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.

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