Saturday, November 21, 2009

This Week's Review -- November 20, 1976

Nine songs made their debut on Billboard's Hot 100 this week. Five would make the Top 40 (and another would fall just short), three would be Top 10 singles and two would go all the way to #1. Among the hits are a country tune, a pop song that probably could have been a decent country hit, a rock classic that couldn't get played on radio when it first came out (and later to become a crossover rap hit), a return to the charts by the Beatles as well as one of that group's former members.Read on to find out what they are...

Dickey Lee - "9,999,999 Tears" (Not available as MP3)

Dickey Lee had some modest success in the early 1960s both as a singer and a songwriter. His best-known hit was likely 1962's "Patches," the tale of a boy and a girl from different sides of the tracks that ends with both having committed suicide. As a songwriter, he wrote one of George Jones's best-loved hits "She Thinks I Still Care." By the 1970s, Lee's pop hits had dried up so like many singer/songwriters over the years he began recording for a country audience and saw some success there.

"9,999,999 Tears" was a tune that recalled Lee's 1960s heyday even if it didn't sound much like his best-known hit. Written by future country star Razzy Bailey, the song was originally recorded by its writer in 1966 with The Uniques. It's a catchy tune about lost love: the tears in the song are the number the singer still has yet to cry before getting over her...and even then, he won't be sure if he'll be done. It's not hard to like the way Lee sings out "I've got nine million, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine tears to go" like he was doing it on Sesame Street with The Count. Also notable in the song is a guitar hook that gets played after every line in each verse. While it was a #3 hit on the country chart, it would be his final pop hit after peaking at #52.

Seals & Crofts - "Baby, I'll Give it to You" Seals and Crofts - Sudan Village - Baby I'll Give It to You

This was a cut from Seals & Crofts' live LP Sudan Village, even though (to my ears, at least) it doesn't sound like a live tune. Perhaps the sound engineers were able to capture the song without the ambient audience noise or edit it out in postproduction. Featuring a female singer on the track who isn't named on any of the online sites I've checked out but sounds like "Get Closer" guest vocalist Carolyn Willis (a former member of The Honey Cone), the song sounds like an attempt to try and capitalize on that big hit from earlier in the year. It didn't work, as the song only reached #58.

Manfred Mann's Earth Band - "Blinded By the Light" Manfred Mann's Earth Band - The Roaring Silence - Blinded By the Light

Here's a song I remember talking about during my teenage years with schoolmates, and everybody had a different idea of the lyrics. A short time later, I managed to buy a used copy of The Roaring Silence LP and discovered the song's lyrics inside the gatefold. Boy, was I ever wrong about many of the lines. According to the official version, what I thought was "wrapped up like a douche" was really "revved up like a deuce" and what my friend Thomas swore was "little early birdie kept my anus curly-wurly" was actually "little early Pearlie came by in his curly-whirly." So rather than a feminine hygiene product, the song mentioned a souped-up roadster; furthermore, there was a helicopter reference instead of a questionable homosexual encounter.

As many fans know, "Blinded By the Light" was written by Bruce Springsteen and originally appeared on his debut LP Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. Springsteen said he wrote the song using various images from his youth in South Jersey: "Indians in the summer" referred to his baseball team, the "silicone sister" was a stripper who worked in one of Asbury Park's strip clubs, mentions are made of having the mumps and that chip ("boulder") on the shoulder a lot of teens have. Manfred Mann's version omitted some of the lyrics used from The Boss's original and arranged the song differently. After the instrumental break (heavily edited for the single release), singer Chris Thompson sings the chorus repeatedly as either Mann -- who usually didn't sing on his band's hits -- or drummer Chris Slade (there's some disagreement about that, even though a promotional video from the era shows Mann handling the extra vocals...but then again, he could merely be lip synching) recounted the verses. They also tossed in a piano rendition of "Chopsticks," something that wasn't on Springsteen's original at all.

Manfred Mann's Earth Band took the song to #1 in February '77. It would be the only #1 Billboard Hot 100 single written by Springsteen; "Fire" by The Pointer Sisters and his own "Dancing in the Dark" both stalled at #2. That may come as a surprise to many, given his stature and success (though he did have a guest vocal in the 1985 #1 "We Are the World," he had no part in writing the song).

The Beatles - "Ob-La Di, Ob-La Da" (Not available as MP3)

The Beatles? In a discussion of music from 1976?

While "Ob-La Di, Ob-La Da" was originally featured on the 1968 LP The Beatles (more commonly known as "The White Album"), it wasn't released as a single then. At the time, none of that album's songs was slated for single release; the closest they came was "Revolution," the B-side of "Hey Jude" but the version on the LP was a slowed-down version titled "Revolution One." "Ob-La Di, Ob-La Da" would also appear on the 1973 #1 double greatest-hits LP The Beatles: 1967-'70 but none of that album's songs were released as singles in the U.S. either.

In 1976, Capitol Records released another double LP called Rock and Roll Music which was a repackaging of many of the band's more rock-based tunes spread across their career. Essentially, it was a way to make some more money off the back catalog of a group that had split up in 1970, whose distribution deal through Apple Records had ended in 1975 with that label's demise and whose former members were going in their own directions (by 1976, only Paul McCartney was still on the company's artist roster). After"Got to Get You into My Life" was released as a single and hit #7, Capitol once again went to the well with "Ob-La Di, Ob-La Da" which wasn't on the LP. Stalling at #47, it became the first Beatles single on the Hot 100 since "Matchbox" b/w "Slow Down" in 1964 to miss the Top 10.

(corrected 11/22/09: changed to reflect the fact that "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La Da" was not on the Rock and Roll Music LP. Thanks To Ron for the correction.)

George Harrison - "This Song" George Harrison - Thirty Three & 1/3 (Bonus Track Version) [Remastered] - This Song

It's fitting that the same week a song by The Beatles appears on the chart, one of the group's members was also making his own entry.

"This Song" was something of an answer to George Harrison's legal troubles that arose when "My Sweet Lord" sounded a lot like the 1963 Chiffons hit "He's So Fine." With lines like "as far as I know, don't infringe on anyone's copyright," "my expert says it's okay" and "this song came to me quite unknowingly" it's apparent Harrison felt the sting from his time in the courtroom. His sense of humor is intact, however; Harrison featured Eric Idle in the song shouting in a voice familiar to Monty Python fans about whether the song sounds like "Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch" or "Rescue Me," and also filmed a music video for the song lampooning the legal proceedings that appeared on Saturday Night Live on the same date (November 20, '76) as the song's debut date on the Billboard chart. That said, for a humorous little ditty with a painful basis, Billy Preston (piano) and Tom Scott (saxophone) play their parts like they're entirely serious.

The song was the first single from the LP Thirty-Three and 1/3, which was both the speed of the LP on a turntable and Harrison's age when he released it. While the LP was hailed by critics as perhaps his finest since All Things Must Pass, it missed the Top 10 on the album charts ("This Song" only reached #25). For the rest of the 1970s, Harrison would focus more on his film projects and outside interests and less time in the studio.

Earth, Wind & Fire - "Saturday Nite" Earth, Wind & Fire - Spirit - Saturday Nite

While Earth, Wind & Fire was recording its LP Spirit, the group's arranger and producer Charles Stepney died of a heart attack. Despite the obvious setback, EW&F frontman Maurice White stepped into the role and took control of his group's direction from that point forward. The finished LP had two chart hits: "Getaway" (which hit #12) and "Saturday Nite" -- probably spelled that way to avoid confusion with the earlier Bay City Rollers hit -- a fair pop hit (#24) that fared much better on the Billboard R&B chart (#4). With two songs that missed the Top 10, Spirit was a bit of a disappointment after That's the Way of the World and "Shining Star," but fortunately the group wasn't ready to wind down.

As a song, "Saturday Nite" was okay. As an exercise in showcasing the group's horns, vocal harmonies and funky R&B vibe, it did the job but the group would accomplish the task even better on their next LP with "Serpentine Fire."

Mary MacGregor - "Torn Between Two Lovers" (Not available as MP3)

I have a confession. I had planned on just writing something generic for this song and avoiding actually listening to it as I wrote this week's review. Normally, I'll listen to a song at least three times before writing about it but this time I figured I've heard this one enough over time to have a preconceived opinion. Then, in discussion with a reader of this blog, I realized that part of the process of writing these reviews was to give every song a fresh listen...even if I was essentially holding my nose for a few minutes. Anything less would be unfair to my readers. So, I listened to the song.

I'm not ready to say that the tune has grown on me; it hasn't. However, the subject matter (woman agonizes over the fact she's in love with two people, knows she must decide but doesn't want to hurt either lover) should have made it an ideal country song. Not detracting from Mary MacGregor's voice or delivery, but handing the same song to Dolly Parton or Conway Twitty and using Nashville session players behind them may have made it better. However, the song was Mary MacGregor's alone and she took it to #1 pop and eventually #3 country.

Researching the song, I did learn some things I'd never known. The song was written by Phillip Jarrell and Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary) and was inspired by the novel Dr. Zhivago. It was originally intended to be sung from the male point of view, even though it was a woman would handle the successful hit version.

Aerosmith - "Walk This Way" (Not available as MP3)

It might be hard to believe, but this song was a dud when it first came out. As a single off the Toys in the Attic LP, it was released to radio in September 1975 but didn't chart. The band would need to hit with its next album Rocks before "Walk This Way" could get a second chance. The re-release brought good luck to the band, as the song hit #10 and became a hard rock classic, a 1970s anthem and one of the band's best-loved tunes. It also helped serve as a springboard to Aerosmith's late 1980s resurgence; after fading in the late 1970s due to substance abuse and interpersonal conflict between band members and several disappointing "comeback" albums, a rap cover of "Walk This Way" by Run-DMC in 1986 (with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry contributing) would not only help return the newly resurgent Aerosmith to platinum success but would help rap's popularity -- for better or worse -- among the white audience where that genre's sales were needed.

Not bad for a tune that couldn't get much airplay when it was first sent to radio stations.

Boz Scaggs - "What Can I Say" BOZ SCAGGS - Silk Degrees - What Can I Say

Released just after the success of Scaggs' great song "Lowdown" (which was still charting high as "What Can I Say" made its entry), this was another "blue-eyed" soul tune in the same vein but didn't have the crossover appeal as its predecessor. It just missed the Top 40 -- peaking at #42 -- but certainly deserved more success.

"What Can I Say" was one of four singles from Scaggs' highest-charting LP Silk Degrees. All four songs (the two already mentioned, "Lido Shuffle" and "It's Over") were co-written by Scaggs with keyboardist David Paich. Also on the LP was the song "We're All Alone," which would become a huge hit for Rita Coolidge in 1977. Paich and three other musicians from the LP (David Hungate, Steve Porcaro and Jeff Porcaro) would go on to form four-fifths of the band Toto in 1978.

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