The Wisconsin Woods

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(Pictured: La Crosse, Wisconsin, was home to the G. Heileman Brewing Company and the World’s Largest Six Pack; the brewery and the six-pack have been renovated, and repainted, since Heileman closed in 2000.)

La Crosse is a city of about 50,000 on the Mississippi River in far western Wisconsin. We have from time to time bumped into radio station WLCX, most recently mentioning their selection of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as the #1 song for the entire year 1976. ARSA, the Airheads Radio Survey Archive, has quite a collection of WLCX surveys, and a look through them, especially during the early 70s, reveals some interesting stuff.

La Crosse had a thriving local music scene at the turn of the 70s, and WLCX played local hits. The excellent “Where Do You Want to Go” by Hope was #1 for four weeks in the summer of 1970. Hope was known originally as Jesters III; their earliest releases were on the La Crosse-based Coulee label, although “Where Do You Want to Go” was released on A&M. Hope’s run at #1 was interrupted by the Silver Bullets, with “The Lone Ranger (Overture to William Tell).” The Silver Bullets were the same group of La Crosse-area musicians who recorded as the Ladds and Today’s Tomorrow. The variously named group recorded on several small labels; “The Lone Ranger” came out on Teen Town, based in the Milwaukee suburb of Thiensville, where label owner Jon Hall ran a club called Teen Town. Today’s Tomorrow’s fabulous version of “Witchi Tai-To,” originally released on Teen Town, was licensed nationally to the Bang label and hit the WLCX Top 10 during Hope’s final week at #1.

Another significant group from western Wisconsin was Unchained Mynds, who recorded on the Transaction label, a sister of Coulee. Their trippy “We Can’t Go on This Way” was licensed to Buddah for national distribution. They also released a version of Traffic’s “Hole in My Shoe” on Transaction. WLCX would chart two other local hits on Transaction before the end of 1970, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” by Last Draft and Stone Flour with “Till We Kissed.”

(We are deep in the Wisconsin woods now, but we’ll get you out in a minute.)

Apart from the local acts, WLCX also had a thirst for novelties. At the end of 1970, “Christmas Goose” by Stan and Doug was #1 for a month. It’s a Scandinavian-themed holiday parody of Anne Murray’s “Snowbird,” which had done six weeks at #1 on WLCX in September and October. It’s easy to understand the appeal of such a thing in western Wisconsin, although Stan and Doug themselves were from Seattle.

In February 1971, WLCX listed Bloodrock’s execrable “D.O.A” at #1 for two weeks. (In both weeks, the #2 song is “Amazing Grace” by Judy Collins, and it occurs to me that every discussion about the incredible variety of 70s radio music could begin and end right there.) Stan and Doug probably never overlapped with “D.O.A.,” which is kind of a shame, but as 1971 rolled on, the novelty hits did too. Later that year, the list of #1 songs at WLCX includes Tom Clay’s montage hit “What the World Needs Now/Abraham Martin and John” and Hudson and Landry’s comedy cut “Ajax Liquor Store.” The year 1972 begins with a run to #1 for the passive-aggressive “Once You Understand” by Think, and the station started 1973 with an uninterrupted eight-week run at #1 for “Dueling Banjos.” In 1975, a five-week run at the top for Ringo Starr’s “No No Song” was followed by three weeks for Benny Bell’s reissued 1946 recording “Shaving Cream.” Later in 1975, “Mr. Jaws” by Dickie Goodman would be #1 for four weeks. Six weeks after that, “Convoy” would begin a seven-week stay at #1, followed immediately by the George Baker Selection’s “Paloma Blanca.” Also in 1976, WLCX would chart Jimmy Dean’s Mother’s Day novelty “IOU” at #1 for four weeks, and Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear” for a week.

WLCX went on the air in 1947 and bore the same call letters, except for a brief period in the late 50s, until 1983. The station is known as WLXR now and is running an oldies format, still at 1490 on the AM band, still playing some of the songs it played in the 70s. (Probably not “Witchi Tai-To” or “Shaving Cream” though.) It’s always fun to remember when local radio was truly local, doing its own thing and going its own way, and the WLCX surveys reveal a station doing just that.

(This post owes a lot to Wisconsin music historian Gary E. Myers, whose Do You Hear That Beat (published 1994) and On That Wisconsin Beat (2006) are astonishing references, the first one compiled in the era before e-mail.)  

Liberal Interpretation

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(Pictured: Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, 1968.)

They don’t make politicians like they used to.

Everett McKinley Dirksen represented Illinois in the House from 1933 to 1949 and in the Senate from 1951 to 1969, and was famed for what he said (“a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money”) and how he said it, in a resonant voice that was once the embodiment of how a distinguished senator should sound. And that voice gave Dirksen an unusual distinction—the oldest person ever to put a record into the Billboard Top 30.

Late in 1966, the United States was embroiled in Vietnam and the antiwar movement was beginning to stir, but the country was not yet as divided as it would become. With troops in the field and debacle not yet apparent, millions of Americans of all ages still fell back on the reflexive patriotism we’re all born with, and in that atmosphere, Dirksen’s recording “Gallant Men” caught on. It hit the Hot 100 on December 24, 1966.

(The words to “Gallant Men” were written in the 1950s by a young man who had majored in economics at Fordham. At the time of writing, he was serving in the army, and was the announcer for the U.S. Army Band. Charles Osgood would spend the rest of his life behind one microphone or another, including 50 years at CBS radio and television.)

In 1964, Robert F. Kennedy was elected to the Senate from New York. As his brother’s political heir, he was one of the Senate’s most visible members, and undoubtedly a future presidential candidate. Imitating the Kennedy voice had already proven lucrative, as the success of Vaughn Meader and The First Family had shown a few years before. Now another group of comedians took that voice as raw material.

Chip Taylor had written the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.” Now he teamed with an actor named Bill Minkin to create a version of “Wild Thing” billed to Senator Bobby. A producer in the booth is heard to tell Bobby “this is an answer to Senator McKinley’s hit record.” He exhorts Bobby to “give it a little more liberal interpretation” but later says “not so ruthless, Senator”—a purported willingness to do anything to win was frequently cited by RFK’s critics—and Bobby himself tells Ethel to get all the kids out of the studio, a reference to his well-known large family. As novelty records go, it’s genuinely funny.

“Wild Thing” charted a couple of weeks after “Gallant Men.” On January 21, 1967, the two records sat side-by-side on the Hot 100, “Gallant Men” at #29, its peak position, and “Wild Thing” at #30. The latter would peak at #20 during the week of February 11.

What happened next was probably inevitable. Taylor and Minkin created a record billed to Senator Bobby and Senator McKinley, a version of “Mellow Yellow.” It spent a single week at #99 in March 1967. (The B-side of “Mellow Yellow” is called “White Christmas/3 O’Clock Weather Report,” a takeoff on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Seven O’Clock News/Silent Night,” done in the style of Bob Dylan and credited to “Bobby the Poet.” You have to hear it to believe it.)

In early 1968, Dirksen would win a Grammy for the album containing “Gallant Men,” and within the year he would record two other spoken-word albums. Minkin formed a comedy group called the Hardly-Worthit Players (the name a takeoff on NBC’s evening newscast, The Huntley-Brinkley Report). There would be one more Senator Bobby record, “Sock It to Me Baby,” but its timing was disastrous. It bubbled under the Hot 100 on June 15, 1968, by which time it has undoubtedly been yanked from every radio station that played it. Nine days earlier, RFK had been assassinated.

This post has been reboted from one originally appearing here on June 5, 2013, and I might now quibble with my statement about the relative lack of debacle in and division over Vietnam in December 1966. Also, I have been unable to determine whether anybody older than Dirksen has made the Top 30 since 2013. He was 71 when “Gallant Men” reached its peak. In 2013, a 96-year-old retired truck driver from Peoria, Illinois, named Fred Stobaugh won a songwriting contest sponsored by a local recording studio, and a recording of his song went viral, reaching #42 on the Hot 100. He’s the oldest person ever to make the big chart, a mark previously set by 85-year-old Tony Bennett in 2011. For what it’s worth, Louis Armstrong remains the oldest person to hit #1; he was 62 when “Hello Dolly” went all the way in 1964. It’s a little hard to believe nobody older hasn’t ridden some momentary wave of YouTube or social media virality to the top in the last couple of decades. 

They’re Playing Our Song

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(Pictured: AM radio royalty: L to R, Tony Burrows, Ron Dante, Dennis Tufano of the Buckinghams, Bo Donaldson, and bubblegum-adjacent singer and songwriter Kyle Vincent, at a gig in 2015.)

In 1965, a Chicago band called the Pulsations was good enough to win a battle of the bands for a gig on a local TV station. Then the station asked them to change their name. According to original lead singer Dennis Tufano, they were presented with a list of 10 names and chose “Buckinghams,” first of all because it sounded British—an excellent career move in the middle of the 1960s—and second, because of the Chicago landmark Buckingham Fountain.

The band eventually met Jim Holvay, who was part of another Chicago group, the Mob. Holway had a song called “Kind of a Drag” that wasn’t right for his band, but the Buckinghams liked it, and after they were signed to the Chicago label USA, it was one of a dozen songs they recorded. Tufano says it was one of the first things they cut.

USA released a number of Buckinghams records in 1965 and 1966. Their version of the Beatles’ “I Call Your Name” was a modest hit in the Midwest, but the others mostly bombed. The band’s contract was going to be up at the end of 1966, and USA had no interest in resigning them. So the label put out “Kind of a Drag” and said sayonara. Tufano says, “They dropped us before they knew how big the record would be.”

How big? It went to #1 on the Hot 100 in February 1967.

With a #1 hit but no label and no manager, the Buckinghams used a friend-of-a-friend connection to meet James William Guercio, who took their record to Columbia and said to legendary label honcho Clive Davis, “I have a band with a #1 record. Do you want them?”

Well, duh.

The Buckinghams followed “Kind of a Drag” with four more big singles in 1967: “Don’t You Care,” “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song)” and “Susan,” which made the Hot 100 at #6, #5, #12, and #11 respectively. (All were written by Jim Holvay.) It was this success that inspired Billboard to say that in 1967, the Buckinghams were “the most listened-to band in America.” Quite a distinction in the year the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper.

But thanks to Sgt. Pepper, something about “Susan” was different than the songs that had come before. Tufano says, “Guercio had this crazy idea to insert this backwards tape thing in it, this Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’ element. We didn’t hear it until we were out on the road, and we really didn’t like it.” He says that radio stations frequently edited out the interlude; he and his mates had no problem with that decision.

The band split with Guercio after that, and he did not produce their next single, “Back in Love Again.” It’s fine, although it’s also a cut below the stuff the band had been releasing in 1967, and it peaked at #57 in 1968. It was on an album titled—prophetically, as it turned out—In One Ear and Gone Tomorrow. Columbia released several singles after “Back in Love Again,” but only “Where Did You Come From” and “It’s a Beautiful Day (For Lovin’)” got much traction. The Buckinghams never returned to the Hot 100.

At the end of their most incredible year, the Buckinghams discovered, as so many bands of the time did, that despite their massive success, all the hits and all the touring, that they didn’t have nearly as much money as they thought. A lot of their profits had gone to other people, and they’d paid for stuff that they didn’t know they were paying for. Tufano says that when the band decided to break up in 1970, he had banked just $13,000, and that was “only because I had saved a little money.”

“Kind of a Drag” is not one of the songs that somehow wormed its way into my head the spring I turned seven. It certainly would have been on WLS and WCFL as an oldie during the 70s, but I didn’t recognize it as special, or know it well, until years later. But now I dig its mix of faux-British elegance and Chicago soul, deceptively joyful for a song about being dumped, announcing its presence with exuberant horns and decorated with a glittery organ line that is both impossibly dated (here in 2022) and incredibly cool. I don’t think there had ever been anything like it before 1967, and there hasn’t been anything quite like it since.

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.

Walk On

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(Pictured: Boston in 1977.)

The first Boston album came on in the car not long ago and my wife said, unprompted, “This is still really good.” Lots of people on the Internet are A) sick of it or B) don’t think was all that good to begin with. I can understand A after 45 years, but I am guessing the majority of B weren’t teenagers when it came out. Those of us who love Boston tend to really, really love it, as in this 40th anniversary piece by journalist Tim Sommer (who would have been 14 in the fall of 1976), or this lovely reminiscence by Michele Catalano.

The second Boston album, Don’t Look Back, came out two years after the first. It suffers in comparison for the usual reasons second albums do—the first one is where the vision reached its fruition, and the second one is required to respond to the expectations, and the demand, created by the first. Tom Scholz has said that the reason Don’t Look Back feels as sketchy as it does is that it literally wasn’t finished.

Eight years after Don’t Look Back, Third Stage was an unlikely hit—unlikely because pop music had moved a long way beyond Boston’s 70s aesthetic by 1986. But the album hit #1, and so did the single “Amanda.” A second single, “We’re Ready,” also made the Top 10. The 1994 album Walk On had the Boston guitar sound, but a different main vocalist: although Brad Delp wrote or co-wrote the songs and sang with the band on tour, Fran Cosmo handled the leads on the record. Delp played and sang on the 2002 album Corporate America, which became the first Boston album to miss the Top 10 of the Billboard 200. Delp died in 2007, but because Boston albums take forever to make, he’s on the 2013 album Life, Love, and Hope, which is the last Boston album to date.

Unlike other bands, Boston’s entire output is limited almost entirely to those six albums (and the 45 version of “Peace of Mind,” a somewhat different vocal performance compared to the album version). The band’s 1997 Greatest Hits album includes four previously unreleased songs; in 2002 and again in 2013, they released a digital single version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” There aren’t a lot of bootlegs, either. I have a set called Demos and Unreleased, which is just that, and a live show recorded in Cleveland one month after Boston was released. (Clearly, the people who recorded quite literally every Eric Clapton show for the last 50 years weren’t taping Boston too.)

Apart from the standard discography, however, there was another Boston album, of a sort.

In 1980, Delp and two Boston mates, guitarist Barry Goudreau and drummer Sib Hashian, made an album that was ostensibly Goudreau’s solo debut. But the lead single, “Dreams,” sounded exactly like Boston. Some record-label promotion for the album also stressed the similarities. Scholz was not amused, and his displeasure may have contributed to Goudreau’s departure from the group in 1981. (Scholz apparently held no grudge against against Delp or Hashian, who remained in the band, or against Fran Cosmo, who also played on Goudreau’s record, or he wouldn’t have invited Cosmo into the band years later.) Goudreau’s album reached #88 in Billboard during an eight-week run from September to November 1980. “Dreams” bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 for a single week in October, reaching #103.

In 1984, Delp, Goudreau, and Cosmo made one album under the name Orion the Hunter. Their lone hit, “So You Ran,” made #58. In 1990, Delp and Goudreau got together again to form the band RTZ, which prompted Delp to leave Boston. RTZ scored a couple of modest Hot 100 hits, “Face the Music” (#49 in 1991) and “Until Your Love Comes Back Around” (#26 in 1992). After one RTZ album, Delp returned to Boston, although Goudreau made one more under the RTZ name. Neither Orion the Hunter nor RTZ sounds quite so much like Boston as Barry Goudreau did on his self-titled album, and that was probably out of legal necessity as much as artistic license.

Thanks to classic rock and oldies radio, Boston became an icon, but a strangely evanescent one, given the molasses-slow way Tom Scholz preferred to work and their infrequent tours. But at the same time, those first two albums are going to remain essential for a long time to come, as long as the aging teenagers of the 70s can still push “play.”

Groovin’ All Week With You

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(Pictured: Donny Most, Ron Howard, and Henry Winkler on Happy Days, 1974.)

It’s well-known that Happy Days started in 1972 as an unsold pilot that was broadcast as an episode of Love American Style. Ron Howard was cast in American Graffiti as a result of the pilot, and after the success of the movie, ABC decided to pick up the show after all. It premiered on January 15, 1974, at a moment in American pop culture when the kids who had grown up in the hot car/jukebox/drive-in world of the late 50s and early 60s were pushing 30, and thereby ripe for a show that capitalized on their fond memories of those days.

Happy Days was not the same show at the beginning that it was at the end. Although it was always a sitcom and never a dramedy, it was at first intended to be an character-oriented portrayal of the trials Richie Cunningham and his high-school friends faced growing up. The first season of 16 episodes was fairly successful, placing at #16 in the ratings for the entire year. But in the fall of 1974, in the same timeslot and with the same approach, the show fell out of the Top 30 and was in danger of cancellation. It survived, however, finishing at #46 for the season, after executive producer Garry Marshall made some mid-season changes. The show started filming in front of a live audience. and a raucous episode about Fonzie accidentally marrying a stripper pointed the way forward. In the third season, with a greater focus on Fonzie, Happy Days became broader, louder—more “sitcommy”—and one of the most popular shows of the 70s. It made #1 in the weekly ratings for the first time during March 1976 and ended at #11 for the year.

During its first two seasons, Happy Days used Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” as its theme song, and as the first season ended, the song returned to the Top 40 for a single week (May 25, 1974). Starting in the fall of 1975, the show got a new theme song, written by prolific TV and movie composers Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel and recorded by the duo of Truett Pratt and Jerry McClain. Pratt and McClain had a band called Brother Love, which had recorded one album, although most of their work lately had been making commercial jingles. They got the gig through producer Michael Omartian, who had been in a band with McClain a decade before.

As Happy Days was rising in the ratings during the spring of 1976, the new theme—a much better version of the song than the one used on TV—was released as a single. The first listing for “Happy Days” at ARSA was at KHJ in Los Angeles in March, and it hit the Hot 100 on April 3. Before April was out, it was on the air everywhere. While it recorded only a single local #1, at WRAW in Reading, Pennsylvania (in mid-May), it became a Top-10 hit in dozens of cities between April and July. It spent the weeks of June 5 and June 12, 1976, at #5 on the Hot 100; in Cash Box, it peaked at #6. It would place at #76 on the Cash Box Top 100 of 1976; oddly, it didn’t make Billboard‘s Top 100 of the year, thanks to a relatively short chart run.

Although Happy Days didn’t win the weekly ratings race even once during the summer 1976 rerun season, having its theme song on the radio all summer could not have hurt it one bit. And when the new TV season began in September, Happy Days was unstoppable. For the 1976-77 season, Happy Days and its spinoff, Laverne and Shirley, would finish #1 and #2 in the season-long ratings while airing back-to-back on Tuesday nights. For the ’77-’78 season, they would swap places at the top, still airing back-to-back, each drawing better than a 30-percent share of the audience, between 20 and 25 million viewers each week. (Between October 1977 and March 1978, one show or the other was #1 in the ratings every week but two: Christmas week, when reruns lost out to The Bob Hope All Star Christmas Comedy Special, and two weeks later, when Super Bowl XII beat all comers, as Super Bowls do.)

On the radio in the summer of 1976, “Happy Days” was both nostalgic and right on time. Decades later, it’s purely nostalgic, and for more than one reason. There’s just nothing like it anymore. It’s not just that nobody pays attention to TV themes nowadays. The major-key joyfulness of “Happy Days” is out of style, too. But on a sunny spring day, on the highway with the car windows down, you can hardly do better.