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.

Let’s Do It Again

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(Pictured: Paul Simon on stage in December 1975.)

Several years ago, I referred to the week of January 10, 1976, as “one of the half-dozen most 70s weeks of the 70s”. I discovered that I have in my archives the American Top 40 show from that week, which I have somehow never written about. So here we go.

40. “Slow Ride”/Foghat
39. “Golden Years”/David Bowie
38. “Theme From S.W.A.T.“/Rhythm Heritage
37. “Paloma Blanca”/George Baker Selection
36. “Squeeze Box”/The Who
“One of the half-dozen most weeks of the 70s”. QED. I could quit right now.

35. “Let’s Live Together”/Road Apples. Casey says this band is from Beloit, Wisconsin, which is about an hour south on I-90 from Madison, although there’s not a single citation on the Internet that confirms it. By 1976, they were based in Cambridge, Massachsetts, and a popular local act: “Let’s Live Together” hit #1 in Boston, Providence, and Pawtucket. (Bakersfield, California, too.) It’s technically a debut on American Top 40, but this is its third week in the top 40 of the Hot 100. Twelve songs entered the 40 over the two holiday weeks on which Casey did his year-end show.)

Casey answers several letters in the first hour of the show. One about the soundtrack with the longest run on the album chart reveals that the four longest-running soundtracks were all from Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. Questions about whether there has ever been a week in which all of the Top 10 were by female artists, and another about whether there has ever been a week with no debuts within the Top 40, are disposed of with a single word: no.

Over the course of the show, Casey welcomes 10 new stations to the AT40 family. By the end of 1976, the show would be on over 350 stations coast to coast and around the world.

29. “Fly Robin Fly”/Silver Convention
24. “Winners and Losers”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds
21. “Over My Head”/Fleetwood Mac
18. “Evil Woman”/Electric Light Orchestra
17. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”/Paul Simon
13. “Singasong”/Earth Wind and Fire
6. “Fox on the Run”/Sweet
One of these is the best song on the show. My fondness for “Fly Robin Fly” and “Winners and Losers” borders on the irrational. With “Over My Head,” Fleetwood Mac started a chart run that would keep them somewhere in the Hot 100 for most of the next two years. “Evil Woman” and “Singasong” (one word, as it was styled on some early copies) still get radio play today. “50 Ways” was up from #34 the week before and would hit #1, in one of the great cosmic jokes, during Valentine’s week. And it occurs to me that nothing else sounds quite like “Fox on the Run.”

19. “Let’s Do It Again”/Staple Singers
5. “Saturday Night”/Bay City Rollers
These songs each hit #1 while Casey was doing the top 100 of 1975, on December 27 and January 3. (I wrote about that show in 2014: part 1 here, part 2 here.) He quotes reports in the Soviet press saying that the Rollers’ music “is designed, like all drugs, to stupefy people,” and that Rollermania is “more hysterical, more maniacal” than that inspired by the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. The Rollers’ manager responded by threatening to have the band march on Moscow. Well played, sir.

16. “Fly Away”/John Denver
15. “Rock and Roll All Nite”/KISS
A massive train wreck, without a commercial break or even a jingle between them.

12. “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)”/Glen Campbell. Casey reminds us that for 1975, Campbell had the #1 song of the year on the country chart and #2 on the pop chart, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” “Country Boy” peaked at #11 pop and #3 country during its chart run and was Billboard‘s #100 hit of 1976, but I’m betting that if there’s one song in the top half of this Top 40 that you don’t know, this is it.

4. “Love Rollercoaster”/Ohio Players
3. “Theme From Mahogany“/Diana Ross
2. “I Write the Songs”/Barry Manilow
These were all in the same spot as the previous week. “Love Rollercoaster” was in its third week at #4. It would stay #4 for one more week before going to #3 and then to #1 on January 31.

1. “Convoy”/C. W. McCall. With so little chart action at the top over the holidays, seeing “Convoy” vault from #6 to #1 is another indication of just how hot a record it was as 1976 began. I’ve written about it a lot over the years as a example of textbook storytelling technique, but here, it locks down the basic premise of this post: that the week of January 10, 1976, was as purely 1970s as the 1970s ever got. Oddball records and timeless classics, superstars and one-shots, they’re all here.

(Note to patrons: a new Sidepiece, with commentary on Wednesday’s events in Washington, went out yesterday. Check your spam filter. To receive future editions, sign up here.)

Play That Funky Music

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(Pictured: Nancy and Ann Wilson, 1976.)

In keeping with newly instituted custom, here’s some of the rest of the Billboard Hot 100 dated June 12, 1976, outside of the American Top 40 show I wrote about recently.

49. “Crazy on You”/Heart
52. “Last Child”/Aerosmith
79. “Still Crazy After All These Years”/Paul Simon

In the earlier installment, I wrote that Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town” was the hardest-rockin’ record of the summer of ’76 with a couple of exceptions. Heart and Aerosmith (which was the highest Hot 100 debut of the week) are the exceptions. One week earlier, Heart and Paul Simon had peaked at #35 and #40 respectively. They spent but five weeks in the Top 40 between them—a remarkably short time for two records that are still getting airplay 43 years later.

54. “Got to Get You Into My Life”/Beatles
58. “Rock and Roll Music”/Beach Boys
These two records would ride the Hot 100 together. After debuting a week apart in June, they would stick around through the last week of September.

69. “TVC 15″/David Bowie. I listened to David Bowie’s Station to Station album again recently, and while I don’t think I love it as much as I did when I was 16, it’s still mighty good. Bowie might have kept recycling that soul-man vibe for the rest of his career and collected money in crates, but he and his muse had other fish to fry.

80. “Rain, Oh Rain”/Fools Gold. These guys played behind Dan Fogelberg going back to his days in Illinois, and at live shows, they often got a chance to play a few tunes of their own before Dan came on. The first of their two albums features guest appearances by Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh. Given all that, “Rain, Oh Rain” sounds exactly the way you’d expect it to, which is just fine, actually.

83. “I’ll Get Over You”/Crystal Gayle. “I’ll Get Over You” has been a favorite around here since always. It was #1 on the country chart during the week of June 12, 1976, but would make only #71 on the Hot 100.

91. “The Lonely One”/Special Delivery Featuring Terry Huff. Terry Huff and his brothers came up during the street-corner R&B boom at the turn of the 60s; they tried hard but didn’t make it and got out of the business. After a couple of years as a cop in Washington, DC, Huff took another bash at music and self-produced “The Lonely One,” which his label insisted on releasing under that awkward group name, and which is a lost soul gem in spite of it.

93. “Bohemian Rhapsody”/Queen. Because I am not on top of any trend of any kind, I didn’t see the Bohemian Rhapsody movie until earlier this month. I agree with many of the reviews that its somewhat squeamish attitude toward homosexuality is a distortion of Freddie Mercury’s life. Also, we never really learn how it was that Mercury became the incredible showman the film presents—it’s as if he just sprung up fully formed. But the film’s musical performances are great enough to make you forget all that. On June 12, 1976, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was in its final week on the Hot 100 after debuting on the first chart of the new year and peaking at #9 in April.

94. “Norma Jean Wants to Be a Movie Star”/Sundown Company. Featured in the 1976 theatrical biopic Goodbye, Norma Jean, which stars Misty Rowe (seen on TV in Hee Haw and in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood parody sitcom When Things Were Rotten) as the titular character and future Marilyn Monroe. The film is apparently factually challenged, sexually exploitative, and poorly crafted. So the country-flavored “Norma Jean Wants to Be a Movie Star” almost has to be the best thing about it.

95. “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”/Four Seasons. This debuted on the last chart of 1975, spent three weeks at #1 in March, and in the week of June 12 was at #95 for a third week in a row. The next week it would slip to #98 and then out.

110. “Play That Funky Music”/Wild Cherry. This record makes its chart debut in the last position on the Bubbling Under chart, maybe six weeks before I’ll first hear it and three months before it will climb atop the Hot 100. Goofball as it is, it’s not just a request or a command, it’s a promise, although I didn’t know it then. Songs from the summer and fall of 1976 promised to keep playing in my head for a long time to come.