Nearly Died From Hospitality

Thirty-four years ago this week, as spring began to break for real over southern Wisconsin, one of the songs I couldn’t get out of my head was “Couldn’t Get it Right” by the Climax Blues Band. It broke into the Top 40 at the end of March and peaked at Number 3 on the Hot 100 toward the end of May. It seemed to be on the radio constantly, on whatever station I listened to, and why not? It’s a fine funky clatter that even the most vocally challenged fan could sing along with. I did, and I do. “Couldn’t Get it Right” is an artifact from a very happy season in my life, and it’s been on my Desert Island list as long as I’ve had one.

Like many British musicians who came up in the late 60s, the members of the Climax Blues Band were fans of American blues. They were originally known as the Climax Chicago Blues Band, although they dropped the “Chicago” in 1970, reportedly to avoid confusion with Chicago Transit Authority. They also became a more conventional rock band in the early 70s, scoring significant hit albums with FM Live in 1974, Stamp Album in 1975, and the 1976 release Gold Plated, which contains “Couldn’t Get it Right.” Their 1979 album Real to Reel contains the superb “Children of the Nighttime,” which deserved to be a smash but was not. They had one smash left in them, however: the 1980 album Flying the Flag contained “I Love You,” which was miles removed from both Chicago blues and “Couldn’t Get it Right.” Allmusic compares it to Badfinger or Paul McCartney, and neither is a bad comparison. “I Love You” is as powerfully and irresistably romantic a record as either of those artists ever made. It blew out the phones at radio stations back in the summer of 1981, and on those occasions when it plays now, people will still call wanting to know, “What was that song?” How it reached only Number 12 in Billboard I have no idea.

After “I Love You,” the Climax Blues Band got lost in shifting musical tastes, although they continued to record steadily through 1988. Since then, they’ve made only two albums, one in 1993 and one in 2004. An edition of the band still exists today. It contains none of the founding members, although lead vocalist Colin Cooper was part of the band until his death in 2008.

You’ve heard “Couldn’t Get it Right” and “I Love You” a million times. (A million and one if you clicked the links above.) So be sure to listen to “Mole on the Dole” from the 1973 album Rich Man, which features a most surprising instrument taking the solos. And dig “Children of the Nighttime,” below.

Recommended Reading: Sound engineer Roger Nichols, nicknamed “the Immortal” by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen for his work with Steely Dan, died earlier this month. Here’s his New York Times obituary. And also, the headquarters of Malaco Records, the Mississippi label that produced “Groove Me,” “Mr. Big Stuff,” and other, lesser-known landmarks of southern soul, was leveled by a tornado last weekend. The building that housed the label’s master tapes was among those destroyed. Find out more at Flea Market Funk. While you’re there, consider this provocative question: “Is Record Store Day a Bunch of Bullshit?”, and the response from the folks who organized the event.

“Children of the Nighttime”/Climax Blues Band (buy the compilation 25 Years 1968-1993 here)

Do You Know What I Mean?

My Desert Island list has 12 singles from 1976 on it. To readers of this blog, that’s news approximately on par with the sunrise. Eleven are from 1971, which is not exactly news either. Forty years ago, it was a year of discovery—no, the year of discovery. Absolutely everything was new because I hadn’t been listening long enough to know the context of very much. But since we often love the stuff of youth more than the stuff that comes along later, some of what I discovered that year has never left me. I’ve written about a couple of them recently, and here are a few words about some more of them.

“Rings”/Cymarron. I know people still do it, but a barefoot beach wedding seems like a thoroughly 70s thing to do. “Rings” is a lovely frozen moment from the summer of 1971 that ran the charts right alongside “Here Comes that Rainy Day Feeling Again” by the Fortunes. The only thing wrong with the song is that it’s too short—a defect remedied here.

“Spanish Harlem”/Aretha Franklin. Ben E. King may have done it first, but Aretha owns it. By the time “Spanish Harlem” hit the radio late in the summer of ’71, I had already developed a hearty appreciation for soul music, despite also being devoted to Dawn and the Partridge Family. Me and Walt Whitman, we contained multitudes.

“Do You Know What I Mean”/Lee Michaels. Three minutes of glorious bashing that has never sounded right to me on anything other than AM radio, although this guy’s 45 gets close.

“I’ve Found Someone of My Own’/Free Movement. I would not have understood the emotional dynamic of this record in 1971, which is best described as “You can’t leave me because I’m already gone.” All I heard was how great it sounded on the radio.

“Have You Seen Her”/Chi-Lites. In which the line between the pain communicated by the lyric and pleasure generated by the vocal performance becomes too thin to perceive clearly, or even to matter.

“Respect Yourself”/Staple Singers. Good lessons for an 11-year-old boy, and for everybody else, wherever they are, down unto the present day. If you aren’t inclined to listen when your mama tries to school you about how to behave, you better not pull that shit with Mavis.

That’s not everything on the list from 1971, but it’s enough for today.

Recommended Reading: I think I’ve mentioned the Daily Mirror before—it’s an online feature of the Los Angeles Times that reprints old stories, columns, and photos from the paper’s archives. Yesterday it featured a fascinating column by music critic Robert Hilburn, written in the runup to the 1981 Grammy Awards. Grim as this year’s list of nominees seemed to me, 1981 may have been grimmer, dominated by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and Christopher Cross, the eventual big winner. (That year represented the nadir for Record of the Year nominees: “The Rose” by Bette Midler, “Lady” by Kenny Rogers, Sinatra’s “New York New York” and Streisand’s “Woman in Love,” and “Sailing” by Cross, the eventual winner—the dullest and most uninspired set Grammy ever yakked up.)

Our friend Jason Hare found a great artifact over at Buzzfeed—five-second snippets of every Billboard Number-One single from 1955 through 1992, edited into a two-part audio montage. The thing runs about 74 minutes, but once you start listening, it won’t seem nearly that long.

A Tender Rhapsody

In the classic era, Top 40 radio could be frenetic—crowded with jingles and commercials, and with high-energy jocks shouting over and around the hits. Every once in a while, however, a record would come along that demanded a pause in the chaos. Such records would often stop time entirely for as long as they took to play. One such record hit the Billboard charts 40 years ago this month.

It begins with a quiet, echo-kissed guitar figure, followed on by bass guitar and strings before the singers come in, wordless. A soft xylophone rises up out of the mix, as if to pull a curtain back for the lead singer, who does not seem to sing so much as to sigh: “Each day through my window I watch her as she passes by/I say to myself, ‘You’re such a lucky guy.'” “Just My Imagination (Runnin’ Away With Me)” was performed by the Temptations on The Ed Sullivan Show on January 31, 1971. It debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 dated February 6, and entered the Top 40 two weeks later. It was a departure for the group, who had been recording producer Norman Whitfield’s uptempo acid-soul with great success for a couple of years, but who wanted to return to the soft soul style they had pioneered from the days of “My Girl.” And in April, “Just My Imagination” would join “My Girl” and “I Can’t Get Next to You” at Number One in Billboard.

But after “Just My Imagination,” the Temptations would never truly be the Temptations again. There’s an argument that this had already happened in 1968, when the gifted-but-troubled David Ruffin was fired, but the group had achieved some of its greatest successes (“I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Psychedelic Shack”) with Dennis Edwards in Ruffin’s old slot. By the end of 1970, a disgruntled Eddie Kendricks was on his way to a solo career, and “Just My Imagination” was recorded with the full knowledge that it would be his last hurrah with them. It also marked the end for original member Paul Williams, whose declining health was not helped by his dependence on alcohol. He was let go at the same time Kendricks left, but not before he sang the first line of that breathtaking bridge in the middle of “Just My Imagination”: “Every night on my knees I pray.” Richard Street had already been brought in to cover for Williams on stage, singing Paul’s parts from the wings while Paul stood behind a disconnected microphone, and he became an official member. Kendricks was replaced at first by a singer named Ricky Owens, who was fired after only two shows, and for good by Damon Harris. The Temptations would maintain a presence on Top 40 radio for two more years and bag another Number One single, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” but would fade after 1973 into a lengthy afterlife that continues today.

The story of “Just My Imagination” and the rest of the Temptations’ tempestuous career is told in Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: The Troubled Lives and Enduring Soul of the Temptations by Mark Ribowsky, who has also written biographies of the Supremes and Stevie Wonder. Written with the assistance of surviving original member Otis Williams, but not an officially authorized biography, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg is a highly worthwhile read for Motown fans, shedding light on the strange workings of the label, and how the Temptations, an aggregation of pure soul singers, fit into Berry Gordy’s quest to erase the line between black and white pop. It also provides a look into the lives of the individual Temptations, whose stardom was often far less glamorous than we might imagine.

“Just My Imagination” is on my Desert Island list, and if I were to put that list in numerical order, there’s only a song or two that would rank as high. I heard it in that first spring of musical discovery just as I described it above—as an arresting oasis in the general rush of WLS. As the lament of a man in love with a woman who doesn’t even know he exists, it spoke to me throughout my adolescence. And today it remains a prime example of just how glorious the Temptations were, of the brilliance of Kendricks and Whitfield, and how a song can continue to shine in our lives for as long as our lives may last.

Radio School

The 1971 posts I linked to yesterday got me thinking about that year, which is as critical to my personal mythology as 1976. It was the year when the record charts became firmly established as the calendar of my life, and when I began strongly associating times, places, and experiences with particular songs on the radio. It was also the year I decided, after a few months of listening to Larry Lujack every morning, that I wanted to do what he did. If I hadn’t made the decision by my 11th birthday that February, it must have come not long afterward.

As I listened to WLS, I tried to understand what the station was doing and why. I did the same thing with the hometown station my parents listened to. And it wasn’t just music radio that obsessed me. I listened to sports play-by-play too, the Cubs, the Badgers, the Packers, the Chicago Blackhawks, and tried to grasp the principles of what the sportscasters did. So whenever I was listening to the radio, my little brain was working, trying to think like a radio jock.  I learned to talk over the introduction of a record right along with my WLS heroes.

It wasn’t long before I started to appreciate a few records not merely as a fan of the music, but as a jock might.

The Fortunes had been around since 1965, when “You’ve Got Your Troubles” became a Top-10 hit. Several minor hits followed, but in the summer of 1971, they returned to the radio in a big way with “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again.” I would have begun hearing it in mid-June, just after school got out, and I associate it with those first days of freedom, and the first really warm nights when you’d sleep with the windows open. It would be on the radio when I was in the car, being chauffeured to baseball practice and music lessons, and it would be on the radio at night when I stole a few minutes with WLS before going to sleep.

And because I already had a slight understanding of what the radio jocks were doing, I would probably have caught a glimmer of the vast possibilities inherent in “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again”. The introduction runs 20 seconds, but a jock doesn’t need to use the whole thing. It’s got what I would learn were called “posts” at the eight-second and 16-second mark, with the vocal coming in at 20 seconds. You could talk it to one of the posts if that’s all you needed. Or, if you really wanted to show off, you could structure your talk so that you’d get out of the way for one post, come back in with something else, and get out of the way for the next one. (This is something I still try to do today, and I never get more jacked up on the air than when I accomplish it successfully.) And on the other end of the record, it’s got a great long fade that you can jump on to do whatever you might need to do. Everything between the intro and the outro sounds great too, with those Philly-style strings, that vibraphone, and the breakdown in the middle (“misty morning eyes/I’m trying to disguise the way I feel”).

Standing entirely apart from the fact that it’s a superb summer song, “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again” is on the short list of all-time great intros for a jock to talk over—great for starting your radio show, or for reminding yourself why you wanted to have a radio show in the first place.

We Welcome You to Crackerbox Palace

Thirty-four years ago this week, George Harrison’s “This Song” was wrapping up an 11-week run on Billboard Hot 100 that had taken it to Number 25. (It had reached Number 28 in Cash Box, and went all the way to Number 7 on WLS.) It was a chart comeback for Harrison, nearly two years since he scored a widely heard single (“Dark Horse”), and the album he released in 1975, Extra Texture,  had been a critical disaster even though it sold fairly well. Harrison’s new album, Thirty-Three and One-Third, a reference to his age at the time, got good reviews compared to Extra Texture and Dark Horse, even as it failed to match their performance on the album chart. “This Song” also featured a brief audio appearance by Harrison’s friend, Eric Idle, who also directed a video for the song. The video was shown when Harrison appeared on Saturday Night Live in November 1976. I can’t embed it, but you can watch it here.

But “This Song” is not the song I want to write about today.

During that same week, 34 years ago this week, Harrison’s new single debuted on the Hot 100, just two spots below “This Song.” “Crackerbox Palace” would eventually reach Number 19 in Billboard, 17 in Cash Box, and 15 on WLS. It, too, came with a video, co-directed by Idle and Neil Innes, which premiered on SNL that November night, and I can’t embed it either. Go here.

I am not a musician, and despite years in radio, I am not expert in studio trickery, so as a result, I can’t imagine how Harrison made that song sound like it does. His distinctive guitar surfaces like a slick silver fish from a deep sea of bass guitar and wah-wah pedal, pushed now and then by a horn riff that would reappear on dozens of disco records. The lyric, as George told an interviewer, is about how the world is a sad place, but also a silly one. The Wikipedia entry for the song indicates that it’s based mostly on a 1975 encounter between Harrison and George Greif, former manager of British comic Lord Buckley, of whom Harrison was a fan growing up. (There’s more about the making of the song and the video here.)

Where “Crackerbox Palace” came from and how it got to be that way doesn’t really matter, though. It’s on my Desert Island list because every time I hear it, I get lost in it, lost not only in the sound but also in the associations that come with it from the winter of 1977, and how it was to be 17 and feel like you had almost everything you wanted, and what you didn’t have, it was only a matter of time before you got.

Recommended Reading: Ken Levine tells another radio tale, about his mid-70s stint at TenQ in Los Angeles, where he worked a weekend shift while his day job was head writer on M*A*S*H. You might want to read it after you read this at Clicks and Pops. You’ll need something to heal your broken heart.

Snow Day

One of the biggest winter storms in several years is slamming a huge portion of the United States today. Kids are praying for snow days, businesses are closing early—and media outlets are overreacting. It’s a mystery to me why, up here in the snow belt, where winter comes shortly after Halloween every year, the local TV take on every big storm is one click north of panic. I tried summing it up on Twitter last night: “Snow snow snow oh my god snow everybody go out buy food stay home it’s the end snowstorm blizzard frozen death snow aggggggggh.”

Whenever I hear an anchor or reporter say, “If you don’t have to travel tonight, please don’t,” I remember a wise old newsman who said, “It’s not our job to tell people to stay home. If the cops or the weather service say that people should stay home, we’ll report it, but we don’t make the call on our own.” Our job was to tell people what was happening (or not happening), and not to take on responsibilities above our pay grade. We weren’t rigid about it, though—if you’d just spent an hour on your typically-10-minute commute to work, it was perfectly acceptable to say that on the air and let people draw their own conclusions. On that score, I’d take the word of a wise old newsman more seriously than that of a callow young local TV reporter who was in the sixth grade the last time there was a storm this big.

Looking over my Desert Island list, I find a couple of songs that remind me of the giant snowstorms of youth, the kind we always say we don’t get anymore. There’s Badfinger’s beautiful “Day After Day,” featuring George Harrison’s indescribably sweet guitar, Leon Russell on piano, and one of the greatest singalong lyrics the English language has ever known, which rode the charts in the winter of 1972. On snowy mornings back then, we were never allowed to stay in bed on spec, gambling that school would be called off—we had to get up and get ready. When the word came that school was closed, we were already prepared for the world of adventure that opened before us. We might go sledding, or play in the barn, or surround ourselves with toys in the bedroom or the living room. By 1972, I’d have spent a lot of time listening to WLS, because I never got to hear the midday jocks when I was in school.

“Can’t Get It Out of My Head” by ELO ran the charts at the very end of winter and into the early spring of 1975. I was a freshman in high school by then, and home life would not have been quite so idyllic as it might have been three years before. On a snow day, I would have been less inclined to go sledding by then, and not at all inclined to build hay forts in the barn. But I would have had the radio on through the middle of that winter’s snow days too, often the big console stereo in the room we called the sunporch, where the FM station I liked sounded so much better than it did on my little bedroom portable.

We love the songs we love because of the constellation of associations that accompany them. Snow-covered winter mornings home from school are not my only associations with “Day After Day” and “Can’t Get It Out of My Head,” and not even the primary ones that make them Desert Island essential. But on this particular snowy morning, they’re the ones that matter.