(Pictured: the Doobie Brothers and Kenny Loggins celebrate their Record of the Year and Song of the Year Grammys for “What a Fool Believes” in 1980.)
For a brief time in college, I was a music columnist for The Exponent, the campus paper at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. And for the last edition of the fall semester in 1979, I ranked the top singles and albums of the year. I wrote about those rankings at this website in 2005 and 2016. After the last time, our friend HERC wondered how and if my perspective has changed so many years down the line. Given that the stuff first appeared 40 years ago this week, it’s a good time to respond to HERC’s query.
My 1979 album list was as follows:
2. The Long Run/Eagles
3. Minute by Minute/Doobie Brothers
4. In Through the Out Door/Led Zeppelin
5. 52nd Street/Billy Joel
6. Breakfast in America/Supertramp
7. Rickie Lee Jones
8. Get the Knack
9. Time Passages/Al Stewart
10. Spirits Having Flown/Bee Gees
That’s a pretty reasonable list even now. I wouldn’t mess with the very top at all. 52nd Street and Time Passages were released in the fall of 1978 and should probably be disqualified, and I put the Bee Gees on just to troll my readers. I’d keep the rest. Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes should be on here, although in December 1979, we’d just started playing it on the college station and I didn’t recognize its impact yet. Pink Floyd’s The Wall came out the week before I wrote. The biggest omission is probably Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk.
You will notice that the album many critics name today as the best one of 1979 is not here: London Calling by the Clash. First, it was released in mid-December, after I made this list. And second, as I’ve said several times over the life of this website, I grew up in a world where punk rock didn’t happen. The vast majority of the people I knew weren’t interested in the Clash or the other bands that had come out of the UK in the late 70s—or the Ramones either, for that matter. Given our choice, my friends and I were far more likely to put on Tusk or The Wall or Foreigner or Bruce Springsteen.
The singles list as originally compiled went like this:
1. “What a Fool Believes”/Doobie Brothers
2. “Cruel to Be Kind”/Nick Lowe
3. “Heart of Glass”/Blondie
4. “Goodbye Stranger”/Supertramp
5. “Rise”/Herb Alpert
6. “Bad Case of Loving You”/Robert Palmer
7. “Let’s Go”/Cars
8. “Tragedy”/Bee Gees
9. “Goodnight Tonight”/Wings
10. “Sail On”/Commodores
Were I to formally re-rank these today, I would no longer include “Rise” and “Goodnight Tonight” on the list. (“Tragedy” stays, though.) Also, I am not sure that “What a Fool Believes” would stay at #1—I’d be inclined to bump Nick Lowe up there now, or maybe even the Commodores—and “Heart of Glass” wouldn’t be so high, either. Today, I would have to consider the two Gerry Rafferty singles, “Days Gone Down” and “Get it Right Next Time,” “Gold” by John Stewart, “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” by Elton John, and “Is She Really Going Out With Him” by Joe Jackson. Other possibilities might be “Life During Wartime” by Talking Heads or J. D. Souther’s “You’re Only Lonely,” and how I missed including “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘n’ the Tears I cannot imagine. In 1979, I shared with many other young white guys a severe anti-disco prejudice, and so I would not have been caught dead endorsing what I would have considered a disco record. (Never mind that there were disco remixes of “What a Fool Believes” and “Goodnight Tonight,” and that “Tragedy” got some dancefloor action too.) I would not have considered “Good Times” by Chic or “September” by Earth Wind and Fire for my list, but they’d both make the semifinals today.
However interesting it might be to revisit more of these columns (and I have clips), we aren’t going there. They are almost without exception miserably bad, badly written and badly argued, and I come off utterly foolish in many of them. These 1979 lists were the best of the lot.
(Pictured: ABBA says hello from 1976.)
Up here in Wisconsin, we got our first snow a month ago. On a gray day last week, a cold rain took the last of the leaves from the trees. The best part of autumn is behind us now. It’s bittersweet to see it go, but before it did, I spent some time in bygone autumns, with a couple of American Top 40 shows.
This stretch, as heard on the show from October 30, 1971, provided another motherlode of AM radio pleasure:
28. “Everybody’s Everything”/Santana
27. “So Far Away”/Carole King
26. “One Fine Morning”/Lighthouse
25. “Stagger Lee”/Tommy Roe
24. “Only You Know and I Know”/Delaney and Bonnie
23. “Birds of a Feather”/Raiders
22. “Ain’t No Sunshine”/Bill Withers
21. “Have You Seen Her”/Chi-Lites
20. “Easy Loving”/Freddie Hart
19. “Inner City Blues”/Marvin Gaye
18. “Uncle Albert-Admiral Halsey”/Paul and Linda McCartney
A person such as I, who grew up in the supercharged AM radio atmosphere of boss jocks and call-letter jingles, can live for a mighty long time in the headspace created by those 11 songs. Or these seven:
10. “I’ve Found Someone of My Own”/Free Movement
9. “Peace Train”/Cat Stevens
8. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”/Joan Baez
7. “Do You Know What I Mean”/Lee Michaels
6. “Imagine”/John Lennon
5. “Theme From Shaft”/Isaac Hayes
By the time I got this far on the list, I had long since left 2019. It was 1971 again, and I was in the bedroom I shared with my brother, across the hall from Mother and Dad, with my green plastic Westinghouse tube-type radio, the one with the big dial, with a tiny bit of masking tape on it to mark WLS, since the thing had a tendency to drift. That fall, in the afternoons home from school, evenings after supper, weekend days, all the time, I devoured the radio joyfully, not just the songs but the jocks and the jingles and the atmosphere, because I already knew that radio was my calling.
As I listened to these songs again, I was there, and I had no desire to come back.
But I had to, because you have to.
Not long after, I listened to the show from November 13, 1976. It, too, has a stretch of songs that I find seriously pleasurable, but in the end it evokes an entirely different feeling:
25. “You Don’t Have to Be a Star”/Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.
24. “I Never Cry”/Alice Cooper
23. “Play That Funky Music”/Wild Cherry
22. “I Only Want to Be With You”/Bay City Rollers
21. “A Fifth of Beethoven”/Walter Murphy
20. “Magic Man”/Heart
19. “The Best Disco in Town”/Ritchie Family
18. “Nights Are Forever Without You”/England Dan and John Ford Coley
17. “She’s Gone”/Hall and Oates
16. “You Are the Woman”/Firefall
15. “More Than a Feeling”/Boston
The average onlooker probably considers this a load of forgettable cheese, and some of it certainly is, but I am incapable of hearing it that way. These songs took me to a place I’ve written about before, where 16-year-old-me had the world by the tail. I had my day-to-day concerns, but nothing I couldn’t handle. All good things were mine, or eventually would be. The road to the glowing future was smooth and wide and straight, and all I had to do was keep to it and I’d get there.
I hear this stretch of songs now, and the clash between the two people, the boy who didn’t know what he didn’t know and the older man who does, drowns out most everything else. I can’t live in that country the way I can live in my 1971 bedroom. The most I can get is the occasional spike of joy—like at the climax of “More Than a Feeling,” just as the wall of guitars gives way for that Louie-Louie bass line to kick in for the last time, and where for just a moment I remember everything—but it doesn’t stay.
Which is why I keep going back, like an addict in thrall to another kind of spike.
These shows have some fine moments beyond these stretches. The top 10 of the 1971 show is a list I’ll never get tired of hearing. (Even “Yo-Yo.”) The top of the 1976 show is harder to love, as anything with “Muskrat Love” and “Disco Duck” would be, but there’s “Rubberband Man” and “Rock’n Me” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” to take the curse off. And even “Muskrat Love” and “Disco Duck” are indispensable. Without them, the fall of 1976 wouldn’t have been quite what it was.
What it continues to be.
We do not always listen to old songs simply because we want to be transported back in time. But sometimes we do.
Isaac Hayes would have been a significant figure in the history of music even without his solo career. His production and songwriting work at Stax with David Porter resulted in some records for the ages, most famously performed by Sam and Dave: “Soul Man,” “Hold On, I’m Comin,” “I Thank You,” and “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.” He played on and produced dozens of sessions for other artists at Stax. When he began making his own albums in the late 60s, however, he left the world of the three-minute radio record behind for languorous romantic balladry: 18 minutes’ worth on “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and 12 for “Walk on By.”
Hayes agreed to score the movie Shaft in exchange for an audition for the lead role, even though he’d never acted before. The audition never happened (although Hayes made a cameo appearance), but the movie score did. The film came out in July 1971, but the theme didn’t hit the radio until September—upon which time it detonated. Soul stations WKND in Hartford and WWRL in New York City got on it first, but before the end of September, influential Top 40 stations including KHJ (Los Angeles), KFRC (San Francisco), CKLW and WKNR (Detroit) and WPGC (Washington) added it. The first to show “Theme From Shaft” at #1 was WAPE in Jacksonville on September 30, 1971, labeled “L.P. cut.” That is, according to Wikipedia, the same day the song was officially released as a single.
“Theme From Shaft” hit the Hot 100 on October 16, 1971, at #50. The next week, it made an astounding leap to #9. It went to #5 the week after that and #2 for the week of November 6. It was stuck behind “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” for two weeks before taking the #1 position from Cher on November 20, 1971. It spent two weeks at the top, then two more weeks at #2 before going 6-16-23-31 and out, gone from the chart after January 8, 1972. Oddly, it never made #1 on the Billboard soul chart, peaking at #2 behind Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” although it did make #6 on Easy Listening.
The version of “Theme From Shaft” you hear on the radio today (when you hear it at all) is not the one I bought, or the one you heard most often back then. Stations today tend to play the album version. Hayes says, “Who’s the black private dick who is a sex machine to all the chicks?” The singers (one of whom, Telma Hopkins, was at the same time a member of Tony Orlando and Dawn) reply “Shaft!” and you hear Hayes say, “Damn right!” On the album, that is. On the single, the “damn right” is blanked out. On the album, Hayes says, “They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother” and is cut off by the singers—“shut your mouth!”—but “mother” is blanked on the 45: “They say this cat Shaft is a bad [pause] / Shut your mouth,” which was a little perplexing to 11-year-old me. The single runs 3:15, more compact than the 4:39 album version, a slightly different mix as best I can tell, and better.
As 1971 drew to a close, “Theme From Shaft” was the coolest thing on the radio. That opening high-hat cymbal, played by future Blues Brothers drummer Willie Hall, got your attention, and that wakka-wakka guitar, played by longtime Hayes collaborator Charles Pitts, was the cutting edge of 1971. And that moment, nearly two minutes in, when Hall kicks it and Hayes delivers that “who’s the black private dick” line, remains genuinely exciting after all this time.
(There is not a particularly good version of the expurgated 45 at YouTube. Here’s one, which is pretty scratchy but will let you hear the edits.)
Hayes would perform the song at the Academy Awards in April 1972, wearing a suit of chain mail that left the whole country abuzz, and would win Best Original Song. He would score two more movies, Three Tough Guys and Truck Turner (in which he finally got starring roles) and continue to lay down his signature lengthy jams into the 80s.
“Theme From Shaft” did four weeks at #1 at WLS in Chicago, from November 8 through December 5, and I must have bought my copy of the 45 somewhere in that span. I was a kid from the whitest of rural places, still playing my records on the old 45 player that had belonged to Dad, on which he had played mostly polka records. But now that same needle and that same speaker asked the most un-polka, un-rural-white-kid of questions: “Who’s the black private dick who is a sex machine to all the chicks?”
(Pictured: the Four Lads harmonize, 1955.)
Although there are better dates, a lot of authorities date the birth of the rock era to 1955, specifically when “Rock Around the Clock” became a national hit. But if a new era had really begun that year, it wasn’t a clean break from the era before. Take as an example the Billboard Top 100 singles chart dated November 2, 1955. It’s the first week for this new chart, which incorporates sales, airplay, and jukebox play into a single big chart, even though Billboard will continue to publish those separate charts for a couple of years yet. On this new chart, Pat Boone and the Platters are in the Top 10, and a handful of other records have an early rock ‘n’ roll sound, but the chart is dominated by the kind of pop music that had been popular since big-band jazz fell out of fashion after World War II: songs by solo vocalists and vocal harmony groups, and orchestrated instrumentals.
The domination is led by one song in particular. Six versions of “Autumn Leaves” appear on the 11/2/55 chart. The biggest and best-known version, by pianist Roger Williams, is at #2 in this week. The new Top 100 has cleared the way for five other versions to debut: by Steve Allen (#44), Victor Young (#54), Mitch Miller (#64), Jackie Gleason (#67), and the Ray Charles Singers (#77).
As we saw with a March 1956 chart a few months back, it was common for multiple versions of the same song to chart at the same time. For example, the Top 100 shows four versions of “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”: the Four Aces at #1, Don Cornell at #30 (a Top-10 hit the previous week down so far this week thanks to the new methodology), David Rose at #60, and Woody Herman at #79. Two versions of “The Shifting, Whispering Sands” are in the Top 10. Other songs heard in multiple versions include “At My Front Door,” “Only You,” “He,” “Black Denim Trousers,” “Seventeen,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Suddenly There’s a Valley,” and several others.
The song from this chart best known to the non-geek population today might be Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage,” thanks to its use as the theme song for the TV show Married With Children. A regular reader of this blog would certainly know the Platters’ “Only You” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline,” as well as “Ain’t That a Shame,” although probably the Fats Domino version and not so much the one by Pat Boone. “I Hear You Knocking” would be more familiar in versions by Smiley Lewis and/or Dave Edmunds than the one by Gale Storm. I would like to think that anyone with a decent appreciation for the history of American popular music would know “Autumn Leaves,” “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” and at least two others: “The Yellow Rose of Texas” by Mitch Miller and “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford. “The Yellow Rose” had been #1 earlier in 1955, and “Sixteen Tons” would be massively popular as 1955 turned to 1956, with eight weeks leading the Top 100 and 10 weeks at #1 on the country chart.
(Although he’s largely forgotten today, Tennessee Ernie Ford—a conservatory-trained singer who started as a radio announcer in the 40s—was a big star from the 50s to the 70s, with many country hits, a couple of TV shows and many guest appearances, and some successful gospel albums.)
And then there’s “Moments to Remember” by the Four Lads. The Lads were first heard on record backing up Johnnie Ray on his enormous 1951 hit “Cry.” Between 1954 and 1958, they would hit the Top 10 seven times. You may know a couple of those songs, if not their specific performances: “No, Not Much” and “Standing on the Corner.” “Moments to Remember” was their biggest hit. It’s one of those records I most likely heard before I knew it; I first became aware of it as a little baby disc jockey thanks to the radio show Sunday at the Memories.
The deeply nostalgic “Moments to Remember” was popular in September, October, and November, and that could not have been a coincidence. Autumn is a season when we’re reminded that all in our lives is fleeting, and it makes time run in reverse. Amid the shades of bygone days, places, and people crowding close around, “Moments to Remember” sounds very much like The Truth:
Though summer turns to winter
And the present disappears
The laughter we were glad to share
Will echo through the years
(Pictured: singer Helen Forrest with trumpeter and bandleader Harry James, 1945.)
Well here’s a cool artifact: the first Cash Box Disc-Hits Box Score, dated October 30, 1944. It ranks 45 songs by title, and lists the various recordings of each. Originally, the magazine listed all of the versions of each song in current release; it looks as though the website compiling the lists is showing only the biggest versions, as determined by rankings on concurrent Billboard charts. Some observations follow about the hits from 75 years ago today:
—We do not always grasp just how popular Bing Crosby was during the Second World War, but this chart shows it. Crosby also has nine songs on the list, two with the Andrews Sisters and the rest solo. Among the solo selections are some positively iconic performances: “Swinging on a Star,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That’s an Irish Lullaby).” Bing displays his versatility on “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t (Ma’ Baby),” which is also listed in a hit version by original soul man Louis Jordan with his Tympany Five. (Jordan’s is way better, though.) And Bing’s “Going My Way” is the title song from the movie that had come out in May, and which would earn Crosby an Oscar for Best Actor the next year.
—Helen Forrest had sung with the Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Harry James big bands between 1938 and 1943, and she won Down Beat magazine’s award as best female vocalist in 1942 and 1943 before starting a solo career. On this chart, she has three songs, all in the Top 10, including “It Had to Be You” and “Together” with Dick Haymes. Haymes is actually on the chart four times, with Forrest and with his own “How Blue the Night,” and also singing uncredited with Harry James on “I’ll Get By.” James is on the chart three times himself, with “I’ll Get By” and “Estrellita,” plus “It’s Funny to Everyone But Me,” backing Frank Sinatra.
—The Stan Kenton Orchestra has three hits on the chart. Kenton was a successful sideman who had formed his own band in 1940, and eventually become famous for pushing the boundaries of jazz with the album Artistry in Rhythm and a number of records he dubbed “progressive jazz.” Not much sounds more like the 1940s than “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine,” with Anita O’Day singing the verses and the band, in ragged unison, singing the refrain.
—The Mills Brothers are on the chart twice, with “You Always Hurt the One You Love” and “Til Then.” They had a long string of hits starting in the early 1930s that didn’t slow much until the mid 50s. (They were still hitting as late as 1968, when they appeared on the Hot 100 three times, and “Cab Driver” went all the way to #23.) Also charting twice is the King Cole Trio, with “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You.” In addition to “It’s Funny to Everyone But Me,” Sinatra scores a second hit in this week with the far-better-known “Night and Day.” The top big bands of the day are represented twice as well, including Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, and Tommy Dorsey.
—Some of the lesser acts doing big business in 1944 include Betty Hutton, who is remembered today as a movie star; she had played opposite frequent Crosby co-star Dorothy Lamour in And the Angels Sing earlier that year and would co-star with Bing himself in Here Come the Waves at year’s end; the Merry Macs, a Midwestern harmony group that occasionally backed Crosby; and the Pied Pipers, who sang with the Tommy Dorsey band and Frank Sinatra, and who could count Jo Stafford (also with two hits on this chart) as a former member.
—This chart has a lot of World War II flavor: not just with “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Lili Marlene,” Louis Jordan’s “G.I. Jive,” and Johnny Mercer’s “Duration Blues,” but at #1: “I’ll Walk Alone,” with popular versions by Dinah Shore, Martha Tilton, and Mary Martin.
I’ll always be near you wherever you are each night
In every prayer
If you call I’ll hear you, no matter how far
Just close your eyes and I’ll be there
I’ve said before that hearing songs like these on the radio at home while a loved one was fighting far away must have been either an incredible comfort or completely unbearable. Given the wide popularity of “I’ll Walk Alone,” I’m betting on the former.
(Pictured: Mark Hamill and friends at the 1978 Oscars.)
Nobody wanted Star Wars, not at first. The studio made it reluctantly; theater operators thought it was a kids’ movie; the cast was mostly unknowns, and so was George Lucas. Some of the 42 theaters that opened it in May 1977 took it only because 20th Century Fox said that if you want some other, bigger, more prestigious movie later this summer, you have to take Star Wars now.
Tracking the 1977 Star Wars box office from 2019 sources is troublesome, because some of the best ones, The Numbers and Box Office Mojo, either conflict or are incomplete. What seems clear is that the movie was popular but did not dominate the box office in May or June, trailing Smokey and the Bandit and The Deep (one of those prestige pictures). But when Star Wars went into wider release in mid-July—as one film executive characterized it, “when it broadened to the suburbs”—it became a thing. It had competition for the box-office crown throughout the summer, fall, and winter, including Disney’s The Rescuers, The Spy Who Loved Me, Kentucky Fried Movie, Oh God, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Julia, The Goodbye Girl, and Saturday Night Fever. But it outdid them all in terms of longevity: it played in many theaters for a full year, and although other sources disagree, Box Office Mojo says it was #1 at the box office as late as July 1978.
By September 1977, Star Wars was also high on the record charts. “Star Wars (Main Title),” performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by John Williams, charted at KYNO in Fresno, California, in June, and hit the Hot 100 on July 9. It became a Top-10 hit in a handful of large radio markets as August turned to September, and made #1 in San Diego, Honolulu, and Pittsburgh. By October, however, it dropped off the charts, hastened on its way, perhaps, by another version of the theme.
A handful of stations were on “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band,” credited to disco producer and session musician Meco Monardo, in July, although it didn’t hit the Hot 100 until August 6. It was headed toward the Top 10 in several places by then, and hit #1 in a few cities before the end of the month. By the end of September it had gone to #1 in lots of places, including both KHJ in Los Angeles and WABC in New York City (although it would stick at #2 for five weeks on Chicago’s WLS). It did two weeks at #1 on the Hot 100, October 1 and October 8, 1977, before yielding to “You Light Up My Life.”
During the week of September 17, 1977, “Star Wars (Main Title)” hit #10 on the Hot 100. “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” was at #13. The next week, Meco went to #8; the LSO fell to #36. And the next week, when Meco made his mighty leap to #1, the LSO fell out of the Top 40.
ARSA shows two other charting versions of the theme. A disco-ish version by Don Ellis and the Survival rode high at KKUA in Honolulu for five weeks in July and August. Ellis was a jazz trumpet veteran who scored several movies, including The French Connection. Maynard Ferguson did it too. (Here’s a TV piece, produced by DJ Cousin Brucie Morrow for the NBC affiliate in New York, in which we see Ferguson playing the song and talking with Morrow.)
Although no radio station ranked Meco’s record #1 for all of 1977, KKUA, WKBO in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and WKXY in Sarasota, Florida, placed it at #2; WABC, KDWB in Minneapolis, and WKBW in Buffalo were among those that had it at #3. (WLS ranked it at #7.) Billboard‘s November-to-November chart year cost Meco some credit, so his record placed at #71 on the year-end chart. Billboard ranked the LSO version at #99 for the year.
The Star Wars original soundtrack album went to #2 on the Billboard 200; Meco’s Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk peaked at #13. The “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” single is an edit from a 15-minute medley of Star Wars themes on the first side of his album; side two contains three unrelated disco tracks titled “Other,” “Galactic,” and “Funk.”
That the theme from the 70s’ most iconic movie would go to #1 in a disco version is just about the most 1970s thing there is. And while it seems pretty cheesy now, “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” sounded pretty good on the radio back then. The London Symphony version could be a radio momentum-killer over its full 2:20 running time, but that blast of the opening fanfare always sounded pretty great too.
(The best version of the Star Wars theme is, of course, this one.)