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.

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