(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.
(Pictured: a shock-rock summit. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, front left, hangs with Marilyn Manson, behind Reznor, and the rest of Manson’s band, backstage at a 1995 TV taping.)
(A rare Saturday post, by request. If there’s a date you’d like to get the ODIYL treatment, get in touch.)
January 18, 1995, was a Wednesday. ABC and CBS lead their evening news broadcasts with the continued legal maneuverings in advance of O. J. Simpson’s trial for murder. He’s accused of killing his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman last summer. NBC leads with stories about an earthquake in Kobe, Japan, that caused widespread damage and thousands of deaths, and a far smaller quake in Oklahoma City; the Simpson case is covered after the first commercial break. Controversy continues over the ethics of newly installed House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s $4.5 million book deal with Harper Collins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. Gingrich is also under fire for comments he made about women being unfit to serve in combat: “females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections.” Volunteers in 71 countries are monitoring their various forms of news media to see what’s being reported and how, and to draw conclusions about media and gender. The first report of the Global Media Monitoring Project will be published in September. Studies will be done every five years; in 2020, over 100 countries will be involved.
Two graduate students at Stanford, who have maintained a directory of places that can be visited by computers connected to the World Wide Web, formally register the domain name Yahoo.com. In New Orleans, Celeste Keys is born, three months after her twin brother Timothy, who arrived prematurely last October. Ninety-five days between twins is the longest span on record. Also born today is future NFL running back Leonard Fournette. Colorful major league umpire Ron Luciano, who retired in 1980, dies at age 57. Charles Baskerville, a member of the R&B trio Shep and the Limelites, dies at age 59.
Eight games are played in the National Basketball Association. The league’s top team, the Orlando Magic, runs its record to 31-and-7 with a 108-97 win over the Dallas Mavericks. Shaquille O’Neal scores 42 for the Magic. David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs also scores 42 tonight in a 111-110 loss to Charlotte. Play will resume in the National Hockey League on Friday following the settlement of the labor dispute that led owners to lock out the Players Association last October. NHL teams will play a 48-game regular season.
Among the choices for midweek moviegoers are Legends of the Fall starring Brad Pitt, Nobody’s Fool starrring Bruce Willis and Paul Newman, and Dumb and Dumber. ABC wins the TV ratings race tonight with episodes of Sister Sister, All-American Girl (starring Margaret Cho), Roseanne, Ellen, and the news magazine Prime Time Live. NBC airs episodes of The Cosby Mysteries, Dateline NBC, and Law and Order. CBS starts the night with the Designing Women spinoff Women of the House and Hearts Afire, both set in Washington D.C. and produced by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason. They’re followed by two sitcoms from Murphy Brown creator Diane English, Double Rush and Love and War. CBS ends its night with an episode of Northern Exposure. FOX has episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 and Party of Five.
The Eagles play Sacramento on the Hell Freezes Over tour. R.E.M. plays Sydney, Australia, and Nine Inch Nails plays Milwaukee. A Nine Inch Nails show scheduled for Moline, Illinois, tomorrow night will be cancelled due to a 15-inch snowstorm. There’s been controversy about the show since it was announced last December. Religious groups object to the band’s songs and images, and to the fact that Nine Inch Nails refers to those used for the crucifixion of Jesus. Later this week, a local Baptist preacher will tell the local newspaper, “We have had several people pray that the Lord do something to stop it, and I feel that he has done what he has done.” One newspaper story about the cancellation is headlined, “Blizzard Hammers Nails.” The show is not rescheduled.
Perspective From the Present: We were living in Davenport, Iowa, across the Mississippi River from Moline at this time, although I don’t remember the Nine Inch Nails controversy at all. I had other stuff on my mind: this day would have been my second day back in college at the University of Iowa, pursuing a teaching certificate. (I seem to recall that I got there and back, an hour commute on the interstate, on the blizzard day.) I wrote about the music of this week back in 2015; that post is here.
(Pictured: a women’s liberation parade in New York City, August 1971.)
There’s a lot to recommend the American Top 40 show from December 16, 1972. It contains a famous error: Casey announced Rod Stewart’s “Angel” at #40 but played the B-side, “Lost Paraguayos.” “Angel” dropped back to #43 the next week, so it never appeared on the show. Casey’s modern-day restoration expert, Ken Martin, who does mono-to-stereo conversions for the earliest shows, fixed the error, but the original misidentified “Lost Paraguayos” was offered to stations as an extra during the recent repeat. The show features James Taylor and Carly Simon, then husband and wife, back to back with “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” and “You’re So Vain,” both debuting in this week. It’s got some AM-radio classics: the Raspberries’ “I Wanna Be With You,” “I’d Love You to Want Me” by Lobo, Loggins and Messina with “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” Jim Croce’s “Operator,” and Seals and Crofts with “Summer Breeze.”
And there’s also this:
30. “I’ll Be Around”/Spinners
27. “Superstition”/Stevie Wonder
18. “Corner of the Sky”/Jackson Five
17. “Keeper of the Castle”/Four Tops
15. “Superfly”/Curtis Mayfield
10. “I’m Stone in Love With You”/Stylistics
9. “I Can See Clearly Now”/Johnny Nash
6. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”/Temptations
4. “You Ought to Be With Me”/Al Green
3. “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”/Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
Soul music was at a peak as 1972 drew to a close. (Your mileage may vary with the Jackson Five and the Stylistics, which is fine with me, and be sure to include #1, below.) Casey observes that Al Green had more Top 40 hits than any other act in 1972—four—which is a pretty good piece of trivia, and evidence that 1972 was a better year than it gets credit for.
11. “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu”/Johnny Rivers. The great pleasure of this song is the piano-bangin’ introduction and solo, over which Johnny (and anybody listening) whoops and generally enjoys the hell out of. That pleasure is being lost in our Spotify’d, algorithm-driven world. No singer lets the band play anymore.
7. “Clair”/Gilbert O’Sullivan. Honesty compels me to report that out of the 40 songs on this chart, I bought exactly two of them on 45s that fall: “I’d Love You to Want Me” and “Clair.” I can’t remember what attracted me to it. The song elides the question of whether O’Sullivan’s affection for Clair is familial or romantic until the very end, when it’s revealed that he’s babysitting his niece.
2. “I Am Woman”/Helen Reddy. This was unexpectedly moving when I heard it on the recent repeat: its joyful celebration of liberation, its glorious optimism, its strong determination to keep reaching higher.
1. “Me and Mrs. Jones”/Billy Paul. From November 1972 until sometime in 1974, Casey and the AT40 staff tried to predict each week what the next week’s #1 song would be. The previous week’s prediction of “Me and Mrs. Jones”—the third time they’d made a prediction—was the first time they’d gotten it right. Casey smiles and says a batting average of .333 is “better than I did in high school.”
Recommended Reading: Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show, by Richard Zoglin, is a bit mistitled. Only about a third of the book has to do with Presley’s Vegas years; most of the rest covers the fascinating history of Las Vegas showbiz itself, from the 50s glory days through the end of the 60s when Elvis arrived: from the Rat Pack to Wayne Newton to Howard Hughes, plus mobsters and topless showgirls. It’s definitely worth your time. Zoglin’s other books, a biography of Bob Hope and a history of 70s standup comedy, are highly recommended also.
Fear the Reaper: (Usual disclaimer: my opinion only, nobody else’s, anywhere on Earth.) I am not going to say much about iHeart Media’s reorganization and “employee dislocation” (except that the PR flack who came up with that phrase should choke on it). I know of only one high-profile person who lost a job in Madison, but back in the Quad Cities, our home between 1987 and 1997, cuts included three personalities with over 30 years in the market and one with better than 40. Local morning shows across the country: gone. Highly rated programs in all dayparts: gone. All are likely to be replaced by generic national shows. This feels like a declaration that local personalities no longer matter in local radio. And that is a dark and terrible thing for a radio company to declare.
(There will be a rare Saturday post here, so stop back.)
(Pictured: Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael, January 1985.)
Once again this year, I ran up a surplus of American Top 40 shows in December, and it’s going to take me well into the new year to catch up, starting with December 15, 1984. There is a very good argument that 1984 is not merely the greatest musical year of the 80s, but one of the greatest of all time. And in this week alone, there’s a remarkable number of future pop and rock classics, all side-by-side jostling for position.
39. “Caribbean Queen”/Billy Ocean
32. “I Want to Know What Love Is”/Foreigner
29. “The Boys of Summer”/Don Henley
26. “Purple Rain”/Prince
22. “You’re the Inspiration”/Chicago
16. “Run to You”/Bryan Adams
15. “Born in the USA”/Bruce Springsteen
8. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”/Wham
4. “I Feel for You”/Chaka Khan
3. “Like a Virgin”/Madonna
That’s what I’m talking about: so many superstars, all young and in their prime, with songs that would be part of Top 40, adult contemporary, classic rock, and oldies playlists for decades to come.
38. “Bruce”/Rick Springfield
37. “Tender Years”/John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band
Casey describes “Bruce,” a song he says Rick Springfield recorded in the late 1970s about being mistaken for Bruce Springsteen. He describes it in such detail that actually playing the song becomes redundant. It’s followed (immediately on the recent repeat, but after a commercial break in 1984) by “Tender Years,” which actually could be mistaken for Springsteen.
35. “Loverboy”/Billy Ocean
33. “Pride in the Name of Love”/U2
31. “Stranger in Town”/Toto
30. “Easy Lover”/Philip Bailey and Phil Collins
25. “We Are the Young”/Dan Hartman
18. “Walking on a Thin Line”/Huey Lewis and the News
17. “Strut”/Sheena Easton
In mid-December 1984, we had thrown the switch on a Top 40 format at my radio station two months before. I loved hearing these songs (and others from this show) because it meant we were rockin’, and for the first time in my career I was playing on my air what I was listening to at home.
28. “Centipede”/Rebbie Jackson
19. “Do What You Do”/Jermaine Jackson
Casey says that this is the sixth time a pair of siblings were in the Top 40 at the same time: Donny and Jimmy Osmond, Donny and Marie, Andy and Robin Gibb, Jermaine and Michael (with two different records by Michael), and Jermaine and Rebbie.
24. “Understanding”/Bob Seger. Seger had a seemingly bottomless well of songs in which an older and wiser guy looks back on his young self and what he went through to become old and wise, delivered at a wistful medium tempo. “Understanding” got up to #17 on the first chart of 1985 and then looks to have vanished until it turned up on a Seger compilation in 2003.
The only Christmas flavor on this show comes midway through the second hour, from a snippet of “Nuttin’ for Christmas” by six-year-old Barry Gordon, which was a hit in 1955. Casey played it in response to a listener question about the youngest person ever to hit the charts. A snippet was enough.
12. “Valotte”/Julian Lennon. It’s hard to recapture the way it felt to hear this visitation from beyond the grave in 1984, especially when it first hit the air. But the record came by its success legitimately because it’s actually good, and not solely because it reminded people of John.
10. “All Through the Night”/Cyndi Lauper. “All Through the Night” should probably go on the list of classics I made earlier because it’s the best thing on a very good show. Listen to the not-just-full-throated-but-whole-body-involved note she holds on the last word: “until it ends, there is no end.” If you’re not getting goosebumps, you’re listening wrong.
2. “The Wild Boys”/Duran Duran
1. “Out of Touch”/Hall and Oates
With a whole raft of enduring classics on the radio in this week, the two most popular songs are a bit of a fizzle. “The Wild Boys” always seemed to me like Duran Duran testing the theory that they could record anything and people would buy it. And if you are surprised to be reminded that “Out of Touch” hit #1, so was I.
Recommended Reading: In 1978, the album Aurora by Daisy Jones and the Six became one of the year’s biggest hits. Their single “Turn It Off” won Record of the Year at the 1979 Grammys, and in the spring of that year, Daisy Jones was the idol of millions of young women around the world. But after a gig in Chicago that summer, at the height of their success, the band suddenly broke up. If you don’t remember all that, you haven’t read the novel Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. And you should.