Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Rewind -- December 27, 1975

Here is the 52nd and final installment in the Rewind series that modernizes the entries from the first year of this blog.

Since beginning my reviews in August 2009, this is the first time I've done two consecutive weeks in a row, but the fact that Billboard stopped featuring a survey for the last week of the year after 1975 cut the number of available years for me to choose from by half. Of nine new singles entering the Hot 100 for the last week of 1975, all but one would eventually make the Top 40. From those eight songs, two would be Top 10 hits and one would reach #1. Interestingly, the first song in last week's review was by Paul Simon, while this week's list begins with his former partner.

In several previous posts, I've added links to past Billboard editions for the week in review. Unfortunately, this week's issue isn't in the archive at Google Books.

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Art Garfunkel - "Break Away" Art Garfunkel - Breakaway - Break Away

(Debuted at #81, Peaked at #39, 11 weeks on chart)

Last week's review began with Paul Simon, who once was part of a very successful partnership with Art Garfunkel. As Simon was recording his 1975 LP Still Crazy After All These Years, he was going through a divorce and many of the songs he wrote for the album reflected his situation. Garfunkel was also going through his own divorce that year, but he wasn't a songwriter like his old buddy and the songs weren't necessarily about his personal issues. However, "Break Away" -- a song about a separation -- probably was hand-picked because of what was going on in his life.

Garfunkel's 1975 LP Breakaway was one of his most successful solo efforts. Produced by Richard Perry, the album would have three Top 40 singles. The highlight of the record would be the Simon & Garfunkel "reunion" song "My Little Town" but he also scored with a remake of "I Only Have Eyes for You" and the Gallagher & Lyle composition "Break Away." I would have called it the title song; however, the LP is spelled out as one word and the song is broken into two.

The lyrics tell about a man coming to grips with resuming his life after his lover has left and flown to another country across the ocean (Garfunkel is a New Yorker, so it implies she went to Europe, but writers Gallagher & Lyle were English, which would suggest she came to the US). Though he isn't going to stop her, he still hopes it's merely a phase and she'll return someday. Listening to the song, I can almost hear Paul Simon's voice backing Garfunkel up. I can't find a list online of the musicians involved in the song, but if Simon wasn't one of them whoever booked the session sure found a ringer.

The Four Seasons - "December 1963 (Oh What a Night)" Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons - Anthology - December, 1963 (Oh What A Night!)  (LP Version)

(Debuted at #85, Peaked at  #1, 27 weeks on chart)

The Four Seasons were making a big comeback in the mid-1970s, notching this #1 more than a decade after their last chart-topper. However, this was a much different group than the lineup that ruled the charts in the early 1960s. There were five members then and only Frankie Valli remained from the 1960s lineup that gave us "Sherry," "Rag Doll" and other classics. Additionally, the group had two new members who shared singing duties with Valli: Gerry Polci and Don Ciccone. For "December 1963" Polci handled the first verse, Ciccone took the second and Valli's distinctive falsetto came in for the chorus.

Another member of the Four Seasons during the glory days was Bob Gaudio, who co-wrote and produced "December 1963" for the group. He originally set the tune in 1933 and the lyrics were a celebration of end of Prohibition; however, to make it more "current" the year was changed. The lyrics were also altered to become a nostalgic look back at a sexual awakening. The song spent three weeks at #1 in its 27-week chart run. In 1994, a remixed version of the song peaked at #14 and enjoyed another 27-week stay on the Hot 100.

The Bee Gees - "Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)" Bee Gees - Main Course - Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)

(Debuted at #73, Peaked at #12, 16 weeks on chart)

The Bee Gees had experienced varying degrees of success for more than a decade before their Main Course LP in 1975, but there were many rough patches in the road for them. Though the group's three brothers were known for their harmonies, they went through some ill-advised ideas like a concept LP (Trafalgar) and a short breakup in 1969. Although the hits were sporadic, they notched some big ones, like "Words," "Lonely Days" and the chart-topping "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart". Their lesser hits -- like "Alive," and "Mr. Natural" and "Run to Me"-- often faded into obscurity except among the group's fans after their chart runs were over. In 1975, they finally found a sound they could grab onto and ride through the rest of the decade. In the process, they became the biggest recording act of the 1970s in the U.S. Making albums in Miami exposed the brothers to the burgeoning disco sounds that were making their way out of that city at the time, and they fully embraced the idea of a more dance-oriented groove.

Although even the non-hit LP songs had them too, much of the model for the group's late 1970s "sound" to those who listened to the radio came from the two most successful singles from Main Course, the #1 "You Should Be Dancing" and the Top 10 "Nights on Broadway." A third single was "Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)," which marked one of the best uses of Barry Gibb's high-pitched falsetto before their more familiar Saturday Night Fever era. It also gives brothers Robin and Maurice to show their own vocal harmonies. As the song ends, the group builds the emotion and the second half is much different vocally than the first. It's a device they'd use again (and better) in "Stayin' Alive" but the Brothers Gibb showed fans they were up to the task.

The Doobie Brothers - "I Cheat the Hangman" The Doobie Brothers - The Very Best of The Doobie Brothers - I Cheat the Hangman

(Debuted at #86, Peaked at #60, 4 weeks on chart)

Of the many Doobie Brothers songs that still get played on classic rock radio, "I Cheat the Hangman" is rarely one of them. When included on the group's LP Stampede, it was a six-and-a-half minute epic with a long buildup and an Old West feel. Written by guitarist Patrick Simmons, the song was influenced by the Ambrose Bierce short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. In the lyrics, a ghost is still hanging around and figures he's "cheated the hangman" because he's still there. After the words fade out, a false ending leads up to a two-minute instrumental outro that sounds like it was influenced by the classical piece Night on Bald Mountain from its string accompaniment.

Barry White - "Let the Music Play" Barry White - 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Barry White - Let the Music Play

(Debuted at #70, Peaked at #32, 9 weeks on chart)

Barry White was a phenomenon. His sound was highly influential to the developing disco movement and provided a soundtrack for countless seductions. In the 1970s (and even later), when a man was entertaining a lady friend and put on a Barry White LP as "mood music," there was little doubt what was on his mind. The sound was made up by an orchestra (strings, woodwinds, horns), a steady beat and guitars. Among guitarists used on White's projects were acclaimed session men Ray Parker, Jr. and Lee Ritenour.

This was the title track of White's forthcoming LP Let the Music Play. Though the song included many of the hallmarks of his very successful songs from 1973 until then -- the sultry voice, the half-whisper at the beginning, the Love Unlimited Orchestra string section, music set for sweet lovin' -- Barry White's success was beginning to fade. This was his only Top 40 single from that LP and the singles from his next LP Is This Whatcha Wont? missed the Hot 100 entirely. Although he only had minor pop success for the rest of the decade (aside from one last Top 10 hit), his place in history remained secure and his music has become timeless even as many of his contemporaries and imitators have become forgotten.

Roxy Music - "Love is the Drug" Roxy Music - Siren - Love Is the Drug

(Debuted at # 89, Peaked at #30, 14 weeks on chart)

Roxy Music is an "art rock" band that was quite popular in their native U.K. and all across Europe during the 1970s and '80s but saw limited success in the U.S. Despite hitting the British Top 10 several times, "Love is the Drug" would be the only Top 40 U.S. hit (and one of only three Hot 100 singles) the group would enjoy before it broke up in 1983.

For a band that called itself "art rock," the music in "Love is the Drug" is fairly straightforward. Beginning with some sound effects (a record dropping on a turntable and a car driving away), it has a terrific bass line to open the song before a saxophone, scratch guitar, drums, keyboard and eventually Bryan Ferry's voice join in. A faint cowbell can be heard after the first chorus. While the instruments used on the song don't exactly fit the complexity often associated with art rock, the words in the vocal are pure rock. The lyrics even deal with going to a dance club after work and picking up somebody to spent the night with...not pretentious at all.

The Spinners - "Love or Leave" The Spinners - The Very Best of Spinners, Vol. 2 - Love or Leave

(Debuted at #77, Peaked at #36, 8 weeks on chart)

The Spinners were incredibly successful for much of the 1970s after toiling in obscurity for most of the 1960s. Ironically, the group was from Detroit (the home of Motown, their onetime label) but closely identified by the Philadelphia Soul sound because their biggest hits were produced by Thom Bell.

"Love or Leave" was the second single from the group's LP Pick of the Litter. It's a record featuring many of the band's hallmark features: an upbeat tempo, flawless background support by MFSB, vocal harmony and a fine lead vocal by Phillipe Wynn. The song reached Top 40 pop and Top 10 R&B, a decent showing but disappointing when compared to the LP's lead single "(They Just Can't Help it the) Games People Play."

The Commodores - "Sweet Love" The Commodores - The Commodores: Anthology - Sweet Love

(Debuted at #82, Peaked at #5, 23 weeks on chart)

Beginning as a group made up of students from the Tuskeegee Institute in 1967, the Commodores had spent much of the 1970s as a funk band but didn't make much headway on the chart. Trying their hand at a mellow romantic ballad like "Sweet Love," the group made the Top 10 for the first time. Other than a couple of uptempo hits ("Brick House," "Lady"), the group would become very popular through the rest of the 1970s with that formula. Taking note of this success, singer Lionel Richie would write more of those ballads for the group and later had a very successful solo career with them.

Cleddus Maggard and the Citizen's Band - "The White Knight" Cledus Maggard - The White Knight - The White Knight

(Debuted at #87, Peaked at #19, 15 weeks on chart)

For those who lived through the 1970s, there were many fads and crazes that were hugely popular but seem really silly today. Things like mood rings, pet rocks and plaid patterns as fashionable dress are fondly remembered but those who didn't live through that time often wonder what the allure was. For those fads that became subjects of hit songs, it's easier to explain...well, kind of. Ray Stevens had a #1 hit with "The Streak" but even that was a novelty song poking fun of somebody for running naked in public.

For the CB (short for "citizens' band," hence Maggard's "group" name) radio craze of the mid-1970s, there were several hit records: "Convoy" (high in the charts as this song debuted), the tear-inducing "Teddy Bear" and even a novelty tune called "C.B. Savage" that was itself a parody of "The White Knight." Nearly all of the CB-related tunes were also hits on the country chart, showing its place as a toy among the blue-collar crowd that listened to the music. Perhaps the fact that CB had a special lingo made it easier to write songs about.  "The White Knight" is full of CB language..."picture taker" (police with radar gun), "seat covers" (pretty girls in the passenger seat), "double nickels" (55 MPH, the maximum speed limit at the time) and "Smoky" or "Bear" (to borrow another '70s slang word...The Fuzz).

The story in the song involves a trucker who hears a person calling himself "The White Knight" on the CB who informs him where the state police are sitting and watching for speeders. As it turns out, The White Knight is a state trooper using the CB to entrap truckers for speeding. With mentions of interstate highways 75, 85 and 20, it appears Maggard's narrator is going north on I-75 (said he was going "out of Lake City" which is in northern Florida) and had passed over the Florida-Georgia border and the White Night is probably a Georgia Highway Patrolman. The single clocks in at just a little over four minutes but I'm told that the full LP version of the song is eight minutes long and tells an even better tale.

"Cledus Maggard" was Jay Huguely, an advertising executive who wrote "The White Knight" to cash in on the CB craze. Of course, the stage name was a nod to Merle Haggard, who's mentioned by name in the song as one of "the ten best things in life." The song was a minor pop hit and a #1 country song but the swift end of the CB fad dried up his future hits. He passed away in December 2008.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Rewind -- December 20, 1975

Here's another post from this blog's first year, with the videos added and refreshed for the current format. This is a project that has been running for all of 2012.

This week's Billboard Hot 100 chart saw nine new songs listed. Among the artists were four singers who had previously been in other acts, a band that saw many of its members have solo hits, a future Canadian political hopeful and the biggest country singer of the 1970s. Four of the songs made the Top 40, three made it high into the Top 10 and one was a #1 hit.

In recent weeks I've linked to a digital copy of the Billboard magazine from the week I was reviewing; however, Google Books is missing this issue in its achive.

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Paul Simon - "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover"  Paul Simon - Still Crazy After All These Years - 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover

(Debuted at # 74, Peaked at #1, 17 weeks on chart)

Believe it or not, "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" is the only #1 solo hit Paul Simon had. With a string of successful hits like "Kodachrome," "Loves Me Like a Rock," "Slip Slidin' Away" and "Still Crazy After All These Years" he didn't manage to get any of them to #1 (though he's one of many who lent their voices to the #1 hit "We Are the World" in 1985).

The LP Still Crazy After All These Years was recorded as Simon was going through a divorce from his first wife, which colored some of the lyrics. Among those that was obviously influenced by his personal issues was "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," although reading the words makes it seem as if his conversation was with a mistress rather than a wife. However, in explaining the 50 ways, Simon only offers up five: "slip out the back, Jack...make a new plan, need to be coy, Roy...hop on the bus, Gus...drop off the key, Lee."

Beyond the conversational style of the words, Simon used all all-star trio of backing singers (Patti Austin, Valerie Simpson and Phoebe Snow). Another distinctive element of the song is the percussion, which sounds almost like a military marching beat.

Eric Carmen - "All By Myself" ERIC CARMEN - Eric Carmen - All By Myself

(Debuted at # 85, Peaked at #2, 19 weeks on chart)

Here's the archetype of the power ballads that were all over the radio during the 1980s, complete with a false ending and bombast before the fade. Eric Carmen's first single away from The Raspberries would be a bigger hit than anything he enjoyed with the group. Even though Carmen would eventually score a #1 hit on the coattails of the film Dirty Dancing, "All By Myself" is probably his best-known composition, with several remakes and interpretations of the song through the years. The best-known remake is likely the 1996 Celine Dion hit single, but has been covered by artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones and Hank Williams, Jr.

Much of the song's music was borrowed from Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Conerto No. 2 in C Minor. As a classical piece, Carmen assumed it was in the public domain and safe to use; once the song became successful he was informed that the rights still belonged to Rachmaninoff's estate and the composer's name was added to the songwriter credits. Rachmaninoff had composed his tune in 1900-'01 and had only died on 1943, not long enough for his works to pass into public domain. While Rachmaninoff's heirs probably enjoyed the windfall and renewed interest brought by Carmen's hit, it's a textbook example of the value of having somebody verify the rights.

The Amazing Rhythm Aces- "Amazing Grace (Used to Be Her Favorite Song)" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted at # 98, Peaked at #72, 8 weeks on chart)

The Amazing Rhythm Aces are best known for their minor 1975 hit "Third Rate Romance." This song was the followup to that hit, and while it didn't match the earlier tune's chart success on the pop chart, it would become a Top 10 country hit (the group's best showing on that chart). The song is performed in a solid country style with a steel guitar and a shuffle beat, so the country success (as well as its low peak position on the pop charts) isn't a surprise.

As the title suggests, the lyrics tell the story of a good girl who turned to the honky-tonk nightlife. That's a storyline that has been around for a long time; the huge 1952 Hank Thompson hit "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" is perhaps the best-known early example but it certainly wasn't the first. The twist in the lyrics of "Amazing Grace" is that in the beginning, the man was the good-timer and his sweet lady began drinking and hanging out in bars to get him to change...only to find that the bottle pulled her farther than he did.

Conway Twitty - "Don't Cry Joni" Conway Twitty & Joni Lee - Conway Twitty's Greatest Hits, Vol. II - Don't Cry Joni

(Debuted at #100, Peaked at #63, 7 weeks on chart)

Many of my favorite country songs tell stories. From the homesick autoworker in "Detroit City" to the jilted husband trying to make sense of his wife leaving in "The Grand Tour" to the childhood remembrance in "Coat of Many Colors" the genre spins many tales. Some -- like "Green, Green Grass of Home" -- have a twist that makes the song entirely different at the end than what a listener might have been thinking. During my days as a DJ, I did a request "classic" country show for WRWD-FM in Poughkeepsie, New York on Saturday nights and two sad story songs from the 1970s never failed to get requests: Red Sovine's "Teddy Bear" and "Don't Cry Joni."

"Don't Cry Joni" is a song that tells the story of a boy and a girl. At the beginning, she's 15 years old and too young for the boy (who's 22). As the boy strikes out to make a name for himself in the world, she asks him to return and marry him but he insists she'll forget him as time goes on. As he makes his way, it's him who has a hard time forgetting. But there's a twist at the end that I won't spoil. The only thing a listener needs to get past is the fact that the voice of the girl singing with him belongs to Twitty's daughter Joni Lee. The idea of a father and daughter singing a love song together can seem a bit creepy and doesn't do a whole lot to diminish any stereotypes of Tennessee (where the song was recorded).

Conway Twitty was the most successful country singer of the 1970s. He notched 25 #1 hits between 1970 and '79 and also had a handful of pop hits during those years. Some of those crossover hits -- "Hello Darlin'," "Fifteen Years Ago," "You've Never Been This Far Before" -- are superb songs that spoke to listeners on a human level and laid bare the conflict within a man who's giving in to human emotions. "Don't Cry Joni" would be his last crossover hit of the decade, and the only one of his 70s pop hits that didn't also go to #1 on the country chart.

Greg Lake - "I Believe In Father Christmas"  (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted at #99, Peaked at  #95, 3 weeks on chart)

Christmas tunes don't usually get much respect on the hit parade. Because of their relatively short "shelf life" -- they're usually dusted off by radio stations the week of Thanksgiving and placed back into storage on December 26th -- few ever manage to make the Hot 100. Many 1970s Christmas songs get played every year ("Feliz Navidad," "Merry Christmas Darling," The Jackson 5's take on "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "Wonderful Christmastime") but few actually made the regular Billboard pop chart. The rare exceptions seem to be those "holiday" tunes that aren't specific to Christmas, like Merle Haggard's "If We Make it Through December" (which just made the Top 40 around December '73).

Greg Lake was still a member of Emerson, Lake and Palmer when he recorded and released "I Believe in Father Christmas" by himself; the trio would re-record the song for their 1977 Works Volume II LP. Despite its short stay on the U.S. charts it would reach #2 in the U.K. Ironically, the song wasn't recorded as a holiday tune as Lake seemed to be objecting to the season's commercialization. Beginning with an observation that it rained on Christmas instead of snowing, the second verse contains the lines "They sold me a dream of Christmas, they sold me a silent night" but the third verse contains hopeful optimism that the season could still foster peace and goodwill. This has led to many interpretations of the song, many of which aren't exactly complimentary. A promotional video for the song showing scenes from war-torn places like Lebanon and Vietnam didn't help its critical reception. However, as an outlet for Lake to call it as he saw it, he makes a valid point and the fact that the message often gets lost among the more upbeat holiday standards doesn't change that.

Bill Withers - "Make Love To Your Mind"  Bill Withers - Making Music - Make Love to Your Mind

(Debuted at # 96, Peaked at #76, 8 weeks on chart) 

Bill Withers was something of an anomaly as far as musicians went. Rather than devoting himself to the music business as a full-time profession, Withers was content to pursue other avenues while he was a hitmaker. After developing an interest in songwriting during a stint in the U.S. Navy, Withers held down "regular" jobs as he plied his craft. Originally doing demos, he was surprised when he was asked to record the songs for his own LPs. Even after his huge early 1970s hits "Lean on Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine" he still maintained business interests outside the music industry.

By 1975, Withers was recording with Columbia Records after leaving Sussex, the label that issued his first three LPs. The first single for his new label was "Make Love to Your Mind," a title that might have raised a few eyebrows then. Withers was known for his down-to-earth, homespun style and the new record may have been seen as provocative. Instead, the lyrics mention the importance of getting to know a partner on a personal level before getting physical. It's hard to hear that, however, as the background strings and rhythm section are mixed loud enough to obscure some of Withers' vocal.

The Eagles - "Take It To The Limit"  Eagles - One of These Nights - Take It to the Limit

(Debuted at # 80, Peaked at #4, 23 weeks on chart)

The Eagles had quite a run of hits during the 1970s. With five #1 singles, 13 Top 40 hits and four #1 LPs, the band would remain one of the most influential of the decade. A generation later, the band would be pointed out as inspiration to a wide variety of musicians: rock, country, bluegrass and others. "Take it to the Limit" may not have been the group's most successful single, but it was the one that remained on Billboard's Hot 100 the longest.

One of the things that made the Eagles unique was the way many band members shared lead vocals. Don Henley and Glenn Frey were best known for their solo work but other members throughout the years and lineups handled vocals as well. Besides Henley and Frey, fellow Eagles Randy Meisner, Timothy B. Schmit and Joe Walsh enjoyed success away from the group. Meisner was the member who lent his voice to "Take it to the Limit." A slow ballad where the narrator is trying to figure out which way to go in life but still not ready to settle down, the song still gets considerable airplay today.

Hagood Hardy - "The Homecoming"  Hagood Hardy - The Homecoming - The Homecoming

(Debuted at #86, Peaked at #41, 13 weeks on chart)

Just missing the Top 40 in the U.S., this instrumental was originally written in 1972 as a commercial for Salada tea in Canada (Where the song would be a #1 hit). Hagood Hardy was a Canadian artist (born in Indiana) who provided music for TV shows and commercial jingles, most notably the scores for Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea. During the 1960s he played vibraphone for Herbie Mann and other jazz artists. "The Homecoming" would be his only U.S. pop hit. Hardy later ran unsuccessfully for political office in Ontario during the 1990s and died on New Year's Day 1997.

Linda Ronstadt - "Tracks Of My Tears" Linda Ronstadt - Prisoner In Disguise - Tracks of My Tears

(Debuted at # 83, Peaked at #25, 13 weeks on chart)

Since beginning this weekly project in August 2009, I've had a chance to review around 200 songs so far in roughly the first four months. That seems like a lot but it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of all the songs that charted during the 1970s. That said, I've already reviewed four Linda Ronstadt singles in that time and this is the second one that's been a cover of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. At the same time, I've only reviewed one song apiece by other artists who've scored many more hit singles during the decade (James Brown, Elton John, Chicago, Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley) but over time that's bound to change as I continue. Nothing about the song; it's just something I noticed.

As I mentioned already, "Tracks of My Tears" was a cover song like many of Ronstadt's hit singles. Its best-known version is the 1965 original by Smokey Robinson (who co-wrote the song) and the Miracles. That song was the followup single to "Ooh Baby Baby," another song covered by Ronstadt in the 1970s. Ronstadt's single was one of several that were cross-marketed; it hit #25 pop, #11 country and #4 on the easy listening/adult contemporary chart. While her voice is in fine form on the song, Ronstadt's delivery doesn't match the emotion Smokey Robinson lent to the original. Sometimes, trying to get a "one-size-fits-all" single that can be sent to multiple audiences may sell a lot of records but often sacrifices something.