One Day in Your Life: August 12, 1977

August 12, 1977, is a Friday. The first space shuttle orbiter, Enterprise, makes its first free flight (unbolted from a 747) over Edwards Air Force Base in California. NASA also launches the first High Energy Astronomy Observatory satellite to study cosmic rays. Following the victory of a secessionist party in national elections, riots break out in Sri Lanka. President Carter writes Congress a letter spelling out his position on the Panama Canal Treaty, which will give the canal to Panama if ratified. Future football star and errant marksman Plaxico Burress is born. Gene Littler leads after the second round of the PGA Championship golf tournament in Pebble Beach, California. He will lose to Lanny Wadkins in a sudden-death playoff on Sunday.

On TV, The Merv Griffin Show features a tribute to Jack Benny, with five of Benny’s radio and TV cast members. Celebrity guests on The $10,000 Pyramid are Lucie Arnaz and Bill Cullen. On CBS tonight, it’s the second episode of A Year at the Top, a sitcom starring Paul Shaffer and Greg Evigan as musicians who make a pact with the devil in exchange for one year of success. It will be canceled after three more episodes. Legendary DJ Cousin Brucie Morrow does his final show on WNBC in New York; he’s leaving the air to become co-owner of a station group. Elvis Presley tries to get a print of Star Wars to watch with his daughter Lisa Marie, but he cannot, so he settles for The Spy Who Loved Me instead. In four days, Presley will die. Johnny Winter plays St. Petersburg, Florida. KISS plays Seattle with Cheap Trick opening, and Peter Frampton plays Minneapolis. In Santa Cruz, California, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Neil Young play a benefit for the United Farm Workers. Tonight’s edition of The Midnight Special is hosted by the Bay City Rollers, and it features ELO, KC and the Sunshine Band, England Dan and John Ford Coley, and Roger Daltrey.

At WISM in Madison, Wisconsin, “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” by Andy Gibb holds at Number One. “Higher and Higher” by Rita Coolidge is right behind, and “Best of My Love” by the Emotions makes a strong move from 7 to 3. New songs in the Top Ten include “Just a Song Before I Go” by Crosby Stills and Nash and “Easy” by the Commodores. The fastest mover on the survey is “Swayin’ to the Music” by Johnny Rivers, up to 18 from 25. The highest-debuting new song on the chart is the London Symphony Orchestra’s version of the Star Wars theme, at Number 26. Also debuting are songs by Carly Simon (“Nobody Does it Better”), the Bee Gees (the live version of “Edge of the Universe”), and a Canadian band called Driver (“New Way to Say I Love You”).

In a small town south of Madison, a young radio geek awaits the return of his girlfriend from a month in Europe. He is supposed to go to the airport in Chicago with her parents to pick her up today, but when her return is delayed until tomorrow, he goes out with friends tonight. When he gets home around midnight, there’s a phone message saying that the plane is coming in very early on Saturday morning, and if he wants to ride along to Chicago, he needs to be ready to leave town by 2AM. And he will be.

“New Way to Say I Love You”/Driver (out of print)

Top 5: Yesterday’s Dreams

(After this post, this blog is going on hiatus for a while. Back next week sometime. Go play outside.)

It was May 1977. A soft Wisconsin spring was in bloom, our junior year in high school was drawing to a close, and we were positively stupid in love. And on this weekend in that year, we went to the prom. She was resplendent in a gorgeous, frilly dress she’d made herself; I looked like a waiter in my white tuxedo jacket and ruffled shirt—ruffles dyed to match her dress. The high-school gym had been transformed (as much as any such place can be transformed) into something from a different world, with music provided by a big band. Even after accounting for the burnished glow of nostalgia, it remains as romantic a scene as I’ve ever experienced.

Not everybody got into it, however. In fact, most of our classmates seemed eager to shed their fancy clothes in favor of t-shirts and jeans, get to the post-prom party, and listen to some rock and roll instead of this big-band shit. But we, along with three or four other couples, didn’t want the evening to turn back into just another Saturday night. So we attended our own little post-prom party hosted by a friend. Afterward, at some point in the wee hours of Sunday morning, the two of us lingered over our goodbyes. And then I popped the radio on and drove home.

On the radio and on the charts that May was an extraordinary constellation of albums, some of which would still be significant two lifetimes in the future, some of which would disappear before 1977 was over, but all of which help display the strange and wonderful variety of popular music at the height of the 1970s. The list is from Ten-Q in Los Angeles, dated May 5, 1977, and I’ll cover ’em all, Twitter-style:

Continue reading “Top 5: Yesterday’s Dreams”

And Now, 600 Words About “You Light Up My Life”

Everybody hates something, and often, our choices are highly personal. Nevertheless, there’s a certain consensus about the most reviled Top-40 hits of all time: “Muskrat Love,” “You’re Having My Baby,” “Run Joey Run,” and “Seasons in the Sun” would make most people’s lists, I think. And “You Light Up My Life,” too. In my experience, that’s one people tend to forget.

“You Light Up My Life,” recorded by Debby Boone, daughter of Pat, was released on August 16, 1977. (That’s the same day Elvis Presley died, although the autopsy showed no correlation.) Its chart debut came on September 3 at Number 71, and it embarked on a respectable-but-not-spectacular climb up the chart. The week of October 8, however, it took an enormous leap from 15 to 3, and the week after that, “You Light Up My Life” hit Number One, where it would stay for 10 weeks, the longest stretch at the top for a single song since 1956. It also hit on the country chart, reaching Number 4.

Week after week during the fall of 1977 other songs stormed the castle, but none could take it: “Keep It Comin’ Love” by KC and the Sunshine Band, “Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon, “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave, and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle all peaked at Number Two, Carly and Crystal for three weeks each. Finally, during the week of December 17, the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” reached the second spot, and it took out the queen on December 24, 1977.

“You Light Up My Life” would remain in the Hot 100 until late February 1978. In the final accounting, it’s the Number One song of the 1970s. It was nominated for Record of the Year at the Grammys (and Boone won Best New Artist); it also won the Oscar for Best Original Song.  But the odd thing about “You Light Up My Life” is that it vanished from history almost as soon as it left the charts. The song was disappeared, like a Soviet official who was declared a nonperson and never officially existed. (Or like George W. Bush to the Republicans now.) Oldies stations don’t play it; easy-listening stations don’t play it—and if I’m recalling correctly, it stopped getting much radio play almost from the moment it left the charts. It’s as if collective embarrassment over our embrace of such bland schlock caused us to repress the memory entirely.

It’s arguable that the same impulse repressed Debby Boone’s career. She was unable to follow up on her mega-hit, returning to the Hot 100 only twice, with “California” and “God Knows,” both in 1978. She did a bit better on the country charts over the years, even reaching Number One with “Are You On the Road to Lovin’ Me Again” in 1980.  Eventually, she moved into Christian music (no surprise given that she had imagined the “you” in “You Light Up My Life” to be God), acted on the stage, raised a family, and wrote children’s books.

The song’s blandness and Boone’s faceless performance of it made it ripe for cover versions, and for a particular sort of cover version at that: Every easy-listening artist you can name recorded it, including Engelbert Humperdinck, Perry Como, Robert Goulet, the Ray Conniff Singers, and Mantovani. It’s also been cut by Leann Rimes, Kenny Rogers, Whitney Houston, and the Irish group Westlife, who turned it into a boy-band ballad for the generation whose parents were pre-teens in 1977. In 1979, the Three Degrees did it for a British TV special. Adding a little soul helped it a lot—hell, adding a harmony vocal line helped it a lot.

In the end, perhaps the only way we can explain the unprecedented success of “You Light Up My Life” is what explains many strange excesses: It was the 1970s. We couldn’t help ourselves.