Got a Note Here From the Harper Valley P.T.A.

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Jeannie C. Riley with Johnny Cash on his TV show, 1969.)

For a reader of record charts, it’s an eye-popping sight, and not just because of the song titles. Fifty years ago today, on the Billboard Hot 100 for August 31, 1968, the top two are the same from the previous week: “People Got to Be Free” by the Rascals and “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf. At #3, it’s Jose Feliciano’s cover of “Light My Fire,” up from #4. “Hello I Love You” by the Doors is at #4, down from #3. “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by Vanilla Fudge are at #5 and #6 respectively, up from #6 and #11 the week before. At #7 sits “Harper Valley P.T.A.” by Jeannie C. Riley, up from #81 the week before.

Not a typo. It was #81 the week before, and it made the biggest single-week jump in the history of the charts to that point.

“Harper Valley P.T.A.” first shows up at ARSA on August 7 at WBAM in Montgomery, Alabama, but bigger stations got on it in approximately the same week, including WKNR and CKLW in Detroit, KXOK in St. Louis, and WSAI in Cincinnati. The next week, it got adds everywhere, and hit #1 for the first time at WSGN in Birmingham, Alabama, on August 16 and WNAP in Indianapolis on August 18. (At WSGN, it debuted at #1, and likely did so in other cities as well.) Before August 31, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” had already reached #1 in Detroit, San Diego, Memphis, Dallas, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Nashville. During the week of August 31, it hit #1 in Kansas City, Denver, Orlando, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, and in other, smaller markets.

“Harper Valley P.T.A” needed two more weeks to budge “People Got to Be Free” from the #1 spot, moving to #4 and then #2 before reaching the top, but only for a single week, on September 21, 1968. On the Billboard country chart, it jumped from #75 to #23 in this week 50 years ago, reaching #1 on September 28 and staying three weeks. It went to #4 on the adult-contemporary chart during a 10-week run. It would be named Single of the Year by the Country Music Association, and receive a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year.

Other labels rushed out competing versions, but Jeannie C. swept the challengers away. A version by Ricky Page was a significant hit in the Pacific Northwest, hitting #1 in Vancouver and making the Top 10 at both KJR and KOL in Seattle. King Curtis, who seems to have covered everything, made #93 with his version. Ben Colder, the comic persona of singer/actor Sheb Wooley, hit #24 country and #67 on the Hot 100 with a not-at-all-funny parody, “Harper Valley P.T.A. (Later That Same Day).” (A handful of other parody versions and covers are shown at ARSA.)

As the song climbed toward the top, it was being chased by a bigger hit: the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” which debuted on the Hot 100 at #10 on September 14, went to #3 the next week, and to #1 on September 28. “Harper Valley P.T.A.” held at #2 for three weeks before going 4-8-14-15-35 and out, absent from the chart dated November 23.

“Harper Valley P.T.A.” was too country for good times/great oldies radio. But in 1978, the song began a delayed afterlife, inspiring a theatrical movie starring Barbara Eden, which did $25 million at the box office. A TV series based on the movie (created by Sherwood Schwartz of Gilligan’s Island and Brady Bunch fame) and also starring Eden ran for two seasons starting in 1981 and played in syndication for a few years thereafter.

“Harper Valley P.T.A.” was written by Tom T. Hall and is based on Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” speeded up but with the same chords; Riley sings it with high-powered country sass. She won a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance and was nominated for Best New Artist. She would have five more Top-10 country hits by 1972, but even after the hits stopped, she continued to tour and record both country and Christian music.

Jeannie C. Riley and Tom T. Hall are both still with us. She’ll be 73 this fall; he turned 82 last spring. Fifty years on, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” still sounds pretty great, especially when you hear it in this smokin’ hot, processed-for-AM-radio version.

Riley’s mark for biggest single-week jump would stand until the week of February 11, 2006, when “Breaking Free” by Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron went from #86 to #4. But chart methodology was different; it was the Soundscan era by then, with the streaming era soon to follow. Although the charts are far more volatile today, such giant jumps remain rare. There have been only about a dozen of them since 2006.

Baja Benny Rides Again

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Robert Plant and Jimmy Page at the first performance of the New Yardbirds, September 1968.)

Fifty years ago this week, an edition of Billboard magazine landed on the desks of radio, music, and vending industry people around the country. Here’s some of the news inside.

—Dot Records is making a significant push to increase its appeal to younger record buyers. The label has signed the following acts: Bugsy Maugh, lead singer of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band; San Francisco blues band Mount Rushmore; City Zu, “a Seattle quintet being groomed for the teeny-bopper audience”; and Life, a quartet from Columbus, Ohio. For newly signed singer Val Stecklein, producer Ray Ruff says he already has a plan. Ruff “will emphasize the vocalist’s words by stopping all the instruments and underscoring phrases with one instrument.”

—For the Chuck Barris Syndicate, which has already recorded its first Dot single, “Baja California,” the label has created a character to appear in advertising and direct-mail pieces: Baja Benny. A Baja Benny ad appears on page 27 of the magazine. He is what white readers of 1968 would have expected a Mexican to be, although to a reader in 2018, he hits every offensive stereotype: a sleepy-eyed, overweight man with a big mustache and an even bigger sombrero, a sash over one shoulder, a pistol on his hip, a bottle in his hand, and a cigarette in his mouth. He is seen on the front porch of a tumbledown shack, accompanied by a scantily dressed young woman and a child wearing only a diaper.

—RCA is warning that cassette recorders are a potential threat to both the pre-recorded tape and record businesses. RCA is worried about people recording music off the radio, and has criticized an ad for a Harmon-Kardon stereo system that suggested users could borrow records from friends and record them on blank tapes.

—Record labels are planning to distribute certain classical 45s to easy listening, pop, and rock radio stations. They’re mostly, but not exclusively, themes from popular movies, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Elvira Madigan, and Rosemary’s Baby.

—A news item says that the reorganized Yardbirds are planning a fall college tour. Billboard says “the group will be billed as the Yardbirds featuring Jimmy Page. John Paul Jones and Robert Plante [sic] are new members of the act.” In the same news column, it’s reported that “Van Morrison, who is not presently associated with any personal management firm, can be contacted at 610 Green St., Cambridge, Mass.”

Billboard‘s Hits of the World feature shows the top singles in Europe, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Argentina. In Britain, “Fire” by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown takes over the #1 spot from “Mony Mony” by Tommy James and the Shondells, which falls to #2. “Mony Mony” is #1 in Spain. The Ohio Express takes the top spot in Malaysia and Singapore with “Yummy Yummy Yummy.” In Australia, the #1 hit of the week is “The Orange and the Green” by the Irish Rovers, the group that hit around the world earlier in 1968 with “The Unicorn.”

—On the charts, the #1 song on the Hot 100 is “People Got to Be Free” by the Rascals. “I Can’t Stop Dancing” by Archie Bell and the Drells and “Stay in My Corner” by the Dells (the #1 R&B single this week) are new in the Top 10. Two Aretha Franklin songs debut in the Top 40: “The House That Jack Built” (#21) and “I Say a Little Prayer” (#39). Other debuts include Deep Purple’s “Hush” (#38). Cream’s Wheels of Fire is #1 on the Top LPs chart, just ahead of the Rascals compilation Time Peace and Aretha Now, all of which have been on the chart seven weeks and are in the same positions as last week. (“Wheels of Fire” also appears on the R&B album chart.) The Doors’ Waiting for the Sun blasts to #4 from #29 last week. Also making a big move is Feliciano!, up to #6 from #28. On the Hot Country Singles chart, “Already It’s Heaven” by David Houston is #1, knocking “Heaven Says Hello” by Sonny James to #2. The Easy Listening chart is led by Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas,” which is #1 for a second week. “Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Mama Cass is at #2, and the Vogues’ “Turn Around Look at Me” is #3. The lone new song in the Easy Listening Top 10 is “The Fool on the Hill” by Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66. An older Sergio Mendes hit, “The Look of Love,” is hanging around at #14.

And then, in the blink of an eye, half of a century goes by.

Ship of Fools

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: the Rascals, whose “People Got to Be Free” was on every kid’s radio 50 years ago this week.)

When I started putting posts together for this week, I thought that the theme was going to involve August turning to September. But sometimes the muse has her own ideas, and so this week both of my blogs will feature posts about 1968. They will appear here today, Wednesday, and Friday, and on Tuesday and Thursday at One Day in Your Life.

This week in 1968, the country’s attention was riveted on Chicago and the Democratic National Convention, where all of the frustrations the 1960s caused for three generations—kids, their parents, and their grandparents—sparked up and then exploded. The way it happened was a shock back then, as best I can recall it, but today it seems inevitable. With the benefit of hindsight, we understand both why the kids protested and why the Chicago Police Department went nuclear. Everyone’s nerves had been stretched to a breaking point in 1968 by war and assassination and each side’s reactions to them. They were destined to snap sooner or later in more or less the way they did, and if not in Chicago, then somewhere else, and soon.

At WGLI in Babylon, New York, a small-town station on Long Island, certain hits of August-going-on-September reflected young people’s visions of peace and/or love: “People Got to Be Free,” “Grazin’ in the Grass” (an instrumental, yes, but one that depicts a carefree late-summer idyll), “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and “Reach Out in the Darkness.” But other songs celebrated youthful visions that were worrisome to the older generations, including indiscriminate sex (“Hello I Love You”), dropping out of polite society (“Born to Be Wild”) and drugs (“Journey to the Center of the Mind”).

And leave it to the Rolling Stones to grin crazily at all the trouble in the world and call it a gas.

WGLI’s survey dated August 26, 1968, contains some of the oddballs we like around here. It has two versions of “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” the monster hit version by Jeannie C. Riley (which we’ll discuss here in greater detail on Friday) and a cover by Bobbi Martin, and two versions of “Mr. Bojangles,” the original by Jerry Jeff Walker and the other by Bobby Cole. Martin had scored a handful of Top-10 Easy Listening hits in the middle of the 60s, but her greatest success was 18 months away: the housewife anthem “For the Love of Him” would go to #1 Easy Listening and #13 on the Hot 100 early in 1970. Cole was a jazz singer well-known in the New York City area, and his “Mr. Bojangles” hit #79 on the Hot 100 and #38 Easy Listening.

Bobby Cole was not the only local artist on WGLI’s playlist. The Hassles are best known for being Billy Joel’s first claim to fame, although he’d been in other bands before, and the Hassles had existed before he joined in 1966. “Four O’Clock in the Morning” was written and sung by Joel and sounds like a cross between Vanilla Fudge and the Beatles. Aesop’s Fables was a Long Island group with two singers and a horn section that made a handful of singles and a couple of albums; their version of “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is just weird—although it did predate the more famous Supremes/Temptations version by a few months. (Soul singer Dee Dee Warwick had done it first, in 1966.)

WGLI’s pick album of the week is the third album in 12 months by the Cowsills, Captain Sad and His Ship of Fools. It contains “Indian Lake,” which had hit earlier in the summer of 1968 and was likely still in recurrents at WGLI as August turned to September. The title song takes aim at a person who talks a lot but hasn’t really accomplished anything. The kids might have seen eventual Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey in it, but Humphrey’s generation, sitting in their living rooms watching the news from Chicago, might have been thinking the same thing about their kids.

(Coming Wednesday: a look inside Billboard magazine 50 years ago this week.)

Many Bridges to Cross

Embed from Getty Images

In the wake of Aretha Franklin’s death last week, the song I found myself returning to again and again was her version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It’s a glorious thing, exploring an emotional terrain far different from Simon and Garfunkel’s. Aretha’s version of “Bridge” was the most successful cover recorded in the immediate wake of that song’s success, but not the only one. It made good sense for music publishers and songwriters to extend the reach of their properties with cover versions that would appeal to different audiences. The trend reached a peak in the early 1970s, and it’s a trend we’ve mentioned here before.

Several country versions of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” were cut following its six-week run at #1 in the spring of 1970. Buck Owens scored the biggest country version: his “Bridge Over Troubled Water” went to #9 on the Billboard country chart in the spring of 1971. (It was the title song to an Owens album that included versions of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” and “I Am a Rock,” as well as “Catch the Wind” and “Love Minus Zero—No Limit.”) Skeeter Davis, who was reaching the end of her country chart career, got a little bit of airplay with her version in the fall of 1970. Somebody named Betty Amos did it with Nashville heavyweight Pete Drake producing; that version charted at a single station in the ARSA database, WKCW in Warrenton, Virginia, in August 1970. A pop version by Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds—part of a medley with “You’ve Got a Friend”—also charted on a single station, WBAM in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1972.

Several versions appear in the ARSA database but are not shown to have charted anywhere. The best-known performers to cut “Bridge Over Troubled Water” without chart success were country stars Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter and jazz alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. A pop singer named Kaye Hart cut a version of it, arranged and produced by Peter Matz, who was also the orchestra leader on The Carol Burnett Show. The most noteworthy thing about Hart’s recording might be that Metromedia Records listed the time of the record as 2:91. Another non-charting pop version was recorded by Artistry in Sound, a project of songwriter and record producer Dick Glasser. The album Dick Glasser Presents Artistry in Sound featured several pop hits of the moment including “Hey Jude,” “Sugar Sugar,” and “Jean,” so I’m guessing it was an easy-listening record, for that would have been in style at the end of 1970. An outfit called the Universal Tabernacle Choir featuring Juliet Freeman recorded “Bridge” too; it would have to be a gospel version, don’t you think?

The weirdest version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” came in 1973. Sam Ervin, the U.S. senator from North Carolina, became famous for chairing the Senate Watergate Committee, and he made a spoken-word album for Columbia called Senator Sam at Home. On the album, he opined about various topics over down-home musical backing. He talked about young people, freedom of speech, patrotism, religion, and Shakespeare (among other things), recited Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” and used “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as part of a meditation on friendship. His version was released as a single but didn’t chart, which will probably not surprise you.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” proved irresistable to R&B performers, and not just Aretha. King Curtis recorded it, and so did Ernie Andrews, singing with the Fuzzy Kane Trio. Andrews’ version, which turns the song into a blues number and is pretty great, was a regional hit in Baltimore and Philadelphia, getting a little airplay at the end of 1970. In the spring of 1971, Aretha did what she did, with 384 chart entries at ARSA, including the #1 position at CKLW in Detroit as well as R&B stations KGFJ in Los Angeles, WVON in Chicago, and KOKA in Shreveport. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” returned for the last time in 1979, when a version by R&B singer Linda Clifford charted on a couple of stations.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” wasn’t exactly an entry in the Great American Songbook, not like “Stardust” or “My Funny Valentine,” not a song that inspired a near-endless variety of interpretations over several decades. It was, however, enough of a shared cultural event to make other performers and producers think, “Hey, I wonder what would happen if we did it like this?” Nobody thinks in those terms about pop songs anymore.

Through the Window

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: the Jackson Five, 1971.)

In a recent post, I ran down some of the reasons people listen to old American Top 40 shows. But I missed one: you can listen to these shows looking for little moments of weirdness and/or lost radio history.

Take for example the show from July 29, 1972, which was a recent repeat. In this week, the Jackson Five’s “Looking Through the Windows” debuted at #38. Casey front-announced it by saying, “If this were the first record introducing the Jackson Five, it would put them right into the Top 10.” Which doesn’t make all that much sense, really—there’s nothing stopping the record from eventually making the Top 10, and none of the Jackson Five’s other singles had debuted within the Top 10. And in fact, I suspect that if “Looking Through the Windows” had been the first Jackson Five hit, it wouldn’t have had nearly the impact of “I Want You Back,” which is one of the most impressive debut singles made by anyone in any era. “Looking Through the Windows” eventually peaked at #16 in an eight-week run within the Top 40, so America didn’t dig it quite as much as Casey did. And he seriously did: he comes out of it by saying, “That’s really putting it all together!”

At #14 is Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” In the original 7/29/72 broadcast, Casey did a bit about Elton’s real name, which he gave as “Reg Swight.” Which it is not—it’s Reg Dwight. Casey’s modern-day producers fixed the error, but owned up to it in one of the show’s optional extra segments, even playing the original mispronunciation.

Digression: the Twitter feed Dano Loves Music has been doing tournaments in which followers pick their favorite songs of various years by voting in head-to-head matchups. In the recently concluded 1972 tournament, “American Pie” was the winner, which was probably a foregone conclusion. “Rocket Man” was the other finalist, which I would not have guessed before the tournament began.

The Eagles’ “Take It Easy” is at #12 this week. I have noted before Casey’s tendency to call them just “Eagles.” That is, after all, the way they are listed on all of their records, without the definite article, but even the band members themselves used “the Eagles” when talking about the band, so Casey’s quirk seems, well, quirky. “Take It Easy” is heard in its 45 configuration, which is fairly rare nowadays. It’s snipped from the album length of 3:34 to a single length of 3:21 by tightening up the ending—cutting out some “ooh-ooh-oohs” and removing “oh we got it easy,” then cutting right to “we oughta take it easy” and the cold ending. (I hope this description is sufficient since I can’t find the 45 version at YouTube.) As our friend Yah Shure has reminded us, record labels would make the smallest of tweaks if they thought it would increase a record’s chances of becoming a hit.

At #10 is a record we know today as “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by the Hollies. Although it appears on the Hollies’ album Distant Light with its full title, the song was listed in Billboard as “Long Cool Woman.” That’s what everybody called it back then, and how Casey introduced it on this show.

“Too Late to Turn Back Now” by Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose is an all-time favorite of mine and one of the sweetest sing-along songs ever to hit the radio. The rest of the country dug it too: it had crashed into the Top 40 at #23 on June 17, went to #10 the next week, then 5-4-2-2 before dropping back to #3 this week. Every biography of the group lists the group’s membership as brothers Carter and Eddie Cornelius and their sister Rose, who were joined by another sister, Billie Jo, after “Too Late” had hit. But when introducing “Too Late to Turn Back Now” on this show, Casey says the group is “10 guys, five girls, ages 11 to 43, from Florida.” Carter, Eddie, and Rose were three kids from a family of 15 siblings, but I can’t find one single source that says all 15 Cornelius kids were part of the group. Casey and his staff must have misinterpreted a bit of biographical information.

While these old shows are a fascinating window into the past, it’s probably not fair to examine them on the molecular level. Casey and his staff were just making a show back then; they didn’t know they were making history, or that the shows would survive Casey himself. But it’s fun.

Rock Steady

Embed from Getty Images

(Update: Aretha passed this morning, August 16th.)

As I write this post [on August 15], Aretha Franklin is still with us, and maybe she’ll be with us for a while yet. The fact that she’s receiving hospice care, as was reported this week, doesn’t necessarily mean she’s going to die within days. I lost an uncle recently who had received hospice care for a couple of months.

When her time comes, other people are going to write about Aretha, and I look forward to those tributes. In this post, premature though it is, I’ll do what I can.

Although “Don’t Play That Song” peaked at #11 on the Hot 100 in the fabled fall of 1970, WLS didn’t chart it, so I didn’t hear it then. My introduction to Aretha came in the spring of 1971, when her glorious version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” went to #6 on the Hot 100 and #11 on WLS. My favorite Aretha record was a few months away. Forty-seven years ago this week, “Spanish Harlem” was blasting up the Hot 100, jumping from #29 to #19 in its third week on, although it was already #1 on soul station WWRL in New York City and at CKLW in Detroit. In September, it would peak at #2 on the Hot 100 where, in one of the great miscarriages of Top 40 justice, it got stuck behind Donny Osmond’s “Go Away Little Girl,” although it did reach #1 at WLS in Chicago and WABC in New York.

Aretha followed “Spanish Harlem” with “Rock Steady,” hot enough by itself, but positively smokin’ as processed for AM radio here, and in the spring of 1972, “Day Dreaming,” which is soul music as the pure, clear water of life—you could live on it for weeks if need be, with a shot of “Until You Come Back to Me” (1973) as a chaser. Although “I’m in Love” (1974), “Something He Can Feel” (1976), and “Jump to It” (1981) were significant hits, “Day Dreaming” would be Aretha’s last Top-10 single until “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” in 1985.

When I went to the record books, I was a bit surprised to find that Aretha hit #1 on the pop chart only twice, with “Respect” in 1967 and “I Knew You Were Waiting” with George Michael 20 years later. “Chain of Fools” and “Spanish Harlem” both made #2; “Until You Come Back to Me” and “Freeway of Love” each peaked at #3. In 1967, the album I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You, which started with the famously aborted recording session at Muscle Shoals, made #2. In 1968, Aretha: Lady Soul made #2 and Aretha Now made #3. Her scorecard: 17 Top-10 pop singles and six Top-10 albums.

(Links in the previous paragraph go to posts at The ’68 Comeback Special, a blog by Charles L. Hughes, author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South. Go read them, and the book too.)

Aretha had two babies before she turned 15, troubled relationships with difficult men, financial problems, concert no-shows, and rivalries with family members and fellow performers. Her career cratered a couple of times, but she always managed to come back. The 2014 biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz is the definitive telling of her story, although Aretha called it “trashy,” and she accused Ritz, collaborator on her 1999 autobiography, of being “vindictive.” Ritz says that because certain subjects were off-limits in 1999, that book failed to tell Aretha’s story as it should have. Respect addressed those subjects, with the cooperation of three Franklin family members. It’s not flattering and it’s hard to read in spots, but it also gives Aretha her due as an artist. And at the end of an artist’s life, the art is the thing that matters, because the art is what will endure.

The greatest art has a natural quality that makes it seem as though it sprung forth, like a redwood tree or a glacier does, willed into being by something primal and more powerful than than the conscious choices and actions of fallible human beings. Humans like Aretha Franklin make art that proves humanity can achieve the highest heights to which we aspire. We aren’t here just to suck up natural resources and die wanting more. We can do better.

%d bloggers like this: