Top 5: Sock It to ‘Em

Of the more than 19,000 radio station music surveys currently available at the fabulous Airheads Radio Survey Archive (ARSA), only about 20 are from country stations. One of them is from WIL in St. Louis, dated August 12, 1968. It would be a year or so before country records began crossing over to the pop chart in droves, in one of those periodic embraces of country by the mass-appeal Top 40 audience. But in the summer of 1968, country music—in St. Louis, at least—was a country unto itself. Not only were there few pop crossovers, but not many of these songs remained mainstays of the country library after they dropped off the charts. Yet I’m sure we can find five interesting tunes on the survey nevertheless.

1. “What Made Milwaukee Famous”/Jerry Lee Lewis (holding at 1). After a fallow period that lasted for most of a decade, the Killer reinvented himself as a country singer and scored hits consistently throughout the 1970s. The full title of this song is “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out Of Me),” and it was covered by Rod Stewart and Commander Cody.

3. “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife”/Glen Campbell (up from 6). This domestic anthem, which twangs not a whit, crossed over to the pop charts. It treats the “everyday housewife” condescendingly (“she picks up her apron in little-girl fashion”) but also suggests that her life didn’t have to turn out like it did—even though the alternate future the singer imagines for her is mostly a higher class of domesticity. (Perhaps she’d manage the household staff instead of being the household staff.) In the late summer of 1968, Campbell was poised for a leap to major stardom: his next two singles would be the iconic “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.”

5. “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”/Tammy Wynette (down from 12). Talk about mainstays of the country library. “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” the lead single and title song of Wynette’s latest album, remains one of the greatest weepers in country history. The second single, which would come out in September, was “Stand By Your Man,” which practically defines what country music is all about. Go and listen to it, even if you think you know it. If the little hairs on the back of your neck don’t stand up when she sings the refrain, check your pulse. It’s one of the rare things in this life that’s absolutely perfect.

20. “Mama Tried”/Merle Haggard (up from 26). “Mama Tried” stayed on country playlists for years after 1968, and I remember it made quite an impression on me when I heard it on my parents’ radio station in the early 70s: “I turned 21 in prison doin’ life without parole/No one could steer me right but mama tried.” Haggard’s popularity from the mid 60s through the mid 70s was stunning: every single he released between 1966 and the middle of 1977 made the country Top Ten, and 25 of them reached Number One. By late 1969, Hag would be crossing over to pop: “Okie From Muskogee” would just miss the Top 40.

43. “Harper Valley PTA”/Jeannie C. Riley (debut). It’s widely forgotten now what an earthquake “Harper Valley PTA” was in the late summer and fall of 1968. It debuted at Number 81 on the Hot 100 dated August 24, then made an astounding leap to Number 7 the next week—a record for biggest one-week jump that wouldn’t be broken until the Soundscan era. It would reach the Number One slot on the Hot 100 on September 21, 1968 and spend three weeks one week at the summit. It is a record that quite literally everyone knew about in the fall of 1968. And all these years later, it still sounds pretty damn good, chock full of hooks and rich with the sly humor characteristic of songwriter Tom T. Hall. Even after 42 43 years, while Jeannie C.’s mama socks it to those Harper Valley hypocrites, you’re still cheering her on.

Top 5: Two Brothers

(With this post, we’re on hiatus. Back during the week of January 3. Go watch football.)

Sooner or later, many small-market radio stations get this brilliant idea: People in our town like lots of different kinds of music, so if we play it all, everybody will listen. Within limits, this isn’t a terrible idea—block programming could and did work just fine for lots of stations in lots of places. But without limits, or absent a degree of common sense, it can lead to some awful radio. In small-town Iowa, the other station in our town had the we’ll-attract-everybody philosophy. But—and here goes common sense straight out the window—they let each jock pick whatever he or she wanted. The morning guy played MOR, the afternoon jock played contemporary pop with a distinct R&B flavor, and the 17-year-olds they hired for nights played Motley Crue. (The station’s management maintained that all the kids in town listened to them after school, which may have been true in 1957, but this was the early 90s.)

A better plan was to categorize carefully and daypart intelligently. Thirty years ago at KDTH, pop-sounding country songs—Kenny Rogers, Eddie Rabbitt, etc.—got played all day. Straight pop—Barry Manilow, for example—was limited to daytime only. Hard country—Hank Williams Jr., say—was limited to nights. There were exceptions, and the all-day category eventually got pretty broad, but in general, it was the best possible way to appeal to a lot of people. I worked at another station that did this, although more ambitiously. They really did want to attract the kids at night, and as a result, the straight pop was replaced by country-flavored rock, such as “Jesus Is Just Alright” by the Doobie Brothers. (This particular record, and several others that mentioned Jesus, were labeled “never on Sunday,” which struck me odd. If not then, when?)

I mention all of this by way of introduction to this survey from KACI in The Dalles, Oregon, dated December 28, 1968. The station lists 40 “super hits,” 20 “album hits,” and 20 country songs. How they were playing them, I can’t say—whether they were sprinkled into the regular rotation or limited to a specific segment of the day, as many stations would have done back then. The top seven country hits were also on the pop chart at the time, which would have helped them fit in. Five tracks of interest, and a couple of mp3s, are on the flip.

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Like a Striped Pair of Pants

MacArthur Park is a real place, located in downtown Los Angeles, the former Westlake Park, which was renamed for General Douglas MacArthur in 1942. It provides the setting for the most famous image in the song named for it: “Mac Arthur’s Park is melting in the dark/All the sweet green icing flowing down/Someone left the cake out in the rain.” That image and others in the song notwithstanding, Jimmy Webb intended “Mac Arthur Park” to be about a love affair gone wrong, and not a cryptic commentary on existence or something. (According to the entry at Songfacts—a site that is frequently more full of shit than Wikipedia at its worst, so caveat emptor—the cake that got left out in the rain was hashish, although that’s nonsense based on a plain reading of the lyric. The same source suggests that Richard Harris believed it was about “the death of hippie,” which is a far more interesting interpretation.)

But even if “Mac Arthur Park” was just an ornate love song, Webb probably had its epic nature in mind from the start. His original pitch of the song to the Association made it the finale of what would be a 22-minute suite. Their producer didn’t feel strongly enough about the suite to invest a whole album side in it, however. So it ended up with Harris, but he wouldn’t be only performer to hit the pop charts with it.

—Waylon Jennings recorded a version with the Kimberlys that spent a couple of weeks in the lower reaches of the Hot 100 in September 1969 and hit Number 23 on the country chart the next month. I was just about to call it “an understated version,” but nearly every version this side of the original would probably be understated by definition. Jennings turns it into a reflective ballad—an approach that improves on the original.

—In October 1971, the Four Tops took the song to Number 38. In its full-length version, it’s a very un-Tops-like performance, in which Levi Stubbs restrains his innate need to testify until well past the four-minute mark. The charted version was titled “Mac Arthur Park (Part II)”; I can’t recall hearing it before this week, but I suspect that part II begins at about the three-minute mark of the video linked above. Stubbs also sings “Mac Arthur Park is melting in the dark,” and not “Mac Arthur’s Park,” which is how Harris sings it. Webb tried to get Harris to dump the possessive but failed, and it seems to me that the way Harris did it is better.

—In November 1978, Donna Summer did what Richard Harris could not, capturing the Number-One spot on the Hot 100. Oddly enough, her recording was part of a suite, although not the one Webb pitched to the Association. She stretched the song to eight minutes plus, although it was cut down to 3:59 for the single. (I played it during the first radio show I ever did.)

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Pastry and Precipitation

How is it that Meat Loaf has never covered “Mac Arthur Park”? The thought crossed my mind the other day while listening to the Richard Harris version, which rose to Number Two on the Hot 100 in the summer of 1968. It’s bombast of Loafian dimensions, all overwrought metaphors and overheated singing, and outrageously long, too. Seems like a natural.

That Richard Harris, Hollywood leading man, should have become a pop star was a long shot to begin with. He was best known for his rugged Irish good looks, his manly man’s movie roles, and his high-living, hard-drinking lifestyle when he got the role of King Arthur in the 1967 film musical Camelot. But he brought a certain charm to the production’s songs, and so it wasn’t long before songwriter/producer Jimmy Webb got the idea of recording him. The resulting album, A Tramp Shining, featured nine Webb songs, mostly backed by strings (and inspired more than a little by Sgt. Pepper), all except for “Mac Arthur Park.” The song had been offered first to the Association, who turned it down. It seems possible that the brassy, upbeat instrumental track Harris ultimately sang over was intended for them, because it’s a bit too high for him. However, the strain at the top of his register adds to the atmosphere of romantic desperation, and in the summer of 1968, the record rocketed up the charts.

Said rocketing occurred despite the ridiculous length of the song—7:22 on the official 45 release. This was several months before the Beatles released “Hey Jude,” which clocked in around the seven-minute mark, at a time when pop radio was highly resistant to anything that ran much over three minutes. But because the Beatles were guaranteed airplay with whatever they did, the fact that Harris and Webb were the barrier-breakers is all the more impressive.

At the time of his collaboration with Harris, Jimmy Webb could have chosen to work with anyone, as he was the hottest property in pop songwriting not named Lennon or McCartney. His songs “Up Up and Away” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” won eight Grammys between them for the year 1967—the year he turned 21. The next year, in addition to “Mac Arthur Park,” he also provided more hits for Glen Campbell (“Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “Where’s the Playground Susie”) and “Worst That Could Happen” for the Brooklyn Bridge. But his reign at the top was short. He started a singing career in 1970, but his own work never captured record buyers the way his songs did for other people. He returned to the pop charts a few times after 1970 (most notably with Art Garfunkel’s “All I Know”), and has been writing songs up to the present day, as well as scoring movies and television shows.

As for Harris, he would make two more albums with Webb, The Yard Went on Forever (1969) and My Boy (1971). Title tracks from each would make the Hot 100, as would “Didn’t We” from A Tramp Shining, which, if you know another Harris single, is probably the one. He remained a leading man in the movies throughout the 1970s before receding into the twilight of TV productions and supporting roles. He’s best known to the generation of recent filmgoers as the original Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. He died in 2002.

There’s even more to say about “Mac Arthur Park,” so before this post gets as uncommonly long as its subject, we’ll pause here before picking up the trail again, perhaps as early as tomorrow, with further thoughts and other versions.

Recommended Reading: Jerry Del Colliano on jocks being expected to work for free, and Kinky Paprika on Doomsday in Fort Wayne, Indiana.