(Pictured: Ronnie McDowell with Dick Clark on American Bandstand.)
On my travels this spring I am carrying a 16-gig USB stick on which I have loaded most of the compilations I have. And so it came to pass that I was on a deserted highway somewhere in rural Minnesota when “The King Is Gone” by Ronnie McDowell came up.
McDowell was a self-described “working boy earning a living in clubs around Bowling Green, Kentucky,” 27 years old, on August 16, 1977, when he heard about Elvis Presley’s death on the radio. Within 15 minutes, he started composing a song in his head; two days later he played what he had for another musician, and together, they finished the song. Not long after, McDowell recorded it with a band including a guitarist named Bucky Barrett, who had been scheduled to join Presley’s band for some tour dates in late August. In a classic showbiz story, McDowell took an acetate to a radio station in Madison, Tennessee, and asked them to play it. He had to talk his way past the receptionist but finally got “The King Is Gone” on the air. The response made McDowell and his record company believe they were onto something.
“The King Is Gone” was released on Scorpion, an independent label whose most famous acts in 1977 were country veterans Roy Drusky and Jean Shepard. McDowell, who had begun writing songs while serving in the Navy, had placed songs with both artists, as well as the Wilburn Brothers and Porter Wagoner. He had recorded only a couple of singles himself before “The King Is Gone.”
“The King Is Gone” first shows up at ARSA on a survey from KFI in Los Angeles on August 29, less than two weeks after Presley’s death. On September 12, WAKY in Louisville debuted it at #1. The same week, in Kansas City, it went from #10 to #1 at KBEQ and from #34 to #1 at WHB. (In November, it recorded its only other #1 listing, at CFGO in Ottawa.) It made the Top 10 at a number of influential stations, including WLS in Chicago, KTKT in Tuscon, and WDRC in Hartford. It peaked at #13 on both the Hot 100 and on Billboard‘s country chart, and it crept into the lower reaches of the Easy Listening Top 50.
The record’s success led McDowell to appearances on American Bandstand and The Midnight Special in the fall of 1977. He says it sold six million copies, a million of them in a single week shortly after its release, but he banked only about $28,000 from it. (He jokes that he’s grateful that his manager/label owner Slim Williamson covered the hot checks he wrote to pay the session musicians.) He has enjoyed some good paydays since then, however, because “The King Is Gone” led to a successful career. He performed the voice of Elvis in numerous commercials, movies, and TV programs, and was one of the top stars in country for a while. He put 15 singles into the Billboard country Top 10 between 1981 and 1987, and a 16th peaked at #11.
Unlike many country stars from the 70s to the 90s, who have given up recording new music and rely on touring to make a living, McDowell has embraced the Internet as a way of reaching the audience. He calls it “an outlet that has nothing to do with radio and all those omnipotent God program directors” who won’t play songs by older artists.
McDowell still performs “The King Is Gone” at every show, but it’s never been a part of radio oldies libraries. In fact, I don’t remember hearing it after it dropped off the air at the end of 1977. Its greatest exposure after that might have been in the early 90s when Rhino put it on a late volume of their Super Hits of the 70s: Have a Nice Day series. To our ears today, it sounds overwrought and cheesy. But in the fall of 1977, we did not have much experience losing cultural icons, and certainly not icons as big as Elvis Presley. And “The King Is Gone” helped us cope.
I ride certain hobby-horses at this blog that you might find inexplicable. My obsession with “Afternoon Delight” is one of them. And I think maybe my praise of C. W. McCall’s “Convoy” represents another. That extremely well-told story of truckers crossing the country dodging the cops is one I’ve heard a million times since 1975 without getting tired of it.
C. W. McCall was a character created for bread commercials in the Midwest and sung by adman Bill Fries. Jingles, and later songs, were co-written with Chip Davis of eventual Mannheim Steamroller fame. Four McCall records were mid-level country hits in 1974 and 1975; two made the Hot 100: “The Old Home Filler-Up an Keep-on-Truckin’ Cafe” and “Wolf Creek Pass.” The latter spent a single week (March 22, 1975) at #40 and is legitimately funny. And then came “Convoy.”
To understand why “Convoy” detonated in American popular culture, recall how citizens band radio was becoming a thing at the end of 1975. It had long been a tool of truckers. After the oil shock of 1974, they communicated by CB to find cheap fuel and after the national speed limit was lowered to 55 in 1975, to help avoid speed traps. They also used CB to organize protests against new traffic laws and high gas prices. The outlaw spirit of the open-road truckers was appealing, and before long, people other than truckers wanted CBs in their vehicles. Radio Shack and other retailers were advertising CB radios heavily. So CB was cool and exotic, and in a golden era for mass-appeal novelty records, “Convoy” was right on time.
“Convoy” first appears at ARSA on a survey from WIXY in Cleveland dated November 14, 1975. It hits the Billboard country chart at #79 on November 29, and country stations across the nation are reporting it as one of their top adds. (It’s already #1 at one Top 40 station, WZGC in Atlanta.) On December 6, it roars up to #28 on the country chart and debuts on the Hot 100 at #82. The week of December 13, it’s #1 at WLCX in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and KCPX in Salt Lake City, and it gets adds at prominent Top 40 stations, including WLS in Chicago. On the country chart, it moves to #12 and blasts into the Top 40 at #39. On December 20, “Convoy” makes a giant leap from #12 to #1 country. It also makes the Easy Listening chart for the first time at #49, and goes to #14 on the Hot 100. During that pre-Christmas week, it hits the top in Pittsburgh, Tucson, Louisville, and Birmingham.
“Convoy” goes to #1 in Kansas City on Christmas Day 1975, and in the next week records #1s at WLS and at KTLK in Denver. On the Hot 100, it slows its roll over the holidays, going to #7 and #6 before taking the #1 spot on January 10, 1976. In that week, still #1 country, it peaks on the Easy Listening chart at #19.
But after a single week, “Convoy” falls to #2, then #3, #7, and back up to #6 on February 7. By then, it was or had been #1 in Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, Washington, Philadelphia, and in other cities large and small. On February 14, it falls to #11 and then to #29 on February 21 (a week when it was still #1 in Hartford, Connecticut). From there it goes 55-62-72-93 and out, gone from the Hot 100 dated March 27, 1976. (It spent six weeks atop the country chart, through the week of January 24.)
By the time “Convoy” completed its chart run, the FCC office responsible for issuing CB licenses was backlogged with a million applications a month, so thousands of CB owners went on the air without one.
“Convoy” was big enough in December 1975 to appear on a few year-end radio surveys. It was #8 for the year at WLCX in LaCrosse and #19 at WLS. Many more stations ranked it among the top songs of 1976; it was in the year’s Top 10 at KILT in Houston, WIND in Chicago, and in a couple of smaller cities. On Billboard‘s year-end list for 1976, it was #57. CB radio inspired a few other hit songs, but none had the astounding impact of “Convoy.”
I’m not the first to suggest that CB was the first social medium. You broadcast yourself to both friends and strangers; as on Facebook and Twitter today, maybe other people would respond to you and maybe they wouldn’t. You used a “handle” rather than your name, so you could be relatively anonymous. And while the social communication fostered by CB could be useful and valuable, it could also be vapid and annoying. So not much has changed in 40 years, then.
Although I never owned a CB, a friend had one I used when riding with him, so I adopted my own handle: “Captain Fantastic.” What else?
I’m gonna climb out on a limb here and risk somebody sawing it off behind me by making the following declaration: all of the truly great songs about food come from performers who are A) Southern; B) black; or C) both. As tasty as Chicago-style pizza, Philadelphia cheesesteaks, or the Wisconsin fish fry can be, they’re apparently not tasty enough to inspire widespread musical inspiration. But how many songs have been written that involve Southern staples like grits, ribs, black-eyed peas, or fried chicken? During this Thanksgiving week, I offer you one of my favorite food songs, and it doesn’t mention a food item in the title at all.
Wet Willie was formed in Mobile, Alabama, and rose to fame on the Capricorn record label out of Macon, Georgia. They never reached the heights climbed by their labelmates, the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band, but they weren’t especially comparable to either of those bands anyhow. Wet Willie was a Southern soul band; had they formed in Memphis instead of Mobile, they’d have likely found their way to Stax and could have fit right in there without changing much.
The band recorded its first album in 1971, but only sharp-eared listeners would have heard of them before 1973, when they released a live album called Drippin’ Wet. Greater fame arrived in 1974 when their first hit single, “Keep on Smilin’,” made the Top 10. Dixie Rock and The Wetter the Better came in ’75 and ’76. Another live album followed (what “special editions” are to artists today, live albums were in the 1970s), and then the original lineup splintered. The new lineup produced two more albums and two more modest hit singles, “Street Corner Serenade” and “Weekend,” before going out of business in 1979—at least until the inevitable new-millennium reunion, which has resulted in a shifting lineup producing a couple more live albums.
(Digression: I am guessing that the cover of The Wetter the Better was a popular adornment on teenage bedroom and college dorm-room walls, at least until the Farrah poster came along. The Wetter the Better also features the superb “Everything That ‘Cha Do (Will Come Back to You”), #66 on the Hot 100, and “Baby Fat,” the lyric of which is skeevy as hell, but which also rocks like crazy.)
But let’s turn back to 1975 for a moment. For a band that could be plenty funky, it’s really saying something to call “Leona,” Dixie Rock‘s lead single, the greasiest thing they ever made—not just in sound, but in subject matter, too. It’s sung by a guy who stops in at a café that doesn’t look like much on the outside, but is heaven within:
She fixed a good ol’ golden brown Southern fried chicken
That would make the Colonel run and hide
I had collard greens and fresh snap beans
And sweet potatoes on the side
I had homemade biscuits just as big as your fist
A-drippin’ with sweet creamy butter
A Mason jar fulla cold ice tea
So good it make you run home to Mother
By 1975, disco was on its way in and Southern soul was on its way out. That’s probably why “Leona” lasted only five weeks on the Billboard chart, peaking at #69 in March. But nothing more scrumptious ever hit the Hot 100. Here’s hoping your Thanksgiving dinner this year is at least that tasty.
(Rebooted from a post first appearing in 2007.)
I have written before of my borderline-irrational love for “Moonlight Feels Right,” the 1976 hit by Starbuck, the distilled essence of my favorite year.
Founding Starbuck member Bo Wagner started in showbiz as a child. He was a tap dancer and singer with various big bands in the early 50s, and frequently appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club as a musician, although he was never a Mouseketeer. He was in the cast of The Lawrence Welk Show for three seasons and acted in TV commercials. In the 60s, he played with future Starbuck bandmate Bruce Blackmon in a couple of bands including Eternity’s Children. (I wrote about them earlier this year.) After Eternity’s Children broke up, Wagner went on the road as a percussionist, including a stretch backing Liberace. Blackmon worked as a studio and touring musician and as a songwriter. Wagner eventually formed a band called Extravaganza, which Blackmon eventually joined, and which morphed into Starbuck.
“Moonlight Feels Right” was part of a four-song demo of Blackmon’s songs that Starbuck cut in November 1974. A dozen record companies rejected them before Private Stock took a flyer, releasing the demo of “Moonlight Feels Right” as a single in the fall of ’75. The record, which had been made for a total cost of $300 and laid down on used recording tape, flatlined almost immediately. (It shows up on a single survey at ARSA, from WANS in Anderson, South Carolina, dated November 24, 1975.) But Blackmon and Wagner believed in it, and in early 1976, they put 8,000 miles on a car hand-delivering it to radio stations across the country. The only one to bite was in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Blackmon’s telling, it took exactly one day for “Moonlight Feels Right” to become a local hit. It started charting around the country in April, eventually reaching #3 on the Hot 100 and #1 in Record World, and the Moonlight Feels Right album followed. From that album, the ultra-smooth “I Got to Know” made #43 in October of 1976; a third single, “Lucky Man,” stalled at #73 during Christmas week.
Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, writing at Allmusic.com, describes “Moonlight Feels Right” as “a slick slice of soft rock that captures the mid-’70s in all its feathered, polyester glory” and the rest of the Moonlight Feels Right album as “gauchely bewitching soft pop.” Starbuck’s second album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Rocket, released in early 1977, is a similar kind of thing, updated for the burgeoning disco era. It makes me think of mustachioed nightclub dudes trailing clouds of Hai Karate, Qiana shirts open to the waist and zodiac sign medallions around their necks, who try to charm halter-dressed hotties up to look at their etchings. If you like that kind of thing (and I do), Rock ‘n’ Roll Rocket isn’t bad, although its cheese factor is also pretty high. “Everybody Be Dancin'” was the album’s lone hit single, sneaking into the Top 40 for two weeks as May turned to June 1977, peaking at #38.
Although Moonlight Feels Right had been a modest success on the Billboard 200 album chart (#78 in a 14-week run), Rock ‘n’ Roll Rocket was not (#182 in a two-week run). After that, Starbuck moved on from Private Stock to the United Artists label, releasing the album Searching for a Thrill in 1978. A lot of the songs are in the slick, poppy style of the band’s two previous albums, but several expand the group’s sonic palette, none more than title song and lead single. “Searching for a Thrill” starts out like a prog-rock record and ends up sounding like a completely different band. It’s pretty great, actually, and it made #58 on the Hot 100 40 years ago this month.
The Starbuck story continues after that, but I’m short of space and can’t tell it here. The group played some reunion shows between 2013 and 2016, and made the news briefly in 2017 when Bo Wagner died at the age of 72. “Moonlight Feels Right” is cheesy pop glory, but nothing about it is more glorious than the decision to put a marimba solo where lots of bands would have put a guitar. That marimba solo is Bo Wagner’s monument.
One Other Thing: On Friday. I posted part of a post I once tried to write about the way radio music changed between 1973 and 1974,. A couple of readers, Mike and Wesley, wrote that very post in the comments section, and you should read it. Thanks to the both of you, gents.
(Pictured: Wolfman Jack, howlin’.)
I would not have guessed, back in the fall of 1976, that one of the songs most evocative of that time, many years later, would be a good-time rock ‘n’ roll throwback featuring a famous DJ.
Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids started out as a bargain-basement Sha Na Na, formed at the University of Colorado in 1969. Relocating to Los Angeles in 1971, they ended up catching the 50s nostalgia updraft at precisely the right moment. A series of free shows at the Troubadour got them noticed, and they became a tireless touring outfit. They appeared on American Bandstand in 1972, one of the rare acts to get the gig without a record to promote. The next year, they got a deal with Epic Records. They considered asking Phil Spector to produce their album but ended up working with starmaker Kim Fowley. That same year, they were invited by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola to appear as Herby and the Heartbeats in American Graffiti. Their version of “At the Hop” from the movie was released as a single, but given that they were playing a decent-but-not-great high-school dance band, it’s probably not surprising that the record didn’t hit.
A second album, There’s No Face Like Chrome, was to have been produced by Jerry Leiber, but he ended up handling only four songs. The members of the band did not consider themselves a nostalgia act anymore, and some of their mid-70s material was closer to glam rock, including the single “Dancin’ (On a Saturday Night),” which squeaked into the Hot 100 at #93 in 1974. The band went on a package tour with other Epic acts including Rick Springfield, the Meters, and Johnny Nash, but There’s No Place Like Chrome didn’t do any better than their debut album; neither one of them charted, and they ended up leaving Epic.
In 1975, the band made a guest appearance as Johnny Fish and the Fins in an episode of Happy Days. The same year, their first single on the Private Stock label, a 50s rock tribute called “Good Times, Rock and Roll”—on which they sang but did not play—rode the charts for weeks in Denver, was a Top-10 hit in Tucson, and was made available in versions customized for different radio stations. All that was enough to push it to #41 on the Hot 100. But the album Sons of the Beaches got short-circuited when Epic reissued the first two Flash Cadillac albums in a double set under the title Rock and Roll Forever. (If you’ve ever seen a Flash Cadillac album in a used bin, it’s probably that one.)
After Sons of the Beaches crashed, Private Stock brought the band a song called “Did You Boogie (With Your Baby).” Because they didn’t want to be only a nostalgia act, “Did You Boogie” wasn’t the kind of thing they wanted to do, but they did it, even bringing in Wolfman Jack to provide some nostalgic atmosphere. It hit as August turned to September, and made the Top 10 in Kansas City, Denver, Columbus, and Tucson. It hit #12 in my town, Madison, Wisconsin, and was ranked #10 for all of 1976 at WCIL in Carbondale, Illinois. It spent six weeks in the Billboard Top 40, 14 weeks on the Hot 100, and peaked at #29 during the week of October 23, 1976.
Flash Cadillac spent the 70s on the road almost continuously, largely as an opening act for someone or other. After another gig for Francis Ford Coppola, appearing in Apocalypse Now, they spent much of the 80s recording jingles and songs for the syndicated radio show Super Gold, and in the 90s they self-released some music. An edition of the band still exists today, although a couple of the original members have died. (This extended essay tells the whole story I have only sketched here.)
Against the odds, “Did You Boogie” is one of the hits from the fall of 1976 that most vividly takes me back to that time. It hit the radio in two versions—the original with Wolfman Jack and a non-Wolfman version. I used to prefer the non-Wolfman, but it occurs to me now, 42 years later, that his contributions are probably essential. And truthful, too: “Sometimes I get to thinkin’ there’s not enough love and romance in our lives today. And that’s why I like to reminisce, and relive that first feeling of love . . . and do it all over again.”
(Pictured: Jeannie C. Riley with Johnny Cash on his TV show, 1969.)
For a reader of record charts, it’s an eye-popping sight, and not just because of the song titles. Fifty years ago today, on the Billboard Hot 100 for August 31, 1968, the top two are the same from the previous week: “People Got to Be Free” by the Rascals and “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf. At #3, it’s Jose Feliciano’s cover of “Light My Fire,” up from #4. “Hello I Love You” by the Doors is at #4, down from #3. “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by Vanilla Fudge are at #5 and #6 respectively, up from #6 and #11 the week before. At #7 sits “Harper Valley P.T.A.” by Jeannie C. Riley, up from #81 the week before.
Not a typo. It was #81 the week before, and it made the biggest single-week jump in the history of the charts to that point.
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” first shows up at ARSA on August 7 at WBAM in Montgomery, Alabama, but bigger stations got on it in approximately the same week, including WKNR and CKLW in Detroit, KXOK in St. Louis, and WSAI in Cincinnati. The next week, it got adds everywhere, and hit #1 for the first time at WSGN in Birmingham, Alabama, on August 16 and WNAP in Indianapolis on August 18. (At WSGN, it debuted at #1, and likely did so in other cities as well.) Before August 31, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” had already reached #1 in Detroit, San Diego, Memphis, Dallas, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Nashville. During the week of August 31, it hit #1 in Kansas City, Denver, Orlando, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, and in other, smaller markets.
“Harper Valley P.T.A” needed two more weeks to budge “People Got to Be Free” from the #1 spot, moving to #4 and then #2 before reaching the top, but only for a single week, on September 21, 1968. On the Billboard country chart, it jumped from #75 to #23 in this week 50 years ago, reaching #1 on September 28 and staying three weeks. It went to #4 on the adult-contemporary chart during a 10-week run. It would be named Single of the Year by the Country Music Association, and receive a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year.
Other labels rushed out competing versions, but Jeannie C. swept the challengers away. A version by Ricky Page was a significant hit in the Pacific Northwest, hitting #1 in Vancouver and making the Top 10 at both KJR and KOL in Seattle. King Curtis, who seems to have covered everything, made #93 with his version. Ben Colder, the comic persona of singer/actor Sheb Wooley, hit #24 country and #67 on the Hot 100 with a not-at-all-funny parody, “Harper Valley P.T.A. (Later That Same Day).” (A handful of other parody versions and covers are shown at ARSA.)
As the song climbed toward the top, it was being chased by a bigger hit: the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” which debuted on the Hot 100 at #10 on September 14, went to #3 the next week, and to #1 on September 28. “Harper Valley P.T.A.” held at #2 for three weeks before going 4-8-14-15-35 and out, absent from the chart dated November 23.
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” was too country for good times/great oldies radio. But in 1978, the song began a delayed afterlife, inspiring a theatrical movie starring Barbara Eden, which did $25 million at the box office. A TV series based on the movie (created by Sherwood Schwartz of Gilligan’s Island and Brady Bunch fame) and also starring Eden ran for two seasons starting in 1981 and played in syndication for a few years thereafter.
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” was written by Tom T. Hall and is based on Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” speeded up but with the same chords; Riley sings it with high-powered country sass. She won a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance and was nominated for Best New Artist. She would have five more Top-10 country hits by 1972, but even after the hits stopped, she continued to tour and record both country and Christian music.
Jeannie C. Riley and Tom T. Hall are both still with us. She’ll be 73 this fall; he turned 82 last spring. Fifty years on, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” still sounds pretty great, especially when you hear it in this smokin’ hot, processed-for-AM-radio version.
Riley’s mark for biggest single-week jump would stand until the week of February 11, 2006, when “Breaking Free” by Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron went from #86 to #4. But chart methodology was different; it was the Soundscan era by then, with the streaming era soon to follow. Although the charts are far more volatile today, such giant jumps remain rare. There have been only about a dozen of them since 2006.