Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Rewind -- April 7, 1973

(This is another part of a series where I return to one of the posts from the first year of this blog and bring it in line with its current format.)

Nine first-time singles were listed in the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Four would make their way into the Top 40 and one would peak in the Top 10. Interestingly, with the war in Vietnam winding down and the unpopular fervor it inspired, there are two songs among the newcomers that have military backstories and neither are overt antiwar tunes. Additionally, an artist who once served as an officer in the U.S. Army (Kris Kristofferson) has a song here but it's not military in nature; in fact, it's a song about inner peace. Finally, there are songs by three R&B artists known for bigger hits, plus a singer who was getting what was ultimately his only shot at making the Hot 100.

Google Books had an online archive of past issues of Billboard magazine. The April 7, 1973 edition is among them, with the full Hot 100 list on page 72. Among the interesting tidbits: on page 3, there's a short article about two double-LP sets called The History of the Beatles being delayed by Capitol/Apple, but pages 8-9 have a big advertisement for The Beatles: 1962-1966 and The Beatles: 1967-1970 LPs. It appears the magazine's advertising department and editorial staff weren't communicating that week. An article on page 14 mentions an LP being made of the songs used in the ABC-TV show Multiplication Rock, which those of us growing up in the 1970s fondly remember as Schoolhouse Rock. Finally, there are several mentions throughout the magazine about quadraphonic sound (simply called "Q" in the headlines), including an article saying that quadraphonic FM radio was still "a year, maybe two" away. I don't think that ever happened, at least not beyond any experimental phase.


Elton John - "Daniel" Elton John - Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player - Daniel

(Debuted #77, Peaked #2, 15 Weeks on chart)



For all its familiarity, "Daniel" is a misunderstood song. It appears two brothers are parting, a mention of red taillights indicates that a cab may be taking him to the airport, that older brother Daniel is going to Spain, and that Daniel appears to be blind. With such a vague framework among the skewed perspectives that life gives, few amateur song critics like myself seem to agree about what it means. Since lyricist Bernie Taupin has been known for writing in an abstract fashion, it's assumed that this was another case of him using imagery to fit Elton John's melody. However, a biography mentions that he song was originally written with another verse that was dropped because of time constraints, one that revealed that Daniel was a returning war veteran and was going to Spain to get away from his new reality.

The idea of Daniel being a veteran (blinded either from the fighting or psychologically, as a result of his experiences) gives the song an entirely different feel. Of course, in 1973 American soldiers were still returning from Vietnam and the divisiveness caused by that conflict may have been another reason it was excised from the finished song. Memories were much too vivid, the wounds -- literal and figurative -- were still much too fresh for the audience to stomach. That said, it would be great to understand that background today, since young men and women are returning from a different part of the world with many of the same issues as those who returned from "The Nam" 40 years ago. It just goes to show that while the world keeps turning and music styles change with time, there are some things that remain constant despite all that change.


Jerry Lee Lewis - "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee O'dee"   Jerry Lee Lewis - 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Jerry Lee Lewis - Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee

(Debuted #81, Peaked #41, 10 Weeks on chart)



Here's a song that started out as an Army cadence. During World War Two, A soldier named Sticks McGhee picked up a rhythm from a marching cadence during boot camp and put words to it. After the war, he recorded the tune along with his brother, blues singer/guitarist Brownie McGhee in 1947. McGhee's original words weren't exactly suitable for wide audiences -- there was a certain obscenity used after "drinking wine" that is usually referred to as "MF" -- so the offending word was substituted by "spo-dee-o'dee" for the single. Despite getting scant attention, Sticks was able to re-record the song for an upstart record label in 1949. That record would become one of the first Atlantic successes, hitting #3 on the R&B charts. The song would be covered many times through the 1950s, including versions by Lionel Hampton, Wynonie Harris and a "hillbilly" version by Loy Gordon & His Pleasant Valley Boys. After he emergence of rock & roll, the song would be cut by Johnny Burnette in 1957 and Jerry Lee Lewis in '59. Though the song was written as a rousing, bawdy tune about getting drunk and raising hell, over time it became more tame as public opinion changed in the face of more illicit methods of getting messed up.

By 1973, Jerry Lee Lewis had encountered several twists and turns in his career. A marriage to his underage cousin had caused a scandal that destroyed his career, and subsequent attempts at a comeback failed until he began singing country in 1968. Country music came easy to The Killer, as he'd grown up surrounded by it in Ferriday, Louisiana, and he was successful with it. In 1972 he recorded an LP called The Session in London, along with several British musicians like Peter Frampton and Alvin Lee who'd grown up on his music (ironically, it was Lewis's 1958 tour of England where the scandal involving his wife began). Many of the songs would be the same tunes familiar to his fans, as well as some like "Drinking Wine" that he'd been performing in concert since his very first public appearance in 1949. The album would be his best seller since 1964 and the single "Drinking Wine Spo-De-O'dee" would be his highest-charting pop single since 1961.


Lobo - "It Sure Took A Long, Long Time" Lobo - The Best of Lobo - It Sure Took a Long, Long Time

(Debuted #85, Peaked #27, 11 Weeks on chart)



When his LP Calumet appeared in 1973, Lobo's career was still coasting on the afterburners from his three Top 10 smash hits. While his new album would provide four singles and keep him active for the next year, none of the songs could match his earlier success. The first single from the project, "It Sure Took a Long, Long Time," stalled at #27. That was disappointing coming off the heels of the Top 10 "Don't Expect Me to Be Your Friend," but perhaps the fact that Lobo's sound really hadn't changed or grown with the new album caused his fans to avoid it. After all, there's few things worse than listening to a new album and realizing after it was over that it really wasn't any different from what the last one sounded like.

The song's lyrics are a variation on the old phrase "if you love something, set it free...if it comes back it's yours." The narration explains that Lobo's lady felt constrained within their relationship and left. Saying he understood and letting her go her own way, she comes back later saying he was what she wanted all along. Finally, he explains he wants to work toward recapturing that spark they once had. The rub is...his delivery gives no indication as to whether he was sad to watch her go or even elated to have her back. And that in a nutshell is why Lobo and many of his fellow sensitive singer/songwriter buddies of the 1970s are often seen today as a bunch of pansies. Many great songs have come from the pain of watching somebody you love walk away, from the loneliness of going on alone, even from realizing one's lost love is returning. Another huge hit from 1973 -- "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" by Tony Orlando & Dawn -- is ridiculed for its style, but at the end when he sees that he's being welcomed back, you can tell he's relieved when he says "I'm coming home!"


The Independents - "Leaving Me" The Independents - Twist & Shout and Other R&B Hits - Leaving Me

(Debuted #87, Peaked #21, 13 Weeks on chart)



 The Independents were a three-man, one-woman vocal R&B group from Chicago who saw limited success dring the early 1970s. Two of the members, Chuck and and Murice Jackson, were younger brothers of civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson. That said, Chuck Jackson of The Independents was not the same Chuck Jackson who scored hits like "Any Day Now" in the 1960s.

Their biggest hit single "Leaving Me" would hit #1 on the R&B chart and cross over to the pop Top 40. Lyrically, it's a plea for the singer's lady not to leave. While the words don't actually say she's tossing her stuff in a suitcase, it seems that may be a possibility or perhaps he's just trying to make sense of it ("Leaving me? Can't be."). The song is another of those time-honored down-on-the-knees-begging to stay R&B songs. An interesting element in the song is how the three backup singers handle the chorus but lead singer Chuck Jackson continues his plea between their lines.



Luther Ingram - "Always" Luther Ingram - The Best of Luther Ingram - Always

(Debuted #93, Peaked #64, 5 Weeks on chart)



"Always" is an interesting title for somebody's last chart hit. It's also a very well-known Irving Berlin tune that was sung in the 1942 Gary Cooper film Pride of the Yankees. While some of Berlin's words were used for Ingram's song ("not for just one hour...not for just one day...not for just one year...") it was a different song even if it expressed the exact same feeling.

A slow ballad but not nearly as intense as Ingram's biggest hit "If Loving You is Wrong (I Don't Want to Be Right)," the song is an affirmation of love and devotion. That's common ground covered in songs of all genres. For the R&B arena Luther Ingram played in, the song is a solid example of the form; he does a seemingly heartfelt rendition and is backed capably up with horns, rhythm and female vocals by the Stax house band.


Timmy Thomas - "People Are Changin'"  (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #95, Peaked #75, 5 Weeks on chart)



Timmy Thomas made a big splash with "Why Can't We Live Together?," which seemingly came out of nowhere to hit #3 early in 1973. It was one of the first big hits from the Miami-based T.K. Records (released on its subsidiary Glades) that allowed later hits like "Rock Your Baby" and a string of hits by KC & the Sunshine Band. The follow-up to that big hit, "People Are Changin'" has many of the same elements: Thomas sings over an electric keyboard he played himself, percussion that sounds almost like two sticks being hit against each other and little else musically. Also like the other hit, the lyrics express a message of togetherness and unity. Despite its similarities, it ended up flopping on the charts, showing once again that it's hard to get lightning to strike twice.

I haven't been able to determine whether "People Are Changin'" was recorded at the same session as "Why Can't We Live Together?" or as a result of its success. It doesn't show up in the track list of Thomas's LP Why Can't We Live Together? but that doesn't always indicate anything as sometimes songs are deleted from albums only to resurface after hit singles. Perhaps somebody out there knows and can add a comment below.

Billy Paul - "Am I Black Enough For You" Billy Paul - Me and Mrs. Jones - The Best of Billy Paul - Am I Black Enough for You?

(Debuted #97, Peaked #94, 2 Weeks on chart)



While "Me and Mrs. Jones" was a surprise hit despite its topic of two married people seeing each other on the sly, his followup was provocative in another manner. While many songs of the post-Civil Rights era expressed feelings of pride about being of African extraction, the song title probably detracts from the positive message in the lyrics about rising above the issues holding his people down -- poverty, drugs, etc. -- and even exhorting his brothers to be part of the solution. Whether consumers and radio programmers chose to pay more attention to the words on the label at the expense of the ones contained within the grooves isn't known. Unfortunately, few paid any attention to the record at all, and it died after two weeks on the chart. On the R&B chart, the song made #29.

The song is marked by its use of a funky clavinet rhythm and bongo, and Billy Paul scats through much of the song. This may have surprised fans who'd only known him singing a smooth tale about meeting his married mistress in a dark cafe.


Bill Quateman - "Only Love" Bill Quateman - Bill Quateman - Only Love

(Debuted #99, Peaked #86, 3 Weeks on chart)



There's not a lot available about Bill Quateman to be found out there. No Wikipedia page, no biography on Allmusic (though there is a writeup on his first LP). There's an article from Quateman's web site that helps shed some light on him, though, and it's interesting to read. He was born in Chicago and benefited from the rise of the singer/songwriter, being signed to Columbia by Clive Davis at 21 and being given quite a bit of help on his first LP. Three members of Elton John's band (Caleb Quaye, Davey Johnstone and Ray Cooper) contributed, as did keyboardist Kenny Ascher. His self-titled LP sold respectably and produced one hit. However, before his second LP could be finished, Davis was forced out at Columbia and the label's new management dropped him. It would be 1977 before he could get signed to another major label -- RCA, rather than Clive Davis's new venture Arista -- but it was too late to give his career a boost because the music had changed while he was struggling to get back in.

Thanks to his time-honored screwing by the music industry, Quateman only ended up with a single hit on the Hot 100. With all of the talent assembled to help him make his LP (and Elton John's engineer Robin Geoffrey Cable on hand as well), there's a lot of good things to say about "Only Love" as a song. It's got a great sound and was produced with great care, to the point of being antiseptic like many corporate rock projects get tagged. While it sounds like it could have been a hit later in the decade, it still stands as one of those "if only..." stories that so often pop up in the music business.


Kris Kristofferson - "Why Me" Kris Kristofferson - Jesus Was a Capricorn - Why Me

(Debuted #100, Peaked #16, 38 Weeks on chart)



Listeners of Casey Kasem's American Top 40 radio program will remember how he hosted a special countdown survey around the end of every December featuring the biggest hits of the year that had just passed. Those who tuned in at the end of the 1973 edition might have been in for a surprise when "Why Me" was named as the #2 song for 1973...for a Top 40 that couldn't even contain all of the year's #1 singles, a song that didn't reach any higher than #16 was an unlikely choice for such a high spot. It seems the 38-week run on the chart was weighted pretty heavily when the AT40 production staff were making their tabulations. What's more surprising is that a song with such an overtly religious message and sung by a man who admits he's not much of a singer in the first place would stick around for so long on the charts.

Kristofferson had phenomenal success as a songwriter during the early 1970s, but his own recordings didn't chart well. "Why Me" would be his second (and last) Top 40 pop hit. A song about his own personal salvation, the words are a dialogue with Jesus (who is named in the song) about why he -- of all people -- is so fortunate in his life. A church organ begins the song and a choir backs him up, making this song an unlikely candidate for a hit single. However, it stayed around for nine months on the charts, longer than any single in years (and the second-longest stay of the entire decade).

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