During our college days at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, early December meant the annual telethon for Wisconsin Badger Camp, a place that provided outdoor recreational opportunities for the developmentally disabled. It was broadcast on the campus cable station, and it was all hands on deck for 24 hours—even those of us who didn’t work much TV found ourselves involved. (I tried to remain pure by handling the audio board.)
In December 1980, The Mrs., then a sophomore, was a co-host of the telethon, and was on camera for the whole 24 hours. “The week before the telethon,” she remembered, “I got to visit a local bridal shop in town that loaned me three or four different formal gowns to wear during the telethon. I had actual costume changes!” She also said, “The next year, I wanted to participate again. The telethon always had new co-hosts each year, so I convinced the supervising faculty member to let me be the 24-hour telephone answerer. Different student organizations would provide people to help answer phones in four-hour shifts every year. I sat at the end of the line, so all the other phones had to be busy for me to get a call. Several times an hour, the cameras would turn on me (and I mean that in both meanings of the phrase) and I’d do my best to get people to call in, even if it was just to talk to me so the darn phone would ring while we were on camera. That telethon seemed to last a lot longer than the year before.”
For the 1980 telethon, we decided to get the campus radio station involved with a promotion we called Jock Around the Clock. The plan was for me to do a 24-hour shift on the station during the telethon, soliciting donations and doing who-knows-what to keep the audience (and myself) entertained. We promoted the hell out of it for a couple of weeks, only to have the station’s transmitter kick the bucket three days beforehand. We were off the air entirely during telethon week (which was also the week John Lennon was murdered), so Jock Around the Clock didn’t happen. There was talk of trying to do it again the next year, but I had lost interest by then.
There is absolutely no guarantee that I would have been able to complete the 24-hour radio show, of course. Thinking back on it now, it seems absurd to have believed I would. I hadn’t planned anything special apart from staying on all that time—I hadn’t booked any guests, from Badger Camp, from the TV crew, or from anywhere else—and I suppose I assumed that the novelty of all-me, all-the-time was going to be sufficient. In those days, it would not have been out of character for me to bail on it partway through, even after the station had spent weeks promoting it. Such was the extent of my ego back in the day.
The Badger Camp Telethon got shorter over the years, and it aired for its last time in 2013, I believe. But during its 40-year lifespan, it raised untold amounts of money, and it remains a fond memory among those of us who participated in it. It was a rare opportunity to do live, long-form television—and it was usually capped off with an epic party involving the TV station staff, volunteers, and the Greek organizations that co-sponsored the telethon. One year, when the party was raging at 2:30 in the morning, we looked around and noticed that only the broadcasters were left standing—we’d outpartied the frat boys in their own house.
(Rebooted from a post first appearing in 2009.)
(Pictured: Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong.)
Comedy albums sold decently well in the 60s and 70s, but only a handful of acts sold ’em like rock stars. Bob Newhart hit #1 twice between the summer of 1960 and the spring of 1961 with his Button-Down Mind albums. In 1965, the ethnic comedy album You Don’t Have to Be Jewish went to #9; a few months later, Welcome to the LBJ Ranch!, which featured the actual voices of Lyndon Johnson, Everett Dirksen, Robert Kennedy, and other prominent political figures mashed up for comedic purposes, went to #3. (It was held out of the #1 spot around Christmastime by the Tijuana Brass album Whipped Cream and Other Delights and the soundtrack from The Sound of Music.) Impressionist David Frye’s I Am the President, featuring his Nixon impersonation, made the Top 20 in 1970. Richard Pryor scored several substantial hits on the album chart between 1974 and 1982 including the #12 Is It Something I Said? in 1975. Eddie Murphy: Comedian was double-platinum in 1984 and topped out at #35. (Late update: Bill Cosby belongs on this list too; see this comment below.) But apart from Newhart, nobody rode the charts higher than Cheech and Chong. In 1972 and 1973, their albums Big Bambu and Los Cochinos both made #2 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
In the fall of 1973, Cheech and Chong’s “Basketball Jones,” from Los Cochinos, became a monster single. It first hit the radio in September and peaked at #15 on the Hot 100 in October, although it was a Top-10 hit in Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee, and some smaller cities. It was probably biggest of all in Chicago, where it went to #2 at WLS and WCFL and #1 on FM rocker B96. (There was an animated video that went with it, which I’m not going to link to. No good version exists online, and the video’s casual racism and sexism, which was no big deal 45 years ago, is pretty offensive now.)
On November 24, 1973, one week after “Basketball Jones” dropped off the Hot 100, Cheech and Chong charted again. Despite the success of Los Cochinos, the duo’s label chose to take another run at radio airplay with “Sister Mary Elephant” from Big Bambu. It had been released as a single the year before but went nowhere (except at WDRC in Hartford, where it was their #1 request for a while). But this time, in my town, “Sister Mary Elephant.” became the hottest thing to hit the eighth grade. I bought it, most likely sometime in December as it headed to the top in Chicago (#3 on WLS, #2 on WCFL) and #24 on the Hot 100, and (I think) the last spoken-word comedy cut to become a significant hit single. But by then, lots of people I knew were talking about the Big Bambu album. I borrowed a copy from a friend who had one, and then went out and got one of my own.
In 1973, parents of small-town eighth-graders wanted their kids to grow up right, but they didn’t give a damn what we listened to. I suspect now that if they’d paid attention to Big Bambu, they’d have confiscated it. Take, for example, “The Bust,” in which a couple of dealers flush their stash, a radio spot in favor of the legalization of marijuana featuring a stoner named Ashley Roachclip, or a game show called “Let’s Make a Dope Deal.” At the time, however, it never occurred to me, or to anybody else in the eighth grade, that adults would have the slightest interest in the frivolous crap we liked.
Cheech and Chong’s most successful single was yet to come: “Earache My Eye,” which went all the way into the Billboard Top 10 (and to #1 on WLS and at KHJ in Los Angeles) in the fall of 1974. The album containing “Earache My Eye,” Cheech and Chong’s Wedding Album, would go to #5. The duo would hit the singles chart five more times; “Framed” and “Bloat On” would both peak at #41. Their movie career began in 1978 with Up in Smoke, and they were fairly reliable box-office performers for the next seven years. Their record-chart career ended with “Born in East L.A.,” a Bruce Springsteen parody, in 1985.
Although Big Bambu‘s content would give parents and school officials an attack of the vapors today, it’s doubtful that it warped anybody I knew. To us, it was just funny. It certaintly didn’t make a stoner out of me. The giant-size rolling papers that came with the album, featuring a picture of Cheech and Chong, are still inside my copy today.
(Extensively rebooted from a post first appearing in 2004.)
I’m gonna climb out on a limb here and risk somebody sawing it off behind me by making the following declaration: all of the truly great songs about food come from performers who are A) Southern; B) black; or C) both. As tasty as Chicago-style pizza, Philadelphia cheesesteaks, or the Wisconsin fish fry can be, they’re apparently not tasty enough to inspire widespread musical inspiration. But how many songs have been written that involve Southern staples like grits, ribs, black-eyed peas, or fried chicken? During this Thanksgiving week, I offer you one of my favorite food songs, and it doesn’t mention a food item in the title at all.
Wet Willie was formed in Mobile, Alabama, and rose to fame on the Capricorn record label out of Macon, Georgia. They never reached the heights climbed by their labelmates, the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band, but they weren’t especially comparable to either of those bands anyhow. Wet Willie was a Southern soul band; had they formed in Memphis instead of Mobile, they’d have likely found their way to Stax and could have fit right in there without changing much.
The band recorded its first album in 1971, but only sharp-eared listeners would have heard of them before 1973, when they released a live album called Drippin’ Wet. Greater fame arrived in 1974 when their first hit single, “Keep on Smilin’,” made the Top 10. Dixie Rock and The Wetter the Better came in ’75 and ’76. Another live album followed (what “special editions” are to artists today, live albums were in the 1970s), and then the original lineup splintered. The new lineup produced two more albums and two more modest hit singles, “Street Corner Serenade” and “Weekend,” before going out of business in 1979—at least until the inevitable new-millennium reunion, which has resulted in a shifting lineup producing a couple more live albums.
(Digression: I am guessing that the cover of The Wetter the Better was a popular adornment on teenage bedroom and college dorm-room walls, at least until the Farrah poster came along. The Wetter the Better also features the superb “Everything That ‘Cha Do (Will Come Back to You”), #66 on the Hot 100, and “Baby Fat,” the lyric of which is skeevy as hell, but which also rocks like crazy.)
But let’s turn back to 1975 for a moment. For a band that could be plenty funky, it’s really saying something to call “Leona,” Dixie Rock‘s lead single, the greasiest thing they ever made—not just in sound, but in subject matter, too. It’s sung by a guy who stops in at a café that doesn’t look like much on the outside, but is heaven within:
She fixed a good ol’ golden brown Southern fried chicken
That would make the Colonel run and hide
I had collard greens and fresh snap beans
And sweet potatoes on the side
I had homemade biscuits just as big as your fist
A-drippin’ with sweet creamy butter
A Mason jar fulla cold ice tea
So good it make you run home to Mother
By 1975, disco was on its way in and Southern soul was on its way out. That’s probably why “Leona” lasted only five weeks on the Billboard chart, peaking at #69 in March. But nothing more scrumptious ever hit the Hot 100. Here’s hoping your Thanksgiving dinner this year is at least that tasty.
(Rebooted from a post first appearing in 2007.)
In 2009, I wrote about It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and every year in October that post gets a little bump in traffic. So here’s a reboot of it, with some additional stuff added.
Every time I watch The Great Pumpkin, I wonder how much of it goes sailing over the heads not merely of today’s kids, but of their parents’, too. . . . “I don’t see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” Never mind the vocabulary itself; today, placing such high stakes on sincerity versus hypocrisy seems about as quaint as worrying about the commercialization of Christmas, which is the point around which A Charlie Brown Christmas revolves.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was the third animated Peanuts special, following A Charlie Brown Christmas and the little-seen Charlie Brown’s All Stars, and like its two predecessors, it was among the highest-rated programs on television the week it aired—nearly 50 percent of the viewing audience watched the premiere on October 27, 1966. It won’t draw that kind of numbers when it’s rebroadcast on ABC this year, although it does well enough. If you plan to watch the network broadcast, keep in mind that when the show was originally produced, it ran 25 minutes. The standard for commercial TV today is 21 or 22, and sometimes less in “children’s” programming, so you may not be seeing the whole thing. According to Wikipedia, ABC once cut out the scene in which Lucy tries to get Charlie Brown to kick the football, one of the classic bits in the history of the Peanuts strip. That’s like trying to shorten “Stairway to Heaven” by taking out the guitar solo.
There’s a lot to love about The Great Pumpkin—the early scenes featuring golden fall leaves are gorgeous, and all throughout the show the backgrounds are rich with shades of gray and purple. And of course, there’s the music. Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, the soundtrack features of Vince Guaraldi’s cool, contemporary jazz. The choice to score the Christmas special with jazz hadn’t pleased CBS when that special was first delivered, but its success ensured that all future specials would feature the same sort of thing.
The soundtrack from A Charlie Brown Christmas is an album that sounds good even in July. It has always been a mystery to me why there has never been a Great Pumpkin soundtrack album. The full-band version of “Linus and Lucy” that backs the kids’ search for a Halloween pumpkin has been on my most-wanted list for years; the atmospheric music that underscores Snoopy’s World War I adventure behind enemy lines (a piece called “Breathless”) is much-sought-after by fans of the specials and of Guaraldi. Although Guaraldi recorded a version of “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” for the 1968 album Oh Good Grief!, nothing else from the special ever saw official release.
Here in 2018, however, The Great Pumpkin soundtrack is finally out—but buyer beware. According to the Peanuts-centric website FiveCentsPlease, the soundtrack is just that: the music and effects track from the special, and not original master tapes from the soundtrack sessions like A Charlie Brown Christmas. That means you’ll hear Linus rolling the giant pumpkin and Lucy stabbing it; when the kids are getting their candy, you’ll hear it dropping into the bags; Snoopy’s trek across the French countryside will have all the accompanying sound effects with it as well. Tapes of the original soundtrack sessions from 1966 are apparently lost, so the soundtrack release has been sourced from the TV audio. That means it’s in mono, and although it’s been cleaned up as much as possible by Craft Recordings, the quality is still not great. The CD is being sold at Amazon for $11.98, but it runs only about 20 minutes. So there are lots of reasons not to buy it, and you don’t need to. It’s on various streaming sites and at YouTube in its entirety.
But the disappointment of its official soundtrack doesn’t detract from the greatness of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. While it lacks the philosophical heft of A Charlie Brown Christmas, it has a level of sophistication and subtlety that’s missing from broadcast TV today. When it’s rebroadcast this coming Friday night, it’ll be the smartest thing on any of the broadcast networks—by a mile.
(Pictured: Aerosmith on The Midnight Special.)
If you read this blog regularly, you are probably old enough to remember when TV stations signed off the air at night, although you don’t have to be all that old. It was the early 90s before 24/7 operation became the norm in most places across the country. Before that, it didn’t make economic sense to stay on all night, given the difficulty of selling advertising in that time slot and the perception that the audiences would be tiny.
But how tiny were they, really? In 1972, producer Burt Sugarman realized that half of the people watching TV late at night watched Johnny Carson on NBC, and surely not all of them wanted to turn off their TVs when the show was over. Sugarman pitched NBC on a late-night music show featuring the best acts he could get, but NBC turned it down. So Sugarman taped a pilot, sold the show to Chevrolet, and bought the airtime himself. The August 19, 1972, broadcast of what Sugarman christened The Midnight Special was a hit and caused NBC to take a second look. In February 1973, the show began its regular run, Friday nights at 1AM Eastern.
Over the next eight years, nearly everybody who was anybody appeared on the show. None of the solo Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or the Who ever appeared, but the show welcomed a wide variety of acts nonetheless, including some who were not your typical TV fodder, from Black Oak Arkansas to King Crimson to Aerosmith (in 1974, two years before they became major stars) to AC/DC (in 1978). Country, R&B, and disco acts also appeared, as did standup comics including Andy Kaufman, George Carlin, and Freddie Prinze. Most performances were recorded live at NBC in Burbank, although some were taped elsewhere, most famously David Bowie’s 1980 Floor Show, his last performance as Ziggy Stardust, recorded in London and aired in November 1973. Most acts performed live, although sometimes they sang live to recorded backing tracks, and every now and then somebody would lip-sync. Acts were not discouraged from changing things up or stretching them out, as the Edgar Winter Group did on “Frankenstein,” which runs nine mind-blowing minutes. Fleetwood Mac’s extended “Rhiannon,” in which Stevie Nicks transforms into a rock goddess, is also an all-timer.
It wasn’t just the artists who were encouraged to experiment: if you watch the “Frankenstein” video, you’ll see that the director got into the act, too. Some of the directors’ choices don’t look so great now. They frequently filled the screen with head shots of performers, and if a band had multiple members, they often called for a split-screen head shot, as when Orleans did “Dance With Me” in 1975. The close head shots were often unflattering. Many performers wore no TV makeup, and many of the top bands of the 70s had members who were dumpy-looking and/or poorly groomed. The close head shots could be frustrating. In the case of Orleans, the three singers are shown close up, but the poor drummer bangs away anonymously in a wide shot. (I keep thinking of his mom, staying up late, excited to see him on TV, and then seeing that.) In this performance by Heart, the camera focuses on Ann Wilson and ignores Nancy Wilson completely.
Any TV show from the 70s is going to feature fashions that are hilarious now, and The Midnight Special is no exception. Aretha Franklin performed “Respect” in a dress that made her look like a half-plucked Big Bird. Todd Rundgren opted for a rather unfortunate butterfly costume to perform “Hello It’s Me.” (In their defense, of course, we all wore stuff back then that seemed like a good idea at the time.)
It wasn’t MTV that killed The Midnight Special; it was the changing landscapes of popular music and television, and the fragmenting of the audience. Beginning in the fall of 1980, the show featured many more country and light pop acts than rock stars, along with movie clips and celebrity profiles, as producers flailed around trying to find a formula that would stay relevant. In the end, going for mass appeal was no longer the way to score big ratings, even after midnight. On March 27, 1981, the final original episode of The Midnight Special aired on NBC. It was replaced in May by another underrated television classic, SCTV Network 90.
Clips from The Midnight Special are valuable not just to fans but to students of history. The show preserves a lot of the most popular and influential music ever made (and some of its most ephemeral, too) in its natural habitat. Historians don’t often have the luxury of seeing the past exactly as it was.
(Rebooted from a post originally appearing in 2008.)
Here’s a thing I posted 10 years ago today, on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. It links to a piece I contributed to Popdose that same day, which was based on something I wrote at my very first blog, probably on the 35th anniversary in 2003. It’s been edited a bit. For more on this day 50 years ago, scroll through my Twitter feed in the right-hand column.
It happened just after midnight in Los Angeles, so most of the country learned of it first thing in the morning. I remember coming out from my bedroom and hearing the news, one of the first days after school got out. I would have just finished second grade. Kennedy would die the next day, June 6, 1968. Over at Popdose, you’ll find a piece I wrote about the historical what-ifs involving the assassination of RFK. Here, I’d like to add some additional color from that day.
At YouTube, there’s a three-part video titled “RFK Assassination as it Happened,” which features RFK’s California primary victory speech and raw footage of the shooting aftermath and news coverage. It’s taken from one of those conspiracy DVDs that claims to find the real truth behind the Kennedy assassinations in connections between the CIA, the mob, and (for all I know) UFOs. Fortunately, there’s little of that flavor in the YouTube excerpts. You can find part one of the video and navigate to the additional parts here.
In London, the Rolling Stones had started recording “Sympathy for the Devil.” On the fly, Mick Jagger revised the song’s lyric, singing “I shouted out ‘who killed the Kennedys’”, instead of the original reference only to “John Kennedy.” If the standard chronology of the song’s recording is correct, the lyric would have been changed before RFK died.
When the Top 40 stations finished reporting the day’s sorry news and went back to music, it must have been difficult to reconcile the hits of the day with the real world. The Rascals’ “A Beautiful Morning” may have been meteorologically appropriate in many places, like my town, but not spiritually. Love songs like “This Guy’s in Love With You,” “Cowboys to Girls,” and “Like to Get to Know You” would have seemed trivial. The frivolity of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and “Yummy Yummy Yummy” must have been hard to stomach. “Reach Out in the Darkness” by Friend and Lover must have seemed like a dream crushed at birth. When Jim and Cathy Post sang about “people finally gettin’ together,” they did not imagine it would be around another Kennedy’s bier.“ Mony Mony,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?,” “Indian Lake,” “Jumping Jack Flash”—diversions all, but probably not diverting enough.
One might have hoped for solace through the cathartic emotion found in the best soul music, maybe from “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You),” the last hit by the David Ruffin edition of the Temptations. But what’s likeliest of all is that there was no quick fix, from the radio or from any other source. RFK himself, speaking on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated, reminded his audience that grief takes time: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Fifty years later, we hope to have acquired the wisdom, although a trace of the grief lingers.
As I wrote in my Popdose piece, I don’t think RFK would have gotten the Democratic nomination in 1968 or been elected that fall if he had. But I can’t be sure. He entered the race at a moment when millions of Americans were crying “enough,” not just about Vietnam but about poverty, racism, and a host of other ills, and perhaps their righteous anger would have been enough to make a miracle. Today, there’s a sense—or maybe not quite a sense, but a hope—that millions of Americans have seen enough Trumpism, the logical end point of a generation of conservative snake oil, to cry “enough.” If we make it to November, perhaps we’ll demand leaders who, instead of sowing division and inflicting pain by the simple act of showing up for work in the morning, will see wrong and try to right it, see suffering and try to heal it, see war and try to stop it.