Saturday, February 27, 2010

This Week's Review -- February 24, 1979

Twelve new singles make their debut this week, with only three managing to reach the Top 40. Despite the seemingly sluggish performance, some artists would go on to reach bigger heights in the 1980s -- Kim Carnes, The Police and especially Michael Jackson -- while some were making their final chart appearance.

Past issues of Billboard are available to read for free online at Google Books. The February 24, 1979 edition can be found here. The full Hot 100 list can be seen on page 88. Beginning on page 3 and continuing on page 78 is an article about Casablanca Records, which was on top of the music world thanks to its association with the white-hot disco fad. It's interesting to read articles like that with 20/20 hindsight, knowing disco would soon fall out of favor and how the resulting backlash essentially doomed the label. Another interesting fact is how label head Neil Bogart mentions his love for New York, which seems odd because the label was famous for its place on L.A.'s Sunset Strip. However, Bogart himself was a native New Yorker and his roster included NYC-bred acts Kiss, Brooklyn Dreams and The Village People.

Speaking of Casablanca Records, two singles from this week's review were from the label. One of those songs is the first on the list.

Parliament - "Aqua Boogie" Parliament - Motor-Booty Affair - Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)

(Debuted #89, Peaked #89, 2 weeks on chart)

Fans of George Clinton and his P-Funk universe probably don't mind his forays into the realm of the bizarre, but it can be something of an acquired taste even if it's as funky as on old pair of sneakers. While Billboard simply listed the song as "Aqua Boogie," on vinyl the song was followed by a parenthetical "A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop." That's quite a mouthful. Parliament would often take the idea of a concept album and stretch in to the point of melding it. For 1978's Motor Booty Affair, there was an underwater concept, which brings us to "Aqua Boogie."

Written by three of Parliament's huge talents, leader George Clinton, bassist Bootsy Collins and keyboardist Bernie Worrell, it features what fans expect from the three: Clinton's unique and bizarre humor, Bootsy's bass lines and Worrell's handiwork. In the song, Clinton channels an alter ego named Sir Nose D'Void of Funk, who is not only lacking in rhythm but afraid of water. I'm not going to even try to make sense of the words...the music is a tasty slice of funk from many of the genre's best practitioners. However, the song loses some of its luster when taken away from the entire LP, which is a small part of why the song was so short-lived on the pop chart.

Zwol - "Call Out My Name"

(Debuted #85, Peaked #75, 3 weeks on chart)

As I continue this blog project, I occasionally come across something I've never heard before that ends up being surprisingly good. Sometimes, I find those tunes running through my head later on after I've listened to them a couple of times. This was one of those songs.

Zwol sounds like a group name, but the name was a pseudonym for singer Walter Zwolinsky. For most of the 1970s, he was the singer for the Canadian rock band Brutus, a group that also introduced guitarists Jerry Doucette (who himself had a minor Hot 100 hit in 1978) and Paul Dean of the 1980s band Loverboy. Going solo in 1978, Zwol enjoyed two minor hits from his first LP and "Call Out My Name" was the second of those. The song is about a breakup; his lady has walked away and isn't answering the phone anymore but he still holds out hope she'll come back to him. As Zwol sings out the words, a keyboard and two guitars hide his pain well.

Despite the relatively poor chart showing and no followup hits in the U.S., Walter Zwol still performs around Toronto today. There's a fan-made video for "Call Out My Name" on YouTube that will let you hear the song for yourself. One of the responses on the page is purportedly from Zwol himself, with contact info (a MySpace page) for anybody who'd like to get a CD of his music, which isn't available through iTunes or Amazon right now.

Maureen McGovern - "Can You Read My Mind" Maureen McGovern - Maureen McGovern: Greatest Hits - Can You Read My Mind (Love Theme from "Superman")

(Debuted #92, Peaked #52, 9 weeks on chart)

Released to theaters late in 1978, Superman: The Movie was a tremendous hit. During one scene from the film, Superman (played by Christopher Reeve) takes Lois Lane (played by Margot Kidder) for an evening flight around Metropolis. As they fly around -- aided by CGI special effects that were cutting-edge then but pretty basic today -- there is a theme playing as Kidder's voice recites a poem called "Can You Read My Mind." Soon after the film became a hit, a version of Lois Lane's theme sung by Maureen McGovern was released. While her interpretation of John Williams' score was lovely and well-suited for cinema (even though that version didn't appear in the film), it failed to make the Top 40.

McGovern was no stranger to movie themes. Her recording of "The Morning After" (from The Poseidon Adventure) was a #1 pop hit and "We May Never Love Like This Again" (from The Towering Inferno) was a minor hit. However, both songs would win the Oscar award for Best Original Song. McGovern also performed "Wherever Love Takes Me" for a 1974 British disaster film called Gold. These songs gave McGovern a reputation as a disaster movie "queen." After "Can You Read My Mind," she would go on to TV (with the title song for the series Angie) and appear in a movie spoofing some of those disaster flicks, as a singing nun in Airplane!

B.T.O. - "Heartaches" Bachman-Turner Overdrive - 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Bachman-Turner Overdrive - Heartaches

(Debuted #94, Peaked #60, 7 weeks on chart)

The sound was similar, but the group was different. This single featured the group name B.T.O. as opposed to the full Bachman-Turner Overdrive because founder Randy Bachman had left the band and retained the rights to use the name. In fact, Bachman's new band Ironhorse would chart three weeks later with "Sweet Lui Louise" while "Heartaches" was still on the chart. Written and sung by C.F. Turner, it was the first charting B.T.O. tune since 1976. Two LPs were released in the meantime that failed to chart any singles, but the minor success of "Heartaches" didn't change the band' fortunes. The rise of disco likely killed the group's mid-70s success.

Kim Carnes - "It Hurts So Bad" Kim Carnes - Gypsy Honeymoon - The Best of Kim Carnes - It Hurts So Bad

(Debuted #78, Peaked #56, 5 weeks on chart)

After enjoying a Top 40 duet with Gene Cotton called "You're a Part of Me," Kim Carnes would get her first solo chart single with "It Hurts So Bad." Despite the fact it was her first hit, Carnes had spent more than a decade in the business. From a stint with The New Christy Minstrels in 1966-'67 (along with future duet partner Kenny Rogers), she would go on to release several independent LPs throughout the 1970s and wrote for other artists. Two of her compositions would end up being recorded by another future duet partner, Barbra Streisand, and those would help to get her more exposure.

"It Hurts So Bad" was taken from Carnes's first EMI LP St. Vincent's Court. Sounding somewhat like a female Rod Stewart and backed by a mandolin, piano and organ in addition to the more standard rock instruments, the song was written by Carnes. As somebody who started out as a songwriter, it's interesting to note that her two biggest hits would be other people's songs: 1980s "More Love" was a Smokey Robinson tune and the next year's "Bette Davis Eyes" was written by Jackie DeShannon.

George Benson - "Love Ballad" George Benson - The George Benson Collection - Love Ballad

(Debuted #81, Peaked #18, 15 weeks on chart)

George Benson didn't see a lot of success on the Hot 100 until the mid 1970s (beginning with his LP Breezin' and "This Masquerade") but he'd spent more than a decade before that as an accomplished jazz guitarist, working with greats like Miles Davis. Ironically, he reached a new level of success by adding his voice to the recordings when he was already notable for his guitar work.

This was the second appearance of "Love Ballad" on the pop chart. The first time was in 1976, as the first chart single for L.T.D. That version was handled by Jeffrey Osbourne, whose voice was far more powerful than Benson's.  However, by adding in Benson's guitar prowess -- even doing a duet with himself, scatting along with his own guitar solo, in the middle -- this version would eventually edge out the #20 peak of the original.

Brooklyn Dreams - "Make it Last"

(Debuted #90, Peaked #69, 4 weeks on chart)

Brooklyn Dreams was probably best-known for its association with Donna Summer (they sang backup on many of her hits and were the credited with "dueting" with her on "Heaven Knows") but were a group in their own right. Aside from that #2 smash Summer duet, the group had three Hot 100 entries on their own during the late 1970s and the ironically titled "Make it Last" would be their final hit. Bruce Sudano, a former member of Alive & Kicking (1970's "Tighter, Tighter") and Summer's future husband, handled the lead though all three members showcase their vocal talents.

Brooklyn Dreams was influenced by doo-wop and even appeared in the film American Hot Wax as a street corner group. However, they were under the umbrella of Casablanca records, which was the premier disco label in the U.S. so their harmonies were shifted to a more disco-influenced sound. As a result, the standard string-heavy Casablanca instrumentation detracts from the excellent three-part harmony the group exhibits in "Make it Last." A combination of the forced disco sound and the fact that "Heaven Knows" was already rising up the charts at the same time would doom the single.

Click here for a YouTube video of Brooklyn Dreams performing "Make it Last." I'm happy to say it's a truly live version, as opposed to a lip-synced TV appearance.

The Police - "Roxanne"The Police - Outlandos d'Amour - Roxanne

(Debuted #82, Peaked #32, 13 weeks on chart)

It all started with a song about being in love with a prostitute. With lyrics about turning on the red light and selling her body to the night, there's little doubt about Roxanne's profession to anybody who pays attention to the lyrics. It wouldn't be the only song about a woman of the night to hit the Top 40 ("Lady Marmalade," "Bad Girls" and "Killer Queen" were 70s hits...even the time-honored song "Sweet Georgia Brown" originally had lyrics about a working girl), but the funny thing is that some casual fans don't realize that fact even when they sing along to it on the radio.

It was also the first chart hit for The Police in the U.S. With a different sound than what usually drifted from Top 40 radio stations in 1979, the group was too smooth and instrumentally proficient to be punk, too reggae-influenced to be rock and had a guitarist who was a veteran of the British Invasion (something the punks were rebelling against). Since there is a need to categorize musical acts into some type of ready-made all-encompassing "label" The Police would be lumped in with the New Wave acts for the coming decade. They would become one of the biggest groups of the early 1980s until internal strife split them up at the peak of their popularity.

The Faragher Brothers - "Stay the Night"

(Debuted #88, Peaked #50, 7 weeks on chart)

Beginning in their native California as a group of four brothers, the Faragher Brothers had expanded to include a fifth brother and one sister by the time their third LP Open Your Eyes, which included "Stay the Night." Before making a family band, brothers Danny and Jimmy Faragher had been members of the group Bones, which had a low-charting 1972 single called "Roberta." While "Stay the Night" was a good example of blue-eyed soul and the California "sound" that permeated the airwaves in the late 1970s, the song stalled halfway up the charts.

No followup single made the charts and the band would split in 1980. After that, some of the Faraghers stayed in the music business. Tommy would become a writer (Taylor Dayne's "Every Beat of My Heart") and producer. Davey became a highly-sought session bassist. Danny would also do session work as well as performing music for TV shows like The Facts of Life and Who's the Boss?

Dan Hartman - "This is it" Dan Hartman - Keep the Fire Burnin' - Countdown/This Is It

(Debuted #93, Peaked #91, 3 weeks on chart)

Following "Instant Replay" (reviewed here last October) both on the LP and as a 45 release, Dan Hartman's second single wasn't nearly as successful as his first. It rose only as high as #91 and died pretty quickly. Not much to write about...the song is about as heartfelt as a soda commercial and the band sounds like they drank their share of sweet stuff before rolling the tape.

There is a promo video for this song on YouTube. While it shows just how silly the song is, it also shows future Kiss member Vinnie Vincent on guitar. Notice the bass player is placed behind the drummer and doesn't seem to be playing at all (Hartman did his own bass for the record). The absence of future Hall & Oates sideman/Saturday Night Live bandleader G.E. Smith (who played guitar for the LP) in the clip seems to indicate that he had the sense to stay away. That, or he was already paid for the studio gig and was happy without having to make a fool of himself too.

Eric Clapton - "Watch Out for Lucy" Eric Clapton - Backless (Remastered) - Watch Out for Lucy

(Debuted #77, Peaked #40, 7 weeks on chart)

After slowing down for "Wonderful Tonight" and flirting with country for "Lay Down Sally," E.C. returned to blues-based rock for "Watch Out for Lucy." Originally the B-side of his Top 10 hit "Promises," the song made the lower reaches of the Top 40 on its own merit. Taken from his LP Backless, the song sounds like it was recorded in a smoke-filled roadhouse. While it sounds so much differently than Clapton's other late 70s singles, it sounds like an old friend at the same time.

At first, it sounds that Lucy might be jailbait ("Excuse me, Lucy, Darling don't you use me, I don't want to land in jail.") but the song tells the story about a good-timer named Bill who fell for Lucy despite his friend's warnings that she was no good. Once that happens, she demands expensive presents. The story doesn't end well...Bill ends up lying in a gutter with a gun and a ring he tried to steal for her. Among Clapton's lesser-remembered hits, it's worth searching out.

Michael Jackson - "You Can't Win (Part 1)" Michael Jackson & Quincy Jones - The Wiz (Original Soundtrack) - You Can't Win

(Debuted #83, Peaked #81, 3 weeks on chart)

In a purely historical sense, this may be the calm before the storm. When this song was released, Michael Jackson was still seen as a member of The Jackson 5 (even after they had changed their name to The Jacksons) and occasional solo singer. He was still only 20 years old and was just getting ready to finish up his next LP Off the Wall. Of course, his life and career changed tremendously once that hit the shelves.

"You Can't Win" was taken from the soundtrack of The Wiz, a more "urban" take on The Wizard of Oz. Jackson played the Scarecrow in the film, joined by Diana Ross as Dorothy, Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man, Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion and Richard Pryor as the man behind the curtain. The film's music was scored by Quincy Jones, which helped lead to his involvement with Jackson's hugely successful LPs Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad. Interestingly, "You Can't Win" may not have been a single at all; it was written for the original stage play but discarded and later revived for the film. Listening to the song, some of Jackson's later hit formula is evident but it's unlikely the record-buying public recognized that at the time.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

This Week's Review -- February 20, 1971

This week featured a pretty good crop of new singles. Out of eight new songs, six would make the Top 40 and one great tune would be Top 10 bound. Some pretty big names, too: Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Chicago, Santana. Helen Reddy made her first of many appearances on the chart, while The Detroit Emeralds made the first of...well, not quite as many. One of my absolute favorites from the decade was included as well.

I often provide a link to the Billboard issue from the week if it's available to read online through Google Books. The February 20, 1971 edition can be found here. The full Hot 100 list can be found on page 64. Reading through the issue, I found the Jukebox section beginning on page 40 really interesting. While the articles give a glimpse into the business nearly 40 years ago, it is interesting to read about jukebox companies adding more "oldies" (which appear to be songs from just a few years prior, judging from the list given) to the jukebox offerings in response to demand. Also mentioned were some small details I had forgotten about as jukeboxes evolved to CD-playing devices: the different label colors for different music styles, the idea that the placement of the labels had a big effect on what was played and the need for the workers who serviced the machines to have well-stocked trucks to keep up with new trends and be ready to replace the records before they're worn out. One thing that I really found article mentioned that when some jukeboxes were serviced, instead of replacing any records they were simply moved around for maximum effect and the jukebox owners often didn't realize that nothing new had been added. Even 40 years ago, presentation was everything.

As for this week's new singles, the list begins and ends in the Motor City...well, sort of. Read on for details.

The Detroit Emeralds - "Do Me Right"

(Debuted #92, Peaked #43, 9 weeks on chart)

While the group's name implies they came from Michigan, that's not exactly correct. Originally called The Emeralds, they began in the mid 1960s as a quartet of brothers in Little Rock, Arkansas. After two of the brothers quit, Ivory and Abrim Tilman added childhood friend James Mitchell to the group and the newly-made trio moved to Detroit and added that city's name to their own. By 1968, they were releasing R&B sides; in 1970 they signed with Westbound records and began recording their first LP. Do Me Right was released early in 1971, with the similarly-titled lead track being its first single release.

The song was a good example of early 1970s R&B even if it didn't exactly stand out above contemporary material. The standard brass section, the thumping bass line, guitars influenced by that other Detroit-based record label and solid background harmonies all show up here. Not bad for a first stab at the national chart, even though the song would fall just short of the Top 40. The Detroit Emeralds would go on to enjoy a handful of modest hits during the 1970s but would endure some lineup changes during the era, including a change that saw them become a quartet again. In 1977, former member James Mitchell would enjoy an even bigger hit as part of The Floaters.

Alice Cooper - "Eighteen" Alice Cooper - Love It to Death - I'm Eighteen

(Debuted #90, Peaked #21, 13 weeks on chart)

There are two different titles for this classic song. Most Alice Cooper compilations and the LP Love it to Death -- the album that contained it -- list it as "I'm Eighteen" but the 45 RPM single simply calls it "Eighteen." In cases of a disparity between what Billboard's survey says and what the artist's record sleeve says, I'll defer to what is actually listed on the single that charted if I can find the label. So you Alice Cooper fans can stop raising your hands to correct the title. In this case, we're both right.

I loved this song even before I was 18. I still enjoy it today, even though I am now a father and allegedly responsible adult. Of course, back then I never really paid a lot of attention to the words; it was the driving sound of the record and the refrain "I'm eighteen...and I like it!" that resonated with me when I was a kid. However, I certainly understood the line "I'm in the middle without any plans, I'm a boy and I'm a man" because I remember specifically being frustrated that I was too old for "kid stuff" but too young to be taken seriously by adults. Hopefully I'll remember that in a few years when my own child begins having a similar frustration.

Chicago - "Free" Chicago - Chicago III (Remastered) - Free

(Debuted #85, Peaked #20, 9 weeks on chart)

No other group during the 1970s placed more songs on Billboard's Hot 100 than Chicago. When their LP Chicago III came out in 1971, it appeared the group's act was beginning to wear thin. Their extended-length progressive compositions filling one side of a disc were great for ambient listening but didn't always translate into radio hits. In fact, all of their first three LPs were double albums; no other major act has released that many consecutive two-disc sets in such a short time. They followed Chicago III with a four-disc live set that led its record company to pull material from the group's first two albums (often cut out of their long-form compositions) for singles rather than culling any live cuts for radio play. Fortunately for the group, Chicago V was a single-disc package and the side-length workouts were toned down in favor of more radio-friendly arrangements, a formula which led to a great run of hits for several years.

The first single from Chicago III was "Free," which would be the first Chicago 45 of the 1970s to miss the Top 10. More of a showcase for the band's musical prowess than its singers or songwriters, there's more of the group's trademark brass section on the record, while they lyrics are limited to little more than "I just wanna be free." However, great musicianship doesn't always translate to increased sales in an era where many were looking for the perfect hook or gimmick to get airplay.

Helen Reddy - "I Don't Know How To Love Him" Helen Reddy - I Don't Know How to Love Him - I Don't Know How to Love Him

(Debuted #99, Peaked #13, 20 weeks on chart)

This was the song that introduced Helen Reddy to American audiences. It would be the first of 19 singles she'd place on the Billboard Hot 100 chart during the 1970s. Despite her success -- three #1s and six Top 10 singles, as well as eight #1 adult contemporary songs -- she was among those artists that polarized listeners during the decade. There really wasn't a lot of middle ground with Reddy. She sold a lot of records, yet there were still reactions like the one placed in Cheech & Chong's "Let's Make a New Dope Deal": when given the choice between cutting off one of his fingers or listening to an entire side of a Helen Reddy album, a game show contestant says, "give me the meat cleaver."

Another 1970s phenomenon that people either loved or considered to be a sacrilege was the stage play Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical originally appeared as a concept album and its version of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" was sung by Yvonne Elliman in the role of Mary Magdalene. When the LP was a surprise hit, Reddy was asked to record a cover of the song to capitalize on its success after Linda Ronstadt turned down the chance. A slow rising song, it wouldn't make the Top 40 until May, where it would compete for airplay with the Elliman original that had also been released as a single. Both versions dueled on the Top 40 for more than a month; Reddy's version proved to be more successful, reaching #13 while Elliman stalled at #28.

Santana - "Oye Como Va" Santana - Abraxas - Oye Como Va

(Debuted #82, Peaked #13, 10 weeks on chart)

"Oye Como Va" is often remembered as a Santana song, but it was written and originated by Latin mambo artist Tito Puente in 1963. It's one of the few big U.S. hits of the 1970s to be entirely sung in a language other than English and has very few lyrics, letting the music speak for much of the song. The words "Oye com va, mi ritmo, bueno pa' gozar, mulata" (loosely translated: "listen how it goes, my rhythm, good for partying, mulatto") are repeated once and instrumental passages bookend the two verses. Guitar and organ solos complement the Latin rhythm nicely.

During my research, I actually learned something about the song I'd been getting wrong for many years. Since my days a high school Spanish student, I'd always heard the words "mi ritmo" as "peligro," meaning "danger." With Carlos Santana's guitar attack cutting through the steady rhythm, it seemed logical to think of it as some type of warning. As for the word "mulata," in the U.S. the term mulatto is often derisive due to its interracial context but in Latin culture multi-ethnicity is more widespread so the term likely isn't unfavorable. However, I'm not well-versed in the subject so if anybody who reads this can add some information about its inclusion in the song, feel free to add a comment below.

Billy Joe Royal - "Tulsa" Billy Joe Royal - American Legend: Billy Joe Royal - Tulsa

(Debuted #95, Peaked #86, 3 weeks on chart)

Best known for his 1965 hit "Down in the Boondocks," Billy Joe Royal had occasional success for the rest of the 1960s but nothing that matched that first hit. Despite an updated sound for his 1969 hit "Cherry Hill Park," he would return to his regular hit-or-miss routine with subsequent singles. However, in the 1980s, Royal would once again become successful by becoming a straight country singer. Unlike other crossover stars like B.J. Thomas, Kenny Rogers or Glen Campbell, Royal's country success wasn't preceded by a period of charting in both formats; in his case, his pop singles didn't chart country and his later country singles didn't hit the pop charts.

"Tulsa" was something of a precursor to Royal's later direction. It was a Western-themed song -- Waylon Jennings recorded it for the country market -- and had adult subject matter in its lyrics (his girl had gotten pregnant by somebody else and the father walked away from his responsibility, and this cowboy was looking to settle the score with him). It's a warning for the offender to leave town or be prepared for a showdown. That's a long way from running away from the shame (as the lyrics of "Down in the Boondocks" suggest). The tune may have seemed a little old-fashioned; perhaps actually having the shootout on the record (like in "Indiana Wants Me" or even "Run Joey Run") may have helped the tune rise higher on the charts.

Marvin Gaye - "What's Going On" Marvin Gaye - What's Going On - What's Going On

(Debuted #81, Peaked #2, 15 weeks on chart)

Without a doubt, this is one of the greatest songs of the 1970s. It was timely, coming after a period of unrest over racial matters and an unpopular war but done in a way that wasn't overly preachy or heavy-handed. Its message was simple yet succinct and universal.

While researching "What's Going On" I found that there are a lot of stories behind it. With the passage of time (and sadly, those who crafted the song) discerning truth and fiction might be difficult. Were Detroit Lions Lem Barney and Mel Farr among the voices heard in the conversation behind Gaye? Probably. Was there really an engineer error that led to the way that Gaye sounds like he's singing two different parts in the verses? Gaye produced the LP and isn't around to tell us. Was bassist James Jamerson really playing his part while laying on the studio floor because he was too drunk to sit up straight in his chair? Was the sax solo that begins the song a late-minute addition? In the grooves of the record that came out of those sessions, none of that really matters.

By 1970, Marvin Gaye was at a personal crossroads. Despite his massive success as a singer and songwriter, he was hungry for something more. When his friend and duet partner Tammi Terrell died at 24 from a brain tumor, Gaye stopped performing for a time and tried to decide what direction to take. Deciding to call his own shots, Gaye was determined to go against the grain of the Motown "assembly line" production process that helped make him a star. At the same time, "Obie" Benson of The Four Tops had been working on a song that had begun after watching an antiwar protest (the lines "picket lines, picket signs...don't punish me with brutality" came from that) and had fellow Motown staff writer Al Cleveland help flesh out some of the lines. His bandmates liked the song but weren't keen on recording it because it didn't really fit their musical style. When Gaye agreed to record the tune, he changed a few words and enough of the music to get a co-writing credit.

The result was a masterpiece. The LP What's Going On was a concept album that was written from the point of view of a soldier returning home from war (just like Marvin's younger brother Frankie). Using the experiences of his brother and his own pain from losing Tammi Terrell, Gaye made a record that still resonates almost four decades later. The single "What's Going On" would spend three weeks at #2 -- held out of the #1 spot by the top record of the year, Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World" -- but its message is still as valid today as it was in 1971, even as other hits from the era asking why everybody just can't get along often come off as unrealistic, silly or dated.

Aretha Franklin - "You're All I Need To Get By" Aretha Franklin - The Very Best of Aretha Franklin - The 70's - You're All I Need to Get By

(Debuted #91, Peaked #19, 9 weeks on chart)

What's more fitting than to follow a classic Marvin Gaye song than with another song Gaye made famous, performed by another soul giant? Recorded to be included on Aretha's Greatest Hits, a compilation of her biggest 1967-'70 Atlantic hits, the song was part of a terrific package. Aretha's career was still in its prime hitmaking years so a hit with the single was certain, but placed next to the more familiar Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell version it isn't the same. Perhaps I'm simply used to the song as a duet, because it seems odd to hear Aretha take on the song even if she is backed by gospel-influenced singers. Aretha is in fine form on the record, but perhaps not having The Funk Brothers around to provide the music like they did for the Motown release hurts it. I'm not saying that Aretha's version is bad (it's not by a long shot), perhaps I've simply attuned my own expectations based on the Gaye/Terrell duet that has been heavily played throughout my lifetime.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

This Week's Review -- February 9, 1974

Eight new singles made their first appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Of those, three made the Top 40 and one would reach the Top 10; however, one that stalled in the lower rungs of the chart would return to become a Top 10 hit two years later. Among the acts with new singles are the top artist of the rock era, one former member of the biggest group of the same era but with his new band, a debut hit for a pair who would eventually become the biggest duo in history and a final chart single for an artist who had recently passed away. There was also quite a lot of crossover action, as four of the singles were also hits on the country chart.

Speaking of crossover hits...Google books has a large collection of past Billboard issues available to read for free. The February 9, 1974 edition can be found here. The full Hot 100 can be found on page 56. A very interesting article begins on page 3. A chart analysis points out that the week's Top 10 might be confusing because there are two MOR songs, four soul crossovers, two country crossovers, a spoken-word recording and only one tune that would be considered rock (and even then, Ringo Starr's cover of "You're Sixteen" can be seen as something of a novelty). It's something that "oldies" stations don't readily acknowledge...but while some call that "diversity" because you'll never hear all ten of those songs on a single radio station, others call it bland since it seemed different musical forms were converging.

The Whispers - "A Mother For My Children" The Whispers - Greatest Hits - A Mother for My Children

(Debuted #99, Peaked #92, 4 weeks on chart)

The Whispers had six pop hits during the 1970s, but none would get any higher than #88. That may be a record of some type for futility. At the same time, the group notched 16 R&B hits and needed to wait for a new decade before gaining more success on both charts. Originally from the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, the group was recording in Philadelphia in the early to mid-70s and embraced the Philly Soul sound on their records (including "A Mother for My Children"). Despite employing the white-hot Philly sound of the 1970s, they ironically enjoyed their biggest success after returning home to L.A and recording for SOLAR records.

With Philly-style strings providing musical support, the lyrics tell about a man who needs a different type of support altogether. Without explaining what happened other than saying they didn't see "eye to eye," it seems his wife left him and their two kids. While he's trying to explain to the kids why she left, he's also having to keep the house cleaned ("Left me here scrubbin' floors, never washed the dishes before"...perhaps that might be part of why she left?). So now he wants to find somebody who can help raise the kids and take his household duties off his hands. With a bouncy beat driving the song, it's a much brighter song than the lyrics make it sound. It certainly deserved to be a bigger hit than it was.

The Chi-Lites - "Homely Girl" The Chi-Lites - The Chi-Lites: 20 Greatest Hits - Homely Girl

(Debuted #98, Peaked #54, 8 weeks on chart)

"Homely Girl" was the lead track (and third single) from The Chi-Lites' self-titled 1973 LP. While the title comes off as an insult, the lyrics tell an "ugly duckling/beautiful swan" story and the narrator is explaining how he feels lucky to have seen through the exterior to find a lovely person long ago, while the other boys who teased her back then have changed their opinions once she developed into a beauty. A flute or piccolo (I haven't yet figured out which) provides the gimmick, sounding like a circus or carnival to accent the childhood recollection in the song. As usual for a Chi-Lites hit song, the vocal harmony parts are as important to the song as the other instruments.

Written and produced by the group's lead singer Eugene Record, the song underscores his creative skill beyond the delivery he brought to so many Chi-Lites songs. While not as memorable as "Oh Girl" or "Have You Seen Her," "Homely Girl" is well worth a listen for those who only know them for those hits and want to hear more. Another recommendation: "Stoned Out of My Mind," from the same LP and another song that isn't what one would expect from the title.

Glen Campbell - "Houston (I'm Comin' To See You)" Glen Campbell - All the Best - Houston (I'm Comin' to See You)

(Debuted #84, Peaked #68, 6 weeks on chart)

Glen Campbell certainly had a lot of hit records that named cities in the title. Wichita, Galveston and Phoenix (twice, if you count his duet with Anne Murray) were better known, and in 1974 Campbell added Houston to the list. Unfortunately, it didn't match the success of those earlier hits but that didn't deter Campbell from dropping L.A. into the title of a future hit single. Also different from the three city songs mentioned above, "Houston" wasn't written by Jimmy Webb; it was penned by future Toto member David Paich. That made it one of the earliest hits for a writer who would compose most of Toto's hits as well as Cheryl Lynn's "Got to Be Real" and many of Boz Scaggs' Silk Degrees-era hits.

With a musical component that sounds like it was influenced by Elton John's "Levon," the song is another in a long line of songs where a singer is dealing with separation. Musicians who do a lot of touring are very well acquainted with the subjects of long distances and traveling and their toll on relationships, which helps them deliver convincing performances when presented with those types of tunes. At one point, the narrator is realizing it's been over a year and can't understand where the time went. For a successful crossover artist like Glen Campbell, the arrangement is suitable for multiple audiences (and in turn charted on Billboard's pop, country and adult contemporary charts).

Elvis Presley - "I've Got A Thing About You Baby"  Elvis Presley - Walk a Mile In My Shoes: The Essential '70s Masters - I've Got a Thing About You Baby b/w "Take Good Care Of Her" Elvis Presley - Walk a Mile In My Shoes: The Essential '70s Masters - Take Good Care of Her

(Debuted #90, Peaked #39, 12 weeks on chart)

Elvis Presley was such an icon, it's easy to forget that he was only an active hitmaker for a little over twenty years before his death. His career as a recording artist was shorter than those of Elton John, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, even Madonna; however, he's still the #1 act of all time (that is, since the rock era began in 1955). His 1950s material is what made his legend. His 1960s recordings weren't as essential but were still consistent even if he didn't always seem in touch with the times. For some reason, the King's 1970s output is largely overlooked and undervalued by many despite the fact that he was one of the decade's most prolific recording artists. Perhaps the fact that many fans equate the 1970s Elvis with the drug-addicted, TV shooting, karate-chopping, sequin-jumpsuited, overweight stage presence of those last few years contributed to that.

Like many of his 1970s singles, this was a two-sided hit that also scored on the country chart. "I've Got a Thing About You Baby" was the more uptempo side, while "Take Good Care of Her" was slower. Where "Thing" had a definite 70s vibe with a more pronounced bass line than he usually featured in his songs and an organ line, "Care" featured piano and strings. Both songs had backing vocals: "Thing" featured a female group like The Sweet Inspirations (who had backed him up during his 1969 Memphis recordings) and "Care" featured a full church choir that accented the "my true love is getting married to someone else" topic of the lyrics.

While these songs aren't exactly on a level with Elvis's 1950s hits, they're not 1970s kitsch, either. When released, Elvis was still in fine vocal form, still notching consistent Top 40 hits and still making meaningful music when several of his 1950s and 1960s contemporaries were being relegated to the oldies revival circuit. It's puzzling how his 1970s material is often dismissed or passed over.

Paul McCartney and Wings - "Jet" Paul McCartney & Wings - Band On the Run - Jet

(Debuted #69, Peaked #7, 14 weeks on chart)

Here's a song I've always liked but never really understood. Taken from Band on the Run, perhaps McCartney's best and tightest post-Beatles LP, "Jet" was one of three singles from the album (except in the U.K., where "Helen Wheels" was a single but wasn't originally included on the album). While it's one of Macca's best post-Beatles rock tunes, the lyrics are somewhat nonsensical. With lines about "Jet" getting married soon, a lonely place besides the moon, a father "as bold as the sergeant major" and the major being a lady suffragette (a word which likely was used either because McCartney liked David Bowie or "Jet" is the last syllable of that word), as near as I can figure, it's another one of those songs where the singer is lamenting a lover getting married to somebody else. What makes the song even more puzzling is the persistent rumor (whether factual or not) that "Jet" was the name of the McCartney family's labrador retriever.

As a former soldier of the U.S. Army, I realize the mention of a sergeant major (an enlisted rank) and a major (on officer rank) together seems odd. That has always bothered me about the song. However, I still have no idea whether McCartney was referring to the same person. Perhaps that's the point of the song: toss whatever lyrics fit the melody and let the music speak for itself.

Daryl Hall and John Oates - "She's Gone" Hall & Oates - The Essential Daryl Hall & John Oates - She's Gone

(Debuted #96, Peaked #60, 8 weeks on chart)

If the #60 peak position seems like a typo, it's very much correct. In 1974, Daryl Hall and John Oates notched the first chart hit of their successful career together. However, "She's Gone" didn't become a big first. After subsequent cover versions by Tavares and Lou Rawls and the duo's breakout with "Sara Smile," the song would be re-released in 1976 and became a Top 10 hit the second time around.

In retrospect, it was a song that deserved its second chance. On the surface, it's essentially a song about coming to grips with the fact that a lover has walked away, which was nothing new among hit songs. Written by both Hall and Oates, the song was begun by Oates after ostensibly being stood up on a date. Tossing the song idea to his partner, Hall took the experience of his recent divorce and the two wrote a song that not only filled the human instinct of dealing with emotional issues as a way of getting past them but became a song many fans could relate to. It's still one of the duo's best-loved songs.

Sami Jo - "Tell Me A Lie" Sami Jo - Tell Me a Lie EP - Tell Me a Lie

(Debuted #85, Peaked #21, 14 weeks on chart)

Sami Jo was an Arkansas native who was enjoying her first hit single. "Tell Me a Lie" would be her biggest hit with modest crossover appeal, reaching the pop, country and adult contemporary charts. The adult subject matter was well-suited for the country and AC audiences and the resulting buzz helped propel the single into the pop chart. Sami Jo's dusty voice was reminiscent of Dusty Springfield's (and later on, Bonnie Tyler's) but her delivery was much more subtle. Her followups failed to match "Tell Me a Lie"'s success and her record label dropped her after 1976. She would re-emerge in 1981 as Sami Jo Cole but after two low-charting country songs she left the music business.

"Tell Me a Lie" would reappear in 1983 when Janie Fricke rerecorded the song and rode it to #1 on the country charts. Sami Jo has a website and "Tell Me a Lie" is embedded there as an MP3. Scroll halfway down the page, the song is free for listening.

Tex Ritter - "The Americans (A Canadian's Opinion)"

(Debuted #100, Peaked #90, 3 weeks on chart)

"The Americans" wasn't a song. It was a spoken-word opinion piece set against a patriotic instrumental. Written by Canadian broadcaster Gordon Sinclair as a commentary about how the U.S. was often one of the first nations to help others when they were in crisis (and often did so alone among world powers), the piece was soon a phenomenon much in the way viral YouTube recordings are today. First aired on Canadian radio on June 5, 1973, it quickly became played all over the U.S. at a time when the economy was sluggish, Watergate was threatening to destroy the President and the recent withdrawal of troops from Vietnam had appeared to seal the fate of its former allies there. Again, after the events of September 11, 2001, the songs would be rediscovered and often erroneously attributed as a response to those attacks even though Sinclair had been dead for 17 years and there were no longer any "draft dodgers" in Canada as the piece alluded to.

"The Americans" would appear on Billboard's Hot 100 in three places during this week's survey: the original Sinclair recording was at its peak position of #24, the remake version by Byron MacGregor was at its own #4 peak and a recital by actor/singer Tex Ritter was making its debut at the very bottom of the chart.

Ritter was a big name in country music during the days when the genre was still followed by the words "and Western." During the 1940s, while Ritter was starring in a number of Western-themed movies, he scored with three #1 singles, the biggest of which had a great country title: "You Two Timed Me One Time Too Often." He had been playing a singing cowboy since 1936, but Billboard didn't begin its country chart until 1944 so his hit streak was shorter than it could have been. He also sang "Do Not Forsake Me," the theme song for the classic 1952 film High Noon. He also recorded spoken-word pieces like "Deck of Cards," "Daddy's Last Letter" (an actual letter from a soldier who died in Korea) and "Last Night I Dreamed of a Hillbilly Heaven" so "The Americans" must have seemed like a natural fit for him.

There were some differences from the other two hit singles; Ritter introduced the composition by crediting Sinclair and giving the date and the call letters of the Toronto radio station that broadcast it first. The background music had a vocal choir along with the orchestra. Finally, his homespun Texas accent (while reading something written for a Canadian to orate, no less) is a contrast from the more polished voices of professional broadcasters.

Ironically, Ritter had passed away from a heart attack on January 2, 1974, a month before his record charted.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

This Week's Review -- February 3, 1979

Seven new songs debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, with only two reaching the Top 40. Sadly, neither of those tunes made much of an showing beyond that on the chart even though one was a multi-week #1 R&B hit. Among the songs were offerings from a couple of groups that were doing very different styles from what long-time fans may have expected, a tune written in the 1960s performed by a rock legend who'd been away from the charts for a while and a song by a lady probably best remembered for the Grease soundtrack. In all, it's likely that this week's offering will have a high percentage of "I've never heard that song before" (or "haven't heard that one in years") comments when compared to other weeks. Heck, I hadn't heard some of this stuff either, and I'm a fan of several of these acts.

 Past issues of Billboard magazine are available online at Google Books. Click Here to read the February 3, 1979 edition. The full Hot 100 list can be found on page 92. Page 30 features an article on Frankie Crocker, who had just returned to WBLS-New York as program director to try and wrestle the #1 radio station crown from disco juggernaut WKTU (which he did, as disco was dying). He's quoted as saying that disco was replacing rock, equating the form with Sinatra, Elvis and The Beatles. In February '79, it may have seemed that way.

Dr. Hook - "All The Time In The World" Dr. Hook - Pleasure & Pain - All the Time In the World

(Debuted #84, Peaked #54, 7 weeks on chart)

Dr. Hook (and The Medicine Show, as they were known before 1975) had several hit singles during the 1970s but never really managed to translate that success into album sales. Despite such hits as "Sylvia's Mother," "The Cover of Rolling Stone" and "Only Sixteen," the New Jersey-rooted band had never earned a gold LP until Pleasure & Pain, a 1978 album that featured a pair of Top 10 singles. "Sharing the Night Together" and "When You're in Love With a Beautiful Woman" both went to #6. Another single from that LP was "All the Time in the World." Released between the two hits, it wasn't nearly as memorable.

There's not a lot to the song, with a musical backing track well-suited for dozens of romantic easy-listening hits of the decade. The lyrics can be read a couple of different ways: the male partner of a couple is expressing his desire to spend his life with his female companion...or his desire is a lot more carnal (a very common thread among supposedly "easy" 1970s songs when you get past the laid-back rhythm). I suppose this song may have been a favorite among young couples that certainly found its way onto its fair share of mix tapes, but it's a major departure in style from when Dr. Hook was interpreting Shel Silverstein's lyrics.

Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers - "Bustin' Loose (Part 1)" Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers - Bustin' Loose - Bustin' Loose

(Debuted #88, Peaked #34, 12 weeks on chart)

If you like funk, there's no conceivable reason for "Bustin' Loose" to avoid getting into your bones. Although the song is light on lyrical content, the groove that courses through its instrumental parts, especially the horn arrangement, is more than satisfying. Evey the LP version seems to fade out too soon. Though it only made the lower reaches of the Top 40, the song spent four weeks at #1 on Billboard's R&B chart. Unfortunately, none of Brown's followup singles managed to capture the essence of "Bustin' Loose" even though he's enjoyed a long career.

This was one of the first nationwide hit songs in the funk subgenre known as Go-Go, which was centered in the Washington, DC area and traced mainly to Chuck Brown. Though Go-Go was eventually overshadowed by rap and hip-hop during the 1980s, there were some hits for other acts; most notable was "Da Butt" by E.U. in 1988. In the modern day, "Bustin' Loose" is an anthem for the Washington Nationals baseball club whenever a home run is hit by a team member during one of their home games. In 2002, rapper Nelly sampled the song in his hit "Hot in Herre."

Heart - "Dog And Butterfly" Heart - Dog & Butterfly - Dog & Butterfly

(Debuted #82, Peaked #33, 10 weeks on chart)

I've mentioned before on this blog that I have a young daughter. She's 11 now and over the years has come to understand that her Daddy likes listening to music. She was still an infant when I began using Napster (remember those days?) and sometimes bounced on my knee listening to some of the MP3s I pulled from it. Over the years, she's had CDs made from MP3s she liked, somehow ended up with my MP3 player and even though I've tried to let her develop her own interests and tastes when it comes to music, there's definitely an influence there gained by simply being around while I've played music.

A few years ago I played "Dog and Butterfly" on my computer while writing a newsletter that I was producing at the time, and my little girl (then 7 or 8) said, "I really like this song." When I asked her why, she only said, "It's pretty." Then, when she learned the title, the animal reference made her love it even more. It's still one of her favorites.

"Dog and Butterfly" was from Heart's 1978 LP of the same name. It was slower and much softer than the songs the band had previously unleashed (pun intended) on singles. Ann Wilson still uses her vocal range, sister Nancy handles the harmony well, the electric guitar has been set aside in place of an acoustic six-string and a subtle piano. Rather than rising to a full-throated wail like on "Crazy for You," the vocals stay on the softer, emotional side and the music shows a maturity in the band. What's more, the lyrics -- full of metaphors -- seem to compare the way a dog makes a futile effort to catch a butterfly to the way a person chases a dream.

That brings me back to my daughter. Someday (and it will be sooner than I'm ready to realize) she'll be eager to chase those dreams herself. If she still has the song available, maybe she'll be able to let it help her as she runs off after whatever is calling her. Hopefully, it'll also remind her that she'll still have her old man (like the one mentioned in the song) to offer guidance.

10cc - "For You And I" 10cc - 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of 10cc - For You and I

(Debuted #87, Peaked #85, 3 weeks on chart)

After tasting success in the mid-1970s with the #2 hit "I'm Not in Love," the English group 10cc had a sudden split when two of its four members decided to leave. While that would have effectively ended a career for most bands, Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart decided to keep going. They soon had another U.S. Top 10 hit with "The Things We Do For Love" but little else. Their 1978 LP Bloody Tourists contained the group's last two chart singles, both of which deserved better exposure but suffered from the disco phenomenon. "Dreadlock Holiday" was a reggae-tinged hit that was a #1 single at home but missed the U.S. Top 40, but its followup "For You and I" died a quick death on the Hot 100 and failed to chart in the U.K. at all. The group would continue to record new material until 1983; while they managed to score the occasional U.K hit they never made the U.S. Hot 100 again.

In a sense, "For You and I" really doesn't hold its own against better 10cc songs. It lacks the sense of humor that often carries their musical ideas and isn't memorable in the same way that the group's two biggest hits were. However, the single's sound is something that would reappear on the charts again during the next decade. Listen to the song with the 1980 Korgis hit "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime" or Paul McCartney's "No More Lonely Nights" and hear the similarities in delivery and production quality.

Neil Young - "Four Strong Winds" Neil Young - Comes a Time - Four Strong Winds

(Debuted #86, Peaked #61, 7 weeks on chart)

"Four Strong Winds" is a song that has been recorded a bunch of times. Written in the early 1960s by Canadian singer/songwriter Ian Tyson, who was inspired by Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." Tyson was one-half of Ian and Sylvia, and they had a huge hit with the song in their home country in 1963/'64. In the U.S., however, their version was beaten to the Billboard charts by The Brothers Four, who "bubbled under" with the song in October '63. Bobby Bare took his own version to #3 on the country chart early in 1965. Another Canadian, Neil Young, used it as the final track of his 1978 LP Comes a Time, which was a return to the country/folk sound of Harvest earlier in the decade.

Young's recording features a supporting vocal in the chorus provided by Nicollette Larson, who would soon be charting with her own material. The lyrics tell a story about a man who's moved on to find his way (in Alberta) but without his beloved. Unlike "Long Time" from last week's blog entry, he wishes she'd come along but all arguments to convince her have been fruitless. This is a song that likely deserved to be a bigger hit, but a 1960s-era song done in a folk vein with acoustic guitars wasn't going to do well in an era where disco was king.

Delegation - "Oh Honey"

(Debuted #89, Peaked #45, 12 weeks on chart)

Delegation was a one-hit wonder on the U.S. pop charts but enjoyed a handful of hits on the R&B chart as well as in the U.K. Although they sound much like a U.S. soul group, they actually hailed from England and fit a similar mold as other British acts like Hot Chocolate and Imagination. The three-member group's lineup changed considerably throughout its existence, with leader and native Jamaican Rick Balley the only constant. Despite their limited success, they recorded and toured well through the 1980s.

"Oh Honey" fell just short of the Top 40 but was a #6 R&B hit. Recorded in 1977, it was a hit in Europe and took over a year to break in the U.S. The fact that it sounded a little aged might have hurt its chances; had it charted at the same time as "Float On" or "Dazz" it may have had more of a boost. It has lived on in rap and hip-hop recordings through its four-note keyboard hook, which has been sampled often.

Cindy Bullens - "Survivor" Cindy Bullens - Desire Wire - Survivor

(Debuted #90, Peaked #56, 7 weeks on chart)

As 1979 began, New England native Cindy Bullens was perhaps best known as one of the voices used for some of the incidental music from the Grease soundtrack. She sang "Freddy My Love," "Mooning" and "It's Raining on Prom Night" for that project, so it would be logical for someone unaware of her work to expect a similar style in her solo recordings. Instead, "Survivor" is a rock tune. Her other previous work in the business was backing up Elton John in the mid 1970s (and was one of the backers on the hit single "Don't Go Breaking My Heart"), so perhaps the sound of "Survivor" isn't so surprising.

Despite the potential for further success along with harder-edged female 1980s acts like Pat Benatar and The Go-Gos, Bullens left the business to tackle another important job: mother and wife. Despite a second LP late in 1979, fans had to wait until 1989 for another release and well into the 1990s for more. One of her two daughters died from cancer in 1996 at the age of 11, which has made her a crusader for cancer causes. In 2007, she founded a group called The Refugees along with another minor 1970s hitmaker Wendy Waldman. More than 30 years later, she's still performing.

Lastly, Cindy Bullens is pictured on the first page of the Billboard magazine I linked above. It's a small advertisement near the bottom right for her LP Desire Wire.