Saturday, August 28, 2010

This Week's Review -- August 28, 1976

Ten new singles debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Five would go on to reach the Top 40 and two would become Top 10 hits. Interestingly, none of the five songs that missed the Top 40 made it past the lower reaches of the charts. Among the songs this week: an account of a maritime disaster, a TV theme that became popular after a gymnast won the gold medal at the Montreal Olympics, a 1950s-inspired ode to teens fooling around in a movie theater and a medley of disco songs. Two of the new songs were instrumentals, which may seem interesting today because they are so rare today among hit singles.

Google Books has a large archive of past editions of Billboard available to read, but August 28, 1976 is not among their titles.

As part of my ongoing rework of the site, I used a different iTunes icon this week. I don't think I like it, so the smaller one will return next week.

Wolfgang's Vault

Gordon Lightfoot - "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald"

(Debuted #70, Peaked #2, 21 Weeks on chart)

The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was one of the largest freight ships used in shipping across the Great Lakes. On November 10, 1975, while traveling from Superior, Wisconsin to Detroit with a load of taconite destined to be used for steel and iron, the ship sank during a winter storm. Based on a magazine story about the accident, Gordon Lightfoot composed a song about the event that made it the best-remembered Great Lakes shipping disaster.

As an artist who started out as a folksinger, Lightfoot laid out the story as a folk narrative. Beginning with the warning that Lake Superior -- referring to it by the natives' name Gitchee Gumee -- was rough in the winter and that storms there can be deadly. It then tells how the ship was caught in the storm and how the crew attempted to brave the hazardous waters. After the ship was lost, he went on to remember the lost sailors and the loved ones they left behind. All the while, the song features a mournful guitar line that stays with the listener even after the song has ended.

Since the song was written so soon after the maritime accident, Lightfoot had to take some liberties with the story. First, he sings that the ship was on its way to Cleveland, rather than Detroit. The conversations between the ship's captain and crew will never be known to anybody as the ship sank without any distress call. However, due to the success of the song, many people assume the description of what happened in the lyrics was accurate. In any case, it made for a compelling story and a memorable tune.

The Ritchie Family - "The Best Disco In Town (Medley)"

(Debuted #81, Peaked #17, 20 Weeks on chart)

Before The Village People, there was The Ritchie Family. While they weren't an assembled group of homosexual stereotypes whose songs were mostly titled with places that only perpetuated those stereotypes, both acts were the brainchild of the same man.

The Ritchie Family  was a group of unrelated singers put together by French writer/producer Jacque Morali before he assembled The Village People. After falling in love with disco after emigrating to the U.S. in the early 1970s, he assembled the group with background singers who'd worked for him in the past. The group had a revolving door of singers: The Ritchie Family was a recording act from 1975-'83 and there were five different lineups of "Family" members.

"The Best Disco in Town," taken from the LP Arabian Nights, was likely meant to be a tip of the hat to disco songs. After all, Morali's entire purpose for getting the group together was because of his affinity for disco music. However, it came off like a hastily-done recording of a medley to cash in on the burgeoning disco movement. Leaving on a positive note, Casey Kasem explained on a later episode of American Top 40 that "The Best Disco in Town" set a record for the song with the greatest number of other songs in a medley to hit the Top 40.

Norman Connors - "You Are My Starship"

(Debuted #83, Peaked #27, 16 Weeks on chart)

Had this song appeared a decade later, it would have been lumped in among the New Age material that was then enjoyed by a small but affluent crowd. However, in the 1970s it fit right in with the smooth R&B format known as Quiet Storm. Firmly rooted in jazz musically, the lyrics were a four-and-a-half minute seduction. The song was upscale music for an urban crowd, more R&B than jazz but more "adult" than many R&B songs of its day.

While Norman Connors' name is listed on the single, the song was Michael Henderson's. Connors was the drummer who assembled and led the band, but left the vocals to others. "Starship" was written, arranged and sung by Henderson, who would go on to some minor solo success.

With the music giving a sufficient "spacey" aura suitable for a song with the word "starship" in the title, the song has fluid saxophone work throughout by Gary Bartz. Though films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had not yet made science fiction cool at the time the song was charting, it was likely understood that the lyrics inferred love was the supernatural being in the lyrics. I suppose the line "and don't you come too soon" wasn't exactly subtle, though.

Derringer - "Let Me In"

(Debuted #86, Peaked #86, 2 Weeks on chart)

Rick Derringer made his name in rock as a boy genius of sorts, first as a member of The McCoys in the 1960s, following that up with a stint as a member and producer of The Edward Winter Group, a solo artist, and later on with various sideman projects. This summer, he toured with Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band. By 1976, the solo artist phase of his career was beginning to wind down and "Let Me In" would be his final 1970s hit before he spent more time behind the recording console.

It's a shame that "Let Me In" wasn't a bigger hit. It's a fun rock song. However, it sounds like it's borrowed from a lot of different places. That said, some of the things heard are from songs that came out later. Opening with a countoff that sounds like the one Jeff Lynne used at the beginning of ELO's "All Over the World" in 1980 and ending with some guitar play similar the outro to Motley Crue's 1989 hit "Your Mama Don't Dance," the song sounds like it could have been a bigger hit in the next decade. At the same time, Derringer's single wasn't blazing any new trails that weren't already being laid down by Mott the Hoople, David Bowie or Mick Ronson, among others. That may be an argument that 1980s rock was little more than an outgrowth of what came out in the 1970s.

Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids - "Did You Boogie (With Your Baby)"

(Debuted #87, Peaked #29, 14 Weeks on chart)

The group that got its break playing as the band at the high school dance in American Graffiti, Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids played the part of the pre-Beatles Rock & Roll era even after the film shooting wrapped. While not exactly emulating the 1950s band the way Sha Na Na did, Flash Cadillac did include elements of that era into its music. Some of that sound was infused into "Did You Boogie (With Your Baby)."

Opening the song with DJ banter by Wolfman Jack, another star of American Graffiti, the nostalgic music leads to a lyric evoking another nostalgic feeling: sitting in the back row of a movie theater with a date and not paying any attention at all to the film. It's funny how little things like taking a "walk" to get away from parents and fooling around in theater seats are wistful memories of being young...that is, until you're the parent and notice your own kids doing that.

Barry DeVorzon and Perry Botkin Jr. - "Nadia's Theme (The Young and the Restless)" (Not Available as MP3)

(Debuted #87, Peaked #8, 22 Weeks on chart)

Best known to Americans as the theme to the TV soap opera The Young and the Restless since 1973, "Nadia's Theme" began life as a song called "Cotton's Theme" in the 1971 film Bless the Beasts and the Children. After Nadia Comaneci won the gymnastics gold at the 1976 Olympic games with a perfect score, her performance was shown on ABC-TV's Wide World of Sports using the song, which quickly led to a single release after viewers began asking about it. Since it was used as part of a TV piece, the song wasn't actually used when Comaneci performed her routine at the Olympics.

Barry DeVorzon and Perry Botkin, Jr. had composed "Cotton's Theme" and made a few changes to it when he prepared the version used on The Young and the Restless. Though an instrumental, it was written with lyrics that have sometimes surfaced in cover versions.

The Doobie Brothers - "Wheels of Fortune"

(Debuted #92, Peaked #87, 2 Weeks on chart)

The Doobie Brothers charted 19 singles on Billboard's Hot 100 between 1970 and 1979, and among those hits, "Wheels of Fortune" has the worst peak position. It also marked a changing of the guard with the group as well. Tom Johnston sings with Patrick Simmons on the song but it would be the only cut from the Takin' it to the Streets LP to feature him. Johnston developed health problems and had to step away from the band's touring and recording schedule for several years. His ailment led to Michael McDonald's entry to the band and a different sound to mark the band's material for the rest of the 1970s.

"Wheels of Fortune" led off the LP and led into the McDonald-sung title track that set the new standard for Doobies Brothers material. It was a song that was quite similar in style and sound to earlier Doobies tunes like "Listen to the Music", "Jesus is Just Alright" and "Long Train Running." While the familiar sound should have help assure fans the the new lineup was still the group they'd been following, the song was different from most of the material on the LP and may have come off as an odd piece of the entire project.

While I feel "Wheels of Fortune" may have deserved a better shot of being a hit single, I'm also a guy reviewing songs that are between three and four decades old. In 1976, looking back a few years wasn't a good way to sell records. At that time, 1950s nostalgia sold but evoking 1974 was considered stale.

Spin - "Grasshopper" (Not Available as MP3)

(Debuted #95, Peaked #95, 2 Weeks on chart)

Spin was a progressive fusion group from Holland that was a side project for members of the Dutch group Exseption, and "Grasshopper" was their only American chart single. There isn't a lot to be found about the group from the usual references. "Grasshopper" is an instrumental that sounds like it could work well in a 1970s-themed montage in a movie. The elements are all there: the funky rhythm, "wah-wah" guitar reverb, brassy interjections, jazz-influenced saxophone and early synthesized keyboard lines (like those heard on the Rockford Files theme song). It's the perfect music that could play in the background of a scene where an underhanded plan is being laid out and executed before the inevitable 1970s chase scene.

Ellison Chase - "Let's Rock" (Not Available as MP3)

(Debuted #97, Peaked #92, 3 Weeks on chart)

Here's another song that gives a very 1970s-specific feel to it. For some reason, there isn't much to be found about Ellison Chase except that he later recorded some techno music and worked with singer Patty Smyth. With a contemporary music score backing him, Chase sings a basic rock lyric that sounds at times like Joe Cocker and other times like other generic 70s rock singers. The song starts off having some great potential before it settles into a more mediocre rhythm. It would be Ellison Chase's only entry on the Hot 100.

The Whipsers - "One For The Money (Part 1)"

(Debuted #98, Peaked #88, 10 Weeks on chart)

The Whispers had six entries on the Billboard Hot 100 during the 1970s, and "One For the Money" would be the highest-charting hit at #88. That's the poorest showing of the decade among acts with five or more songs on the survey. It fared better on urban formats, reaching #10 on the R&B chart and #4 on the disco survey.

For a group based in Los Angeles, "One For the Money" certainly sounds like it owes some inspiration to Philly Soul and Motown. The song opens with an instrumental flourish that sounds like it was lifted from The Spinners' "Mighty Love," while the guitar and bass sound like a couple of members of Motown's house band The Funk Brothers sat in on the session. Lastly, the vocal interplay reminds listeners of The Temptations in both style and flow. Though some might call using others' bits and pieces as theft, it can also be seen as inspiration.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

This Week's Review -- August 26, 1978

There was some serious hit potential among the songs debuting on Billboard's Hot 100 chart this week. Of the seven new songs appearing on the chart, five would go on to reach the Top 40. However, none would make the Top 10.Among the songs were a legendary British rock band that somehow missed the Top 10 all through the 1970s, a country crossover hit, a song from a duo who were tweaking their sound, an odd followup to "I Go Crazy" and a Broadway tune reworked for the discos. In short, the seven songs represent a decent sampling of the different music styles of 1978 but doesn't cut really deep.

Google Books has a large archive of past Billboard magazines, including the August 28, 1978 edition. The full Hot 100 list can be found on page 108. An article on page 1 explains all the reasons given by experts that there were already more platinum singles (given for two million sales) at that point in 1978 than there were for all of '76 and '77 combined. Page 46 reports a panel discussion by five radio executives at a recent radio programmers' forum sponsored by the magazine about how AM stations can survive and thrive as FM was growing fast. This was an interesting topic since the AM vs. FM fight was still brewing at the time. Among the suggestions: remember AM radios strengths, focus on AM's existing audience rather than trying to convert FM listeners and to avoid focusing on the development of AM stereo until the technology was ready. These were good suggestions; however, as it turned out, Top 40 AM radio at the time was dying and would be largely dead as the 1980s rolled on.

Buy Easy Rock Collection - Only at!

The Who - "Who Are You"

(Debuted #70, Peaked #14, 15 Weeks on chart)

Long before it was a TV theme song, "Who Are You" was a song by The Who. The song would be their second-highest charting single of the 1970s ("See Me, Feel Me" reached #12 in 1970). It may seem odd today, given The Who's appeal and popularity, that despite Tommy, Quadrophenia and Who's Next, as well as three songs that would go on to become theme shows for CSI shows, the band never enjoyed a Top 10 single during the 1970s. However, The Who's fan base was more of an LP-buying crowd, which had little impact on singles sales or Top 40 radio.

The song's lyrics detailed a day in the life of Pete Townsend. After dealing with music industry types (the "Tin Pan" reference) for eleven hours, he went to a bar and got really drunk. After passing out "in a Soho doorway," he's roused by a policeman who tells him he needs to get walking unless he wants to sober up in a local cell. He finds his way to "the tube" (London's subway system) and sits back down there. Legend has it that the song was written as a result of an encounter between The Who and The Sex Pistols, but that really doesn't seem to show up in the song's words.

The song is also notorious for using an obscenity ("who the f--- are you?") in the chorus. The single version substituted the less offensive "hell," but many American AOR stations use the LP version. Sometimes the word is edited; sometimes the word finds it way onto the airwaves.

"Who Are You" is also remembered as one of the last songs to feature Keith Moon's drumming before his untimely death.

Steely Dan - "Josie" 

(Debuted #77, Peaked #26, 11 Weeks on chart)

No sooner do I mention that The Who missed the Top 10 throughout the 1970s than we come to a cut from Steely Dan's best-regarded LP Aja. Despite spending a very long time on the charts and being one of the more acclaimed 1970s albums, it didn't hit #1 on the Billboard album charts and none of its three singles broke the pop Top 10.

The final song on the Aja LP and the last of three singles from that album was "Josie," a rock-based tune that is different from the jazz-derived music found on most of Aja's tracks. Driven by a funky bassline by Chuck Rainey, the song features a guitar solo by Walter Becker (one of the few he performed on the album) and sounds influenced by a Booker T. & the MG's jam. The lyrics, on the other hand, are another product of Fagen & Becker's penchant for sly and twisted humor. The "Josie" in the song is a bad girl coming back to town, whose arrival is certain to bring debauchery. Sounds like it's going to be one hell of a party.

Dolly Parton - "Heartbreaker"

(Debuted #82, Peaked #37, 10 Weeks on chart)

Dolly Parton's embrace of a more pop-oriented sound with 1977's "Here You Come Again" brought her a lot more fans and sold many more records, but many who'd been fans of hers since she began singing with Porter Wagoner weren't as impressed to see their homegrown country girl cross over. Although Dolly's talent was certainly enough for her to be noticed outside of country music, her "new" sound wasn't given very positive reviews in Nashville. However, critical reviews don't always translate to sales, and her LP Heartbreaker quickly went gold. Its lead single would go on to spend three weeks at #1 on the country charts as well.

Featuring Dolly's angelic voice, "Heartbreaker" is a ballad about dealing with the sting after a charming lover came in, swept her off her feet and then traveled on to his next conquest. Written by Carole Bayer Sager and Dolly's guitar player David Wolfert, the song isn't what you'd expect from a country song. Rather than fiddle or steel guitar, the song features and electric piano as the main instrument, with strings and guitar.

Daryl Hall and John Oates - "It's a Laugh"

(Debuted #84, Peaked #20, 14 Weeks on chart)

The era between Hall and Oates's mid 1970s breakthrough and their early 1980s glory days saw some interesting material as they worked to find the right sound to take them to the next level. Rather than sticking to the sound that saw them hit big with "She's Gone," "Sara Smile" and the #1 hit "Rich Girl," the duo kept experimenting, practicing and crafting their work until they got it right. As a result, their late-70s singles weren't as successful.

Their 1978 LP Along the Red Ledge was one of the duo's recordings that helped them get toward their golden era. Rather than the studio musicians they used on their earlier LPs, their road band was used for the songs (a habit they retained through the 1980s). Producer David Foster helped keep the sound "fresh" and introduced rock elements into Hall and Oates's "blue-eyed soul" style. Without gimmick-laden tricks that might date it as a late-1970s project, the LP has aged quite well as a result. The first song on the album was "It's a Laugh," a Hall composition about coping with a breakup. It sounds more like their '80s hits than the '70s singles and features a great saxophone solo by Charles DeChant.

Paul Davis - "Sweet Life"

(Debuted #85, Peaked #17, 21 Weeks on chart)

I sometimes wonder why Paul Davis wasn't a bigger star than he was. Growing up in Meridian, Mississippi, Davis was raised on rock, country and R&B. His country influence made his 1974 hit "Ride 'em Cowboy" an irresistible story of a rodeo star who can't walk away from the circuit, his 1970 cover of The Jarmels' "A Little Bit of Soap" was a neat tip of the cap to doo-wop for a new decade, and his pained "Oh, oh, oh" after the bridge of "I Go Crazy" showed his R&B influence. A capable songwriter, he would go on to write several #1 country hits in the 1980s after walking away from his pop career when he determined his record company was taking him into territory he wasn't comfortable riding into. Perhaps the fact that he took his own terms when it came to his career has made me respect him more as a man. Even so, that man had some great talent.

"Sweet Life," a song about enjoying the family life, seems like an odd choice as a followup to "I Go Crazy," which was about trying in vain to get over a lost love. It's an interesting counterpoint, to say the least.

Con Funk Shun - "Shake And Dance With Me"

(Debuted #87, Peaked #60, 6 Weeks on chart)

Known primarily as a funk group, Con Funk Shun was actually more rooted in R&B than many may realize. Before forming Con Funk Shun, they had been backing the Memphis- based group The Soul Children. With that background, their sound would be markedly different than that of seminal funk bands like Parliament; their sound was more straightforward and accessible. "Shake and Dance With Me" is an example of a song that has a funky groove, laced with an R&B rhythm and a disco beat.

Despite missing the pop Top 40, "Shake and Dance With Me" would hit #5 on the R&B chart. Despite only one more pop hit (1981's "Too Tight"), the group would chart a string of hits on the R&B chart through 1986 before falling apart from internal issues. The group's sound has continued to appear since then, with many samples of their music appearing in hip hop, rap and R&B songs over the years.

Linda Clifford - "If My Friends Could See Me Now"

(Debuted #94, Peaked #54, 8 Weeks on chart)

As disco became popular, music producers searched many different avenues to find material to remake into the new form. Tin Pan Alley songs ("Baby Face") and classical music ("A Fifth of Beethoven") offered a wealth of ready-made material, but Broadway show tunes were irresistible, as they were often dramatic enough for the new music and often over-the-top.

"If My Friends Could See Me Now" was originally written for the 1966 Broadway show Sweet Charity. Gwen Verdon performed the song on stage, with Shirley MacLaine singing it in the 1969 film version. One of the extras from that film was Linda Clifford, who would give the song a disco treatment several years later. A 10-minute workout on Clifford's LP that went to #1 on the Billboard disco chart along with "Runaway Love" (reviewed here in July) and "Gypsy Lady," the song would be pared down to for the single release.

The instrumental break midway through the song sounds like it was influenced by the "Cantina Band" portion of Meco's 1977 #1 hit "Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band." That said, it's likely that Clifford's producers and Meco Monardo (also a producer in his own right) had similar tastes when translating scores from stage and screen to something suitable for the disco crowd.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

This Week's Review -- August 12, 1972

This week marks a milestone. With this post, I have now been doing these reviews for an entire year. This little project has been fun, but I get very little feedback about it. Seriously, there have been exactly FIVE comments left on the last 52 weeks' worth of entries. Feel free to leave a comment about it if you like them...those little words may encourage me to keep writing them. Also, I've begun placing YouTube videos for songs if they're available. It gives the ability to actually listen to the music and is frankly something I should have been doing all along.

Nine new singles arrive on the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Four of those singles will eventually reach the Top 40, with a pair top 10 bound, one of which would hit the #1 spot. While many of the artists with debut singles were familiar with the listeners of 1972, one was a new band from Chicago enjoying a regional hit...their only one, as it turned out. Also, Lenny Welch would be making his final appearance on the chart.

Among the archived issues of Billboard magazine at Google Books, the August 12, 1972 edition is available to read online at no cost. The full Hot 100 list can be found on page 60. A story on page 1 explains that the Dutch artists' union was concerned about why The Beach Boys were relocating to their country. During the summer of '72, the band left Los Angeles as a way of finding creative inspiration after the failure of the band's Carl & the Passions project. In the story, the union was worried that the band, its families and support staff were going to remain in their country for an indefinite period of time. As it turned out, the stay was indeed short, but not because the band was forced out. The recordings they made there made up much of the Holland LP, one of the group's better 1970s records. Furthermore, Mike Love and Al Jardine channeled their homesickness into a three-part song called "California," and one part would appear on the Hot 100 as "California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Californ-i-a)" the following year.

Wolfgang's Vault

Three Dog Night - "Black & White"

(Debuted #61, Peaked #1, 11 Weeks on chart)

The third and final #1 song by Three Dog Night was a song that had been written nearly 20 years before they recorded it. Its history stretches back to 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its landmark Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education case that "separate but equal" schools for white and what were then called "colored" kids were unconstitutional. A folk song commemorating the decision was written that year by David Arkin (father of actor Alan) and Earl Robinson. Recorded in 1957 by Sammy Davis, Jr., it would be covered in 1971 by the Jamaican reggae group Greyhound. That version would lead to Three Dog Night's hit.

The original lyrics of the song started out with a description of the judges: "the robes were black, the heads were white..." and an account of the Brown vs. Board of Education took up the first verse, while the rest of the song would go on to extol the idea that equal rights would lead to equal opportunity. In 1954, there was still some work to be done as far as enforcing the ruling. By the time Three Dog Night recorded the song, however, the repercussions were still being felt but it was more clear that the road to equality was much less bumpy. Therefore, the Three Dog Night version of the song eliminates the original composition's first verse. This would keep the song more "current" and make it more of a song about racial harmony, still a popular topic then.

The lead vocals on "Black & White" were performed by Danny Hutton, who usually sang harmony. That gave Three Dog Night an interesting "hat trick": their three #1 hits each featured a different one of their three singers. Cory Wells sang "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)" and Chuck Negron handled "Joy to the World."

Elton John - "Honky Cat"

(Debuted #63, Peaked #8, 10 Weeks on chart)

"Honky Cat" was the first cut on the Honky Château LP and its second single. A New Orleans-inspired boogie tune, there is no guitar used on the song at all; it's driven by Elton's piano and has a horn section that makes the song stand out among his best work, even in his frenetic flurry of releases in the early1970s. Despite a relatively short 10 weeks on the Hot 100, the song reached the Top 10 and is still in fairly heavy rotation among oldies-format and adult contemporary stations that air 1970s songs.

Yes - "America"

(Debuted #86, Peaked #46, 10 Weeks on chart)

"America" is a dramatically revamped prog-rock version of a song written by Paul Simon and first recorded by Simon & Garfunkel. Originally a 10-and-a-half minute opus, it would first appear on a sampler album of Atlantic Records artists called The New Age of Atlantic. Instead of releasing it on their upcoming Close to the Edge LP (it didn't fit with the album's concept), Yes placed a four-minute edit of the song on a single release.

The Yes version is a very different-sounding song to those familiar with Simon & Garfunkel's rendition. The words are the same, but Jon Anderson's solo vocals in the verses come across differently than the harmonies of the original. Furthermore, Paul Simon's acoustic guitar is replaced by Steve Howe's more distorted electric guitar, the organs are replaced by Rick Wakeman's experimental keyboards and the rhythm has been supplanted by Yes's classically-tinted progressive sound. Both songs can be played back-to-back and some may not realize they have the same lyrics.

While first released in 1968, Simon & Garfunkel never issued it as a single. Perhaps due to the limited success of Yes's version of the song, the duo would release it as a single of their Greatest Hits LP later in '72. It would stall at #97.

Neil Diamond - "Play Me"

(Debuted #87, Peaked #11, 11 Weeks on chart)

As "Play Me" was making its run up the charts, Neil Diamond was doing his legendary 10-show concert series at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. One of those shows (August 24, 1972) was recorded and released as the double live LP Hot August Night. In a sense, it was the current hit single right when Diamond became one of the hottest concert acts in the country.

"Play Me" is still one of Diamond's best-known songs from his "mellow" period of the 1970s. Despite the fact that grammar police frequently frown on his line "song she sang to me, song she brang to me," there are many who find the song's lyrics romantic. Even today, female fans -- many over 60 years old -- swoon over the way he sings the words in concert. While the lyrics come off in some places like they were written by a lovesick high school poet, they work.

Following up the #1 hit "Song Sung Blue," Diamond just missed the Top 10 with "Play Me," but would take the song to #3 on Billboard's adult contemporary chart.

The Allman Brothers Band - "Melissa"

(Debuted #90, Peaked #86, 2 Weeks on chart)

It may be surprising to see above that this song peaked at #86, or that it was only on the Hot 100 for two weeks because it's a very well-known tune. One way to know just how influential The Allman Brothers Band was is to know that there are many girls and women named Melissa (and Jessica, for that matter) because of their music.

Gregg Allman began writing "Melissa" in 1967, before he and his brother Duane had formed their band. When he wrote the lyrics, he managed to get everything but the name of the girl. One day, he was waiting in line at the grocery store and heard a mother telling her daughter to come back. The name Melissa stuck in his head and the song was written. Still, it would be a few years before he'd actually record the song. Since Duane Allman enjoyed the song so much, it was added to the Eat a Peach LP after he died in a motorcycle accident. It immediately became a hit on FM radio, but since Billboard's airplay monitor largely followed the AM stations doing a Top 40 format, that success didn't translate into chart action.

Also known as "Sweet Melissa" because that's the way it's sung, the song features amazing guitar work by Dickey Betts and some underrated rhythms by both of the group's drummers.

Jamestown Massacre - "Summer Sun" (Not Available as MP3)

(Debuted #96, Peaked #90, 5 Weeks on chart)

The Jamestown Massacre was a native uprising that killed a quarter of the English settlers in Virginia in 1622. It's an odd choice for a band name, wich may account for this song being their only national hit.

"Summer Sun" is a relic from an era where regional airplay could allow a song to make the national charts. Jamestown Massacre was a Chicago-based group and heavy promotion from their home city gave them an entry on the Hot 100. Unfortunately, the song didn't break through in very many other areas and peaked at #90. It's a shame, as the song is quite good. Sounding at times like a song from 1960s Chicago-based bands like The Buckinghams mixed with the 70s band Chicago, the guitar and horn section combined with the vocal harmonies make it a catchy song that deserved a better chance to get airplay.

The band never managed to reach the Hot 100 again, but one of Jamestown Massacre's two lead singers was 19 year-old Dave Bickler, who would go on to sing one of the biggest hits of the 1980s, Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." He is also the voice heard on Budweiser's "Real Men of Genius" TV and radio advertisements.

Gallery - "I Believe In Music" (Available MP3s appear to be Re-recordings)

(Debuted #97, Peaked #22, 16 Weeks on chart)

Gallery was a Detroit-based band led by Jim Gold and produced by guitarist Dennis Coffey. Unlike other early 1970s white acts from the Motor City like The Flaming Ember,Gallery stayed on the pop side of the musical fence. Their followup to their Top 5 breakthrough "Nice to Be With You" was "I Believe in Music," a Mac Davis-penned tune that confirmed they would be no one-hit wonder. With a simplistic approach that worked well on AM radio, a distorted guitar line and very 70s instrumental solo, the song was a moderate success.

Graham Nash and David Crosby - "Southbound Train" 

(Debuted #99, Peaked #99, 2 Weeks on chart)

The members of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young would go on to record songs in several different combinations since their 1969-'70 heyday. They recorded as a quartet, a trio (without Neil Young), each member was a solo artist in his own right, and several of their solo LPs would feature other members as guests. In the case of Graham Nash and David Crosby, they made a series of LPs during the 1970s while Stephen Stills was busy with his group Manassas. The song that led off their first album together was "Southbound Train," a song written by Nash but sounding like it had been performed by a latter-day version of Crosby's old bandmates in The Byrds.

The train in the song is a metaphor, as the passengers named in the lyrics are liberty, equality and fraternity. While it's possibility that the "southbound" train was going to Hell, it's also possible that an association of things like liberty, equality and fraternity with the Southern U.S. right after the Civil Rights movement was deliberate. It's also a distinction underscored by the presence of the pedal steel (played by Jerry Garcia), an instrument mostly used in country music.The song also has a mournful harmonica solo by Nash.

Lenny Welch - "A Sunday Kind Of Love"  (Not Available as MP3)

(Debuted #100, Peaked #96, 5 Weeks on chart)

Lenny Welch was a pop singer in the same mold as Johnny Mathis but nowhere near as successful. He had been singing professionally since 1958 and reached his commercial peak during the 1960s. "A Sunday Kind of Love" was a jazz/pop standard that had been recorded many times since it was written in 1946. Singers who have handled its lyrics include Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington Jo Stafford and Etta James. While normally sung by a female, it was also performed by male acts like Jan & Dean and The Dell Vikings. Lenny Welch's version is smooth, with his voice effortlessly and artfully doing its job as an orchestra and female combo back him up. True to the nature of MOR singles, the song it entirely inoffensive but not too syrupy-sweet. "A Sunday Kind of Love" would also be Welch's final appearance on the Hot 100.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

This Week's Review -- August 4, 1979

Seven new singles debuted on the Billboard Hot 100, with three reaching the Top 40 and one getting into the Top 10. Among the entries were songs that would be affected by the growing anti-disco backlash happening at the time, a song without a string section by a group renowned for using them, a live remake of a 1950s classic and a return to form of sorts for a hard rock group. Finally given the benefit of hindsight, two of the songs are precursors to the next decade's music styles.

Google Books has an archive of past Billboard issues, including the August 4, 1979 edition. The full Hot 100 list can be found on page 56. An interesting article on page 4 mentions the strategies MGM Records and Universal Pictures was employing with the soundtrack for the film More American Graffiti. Realizing that a soundtrack made up of the same songs from the 1960s that were being played on oldies stations -- a process that was helped incredibly by the success of the first American Graffiti film -- may not have translated to the under-25 crowd the studio and label were targeting, they were banking on cross-promotion to help sell records. As it turned out, selling the soundtrack was the least of their worries when it came to that movie.

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The Electric Light Orchestra - "Don't Bring Me Down"

(Debuted #41, Peaked #4, 15 Weeks on chart)

In 1979, ELO released its new LP Discovery. While many saw the band dropping the classical focus of their early records and embracing the disco crowd, others noted that they'd long dropped the long-format suites for pop-oriented singles years before. Others were quick to point out that the group had said as much when they essentially titled the album: "Disco? Very!"

The interesting thing about this is "Don't Bring Me Down," the song that ends the album, its second single and the group's highest-charting American hit, really isn't a disco song. Yes, there's a beat and studio-crafted hooks, but it's more of a guitar-driven song than ELO usually offered on their singles. The string-laden sound of "Evil Woman" and "Turn to Stone" was dropped in favor of  a guitar line and a very heavily amplified rhythm section. However, at a time when established disco artists were using more guitar in their own songs (Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff," for example), it was getting harder to notice the distinction.

While researching this song, I was reading that there is a heavily misheard lyric: in the chorus, the falsetto "Don't bring me down" is followed by a German word, "grüß" which is pronounced "groose" but certainly sounds a lot like the name Bruce. As a result, many people over the years have likely wondered, "who the hell is this Bruce guy?"

Bad Company - "Gone, Gone, Gone"

(Debuted #81, Peaked #56, 6 Weeks on chart)

Last month, Bad Company's "Honey Child" was reviewed here, and there was some mention that the group's formulaic sound had started wearing thin by the time they released their Burnin' Sky LP in 1977. After that record failed to live up to expectations, the band took their time with their next album. When Desolation Angels arrived two years later, the sound had been updated to include some synthesizers and other devices. The album's first single, "Rock and Roll Fantasy" showcased the new elements, but the followup "Gone, Gone, Gone" would revert to the straight guitar/drums/bass setup to accompany Paul Rodgers' vocals. As a result, it fared little better on the charts than "Honey Child" did.

That's not to say that "Gone, Gone, Gone" is bad, or even formulaic. It still gets played on American rock-oriented radio stations despite the fact it missed the Top 40. Considered one of Bad Company's better compositions, it was written by the group's bassist Boz Burrell, rather than Paul Rodgers or guitarist Mick Ralphs, who wrote most of the band's single releases. It would be the final song featuring the group's original lineup to chart on the Hot 100.

Cheap Trick - "Ain't That A Shame"

(Debuted #82, Peaked #35, 10 Weeks on chart)

The second single from Cheap Trick's breakthrough At Budokan LP may not have been as successful as the first ("I Want You to Want Me") but it doesn't diminish the impact of that album. A cover of Fats Domino's 1955 classic, Cheap Trick's live version of "Ain't That a Shame" sounds more like a portal into the arena rock of the 1980s than a reminiscence of the 1950s. From Bun E. Carlos's bombastic drums to the guitar attack from Rick Neilsen that opens the song, the song seems like it would lead listeners into the post-disco rock universe...which, it turned out, would cast Cheap Trick aside as a 1970s-era relic even as it embraced acts like Journey, Foreigner and Toto.

To my ears, "Ain't That a Shame" is a better song than the single it followed on the charts. Where "I Want You to Want Me" was memorable for having the audience participating during the chorus, their take on "Ain't That a Shame" is more immediate, more direct and flat-out rocks harder. As for a comparison of this version and Fats Domino's original...they're two different approaches. The Domino hit was done in his New Orleans "good time" style and while it was a tune about watching a good love walk away, you knew Fats would be OK despite his broken heart. It's a great tune, despite the fact that the music business of 1955 felt the need to have Pat Boone cover it for the bigger hit. Done as a straight rock tune by Cheap Trick, the same lyrics somehow come off as a "kiss off" message to the lady who felt the need to walk away. While Domino's version might make you think, "hey big'll be fine, there are other fish in the sea," after Robin Zander's rendition, there's no need for comforting the guy because you're pretty sure he's already on the prowl for his next companion.

Maynard Ferguson - "Rocky II"

(Debuted #85, Peaked #82, 4 Weeks on chart)

When the first Rocky film was a hit, it spawned four Hot 100 versions of its title song. The original from the film score by Bill Conti was a #1 hit in 1977 and a version by Canadian-born jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson was a Top 40 hit. Additionally, two low-charting renditions by Current and Rhythm Heritage appeared. When the second Rocky film ran in theaters in 1979, only Ferguson managed to place any music from the movie onto the charts. His version of the Rocky II theme (also called "Rocky II Disco" and "Rocky II Knockout") made the Hot 100 briefly.

The LP version (also the one used in the iTunes and Amazon links here) was over seven minutes long, with the single version trimmed down to three minutes. The song was a variation on the familiar "Gonna Fly Now" theme from the first film, even including a female chorus singing "Gonna fly now, Rocky...Gonna fly, fly away" as part of the song. Other "vocal" elements of the song included several grunts from Sylvester Stallone and a couple of lines of dialogue between Apollo Creed ("You're going down") and Rocky ("No way").  Musically, Ferguson's trumpet parts are superb, a sax solo in the middle is also great. However, the disco craze was winding down as the song was making its appearance, which killed the chance for a song that was so blatantly geared as a disco song.

Mass Production - "Firecracker"

( Debuted #86, Peaked #43, 10 Weeks on chart)

Often mistaken for Brass Construction, a group with a similar style, Mass Production was a separate 10-piece band from Virginia (Wikipedia says Norfolk, but AllMusic says Richmond). Best known as a funk-disco band, "Firecracker" was their second and final Hot 100 single.

Kicking off the song with a gimmick that at first almost sounds like the drum solo that begins Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" before the listener realizes that it's the sound of firecrackers popping, the song immediately carves out a groove that the band rides through the length of the song. The "firecracker" of the title is a lady on the dancefloor that the narrator cannot stop watching. Just like in Saturday Night Fever when Connie (played by Fran Drescher) asks Tony Manero (John Travolta) if he's as good in bed as he is on the floor, the song is another reminder that watching somebody own the floor can sometimes lead to more lascivious thoughts...which is exactly what scares those Puritan types who insist that something as harmless as dancing can lead to unforeseen complications after the music stops playing.

The meat of "Firecracker" isn't in its lyrics, however; the real substance of the song is contained in its music. A six-and-a-half minute album cut, the song would be pared down to five minutes for the single. While the words describe a disco scene, the music points to an R&B sound that would be popular during the early 1980s. The funky groove is helped along by a synthesizer in parts. It was similar to later hits by groups like Midnight Star, The Dazz Band and others. Like many of those early 1980s R&B hits,  "Firecracker" would flirt with the Top 40 but fall just short. It's a shame that it couldn't get a wider audience at a time when the public was growing tired of disco.

Michael Johnson - "This Night Won't Last Forever" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #89, Peaked #19, 20 Weeks on chart)

Michael Johnson only had three songs listed on the Hot 100 during the 1970s, and all three made the Top 40. Though best known for "Bluer Than Blue," his other two singles were top-notch and worth a listen. For his third chart single, Johnson turned to a song that was a minor hit in 1977 for its author Bill LaBounty.

Johnson's version of "This Night Won't Last Forever" was both a cover and a reworking of the original hit, with the lyrics slightly altered in some places and moved around in others. Where "Bluer Than Blue" was a post-breakup song that saw the protagonist wallowing in pity, "This Night Won't Last Forever" had him at a party and making an effort with coping with the fact that he's single again. In the lyrics, he's saying the sting is still evident but he's hopeful that better days are ahead.

The song kicks off with a piano solo and the music that accompanies Johnson's vocal is the work of studio musicians. Female backup singers punctuate his lines in the chorus. In addition to its Top 20 pop showing, "This Night Won't Last Forever" was a #5 hit on Billboard's adult contemporary chart. After reaching the Top 40 with all three of his chart singles during the 1970s, Johnson's luck changed with the new decade: his first hit of 1980 peaked at #86 and would be his last Hot 100 appearance. During the last half of the decade, Michael Johnson would score several hits on the country chart.

Edwin Starr - "H.A.P.P.Y. Radio"

(Debuted #90, Peaked #79, 5 Weeks on chart)

After beginning the 1970s with one of the decade's iconic tunes, the #1 smash "War," his success on the pop chart was limited. After sporadic hits through 1979, Starr was trying a comeback as a disco singer and "H.A.P.P.Y Radio" was one of his attempts at returning to his former glory. Though the song wasn't a big hit in the U.S., it went Top 10 in England, where Starr was widely appreciated as a Northern Soul singer.

Despite being a fine performance and a catchy tune, two things likely doomed this single's chance of hitting big. The first was that he was groveling for DJs to play his song by using the radio as a backdrop. The second and more important factor that killed the song's chances was the consumer backlash against disco that was starting to be felt in the music business just as the single appeared. That brushback killed many careers in the cold and cruel way that "corrections" often will. Sadly, many artists who were associated with disco never charted again; in the case of Edwin Starr, he would move to England and spend the rest of his life working the Northern Soul circuit there.