(Pictured: Lynryd Skynyrd, on the road in 1976.)
Classic-rock radio, and album-rock radio before it, has certain songs upon which its entire ethos and reputation is built. One of the most important is “Free Bird.”
“Free Bird” was on Lynryd Skynyrd’s debut album, released in 1973, and it certainly would have gotten album-rock airplay from the time the album came out. But it didn’t catch on as a single until after “Sweet Home Alabama” (from their second album) had opened the way in the fall of ’74. Although a couple of smaller radio stations could claim to be on it first, KDWB in Minneapolis/St. Paul led the flight of “Free Bird.” The station charted it in late October 1974, and it stayed in the Top 10 there through much of December and January. WYSL in Buffalo and WAKY in Louisville would also chart it high before 1974 was over. The record (edited to 4:41 from 9:08) cracked the Hot 100 at the end of November and rose to #19 for two weeks from January 25, 1975.
In late 1976, Lynryd Skynryd released the live album One More From the Road. Ronnie Van Zant asks the audience at a show in Atlanta, “What song is it you want to hear?” There follows a 14-minute version that completely stomps the original, looser and more soulful, with a gorgeous piano replacing the organ heard on the album version, and a long piano solo that is surprising in the context of a song better-known as a triple lead-guitar blazer. (This is the version a lot of classic-rock and album-rock stations, including my college station, played, although I haven’t heard it on the radio recently.) An edited version of it, cut to 4:55, was on a few Top 40 stations by the end of October 1976. It had neither the reach nor the run of the studio version, although it reached #11 on WLS in Chicago on the first chart of 1977. It spent eight weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at #38, on January 8, 1977.
One way of looking at “Free Bird” today is as its own self-comment on 70s rock ‘n’ roll excess. It was nine minutes long in 1973 because it could be, not necessarily because it needed to be, and the half-length 1974 single loses nothing significant except the stately organ-and-piano introduction. But by 1976, the song’s reputation was such that it wouldn’t sound right at anything less than epic length. On the One More From the Road version, you can hear the crowd go wild around the 11-minute mark as the band kicks into a still-higher gear, and their reaction is unexpectely thrilling. The song takes nearly 90 seconds just to end, but there’s no sense that the band is doing anything more than the song, and the audience, deserves. Even though it’s edited from the same performance, the 1977 single comes off like a pale copy. The song is there, but none of the excitement.
The place of “Free Bird” in rock history was cemented by Lynryd Skynyrd’s 1977 plane crash. The bird in the song would be forever conflated with the band members lost, even though it’s likely that the band would have closed every show with it until the end of time anyway. Before the crash, the band frequently dedicated it to the memory of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. In the years since, the surviving members of the band have often performed it as an instrumental in tribute.
On the Subject of Tributes: I often use Ron Smith’s Chicago Top 40 Charts 1970-1979 as a resource at this website. Smith’s books did for the weekly charts of WLS and WCFL what Joel Whitburn has done for the Billboard charts. Ron Smith died suddenly earlier this month at the age of 66, which does not seem very old to me at all. He was a radio personality and movie producer as well as an author and researcher. He and I exchanged a bit of e-mail over the years, and I am grateful for what he provided to this low-rent site of mine, and for what his books will continue to provide even though he’s gone.
After I’d mostly finished this post, Monty Python member Terry Jones died. I worshipped at the Python altar practically from the moment they came ashore in America. I adored—and still adore—their erudite absurdity. They were the smartest funny people I’d ever seen. So I am grateful to Terry Jones too for what he provided to a low-rent jokester such as I, and for the inspiration his works will continue to provide even though he’s gone.
A couple of weeks ago, somebody—and I forget who because I found the whole thing too depressing to finish—wrote a piece focused on the ages of prominent rock figures from the 60s to the 80s, and the likelihood that they’re going to start dying in droves. And then it started happening. Eddie Money died on Friday at the age of 70, and Ric Ocasek of the Cars died yesterday at 75.
(That’s older than you’d expect. “Baby Hold On,” Money’s first hit in the summer of 1978, would have come when he was already pushing 30; when “Just What I Needed” hit that fall, Ocasek was 34.)
Money’s first two hits, “Baby Hold On” and “Two Tickets to Paradise” (always choose the 45 mix, people), were simple, no-frills rock, the kind of thing that stood out in 1978, a year filled with lightweight pop tunes. His third album, 1980’s Playing for Keeps, has two of my favorite performances: “Trinidad,” with great jangly guitars and big stomping drums, and “The Wish,” which builds up from a single sizzling riff into a tough rock ‘n’ roll strut that leaves no ass unkicked.
Money ascended to a new level of stardom in the MTV era. In 1982, No Control featured “Shakin'” and “Think I’m in Love,” which are in competition with “Baby Hold On” for the title of Eddie Money’s signature song. Unless that’s “Take Me Home Tonight” from his 1986 album Can’t Hold Back, his highest-charting single of all.
(In 1986, the first show of the tour supporting Can’t Hold Back was in the Illinois college town where I was a Top 40 morning jock. Ann and I went to the soundcheck that afternoon, where we were surprised to see how tough he was on his band. He repeatedly stopped run-throughs and made his guys do them again. He was pretty blunt in telling them he expected more than they were delivering. When we sat down for our interview, that was the first thing I said to him: “You were working the band pretty hard out there.” “I was,” he said. “This is our job, and this tour is important, and we’ve got to get it right.” I had always assumed that rock bands just kind of showed up and started to play. His level of commitment opened my eyes, and it impressed me. I never forgot it.)
Part of Eddie Money’s appeal was his regular-guyness. Part of Ric Ocasek’s appeal, and that of the Cars, was that they were not. There had never been anything that sounded quite like that first album, with its all-world opening threesome of “Good Times Roll,” “Just What I Needed,” and “My Best Friend’s Girl.” The Cars is where the musical decade of the 80s begins: the band’s music and their buttoned-up look have lot more in common with the chilly, danceable pop music of the 80s and the fashion plates who made it than they do with the styles and stars of the looser, scruffier 70s. Candy-O remains my favorite of theirs. And as Alfred Soto wrote at Pitchfork last year, their 80s albums were both experimental and squarely in the pocket for the decade, which is not an easy daily double to hit.
Like Money, the Cars became MTV superstars in the 80s, and like him, they were a sure thing for several years. But the Cars were done as a force by 1987, shortly after Ocasek’s solo career peaked with the single “Emotion in Motion” (although he made five other solo albums between 1991 and 2005, and the surviving Cars reunited for a one-off album in 2011). He was also a prominent producer, and his 28-year marriage to supermodel Paulina Porizkova (pictured above in 1990) gave hope to nerdy-lookin’ dudes everywhere. After the 1991 album Right Here, Money’s longtime label Columbia dropped him, and he settled into a period of recording infrequently on small labels and playing shows featuring his old hits. But thanks to oldies and classic-rock radio, neither act ever disappeared.
At the end, Eddie Money was pretty happy just being Eddie Money, with a respectable set list to entertain the people. And that’s the kind of ending you and I might wish for: to be 70 years old and at peace with how things have turned out for you. We don’t know whether Ric Ocasek’s life turned out as he wished, given that he kept a much lower profile. But from the outside looking in at the lives of both of them, we can guess that it would be a fine thing to have so many people care so much about you when your time comes to leave.
You are a young boy growing up in 1960s Wisconsin. The Green Bay Packers have won five championships in seven years, but by the time you start watching, Vince Lombardi is no longer the coach, and the championship veterans are aging. The first year you can remember, they have a losing season. The next year they’re a little better. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the popular bumper sticker you see all over the state—the one that reads “The Pack Will Be Back!”—is more wish than prediction. Yet hope remains, because the gladiators of the Glory Years still remain: Ray Nitschke, Willie Davis, Willie Wood, Carroll Dale, Boyd Dowler, Forrest Gregg, Dave Robinson, and others.
And Bart Starr. Your wardrobe includes a yellow jersey-style shirt with his number 15 on it, which your parents bought when you barely knew who Bart Starr was. And when you start watching the games, Bart becomes your favorite Packer.
It might be because he’s the most visible player, the quarterback, the one who gets the ball on every play. The leader, the alpha dog. Or maybe it’s that name. You learn fairly early on that his given name is Bryan Bartlett Starr, and because his middle name matches your last, there’s a connection. But those two snappy syllables, “Bart Starr,” are almost too good to be true. They’re like a name you’d find in a Frank Merriwell story. “Bart Starr” will not be a mountainous defensive lineman or a speedy wide receiver. He has to be a quarterback.
In a movie, “Bart Starr” would be an upright sheriff or a brave fighter pilot. He would be the hero. In the real world of football, he was also the hero, and he becomes mine.
I will respect many athletes over the years, but only one will ever be my hero.
Bart Starr died over the weekend at age 85. It’s nearly 50 years since he last played, but younger fans in Wisconsin know him and what the 1960s Packers accomplished because the Glory Years remain a living presence here, even as the men themselves pass away. On slow afternoons, dudes of a certain age find themselves watching 60s highlights on YouTube. Every year on December 31, we think of 1967, and the impossible story of the Ice Bowl, a game in which those men—Lombardi, Nitschke, Davis, Wood, Dale, Dowler, Gregg, Robinson, Starr, and their teammates—did not merely defeat the Dallas Cowboys but nature itself, did not merely win a football game but were transfigured into gods by the doing of it.
It was Bart Starr who won that game, driving the Packers down the field, seeing the opportunity to run a particular play on the goal line, and then executing it to secure victory as time ran out. If Bart Starr had never played another game after that day, his legend would loom just as large as it does today.
What came after, on the field, was not so glorious. After Super Bowl II (the anti-climax of all anti-climaxes, two weeks after the Ice Bowl), Vince Lombardi retired and less successful seasons followed. Starr himself played through the 1971 season, but was plagued by injuries and age. In 1972, he became a coach, calling the plays from the sidelines as he had done on the field, but only for a year. After two years away from the team, he was hired as the Packers’ head coach and general manager. But the team did not have much success apart from the strike-shortened 1982 season, and he was fired after his ninth season, in 1983.
Bart Starr’s greatness as a player erases our memories of his less-than-greatness as a coach. But his greatness as a player should be eclipsed by the man he was. His record of philanthropy is impressive, but the countless stories of simple human decency that are told about him remind us that whatever good each of us might do for others, there is more we could be doing.
Bart Starr was a great human being. Possibly the best one.
(Pictured: Peggy Lipton, in a 1972 still from The Mod Squad.)
We know they don’t really go in threes . . . although they do.
Peggy Lipton passed over the weekend at age 72. Her obituaries assumed the form that all celebrity obituaries do, hitting familiar highlights, in her case The Mod Squad, her marriage to Quincy Jones, Twin Peaks, and her celebrity daughter Rashida Jones. But Peggy Lipton had a brief recording career, too: a single album in 1968, produced by Lou Adler and backed by members of the Wrecking Crew. Peggy Lipton included a version of Laura Nyro’s “Stoney End,” which bubbled under the Hot 100 at #121 as 1968 turned to 1969, two years before Barbra Streisand hit with it. She cut a few other sides after that. One of them was “Lu,” which hit a few radio charts early in 1970 and bubbled under at #102. A version of Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” which appears to have been recorded at the time of her album but not released on it, got a little traction in the summer of 1970, bubbling under at #108.
Doris Day died on Monday. Her obituaries had their own familiar form: big-band singer, solo star, movie star (Hitchcock and Rock Hudson), TV star, celebrity son Terry Melcher, animal rights activist. My introduction to her as a singer came during my brief time as a big-band radio jock. “Sentimental Journey,” from when she fronted the Les Brown band, is a record most people know, but she also sang on Brown’s “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time.” Both were #1 hits in 1945. I played her solo hits too, not just “Que Sera, Sera,” “Secret Love,” and “Everybody Loves a Lover,” but also “Love Somebody” with Buddy Clark, “An Old-Fashioned Walk” with Frank Sinatra, and “A Guy Is a Guy.”
Tim Conway died yesterday. His obituaries mostly involved television: McHale’s Navy, Turn-On, The Carol Burnett Show, Dorf on Golf, and Spongebob Squarepants, with a detour into his 1970s Disney movie comedies. But Conway, too, had a recording career. After he got out of the Navy in the late 50s, he worked for several years on local TV in Cleveland, with a partner, Ernie Anderson. As local TV personalities frequently did in those days, they would host the showing of a movie and goof off during the breaks. Conway and Anderson eventually released two comedy albums. Are We On? was recorded live at a show in Bowling Green, Ohio, and came out in 1967; Bull appeared in 1968. It’s not clear to me when the albums were recorded, however. Their Cleveland partnership had ended in 1962 when Conway went off to Hollywood, first for a featured-player role on The Steve Allen Show and later on McHale’s Navy. Anderson stayed in Cleveland, where he became famous as the horror host Ghoulardi, and later as the voice of ABC-TV in the 70s and 80s. He would also be reunited with Conway on The Carol Burnett Show, where Anderson was the announcer and an occasional actor. (Ernie Anderson was also the father of film director Paul Thomas Anderson, and he died in 1997.)
For the families and friends of Peggy Lipton and Doris Day and Tim Conway, the losses are deeply personal. For the rest of us, it’s our memories of them, and how we watched them with the family around the electronic hearth, that make their passings noteworthy. We remember The Mod Squad, and how we’d laugh at Tim Conway on Saturday nights with Carol Burnett, after laughing at Archie and Edith and Mary and Ted and Bob and Emily. Doris Day’s TV show (1968-1973) followed The Red Skelton Show, a particular favorite at our house, and I can’t hear her theme song, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” without remembering that when it came on TV, we had to go to bed. In that same era, Mother sometimes said to my brothers and me, “I love you a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.” I didn’t know until years later that the line came from “A Bushel and a Peck,” which was a hit for Day in 1950, when Mother was a schoolgirl.
They don’t really go in threes . . . but however and whenever they go, they take pieces of our youth with them.
(The first part of this post has been sitting in my drafts file since at least 2015. I used part of it for a post at my radio station’s blog, back when I used to contribute to that, but this is its first time here. I have added some relevant links that have appeared since I first wrote this.)
I am a big fan of Mitchell Hadley’s It’s About TV, especially his posts digging into old editions of TV Guide. They’re the spiritual cousin of my One Day in Your Life posts. The big events get attention in history class, but perhaps we can better understand how it really felt to live while those big events were unfolding if we imagine them projected against the backdrop of life’s daily details. After all, that’s how we actually experienced them.
There are two kinds of TV Guide posts at It’s About TV—discussions of a particular week’s issue and day-by-day summaries of the listings themselves. Educational programs and news early in the morning, soap operas and game shows all day (with a break for local news at noontime), cartoons and off-network repeats for kids in the late afternoon (and a surprising number of movies—it was once common practice for stations to air a movie from, say, 3:30 to 5:00), network primetime, and a couple of shows or a movie after the late local news before sign-off.
The rhythm of our days is defined more by television than we realize, I think. For many Midwesterners, the 10:00 local news marks the end of the evening and time to go to bed, so you get in your eight hours before rising at 6 for another day. When I travel in the Eastern time zone, I never get used to the idea that primetime is an hour later out there.
Television used to define the rhythm of our days in other ways. During the week, the TV stations marched in step, with a different program every 30 or 60 minutes. Saturdays were not entirely like that. Game of the Week started at 1:00 and got over sometime between 3 and 4, and it would be left to the local affiliates to pick up afterward. Ours would frequently start an episode of Star Trek right after the game and show it without commercials so it would end at 4:00. One of our local stations would occasionally bust out an episode of Twilight Zone as a time-filler, and it was always a treat to stumble upon it, unlisted in TV Guide.
Late at night, TV stations stopped bowing to the tyranny of the half-hour. They’d start a movie at 11:40 or 12:20, as if to say, “It’s late, we’re off the clock, who cares.” Late-night TV looked different, too. There were not nearly as many regional and national commercials as there are now. Most of the ads you saw late at night were for local businesses, produced by local stations. It was common for a single business, often a car dealer, to sponsor the late movie, and get a spot—often repetitive, silly, or annoying—in every break. You’d see a lot of public service announcements, too, often on grainy film scratched from repeated use, or slightly out of focus.
I liked to watch the TV stations sign off, play the National Anthem, maybe put up color bars, or just go to static. At that point, there was nothing left to watch, and you might as well go to bed. Or fall asleep with the light of the unblinking screen until the early news, Sunrise Semester, or some noisy cartoon restarts the rhythm for yet another day.
One More Different Thing: I was sorry to learn of the passing this week of Earl Thomas Conley. During the 1980s, only Alabama and Ronnie Milsap recorded more #1 country hits than Conley. His 1981 #1 hit “Fire and Smoke” is an all-time fave of mine, as is the insanely great “Your Love’s on the Line” from 1983. As a country-radio jock during the first half of the 80s, I knew that whenever a new Conley record showed up in the studio, it was going to be good. While I didn’t love every one of them, few stars of the time had a higher batting average with me.
When a new generation hit at the end of the 80s—the Class of ’89, which included Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson—Conley’s star dimmed, but he stayed on the road for years thereafter. He’d suffered from dementia in recent years and died at 77.
(Pictured: Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s, released in 1945.)
When I picked up the newly published second volume of Gary Giddens’ Bing Crosby biography, which covers the years 1940 through 1946 (and takes nearly 600 pages to do it), I was reminded that the first volume, which covered Bing from his birth in 1903, was published in 2001. If it takes Giddens another 17 years to publish a third volume, he’ll be 87 years old when it comes out—and let’s hope he (and we) live long enough to see it. His long experience as a music and film critic makes him uniquely qualified to understand his subject on a deep level, and his book makes clear that Crosby’s stardom was unique in American history.
Here’s a string of more-or-less random thoughts inspired by the book.
—It was an unlikely coincidence that Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley—the two biggest multimedia stars of the 20th century—died within two months of each other in 1977. Crosby’s death, at age 74, did not inspire the cultural furor that Presley’s did at 42. The two men were avatars of very different generations, and the height of Crosby’s fame was a couple of decades past in 1977. Then, he was known mainly for orange juice commercials, his annual Christmas TV specials (the last of which, with David Bowie, was filmed only weeks before his death), and his devotion to golf.
—His apparent failings as a parent, which are widely known today, were not publicized until 1983, when his oldest son, Gary, published a memoir detailing physical and psychological abuse. In Giddens’ second volume, which uses contemporaneous letters in addition to later recollections, Gary Crosby comes off as a somewhat unreliable narrator. Gary’s brothers acknowledged the truth of some of his recollections but disputed others. Whether it means anything that two of Gary Crosby’s brothers died by suicide, I don’t know. Gary Crosby himself died of cancer in 1995.
—Bing was a shrewd businessman. His Minute Maid orange juice commercials were not just a celebrity endorsement—he was an early investor in the company. (He did a 15-minute daily radio show for Minute Maid from 1948 to 1950. The TV ads started in 1967.) After winning the contractual right to pre-record his radio shows, he became an early investor in Ampex, and is an important figure in the development of audio tape and video tape; his other investments included race horses, TV stations, a television production company (which produced Hogan’s Heroes), and the Pittsburgh Pirates; he bought a 14-percent stake in 1946.
—His media dominance during the 40s is astounding. Hit record after hit record; movie smash after movie smash; a highly successful weekly radio show: “White Christmas,” “Moonlight Becomes You,” “Swinging on a Star,” “I’ll Be Seeing You”—all were once among the most beloved performances in American popular music; the Road pictures with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, plus his Oscar-winning performance in Going My Way and other successful films including Star-Spangled Rhythm, Holiday Inn, Birth of the Blues, The Bells of St. Mary’s, and Blue Skies, which made him the top box-office draw and highest-paid actor of the era; ten years (1936-1946) as star of Kraft Music Hall at the height of radio’s classic era. Only Elvis came anywhere close, and he lacked the broadcasting resume, as well as the business savvy.
—Crosby did not particularly enjoy performing live. He went literally decades between formal concert tours, and he accepted a live audience for his radio show only grudgingly. But he performed everywhere nevertheless. During World War II, he appeared at bond rallies and made an extensive USO tour on the front lines in Europe. He entertained soldiers and sailors wherever he could find them, and he played celebrity benefit golf matches at which he frequently ended up singing. He was conscious of what he represented to American society during the Second World War, and he felt a keen responsibility to contribute to the war effort.
—As I finish the 1940-1946 volume of Giddens’ biography, the overwhelming feeling I’m left with strikes me strange: I wish I could have been there. There are a million reasons why few of us would like living in the 1940s, but that doesn’t make the feeling any less strong. Many people remember World War II as “the good war” and the era as a fine time to be an American. Compared to our present time, with its morally ambiguous wars, its morally monstrous governments, and its monstrously vapid pop culture, it’s positively alluring.