Through Your Eyes

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The music of January 1976 is emblematic of the listener I had become by then, and of the one I would be forever after. I was never going to be a metalhead; neither was I going to be somebody on the prowl for the next big thing. I was a creature of the radio, and specifically of Top 40 radio. While my horizons broadened some over the years— making room for prog rock while I was still a teenager and straight jazz after I turned 40—I still remain the kind of listener I was in January 1976: I want to hear the hits, and I want to hear them again and again. The list below is from Radio and Records.

1. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”/Paul Simon
2. “I Write the Songs”/Barry Manilow
Simon’s cool and clever wordplay is miles ahead of “I Write the Songs” composer Bruce Johnston’s sometimes-shaky “I am music” metaphor, but the latter is redeemed by these lines about the power of music to renew itself: “Now when I look out through your eyes / I’m young again even though I’m very old.”

3. “Theme From S.W.A.T”/Rhythm Heritage. We have noted before how several themes from ABC shows became radio hits in 1976, including S.W.A.T., Happy Days, Welcome Back Kotter, Baretta, and Laverne and Shirley.

And speaking of the latter, the death of Cindy Williams this week should remind us all that she and Penny Marshall are, in character, still among the most recognizable figures of the 1970s. It’s also worth remembering how Laverne and Shirley detonated in popular culture during the very period I’m writing about here. The first episode, on January 27, 1976, was #1 in the ratings that week. The show’s 15-episode first season did well enough to rank #3 for the entire 1975-1976 TV season, behind All in the Family and the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (which debuted in the same week). For the 1976-1977 season it was #2 behind Happy Days, which preceded it on Tuesday nights. For the next two seasons, it was #1.

4. “Love to Love You Baby”/Donna Summer
7. “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”/Neil Sedaka
12. “Love Hurts”/Nazareth
13. “Convoy”/C. W. McCall
23. “Slow Ride”/Foghat
26. “Paloma Blanca”/George Baker Selection
30. “Dream On”/Aerosmith

31. “The White Knight”/Cledus Maggard
If my taste was/is small-c catholic, I came by it organically. Look at the variety among the 40 songs on this chart, and think about the willingness of mass appeal radio stations to play all of it: “Yeah, we already got Donna Summer pretending to get laid, Neil Sedaka doing a lounge number, and two CB radio novelty songs. Damn right we want Foghat and Aerosmith. And get us a polka too while you’re at it.”

5. “Evil Woman”/Electric Light Orchestra
6. “Love Rollercoaster”/Ohio Players

9. “Sing a Song”/Earth Wind and Fire
10. “Take It to the Limit”/Eagles

11. “You Sexy Thing”/Hot Chocolate
18. “Fanny”/Bee Gees
25. “Walk Away From Love”/David Ruffin
36. “Tracks of My Tears”/Linda Ronstadt
Any of these could be the best song on the list, although with the exception of “The White Knight” and Helen Reddy’s incredibly stiff version of “Somewhere in the Night,” every song has something to recommend it. Of course, the best song on the list might also be:

28. “Winners and Losers”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds. There are songs that sound better on the radio than in any other environment. Imagine that you are 15-going-on-16 and listening to your favorite DJ on your favorite radio station. He makes a wisecrack, jingles out of it, and then plays this.

You want to be on the radio someday because you want to do that.

32. “Times of Your Life”/Paul Anka. Anka sings, “Suddenly it’s hard to find the memories you left behind.” And I realize that yeah, after all these years, the memories have gotten hard to find. I can’t tell you specifically why the winter of 1976 feels to me like it does, not like I could with the winter of 1977. What is left of being 15-going-on-16 are a few strong images and the retroactive realization that something important was happening to me then.

What it was, exactly, I don’t know.

But it occurs to me that I don’t need to know. As I listen to these songs, the vibe they create all together allows me to feel young again, even though I’m very old. And some of these days, there’s nothing I want more.

This post is by reader request. If there’s something you’d like to read about, get in touch

Among My Souvenirs

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(Pictured: Marty Robbins, in a promotional photo for the 1976 Academy of Country Music Awards show broadcast.)

A while back, I threatened to start a blog about 1970s country, and several amongst the readership said they’d read it. This trip inside the Top 100 country hits of 1976 from KLAC in Los Angeles is for y’all.

99. “Fly Away”/John Denver
67. “Country Boy”/Glen Campbell
56. “Hurt”/Elvis Presley
47. “Come on Over”/Olivia Newton-John
Lots of songs on this chart crossed over to the pop chart. All of these made the pop Top 40. Spoiler alert: there are others to be covered below.

78. “Afternoon Delight”/Johnny Carver
76. “Save Your Kisses for Me”/ Margo Smith
32. “Misty Blue”/Billie Joe Spears
Contemporaneous country covers, sprouting up as a song hit big on the pop charts, used to be a thing. That there would be one of “Afternoon Delight” was a mortal lock.

72. “Here Comes the Freedom Train”/Merle Haggard
16. “The Roots of My Raising”/Merle Haggard
4. “Cherokee Maiden”/Merle Haggard
“Here Comes the Freedom Train,” about the Bicentennial exhibit that criss-crossed the country from April 1975 through April 1977, was Haggard’s lowest-charting single since 1965 (!), and it still made #10 in Billboard.

70. “I’ll Go Back to Her”/Waylon Jennings
61. “Suspicious Minds”/Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter
15. “If You’ve Got the Money”/Willie Nelson
13. “Remember Me”/Willie Nelson
5. “Good Hearted Woman”/Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson
The Waylon and Willie outlaw country legend kicked into overdrive in 1976, with the compilation album The Outlaws, the first country album to get the RIAA’s new platinum certification for one million sold, and Willie’s The Sound in Your Mind, which was Billboard‘s #1 country album of 1976. Allow me to recommend yet again Outlaw: Willie, Waylon, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville, an excellent history of the movement, by Michael Streissguth.

68. “Somebody Loves You”/Crystal Gayle
46. “She Never Knew Me”/Don Williams
39. “Among My Souvenirs”/Marty Robbins

34. “El Paso City”/Marty Robbins
20. “Say It Again”/Don Williams
11. “Til the Rivers All Run Dry”/Don Williams
9. “I’ll Get Over You”/Crystal Gayle
Gayle, Robbins, and Williams are not usually mentioned among the first rank of country superstars, but they ought to be. “I’ll Get Over You” and “El Paso City” have been favorites of this blog since always. “She Never Knew Me” is quintessential Williams: brilliant storytelling as natural as breathing.

64. “Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life”/Moe Bandy
35. “Golden Ring”/George Jones and Tammy Wynette
I don’t have much to say about either one of these, but “Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life” and “Golden Ring” are about as country as country can be.

63. “Broken Lady”/Larry Gatlin
49. “If I Had to Do It All Over Again”/Roy Clark
29. “Faster Horses”/Tom T. Hall
17. “You’ll Lose a Good Thing”/Freddy Fender
10. “(I’m a) Stand by My Woman Man”/Ronnie Milsap

I’m gonna sing along with a lot of songs on this chart and nobody can stop me.

53. “The Man on Page 602″/Zoot Fenster. Behold an artifact of a viral sensation. On page 602 of the 1975 Sears Fall/Winter catalog was a picture of an underwear model, and it sure looked like he was accidentally displaying a bit of his junk. Alas, “The Man on Page 602” is not very good, but the fact that it got any traction at all indicates just how sensational the sensation was.

42. “Me and Ol’ CB”/Dave Dudley
27. “Convoy”/C. W. McCall
9. “The White Knight”/Cledus Maggard

As 1975 turned to 1976, CB radio songs were thick on the ground, and the top two below are additional artifacts of that time.

26. “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You”/Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius
7. “Sometimes”/Bill Anderson and Mary Lou Turner
If you turn on country radio today, you won’t hear many songs about adultery. Not so in the horny 70s. “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You” is about two people who either want to do it or don’t, and/or want to get married before they do it, or don’t. “Sometimes” is a song I’ve written about before. Bill Anderson, who is now the longest-tenured living member of the Grand Ole Opry (60 years) since the death of Stonewall Jackson last month, had #1 hits with two different duet partners, Jan Howard and Turner.

2. “One Piece at a Time”/Johnny Cash
1. “Teddy Bear”/Red Sovine
Both of these also crossed over to the pop charts, although “Teddy Bear” spent but one week at #40. Sovine is also on this chart at #73 with “Phantom 309,” a truck-driving ghost story also recorded by Tom Waits.

Today, KLAC is a sports station, carrying the Dodgers, Clippers, Chargers, and UCLA football and basketball, but its history includes 23 years as a country station, from 1970 to 1993. My history includes several years as a country radio DJ, and most of these songs were heard on my shows at one point or another.

Come on Over

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(Pictured: Olivia Newton-John, in a promotional shot for her November 1976 TV special.)

I have written so much about 1976 over the years that I couldn’t possibly say anything new in the customary Bottom 60 companion piece to my earlier post about the American Top 40 show from March 13, 1976. There’s only one thing to do when you’re in a corner like that: try to write your way out of it.

47. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”/Creedence Clearwater Revival. This is a shortened version of the classic track from Cosmo’s Factory, released as a single to promote the two-disc Chronicle compilation that had come out in January. It would peak at #43 on the Hot 100 and #47 in Cash Box. At the ARSA database, fewer stations charted “Grapevine” as a single in 1976 than had done so as an album cut in 1970. Its highest position was #6 at WDNG in Anniston, Alabama.

57. “Sara Smile”/Hall and Oates
78. “Rhiannon”/Fleetwood Mac
Pick any random week of the 70s or 80s and you’ll find new records that haven’t been off the radio in all the years since.

59. “Without Your Love (Mr. Jordan)”/Charlie Ross. I have previously mentioned “Without Your Love,” a fabulously cheesy cheatin’ song with a twist. What I didn’t mention, I don’t think, is that in the early days of the pandemic last year, I got an e-mail from Charlie Ross himself, who had come across my post about it, and who sent thanks and greetings. He said he’s back in Mississippi, working in radio, and still playing music.

70. “Highfly”/John Miles. On March 15, 1976, WCFL in Chicago made what is probably the best-remembered format change in history, from Top 40 to elevator music. The station published its last survey sometime in February, if I’m recalling correctly, but I remember hearing new songs on the station right up until the end. “Highfly” was one of them.

71. “Strange Magic”/Electric Light Orchestra. Make me choose one favorite ELO song and it will be the woozy, dreamy “Strange Magic.” Jeff Lynne is not the most expressive vocalist, but I’m not sure he ever sang anything better than “Oh I’m never gonna be the same again / I’ve seen the way it’s got to end / Sweet dreams, sweet dreams.”

74. “Mozambique”/Bob Dylan. I have read that “Mozambique” came about after Dylan and a collaborator wondered how many words ended with “ique.” “Mozambique” is a more conventional single than “Hurricane,” its predecessor from the Desire album, but no less a product of Dylan’s unique (yeah, I said it) vision.

76. “Mighty High”/Mighty Clouds of Joy. How the magnificent “Mighty High” stalled out at #69 on the Hot 100 and #77 in Cash Box I do not know. It wasn’t even especially big on the soul charts, #15 in Cash Box and #22 in Billboard. It was probably too pop for their gospel fans, and maybe too gospel for pop fans, but it’s Philly-soul fire, and we play it loud every time.

79. “The Game Is Over (What’s the Matter With You)”/Brown Sugar. “The Game Is Over” is more excellent Philadelphia soul, produced by Vince Montana, former member of MSFB, who was at #26 in this week with the Salsoul Orchestra on “Tangerine.” Brown Sugar was a trio fronted by Clydie King, whose name will be familiar to liner-note readers. She started as one of Ray Charles’ Raelettes, and backed artists ranging from Elton John and Barbra Streisand to the Rolling Stones and Steely Dan. Dylan called her his ultimate singing partner; it was rumored that they were secretly married for a time, although none of the obituaries I read after her death in 2019 had anything to say about that.

83. “Come on Over”/Olivia Newton-John. “Come on Over” was written by Barry and Robin Gibb and was on the Bee Gees’ 1975 album Main Course. It continued ONJ’s dominant run on the adult-contemporary chart as her sixth straight #1 hit. It got to #23 on the Hot 100 and #5 on Billboard‘s country chart.

89. “Eh! Cumpari”/Gaylord and Holiday. “Eh! Cumpari” was most famously recorded by Julius LaRosa in 1953, and was recut by Gaylord and Holiday for an Alitalia Airlines commercial in 1975, and eventually as a novelty song. It contains a long Italian-dialect bit in the middle, to which I stopped paying attention long before the punchline. Gaylord and Holiday (neither of whom was actually named either Gaylord or Holiday) had scored some extremely minor hits in the 50s under the name of the Gaylords.

Someday we might run out of stuff to say about 1976. Not today and maybe not tomorrow, but someday. Maybe.

Teardrops and Laughter

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(Pictured: Rufus, 1976.)

“Surely, Jim, you must have written about all of the American Top 40 shows from 1976 by now.” Oh, surely not. Not March 13, 1976. Not in detail, anyway.

37. “Show Me the Way”/Peter Frampton. Part of the appeal of old AT40 shows is witnessing history in real time. This is a debut; Frampton Comes Alive was about to become an inescapable phenomenon. As Mike Myers said in Wayne’s World II: “Everybody in the world has Frampton Comes Alive. If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide.”

34. “Inseparable”/Natalie Cole
27. “Just You and I”/Melissa Manchester
Both of these are fine, highly polished adult-contemporary presentations, although I can’t remember a thing about them, and it seems like there’s a nonzero chance they’re the same record.

32. “Good Hearted Woman”/Waylon and Willie
31. “Love Is the Drug”/Roxy Music
23. “Sweet Love”/Commodores
One of these is the best record on the show, although “Love Is the Drug” was edited to two minutes. (I wrote about the large number of edited songs on this show a few years back.) Listening to “Good Hearted Woman,” I was struck by the line “through teardrops and laughter they’ll pass through this world hand-in-hand.” It’s a simple thing. If, when the world ends, we have had someone, a spouse or a partner or a child or a sibling or a friend or a parent who was beside us for all of it, how could we ask for more?

28. “Let Your Love Flow”/Bellamy Brothers
25. “Right Back Where We Started From”/Maxine Nightingale

13. “Money Honey”/Bay City Rollers
12. “Disco Lady”/Johnnie Taylor
These are the hottest songs of the week. “Right Back Where We Started From” is a debut, zooming in from #45 the previous week. “Let Your Love Flow” and “Money Honey” are up 10. (Casey says “Money Honey” might make #1, but it will stall at #9.) “Disco Lady” is up 14 spots in its second week among the 40.

22. “Bohemian Rhapsody”/Queen. AT40 never edited “Bohemian Rhapsody,” to my knowledge. To play it for six minutes basically means finding room for an extra song, but the way this show plays out, that could have been done without editing so many others. The original 1976 broadcast included Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” as an extra, which was cut from the repeat. Casey’s modern-day producers kept an extended feature on Wayne Newton, including “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast.”

(Digression: In the late 80s, when I worked at the elevator-music station, we helped promote a Wayne Newton show in our town, and several of us attended. I was skeptical about whether I would enjoy it. I expected old-school showbiz on steroids, and at times, it was cheesy bordering on cringeworthy. But no entertainer ever worked harder to win over an audience, or succeeded so spectacularly. By the end, we were all eating out of the palm of his hand. Even me.)

11. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”/Paul Simon
10. “Junk Food Junkie”/Larry Groce
9. “Sweet Thing”/Rufus
8. “Love Hurts”/Nazareth”
7. “Theme From SWAT”/Rhythm Heritage
6. “Lonely Night (Angel Face)”/Captain and Tennille
5. “Dream Weaver”/Gary Wright
4. “Take It to the Limit”/Eagles
3. “Love Machine”/Miracles
2. “All By Myself”/Eric Carmen
1. “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”/Four Seasons
I listened to the last hour of this show driving back to Madison from a funeral visitation in my hometown. I hadn’t seen Joel in years, and I went to his visitation mostly for the sake of his mother, who has now buried two sons and a husband in the past three years. When they were all young marrieds, she and her husband, my parents, and a handful of other couples attended the same church and frequently socialized together. All of them had multiple children at about the same time. Four of us would end up graduating in the same high-school class. I said to her, “We were babies together,” thinking not just of Joel, but of that entire flock of kids born around the turn of the 1960s.

American Top 40 not only gives us a chance to witness history as it unfolded in real time, it can remind us of how much history we have been through ourselves. As I listened, I thought about teardrops and laughter, and the journey from babies together to teenagers in 1976, and now to the place in adulthood where we are required to bury our friends.

That’s probably not the ending you were expecting when you started. Me neither.

Do You Know Where You’re Going To?

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What follows has been sitting in my Drafts folder for quite literally years. In 2020, I noodled with it as part of a podcast episode that never got recorded. 

It is a weekday morning in January 1976. Through the windows on the south side of the house lies a snow-crusted yard, the ice-slick town road that runs past the farm, and the frozen fields beyond. Leafless trees stand gray and brown against the white. Amid the outbuildings, Dad’s farm vehicles provide the only color there is—green tractors and a blue truck. The sun is filtered through winter clouds to a silvery shine that lights the day without warming it.

My brother and I come down from our bedrooms to the smell of toast and coffee. The kitchen radio is blaring WEKZ, the local radio station. We grab our bites of breakfast and bundle up for the day—heavy coats, stocking caps, and gloves, in pockets if not on hands. Often there’s a fight over wearing boots, which Mother insists on, and in which sophomores such as I would not be caught dead.

The school bus soon roars up the town road, and we tramp outside to climb aboard. I sit near the radio speaker, and it plays one of the big hits of the moment, the Diana Ross theme from Mahogany. The song’s question—“Do you know where you’re going to?”—is a pertinent one.

Our town is a farming community. There is a modest social hierarchy, in that the wealthiest families, the doctors and lawyers and other civic bigwigs, live in the same part of town, and their kids tend to run in a pack and lord it over the rest of us. But that social gulf doesn’t matter all that much, simply because the farm kids outnumber them.

To me, the more significant social gulf is the one between farm families who never seem to get all of the shit off their shoes and those who do. We are in the latter category. Mother lives on a farm, had grown up on a farm, but considers herself a farm wife only up to a point. She does not help milk the cows, as some farm wives do. She used to drive the hay baler in the summer, at least until she got a job in town the year I turned 12. She keeps the rest of farm life at arm’s length, and she is absolute hell on farm dirt in her house—and in our lives. If Dad needs to go to town, he will hose off his boots and sometimes change his clothes before doing so, even if he is going only to the feed store or the implement dealer. Now that I am 15-going-on-16, I don’t go along with him anymore, but back when I did, my brothers and I could see the difference between him and other farmers, some of them the fathers of kids we knew. We learned from his example, and theirs.

On this January morning in 1976, I do not actively dislike being a farm kid, but I already know that in the long term, farm life is not for me. And on this morning, I think I know where I am going to, but I see only the vague shape of something in the distance. There’s nothing more than that to see, because I am 15-going-on-16, and I don’t know what I don’t know.

“I think I know where I am going to, but I see only the vague shape of something in the distance.” While the winter of 1976 seems freighted with meaning now, it didn’t feel that way then. The vague shape in the distance was definitely there, though. I knew I was going to college and I knew that radio would be my career. But it was at least two years away—an eternity when you are 15-going-on-16.

I’d like to go back there, for just one morning. To hear the radio, smell the toast and coffee, hear the bus rumble up the road again—and not know what I now know about that vague shape in the distance. 

Rolling Home

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(Pictured: Grace Slick, 1975)

As is customary around here after discussing an American Top 40 show, let’s see what else we can see on the Hot 100 during the week of January 10, 1976.

42. “Take It to the Limit”/Eagles. Most people never take anything to the limit, ever. Considering Randy Meisner is singing about how he’s going to take it to the limit one more time, implying that he’s done it before (whatever “it” is), no wonder he sounds so weary.

49. “Play on Love”/Jefferson Starship. Grace Slick sings the hell out of “Play on Love” and I’ve always liked that, but I wish the arrangement behind her had more going on, on the order of “Miracles” or “Runaway.”

51. “Tracks of My Tears”/Linda Ronstadt
52. “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)”/Bee Gees
59. “The Homecoming”/Hagood Hardy
61. “Break Away”/Art Garfunkel
62. “Back to the Island”/Leon Russell
The challenge for me in writing this post is finding new things to say about records I like instead of repeating things I have said before.

54. “Love or Leave”/Spinners. From the album Pick of the Litter, released in the summer of 1975, which contains the magnificent “They Just Can’t Stop It (Games People Play).”

58. “Feelings”/Morris Albert. This record had peaked at #6 back in the fall, but here it is moving up again, from #64, in its 30th week on the Hot 100.

67. “Don’t Cry Joni”/Conway Twitty. A few years ago, we noted that Conway Twitty had 40 #1 country singles, the second-most of all time, but never became cool on the level of George Jones, Johnny Cash, or Merle Haggard. Incredibly sappy records like “Don’t Cry Joni” probably didn’t help.

(Digression: “Don’t Cry Joni” tells a fairly predictable story—young girl falls for older boy and asks him to wait for her til she’s grown, he says he’s too old for her and moves away but realizes years later he’s in love with her, he moves back home, and he finds out that she didn’t wait. Even a predictable story can be made enjoyable if the author is just as careful about what he leaves out as what he puts in. The last verse of “Don’t Cry Joni” makes it clear where the story will end, but the last line is the lyricist saying to the audience, “I don’t think you’re smart enough to get this unless I smack you upside the head with it.” My instantaneous reaction at the moment I heard it: “oh for chrissakes.”)

71. “Bohemian Rhapsody”/Queen. Here it comes, in its second week on the Hot 100.

73. “This Old Man”/Purple Reign
95. “The Little Drummer Boy”/Moonlion
Friends, that’s a disco version of a nursery rhyme and a disco version of a Christmas song. “This Old Man” peaked a week earlier at #48 and was now in its eighth week on the Hot 100. We’ve mentioned “The Little Drummer Boy” at this website previously. (It’s not terrible.) Disco adaptations of already-familiar tunes were thick on the ground during disco’s formative years; although the phenomenon never disappeared completely, it became less prevalent as disco grew in popularity.

74. “Free Ride”/Tavares. Here’s a cover of the Edgar Winter hit from 1973 that’s not as different from the original as you’d expect.

77. “Fire on the Mountain”/Marshall Tucker Band. This country-rock classic had peaked at #37 on the Hot 100 and spent three weeks in the Top 40, but was heard on American Top 40 only once, on the show dated December 20, 1977. The other two weeks of its run corresponded with the 1975 yearend countdown shows.

(Further digression: surely there must have been a few songs during the AT40 era that made the Top 40 for a single week but were never heard on the show because they charted during a week when Casey was doing a special countdown of some sort. Would anybody with a better work ethic than mine like to research that?)

81. “Dream On”/Aerosmith. “Dream On” had run the Hot 100 for nine weeks between October and December 1973, getting as high as #59. Now here it is again, in its first week back.

90. “This Old Heart of Mine”/Rod Stewart. The album Atlantic Crossing was Stewart’s first without Ron Wood, Ian McLagan, and the rest of Faces, but Rod rounded up some decent players: members of Booker T and the MG’s, the Memphis Horns, and the Swampers. The album didn’t contain any big American hits, although “Sailing” and “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” were #1 in the UK, and this made #4. If you think you remember hearing “This Old Heart of Mine” on the radio, you might: Rod recut it for the 1990 Storyteller box set with Ronald Isley and released it (a far-better version) as a single.