Saturday, April 24, 2010

This Week's Review -- April 27, 1974

Here's a first for this blog. Of the seven songs debuting on the Billboard Hot 100 survey, not a single one would go on to reach the Top 40. I really don't know how many times that happened during the 1970s (or at any time in the history of Billboard), but it's a rare occurrence. While some might dismiss such a list because the songs are mostly unfamiliar, I welcome a week like this specifically because those songs are unfamiliar to me. I never know whether I might find something I like.

Past issues of Billboard are available to read online at Google Books. The April 27, 1974 edition is among them. The full Hot 100 can be found on page 52. Among the stories is a piece beginning on page 26 about Dick Clark's return to radio after over a decade away. The Juno Awards (for the Canadian music business) also gets a review over several pages.

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Rick Cunha - "(I'm a) Yo-Yo Man" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #89, Peaked #61, 7 Weeks on chart)

Rick Cunha may be unknown to many music fans, but he's a highly regarded guitarist in the bluegrass, Hawaiian steel and Spanish-style genres and enjoys a great deal of respect among his peers. Born in Washington, DC in 1944, his father was 1950s B-movie director Richard Cunha and his grandfather Sonny Cunha, a very popular Hawaiian musician during the early 20th Century. During the 1960s he was a member of the folk-rock group Hearts and Flowers. Later, he was a session musician for artists like Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings. He has written music for others as well. However, with all that under his belt he only managed to get one hit single.

From the lyrics, the Yo-Yo man was a travelin' man, an aimless, free-spirited man who did tricks for the kids at the playground. Today, that might attract some special attention from parents and police, but it was one of several songs expressing a desire to explore the freedom of the road at that time. In addition to Cunha's guitar chops, the song features fiddles, a harmonica and a stomping beat. With those elements, it would be a minor hit on the country chart as well.

Despite its short-lived success on the Hot 100, "Yo-Yo Man" has taken on a life of its own as part of The Smothers Brothers' comedy act. Beginning as a song the duo sang as part of their act, Tommy Smothers has developed a very elaborate yo-yo trick routine that has become a very popular part of their show.

Tower Of Power - "Time Will Tell"  Tower Of Power - The Very Best of Tower of Power: The Warner Years - Time Will Tell

(Debuted #93, Peaked #69, 6 Weeks on chart)

Tower of Power is world-famous for its brass section. Their sound is so distinctive, they are often asked to contribute to songs by many artists that call for horns. Some of their work can be found on albums from a wide variety of musical formats, artists as diverse as Rod Stewart, The Brothers Johnson, Toto, Huey Lewis & the News, Santana, John Lee Hooker, even harder-edged groups like Poison and Aerosmith. What's more, they've been continually performing and touring for more than 40 years.

Despite the demand of their famed horns, the group's peak hitmaking years came when they had the services of Lenny Williams on lead vocals. Williams was an R&B veteran before joining the band and lent a distinct quality when he sang. On "Time Will Tell," his recital is placed on equal footing with the horn section and Williams holds his own. While not as powerful as "So Very Hard to Go" or as funky as "What is Hip," "Time Will Tell" is a great ballad and one of the band's underappreciated gems.

Rick Derringer - "Teenage Love Affair" Rick Derringer - All American Boy - Teenage Love Affair

(Debuted #94, Peaked #80, 5 Weeks on chart)

This was the followup to Rick Derringer's biggest solo hit, the FM rock staple "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo" (reviewed here in January). As familiar as that song was, "Teenage Love Affair" faltered quickly and was soon forgotten. It's a shame, as it was a more straightforward rocker and a lot more fun to listen to. A great guitar tune, Derringer gets some help from Joe Walsh, who plays a distorted solo that is faster but not too far removed from the one he did on "Rocky Mountain Way."

As the title suggests, "Teenage Love Affair" is about two kids having fun once the parents leave. After the solo, the lyrics explain that the girl ended up having quite the reputation, but like the dogs that males can be, he didn't seem to worry about it. Perhaps I just explained why the song wasn't that much of a hit; lyrics that discuss casual sex between teenagers in a frank manner probably don't play well in Peoria, the Bible Belt or anywhere else parents were still looking at rock 'n' roll as filth. That always cracked me up, because I seem to recall that teenagers really didn't need rock music to let them know about the natural chemistry that resulted when a boy and girl spent enough time together.

The Undisputed Truth - "Help Yourself" The Undisputed Truth - The Best of Undisputed Truth - Smiling Faces - Help Yourself (Single Version)

(Debuted #97, Peaked #48, 7 Weeks on chart)

The Undisputed Truth sometimes seemed like little more than Norman Whitfield's "other" group, the one who got to enjoy the leftovers after he'd given his best material to The Temptations. That was likely the way it was planned, considering their version of "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" received little notice until Whitfield had it redone by the more famous group. However, by 1974, The Temptations were no longer working with Whitfield (who was preparing to leave Motown soon afterward) so The Undisputed Truth was in a position to get better material.

"Help Yourself" had a great funky rhythm and decent vocal interplay, but listening to it might lead one to wonder how it could have been done with Dennis Edwards handling the lead vocal, Eddie Kendricks on the high part and the rest of the Temptations doing background harmonies. Perhaps the flip side of working with a visionary producer like Whitfield and having the same musicians at their disposal was that they were often unfairly compared to his other projects. So, nearly three years after hitting big with "Smiling Faces Sometimes," the group was still seeking a followup that would place them back in the Top 40. "Help Yourself" wasn't that song, however.

The Crusaders - "Scratch"  The Crusaders - Scratch - Scratch

(Debuted #98, Peaked #81, 6 Weeks on chart)

They had dropped the name "Jazz" from their name in 1971, but The Crusaders were still adept at the style even as they focused more on R&B during the 1970s. Their LP Scratch was recorded live at The Roxy in Los Angeles, and the title song was its only single to reach the Hot 100. As an instrumental piece of straight jazz, it's little wonder the song didn't reach farther into the pop charts (though that is no excuse). While jazz is an underappreciated form among fans of other genres, it's still no excuse for listening to a great band in its element. The saxophone solo by Wilton Felder that dominates much of the record is top-notch and the piano work is superb.

Paper Lace - "Billy, Don't Be A Hero" (Not available as MP3)*

(Debuted #99, Peaked #96, 3 Weeks on chart)

My website has been online since 2000. Over the years, I've gotten emails that corrected errors I've made in the listings. Since the site was very data-intensive and I was a one-man crew entering the info -- often at late hours -- there are surely going to be some errors there. However, this song has been the source of a few emails from well-meaning visitors explaining either that "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" was a song by Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods and that the #96 peak had to be wrong since it was a big hit. Yes, Donaldson and company did have a huge hit with the song, but it was a hit by Paper Lace first.

Paper Lace was a group from Nottingham, England. When they recorded "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" they took it to #1 in their home country; however, before they could get rights to a release in the U.S., the song had already been cut by Donaldson's group. That version was already on the Hot 100 before Paper Lace could get listed and went all the way to the top. Paper Lace only managed to reach #96 before being forgotten. Fortunately, they were able to bounce back with their next single, "The Night Chicago Died."

As a song from 1974, "Billy" is often considered a reaction to the Vietnam War. That would make a great deal of sense, as the memories of that conflict were still fresh. Also, the story of the soldier dying in action along with military-style marching drums and wind instruments that sounded like Revolutionary-era fifes underscored the belief. However, the song had been written by two Englishmen with the U.S. Civil War in mind (American soldiers weren't wearing blue uniforms to 'Nam). Though the two songs are quite similar, one major difference between Paper Lace's original and the hit version is the presence of a female voice in the chorus.

* - while there are MP3s available through iTunes and Amazon, it seems what is available are versions that have been re-recorded well after the hit single. Therefore, I decided not to link to them.

The Love Unlimited Orchestra - "Rhapsody in White"  Love Unlimited Orchestra - Rhapsody In White - Rhapsody In White

(Debuted #100, Peaked #63, 8 Weeks on chart)

The "White" in the song title is a play on the name of the man behind The Love Unlimited Orchestra: Barry White, whose career in 1974 could only be described as "white" hot. Having just come off a #1 instrumental hit with "Love's Theme," White followed it up with the title song off the Rhapsody in White LP but it wasn't as much of a hit. Another instrumental, it wasn't quite as romantic as its predecessor but still was worthy of some more spins than it ended up getting.

Like the previous hit, White arranged lush strings but some great guitar work is given the spotlight. In a way, it was another example of how Barry White was an early innovator of the disco sound by using orchestration that would be a standard component of that genre before others thought of using it. Ironically, the monster he helped to create ended up devouring him. Once he began actually doing disco music, his career begin its decline. As an innovator of his own sound, he was unparalleled; once he followed the trend, it sank him.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

This Week's Review -- April 16, 1977

Although only eight songs were able to break into the Hot 100, many had staying power. Five of them would be Top 40 hits, three made the Top 10, and a pair were destined to be #1 hits. Four songs would remain on the pop charts for at least 18 weeks. Interestingly, two of this week's new singles are songs whose point of view reflects bemusement at the latest dance craze; one dances to satisfy his partner and the other has to be coaxed into it. Another one is a unique song that was different but still reached the Top 40. Pablo Cruise is on the chart for the first time, while Bread, Carl Graves and B.W. Stevenson are making their last run. Finally, the first two songs listed are among the biggest of that year.

An archive of past Billboard issues is available at Google Books, including the April 16, 1977 edition. The full Hot 100 list is on page 80. Beginning on page 44, a feature article focuses on writer/producer Freddie Perren. A short article on page 32 explains that Frankie Valli was doing a "farewell" tour with The Four Seasons before embarking on a solo career. And finally, a reminder beginning on page 2 that some things just don't change: industry types were bemoaning the fact that many recent songs were filled with vulgar language and suggestive lyrics. What might be surprising is that the music in question was country. While complaining about the use of words "hell" and "damn" seems quaint today, it does reflect the more conservative nature of country fans in general even in 1977. However, the genre had long been an outlet for more "adult" topics (and the article mentions this) going back to its earliest days; really, when Hank Thompson and Kitty Wells sang about "Honky Tonk Angels" a quarter century earlier, who imagined the married woman in question was being chaste?

Wolfgang's Vault - Posters

Marvin Gaye - "Got To Give It Up (Part 1)" Marvin Gaye - Number 1's: Marvin Gaye - Got to Give It Up, Part 1

(Debuted #50, Peaked #1, 18 Weeks on chart)

Back in the days when he was part of the Motown assembly-line production process, Marvin Gaye had a lot of singles and several hits. That would change beginning with his What's Going On LP (outlined on this blog a few months ago) and through the 1970s his work was a matter of quality over quantity.  However, despite Gaye's reduced output, he was still able to make hits. "Got to Give it Up" would be a big one, too, hitting #1 on Billboard's pop, soul and disco charts during the Spring of '77.

While there was no shortage of dance-oriented singles in 1977, "Got to Give it Up" doesn't come across as a standard-issue disco song. Its groove is much slower, voices are heard in the background to simulate a party going on (something also utilized in "What's Going On" although this time the voices are from Gaye himself) and Gaye refrains from using catchy dance hooks in favor of a more laid-back, funky feel. Even the percussion is mellow, partially made with a half-filled bottle of juice. The lyrics -- sometimes hard to follow because of Gaye's falsetto delivery -- tell of a guy who is reluctant to go out on the dance floor but eventually loses himself in the rhythm.

According to the legend, Gaye recorded the song in a very casual manner, laying back on a chair in the studio and singing into a microphone above him. It also was expanded and reworked by producer Art Stewart until it became a nearly 12-minute album cut. The single version was Part 1, lasting just over four minutes and including most of the vocals.

Fleetwood Mac - "Dreams" Fleetwood Mac - Rumours - Dreams

(Debuted #77, Peaked #1, 19 Weeks on chart)

Here's a song that ranks among the singles I don't get tired of hearing. That's especially rare, because it still gets played on the radio an awful lot. When I began this blog a year and a half ago I intended to write about all of the songs I felt were the best of the 1970s and this was one of the tunes I wanted to mention but hadn't gotten around to finishing before I changed my focus. Funny thing, though...when I was younger I really didn't care for the song. I guess it's one of those things you don't really get until you've had some life experience. For a while, in fact, I didn't even realize that "Dreams" was this song even though I had heard the song many times on the radio because that word doesn't feature in the lyrics until the last verse.

A lot has been written over the years about the soap opera drama between several band members as they recorded their music for the Rumours LP. So I won't get into the details of that except to point out the fact that Stevie Nicks wrote a song that was quite abstract when compared to Lindsay Buckingham's take on the events, "Go Your Own Way."

I've often forgotten how great the rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are together. In the BBC series Classic Albums, the show about Rumours had a part where the producer and Fleetwood listen to the track in the studio brought down the audio for all the channels except the bass and drums. While a good bass/drum combo works like the timing chain in an old car, pulling the engine along, the McVie/Fleetwood combo does that and more in this song. Then again, having Lindsay Buckingham adding his haunting guitar line and Stevie Nicks singing about her own personal heartbreak adds more complexity to the tune.

Bread - "Hooked On You" Bread - Lost Without Your Love - Hooked On You

(Debuted #82, Peaked #60, 7 Weeks on chart)

"Hooked On You" was Bread's thirteenth single to reach the Hot 100. True to the superstition, it wasn't good luck for them at all. Not only would it be their first release to miss the Top 40, it would also turn out to be the band's final hit. For a band that seemed to have the Midas touch between 1970 and '73, it was a sad way to end. After touring for most of 1977 on what was billed as a "comeback" tour, the band quietly disbanded in 1978.

Like all of Bread's other hits, the song followed the standard formula that turned the group's earlier hits into gold: written and sung by David Gates, an easy listening feel, wistful lyrics and romantic guitar lick. Perhaps the fact that it sounded like just another Bread song doomed it, but it's much more likely that the prevailing sound of pop music had simply moved past what fed the group's early 1970s success and made the song seem old-fashioned.

Sad to think that in the group photo on the album cover shown below, only one of the guys is still alive.

Starbuck - "Everybody Be Dancin'" Starbuck - The Very Best of Starbuck - Everybody Be Dancin'

(Debuted #85, Peaked #38, 8 Weeks on chart)

Thanks to their #3 smash "Moonlight Feels Right," Starbuck is seen as a one-hit wonder despite four subsequent chart singles. However, only one of those -- "Everybody Be Dancin'" -- just barely made the Top 40, so they've been largely forgotten beyond their big hit. Formed in Atlanta in 1974, Starbuck was formed around the nucleus of ex-Eternity's Children members Bruce Blackman and Bo Wagner. And lest anybody think that "Everybody Be Dancin'" sounds like a lesson in ebonics, Starbuck was made up entirely of white musicians.

An obvious tip of the hat to the rising disco tide, "Everybody Be Dancin'" was the first track and lead single from the band's second LP Rock 'n' Roll Rocket. From the lyrics, the narrator doesn't understand the dance craze but is willing to do it to appease his lady, even as he is disappointed they don't dance the way he remembers ("I'm gonna catch that beat if it kills me, but don't you think it's a crying shame that they don't like Carmen here no more?"). Like their biggest hit single, this one also has a marimba solo and synthesizer and adds robotic-sounding vocals near the end. It's worth checking out if you've never heard it.

Dean Friedman - "Ariel"  (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #86, Peaked #26, 22 Weeks on chart)

Music is a tremendous thing once it becomes associated with memories. When I was in college, I lived in upstate New York. A record store around the corner from my school was affiliated with Rhino Records, which allowed me to pick up CDs from the Have a Nice Day: Hit Songs of the 1970s series one at a time as I was able to afford them. When I picked up Volume 19 in the series I found a tune I'd never heard before. From its mention of the same Hudson River that flowed nearby, the song stuck with me immediately despite being more quirky than most 1977 hit singles.

How quirky? First of all, the song had a sense of humor. The lyrics were playful and sung in a manner that wasn't often heard in a Top 40 song. There was a drug reference that wasn't oblique ("I said, 'Hi,' she said, 'Yeah, I guess I am...'"). Listening to an old episode of American Top 40, I heard a couple of edits to the song. The line "She was Jewish girl" was replaced with "Her name was Ariel" and the line about being high was cut out entirely, along with much of that verse. Since I wasn't able to hear the song during its original run on the charts, I never knew whether that edit was standard to allow for wider airplay. However, after hearing the full song it loses something when you know parts have been edited out. It's like hearing Steve Miller's "Jet Airliner," The Isley Brothers' "Fight the Power" or Pink Floyd's "Money" after knowing they changed an offending word.

At about the same time I first heard the song, I had met a unique young lady from Westchester County who was quite free-spirited. Although nothing ended up happening between us, I'm still glad that -- even for a short time -- I got to know her. Upon hearing "Ariel," I promptly associated her with the song even though that wasn't actually her name. And even today, I still picture her whenever I hear the song.

B.W. Stevenson - "Down To The Station"  (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #88, Peaked #82, 5 Weeks on chart)

Dallas-reared singer B.W. Stevenson's final hit was a little different than what listeners who only know him from "My Maria" and possibly "Shambala" would expect. For somebody associated with the "cosmic cowboy" movement that came out of Texas during the 1970s, "Down to the Stations" was rather rhythmic. The song had a danceable beat, a noticeable thumping bass line and a guitar riff that was almost lifted whole from several R&B tunes. That isn't exactly what some might expect from somebody who was originally signed to be marketed to country audiences.

The lyrics of "Down to the Station" explain that the narrator has packed his suitcase and is leaving his life (and lady) behind. And he isn't stopping to look back, either. Not a bad topic for a final hit. Sadly, Stevenson's career was done after his next LP failed to get any notice. He would pass away in 1988 after heart surgery. He was 38 years old.

Carl Graves - "Sad Girl"  (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #90, Peaked #83, 5 Weeks on chart)

"Sad Girl" was the second and final chart single for R&B singer Carl Graves, who briefly enjoyed some minor success with "Baby, Hang Up the Phone" in 1974. Not much info is available about Graves; his Allmusic entry has a picture of the group Oingo Boingo because they had a keyboardist by the same name from 1988-'91.From the picture shown, I'm fairly certain it wasn't the same Carl Graves. Another artist named Carl Graves played in the 1970s Canadian group Skylark.

"Sad Girl" is an okay song for its era. It had the requisite uptempo beat, complete with handclaps and female backing singers and a great guitar solo. However, it really doesn't stand out among the other songs competing for dance club play at the time.

Pablo Cruise - "Whatcha Gonna Do" Pablo Cruise - A Place In the Sun - Whatcha Gonna Do?

(Debuted #93, Peaked #6, 26 Weeks on chart)

Pablo Cruise's first Hot 100 single was certainly memorable; it was a Top 10 smash and stayed on the chart for half a year. Still recognized by listeners of many radio formats due to its constant exposure ever since it was a hit, features solid instrumental work and crisp production. That really shouldn't be surprising, considering the band was made up of veteran musicians. Among the lineup that recorded "Whatcha Gonna Do?" are former members of San Francisco bands Stoneground and It's a Beautiful Day (who were together back during the days of Flower Power).

Beginning with a drum intro, a bass leads the rest of the band into the song. There's also a well-crafted electric guitar solo during the song's instrumental break. The words are fairly basic, coming off as advice from one friend to another about holding on to a relationship. While the simplistic lyrics backed by music that isn't difficult for pros to handle may not seem like much, the song has enjoyed some heavy exposure over the years. It's one of those tunes that many recognize even when they may not know the title or who performed it.