Category Archives: American Top 40

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.

The Same Old Song

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(Pictured: KC and the Sunshine Band on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, December 31, 1977.)

Recently I mentioned that I was not willing to listen to a full American Top 40 show from May 1978 because I was not eager to relive my last month of high school. However, I recently decided to risk the one from June 24, 1978.

40.  “If Ever I See You Again”/Roberta Flack. Well shit, maybe this was a bad idea after all.

38.  “Dance Across the Floor”/Jimmy “Bo” Horne and 36. “It’s the Same Old Song”/KC and the Sunshine Band. The best KC record on this countdown is credited to some other guy, Jimmy “Bo” Horne, a Florida native who kicked around the Miami music scene in the 70s. “Dance Across the Floor” was, however, produced by Harry Casey and Richard Finch. KC and the Sunshine Band had been an unstoppable force between 1975 and 1977, with four #1 hits, but their momentum cooled in 1978. “Boogie Shoes” deserved better that its #35 peak in the spring, but “It’s the Same Old Song” was lucky to get that far. It just kinda happens for three minutes and then it’s over and you don’t remember it.

35.  “Runaway”/Jefferson Starship. On certain days, I like this better than “Miracles.”

32.  “Deacon Blues”/Steely Dan. An unlikely Top 40 hit, just off its chart peak of #19. The single edit seems kind of pointless, mostly by shortening the sax solo to cut the total length from 7:37 to 6:40.

28.  “Almost Summer”/Celebration Featuring Mike Love. I hadn’t heard “Almost Summer” in a long time before it turned up on this countdown, and I was positively shocked at how flimsy it is. It sounds like it took five minutes to write and one take to record, which may actually have been the way Mike Love preferred to work.

27.  “Wonderful Tonight”/Eric Clapton. If I were to make a list of songs I never never ever need to hear again, this might be #1. The single edit of 3:13, which is what I think Casey played, helps it a great deal, though.

24.  “Oh What a Night for Dancing”/Barry White. Before playing this song, Casey runs down White’s chart accomplishments, having produced 12 gold records in a single year between his groups Love Unlimited, the Love Unlimited Orchestra, and his own solo work. You’d be better off listening to any one of those than to “Oh What a Night for Dancing.”

22.  “I Was Only Joking”/Rod Stewart. I have written before of my fondness for this record, and the way I heard it in the summer of 1978, although it occurs to me now that my interpretation of it doesn’t match the plain words on the page. But the regret in Rod’s voice is real, as was mine in the summer of 1978.

20.  “Last Dance”/Donna Summer. The week of May 6, 1978, was the first week without a Donna Summer song on the Hot 100 since “I Feel Love” charted the previous August. “Last Dance” charted the next week, May 13, and there would not be another Summer-less week on the Hot 100 for almost exactly two years, until “On the Radio” fell off in May 1980. That’s 142 out of 143 weeks. It may surprise you to learn that “Last Dance” never made #1 on the Hot 100. It peaked at #3 in August.

11.  “The Groove Line”/Heatwave. This band could play. First hit “Boogie Nights” is iconic, or ought to be. Their second hit, “Always and Forever” was the soundtrack to thousands of lost virginities (“the best slow jam of all time,” My Favorite Decade says), and “The Groove Line” is a burner.

9.  “Still the Same”/Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. I wrote about this song a few years ago, and when I heard it the other day, it gave me a strong sense of the kid I was that summer, working at the gas station with no customers, absorbing the radio hour after hour, poised on the edge between past and future.

7.  “Use Ta Be My Girl”/O’Jays and 6. “You Belong to Me”/Carly Simon. Will say again: maybe relistening to this countdown this wasn’t such a good idea.

2.  “Baker Street”/Gerry Rafferty and 1. “Shadow Dancing”/Andy Gibb. A few years ago, we got acquainted with former AT40 staffer Scott Paton. He told us how “Baker Street,” which famously spent six consecutive weeks at #2 on the Hot 100 behind “Shadow Dancing,” was actually #1 for maybe 18 hours, until some shenanigans took place. It’s quite a tale.

How I Spent Somebody Else’s Vacation

(Pictured: Al Green, 1989.)

The period around the Fourth of July is usually a busy one for me. It’s a big week for vacations, so I did a lot of filling in at my radio stations. As of today, I’ll have worked 12 days in a row, and after today I have at least 11 more to go.

You may recall that I once tried to get out of radio entirely.

I rarely have to be at the office all day, however, and last week I had time to devote to other stuff.

To name one: Jimmy McDonough’s 2017 biography of Al Green, Soul Survivor. McDonough is incredibly thorough, having tracked down every living soul who might be able to contribute to the story. The Green that emerges in the book is temperamental, infuriating, and frequently inhabits another plane entirely, although he’s just as easily capable of being compassionate, funny, and reflective. Unlike similarly gifted artists (Van Morrison, hello), Green recognizes the existence of his negative side, often speaking of himself in the third person, or in terms of multiple Al Greens. The various Greens uneasily coexisted back in the day, and they still conflict inside 72-year-old Al Green today.

In 2003, Green headlined an all-day blues festival here in Madison, topping a bill that also featured Canned Heat, Sonny Landreth, Susan Tedeschi, and Dr. John. I would like to remember it as a dream-come-true, bucket-list event, but I don’t. Maybe it was the lateness of the hour, or the heat of the long day, but more than likely, it was because I realized on that day that what I love most about Al Green’s great 70s records is the brilliance of Hi Rhythm, the band backing him on those records, and the production work of Willie Mitchell. Even in the 70s, Hi Rhythm was not his touring band, and without them, the Al Green you got on stage was not necessarily going to be the Al Green you hoped to hear.

I’d like to read a full biography of Mitchell, actually. His brilliance in consistently getting the best out of Green even when the singer wasn’t immediately willing to give it is the greatest accomplishment of his career. The most revealing scene involving Mitchell in Soul Survivor is set sometime in the early 70s, when singer Denise LaSalle observes that all of his stuff with Green sounds alike. Mitchell responds: “I will ride this horse until it falls dead.”

And he did.

I spent part of the week listening to the American Top 40 show from July 3, 1971, the first anniversary of the franchise. Casey says it started with seven stations (the number most commonly reported today is five), but a year later, the affiliate list was up to 118. The show had become popular enough to inspire the marketing of a 24-song compilation called American Top 40’s Double Dozen Album of Hits, Volume 1, with liner notes featuring Casey’s commentary on each song. The album was promoted as part of the 7/3/71 show, although the promo was snipped from the recent syndicated repeat.

People who bash the 1970s as a decade of silly, stupid music need to account for 1971, and especially the summer. The Top 40 in this week includes soul superstars the Isley Brothers, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, and the Supremes, as well as one-off hits including “Funky Nassau,” “She’s Not Just Another Woman,” “Mr. Big Stuff,” and “Want Ads.” Legendary rock figures are on the list too: the Stones, Ringo Starr, Carole King, James Taylor, Joe Cocker. It’s true that the Carpenters, Donny Osmond, John Denver, and the Partridge Family are a part of it, along with radio candy by the Grass Roots, Tommy James, Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds, and Three Dog Night—but if it doesn’t always fit together smoothly (and it doesn’t), so what? This sort of radio democracy exposed even a casual listener to different stars and styles every single day. And it turned some of us into omnivores—people who wanted to hear everything.

And finally: I learned last week about three young women from New York City who, in 1966, formed a psychedelic trio called the Cake. Although they made only two albums, they wrote some of their own songs at a time when few women did that, and the three members were connected to some of the most famous figures in rock. The Cake was successful enough to appear on The Smothers Brothers Show in October 1967. Their story is fascinating and wild, and you can read it here.

Sentimental Journey

(Pictured: Bill Haley and Elvis, 1955.)

In 2017, I wrote about American Top 40‘s summer specials. Every year around the Fourth of July, AT40 would run a show that could be recorded in advance to give Casey and his staff some time off. The most unusual of these specials aired on the weekend of the Bicentennial, featuring the #1 song in America on the July 4th holiday, from 1937 through 1976.

The show does not exactly get off to a flying start. Neither “It Looks Like Rain in Cherry Blossom Lane” by Guy Lombardo (1937) nor “Says My Heart” by the Ozzie Nelson Orchestra (1938) is a timeless classic. Neither is “Wishing” by Glenn Miller (1939), although some classics are forthcoming: “I’ll Never Smile Again” by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra fronted by Frank Sinatra (1940), Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1944), and “Sentimental Journey” by Les Brown with Doris Day on vocals (1945). If you want to add the Ink Spots and “The Gypsy” (1946) to the list, I’m good with that.

(Digression #1: You probably didn’t know Ozzie Nelson was a successful bandleader before he became America’s favorite sitcom dad. According to Joel Whitburn, he charted 38 times between 1930 and 1940, but they’re all pretty obscure. One of the singers in his band was his wife, Harriet, whom he married in 1935. She’s the singer on “Says My Heart.”)

(Digression #2: Imagine hearing “I’ll Be Seeing You” in the summer of 1944, the summer of D-Day, if you had a loved one fighting on some distant shore. I suspect it would have been either a comfort or impossible to bear, with no in-between.)

Some of this stuff is pretty cheesy, including Sammy Kaye’s “Daddy” (1941), “Chi-Baba Chi-Baba” by Perry Como (1947), and “Woody Woodpecker” by Kay Kyser (1948). Vaughn Monroe’s upright and studly baritone on “Ghost Riders in the Sky” (1949) sounds like a novelty nearly 70 years later, but Monroe was quite a big deal in his day, charting 67 times between 1940 and 1954, hitting #1 nine times in all.

There’s a nice little stretch of songs to usher in the 1950s: Nat King Cole’s “Too Young” (1951), “Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart” by Vera Lynn (1952), “Song From Moulin Rouge” by Percy Faith (1953), and Kitty Kallen’s “Little Things Mean a Lot” (1954). In that company, rock ‘n’ roll makes a hell of a splash in 1955 with “Rock Around the Clock.” In 1956, it appears that the pre-rock order is restored with Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind,” but one year later, Elvis emphatically signals a new era that’s here to stay with his two-sided #1 hit, “Teddy Bear” and “Loving You.”

After more novelty cheese (Sheb Wooley’s “Flying Purple People Eater” from 1958) we commence Casey Kasem’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Oldies Party, starring the Coasters and Gary U. S. Bonds and the Beach Boys and Connie Francis and the Four Tops and the Association and others. However: the #1 songs of the 1960s are a worthy reminder that Elvis and the pop stars in his wake didn’t burn the old order entirely to the ground. “Satisfaction” is followed by Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” then two songs later it’s “This Guy’s in Love With You” by Herb Alpert and Henry Mancini’s “Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet” before “I Want You Back” ushers in the 70s.

Casey has padded the third hour a little, with two hits from 1965, “Satisfaction” and “I Can’t Help Myself,” and two from 1966, “Strangers in the Night” and the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer.” The latter is the only Beatles song on the show. The last half-hour of the show sounds like any other edition of AT40, with #1 hits from the 70s by Carole King, Bill Withers, Billy Preston, the Hues Corporation, the Captain and Tennille, and the then-current #1 hit, “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney and Wings.

The 1976 summer special is one the AT40 Facebook group/message board crowd longs to hear repeated on terrestrial radio, but I don’t expect it to happen. Practically none of the adult-contemporary or oldies stations caryring the repeats today want anything to do with the music in the first two hours of the program, and few people beyond hardcore Casey fanatics would be willing to sit through it. (I suspect there were program directors in 1976 who didn’t want the big-band and pre-rock stuff either.) It’s a show that better belongs on iHeart’s dedicated AT40 streaming channel, but don’t hold your breath for that, either.

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