140 and 2:20

A wise person once said of Facebook and Twitter that Facebook makes him want to know less about people he knows and that Twitter makes him want to know more about people he doesn’t. And while it seems like Facebook is the ultimate way to share, Twitter interactions are often more rewarding than those on Facebook, even 140 characters at a time. So my single new year’s resolution is to spend less time on Facebook. There are lots of reasons for doing so: privacy concerns continue to metastasize, memes grow ever more pervasive, and I swear that if I am asked to share one more photo if I love my family, I may murder someone else’s family.

I have embraced Twitter even though it’s one of the reasons blog readership across the Internet has eroded in recent years, and I’m as guilty as anybody. Where once I might have written about a story that interests me in the hope that you would read it, I’m much more likely to simply tweet it now. That’s why this blog has a Twitter widget (“Real Stupid in Real Time”).

So don’t be put off by those who denigrate Twitter as useless or foolish. As long as you refuse to use it, you’re missing out a degree of engagement with the world that’s remarkably rewarding.

In a feeble attempt to stay on-topic for the remainder of this post, here are five worthwhile songs from my laptop music stash that run for 140 seconds, or 2:20.

“Oh Susanna”/James Taylor and Johnny Cash.  Someday somebody’s going to write a book about the way TV variety shows brought rock acts into American living rooms at the turn of the 1970s, and how those shows helped to legitimize rock as an adult art form. Ed Sullivan did what he did, but he never displayed a feel for the artistry of the performers; to him, it was all about the eyeballs they would attract. But others on TV at about the same time, from the Smothers Brothers to Tom Jones to Johnny Cash to Glen Campbell, treated rock as art and rockers as people with important things to say. “Oh Susanna” is from Taylor’s February 1971 appearance on The Johnny Cash Show.

“One Two Three and I Fell”/Tommy James and the Shondells. This was the B-side of “Mony Mony,” and it’s another of those gloriously hard-charging bubblegum records that are so much better than they have any right to be.

“Theme From a Summer Place”/Percy Faith & His Orchestra. The 1960s were a golden age for many things, including easy-listening music. For all the cultural ferment reflected in (and driven by) rock ‘n’ roll, stars like Percy Faith, Ray Conniff, and the legion of singers who came to prominence in the 1940s and 50s continued to move product, and to get airplay right alongside the Beatles, the Supremes, and the like. “Theme From a Summer Place” was #1 for nine weeks in 1960, including the week I was born. This performance must have been on TV sometime around then.

“I Play and Sing”/Dawn. Between October 1970 and November 1971, Dawn charted five singles. “Candida” and “Knock Three Times” were huge. The third one, “I Play and Sing,” made #25 in Billboard and was Top 10 at WLS almost before people realized it wasn’t nearly as good as the first two.

“Don’t Sign the Paper Baby (I Want You Back)”/Jimmy Delphs. There’s a whole lot more to Detroit than Motown and Bob Seger. Producer Ollie McLaughlin is responsible for a number of famous 60s hits that came via Detroit: the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk,” “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis, and records by the Ad Libs, Betty Lavette, and Deon Jackson. I cannot say for sure that Delphs is backed by the Funk Brothers on “Don’t Sign the Paper Baby” (which got up to #96 in 1968), but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit.

“Don’t Sign the Paper Baby (I Want You Back)/Jimmy Delphs (out of print)

The Holiday Festival

The death of Larry Lujack last week has radio geeks everywhere thinking of the glory days of WLS. To me, one of the most glorious things the station did involved its Christmas programming. In 2007, a reader sent me several hours of the 1980 WLS Holiday Festival of Music, which he’d taped off the air back in the day. It remains one of the most serendipitous gifts I’ve ever received, and among the most treasured.

I first heard the show in 1970, on a Christmas Eve of mythological proportions. I would hear bits of it annually for years thereafter. I’m not sure when WLS stopped airing it, although I think it was well before 1989, when they switched to talk. It changed over the years; when I first heard it, the show was commercial free for over 24 hours and consisted entirely of music and produced segments, interrupted only by the occasional live newscast. It would get shorter over the years as well, starting later on Christmas Eve and ending earlier on Christmas Day.

The 70s weren’t very far along before some of the WLS jocks became part of the festival. I remember hearing Steve King late one Christmas Eve, and he was surprisingly—inappropriately—candid about not wanting to be there. Years later he confirmed in an e-mail exchange what I thought I had heard that night—that he’d brought his cat to work with him so he wouldn’t be alone. A poster on the WLS Musicradio Facebook group tells of hearing King disgustedly pulling the plug on a Muppets Christmas song, live on the air, and replacing it with Nat King Cole.

I once e-mailed John Rook, legendary WLS programmer and the man Lujack once called “the greatest program director of our generation,” to ask about the show. He was not especially interested in answering my questions, but he did tell me that not all of the stuff was produced by WLS. Some of it came from the ABC Radio Network, and was presumably used by its affiliates or owned-and-operated stations across the country. Presumably segments were repeated from year to year—some of the most compelling stuff on the 1980 tapes is voiced by Charlie Van Dyke, who hosted mornings on WLS briefly in the early 70s.

Inside baseball aside, the Holiday Festival of Music is tremendous simply as entertainment. It sets a mood and sticks to it, and part of its brilliance is that the mood can accommodate both Andy Williams and Bruce Springsteen, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Booker T. and the MGs. The produced segments evoke a sense of anticipation and wonder on Christmas Eve, and of joy and satisfaction on Christmas morning. Some of the segments are overtly religious, appropriate for an era that was less concerned with religious pluralism than ours.

Even though research today shows that the number of people listening to a typical station on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day might be several orders of magnitude greater than the numbers tuned in on a typical Tuesday or Wednesday, few radio stations seem to aspire to this kind of thing anymore. It’s enough to put the whole Christmas library, whatever it is, on shuffle, or to pick up some syndicated special where celebrities talk about their Christmases and play the same two dozen holiday songs the station has been rotating since Veterans Day. Few mindfully strive to create an experience that augments and enhances what the listeners are doing at any given moment on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The WLS Holiday Festival of Music did that, superbly.

Here’s a random segment of the show, which originally aired around 10:30PM on Christmas Eve, 1980. It runs about 21 minutes. Listen to it today, tonight, or tomorrow. You won’t be sorry.

I’m pleased to say that my station, Magic 98, does an excellent job with Christmas programming. Our “98 Hours of Christmas Magic” is going on now, and in a world such as this, it comes as close to the spirit of the Holiday Festival of Music as we’re likely to get. I always ask for the last shift before the auto-pilot kicks in on Christmas Eve—today it’s from 1 to 4PM US Central—because it’s my favorite day to be on the air.

WLS Holiday Festival of Music, Christmas Eve 1980

My Uncle Lar

When you are sitting in a radio studio at 5AM getting ready to go on the air and you see that your idol and inspiration, the person who’s responsible for you being there at all, has died, which is what happened to me this morning, it gets your attention, and it makes you think deep thoughts about your very existence and purpose.

I would not have gotten into radio without Larry Lujack. He had just taken over the morning show at WLS when I started listening in 1970, so he was present at the creation. And although he retired in 1987 when he was only 47 years old, he remained a real presence in the heads of all he inspired forever after.

But here’s the thing: although you could be inspired by Lujack, you couldn’t actually do what he did. Several tributes that have appeared today make clear that his offhandedness, the way he would start, stop, and shuffle papers, the making-it-up-on-the-spot feel of his shows, was actually calculated for effect—which might mean he was one of the greatest actors of his generation. Although he sounded every morning like he just woke up and found himself on the air, he was actually meticulous, prepared, and precise, which is the only way to achieve the heights he did.

His curmudgeon persona was both real and part of the act. He did not care much for ceremony, from making clear he didn’t want a going-away party at WLS and wouldn’t attend if they threw one, to insisting that there be no funeral at his death and that his body simply be donated to the University of New Mexico medical school. But he was not a misanthrope, either. Colleagues report spontaneous acts of kindness on his part, and they talk about how much they learned from him.

I am not going to link to a bunch of tributes here. You can look at my Twitter timeline to see several from earlier today. Listen to the aircheck below, or go to YouTube to find more—and if you’ve never heard the man, you should.

The last time the death of someone I didn’t know personally hit me this hard was probably when Hunter S. Thompson passed, but this feels like an even greater loss. And I am not alone in feeling that loss. Larry Lujack’s death is personal for thousands, probably millions of us, even though we never met him. As Bean Baxter of KROQ in Los Angeles put it on Twitter last night, “Losing Larry Lujack to a radio person is like losing George Washington to America.” Amen and amen. Without Lujack, many of us would be somebody else entirely.

Ol’ Uncle Lar would not care much for the tributes being paid him today, though, or for fellow broadcasters feeling sad. He’d say to us, in that familiar gravelly growl, “Suck it up and get back to work.”

And so we shall.

Larry Lujack on WLS, Christmas Morning 1980

Time Found and Lost

(Happy Thanksgiving to all amongst the readership. Given that this post is about leftovers, it’s seasonally appropriate.)

Writers often start things they don’t finish. And they take things that they thought were finished, tear them down, and build something new out of the parts. A good example involves something Eric Clapton worked up with Bonnie Bramlett while he was touring with Delaney and Bonnie. When “She Rides” was finished, however, Clapton and Bramlett decided that the backing track deserved better. So Clapton wrote new lyrics and recorded them over the existing track. The new song, “Let it Rain,” appeared on Clapton’s self-titled debut album in 1970. “She Rides” disappeared into the record company vault until 2006, when it was included on an expanded edition of Eric Clapton.

Here’s another: the magnificent “piano coda” that makes up the last half of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos is one of the most beautiful pieces of music in rock. It was written by Dominos drummer Jim Gordon as a separate piece, and Eric Clapton was never supposed to hear it. He told a journalist that Gordon would sneak back into the studio when the band’s sessions were done, poaching time to make his own album. When Clapton heard Gordon’s piano piece, he said he’d continue to let Gordon use the studio on the band’s time if he could have that song as the ending for “Layla.” But that’s not the end of the story.

I have several Derek and the Dominos bootlegs in my collection, including a set called Into the Mystic: the Layla Sessions and More, which features alternates, jams, and other audio ephemera recorded about the time the band was making Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The Internet is not very forthcoming with the provenance of the stuff. About all we know is that some of it was recorded during the formal sessions for Layla during the summer of 1970, some was recorded at other sessions in Miami (where Layla was recorded), some at Clapton’s house, some at Olympic Studios in London, and some heaven only knows where. Some of it is specifically dated to the spring of 1971, but much of it is undated. A few of the tracks got an official release on the 20th anniversary edition of Layla, and some appear in a different form on later Clapton projects; others don’t even have titles.

Tucked away on one of the six discs that make up Into the Mystic is a completed version of Jim Gordon’s song, the one that became the coda of “Layla.” “Time” is sung by an uncredited vocal group, none of whom sound like either Eric Clapton or Bobby Whitlock, with a very busy vocal arrangement that threatens to swamp the song entirely. It has little guitar at all that I can hear, but there’s a string section and some lovely piano. Clapton told the reporter he didn’t think Gordon ever finished his solo project, but I suspect “Time” might be a remnant of it. Although it’s billed to Derek & the Dominos thanks to its inclusion on Into the Mystic, it doesn’t sound like them at all. If you know anything more about it, help a brother out.

BTW, Jim Gordon’s story has one of the saddest endings in all of rock history. A student of the great drummer Hal Blaine, Gordon played on dozens of famous sessions from the early 60s to the late 70s, after which he became incapacitated by mental illness. In 1983, the voices in his head told him to murder his mother, which he did. Under California law at the time, he wasn’t permitted an insanity defense, and he remains in jail to this day. He was denied parole this past spring.

“Time”/Derek & the Dominos [?]

Satan Is a Blue Meanie

(Promotional announcement: Two things are happening in the next few days on Magic 98 that might be of interest to some amongst the readership. First, wall-to-wall American Top 40 shows on the Fourth from 6AM to 7PM Central, including the very first show from July 4, 1970, at 4:00. Second, highlights of the recent WISM reunion show, Saturday morning from 9 to 10AM. Now, our regularly scheduled program.)

Here’s another of those awesome factoids that proliferates from rock history website to rock history website without elaboration or context: “April 20, 1970: The New York Times reported that Catholic and Protestant youth groups had adopted the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ as a religious symbol.”

In a continuing quest to flesh out such factoids, I found the article from the Times. Headlined “Yellow Submarine is Symbol of Youth Churches,” it appeared in the Times on April 20, 1970, and in other papers around the country during the next week or so. It reported on the aftermath of a three-day convention of so-called “submarine churches” held in St. Louis. The goal of the churches was said to be either the creation of counterculture-compatible churches or reform of existing denominations. They “combine heavy political involvement with new forms of liturgical celebration ranging from street parades to beer-and-pretzel eucharistic fests.” (Finally, a religion I can get behind.)

The article reported that “submarine churches” grew out of the “free” or “liberated” churches that had developed across the country in recent years, most famously the Free Church of Berkeley, California, which seems to have been the nerve center for the movement. The Berkeley group claimed that there were about 40 such churches around the country. They weren’t all about theatrics or revolution. In Berkeley, the Free Church operated a telephone hotline designed to help young people with problems of all sorts.

Reporter Edward B. Fiske wrote that some of the churches adopted the yellow submarine as a symbol after certain members of the peace movement had adopted it as a symbol of social harmony and nonviolence. The Free Church of Berkeley added a cross to it. A former Free Church pastor quoted in the story says, “In the Beatles’ movie the submarine was a place where they loved each other in a groovy way and got strength to do battle with the Blue Meanies. It also shows that a church has to have flexibility and maneuverability.” (Like a really cool 1970 model car, apparently.)

Although young people had a distinct thirst for new forms of religious expression in the early 1970s, everything from the Jesus Movement to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, the yellow submarine churches did not take the country by storm. Just another enthusiasm of the moment that failed to catch fire over the long term, even though it was interesting enough to make the New York Times.

Yellow Submarine radio spot

(Adapted from my WNEW.com archives.)

Top 5: Demon Tonight

One day last week I wrote about the crapfest that was the lower reaches of the Billboard Top 40 for a September week in 1973. As a wee experiment this week, I have taken the Hot 100 from a couple of weeks later—October 6—to see if I can find five interesting and worthwhile records somewhere within, to save the season.

16. “Brother Louie”/Stories (down from 11). I got into a brief exchange with the artist formerly known as Kinky Paprika last week about this song. He says it doesn’t do anything for him. I maintain that it is not only one of the greatest AM-radio records of all time, the call-and-response between the strings and guitar at the end is one of the most awesome AM-radio moments of all time. Trouble is, you can’t hear it on AM anymore. But you will.

33. “Jimmy Loves Mary Anne”/Looking Glass (holding at 33). Wow, this is too easy. Although #33 was as high as “Jimmy” would get on the Hot 100, it went to #2 on WLS, and why not? If you do not dig its essential coolness, particularly the guitar solo, which is run through a Leslie speaker, I don’t think we should see each other anymore.

64. “Outlaw Man”/Eagles (up from 73). Far from being big stars, the Eagles were just another band looking for a hit in the fall of 1973, exactly a year removed from their first Top-10 single (“Witchy Woman”) and about a year away from the next one (“Best of My Love”). Although “Outlaw Man” fits nicely into the concept of the Desperado album, it’s one of the rare Eagles chart singles written entirely by an outsider, singer/songwriter David Blue.

82. “Tonight”/Raspberries (down from 69). In which the band that released “Go All the Way” and the equally hormonal “I Wanna Be With You” completes their great horndog trilogy. Somehow “Tonight” reached only #69 on the Hot 100. How it missed being huge like the other two, I got no idea.

83. “Country Sunshine”/Dottie West (up from 92). Lots of crossover country in the lower reaches of this chart, from Donna Fargo, Ray Price, Tanya Tucker, Johnny Rodriguez, Charlie Rich (“The Most Beautiful Girl,” which would eventually make #1), and Merle Haggard. West had been charting on the country side for a decade by 1973, although her biggest successes would come in the late 70s in several duets with Kenny Rogers. If you think you remember “Country Sunshine,” it might be because it went to #2 on the country chart. However, it’s more likely because of this:

In a twist on the way it happens now, the Coke jingle came first and was turned into a record later.

It’s been a few years since I mentioned an aircheck I received out of the blue from a kind reader one day in 2006. It’s 90 minutes of ass-kickin’ classic Top 40 goodness from the border blaster X-ROCK 80, based across the line from El Paso, Texas, in Juarez, Mexico, as heard on the night of August 23, 1976. With 150,000 watts, X-ROCK-80 blanketed the western United States, and in 1975 it claimed to be the most-listened-to station in the country (despite jocks who, on the night shift at least, were not very good). I have posted excerpts from this aircheck before. Nevertheless, until you hear “Brother Louie” on that skywave from halfway across the country, which makes it sound like some sort of demon about to break out of the radio and eat your face, you haven’t heard it the way it was meant to be heard.

(If you’re interested in hearing the whole X-ROCK 80 aircheck, get in touch.)

“Brother Louie” and “Ballroom Blitz” on X-ROCK 80, 8/23/76