Big Stuff

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(Pictured: Yvonne Elliman and Jeff Fenholt, from the Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar.)

I have mentioned before that the summer of 1971 was my last as a full-time child. I filled my days seeking adventures outside with my brother, taking saxophone lessons, and playing Little League baseball. The next year, I was expected to drive a tractor on the farm, and although Dad did not expect me to do it for free, he did expect me to do it, and so for the first time I did what a friend referred to years later as “trading your life for money.”

I also spent a lot of time listening to the radio in the summer of 1971—not to American Top 40 yet, but to WLS from Chicago, where I heard some, but not all of the songs featured on the AT40 show dated June 26, 1971.

40. “Cool Aid”/Paul Humphrey and His Cool-Aid Chemists. Paul Humphrey was a drummer who first worked as a sideman with a number of New York-based jazz artists including John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Jimmy Smith. After relocating to Los Angeles, he became a session player for R&B, pop, and rock acts from Natalie Cole to Steely Dan, and he toured and recorded with Marvin Gaye. While he was based in LA, he also played in Lawrence Welk’s orchestra. “Cool Aid” had made #29 during the week of June 12, 1971, was also a mid-level R&B hit, and got Humphrey’s group on American Bandstand.

37. “Escape-ism (Part 1)”/James Brown. Brown’s airplay on R&B stations drove enormous sales, and as a result he frequently made the pop Top 40 with records that had little pop appeal, like “Escape-ism.”

35. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”/Yvonne Elliman
23. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”/Helen Reddy
22. “Superstar”/Murray Head
We reached peak Jesus Christ Superstar during the first half of June 1971, with Reddy and Head topping out at #13 and #14 respectively and Elliman reaching #28. The Superstar album had spent a week at #1 in February and two more in May, and it was still at #5 in this week. For what it’s worth, Elliman’s version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” which appears on the original Superstar album, has got it all over Reddy’s more successful cover, which was her breakthough single.

38. “Draggin’ the Line”/Tommy James
36. “Take Me Home Country Roads”/John Denver with Fat City
33. “Bring the Boys Home/Freda Payne

EXTRA: “I Feel the Earth Move”/Carole King
19. “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be”/Carly Simon
Casey refers to each of these female artists as “girls,” even though Freda Payne was 28, Carole King was 29, and Carly Simon was 26. He does not refer to 24-year-old Tommy James or 27-year-old John Denver as “boys.”

EXTRA: “Teen Angel”/Mark Dinning. Casey tells the story (which was offered as an optional extra during the recent national repeat of this show) of how Dinning and his family whomped up “Teen Angel” at a family dinner. He says that it was intended as a joke, but a record producer heard it and thought it could be a hit—which it was, going to #1 in February 1960. The joke part of the story isn’t supported by the author of The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, but whatever the case, the fate of “Teen Angel” is an oft-told tale in American pop: a song that is intended to be disposable gets made a little too well to be discarded. Although the lyric is contrived and melodramatic, the tune and arrangement are lovely.

31. “Sooner or Later”/Grass Roots
28. “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again”/Fortunes
18. “Mr. Big Stuff”/Jean Knight

The sound of these records, the way they jump off the radio and make you want to sing along, is one of the purest pleasures from the classic Top 40 era.

We’ll need another installment to get this whole show in (plus the obligatory American Bottom 60 to come), and I am not especially surprised. The summer of 1971 is one of my favorite Top 40 seasons, and there’s plenty to say about a lot of that season’s songs.

Casey’s Giants of Rock (Part 2)

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(Pictured: the underrated Bob Dylan, 1966.)

Here’s the second half of American Top 40‘s “Giants of Rock ‘n’ Roll” countdown from the July 4 weekend in 1986.

20. James Brown. The Godfather of Soul is probably ranked a bit too low even for 1986.

19. Led Zeppelin. Casey plays all of “Stairway to Heaven” and only talks over a little of it.

18. Lionel Richie. Nope nope nope. Lionel was way too high on this list even in 1986. More influential than Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Ray Charles? As I asked the other day about Hall and Oates and Billy Joel, who did he influence, and how? Next to the omission of Aretha Franklin, this is the show’s biggest goof.

17. The Doors
16. The Who
15. Bob Dylan
Casey quoted a lot of DJs who responded in the poll, mostly from small and medium-sized markets. Writing about Dylan, one said, “He gave us something to sing about besides cars and girls.” Precisely: Bob Dylan is largely responsible for the idea that rock lyrics don’t have to be doggerel. They can tell serious stories in a literary way, or be poetic in a way pop songs were not before he came along. So he’s influential in a way unequaled by practically everyone else on this list. He should have been no lower than #3.

14. The Eagles
13. Creedence Clearwater Revival

12. Chicago
Chicago is way too high on the list and might not belong on it at all. Several horn bands emerged at about the same time Chicago did, and Casey talks about how Chicago was inspired by Blood Sweat and Tears. If that’s true, shouldn’t BS&T be on this list instead?

11. John Lennon. Casey quotes a DJ who says Lennon belongs on the list “for his love.” Whether that’s accurate is a question biographers have considered since 1980, but it sounded great next to “Imagine.”

10. Buddy Holly
9. The Beach Boys
8. Paul McCartney
7. Elton John
6. Bruce Springsteen
Paul and Bruce get two songs each, as Eric Clapton did in his segment earlier.

5. Chuck Berry. Casey praises Berry as an influential guitarist, but then plays “Maybelline,” even though every kid who bought a guitar because he loved Chuck Berry wanted to learn “Johnny B. Goode” first.

4. Stevie Wonder
3. The Rolling Stones
2. Elvis Presley
1. The Beatles
The songs Casey chose for the top three—“I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “A Day in the Life,” “Hound Dog,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Miss You,” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”—make abundantly clear why these people top the list. Casey’s choice of “Part Time Lover” for Stevie pales in comparison, although it’s in keeping with this show’s tendency to play 80s hits wherever possible. It’s why “We Built This City” got on earlier and not “White Rabbit” or “Miracles,” and why James Brown’s then-recent “Living in America” got on instead of quite literally anything else.

As I listened to the show (which was fabulously entertaining despite all that you’ve read here), I was reminded that merely working in radio doesn’t automatically make you an expert. Some radio people have a historian’s knowledge of music, but many others are simply passionate fans who don’t know much more than their listeners. (And some don’t like music at all.) It’s perfectly fine to be a passionate fan, but such a person is likely to think, Billy Joel and Chicago have had lots of hits so they have to be on the list, without giving much thought to the question of who they influenced and how. They won’t differentiate between the Jefferson Airplane, whose psychedelic style really did have an impact on other performers, and the Starship, which was a generic 80s album-rock band. (That one may be the AT40 staff’s fault, though, for assuming that the entity remained the one and the same for 20 years.) Neither will they single out the house bands at Motown or Stax, for example, even though those groups inspired bands in garages from coast to coast. And there’s a long list of artists experts recognize as pioneers and influencers who never made a radio hit, so they’d never register on a list like this.

Apart from the unconscionable omission of Aretha Franklin and any women other than the Supremes, the show does get a lot of rock history right, though. But who do you think is missing? Who shouldn’t be on it? How would you re-rank the list? Who from the last 33 years would have to be included on a similar list made today, and who would get bumped from this list in their favor?

Casey’s Giants of Rock

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(Pictured: Prince, underrated in the 80s.)

(Note to patrons: welcome to our July Casey-thon. This month, the vast majority of posts will have something to do with various editions of American Top 40.)

Back in the middle of the 80s, when I was program director of a Top 40 station, I ran a lot of syndicated holiday music specials that focused on rock ‘n’ roll history. On Memorial Day or the Fourth of July or Labor Day, I loved to hear my station blasting classic oldies, many of which were still part of Top 40 playlists then.

My station’s sales department loved the specials, too. They’d offer package deals to car dealers, boat dealers, pizza restaurants, ice cream shops, and anybody else who might benefit from blanket coverage on a holiday weekend. The ads were cheap and the sponsors got a lot of them—too many, on one holiday one year. Due to a math error, the sales department oversold the show we were running, and I was forced to schedule commercial breaks with as many as 16 30-second spots in them. It was not good radio. But when everything worked out right, my station would sound hot and fun and irresistible all weekend long.

For the July 4 weekend in 1986, American Top 40 produced a four-hour summer special called “The Giants of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which was based on a “worldwide DJ poll,” counting down the 40 most influential artists of the rock era going back to 1955. The show was a lot of fun to listen to, although I’ve got some issues with the list of artists. The original cue sheet is here.

40. Pink Floyd
39. Holland/Dozier/Holland
The songwriting and production team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland, who started at Motown and later founded their own Hot Wax label, is my favorite unexpected inclusion on the list. But Smokey Robinson should have gotten on ahead of them, and he didn’t make it at all.

38. Jerry Lee Lewis
37. David Bowie
36. Mick Jagger
Mick is represented by the Stones’ then-recent hit “Harlem Shuffle,” which is the most obscure record on the show today.

35. Prince. If we re-ranked this list today, Prince would be a lot higher. David Bowie too.

34. Ray Charles
33. Marvin Gaye
32. Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship
Given that Brother Ray basically invented soul music, he’s probably a tad underrated. And of these three songs in a row—“What’d I Say,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” and “We Built This City”—see if you can pick the oddball.

31. Fleetwood Mac
30. Hall and Oates
29. Quincy Jones
Jones’ inclusion makes me want to argue for Phil Spector and/or Gamble and Huff, both of whom invented entire genres, which Jones did not.

28. Little Richard. The rock-star moves of Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Elton John, and the like started here.

27. Bill Haley and the Comets. It’s eye-opening to listen to Bill Haley’s pre-“Rock Around the Clock” singles with the Saddlemen, some going back as far as 1951. His fusion of western swing with R&B is rock ‘n’ roll before it had that name.

26. Michael Jackson
25. Simon and Garfunkel
If we’re talking about influence on singer/songwriter pop, I wonder where James Taylor is.

24. Billy Joel. By this point in the show, the word “influential” has gotten pretty slippery. The show means to define “influential” in the usual way: artists who affected the work of other artists and helped to shape the sound of pop music. But in that case, who, precisely, was influenced by Billy Joel or Hall and Oates, and in what way? If by “influential” we mean “influenced a lot of people to buy a lot of their records,” these two acts aren’t the only ones on this list who are more influential by that definition.

23. Jimi Hendrix
22. Eric Clapton
21. Diana Ross and the Supremes.
Casey mentions that no female solo performers made the Top 40, so the Supremes are the only women on it. Where in the world is Aretha Franklin? There are also arguments for Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, and even Madonna, despite it being so early in her career. The Supremes probably belong on the list—although not ahead of Clapton and Hendrix—but the omission of other worthy female artists is shameful.

Coming later in the week: the remainder of the list, and some additional comments about it.

(Further note to patrons: as announced on Friday, I have decided to send my One Day in Your Life website to a nice farm upstate, but I also launched a podcast. ODIYL details here.)

Comings and Goings

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Today we have some programming announcements involving comings and goings. First, what’s coming:

I did podcasts at this website before they were cool. Starting in 2006, I recorded voice tracks on a $30 microphone I bought at Best Buy and used Audacity to mix them with music. But then I got a radio job, and the allure of podcasting went away. The last one I did was in 2009.

It’s only within the last several months that I have begun regularly listening to podcasts. For a long time, the sheer number of them kept me from doing it—where the hell do I start? But once I started, I found a few that I like. Some of them have music and sound clips and are highly produced, while others are just two or three people sitting around talking.

Or just one.

It occurred to me not long ago that I could repurpose, rejigger, and expand some of the writing and research I have done over almost 15 years at this site into podcast form, just one guy sitting around talking. So that’s what I’ve done. Most episodes will have to do with music and/or radio. Some episodes will not—those will be based on other material in my files.

What to call the podcast is still an open question. Since it’s a companion to this website, The Hits Just Keep on Comin’ Podcast is logical enough. And that’s what it’s going to be called until somebody—me, or someone more clever than me—thinks of something better.

The first episode, “Four Rock Festivals,” is right here.

Episodes will also be posted at my Soundcloud to begin with, although I hope to roll them out to other podcast providers in the near future. You can follow me at my Soundcloud and get notifications of new episodes. I will also post new episodes here, and whore them out on social media as well.

I hope that after you listen, you will tell me what you thought of the first episode. Find my e-mail address here, or hit me up on Twitter or Facebook, or comment at the bottom of this post, or at my Soundcloud.

Now, the announcement about what’s going. It was a difficult decision to make and I waffled on it a time or two, but I think it’s the right one. It’s not an ending so much as it is a homecoming. And it’s not as big a deal as this paragraph makes it sound, so prepare to be disappointed when you find out what it is. To find out what it is, click here.

Elevator Going Down

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(Pictured: Elton John and bandmate Davey Johnstone in a hotel elevator at some point in the 70s.)

Here’s another rebooted post from the earliest days of this blog—in this case, April 22, 2005.

Piped-in music isn’t what it used to be. Very few stores will trust anything so random as a local radio station to provide a background for customers anymore. Many stores have their own music services, delivered by satellite, and no doubt carefully researched to facilitate the separation of people from their money. Some companies will actually sell you CDs of the music they play in their stores.

My local convenience store plays oldies mostly from the 60s to the early 80s. Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised to hear James Brown’s “Sex Machine” as I dropped in for my morning constitutional today. To hear JB stripped down and hitting on the one while I was filling a giant mug full of Diet Pepsi was a bit like slipping into an alternate universe where decaffeinated light-FM hip-hop and the steroidal boot of rap are both curiosities, and true funk is the chosen music of millions.

(Digression: The Mrs. and I have some old friends whose daughter we have watched grow up. One morning when the girl was three or four, her father heard her singing something while everyone was getting dressed in the morning. As he listened closely, he determined that she was singing “Sex Machine.” He also determined it was probably time to cut back on the James Brown records for a while.)

Then again, maybe my little suburb is an under-the-radar funk zone. One fine Sunday morning, I made a quick run to our neighborhood grocery store. While I was maneuvering my cart past the suburban dads loaded with beer and chips and various grandmothers with cat food and paper plates, I noticed that the store’s music, at a barely audible level, was playing “Saturday Night” by Earth, Wind and Fire. So there I was, in the cereal aisle, getting my schwerve on. But the store topped itself in the next few minutes by playing Honey Cone’s great 1971 hit “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.” Somebody must have dialed up the wrong channel by mistake.

The rise of specially programmed in-store music channels (often containing commercials) has accompanied the near-demise of elevator music: those light-and-lovely instrumental versions of pop and rock hits made to be ignored, or more precisely, made to seep into your brain at a subconscious level to relax you, make you feel more alert, or go Communist. As a radio format, elevator music, known officially as “beautiful music,” is largely dead, too—because its target audience is largely dead. But in its heyday, elevator music plundered all genres of popular music for familiar tunes. Some of my all-time favorite elevator-music remakes include Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, Texas,” “Synchronicity II” by the Police, and—I swear it’s true—“Rock and Roll All Nite” by KISS.

I worked at an elevator-music radio station for a while, back in the late 80. It wasn’t quite as tomblike a place as you might expect—I got hired precisely because I was a jock with a personality, and that was what the station wanted. Alas, none of those delightfully bizarre remakes were on our station. Our library was pretty pedestrian, really. There were no KISS or Police remakes, although I seem to recall a version of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face” and a remake of Tiffany’s cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which had recently been a hit. The instrumentals weren’t all bad. You’d get the occasional classic jazz tune, Brubeck’s “Take Five” or Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s “Desafinado.” However, there’s no denying it was mostly the Swelling Strings Orchestra doing “Red Roses for a Blue Lady.”

No wonder you’d get sleepy on the night shift.

Some years after I wrote this, I heard “I Ain’t Superstitious” by the Jeff Beck Group and “Little Sister” by Stevie Ray Vaughan in the same convenience store, and “Dixie Chicken” by Little Feat at a different grocery store. At first I feared the latter might be some kind of a promotion for the meat department, but I was grateful to determine it was not.

Billy Who?

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(Pictured: a silvery moon, sailing along.)

From the earliest days of recording, instrumental music was always popular. During the 30s and early 40s, jazz was America’s favorite form of popular music. But as the big-band era faded and jazz evolved in ways that some fans couldn’t follow, the instrumental acts that were left standing, by 1950 or so, were largely pop acts.

While these acts still released singles, the 10-inch and later the 12-inch long-playing album were an even-better format for them. The coming of consumer stereo in 1958 created a market for them that hadn’t existed before. Early adopters wanted to buy records that would sound good on their new systems. They weren’t the kids buying 78s or 45s by Elvis, Pat Boone, and the Everly Brothers; they were their adult siblings, or their uncles and fathers. For those older consumers, the content of the records was secondary to the sonic experience they created, but if the tunes were familiar, so much the better. Thus the market for instrumental music exploded. (What’s known as “space-age pop,” a genre with several offshoots, developed during this period.)

There are any number of bandleaders one might write about in this period: some had been sidemen in big bands, others had been arrangers or composers. One of the most prolific was involved with a lot of other people’s hits and released dozens of albums and singles under his own name: Billy Vaughn.

During the first half of the 50s, Vaughn had been a singer. He later became an A&R man, arranger, and conductor at Dot Records, where he was responsible for a boatload of cover recordings, often the white versions of R&B hits, including many of the most famous by Pat Boone. (If it was on Dot in the 50s and it wasn’t by Lawrence Welk, chances are Vaughn was involved.) At the same time, he was releasing records under his own name. He charted a remarkable 36 albums on the Billboard album chart between 1958 and 1970. He also charted 28 singles between 1954 and 1966.

Here is your Billy Vaughn Top Five:

5. “A Swingin’ Safari” (1962). I have written quite a bit in recent months about songs I heard before I knew it, songs that played on my parents’ radio and lodged in my head, so that when I heard them years later, they came with a set of pre-loaded associations. “A Swingin’ Safari” likely came to me from both the radio and the TV: it was the theme song for the original Match Game, which ran from 1962 to 1969.

4. “Raunchy” (1957). The cover versions Vaughn arranged and produced at Dot sanded the edges off the originals, and his “Raunchy” is no exception. It tones down both the guitar twang of the Bill Justis original and the rock beat of the Ernie Freeman version. But there was room on the radio for all three to make the Top 10, all in December 1957.

3. “The Shifting, Whispering Sands” (1956). The most unusual record in Vaughn’s catalog is “The Shifting, Whispering Sands,” a two-part, six-minute tale of Western adventure and existential philosophy narrated by voice artist Ken Nordine. Nordine would later be famed for the creation of what he called “word jazz.” In the 70s he narrated a series of iconic commercials for Levis, and he died this past February at age 98.

2. “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” (1958). If you didn’t recognize “A Swingin’ Safari,” maybe you know “Sail Along, Silvery Moon,” an alto-saxophone duet performed to a medium-tempo rock ‘n’ roll beat. The “duet” is actually one guy, Los Angeles studio musician Justin Gordon, overdubbing himself. “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” was the original B-side of “Raunchy” and followed it up the Billboard chart in early 1958.

1. “Melody of Love” (1955). This old-fashioned, sentimental tune was first heard in 1903. Vaughn’s recording of “Melody of Love” was the biggest of five versions that hit simultaneously in early 1955; the Four Aces and Frank Sinatra cut vocal versions.

Bonus Track: “Wheels” (1961). Although other Vaughn singles charted higher than “Wheels,” I suspect it’s better known today (to the extent that Vaughn is remembered at all) than all but “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” and “A Swingin’ Safari.”

In any period of music history, there are always records that escape the generalizations we make when narrating that history. The pop instrumentals of the 50s and 60s—by the Billy Vaughns of the world—are among the most frequent escapees.

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