Saturday, February 13, 2010

This Week's Review -- February 9, 1974

Eight new singles made their first appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Of those, three made the Top 40 and one would reach the Top 10; however, one that stalled in the lower rungs of the chart would return to become a Top 10 hit two years later. Among the acts with new singles are the top artist of the rock era, one former member of the biggest group of the same era but with his new band, a debut hit for a pair who would eventually become the biggest duo in history and a final chart single for an artist who had recently passed away. There was also quite a lot of crossover action, as four of the singles were also hits on the country chart.

Speaking of crossover hits...Google books has a large collection of past Billboard issues available to read for free. The February 9, 1974 edition can be found here. The full Hot 100 can be found on page 56. A very interesting article begins on page 3. A chart analysis points out that the week's Top 10 might be confusing because there are two MOR songs, four soul crossovers, two country crossovers, a spoken-word recording and only one tune that would be considered rock (and even then, Ringo Starr's cover of "You're Sixteen" can be seen as something of a novelty). It's something that "oldies" stations don't readily acknowledge...but while some call that "diversity" because you'll never hear all ten of those songs on a single radio station, others call it bland since it seemed different musical forms were converging.

The Whispers - "A Mother For My Children" The Whispers - Greatest Hits - A Mother for My Children

(Debuted #99, Peaked #92, 4 weeks on chart)

The Whispers had six pop hits during the 1970s, but none would get any higher than #88. That may be a record of some type for futility. At the same time, the group notched 16 R&B hits and needed to wait for a new decade before gaining more success on both charts. Originally from the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, the group was recording in Philadelphia in the early to mid-70s and embraced the Philly Soul sound on their records (including "A Mother for My Children"). Despite employing the white-hot Philly sound of the 1970s, they ironically enjoyed their biggest success after returning home to L.A and recording for SOLAR records.

With Philly-style strings providing musical support, the lyrics tell about a man who needs a different type of support altogether. Without explaining what happened other than saying they didn't see "eye to eye," it seems his wife left him and their two kids. While he's trying to explain to the kids why she left, he's also having to keep the house cleaned ("Left me here scrubbin' floors, never washed the dishes before"...perhaps that might be part of why she left?). So now he wants to find somebody who can help raise the kids and take his household duties off his hands. With a bouncy beat driving the song, it's a much brighter song than the lyrics make it sound. It certainly deserved to be a bigger hit than it was.

The Chi-Lites - "Homely Girl" The Chi-Lites - The Chi-Lites: 20 Greatest Hits - Homely Girl

(Debuted #98, Peaked #54, 8 weeks on chart)

"Homely Girl" was the lead track (and third single) from The Chi-Lites' self-titled 1973 LP. While the title comes off as an insult, the lyrics tell an "ugly duckling/beautiful swan" story and the narrator is explaining how he feels lucky to have seen through the exterior to find a lovely person long ago, while the other boys who teased her back then have changed their opinions once she developed into a beauty. A flute or piccolo (I haven't yet figured out which) provides the gimmick, sounding like a circus or carnival to accent the childhood recollection in the song. As usual for a Chi-Lites hit song, the vocal harmony parts are as important to the song as the other instruments.

Written and produced by the group's lead singer Eugene Record, the song underscores his creative skill beyond the delivery he brought to so many Chi-Lites songs. While not as memorable as "Oh Girl" or "Have You Seen Her," "Homely Girl" is well worth a listen for those who only know them for those hits and want to hear more. Another recommendation: "Stoned Out of My Mind," from the same LP and another song that isn't what one would expect from the title.

Glen Campbell - "Houston (I'm Comin' To See You)" Glen Campbell - All the Best - Houston (I'm Comin' to See You)

(Debuted #84, Peaked #68, 6 weeks on chart)

Glen Campbell certainly had a lot of hit records that named cities in the title. Wichita, Galveston and Phoenix (twice, if you count his duet with Anne Murray) were better known, and in 1974 Campbell added Houston to the list. Unfortunately, it didn't match the success of those earlier hits but that didn't deter Campbell from dropping L.A. into the title of a future hit single. Also different from the three city songs mentioned above, "Houston" wasn't written by Jimmy Webb; it was penned by future Toto member David Paich. That made it one of the earliest hits for a writer who would compose most of Toto's hits as well as Cheryl Lynn's "Got to Be Real" and many of Boz Scaggs' Silk Degrees-era hits.

With a musical component that sounds like it was influenced by Elton John's "Levon," the song is another in a long line of songs where a singer is dealing with separation. Musicians who do a lot of touring are very well acquainted with the subjects of long distances and traveling and their toll on relationships, which helps them deliver convincing performances when presented with those types of tunes. At one point, the narrator is realizing it's been over a year and can't understand where the time went. For a successful crossover artist like Glen Campbell, the arrangement is suitable for multiple audiences (and in turn charted on Billboard's pop, country and adult contemporary charts).

Elvis Presley - "I've Got A Thing About You Baby"  Elvis Presley - Walk a Mile In My Shoes: The Essential '70s Masters - I've Got a Thing About You Baby b/w "Take Good Care Of Her" Elvis Presley - Walk a Mile In My Shoes: The Essential '70s Masters - Take Good Care of Her

(Debuted #90, Peaked #39, 12 weeks on chart)

Elvis Presley was such an icon, it's easy to forget that he was only an active hitmaker for a little over twenty years before his death. His career as a recording artist was shorter than those of Elton John, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, even Madonna; however, he's still the #1 act of all time (that is, since the rock era began in 1955). His 1950s material is what made his legend. His 1960s recordings weren't as essential but were still consistent even if he didn't always seem in touch with the times. For some reason, the King's 1970s output is largely overlooked and undervalued by many despite the fact that he was one of the decade's most prolific recording artists. Perhaps the fact that many fans equate the 1970s Elvis with the drug-addicted, TV shooting, karate-chopping, sequin-jumpsuited, overweight stage presence of those last few years contributed to that.

Like many of his 1970s singles, this was a two-sided hit that also scored on the country chart. "I've Got a Thing About You Baby" was the more uptempo side, while "Take Good Care of Her" was slower. Where "Thing" had a definite 70s vibe with a more pronounced bass line than he usually featured in his songs and an organ line, "Care" featured piano and strings. Both songs had backing vocals: "Thing" featured a female group like The Sweet Inspirations (who had backed him up during his 1969 Memphis recordings) and "Care" featured a full church choir that accented the "my true love is getting married to someone else" topic of the lyrics.

While these songs aren't exactly on a level with Elvis's 1950s hits, they're not 1970s kitsch, either. When released, Elvis was still in fine vocal form, still notching consistent Top 40 hits and still making meaningful music when several of his 1950s and 1960s contemporaries were being relegated to the oldies revival circuit. It's puzzling how his 1970s material is often dismissed or passed over.

Paul McCartney and Wings - "Jet" Paul McCartney & Wings - Band On the Run - Jet

(Debuted #69, Peaked #7, 14 weeks on chart)

Here's a song I've always liked but never really understood. Taken from Band on the Run, perhaps McCartney's best and tightest post-Beatles LP, "Jet" was one of three singles from the album (except in the U.K., where "Helen Wheels" was a single but wasn't originally included on the album). While it's one of Macca's best post-Beatles rock tunes, the lyrics are somewhat nonsensical. With lines about "Jet" getting married soon, a lonely place besides the moon, a father "as bold as the sergeant major" and the major being a lady suffragette (a word which likely was used either because McCartney liked David Bowie or "Jet" is the last syllable of that word), as near as I can figure, it's another one of those songs where the singer is lamenting a lover getting married to somebody else. What makes the song even more puzzling is the persistent rumor (whether factual or not) that "Jet" was the name of the McCartney family's labrador retriever.

As a former soldier of the U.S. Army, I realize the mention of a sergeant major (an enlisted rank) and a major (on officer rank) together seems odd. That has always bothered me about the song. However, I still have no idea whether McCartney was referring to the same person. Perhaps that's the point of the song: toss whatever lyrics fit the melody and let the music speak for itself.

Daryl Hall and John Oates - "She's Gone" Hall & Oates - The Essential Daryl Hall & John Oates - She's Gone

(Debuted #96, Peaked #60, 8 weeks on chart)

If the #60 peak position seems like a typo, it's very much correct. In 1974, Daryl Hall and John Oates notched the first chart hit of their successful career together. However, "She's Gone" didn't become a big first. After subsequent cover versions by Tavares and Lou Rawls and the duo's breakout with "Sara Smile," the song would be re-released in 1976 and became a Top 10 hit the second time around.

In retrospect, it was a song that deserved its second chance. On the surface, it's essentially a song about coming to grips with the fact that a lover has walked away, which was nothing new among hit songs. Written by both Hall and Oates, the song was begun by Oates after ostensibly being stood up on a date. Tossing the song idea to his partner, Hall took the experience of his recent divorce and the two wrote a song that not only filled the human instinct of dealing with emotional issues as a way of getting past them but became a song many fans could relate to. It's still one of the duo's best-loved songs.

Sami Jo - "Tell Me A Lie" Sami Jo - Tell Me a Lie EP - Tell Me a Lie

(Debuted #85, Peaked #21, 14 weeks on chart)

Sami Jo was an Arkansas native who was enjoying her first hit single. "Tell Me a Lie" would be her biggest hit with modest crossover appeal, reaching the pop, country and adult contemporary charts. The adult subject matter was well-suited for the country and AC audiences and the resulting buzz helped propel the single into the pop chart. Sami Jo's dusty voice was reminiscent of Dusty Springfield's (and later on, Bonnie Tyler's) but her delivery was much more subtle. Her followups failed to match "Tell Me a Lie"'s success and her record label dropped her after 1976. She would re-emerge in 1981 as Sami Jo Cole but after two low-charting country songs she left the music business.

"Tell Me a Lie" would reappear in 1983 when Janie Fricke rerecorded the song and rode it to #1 on the country charts. Sami Jo has a website and "Tell Me a Lie" is embedded there as an MP3. Scroll halfway down the page, the song is free for listening.

Tex Ritter - "The Americans (A Canadian's Opinion)"

(Debuted #100, Peaked #90, 3 weeks on chart)

"The Americans" wasn't a song. It was a spoken-word opinion piece set against a patriotic instrumental. Written by Canadian broadcaster Gordon Sinclair as a commentary about how the U.S. was often one of the first nations to help others when they were in crisis (and often did so alone among world powers), the piece was soon a phenomenon much in the way viral YouTube recordings are today. First aired on Canadian radio on June 5, 1973, it quickly became played all over the U.S. at a time when the economy was sluggish, Watergate was threatening to destroy the President and the recent withdrawal of troops from Vietnam had appeared to seal the fate of its former allies there. Again, after the events of September 11, 2001, the songs would be rediscovered and often erroneously attributed as a response to those attacks even though Sinclair had been dead for 17 years and there were no longer any "draft dodgers" in Canada as the piece alluded to.

"The Americans" would appear on Billboard's Hot 100 in three places during this week's survey: the original Sinclair recording was at its peak position of #24, the remake version by Byron MacGregor was at its own #4 peak and a recital by actor/singer Tex Ritter was making its debut at the very bottom of the chart.

Ritter was a big name in country music during the days when the genre was still followed by the words "and Western." During the 1940s, while Ritter was starring in a number of Western-themed movies, he scored with three #1 singles, the biggest of which had a great country title: "You Two Timed Me One Time Too Often." He had been playing a singing cowboy since 1936, but Billboard didn't begin its country chart until 1944 so his hit streak was shorter than it could have been. He also sang "Do Not Forsake Me," the theme song for the classic 1952 film High Noon. He also recorded spoken-word pieces like "Deck of Cards," "Daddy's Last Letter" (an actual letter from a soldier who died in Korea) and "Last Night I Dreamed of a Hillbilly Heaven" so "The Americans" must have seemed like a natural fit for him.

There were some differences from the other two hit singles; Ritter introduced the composition by crediting Sinclair and giving the date and the call letters of the Toronto radio station that broadcast it first. The background music had a vocal choir along with the orchestra. Finally, his homespun Texas accent (while reading something written for a Canadian to orate, no less) is a contrast from the more polished voices of professional broadcasters.

Ironically, Ritter had passed away from a heart attack on January 2, 1974, a month before his record charted.

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