 year-end countdown.

35. “Winners and Losers”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds. There is nothing about “Winners and Losers” that’s not awesome, and if you do not dig it, we shouldn’t see each other anymore. It’s a great big Hollywood production with the piano player getting his Liberace on amidst an oceanic orchestra arrangement. Also, the introduction dares a radio jock to be great.

33. “Volare”/Al Martino. In which one of the great Italian-American saloon singers hits a mid-70s pop chart with a famous Italian song. Might it be a disco version of said song? Hell and yes. (See also Frankie Valli’s disco version of “Our Day Will Come” at #11.)

The original 1975 broadcast of this show contained two Christmas warhorses: “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Feliz Navidad,” both of which were edited from the pre-Christmas repeat. Subject for further research: how AT40 programmed Christmas music during its heyday.

24. “You Sexy Thing”/Hot Chocolate. This is the good stuff right here.

19. “The Way I Want to Touch You”/Captain and Tennille. When I wrote about C&T last week, I mentioned that I didn’t like this song much in 1975. It liked me, however, and now it’s one of the songs that most strongly evokes my late-’75 foma.

18. “The Last Game of the Season”/David Geddes. The story of a scrub football player who performs heroically after his blind father dies during the game. Asked why he played so well he says, “It’s the first time my father’s seen me play.” Geddes, just off the craptastic “Run Joey Run,” sings “The Last Game of the Season” with the same melodramatic manliness, backed by the same angel chorus. In storytelling terms it makes “Run Joey Run” sound like “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”—but schlock sells, and it always has.

14. “Convoy”/C. W. McCall. “Convoy” was, at Christmas of 1975, the one record nobody could get enough of, and I’ll have more to say about it on Monday.

10. “Nights on Broadway”/Bee Gees. What you want is the radio edit, without the verse in the middle (“I will wait / Even if it takes forever”), because that way, the Bee Gees’ hellaciously good band never has to let off the throttle.

4. “Saturday Night”/Bay City Rollers. Casey talks over the “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y night!” cold vocal opening here.

3. “Fly Robin Fly”/Silver Convention. On both the original shows and the repeats, songs are sometimes edited to save time. “Fly Robin Fly” is loaded with obvious edit points, so I have no idea why this show used a smash cut so abrupt it sounds like the record skipped.

1. “That’s the Way I Like It”/KC and the Sunshine Band. My memory is either full or failing, so I didn’t remember that this song made #1 for a week, spent three weeks out of the top spot (falling as far as #4), and then went back for a week. Casey calls it a “yo-yo” record. Second subject for further research: how many yo-yo records there were during the rock era, and how far they bounced.

The truth, as 1975 turned to 1976, school wasn’t so great. I had a chemistry course in which I was barely hanging on, a speech class I didn’t like, the tedious classroom part of driver education, and the routine horror of physical education. A couple of my friends were prone to turn on me when we were in a group. I could talk to girls, but couldn’t bring myself to ask one of them out. And our family, with two teenage boys whose desires were occasionally selfish, was every bit as fractious and no more harmonious than any other. But all of that is overshadowed now by the songs that were on the radio, because that’s the way I like to remember it.

Hard to Turn the Radio Off

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(Pictured: I never need a reason to post a picture of Linda Ronstadt.)

I had so many Christmas and end-of-the-year posts lined up in the last half of December that there was no room to write about one of the American Top 40 shows rebroadcast around the country during that time. The show from December 17, 1977, was ridiculously entertaining.

—We know that at some moments in history, radio music is better than at other moments. It’s important to define “better” or “good”—I’m not talking about records that speak to us personally in some way, or that recapture a time, or perform some other sort of psychological function in our lives. I’m talking about records that are critically acclaimed, or are otherwise “good,” with a timeless, mass-appeal sound. (We can recognize certain records as “good” without adding them to our personal canon, and that’s the kind of thing I mean.) As reader Mike pointed out before Christmas, the 60s had that mark of quality, when the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys and the like were firing on all cylinders. As 1977 turned to 1978, the top acts of that era made it similarly hard to turn the radio off. Your mileage may vary, but I count at least 15 records that represent the best work of the artists who recorded them, or close to it: “Turn to Stone,” “Just the Way You Are,” “Serpentine Fire,” “Your Smiling Face,” “Swingtown,” “You’re in My Heart,” “Come Sail Away,” “Sentimental Lady,” “Isn’t It Time,” “Slip Slidin’ Away,” “You Make Lovin’ Fun,” “Baby Come Back,” “We’re All Alone,” “Blue Bayou,” and “How Deep Is Your Love.”

—I didn’t like Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” as 1977 turned to 1978, but it sounded surprisingly good to me here, at #10.

—The 12/17/77 show originally contained three Christmas songs, one per hour, although only one of them was heard on the recent repeat: Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and “Little St. Nick” by the Beach Boys were snipped, although the segments were offered to stations as optional extras. By the week of December 17, 1977, most AT40 affiliates would have been playing a good bit of Christmas music, and I suspect most program directors welcomed those three songs.

—On the original show, “Blue Christmas” was followed by the Elvis version of “My Way,” which was sitting at #28 in that week. (It would peak the next week at #24.) Elvis had been singing “My Way” on stage for several years, including on the Aloha From Hawaii special in 1973. The hit version had been recorded in June, less than two months before his death. It would go to #2 on the Billboard country chart and #6 on Easy Listening. I hadn’t heard it in years before this show, and it’s better than I remember. A lot of Elvis performances toward the end of his life are big and airy but emotionally empty; on “My Way,” he seems to be really feeling it.

—The week of 12/17/77 was the high-water mark for Linda Ronstadt, with two singles at their peaks in the Top Five, and her album Simple Dreams at #1 for the third of what would be five weeks. “Blue Bayou” (#3) and “It’s So Easy” (#5) had been released as separate singles; “Blue Bayou” had debuted on the Hot 100 on September 10 and “It’s So Easy” on October 8, which was the week “Blue Bayou” cracked the Top 40. Each song spent four weeks at its peak position; for three of those weeks, they peaked together (12/17 and 12/24, plus a third week’s credit for the frozen chart of 12/31).

—As sometimes happens with AT40 shows, the #1 hit is a fizzle: Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life,” which is in its 10th week at the top, the longest run at #1 since 1957. Four songs made it to #2 during those 10 weeks and failed to knock Debby out, but the fifth, the Bee Gees “How Deep Is Your Love,” #2 in this week, would hit #1 on the chart dated December 24, 1977. Although the song would hold the top spot for three weeks, it would be heard at #1 on only one AT40 show, for the week of January 7, 1978; the shows for the weeks of 12/24/77 and 12/31/77 counted down the year’s top 100 hits.

It’s a waste of time defending opinions about what’s good, of course. We are all chauvinistic about the music of the times we love best. Forty years from now, some guy will wax lyrical about how the very best time to listen to music was when he was 17, when Drake and Ariana Grande ruled.

He’ll be wrong, of course. I’ll be long dead, and still right.

As the Years Go By

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(Pictured: Badfinger. AM radio was not the only thing smokin’.)

This post is based on the American Top 40 show from November 21, 1970, but it’s also a companion piece to my earlier post about the way music sounded on AM radio. Links go to WABC-processed versions except for one.

40. “Black Magic Woman”/Santana. The first few notes of this creep out of any radio. They are especially effective when creeping out of an AM soundscape, and especially especially effective at night.

36. “No Matter What”/Badfinger. If I were to do a list of the five best-sounding AM Top 40 records, this would be on it, and it might be #1. The opening riff (whomp-whomp-whomp-whompity-whomp-whomp) is awesome at any level of fidelity. On a processed AM Top 40 signal, it’s glorious.

35. “Deeper and Deeper”/Freda Payne. Thanks to the sound quality of the AT40 repeat, this sounded a little mushy at first; really busy, with a lot of sounds all at once. Then came Freda rising from the deep, and it’s fabulous.

32. “After Midnight”/Eric Clapton. “After Midnight” comes vividly back to me from my first radio, the green Westinghouse tube-type, at night, all of the arrangement folded down into a single laser beam of sound and sensation. See also #15, “Engine Number 9” by Wilson Pickett, where the guitar is razor-sharp at full fidelity but would slice you to ribbons on AM. Equally bracing: the first five notes of Brian Hyland’s “Gypsy Woman” at #9, which might be the song on this list that’s most strongly evocative of listening to that particular radio at night. See also #28, “One Less Bell to Answer.”

31.  “As the Years Go By”/Mashmakhan. Mashmakhan was a band from Montreal whose roots went back to 1960 and which had become appropriately psychedelic by 1970, after being renamed for a strain of marijuana popular in late 60s Toronto. We’ve all got gaps in our musical knowledge, and “As the Years Go By” is one of mine. Although the title and artist are familiar to me from bumping into them in print over the years, I am pretty sure I never heard it until I listened to this show on its recent repeat.

29. “Stand by Your Man”/Candi Staton. A magnificent soul update of Tammy Wynette’s country standard. I wonder how many times in a row I could listen to this before I would want to hear something else.

26. “Candida”/Dawn. As I’ve mentioned many times before, “Candida” was the first record I ever loved. See also #17, “Cracklin’ Rosie,” the second record I ever loved; #6, “Indiana Wants Me” by R. Dean Taylor, which may have been my favorite song of the moment in late November of 1970; and inevitably, #1.

22. “Stoned Love”/Supremes. “Stoned Love” was a lost record, one I didn’t hear between its falling-out of regular rotations in 1971 and its repackaging on CD in the early 90s. See also #18, “(5-10-15-20) 25-30 Years of Love” by the Presidents.

19. “Share the Land”/Guess Who. Is this the best song on this entire AT40 show? Possibly. The WABC-processed version sounds so great I can hardly stand it.

10.  “Montego Bay”/Bobby Bloom. I think I bought this 45 with Christmas money in 1970. Although it’s frequently heard today in a longer version that ends with a bit of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” that bit wasn’t on the hit version. (Hot damn the WABC remix is fantastic.)

3.  “I’ll Be There”/Jackson Five. Eternally magical in its 45 mix (of which no good upload exists at YouTube), this hasn’t been processed by the WABC guy yet, which may be a good thing, because if it was, I’d be slain eternally dead.

1.  “I Think I Love You”/Partridge Family. Kurt Blumenau, who was not weaned on this stuff the way I was, listened to some of the WABC remixes and said, “It sounds like they’re playing in a train station, and yet I cannot deny the appeal.” The train-station metaphor fits the WABC remix of “I Think I Love You,” but notice how intimate the record suddenly becomes when the harpsichord kicks in.

In an ideal world, radio sound would be precisely faithful to the way artists and producers imagine their art. In this deeply flawed world of ours, radio sound is intended to serve the needs of stations—in many cases, simply to make them louder than other stations on the dial. In the world we used to know, radio sound enhanced the listening experience without intruding on it.

I have never forgotten what it was like to listen to that world, and sweet mama do I miss it.

(Note to patrons: There’s another new post at One Day in Your Life today. There will be more than usual the rest of this month, so bookmark it or subscribe.)

Time Capsule

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(Pictured: Bram Tchaikovsky between bandmates Mike Broadbent and Keith Boyce, 1979.)

On September 1, 1979, American Top 40 had been a four-hour show for almost a year, and four-hour shows required some padding. In his first hour this week, Casey plays only six of the week’s Top 40. One of them is Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” which is heard in its interminable six-minute album version. In the same hour, listeners also get another of the #1 songs of the 1970s (“My Eyes Adored You” by Frankie Valli) and a Long-Distance Dedication of the Bee Gees’ “Tragedy,” straight off the album for five minutes.

That LDD is from Moira in Northampton, New Hampshire, and her letter reads as follows:

Dear Casey: I’m a girl, 11 years old. I don’t have any girl friends. Why? Because I’m the only girl in my neighborhood, and in my family. Would you please dedicate “Tragedy” by the Bee Gees to the neighborhood for me? Thanks a million, Moira, queen of the neighborhood. 

I have never been more curious about the fate of one of Casey’s letter-writers. Moira would be turning 50 in 2018. I hope that she’s living in some cosmopolitan city surrounded by friends and lovers, and not Northampton’s crazy cat lady.

Regarding the #1 songs of the 70s, Casey reminds the audience he is playing three a week, but sharp-eared listeners to the repeat might have noticed that one was missing. “My Eyes Adored You” was, as Casey noted, the 133rd #1 song of the 70s. Later in the show, he introduced Minnie Riperton’s “Loving You” as the 135th. Missing from the repeat was #134, “Lady Marmalade” by Labelle—although the segment was offered to stations as an optional extra.

When we got back to college in the fall of 1979, all of us on the campus radio station were thrilled by the return of legitimate rock music to the radio after a year spent drowning in disco. This show features a number of songs by new acts that fit quite nicely alongside the top-drawer rock acts we all liked: “Saturdaynight,” “Girl of My Dreams,” “Pop Muzik,” “Cruel to Be Kind,” “Driver’s Seat,” “Hot Summer Nights,” and all the way up to “My Sharona.” Although I don’t remember if we called ’em new-wave, I do remember that Herman Brood, Bram Tchaikovsky, and M seemed exotic to us. Their songs were certainly more interesting than “Hold On” by Triumph (which sounds like Rush, if Rush had 50 percent less talent) or “Highway Song” by Blackfoot (hookless minor-key Southern rock dreck).

“Highway Song” creats a spectacular train wreck on the show with “Born to Be Alive,” a disco burner by Patrick Hernandez, which is itself followed by Spyro Gyra’s “Morning Dance.” It’s like the engineer wrecked the train, backed up, and smashed into the wreckage again.

The Top 10 of this show contains five legitimate classics: “My Sharona,” “Good Times,” “After the Love Has Gone,” “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and “Don’t Bring Me Down.” Also in the Top 10: “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” by Dionne Warwick and “The Main Event/Fight” by Barbra Streisand, neither of which get played on the radio anymore. That Barbra would make a disco record in 1979 was probably inevitable, although “The Main Event/Fight,” a movie theme, is incredibly flimsy. Despite spending four weeks at #3 and seven weeks in the Top 10, it vanished from history almost immediately after it fell off the chart. Barbra’s next foray into disco, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with Donna Summer, would be much better.

Does anybody else think that in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Old Scratch got robbed by the refs?

In a memo accompanying the cue sheet for the original 9/1/79 show, AT40 executive producer Tom Rounds tells stations that the show has new jingles (which were actually launched the previous week), and that they’ll be retiring the “Shuckatoom” theme song, used since 1976, within two or three weeks. There’s also a reminder about Arbitron ratings that I’m not going to try to summarize, since I’m up against the word count here—but if you have some familiarity with how radio ratings used to work, you’ll probably remember doing what Rounds is telling stations to do, and why he’s telling them in all-caps.

As summer turned to fall in 1979, the musical world was changing—new acts, new styles, new jingles on AT40. How much of this we perceived at the time is hard to remember. Thirty-nine years later, we see that the signs of change were everywhere, and that makes the 9/1/79 edition of American Top 40 into a fascinating time capsule.

Turntable Hits

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(Pictured: Charlie Daniels in the 70s.)

Forty, as in Top 40, is an arbitrary number. It goes back to the days when a radio format was first devised that would repeat the most popular songs of the moment over and over. If I’m recalling correctly, 40 represented the number of songs a radio station could play in approximately three hours before starting to play them again.

There are people in radio and out of it who will tell you that as a practical matter, only 10 or 15 songs are truly “popular” at any given moment. And even a song that rides high on the chart might not be all that popular with the audience. Radio people have talked for years about “turntable hits,” records that get airplay without inspiring people to buy them. (This phenomenon still exists in country music today, where a song can top the airplay chart while barely scraping the lower reaches of the sales chart.) So in any given week, the Top 40 contains songs that are popular, songs that were popular but aren’t so much anymore, songs that may become popular eventually—and maybe even songs that are never especially popular at all.

We saw this phenomenon the last time we looked at an American Top 40 show from 1973, and that long list of songs that were on the show but not charted at WLS in Chicago, one of the country’s leading Top 40 stations. We could make a similar list from the show dated August 25, 1973: “Future Shock” by Curtis Mayfield, “There It Is” by Tyrone Davis, “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out” by Bobby Womack, “I Was Checkin’ Out, She Was Checkin’ In” by Don Covay, and “Why Me” by Kris Kristofferson. These songs were popular in some places and on some formats—all except for Kristofferson were significant R&B chart hits—but they weren’t broad-based pop hits and they didn’t stick around long (again, with an exception for Kristofferson).

I would have guessed that several other songs found on this week’s Top 40 never charted on WLS, like “Cleopatra Jones” by Joe Simon, “The Hurt” by Cat Stevens, or “Believe in Humanity” by Carole King, but they did—and in the case of Stevens and King, for nine and seven weeks respectively. I don’t remember hearing them, though. Whether I remember hearing a song is probably not the best metric, however: “I Believe in You, You Believe in Me” by Johnnie Taylor charted 10 weeks and made #10 on the WLS chart, and I don’t remember hearing that one, either.

Another thing that struck me listening to this show was the relative lack of movement. True, the debut songs come zooming in as usual (all except “Future Shock,” which crept from #41 to #40 (and would go to #39 on September 1 and then out of the 40) and several declining songs fall the customary eight or 10 or a dozen places. But among the 40 there are seven songs in the same positions as the previous week; “Live and Let Die” by Wings (#2) and Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider” (#9) are in their third week at the same spots. Five songs move one place (two up, three down), and seven songs move two places (four up, three down). It would take somebody with better data analysis skills than I have—and a better work ethic—to tell how that compares to a typical week, but it seems a little slow to me. “Behind Closed Doors” by Charlie Rich holds at #36 on its way out of the 40, which seems weird, but not as weird as what Bloodstone’s “Natural High” had done. The record had peaked at #10 on July 21, then fell to #15 and then to #23, where it stayed for three straight weeks before sliding to #37 in this week.

But back to the idea of relative popularity: songs that are popular for a moment don’t necessarily endure through time. Certain songs on this chart certainly have: “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” “We’re an American Band,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Smoke on the Water,” “Diamond Girl,” and “My Maria” seem like all-timers to me, although your mileage may vary. But other high-riding hits seem out of time now. “The Morning After” was a #1 hit, but if it got much radio play after it left current rotations, it was because a running time of a little over two minutes made it useful for timing up to the network news at the top of the hour. And  though “Delta Dawn” also hit #1, when the last time you heard it on the radio?

Through the Window

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(Pictured: the Jackson Five, 1971.)

In a recent post, I ran down some of the reasons people listen to old American Top 40 shows. But I missed one: you can listen to these shows looking for little moments of weirdness and/or lost radio history.

Take for example the show from July 29, 1972, which was a recent repeat. In this week, the Jackson Five’s “Looking Through the Windows” debuted at #38. Casey front-announced it by saying, “If this were the first record introducing the Jackson Five, it would put them right into the Top 10.” Which doesn’t make all that much sense, really—there’s nothing stopping the record from eventually making the Top 10, and none of the Jackson Five’s other singles had debuted within the Top 10. And in fact, I suspect that if “Looking Through the Windows” had been the first Jackson Five hit, it wouldn’t have had nearly the impact of “I Want You Back,” which is one of the most impressive debut singles made by anyone in any era. “Looking Through the Windows” eventually peaked at #16 in an eight-week run within the Top 40, so America didn’t dig it quite as much as Casey did. And he seriously did: he comes out of it by saying, “That’s really putting it all together!”

At #14 is Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” In the original 7/29/72 broadcast, Casey did a bit about Elton’s real name, which he gave as “Reg Swight.” Which it is not—it’s Reg Dwight. Casey’s modern-day producers fixed the error, but owned up to it in one of the show’s optional extra segments, even playing the original mispronunciation.

Digression: the Twitter feed Dano Loves Music has been doing tournaments in which followers pick their favorite songs of various years by voting in head-to-head matchups. In the recently concluded 1972 tournament, “American Pie” was the winner, which was probably a foregone conclusion. “Rocket Man” was the other finalist, which I would not have guessed before the tournament began.

The Eagles’ “Take It Easy” is at #12 this week. I have noted before Casey’s tendency to call them just “Eagles.” That is, after all, the way they are listed on all of their records, without the definite article, but even the band members themselves used “the Eagles” when talking about the band, so Casey’s quirk seems, well, quirky. “Take It Easy” is heard in its 45 configuration, which is fairly rare nowadays. It’s snipped from the album length of 3:34 to a single length of 3:21 by tightening up the ending—cutting out some “ooh-ooh-oohs” and removing “oh we got it easy,” then cutting right to “we oughta take it easy” and the cold ending. (I hope this description is sufficient since I can’t find the 45 version at YouTube.) As our friend Yah Shure has reminded us, record labels would make the smallest of tweaks if they thought it would increase a record’s chances of becoming a hit.

At #10 is a record we know today as “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by the Hollies. Although it appears on the Hollies’ album Distant Light with its full title, the song was listed in Billboard as “Long Cool Woman.” That’s what everybody called it back then, and how Casey introduced it on this show.

“Too Late to Turn Back Now” by Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose is an all-time favorite of mine and one of the sweetest sing-along songs ever to hit the radio. The rest of the country dug it too: it had crashed into the Top 40 at #23 on June 17, went to #10 the next week, then 5-4-2-2 before dropping back to #3 this week. Every biography of the group lists the group’s membership as brothers Carter and Eddie Cornelius and their sister Rose, who were joined by another sister, Billie Jo, after “Too Late” had hit. But when introducing “Too Late to Turn Back Now” on this show, Casey says the group is “10 guys, five girls, ages 11 to 43, from Florida.” Carter, Eddie, and Rose were three kids from a family of 15 siblings, but I can’t find one single source that says all 15 Cornelius kids were part of the group. Casey and his staff must have misinterpreted a bit of biographical information.

While these old shows are a fascinating window into the past, it’s probably not fair to examine them on the molecular level. Casey and his staff were just making a show back then; they didn’t know they were making history, or that the shows would survive Casey himself. But it’s fun.

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