Tale of a Groovy Dude

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(Pictured: Cheech and Chong.)

By 1971, comedy acts had done big business on the record charts for years, but the comics who did the best tended to be your Bill Cosbys and Bob Newharts, the ones whose routines were fit for TV and hotel showrooms. Even George Carlin and Richard Pryor worked clean enough for The Ed Sullivan Show as they were coming up. “Underground” comedians like Lenny Bruce made albums too, but they didn’t become hits the same way Cosby and Newhart albums did. And there was little or no comedy that came directly out of baby boomer culture and experiences. Not until Cheech and Chong came along.

In 1971, Cheech Marin was 25 and Tommy Chong was 33. That summer, they released a self-titled album of character sketches and parodies full of stoner slang and other references that only counterculture-savvy listeners would get. It took a while for the album to catch on, finally peaking at #28 in the winter of 1972. They were still over a year away from their great commercial breakthrough, the albums Big Bambu and Los Cochinos, and the singles “Basketball Jones” and “Sister Mary Elephant.” But that’s getting ahead of today’s story.

During the sessions for their debut album, Cheech and Chong recorded a six-minute bit called “Santa Claus and His Old Lady,” which didn’t appear on the album. It was released as a single in time for Christmas 1971, but it landed very quietly. It made Billboard‘s Christmas singles chart for the week of December 25, but it doesn’t get a review or any other mention in the magazine during either November or December 1971, and it shows up on only a couple of local radio surveys. KLIV in San Jose Diego charted it on December 15, 1971, alongside other hits of the moment, “American Pie,” “Brand New Key,” and the like. It’s also shown on a 12/27/71 listing from KWFM in Tucson, a progressive rock station—the kind of station far more likely to play such a thing than a station that played “American Pie” and “Brand New Key.” A handful of Top 40 stations would chart it over the next four Christmases.

In “Santa Claus and His Old Lady,” Cheech is trying to write a song about Santa Claus, but Chong confuses Santa with a local musician. So Cheech enlightens him. “Once upon a time, about five years ago, there was this groovy dude, and his name was Santa Claus, you know?” Cheech tells how Santa Claus and his old lady moved up north with a bunch of midgets to eat brownies and drink tea, and to start a business delivering toys to kids around the world. Santa Claus delivers in a sleigh driven by “flying reindeers,” Cheech says, “On Donner, on Blitzen, on Chuy, on Tavo,” landing in “Chicago, L.A., Nueva York, Pacoima, all those places, you know?” Chong believes it all, except for the flying reindeers part—until Cheech explains that what makes them fly is “magic dust.” “Oh, magic dust!” says Chong. But Santa doesn’t do the toy bit anymore, Cheech says. He got strip-searched at the border, and down South, people cut his hair and shaved his beard. “Everywhere he went, he ran into too much recession.” Chong says, “No, you mean he ran into too much repression, man.” “Recession, repression, it’s all the same thing.” The bit ends with Cheech saying Santa has gone underground and appears only in disguise now, ringing a bell next to a kettle downtown. “Hey!” Chong says, “I played with that cat last year!” “Santa Claus is not a musician, man!” “I’m hip, man. That cat didn’t know any tunes!”

Considering how well-remembered it is, it seems likely that the progressive or underground station in your town eventually played “Santa Claus and His Old Lady,” if not in 1971, then certainly in years to come, as Cheech and Chong’s profile grew. I didn’t hear it until I got to college, and one of my older classmates busted it out one December, in 1978 or 1979.

How funny you’ll find “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” to be depends on how funny you find Cheech and Chong in general. For me, the humor is in the wordplay—Chuy, Pacoima, repression—and in the characterizations that would become so familiar over the course of Cheech and Chong’s career. After 50 years, “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” remains a holiday favorite among old stoners, and their hipper descendants.

Free Fall

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Here’s a piece of something I wrote in 2011, with hyperlinks added.

On the afternoon of November 24, 1971, the day before Thanksgiving in that year, a guy named Dan Cooper got aboard a Northwest Orient Airlines flight in Portland, Oregon, for a 30-minute flight to Seattle. After takeoff, he told a flight attendant that he had a bomb in his briefcase. He asked for $200,000 and two parachutes. The plane landed in Seattle, Cooper got what he wanted, and the plane took off again. Cooper instructed the pilots to head generally southwest toward Mexico City, but at the minimum air speed and at no more than 10,000 feet, and to leave the rear door open and the exit stairway down. About 30 minutes after takeoff from Seattle, the pilots felt a bump, apparently caused by the weight shift when Cooper jumped out of the plane and into history.

You do not remember when Dan Cooper hijacked the plane and jumped out. The guy you remember is named D. B. Cooper. The process by which Dan Cooper—the name under which the man’s ticket was purchased—became D. B. Cooper is unclear. Walter Cronkite called him “D. A. Cooper” in a broadcast the next night, but by the time the wire services picked up the story on November 26, D. B. is how he was known, and it’s how he’s been remembered ever since. D. B. Cooper is a better name anyhow, more befitting the enigma to which it’s attached.

Cooper became famous as someone who had audaciously outwitted everybody and got away with it.  But as much as we’d like to think that he made it to Mexico and spent the rest of his life happily drinking margaritas and banging senoritas, that’s not the way to bet. The FBI has insisted for 40 years that he probably didn’t survive the parachute jump, and about $6,000 of his cash was found along the Columbia River near Vancouver, Washington, in 1980. But nothing like a body has ever been found. Several people have been fingered as, or claimed to be, Cooper, but the FBI’s case file remains open.

The FBI closed the file in 2016. After so long, we no longer need to know who he was or what happened to him. Not knowing makes for a better story.

I have spent some time this week free-falling into the past, back to Thanksgiving 1971.

Morning TV, parades, balloons, floats, bands, New York, Detroit, Toronto, Santa Claus on the last float, and now the holidays can start.

Coats on, three boys 11, 9, and 5, unbuckled in the back of the ’65 Comet, over the river and through the woods we sing, to the house in which Mother was born. Loud greetings at the back door, hello hello everyone.

The men tell jokes and visit while the women finish cooking. Kids want candy from Grandpa’s jar on the kitchen counter, but you’ll spoil your appetite.

Seventeen of us around the table, two grown cousins and seven more between the ages of five and 12. I am happy to sit near a girl cousin one year older, my first crush. Grandpa, left-handed, sits next to my left-handed cousin, Grandma sits at the head of the table (although she never sits for long), each of them not much older than I will be in 50 years.

Turkey and stuffing, potatoes and squash and gravy, corn and peas, cranberry sauce, rolls with butter, glass of milk—and pie and cookies, and rosettes and sandbakkelse, Scandinavian holiday treats. An uncle asks, “Did you get enough to eat?”

Around the table the adults linger over coffee and light up smokes. Too cold to be outside but we go anyway, me and my brothers and our favorite boy cousin.

The afternoon unspools, football on the TV, fuzzy through rabbit ears. At mid-afternoon Grandma gets out leftovers and we eat again. There are cows to be milked and we have to go home. Names are drawn for the Christmas gift exchange. At the back door we say goodbye, love you, see you soon.

We bump along rural roads through the late-autumn afternoon, 20 minutes home, past fields partly harvested, trees mostly bare, sure of the way and secure in the only life we know, with days and years to come.

Fifty years to come, and now 50 years gone, and a lesson is left behind: you can’t be sure of the way. Life is a free fall. You may have a plan—like D. B. Cooper did—but where you land may not be up to you. 

A Thing Called Love

Behold the music survey from WLS in Chicago dated 50 years ago today. (Click to embiggen.) I wish I had a fuller picture; at some point during the spring or summer of 1971, the station converted its survey from a single long sheet of heavy paper to a folded sheet that allowed a cover with a photo, which opened to reveal the week’s list inside. I have never seen a more pleasing survey design from any radio station anywhere: clean, easy to read, and distinctive in red and blue.

If I were to attempt to rank the seasons of the 70s—a project I really should take on—the fall of 1971 would probably be in the top five. The chart of October 25, 1971, contains songs and stars familiar even to people who can’t remember 1971: Cher, Rod Stewart, “Shaft,” Stevie Wonder, the Carpenters, Marvin Gaye, “Imagine,” Carole King, Santana, Bread, the Bee Gees. But as is our custom here, we’re more interested in the songs that are less well-remembered.

3. “Charity Ball”/Fanny
10. “What Are You Doing Sunday”/Dawn Featuring Tony Orlando
These records barely squeaked into the Billboard Top 40 (#40 and #39 respectively), and only for a brief time (one week each, 11/6 and 11/13/71), but in this week, they are both at their chart peaks on WLS. “Charity Ball” was also a Top-10 hit in Denver and a few other places. “What Are You Doing Sunday” looks to have been a somewhat stronger performer nationwide, although Chicago was its strongest market. (On a survey dated October 21, from WFOM in Marietta, Georgia, they’re #1 and #2.) “Charity Ball” has a Van Halen swagger and is an unjustly lost hit. “What Are You Doing Sunday,” meanwhile, sits at the intersection of cheese and bubblegum. But Tony Orlando, who gets separate billing for the first time, had a gift for selling that very thing. Dawn had bigger hits, but few that were more purely joyful. It’s easy to understand why listeners of 1971 gravitated to it.

(Fifty years later, Fanny is the subject of a new documentary that reveals just how much ground they broke, not just as women in a male-dominated business but as Filipina Americans in a racist society.)

12. “Never My Love”/Fifth Dimension. The Fifth Dimension’s version of the Association’s 1967 classic is a live recording produced by Bones Howe, who also produced the original. It’s far more supper-club than soul music, although we get a hint of what could have been when Marilyn McCoo starts ad-libbing over the last 45 seconds or so (including a spectacular long, high note). It made #1 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart and #12 on the Hot 100.

21. “Trapped by a Thing Called Love”/Denise LaSalle
22. “You Think You’re Hot Stuff”/Jean Knight
It did not hurt WLS one bit to latch on to the housewife appeal of “Never My Love.” Neither would it have been bad for them to play straight-up R&B records. In an era with fewer signals for listeners to choose from, mass appeal was not only possible, it was the goal. “Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” a Willie Mitchell production of a song LaSalle wrote, made the Billboard Top 40. “You Think You’re Hot Stuff” peaked at #57 despite sounding remarkably like “Mr. Big Stuff,” Knight’s #2 hit from earlier in the year. Like “Mr. Big Stuff,” it’s a Wardell Quezergue production licensed by Stax from the Mississippi label Malaco.

The fall of 1971 is less purely magical than the fall of 1970; September to December 1970 will always be a liminal space to me, a wondrous passageway that pointed the little boy I was toward the person I am now. One year later, I had listened through a full procession of the seasons and discovered a powerful link between music and time. For me to even talk about “ranking the seasons” shows how strong is the association between the songs I heard and when I heard them.

But 1971 represented another passageway, another space between. I never wanted to be a farmer like Dad when I grew up, not for a minute. Like many boys, I wanted to be a pro football player for a while. But by the fall of 1971, I had lived a year with the radio in my head. I loved the music, but I was also fascinated with how the music and the jingles and the newscasts and the commercials weaved together to create a complete, enormous thing, orchestrated by the jocks, who seemed like the coolest people in the world to me. And by the fall of 1971, I would say to everybody (even if they didn’t ask), I want to do that.

The Wind

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The kid gets on the school bus at 6:50 in the morning for the long ride through Clarno and Cadiz Townships. Other kids get on in ones and twos, some older, some younger, some he knows, and some he merely recognizes from other mornings. Some get on from neatly kept farmsteads, others from ramshackle houses or long-parked mobile homes. The gravel roads are rough and narrow, and as they track up and down and around, the kid sometimes worries that the bus, rolling like a ship in a storm, might actually tip over. 

If it were up to the driver, the school bus radio would probably be on local station WEKZ, but by passenger demand, it’s on WLS from Chicago, with Larry Lujack playing the hits. There’s news every half-hour, so the kid hears the Lyle Dean Report twice each morning. In September 1971, he knows about the Attica prison riot and the death of Nikita Khrushchev, even if he doesn’t understand all of the details. He cares more about the baseball scores, and that football season has started for the teams he follows. He plays a little organized football himself.

On certain mornings, the kid wrestles his saxophone aboard the bus. He enjoys honking away in rehearsal, although he already knows he doesn’t have much talent. He’d rather listen to other musicians, and his Ol’ Uncle Lar, on the radio. 

You’ve already read about some of the songs of September 1971. Here are a few more from below the Top 40.

42. “I Ain’t Got Time Anymore”/Glass Bottle. “I Ain’t Got Time Anymore” is an American cover of a concurrent British hit sung by Cliff Richard, co-produced by Dickie Goodman, master of the break-in record. Wikipedia says that the group’s name was chosen to help the glass industry in a PR effort to boost the use of glass soda bottles over plastic ones. While it seems like almost anything else would have been more effective PR, the factoid has proliferated across dozens of websites, so it must be true.

43. “Sweet City Woman”/Stampeders
54. “Take Me Girl, I’m Ready”/Jr. Walker and the All-Stars
68. “Annabella”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds
Old man yells at cloud: nobody making records today wants to grab the listener from the first second; producers would rather sneak up on them. (I am sick unto death of fade-ins, a production trick meant for earbuds and not for radio.) So you don’t get the banjo that opens “Sweet City Woman,” or the gloriously exciting 40 seconds that start “Take Me Girl, I’m Ready.” Related: I often can’t tell what people are supposed to remember about the hits of today. Fifty years later, “Annabella” is still right there in my head.

47. “All Day Music”/War
48 “Marianne”/Stephen Stills
These records made #35 and #42 respectively on the Hot 100 but were #4 and #6 at WLS. “All Day Music” is the single best song on the entire list of 100, BTW. It take you to a place you want to go, and if you play it again, you can stay there.

49. “Superstar”/Carpenters. The highest-debuting single on the Hot 100 in this week. To double down on something I’ve said before, had it been as easy to consume music in 1971 as it is today, the Carpenters would have debuted on the singles chart at #1 or close to it, more than once.

65. “Trapped by a Thing Called Love”/Denise LaSalle. There’s a lot of straight-up R&B records on this week’s Bottom 60, few of which got much play on pop radio, although “Trapped By a Thing Called Love” did. I would absolutely read a book about the relationship between R&B radio, the Black audience, and the record business in the first half of the 1970s. There was a whole ‘nother world out there that had little to do with white kids listening to WLS.

93. “Carey”/Joni Mitchell. The lone charting single from Blue is in its lone week on the Hot 100.

The wind is in from Africa
Last night I couldn’t sleep
Oh you know it sure is hard to leave you, Carey
But it’s really not my home

It will be years before the kid hears the arresting first lines of “Carey.” By then he will know, in a way he was only learning in 1971, that there’s something on the September wind that isn’t there the rest of the year: the knowledge that wherever he finds himself in the Septembers to come, it’s really not his home. Home is on the bumpy rural roads of Clarno and Cadiz, in other Septembers, on other mornings, at the beginning of everything that ever was, and all that will ever be.

A Summer With the Radio

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(Pictured: Carole King and Tapestry producer Lou Adler, at work in 1971.)

The summer of 1971, 50 years ago now, was the first summer I ever spent with a radio in my ear. The American Top 40 show from June 5, 1971, creates not memories, not exactly, but a jumble of images that pop up and disappear before I can grasp any one of them. It all adds up to a vibe, however, and that made for a very enjoyable show.

39. “Reach Out I’ll Be There”/Diana Ross
38. “I Don’t Blame You at All”/Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
A downtempo version of the Four Tops epic seemed like a good idea to somebody, if not to me. “I Don’t Blame You at All,” meanwhile, is a “Tears of a Clown”-level master class in record-making.

EXTRA: “Call Me”/Chris Montez. Casey tells about a 1963 run of shows Montez made in Britain, during which he was billed above the then-unknown Beatles. “Call Me” was written for Petula Clark by her impresario, Tony Hatch, and first released in late 1965, although the Montez version, arranged and produced by Herb Alpert, was bigger, making #22 on the Hot 100 and #2 on Easy Listening early in 1966. “Call Me” was soon recorded in famous versions by Frank Sinatra and Brazilian keyboard star Walter Wanderley (a bright-n-bubbly version on the flip side of his “Summer Samba”), and by lots of other people, although it faded from general popularity in the 70s.

31. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”/Yvonne Elliman
14. “Superstar”/Murray Head
13. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”/Helen Reddy
The most-discussed album of 1971, Jesus Christ Superstar, spent only three non-consecutive weeks at #1, one in February and two in May. June, however, marked peak Superstar on the singles chart.

EXTRA: “Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet“/Henry Mancini. Casey’s special report on “the most popular lovers history has ever known” contains a weird production choice. He introduces the bit and then starts listing famous couples, including Sonny and Cher, Marc Antony and Cleopatra, and Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara (complete with a brief Clark Gable imitation). His voice fades out while he’s still listing pairs of lovers, and Mancini comes up behind him; at the end of the song, his voice fades back in, still listing pairs of lovers, including David and Julie. If you recognize them, you’re probably old. If you don’t, their identity will be revealed below.

19. “Love Her Madly”/Doors
18. “If”/Bread
17. “Chick-a-Boom”/Daddy Dewdrop
16. “Here Comes the Sun”/Richie Havens
15. “Treat Her Like a Lady”/Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose
This is a great AM-radio run right here. Casey says that the Doors have tied Creedence Clearwater Revival for the longest string of certified-gold albums. L.A. Woman becomes their sixth—but 50 years later, does any other Doors album matter to anybody, as an album? I remain gobsmacked at the beauty of “If,” amused by the madness of “Chick-a-Boom,” and impressed by whoever is playing the hot lead guitar on “Treat Her Like a Lady.” And as I have said before, I knew this “Here Comes the Sun” long before I ever heard George Harrison’s.

11. “I’ll Meet You Halfway”/Partridge Family
10. “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo”/Lobo
9. “It’s Too Late”/Carole King
8. “Never Can Say Goodbye”/Jackson Five
7. “Sweet and Innocent”/Donny Osmond
6. “Bridge Over Troubled Water”/Aretha Franklin
4. “It Don’t Come Easy”/Ringo Starr
3. “Want Ads”/Honey Cone
2. “Joy to the World”/Three Dog Night

One of these things is not like the others, and it is “Sweet and Innocent.” “It’s Too Late” is up to #9 in only its third week on the show, and it will spend the first of its five weeks at #1 two weeks hence. “Want Ads” will be #1 for the week of June 12.

5. “Rainy Days and Mondays”/Carpenters
1. “Brown Sugar”/Rolling Stones
By the standards of the analog world, when you had to put on pants and leave your house to buy a piece of plastic with your favorite song on it, these songs were unusually hot. During the week of May 1, “Brown Sugar” came on the Hot 100 at #40, then went 13-6-3 and to #1 for the week of May 29, ending the six-week run of “Joy to the World.” On May 15, “Rainy Days and Mondays” entered at #46 before going 20-11 and to #5 in this week, eventually stalling at #2. In a download world, both would probably have debuted at #1.

On his list of history’s greatest lovers, Casey included David Eisenhower, grandson of the former president, and Julie Nixon, daughter of the current president. They’d known one another since they were children, and they married in 1968, both age 20. They were, in 1971, one of the most famous couples in America. They’re still married today.