(Pictured: Helen Reddy at the Women’s March in Los Angeles on January 21, 2017, at which she performed “I Am Woman.”)
I know just enough about the concept of synchronicity to be stupid about it. The way I understand it, there are no coincidences. Everything is connected. Once you start noticing the way coincidences cluster, you’ll see clusters all the time.
For example: first thing yesterday morning I found myself looking at a post in the archives of this blog that mentioned Helen Reddy’s hit “I Am Woman.” A few minutes later, I came across this excellent piece from NPR on this history and impact of “I Am Woman,” which was climbing the charts 46 years ago this week. And a few minutes after that, from a totally different source, I learned that yesterday was Helen Reddy’s 77th birthday.
So I postponed what I was planning to put up today, and you’re gonna read about Helen Reddy instead.
I am a man of the 1970s. It’s where I grew up. It’s the country where I’m from. It’s where I learned to be me, in large part, and where I found much of what I still value most. It’s a place I understand, and one that understands me.
All I can see today, through the fog of the four decades through which I have traveled since, is the distant shore of that homeland. Certain beacons are still visible, reminders of what it was like back there. But those beacons grow ever dimmer, and sometimes they wink out, to be seen no more.
Burt Reynolds died yesterday at the age of 82.
Burt spent the 60s acting on TV, and he became America’s favorite box-office personality in the mid 70s. But he also had a modest recording career. In 1973, as his fame was beginning to build thanks to a breakout performance in Deliverance, he released Ask Me What I Am, produced by Bobby Goldsboro, a longtime friend and colleague, and Nashville record mogul Buddy Killen. It’s obscure enough not to have been reviewed at Allmusic.com, although the fine and bygone blog 30 Days Out reviewed it in 2008. Burt sings and sometimes talks his way through 11 songs as a down-home rural storyteller. It’s not very good beyond its curiosity value, but if you’re interested, you can listen to the whole album here.
In 1980, he recorded a single, “Let’s Do Something Cheap and Superficial,” for the movie Smokey and the Bandit 2, and it reached #88 on the Hot 100 in November. I was aware of it at the time, although I can’t say whether I actually played it on the radio. That it would get some traction was a foregone conclusion. By 1980, Burt Reynolds had become a national archetype. “Let’s Do Something Cheap and Superficial” was exactly the kind of self-mockery we would have expected from him then. The Burt of Ask Me What I Am, despite a successful career in TV up to that point, wasn’t a strongly defined personality yet, and the album works less well as a result. (Lack of a strongly defined personality is not the only problem the album has; song selection is another, as well as singing on-key.) If Burt had made a whole album in 1980, it would have been far different, and likely far more successful.
Although I am a man of the 70s, my title is in lowercase. Burt Reynolds was a Man of the 70s—if not The Man of the 70s. The milestones are many: his photo spread in Cosmo, a string of iconic movies spanning 1973 to 1983 (roughly from Deliverance through Stroker Ace), his romances with Sally Field and Dinah Shore and Loni Anderson. Over the last 25 years or so of his life, when his profession was not so much acting or directing as it was simply Being Burt Reynolds, he retained, for the most part, the persona he first projected during his glory days: handsome as hell, smooth with the ladies, tough and determined, unimpressed with authority figures, fearless and funny, able to laugh at himself above all. These were all things a lowercase man of the 70s wished he could be. Burt even managed a creative rebirth relatively late in life, with an Oscar nomination for playing Jack Horner in Boogie Nights (1997). A creative rebirth in his relative dotage is something a lowercase man of the 70s might also wish for.
Burt Reynolds is said to have said, “If you hold onto things long enough, they get back into style. Just like me.” That, too, is something a lowercase man of the 70s might wish for today. To be cool again, or to at least understand once again what cool is, if he was never actually cool himself. To escape being a relic. To wake up one morning back in his native country and recognize the place.
But that isn’t how our world works, and even the most wishful, wistful lowercase man of the 70s knows it. The best he—we–can do is to peer through the fog, looking back for those beacons that shine out to us from home, and never forgetting the ones that stand where we no longer can see them.
(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 . . . .