(Update: Aretha passed this morning, August 16th.)
As I write this post [on August 15], Aretha Franklin is still with us, and maybe she’ll be with us for a while yet. The fact that she’s receiving hospice care, as was reported this week, doesn’t necessarily mean she’s going to die within days. I lost an uncle recently who had received hospice care for a couple of months.
When her time comes, other people are going to write about Aretha, and I look forward to those tributes. In this post, premature though it is, I’ll do what I can.
Although “Don’t Play That Song” peaked at #11 on the Hot 100 in the fabled fall of 1970, WLS didn’t chart it, so I didn’t hear it then. My introduction to Aretha came in the spring of 1971, when her glorious version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” went to #6 on the Hot 100 and #11 on WLS. My favorite Aretha record was a few months away. Forty-seven years ago this week, “Spanish Harlem” was blasting up the Hot 100, jumping from #29 to #19 in its third week on, although it was already #1 on soul station WWRL in New York City and at CKLW in Detroit. In September, it would peak at #2 on the Hot 100 where, in one of the great miscarriages of Top 40 justice, it got stuck behind Donny Osmond’s “Go Away Little Girl,” although it did reach #1 at WLS in Chicago and WABC in New York.
Aretha followed “Spanish Harlem” with “Rock Steady,” hot enough by itself, but positively smokin’ as processed for AM radio here, and in the spring of 1972, “Day Dreaming,” which is soul music as the pure, clear water of life—you could live on it for weeks if need be, with a shot of “Until You Come Back to Me” (1973) as a chaser. Although “I’m in Love” (1974), “Something He Can Feel” (1976), and “Jump to It” (1981) were significant hits, “Day Dreaming” would be Aretha’s last Top-10 single until “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” in 1985.
When I went to the record books, I was a bit surprised to find that Aretha hit #1 on the pop chart only twice, with “Respect” in 1967 and “I Knew You Were Waiting” with George Michael 20 years later. “Chain of Fools” and “Spanish Harlem” both made #2; “Until You Come Back to Me” and “Freeway of Love” each peaked at #3. In 1967, the album I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You, which started with the famously aborted recording session at Muscle Shoals, made #2. In 1968, Aretha: Lady Soul made #2 and Aretha Now made #3. Her scorecard: 17 Top-10 pop singles and six Top-10 albums.
(Links in the previous paragraph go to posts at The ’68 Comeback Special, a blog by Charles L. Hughes, author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South. Go read them, and the book too.)
Aretha had two babies before she turned 15, troubled relationships with difficult men, financial problems, concert no-shows, and rivalries with family members and fellow performers. Her career cratered a couple of times, but she always managed to come back. The 2014 biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz is the definitive telling of her story, although Aretha called it “trashy,” and she accused Ritz, collaborator on her 1999 autobiography, of being “vindictive.” Ritz says that because certain subjects were off-limits in 1999, that book failed to tell Aretha’s story as it should have. Respect addressed those subjects, with the cooperation of three Franklin family members. It’s not flattering and it’s hard to read in spots, but it also gives Aretha her due as an artist. And at the end of an artist’s life, the art is the thing that matters, because the art is what will endure.
The greatest art has a natural quality that makes it seem as though it sprung forth, like a redwood tree or a glacier does, willed into being by something primal and more powerful than than the conscious choices and actions of fallible human beings. Humans like Aretha Franklin make art that proves humanity can achieve the highest heights to which we aspire. We aren’t here just to suck up natural resources and die wanting more. We can do better.
(Note to patrons: following this post, this blog is going on hiatus. Posting will resume in early December . . . unless somebody else dies before then.)
On November 21, 1970, “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. But because Billboard was always a bit behind the street and is just one chart besides, the charts available at ARSA tell a more complete and accurate story.
The first station to list “I Think I Love You” was WLCY in Tampa, on a survey dated August 31. KREL in Corona, California, followed on September 2. The first city to go nuts over the record was Seattle, where KJR and KOL both debuted it on September 18. Two other major Top 40 stations, KFRC in San Francisco and KOIL in Omaha, charted it days before The Partridge Family debuted on ABC on September 25, 1970. So did KCPX in Salt Lake City, where it blasted to #1 in three weeks, on the chart dated October 6—before the record had even made the Hot 100. KJR moved it to #1 on its survey dated October 9.
“I Think I Love You” debuted on the October 10 Hot 100 at #75 (the same week WRIG in Wausau, Wisconsin, charted it at #1) and slow-cooked for the rest of the month, going from #75 to #60 to #41. But on October 31, it vaulted into the Top 40 at #17, then went to #7, #4, and finally #1. Its reach across the country was fast, and massive: WLS and WCFL in Chicago both charted it at #1 for the week of November 2. By November 21, it had also reached #1 in Seattle, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Vancouver, Houston, Detroit, Akron, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Memphis, Winnipeg, Syracuse, Miami, San Diego, Boston, Fort Wayne, Flint, Grand Rapids, Toronto, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Fresno, Hartford, and Columbus (where WCOL would make it the #1 song for all of 1970, as would KOL in Seattle). It topped charts in smaller cities too, from Altoona, Pennsylvania, to Muncie, Indiana.
“I Think I Love You” would spend three weeks at #1 and six additional weeks in the Top 10 after that before going 11-15-22-25 and out. During its last week on the Hot 100, February 13, 1971, “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted” debuted at #57, and another rocket ride began.
The Partridge Family was must-see-TV at my house; both my brother and I bought Partridge records and other swag in 1971, the year we turned 11 and 9—solidly in the Partridge demographic. I needn’t rehash my adult fondness for the family’s music: played by members of the Wrecking Crew and with vocals by the top session singers in Hollywood, it was far better-made than it needed to be. Neither do I need to revisit its place in the mythology of this blog: “I Think I Love You” was one of the 45s I got for Christmas in 1970.
And on November 21, 2017, 47 years to the day since “I Think I Love You” hit #1, David Cassidy died.
Any online obituary you choose to read will sketch the outlines of Cassidy’s career, so I’m not going to do it here. One thing I will do is suggest you listen to his 1990 Top 40 return, “Lyin’ to Myself,” which is clearly an artifact of its time but worth four minutes nevertheless. I’ll say instead that 47 years after it exploded into American popular culture like a polyester-and-puka-shell bomb, David Cassidy’s Keith-Partridge early-70s young-man cool endures. Who wouldn’t want to look like him, dress like him, or sing like him? I did. And I do.
About that other thing . . . .
(Pictured: Mel Tillis.)
You gotta pick your spots. For example, I am not the person to write an appreciation of AC/DC’s Malcolm Young, who died over the weekend. David Cassidy is more my speed, but he is still with us at this writing, so that piece can wait. Here, then, are a few words about Mel Tillis, who died Sunday at age 85. I do not intend this blog to become a country-music blog, even though this makes something like five country-themed posts in the last couple of months, but as I say, you gotta pick your spots.
Mel Tillis was the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year in 1976, so he fits with a broader obsession at this blog. And he must have been a dark horse to win that year—the other nominees were Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Ronnie Milsap, and Dolly Parton, all of whom scored #1 hits in 1975 and/or 1976, while Mel did not. Up to that point, he’d been #1 only once, with a version of Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never” in 1972, although he’d scored 17 other Top 10 hits between 1969 and 1976. The week after the 1976 CMAs, in October, his “Good Woman Blues” hit #1, and it started the best streak of his career: 15 straight Top 10 hits between 1976 and 1981, including four #1 singles.
In 1979, I was on the radio in Dubuque, playing country music. Mel’s “Coca Cola Cowboy” was one of the biggest songs of that summer, doing a week at #1 in August. Earlier that year, “Send Me Down to Tucson,” a fabulous cheatin’ song, had gone to #2. (Both were heard in the Clint Eastwood movie Every Which Way But Loose.) Another of his songs, the 1977 hit “I Got the Hoss,” was a frequent request, for reasons that become obvious when you hear it. The Top-10 hits that followed “Coca Cola Cowboy” were successful but not especially memorable—as I look at the list, I can’t call any of then back to mind. Mel cut an album with Nancy Sinatra in 1982, and he hit the country singles chart for the last time in 1989. His last studio album came out in 2010.
Mel did a bit of acting too, first appearing as a country singer in a 1973 episode of Love American Style, if IMDB can be believed. He was in several Burt Reynolds movies: W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings, Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run, and Cannonball Run II. He also appeared in commercials, most famously for the Whataburger chain. He was a popular guest on talk and variety TV shows during the last half of the 70s, and his visibility likely contributed to his Entertainer of the Year win in ’76. His visibility also made him the most famous stutterer in America, and as a person who shares that affliction (although not to the degree he had it), I admired his perseverance, and his willingness to make fun of it.
In 1981, a group of us from college attended a national radio convention in Chicago. Willie Nelson was supposed to headline a concert one night, but he was taken ill, and the organizers had to scramble to find a replacement. Mel flew in on short notice and did the show, telling the audience that he owed so much of his success to radio that he was happy to make the trip. I used to have an autograph he signed that night, but like a lot of stuff from that era, it’s long gone.
Listening to Mel Tillis again, I’m reminded—and surprised—at just how great so many of his records were, so perfectly in the pocket for their time.
On the subject of those who have recently left the planet . . . .
When I wrote about Walter Becker and Steely Dan in September, I said that I’d made a list of favorite Dan songs but then decided to leave it out of the post, partly because it didn’t seem like the proper place for it, but also because any list I make is likely to change depending on what day it is. But a couple of people amongst the readership said they were interested in seeing it, so here it is.
10. “Change of the Guard.” Included for its bangin’ piano and a stereo-speaker-spanning guitar solo/shred by Skunk Baxter, this track from Can’t Buy a Thrill is the deepest cut on this list, with the possible exception of …
9. “Snowbound.” This is a ringer; it’s a cut from Donald Fagen’s 1993 album Kamarkiriad, and co-written by Becker, who produced the album. Of all the songs Fagen has recorded as a solo artist, this feels to me like the most Steely Dan-ish, every bit as lush and beautiful as anything on Aja or Gaucho.
8. “My Old School.” The closest Steely Dan ever got to a rave-up, “My Old School” is snide and joyful at the same time, which is not an easy daily double to hit.
7. “Parker’s Band.” A track from Pretzel Logic, and a tribute to Charlie Parker (“Kansas City born and growin’ / You won’t believe what the boys are blowin'”) and the jazz players Becker and Fagen grew up on.
6. “Any Major Dude With Half a Heart.” At least one Becker tribute I read (and there were a lot of them, so I can’t recall which one) labeled Steely Dan a part of the 1970s California rock scene, which doesn’t seem accurate to me. Their music is much more New York: darker, jazzier, and less obviously cocaine-dusted than what I associate with the California sound. But if you’re looking for something in their catalog that sounds like California in the 70s—something with a peaceful, easy feeling, perhaps—“Any Major Dude” is the closest you’ll get.
5. “Midnight Cruiser.” Steely Dan songs are populated by outcasts who, if they aren’t chasing the dragon, are chasing dreams they probably won’t catch. “Midnight Cruiser” finds two of them deciding to make one last run at it, but worrying that “The time of our time has come and gone / I fear we’ve been waiting too long.”
4. “Deacon Blues.” Practically perfect in every way.
3. “Glamour Profession.” Even though the song is about a drug dealer in sunny Los Angeles, the icy electric piano texture that’s all over it makes you feel like you’re standing on a dead-white and frozen plain in the middle of winter, accompanied by a clutch of horn players who are being strangled by a howling wind. (Walter Becker once said he wouldn’t mind not appearing on his own albums. He’s famously not on “Peg,” and he’s not on this, either.)
2. “Doctor Wu.” Which includes my favorite Steely Dan lyric: “Katy lies / You can see it in her eyes / But imagine my surprise / When I saw you.”
1. “Black Cow.” This is the first track on Aja, so it was new to me when I dropped the needle for the first time. It took quite a while before I got past it to the rest of the album. (Becker isn’t on this, either.)
Like I said, this project is possibly a fool’s errand. But I’ve gone on those before.
It’s probably just as foolish, but perhaps more fruitful, to rank Steely Dan’s albums, which I will do below.
2. Katy Lied
3. The Royal Scam
4. Can’t Buy a Thrill
6. Pretzel Logic
7. Countdown to Ecstasy
8. Two Against Nature
9. Everything Must Go
10. Alive in America
If you disagree with me ranking Pretzel Logic and Countdown to Ecstasy behind Gaucho, get in line. This is how I roll. And while the top four feel solidly locked place in today, you never know what might happen tomorrow.
(Pictured: this is Fats Domino and not, as the original caption says, Fats Dimono. You can trust me.)
Since the death of Fats Domino earlier this week at age 89, I have been trying to remember precisely when I first heard his music and that of the other icons of the 1950s, but I’ll be damned if I can remember.
American Graffiti, which came out in 1973, was the first introduction many kids my age got to 50s music in general and certain icons in particular: Fats, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly were all heard in the movie. The 1950s nostalgia wave swept into TV while American Graffiti was still in theaters with the January 1974 premiere of Happy Days, which used Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” as its original theme song. I have written elsewhere of a suspicion that TV ads for K-Tel oldies compilations might have introduced me to some artists of the 50s I didn’t otherwise know. I can’t say if, or how many, of rock’s founding fathers were in the oldies library at WLS and other Top 40 stations during the 1970s, although some certainly must have been. When I was a little baby DJ, the syndicated radio show Sunday at the Memories taught me a lot. Host Ray Durkee revered the music of the rock ‘n’ roll era, and I soaked up his enthusiasm while I board-opped his show.
But beyond that, specifics about where and how I first heard Fats Domino and other stars of the 1950s are lost to me.
Domino’s collaborations with producer/bandleader Dave Bartholomew were among the most significant records made by anybody anywhere. Their first big hit, “The Fat Man,” rose to #2 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1950, and is said to have sold a million copies. In 1952, Domino’s first #1 R&B hit, “Goin’ Home,” crossed over to the pop chart. When rock ‘n’ roll exploded in 1955, he was there with “Ain’t That a Shame,” the first song George Harrison learned to play, and one of those records that used to be engraved on the DNA of everybody with a radio—as were “Blueberry Hill” and “I’m Walkin’,” which hit in 1956 and 1957 respectively.
(Fats wasn’t the first to record “Blueberry Hill”; it actually went back to 1940. Many kids my age first heard it, or heard about it, on Happy Days, where it was used as shorthand for gettin’ lucky: when talking about their dates, Richie and his friends would sing, “I found my thrill . . .” whether they had or not, in the bragging way of adolescent boys then and now.)
My favorite Fats Domino records both made the pop Top 10 in 1959: the piano-bangin’ “Whole Lotta Loving” and the slower-cookin’ “I Want to Walk You Home.” But by then, his run of monumental hits was nearly over; his last Top 10, “Walking to New Orleans,” came in the summer of 1960, although he made the Top 40 12 more times before the end of 1962. He changed labels after that, splitting with Bartholomew and recording in Nashville. (The latter change didn’t serve him well.) His final Hot 100 hit was a terrific version of “Lady Madonna,” which did two weeks at #100 in September 1968. In 1980, Fats recorded “Whiskey Heaven” for the Clint Eastwood movie Any Which Way You Can, and I remember playing it on KDTH. He released albums throughout the 80s and 90s, mostly live discs (the last one in 2003), and in 1993, he made a Christmas album. The last thing most people heard about Fats before his death this week was of his 2005 rescue in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He rode it out at home in New Orleans, losing all of his possessions in the process.
Of the most iconic stars of the 50s, only three are still alive now: Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Don Everly, all in their 80s, and we all hope they’re taking good care. But as me mourn Fats Domino, let’s rejoice that Dave Bartholomew is still among us. This Christmas Eve, he will celebrate his 97th birthday.