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.

1 comment:

  1. Luv me some Traffic--I saw Steve Winwood in concert a week ago and "Empty Pages" was one of the songs he did! And let me tell you, the guy has not aged a bit! It was a great show!!! :) Mommy L