Top 5: The Way We Were

There’s a delightfully odd music survey at ARSA from WNBC in New York, dated May 30, 1975. In the middle of the 1970s, WNBC was sometimes referred to as everybody’s second-favorite station in New York, behind Top 40 giant WABC and others despite being home to a couple of NYC radio legends, Don Imus and Cousin Brucie Morrow (who had moved over from WABC in 1973). The tag line on the survey is “contemporary adult music for New York,” and the music mix reflects it—although the early summer of 1975 was not a hard-rockin’ season generally, Hot 100 hits of the moment by the likes of Grand Funk, Chicago, and Elton John are missing.  The records on the survey appear in alphabetical order by title, and here are five of them:

“Are You Ready for This”/The Brothers. “Are You Ready for This” is an instrumental characteristic of the early disco period, in which R&B feel had yet to give way to mindless thump. Our friend Larry Grogan tells me it was produced by Warren Schatz, who made records with mid-70s disco stars including Vicki Sue Robinson and Evelyn “Champagne” King. Not surprisingly, “Are You Ready for This” was more popular on the dance floors of 1975 than it was on the radio.

“El Bimbo”/Bimbo Jet. Although Bimbo Jet is tagged as a Euro-disco group, there’s no much that’s disco about “El Bimbo.” There’s a lively Spanish/flamenco/salsa thing going on with the band, if the singers would shut up and let us hear it. Although it just missed the Top 40 in the States, “El Bimbo” was a #1 hit across much of Europe.

“Everybody Likes My Fanny”/Benny Bell. The actual title of this, the followup to “Shaving Cream,” seems to be “Everybody Wants My Fanny.” When I was researching “Shaving Cream” a few years ago, I learned that there’s some confusion over precisely whether Bell sings on the records credited to him. Here’s one reason why: The singer of “Everybody Wants My Fanny” doesn’t sound much like the singer of “Shaving Cream.”

“Judy Mae”/Boomer Castleman. In some alternate universe, maybe Castleman and his songwriting partner, Michael Murphey, are as well-remembered as the Monkees. On our planet, Monkees mastermind Don Kirshner picked Castleman and Murphey to expand the Colgems Records brand in a group called the Lewis and Clarke Expedition, which flopped. So the two were cast in a Monkee-style comedy pilot, which flopped. By 1975, however, both guys were doing fine. Murphey’s “Wildfire” appears on the WNBC chart and made the Billboard Top Ten. The memorably weird “Judy Mae” sneaked into the Top 40. (Live performance here.)

“The Way We Were”/Gladys Knight and the Pips. Like most of the rest of Wisconsin, I watched a little of the season finale of Dancing With the Stars to see if Packers wide receiver Donald Driver would win it. Knight, who had been a contestant on the show earlier in the season, returned to the finale to sing “The Way We Were.” In 1975, however, her version of the song was paired with “Try to Remember,” the hit song from the musical The Fantasticks; the medley went to #11 on the Hot 100 and #2 on the Billboard AC chart. The two songs work remarkably well together, and Gladys is so talented that she can convincingly sell the somewhat cheesy spoken bit with which she opens. She observes, “As bad as we think they are, these will be the good old days for our children.”

Somewhere behind me, a boy just concluding his freshman year in high school prepares to spend another summer with his ear to the radio. Perhaps he dimly understands that what Gladys is saying might be true. Years later, he’ll know she is right. “Can it be that it was all so simple then?” Of course not. “Or has time rewritten every line?” Yes it has. “And if we had the chance to do it all again, tell me, would we?” Probably. “Could we?” Thankfully, no.

The Butter Shave

I was in the car the other day when “Shaving Cream” by Benny Bell came on. (Don’t ask.) In the 1940s, Bell began recording “party records”—a phrase that carried a particular connotation well into the 1960s. The genre itself persisted into the 70s. Party records were marketed as adults-only material, described with words like “spicy” or “lusty,” and usually featured suggestive, double-entendre comedy rather than open obscenity. Famous names in the party-record game included Rusty Warren, Ruth Wallis, Redd Foxx, and Rudy Ray Moore, better known as Dolemite, who may have been the bluest of the comics who “worked blue” in this period.

Party singles such as Bell’s frequently appared on barroom jukeboxes in their day, and would never have gotten radio play. By the middle of the 1970s, however, standards for acceptable comedy content had changed, thanks to the mainstream success of Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and others. And the very age of songs like Bell’s gave them a special sizzle—“hey, here’s a record that was too shocking for your grandma”—even as they seemed rather tame. Dr. Demento frequently played “Shaving Cream,” originally recorded in 1946, and the response to it was such that Vanguard Records picked it up for re-release in early 1975. That spring, it spent four weeks in the Top 40, peaking at Number 30. (The perpetual adolescence of American culture—the way we never fail to be amused by jokes about bodily functions—doubtlessly helps account for some of its popularity.)

Some sources say that the vocal on the record is by Paul Wynn, but the bulk of them say that Paul Wynn is a pseudonym under which Bell sometimes recorded. Others say that Wynn is a  separate human being whose real name was Paul Winston, and who recorded his own version of “Shaving Cream”; furthermore, Wynn’s recording is sometimes confused with Bell’s, and has even been mistakenly released under Bell’s name. All of this means that it’s possible for Bell’s famous recording to be in reality Wynn’s recording, and in two different ways. I suppose I could try to figure it out, but frankly, I’m losing interest in the whole thing the longer this post goes on.

I was poking through the Billboard charts looking for sh—“Shaving Cream” when I noticed that during the week of April 12, 1975, “Shaving Cream,” then at Number 45, was followed by Fanny’s “Butter Boy” at 46, down from its peak at 29, and in its last week before dropping out of the Hot 100 altogether. It reminded me that a couple of months ago, one of my Internet pals, bean, e-mailed a clip from a 1975 broadcast of American Top 40 that featured “Butter Boy,” a song I hadn’t heard in ages. I heard it again the other day, and found myself wondering how it ended up a bigger hit in Billboard than Fanny’s 1971 hit “Charity Ball.” “Butter Boy” is a decent bit of neo-bubblegum, while “Charity Ball” is one of the great bangin’ rock singles of all time.

But all kinds of sh—shaving cream was on the radio that spring of ’75. In close proximity to Benny Bell and Fanny on the Hot 100 during that same April week was Bobby Vinton’s recording of “Beer Barrel Polka” at Number 42, which itself was right behind David Bowie’s “Young Americans” at Number 41, a juxtaposition that’s pure 70s.  Also in the middle region of the chart (at its peak, Number 55) was Tom T. Hall’s “Sneaky Snake.” There’s probably a whole post in the career of Tom T. Hall, one of the bigger country stars of the 1970s, who was enjoying a bit of pop-radio success between 1973 and 1975, but today’s not the day for it.

Programming Note: Today is, however, the day on which a new edition of “One Day in Your Life” is supposed to appear at Popdose. It may be here.

“Shaving Cream”/Benny Bell (buy it here)
“Butter Boy”/Fanny (the album from whence this comes, Rock and Roll Survivors, is getting a CD release in August; pre-order it here)