(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.)
(Pictured: Charlie Daniels in the 70s.)
Forty, as in Top 40, is an arbitrary number. It goes back to the days when a radio format was first devised that would repeat the most popular songs of the moment over and over. If I’m recalling correctly, 40 represented the number of songs a radio station could play in approximately three hours before starting to play them again.
There are people in radio and out of it who will tell you that as a practical matter, only 10 or 15 songs are truly “popular” at any given moment. And even a song that rides high on the chart might not be all that popular with the audience. Radio people have talked for years about “turntable hits,” records that get airplay without inspiring people to buy them. (This phenomenon still exists in country music today, where a song can top the airplay chart while barely scraping the lower reaches of the sales chart.) So in any given week, the Top 40 contains songs that are popular, songs that were popular but aren’t so much anymore, songs that may become popular eventually—and maybe even songs that are never especially popular at all.
We saw this phenomenon the last time we looked at an American Top 40 show from 1973, and that long list of songs that were on the show but not charted at WLS in Chicago, one of the country’s leading Top 40 stations. We could make a similar list from the show dated August 25, 1973: “Future Shock” by Curtis Mayfield, “There It Is” by Tyrone Davis, “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out” by Bobby Womack, “I Was Checkin’ Out, She Was Checkin’ In” by Don Covay, and “Why Me” by Kris Kristofferson. These songs were popular in some places and on some formats—all except for Kristofferson were significant R&B chart hits—but they weren’t broad-based pop hits and they didn’t stick around long (again, with an exception for Kristofferson).
I would have guessed that several other songs found on this week’s Top 40 never charted on WLS, like “Cleopatra Jones” by Joe Simon, “The Hurt” by Cat Stevens, or “Believe in Humanity” by Carole King, but they did—and in the case of Stevens and King, for nine and seven weeks respectively. I don’t remember hearing them, though. Whether I remember hearing a song is probably not the best metric, however: “I Believe in You, You Believe in Me” by Johnnie Taylor charted 10 weeks and made #10 on the WLS chart, and I don’t remember hearing that one, either.
Another thing that struck me listening to this show was the relative lack of movement. True, the debut songs come zooming in as usual (all except “Future Shock,” which crept from #41 to #40 (and would go to #39 on September 1 and then out of the 40) and several declining songs fall the customary eight or 10 or a dozen places. But among the 40 there are seven songs in the same positions as the previous week; “Live and Let Die” by Wings (#2) and Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider” (#9) are in their third week at the same spots. Five songs move one place (two up, three down), and seven songs move two places (four up, three down). It would take somebody with better data analysis skills than I have—and a better work ethic—to tell how that compares to a typical week, but it seems a little slow to me. “Behind Closed Doors” by Charlie Rich holds at #36 on its way out of the 40, which seems weird, but not as weird as what Bloodstone’s “Natural High” had done. The record had peaked at #10 on July 21, then fell to #15 and then to #23, where it stayed for three straight weeks before sliding to #37 in this week.
But back to the idea of relative popularity: songs that are popular for a moment don’t necessarily endure through time. Certain songs on this chart certainly have: “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” “We’re an American Band,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Smoke on the Water,” “Diamond Girl,” and “My Maria” seem like all-timers to me, although your mileage may vary. But other high-riding hits seem out of time now. “The Morning After” was a #1 hit, but if it got much radio play after it left current rotations, it was because a running time of a little over two minutes made it useful for timing up to the network news at the top of the hour. And though “Delta Dawn” also hit #1, when the last time you heard it on the radio?
(Pictured: Billy Preston, 1974.)
Not gonna lie: the most obscure tunes on American Top 40 repeats make my old program director’s spidey senses tingle a little, and might cause current PDs to reach for the antacids. The show from the week of July 14, 1973, contains a remarkably large number of them. Some were unfamiliar even to me. And if a geek such as I doesn’t know something, chances are good that a casual listener isn’t going to know it either.
I decided to see how many of that week’s Billboard Top 40 never charted on WLS, the Top-40 giant from Chicago, which was what I listened to that summer. The following did not:
40. “Plastic Man”/Temptations
39. “Swamp Witch”/Jim Stafford
36. “Goin’ Home”/Osmonds
35. “Why Me”/Kris Kristofferson
33. “Where Peaceful Waters Flow”/Gladys Knight and the Pips
28. “Satin Sheets”/Jeanne Pruett
22. “Doing It to Death”/Fred Wesley and the JBs
A few other songs charted briefly: “I’ll Always Love My Mama” by the Intruders (#38) for two weeks, “Misdemeanor” by Foster Sylvers (#25) for three, and Gladys Knight’s “Daddy Could Swear, I Declare” (#24) for five.
It’s possible that WLS may have played some of the missing songs for a short time without charting them. Whatever the case, some of the missing and semi-missing are pretty good. “I’ll Always Love My Mama” is a Gamble and Huff production, and those are always welcome. “Misdemeanor” might put you in mind of the Jackson Five, a circumstance almost certainly intentional. “Where Peaceful Waters Flow” seems a lot more commercial and appealing than the more successful “Daddy Could Swear, I Declare.” WLS had charted the Osmonds’ hard-rockin’ “Crazy Horses” and “Hold Her Tight” for only five weeks each in 1972 and must have figured that “Goin’ Home” wouldn’t measure up to them.
“Why Me” did just fine without airplay on WLS, with one of the longest and strangest chart Billboard chart runs in history. Somebody who was there in 1973 would have to explain the crossover appeal of “Satin Sheets,” which sounds to me like plain old hard country. Its chart profile at ARSA is similar to that of “Doing It to Death,” actually: each had lots of listings on country/R&B stations and got a little bit of traction at a few major Top 40 outlets. Maybe that was enough to push both records up the Hot 100. What appealed to anybody at any station about “Swamp Witch,” I have no idea; it’s dreadful.
Although we hear some certifiable killers in the first half of the show, including “Frankenstein,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” and “One of a Kind (Love Affair),” it takes 90 minutes before the 7/14/73 show consistently features songs a casual listener is going to know, and I can’t remember another edition like that.
Once the show gets to the Top 20, however, it’s pretty solid, and the stretch from #21 to #8 is pretty much all-killer, no filler, although your mileage may vary on “Monster Mash.” People underrate “Touch Me in the Morning” and “So Very Hard to Go”—I can’t think of a way one might improve on either one of them. “Money” and “Behind Closed Doors” back-to-back is a quintessential AT40 train wreck, in a good way. I am not particularly a fan of Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby,” but with “Pillow Talk” and “Behind Closed Doors,” it completes a very horny quarter hour. “Long Train Running,” “Right Place Wrong Time,” and “Smoke on the Water” have been so familiar for so long that it takes some effort to remember they were once current hits jockeying for position like everything else. The very top of the chart is only just OK: “Playground in My Mind” and “Yesterday Once More” don’t do much for me; the rest are decent (yes, even the frequently reviled “My Love,” which I don’t mind), but pretty crispy after 45 years.
Casey notes what he calls one of the most amazing bits of chart trivia ever: Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round in Circles” is #1 this week, having followed Paul McCartney’s “My Love” and George Harrison’s “Give Me Love” into the #1 spot. In 1969, the #1 hit “Get Back” was credited to the Beatles with Billy Preston. If it had been three official members of the Beatles with consecutive #1 hits, Casey says, it would be easier to understand, but the oddity of Preston being co-credited with the Beatles on a single hit makes it a remarkable longshot.
(Pictured: “Bernie, what does this mean here, ‘I saw it as you flew between my reason’?”)
I do not love Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player the way I do other albums from Elton John’s classic 1972-1977 period. Nevertheless, it found its way into the car CD player recently, so here’s a ranking of the tracks. If you haven’t heard it for a while, it’s here.
13. “Jack Rabbit.” This was one of two songs on the B-side of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and is a bonus track on the 1995 reissue of the album. It’s a country song that runs 1:50, but there’s even less to it than that.
12. “Texan Love Song.” Elton sings as a patriotic Texas redneck who hates communism, “fairies,” rock ‘n’ roll, and everything else brought to America by “out-of-town guys.” Despite an attempt at a drawl and an ostentatious mandolin, Elton still comes off as the exact sort of long-haired English dandy the Texan would shoot from his porch.
11. “Midnight Creeper.” According to Wikipedia, Elton was going for a Rolling Stones-ish sound on this. News flash: Wikipedia is wrong.
10. “Whenever You’re Ready (We’ll Go Steady Again).” Also on the “Saturday Night’s Alright” B-side, and as crankable as the A-side. Also a reissue bonus track.
9. “Have Mercy on the Criminal.” Big and cinematic and like nothing else Elton had done to this point. It’s easy to imagine it appearing on any of his next three albums, but not on his previous three.
8. “I’m Gonna Be a Teenage Idol.” This feels a bit like a companion piece to Honky Chateau‘s “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself,” in which the bored teenager of the latter song bought a guitar instead of committing suicide and found a calling in life.
7. “Teacher I Need You.” I keep thinking as I listen to this album that I like Elton’s performances and the production on this album more than I like the songs he’s singing. He and the band sound great, but the songs at the bottom of this list just kind of disappear right after I hear them.
6. “Blues for Baby and Me.” Spoiler: of the top six songs in my rankings, four of them are ballads.
5. “Crocodile Rock.” Nobody really needs to hear this song again, but if you manage to forget being sick of it, you can’t deny how incredibly hooky it is. Its goofy extravagance—not so much in sound as in attitude—came from a well Elton would return to repeatedly over the next several years.
4. “Elderberry Wine.” This was the B-side of “Crocodile Rock,” which is pretty good value for your 95 cents right there. Although it’s got a bit of Bernie Taupin’s reflexive misogyny (the singer is nostalgic for the woman who used to wait on him hand and foot), it also rocks like crazy.
3. “Skyline Pigeon.” This first appeared on Empty Sky with Elton accompanying himself on harpsichord and organ. This full-band version, with Elton in much better voice than he’d been in 1969, was cut during the Don’t Shoot Me sessions but remained unreleased until 1988, when it turned up on a UK compilation, and in the States on the Rare Masters box set in 1992. (By that time, it had become famous through its association with young AIDS victim Ryan White, whom Elton befriended, and at whose 1990 funeral he performed the song.) Why it was shelved in 1973 I can’t imagine, as it’s a near-textbook example of the radio-friendly Elton sound the world couldn’t get enough of in the mid 70s. In some alternate universe, it was a #1 single for weeks and weeks.
2. “High Flying Bird.” This is the last track on the original album, which means Don’t Shoot Me is book-ended by two of Elton’s most beautiful ballads. As so often happens, Bernie’s lyric is largely gibberish, but as so often also happens, Elton rescues it with a hook-laden melody and then sings the hell out of it.
1. ” Daniel.” This opens the album, with Elton on electric piano and Mellotron instead of acoustic piano, giving it a feel that is unique in his catalog. When he reprises the first verse right at the end (“Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane”), the sadness at the heart of the song is fully revealed, in the kind of goosebump moment that is one of the reasons we love music.
(Pictured: Senators listen to testimony during the Watergate hearings, 1973.)
The break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate Hotel happened in June 1972. But if you were transported back to, say, September of ’72, and you went looking for news about it in your local paper, you’d probably wonder where it was. The scandal was a local DC story for a long time—in fact, reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose reputations were eventually made by their coverage of the scandal, saw their stories appear only in the Metro section of the Washington Post for months on end. To Mr. and Mrs. Average American, the scandal story was swamped by other news, including the ’72 campaign, Richard Nixon’s landslide reelection, and the ongoing struggle to end the Vietnam War.
The scandal metastasized between January and April 1973. (Not for nothing would White House counsel John Dean call it “a cancer on the presidency.”) First came the trial of the Watergate burglars and the admission by one of them that he had been pressured to perjure himself by higher officials; then the revelation that the FBI believed Dean had lied to them. With the scandal on the cover of Time magazine, on April 30, 1973, came the firing of Dean and the forced resignations of Nixon’s two top aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. (Attorney general Richard Kleindienst also quit that day.) Two weeks later, Senate hearings into the scandal began. Throughout the summer and fall of 1973, what former attorney general John Mitchell called “the White House horrors” came out day by day, unspooling into the winter and spring of 1974, and to Nixon’s bitter end that summer.
Radio stations carried news on the hour and we watched network TV news every night after supper, so 13-year-old me knew all about those horrors, about executive privilege and the 18-minute gap, “expletive deleted” and “unindicted co-conspirator.” After the televised Senate hearings began, we watched them in social studies class. The hearings were historic, and I presume that our teachers believed we seventh-graders could become part of history by watching.
But no American, age 13 or any other age, was completely consumed by a sense of history unfolding. We all had our own lives to lead. Sunday, April 29, 1973, was my mother’s birthday, so there was probably some sort of family celebration, maybe dinner at a restaurant after church. If we got home in time, I certainly would have turned on the baseball game, to watch the first-place Cubs run their record to 12-and-8 with a 2-0 win over San Diego at Wrigley Field. Rick Monday’s lead-off home run in the first inning was all pitcher Rick Reuschel needed.
On the school bus 45 years ago today, I would have passed the time listening to the radio. Besides the songs I’ve already written about this month, WLS was playing “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I’ve Got,” “Stuck in the Middle With You,” and “Drift Away,” and they haven’t really been off the radio in 45 years. “Peaceful” by Helen Reddy is better than you remember. The new Elton John record, “Daniel,” would quickly become a favorite of mine. But the song that most reliably takes me back to that spring is none of those: weirdly enough, Anne Murray’s version of “Danny’s Song” is the one that always puts me on the bus, watching the farms of Clarno and Cadiz Townships wake up after winter, and thinking about the concerns of the day, not just in my seventh-grade world but in the wider world I was becoming a part of.
We assume that kids today grow up faster than we did. But in the spring of 1973, Americans of all ages were growing up fast. We were learning that what we’d always assumed about our leaders wasn’t necessarily true—that holding high office was no guarantee of virtuous behavior, and that if the United States was going to remain a country of laws and not of men, it was necessary to take action to ensure that it would be. Forty-five springs later, the lessons still resonate.
(Pictured: Edgar Winter, performing on ABC’s late-night music show, In Concert.)
Over the years, I’ve frequently gotten two posts out of a single edition of American Top 40. So that makes this post a record-breaker of a sort: a third one from the show dated April 21, 1973. Having discussed the first hour as well as the song at #1, here are a few noteworthy bits from elsewhere.
When Dick Clark guest-hosted in March 1972, it was he who suggested that instead of recording the show live in real time, Casey’s bits could be scripted in advance and tracked all at once, with the engineers piecing the show together later. I suspect, however, that the 4/21/73 show was done in real time, and here’s why: over the introduction to “Hallelujah Day” by the Jackson Five (#31), Casey wanted to list the 4 #1 singles the Jackson Five had to date. He mentioned “ABC,” “I Want You Back,” and “I’ll Be There,” but in a peculiarly halting way not at all characteristic of his smooth style.
The reason was that he was trying to think of the fourth title, and he couldn’t remember it.
There is a particular feeling when you, the jock, get into a bit and it starts to go haywire. I’ve experienced it more times than I care to remember. With the song intro starting to run out, Casey was considering two questions at once: A) “what’s the goddamn fourth song?” and B) “how can I salvage this if I don’t think of it?” He eventually opted for B, saying “There’s a fourth song I can’t remember! Here’s ‘Hallelujah Day.'”
(Casey came out of “Hallelujah Day” by mentioning that the song he couldn’t remember was “The Love You Save.” In his defense, that’s the one everybody forgets.)
Back to back at #27 and #26 are two songs that couldn’t be more different, but which both suffer from the same thing: overzealous production. “Out of the Question” by Gilbert O’Sullivan is a little gimmicky simply as a song. Then producer Gordon Mills adds various musical accents and flourishes that sound OK for a minute-and-a-half, but by the end, the record is simply trying too hard. “Funky Worm,” the self-produced first hit by the Ohio Players, hits a pretty good groove, especially with what was then a groundbreaking ARP synthesizer line, but renders itself unlistenable with a speeded-up “worm” voice yammering all the way through it.
The highest-debuting song of the week is Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” at #25, coming in from #41 on the Hot 100 the week before. WLS had charted it for the first time in the same week, so it wouldn’t have been long before I went out and bought the 45. It had been a while since I’d heard the edit, which cuts the 4:44 album version to 3:28, and it improves quite a bit on the original.
The week’s #24 hit, “Daisy a Day” by Jud Strunk, created yet another train wreck on a show that’s full of them. Strunk’s gentle, sentimental tale about a couple’s love that survives the death of one of them made #14 on the Hot 100 in a 16-week run (although WLS only charted it for two weeks), and #4 on Easy Listening. Strunk was a multimedia star, having been a regular during the last season of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which aired its last original episode in March. The wreck is redoubled with #23, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Deodato. This is the third time I’ve heard it on old AT40s this year, and every time, it’s been shortened, either by the engineers in 1973 or today.
Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years,” checking in at #22, joins “Frankenstein” and “Hocus Pocus” (#39) as the hardest-rockin’ records on this chart. The #1 album in the nation during this week was rockin’ too: Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies, which makes quite a contrast with the Dawn/Vicki Lawrence/Carpenters threesome topping the singles chart.
Up at #20 is “Wildflower” by Skylark, which Casey introduces by name-checking its producer, Eirik the Norwegian. (Although Casey didn’t explain, that’s Eirik Wangberg, who got his nickname from Paul McCartney after doing some engineering on the album Ram.) I wrote earlier this year about my growing interest in girls during the spring I turned 13, and how I was less interested in physical action than in simply making some pretty girl happy. The girl in “Wildflower” clearly needed a man like me, because “she’s faced the hardest times you could imagine / And many times her eyes fought back the tears.” Thirteen-year-old me promised himself that he would never do anything to make her cry. But that free and gentle flower was not growing wild in any field I knew of.