In the Right Place

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(Pictured: Gladys Knight and the Pips.)

We continue here with a look at the Top 50 of 1973, from the year-end survey of KSTT in Davenport, Iowa, a place The Mrs. and I lived from 1987 to 1997. The station had ceased to be by then; with different call letters, the signal was home to a low-rent sports talk operation through most of that time. But in 1973, KSTT was playin’ the hits.

33. “Danny’s Song”/Anne Murray. I will always fanboy hard for this. I was never gonna grow up to be a metalhead.

32. “Shambala”/Three Dog Night. Either this or “Easy to Be Hard” was the farthest this band ever got down the hippie trail.

31. “Love Train”/O’Jays. Universal brotherhood was no closer in 1973 than it is today, but unlike now, it felt like maybe there was a chance.

30. “The Morning After”/Maureen McGovern. The Poseidon Adventure made quite an impression on me back in the day, but I haven’t seen it in adulthood. I wonder how it plays now.

29. “Stuck in the Middle With You”/Stealers Wheel. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Junior high, man.

28. “Rocky Mountain High”/John Denver. I had no opinion on this record in 1973 that I can remember, and none now.

27. “Loves Me Like a Rock”/Paul Simon. I bought the 45 in the summer of ’73, and I liked it a lot more then than I do now.

26. “Superstition”/Stevie Wonder. I don’t know how KSTT placed songs on its surveys, whether it had something to do with local sales, requests, callout research, a programmer’s ear, or some combination of them. But this is the first song I’ve seen among the Top 50 that seems to be ranked too low.

25. “Wildflower”/Skylark. Me, earlier this year: “The girl in ‘Wildflower’ clearly needed a man like me, because ‘she’s faced the hardest times you could imagine / And many times her eyes fought back the tears.’ Thirteen-year-old me promised himself that he would never do anything to make her cry. But that free and gentle flower was not growing wild in any field I knew of.”

24. “Midnight Train to Georgia”/Gladys Knight and the Pips. Not much in this world is perfect. But this is.

23. “Right Place, Wrong Time”/Dr. John. Almost too cool for AM radio. This is the kind of thing you would expect to discover on the local underground station at 2AM. Like the rest of Dr. John’s catalog.

22. “We’re an American Band”/Grand Funk. As subtle as a punch in the face. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

21. “Pillow Talk”/Sylvia. That this was on the radio at more-or-less the same time as “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby” by Barry White was not helpful to 13-year-old me. Not at all.

20. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”/Stevie Wonder. See #24.

19. “Swamp Witch”/Jim Stafford. Me, earlier this year, in response to a reader comment : “Had I been a music director listening to ‘Swamp Witch’ and deciding whether to add it, I would have yanked it from the turntable and thrown it in the discard pile after that line about ‘sausage on a smokehouse wall.'”

18. “Little Willy”/The Sweet. You can hear this as a dick joke if you want, although if you didn’t, now you will.

17. “That Lady”/Isley Brothers. I don’t know where they got that buzzy guitar that’s on several of their records around this time, but I dig it.

16. “Frankenstein”/Edgar Winter Group. What hooked me about this record was not so much that opening guitar riff as it was the saxophone, an instrument I had been playing for a couple of years in 1973, without much success.

15. “Let’s Get It On”/Marvin Gaye. Marvin, Sylvia, Barry, for cryin’ out loud, give a boy a break.

14. “Drift Away”/Dobie Gray. Last fall, I heard a classic hits station on the East Coast play the 2003 Uncle Kracker cover of this amidst all their other stuff from the 70s and 80s. I assumed it was some kind of error, but I am told it isn’t uncommon for such stations to do that. But that doesn’t mean it’s not stupid and wrong.

13. “Half Breed”/Cher. Can a record that’s meant to decry racism be unconsciously racist itself? Discuss.

12. “Brother Louie”/Stories. The ass-kickingest record of 1973, and whatever came second (“Frankenstein”? “Smoke on the Water?” “We’re an American Band”? “Hocus Pocus” by Focus, which is on this chart at #67?) wasn’t close.

11. “Delta Dawn”/Helen Reddy. Earlier this year I looked back on the career of Helen Reddy, who was a much bigger star than we all remember. Likewise, “Delta Dawn” is better than you remember.

Coming in the final installment on the final day of 2018: KSTT’s Top 10 of 1973.

Just a Little More, Baby

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(Pictured: Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.)

This week marks the end of the line for Tales of ’73. The question of just what it was about that year remains mostly unanswered. One thing I did achieve, however, is a greater appreciation for the music of that year. I still wouldn’t rank it with my favorite musical years, but it was better than I remembered. So here’s a year-end music survey from KSTT in Davenport, Iowa. Several Hall-of-Fame radio talents walked through its doors as young men, including Chicago jock Spike O’Dell, Los Angeles DJ and programmer Bobby Rich, and Magic 98 creator Bill Vancil. I’m gonna write about the Top 50, but you can see the whole list of 100 here.

50. “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love”/Spinners. You may remember Moira, the unattainable girl I fell in love with when I first got to junior high. I saw her at my class reunion this past summer. I wondered if she would remember me. To my mild surprise, she did.

49. “Ramblin’ Man”/Allman Brothers Band. In a year that seems jumbled and confused, it’s fitting that a proto-jam band would find its way onto the radio with a single that didn’t sound like anything else that year.

48. “Cover of the Rolling Stone”/Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. “I got a freaky old lady name of Cocaine Katy,” and she was on the radio every couple of hours in that less-uptight era.

47. “Smoke on the Water”/Deep Purple. If I’m recalling correctly, a lot of radio stations played the live version, from Made in Japan, while the song was on the charts, and it’s the one you want. The studio version, from Machine Head, tells you the story. The live version puts you in the middle of the fire, although the remastered recording at that link sounds a little dry compared to other versions of it I’ve heard.

46. “Daniel”/Elton John. I’d rank this among my half-dozen favorite Elton songs of all time.

45. “Angie”/Rolling Stones. There are not many Stones songs I like less than “Angie,” but on a close listen earlier this year, it got to me anyway.

44. “Dancing in the Moonlight”/King Harvest. Certain songs on this list make me remember not only who I was in 1973, but who I wanted to be, and the realization, then and now, that I wasn’t ever going to be that other person.

43. “I’m Doin’ Fine Now”/New York City. I am a big fan of Tom Moulton’s remixes of Philly soul classics because who isn’t, and “I’m Doin’ Fine Now” is one of his masterworks.

42. “Neither One of Us”/Gladys Knight and the Pips. Soul music was still going strong in this year.

41. “If You Want Me to Stay”/Sly and the Family Stone. Funk music, too.

40. “Last Song”/Edward Bear. I left the light on for you, Moira.

39. “Daddy’s Home”/Jermaine Jackson. A decent version of a doo-wop classic, albeit a strange choice for a guy who was barely 18 when it was recorded.

38. “Long Train Runnin'”/Doobie Brothers. Should you need to sum up the Doobie Brothers’ pre-Michael McDonald sound in a single song, this is it.

37. “Diamond Girl”/Seals and Crofts. During the first half of the 70s, the best five days every summer were spent at the county fair. This is one of the songs that was on the radio constantly during that week in 1973.

36. “Natural High”/Bloodstone. This song had one of the weirder chart profiles you’ll ever see, spending three straight weeks at #23 on its way out of the Hot 100.

35. “Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose”/Tony Orlando and Dawn. I wrote about this one at Popdose a few years ago: “as subtle as a pie in the face followed by a spritz from a seltzer bottle.”

34. “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby”/Barry White. At some point around the turn of the 70s, I learned about the birds and the bees. My parents gave us a set of books and said, “Read these.” The books were quite good, actually, explaining in non-euphemistic terms exactly how the process worked. But those were the science lessons. Barry White taught about the art.

Look for more in the next installment, which will be on Friday.

From Someplace on Christmas Eve

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Here’s something based on a piece I found in my journal, written on some past Christmas Eve. 

Christmas Eve . . . I think of 1970, and of the unnumbered year in the 60s when we were hit by a blizzard so bad that Grandpa Art and Grandma Vera couldn’t even get back to their house on the other end of the farm, and they had to stay over with us. I think of the year in which we drove several hours home from someplace on Christmas Eve and couldn’t find an open convenience store the whole way. I think of the year we got home from our new office jobs at 3:00 on Christmas Eve, with no radio station to work at or retail store to manage, and we looked at each other not quite knowing what we were supposed to do.

I think of the year when I discovered entirely by accident on the 23rd that I was scheduled to work on the radio from 7 to midnight Christmas Eve—the program director had bothered neither to ask me if I could nor tell me that I was scheduled—in addition to a noon-to-6 on Christmas Day. So Ann went to Monroe without me, and it remains the only Christmas I didn’t spend at least part of with my family. I think of a quick trip to Toronto, in 1991, when my in-laws lived there and Ann’s father sent us plane tickets, a trip I desperately did not want to make and bitched about for days beforehand. We flew home on Christmas Day, and I looked back from the jetway and got what was my last glimpse of Ann’s mother, who died the next spring.

I think of the year we drove all day Christmas Eve to visit Ann’s brother and his family, arriving just in time to sit down to a massive Christmas dinner. I think of going to church and wondering why nobody else seemed to hear how awful the music was, and of a night when our nephews were very young and they devoured their presents with a ravenousness that was almost sexual, mouths open, panting with anticipation, churning through each one without even looking at the tag to see who it was from. But I also think of another year when we gave all of them Packers gear, and how thrilled they were to put it on and pile on our laps for a picture. And I think of my own family in these later years, where the Christmas rule is come when you can and stay as long as you like, because we’ll never run out of desserts.

And now, here we are, on Christmas Eve once again. This day isn’t fired with magic like it used to be, but to a man of my age, practically nothing is. Santa doesn’t need a letter from me; I no longer want or wish for material things. If I can be on the radio on Christmas Eve, as I am this morning, I am grateful for another chance to close the circle and anchor myself in time. I want time to write, because I’m a writer as much as I’m a radio jock. But what I want most of all on this day is quiet. I am not a believer in the reason for the season, but reflection on being part of a family—not just my own family, but the human family—can be an uplifting experience even for a scoffer. One thing at which I do not scoff, however, is the friendship of each of you reading this blog, whether I know you in the real world, or we’ve interacted in some electronic fashion, or you simply visit this place to read whatever I’ve yakked up on a given day. After all these years, I remain grateful for and humbled by your attention and interest.  

(Programming note: if you click the link in the first line of this post, you’ll be taken to a 2007 post that contains two re-upped segments of the WLS Holiday Festival of Music, if you’re into that kind of thing. Merry Christmas to all.)

Hard Times

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(Pictured: a house alight at Christmas 1972. One year later, things would not be so merry or bright.)

The series Tales of ’73 hasn’t really turned out like I hoped it might, but I want to return to it before 2018 is over. Back in 2013 and 2014, I wrote about Christmas in America at the end of 1973. This next is a reboot of bits from both.

In October 1973, the United States aided Israel in the Yom Kippur War against Egypt and Syria, and as a result, OPEC countries deployed the oil weapon against us. By the holidays, officials right up to President Nixon were predicting hard times and requiring difficult choices. Lines formed at service stations, and “sorry no gas” signs appeared; eventually, Nixon requested that stations voluntarily close from Saturday night through Monday morning. The Senate came eight votes short of instituting gas rationing; the order had already been given to print the coupon books. Some schools extended Christmas vacation to save energy; in Massachusetts and Connecticut, kids stayed out for all of December and January. Christmas lights became an extravagance many communities and families could not afford.

On Monday, December 24, 1973, all the trouble in the world was on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal, starting with “Persian Gulf Oil Prices Doubled.” OPEC’s Christmas gift to the West was to announce that effective January 1, the new price per barrel would be $11.65, up from the current price of $5.11, which had represented a huge increase when it was announced in October, just after the Yom Kippur War. Related, at the bottom of the page, is the headline “Kissinger to Push Talks,” over a story about the latest Middle East peace efforts. Inside the paper is an article about preparations for the return of daylight time in January as an energy-saving measure.

If all that wasn’t bad enough, it happened while Nixon was beleaguered by Watergate—the fabled Saturday Night Massacre happened in October while the Middle East was at war, and while a full-blown Constitutional crisis was averted at that moment, impeachment resolutions were introduced in Congress, and nobody could be sure what twists were ahead.

And we even believed there was a toilet paper shortage.

By year’s end, some commentators felt a sense of looming disaster—that something earth-shatteringly terrible was about to engulf the country. Nobody could predict what it would be, although in retrospect, what it was seems obvious—not some grand conflagration, but a transformation nonetheless: the end of America as we’d known it since the winning of World War II. Soon we would live in a different country.

It occurs to me now that the greatest gift my parents gave us for Christmas in 1973 was to protect us from even noticing the possibility of disaster. As best I can recollect, the energy crisis did not have a grave effect on us. If we put up fewer Christmas lights that year, I don’t recall it. I don’t remember us having trouble getting gasoline, either, or the gas shortage affecting our travel requirements much. Dad kept tanks of regular and diesel on the farm for his tractors, his truck, and the family car; the only concession he made to the energy crisis was to put locks on the tanks after we heard that people were stealing gas from farmers at night.

The worst I had to endure in that year was being 13 years old, and all the complications that being 13 will cause in anybody.

There is less ominous news inside the paper on 12/24/73, the kind of thing that would have interested me more than the front page. A winter storm is moving through the central part of the country, and what the weather service calls a “travelers’ advisory” has been posted for southern Wisconsin, with a threat of freezing rain and snow. One article is headlined “Big Foot Might Exist.” The Skylab astronauts are spending Christmas in orbit. Pairings are set for the NFC and AFC Championship games on December 30th after Minnesota, Dallas, Oakland, and Miami won playoff games over the pre-Christmas weekend.

Also in the paper is an Associated Press story headlined, “This Year’s Christmas Is Only Outwardly Dim,” which quotes a couple of religious leaders on the crisis facing America. “We seem to be surrounded by a creeping ugliness in our affairs,” says one. “The hard truth is that a sense of desolation has come upon many.” But as religious leaders do, they remain optimistic: “The hope and eternal promise of Christmas are ours today as in all the years past. The fulfilling of them is up to ourselves.”

As it was, and ever shall be.

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 19

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(Pictured: John and Yoko’s War Is Over campaign began with billboards at Christmas of 1969. It would be followed two years later by a song you may have heard.)

In 2007, I started putting my Christmas library on shuffle and writing about whatever comes out. It’s a tradition I have tried to maintain ever since, and we’re gonna come in right under the wire with this year’s lone installment. This one has a twist: I have about 70 cuts in my library that show as “never played.” That’s not accurate—sometimes Media Jukebox simply loses play information—but by shuffling up that list, I can plausibly say I’m writing about and listening to stuff that is relatively new to this feature.

“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” (acoustic guitar demo)/John Lennon. There are several bootleg versions of “Happy Xmas.” This one, from The Alternate Shaved Fish, makes brand-new a song you’ve heard a million times. (Get the whole Alternate Shaved Fish from ROIO, my favorite bootleg site, here.)

“Love for Christmas”/The Gems. Fabulous girl-group R&B recorded for Chess in 1964 and featuring Minnie Riperton. Funky16Corners has the story and the download here.

“All I Want for Christmas Is You”/Carla Thomas. Not the Mariah Carey perennial, but a melancholy broken-heart ballad from 1966.

“Silver Bells”/Supremes. This has been a radio staple since 1965, a year in which Motown acts first started recording Christmas music. The best compilation of that stuff is still A Motown Christmas from 1973. Another set came out in 2008 that looks to have been more extensive, but it seems to be out of print.

“Christmas in Vidor”/Rodney Crowell. I received two 2018 Christmas releases thanks to Jeffrey Thames at KPFT in Houston: Love the Holidays by the Old 97s and Christmas Everywhere by Rodney Crowell. I did not like the Old 97s album, which is performed with a tongue-in-cheek attitude that slops over into contempt for its audience. Crowell’s album is vastly better. He treats the season with humor too, but isn’t snide about it. “Christmas in Vidor” is not a happy day, but it makes for the best song on the album.

“The Little Drummer Boy”/Moonlion. A disco version, which made #95 on the Hot 100 for the week of December 27, 1975.

“Merry Christmas Baby”/Melissa Etheridge. From her 2008 album A New Thought for Christmas, Melissa goes for gritty where other people who cover the same song go for smooth, and it works.

“Winter Wonderland”/Neil Diamond. From a December 1984 show in which Diamond also tackled “Adeste Fideles,” his own “You Make It Feel Like Christmas,” and 25 years of hits. Get the boot from ROIO here.

“Soul Christmas”/Count Sidney and His Dukes. Hell yeah man, this is the good stuff, released in 1967. As Rockin’ Sidney, Sidney Simien hit in the middle of the 80s with the indelible “My Toot Toot.” Don’t Google that one unless you want it in your head for the rest of the day.

“Run Run Rudolph”/Creedence Clearwater Revisited. This sounds a little bit limp to me—no John Fogerty, no bueno—but it’s harmless. It appeared on Hope for the Holidays, a 2009 benefit album made for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, an all-over-the-road collection featuring everybody from Mike Love to Hoyt Axton to Weezer.

OK, so that’s all of that. On the flip, read a few words about one of the most successful radio people I know.

Continue reading →

A Christmas Portrait

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(Pictured: Nat King Cole, circa 1963.)

In past years, we have looked into Billboard magazine’s special Christmas charts for several years of the 60s and 70s. Now let’s take a look at the return of those charts in 1983, 1984, and 1985. In each year, charts for singles and albums have 10 places, which is a far cry from the huge charts from the 60s.

Charts for 1983 appear in the December 17 and December 24 issues. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” is #1 on the first Billboard Christmas chart since 1973; the next week, however, it’s taken out by Elmo and Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” first heard at Christmas 1979 but getting its first nationwide release in ’83. Although they swap positions around, nine of the top 10 singles, all returning classics, are exactly the same in both weeks; “The Little Drummer Boy” by the Harry Simeone Chorale appears on the 17th but is replaced by Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” on the 24th. Same deal on the album chart: nine of the 10 are the same both weeks. Kenny Rogers’ Christmas Album is #1 on both charts. John Denver and the Muppets’ A Christmas Together appears only on the 17th and Chipmunk Christmas only on the 24th. The newest single on either chart is “Christmas in Dixie” by Alabama, released in 1982; the newest charting albums, by Kenny Rogers and Anne Murray, were released in 1981.

Charts for 1984 appear in the issues of December 15 and 22. New-for-1984 Once Upon a Christmas by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton is #1 both weeks; a new release Billboard lists as Christmas Mannheim Steamroller also appears both weeks, as does the new Christmas at Our House by Barbara Mandrell. But as in 1983, the charts are mostly static from week to week. Christmas With Placido by Placido Domingo shows up only on the 15th; it’s replaced by Frank Sinatra’s 1963 Christmas album on the 22nd. An oddity on the singles chart is that “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole appears only on the 15th; so does “Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You” by Billy Squier, first released in 1981. They are replaced on the 22nd by “Another Lonely Christmas” by Prince and “Winter Wonderland” by Dolly Parton. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” tops the singles chart both weeks.

Missing from the 1984 Christmas charts is Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” Unlike other Christmas singles, it placed on the Hot 100. It debuted on 12/22/84 at #65, peaked at #13 on 1/19/85, and then spent four weeks on its way off the chart.

In 1985, Billboard publishes just one Christmas chart, in the December 21 issue. It includes two new albums, Alabama Christmas by Alabama, which is #1, and It’s Christmas All Over the World by New Edition. George Winston’s December, first released in 1982, makes its first Christmas chart appearance, and so does a 1983 album by Amy Grant. Two new singles appear in the Christmas Top 10: “Christmas Time” by Bryan Adams and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” by Bruce Springsteen. The rest of the slots on both charts are taken up by returning holiday hits.

I will give you one guess what the #1 Christmas single of 1985 was, and it wasn’t Bruce or Bryan.

There’s a spreadsheet with all of the years, titles, and chart positions here. Only 18 songs take up the 50 spots available on the singles charts, with five appearing on all five charts: “White Christmas,” “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” “Blue Christmas,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and “Jingle Bells” by the Singing Dogs appear on four. Twenty-one albums take up the 50 spots. Only two appear on all five charts: A Christmas Album by Barbra Streisand and Christmas Portrait by the Carpenters. Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray, and Luciano Pavarotti appear on four.

In the 80s, it took a superstar event to crack the canon: Kenny and Dolly were that in 1984; Bruce Springsteen, and to a lesser extent, Bryan Adams and Alabama, were that in 1985. Although Christmas singles and albums were released and re-released every year, it often took a year or two before they got much sales or airplay traction, but they were likely to be swamped by music recorded a generation or two before. As a result, the charts remained very predictable every year, and their utility to broadcasters and retailers must have shrunk to almost nothing. It’s not surprising that Billboard‘s Christmas charts vanished for good after 1985.

(Note to Patrons: One Day in Your Life is in the midst of a Christmas post-o-rama, now and through Christmas Day, so stop over.)

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