(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.
In the summer of 1975, I did not like the Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” even as it did a month at #1, the first record to last that long at the top in over two years. I did not like “The Way I Want to Touch You” that fall, even as it insinuated itself into my head and now inspires strong flashbacks to the end of that year. (Which is omething I intend to write about next week.) The Captain and Tennille were woven into my favorite year, 1976, with three big hits. “Shop Around” didn’t bother me, but “Muskrat Love” and “Lonely Night (Angel Face)” did. (Click the link for Professor O’Kelly’s thoughts on the latter, and several C&T songs.) By 1977, however, they ceased to register much at all with me. By the end of 1980, they were gone from the charts, never to return, and I felt no void because of it.
As the years went by, I called them a cocktail-lounge act. I called Toni Tennille’s voice an in-your-face bleat, and I said that she reminded me of that mouthy cheerleader you hated in high school. I described the Captain’s style on keyboard as “blips and farts.” I even criticized them on a sociological basis. In their last two big hits, “You Never Done It Like That” and “Do That to Me One More Time” (which went to #1 in February 1980), I heard Toni criticizing the Captain’s prowess in the sack. “You Never Done It Like That” contains one of the most demeaning things a woman ever said to a man after he’s made love to her: “Hey little man, I want to shake your hand.” In “Do That to Me One More Time,” Toni seems mildly surprised to have gotten off.
Even in the early days of this blog, I was prone to snark. Back in 2005, I wrote:
September 20, 1976: The Captain and Tennille’s variety show premieres on ABC. It becomes one of the most enduring hits in the history of television, remaining on the air until 1994. Its staggering popularity results in seven consecutive number-one albums, 24 top-10 singles, and the 1997 induction of Daryl Dragon and Toni Tennille into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Wait, maybe not.
Now, all these years later, “Wait, maybe not” is right.
The variety-show crack gets at something truthful in a backward way: a network variety show did not often boost an act’s hitmaking profile. Sonny and Cher, Roy Clark and Buck Owens (with Hee Haw), Tony Orlando and Dawn, Donny and Marie, and the Captain and Tennille never scaled the charts after their TV shows like they had before. And if the Captain and Tennille’s show was cheesy, it wasn’t much more so than its contemporaries. As a time capsule of what TV celebrity looked like in 1976 and 1977, you can scarcely do better.
As for the rest of it—in-your-face bleat, mouthy cheerleader, and so on? Nah, that’s not fair, and I don’t believe it anymore.
Toni Tennille and Daryl Dragon were hipper than people knew, as Ultimate Classic rock summarizes here, including the funny story about the Pink Floyd fan who discovered Toni is on The Wall, and the Captain’s history with the Beach Boys. In the middle of the 1970s, they cut some great songs: several by Neil Sedaka and one (“Shop Around”) by Smokey Robinson. They were backed on record by the LA superstars known as the Wrecking Crew. And they hit in an era that was perfectly perfectly primed for solidly built pop music, lightweight and catchy and fun.
(One of their records was more than just fun. “Shop Around” contains advice no young man ever needed. But by gender-flipping it, the Captain and Tennille told young women of the 70s that they could control their own lives and make their own choices—topical and significant advice amidst the changes of that decade. It’s my favorite record of theirs by a mile, but I like this one a lot, too, speaking of lightweight and catchy.)
No, the Captain and Tennille aren’t getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And no, I’m not going to buy their complete-works box set, should there ever be one. But it’s hard to imagine the 1970s without them, and that’s the biggest tribute I can pay anybody. Rest well, Captain, and thank you for the music.
(Pictured: Ray Sawyer, in profile, and Dennis Locorriere of Dr. Hook.)
The thing I found most surprising about the death of Ray Sawyer, the guy who wore the eye-patch in Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, is not so much that he died, but that he was 81 years old. He was no baby-boomer; while “Cover of the Rolling Stone” was riding the charts in 1973, he turned 37 years old. Chronologically, he was more a member of my parents’ generation than of mine.
As it happens, I met Ray Sawyer once.
Dr. Hook formed in the late 60s and for several years specialized in amiable stoner rock. They performed some Shel Silverstein songs in the 1971 Dustin Hoffman movie Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me, and scored a Top-10 hit with Silverstein’s “Sylvia’s Mother” in 1972. The 1973 album Sloppy Seconds consisted entirely of Silverstein songs, not just “Cover of the Rolling Stone” but such PG-rated fare as “Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball,” “Get My Rocks Off,” and “Lookin’ for Pussy.” In 1975, however, they dropped the Medicine Show from their name. As Dr. Hook, they became a reliable pop act. Between 1976 and 1979, “Only Sixteen,” “Sharing the Night Together,” and “When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman” all hit the Top 10, and “A Little Bit More” reached #11. Released late in 1979, the album Sometimes You Win produced two more Top-10 hits, “Better Love Next Time” and “Sexy Eyes.”
(In terms of chart performance, “Sexy Eyes” ended up their biggest Hot 100 hit, equaling “Sylvia’s Mother” at #5 but charting for 21 weeks compared to 15 for “Sylvia.” Nevertheless, I bet you don’t remember it at all.)
And so it came to pass that in the summer of 1980, Dr. Hook’s itinerary bought them to the Stephenson County Fair in Freeport, Illinois, and I got to interview Sawyer and lead singer Dennis Locorriere.
I was the night jock at WXXQ in Freeport. One afternoon, I went with a guy from our AM sister station to a hotel room in Freeport (which may in fact have been a motel room in Freeport), and there they were: Sawyer with his eye-patch and cowboy hat, and Locorriere looking no different than other thirtyish dudes one might pass on the street. They were, as best I can remember, very gracious, greeting us with big smiles and handshakes, and quite gregarious.
At the age of 20, I hadn’t met anyone remotely famous. I didn’t want anybody to know that, of course, and furthermore, I wanted to come off as the hip rock jock I saw when I looked in the mirror. But these guys were real rock stars, and I was scared shitless.
I remember only two things about the interview. First was a line that Sawyer probably repeated in every interview: “I lost my eye in a car accident. I went back to look for it but I couldn’t find it.” The other thing is asking them how they would describe a typical Dr. Hook song. What they said, I don’t remember—but I do remember that in my flustered-ness, I asked the question twice.
I don’t remember how we used the interview. My station was an album-rocker, although we may have added “Cover of the Rolling Stone” for the duration, and we probably played at least some of the interview to help plug the concert. The AM station played soft rock, mostly, and the interview probably got more prominent play over there.
I didn’t go to the Dr. Hook show at the county fair, because I was on the air that night. But when I hear a Dr. Hook song today, I sometimes think of that interview. Were I to go digging through my boxes of tapes, I could probably find a copy of it—but I’d be afraid to listen to it.
Before we left that day, we asked Sawyer and Locorriere to autograph copies of Sometimes You Win for giveaways. We were embarrassed to have only ballpoint pens for them to sign with, which don’t write well on covers. One of the better-looking copies ended up in my collection; it’s pictured here. Although you can’t see it, Sawyer signed, in a nice throwback to his stoner-rock days, “Hi Always, Ray Sawyer.”
Coming tomorrow: another tribute post.