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.
(Pictured: Lt. William Calley, in the center of the three soldiers, leaves his trial at Fort Benning, Georgia. A former colleague of mine, during his years as a military man, was one of the press officers at the Calley trial. I am guessing he was somewhere in the vicinity as this photo was taken.)
In April and May of 1971, the hottest record in America never got above #37 on the Hot 100.
The My Lai Massacre took place in Vietnam during March 1968, but didn’t become public until April 1969. That September, Lt. William Calley, leader of the company of soldiers that had attacked the village of My Lai, where up to 500 people were killed, was charged with murder. In November 1970, Calley went on trial. On March 27, 1971, he was found guilty of the premeditated murder of 29 civilians. Two days later, he was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor, but President Nixon ordered that he be placed under house arrest at Fort Benning, Georgia, instead. He was released in September 1974.
Calley’s conviction was widely unpopular. Millions believed he’d been unfairly singled out among his fellow soldiers at My Lai, and that he shouldn’t have been held criminally liable for following orders. And in true Vietnam Era-fashion, the case provided inspiration for songwriters and singers.
Between 1969 and the end of American involvement in the war in 1973, over 50 records touching on the Calley case were made, and most were supportive of him. The most successful was “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” by a group calling itself C Company Featuring Terry Nelson. Songwriters Julian Nelson and James M. Smith wrote what is mostly a spoken-word recitation to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, but one source says that the musicians were amateurs, so they weren’t the bigtime studio cats at FAME. The recording was picked up by Shelby Singleton’s Plantation label, which had enjoyed massive success with “Harper Valley P.T.A.” in the fall of 1968.
With the trial at its climax, “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” became a hot item, selling 200,000 copies in three days, according to one source. It first shows up at ARSA on April 11, 1971. It bubbled under the Hot 100 at #106 on April 17. The next week it rocketed all the way to #41. For the weeks of May 1 and May 8, it sat at #37 before slipping to #40 during the week of May 15—its final week on the Hot 100. It’s shown on only 15 ARSA surveys, from New Orleans, Orlando, Indianapolis, and a few other places. Its highest position was at KNAK in Salt Lake City, which showed it at #4 for the week of April 19. In Vietnam, the American Armed Forces Radio Network played the song for a while, before the brass declared on April 30 that it be “phased out,” claiming it was improper for air while Calley’s case was on appeal. Capitol Records used the same argument in deciding not to cut a version of the song with country star Tex Ritter.
So meeting demand for the song was left to Plantation, and the label struggled with it. By mid-April, one Atlanta distributor told Billboard it had orders for 100,000 copies and was having trouble getting them from the pressing plant. A competing version on another label, by a singer named John Deer, spent the weeks of April 24 and May 1 on Billboard‘s Bubbling Under chart at #114; an album featuring Deer’s record and other patriotic tunes moved some copies in some places. By summer a third version of “Battle Hymn,” by a North Carolina agglomeration called the Jones Brothers and Log Cabin Boys was released, although it doesn’t seem to have charted anywhere.
Despite its #37 peak, the C Company version was certified gold by the RIAA, the lowest-charting record to be certified gold since 1962, and the lowest until 1976. But 47 years later, “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” doesn’t play well at all. As I wrote in 2013, it “excuses the atrocities at My Lai by using the Nuremberg defense and blaming the goddamn hippies.” When I heard it again the other day, it struck me as positively vile. However: today we hear “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” after Vietnam has been judged at the bar of history. In 1971, that judgment was incomplete. A poll that spring showed 65 percent of Americans disagreed with the Calley verdict. And at least a half-million Americans put down money to buy a song in support of Calley.
You can hear “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” and several other My Lai-themed songs as part of this excellent PBS piece on the music of My Lai.
(Pictured: Bobby Vinton, 1974.)
Between 1962 and 1964, pop stars did not come bigger than Bobby Vinton. He scored four #1 singles and hit the Top 10 on two other occasions. If you don’t know “Roses Are Red,” “There! I’ve Said It Again,” “Blue on Blue,” or “Blue Velvet” by title, you would if you heard them. When oldies stations still played 50s and 60s music, they were on a lot. His style of romantic pop seems like the kind of thing that would have become untenable once the Beatles showed up, and I’ve written as much now and then.
But here’s the thing: that style of romantic pop didn’t die. On December 12, 1964, at the conclusion of a year that supposedly changed everything, the #1 song in America was Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely,” a straight-up weeper in which Vinton’s voice breaks while he’s singing. It was not a hip harbinger of the future, not like the Beatles, Zombies, Kinks, Stones, Supremes, and Beach Boys, with whom Vinton shared the Top 10 in that week.
Amidst the changing fashions, some of Vinton’s mid-60s singles took on a folk-rock sound and/or socially conscious lyrics, such as “What Color (Is a Man)” in 1965. “Coming Home Soldier,” which hit #11 in 1967, sounded as old-fashioned as his early 60s hits, but its lyric resonated in that Vietnam year. But at the end of ’67, Bobby Vinton returned to the Top 10 with more of what had made him a star a half-decade before: “Please Love Me Forever” spent three weeks at #6 in November and December 1967, sharing the airwaves with “Soul Man,” “I Can See for Miles,” “Daydream Believer,” and “Incense and Peppermints.” A year later he did it again: “I Love How You Love Me” peaked at #9 for three weeks in December 1968, alongside “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Hey Jude,” and “Magic Carpet Ride.”
Vinton’s tally for the post-British Invasion 60s is pretty remarkable: 18 Hot 100 hits from 1965 through 1969, 12 of them in the Top 40, and two in the Top 10. Things would slow down a bit after that, but only a bit. Vinton would miss the Top 40 in 1970 for the first time since his career began, although he hit the Top 10 of the Easy Listening chart twice. He’d be back in the Top 40 in 1972 with “Every Day of My Life,” another throwback, which got to #24 in the spring and was by some accounting the most-played jukebox record of the year. His cover of “Sealed With a Kiss” got to #19 in Billboard that summer.
With all the trouble in the world during 1974, radio playlists stuffed with disco, novelty records, nostalgic covers, and/or nostalgic styles went a long way toward helping people escape those troubles. But given his track record, that might not even have been necessary for Bobby Vinton to score big with “My Melody of Love,” a pop song not lacking in cheese, including a refrain that alternates between English and Polish. It cracked the Top 40 on October 12, 1974, and made its big leap on November 9 when it went from #17 to #6. It would peak at #3 the week after that and hold for a second week before falling to #7 for two more weeks. “My Melody of Love” was Bobby Vinton’s biggest hit since “Mr Lonely” exactly 10 years before, as was the album Melodies of Love. The song hit #1 at WABC in New York City and WCFL in Chicago, and at WPOP in Hartford, Connecticut, it ranked #1 for the entire year. Vinton, who was of Polish extraction, quickly earned the nickname “The Polish Prince,” and became as big a star as American popular culture produced as 1974 turned to 1975. Later that year, he got his own variety show produced in Canada and syndicated to American stations through 1978.
Vinton’s next single could have happened only in the 1970s: a version of “Beer Barrel Polka” that made #33 on the Hot 100 and was a big Adult Contemporary hit early in 1975. Although “Beer Barrel Polka” contained a couple of disco flourishes, Vinton didn’t go all the way until 1979, when “Disco Polka” got some adult-contemporary play. (It was based on Frankie Yankovic’s “Pennsylvania Polka” from the 1940s with revised lyrics: at one point, Pennsylvania native Vinton sings, “Everybody has the mania / To do the disco from Pennsylvania.”)
Bobby Vinton’s last chart appearance came on the AC chart in 1981. He opened a theater in Branson, Missouri, sometime after that, although it’s unclear to me whether it still exists, or whether Vinton himself is still performing. If not, he’s entitled to a comfortable retirement. This spring, he’ll celebrate his 83rd birthday.