The State of the Band

I spent most of a month earlier this spring on the road: 24 nights away from home, 3300 miles on my car, and many hours spent listening to my car stereo. Not much of it spent listening to my car radio, however.

Part of the problem is technical. I am an AM-first listener, and I suspect that the AM radio in the new stereo I put in my car just isn’t very good. I noticed a similar phenomenon in my 2018 model rental car last fall. AM isn’t much of a priority for anybody, so why should the makers of automotive sound equipment invest much in it? Also, the AM band is a lot noisier than it used to be, with more devices generating random electrical noise—compact fluorescent and LED lights, wi-fi routers, and even our cars themselves. (The FCC is considering whether to allow AM stations to transmit in an all-digital format, which would make the band less noisy—but would also require stations to buy new transmitter equipment and people to buy new radios.) The FCC polices AM less than it used to, partly because practically nobody is there to complain if a station is running an AM signal at the wrong power, or one that interferes with other stations. And AM stations are simply going dark, too—surrendering the license and/or selling the transmitter site to a developer rather than keep losing money broadcasting.

So between my radio and the state of the band, unless I was practically in the shadow of a tower, I got noisy signals, weak signals, and along vast stretches of highway, no signals at all.

And when it did pick them up, there wasn’t much to enjoy. Programming once easily found on 50,000-watt clear channels and 5,000-watt regional stations has migrated to FM stations—in some cases, to low-powered ones that cover the city of license only. What’s left on the AM band isn’t much: mostly religion and non-English-language programming. The latter is a victory for cultural diversity and community service, even if I don’t understand the language and it replaces programming I used to enjoy. Because the former is frequently listener- or foundation-supported and doesn’t have to appeal to advertisers, or to more than a handful of listeners, it can be laughably bad, although some people like it.

On Facebook groups, Reddit threads, or message boards devoted to AM radio, you will meet guys who think that AM radio would come back and be just as important and popular as it was from the 30s through the 80s if ownership groups and listeners would only love it enough. (Strictly speaking, they’re right, if delusional about its likelihood.) You will also meet the AM-is-already-dead group, whose members believe the true believers are humping a corpse, and who mock even the slightest suggestion that AM could possibly have any value to anyone.

In some places, AM remains viable. A number of AMs around the country remain profitable and serve a sizeable audience with quality programming—although many are long-established legacy stations in major markets, and most have FM translators themselves. There’s also a number of AM stations serving communities that major broadcasting chains don’t care about. But the days of AM being a mass-appeal medium everyone listens to are long gone, for technical, financial, and cultural reasons.

The latter is critical: unless a person already listens to AM, grew up with it, or has some sort of religious or ethnic reason to seek it out, AM doesn’t register with most people. And it doesn’t have to. Most people can get the entertainment or information they want somewhere other than AM: on FM, a station stream, a smartphone app, and so on. The true-believer prescription for broadcast AM—“put on unique formats people can’t find anywhere else and they will come!”—ignores the fact that it’s easier and likely more profitable, if profit can be made, to do that unique format on an FM signal or an Internet stream. Conversion to digital AM seems like throwing money at a problem without solving it, and it will disenfranchise a lot of the dwindling numbers of people who currently depend on AM.

One variation on the digital AM plan suggests stations convert to digital as they please, and between competing formats, “the marketplace will decide” whether digital AM succeeds. But that presumes the marketplace—forced to their choice by the factors I mention here—hasn’t already decided the fate of AM.

But that’s just my opinion. I could be entirely wrong. Your opinion is welcome in the comments.

Meaningful Comments

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(Pictured: the Fifth Dimension.)

I have been writing a lot about 1969 lately, and here I go again. (If you think this is overkill, wait until it’s 50 years since the 70s.) What follows are some odds and ends from Billboard magazine 50 years ago this week:

—KLAC and KMET-FM in Los Angeles are coping with an engineers’ strike, as DJs and newsmen who are members of AFTRA won’t cross the engineers’ picket line. The strike began one day before KLAC was set to change format from talk to contemporary middle of the road music, but parent company Metromedia went ahead with the change anyhow. The strike is over Metromedia’s desire to have KLAC and KMET DJs run their own turntables, as they do at some other Metromedia stations. Currently, engineers start the records at the DJs’ direction. The company stresses that engineers will not be losing their jobs. They will still run the control boards. Metromedia managers with on-air experience are filling in for the regular DJs, some having to be flown in from other cities. It’s a method that was used in New York City earlier this year during a brief strike at Metromedia’s WNEW and WNEW-FM. Billboard says that the subsitutes are being “told to keep their chatter to meaningful comments, and to know such production values as how long the introductions and endings of the cuts run.”

Fifty years later: the “record turner” remained a presence at major-market stations long after 1969, although as this item indicates, that person often was responsible for running the control board, too.

—Bobbie Gentry is working on Christmas songs in hopes that they can be packaged as part of a TV special. She is just about to leave Nashville for London, where she will tape six episodes of Bobbie Gentry Presents for the BBC. When she returns, she will finish her second album with Glen Campbell. Her future plans include a Spanish-language album; she’s already recorded a version of “Fool on the Hill” in Japanese for Capitol Records to release over there.

Fifty years later: Best I can tell, the Bobbie Gentry Christmas special never happened. Neither did a full-blown Christmas album, although a 1969 Capitol Records Christmas compilation marketed by tire company B. F. Goodrich includes her performances of “Away in a Manger” and “Scarlet Ribbons.” (Both appear on the new box set of Gentry’s music, released last year.) The Spanish album never came to pass either, although she did record a single featuring “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Here, There, and Everywhere” in Spanish.

—Buck Owens will star in a new TV show to premiere in June as a summer replacement for the Smothers Brothers. The show, titled He Hah, will showcase major country stars and be produced by former Jonathan Winters Show producers John Aylesworth and Frank Tiatt.

Fifty years later: Billboard got a lot wrong here. The show was titled Hee Haw, was hosted by Owens and fellow country superstar Roy Clark, and its producers were John Aylesworth and Frank Peppiatt, veteran writers and producers on both Canadian and American TV. The Laugh-In-inspired Hee Haw was successful enough during its summer run to get a regular slot on CBS, but it would last only two seasons on the network, becoming a victim of the “rural purge.” It returned in syndication in the fall of 1971 and ran for 22 seasons, often in an early-Saturday-evening timeslot. (It also got a brief late-90s reboot on the Nashville Network.) Everybody who was anybody in country music appeared on Hee Haw, and a number of the recurring comedy bits became iconic. Repeats of Hee Haw are still running on the RFD cable channel, and it’s surprising how well they hold up.

—Atop the record charts:

Rhythm and Blues Singles: “It’s Your Thing” by the Isley Brothers
Rhythm and Blues LPs: Cloud Nine by the Temptations
Classical LPs: Switched-on Bach by Walter Carlos
Hot Country Singles: “Galveston” by Glen Campbell
Hot Country LPs: Galveston by Glen Campbell, with Campbell’s Wichita Lineman at #2 and Gentle on My Mind at #5; Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell is at #9.
Easy Listening: “Galveston”
Jazz LPs: Fool on the Hill by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66
Hot 100: “Aquarius”/”Let the Sunshine In” by the Fifth Dimension
Top LPs: the original cast recording of Hair

Fifty years later: [We apologize, but the proprietor is unable to get his mind around this stuff being 50 years old. Regular programming will resume as soon as possible. —Ed.]

One by One

(Pictured: Loretta Lynn is not here for any of your nonsense.)

On Wednesday I wrote about the American Top 40 show from April 12, 1975. The rest of the Hot 100 from that same date has some records worth hearing and discussing. Some of them had been in the Top 40 earlier in the year and some of them would make it later, while others would not.

41. “Young Americans”/David Bowie
42. “Beer Barrel Polka”/Bobby Vinton
How could a juxtaposition such as this fail to spark joy?

45. “Shaving Cream”/Benny Bell. This 1946 novelty would eventually make #30 on the Hot 100 as one of the weirdest one-shots ever. Credited to Bell but sung by Paul Wynn (who later got label credit, although few radio stations were all that precise about mentioning his name), its first listing at ARSA is from KQV in Pittsburgh at the end of January 1975. WAKY in Louisville and WNBC in New York were on it in late February. In March, it took three weeks for “Shaving Cream” to hit #1 at CKLW in Detroit, and in May it would stay #1 for four weeks at WLCX in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. WLCX also ranked it at #9 for the entire year, which makes me think that in 1975 at least, the portal to Hell was somewhere in western Wisconsin.

58. “The Immigrant”/Neil Sedaka. According to Wikipedia (so who knows), lyricist Phil Cody wrote this song about his father. According to Sedaka himself, it’s about John Lennon’s struggle to get his green card. Sedaka said that Lennon called it “beautiful,” and I have no reason to doubt him. But Sedaka’s cheery, begging-to-be-liked delivery undercuts its message, and it’s positively painful to listen to.

79. “Pinball”/Brian Protheroe. At Allmusic, the estimable Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls “Pinball” “exquisite.” And it is in fact pretty damn great, although it would be hard for me to dislike a song that starts with the lines “I have run out of pale ale / And I feel like I’m in jail.”

97. “The Pill”/Loretta Lynn. I could write a whole post about Maren Morris, who used her spectacular 2016 country single “My Church” as an entree into pop music (most famously “The Middle” with Zedd), and has never recorded anything remotely as good since. Her current single, “Girl,” is being praised as a female empowerment anthem, partly because its sentiments are entirely absent from mainstream country right now, and so it’s a positive development for that reason. Were it on adult-contemporary radio, however, that audience wouldn’t find it much different from records of similar ilk by Rachel Platten, Sara Bareilles, Kelly Clarkson, and others over the last half-dozen years. In 1975, “The Pill” was a feminist empowerment anthem with practical, real-life effects in some parts of rural America among women who had never before considered birth control as an option for them.

99. “All Right Now”/Lea Roberts. You will want to play this R&B cover of the 1970 hit by Free as loud as you can. It’s the first track on Roberts’ 1975 album Lady Lea, which is fabulous. Other covers on the album include “She Don’t Love You,” a gender-flipped version of Jerry Butler’s “He Will Break Your Heart” by way of Tony Orlando and Dawn, and Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain,” which comes off far more romantic than his version. (Had she tried, she could not have failed to improve “The Immigrant.”)

109. “Pick Up the Pieces One by One”/A.A.B.B. A.A.B.B. stands for “Average American Black Band.” Larry Grogan told the story of this record way back in the day, and you should go read his post. The short version is that James Brown supposedly disliked the way the Average White Band had pilfered his style for “Pick Up the Pieces” earlier in 1975, so he made his own answer record under the A.A.B.B name.

The whole summer of 1975 was outside the Top 40 during that April week, full of songs that will, 44 years later, remind a listener of what it was like back then, “Bad Time,” “Sister Golden Hair,” “Bad Luck,” “Only Women,” “Magic,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “Black Superman,” “Wildfire,” and “Dynomite” among them, his last summer without a car or a driver’s license, on the edge of one life and close to beginning another.

(Note to Patrons: There’s a new post at One Day in Your Life today. If you are not a regular reader and subscriber over there, please become one. And if there’s a particular date coming up that you’d like me to write about, find my e-mail address at the top of this post, make a request and we’ll see if we can get it on for you. Also please honk if you get the radio joke in the preceding sentence.)

Get the 45

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At some point during April 1975, I kissed a girl for the first time. As I wrote in 2010, “It was not a hormonally driven assault on a somewhat-willing target; it was, in fact, as magical as you’d like your first kiss to be.” I hope it’s because my memory is full and not failing, but the American Top 40 show from April 12, 1975, doesn’t bring that time back quite as vividly as I’d like it to. But memories aside, there was some interesting stuff on the show.

39. “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You”/Sugarloaf
38. “Autobahn”/Kraftwerk
There has never been anything else that sounds quite like either one of these records.

31. “Tangled Up in Blue”/Bob Dylan
30. “Stand by Me”/John Lennon
Not bad, 1975. Not bad at all. The speedy wordplay of “Tangled Up in Blue” is a little incongruous amidst the pop tunes, but the record always sounds good no matter when you hear it. Meanwhile, Lennon sounds desperate for connection and support, which at the time he recorded “Stand by Me,” he might have been.

25. “The Bertha Butt Boogie (Part 1)”/Jimmy Castor Bunch. Me, 2015: “To make sense of “The Bertha Butt Boogie,” it helps to know a little about the universe Jimmy Castor created on his earlier records, lest his references to the Butt Sisters, Leroy, and the Troglodyte leave you baffled. Or you can just surrender to the absolutely ferocious groove and not worry about it.”

23. “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)”/Tony Orlando and Dawn. This is a remake of Jerry Butler’s “He Will Break Your Heart,” renamed, Casey says, because producer Hank Medress kept calling it “He Don’t Love You” and finally got permission from the publisher to change it. I have a theory that certain songs are helped by the time of the year in which they appear; this would have felt different had it hit in a season other than springtime. And I love the way it starts—so much so that on the radio, I won’t talk over the first five seconds of it.

22. “Satin Soul”/Love Unlimited Orchestra. ABC Sports used “Satin Soul” as a theme for its golf coverage back in the middle of the 70s. One fine night in college, a couple of us used it on a fake golf broadcast we made up, in which various classmates were playing in a tournament and having various misadventures on the course. That tape must be out there somewhere, although I don’t think I have it.

14. “Before the Next Teardrop Falls”/Freddy Fender. This song, which had gone #1 country in March, would spend three weeks at #2 on the Hot 100 in May before hitting #1 at the end of the month, and somebody smarter than me will have to explain its crossover appeal.

13. “Harry Truman”/Chicago. Casey tells the story of President Truman’s 1950 dust-up with a music critic who panned a public performance by Truman’s daughter, and quotes from the letter Truman wrote to the critic as “Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, and a lot of beefsteak for black eyes.” Casey leaves off the last part of that sentence, however: “and perhaps a supporter below!”

12. “Supernatural Thing (Part 1)”/Ben E. King. Introducing King’s first big chart hit since 1963, Casey says it’s one of four “comeback records” this week, but doesn’t elaborate. So let me guess on the other three. Two of the comeback artists must be Frankie Valli (“My Eyes Adored You” #27), who hadn’t been in the Top 40 since 1967, and Shirley and Company (“Shame Shame Shame,” #35); as part of Shirley and Lee, Shirley Goodman hit big in 1956 with “Let the Good Times Roll.” Best candidate for the third one is B. J. Thomas ( “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” #6), who had been absent from the Top 40 since 1972.

3. “The No No Song”-“Snookeroo”/Ringo Starr. “The No No Song” is pretty much what people expected from the funny Beatle by this time. Why “Snookeroo” took off as the flipside, I don’t know. Squeamishness about playing the A-side, which mentions marijuana and cocaine? “Snookeroo” was custom-written for Ringo by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, with Elton on piano and doing the opening count-off, but there’s absolutely nothing to it.

1. “Philadelphia Freedom”/Elton John. The chart action on “Philadelphia Freedom” is pretty interesting. It went 53-35-11-3-2 before its two weeks at #1 in April. Then it went 2-4-7-11-15 before returning to the Top 10 for two weeks in June, about the time the Captain Fantastic album came out. Maybe that’s because it wasn’t on the album, and people discovered that if they wanted it, they had to go get the 45.

Tell the Story of How Great a Love Can Be

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(Pictured: Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, stars of Love Story.)

Honk if you remember how big a deal Love Story was.

The novel, by Erich Segal, hit the top of the New York Times Fiction Bestsellers List in May 1970 and stayed there for 41 straight weeks, into February 1971. Just before Christmas 1970 came the film adaptation of the novel, starring Ali MacGraw as Jenny and Ryan O’Neil as Oliver, with a screenplay by Segal. It topped the grosses for 11 non-consecutive weeks from December to March and got seven Oscar nominations: three for acting, one each for direction, screenplay, and score, and for Best Picture. And in early 1971, the movie’s theme song was inescapable. Four different versions charted on either the Hot 100 or the Bubbling Under chart.

—The first to hit was Henry Mancini’s version, which made the Easy Listening chart on December 19, bubbled under the Hot 100 on 12/26/70 and 1/2/71, and cracked the big chart on January 9, 1971.

—Francis Lai, who had scored the movie, charted with his version of the theme on January 30.

—Andy Williams charted a vocal version of the theme, officially titled “Where Do I Begin,” on February 6.

—Tony Bennett bubbled under the Hot 100 for five weeks in February and March, never getting above #114.

Mancini’s version made the Top 40 on February 6. It climbed swiftly, from #30 in its first week to #21, then #14 for the week of February 27. In that same week, the Francis Lai and Andy Williams versions both cracked the Top 40 for the first time, at #33 and #35 respectively. The three versions rode the Top 40 together for four weeks in all, through the week of March 20.

How did American Top 40 handle this glut of Love Story themes? As it happens, I have the February 27 show in my archives. Introducing Andy Williams, Casey says, “Here’s the first vocal of a song to hit the Top 40 that’s a hit in three different versions. We got two more to go.” Moments later, he introduces Francis Lai, also debuting that week, by saying, “We’ve already heard one version of ‘Theme from Love Story.’ Here’s the second of three versions.” Later on Casey says, “The countdown continues with the third version we’ve heard today of the song from the motion picture Love Story. First, it was Andy Williams with the new vocal version. Then Francis Lai with the soundtrack from the picture. And now here’s Henry Mancini with his arrangement of that same theme.” I also have the March 13 show, and Casey played all three versions on that show too. Based on the cue sheets from the shows, I’m pretty sure he did the same on March 6 and March 20.

According to listings at ARSA, other versions of the Love Story theme got some airplay, including versions by Roger Williams, Peter Nero, and, inevitably, the Ray Conniff Singers. Roy Clark performed a version that’s not very country, and Eddie Holman did an R&B version. I would really like to hear “(The Answer) To a Love Story” by a group called Brand X, which got a one-line mention in Billboard and two weeks of airplay at WAVZ in New Haven, Connecticut, in June of ’71, but the Internet knows nothing apart from those two factoids.

The final Billboard scoreboard: Andy Williams topped out at #9, Mancini at #13, and Lai at #31. America reached peak Love Story during the week of March 20, when both Williams and Mancini were in the pop Top 20, and Williams spent the first of four non-consecutive weeks at #1 Easy Listening. (Mancini peaked at #2 on Easy Listening, Lai at #21.)

Unless I’m missing something (which is always a possibility), I believe it would be 1977 before multiple versions of the same movie theme again charted so high together. For three weeks in May, three versions of “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky, by Bill Conti, Maynard Ferguson, and Rhythm Heritage, were on the Hot 100 at the same time; in June, Conti and Ferguson would run the Top 30 together. In September, two versions of the Star Wars theme, the disco version by Meco and the main title by John Williams, were in the Top 20 at the same time. In February 1978, the same two artists put themes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind into the Top 30 at the same time.

There have been other instances of multiple versions of the same song running the charts at the same time, especially in the 50s and 60s, but you don’t want to read a 2,000-word post today and I don’t especially want to write it. So we’ll deal with that another time.

Over the Line

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(Pictured: Sammi Smith sings with Johnny Cash, 1971.)

I have written a fair amount about the spring of 1971 at this blog, and I was glad to revisit recently it via the American Top 40 show from April 10, 1971.

38. “Friends”/Elton John. This is one of five debut songs on the show, one of which, Casey teases, is way up at #15.  “Friends,” the beautiful title song for an obscure film, was the followup to “Your Song” and would get only to #34.

(The other debuts besides the one at #15: John Lennon’s “Power to the People” at #40, “Chick-a-Boom” by Daddy Dewdrop at #39, and Dawn’s “I Play and Sing” at #30.)

Special: “My Way”/Frank Sinatra. Casey mentions Sinatra’s then-recent announcement that he intended to retire, and he plays this as a tribute. As you read earlier in the week, “My Way” was written after Sinatra told lyricist Paul Anka in 1968 that he intended to quit. He did not quit, of course, but he took a year off before returning to work. In the fall of 1973, he released a new album called Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back.

20. “Temptation Eyes”/Grass Roots. There were few records on the radio in 1971 that sounded better than the Grass Roots’ three big hits that year, this one, “Sooner or Later,” and “Two Divided by Love.”

Special: “Honky Tonk”/Bill Doggett. I suspect that the vast majority of people who heard “Honky Tonk” on the recent repeat of this show couldn’t identify it. Even I had a hard time placing it for a moment until the sax started honkin’. But in 1971, as Casey told his listeners, it was the largest selling rock ‘n’ roll instrumental in the history of the charts, having moved four million copies in two different chart runs, in 1956 (when it went to #2 for three weeks behind Elvis Presley’s unassailable “Hound Dog”/” Don’t Be Cruel”) and again in 1961.

15. “Never Can Say Goodbye”/Jackson Five. After “Never Can Say Goodbye” vaulted to this lofty position after debuting on the Hot 100 the previous week at #57, Casey says it’s headed for #1, and if you were him, you’d probably say the same thing. But “Never Can Say Goodbye” didn’t make it. It went to #13 the next week, then made another impressive leap to #4, and then #2, where it got stuck for three weeks. Read on to find out what stuck it.

14. “What Is Life”/George Harrison. I got my first 45s for Christmas in 1970, but by the spring of ’71 I was buying them myself, 94 cents apiece at S&O TV in my hometown. At some point late in this winter or in the spring I bought “What Is Life” and three others on this chart: “I Play and Sing” and the Partridge Family’s “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted” (at #7 this week) because of course I did, and also Brewer and Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line,” about which there’s more below.

13. “Where Do I Begin (Love Story)”/Andy Williams. Multiple versions of this song charted during the winter and spring of 1971, and you’ll read more about them next week.

12. “Help Me Make It Through the Night”/Sammi Smith. If you do not dig this, I don’t think we should see each other anymore.

10. “One Toke Over the Line”/Brewer and Shipley. A couple of songs before this, Casey teased that he would explain what a toke is. And although I was skeptical about whether he’d tell the whole truth, he did: “It refers to a puff of a marijuana cigarette in some places.” But he goes on to explain that it can also mean a ticket, and that if you are in Las Vegas and you ask for a toke, you’ll get a gambling chip. Brewer and Shipley meant “one toke over the line” to be an expression of regret for having gone too far, he says. Perhaps, but the lyrics make more sense if a toke is a smoke.

3. “Joy to the World”/Three Dog Night
2. “What’s Going On”/Marvin Gaye
1. “Just My Imagination”/Temptations
That’s a solid way to end a show. “Joy to the World” had gone from #34 to #11 to #3 this week, and will start at six-week stretch at #1 next week, three of them with “Never Can Say Goodbye” at #2. As for “What’s Going On” and “Just My Imagination,” it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when stuff so magnificent was an everyday thing.

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