There were only eight new songs appearing on Billboard's Hot 100 chart this week, and all but two went on to crack the Top 40. The two "misses" included a comeback of sorts by an American legend and a song that would re-enter the chart again in the form of two cover versions.
Frank Sinatra - "Let Me Try Again (Laissez Moi le Temps)"
Frank Sinatra wasn't exactly a stranger to the pop charts, considering the very first Billboard singles survey in 1940 listed Tommy Dorsey's "I'll Never Smile Again" -- with Sinatra handling the vocals -- as its #1 hit. Despite being one of the largest stars in the pop music constellation before Elvis Presley came along and helped change the dominant "sound," Sinatra was still charting hit singles into the 1960s in addition to acting and running his Reprise record label. In 1971, he retired from singing but never really went away.
In 1973, Sinatra ended his retirement and released the album Ol' Blue Eyes is Back. Though his talents suffer at the hands of producer Don Costa, the return of an icon of such tremendous stature unleashed a mountain of pre-release publicity...and the LP made #13 at a time where Sinatra's music was considered to be passe. Lady Luck wasn't with The Chairman of the Board on the Hot 100, though: "Let Me Try Again" stalled at #63 during its 10-week chart run and was one of only six chart singles he'd enjoy during the 1970s.
As for the song, it's not exactly on the same level as "I've Got You Under My Skin" or "Fly Me to the Moon" or "Witchcraft" or even "My Way," but I like it. It's not grating at all, even if the orchestra that accompanies him tries to drown him out at times (again, I fault Don Costa's production there). An older, less vital Sinatra is still worth listening to, even if only in the background.
Stevie Wonder - "Living for the City"
In a way, it's fitting to have Stevie Wonder follow Frank Sinatra in this week's review. For all of his talents (singer, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist), he is another bright star in the pop music constellation. His 1970s output is legendary, with each LP in a five-year span being an improvement upon the last.
In 1973, he recorded Innervisions, which was likely inspired by Motown labelmate Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. Like Gaye, he was beginning to write songs about more "serious" issues that seemed to be overlooked in the Motown Sound of the 1960s even if they provided an undercurrent to the music. The LP had lyics about drugs, racial injustice and Richard Nixon even as it also had a spiritual side that aspired to rising above it all. Among the songs was "Living for the City," a seven-and-a-half minute opus that was edited down to 3:40 for the single. It recounted a family that had left Alabama for a better life in the North but found themselves struggling to keep their heads above water (perhaps it was an influence on the TV show Good Times, whose theme song had a similar but more hopeful vibe). The most noticeable missing piece of the 45 was the audio montage following a man who gets off the bus only to be set up by a con man and sent to jail, a part that leads into an extraordinary and emotional vocal performance by Stevie. The full version is definitely worth listening to if you've never had the pleasure.
The best part about Innervisions? At 23, Wonder still had music to share with the world and more LPs to craft. He was just getting started.
War - "Me and Baby Brother"
Despite being largely remembered for their period backing Eric Burdon early in the 1970s after he left The Animals, War would go on to become a very successful group on its own merit. As a group that used elements of funk, jazz, and Latin rhythms that was largely influenced by their Los Angeles roots, they developed a sound that was both unique and inclusive. For example, one large part of their sound was a harmonica played by a white Danish guy named Lee Oskar.
"Me and Baby Brother" appeared on the band's Deliver the Word LP but had been a jam simply called "Baby Brother" in their concerts for a few years before that. Even though it lacked the urban reality that marked much of the band's material of the era, it wasn't out of character for a group that had previously hit with "All Day Music" and "Summer." Most of all, "Me and Baby Brother" had an infectious beat. Later in the decade, the song would be one of the War tunes featured in the film Youngblood.
John Lennon - "Mind Games"
Among the ex-Beatles, John Lennon was the least successful (as far as chart fortunes went) by late 1973. At the time, all three of his former mates had scored #1 singles but the best Lennon had done was a pair of #3 titles ("Instant Karma" and "Imagine"). However, sometimes chart success is hard to gauge individual accomplishments; in Lennon's case, he tended to follow his own interests rather than what would sell records. He followed his heart and wrote songs about politics, revolution and other topics that often alienated listeners and radio programmers, so his chart success didn't usually match the level of his influence.
"Mind Games" was an interesting tune in that it would be the only hit single Lennon would have in the two-and-a-half year period between May 1972 and September 1974. As he was recording the Mind Games LP, he split from his wife Yoko Ono and began a period he called his "lost weekend." The album cover (shown below) helps explain how Lennon felt at the time. He was all alone in an empty field with little idea which way to go, while Yoko loomed in the background like a mountain. I'm not going to try and figure out why there are two suns in the picture, though.
Kevin Johnson - "Rock 'n Roll (I Gave You the Best Years of My Life)" (Not available on MP3)
This song was both a narrative about life as a rock & roll singer and a way to pay homage to Johnson's influences and experiences. As Johnson recounts the events, growing up in the 1950s and picking up Chuck Berry records ("78s and all") to living in San Francisco in '66 to settling down to eventually realizing that he wasn't going to make it because he was always "one step behind."
The song died a quick death on the charts, peaking at #73 and only lasting four weeks. However, a year later, both Mac Davis and Terry Jacks debuted with their cover versions of the song and Davis took it to #15.
David Essex - "Rock On"
I'll probably get some grief for saying this, but...here's a song that is considered a classic by many, yet I've always considered slow and boring. There, I've said it.
There's no doubt it was popular: it hit #5 and spent 25 weeks on the U.S. charts at a time where that was an eternal run, but even though I get the fact that it references "Blue Suede Shoes," "Summertime Blues" and James Dean and other 1950s memories I don't get the immense popularity. That said, it's worth mentioning that in my own youth I was still in high school in 1989, when a soap opera actor named Michael Damien released his own take on the tune and had a #1 hit with it. I suffered a lot of bad music that year that had been spoon-fed through our local Top 40 radio (New Kids on the Block, Michael Bolton, Martika's "Toy Soldiers"), so that may have poisoned my outlook on Essex's version.
Jim Stafford - "Spiders & Snakes"
Unlike "Rock On," here's a song I didn't like the first time I heard it, yet grew to like it. Around the time I was 12, I was looking through my parents' record collection and found the 45 for "Spiders & Snakes." I really didn't like the swamp guitar opening or the half-spoken, half-singing lyrics but I doubt many 12-year olds would. Several years later -- after I was on the other side of adolescence -- I understood that the song was about growing up and told from the perspective of a grown man looking back. It was a perspective I didn't have at 12 and the same reason I eventually came around to liking Bob Seger's "Night Moves" after I grew up as well.
Tony Orlando & Dawn - "Who's in the Strawberry Patch With Sally"
This song came off an LP called Dawn's New Ragtime Follies, which explains why "Strawberry Patch" has a 1920s Dixieland feel to it even if it does sound exactly like a Tony Orlando & Dawn tune. As a followup to both "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Ole Oak Tree" and "Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose" it may have been a little sweet for even 1970s radio. Although the song reached #27 on the charts, it was a far cry from the Top 3 positions both those tunes reached.