Category Archives: American Top 40

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.

I’m in You

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(Pictured: Andy Gibb.)

After my class reunion last month, we spent the night at Mother and Dad’s house. They put us in the bedroom that I occupied from 1972 until I moved away in 1980. It’s not their regular guest room, and so it had been a few years since we slept up there. It’s been painted and recarpeted since 1980, and there’s none of my stuff left in it, but the upstairs hallway and bathroom look pretty much the same. (My brother’s room, on the north side of the house, hasn’t changed at all; it has the same paint from the 70s and the same posters on the walls.) My room has two windows and a screen door out to a porch. The view of the dooryard and farm fields to the south and southeast is still beautiful, especially in the morning.

When I project myself back in time, I tend to have some standard landing spots. When I return to the summer of 1977, it’s almost always to that room. I had a little stereo system I’d gotten a couple of years before, which sat on my dresser. I also had a portable radio which sat on a nightstand near my bed. A black-and-white TV on a rolling cart went back and forth between my room and my brother’s. An antique table pushed up against one wall, and on it sat my typewriter—actually Dad’s, vintage late 40s or early 50s, which is here in the house somewhere now—although I didn’t use it much. Letters to my girlfriend in Europe were handwritten, and so was anything else I may have felt like composing.

In an earlier post, I started listening to the American Top 40 show from the week of July 30, 1977. Let’s go back and pick up the rest of the notable songs on that show, and in that room.

13.  “Easy”/Commodores. Either this or “Sweet Love” is my favorite thing by the Commodores. I love the line “easy like Sunday morning,” even though in the context of the song, I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean.

10.  “Whatcha Gonna Do”/Pablo Cruise. “Whatcha Gonna Do” is one of the great summer records of any decade; put it on even in the dead of winter and I’m looking out my southern windows at sunny skies and 80 degrees.

9.  “Higher and Higher”/Rita Coolidge. I will always fanboy hard for this record.

8.  “Margaritaville”/Jimmy Buffett. As great as “Margaritaville” sounded on the radio in 1977, it’s another song I never need to hear again. Casey played an edit, however, which provided a little novelty value. As best I can tell, there are a couple of edited versions: both snip out the instrumental bit in the middle and shorten the ending, but one of them speeds the song up a half-step. I am pretty sure Casey played the speeded-up one.

2.  “I’m in You”/Peter Frampton. Although “I’m in You” would spend three weeks at #2, I don’t recall hearing it much after it fell out of recurrents that fall. It’s not bad, really, just not as memorable as the hits from Frampton Comes Alive! had been. (Frampton’s followup single, a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed Sealed Delivered” is much, much better.)

1.  “I Just Want to Be Your Everything”/Andy Gibb. Pffft. “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” is catchy enough, but there’s nothing to it. Nevertheless, it spent nine straight weeks as one of the three most popular songs in the land, including four non-consecutive weeks at #1. It would stay in the Top 40 until late October and spend 31 weeks on the Hot 100 in all, from April to November.

Billboard doesn’t list “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” as the #1 song for all of 1977, although at least nine radio stations did, according to ARSA. (Billboard‘s November-through-October chart year made Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” #1 for all of 1977 when it more properly belonged in 1976.) There’s a case for Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” as the #1 song of 1977 as well, although it, too, got shorted by Billboard‘s chart rule. WLS in Chicago seems to have gotten it right, with Boone at #1 and Andy at #2 on the Big 89 of 1977.

Don’t Stop

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(Pictured: Fleetwood Mac in the summer of 1977.)

People listen to American Top 40 for lots of reasons. You’re guaranteed three or four hours of highly familiar music and interesting oddities. Casey Kasem’s personality is engaging, and his feature bits are usually interesting. I enjoy all of those things, but I also use the shows to try and project myself back in time, to feel what it was like to live in that bygone week, whenever it was.

I have been listening to the American Top 40 show from the week of July 30, 1977, and in that bygone week, life was difficult, or it seemed that way to 17-year-old me. My girlfriend was in Europe and I missed her. While she was there, I lost both of my part-time jobs off the farm, each in the span of a couple of weeks. (I didn’t like either one of them, but still.) I must have spent the first couple of weeks of August, before my GF got home, lonely and feeling sorry for myself.

So I believe I will tread lightly around this show and try to think of some things I haven’t already said about the songs of that summer.

40.  “Float On”/Floaters. I don’t recall hearing “Float On” on the radio stations I was listening to back then, even after its unlikely rise to #2 on the Hot 100 in September. I hated it when I finally heard it, although now I respect its easy groove and the earnestness of the individual Floaters describing the kind of girl they like.

39.  “Christine Sixteen”/KISS. In 1977, “Christine Sixteen” wasn’t a cultural outlier; rapey crap of this type was mainstream. In the #MeToo Era, it’s unacceptable.

31.  “Black Betty”/Ram Jam. One of the classic-rock stations I worked for used to play this as part of its Southern rock weekends, even though Ram Jam was formed in New York City. Fine by me.

29.  “Smoke From a Distant Fire”/Sanford-Townsend Band. This is a record that cannot be improved upon, and its very existence in a state of such perfection is a sort of miracle.

25. “Give a Little Bit”/Supertramp. Casey played the 45 edit, which is labeled at 3:20, and which I had completely forgotten.

24.  “Telephone Man”/Meri Wilson. “Telephone Man” would make #18 on the Hot 100 later in August. It’s the kind of novelty that’s mildly humorous once, annoying the second time, and get-it-the-fk-off-my-radio after that. By the time it reached its Hot 100 peak, however, it had been to #1 at WCOL in Columbus and WKTQ in Pittsburgh, as well as at stations in Kalamazoo and Muskegon, Michigan. In an era when many Top 40 stations played their top hits every 75 to 90 minutes, you can imagine the horror of that.

22.  “Don’t Stop”/Fleetwood Mac
21. “Jet Airliner”/Steve Miller Band
20. “Barracuda”/Heart
This is a damn fine stretch of music right here, even though the AT40 engineer, either in 1977 or today, made a godawful edit in “Barracuda.”

Casey delivers more news than usual on this week’s show. He does a feature on the world’s most expensive single record, a 10-inch 78 of “Stormy Weather” by the Five Sharps, for which its owner recently turned down an offer of $2,000. (I found a couple of recent articles suggesting that the value of “Stormy Weather” is now $25,000, and there are only three copies in existence.) He updates the condition of Jackie Wilson, who suffered brain damage after a heart attack in 1975 and was still, as of 1977, confined to a rehabilitation center. And in a particularly rare move, he plugs two acting roles he has on NBC in the coming week, on Police Story and Quincy. (Late edit: be sure to read the comment from our friend and former AT40 staffer Scott Paton about these parts of the show.)

15.  “Undercover Angel”/Alan O’Day. Call this 70s cheese if you want, but the last verse, in which Alan hits the sheets with the girl of his dreams hoping to see the angel again, strikes me as truthful in a particular way. He tells her his story, to which she responds, “Whaaaat?” He says, “Ooo-wee.” She says, “All right!” The exclamation point is critical. She’s not angry or confused by his wild-ass story; she’s happy to go with it because she is ready and willing to get it on as he is. How many pop songs depict sex as playful, or fun? Songwriters are usually most comfortable imbuing it with more “significant” emotions—passion, contentment, regret. They’re less likely to acknowledge, as O’Day does here, that sometimes, we make love with laughter in our hearts.

Coming in the next installment: the room where most of the summer of ’77 happened, and more of what I heard there.

Longshots

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(Pictured: Billy Preston, 1974.)

Not gonna lie: the most obscure tunes on American Top 40 repeats make my old program director’s spidey senses tingle a little, and might cause current PDs to reach for the antacids. The show from the week of July 14, 1973, contains a remarkably large number of them. Some were unfamiliar even to me. And if a geek such as I doesn’t know something, chances are good that a casual listener isn’t going to know it either.

I decided to see how many of that week’s Billboard Top 40 never charted on WLS, the Top-40 giant from Chicago, which was what I listened to that summer. The following did not:

40.  “Plastic Man”/Temptations
39.  “Swamp Witch”/Jim Stafford
36.  “Goin’ Home”/Osmonds
35.  “Why Me”/Kris Kristofferson
33.  “Where Peaceful Waters Flow”/Gladys Knight and the Pips
28.  “Satin Sheets”/Jeanne Pruett
22.  “Doing It to Death”/Fred Wesley and the JBs

A few other songs charted briefly: “I’ll Always Love My Mama” by the Intruders (#38) for two weeks, “Misdemeanor” by Foster Sylvers (#25) for three, and Gladys Knight’s “Daddy Could Swear, I Declare” (#24) for five.

It’s possible that WLS may have played some of the missing songs for a short time without charting them. Whatever the case, some of the missing and semi-missing are pretty good. “I’ll Always Love My Mama” is a Gamble and Huff production, and those are always welcome. “Misdemeanor” might put you in mind of the Jackson Five, a circumstance almost certainly intentional. “Where Peaceful Waters Flow” seems a lot more commercial and appealing than the more successful “Daddy Could Swear, I Declare.” WLS had charted the Osmonds’ hard-rockin’ “Crazy Horses” and “Hold Her Tight” for only five weeks each in 1972 and must have figured that “Goin’ Home” wouldn’t measure up to them.

“Why Me” did just fine without airplay on WLS, with one of the longest and strangest chart Billboard chart runs in history. Somebody who was there in 1973 would have to explain the crossover appeal of “Satin Sheets,” which sounds to me like plain old hard country. Its chart profile at ARSA is similar to that of “Doing It to Death,” actually: each had lots of listings on country/R&B stations and got a little bit of traction at a few major Top 40 outlets. Maybe that was enough to push both records up the Hot 100. What appealed to anybody at any station about “Swamp Witch,” I have no idea; it’s dreadful.

Although we hear some certifiable killers in the first half of the show, including “Frankenstein,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” and “One of a Kind (Love Affair),” it takes 90 minutes before the 7/14/73 show consistently features songs a casual listener is going to know, and I can’t remember another edition like that.

Once the show gets to the Top 20, however, it’s pretty solid, and the stretch from #21 to #8 is pretty much all-killer, no filler, although your mileage may vary on “Monster Mash.” People underrate “Touch Me in the Morning” and “So Very Hard to Go”—I can’t think of a way one might improve on either one of them. “Money” and “Behind Closed Doors” back-to-back is a quintessential AT40 train wreck, in a good way. I am not particularly a fan of Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby,”  but with “Pillow Talk” and “Behind Closed Doors,” it completes a very horny quarter hour. “Long Train Running,” “Right Place Wrong Time,” and “Smoke on the Water” have been so familiar for so long that it takes some effort to remember they were once current hits jockeying for position like everything else. The very top of the chart is only just OK: “Playground in My Mind” and “Yesterday Once More” don’t do much for me; the rest are decent (yes, even the frequently reviled “My Love,” which I don’t mind), but pretty crispy after 45 years.

Casey notes what he calls one of the most amazing bits of chart trivia ever: Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round in Circles” is #1 this week, having followed Paul McCartney’s “My Love” and George Harrison’s “Give Me Love” into the  #1 spot. In 1969, the #1 hit “Get Back” was credited to the Beatles with Billy Preston. If it had been three official members of the Beatles with consecutive #1 hits, Casey says, it would be easier to understand, but the oddity of Preston being co-credited with the Beatles on a single hit makes it a remarkable longshot.

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