Saturday, December 26, 2009

This Week's Review -- December 27, 1975

Since beginning my reviews last August, 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.

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.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

This Week's Review -- December 20, 1975

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.

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, I've had a chance to review around 200 songs so far in roughly 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 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.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

This Week's Review -- December 11, 1976

This week's entry has some additional features that I haven't used before. First, each artist's name is now linked. Clicking the link will allow you to view that artist's entire 1970s Hot 100 chart history from this blog's parent site. Additionally, 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.

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 about a year ago, 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.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

This Week's Review -- December 2, 1972

While I peruse the list of songs from the week in question for each year and consider which one I want to use for my next review, I often find myself looking at song titles or artists before pinning down the specific week to tackle. This week's list is a little different. Yes, I'm still going to do the same preparation as I normally do; however, it's the survey date that determined which week I was going to review. As it turns out, I made my own debut on December 2, 1972: I was born that afternoon in a small town in Upstate New York. So this week's list is rather special to me in a way that goes beyond the songs or artists involved.

You can read most of that week's issue of Billboard on Google Books. Here's a link to read it. For some odd reason, the transcription only has the first 40 pages of the issue and the Hot 100 list is not available.

This week's review begins and ends with a couple who had just gotten married that November 3rd.In between are two 1950s icons, a producer, a solo singer masquerading as a country band and a band whose leader looked like a pirate.

James Taylor - "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" James Taylor - James Taylor: Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 - Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight

James Taylor was absolutely huge in the early 1970s. Most of his success came from his first two LPs of the decade, Sweet Baby James (which included "Fire and Rain") and Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon (which had the #1 hit "You've Got a Friend"). Then, Taylor waited 19 months to put out his next album, One Man Dog. The new LP would hit #4 on the album charts on the strength of Talyor's fanbase but it was considered disappointing; a concept album with 18 short songs -- many instrumental -- wasn't quite what his fans were expecting after such a long wait.

The first single from Taylor's new LP was a typically understated tune with sparse a jazz arrangement. "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" was a minor hit (#14) but a very stellar performance by JT. Also worth credit is the late jazz legend Michael Brecker, who capably handles the saxophone. Listening to the song for several years, I had always assumed that the song was another example of the "Love the one you're with" attitude of the era...but actually listening to the words I'm realizing that Taylor is singing from the perspective of a man who has been walked over by his woman: he puts up with the abuse she keeps doling out simply because he's either afraid or unwilling to face his nights alone. That's a point of view commonly heard in R&B songs (and usually from a woman's perspective) but deep even for an introspective singer/songwriter.

Delbert & Glen - "I Received a Letter" (Not available as MP3)

Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark were Texans who'd recently moved to Los Angeles. Despite the new California home, their Delbert & Glen LP was loaded with stuff you'd expect from a Texas-based bar band: blues, country, soul and a gospel influence. The album didn't sell well, the single "I Received a Letter" only reached #90 and the duo parted after their second LP fizzled out.

Delbert McClinton doesn't have a lot of hits, but he's made his mark over the years. Early in his career, he was a harmonica player who was memorably featured on a #1 hit by fellow Ft. Worth resident Bruce Channel ("Hey Baby") in 1962. A little later, he played in England and gave some pointers on playing the "mouth harp" to one of the young musicians touring with him. The results of that instruction would be recorded for posterity when John Lennon played harmonica on early Beatles tunes "Please Please Me" and "From Me to You." After a short stint with a group called The Rondells in the mid-60, he played the Texas roadhouse circuit. After the Delbert & Glen years, McClinton continued both as a solo act and songwriter. His biggest 1970s success came when Emmylou Harris took his "Two More Bottles of Wine" to #1 on the country chart. McClinton would finally reach the Top 40 in 1981 with "Giving it Up for Your Love." He's still a highly regarded musician among fellow musicians, another one of those artists whose chart success really doesn't show up in lists of hit records.

Luther Ingram - "I'll Be Your Shelter (In Time of Storm)" Luther Ingram - The Best of Luther Ingram - I'll Be You Shelter (In Time of Storm)

Following up a huge hit with "If Loving You is Wrong (I Don't Want to Be Right)," Ingram went with another longer, parenthesized title and just made the Top 40 with it. Unlike the unrepentant adulterer of the big hit, Luther takes the role of a strong partner and confidant that will help weather any problems this time around. Quite a marked difference in viewpoints. Like many of his 1970s recordings, Ingram is backed on this song by the band and female backup singers for Isaac Hayes, an artist he frequently toured with.

Though this would be Ingram's last Top 40 hit, he continued to chart with minor hits on the R&B surveys into the 1980s and continued touring for years afterwards. In 2007, he died of a heart attack.

The Blue Ridge Rangers - "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" (Not available as MP3)

While the song is credited to a group and the LP cover shows five men in cowboy hats silhouetted on a hillside, this was essentially a John Fogerty solo record. Just months after the breakup of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fogerty must have wanted to put some distance between his group and solo work. For his first "solo" record, he recorded a bunch of cover versions of 1950s and 60s country hits and played all the instruments himself.

For the first single, Fogerty went with the Hank Williams stalwart "Jambalaya." The tune was based on a Cajun song called "Grand Texas" with Williams (and Moon Mullican) providing lyrics evoking Louisiana. One of Williams' best-known songs, it has been recorded hundreds of times by artists as diverse as Jo Stafford, Fats Domino, Van Morrison, Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, The White Stripes and even The Carpenters. The Blue Ridge Rangers version would make #16 on the pop charts and #66 country. It was a surprise pop hit, as few songs so inspired by hard country were doing well at that time; most country crossover hits of the early 1970s were heavy on the strings and featured smooth (non-accented) voices.

Even though Fogerty wasn't trying to cut a country record, it showed fans how much his Creedence material had been influenced by the sound. A year later, Leon Russell would issue his own 50s/60s country-cover LP under the name Hank Wilson, proving once again that even rock artists appreciated the sound.

Lyn Collins - "Me and My Baby Got a Good Thing Going" Lyn Collins - James Brown's Original Funky Divas - Me and My Baby Got a Good Thing Going

 Lyn Collins has (unfairly) been forgotten among many music fans. Called "The Female Preacher" for her full-throated delivery, she was a member of James Brown's posse. Her voice is instantly recognizable to fans of hip-hop (that's her voice singing "It takes two to make a thing go right" on Rob Bass & DJ E-Z Rock's hit) but her place in the history of funk has been largely overlooked.

"Me and My Baby Got a Good Thing Going" used the same chord structure as a country hit from earlier in 1972 by Tom T. Hall ("Me and Jesus") and may have originated as a gospel song. That would be fitting for an artist nicknamed "The Female Preacher." The song was produced by The Godfather of Soul and used his musicians to back her up, so the vibe is purely in the James Brown style. However, the single was overshadowed a few weeks later by a Collins/Brown duet and stalled at #86.

Hurricane Smith - "Oh, Babe, What Would You Say" Hurricane Smith - Fever Pitch - Oh, Babe, What Would You Say?

I once owned a book by Jimmy Guterman and Owen O'Donnell called The Worst Rock & Roll Records of All Time. While I wasn't exactly in agreement with all their choices, I always think of the book every time I hear the opening to "Oh, Babe, What Would You Say" because they mentioned that the saxophone solo sounds a lot like a goose being strangled.And every time I hear it, I picture a goose with somebody shaking its neck.

Norman "Hurricane" Smith wasn't a musician in the same sense as most hit-makers. After a few years of playing jazz after serving in World War Two, he became a sound engineer and producer for EMI. His duties included assisting George Martin with all Beatles LPs through Rubber Soul. After his promotion, he produced a few early albums for Pink Floyd. In the early 1970s, he released some music on his own, including "Oh, Babe, What Would You Say" that evoked the 1920s. It was antithetical to the rock and pop audiences; however, it ended up being a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic. On Billboard's Hot 100, it peaked at #3. After one more minor hit and few records over the next couple years, Smith's recording career was over. He passed away in 2008 at the age of 85.

Since it seems the only MP3 copies of this song on Amazon a re-recordings, I'm substituting a link to Amazon for that book I mentioned above. Some of the commentary won't sit well with some fans but at 13 cents it's not a bad read.

(Edited above on December 6: thanks to David for pointing out that Smith was a musician before his days behind the mixing board.)

The Allman Brothers Band - "One Way Out" The Allman Brothers Band - The Allman Brothers Band: A Decade of Hits 1969-1979 - One Way Out

Part of the outstanding live double LP Eat a Peach, "One Way Out" features superb guitar work by both Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. As a Southern Rock-influenced take on a 1960s Elmore James/Sonny Boy Williamson blues tune, it was captured live as part of the final show from New York's Fillmore East. Even though it only hit #86 in a short chart run, the song has grown very popular over the years on classic rock stations (at under 5 minutes long, it is preferable to many longer jams the band had on their albums) and has been featured in films Almost Famous, Lords of Dogtown and The Departed. It's one of those tunes that people who aren't Allman Brothers fans may not recognize by the title but will hear and think, "Okay, I know that one."

Chuck Berry - "Reelin & Rockin'" Chuck Berry - Gold - Reelin' and Rockin' (Live) [1972 / Lancaster Arts Festival]

Placed on a single to capitalize on the surprise success of "My Ding-a-Ling," this song was another live recording with a sexual subtext. Both songs were taken from the live B-side of Berry's The London Chuck Berry Sessions LP, recorded at the Lanchester Arts Festival in Coventry, England in February '72.

"Reelin' & Rockin'" is one of the many songs Berry had recorded during his 1950s Chess Records heyday. Under the guise of checking the clock for the time, Berry makes sly references to an all-day session with a lady friend. Actually, it's not all that subtle; the line "I got some on my finger so I wiped it on the wall" brings down the house. The song is an example of  what convinced the Establishment that rock & roll was a corrupting influence on American youth in the 1950s but is viewed today as good clean fun.

Elvis Presley - "Separate Ways" Elvis Presley - Walk a Mile In My Shoes: The Essential '70s Masters - Separate Ways

Elvis Presley had a lot of hit singles in the 1970s. In fact, among all artists he ranks fourth (tied with Elton John) with 26 chart singles through a decade he didn't survive. Many of these hits were two-sided so a list of all Presley's charted pop hits includes 38 song titles. While many of these singles reached the Top 40, only three were Top 10s and the highest charting ("Burning Love") stopped at #2. With some artists, those would be phenomenal but in Elvis's case the 1970s material falls far short of his 1950s and 1960s performances in the eyes of many fans. Surprisingly, I haven't reviewed any Presley tunes on this blog until now.

Even though Elvis Presley was on his way to becoming the Vegas-attraction, sequin jumpsuit wearing, karate-chopping, overweight and highly medicated shell of his former self, there's no doubt the King of Rock 'n Roll was still in possession of a spectacular gift: his voice. While some of the stuff he put on record in the 1970s was really far below the bar he set for himself during the 1950s, a more mature Elvis was still able to handle more grown-up issues like divorce, separation and wondering about the road not taken. As he was going through his well-publicized split with his wife Priscilla, it's easy to wonder how much his personal feelings informed his music. For instance, "Separate Ways" was a song about an impending breakup and even though Elvis wasn't a songwriter he was able to take tune that and make it his own. There's even a few lines about how his child will come to grips with the reason her parents separated, definitely something Elvis was concerned about with his beloved Lisa Marie.

The B-side of "Separate Ways" was "Always on My Mind," which was a country hit and the A-side when released in the UK. Like "Separate Ways," "Always on My Mind" was a song that could've been taken from Elvis's own life story at the time, and (to my ears, at least) it's one of the best performances he ever laid down on record. Brenda Lee did the song first, Willie Nelson and The Pet Shop Boys had huge hits with the song in the 1980s, but Presley's take is my pick for the definitive version. Both sides of the single tell a great story, even if it may have been painful for him to share it.

Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show - "The Cover of Rolling Stone" Dr. Hook - Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show Revisited - Cover of the Rolling Stone

When I was 15, I found a copy of a cassette tape that somebody had discarded called Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show: Revisited. At the time, I was familiar with some of the group's late-70s hits but only knew them as Dr. Hook. My father said, "they were pretty good." When I mentioned I'd never heard of any of the songs on the tape, we went for a ride and listened. There was a telephone conversation ("Sylvia's Mother"), a goofy tale of backstage romance ("Roland the Roadie and Gertrude the Groupie"), a song that still cracks me up when I hear it ("Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball") and a couple of songs that had drug lingo I'd never heard before ("Get My Rocks Off" and "Makin' it Natural," sadly, "I Got Stoned and I Missed it" wasn't included). Then there was "The Cover of Rolling Stone."

Like many of those early hits for the group, the song was written by Shel Silverstein. It's a tune where the band explains the life they've come to know as rock stars, with drugs and groupies, an Indian guru, limousines driven by family members, playing for cash ("$10,000 a show" in 1972 dollars) but none of that matters since they haven't been able to make the cover of Rolling Stone. Critics and fans have argued whether the tune was glorifying the lifestyle on the road or simply poking fun at it. I just think it was a fun song. Of course, having a #6 national hit with such a song is going to lead to a remedy for such an oversight; indeed, the March 29, 1973 issue had the band on the cover, with the caption: "What's-Their-Names Make Our Cover."

The Chi-Lites - "We Need Order" The Chi-Lites - A Letter to Myself - We Need Order

After scoring big hits with lush ballads as "Oh Girl" and "Have You Seen Her," The Chi-Lites returned to the socially-conscious lyrics of earlier hits like "(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People" and "We Are Neighbors." The move wasn't successful; "We Need Order" would peak at #61 pop and missed the R&B Top 10. The song featured the group's excellent harmonies behind singer Eugene Record's vocal, strings that were quite common on 1970s records (especially on socially-aware urban-themed songs) and flute and saxophone solos that unfairly seemed to be buried in the final mix.

Joe Cocker - "Woman to Woman" Joe Cocker - Classics, Vol. 4: Joe Cocker - Woman to Woman

While many fans know of "Woman to Woman" as a #1 soul song by Shirley Brown and later remade by Barbara Mandrell. However, before either of those songs was ever recorded, "Woman to Woman" was an entirely different song by Joe Cocker. It was a single off an LP titled Joe Cocker, whose press from A&M Records stated: "Only one man in the world can record an album called Joe Cocker." Considering he already had put out a 1969 LP called Joe Cocker! it would seem A&M could have considered some more original album titles instead.

The song features a repetitive riff and Cocker singing along with his female backers. The constant flow of the music and repeated intonation of the line "woman to woman" makes me wonder whether Cocker was trying to do a James Brown-type song in his own style. Peaking at #56, it didn't stay very long on the charts; however, a sample of the song would appear on a 1996 Tupac Shakur hit called "California Love."

Carly Simon - "You're So Vain" Carly Simon - No Secrets - You're So Vain

Here's a song that is one of the best-remembered #1 hits of the 1970s. It's also a song that has been discussed, dissected, run through the rumor mill, hashed over, speculated and discussed some more. Did I forget to mention a lot of people have discussed this song? Discussion has often focused on the person Simon was thinking about when she wrote the song. From her husband James Taylor to 1970s serial playboy Warren Beatty to Mick Jagger (who sings backup during the last part of the song), many have been suggested even as Simon herself remained coy about it.

Personally, I have no idea -- nor do I really care -- about who (or is that whom?) the song is about. In fact, the lines "You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you" tells me that anybody who might wonder if they're that person would be fairly arrogant in the first place. In short, the song is well-performed, superbly crafted in the studio an incredibly catchy. A juicy slice of 1970s gossip among L.A.-based stars, it's good enough to stand on its own without any wasted time discussing who she might be singing about.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

This Week's Review -- November 28, 1970

For this week, Billboard's Hot 100 had eleven songs entering the chart, with six that would reach the Top 40 and two that almost got there. Four hits made the Top 10 and one was a #1. Among the hits: the first ex-Beatle member with a #1 hit, the most successful ex-Monkee, the first Top ten hit for one of  the decade's biggest artists, two (actually, three) Motown acts, a group that is among the most influential heavy metal legends and the biggest country song of the year.

Thanks to Google Books, many of the Billboard issues from the 1970s have been digitized and are available to read for free. Here's the issue dated November 28, 1970. The complete Hot 100 chart can be found on page 70.

Donnie Elbert - "Can't Get Over Losing You" Donnie Elbert - R&B Maverick - Can't Get Over Losing You

 Donnie Elbert debuted at #98 with this song, but he wouldn't get any higher and was off the charts after two weeks. Born in New Orleans but raised in Buffalo, Elbert had been recording since the late 1950s but hadn't gained much headway on the pop or soul charts despite possessing a tremendous voice and even playing the instruments on his recordings himself. After a few years living in England and gaining some success there, Elbert returned to the U.S. and began getting some hits.

His first chart entry of the 1970s was "Can't Get Over Losing You," a song that sounds like it was a Motown tune, evoking Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' "Ooh Baby Baby" in both his vocal delivery and the background strings. Despite underperforming on the Hot 100, the song would reach #26 on the soul chart.

Gladys Knight & the Pips - "If I Were Your Woman" Gladys Knight & The Pips - The Best of Gladys Knight & The Pips: Anthology - If I Were Your Woman

Gladys Knight & the Pips are probably best remembered for their 1970s tenure with Buddah records but spent many years at Motown. Despite gaining some decent hits (even charting "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" a year before Marvin Gaye's seminal version and taking it to #2 pop), neither Gladys Knight or any of the Pips are remembered as a Motown group in the same sense as The Supremes, The Temptations or The Miracles. Before leaving Motown, they managed to score a #9 pop (and #1 soul) hit with this gem.

"If I Were Your Woman" was another of the many songs that came out of Motown's production line. Written by staff writers and backed with lush orchestration by the company's phenomenal house band, the song still manages to showcase Knight's strong voice and the tight vocal harmonies of The Pips. A fluid bass line (probably by James Jamerson; incredibly, Motown wouldn't list session players on their album liner notes until 1971) also stands out on the recording. Among the group's 1970s recordings, this sometimes gets lost among their successful Buddah records but is still one of their best efforts.

B.J. Thomas - "Most of All" (Not available as MP3)

B.J. Thomas enjoyed a string of hit singles at the start of the 1970s. "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" was the #1 song as the 1970s dawned and the hits kept coming through 1972. Then his label Scepter Records closed shop, causing Thomas's career to skid toward inconsistency and eventually turn him towards the country market with occasional crossover success. "Most of All" would do well, just making the Top 40 on the Hot 100 but peaking at #2 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

The only thing about "Most of All" is that it doesn't really stand out from Thomas's other work. It's a well-done effort but still sounds a lot like his bigger hits "I Just Can't Help Believing" and "Rock and Roll Lullaby." It's a shame, as the song could have resonated with a lot of people from its story where somebody tells his darling that he'd love to be with her but he has to keep on traveling. He's calling from the train station in St. Paul...and mentions that when the snow falls the next day he won't be there to see it because he must chase his dreams. It's a common theme in songs; musicians who do a lot of touring certainly relate, but so do a lot of people who have to travel for work.

George Harrison - "My Sweet Lord" George Harrison - All Things Must Pass (30th Anniversary Edition) [Remastered] - My Sweet Lord b/w "Isn't it a Pity" George Harrison - All Things Must Pass (30th Anniversary Edition) [Remastered] - Isn't It a Pity

Quick, what was the first song by an ex-Beatle to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100? It wasn't Paul McCartney's "Another Day," which only reached #5. John Lennon's "Instant Karma" made it to #3 and Ringo Starr's "It Don't Come Easy" stalled at #4. All of the former Beatles would eventually get multiple #1 hits but George Harrison was the first to reach the summit when "My Sweet Lord" was on top of the charts to end a year that watched the group split up.

Last week's review featured George Harrison as well; "This Song" was written after the aftermath of "My Sweet Lord" and how the writers and copyright holders of the 1963 hit "He's So Fine" felt Harrison had (perhaps subconsciously) plagiarized their song in order to make his own million-seller. Without getting into that question, it is one of many songs of its era that I could place into the subcategory "God Rock." Despite its assumed piety, the song has quite a catchy slide guitar riff by Harrison and doesn't come off as preachy. Instead, it's sung more like a mantra or prayer in front of a choir. Finally, since George was really the only member of the Beatles truly serious about the whole Indian mysticism vibe that led them the stay with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, India, there's little question as to his intentions in recording such a song.

Sadly, many stations once again dusted off "My Sweet Lord" in November 2001 when the news broke that Harrison had passed away.

Black Sabbath - "Paranoid" (Not available as MP3)

Here's a song that is much better remembered than chart positions indicate. Even though it peaked at #61, Black Sabbath has become a huge influence on rock musicians through the years. This is also a song I can't ever listen to without feeling the need to crank up the volume to loud. Tommy Iommi's guitar blast (it shouldn't be called a riff) drives the song even more than the rhythm section, which is not an easy task, and Ozzy Osbourne's vocals are both immediate and nonsensical. According to the story behind the song, Iommi developed the buzzsaw-driven guitar line and the band recorded it as quickly as they could, with Ozzy making up the words on the spot. In any case, the song is two and a half minutes of pure adrenaline.

A couple of things I'd like to bring out's worth mentioning that this song and "Iron Man" (Sabbath's only two pop hits in the 1970s) were culled from the same LP, Paranoid, but the second single wouldn't be released until 1972. It seemed Black Sabbath wanted to be primarily an album artist rather than a singles artist. Also, one of Ozzy's lines is officially "I tell you to enjoy life, I wish I could but it's too late" is frequently misheard as "I tell you to end your life." Listening to the song, it sure sounds like that's what he said, even though I've taken the effort to listen closely. But then again, I still hear "'scuse me while I kiss this guy" in "Purple Haze" even when I know better.

The Supremes & The Four Tops - "River Deep, Mountain High" The Supremes & The Four Tops - The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 10: 1970 - River Deep, Mountain High

"River Deep, Mountan High" has quite a history. It was written by "Wall of Sound" guru -- and current convicted murderer -- Phil Spector along with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Intended for Ike & Tina Turner (only without Ike), the song had great expectations but flopped phenomenally when it was deemed too pop for R&B and too R&B for pop, causing Spector to walk away from the record business for a couple of years. Its flop didn't stop other artists from covering it, though: Nilsson, Eric Burdon & the Animals, Deep Purple and Bob Seger were among the artists who added the song to their records, but the most successful version was recorded by the post-Diana Ross Supremes and The Four Tops as a "duet" even though there were seven people involved. As one of several singles pairing the two groups, the song would hit #14 behind their star power and the sound of Motown's superb house band.

Lynn Anderson - "Rose Garden" Lynn Anderson - 16 Biggest Hits - Rose Garden

This song, written by Joe South, was a huge crossover hit. Reaching #3 on the Hot 100, it would go on to be the biggest country hit for the year 1970. With a great instrumental backing provided by Nashville session musicians, the song is propelled by a plucked guitar line that sounds almost like raindrops, surging strings and a solid bass line. "Rose Garden" was originally included on Joe South's Introspect LP and would be covered by Dobie Gray, Glen Campbell and Dottie West (and later by Martina McBride); however, Lynn Anderson's sunny take on the song is the best known.

Despite the upbeat sound behind the song, a quick reading of the lyrics paint a slightly different picture. In the words, there's an explanation that life is not always going to be sweet. There are definitely going to be some hard times, which will give plenty of reasons to enjoy the good times. It's a lyric that was written from a male perspective ("I could promise you things like big diamond rings"...) and seems to be directed at a young prospective bride, but oddly a female take gives the song a different twist. The topic is a frequent one in country music -- Charley Pride's "All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)" is a prime example -- which is solidly directed at working-class listeners.

Michael Nesmith & the First National Band - "Silver Moon" Michael Nesmith - Loose Salute - Silver Moon

After the Monkees broke up at the dawn of the 1970s, Mike Nesmith would be the most successful solo member of the group. Aside from the group's final hit "Oh My My" which spent two weeks on the Hot 100, only two of the group's members would return to the pop charts. Davy Jones would have one low-charting entry in 1971 ("Rainy Jane") and Michael Nesmith-- who was likely the most serious musician of the group -- would notch all three of his chart entries before his former bandmate.

What's even better, Nesmith did it on his own terms. Rather than simply making records reminding music listeners that he was once one of the Monkees, his work -- both solo and with The First  (and later, the Second) National Band -- was a mixture of rock, country, folk, bluegrass and whatever other styles he wanted to use. Even during his days with the Prefab Four, his compositions for the group ("Papa Gene's Blues," "What Am I Doing Hangin' Round?" and "Tapioca Tundra," among others) often showcased his eclectic style. Other artists liked recording his songs; The Stone Poneys (with lead singer Linda Ronstadt) had a huge hit with "Different Drum" and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band scored with "Some of Shelly's Blues."

"Silver Moon" is another one of his cross-genre tunes. It has a steel guitar solo, rhythm guitars that almost sound like they were cribbed from a reggae record and bluegrass-inspired yodeling at the end of the word "moon." That rarely amounts to Top 40 success (the song stalled at #42) but it makes for a great-sounding record if everything gels together.

Free - "The Stealer" Free - 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Free - The Stealer

When Free had a massive hit with "All Right Now" in the Summer of 1970 on both sides of the Atlantic and a Top 20 LP Fire and Water, the band was rushed into the studio to see if they could go to the well again and record a successful follow-up. Unfortunately, neither the LP Highway nor the single "The Stealer" managed to recapture the magic of their big hit. The album reached a disappointing #190 and the single -- a straightforward rock song with a guitar riff that propels the tune forward -- fizzled out at #49. As they struggled to maintain their momentum, the band fell apart from internal issues.

Free's members had little success with their projects at first and tried to reunite in 1972. However, the internal issues persisted while drug abuse took an additional toll and Free was gone for good in '73. Singer Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke would form Bad Company and reach the level they couldn't quite reach as members of Free. Sadly, guitarist Paul Kossoff would die in 1976 from a heart attack brought on by his drug use. He was 25.

Robert John - "When the Party is Over" (Not available as MP3)

Brooklyn-born Robert John had been recording since he was a child; his first Billboard hit came in 1958 (when he was 12) under his real name Bobby Pedrick. He would spend much of the 1960s finding his voice, he recorded with several record labels and also part of the short-lived groups Bobby & the Consoles and The Carousel. In 1968, Robert John Pedrick would drop his given last name, probably to avoid any association with his earlier persona.

His best-known hits of the 1970s would be a 1972 remake of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and the #1 "Sad Eyes," both of which spotlighted his high-pitched tenor (a full falsetto on the latter hit). For his first hit single of the decade, John uses his regular vocal range and delivers a basic song, accented by a horn section and sax solo. "When the Party is Over" would be a minor hit, stalling at #71.

Elton John - "Your Song" Elton John - Elton John - Your Song

Before he became a mega-star known for his flashy stage attire and comic glasses, Elton John was just a bloke from England named Reg Dwight who played piano and tried to make his name in the music business. That was where he was in 1970 when he released his Elton John LP. "Your Song" would be an early turning point for the burgeoning artist. It would be his first U.S. Top 10 and help begin the string of hits that made him one of the biggest stars of the 1970s. In effect, it helped open some of the doors he needed but his stage show would help open the rest.

Beginning with a nice piano melody, Elton sings Bernie Taupin's lyrics in a conversational style -- even half-chuckling when he changes his mind mid-sentence -- while an acoustic guitar and strings accompany him. Essentially, "Your Song" is a love song written as a gift and sung in a self-deprecating manner. Considering the way his lyrics often came off as grandiose once he became a superstar, hearing a song where the singer sounds a little nervous getting the words out is refreshing.