The Wisconsin Woods

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(Pictured: La Crosse, Wisconsin, was home to the G. Heileman Brewing Company and the World’s Largest Six Pack; the brewery and the six-pack have been renovated, and repainted, since Heileman closed in 2000.)

La Crosse is a city of about 50,000 on the Mississippi River in far western Wisconsin. We have from time to time bumped into radio station WLCX, most recently mentioning their selection of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as the #1 song for the entire year 1976. ARSA, the Airheads Radio Survey Archive, has quite a collection of WLCX surveys, and a look through them, especially during the early 70s, reveals some interesting stuff.

La Crosse had a thriving local music scene at the turn of the 70s, and WLCX played local hits. The excellent “Where Do You Want to Go” by Hope was #1 for four weeks in the summer of 1970. Hope was known originally as Jesters III; their earliest releases were on the La Crosse-based Coulee label, although “Where Do You Want to Go” was released on A&M. Hope’s run at #1 was interrupted by the Silver Bullets, with “The Lone Ranger (Overture to William Tell).” The Silver Bullets were the same group of La Crosse-area musicians who recorded as the Ladds and Today’s Tomorrow. The variously named group recorded on several small labels; “The Lone Ranger” came out on Teen Town, based in the Milwaukee suburb of Thiensville, where label owner Jon Hall ran a club called Teen Town. Today’s Tomorrow’s fabulous version of “Witchi Tai-To,” originally released on Teen Town, was licensed nationally to the Bang label and hit the WLCX Top 10 during Hope’s final week at #1.

Another significant group from western Wisconsin was Unchained Mynds, who recorded on the Transaction label, a sister of Coulee. Their trippy “We Can’t Go on This Way” was licensed to Buddah for national distribution. They also released a version of Traffic’s “Hole in My Shoe” on Transaction. WLCX would chart two other local hits on Transaction before the end of 1970, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” by Last Draft and Stone Flour with “Till We Kissed.”

(We are deep in the Wisconsin woods now, but we’ll get you out in a minute.)

Apart from the local acts, WLCX also had a thirst for novelties. At the end of 1970, “Christmas Goose” by Stan and Doug was #1 for a month. It’s a Scandinavian-themed holiday parody of Anne Murray’s “Snowbird,” which had done six weeks at #1 on WLCX in September and October. It’s easy to understand the appeal of such a thing in western Wisconsin, although Stan and Doug themselves were from Seattle.

In February 1971, WLCX listed Bloodrock’s execrable “D.O.A” at #1 for two weeks. (In both weeks, the #2 song is “Amazing Grace” by Judy Collins, and it occurs to me that every discussion about the incredible variety of 70s radio music could begin and end right there.) Stan and Doug probably never overlapped with “D.O.A.,” which is kind of a shame, but as 1971 rolled on, the novelty hits did too. Later that year, the list of #1 songs at WLCX includes Tom Clay’s montage hit “What the World Needs Now/Abraham Martin and John” and Hudson and Landry’s comedy cut “Ajax Liquor Store.” The year 1972 begins with a run to #1 for the passive-aggressive “Once You Understand” by Think, and the station started 1973 with an uninterrupted eight-week run at #1 for “Dueling Banjos.” In 1975, a five-week run at the top for Ringo Starr’s “No No Song” was followed by three weeks for Benny Bell’s reissued 1946 recording “Shaving Cream.” Later in 1975, “Mr. Jaws” by Dickie Goodman would be #1 for four weeks. Six weeks after that, “Convoy” would begin a seven-week stay at #1, followed immediately by the George Baker Selection’s “Paloma Blanca.” Also in 1976, WLCX would chart Jimmy Dean’s Mother’s Day novelty “IOU” at #1 for four weeks, and Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear” for a week.

WLCX went on the air in 1947 and bore the same call letters, except for a brief period in the late 50s, until 1983. The station is known as WLXR now and is running an oldies format, still at 1490 on the AM band, still playing some of the songs it played in the 70s. (Probably not “Witchi Tai-To” or “Shaving Cream” though.) It’s always fun to remember when local radio was truly local, doing its own thing and going its own way, and the WLCX surveys reveal a station doing just that.

(This post owes a lot to Wisconsin music historian Gary E. Myers, whose Do You Hear That Beat (published 1994) and On That Wisconsin Beat (2006) are astonishing references, the first one compiled in the era before e-mail.)  

January 2, 1977: Welcome Back

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(Pictured: Jessica Lange is photogenically menaced by the titular ape in King Kong.)

January 2, 1977, was a Sunday. At the end of the holiday season, the Sunday papers are filled with stories that could have run at any point in the last week. In its final report, a House committee investigating the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King says it cannot rule out the possibility of conspiracy in both cases. In an interview with U.S. News and World Report, President Ford says that the United States should consider limiting presidents to a single six-year term. Ford is expected to send a Puerto Rico statehood bill to Congress before he leaves office on January 20, but President-elect Jimmy Carter believes no action should be taken unless the people of Puerto Rico express a preference for statehood. The FAA says that 1976 was the safest year ever for commercial aviation, and the safest in 10 years for general aviation. Approximately 1200 people died in aviation accidents in 1976, down from nearly 1400 the year before, despite a 50 percent increase in the number of people flying. Scientists have determined that a table traditionally believed to be King Arthur’s Round Table was actually built during the 14th century, hundreds of years after Arthur is supposed to have lived. The Freedom Train, which has been traveling the nation for 20 months displaying 500 historical artifacts in honor of the Bicentennial, has reached the end of the line. It made its final stop in Miami on New Year’s Eve, where the train’s displays will be taken apart and the artifacts returned to their owners.

In Dubuque, Iowa, Renier’s is having a sale on Pioneer stereo receivers today, priced from $189 to $299. Pioneer speakers, turntables, and complete systems are also on sale. Theater-goers in Dubuque can see A Star Is Born, Clint Eastwood in The Enforcer, The Shaggy D.A., The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Jessica Lange in King Kong, Silver Streak, and Joe Panther, a Native American coming-of-age adventure starring Brian Keith and Ricardo Montalban.

Yesterday, #1 Pitt sewed up college football’s national championship with a 27-3 win over #5 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, although #3 USC has a claim after beating #2 Michigan 14-6 in the Rose Bowl. Today, Texas A&M cruises to a 37-14 win over Florida in the Sun Bowl. The NFL is one week away from Super Bowl XI, in which the Oakland Raiders will face the Minnesota Vikings. It will be the earliest Super Bowl ever played; the NFL started its regular season a week early in September so that divisional playoffs could be held on December 18 and 19, thus avoiding playoff games on Christmas Day. Major league journeyman Danny Frisella, who pitched last year for the Milwaukee Brewers, was killed in a dune buggy accident near Phoenix yesterday. TV mogul Ted Turner, who bought the Atlanta Braves before the 1976 season, has been suspended for one year for tampering with a free-agent player. Turner is unconcerned, telling reporters, “This is going to make it hard for me to be Executive of the Year if we win the World Series next year.”

On TV tonight, ABC presents A Farewell Visit With President and Mrs. Ford, hosted by Barbara Walters. Also on ABC tonight: The Six Million Dollar Man and the theatrical movie W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings. NBC presents The Wonderful World of Disney, McMillan and Wife, and Quincy, M.E. On CBS, 60 Minutes is followed by the new Sonny and Cher Show, which premiered last February, plus Kojak and Delvecchio, a crime drama starring Judd Hirsch.

Radio stations around the country counted down their top songs of 1976 over the weekend. At WLS in Chicago, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee and “Silly Love Songs” by Wings were #1 and #2. At Y-103 in Buffalo, the order was reversed. Y-103’s close competitor, WKBW, ranked Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” #1. At WTRX in Flint, Michigan, John Sebastian’s “Welcome Back” was #1 for 1976. WLCX in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, listed “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” at #1 for the year, leading a quirky Top 10 that includes neither Elton, Kiki, Wings, Queen, nor John Sebastian, but has room for “IOU” by Jimmy Dean and Hagood Hardy’s instrumental “The Homecoming.” Album-rock station KSHE in St. Louis named Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” as its #1 song. Country station WQYK in St. Petersburg, Florida, ranked Waylon and Willie’s “Good Hearted Woman” at #1.

Perspective From the President: I stayed home on New Year’s Eve, listening to somebody’s countdown on the radio. Why I did not spend the evening with my first serious girlfriend, I can’t remember. Neither can she. I know, because I asked.

December 30, 1979: One Day at a Time

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(Pictured: the Knack, 1979.)

December 30, 1979, was a Sunday. It is the 57th day in captivity for American hostages in Iran. UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim plans to travel to Tehran in hopes of mediating the crisis, but the Ayatollah Khomeini is expected to refuse to see him. Today, Time magazine selects Khomeini as its Man of the Year. On another front, Secretary of State Warren Christopher is on his way to meet with NATO allies regarding the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which began on Christmas Eve.

The NFL playoffs continue today. The Pittsburgh Steelers jump out to a 20-0 first-quarter lead and cruise past the Miami Dolphins 34-14; the Los Angeles Rams beat the Dallas Cowboys 21-19. After the game, it’s revealed that Rams linebacker Jack Youngblood broke his leg in the first quarter but played the remainder of the game with his leg in a brace. Conference championship matchups are set for next Sunday: the Steelers will entertain the Houston Oilers and the Rams will travel to Tampa Bay to face the Buccaneers, who won their first-ever playoff game yesterday. The college bowl season resumes tomorrow with the Peach and Bluebonnet Bowls; on Tuesday, college football’s national championship will be decided with #1 Ohio State facing #3 USC in the Rose Bowl and #2 Alabama meeting #6 Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.

Richard Rodgers, who wrote music for Oklahoma, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music, and who was the first to win an Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award, dies at the age of 77. In theaters this weekend, the top movie is Superman, which will eventually become 1979’s highest-grossing release. The list of most-popular films released earlier in the year includes The Amityville Horror, Rocky II, and Alien. On TV tonight, CBS airs 60 Minutes, Archie Bunker’s Place, One Day at a Time, Alice, The Jeffersons, and Trapper John MD. NBC presents The Wonderful World of Disney and the TV movie Goldie and the Boxer, which stars O. J. Simpson and a cast of familiar TV faces including Vincent Gardenia, Phil Silvers, Ned Glass, Gordon Jump, Judy Landers, Madlyn Rhue, and Fran Ryan. NBC’s night ends with an episode of the detective series Eischeid starring Joe Don Baker. ABC airs an episode of the sci-fi series Salvage 1 starring Andy Griffith, a repeat of the Mork and Mindy series pilot, and a repeat of the TV movie Superdome. The Grateful Dead plays Oakland and Jefferson Starship plays San Francisco. The Allman Brothers play Nassau Coliseum on Long Island with Pure Prairie League opening. Cheap Trick plays Wheeling, West Virginia.

Radio stations around the country get ready to count down their top songs of 1979. “My Sharona” is #1 for the year in Billboard and will be at WLS in Chicago, at CKLW Windsor/Detroit, at WICC in Bridgeport, Connecticut, at KLWW in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and at KGB in San Diego. In Cash Box, the top song of 1979 is “Le Freak” by Chic. At KIIS-FM in Los Angeles, which runs a dance format, Donna Summer has the top two songs of the year, “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls.” “Hot Stuff” is #2 at WNBC in New York behind “What a Fool Believes” by the Doobie Brothers. At WABC, “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff” are at #2 and #3 behind “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor. At KTSA in San Antonio, “Still” by the Commodores is #1 for the year. Los Angeles country station KLAC ranks Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” as the year’s #1 song.

Billboard names Billy Joel’s 52nd Street as the top album of 1979. In Cash Box, it’s Supertramp’s Breakfast in America. In Boston, WBCN ranks its most-played albums of the year. The top three are the Cars’ Candy-O, Breakfast in America, and Outlandos d’Amour by the Police. Supertramp and the Cars are #1 and #3 at WPLJ in New York with Cheap Trick at Budokan between them.

Perspective From the Present: I don’t recall specifics, but I saw in 1980 with the group of high-school friends known as the Crew, at a cottage on Yellowstone Lake in rural Wisconsin. I was the incoming program director at my college radio station, and not long after New Year’s, I went back to Platteville, staying at a borrowed apartment and plotting world domination.

I remember looking at the calendar on January days and thinking how odd the number 1980 seemed. I think I knew even then that the 1970s were the country I grew up in, and that forever after, I would wander foreign lands in search of home.

That’s Christmas to Me

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(Pictured: Pentatonix onstage in 2022.)

(This post contains my personal opinions only and not those of the company I work for. I wouldn’t presume to speak for them, and nobody should ever presume that I do.)

I spent maybe 25 or 30 hours programming Christmas music for my radio station’s 98 Hours show this year, finally finishing it at 12:30 on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Observations follow:

Continue reading “That’s Christmas to Me”

December 26, 2009: Rocket Away

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(Pictured: Lady Gaga meets Queen Elizabeth in December 2009.)

December 26, 2009, was a Saturday. Post-Christmas air travelers bound for America wait in long lines around the world after the U.S. government orders extra pat-down body searches and bag inspections following an attempt to blow up a Lufthansa flight from Amsterdam to Detroit early today. Passengers subdued a Nigerian man after his explosive device failed to fully ignite. The weather isn’t helping flyers any either. Between a blizzard in the Plains and ice storms in the East, many flights are delayed or canceled. Other headlines today include the Senate’s passage of the Obamacare bill, an attack on Pope Benedict XVI by a mentally unstable woman as he prepared to celebrate mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, and the death of New York radio and television personality George Michael at the age of 70, all on Christmas Eve.

There was a Christmas Night game in the NFL but no games today before a full schedule tomorrow. Three college bowl games are played today. Popular movies this weekend include Avatar, in its second week of release. New movies include Sherlock Holmes, Alvin and the Chipmunks: the Squeakquel, It’s Complicated (a romantic comedy starring Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin), and The Blind Side. On TV tonight, ABC presents the theatrical movie Shrek 2 and an episode of Castle; CBS airs an episode of Medium and the theatrical movie Mixed Nuts; on NBC, it’s the medical drama Mercy, plus Law and Order and Law and Order: SVU; Fox airs Cops and America’s Most Wanted.

On the Billboard Hot 100, the #1 song is “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, in its fifth week at the top. “Tik Tok” by Kesha is #2. Lady Gaga is at #3 with “Bad Romance”; Gaga is also at #11 with “Paparazzi.” The Black Eyed Peas and Jay Sean also have two songs in the Top 20. The Peas’ “Meet Me Halfway” is at #8 and the former #1 hit “I Gotta Feeling” is at #18;  Jay Sean’s former #1 “Down” is #10 and “Do You Remember” is #16. Lil Wayne is in the Top 10 twice as well, featured on “Down” and on Drake’s “Forever” at #14, also with Kanye West and Eminem. On the Billboard 200, the #1 album is I Dreamed a Dream by Susan Boyle, a 48-year-old Scottish singer who finished an unlikely second on Britain’s Got Talent earlier this year. The #1 adult contemporary single is “You Belong With Me” by Taylor Swift, in its ninth week at the top. The #1 country song is the first hit by Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now,” which is also in the Top 20 of the Hot 100 and doing big business on adult-contemporary radio.

Perspective From the Present: We spent Christmas Day and the 26th in my hometown with my family, but also with a group of friends, a few of whom we saw on Christmas Night and again at noontime on the 26th, when we were 17 around a table at our favorite local bar. The Mrs. and I hustled back to Madison after that, because I had to be on the air at 5:00.

On Sunday the 27th, I wrote the following in my journal:

I look back over Facebook updates and blog posts from Christmas Eve, and I remember the way it felt to be at the radio station on Christmas Eve (before the memory fades), and once again I marvel at just how magical Christmas Eve is, still. The world feels soft and warm and benign on that night, not the random, uncaring, swim-or-drown place it is the rest of the time.

Of course, the world intruded yesterday—some poor dumb Nigerian bastard tried setting a bomb on a plane bound for Detroit from Amsterdam, and even though he was woefully inept and succeeded mostly in burning himself, the TSA is freaking out and the right-wingers are wetting their pants—again. There’s talk that all electronic devices right down to iPods might be banned on international flights, which would be absolutely barbaric and pointless. We’re all terrorists until we prove ourselves innocent. It won’t be long before the model for airline travel in this country will be the Middle Passage, the way slaves crossed the Atlantic, chained naked in the holds of ships. We are a stupid, stupid country, fixated on shit, and we deserve to be tossed into the dustbin of history.

That’s the reality we face come tomorrow. Christmas Eve seems further and further away with every minute that passes—which, of course, it is, but it’s too bad that it has to rocket away from us so quickly.

December 23, 1972: Do It Again

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(Pictured: Steeler fans mob Franco Harris on December 23, 1972.)

December 23, 1972, was a Saturday. The East Coast gets some rain today; temperatures are seasonal across most of the country. Headlines include yesterday’s rescue of 16 survivors from a Uruguayan plane that crashed in the Andes Mountains in mid-October. Twenty-nine others are dead. Initial reports say the survivors rationed available food and drank water from melted snow. It will later be revealed that they also resorted to cannibalism. Today, American bombers continue to pound targets in North Vietnam. Operation Linebacker II is intended to pressure the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table. The “Christmas bombing” is being heavily criticized around the world. Early this morning, Managua, Nicaragua, is leveled by an earthquake. The quake kills 10,000 and leaves 400,000 homeless. In Kansas City, former president Harry Truman, age 88, is hospitalized in critical condition as his heart trouble worsens. Christmas shoppers in Daytona Beach, Florida, can visit their local K-Mart for men’s no-iron long-sleeved sports shirts for $2.44 each. For the ladies, quilted polyester skirts in holiday patterns are $3.96. For the kids, all battery-operated toys priced from $3.49 to $3.99 are now $2.00, and all Christmas candy is half-price.

It’s the first weekend of the NFL playoffs. The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Oakland Raiders 13-7 on a deflected 60-yard pass from Terry Bradshaw to Franco Harris on the last play of the game. Narrating the highlights on the late local news tonight, Pittsburgh sportscaster Myron Cope refers to the play as “the Immaculate Reception.” In the late game, the Dallas Cowboys beat the San Francisco 49ers 30-28 in another fantastic finish. Two more games will be played on Christmas Eve: Green Bay at Washington and Cleveland at Miami.

On TV tonight, CBS airs new episodes of All in the Family, Bridget Loves Bernie, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show, which moved to Saturday night the week before. ABC airs Alias Smith and Jones, The Streets of San Francisco, and The Sixth Sense. NBC presents Tennessee Ernie Ford’s White Christmas and the TV movie Climb an Angry Mountain, which stars Fess Parker as a California sheriff and Barry Nelson as a New York detective pursuing a Native American fugitive, played by former NFL quarterback Joe Kapp.

Led Zeppelin, T. Rex, and David Bowie play separate venues in London. Fleetwood Mac plays the New York Academy of Music; Grand Funk Railroad plays Madison Square Garden with opening act Freddie King. The Grand Funk show will be broadcast on ABC’s In Concert series in January. After the show tonight, the band’s former manager, Terry Knight, presents them with a court order allowing him to confiscate their equipment, which he does.

At WCFL in Chicago, “Clair” by Gilbert O’Sullivan is #1 on the new survey out today. The rest of the Top Five are “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” by Johnny Rivers, “Summer Breeze” by Seals and Crofts, “It Never Rains in Southern California” by Albert Hammond, and last week’s #1, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” by the Temptations. Three songs are new on the WCFL survey this week: Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock,” “Do It Again” by Steely Dan, and “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio” by Joni Mitchell. WCFL also publishes a list of popular Christmas songs, which is led by “Can You Fix the Way I Talk for Christmas” by Vincent and Pesci. Frank Vincent and Joe Pesci will later become prominent movie and television actors. Larry Lujack is on WCFL this afternoon, back after some vacation time. He goofs off with engineer Spacey Dave and gives his Christmas address to the nation, which has a surprising conclusion that is not what Lujack’s fans might expect.

Perspective From the Present: I don’t remember seeing the Immaculate Reception as it happened. It’s possible I was at a junior-high basketball game on that afternoon. (I do remember watching the Packers on Christmas Eve.) The rest of that Christmas weekend has disappeared in the fog of time, although it surely was as Christmases always were in those years: Christmas Eve with my paternal grandparents, the fabulous bounty of Christmas morning, and Christmas Day with Mother’s larger family.

May this Christmas be as exciting as you want it to be, or as peaceful as you need.

One More Thing: The Stylistics’ “I’m Stone in Love With You” was #16 at WCFL 50 years ago today. I have no time or space today to write about the great Thom Bell, who died yesterday at age 79, although I said a bit in a short Twitter thread this morning. What an absolute titan he was.