Playing the Hits

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(Pictured: in 1982, Pac-Man was the biggest hit of all.)

On the front page of Radio and Records from May 7, 1982, is a story about WBBM-FM in Chicago adopting consultant Mike Joseph’s Hot Hits format. Joseph, already a successful programmer in places such as New York City and Detroit (as architect of the legendary WKNR, Keener 13), reasoned that people wanted to hear the hits, period, so that’s what he gave them. A Hot Hits station played its top five songs once per hour, with a few other current hits mixed in around them. The station’s entire on-air library might be 50 songs, if that.

Joseph’s first major-market Hot Hits station was WCAU-FM in Philadelphia. On 5/7/82, it reported to R&R a conventional-looking list of 40 songs plus a handful of new and uncharted songs. Five songs appear on the list with the letter H, which I am guessing were the ones being heard every hour: “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, “Empty Garden” by Elton John, Asia’s “Heat of the Moment,” “Crimson and Clover” by Joan Jett, and “Let It Whip” by the Dazz Band.

Hot Hits peaked in a time when hot-rockin’, flame-throwin’ Top 40 radio was migrating to FM, and Joseph brought those elements to his client stations. The format was crowded with jingles and sweepers, and the jocks were required to keep it tight. If a song intro was 14 seconds long, they had to talk for 14 seconds. If they went 12 or 13, they were likely to be hotlined by Joseph himself, if he happened to be in town. A high-energy presentation was mandatory, even with the softer songs. At WHYT in Detroit, where the format launched in 1983, one of the jocks told me that he would be physically wrung out at the end of every shift.

To determine what “the hits” were, Joseph looked closely at record sales. He played what people were buying. Radio always claimed that this is what it did, but what they meant was “we’re playing the music people are buying as long as it fits our format.” In Philadelphia, Joseph would play R&B and new-wave hits that hadn’t broken big on Top 40 stations elsewhere. In this week, the WCAU-FM list is pretty conventional, but it does include a few songs that never became big Top 40 hits: “Murphy’s Law” by Cheri, Atlantic Starr’s “Circles,” “Apache” by the Sugar Hill Gang, “Mama Used to Say” by Junior, “Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club, and the Temptations’ “Standing on the Top.”

The pure Hot Hits format burned out quickly. WBBM-FM, newly christened B96, started tinkering with Joseph’s formula almost immediately. Within a year or two, the format’s moment was passing, but its influence lingered. After stations Joseph had consulted let their agreements lapse, they kept some of his principles intact.

After Mike Joseph died in 2018, Sean Ross wrote about his career and his impact. Go read it.

What else was in R&R 40 years ago this week?

Continue reading “Playing the Hits”

The Beat Goes On

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(Pictured: Sonny and Cher, 1967.)

Since we have spent the week in 1967, here’s a look inside the issue of Cash Box dated February 25, 1967. The magazine is less elaborate than Billboard, although it covers the same general ground. Like Billboard, it publishes some charts that would have been highly useful to the jukebox and retail trades, in addition to those of interest to radio and radio listeners. And here’s some of what’s in it:

—On the Cash Box Top 100, “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones takes over the #1 spot from the Seekers’ “Georgy Girl,” which falls to #2. “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” by the Supremes, “Kind of a Drag” by the Buckinghams, and “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees, which was #1 two weeks ago, round out the Top Five. Three songs are new in the Top 10; the hottest is “The Beat Goes On” by Sonny and Cher, up to #8 from #17 last week. The highest debut in the Top 40 is “There’s a Kind of Hush” by Herman’s Hermits at #23. “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles debuts on the Top 100 at #39.

—The Looking Ahead chart contains 50 songs this week. “Soul Time” by Shirley Ellis is at #1. Also on Looking Ahead is “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” by Aretha Franklin. (Elsewhere in the magazine, Atlantic Records takes a full-page ad promoting “I Never Loved a Man” with the headline, “Atlantic Records Proudly Presents Aretha Franklin.”) “I Never Loved a Man” is the highest debut on the R&B chart, at #29. The #1 and #2 songs on that list are holding their positions from the week before: “Are You Lonely for Me” by Freddie Scott and “Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” by the Marvelettes.

—Another full-page ad features a stylized map of London Liverpool noting the locations of Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, promoting the new Beatles single. Also on the map are the letters P, G, R, and J, presumably indicating the homes of Paul, George, Ringo, and John. A news story reports that Capitol pressed and shipped 1.1 million copies of the “Strawberry Fields”/”Penny Lane” single in a recent three-day period. All three of the label’s pressing plants, in Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Illinois, and Scranton, Pennsylvania, are working full-time on the new single to meet future demand. In 1964, Capitol pressed and shipped 750,000 copies of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in three days, and eventually sold more than 4.5 million.

—Both “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” are mentioned in the Sure Shots column, devoted to records that retailers report selling in quantity or that “give every indication of doing so.” Others listed include the Mamas and the Papas’ “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Return of the Red Baron” by the Royal Guardsmen, and “Jimmy Mack” by Martha and the Vandellas. The magazine’s Radio Active Charts listing shows that “Dedicated to the One I Love” is the most-added song of the week by radio stations.

—Because the magazine is frequently asked to provide a running list of the year’s top hits to “A&R men, producers, radio stations, etc.,” it has created a monthly one, based on an elaborate point system that gives credit to the top 50 songs in any week. The February chart is led by “I’m a Believer,” which has racked up 1054 points. In second place is “98.6” by Keith, which has 1018.

—“I’m a Believer” is the best-selling single in Britain again this week, just ahead of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” by the Rolling Stones. While on what was officially a private visit to Britain, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith made some promotional appearances on radio and TV, and held a press conference. Back home, the Monkees dominate the Top 100 album chart, with More of the Monkees and The Monkees at #1 and #2 again this week. SRO by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and the Doctor Zhivago soundtrack hold at #3 and #4. Between the Buttons by the Rolling Stones jumps from #12 to #5.

—The oldest living member of ASCAP, Lady Katherine Bainbridge, died at her home in Hollywood earlier this month at the age of 104. She is known mainly for having written more than 165 hymns. Also getting an obituary is jazz cornetist Muggsy Spanier, who played with the first generation of Chicago jazz stars of the 1920s—Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Sidney Bechet—as well as other jazz luminaries during the 1930s. He was either 63 or 64 years old.

—An ad in the magazine says, “If you are reading someone else’s copy of Cash Box why not mail this coupon today!” It’s $20 for a 52-week subscription, $40 to receive it by airmail.

Comings and Goings

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(Pictured: Thelma Houston.)

I dipped into the January 22, 1977, issue of Billboard the other day, as one does. On the Hot 100, the #1 song is “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder. (Debuting at #100 is “Up Your Nose” by Gabriel Kaplan.) Wings Over America is #1 on Top LPs and Tape, displacing the Eagles’ Hotel California, with Songs in the Key of Life at #3. The #1 song on Easy Listening is “Evergreen” by Barbra Streisand. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Thelma Houston is #1 on the National Disco Action Top 40. In Britain, “Don’t Give Up on Us” by David Soul is #1. In West Germany, it’s “Money, Money, Money” by ABBA.

But that’s not what’s interesting.

In Claude Hall’s weekly Vox Jox column, which chronicles the comings and goings of radio personalities, he writes, “There’s a special breed of person in radio called ‘The Radio Wife’ and without one a man usually doesn’t go as far as he should in radio, perhaps, and certainly doesn’t stay happy or married or either very long at a time.” He goes on to quote a letter he received, from the wife of a guy who had recently won a major broadcasting award. She writes:

But it’s nice to know that his love of music, knowledge of performers, and the 18,000 records we’ve carried from city to city have brought him such happiness and personal satisfaction. I’ve shared our excitement with you, because you understand the sorrows and joys of a radio career. Besides, I’m a very proud wife. I’ve married a hard-working, talented radio man, and although we’ve never made a lot of money and have never known that feeling of security you might get in another industry, we’ve shared more excitement in five years than most people have in a lifetime!

Hall goes on to name other “great radio wives” he knows personally, and then says, “I’m open for nominations on this matter. If you happen to know of or are married to a good radio wife who has put up with a lot of hell during your career, let me know. I’d like to present a winner with an award of some kind.”

Cringe-y? Kinda. But you know what? It’s true. Every time The Mrs. and I have moved from one city to another, it’s been for my job, first in radio and later in publishing. She has always been the trailing spouse, tasked with finding some work she could do after we packed up our lives for my career. When I came home with a job offer in another town she never said, “I don’t want to go there. Why don’t you find a job here so we can stay?”

“The radio wife” is a real thing, and a lot of us owe far more to one (sometimes more than one) than we can repay.

Elsewhere, KTNT in Tacoma, Washington, has some new equipment:

Marc VII is a programming planning unit for live radio. The air personality can program as many as 18 events in advance to appear on a screen (like a TV set) in front of him; each event, whether it is a commercial spot or a song, can then be triggered in turn by depressing a start button. Or the air personality can schedule several items in a row to run consecutively and automatically. . . . An entry keyboard allows the air personality to call upon events—music on carts or spots on carts, music and/or spots on tape decks, a record on a turntable. etc.—from up to 99 sources. Two IGM Go-Cart units, two Studer Revoxes [reel-to-reel decks], an IGM Instacart, and two turntables would allow him access on the air to 84 different music carts, 48 commercial carts, plus selections on reel-to-reel and turntable. KTNT engineer Jerry Beffa thinks “This is the way the entire industry will go in the future. We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg in micro-processor devices in radio.”

Somebody would still have to change reel-to-reel tapes, cue up turntables, and replace certain carts. But apart from that, this is pretty much how we do it today, only with digital files.

The article ends with this: “Via an optional tape reader as an add-on,  which provides program planning for hours ahead, the unit can handle night-time programming when there is either an unexperienced [sic] personality on duty or no personality at all.”

In 1977, KTNT had seen the future, and the husbands of radio wives weren’t all that necessary.

The Only War

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(Pictured: Alice Cooper and friend on stage in Roanoke, Virginia, on March 10, 1973.)

While doing a bit of research the other day, I found myself poking around the edition of Billboard dated February 17, 1973, as one does. Here’ some of what’s inside:

—Willis “Bill” Wardlow has been named associate publisher of Billboard. Over the next several years, Wardlow would be responsible for occasionally jiggering the Billboard charts to reward or punish record labels, and to do favors for industry friends. As we learned a few years ago, his manipulations led to Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” spending only 12 hours at #1.

—A full-page ad plugs Alice Cooper’s upcoming American tour and the band’s new single, “Hello Hurray.” The tour opens in Rochester, New York, on March 5, and it will be grueling, with 52 shows in 90 days. Between April 25 and May 5, the band will play 10 shows across the South in 11 days. The last date is set for June 3 in New York City.

—A review of Bruce Springsteen’s recent show at Max’s Kansas City in New York suggests that while Springsteen is not yet Bob Dylan’s 70s heir, he “shows definite signs of acquiring the mantel.” Other reviews cover separate Las Vegas shows by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition and the Supremes, a triple-bill of Al Green, the Spinners, and the Sylvers at the Forum in Los Angeles, Lou Reed at Alice Tully Hall in New York, and the opening night of a weeklong stand at the Bitter End in New York by jazz/funk player Roy Ayers and his group Ubiquity. Ayers’ show is opened by “a promising black comedian, Jimmy (sic) Walker, a man with an undeniably racy sense of humor.” Is it the same Jimmie Walker who will be in the cast of the TV sitcom Good Times a year in the future? Probably.

—A full-page ad with the heading “Grand Opening” features a cartoon woman with blonde hair, pursed red lips, and high heels, wearing a nightgown through which her nipples are clearly visible. Her hands are at her waist, seemingly ready to untie the gown. Below the tie are the words “lift up.” There is no other text on the page. Whoever scanned the issue for World Radio History has also scanned what looks to be a lifted flap: underneath are the covers for two albums. One I cannot identify, since the title isn’t legible; the other is Under the Skunk by Laurie Kaye Cohen. A similar ad appears on another page with the “Grand Opening” headline reversed and the women seen from the back, with another flap that can be lifted. Under that flap is a shot of the woman’s underwear; appearing below are the words “pull down.” Whether anything is under that, I can’t tell; there’s no corresponding scan. Even by the standards of 1973, the whole thing is astoundingly offensive—but Billboard likely collected a fortune for it, considering how elaborate it was. The Cohen album was released on the Playboy label; if they’re the ones who placed the ad, it explains a lot.

—A full-page ad from Brunswick pushes a coin-operated air hockey table that’s about the same size as a standard pool table, calling it “the fastest profit maker you’ve ever seen.” This point is illustrated by a bikini-clad woman sitting on the table, hiding her seductive smile behind a fan of obviously fake paper money.

—On the Easy Listening chart, “Dueling Banjos,” billed only to Deliverance Soundtrack, is the new #1 song. “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend” by Lobo is at #2 after two weeks at #1. “Killing Me Softly With His Song” by Roberta Flack is already at #6 in only its third week on the chart. On Hot Soul Singles, “Love Train” by the O’Jays is the new #1, replacing “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” by the Spinners. Also in the Top 10 are Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown. On the Hot 100, “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John holds at #1. “Killing Me Softly” and “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver are new in the Top 10. The biggest move in the Top 40 is made by Dr. Hook’s “Cover of the Rolling Stone,” up 11 spots to #19, although “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Deodato debuts within the Top 40 at #25 from #50 the week before. The new #1 album is The World Is a Ghetto by War, dropping Carly Simon’s No Secrets to #2. A full-page ad celebrating War’s rise to the top contains the line, “Let Us Pray From Now On, We Are The Only War.”

The Story Was the Song

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(Pictured: John, December 6, 1980.)

Although the second week of December 1980 would eventually be dominated by one of the biggest stars in music history, it didn’t start off that way. Here’s what radio stations were playing the week John Lennon died, from the edition of Radio and Records dated December 5, 1980, the Friday before.

In that week, Lennon’s album Double Fantasy and single “(Just Like) Starting Over” were big, but the week’s biggest star was Kenny Rogers. “Lady” had been #1 on the magazine’s main chart, the National Airplay 30, for six straight weeks; “More Than I Can Say” by Leo Sayer had been at #2 for five straight. “Starting Over” was #6, also trailing Neil Diamond’s “Love on the Rocks,” “Never Be the Same” by Christopher Cross, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.” One song was new in the Top 10: “The Tide Is High” by Blondie, at #9 in only its third week on the chart. The biggest mover on the chart was “I Made It Through the Rain” by Barry Manilow, which was up eight spots to #19. Only one song was new: “I Love a Rainy Night” by Eddie Rabbitt at #30.

Rogers, Cross, Diamond, and Sayer topped the AC chart, which included two Barbra Streisand records among the top 11, and “I Made It Through the Rain” blazing up to #12. (“Starting Over” moved from #25 to #19 in this week.) “The Tide Is High” and “Tell It Like It Is”  by Heart debuted on the AC chart; so did Boz Scaggs’ “Miss Sun” and “Hungry Heart.”

(Considering that “I Made It Through the Rain” is about the most middle-of-the-road thing Barry Manilow ever did, its airplay numbers tell you a lot about the historical direction pop radio was taking in late 1980 and would continue to take in 1981, which we’ve discussed here before.)

On the Album Airplay 40, Bruce Springsteen’s The River was #1 and dominant, although Rod Stewart’s Foolish Behaviour made a big leap from #11 to #2. Double Fantasy sat at #4; album stations were playing “Starting Over,” “I’m Losing You,” and “Watching the Wheels.” Steely Dan’s Gaucho was #5: top tracks were “Hey Nineteen,” “Time Out of Mind,” “Glamour Profession,” and the title track. The highest debut on the album chart was REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity; the top track was “Keep on Lovin’ You.” Album stations did not shy away from power ballads in those days, or from music that we wouldn’t even consider to be rock today: for example, Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” was getting airplay on a few stations. So was Stevie Wonder’s album Hotter Than July. Live albums got a lot of radio traction in that bygone day, which accounts for the success of Eagles Live and Supertramp’s Paris, both of which made the Top 10 of the airplay chart. College radio favorites also charting: Dire Straits’ Making Movies, AC/DC’s Back in Black, and the Jim Carroll Band’s Catholic Boy, featuring “People Who Died,” which you should hear if you haven’t.

I don’t remember a lot of the songs on the Country Airplay 40. “Lady” fell to #11 in this week, but another pop crossover, “Smokey Mountain Rain” by Ronnie Milsap, was in its third week at #1. “I Love a Rainy Night” was #12. I wasn’t working much at KDTH in the fall and early winter of 1980; I’d given up my part-time gig to work at the album-rock station all summer with the understanding that KDTH would take me back in the fall, provided I went to the bottom of the seniority pole.

When these charts were compiled, we didn’t know John Lennon was going to die suddenly that week. We didn’t know anything else, either. Not the big stuff, certainly: about how and where the currents of history were going to carry us, or about what would endure and what would not. That’s nobody’s fault. It was life as it was and ever shall be.

At the risk of straining a metaphor (too late, maybe?), in that moment, we twentysomething college kids were the rollergirl in Dire Straits’ “Skateaway,” the most-played track from Making Movies. We ordered our lives in ways that made sense to us and waited to see what would happen next, all the while hoping things would work out—and all the while with music in our heads.

She gets rock and roll
And a rock and roll station
And a rock and roll dream
She’s making movies on location
She don’t know what it means
But the music make her want to be the story
And the story was whatever was the song what it was
Rollergirl, don’t worry
DJ plays the movies all night long
All night long

The Song Is Too Long

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(Pictured: the Jackson Five.)

Not long ago, I paged through Billboard magazine from the week of November 7, 1970, as one does.

A headline story on page 1 says that in response to the recent drug-related deaths of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Al “Blind Owl” Wilson of Canned Heat, MGM Records president Mike Curb has terminated the contracts of 18 MGM artists he accuses of promoting hard drugs. The artists are not listed by name, although Curb claims that some of them are top sellers. History would show that most of them were marginal at best.

Elsewhere, jukebox operators are concerned about the increasing length of records and its impact on their revenue. More than half of the songs on the current Hot 100 run more than three minutes, and the average song runs 3:32. “Green Eyed Lady” by Sugarloaf runs 5:58, and both “Closer to Home” by Grand Funk Railroad and “Fresh Air” by Quicksilver Messenger Service run in excess of five minutes. (Anne Murray’s “Snowbird” is the shortest, at 2:08.) Some operators have refused to program the longest popular singles, but most admit that if a record gets big enough, they have no choice. The long-song trend is not expected to reverse. Bill Prutting of jukebox manufacturer Seeburg says, “You can write about long singles until doomsday, but labels cannot tell their artists how long their singles should be.”

The magazine reviews a number of new albums, including Bob Dylan’s New Morning, Greatest Hits by Sly and the Family Stone, and I (Who Have Nothing) by Tom Jones. Several new Christmas albums are reviewed, by the Williams Brothers (Andy and his siblings), Ed Ames, Buck Owens, Charley Pride, and Jose Feliciano. The review of Feliciano’s album says he “adds interesting new dimensions to old Christmas favorites,” but doesn’t mention a new song from the album that will remain on the air for the next half-century: “Feliz Navidad.”

Charley Pride is #1 on the Hot Country Singles chart with “I Can’t Believe That You’ve Stopped Loving Me.” Among the other songs in the Top 10 are “Sunday Morning Coming Down” by Johnny Cash and “It’s Only Make Believe” by Glen Campbell, which have crossed over to pop. Other pop crossovers include “Snowbird,” “For the Good Times” by Ray Price, “Amos Moses” by Jerry Reed, and Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden.” The hottest record on the chart, up 30 spots to #37 in its second week on, is “Coal Miner’s Daughter” by Loretta Lynn. Merle Haggard’s Fightin’ Side of Me is #1 on Hot Country LPs.

Billboard‘s Top Soul LPs chart is dominated by Motown: Third Album by the Jackson Five, Temptations’ Greatest Hits Volume 2, and Still Waters Run Deep by the Four Tops are in the top three positions. Also riding high: Signed Sealed Delivered by Stevie Wonder, the self-titled solo debut by Diana Ross, and Ecology by Rare Earth.

Rare Earth, signed to a Motown subsidiary, is not the only rock act on the Soul LPs chart. Santana is at #6 with Abraxas, Cosmo’s Factory by CCR is #13, Band of Gypsys by Jimi Hendrix is at #16, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen is at #24, and Led Zeppelin III debuts at #44. (Led Zeppelin III and Abraxas are #1 and #2 on the Top LPs chart; the Jackson Five and Creedence Clearwater albums are in the Top 10.)

On Easy Listening, “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters continues to dominate, in its fifth week at #1. Also in the Top 10: “It Don’t Matter to Me” by Bread, James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” and the hottest record on the Easy Listening chart, “Stoney End” by Barbra Streisand, up 14 spots to #8.

The #1 song in Britain is the Matthews’ Southern Comfort cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” In Canada, it’s “Cracklin’ Rosie” by Neil Diamond. In Singapore, “Candida” by Dawn is #1, and in Spain it’s “El Condor Pasa” by Simon and Garfunkel. In the United States, “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson Five is #1 for a fourth week; “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Fire and Rain” hold at #2 and #3. One song is new in the Top 10: “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family, up from #17 last week.

The magazine’s radio column, Vox Jox, runs down the on-air lineup at WLS in Chicago: Larry Lujack, Joel Sebastian, Chuck Buell, Scotty Brink, Kris Stevens, Jerry Kaye, new arrival Steve Lundy, and weekender Bernie Allen. On the other end of the wave in his Wisconsin bedroom, a 10-year-old kid listens to them, and it won’t be long until he wants to be like them.