P1 Media Group has published its list of the 40 top-testing Christmas records for 2018. The document, which you can see here, is pretty interesting. Records were tested for familiarity and love it-or-hate-it across various age groups and both genders to yield “appeal scores.” Radio stations can use the data to tweak their Christmas libraries for the season. The most appealing for 2018 is . . . “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms, a record first heard 61 years ago.
We can safely say that “Jingle Bell Rock” is one of the most incredible success stories in pop music history. In 1957, it made #6 in Billboard and #13 country, and it returned to the Hot 100 in 1958, 1960, 1961, and 1962. It appeared on Billboard‘s Christmas chart fron 1963 through 1973, with the exception of 1971. It hit #1 on that chart only once, in 1969, a year in which there were two versions of it in stores, the 1957 original and a 1965 re-recording. When Billboard briefly revived the Christmas chart in the mid 80s, it never missed. After it was featured in the 1996 movie Jingle All the Way, it returned to the Hot 100, country, and AC charts. As recently as 2016, it made the Hot 100 again.
On the local charts at ARSA, “Jingle Bell Rock” was #1 in Baltimore, Toronto, and Springfield, Massachusetts in 1957, and it appears on a handful of local charts in 1958, ’59, ’60 and ’61. (A station in Spokane, Washington, charted it at #1 in 1961.) It disappears from local charts after 1963, except for one listing in 1968, 1971, and 1974. By then, its place in the holiday pantheon was secure.
Why Bobby Helms? It’s not like he was as big as Elvis. He was a 24-year-old Indiana native whose first two hits, “Fraulein” and “My Special Angel,” had each topped the country charts for a month earlier in 1957. “My Special Angel” had crossed to the pop Top 10, peaking in November just as “Jingle Bell Rock” was getting traction. So it’s easy to figure why it became a significant hit in 1957. That success brought it back the next year, and the year after that, and after a few years, it apparently became impossible for listeners to imagine the holiday season without it.
A second version of “Jingle Bell Rock” appears in P1 Media Group’s Top 10: the one by Hall and Oates. It was first released in 1983, although P1 Media Group shows its debut year as 1984. On the original single, Daryl Hall sang it on one side and John Oates on the other. And although I was doing pop-music radio in the 80s, I don’t remember hearing it until sometime in the new millennium. H&O did a version on their 2006 album Home for Christmas, and I think that’s the version you hear most often today, but I could be wrong about that. It’s pleasant enough, although it lacks the indefinable something that puts the Bobby Helms original into a completely different league.
As for the rest of the P1 Media Group list, you can look it over and see for yourself. The newest record on it is Taylor Swift’s cover of “Last Christmas,” which came out in 2007. It is one of only four records on the list to be released in the new millennium. The oldest is Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” from 1942. And so it confirms what we already know: the American Christmas canon is largely set in stone and has been for a long damn time.
Some radio stations won’t dip into the Christmas library even a little bit until today, but across the country, others have been flipping to all-Christmas since approximately Halloween. Such early flips are traditional now, a tradition that is accompanied by people bitching about it. I have seen people online confidently proclaiming that such stations have no idea what they’re doing and that nobody wants to hear Christmas music so early. Which is wrong. Stations going all-Christmas often see huge ratings jumps for the fall ratings period—double, triple, even quadruple their numbers during the other three quarters of the year. That’s why they do it. A station in the Philippines went all-Christmas in September, and I suspect that if it weren’t for the presence of Halloween, many American stations would flip even earlier.
The enduring popularity of Christmas music on the radio—and the same music year after year besides—is a good reminder of how regular people (as opposed to music nerds or radio nerds) listen to the radio. They’re looking for something familiar to enhance or elevate their mood in the moment. For many, Christmas music does it, even the same old warhorses, even if it’s not Thanksgiving yet.
(Pictured: Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.)
I spent some time this week at ARSA reading through random radio surveys as October turned to November, so here’s a fragmentary look at some of those bygone weeks:
WGEM, Quincy, Illinois,
1966 1967: This chart is is topped by “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things” by the Cowsills, a song we dig around here. “Let It Out” by the Hombres and Neil Diamond’s “Kentucky Woman” both blast into the Top 10, as does “That’s Just Half the Story” by Herman Grimes. Grimes was a popular local act in St. Louis (a couple of hours from Quincy) and was inducted into the St. Louis Classic Rock Hall of Fame in 2017 alongside such luminaries as REO Speedwagon and Miles Davis.
(Digression: this year’s inductees to the St. Louis Classic Rock Hall of Fame include longtime St. Louis and Kansas City radio jock and friend of the blog Randy Raley. It’s an honor well-deserved. I wish my career had produced 10 percent of the stories Randy’s has, some of which he’s told at his own blog, From the Rearview Mirror. Here’s one about dinner with Alan Parsons and the bathroom break that wasn’t.)
WCFL, Chicago, 1973: The Rolling Stones’ “Angie” goes to #1 on this chart, taking out Cher’s “Half-Breed.” Making a strong move into the Top 10 is “Rubber Bullets,” the first American chart hit by 10cc, which made #73 on the Hot 100. Crosstown rival WLS charted it for nine weeks and it got as high as #23. Also outperforming its national number (#33) in Chicago: the fantastic “Jimmy Loves Mary Anne” by the Looking Glass, which is at #6 at WCFL this week after peaking at #5. It went to #2 at WLS.
WIRB-FM, Enterprise, Alabama, 1975: Enterprise, Alabama, is roughly equidistant from Montgomery, Alabama, and Tallahassee, Florida. WIRB’s survey touts “10,000 watts of stereo rock,” which you can inject straight into my veins, especially “Miracles,” “Lady Blue,” “It Only Takes a Minute,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” and “Games People Play.” At #12 is the debut single by the Canadian band Trooper, “Baby Woncha Please Come Home.” If you know them at all, it’s probably for “Raise a Little Hell” in 1978.
WPDH-FM, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1978: This station charts approximately 80 albums, including all the expected chart-toppers of the day. No self-respecting album station of the 70s would fail to play jazz and fusion, so WPDH also charts Jean Luc Ponty’s Cosmic Messenger, Chuck Mangione’s Feels So Good and Children of Sanchez, Images by the Crusaders, Sea Level’s On the Edge, and Mr. Gone by Weather Report. And just to make sure the spectrum gets completely spanned, the station is also playing Talking Heads, Waylon Jennings, and the FM soundtrack. I’d listen to it.
KKBQ-FM, Houston, 1983: There’s not much to get me excited on this chart, although “Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton is damn near perfect. Debuting at #24 is “Superstar” by Lydia Murdock, which includes a bassline you will recognize and the words “I’m Billie Jean and I’m mad as hell / I’m a woman with a story to tell.” It didn’t make the Hot 100, and its 20 listings at ARSA come from three stations: KKBQ, KIQQ in Los Angeles, and CKGM in Montreal, where it made the Top 10.
WHTT-FM, Boston, 1985: The summer of 1985 was a glorious era for radio music. By the fall, things weren’t quite so glorious, although this week’s #1, “Take on Me” by a-ha is an all-timer, and you can’t listen to the radio for very long today without hearing “Part Time Lover,” “Money for Nothing,” “You Belong to the City,” or “Broken Wings.” But this chart also includes “Oh Sheila” by Ready for the World, which had been one of the weakest Hot 100 #1s ever, and plenty of other records that disappointed me back then: Godley and Creme’s bizarre “Cry,” one of the worst momentum killers in radio; “Communication” by Power Station and “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” by Paul Young, which were not remotely as good as the hits those artists had charted earlier in the year; and “Sleeping Bag,” with which ZZ Top began their descent into self-parody.
KDWB-FM, Minneapolis, 1989: I often talk about the crazed variety of Top 40 radio in the 70s, but that decade’s got nothing on this week. The KDWB Top 10 includes Europop, dance music, a blues guitarist, hard rock, a pop power ballad, and two hits by New Kids on the Block. Go a little farther down and get you some hair metal and hip-hop too.
Cherry-picking the charts doesn’t really tell the whole story of any given week. But it got us up to the word count, didn’t it?
(Pictured: Delaney and Bonnie, bigger with the kids than you might expect.)
Let’s look inside the edition of Billboard dated October 17, 1970, to see what we can see.
Three-month-old syndicated radio show American Top 40, now heard on 30 stations, has sold all of its national commercial inventory for the next six weeks to MGM Records. The label intends to use the buy to promote 10 of its artists: Eric Burdon, Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers, Bobby Bloom, Michael Parks, the Mike Curb Congregation, Hank Williams Jr., the Osmond Brothers, Richie Havens, Lalo Schifrin, and Heintje, an 11-year-old singer from the Netherlands. (An MGM ad elsewhere in the magazine says that Heintje is 14, however.) A different story details another new media venture that’s gaining popularity: the Chicago-based TV series Soul Train. Host Don Cornelius estimates that the show has 100,000 to 150,000 viewers daily at 4:30 in the afternoon. He hopes that the show will soon be picked up for syndication across the country.
Headline toward the bottom of page 8: “Janis Joplin, Queen of Rock, Dies of Overdose of Drugs.” The lede: “Janis Joplin, whose personal philosophy was to do everything possible to enjoy life, was found dead Sunday [(10/4)]. She had been working on her third Columbia album.”
Another headline: “‘What’s Playing’ on Jukebox Often Differs From Charts.” “On any given week,” the magazine reports, “the ‘What’s Playing?’ [chart] reflects the tastes of the record playing public, which generally differ greatly from the record buying public.” Jukebox operators report figures based on the target audience where jukeboxes are located, including teen, adult, and soul. In a recent week, an operator in Glendale, California, said that the most popular songs among her teenaged jukebox patrons were “Soul Shake” by Delaney and Bonnie, “Lola” by the Kinks, and “Funk 49” by the James Gang, none of which was currently placed higher than #40 on the Hot 100. Records often achieve jukebox popularity before they make any noise on other charts; similarly, records often remain hot on jukeboxes after they’ve cooled on the charts.
On the Best Selling Tape Cartridges chart, Cosmo’s Factory by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Chicago lead both the 8-track and cassette listings. Other top tapes include Closer to Home by Grand Funk Railroad, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and the Woodstock soundtrack. Best Selling Jazz LPs is led by Miles Davis and Bitches Brew. Isaac Hayes has two albums in the jazz Top 10, The Isaac Hayes Movement and Hot Buttered Soul. The Isaac Hayes Movement is also riding high on the Best Selling Soul LPs chart, along with releases by the Jackson Five, Diana Ross, and the Four Tops. Cosmo’s Factory and Mad Dogs and Englishmen are also on the Soul LPs chart. On the Top LPs chart, Cosmo’s Factory is #1 again this week, but Abraxas by Santana makes a strong move to #2 from #8. The new Rolling Stones album, the live Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! debuts at #10.
The Best Selling Soul Singles chart has the same four songs at the top as last week: the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Diana Ross, “Express Yourself” by Charles Wright, and “Still Water (Love)” by the Four Tops. The #1 song on the Hot Country Singles chart is “Sunday Morning Coming Down” by Johnny Cash. Two songs in the country Top 10, “It’s Only Make Believe” by Glen Campbell and “Snowbird” by Anne Murray are major pop crossovers. They sit at #2 and #8 on the Easy Listening chart respectively, where the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” is #1. Two new songs have blasted into the Easy Listening Top 10: “Sweetheart” by Engelbert Humperdinck is at #3 from #17 last week, and Shirley Bassey’s cover of the Beatles’ “Something” is at #7 from #22 last week.
On the Hot 100, “I’ll Be There” hits #1, knocking “Cracklin’ Rosie” by Neil Diamond to #2. “Green Eyed Lady” by Sugarloaf is #3. James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” is the lone new entry in the Top 10 at #10. The hottest song within the Top 40 is “Indiana Wants Me” by R. Dean Taylor, up 11 spots to #11. The highest debut in the Top 40 is “God, Love, and Rock & Roll” by Teegarden and Van Winkle at #30. The highest debut on the Hot 100 is “Heed the Call” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition at #67; “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles is new at #68.
And finally: a small display ad in the magazine offers wristwatches bearing the faces of Bullwinkle J. Moose or Dudley Do-Right “in five mind-boggling colors! Spiffy up your wrist with this happy watch!” Send $12.95 plus shipping and handling to Jay Ward Productions, Hollywood, California.
(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: Robert Plant and Jimmy Page at the first performance of the New Yardbirds, September 1968.)
Fifty years ago this week, an edition of Billboard magazine landed on the desks of radio, music, and vending industry people around the country. Here’s some of the news inside.
—Dot Records is making a significant push to increase its appeal to younger record buyers. The label has signed the following acts: Bugsy Maugh, lead singer of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band; San Francisco blues band Mount Rushmore; City Zu, “a Seattle quintet being groomed for the teeny-bopper audience”; and Life, a quartet from Columbus, Ohio. For newly signed singer Val Stecklein, producer Ray Ruff says he already has a plan. Ruff “will emphasize the vocalist’s words by stopping all the instruments and underscoring phrases with one instrument.”
—For the Chuck Barris Syndicate, which has already recorded its first Dot single, “Baja California,” the label has created a character to appear in advertising and direct-mail pieces: Baja Benny. A Baja Benny ad appears on page 27 of the magazine. He is what white readers of 1968 would have expected a Mexican to be, although to a reader in 2018, he hits every offensive stereotype: a sleepy-eyed, overweight man with a big mustache and an even bigger sombrero, a sash over one shoulder, a pistol on his hip, a bottle in his hand, and a cigarette in his mouth. He is seen on the front porch of a tumbledown shack, accompanied by a scantily dressed young woman and a child wearing only a diaper.
—RCA is warning that cassette recorders are a potential threat to both the pre-recorded tape and record businesses. RCA is worried about people recording music off the radio, and has criticized an ad for a Harmon-Kardon stereo system that suggested users could borrow records from friends and record them on blank tapes.
—Record labels are planning to distribute certain classical 45s to easy listening, pop, and rock radio stations. They’re mostly, but not exclusively, themes from popular movies, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Elvira Madigan, and Rosemary’s Baby.
—A news item says that the reorganized Yardbirds are planning a fall college tour. Billboard says “the group will be billed as the Yardbirds featuring Jimmy Page. John Paul Jones and Robert Plante [sic] are new members of the act.” In the same news column, it’s reported that “Van Morrison, who is not presently associated with any personal management firm, can be contacted at 610 Green St., Cambridge, Mass.”
—Billboard‘s Hits of the World feature shows the top singles in Europe, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Argentina. In Britain, “Fire” by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown takes over the #1 spot from “Mony Mony” by Tommy James and the Shondells, which falls to #2. “Mony Mony” is #1 in Spain. The Ohio Express takes the top spot in Malaysia and Singapore with “Yummy Yummy Yummy.” In Australia, the #1 hit of the week is “The Orange and the Green” by the Irish Rovers, the group that hit around the world earlier in 1968 with “The Unicorn.”
—On the charts, the #1 song on the Hot 100 is “People Got to Be Free” by the Rascals. “I Can’t Stop Dancing” by Archie Bell and the Drells and “Stay in My Corner” by the Dells (the #1 R&B single this week) are new in the Top 10. Two Aretha Franklin songs debut in the Top 40: “The House That Jack Built” (#21) and “I Say a Little Prayer” (#39). Other debuts include Deep Purple’s “Hush” (#38). Cream’s Wheels of Fire is #1 on the Top LPs chart, just ahead of the Rascals compilation Time Peace and Aretha Now, all of which have been on the chart seven weeks and are in the same positions as last week. (“Wheels of Fire” also appears on the R&B album chart.) The Doors’ Waiting for the Sun blasts to #4 from #29 last week. Also making a big move is Feliciano!, up to #6 from #28. On the Hot Country Singles chart, “Already It’s Heaven” by David Houston is #1, knocking “Heaven Says Hello” by Sonny James to #2. The Easy Listening chart is led by Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas,” which is #1 for a second week. “Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Mama Cass is at #2, and the Vogues’ “Turn Around Look at Me” is #3. The lone new song in the Easy Listening Top 10 is “The Fool on the Hill” by Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66. An older Sergio Mendes hit, “The Look of Love,” is hanging around at #14.
And then, in the blink of an eye, half of a century goes by.
(Pictured: the Rascals, whose “People Got to Be Free” was on every kid’s radio 50 years ago this week.)
When I started putting posts together for this week, I thought that the theme was going to involve August turning to September. But sometimes the muse has her own ideas, and so this week both of my blogs will feature posts about 1968. They will appear here today, Wednesday, and Friday, and on Tuesday and Thursday at One Day in Your Life.
This week in 1968, the country’s attention was riveted on Chicago and the Democratic National Convention, where all of the frustrations the 1960s caused for three generations—kids, their parents, and their grandparents—sparked up and then exploded. The way it happened was a shock back then, as best I can recall it, but today it seems inevitable. With the benefit of hindsight, we understand both why the kids protested and why the Chicago Police Department went nuclear. Everyone’s nerves had been stretched to a breaking point in 1968 by war and assassination and each side’s reactions to them. They were destined to snap sooner or later in more or less the way they did, and if not in Chicago, then somewhere else, and soon.
At WGLI in Babylon, New York, a small-town station on Long Island, certain hits of August-going-on-September reflected young people’s visions of peace and/or love: “People Got to Be Free,” “Grazin’ in the Grass” (an instrumental, yes, but one that depicts a carefree late-summer idyll), “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and “Reach Out in the Darkness.” But other songs celebrated youthful visions that were worrisome to the older generations, including indiscriminate sex (“Hello I Love You”), dropping out of polite society (“Born to Be Wild”) and drugs (“Journey to the Center of the Mind”).
And leave it to the Rolling Stones to grin crazily at all the trouble in the world and call it a gas.
WGLI’s survey dated August 26, 1968, contains some of the oddballs we like around here. It has two versions of “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” the monster hit version by Jeannie C. Riley (which we’ll discuss here in greater detail on Friday) and a cover by Bobbi Martin, and two versions of “Mr. Bojangles,” the original by Jerry Jeff Walker and the other by Bobby Cole. Martin had scored a handful of Top-10 Easy Listening hits in the middle of the 60s, but her greatest success was 18 months away: the housewife anthem “For the Love of Him” would go to #1 Easy Listening and #13 on the Hot 100 early in 1970. Cole was a jazz singer well-known in the New York City area, and his “Mr. Bojangles” hit #79 on the Hot 100 and #38 Easy Listening.
Bobby Cole was not the only local artist on WGLI’s playlist. The Hassles are best known for being Billy Joel’s first claim to fame, although he’d been in other bands before, and the Hassles had existed before he joined in 1966. “Four O’Clock in the Morning” was written and sung by Joel and sounds like a cross between Vanilla Fudge and the Beatles. Aesop’s Fables was a Long Island group with two singers and a horn section that made a handful of singles and a couple of albums; their version of “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is just weird—although it did predate the more famous Supremes/Temptations version by a few months. (Soul singer Dee Dee Warwick had done it first, in 1966.)
WGLI’s pick album of the week is the third album in 12 months by the Cowsills, Captain Sad and His Ship of Fools. It contains “Indian Lake,” which had hit earlier in the summer of 1968 and was likely still in recurrents at WGLI as August turned to September. The title song takes aim at a person who talks a lot but hasn’t really accomplished anything. The kids might have seen eventual Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey in it, but Humphrey’s generation, sitting in their living rooms watching the news from Chicago, might have been thinking the same thing about their kids.
(Coming Wednesday: a look inside Billboard magazine 50 years ago this week.)