Category Archives: The 1976 Project

Polyester Glory

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I have written before of my borderline-irrational love for “Moonlight Feels Right,” the 1976 hit by Starbuck, the distilled essence of my favorite year.

Founding Starbuck member Bo Wagner started in showbiz as a child. He was a tap dancer and singer with various big bands in the early 50s, and frequently appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club as a musician, although he was never a Mouseketeer. He was in the cast of The Lawrence Welk Show for three seasons and acted in TV commercials. In the 60s, he played with future Starbuck bandmate Bruce Blackmon in a couple of bands including Eternity’s Children. (I wrote about them earlier this year.) After Eternity’s Children broke up, Wagner went on the road as a percussionist, including a stretch backing Liberace. Blackmon worked as a studio and touring musician and as a songwriter. Wagner eventually formed a band called Extravaganza, which Blackmon eventually joined, and which morphed into Starbuck.

“Moonlight Feels Right” was part of a four-song demo of Blackmon’s songs that Starbuck cut in November 1974. A dozen record companies rejected them before Private Stock took a flyer, releasing the demo of “Moonlight Feels Right” as a single in the fall of ’75. The record, which had been made for a total cost of $300 and laid down on used recording tape, flatlined almost immediately. (It shows up on a single survey at ARSA, from WANS in Anderson, South Carolina, dated November 24, 1975.) But Blackmon and Wagner believed in it, and in early 1976, they put 8,000 miles on a car hand-delivering it to radio stations across the country. The only one to bite was in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Blackmon’s telling, it took exactly one day for “Moonlight Feels Right” to become a local hit. It started charting around the country in April, eventually reaching #3 on the Hot 100 and #1 in Record World, and the Moonlight Feels Right album followed. From that album, the ultra-smooth “I Got to Know” made #43 in October of 1976; a third single, “Lucky Man,” stalled at #73 during Christmas week.

Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, writing at Allmusic.com, describes “Moonlight Feels Right” as “a slick slice of soft rock that captures the mid-’70s in all its feathered, polyester glory” and the rest of the Moonlight Feels Right album as “gauchely bewitching soft pop.” Starbuck’s second album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Rocket, released in early 1977, is a similar kind of thing, updated for the burgeoning disco era. It makes me think of mustachioed nightclub dudes trailing clouds of Hai Karate, Qiana shirts open to the waist and zodiac sign medallions around their necks, who try to charm halter-dressed hotties up to look at their etchings. If you like that kind of thing (and I do), Rock ‘n’ Roll Rocket isn’t bad, although its cheese factor is also pretty high. “Everybody Be Dancin'” was the album’s lone hit single, sneaking into the Top 40 for two weeks as May turned to June 1977, peaking at #38.

Although Moonlight Feels Right had been a modest success on the Billboard 200 album chart (#78 in a 14-week run), Rock ‘n’ Roll Rocket was not (#182 in a two-week run). After that, Starbuck moved on from Private Stock to the United Artists label, releasing the album Searching for a Thrill in 1978. A lot of the songs are in the slick, poppy style of the band’s two previous albums, but several expand the group’s sonic palette, none more than title song and lead single. “Searching for a Thrill” starts out like a prog-rock record and ends up sounding like a completely different band. It’s pretty great, actually, and it made #58 on the Hot 100 40 years ago this month.

The Starbuck story continues after that, but I’m short of space and can’t tell it here. The group played some reunion shows between 2013 and 2016, and made the news briefly in 2017 when Bo Wagner died at the age of 72. “Moonlight Feels Right” is cheesy pop glory, but nothing about it is more glorious than the decision to put a marimba solo where lots of bands would have put a guitar. That marimba solo is Bo Wagner’s monument.

One Other Thing: On Friday. I posted part of a post I once tried to write about the way radio music changed between 1973 and 1974,. A couple of readers, Mike and Wesley, wrote that very post in the comments section, and you should read it. Thanks to the both of you, gents.

Still Havin’ Fun

Every year around this time I hear “Still the One” by Orleans and wherever I am, I’m not there anymore. I’m gone to a different autumn, the one in 1976.

“Still the One” first shows up at ARSA on a survey from WAVZ in New Haven, Connecticut, dated July 18, 1976. A day later, KCBQ in San Diego charted it, and stations across the country added it steadily after that. It first cracked a local Top 10 on August 9, hitting #8 at KCPX in Salt Lake City. On the Hot 100, “Still the One” debuted on July 31, all the way up at #69. It went to #51 the next week and into the Top 40 at #38 on August 14. After a nice jump to #27 on August 21, it slow-cooked the rest of the way up: 22-20-18-16-13-10-7-6-5, reaching its peak on October 23. The song recorded its first local #1 at WAVZ on October 3. It also hit #1 in some smaller cities: Waterbury, Connecticut; Murfreesboro, Tennessee; and Springfield, Illinois. It made #2 at KHJ in Los Angeles and at WISM in Madison. In Chicago, WLS charted it as high as #6. As October turned to November, “Still the One” started on its way out of the Hot 100, falling from #5 to #26 for the week of October 30. It was gone from the Top 40 the week after that, November 6. The last of its 18 weeks on the Hot 100 was November 27. While “Still the One” ran the charts, Orleans was on the road opening for Jackson Browne, and their album Waking and Dreaming went to #33 in Billboard.

When it came time for stations around the country to chart the top hits of 1976, “Still the One”‘s highest placing was at KCBQ, where it ranked #3 for the year, behind Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee. The only other station at ARSA to show it in the year’s Top 10 is WDRC in Hartford, at #8. At WAVZ, where it first hit and spent two weeks at #1, it ranked #15 for the year. WLS had it at #73; On American Top 40‘s year-end countdown, it ranked #82.

In 1977, “Still the One” stayed in the public eye and ear when ABC adopted it as the promotional theme for its new fall season, even giving its Muzak-y, Johnny Mann Singers-style version a full-length video treatment. The song was a fitting choice given that ABC was the top-rated TV network at the time. “Still the One” returned as ABC’s fall theme in 1979, with a series of promos featuring network stars riding in hot-air balloons.

In 2007, I met Larry Hoppen, who was one of three Hoppen brothers to play in Orleans. He was with an outfit called the Rock and Pop Masters, which toured the country presenting a smorgasbord of 60s, 70s, and 80s stars. (On that day, they ranged from Robbie “Steal Away” Dupree to Joe Bouchard from Blue Oyster Cult.) I asked Larry if they thought, when they formed the band in 1972, that they’d still be in it 35 years later. He said they did not, but that when “Still the One” became such a big hit, it gave them enough momentum (and sufficient royalties, no doubt) to stay with it. He said of himself and his brothers, “Our parents played music all their lives, to age 75 and 81, and we’ll probably do the same thing.” Larry Hoppen did indeed play music all his life, but he died in 2012 at the age of 61.

Even after it dropped out of current playlists and was no longer getting a boost from ABC, “Still the One” never went away. That sound—gently rockin’ guitar with just the right amount of riffage, the distinctive harmonies of the Hoppen brothers, and easy to sing along with—was as squarely in the pocket for 70s Top 40 radio as anything ever was. But it has a timeless quality, too. Forty-two years later, you still hear it on the radio now and then.

And Do It All Over Again

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(Pictured: Wolfman Jack, howlin’.)

I would not have guessed, back in the fall of 1976, that one of the songs most evocative of that time, many years later, would be a good-time rock ‘n’ roll throwback featuring a famous DJ.

Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids started out as a bargain-basement Sha Na Na, formed at the University of Colorado in 1969. Relocating to Los Angeles in 1971, they ended up catching the 50s nostalgia updraft at precisely the right moment. A series of free shows at the Troubadour got them noticed, and they became a tireless touring outfit. They appeared on American Bandstand in 1972, one of the rare acts to get the gig without a record to promote. The next year, they got a deal with Epic Records. They considered asking Phil Spector to produce their album but ended up working with starmaker Kim Fowley. That same year, they were invited by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola to appear as Herby and the Heartbeats in American Graffiti. Their version of “At the Hop” from the movie was released as a single, but given that they were playing a decent-but-not-great high-school dance band, it’s probably not surprising that the record didn’t hit.

A second album, There’s No Face Like Chrome, was to have been produced by Jerry Leiber, but he ended up handling only four songs. The members of the band did not consider themselves a nostalgia act anymore, and some of their mid-70s material was closer to glam rock, including the single “Dancin’ (On a Saturday Night),” which squeaked into the Hot 100 at #93 in 1974. The band went on a package tour with other Epic acts including Rick Springfield, the Meters, and Johnny Nash, but There’s No Place Like Chrome didn’t do any better than their debut album; neither one of them charted, and they ended up leaving Epic.

In 1975, the band made a guest appearance as Johnny Fish and the Fins in an episode of Happy Days. The same year, their first single on the Private Stock label, a 50s rock tribute called “Good Times, Rock and Roll”—on which they sang but did not play—rode the charts for weeks in Denver, was a Top-10 hit in Tucson, and was made available in versions customized for different radio stations. All that was enough to push it to #41 on the Hot 100. But the album Sons of the Beaches got short-circuited when Epic reissued the first two Flash Cadillac albums in a double set under the title Rock and Roll Forever. (If you’ve ever seen a Flash Cadillac album in a used bin, it’s probably that one.)

After Sons of the Beaches crashed, Private Stock brought the band a song called “Did You Boogie (With Your Baby).” Because they didn’t want to be only a nostalgia act, “Did You Boogie” wasn’t the kind of thing they wanted to do, but they did it, even bringing in Wolfman Jack to provide some nostalgic atmosphere. It hit as August turned to September, and made the Top 10 in Kansas City, Denver, Columbus, and Tucson. It hit #12 in my town, Madison, Wisconsin, and was ranked #10 for all of 1976 at WCIL in Carbondale, Illinois. It spent six weeks in the Billboard Top 40, 14 weeks on the Hot 100, and peaked at #29 during the week of October 23, 1976.

Flash Cadillac spent the 70s on the road almost continuously, largely as an opening act for someone or other. After another gig for Francis Ford Coppola, appearing in Apocalypse Now, they spent much of the 80s recording jingles and songs for the syndicated radio show Super Gold, and in the 90s they self-released some music. An edition of the band still exists today, although a couple of the original members have died. (This extended essay tells the whole story I have only sketched here.)

Against the odds, “Did You Boogie” is one of the hits from the fall of 1976 that most vividly takes me back to that time. It hit the radio in two versions—the original with Wolfman Jack and a non-Wolfman version. I used to prefer the non-Wolfman, but it occurs to me now, 42 years later, that his contributions are probably essential. And truthful, too: “Sometimes I get to thinkin’ there’s not enough love and romance in our lives today. And that’s why I like to reminisce, and relive that first feeling of love . . . and do it all over again.”

The Top of the Other Charts

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(Pictured: the original caption on this pic claims it’s the Enchanted Garden Disco in New York and not a church basement somewhere.)

(Note about pictures: If you see a caption but no picture, reload the page. Since I switched to the thjkoc.net domain, pics don’t always load properly the first time.)

On American Top 40, Casey Kasem would frequently say, “Before we hear the #1 song, let’s take a look at the top of the other charts.” From the edition of Billboard dated July 31, 1976 (in which “Kiss and Say Goodbye” by the Manhattans is in its second week atop the Hot 100), here are the tops of some of the other charts.

The Top Box Office chart does not refer to movies, but concerts. Billboard puts them in three categories and ranks by grosses. “Stadiums and Festivals” are shows in venues that seat 20,000 or more; the list is topped by a bill starring Yes, Peter Frampton, Gary Wright, and Gentle Giant, which grossed $550,000 at Anaheim Stadium in California on July 17. (The same show in San Diego the next day is #2 on the list.) “Arenas” are venues that seat from 6,000 to 20,000; Elton John’s show in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on July 19 was the top grosser at just under $149,000. Two Wisconsin appearances by Fleetwood Mac and Starcastle are on this list, in Green Bay on July 16 and Madison on July 17. “Auditoriums” are venues that seat less than 6,000. A six-night stand in San Francisco by the Grateful Dead tops this list. Tickets for most shows regardless of venue size ranged primarily from $5.50 to $8; the festival shows in Anaheim and San Diego cost $10 to get in. None of that seems like very much now, but it seemed pricey then: a movie ticket was generally around $2 in 1976; when I bought my first “real” concert ticket in 1977 for $7.50, it seemed like a fortune.

The Disco Action chart ranks by sales figures from various retailers and “top audience response” from discos in various cities. Top sellers are the eponymous album Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and the singles “You Should Be Dancing” by the Bee Gees and “The Best Disco in Town” by the Ritchie Family. “You Should Be Dancing” leads the audience response charts in New York and in the combined Los Angeles/San Diego area; in Washington, it’s “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel” by Tavares. The charts appear on the same page with an article headlined “Is the Disco Scene in a Rut?” The answer is, of course, yes and no. One radio insider says, “Disco hits aren’t crossing over [from clubs to radio] the way they used to.” But even if the music becomes less popular, he says, discos themselves will remain popular places to go because they represent “an adult record hop.”

(The lead single from the Dr. Buzzard album, “Cherchez la Femme,” hasn’t charted yet, but it will. If you can get past the misogynistic lyric—which is hard to do, I grant you—it sounds great, and this performance from the Tony Orlando and Dawn TV show is fun to watch.)

The top four songs on the Hot Country Singles chart are in the same positions as last week: Red Sovine’s novelty “Teddy Bear” is #1 for a third week, followed by George Jones and Tammy Wynette on “Golden Ring,” “Say It Again” by Don Williams, and “The Letter” by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. (“Golden Ring” will go to #1 the next week and “Say It Again” the week after that.) There’s not much action on Hot Country LPs. From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee by Elvis is #1 again this week. United Talent by Loretta and Conway moves up to #2 with a bullet. The only other album getting a bullet in the Top 10 is Are You Ready for the Country by Waylon Jennings at #4.

Billboard‘s Hits of the World chart covers several countries. The #1 song in Britain is “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee, which will reach #1 on the Hot 100 next week; the top album in Britain is 20 Golden Greats by the Beach Boys. “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers is the #1 single in West Germany and Switzerland. In Sweden, the #1 hit is “Barretta’s Theme” by Sammy Davis Jr.

Starting on page 43, a feature in the Tape/Audio/Video section spotlights WISM-FM in Madison and its successful, automated MOR/gold/easy rock format, which is also running on the company’s stations in Oshkosh and LaCrosse. The station creates its own automation tapes, a process which the article describes in great detail. In 1976, I listened to that station occasionally. Forty-two years later, I work at that station’s direct descendant. Occasionally.

Sentimental Journey

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(Pictured: Bill Haley and Elvis, 1955.)

In 2017, I wrote about American Top 40‘s summer specials. Every year around the Fourth of July, AT40 would run a show that could be recorded in advance to give Casey and his staff some time off. The most unusual of these specials aired on the weekend of the Bicentennial, featuring the #1 song in America on the July 4th holiday, from 1937 through 1976.

The show does not exactly get off to a flying start. Neither “It Looks Like Rain in Cherry Blossom Lane” by Guy Lombardo (1937) nor “Says My Heart” by the Ozzie Nelson Orchestra (1938) is a timeless classic. Neither is “Wishing” by Glenn Miller (1939), although some classics are forthcoming: “I’ll Never Smile Again” by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra fronted by Frank Sinatra (1940), Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1944), and “Sentimental Journey” by Les Brown with Doris Day on vocals (1945). If you want to add the Ink Spots and “The Gypsy” (1946) to the list, I’m good with that.

(Digression #1: You probably didn’t know Ozzie Nelson was a successful bandleader before he became America’s favorite sitcom dad. According to Joel Whitburn, he charted 38 times between 1930 and 1940, but they’re all pretty obscure. One of the singers in his band was his wife, Harriet, whom he married in 1935. She’s the singer on “Says My Heart.”)

(Digression #2: Imagine hearing “I’ll Be Seeing You” in the summer of 1944, the summer of D-Day, if you had a loved one fighting on some distant shore. I suspect it would have been either a comfort or impossible to bear, with no in-between.)

Some of this stuff is pretty cheesy, including Sammy Kaye’s “Daddy” (1941), “Chi-Baba Chi-Baba” by Perry Como (1947), and “Woody Woodpecker” by Kay Kyser (1948). Vaughn Monroe’s upright and studly baritone on “Ghost Riders in the Sky” (1949) sounds like a novelty nearly 70 years later, but Monroe was quite a big deal in his day, charting 67 times between 1940 and 1954, hitting #1 nine times in all.

There’s a nice little stretch of songs to usher in the 1950s: Nat King Cole’s “Too Young” (1951), “Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart” by Vera Lynn (1952), “Song From Moulin Rouge” by Percy Faith (1953), and Kitty Kallen’s “Little Things Mean a Lot” (1954). In that company, rock ‘n’ roll makes a hell of a splash in 1955 with “Rock Around the Clock.” In 1956, it appears that the pre-rock order is restored with Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind,” but one year later, Elvis emphatically signals a new era that’s here to stay with his two-sided #1 hit, “Teddy Bear” and “Loving You.”

After more novelty cheese (Sheb Wooley’s “Flying Purple People Eater” from 1958) we commence Casey Kasem’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Oldies Party, starring the Coasters and Gary U. S. Bonds and the Beach Boys and Connie Francis and the Four Tops and the Association and others. However: the #1 songs of the 1960s are a worthy reminder that Elvis and the pop stars in his wake didn’t burn the old order entirely to the ground. “Satisfaction” is followed by Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” then two songs later it’s “This Guy’s in Love With You” by Herb Alpert and Henry Mancini’s “Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet” before “I Want You Back” ushers in the 70s.

Casey has padded the third hour a little, with two hits from 1965, “Satisfaction” and “I Can’t Help Myself,” and two from 1966, “Strangers in the Night” and the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer.” The latter is the only Beatles song on the show. The last half-hour of the show sounds like any other edition of AT40, with #1 hits from the 70s by Carole King, Bill Withers, Billy Preston, the Hues Corporation, the Captain and Tennille, and the then-current #1 hit, “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney and Wings.

The 1976 summer special is one the AT40 Facebook group/message board crowd longs to hear repeated on terrestrial radio, but I don’t expect it to happen. Practically none of the adult-contemporary or oldies stations caryring the repeats today want anything to do with the music in the first two hours of the program, and few people beyond hardcore Casey fanatics would be willing to sit through it. (I suspect there were program directors in 1976 who didn’t want the big-band and pre-rock stuff either.) It’s a show that better belongs on iHeart’s dedicated AT40 streaming channel, but don’t hold your breath for that, either.

Today’s the Day

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(Pictured: a giant Bicentennial birthday card on the grounds of the White House.)

The other night I found myself browsing the edition of Billboard magazine dated July 4, 1976, as one does.

A front-page story notes that the period around the Sunday the Fourth is going to be the biggest week of the year for concerts. Elton John is doing a string of “Happy Birthday America” shows in Washington, Boston, and Philadelphia, including Schaefer Stadium in suburban Boston on the Fourth. The Eagles will play four shows in four nights—Charlotte, Greensboro, Atlanta, and Tampa—sharing the Tampa Stadium bill on the Fourth with Fleetwood Mac and Loggins and Messina. (As it turned out, the Eagles did a fifth night, in Hollywood, Florida, on July 5.) Also set for July 4th: Peter Frampton and Gary Wright at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta; KISS and Bob Seger in Richmond; the Ohio Players, Labelle, Rufus, and War at the Pontiac Silverdome in suburban Detroit; and ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Outlaws, and Blue Oyster Cult in Memphis.

I wonder how BOC went down with the Southern rock crowd.

Elton’s D.C.-area shows are set for the Capital Center in suburban Landover, Maryland, but two shows scheduled for RFK Stadium in Washington, the Beach Boys and Chicago on the Fourth and Earth Wind and Fire on the 5th, have been canceled by promoters. It’s because the government entity overseeing the facility has issued a new set of rules that include no walkup ticket sales on show days, a 6PM end time for all shows, and increased security requirements.

Washington’s official Fourth of July show will be on the National Mall with Johnny Cash and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Also on the Fourth, a People’s Bicentennial event will be staged at the Capitol. Among the speakers will be boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and Jane Fonda; musical performers will include Don McLean, Peter Yarrow, Gil Scott-Heron, and the Star Spangled Washboard Band.

In other industry news:

—Patriotic records are booming in all genres due to the Bicentennial. The most successful one is “Here Comes the Freedom Train” by Merle Haggard, which is at #10 on the current country chart. The 10-car Freedom Train, which began its national tour in April 1975, will visit 150 cities and be seen by 10 million people by the end of 1976; among its historical displays is a car full of recording-industry memorabilia, including Bing Crosby’s gold record for “White Christmas” and Jack Benny’s violin.

—Efforts are continuing to improve the poor sound on television broadcasts. PBS has reportedly developed a system that could broadcast high-fidelity sound on a subcarrier wave alongside the video signal. However, the nation’s two biggest makers of TV sets, Zenith and RCA, claim that consumers wouldn’t want to pay what it would cost for better TV speakers.

—Stax Records has filed for bankruptcy. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson has started a fundraising campaign to help the label, and to defray legal expenses run up by Stax president Al Bell, who is currently involved with suits in four different courts.

The bulk of the July 4, 1976, edition of Billboard is a 150-page special section on the history of recorded music and recording technology. Much of the section is taken up with full-page ads, but one article discusses the evolution of Billboard‘s record charts. Lists of popular songs and/or recordings were compiled as early as 1913, although they didn’t become a regular feature until the 1930s. A listing of radio play first appeared in 1937. What we would recognize as a modern chart first appeared in 1940.

On the Hot 100, “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney and Wings is in its fifth and final non-consecutive week at the top. “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band makes a strong move from #7 to #2, staking its claim on the #1 position it will hit next week. There’s not much movement elsewhere in the Top 40; John Travolta’s “Let Her In” makes the biggest move, from #26 to #13. On the album chart, the top four are unchanged from the previous week: Wings at the Speed of Sound, Frampton Comes Alive!, Aerosmith’s Rocks, and Breezin’ by George Benson. The #1 song on the soul chart is “Something He Can Feel” by Aretha Franklin. Joe Stampley’s “All These Things” is #1 country. The #1 song on the Easy Listening chart is “Today’s the Day” by America.

American Top 40 listeners don’t hear about the week’s chart action, though. The holiday weekend broadcast is a summer special featuring the #1 songs on the Fourth of July from 1937 through 1976. I’ll tell you about that later in the week.

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