Seven songs debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 this week. However, although only five made the Top 40, the other two weren't exactly duds; one was a multi-week #1 on the country charts and the other was a song that had already gone to #1 three years earlier.
Andy Gibb - "(Love is) Thicker Than Water" (Not available as MP3)
Coming off the heels of his debut chart single -- and #1 smash hit -- "I Just Want to Be Your Everything," Andy Gibb was poised to ride this song to #1 as well. In Andy Gibb's case, having The Bee Gees as his brothers, his writers and his producers didn't hurt him at all. Neither did his record company, RSO, which held a hammerlock on Billboard's #1 position between December 24, 1977 and May 13, 1978. In that time, six consecutive songs from RSO held the #1 spot: Gibb's single, four tracks from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and Player's "Baby Come Back."
(Adding this part here and then moving on...there have been rumors that the manager involved in ranking the hits on Billboard during this era had a close relationship with RSO and may have "helped" the label's success. Whether it's truth or fiction doesn't change the official record, so I'll bring it up here for the sake of completeness and go back to the song).
All three of Andy Gibbs' first charted singles hit #1, and "Thicker" was probably the weakest of the three. Though it has great support from his brothers and sounds great, it lacks that rhythm that propelled his earlier hit "I Just Want to Be Your Everything" and the catchy bridge or orchestration that made "Shadow Dancing" one of the biggest hits of 1978. That said, it's a shame that much of his material isn't more available. His CDs are out of print (and expensive to pick up -- even used -- on Amazon).
Stevie Wonder - "As"
"As" preceded "Another Star" on Side 4 of Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life LP but followed it as a single. Like "Another Star," it only barely made the Top 40 (peaking at #36). Sometimes called "Always" by listeners because the word "As" really isn't prominent in the song (it appears at the beginning of two lines, but "always" punctuates many lines and "until" begins many more lines), the song featured a keyboard solo by Herbie Hancock.
This was the fourth and final single from Songs in the Key of Life, perhaps Wonder's most ambitious LP. One song from the album ("Isn't She Lovely") gained a lot of airplay but never was released as a single. After "As" was dropped from radio playlists fans would have to wait two more years for the next Stevie Wonder LP.
Tom Petty & the Hearbreakers - "Breakdown"
Tom Petty is now a very well-known figure in music, but he was a new face in 1977 and this was his debut chart single. Even though it only topped out at #40, the song was a solid entry and still gets play on classic rock stations today. As a song, it featured a stripped-down sound: the lyrics were simple ("it's all right in you love me, it's all right if you don't...") and Mike Campbell's guitar really stands out. While Petty has pointed to The Byrds, Bob Dylan and psychedelic music as his influences, "Breakdown" is more in line with roots rock (even if it was amped up). Though Petty's fame was still a couple years away -- the 1979 LP Damn the Torpedoes would be considered a breakthrough -- "Breakdown" was a way of announcing that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had arrived.
Santa Esmeralda - "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"
I miss XM Radio's Channel 83 ("Chrome"). It disappeared right after the provider merged with Sirius and combined the two companies' lineups in November 2008. Though the channel sometimes was something of an acquired taste, sometimes there would be some great stuff streaming there. Once, I had to drive an hour away from home for a job interview. While I was on the long stretch of interstate that went through a National Forest (and had no exits for many miles), they played the extended version of Santa Esmeralda's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and I found myself literally out of the woods before I knew it.
For those who remember "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" as a 1965 Animals song might have found Santa Esmeralda's Latin twist to be odd, but the song had originally been written for Nina Simone to be played in a Latin style. By mixing the song's Latin roots with The Animals' urgency and setting it to a disco beat, the song was perfect for the dance floor. It would peak at the same #15 position that The Animals reached in 1965; however, a follow-up single remaking "House of the Rising Sun" (another classic best remembered from The Animals) wasn't as good or as successful.
Like many disco "acts," Santa Esmeralda was essentially a studio group fronted by Leroy Gomez (an American who was living in Europe). Despite sounding like they could be from New York or Miami, Santa Esmeralda called Paris home. The fact that their biggest hit doesn't sound a lot like standard Eurodisco has a lot to do with its continued popularity. Unfortunately, the available MP3s on Amazon are for re-recorded versions. A 10-minute version of the original is available as part of the Kill Bill, Vol. 1 soundtrack; however, the entire MP3 album must be purchased in order to get it.
Diana Ross - "Gettin' Ready for Love"
The 1970s were hit-or-miss for Diana Ross when it came to chart fortunes. After reaching the Top 10 consistently with The Supremes during the 1960s (and hitting #1 12 times), Ross's solo career was more uneven once she left the trio. Beginning in 1970, she would go through a decade-long stretch where her pop singles either hit #1 or missed the Top 10 altogether. The fourth and final 1970s #1 hit would be "Love Hangover," a song that gave Ross an entry into the burgeoning disco scene. When Motown released Ross's Baby It's Me LP in 1977, the first song on the record was "Gettin' Ready for Love," another chance to return to the goldmine exploited by "Love Hangover."
While the song isn't terrible, it is another way of pointing out how Diana Ross was becoming less of an important part of Motown's universe. While she still possessed a great voice, her material wasn't the more edgy stuff her labelmates Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were putting out. And the results were evident: Gaye and Wonder enjoyed #1 hits in 1977 and this song peaked at #27. For Diana Ross, the next important part of her career came after she left Motown in 1980, paired up with producers Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards and recorded the material her fans knew she was capable of all along.
The Kendalls - "Heaven's Just a Sin Away"
The Kendalls were a father-and-daughter duo who enjoyed a handful of Top 10 hits on the country charts during the 1970s and '80s. Three of those hits reached #1 and this one was the biggest, spending 4 weeks on top in an era where multi-week country #1s were becoming rare. The massive country success didn't cross over to the pop side, as "Heaven's Just a Sin Away" peaked at #69 and was the group's only chart entry.
Without focusing on the "creepiness" factor of hearing a father and daughter sing "cheatin' songs" together, this song is absolutely catchy. Daughter Jeannie has a great voice, father Royce handles the harmony well and a funky-sounding clavinet drives the song from the speakers into the deepest recesses of the listener's brain. Even for people who don't care much for country music, this song offers a lot.
Olivia Newton-John - "I Honestly Love You"
The last song to debut this week was familiar to listeners, since it had already been a #1 hit back in 1974. When Olivia Newton-John's American label MCA released her Greatest Hits LP, they re-released what had been her most successful single to that point. This time around, the single stalled at #48. Fortunately for "Livvy," her fans would get more chances to hear her sing. The movies Grease and Xanadu and a monster hit called "Physical" would ensure that for the next five years.