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.

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