A Million Years Ago

A few more random observations about the American Top 40 show from August 1, 1970:

In all my experience, there’s never been another record remotely like “(If You Let Me Make Love to You Then) Why Can’t I Touch You” by Ronnie Dyson, which was at Number 21 that week: its jaunty opening, Dyson’s pure, clear voice, and the lyric, which was quite an enigma to me when I first heard the song—just as enigmatic as the relationship Dyson is singing about. (The AT40 show was in mono, as all of the shows were until sometime in 1972, but “Why Can’t I Touch You” in stereo is glorious.)

I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a young, politically aware person in the summer of 1970, hearing CSNY’s “Ohio” on the radio every three or four hours, and having to repeatedly contemplate the enormity of the government’s willingness to kill you if you opposed the Vietnam War. “Ohio” appeared back-to-back on that week’s countdown with “Teach Your Children,”  at Number 17 and 16 respectively. The two songs together present a pretty rich text regarding America in 1970—about the trouble we were in, and the counterculture’s idealistic prescription for getting out of it.

A couple of times during the show, Casey explained the methodology used to develop the Billboard Hot 100 at the time. Sales statistics from 100 record stores and airplay from 54 major radio stations were analyzed by “computerized data processing,” as Casey put it, to develop the chart. That strikes me as a remarkably small sample size, even for an era when big radio markets had just two Top-40 stations competing head-to-head, simply because there was a far greater number of record stores then. Perhaps it was small sample size that permitted charmless sludge like “Can’t You See My Love” by Jr. Walker and the All-Stars to creep into the Top 40.

Despite the countdown’s awful first hour, it’s pure Top-40 pleasure by the end: “Ooh Child,” “Tighter & Tighter,” “Spill the Wine,” “Signed Sealed Delivered,” “Band of Gold.” The top song of the week was “Close to You” by the Carpenters, spending the second of four weeks at Number One. Because “Close to You” hasn’t gotten 41 years of continuous radio play, it seems out of place with the others now. I remember playing it on the radio a few years back and saying it was from the summer of 1970, “exactly one million years ago.”

We haven’t had an Off-Topic Tuesday for a while, but today we do, on the flip.

Continue reading “A Million Years Ago”

Tell It All, Brother

This past weekend’s vintage American Top 40 show was dated August 1, 1970. Casey Kasem was still groping toward his familiar style, although it had come a long way since the very first broadcast a month earlier—his delivery and the show’s production were much more consistent compared the slapdash quality of the first show.

No matter the year, I particularly like the first hour of each show, where legendary singles frequently rub up against ephemeral oddballs: country weepers, R&B stompers, and novelty records that had enough juice in enough places to crack the 40, but not enough to leave a mark on history. The second and third hours of the show are generally filled with highly familiar music, but that first hour often contains stuff even I have forgotten, and it’s usually a lot of fun. The August 1, 1970, show was unique in my experience, however: The first hour was terrible.

Let me count the ways. The standard Motown narrative has the label beginning to struggle in 1970, reflecting its failure to find a second generation of stars apart from the Jackson Five. “Do You See My Love (For You Growing)” by Jr. Walker and the All-Stars and “Everybody’s Got the Right to Love” by the Supremes, which debuted at Numbers 39 and 37 respectively, are evidence of Motown’s decline. There’s absolutely nothing special about either one. Up at Number 35 is “Maybe” by the Three Degrees, a cover of the 1957 Chantels hit (as Casey told the audience twice), which starts with a monologue and seems to take forever to play. (The album version, linked above, takes even longer.) “Tell It All Brother” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, which closes out the hour, is so firmly anchored to a particular moment in history—the one at which the hippie dream of universal brotherhood and peace begins to unmistakably crumble—that it sounds as dated as ragtime. The first hour also includes “Summertime Blues” by the Who and “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain. Next to Walker, the Supremes, and the Three Degrees, it wasn’t so much a contrast as a collision—a head-on with fatalities.

That first hour was not without its gems: “Mississippi” by John Phillips is a record we have repeatedly praised ’round these parts. “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago (“We’ll figure it out as the weeks go by,” Casey says of the title, which perplexes him) points the way toward the sound of the 70s better than most other records in the countdown. And “Patches” by Clarence Carter brings the timeless charm of old-school soul music that the Three Degrees were going for in “Maybe,” but couldn’t capture. The first hour also included “Sex Machine” by James Brown, and if you guessed that Casey glossed over the title, you are correct.

I have said more than once—most recently on Twitter Saturday night—that when I look at a record chart from the summer of 1970, I see my life in the test tube, mixed up but not yet poured out. Most of the top songs during August would still be around in September, that pivotal month of discovery. The songs at the bottom of the Top 40 are part of that history, too. Just as my love of music started at the top of the charts that fall, perhaps my eventual fascination with obscurities was sparked by the stuff at the bottom.

Top 5: New Teachers and Old Landmarks

It’s October 1971. I’m in Mr. Schilling’s sixth-grade class at Northside School. He is the first male classroom teacher I have ever had, a peculiar and unpredictable combination of fun guy and hard-ass. I like him, and not just because he’s the first teacher who doesn’t give me a poor grade in handwriting—he can’t do it, he says, because his handwriting is even worse than mine. A teacher I like much less is Miss Hibbard, which is not her real name. She is the director of the district’s sixth-grade band, which rehearses one or two afternoons a week, and I am a not-particularly-talented saxophone player with a smart mouth. What I remember about Miss Hibbard is that she was extremely young—on her first teaching job that fall, if I had to guess now—and she had the habit of speaking her mind, often without editing. One day in rehearsal, she said something to me, or about me, that incensed my mother when I reported it at home. I don’t remember what it was, but Mom actually called Miss Hibbard to complain, which is something I can’t recall her doing any other time.

A big obsession that fall is touch football. Being on the 1971 Grade Football League champion Northside Browns is the highlight of my sorry athletic career. But my biggest obsession is the radio. I have written about the music from October 1971 during several other Octobers in the life of this blog, ringing changes on the most familiar songs: “Maggie May” and “Spanish Harlem” and “I’ve Found Someone of My Own” and “All Day Music” and others that still retain the power to take me back there, to the football field or the band room or the school bus, like “Annabella” by Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds or “Charity Ball” by Fanny. So this time, here are the Top 5 albums on WLS for the week of October 4, 1971:

1. Every Picture Tells a Story/Rod Stewart. This album didn’t appear on the WLS list of top albums for the week of September 27, but it stood atop the list the next week and stayed there through October. It may have been Number One in Chicago even longer than that, but WLS apparently did not publish an album list on its November surveys until the last one of the month, when the album had fallen to eighth.

2. Every Good Boy Deserves Favor/Moody Blues. Propelled by “The Story in Your Eyes,” which wasn’t especially big on WLS that fall, making only Number 14 on the station’s chart in a six-week run. In the years since, it’s become my favorite Moody Blues song.

3. Shaft/Isaac Hayes. The title song from the movie wouldn’t debut on the WLS chart for a week yet, but the album had come out during the summer. It hit the top spot in Billboard in early November, a couple of weeks before the title song did the same thing.

4. Tapestry/Carole King. This landmark album had been on the radio all summer, and the double-A-sided single “So Far Away” and “Smackwater Jack” kept the roll going. Favorite piece of trivia about the album: King is pictured on the cover at her home in Laurel Canyon with her cat, who was named Telemachus.

5. Who’s Next/The Who. I bought the single version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” late that summer, edited to 3:37 from 8:32, and it would be maybe three years before I heard the full-length version on the radio. The familiarity of the full-length version makes listening to the 45 a distinctly odd experience. A colleague of mine once suggested that the unexpected transitions are so jarring that they make you feel as though you’re tripping over something.

In October 1971, I have made a full trip around the sun with WLS in my ear. I have more to come, but it will be several years before another autumn trip captures my imagination the way 1971 does.

One Day in Your Life: September 3, 1970

September 3, 1970, is a Thursday. A nationwide manhunt is underway for four men suspected of blowing up the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin 10 days earlier. President Nixon is in California, where he meets a top-level delegation from Mexico and hosts a state dinner. A host of political and diplomatic celebrities attend, along with Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Red Skelton, and other Hollywood stars. Representatives from around the world meet for the first Congress of African People, which is held in Atlanta, Georgia. Illinois adopts a new state constitution. Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi dies of colon cancer at age 57; Canned Heat guitarist Al “Blind Owl” Wilson dies of a drug overdose at age 27. Future college and pro basketball player George Lynch is born; so is Jeremy Glick, who will attempt to fight back against the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, and die in the crash. A hailstone weighing 1.67 pounds and measuring 5 1/2 inches across is found near Coffeyville, Kansas. It will be the largest ever found anywhere until 2003. For the first time since September 1963, outfielder Billy Williams is not in the lineup for the Chicago Cubs, breaking a streak of 1,117 straight games played. Without him, the Cubs beat the Phillies, 7-2. In the minor leagues, the 1970 International League regular season ends with the Syracuse Chiefs finishing first. The Arcata Union newspaper in California reports that since G and H streets in Arcata were made into a one-way pair, five of the six service stations on the two streets have suffered sharp declines in gasoline sales.

Shows on daytime TV today include 17 soap operas (counting Dark Shadows) and eight game shows. Shows on TV tonight include Family Affair, That Girl, Ironside, This Is Tom Jones, Dragnet, Bewitched, and Dean Martin Presents the Golddiggers. At Criteria Studios in Miami, Derek and the Dominoes record “I Am Yours,” “Anyday,” and “It’s Too Late,” which will appear on their forthcoming album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Joni Mitchell tapes an episode of BBC in Concert that will be broadcast in October. Jimi Hendrix plays Copenhagen, Denmark and Led Zeppelin plays San Diego. A triple bill at the Fillmore West in San Francisco features Johnny Winter, Boz Scaggs, and Freddie King.

At WLS in Chicago, “War” by Edwin Starr is Number One again this week; “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago makes a strong move from Number 7 to Number Two. New in the Top 10 is “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” by Creedence Clearwater Revival at Number 8. Other big movers: “Julie Do Ya Love Me” by Bobby Sherman (22 to 14) and “Groovy Situation” by Gene Chandler (25 to 18). Aboard a Wisconsin school bus, a kid just entering fifth grade at Northside School discovers the best place to sit.

Perspective From the Present: I confess that I don’t know for certain whether September 3, 1970, was really the famous day I first sat under the radio speaker on the school bus and my future was set for me. I know it wasn’t long after school started, and I am fairly sure that I was collecting WLS music surveys by the end of September, so it’s as good as guess as any other. I know this, however: Derek and the Dominoes were not on the radio that week. The Layla album wouldn’t be released until November. On November 5, 1970, they appeared on The Johnny Cash Show performing “It’s Too Late,” which they had recorded in September. I am pretty sure I’ve posted this before, but it’s worth another look.

Stop back during the holiday weekend. There’ll probably be something new here at some point.

In the Beginning, There Was Casey

If you enjoy the original American Top 40 countdowns from the 1970s, you’ll want to catch the one scheduled for this weekend. It’s the very first show, dated July 4, 1970. Casey was on only seven stations that first weekend, and although I won’t hear the show until this weekend myself, I’m told that it’s much, much different from what AT40 would eventually become.

I’ve said before on this blog that when I look at the record charts from the summer of 1970, I see my life mixed up in the test tube but not yet poured out. Songs that will be among my first discoveries in the fall begin appearing, and a few are there on July 4, 1970. Some are in the Top 40 already: “Tighter, Tighter,” “Are You Ready,” “Westbound #9,” “Signed Sealed Delivered.” Many more are in the bottom 60 or bubbling under the Hot 100: “Make It With You,” “I Just Can’t Help Believin’,” “Spill the Wine,” “War,” “Snowbird,” “Groovy Situation.” But in July 1970, I wasn’t paying attention yet. I was more interested in baseball. So let’s take five songs I probably heard on Mom and Dad’s radio stations, but otherwise missed.

72. “Big Yellow Taxi”/The Neighborhood (up from 92). OK, I do remember hearing this one on WLS that fall. It charted before Joni Mitchell’s own version did (in late June compared to late July), and rose higher (29 compared to 67, although Joni’s 1975 live version went to Number 24). The Neighborhood itself is mighty obscure—nine members, apparently; their debut album was the first released on the Big Tree label, which would later release records by Lobo, Brownsville Station, April Wine, Hot Chocolate, England Dan & John Ford Coley, and even Johnny Rivers and Wilson Pickett.

80. “Everything a Man Could Ever Need”/Glen Campbell (debut). When I was a kid, we would occasionally load up the family and go to the drive-in theater, which was located on the way into town from the farm. Mom would make a bucket of popcorn and a jug of Kool-Aid, and we’d enjoy the singular experience of watching a movie in the car. I cannot imagine through what alchemy I can remember seeing the movie Norwood, starring Campbell and Joe Namath, and featuring this song, but I do. (The drive-in is still operating, by the way—one of the few remaining in the Midwest, 56 years after it first opened.)

88. “Hello Darlin'”/Conway Twitty and 90. “I Wonder Could I Live There Anymore”/Charley Pride (debuts). Twitty had a long resume as a pop star, going back to his version of “It’s Only Make Believe” in 1958, and he’d score five Hot 100 hits in all between 1970 and 1976. Pride’s biggest pop success was “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” in 1972. There’s not much that’s pop about either of these: “Hello Darlin'” is a waltz with crying steel guitars; in “I Wonder Could I Live There Anymore,” Pride wants to romanticize rural life, but just can’t do it.

97. “Humphrey the Camel”/Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan (up from 99). In which Jack and Misty do the only sensible thing given the smash country and pop success of “Tennessee Bird Walk” in the spring—turn it sideways and do it again.

108. “Wear Your Love Like Heaven”/Peggy Lipton (up from 112). With the success of The Mod Squad among young TV viewers, there was little doubt that if any of the stars could sing, they’d get a shot at a recording career. Lipton’s debut album, released circa 1969, included songs by Carole King and Laura Nyro, as well as some compositions of her own. (Larry Grogan discussed it at Iron Leg earlier this month.) “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” is the Donovan song, and it may have been the title song from her second album, although I’m having trouble tracking that down.

So you won’t be hearing any of these on AT40 this weekend. (Apart from “Big Yellow Taxi,” you wouldn’t hear any of them on the show, ever, because it was the only one to crack the 40.) If you can’t get AT40 out of the air where you live, we’ll be streaming that first show on Magic 98 Saturday night from 9 to midnight U.S. Central. It’s part of a whole day of vintage AT40 countdowns on Magic.

“Big Yellow Taxi”/The Neighborhood (out of print)

Top 5: Then Came Gremlins

Forty years ago yesterday—April 1, 1970—American Motors introduced the Gremlin. Demand for subcompact cars was just starting to heat up, and AMC beat Ford and GM to the marketplace by modifying its existing Hornet model, although it actually looks like a Hornet in the front and a deformed pickup truck in the back. (Designer Richard Teague is supposed to have sketched the first one on a Northwest Airlines airsick bag during a 1968 flight.) A two-seater model listed at $1879; the four-seater listed at $1959. AMC produced the car through the 1978 model year—but the one you want went into production for 1973. The Levi’s Gremlin had a faux-denim interior with orange stitching and rivets, along with the Levi’s logo on the front fenders. It cost an extra $49.95 on the two-seater and $134.95 on the four-seater model. AMC would later extend the denim package to its other cars, including the Hornet, Javelin, and Eagle—you could even get an acid-washed denim interior for the Eagle, a model introduced for 1979, when acid-wash was cool.

If you owned one of the first Gremlins on the block, and if you popped for a radio (which wasn’t necessarily standard equipment in those days), you would have heard a number of records on the local Top 40 station that would become pop icons: “Let It Be,” “Instant Karma,” “ABC,” “Spirit in the Sky,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which made up the top 5 at KHJ in Los Angeles for the week of April 1. But what else might you have heard?

10. “Up the Ladder to the Roof”/Supremes (up from 13). The first single for the Supremes after the departure of Diana Ross, “Up the Ladder to the Roof” features new lead singer Jean Terrell doing her best Diana. Her background was in gospel, and on some of her early sessions, producers had her scale back her style a little bit, lest the new Supremes sound too black for the white audiences they’d worked so hard to capture during the Ross years.

15. “House of the Rising Sun”/Frijid Pink (holding at 15). Driven by big distorted riffs and an echo-drenched lead vocal, “House of the Rising Sun” sounds quite dated today, and I suspect it sounded a wee bit dated even in 1970. (Most of the stoners who dug this sort of thing would have moved over to the FM band by then.)  The band is said to have knocked it off unplanned at the end of a recording session, only to see it sell a million.

16. “Long Lonesome Highway”/Michael Parks (up from 19). Disillusioned young man quits his job and takes to the highways on a motorcycle searching for fulfillment and helping his fellow man along the way. That’s the premise of Then Came Bronson, a TV series that was in the middle of its first (and only) season on NBC in early 1970. Michael Parks played Bronson; “Long Lonesome Highway” was the show’s closing theme. Here’s how it was used within an episode of the series:

19. “Love Minus Zero–No Limit”/Turley Richards (up from 24). Richards was a singer from West Virginia who moved to first to L.A. and then to New York City seeking fame and fortune. He can’t really be said to have found either, although he’s continued to work in music ever since. He released three singles that made it onto the Hot 100 in 1970. “Love Minus Zero—No Limit” is a Dylan song.

29. “For the Love of Him”/Bobbi Martin (debut). “For the love of him/Make him your reason for living.” Sounds like one of those subservient-housewife records that periodically hit the charts in the 1960s, although this one also contains what seems like a contradictory bit of advice: “He’s a man and a man has to try/Let him run, let him fall, let him cry.” In other words, it’s your job to sit back and watch when the poor sap fucks up now and then. That’s either somewhat liberated—you’re not responsible for everything he does—or not liberated at all—it’s not your job to criticize, no matter what.

As dates in pop-culture go, April 1, 1970, was a pretty eventful one. On the same day the Gremlin was introduced, President Nixon signed a bill requiring cigarette packages to contain health warnings. The bill also banned cigarette advertising from television after January 1, 1971.

Recommended Reading: the blog Sound System by Michele Catalano. She revealed her age in a recent post, but I won’t repeat it except to say that she shares an approximate chronological point of view with the author of the blog you’re reading right now. She’s been blogging for only about a month, and not everybody who starts a blog follows through for the long haul. If Catalano does, however, it looks like she’ll have a good one. Start with “The worst best classic rock songs of all time” and “The top ten classic rock songs I don’t hate.” [This site doesn’t exist anymore. Michele is still writing, however, and is on Twitter at @inthefade.]