Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Rewind -- December 11, 1976

It's Wednesday, which means it's time to pull out another entry from this blog's first year, add some videos and polish it off. This is a special feature this blog has been doing for all of 2012.

This week's entry has some additional features that I haven't used before. Information on debut position, peak and total time on the chart appear below the song title. Hopefully, these enhancements will make this blog a little more useful. Another recent development came about when I found that many past issues of  Billboard magazine are available  through Google books as PDF files and they're free to view. Here's a link to the December 11, 1976 issue. The full Hot 100 list can be found on page 62.

Eleven songs debuted this week. Six of those were Top 40 hits, four reached the Top 10 and two went all the way to #1. Six of the songs were the first chart hits for their artists; three of those acts never had another hit. Additionally, four of the songs were remakes. Among the performers are one of the best-selling female performers of all time, Sweden's biggest musical act of the 1970s and the man who had his guitar smashed by "Bluto" Blutarsky in Animal House.

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ABBA - "Dancing Queen" ABBA - Arrival - Dancing Queen

(Debuted at #86, peaked at #1, 22 weeks on chart)

I once read somewhere where a fan was trying to explain the 1970s phenomena that was ABBA and simply said "you had to be there, it's not easily explained in today's vernacular." However, the group's continued strong catalog sales and the success of the Broadway play and film Mamma Mia! suggest that such statements are simply explanations of people who grew tired of defending the group after their heyday. The fact is, ABBA was a group that was blessed with great singers, songwriters who knew how to craft a good catchy tune and producers who could capture magic in the studio. It's hard to deny that their songs were ear candy. They were highly successful in almost every nation where their music was marketed.

I used the word "almost" in that last sentence because their chart record in the U.S. was something of a disappointment for the group. While they had several decent hits on this side of the Atlantic, "Dancing Queen" was their only #1 hit here. That was a far cry from the many chart-toppers they enjoyed in other countries around the world. In the case of "Dancing Queen," the song is instantly recognizable as its intro plays. Though not technically a disco song -- as it wasn't recorded to be played by DJs in the dance clubs -- there is a definite disco influence to it, from the fact the lyrics mention finding a place to dance on Friday night to the fact they placed the word "Dancing" in the title. The group had other, more disco-ready hits ("S.O.S," "Gimme Gimme Gimme") but this obviously benefited from the disco craze at the time.

For me, "Dancing Queen" holds some significance as it was one of the first songs I ever specifically remember hearing on the radio. I was 4 or 5 at the time, didn't quite understand the words but knew the rhythm and just remember hearing it all the time from radio stations.

Deniece Williams - "Free" Deniece Williams - The Best of Deniece Williams: Gonna Take a Miracle - Free

(Debuted at #88, peaked at #25, 20 weeks on chart)

This delicious slice of Quiet Storm-inspired R&B was the first chart hit for Deniece Williams. Though she was making her chart debut, she wasn't exactly a newcomer to the music industry. In the mid-1970s, she teamed with Minnie Riperton and Syreeta Wright as Wonderlove, who sang background vocals for Stevie Wonder. She was also a backing singer for Roberta Flack, Esther Phillips and Riperton. Her vocal range covered four octaves, which allowed her voice to soar effortlessly between difficult notes and this talent can be heard on "Free" as she sings.

In addition to its moderate success on the pop chart, "Free" was a #2 hit on the R&B chart and #1 in the UK. The song (like all the songs from her LP This is Niecy) was originally submitted to Earth, Wind & Fire and was initially seen as a possible solo hit for that group's lead singer Phillip Bailey. Backed by many of Earth, Wind & Fire's musicians, Williams sings "Free" as a sultry ballad. She goes from singing in a half-whisper to showing off the dynamic range of her vocals.

Bryan Ferry - "Heart on My Sleeve" Bryan Ferry - Let's Stick Together - Heart On My Sleeve

(Debuted at #90, peaked at #86, 4 weeks on chart)

Although this was Bryan Ferry's first single on the Hot 100, it wasn't his first time on the survey. As a member of Roxy Music, he sang on the group's 1975 hit "Love is the Drug." When Roxy Music temporarily broke up in 1976, Ferry recorded his solo LP Let's Stick Together and had a minor hit in the U.S. with the Gallagher & Lyle composition "Heart on My Sleeve." The LP was a bigger hit in Ferry's native Britain, with several hit singles, but he would have to wait more than 10 years to get his second U.S. pop hit despite more success with a reunited Roxy Music and several stylish music videos that got quite a bit of MTV airplay.

"Heart on My Sleeve" was a mid-tempo tune that was very much in line with many of Ferry's familiar solo hits. In write-ups of the LP it came from, the song gets very little mention. Frankly, to my ears his material with Roxy Music was far more interesting. Even Gallagher & Lyle's minor hit version of the song (from earlier in '76) was a better take.

BubbleBee Unlimited- "Love Bug" Bumblebee Unlimited - Disco Nights, Vol. 1 - EP - Love Bug

(Debuted at #100, peaked at #92, 5 weeks on chart)

In 1976, disco was burgeoning and many acts began springing up that were little more than studio musicians and generic singers. BumbleBee Unlimited was a "group" set up by producers Patrick Adams and Gregory Carmichael, the duo also behind later one-hit projects Universal Robot Band and Inner Life. "Love Bug" was a steady disco record that used sped-up vocals and a synthesized arrangement of "The Flight of the Bumblebee" that may have moved some feet on the dance floor but didn't get to fly very far up the charts. BumbleBee Unlimited never returned to the pop chart again.

Barbra Streisand - "Love Theme From A Star Is Born (Evergreen)" Barbra Streisand - The Essential Barbra Streisand - Evergreen

(Debuted at #72, Peaked at #1, 25 weeks on chart)

Putting aside the legend we know today, by the mid-1970s Barbra Streisand was a curious success story. She wasn't a rock 'n roll singer; rather, she performed a lot of pop standards and was content to perform on Broadway even as her LPs did quite well. She became an actress and went back to singing after she had a few flop films. Her 1970 hit "Stoney End" was an out-of-left-field success (and even then was helped by the adult contemporary audience). Even when "The Way We Were" became the biggest hit song of 1974, Streisand wasn't considered among music's elite artists. "Evergreen" changed that.

The song was included in the 1976 film A Star is Born, which starred Streisand. In the film, she played an up-and-coming singer whose success was paralleled by the decline of her superstar husband, played by Kris Kristofferson. It was a second reworking of an old film: in 1937 and 1954, the previous examples of A Star is Born had been set in the movie business. Despite the fact that a "rock 'n roll" film didn't have a lot of rock music in it, that Kristofferson could have probably written better material than what he was given and that the chemistry between the two lead actors didn't exactly lend to a willing suspension of disbelief, the film, its "soundtrack" LP and the song "Evergreen" were unqualified hits.

"Evergreen" spent three weeks at #1 in the spring of '77 and was on the Hot 100 for almost half a year. One of the year's biggest singles, it would win a Grammy for Song of the Year. Streisand co-wrote the song with lyricist Paul Williams, who had an impressive string of hit compositions in the 1970s but doesn't get a lot of recognition for it. Despite his success with Three Dog Night ("Old Fashioned Love Song," "Out in the Country") and The Carpenters ("Rainy Days and Mondays," "We've Only Just Begun" and "I Won't Last a Day Without You") as well as the sublime "Rainbow Connection" from The Muppet Movie, Williams is unfairly viewed through the prism of writing the songs for Ishtar and playing Little Enis in the Smokey & the Bandit movies.

Bob Seger - "Night Moves" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted at #85, peaked at #4, 21 weeks on chart)

When I first began this blog in 2008, I tried to write something I called "The Greatest Hits of the 1970s Determined By Me" and hoped to eventually come up with a list of songs that could make a great CD or two. While the project never took off, the posts are still online for anybody who wants to view the oldest posts. This post is from the first song I picked, Bob Seger's "Night Moves."

The funny thing is that when I grew up I wasn't all that crazy about the song. Many of the adults I talked with about music were fans of Seger but I didn't understand what was so special about him. I liked "Katmandu" and "Rock and Roll Never Forgets" but at 13 I found stuff like "We've Got Tonight," "Turn the Page," "Against the Wind" and "Night Moves" slow and boring. Over the years, I've gained a lot of appreciation for Seger's music as my own experience has given me additional insight into life. "Night Moves" is a great example; essentially, the song is done as a narration by an adult looking back at his youth and wondering where the time went. In effect, it's the feeling that hits you when you sit back and think of your teen years only to realize that it was half a lifetime ago. At 13, I had no idea what he was trying to say, but in my late 30s I understood the sentiment much better.

Stephen Bishop - "Save It For A Rainy Day" Stephen Bishop - On and On: The Hits of Stephen Bishop - Save It for a Rainy Day

(Debuted at #87, peaked at #22, 15 weeks on chart)

In the film Animal House, there's a scene during the toga party where Bluto (played by John Belushi) is coming down the stairs of the frat house and stops beside a beatnik with a guitar singing a folkish song to some girls. Bluto then grabs the guitar, smashes it against the wall and hands it back, saying "sorry" before walking away. The movie's end credits show that "Charming Guy with Guitar" was played Stephen Bishop. Bishop would also appear in small parts in two other John Landis-directed films (Kentucky Fried Movie and The Blues Brothers) as "Charming Guy," but he's best remembered for his music.

"Save it For a Rainy Day" was Bishop's first chart hit and a cut from his debut LP Careless. Although he was putting out his first album, Bishop had been writing and publishing music for a few years and had some musician friends to help him out. A light MOR pop tune, "Save it For a Rainy Day" had help from Eric Clapton on guitar and Chaka Khan on background vocals (her voice is noticeable toward the end of the song). The song would make the pop Top 40 and reach #6 on the adult contemporary chart, beginning a moderately successful performing career for Bishop.

After a handful of hits, he would write music for films such as Roadie, Tootsie (which featured his biggest pop hit "It Might Be You") and Unfaithfully Yours. Another film, White Nights, featured a Bishop composition called "Separate Lives" that would be a #1 pop hit for Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin. He also sang the theme song to Animal House and reportedly still has that guitar destroyed by Belushi in the film.

Blaze - "Silver Heels"  (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted at #97, peaked at #95, 2 weeks on chart)

Blaze was a group from Cincinnati that formed in 1973. "Silver Heels" was a Bob Welch song originally performed by Fleetwood Mac during his tenure with the group. Blaze did a fairly faithful version of the version Fleetwood Mac cut on their Heroes Are Hard to Find LP, as a straightforward rock tune that didn't sound out of place among contemporary hits. Heavy regional airplay around the group's Ohio home base got "Silver Heels" listed on the national pop charts but the group never managed to sustain the momentum, falling off after its second week. The band broke up in 1979 and never charted on the Hot 100 again.

David LaFlamme - "White Bird" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted at #96, peaked at #89, 7 weeks on chart)

David LaFlamme was a virtuoso violinist who was behind a little-remembered but well-regarded 1960s/70s San Francisco group called It's a Beautiful Day. The group had little success on the pop singles chart but managed some minor hits on Billboard's LP chart. "White Bird" was originally featured on the group's self-titled 1969 debut album and became their signature song; despite some exposure on FM radio, the format was still in its experimental youth and didn't translate into record sales, only getting the single as high as #118 on Billboard's "Bubbling Under" chart. A live version of the song was released by the group in 1973 but again failed to chart. By then, legal hassles were forcing LaFlamme from the group he founded.

By 1974, the sun finally set on It's a Beautiful Day. LaFlamme recorded a solo version of "White Bird" for his first solo LP in 1976. This time, the song finally managed to chart but its success was short-lived. In addition to playing his music, LaFlamme has appeared in a few sitcoms (Ellen, Wings and Frasier) playing a violin player who stands near a table in a restaurant, playing in an annoying fashion.

Al Stewart - "Year Of The Cat"  Al Stewart - Year of the Cat - Year of the Cat

(Debuted at #98, peaked at #8, 17 weeks on chart)

"Year of the Cat" is Al Stewart's biggest American hit, the title song to his best-known LP here. For all the imagery in the song's lyrics, its best parts may be the instrumental passages. An extended piano intro before the band joins in, a lengthy layered instrumental before the final verse and a sax solo as the song fades are all memorable parts of the song.

The lyrics paint a picture of a foreign location and a chance encounter with a local lady resulting in a tryst, only to have the protagonist wake up too late to leave for home on schedule. Exactly where the location might be is up to the listener: there's a mention of "a Bogart movie" with Peter Lorre (Casablanca) which could place it in Morocco, a line in the LP version about "incense and patchouli" which are cultivated across the globe from the Caribbean to India to the Orient, and the title itself suggests an Asian culture. Similes abound in the narration: "a silk robe running like a watercolor in the rain," "I feel my life just like a river running through the Year of the Cat." No matter where the story might take place, the music behind the words makes the song what it is.

From reading placemats at Chinese restaurants, I noticed they don't actually show a Year of the Cat in their 12-year zodiac cycle. In Vietnam, however, the zodiac is slightly different, with a cat replacing the Chinese rabbit. In that event, the closest Year of the Cat would have been 1975, a year before the song was recorded. If the title referred to the year of birth of the lady in the song, that would have made her roughly 25 (or 37...but hopefully not 13).

The Bay City Rollers - "Yesterday's Hero"  Bay City Rollers - Bay City Rollers: The Definitive Collection - Yesterday's Hero

(Debuted at #77, peaked at #54, 7 weeks on chart)

Although the group had seemed to explode out of nowhere to become an overnight sensation late in 1975, the Bay City Rollers had been working as a band for many years before that. Though 1976 would be a great year for the group on the U.S. pop charts, groups seen as fads are notorious for fading as fast as they seem to appear. By recording "Yesterday's Hero" for their LP Dedication, a song that had already appeared on the Hot 100 a year earlier as the first hit for John Paul Young, the band seemed to understand that fact. Done in the band's own musical style, the song is a straightforward rocker whose lyrics mention that fame is fleeting and it won't last if they don't put a plan in motion soon. For the Bay City Rollers, the song proved prophetic. After a few more minor hits (and the excellent Top 10 "You Made Me Believe in Magic"), "Rollermania" would soon be over.

A special mention should be made of the LP version of this song. While it was recorded in the studio, crowd noises from a live concert were added to the beginning and end. Scattered among the noise was an F-bomb, which may have limited airplay because stations playing off LPs couldn't use it on the air unless they faded the song early.

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