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 more than 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 interesting...an 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"
(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"
(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"
(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"
(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"
(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"
(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"
(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.