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.

Picture Postcards From 1994

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Does anybody here besides me remember Joshua Kadison?

Kadison’s first hit, “Jessie,” hit the Hot 100 in late 1993, and it rose to #26 at the end of January 1994 in a 22-week chart run. It was #11 on adult contemporary for five straight weeks that winter. In the summer of ’94, “Beautiful in My Eyes” got to #19 in 21 weeks on the Hot 100 and went to #4 on AC. Finally, “Picture Postcards From L.A.” hit a Hot 100 peak of #84 in November, although it lasted into January 1995 on the AC chart, peaking at #16. The album containing all three singles, Painted Desert Serenade, ran the charts for 52 weeks and got to #69 (nice). Although Kadison would release a followup album at the end of 1995, neither it nor its singles went anywhere, and he hasn’t returned to the American charts. I haven’t heard him or played him on the radio since then.

On “Jessie,” Kadison sounds like Elton John, both in his vocal timbre and his piano style—so much so that when you google “Jessie,” the first thing that comes up under “people also search for” is “Elton John Jessie song.” It’s romantic, tasteful, extremely unthreatening VH1 suburban soccer mom pop music, and in the video, Kadison is panty-dropping handsome. None of that has to be bad, and “Jessie” isn’t, not really.

But I can’t exactly say that it’s good, either. I remember playing it on the radio and wanting to throw a heavy object when Kadison sang the following verse:

She asked me how the cat’s been
I said “Moses, he’s just fine”
But he used to think about you, all the time
We finally took your pictures down off the wall
Jessie, how do you always seem to know just when to call
She says “Get your stuff together, bring Mose and drive real fast”
And I listened to her promise
“I swear to God this time it’s gonna last”

There’s never a single moment in the song when you feel like these are real people, or this is a real experience. Again, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it feels off nevertheless. Do we really need to know the cat’s name, or is it in there for the sake of the syllables? And does Jessie like the cat more than she likes Joshua?

Nearly everything you can find about “Jessie” online quotes the Wikipedia article about the song. It speculates that Jessie is actress Sarah Jessica Parker, Kadison’s romantic interest at the time. However, again according to Wikipedia: “This has never been confirmed, and it has also been pointed out that Parker has never been known to be called ‘Jessie’ or own a cat named Moses.” That’s kind of legalistic, isn’t it, Wiki Writer? In addition, the footnote with that factoid directs a reader to the “Jessie” entry at Songfacts. And Songfacts, far from being an unimpeachable source, is vastly more full of shit than Wikipedia a lot of the time.

Just because you have a footnote doesn’t mean you have confirmation. After all, this blog you are reading right now is cited as a credible source by at least one Wikipedia entry, and we all know that ain’t right.

And isn’t Moses supposed to the singer’s cat?

Where the “Jessie” video put Kadison on the beach with his piano, the “Beautiful in My Eyes” video has him in front of a dancing string quartet, his hair blown picturesquely by a wind machine. The song is even more radio-friendly than “Jessie,” if such a thing is possible. While the lyric is less distinctive (“You’re my peace of mind in this crazy world / You’re everything I’ve tried to find / Your love is a pearl”), the melody on the refrain is an all-timer, and it’s not surprising that “Beautiful in My Eyes” ended up the somewhat bigger hit.

(Wikipedia and Songfacts are johnny-on-the-spot for “Beautiful in My Eyes” too, quoting what are supposed to be Kadison’s actual words explaining that it’s a song about how “you’ll always be beautiful in my eyes.” The HELL you say.)

I remember thinking in 1994 that, when you played them up against the other stuff getting adult contemporary airplay that year, “Jessie” and “Beautiful in My Eyes” sounded 20 years out of date. Not throwbacks, not homages, but songs that had been recorded around 1974 or ’75 and sealed in a vault. I still can’t decide if I like them or not. They remain uniquely weird, a thing entirely unto themselves.

What Would You Say

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(Pictured: Hurricane Smith, unlikely singing star and later, a breeder of horses.)

Norman “Hurricane” Smith was first a recording engineer, best known to history for his work on the Beatles’ albums up through Rubber Soul, and later producer of Pink Floyd’s early material, including the single “See Emily Play.” But he was not of their generation—he was pushing 40 when the Beatles came up—and so when he began recording himself at the age of 48, his work reflected a different taste. In the winter of 1972, the deeply odd “Don’t Let It Die” went to #2 in the UK, but a much bigger hit was to come.

“Oh Babe What Would You Say” hit #4 in the UK in the summer of 1972. It hopped the Atlantic and landed at two of America’s most influential radio stations, CKLW in Detroit and WFIL in Philadelphia, at the end of October. It was mostly an East Coast hit for a while, not getting much action farther west until December. For example, it’s a top-five hit at WRKO and WMEX in Boston before it ever charts in Chicago, at WCFL in mid-December. It doesn’t appear on a WLS chart until the second full week of January. By the end of January, it’s in the Top 10 in dozens of cities, and it spends the weeks of January 20 and 27 at #2 on the Billboard Easy Listening chart, behind Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” It records its first local #1 at WHIO in Dayton, Ohio, during the week of February 5, and it goes #1 at KXOK in St. Louis for the week of February 17, 1973. In the same week, it hits #1 in Cash Box and peaks at #3 on the Hot 100. Also in February, Julie Andrews performs it with a giant blue Muppet on a TV special, and Smith himself sings it on The Tonight Show. But every record runs its course sooner or later, and “Oh Babe What Would You Say” is gone from most charts by the end of March. For all of 1973, its highest local ranking is #8 at KRUX in Phoenix and WNCT in Greenville, North Carolina. On Billboard‘s 1973 Top 100, it’s #57; in Cash Box, it’s #31.

Although I liked the song, I didn’t buy the 45. (I am continually baffled by the buying choices of the younger me.) And I wish knew whether “Oh Babe” got much radio play after 1973. I don’t remember hearing it a lot, although there’s no reason it would have made any greater impression on me than anything else from the winter of 1973, if I heard it in the few years following.  It would occasionally resurface: Peggy Lee occasionally sang it in her nightclub act, and comedienne Kaye Ballard did it, with the same giant blue Muppet that had duetted with Julie Andrews, on a 1977 episode of The Muppet Show. (The Muppet Show debuted on Disney Plus last week, so you can’t say this website isn’t topical every so often, if only by accident.)

It wasn’t long, however, before “Oh Babe” took a place among the largely forgotten hits of the past, at least for most people. In the early 80s, when I started sneaking records home from my radio job to record them to cassette, “Oh Babe What Would You Say” was one of the first ones I grabbed. And when it appeared on Rhino’s Have a Nice Day 70s anthology in 1989, that volume was one of the first ones I grabbed.

The sax player on “Oh Babe What Would You Say” is a guy named Frank Hardcastle, who had served with Smith in the Royal Air Force. The dude had chops: the solo in the middle sounds like it’s improvised. It’s the hook of that horn as much as Smith’s old-timey vocal that made the song into a hit. It’s easy to visualize Smith and Hardcastle in the 1940s, young men sitting in some club, eyeing the local girls, and listening to a band that honks like they would on a future day.

In the winter of 1973, not-quite-13-year-old me hears “Oh Babe” without a clue about how it refers to the bygone time when its musicians were young. Instead, I think about a particular pretty girl and imagine saying to her, “Have I a hope or half a chance to even ask if could I dance with you?”

I have neither.

If you’d like to hear “Oh Babe,” I recommend this clever version of it, which features the moment not-quite-13-year-old me dreamed of, at about one minute in.

(Note to Patrons: The comments on Wednesday’s post were far more interesting than what I wrote originally, and I thank all who participated.)