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.

Our Regularly Scheduled Program, Already in Progress

Sometimes we make things too complicated, when a simple answer is staring us right in the face.

Starting in October 1978, American Top 40 went from a three-hour show to a four-hour show. The average single had gotten longer throughout the 1970s, and it became too difficult to fit 40 of them into a three-hour window. But four hours was a bit too long sometimes, and as a result, AT40 added various features to pad out the show. It was in this period that Casey Kasem’s fabled Long Distance Dedications were born. The show began spotlighting past Number-One hits on a regular basis, and even added a countdown of the previous week’s top three at the beginning of the show.

Flash forward to the new millennium, and the repeats heard around the country every weekend. How to handle the four-hour shows? Although I’d never heard one myself, I’d been told they exist, but how they’d be cut I couldn’t figure. Taking out the top-three recap would get you 12 minutes or so; taking out the long-distance dedications and other stuff might get you another 12, tops. But that still wouldn’t be enough.

But I was making things too complicated, when a simple answer was staring me right in the face.

The show airing this past weekend, featuring the chart from November 3, 1979, simply picked up with the second hour of the show—American Top 32, in other words. One advantage to this, in the minds of some program directors, is that it eliminates the lowest reaches of the chart, which frequently contains an odd mix of records that have failed to stand the test of time. But positions 40 through 33 on the November 3, 1979, chart are reasonably solid, at least by typical first-hour standards, although you’re likely to hear only a couple of them on the radio now:

40. “Better Love Next Time”/Dr. Hook
39. “Half the Way”/Crystal Gayle
38. “Street Life”/Crusaders with Randy Crawford
37. “Dreaming”/Blondie
36. “Victim of Love”/Elton John
35. “Fins”/Jimmy Buffett
34. “Lonesome Loser”/Little River Band
33. “Dream Police”/Cheap Trick

(Picking up with Number 32 wasn’t a foolproof way to scotch the dreck, though: “Rainbow Connection” by Kermit the Frog was sitting at Number 29.)

I must not have heard Casey much in the late 70s. The jingles and production elements didn’t sound familiar at all, and Casey himself seemed especially amped in the segments I heard—a far cry from the FM-radio whisper he sometimes used in the early 1970s. It’s as if he was conscious of being America’s Voice—which, by the late 70s, he was, ubiquitous on commercials and as a TV voiceover guy—and he needed to sound as bright and cheery as he did when shilling a product. (That sounds harsher than I mean it, but I’m not sure how else to describe his sound on this particular show.)

If presenting the late 1978 and 1979 shows in this fashion is the only way to get them on, I’m OK with it. (As long as they don’t do what a station in Minneapolis is said to have done a few years back when rerunning the countdowns on its own—blowing off the last hour.) It’s not as if there isn’t precedent for it. Over this past New Year’s, the countdown featured the Top 40 of 1976, but was actually the last three hours of a longer show (eight hours, I think) that counted down the year’s Top 100.

Recommended Reading: If you like to conjure with fabulous concert bills from the 60s and 70s, you might enjoy It’s All the Streets You Crossed So Long Ago, which has collected concert ads by the dozens. (H/t Kinky Paprika.)

Marlon Reynolds Is Bitter and Sad

Back when I was listening to American Top 40 regularly, I loved the chart trivia bits on the show—those letters from listeners asking who had the most Number-One singles in the rock era, and so forth. Before the Internet, and before Joel Whitburn’s tremendous chart books became widely available, Casey was often the best source for that kind of thing. But I would imagine he got thousands of letters, so the chance yours would be chosen for the show were comparable to your chance of getting hit by lightning.

On the show for the week of  October 23, 1976, Marlon Reynolds of New Orleans beat the odds with a pretty good question: Which artist has hit the charts under the most different names, whether as a solo artist or a group member? After Casey teased it, I tried to think of who it might be. Tony Burrows, maybe? He sang under four different group names on “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes,” “My Baby Loves Lovin’,” “Gimme Dat Ding,” and “United We Stand,” (which all charted at about the same time in the spring of 1970), as well as “Beach Baby” by First Class, and in the Flower Pot Men, the Kestrels, and the Ivy League. Or was it some session singer who also scored a solo hit or two?

But it wasn’t Burrows, and Casey explicitly disqualified session singers. The answer, according to Casey, was John Lennon, and then he listed eight different ways Lennon was credited on various charting records: John Lennon, John Ono Lennon, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Nuclear Band, etc. “And there you go, Marlon. Thanks for your letter; it was really interesting.”

The question was interesting. The answer was terrible—not just unsatisfying, but pointless. If I were Marlon, I’d have been pissed. It’s like winning the lottery and then finding out you’re getting paid in grocery coupons.

The other listener-submitted trivia question on the October 23, 1976, show, was also awkwardly handled. It asked which Motown hit had spent the longest stretch at Number One. A good-enough question to answer, sure, but in his answer, Casey insisted on interpolating that the song, Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” also had the longest title of any Motown hit to reach the top. There’s a difference between trivia and minutiae, and that’s it.

The AT40 segment featuring Marlon’s question and answer is below. I’m posting it because the music (none of it by Lennon) is Top-40 glorious.

Close Encounters With the Famous: I was pleased to note that Dan O’Day stopped by and left a comment over the weekend. Dan is one of the best-known consultants in radio; years ago I had the chance to attend one of his jock seminars, and I’m still learning stuff from him today.

Recommended Reading: Nine years to the week after Apple introduced the iPod, Sony announced this week that it’s phasing out production of the Walkman, the portable cassette player that changed the way people listened to music following its introduction in 1979. I didn’t own a portable cassette player until relatively late in life—not until I had my own lawn to mow in the late 90s—and what I bought was a Walkman knockoff equipped with an AM/FM radio. It sucked—but not as hard as Casey’s trivia answer.

American Top 40, October 23, 1976 (excerpt) (I should mention here, because I never have before, that you don’t have to download anything I post here; you can go to the link and just listen.)

On With the Countdowns

After this post, we’re going on hiatus for a while, to work on things we get paid for, to spend some time with the family, and maybe even to disconnect from the Internet for a while. There should be a new post here on Tuesday, July 20.

Listening to American Top 40 last weekend, and the countdown dated July 10, 1976, I could remember hearing it when it originally ran 34 years ago. I could easily picture the 1976 me, sitting on my bed in my room upstairs at home, pencil and paper close at hand, writing down the titles and artists song by song. In those pre-Internet days, it was tough for a chart geek to get the information he craved. Our local newspaper would occasionally publish the Billboard Top 10, and I can remember running to the mailbox on the days I thought it was going to appear, and being crushed when it didn’t. What else was I going to do? It was either subscribe to Billboard or listen to Casey, although WCFL in Chicago counted down its survey on Friday afternoons (with Larry Lujack) for a while toward the end of its life as a Top-4o station.

AT40 never aired on a station I listened to regularly; I always had to search it out. Often, I’d catch it on an AM station from Rockford, Illinois, which cut its power at sundown, and which frequently left me trying to pick out fragments through the static in order to get the last of the countdown.

AT40 wasn’t the only countdown I was addicted to in 1976. I also listened religiously to something called The National Album Countdown, hosted by “Humble Harv” Miller, a veteran of KHJ and other Southern California stations. There’s precious little information about the show online, but Harv would count down the top 20 or 30 (I forget) albums on the Billboard chart, playing different tracks each week.

AT40 featured an album countdown on one show early in its history. According to Watermark on the Web, which is loaded with fascinating stuff about AT40 and other programs syndicated by Watermark, Inc., a special countdown dated August 5, 1972, was called “The National Album Countdown” and featured songs from the week’s top 40 albums. The show started with “Rock and Roll Crazies” by Stephen Stills and Manassas, and concluded with “Salvation” by Elton John from Honky Chateau. It included both the Stones’ Exile on Main Street and the Hot Rocks 1964-1971 compilation, Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits and Cheech and Chong’s Big Bambu, both of which were in the Top 10, a live album by Carlos Santana and Buddy Miles, classic albums such as Harvest, Eat a Peach, and Tapestry, and an inordinate number of records by the Osmonds—three in all. And it must have been fairly cool to hear Casey play “Thick as a Brick.”

Based on the cue sheet for the show, it looks as if Casey didn’t play a song from every album, and some of the choices seem mighty odd. Why would the show have omitted Billy Preston’s “Outa-Space,” a current hit that summer, and have included “Salvation” instead of either “Rocket Man,” which was on its way out of the singles chart, or “Honky Cat,” which was on its way in?

Just to complete the circle, Humble Harv filled in for Casey on AT40 on the show dated July 13, 1974. I don’t remember listening to that one—but it doesn’t mean I didn’t.

Primordial Top 40

Last weekend’s American Top 40 repeat broadcast was the first show, from July 4, 1970. At this early stage, the personality Casey Kasem displays is far different from what we’re used to hearing, much more casual than it would eventually become. Sometimes he punches his voice like a classic boss jock while at other times, he speaks softly, almost like an underground FM jock. Sometimes he’ll chuckle at stuff he finds amusing, which can be disconcerting for the listener if he or she doesn’t find it amusing, too.

At the beginning, Casey seems uncomfortable, hurrying through the first couple of segments, short bits delivered quickly, as if he were consistently up against the clock. As I listened, I found myself thinking, “Come on, man, stop talking so fast.” By the last segment of the first hour, he seems more comfortable. The pace is far less frantic. At first I suspected that maybe the show was recorded live in a single take, and that Casey felt more at home as the show went along. But he’s also given more time to stretch out and more things to talk about after the first couple of segments. Some of the stuff sounds scripted, but some of it sounds ad libbed, as you’ll hear below.

The production of the show is also different from what it would become. Casey rarely speaks the chart positions of the songs in the countdown, letting the jingle singers do it instead. It’s almost as if he were trying to do the show in such a way that his intro segments could be cut up and re-used in future shows, when the positions would be different. It would make little sense for him to have done so, but I don’t know what else explains his reluctance to give the chart positions, unless maybe he recorded some of his bits before the chart was officially released.

Contrary to what I wrote last week, the chart Casey counted down on the first show is actually the Billboard chart dated July 11, 1970, which was topped by Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” The Beatles (“The Long and Winding Road”) and Elvis (“The Wonder of You”) are in the Top Ten. The chart contains five records new to the Top 40, including “Ohio” by CSNY at Number 30 and “Make It With You” by Bread, way up at Number 20. It also contains a handful of records that disappeared from history not long after they disappeared from the radio. “End of Our Road” by Marvin Gaye anchors the countdown at Number 40, where it would hold for a second week and then drop out. “Check Out Your Mind” by the Impressions at Number 28 and “A Song of Joy” by Miguel Rios at Number 15 didn’t linger on many playlists after the summer of 1970, either.

Casey’s intro of “Ohio” does not include a single word about the song’s explosive subject matter, except to call it “heavy.” The same segment also includes an awkward introduction of “Everything Is Beautiful” by Ray Stevens, and one of those strange chuckles after “Check Out Your Mind.” The last song of the segment is “Question” by the Moody Blues, which includes my favorite part of the whole first show. Midway through the song, a repeating scratch on the record is clearly audible. If some of the Casey shows have gone through post-production to “fix” them for repeating 30-plus years later, this one hasn’t. More than anything else in the show, that little scratch is evidence of how much radio has changed.

American Top 40, 7/4/70, hour 1, segment 3