(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.)
I have never felt all that warmly about the music of 1979 in general, and of the summer of ’79 in particular, but the American Top 40 show from June 30, 1979, was a lot better than I expected, and now I’m reconsidering my long-held opinion.
LW1. “Hot Stuff”/Donna Summer
40. “Weekend”/Wet Willie
Earlier this spring, I wrote about my college radio station 40 years ago, and how some of us thought our music mix was a little too black for a campus that was more than 95 percent white and maybe 80 percent small-town white. It’s painful to think we were straight-up racist, though we probably were. A kinder way to put it is that we were obsessed with arbitrary labels. Take “Hot Stuff,” which we considered a disco song, because Donna Summer was A) black and B) a known singer of disco songs. Never mind that “Hot Stuff” features a screaming guitar solo and a bad-ass thump that leaves the rock bands on this show in the dust. Given that we were mostly small-town white guys between the ages of 19 and 22 who hated disco, we hated “Hot Stuff.”
Wet Willie, on the other hand, was not in our minds a disco group. Never mind that “Weekend” humps along on a limp disco beat that generates no fire at all. They were, in our minds, a Southern boogie band, cousins to the Allman Brothers Band and Lynryd Skynyrd and other bands we respected. And because that’s the label Wet Willie bore, we could ignore what was in the grooves of their record, just as we ignored what was in the grooves of Donna Summer’s.
37. “Getting Closer”/Wings
35. “One Way or Another”/Blondie
Styx, Wings, and Blondie have the first hour rockin’. Wings and Blondie were new entries in the Top 40 in this week; three of the songs that fell out were disco records, as the fad seemed to wane momentarily.
33. “People of the South Wind”/Kansas
Even though Kansas had started moving off those overwrought eight-to-12-minute prog-rock epics of mystico-religious mumbo-jumbo by 1979 to focus on shorter, more conventional songs, they never stopped taking themselves so seriously.
32. “Shadows in the Moonlight”/Anne Murray. What’s this doing here? Making bank, that’s what, because Anne Murray was at the peak of her country-to-pop crossover stardom in 1979.
31. “Shakedown Cruise”/Jay Ferguson. “Shakedown Cruise,” which is about sailors under command of a mad captain, starts off great, but I can’t get past one of the worst lyric lines I have ever come across: the captain tells the crew, “You boys want some sex? / You can squeeze the sails / You can lick the decks.”
27. “Rock and Roll Fantasy”/Bad Company
26. “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”/KISS
The second hour is rockin’ too, although Donna Summer’s beat makes the one on “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” sound like Wet Willie all over again.
24. “You Can’t Change That”/Raydio. Is this the best record on the show? Possibly.
23. “Heart of the Night”/Poco
22. “Days Gone Down”/Gerry Rafferty
21. “I Can’t Stand It No More”/Peter Frampton
18. “Dance the Night Away”/Van Halen
16. “Gold”/John Stewart
15. “Shine a Little Love”/Electric Light Orchestra
14. “Minute by Minute”/Doobie Brothers
12. “I Want You to Want Me”/Cheap Trick
Although there’s still a number of disco records on the chart, the familiar “disco-drenched summer of ’79” narrative seems pretty shaky, at least until this show reaches the very end.
11. “Love You Inside Out”/Bee Gees
10. “You Take My Breath Away”/Rex Smith
9. “Just When I Needed You Most”/Randy Vanwarmer
8. “Boogie Wonderland”/Earth Wind and Fire with the Emotions
7. “She Believes in Me”/Kenny Rogers
6. “The Logical Song”/Supertramp
This is the grimmest part of the show. “Love You Inside Out” had been the Bee Gees’ eighth #1 single in four years but was the weakest of them all. “Boogie Wonderland” and “The Logical Song” are fine, but Vanwarmer, Rogers, and Smith are bland, blander, and blandest.
5. “Chuck E’s in Love”/Rickie Lee Jones
4. “We Are Family”/Sister Sledge
3. “Bad Girls”/Donna Summer
2. “Hot Stuff”/Donna Summer
1. “Ring My Bell”/Anita Ward
This was the first time in chart history that the top five positions were occupied by women, and only the fourth time to date that one act had two of the top three. (Elvis, the Beatles, and the Bee Gees were the others). And while I did not like any of the top four in 1979, here in my dotage I’ve come around on all of them—and on the summer of ’79 in general.
(Pictured: I never need a reason to post a picture of Linda Ronstadt, but I am always glad to legitimately have one.)
The phrase “set and setting” first came into the language thanks to Timothy Leary, who talked about its importance to psychedelic experience. “Set” is the mental state one brings to the experience: mood, feelings, desires, etc. “Setting” is the physical environment where the experience takes place, including the room, the music, the lighting, and so on. (Setting can also involve the social environment—who else is present for one’s experience and how they interact with the person tripping.) Leary believed that the right set and setting could enhance a trip, and that a bad trip could result from the wrong one.
I thought about set and setting while I was listening to the American Top 40 show from June 28, 1975. I heard a large chunk of it in my car on a hot Saturday afternoon, flying down the highway on the way to something I was looking forward to doing. The set and setting definitely enhanced the trip.
38. “Spirit of the Boogie”-“Summer Madness”/Kool and the Gang. “Spirit of the Boogie,” which is what Casey played on the show, is basically another five mintues of “Jungle Boogie.” Simmering, sexy “Summer Madness” is way, way better.
37. “Black Friday”/Steely Dan
36. “Slippery When Wet”/Commodores
35. “The Last Farewell”/Roger Whittaker
34. “Bad Luck”/Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
33. “Jive Talkin'”/Bee Gees
32. “Rockford Files”/Mike Post
31. “Bad Time”/Grand Funk
Set and setting, people—this stretch was an absolute blast, even “The Last Farewell.”
30. “Rhinestone Cowboy”/Glen Campbell. Casey tells a story I can’t remember hearing before: in 1964, Campbell provided the voice for Steve McQueen’s character in Baby the Rain Must Fall, but instead of doing a lip-sync to a recording, McQueen mouthed along with Campbell as Glen sang live, just out of camera range.
29. “I’m on Fire”/Dwight Twilley Band. During which I may have violated the speed limit out on the interstate. If you do not dig “I’m on Fire,” we have to break up.
26. “Baby That’s Backatcha”/Smokey Robinson
25. “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”/John Denver
24. “Why Can’t We Be Friends”/War
22. “Hey You”/Bachman-Turner Overdrive
21. “Midnight Blue”/Melissa Manchester
20. “Misty”/Ray Stevens
Lots of radio stations promote themselves with some variation of the phrase “better variety.” But they’ve got nothing on your average Top 40 station in the middle of the 1970s. In order you’ve got a sinuous R&B love song, country twang and yee-haw, an R&B novelty, a Parliament-style funk number incorporating a TV catchphrase, sturdy heartland rock, a beautifully sung and produced love ballad, and a slick country cover of a pop classic. Beat that, if you can.
16. “One of These Nights”/Eagles
15. “Please Mr. Please”/Olivia Newton-John
14. “Swearin’ to God”/Frankie Valli
When Casey started the show he said, “There’s a lot of action,” and there is. The Eagles are up 15 spots this week, ONJ is up 19, and Frankie Valli is up 13. Back at #21, “Midnight Blue” was up 11 from the previous week. But just wait: nine of the week’s Top 12, including the top five, are in the same positions as last week.
13. “Sister Golden Hair”/America
12. “Only Women”/Alice Cooper
11. “Take Me in Your Arms”/Doobie Brothers
10. “Cut the Cake”/AWB
8. “Get Down, Get Down”/Joe Simon
7. “Listen to What the Man Said”/Paul McCartney and Wings
6. “The Hustle”/Van McCoy
By the time I got to this part of the show, my set and setting had changed. I was on my way to work at 4:30 in the morning. Never mind, though. I got high on my own supply, because these songs come with some pleasant associations from the summer of ’75.
5. “Love Won’t Let Me Wait”/Major Harris. The soft female moans on “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” were hard for me to hear when I was 15. Today, the sexier thing is that luscious Philly-soul arrangement.
4. “I’m Not Lisa”/Jessi Colter
3. “Wildfire”/Michael Murphey
2. “When Will I Be Loved”/Linda Ronstadt
Jessi and Linda both made #1 country within the preceding month. So did “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” would get there in August. “Wildfire” didn’t make the country chart, but Murphey would start hitting there in 1976.
1. “Love Will Keep Us Together”/Captain and Tennille. I like this a lot better now than I did then. It’s in its second of what will be four weeks at #1, and four weeks will be the longest run at the top since “My Love” by Wings two years earlier.
I could go on for another 700 words about how the summer of 1975 looked out the windows of the house I grew up in, but I’ll spare you that, I think.
(Pictured: Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak in The Man With the Golden Arm, 1955.)
(It is my usual practice to do date-centric posts like these on or close to their anniversaries. This one I’m not saving til next March.)
Before the rock era, the song was often more important than the performer. During the pre-1920 Pioneer Era, major labels frequently advertised records by title only. Well into the 1950s, it was common for labels to release competing versions of songs at the same time. One hit would spawn several other recordings of the same song, and all of them would duke it out in the marketplace. And on the Billboard Top 100 of March 14, 1956, there was a whole lot of duking going on.
There are a lot of rock ‘n’ roll classics on that chart: “The Great Pretender,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” Bill Haley’s “See You Later Alligator,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Heartbreak Hotel” among them. But we’re not interested in those here.
The Billboard Top 100 was one of four influential charts the magazine published at the time. And on 3/14/56, Les Baxter was #1 with “Poor People of Paris.” If Baxter wasn’t your style, there were versions of the same song by big-band star Russ Morgan (#41), by Lawrence Welk (#53), and by country guitarist Chet Atkins (#92). At #2 was the Nelson Riddle Orchestra with “Lisbon Antigua,” which also charted at #31 in a version by Mitch Miller. Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This” (#9) was also available in a version by Gale Storm (#89). Record buyers could also choose among three charted versions of “Mr. Wonderful,” by Peggy Lee, Teddi King, and Sarah Vaughan. Two versions of “It’s Almost Tomorrow,” by the Dream Weavers and Jo Stafford, were on the chart in this week; two more would soon chart. Two versions of “Innamorata” charted, by Jerry Vale and Martin.
The practice of white acts covering black R&B hits also added to number of contestants in the ring. Frankie Lyman’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” was at #7; white cover versions by Gale Storm, the Diamonds, and Gloria Mann were at #15, #23, and #86 respectively. The white folks were having the better of some other songs, however. Teresa Brewer’s cover of “Bo Weevil” sat at #23 while Fats Domino’s was down at #48. R&B duo the Teen Queens had “Eddie My Love” at #26 behind versions by the Fontane Sisters (#20) and the Chordettes (#21).
“Poor People of Paris” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” were not the only songs with four versions during that week in 1956. Main title music from The Man With the Golden Arm appeared on the chart in versions by bandleaders Richard Maltby, Dick Jacobs, Elmer Bernstein, and Billy May. Three more versions of the Golden Arm theme would chart by summer: by Les Elgart, Buddy Morrow, and the McGuire Sisters. The latter, called “Delilah Jones,” was a vocal that set lyrics unrelated to the movie to the Golden Arm theme. The Man With the Golden Arm starred Frank Sinatra as a drug addict fighting to stay clean, and was up for three Oscars to be awarded in the spring of 56.
But neither “Poor People of Paris,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” nor “The Man With the Golden Arm” was the chart champion for the week of March 14, 1956. That was “Moritat (Theme From The Threepenny Opera).” Using various titles, six different versions were on the March 14 chart, by the Dick Hyman Trio (#9), Richard Hayman and Jan August (#16), Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars (#22), Lawrence Welk and His Sparkling Septet (#31), Les Paul (#57) and Billy Vaughn (#63). The Threepenny Opera, which had been written in 1931 and first performed in Germany, had been a hot ticket in New York since 1954 as an off-Broadway production. It would win two Tonys in April.
When the battle was over, Hyman’s version of “Moritat” ended up the biggest chart hit, but the song had even greater popularity ahead. In 1959, “Moritat” would become one of the longest-running #1 hits of the pre-Soundscan era under the title “Mack the Knife,” recorded by Bobby Darin. It would spend nine weeks atop the Hot 100 and win Record of the Year at the Grammys.
There were other weeks like this in the late 50s, and simultaneously charting movie themes would be a thing well into the 70s. But I’ve been down this rabbit hole long enough for now.
(Billboard‘s online archive doesn’t include pre-Hot 100 charts, so if you want to see the whole 3/14/56 chart, find a .doc file here. Many chart positions are shown as ties, which is how Dean Martin and Dick Hyman can both be at #9, and the Diamonds and Teresa Brewer can both be at #23. Don’t @ me.)