The Before Times

In your home, right now, you can probably look up from your device and see objects that you have invested with meaning: the anniversary picture on a wall, the family heirloom on a bookshelf, the concert or game ticket tacked to a bulletin board. Your eyes skim over them frequently on the way to looking at something more compelling. But if you look and linger, you sometimes find yourself feeling what you felt when those objects came into your life, remembering what they represent.

The BBC recently asked people to share the last “normal” photo on their cameras, taken before the virus crisis began. The picture at the top of this post is mine. It was taken on Sunday March 8, when The Mrs. and I were in Minneapolis to watch the Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team.

It was the end of a busy week. The preceding Saturday, February 29, was my birthday; Sunday March 1 was the first birthday party I’d had since I was eight. Wednesday the 4th I traveled to Minnesota for what was supposed to be a three-week trip; on Friday the 6th, Ann came up to join me for the hockey weekend, a trip we’ve made several times in the last few years.

We knew about the virus by then. We were already washing our hands umpteen times a day. But we didn’t fear crowds yet. On Saturday the 7th we pregamed in a bar where people were shoulder-to-shoulder (pictured), and we postgamed at places that were equally crowded. After the game on Sunday we drove an hour up the road to where I would be teaching on Monday; Monday morning we had breakfast in a restaurant with whiteray and his Texas Gal before The Mrs. headed back to Madison. That night after class, I sat elbow-to-elbow with fellow barflies in a brewery taproom. On Tuesday the 10th, I had dinner in a crowded restaurant, once again at the bar. By the next day, the United States was starting to shutter. On Saturday the 14th, I taught what turned out to be my last class. The next day I went home, my trip cut short; my final dine-in restaurant meal was breakfast at a McDonalds by the interstate. I would work a week of radio after that, but since Wednesday, March 24, I’ve been on lockdown.

Back on the Friday of the hockey weekend, while waiting for me to get to Minneapolis from rural Minnesota, Ann went shopping, and she bought me a couple of sweaters. On March 1, to decorate for the party, she got me a bouquet of birthday balloons. On February 29, when we visited Madison’s Working Draft Beer Company, I put a brewery sticker on my phone case.

I find myself wearing those sweaters a lot more than my other clothes these days. One of the balloons, pictured here on April 26, stayed aloft for over two months. It has since sunk down behind the TV, but it’s still visible from where I sit in the living room. The sticker is still on my phone case, and I find myself fingering the edge of it while I use the phone. Like the pictures in this post, they are artifacts of the Before Times, when life was what life always was, before it started on the way to whatever it will become.

The sticker will fall off, eventually. The deflated balloon will have to be tossed. The sweaters will be put away until fall. New objects will come into my life and yours, and they will have new meanings. In the After Times, we hope that there will be new pictures to take and new tickets to tack up. But when—or whether—that will happen, we don’t know.

We just don’t.

Lots of people believe that the After Times are here, that states “reopening” this week means that the virus has been beaten and that normalcy is returning. But there’s little or no evidence for that, other than fairy tales told by self-serving policitians, and our own fond and forlorn wishes.

These are still the Before Times.

We are still a long, hard road away from whatever we are one day going to be.

Honor Roll

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(Pictured: Pee Wee King and his group, originators of “Tennessee Waltz,” one of the 20th century’s biggest hits.)

We’ve mentioned here a time or two the battery of “main” charts Billboard published in the 1950s: Best Sellers in Stores, Most Played by Jockeys, and Most Played in Jukeboxes. But from 1945 through 1963, Billboard also published a weekly Honor Roll of Hits. It was a listing by song title, showing the various versions that were available for sale. The Honor Roll of Hits reflects a reality of American popular music from the birth of recorded sound until the 1960s: the song was often more important to record buyers than the artist. In their ads from the pre-1920 Pioneer Era, record companies frequently touted which songs were available with no mention of who recorded them. From the 20s to the early 50s, competing versions of popular songs frequently charted at the same time.

“The Tennessee Waltz” is a representative example, but by no means the only one of its kind. Several versions hit big on the country charts in 1948, the biggest by Pee Wee King, but also in recordings by Cowboy Copas and Roy Acuff. In late 1950, Patti Page released a pop version that became a generational smash, eventually doing 13 weeks at #1. During the week of February 3, 1951, Page’s version was #1 on Best Selling Pop Singles and Most Played in Jukeboxes. It was #2 on the cumbersomely named Most Played Jukebox Folk (Country and Western) Records chart. And it brought 18 other versions trailing behind it onto the Honor Roll of Hits. The 1948 recordings by King, Acuff, and Copas were reissued, and Copas also cut a duet version with Ruby Wright. Other versions that charted were by Guy Lombardo, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Jo Stafford, Spike Jones, the Fontane Sisters, and Anita O’Day. And there were eight other versions beyond that.

“Tennessee Waltz” was also #1 on Best Selling Sheet Music during the week of 2/3/51, but beyond the evidence of the charts, that week’s Billboard contains a note that vividly illustrates its popularity: a radio station in Utica, New York, did a fundraiser for the March of Dimes in which a listener who made a donation could request a song. They got so many requests for “Tennessee Waltz” that the DJ on the air raised the price to $50. Billboard reports: “He got five $50 contributions for the M.O.D.” By one online calculator, $50 in 1951 is equivalent to more than $500 today.

I really need to write about Patti Page sometime. A pioneer of multi-track recording, Page made several records in the 50s that everybody would have known: not just “Tennessee Waltz” but “Mockingbird Hill,” “Doggie in the Window,” “Cross Over the Bridge,” and the spectacularly beautiful “Allegheny Moon” and “Old Cape Cod.” She hit the Top 10 as late as 1965 with “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte.” Her “Tennessee Waltz” moved six million copies; she’s said to have sold over 100 million in her career.

This post started out to be about one thing and turned into something else, and now I don’t have a good way to tie it all together, so I’m just gonna dump out the last of it and be on my way.

—By the end of the Honor Roll of Hits era, there wasn’t much to see. On the chart issued December 29, 1962, for example, there’s only one version shown for 28 of the 30 entries.

—On the same page of Billboard that has the 12/29/62 Honor Roll of Hits are a pair of charts headed Best Selling Phonographs, Radios, and Tape Recorders, one for monaural equipment and the other for stereo. A note in the headline explains: “These are the nation’s best sellers by manufacturers based on results of a month-long study using personal interviews with a representative national cross-section of record-selling outlets (only) that also sell phonographs, radios and/or tape recorders.” Rankings are based on a weighted point system, the methodology of which is not clearly explained. Charts are published every three months, although Billboard is careful to specify that they reflect sales only during the past month. In this particular week, the top brand on both charts is Webcor. Other brands listed include some you’d recognize, like Decca, Sony, Ampex and RCA Victor, and some you might not, like Voice of Music, Roberts, and Telectro.

If you are looking to get lost for hours as we stay on lockdown, I recommend the Billboard magazine archive at American Radio History. It offers a limitless supply of rabbit holes to crawl into.

Brand-Name Madison

A while back, when I asked what you’d like to read about on here, our good brother HERC asked for some stories about The Lake, the classic-rock station I worked for from 2006 to 2008. I’ve told a few over the years. Here are some more.

—The picture with this post is me, younger and thinner and on remote with the station vehicle, a 1968 VW bus. Its extra-long, on-the-floor gearshift and tricky clutch meant I needed a driving lesson before I could take it out. It wouldn’t get much above 40 on the highway, but everybody who passed you honked and waved.

—I started in mid-June 2006, and I had done maybe two shows before I was asked to host a private wine-and-cigars party for four listeners aboard a sponsor’s boat. If they were disappointed that their host was not one of the brand-name Madison jocks they heard every day but the extremely new weekend guy, they never betrayed it.

—I used only my first name, just Jim, like Cher, or Madonna. No reason; as I recall, it was a spontaneous decision just before I did my first break on the air. When I went to work for another station in the building with another Jim on it, I had to take my last name back, although I still use just Jim on some breaks now and then.

—We did not regularly play new music, but when certain core artists of the classic-rock format released new records, we mixed them in: Aerosmith, Rush, and Bob Seger are three I can remember. For a while, we played one side of a classic album every night at 11:00, and one weekend we played a side at the top of every hour. They had been digitized for use with the station’s automation, but were sourced from vinyl with clicks, pops, and noise intact, some straight from the jocks’ personal collections. I have never told my wife this, but I took in her copy of Billy Joel’s The Stranger only to have it locked into somebody’s office and then packed off to storage or some damn place, and I haven’t seen it since.

—For a while, the station did a noontime feature called Lunch With Little. Jonathan Little was Madison’s most recognizable radio voice from the 60s to the 90s, a Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Hall of Famer, somebody who saw and did everything a radio guy could see and do, and he told stories about it on the show. The first time I was on before him, I ended my last break by saying, “As a kid who grew up listening to Madison radio, I have been waiting all my life to say this: Jonathan Little is next.”

—In 2007, the station hosted a stage at Taste of Madison, the annual Labor Day weekend food festival held on the Capitol Square. At one point, several of the Lake jocks, weekday people and weekenders, were on stage at the same time, firing up the crowd. To be a part of that group was a thrill.

Backstage that day, I talked with Larry Hoppen from Orleans, Robbie Dupree, and others. Joe Lynn Turner from Rainbow told a group of us about being on tour with Ted Nugent, and how one night he spiked the notorious teetotaler’s drink, causing the Motor City Madman to create a scandalous scene in a hotel swimming pool.

—As I understood it, the Lake’s goal was not to win a particular demographic, but to shave enough share points off a crosstown classic-rock competitor to allow another rock station in our building to win the demographic. The Lake had to do this without shaving share points from other stations in our building at the same time. It could not have been an easy needle to thread, but it lasted five years before the company decided to pull the plug, which is about four years longer than a lot of companies might have given it. (By the time that happened—2008—I was working for another station in the building, and two years after that, I started on a second one.)

In January 2019 I wrote, “Just as every radio jock has stories about working at the badly run station in the nowhere town, we all have stories about the most fun we ever had, the best place we ever worked. The Lake is mine.”

We take requests here. If there’s something you’d like me to do—answer a question, write about a song or artist, rank the cuts on an album, dig into a date for the One Day in Your Life treatment, or something else entirely—let me know. 

End of the Line

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(Pictured: Charlie T. and Lucky Wilbury.)

After listening to the Shadoe Stevens-hosted American Top 40 show from April 8, 1989, it’s now time to see what was outside the Top 40 in that same week.

42. “Soldier of Love”/Donny Osmond. I am not sure anybody foresaw the 1989 Donny Osmond comeback; he hadn’t charted since 1977, and he hadn’t made the Top 10 since “The Twelfth of Never” in 1973. But “Soldier of Love” would go all the way to #2 on the Hot 100. The video, featuring leather-clad, lip-curling Donny intercut with hot babes dancing, is most of the 80s in four minutes.

47. “Wind Beneath My Wings”/Bette Midler. This song was hugely popular for several years after its 1989 run to #1, a period during which The Mrs. and I were wedding-reception DJs. We enjoyed it a lot; the guy who owned the equipment did the setting-up and the tearing-down, so all we had to do was show up and run the party. I felt like we were pretty good at it; my radio background made me conscious of the need to actually put on a show, instead of just segueing songs one after the other, which is what I often hear when I’m attending a DJ’d party today. But back in that day, “Wind Beneath My Wings” was a popular choice for father/daughter dances, during which Dad, reared on sock-hop music from the 60s and 70s, tried to sway along with his girl at a tempo too lugubrious for dancing. Bette’s version is the most famous, but neither the first nor the best; it should not surprise you that Lou Rawls did it very well.

54. “Let the River Run”/Carly Simon. In the early 00s, the software company I worked for adopted “Let the River Run” as some kind of anthem, and I believe they even paid Carly Simon to appear at a corporate event, or in videos, or something. I don’t remember the details. By the time that happened, I had ceased to care about anything that wasn’t my immediate responsibility, and very little about much of that.

58. “Hearts on Fire”/Steve Winwood. The Roll With It album hit #1 in the States, and the title song was a #1 single. But apart from “Roll With It” and “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do,” the rest of the album is a blur. The songs all sound pretty much the same to me, and whenever it pops up on shuffle, I’m usually ready for it to be over long before it’s over.

62. “It’s Only Love”/Simply Red. This band’s American singles discography is feast-or-famine. They hit the Hot 100 seven times betwen 1986 and 1992. Two of those went to #1: “Holding Back the Years” in 1986 and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” in 1989. Three other singles stalled in the 20s, and two, including “It’s Only Love,” missed the Top 40 altogether.

87. “Come Out Fighting”/Easterhouse. This band had some success in England, but by the time “Come Out Fighting” was released in the States, its original lineup was down to the lead singer alone. The song would spend four weeks on the chart, peaking at #84 despite being pretty good.

88. “Baby Baby”/Eighth Wonder. This British group was more successful in continental Europe and Japan than in either their homeland or the United States. “Cross My Heart” had run to #56 in 16 weeks on the Hot 100 earlier in 1989; “Baby Baby” would peak at #84. Both of them sound more like Madonna than Madonna.

91. “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”/Figures on a Beach. I was today years old when I learned about the existence of this cover of the Bachman-Turner Overdrive original. I think I was a marginally happier person when I didn’t know about it.

95. “End of the Line”/Traveling Wilburys. This and Roy Orbison’s “You Got It” up at #12 are outliers on this chart, throwing back to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll and the stars who built it. The balance of the hits of April 8, 1989, put a listener in 2020 much more in mind of pop music’s future than its past. I didn’t hear most of it at the time it was popular. I would learn about it in retrospect when I got out of elevator music and back into mainstream adult contemporary in 1990, but I didn’t love much of it.

“How Can You Run When You Know?”

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(Pictured: Neil Young, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash, 1970.)

The 50th anniversary of Kent State just sort of slipped by last week. I didn’t even find time to listen to “Ohio,” one of the most powerful artifacts of that time.

The story of “Ohio” is in this excerpt from Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne (which you should read in its entirety). Neil Young wrote it on May 19. It was recorded in two takes on May 21, sent immediately to Atlantic Records in New York, and first played on stage at New York’s Fillmore East on June 2.

I don’t know who played “Ohio” first, but KPOI in Honolulu, WMCA in New York, and WIXY in Cleveland first charted it during the second full week of June. In mid-July, “Ohio” spent two weeks at #1 at KADI in St. Louis, and a week topping the chart at KINK in Portland, Oregon. Although many influential stations charted it, some of the biggest did not, including WLS in Chicago, WABC in New York, and KHJ in Los Angeles.

(There’s a chart from KWHP in Edmond, Oklahoma, dated June 1 that would make it the first station in the nation to chart it, but it’s dated June 1 through July 8. I’m sure that “June” is a typo, and the chart is actually from the first week of July.)

“Ohio” debuted on the Hot 100 at #58 during the week of June 27, then went to #49 before debuting in the Top 40 at #30 on July 11. (That July 11 chart is the one used for the first episode of American Top 40 during the July 4 weekend; Casey referred to “Ohio” as “heavy.”) It went to #26 and then 18-17-14 (its peak, during the week of August 8), then 21-24 and out, gone from the Hot 100 for the week of August 29, 1970. Its swift arrival and departure is fitting, in a way. In its time, “Ohio” was not so much a song as it was a news story, and while the news cycle didn’t move as swiftly then as it does now, it still moved.

I used to be a political blogger and I remain an amateur historian, so we’re going there, on the flip.

Continue reading ““How Can You Run When You Know?””

Good Golly

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(Pictured: Little Richard in the 1957 movie Mister Rock and Roll.)

Of the members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first class, only two are still with us: Jerry Lee Lewis, age 84, and Don Everly, age 83. Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Phil Everly, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard are all gone now.

I cannot remember when I first heard, or heard of, these people. My parents’ radio stations might have played certain songs by Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, the Everly Brothers, and Elvis, but I don’t recall specifics. When I first started listening to WLS in 1970, I might have heard them there. Whether I knew who they were and what they represented—well, it’s been too long for me to know. But as time went by, from radio, or TV, or reading, or whatever, I learned who they were, even if I didn’t yet fully appreciate Who They Were. My education didn’t truly begin until I got into radio and became responsible for running the syndicated program Sunday at the Memories. Host Ray Durkee loved 50s music and the stars who made it. He taught me a lot, and he made me want to learn and hear more.

I didn’t have to listen very long to understand that Little Richard’s energy was different. Where the pianos of Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino rolled like a mighty river, Little Richard’s hit like a battering ram. Elvis sang, but Little Richard shouted. Ray Charles testified, but Little Richard came off possessed. “Tutti Frutti,” “Lucille,” “Keep a-Knockin’,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and the others were wild in a way that the other iconic hits of the 50s were not, not “I’m Walkin’,” not “Great Balls of Fire,” not “Johnny B. Goode,” not anything else.

Not since Glen Campbell died in 2017 has Twitter felt more like a firehose of information than it did after Richard’s death was announced on Saturday morning. Here’s some of what I saw, read, and heard:

—In 2004, Little Richard himself reflected on his career and influence for Rolling Stone.

—Bob Stanley, author of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Modern Pop, wrote about Little Richard and what he meant for The Guardian; his piece contained some insights I didn’t see anywhere else.

—Rob Sheffield described the remarkable range of Little Richard’s influence: everybody who was anybody.

—A couple of Twitter threads told some tales proving that of all the early rockers, Little Richard was the biggest character: this one, about an early 90s Little Richard/Jerry Lee double bill that was quite something; and this one, in which Richard made a big entrance and an even bigger impression.

—The excellent Let It Roll podcast did a number of episodes in 2017 with author and historian Ed Ward that discussed Little Richard and his times. Find them here.

—The original Ernie version of the Sesame Street song “Rubber Duckie” is a war crime, but Richard’s version is a big improvement.

Look over the list of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers beyond the 1986 inaugural class and you’ll see that only a few of the pioneers remain. In addition to Jerry Lee Lewis and Don Everly, Charlie Thomas, last of the original Drifters, is still here at age 83. Dion will be 81 this summer. Several of the Isley Brothers, who first hit in 1959, are still among us. If you want to count Tina Turner or Smokey Robinson, both 80 years old, working musicians in the late 50s who found their greatest fame in the 60s, I’m good with that. The greatest surviving stars of the 60s, several Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson, the Rolling Stones, Paul and Ringo, are all on the far side of 70.

At a time when the oldest among us are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, it’s natural to feel more protective of them than ever before. And not just musicians. One night last week, The Mrs. and I made a list of elderly VIPs we’re glad are still here: her Aunt Clara, Betty White, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tony Bennett, Olivia de Havilland (who will be 104 this summer), Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Norman Lear. And we mentioned Little Richard too, never knowing that he’d be in the news only a couple of days later.