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(Pictured: Linda Ronstadt in a Boy Scout getup is quite a vibe.)
Not long ago, I listened to American Top 40‘s special countdown of the Top 40 acts of the 1970s. I may have heard this show when it first aired in 1978, although I don’t recall specifically. A few years ago, based only on looking at the cue sheet, I called it the single greatest all-killer, no-filler edition of AT40. Let’s see if that’s true.
40. Earth Wind and Fire
39. Electric Light Orchestra
38. Grand Funk
36. Steve Miller
35. Ringo Starr
34. Captain and Tennille
32. Carly Simon
31. Donny Osmond
Casey plays “Go Away Little Girl” because he had to play something, and most of Donny’s solo hits are equally objectionable. I never noticed it before, but the vocal on “Go Away Little Girl” is double-tracked.
30. Linda Ronstadt. Casey says that in the 23 years of the rock era (to 1978), nine acts have managed two Top-10 hits at the same time, but Linda is the first woman to do it, with “It’s So Easy” and “Blue Bayou” in December 1977.
29. Rod Stewart
28. Roberta Flack
More good trivia: Casey says Roberta Flack has spent more weeks at #1 than any other female act of the 70s so far, 12 in all: six for “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” five for “Killing Me Softly,” and one for “Feel Like Makin’ Love.”
27. Temptations. A lot of songs on this show are shortened. Casey plays about two-and-a-half minutes of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” although he had managed to play all of “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” and “Killing Me Softly,” and most of “Maggie May.”
26. James Taylor. “You’ve Got a Friend” loses a verse. Casey discusses Taylor as a pioneer of the “soft sounds of the 70s.” Several others are yet to come.
25. Paul Simon
Casey plays “The Cisco Kid,” which, against all odds, is the single most evocative time-and-place record on this list for me, with the exception of the one he plays at #14.
22. Olivia Newton-John
21. Elvis Presley
Casey plays “The Wonder of You” and notes that Elvis is the #1 recording artist of all time. The Spinners are the lone answer to the following question: name the acts that hit the Top Five in five consecutive years at any point between 1970 and 1978.
19. Marvin Gaye
18. Barry Manilow
17. Aretha Franklin
16. Neil Diamond
15. John Denver
Casey notes how most of Neil Diamond’s songs are about “heavy” subjects, and he calls John Denver “Mr. Clean.”
13. Al Green
12. Diana Ross
Casey plays “New Kid in Town,” which was the #1 song on my 17th birthday with all such a thing implies, and I’ve never gotten tired of it. He also plays “Let’s Stay Together” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and at this point, the show becomes radio comfort food. At the moment I listen, there’s nothing I need more.
11. Tony Orlando and Dawn
10. Helen Reddy
This list shows that Helen Reddy is the #1 female solo star of the 1970s. But like Olivia Newton-John back at #22, she was not invited to the party when oldies and classic hits radio started playing 70s hits. (Dawn was slightly more welcome: “Knock Three Times” fit the vibe pretty well, at least for a while.) Both Reddy and ONJ moved not just singles but albums by the barge-load during the 1970s, so audiences clearly liked them. But when the oldies boom began, maybe they were perceived as dated or unhip or something else. Beats me.
9. Gladys Knight and the Pips
8. Three Dog Night
Casey notes how Three Dog Night consistently chose the work of unknown songwriters who later became famous, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Paul Williams, and Laura Nyro among them. It doesn’t really work that way now, when Max Martin writes pretty much everything for everybody.
7. Chicago. Casey says that Chicago’s 11 million-selling albums since 1970 makes them the most successful album group of the 70s so far.
6. Jackson Five
5. Stevie Wonder
3. Paul McCartney and Wings
Although Paul far outdistanced his bandmates for solo success by 1978, he wasn’t always out front. Up until 1974, George and Ringo had done about as well.
2. Bee Gees
1. Elton John
Casey says that based on the point system AT40 used to determine this list, Elton placed #1 by an enormous margin. But in July 1978, it had been a year-and-a-half since he’d had a significant hit. We know now that he would never again scale the heights he achieved during the period of this survey.
All killer, no filler? Donny Osmond’s got some things to answer for, but otherwise, yeah.