Saturday, September 25, 2010

This Week's Review -- September 30, 1978

Out of the nine new singles on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, four would eventually reach the Top 40 and one made the Top 10. Two songs were from the soundtracks of iconic films of the era, yet weren't very successful on the chart. Several singles evoke the 1950s: one was about a car, one evoked an old radio show, and two were remakes of hits from the era. Some were followups to hits, with a song stylistically similar to "Year of the Cat" and another radically different from "You Are the Woman." Among the acts, one was still carrying on after half the band split and another had broken up altogether for a few years before reuniting.

Google Books has an archive of back issues of Billboard magazine. The September 30, 1978 edition is among the treasures there. The full Hot 100 can be found on page 96. An article beginning on page 8 addresses a rumor that Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand would be recording a duet of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" after the popularity of a radio-made version mixing their separate solo versions became popular with listeners. First done by Louisville DJ Gary Guthrie, the mixed version did what would today be known as "Going viral" and soon Columbia records (which had both artists on its roster) were interested in profiting. Page 20 has a review of a new comedy show that had recently debuted (August 18th) on CBS-TV: WKRP in Cincinnati. The writer calls the show a lot more realistic than the film FM and felt radio "people" would enjoy the way it was written (as well as finding situations hitting really close to home for them).

f.y.e. 234x60

John Travolta - "Greased Lightnin'"

(Debuted #78, Peaked #47, 8 Weeks on chart)

While well-remembered today, "Greased Lightnin'" was the first John Travolta single that missed the pop Top 40. Though many have forgotten songs like "All Strung Out on You" and "Whenever I'm Away From You" from the period where Travolta was still primarily known as Welcome Back, Kotter's Vinnie Barbarino, it may seem odd to have one of his featured songs from the film Grease as Danny Zuko (that is, without the help of Olivia-Newton John) miss the Top 40 even as so many other RSO singles were hitting big that year. Perhaps lines like "the chicks'll cream," "you know that ain't no s---, I'll be gettin' lots of tit" and "it's a real pussy wagon" made it too raw for radio airplay. Even if it was edited as a single, enough stations at the time were beginning to play album cuts to make the song a programmer's headache.

Listed as a solo Travolta single even though Jeff Conaway (who played Kenicke in the film) can clearly be heard singing some of the lines, "Greased Lightnin'" was an ode that recalled the fascination of the 1950s and '60s over hot rods and muscle cars. However, it made a point that Grease was no remake of a 1950s movie but a 1970s movie that happened to be set in the 50s by injecting things that weren't always explicitly stated in those earlier songs, such as bragging about sexual conquests (whether real or imagined).. It may have been interesting that Travolta was doing the song for the film, as Kenicke (the car's owner) was the one who delivered it in the stage play.

Gene Cotton - "Like A Sunday In Salem (The Amos & Andy Song)" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #83, Peaked #40, 10 Weeks on chart)

Gene Cotton was a folk-influenced singer born in Ohio and based in Tennessee who enjoyed a small handful of chart hits from 1976-'82. Since none of his hits were all that big and are rarely heard today, Cotton has been largely forgotten.

"Like a Sunday in Salem" would be the last Top 40 hit of Cotton's career. The Amos & Andy reference in the title was the repeated line from the chorus about the show playing on the radio, which (along with a "lights out television show") places the song as a memory about some event from the 1950s. After that, there are some lines about a church service (the "Sunday in Salem" of the title) and something about a crucifixion. I haven't figured out whether this was a reference to a backlash against rock 'n' Roll and Elvis ("a man stood singing his song") or whether the metaphors were about the civil rights movement (hence, the Amos & Andy line). Perhaps I'm reading too much into the lines; as a singer inspired by the folk movement, maybe the lines were designed to be obtuse.

Starbuck - "Searching For A Thrill"

(Debuted #84, Peaked #58, 6 Weeks on chart)

Starbuck was an Atlanta-based band best known for the surprise summer 1976 hit "Moonlight Feels Right." As they toured and appeared on TV shows to promote their releases through the rest of the decade, they never managed to get another song like "Moonlight" that resonated with radio listeners and music fans.

"Searching for a Thrill" would be Starbuck's final Hot 100 listing. It was a different kind of tune than casual fans may have expected. Rather than the marimba heard in their two Top 40 hits, the group went with a more rock-based sound this time around and added an entirely different synth vibe. Without getting the hit single that could get the group back into the ears of listeners, they were eventually dropped by their label and broke up in 1980.

Al Stewart - "Time Passages"

(Debuted #85, Peaked #7, 18 Weeks on chart)

Once "Year of the Cat" (reviewed here last December) became a smash hit, it was only logical to figure Al Stewart would be back with something similar.

After perfecting his sound, Stewart offered more of the same formula on his next record. The Time Passages LP was the follow-up to Stewart's breakthrough album Year of the Cat, both chronologically and artistically. The title hits of both LPs would be Stewart's biggest hit singles. While the credit (or blame) can partially be explained by producer Alan Parsons's presence, Stewart was under pressure from his record company to try and catch lightning in a bottle a second time. Both songs featured opening piano riffs, extended solos on different instruments, a memorable saxophone solo (provided on both hits by Phil Kenzie) and lyrics filled with metaphors. However, Stewart's co-writer was Peter White, rather than "Year of the Cat" co-writer Peter Wood.

Running over six minutes on Stewart's LP, the single version of the song was pared down to four and a half minutes. However, FM radio stations were really picking up in popularity then due to their increased sound quality by then, so both versions were heard on the air regularly.

Firefall - "Strange Way"

(Debuted #86, Peaked #11, 19 Weeks on chart)

Firefall was a Colorado-based band whose laid-back sound that mixed country-rock with easy listening was well-suited for the 1970s. With members who'd previously played in groups like The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jo Jo Gunne, Spirit and the latter-day Byrds, the group's sound was no accidental fusion or lucky gimmick. Still. the band's success hinged on a constant tour schedule and two very successful radio singles, "You Are the Woman" and "Just Remember I Love You." However, their touring had burned the group out by the time their final 1970s Top 40 hit "Strange Way" was charting.

In some sense, "Strange Way" was a counterpoint to those two brightly-colored hit singles. It was a downbeat song that essentially came across as a kiss-off to a teary-eyed lover. First, the lyrics mention the tears, but rather than reassuring the lover as 1970s mellow-rock legends like James Taylor or Lobo might have done, this time the words ask what she wants from him: "if you just want to cry to somebody, don't cry to me." That's a very different vibe than the one given off in "You Are the Woman." It appeared the honeymoon was over.

Leo Sayer - "Raining In My Heart"

(Debuted #88, Peaked #47, 7 Weeks on chart)

"Raining in My Heart" was written by the husband/wife songwriting team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and originally done by Buddy Holly as the B-side of his 1958 single "It Doesn't Matter Anymore." Englishman Leo Sayer tried his hand at the song as one of his follow-ups to his hit LP Endless Flight and his twin #1 hit singles of 1977.

Trying to have a more serious feel on his self-titled 1978 album, Sayer enlisted producer Richard Perry and utilized many of the same studio pros who were making the big records then. However, the attempt fizzled despite all the best intentions. Sayer's version of "Raining in My Heart" contains both slide guitar that gives a "watery" quality to the song (a not-so-sly nod to the "raining" of the title) and a steel guitar that makes it sound almost like a country song. There may have been some confusion with radio programmers and record buyers due to Sayer's 1977 hit single "Thunder in My Heart" and the song missed the Top 40 altogether. It would be the album's only chart single.

Lindisfarne - "Run For Home"

(Debuted #90, Peaked #33, 14 Weeks on chart)

Lindisfarne had enjoyed some hits in their native U.K. and a low-charting 1972 U.S. hit called "Lady Eleanor" but broke up after 1973. In '77, the band members reunited for what was supposed to be a one-time show but stayed together and recorded an LP that featured "Run For Home," their biggest American hit.

Set against slow orchestrated music and the guitar/bass/drum band setup, the lyrics tell about life on the road for a musician, enjoying the tour and enjoying the foolish stuff that gets done, yet realizing the best place to be is home. My guess is that writer and singer Alan Hull came up with the idea while waiting for that last day of the trip to come so he could get back to the real world and rest from the tedium of the road.

10cc - "Dreadlock Holiday"

Debuted #92, Peaked #44, 10 Weeks on chart)

Here's another example of a 10cc song that injected some humor into a situation that might not have been taken lightly. While "Dreadlock Holiday" features a light reggae beat and brings up images of a vacation in an exotic locale, reading the lyrics without the accompanying music tells a different story. The tourist in the song is finding himself in the seedy underbelly of the island paradise and being ripped off at every turn. Written after an experience Justin Hayward and 10cc member Eric Stewart while visiting Barbados, the song offered a warning that may have been lost in the music.

In the first verse, an Englishman is minding his own business when accosted by natives on the street. Some lines make it clear he's an Englishman ("it was a present from me mother" and "I don't like cricket...I love it") who is obviously out of his element ("you're alone, a long way from home"). In the final verse, after extricating himself from the earlier incident, he's at his hotel and being offered some wares from a local lady. Some reviewers explain she's a prostitute, but one line ("my harvest is the best") implies that she's selling some righteous Ganja. The lyrics don't really give any indication whether she's also a working lady but it is entirely possible.

In any case, before the song fades out he's singing "Don't like Jamaica...I love it!" so whatever he's being given, he's enjoying it.

John Belushi - "Louie, Louie" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #94, Peaked #89, 4 Weeks on chart)

Film tie-ins are much more common today, but here's an interesting one from Animal House. This song was included on the film soundtrack but wasn't performed solely by John Belushi on screen. In the film, the song played during a raucous fraternity toga party and its words were comically indiscernible when sung by Bluto (Belushi's character) and his Delta brothers. This was both a way to show how drunk they were and the fact that the hit 1963 version by The Kingsmen wasn't all that easy to understand at any level of sobriety.

Having Belushi sing on the soundtrack wasn't much of a stretch, as he had been showing his chops on Saturday Night Live even before making Animal House, first as Joe Cocker and then as one-half of The Blues Brothers. Before the decade was finished, he'd enjoy a #1 album as a member of that act and score a few more hit singles before teaming up again with Animal House director John Landis on a Blues Brothers movie.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

This Week's Review -- September 24, 1977

Only seven new singles debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, with four making their way into the Top 40. Three of those would travel into the Top 10 and one would spend three weeks at #1. Among the hits are a non-disco song from Saturday Night Fever, a last Top 10 hit for Chicago for the next several years, a two-part progressive rock tune by another Chicago-based group, a bit of bombastic pop, a song that had already been a Top 40 hit and another that would re-enter the survey several years later.

While I often show a link to the accompanying Billboard issue in Google Books' archive, the September 24, 1977 edition is missing.

Napster, LLC

Chicago - "Baby, What A Big Surprise"

(Debuted #70, Peaked #4, 17 Weeks on chart)

Chicago was one of the biggest singles acts of the 1970s. Among all acts, only James Brown had more chart singles between 1970 and '79. Furthermore, they were among the Top five acts of the decade in total Top 40 and Top 10 hits. However, the band hit a rough spot beginning in the latter part of the decade that began when Terry Kath, a key member, was killed in an accidental self-inflicted shooting. At the same time, they parted ways with James William Guercio, their producer and manager.

Before those events took place, however, Chicago's eleventh album was another big hit for them. Its first single was "Baby, What a Big Surprise," a song written and sung by bass player Peter Cetera. It was a soft-rock tune that opened with a symphonic intro before Cetera's distinctive vocal began. It's similar to the band's #1 single "If You Leave Me Now" (also written and sung by Cetera) in many aspects, but also features a nearly understated trumpet by Lee Loughnane that lends a regal quality to the song.

"Baby, What a Big Surprise" would be Chicago's final Top Ten single before their 1980s "comeback." The intervening years saw many low-charting singles on the Hot 100 and an unceremonious dumping by the band's longtime record label, Columbia.

The Bee Gees - "How Deep Is Your Love"

(Debuted #83, Peaked #1, 33 Weeks on chart)

"I believe in you, you know the door to my very're the light in my deepest, darkest nights, you're my savior when I fall." These are not the words you'd expect on a disco album, but they're on the one record that -- right or wrong, depending on your view of the genre -- is most often associated with the 1970s disco scene.

Placed among the disco-tinged songs of the Bee Gees' catalog due to its inclusion on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack LP, "How Deep is Your Love" isn't a disco tune at all. Instead, it's a romantic tune backed by an orchestrated section that wouldn't have been out of place on a Burt Bacharach/Hal David song from the 1960s. It was more in line with the Gibb brothers' 1960s material than with the more R&B-influenced output they began performing with their Main Course LP.  As the song used in the scene where Tony and Stephanie develop a stronger friendship and again at the end of the film, its place in the movie was as a traditional theme and outside the scenes in the 2001 Odyssey Disco.

It was also the beginning of a very busy and lucrative year for the brothers.By the end of 1978, they had rewritten the Billboard record books in a way not seen since the arrival of the Beatles. "How Deep is Your Love" would be the first of three #1 songs they performed on the soundtrack (to join two others they already took to #1 before that). They also helped their brother Andy Gibb score two #1 singles on his own and had two more #1s by other artists (Yvonne Elliman and Frankie Valli). Before dropping off the chart, "How Deep is Your Love" would also spend 17 weeks in the Top 10 (a record) and 33 inside the Hot 100.

Kiss - "Love Gun"

(Debuted #85, Peaked #61, 7 Weeks on chart)

In case anybody was wondering, the title "Love Gun" is a thinly-veiled penis reference. That likely wasn't lost on Kiss's largely male teenage audience. It was also one of singer Paul Stanley's favorite songs and has been performed in every tour the band has done since its release. A straight rocker, "Love Gun" features a blitzkreig beat complete with rapid-fire drum fills, crunching guitar and a surprisingly hook-laden lyric. For a band that was perhaps better known for their look than their sound, "Love Gun" is an example of how Kiss didn't always fit the "style over substance" label their critics tried to tag on them.

At a time when many acts were doing a more discofied sound, the straight-ahead rockers may have felt like a breath of fresh air, even if it was a sophomoric joke. That is, it seemed that way until Kiss themselves put disco beats in their music later. After that, they reverted to a harder sound, which makes "Love Gun" sound like many of the group's lesser 1980s MTV video hits to the ears of those who've had more than 30 years to listen.

Though not credited as such, this was the final chart single featuring all four original Kiss members. Peter Criss would be replaced in the studio by drummer Anton Fig when the band recorded their 1979 Dynasty LP, and neither of the chart singles from that album actually featured Criss on the skins.

Judy Collins - "Send In The Clowns"

(Debuted #88, Peaked #19, 15 Weeks on chart)

"Send in the Clowns" had already been a #36 hit for Judy Collins in 1975. It was given another chance two years later and became an even bigger hit. Written by Stephen Sondheim for the 1973 musical A Little Night Music, the song was a character's lament that her life has been disappointing. The "send in the clowns" line was a reference to the old circus act of sending in clowns to keep an audience occupied and distracted in the event of an unforeseen or unfortunate turn in the show.

While "Send in the Clowns" is one of Collins's best-known tunes of the 1970s, some have been turned off by the downbeat music playing behind her as she sings. While the song is supposed to be sad, it can be taken as a case of somebody merely suffering from ennui. In that case, the point can be made that it was a perfect song for a time that many considered boring.

Styx - "Come Sail Away"

(Debuted #89, Peaked #8, 22 Weeks on chart)

After hitting the Top 10 with "Lady" in 1975, Styx was hit with disappointing results with its followup singles. For the next two and a half years, only two of their singles would reach the Top 40 and one ("Crystal Ball") missed the Hot 100 entirely. "Come Sail Away" would be the song that finally served notice that Styx was going to be a force on the charts.

True to the group's progressive leanings, "Come Sail Away" is a song that has two distinct parts. The first is a ballad about sailing away, whether in the literal sense or (more likely) a metaphorical one. A piano sets the tone and Dennis DeYoung wistfully delivers his lines about getting underway. The second part is a rock tune, driven by guitars and keyboards. The instrumental passage combines the two versions: a soft, playful keyboard solo that sounds like seagull chatter and a rollicking guitar attack that breaks the serenity. In a sense, it's a way of showing that calm seas can occasionally be broken by bad weather.

On the album, the song was a six-minute opus, but the song was edited down to three minutes for the single release. The second verse was edited, as was the instrumental part. Today, radio stations are far more likely to play the longer LP version so the single edit may seem to be missing a lot of music.

David Castle - "Ten To Eight" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #90, Peaked #68, 7 Weeks on chart)

The video clip contains a spoken intro by a man named Music Mike. He's made similar videos for a host of low-charting singles from the 1970s that are worth checking out. As for information on David Castle, the video gives as much detail as I've been able to find. I do not, however, agree with his assessment that "Ten to Eight" could be one of the best 1970s pop my own ears, it's an okay song that likely deserved a wider audience than it received.

The title "Ten to Eight" refers to the time and the realization that time is getting short while preparing to go to work. The song was originally sung by Helen Reddy (which makes more sense, as the words explicitly describe a female getting ready to go) but never released as a single. Despite its disappointing showing in the U.S., Castle's rendition was also a hit in several European countries and was better remembered there.

Charlene Duncan - "I've Never Been To Me"

(Debuted #98, Peaked #97, 3 Weeks on chart)

"I've Never Been to Me" was a song whose lyrics have one woman telling another that the grass isn't any greener on the other side of the fence, but was actually written by a man. The original words had an older man telling a young buck about the lessons he'd learned in his own youth, but was changed by writer Ron Miller for Duncan. Sung over an orchestrated score, Duncan sings about how life is lonely at the top. A spoken bridge appeared in the original LP version but was cut for the single. One particular line of the song -- "Sometimes I've been crying for unborn children that might have made me complete" -- was mistaken to be about abortion even though it expressed an aging woman's lament about never being a mother.

Although "I've Never Been to Me" faltered on the Hot 100, it would be given a second life in 1982. The renewed interest began when Scott Shannon, then a Tampa DJ, added the song to his station's rotation. By that point, Duncan had left the music business and moved to England. The song (now with the spoken bridge restored to the single) was credited only to "Charlene" and went to #5. It also made a lot of "worst of" lists as a result of its syrupy-sweet delivery. The video shown above was a TV appearance on the show Solid Gold during that 1982 chart run.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

This Week's Review -- September 13, 1975

Out of the seven new singles appearing on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, only two made the Top 40, but they both made it count: one went to #1 and the other to #2. Among the songs were the only country hit for a group that is today considered a country-rock influence, a song that might have been written in response to being fired from a tour with The Carpenters, a song written by one blind R&B legend performed by another, an instrumental from the house band at Salsoul records, a song by a group that had to change its name because of Smokey Robinson and the last hit for an underappreciated R&B singer.

Among the archive of past Billboard issues at Google Books, the September 13, 1975 edition is available to read for free. The full Hot 100 is on page 71. On page 40, Tom Moulton explains how remakes of songs from the 1940s and '50s have become fodder for disco hits. A large feature in the center of the magazine exalts the music of Colorado, with bits about John Denver, Michael Murphey and other residents of the state, as well as the Caribou Ranch studio (famously recalled by Elton John's Caribou LP, which was recorded there).

Neil Sedaka - "Bad Blood"

(Debuted #66, Peaked #1, 14 Weeks on chart)

1975 was Neil Sedaka's year. He began it by notching a comeback #1 single ("Laughter in the Rain") and finished by notching another with "Bad Blood," managing to see another artist take his composition "Love Will Keep Us Together" and make it the biggest single of the year. Of course, even with that star power and newfound respect, having Elton John sing on a record wouldn't hurt, either.

Elton's vocal is uncredited on "Bad Blood," but its unmistakable. A bitter breakup song (especially from a songwriter known for his positive vibes), it has been rumored that Sedaka wrote the song after being fired from a billing with The Carpenters. The two acts toured together as Sedaka's career began to heat up and The Carpenters' own hits were beginning to cool off and for whatever reason Sedaka's role was ended. While both sides have disputed the rumors and The Carpenters would soon have a Top 20 hit with Sedaka's "Solitaire," the timing of "Bad Blood" certainly was conspicuous. It could be argued, however, that the song was written as a way of dealing with the cruel way the music business can sometimes be.

The Eagles - "Lyin' Eyes"

(Debuted #79, Peaked #2, 14 Weeks on chart)

Of all the songs in The Eagles' repertoire, this is perhaps my absolute favorite.

A story-song that tells a three-part story (that is, in the album version) about a pretty young lady who enters in a marriage of convenience for the security of her husband's income but not receiving any of the special attention she craves. In the first verse, she's getting ready to go out and lies to her husband about where she's going. In the second verse, she's meeting her young lover for a rendezvous. Finally, she's all alone in her house, trapped and feeling lonely. It's left to the listener to fill in the blanks; however, the line in the first verse about her husband knowing what she's up to suggests he's intervened to make the lover "disappear," either through monetary means or something more permanent. All the time, the music is as close to country-rock perfection as the group ever managed to get on their hit singles.

The song was a seven-minute cut on the One of these Nights LP but was cut down to four minutes as a single. Among the parts cut for radio were the rendezvous verse and half the third verse.

Interestingly, with all the accolades The Eagles received from later country artists about the group's influence on them, it may seem odd that "Lyin' Eyes" would be their only Top 40 country song during their 1971-'82 heyday. That said, it's worth noting that the Nashville establishment at that time was still particular about their music and still looked askance at a group of long-haired L.A. types, no matter whether the members were from places like Texas (Don Henley) and Florida (Don Felder) or had country-rock chops like Bernie Leadon (The Flying Burrito Brothers) and Randy Meisner (Poco). Young fans in areas where country was the dominant music were listening to other artists as well, which manifested itself when they matured.

Arthur Alexander - "Everyday I Have To Cry" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #86, Peaked #45, 9 Weeks on chart)

Although "Every Day I Have to Cry" was Arthur Alexander's only 1970s pop hit, his status as an influence on rockers has been largely and unfortunately forgotten. During the 1960s British Invasion, his songs were recorded by The Beatles ("Anna") and The Rolling Stones ("You Better Move On").

The song, written by Alexander, was a minor hit for Steve Alaimo in 1963. After some time away from the music business, Alexander tried make another go of it during the 1970s. Signed to Buddah records, he recorded his own version of the song and managed to get a small hit with it. The lyrics about realizing that a love is lost forever resonated with many but didn't lead to any additional success. Alexander's followup in 1976 was "Sharing the Night Together," a song that only reached the lower reaches of the R&B chart. It would be a Top 10 pop hit in 1978 for Dr. Hook, but Alexander had left the music business again at the time, driving a bus.

Alexander's material gained some interest later. In 1990 he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. In 1993, he recorded a new album and was performing once again. Sadly, he suffered a fatal heart attack that June.

The Salsoul Orchestra - "Salsoul Hustle"

(Debuted #90, Peaked #76, 6 Weeks on chart)

The Salsoul Orchestra was the group that produced most of the backing music for artists on the Salsoul record label from 1974 through 1982. Many of the orchestra's members had played with MFSB before that group left the employ of Gamble and Huff over a payment dispute. In addition to providing music for Salsoul's singers, the orchestra released their own records and their first chart single was "Salsoul Hustle."

"Salsoul Hustle" was an instrumental at a time when they were much more prevalent on the charts, and sounds very much a part of the 1970s scene. At a time when disco music was gaining in popularity, a bunch of dances came out and many had the name Hustle, thanks to the #1 Van McCoy hit of the same name. Nobody would expect less from the Salsoul house band or any group featuring members of the orchestra behind many classic 1970s Philly Soul hits.

Smokie - "If You Think You Know How To Love Me"

(Debuted #96, Peaked #96, 1 Week on chart)

In July '75, "If You Think You Know How to Love Me" managed to make the Hot 100 but peaked at #96 in its short two-week stay.Two months later, it reappeared for a second shot but still couldn't make a better showing than it did the first time. In the band's native England, however, the song was a #3 single for them.

Despite having roots in psychedelic pop from their 1960s genesis and glitter rock due to writer/producer team Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, "If You Think You Know How to Love Me" would be a slowed-down ballad. Featuring electric piano and light strings accompanying singer Chris Norman's tender vocals, it was something different from what the band had offered before. When first released in Europe, the single was credited to the band as "Smokey" but there was some trouble when plans were made for U.S. release due to the presence of Smokey Robinson. Opting to alter the band name to Smokie for all further recordings both at home and in the U.S., they began a very successful phase of their career.

Ray Charles - "Living For The City"

(Debuted #99, Peaked #91, 3 Weeks on chart)

Ray Charles performs his own version of Stevie Wonder's 1973 hit (reviewed here last November). Rather than using the aural landscape from the original, Brother Ray sings the tune as a straight R&B song. Rather than the montage featuring the poor young man being tricked into taking a rap for a crime he never commented, Ray Charles inserts a spoken plea about treading water at the poverty level.

Looking beyond the fact that both artists were both blind, Ray Charles performing Stevie Wonder's song represents one master of American music making his own interpretation of another's.

Hamilton Bohannon - "Foot Stompin' Music"  (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #100, Peaked #98, 2 Weeks on chart)

Despite having a similar title, this is not a remake of the 1972 Grand Funk Railroad song. Instead, this would be a song about getting out on the dance floor...a song that was entirely counter to Grand Funk's material even if both songs did share the more-music/less-lyrics vibe.

"Foot Stompin' Music" was the only song Hamilton Bohannon took into the Billboard Hot 100. It spent all of two weeks aboard the chart, peaking at #98 before dropping off. Despite that brief run, Bohannon was quite a figure in the 1970s disco scene, scoring regularly on the R&B and Disco charts. "Foot Stompin' Music" would reach #1 on the Disco chart, while his signature tune, 1978's "Let's Start the Dance," would be Top 10 on both of the other charts despite missing the Hot 100.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

This Week's Review -- September 5, 1970

Eleven new singles made their debut this week. Five would eventually reach the Top 40, with four of those hitting the Top 10. The songs on this week's list have a largely retro feel to them. Among the tunes are a remake of a #1 song from 1958 and a remake of a 1961 Impressions tune. Also, the Impressions themselves appear, as does Little Richard. Many of the songs are either from the soul arena or inspired by it. A song about how the music business treats its performers is here, as well as one that needed to be altered by its record company after inflicting an unintended result when played on a car radio.

Among the archive of past Billboard issues at Google Books, the September 5, 1970 edition is available to read for free. The full Hot 100 list can be found on page 80. Two stories on page one are interesting. One recounts how an official from the Nixon administration was pressuring the tape industry to develop a set of industry standards, showing that using the media to exert political pressure on a private industry isn't a new concept, and it's ironic considering the effect the tape industry's products had on Nixon's future. The other front page article explains how certain programmers are dealing with what was labeled "filth" in the lyrics of certain recent singles. The words in question: "hell" and "Goddamned." Forty years after that article was written, that seems rather quaint.

Wolfgang's Vault - James Brown Downloads

The New Seekers - "Look What They've Done To My Song Ma"

(Debuted #70, Peaked #14, 12 Weeks on chart)

The New Seekers were formed by Keith Potger in 1969 after the original Seekers disbanded. The Seekers were an Australian band that had moved to England to make their mark in the music business, The New Seekers were based in the U.K. Potger recorded with the band and performed with them but was not an official member of the group until many years later.

Their first hit single in the U.S. was "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma," a song written by Melanie Safka (who recorded as simply Melanie). Using a similar folk-influenced approach Melanie used in her own recording of the song at first, more instruments are added as the song progresses. Eva Graham sings lead, as she did with most of The New Seeker's hit singles. The song has a verse sung in French ("Ils ont changé ma chanson, Ma") as the music sounds like it's evoking gay Paree.

The lyrics are interesting. Melanie was known as an artist who was unconventional and something of a nonconformist. The lyrics express disappointment that "they" (the record company's executives, perhaps, or producers) are taking a song she thought was perfect and "tied it up in a plastic bag and turned it upside down." As one of Melanie's most-recorded and best-remembered tunes, it seems like the process of writing a song to express disillusionment over the way the music business works may have been quite cathartic indeed.

100 Proof Aged In Soul - "Somebody's Been Sleeping"

(Debuted #81, Peaked #8, 14 Weeks on chart)

100 Proof Aged in Soul was a band from Detroit that recorded for the Hot Wax label. Hot Wax's owners and the 100 Proof's creators were the songwriting team of Holland/Dozier/Holland, who set up the label after leaving Motown in 1968. The three members of the group included Joe Stubbs, the brother of Four Tops singer Levi but also a former member of The Contours, The Falcons and The Originals.

The group charted four singles on the Hot 100 between 1969 and 1972, and the most successful was "Somebody's Been Sleeping." The song sold more than a million copies and went Top 10 both on the pop and R&B charts. While evoking the Goldilocks fairy tale ("somebody's been sleeping in my bed, somebody's been sitting in my chair") this song is no kid story. The singer is seeing overwhelming evidence that his lady has been unfaithful and past the point of listening to reason. However, with a backing band that sounds like H/D/H contracted some of their old musician friends over at Motown to come over and lay down some tracks, it's easy to miss the deeper implication of the lyrics.

Glen Campbell - "It's Only Make Believe"

(Debuted #82, Peaked #10, 12 Weeks on chart)

When "It's Only Make Believe" first appeared in 1958, it was performed by Conway Twitty, who had co-written the song. Initially released as a B-side, the single garnered some airplay when its A-side flopped. Helping its popularity was the fact that Twitty's delivery of the song made some listeners think it he was Elvis Presley singing under a different name. It ended up hitting #1 for two nonconsecutive weeks.

When the song was remade in 1970, there was little question who was at the microphone. Glen Campbell was the most successful country/pop crossover artist, host of his own television variety show and an occasional actor in movies. "It's Only Make Believe" was on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Album LP, a record that refers to the name of his variety show but wasn't a soundtrack. The song was pretty faithful to Twitty's original, with slicker musical and vocal backing, but done in Campbell's own style, rather than imitating Twitty or even Presley. The song would reach the Top 10 on the pop, country and easy listening charts.

R. Dean Taylor - "Indiana Wants Me"

(Debuted #86, Peaked #5, 15 Weeks on chart)

"If a man ever needed dying, he did..."

That's quite an interesting line, having come long before the glorified "thug life" lyrics that are more commonplace today. However, rather than trying to convince the listener he was right to murder a man for besmirching the honor of his loved one, the singer is on the lam and hoping he doesn't get caught. At teh end of the song, he's choosing to face a hail of gunfire rather than wait on Death Row.

Ironically, had he waited a couple of years, Indiana's capital punishment law (and those of all other states using them) were overturned in 1972, so he probably wouldn't have been strapped in an electric chair. But I digress...

As a white Canadian, R. Dean Taylor was an unlikely artist to appear on the Motown roster. However, he was active behind the scenes at the company as an engineer and writer (among the songs he contributed on was The Supreme's #1 hit "Love Child") before being signed as an artist in his own right. "Indiana Wants Me" is probably best described as a three-minute 1970s melodrama placed on record grooves. It could have been its own movie, with its dramatic strings and Butch Cassidy-style ending.

Motown was supposedly forced to alter the single for radio broadcasts. The song begins with a police siren, which was realistic enough that some motorists pulled over when the song came on the radio. A new version was sent to stations without the sirens.

Little Richard - "Greenwood Mississippi"

(Debuted #88, Peaked #85, 5 Weeks on chart)

Though seeing Little Richard's name here undoubtedly brings to mind the singer's best-known 1950s material, be assured that listeners in 1970 found that "Greenwood Mississippi" wasn't like their parents' Little Richard records. With a swamp-rock guitar (rooted in 1950s rock but suspiciously sounding like it was an outtake from a Creedence Clearwater Revival session) and Little Richard sounding suspiciously like Wilson Pickett in some places, it may have seemed like an attempt to bring him more "current."

However, Little Richard never really went away. While he abruptly left the rock & roll lifestyle to become a preacher in 1957, he eventually returned to secular music during the 1960s and was recording and touring for years as the 1970s approached. By that time, 1950s artists were being seen as dinosaurs and weren't getting played as much on radio stations. Elvis was reinventing his act, Chuck Berry was doing the oldies circuit and Jerry Lee Lewis had moved over to the country audience. The interest in 1950s-era nostalgia was still a few years away. As a result, Little Richard's single wasn't given a lot of interest and stopped at #85 despite its more contemporary sound. That's a shame, as it deserved a better chance than it received.

The Impressions - "(Baby) Turn On To Me"

(Debuted #93, Peaked #56, 9 Weeks on chart)

The Impressions were one of the most important soul groups of the 1960s. Although Motown acts enjoyed bigger hits and Philly Soul eclipsed them during the 1970s, the Chicago-based vocal group would continue racking up the hits and -- more importantly -- influence many of their fellow musicians inside and outside of the soul genre. Among their hits was "People Get Ready," later famously covered by English blues fans Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart in 1985. While sometimes given short shrift in the history books due to Motown's phenomenal success, The Impressions definitely were the cream of the crop among their peers.

"(Baby) Turn On to Me" would be one of the group's last songs with Curtis Mayfield as a member. He would depart for a successful solo career after the 1970 Check Out Your Mind LP. The song featured a nice mixture of the doo-wop that was the band's style when they formed in the late 1950s, the big brassy instrumental sound of 1960s Chicago soul and even the wah-wah guitar familiar to fans of Mayfield's solo work and of 1970s music.

Brian Hyland - "Gypsy Woman"

(Debuted #94, Peaked #3, 20 Weeks on chart)

After a song by The Impressions, here's another song that was originally done by Curtis Mayfield and company. They first recorded the song in 1961 and took to #20. In 1970, the song was released to a new generation of listeners when a pair of artists who enjoyed their biggest hit in the early 1960s collaborated together on an album. For Brian Hyland (best known for "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" and "Sealed With a Kiss") and producer Del Shannon ("Runaway," "Hats Off to Larry" and "Keep Searchin'"), both were affected by the wake of The Beatles and the British Invasion and had been unfairly relegated to "has-been" status despite recording and touring all those years.

For listeners in 1970 who remembered Hyland's songs of teenage affection from a decade before, "Gypsy Woman" may have come as a pleasant surprise. The song was done in a more mature, soulful voice. Though he didn't come close to Curtis Mayfield's delivery in the original, few can fault him for that because he certainly held his own on the single. The song suggested Hyland could have done very well with the adult contemporary sound that would sell big in the 1970s; however, it never happened for him.

Traffic - "Empty Pages"

(Debuted #95, Peaked #95, 3 Weeks on chart)

 The reappearance of Traffic in 1970s was something of an accident. The group had split in 1969 after a rift between Dave Mason and his bandmates over their direction. Lead singer Steve Winwood went on to join the supergroup Blind Faith but it also fell apart due to internal dissent. In 1970, Winwood began laying down tracks for a solo album but somehow ended up joining with Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood and a new Traffic LP titled John Barleycorn Must Die resulted. It was considered on of Traffic's finest records and was their first gold album.

"Empty Pages" shows off two of Winwood's talents: his voice, albeit mixed low among the music, and his virtuosity on the electric keyboard. He gets a pretty decent solo on the instrument in the song. The lyrics are sparse, with three two-line couplets and two verses, and mention somebody looking at the "empty pages" of his own life.

After stalling at #95 in its short chart life, "Empty Pages" would return for five more weeks in October 1970. It managed to reach #74 in its second attempt.

Mavis Staples - "I Have Learned To Do Without You"

(Debuted #96, Peaked #89, 4 Weeks on chart)

The Staple Singers were called "God's Greatest Hitmakers." Beginning as a gospel family act around 1950 and performing both spiritual and secular material until the death of patriarch  Roebuck "Pops" Staples in 2000, the group was quite popular in both arenas, even scoring two #1 pop singles during the 1970s.

Among the group's other members were "Pops" Staples' four daughters, the youngest being Mavis. In 1969 and infrequently afterward, Mavis recorded solo projects apart from her prominent place with her family. "I Have Learned to Do Without You" was her only solo single to chart on the Hot 100. A song about moving on after a relationship, it makes nice use of Mavis's ability to phrase her material. An R&B weeper that could have been a classic had it been given a better chance, it showed potential that she could have been a formidable solo act.

The O'Jays - "Looky Looky (Look At Me Girl)"

(Debuted #99, Peaked #98, 2 Weeks on chart)

As "Looky Looky" was being released, the O'Jays had been performing since 1958 and had been scoring the occasional hit on Billboard's pop and R&B chart without much success. Up to that point, they had only managed one Top 10 R&B hit and hadn't notched a Top 40 single on the pop survey. However, they were just beginning their association with Philadelphia soul writer/producer team Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, a combination that was going to bring gold a couple years later.

Beginning with a rollicking piano riff, "Looky Looky" features many of the group's influences: there's a little doo-wop harmony, some call-and-response vocal play, as well as some soul stylings. While the strings that would be a hallmark of the 1970s Philly Soul sound are present, they're mixed much lower than they were in the later hits. As a song that hearkened back to the past more than it did showing future direction, it stiffed on the chart.

Johnny Rivers and Friends - "Fire and Rain" (Not Available as MP3)

(Debuted #100, Peaked #94, 2 Weeks on chart)

While "Fire and Rain" will be forever known as a James Taylor tune, his version was actually the third to hit the Hot 100. R.B. Greaves had a minor hit with the song in April 1970 and Johnny Rivers hit the chart a week before Taylor's definitive version entered. However, the week Taylor's song appeared, the Rivers version sank from sight.

Johnny Rivers enjoyed a string of hits during the mid 1960s but hadn't been in the Top 40 since 1967. Despite the hits, he was continually changing his sound without concern about maximizing record sales. All the time, he had been performing critically-acclaimed versions of other writers' songs, which is how he came to record "Fire and Rain." Although Rivers's version isn't going to make anybody forget about Taylor's, it does feature a great saxophone part toward the end as he fades out the song.