Eleven new songs appeared in Billboard Hot 100 this week. Five of them went on to reach the Top 40, and the one Top 10 single was a #1 smash. The lead single from an album Stevie Wonder took an eternity to record starts off the list, and a disposable pop tune by a cast member of Happy Days ends it. In between are a widely-known concert staple, an American debut for a future star, a guitar jam by a former member of Procol Harum, a song by an English band with a country feel and the final single a legendary Motown group would have on the survey. There are also lesser-known songs by Linda Ronstadt, Jefferson Starship and KC & the Sunshine Band.
Google has several past issues from Billboard available to read online, but the December 4, 1976 edition has a problem. The full Hot 100 list is supposed to be on Page 60, but seems to be missing from the scan. Page 3 has an article mentioning that the National Association of Broadcasters was becoming concerned about an increasing number of drug and sex references in popular music (which would probably have been no news at all for many of the people actually listening to radio stations for the previous several years). Another Page 3 article has the details of 10cc's split. An article on Page 34 has a story about how England Dan & John Ford Coley became "overnight" sensations after 12 years and three record labels. Finally, a short paragraph mentions that Jerry Reed was busy doing a song for a movie he was making called Smokey & the Bandit.
Stevie Wonder - "I Wish"
(Debuted #40, Peaked #1, 17 Weeks on chart)
Songs in the Key of Life was an LP that was two and a half years in the making, at a time when artists didn't normally take long getting material out unless thay wanted to be forgotten by the listening public. Fortunately, once the album arrived it was quickly regarded as a classic. At two records (plus a "bonus" EP included in the package), it was certainly ambitious. But there were many double records at that time that were overblown and plodded on too long. Once the album was finally being played on turntables and singles started hitting the radio airwaves, it was obvious that Wonder had definitely spent his time wisely in putting together such a statement.
The first of the singles culled from Songs in the Key of Life was "I Wish," a funk-driven tune that featured a walking bass line, sharp electric keyboard fingerwork, unique vocal phrasing and a breakdown at the end. While it is definitely a 1970s tune, it's aged very well over the years. Like James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton, Wonder took a funky vibe and forged it into a genuine groove. It appeared years later, as a basis for Will Smith's 1999 hit "Wild Wild West" and even made a minor appearance in the 2006 animated film Happy Feet.
I also get a kick out of the line in the song that mentions his attempts to keep Mama from whooping his behind. That's something that doesn't seem to get mentioned in popular culture nowadays.
Linda Ronstadt - "Someone To Lay Down Beside Me"
(Debuted #78, Peaked #42, 11 Weeks on chart)
Linda Ronstadt's 1970s output was marked by a long string of songs from the past she remade. By 1976, she had already released songs like "Heat Wave," When Will I Be Loved," "It's So Easy" and "That'll Be the Day" as singles, with several more to come in the future. A person looking through her singles may be surprised to come across this one.
"Someone to Lay Down Beside Me" was one of three songs written by Karla Bonoff for Ronstadt's Hasten Down the Wind LP. Opening with a piano solo that likely inspired Tori Amos, there's little to the song instrumentally besides a piano and muted strings until Ronstadt begins the chorus. At that point, the full band and a group of backing singers (which sound almost like overdubbed harmonies of Ronstadt herself) jumps in. The song is a little slower than her hit material, but showcases her vocal talent quite nicely.
Jefferson Starship - "St. Charles"
(Debuted #81, Peaked #66, 5 Weeks on chart)
This is interesting. I started writing this review blog more than a year ago. Over the past sixteen months, I've listened to a wide variety of music from the decade and had figured I'd hit at least every major act at least once since I got started. However, I haven't reviewed a single Jefferson Starship (or Airplane, for that matter) song until now. That's probably not going to happen too often from here on out.
Even better, it's a song from the group I'm not familiar with. Growing up in the 1980s, I was reminded by those older than me that the band that called itself Starship had been a group called Jefferson Airplane and that they had a much different sound back then. Jefferson Starship represented the transition between the band's psycvhedelic sound of the 1960s and the corporate synth-pop they used in the 1980s, but for some reason, their 1970s work as Jefferson Starship has been boiled down to just a handful of songs ("Miracles," "Jane," maybe "With Your Love" and "Count On Me").
"Transition" is a good way to describe the sound of "St. Charles." There are pieces of the group's Airplane lineup (Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and Marty Balin are here) and some of the vocal harmonies recall the group's Volunteers-era songs. However, Craig Chacquico's guitar solo shows some of the difference from the sound Jorma Kaukonen had provided with the old lineup. All the band needed was to hire Mickey Thomas as a singer and turn to pop-based songs.
K.C. and the Sunshine Band - "I Like to Do it"
(Debuted #82, Peaked #37, 12 Weeks on chart)
There really isn't a lot to say about the sound KC & the Sunshine band use for this song. It's very familiar to what they had been releasing since 1973.
The lyrics are ostensibly about dancing, but it doesn't take a lot of deep thought to get an alternate meaning for the oft-repeated line "I like to do it with you." The verses mention "boogie down, all night long," and "shake you up, shake you down" and even "I want you to be my one and only," none of which are enough to lead me to believe the song is actually about dancing at all. But anybody who tries to say that about a band that had already done "Get Down Tonight," "That's the Way (I Like it)" or "Shake Your Booty" really didn't get the point from those earlier hits.
That said, the idea of going out dancing was a means to do the other thing afterward. Why not put both in the same song?
Lynyrd Skynyrd - "Free Bird"
(Debuted #83, Peaked #38, 8 Weeks on chart)
Lynyrd Skynyrd had already taken the studio version of "Free Bird" into the Top 40 back in 1974. Over the years, however, it became a concert staple for them due to its triple guitar solos. It became the band's signature song and the go-to song for their concert finales. When the band released their live album One More From the Road in 1976, "Free Bird" closed out the double-record set with nearly fifteen glorious minutes devoted to the song. Some Skynyrd fans insist the live version was better than the one recorded in the studio, not only because of the concert atmosphere but because this version featured guitarist Steve Gaines, who hadn't yet joined the band for the original.
Interestingly, the "live" version has an embellishment on it. Allen Collins went back to the studio and added guitar parts for the live LP that weren't actually used in the show. However, live albums frequently contain studio fixes for things like broken strings and bad microphones that degrade the sound quality. Many major live LPs have them -- from Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison to Stop Making Sense by the Talking Heads, so why not a Skynyrd album as well?
The single version of "Free Bird" cut a lot of the instrumental play out of the song, but the album cut gets a lot of radio play since it allows the jock to grab a smoke or stop in what we called "Studio C" during my days as a radio DJ.
(The iTunes link above is the long version on One More From the Road. Amazon doesn't feature that LP, so it's from the group's box set).
Smokie - "Living Next Door To Alice"
(Debuted #84, Peaked #25, 20 Weeks on chart)
In 1977, I was really young. My first opinion of this song wouldn't come until several years later. By that time, the under-exposed film roll that developed my memories immediately thought of two things when I saw the title: Buford T. Justice (from Smokey & the Bandit) and the waitress/title character from the show Alice. I was wrong on both counts. When I got around to hearing the song and catching the story within the grooves, I forgot about both of those.
The story behind the song has the narrator feeling depressed to learn that the girl next door is moving away. He's long pined for her since they were kids, but in the twenty-four years they've been neighbors he never found a way to tell her how he felt. But, as the song ends, his friend Sally confesses she's been watching him the same way all along.
While the story is in many ways like the TV show episodes that wrap themselves up nicely in 30 minutes, Chris Norman's voice still ends the song with the lament that Alice is really gone. Smokie was a British band, but the song would have made a great country song. The story within the song, the acoustic guitar that opens it, even the steady rhythm all sound like they were picked up from country music. (I just looked...yes, Johnny Carver recorded a version in 1977 that went into the Country Top 40).
Robert Palmer - "Man Smart, Woman Smarter"
(Debuted #89, Peaked #63, 7 Weeks on chart)
Perhaps best known today for his 1980s videos, with models swaying behind him and holding instruments they didn't know how to play, it's largely forgotten how effortlessly Robert Palmer could go from one style to another. From rockers like "Bad Case of Loving You" to New Wave tunes like "Johnny and Mary" to soul ballads like "Early in the Morning," his work is a wide variety of styles and influences. New Orleans-based rock, funk, synth-pop, Caribbean rhythm, bossa nova, soul, blues...Palmer covered them all in his body of work. However, the visual revolution that was the 1980s cemented a reputation as a sharp-dressed lounge lizard, which is unfortunate.
His first American hit, was "Man Smart, Woman Smarter," a song that blended reggae with a pop phrasing. It even featured a steel drum along with the driving guitar, which was unusual for pop in the mid-1970s. As the title suggests, the song is yet another way of rephrasing the old saying that behind every successful man, there is a woman making him that way.
Gene Cotton - "You've Got Me Runnin'" (Not Available on iTunes)
(Debuted #90, Peaked #33, 11 Weeks on chart)
Gene Cotton is largely forgotten today, but was able to get a few songs into the Top 40 during the 1970s before disappearing. "You've Got me Runnin'" was his first Top 40 hit and was a solid pop tune that sounded like it could have been a hit later for somebody like Christopher Cross or Joey Scarbury during the early 1980s.
Back in September, I reviewed Cotton's song "Like a Sunday in Salem (The Amos And Andy Song)" and wasn't overwhelmed by it. However, "You've Got Me Runnin'" is a better song, with a better sound to it. Perhaps that's because I'm not thinking "what the hell is this song about?" when I'm listening to it.
The Supremes - "You're My Driving Wheel"
(Debuted #93, Peaked #85, 5 Weeks on chart)
Time managed to do what the loss of Diana Ross and the increasing apathy of Motown couldn't manage to do: "You're My Driving Wheel" would be the final pop single of a long and successful chart career for The Supremes. Despite a fan base that insisted the trio's sound had gotten better after Ross went solo, their record sales had dropped off and their hits were drying up.
By 1976, the Supremes consisted of Mary Wilson (the only member left from the "classic" group lineup of the 1960s), Scherrie Payne and Susaye Greene. Payne takes the lead on "You're My Driving Wheel," with Wilson and Greene handling backup. With a basic dance beat added, it would go on to chart but didn't get far up the Hot 100. It was the first of three singles from their LP Mary, Scherrie & Susaye; the second charted on the R&B and disco surveys, the final single was only released in the U.K. Shortly after that, the group split up.
Robin Trower - "Caledonia"
(Debuted #98, Peaked #82, 7 Weeks on chart)
Though "Caledonia" shows as Robin Trower's only hit on the Hot 100, it's unfair to call him a one-hit wonder since he was the lead guitarist of Procol Harum. For people whose knowledge of Procol Harum's sound doesn't extend far beyond "A Whiter Shade of Pale" or perhaps "Conquistador" thanks to the influence of Oldies radio, this song may come as a bit of a surprise. It's a guitar-based tune that has a definite Jimi Hendrix influence to it.
Trower gives his Stratocaster quite a workout on the solo parts. Otherwise, it's a straightforward rock tune, just the way a rock song should be. No power pop, no catchy hooks to be heard, just a guy showing his considerable skill on his instrument, with a rhythm section keeping the time for him.
Donny Most - "All Roads (Lead Back To You)" (Not Available on iTunes)
(Debuted #100, Peaked #97, 3 Weeks on chart)
Yes, this is the same Donny Most who spent several years playing Ralph Malph on Happy Days. Like fellow castmate Anson Williams (who played Potsie), Most recorded an album and notched a single hit record. Considering fellow members of the fictional Milwaukee-based sitcom world Laverne & Shirley also reached the Hot 100, it's probably certain that Ron Howard, Henry Winkler and Scott Baio would have followed with records of their own if they desired. Beyond the cast members themselves, there was a Hot 100 listing for a group of Fonz fans (The Hey-ettes), the title song by Pratt & McLain was a Top 10 hit, and there was even a revival of the show's original theme song ""Rock Around the Clock."
This song wasn't driven by 50's-era nostalgia, though, and Most doesn't try to sing it as his character. For a song cut by an actor, this really isn't surprising. However, knowing that Donny Most was the person behind Ralph Malph, I'm listening to the song expecting him to somehow pull a practical joke. I suppose it's good that he didn't give up his day gig.