Saturday, October 30, 2010

This Week's Review -- October 28, 1972

Nine new singles showed up on the Billboard chart this week, with four eventually making the Top 40 and one that would reach the Top 10. Three of the songs have different takes on life: a pair of college students discussing ideas, a man who's working toward a better future and a group having a carefree party. A Jackson 5 song that came from a Broadway show appears, as does a song about a little girl and another that mentions a little boy and his dog. One of the songs would be resurrected later by the band that arose from the group that originally recorded it. Finally, an early hit appeared by a group better known for a much bigger hit later.

Google Books features an archive of past issues of Billboard magazine, which give a glimpse into the music business from all those years ago. It's neat to see how much the technologies have changed, but how many business-related topics are still issues today. The October 28, 1972 edition is available here. The full Hot 100 list can be found on page 68.Among the articles is a short paragraph on page 68 that announces the breakup of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

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Chicago - "Dialogue (Parts 1 and 2)"

(Debuted #72, Peaked #24, 10 Weeks on chart)

Several longer songs in the 1970s were cut in half to fit on the two sides of a 45 R.P.M. single and get radio airplay, but there were actually two distinct parts to "Dialogue." In the first part, two young people (as voiced by Terry Kath and Peter Cetera) are talking about the way things are, from two different viewpoints. Kath's lines express some concern over the direction he sees things going, while Cetera's lines espouse more of an "I'm OK, you're OK" attitude. This wasn't exactly uncommon in America during the early 1970s: even by October 1972, U.S. soldiers were still getting killed in Vietnam, the economy was sputtering (and an oil crisis was on the horizon) and news of a botched break-in was not only exposing some deep rifts in the government, but feeding an even deeper mistrust in the people running it. However, despite the grim news, there were many Americans who didn't think things were nearly as bad as they were made out to be.

Part II not only has a change in music, but a shift in lyrical direction as well. Kath and Cetera are singing the more optimistic lines together, perhaps signaling that the grumpy pessimist had been brought around to see the light. Where Part I was as much of a dialogue between Kath's guitar and Cetera's bass as it was a vocal one, the famed Chicago brass section (which begins to make itself heard halfway through the vocal debate) takes over as Part II gets underway.

"Dialogue" was part of the Chicago V LP, the band's first single-record set after three double albums and a four-disc live recording. With the new, "slimmed-down" format of their new album, their record-side suites became a part of the past. As it turned out, "Dialogue" would be the only song on the album that featured an extended format.

The Isley Brothers - "Work To Do"

(Debuted #83, Peaked #51, 10 Weeks on chart)

Unlike "Dialogue," "Work to Do" has an altogether different discussion going on. The lyrics here explain that while it would be great to stay home and love each other, it was also important to get to work and make a better life. In short, rather than spending time debating ideologies, this song just deals with the reality of life and doing what is needed to make it work.

"Work to Do" appeared on the Isleys' Brother, Brother, Brother LP. That album was the first to feature the younger half of the family (Ernie and Marvin Isley and Chris Jasper) along with the original members Ronald, Rudolph and O'Kelly Isley. It was also the group's final record for Buddah before their move to Epic and a new phase of their career.

The Average White Band did a version of "Work to Do" in 1974, and Vanessa Williams scored a Top 5 R&B hit with the song in 1992. Since it's been given additional exposure over the years, it's a little surprising to see that the song missed the Top 40 during its initial run.

Gilbert O'Sullivan - "Clair"

(Debuted #86, Peaked #2, 16 Weeks on chart)

Despite having Top 10 hits in the U.S. with "Clair" and "Get Down," Gilbert O'Sullivan sometimes gets tagged as a one-hit wonder due to the giant top-selling "Alone Again (Naturally)" (reviewed here last June). That's a little unfair, since "Clair" probably deserved to be a little better regarded after all this time.

While the lyrics may seem like they're coming from a pedophile interested in a much younger girl, "Clair" was written for the daughter of O'Sullivan's manager Gordon Mills, a child O'Sullivan occasionally babysat (according to legend). Clair even shows up on the song, giggling at the end. The words even follow a pattern familiar to anybody who's had to watch an overactive little girl: "Get back into bed, can't you see that it's late, no you can't have a drink, well alright, but wait just a minute." At the end of the song, he's exhausted from keeping up with her ("You can be murder at this hour of the day").

As for the song, it's one of those things I've gained a great deal of appreciation about since I brought home my own little girl from the hospital.

The Jackson 5 - "Corner Of The Sky"

(Debuted #88, Peaked #18, 12 Weeks on chart)

Last week's review featured a Jackson 5 tune that was a hastily-reworked Michael Jackson solo single. In that review, I explained that many of the group's singles had featured at least two brothers handling some of the vocals. In this song, three brothers -- Michael, Marlon and Jermaine -- are singing lead parts and all are harmonizing.

"Corner of the Sky" was a single that would eventually be included on the group's 1973 LP Skywriter. The song was from the Broadway play Pippin, which was a new smash in 1972. The lyrics are about following dreams, but it was a stark contrast to the way the brothers felt dealing with the Motown machine. All five had been writing material, but they were forbidden from performing anything outside of what Motown specified. This dissatisfaction is reflected in the cover of Skywriting, with the brothers looking gloomy while standing next to an early airplane. The photo was black-and-white, and the image implicitly showed they were being "grounded" from what they wished to do. "Corner of the Sky" would be the only Top 20 single from the album.

King Harvest - "Dancing In The Moonlight"

(Debuted #90, Peaked #13, 22 Weeks on chart)

During my early radio days, I was able to talk my way into doing a 1970s-themed show. After getting no response about it, I wrote up a draft explaining what I wanted to do, with a sample playlist, some information I hoped to share, and a standard rotation (all of which were based on a format used by another show we played at the station that I copied and then reworked to fit what I needed). Finally, I was given the green light to do it. "Dancing in the Moonlight" was the very first song I ever played on that show.

This might be one of the songs of the 1970s that people think of if they want to describe the "vibe." That vibe probably helped the song become a decent hit. It features a decent harmony by the group members, a great keyboard opening, mellow guitar parts, and a general feel that evokes a backyard get-together: laid-back, enjoying time with friends or family and not worrying much about the world.

The song was originally done in 1970 by a group called Boffalongo. A couple of Boffalongo's members ended up in King Harvest, which probably accounted for this version (Thanks to Dean for reminding me about that).

"Dancing in the Moonlight" is often wrongly attributed to Van Morrison and Elvis Costello (neither of whom have ever covered the tune). I'll get to Van Morisson a little later, but Costello was still several years away from charting in 1972.

The Heywoods - "Special Someone" (Not Available as MP3)

(Debuted #91, Peaked #64, 8 Weeks on chart)

If "Special Someone" sounds like it could have been a latter-day Osmonds song, there's a good reason. While the Heywoods had been touring mainly around their Cincinnati home base since 1965, they got their first major break by touring with the Osmond family. It was probably hard to see "Osmond-Mania" up close without wanting to see if some of that could rub off. 

A basic pop song, the sound of "Special Someone" is close to the bubblegum of the early 1970s. A brass section helped set the sunny disposition of the song. The band later changed its name to Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods (even though Mike Gibbons was the lead singer) and had a monster #1 smash in 1974, but they still had a little way to go before reaching that point.

The Move - "Do Ya"

(Debuted #98, Peaked #93, 5 Weeks on chart)

The YouTube video above is a recording of the single spinning on a turntable. The song is recorded with the pops we all heard in vinyl back then, just as it should be. While digital snobs might point out how those noises detract from the quality of the recording, the strength of the lyrics or the power of the music...I say it's only a pop song. There's not a lot of deep meaning to "Do ya, do ya want my love?" Hearing the occasional pop and click of a vinyl record is like visiting with an old friend after some time apart: eventually, you go back on with your current life, but at some level, all is right in the world for a little while.

Before there was The Electric Light Orchestra, Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan were part of Roy Wood's group The Move. The Move was a U.K.-based band that formed in 1965 and became quite successful in their home country. In the U.S., however, the band couldn't seem to get a break and only scored this one minor hit. By 1972, The Move were down to the trio of Wood, Lynne and Bevan after a seeing revolving door of band members. Wood had envisioned a band that could merge classical styles with rock and recruited Lynne to help with the transition. As it turned out, Wood would leave ELO early on, so that band would be associated with Lynne instead.

"Do Ya" was originally titled "Look Out Baby, There's a Plane A-Coming," which Roy Wood is heard saying at the end of the song. Opening with a guitar riff that would today be called "power pop," the song is propelled by a straight-ahead beat, reverberated guitar noise and even a cowbell struck with a drumstick.

"Do Ya" would be re-made, with Jeff Lynne singing and more robust instrumentation, and charted again as an ELO hit in 1975. Thanks to the success of that group and the endless repackaging of their hits, the remade version is perhaps much more familiar than the original. The remake would be true in may ways to the feel of the original, but what much more slickly produced and featured a wider array of instruments in the song.

Van Morrison - "Redwood Tree" (Not Available as MP3)

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

Van Morrison is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest and most inspirational singers of all time, but somebody who just looked at a list of hit singles may not understand why. Since Morrison's appeal attracted more album-buying consumers, many of his fans were content to buy his LPs and enjoy the wider message of his work and left his singles alone. At the same time, his style -- considered "timeless" by some -- didn't always fit well into the format of Top 40 Hit Radio, which directed its energies toward a different demographic than the bulk of Morrison's work.

"Redwood Tree" was a track on Morrison's Saint Dominic's Preview LP, which would be his best-performing album of the 1970s. Beginning with a boy and dog running out and playing in a field, the redwood tree in the title would provide shelter from a summer storm. Obviously, the song wasn't exactly a recollection of Morrison's own childhood (he grew up in Ireland), but was perhaps a nod toward California, where he lived at the time he recorded the album.

Tony Cole - "Suite: Man And Woman" (Not Available as MP3)

(Debuted #100, Peaked #97, 4 Weeks on chart)

Seeing the word "Suite" in a title can suggest several things. You can safely guess there will be a few changes in style and direction, and it's probably a good bet that the song is going to run for a while. That's not necessarily a bad thing if the piece is good, but can be quite uncomfortable if you're not captivated by the music. And when I wrote out this review, the version I had (and listened to three times) was the long, rambling LP version that ran for more than eight minutes.

The single version truncated the song down to 4 minutes and 45 seconds, but some of the stations that managed to add it to their rotation cut it down further. Considering the single's #97 peak position, it's evident a lot of stations just filed the single away without playing it.

There's not a lot of info around about Tony Cole. He appears to be a former schoolteacher who made a one-time appearance on American Bandstand during the 1960s. "Suite: Man and Woman" was his only single to reach the Hot 100.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

This Week's Review -- October 26, 1974

Seven new singles debuted this week, with four of them eventually reaching the Top 40. Among the singles: a pop hit by a man who wrote quite a few pop songs over the years, an R&B-flavored plea for understanding, a song by the Jackson 5 that began life as a Michael Jackson solo project, an homage to life in the country, a blues-flavored tune seemingly inspired by Tin Pan Alley, a song that tried to channel Barry White and what just may be the best song Elvis Presley recorded during the decade.

Among the archive of past issues of Billboard magazine, the October 26, 1974 edition can be read for free online. The full Hot 100 can be found on page 72. Page 6 has an article about Mickey Shorr's Tape Shack, a unique electronics store in Detroit and some stories from Shorr's radio days. As of today, the Shorr name is still seen around Detroit, as that one store has morphed into a regional chain.

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Latimore - "Let's Straighten It Out"

(Debuted #82, Peaked #34, 12 Weeks on chart)

The YouTube video shown above features a newly-recorded version with an extended spoken intro,which usually eliminates it from being added to my blog. However, it's similar enough to the original that I'm letting it stay.

One of the things I like about certain soul records is the way they discuss relationships. While pop songs tend to be focused on the excitement that marks the outbreak of love, there are soul (and country, for that matter) songs that focus on the way things are after the newness of a relationship has worn off. In "Let's Straighten it Out," the lyrics describe a man who's asking his woman to communicate with him and tell him why she's crying at night. He isn't packing his bags, nor is he making any ultimatums, he just wants to know what's going on. His plea, "how in the hell do you expect me to understand, when I don't even know what's wrong?" is something you just won't find in the pop arena.

That said, like a good husband, he knows not to push too hard, saying "if you're tired and don't want to be bothered, Babe, just say the word and I'll leave you alone." Married men can understand that line very well.

Born Benjamin Latimore in Tennessee, he is known simply by his last name. "Let's Straighten it Out" would become his biggest hit and signature song. In addition to reaching the pop Top 40, it also was a #1 R&B hit.

Elvis Presley - "Promised Land"

(Debuted #86, Peaked #14, 13 Weeks on chart)

This song is probably my favorite Elvis tune of the 1970s, a period that is sorely overlooked by his Vegas stage show, excessive living and personal issues. While nothing he did after his discharge from the Army approached the level of his material before Uncle Sam called his draft number, Elvis still came out with some truly great tunes. His 1960s material included gems like "It's Now or Never," "Crying in the Chapel" and "How Great Thou Art" but his movie soundtrack filler often made his work uneven. His career after the 1968 "comeback" TV special continued running between the great music/Vegas-inspired schlock spectrum, but some songs came out that were simply magnificent. "Suspicious Minds" was one of the great songs of the period, "Always on My Mind" was another. Despite the fact that he was on a downward spiral as the decade wore on, he still had moments where he showed he was still The King. "Promised Land" was one of the highlights of that decade, with its driving boogie beat.

While many remember it for mentioning a list of cities across the United States, the song tells a story of a "poor man" from Norfolk who is trying to make it to California but keeps getting sidetracked. After catching a bus that breaks down in Birmingham, riding a train into New Orleans and hitchhiking across Louisiana to Houston, he catches a place to Los Angeles. After describing a phone call back to the folks in Norfolk, the song ends with instrumental section, a repetition of the final verse and an extended instrumental fade. It's almost as if Elvis's band wasn't ready to stop the groove they started and just kept on playing.

Though it shares some similarity to Elvis's 1968 hit "Guitar Man" with its use of cities passed during a road trip and a similar beat, it's actually an older song. "Promised Land" was written and originally performed by Chuck Berry, who wrote it while still in prison in the early 1960s for a Mann Act conviction. According to the story, Berry used an atlas from the prison library to determine which cities he wanted to mention in the song. Elvis's version drops a verse containing a line about bypassing Rock Hill, South Carolina (Berry included that because of a 1961 incident where Freedom Rider John Lewis and others were savagely beaten) and driving through Georgia. Another clue to the song's age is almost missed in Elvis's rapid-fire delivery; when the "poor boy" calls back home, he sings, "Los Angeles, give me Norfolk, Virginia...Tidewater, four ten-oh-nine" The numbering system had changed by the late 1960s, so instead of TIdewater 4-1009 that time he'd have been calling (804) 844-1009 instead. That said, it is possible that an operator-assisted call still could have reached the same place.

(Note: The area code for Norfolk is no longer 804, but it was in 1974).

Andy Kim - "Fire, Baby I'm On Fire"

(Debuted #87, Peaked #28, 9 Weeks on chart)

Andy Kim (Kim is short for Youakim) is a Montreal-born singer and songwriter. In 1969, he co-wrote "Sugar, Sugar" with Jeff Barry. It became one of the biggest hits of the year. At the same time, he was releasing songs under his own name, often sped up slightly to give him a higher pitch. Due to an image he was trying to cultivate as a teenaged all-American type, Kim's birthdate has seemed to fluctuate; it's shown as either 1946 or 1952. Had he been born in '46, he would have been about 23 when he wrote "Sugar, Sugar" but only 17 if he was born in '52. I don't know which it is, but if I had to guess, I'd say they really wouldn't have needed to speed up the vocal for "Baby, I Love You" or "Be My Baby" if he had really been 17. But that's just a guess.

By 1974, the bubblegum sound had largely disappeared, so Kim was free to try recording in his natural voice. After hitting #1 with "Rock Me Baby," he followed it up with another song that had a very contemporary 1970s sound. Also, Kim uses the conflict of Heaven versus Hell in the lyrics: lines like "take me higher" and the use of a gospel-inspired backing chorus on the one side, and the concept of "fire" (the most common representation of Hell itself) and the idea being consumed by his lustful desires amounts to being engulfed by flames on the other. There's also the element of committing what may be a sin -- in this case, acting out on lust -- but somehow having that euphoric feeling that makes people act it out anyway. None of these elements is exactly new to songwriting (they go back for centuries), but that doesn't diminish a good, catchy pop song.

Wet Willie - "Country Side Of Life"

(Debuted #88, Peaked #66, 4 Weeks on chart)

Alabama-based Wet Willie mixed some of the musical styles their home state is famous for producing:  rock, soul and a dash of country. While many of the band's biographies focus on the rock and soul aspects of their sound, "Country Side of Life" points out the other style. While the lyrics show the "country" focus is more on the slower and easier pace found outside the city, but that is a common theme in country music as well.

The Jackson 5 - "Whatever You Got, I Want"

(Debuted #89, Peaked #38, 10 Weeks on chart)

This funky tune was originally slated to be a cut on a Michael Jackson solo LP, but a change of plans led to it being included on The Jackson 5,' Dancing Machine LP at the last minute instead. As a result, rather than Michael and Jermaine singing different lead parts as they had on many of the Jackson 5's hits, "Whatever You Got, I Want" just features Michael, with his brothers adding what were probably tacked-on backing vocals. While the song is a good example of MJ's abilities in the awkward years after his bigger Jackson 5 hits and before the phenomenal success he enjoyed later on, it doesn't compare favorably to many of the hits he enjoyed from either era.

The YouTube video above shows 16 year-old Michael all by himself, singing (okay, lip-syncing) the song on Soul Train.

The Edgar Winter Group - "Easy Street"

Debuted #90, Peaked #83, 4 Weeks on chart)

This blues-influenced number may sound like a rehashed Tin Pan Alley tune from the 1930s with its style, but it was written by group member Dan Hartman. As a slow, simmering song it was different from what many expected from The Edgar Winter Group after their radio hits "Frankenstein" and "Free Ride"; however, it wasn't a surprise from fans who'd followed the group from their days as Edgar Winter's White Trash or who knew Edgar as blues artist Johnny Winter's brother.

Edgar Winter plays a great saxophone solo during the instrumental break. That solo can bee seen in the video above.

The Dells - "Bring Back The Love Of Yesterday"

(Debuted #94, Peaked #87, 3 Weeks on chart)

"Bring Back the Love of Yesterday" starts off sounding like a Barry White song, from the lush orchestral opening to the deep-breathing first words. As the song goes on, there are still elements that make it seem like The Dells were openly tying to record the great lost Barry White song. That's unfortunate, considering the group was noted for its ability to adapt to several different styles throughout its long career. However, on this song they seem to be merely imitating rather than adapting.
Sadly, it would be their final single listed on the Billboard Hot 100, even though the group would hit the R&B charts into the 1990s and continued as an act with the same members until Johnny Carter passed away in 2009.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

This Week's Review -- October 16, 1976

Eight new singles appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, with two eventually making it into the Top 40. Among the songs are a return to the pop chart by a man known as "Slowhand" after two years away, a funk-driven hit by a group that was almost destroyed by Otis Redding's 1967 plane crash, a progressive song based on the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, a signature tune from George Benson and a folk/bluegrass-influenced number by a group of three brothers. Also appearing are the followups to the huge 1976 hits "Afternoon Delight" and "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine;" neither would come close to replicating the success of those earlier smashes.

Among the offerings at Google Books is a large archive of past issues of Billboard magazine. The October 16, 1976 edition can be read here. The full Hot 100 list can be found on page 72. The #1 song of the week was Rick Dees' "Disco Duck," and a bit of news on page 26 explains that he had recently been fired from his DJ job in Memphis due to a "conflict of interest" because of the song. The report said it was likely Dees had been rehired by a rival station. A two-page ad from Columbia records beginning on page 18 announces the split of Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina, spinning the breakup as "we're not losing a supergroup, we're gaining two superstars." If the label-sponsored press release wasn't enough, the end of the piece announces the duo's upcoming greatest-hits package. In a different vein, an ad from Motown records beginning on page 6 simply shows a quote from Stevie Wonder and a picture of his latest set, Songs in the Key of Life. That was debuting at #1 on Billboard's LP chart in the issue, only the third album to do that.

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Eric Clapton - "Hello Old Friend"

(Debuted #70, Peaked #24, 14 Weeks on chart)

"Hello Old Friend" was the first single from Clapton's No Reason to Cry LP, and his first Hot 100 hit in nearly two years. He hadn't been idle during the period -- he had released albums and performed in the film Tommy -- he just hadn't been seeing any of his 45s making the Hit Parade. In that sense, "Hello Old Friend" was an appropriate title.

As far as the song goes, it has a lot of the elements familiar to Clapton's most recognizable work: a slide guitar, the backing band and female chorus that took him through his much more successful Slowhand and Backless albums, the easy-going cadence, and even a hint of Clapton's interest in spiritual themes. Although it really doesn't register as more than a blip in his stellar career, "Hello Old Friend" is another example of Clapton's varied styles that switched from blues to rock to adult contemporary, showing influences from all over the musical spectrum.

The Starland Vocal Band - "California Day"

(Debuted #81, Peaked #66, 3 Weeks on chart)

When "Afternoon Delight" became a surprise hit in the Summer of 1976, their label Windsong was ready with a followup single to capitalize on the good fortune. However, the pop chart is a fickle thing and sometimes it's never easy to get lightning to strike twice in the same place.

The harmonies from "Afternoon Delight" are still there, but without the wink-and-a-nudge lyrics that fueled the earlier hit. As for the song itself, it's another reflection on living in California that had been done already (and better, for that matter) by a long list of acts going back to the 1960s. There's nothing in the tune that will make listeners look past the mournful mood of The Mama and Papas' "California Dreaming" or any of the sunshine-sparkled homages to the state laid on wax by The Beach Boys.

The Rowans - "If I Only Could"

(Debuted #84, Peaked #74, 4 Weeks on chart)

"If I Only Could" is listed as the only Hot 100 hit for The Rowans, which gives short shrift to the history behind the band. At first, oldest brother Peter Rowan had established himself in bluegrass and folk-rock circles before joining with his siblings Chris and Lorin (who had already been recording for a few years) in 1975. The LP that contained their hit single, Sibling Rivalry, was their second album as a trio.

Upon listening, "If I Only Could" sounds like it could be a country song, which accents the folk and bluegrass backgrounds the brothers possessed. While a mandolin keeps time, the lyrics and other instruments paint a picture about enjoying the company of a loved one that isn't there. While the reason for the separation isn't explicit (probably due to touring, but could be from job demands, military service, or anything else that causes young men to travel from their homes), the longing for a familiar touch and welcome embrace is universal. Today, "If I Only Could" is largely forgotten and that's a shame. It's a great song that deserved a better chance.

After three albums as a trio, Peter left the group. Despite no additional Hot 100 hits, Chris and Lorin Rowan still perform and tour together today.

The Bar-Kays - "Shake Your Rump To The Funk"

(Debuted #85, Peaked #23, 16 Weeks on chart)

The Bar-Kays' story began in Memphis in 1966 as a house band at Stax records. They gained a great deal of exposure after Otis Redding made them his backing band on tour as well as in the studio and enjoyed a hit with "Soul Finger" in 1967. Tragically, many of the band's members were traveling with Redding when he was killed in a plane crash that December. One member who survived the crash and another who was traveling in another plane rebuilt the group and they carried on.

As the 1970s wore on, the Bar-Kays' sound went from the Stax soul they helped create to a more funky groove as they switched to Mercury after the demise of their old label. Among the songs that signaled their shift was "Shake Your Rump to the Funk," which would be the group's biggest hit since "Soul Finger." A solid wall of funk with its horns, vocals and a keyboard solo in the middle eight, it reached #23 an the pop chart and #5 R&B. As the song fades out, a keyboard piece that sounds an awful lot like Billy Preston's fingerwork can be heard.

Tower of Power - "You Ought To Be Havin' Fun"

(Debuted #86, Peaked #68, 8 Weeks on chart)

After enjoying a run of successful records on Warner Brothers and featuring Lenny Williams at the microphone, Tower of Power changed it up with their 1976 LP Ain't Nothing Stoppin' Us Now. Williams had gone his own way and the band was now signed to Columbia. New Tower of Power vocalist Edward McGhee was able to give an effusive delivery "You Ought to Be Havin' Fun" -- an upbeat song with an infectious sound -- but didn't possess the range or power Williams had in his hits.

Despite continuing on as a touring band and recording unit to this day, "You Ought to Be Havin' Fun" would be the final Hot 100 listing credited to the Oakland-based band with the famous horn section even though they'd return to the chart several times as the background music on hits for years to come. Among the artists featuring the Tower of Power horns: Huey Lewis ("Doing it All For My Baby," "Perfect World"), Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville ("When Something is Wrong With My Baby"), Little Feat, America and Aerosmith.

The Alan Parsons Project - "The Raven"

(Debuted #87, Peaked #80, 3 Weeks on chart)

"The Raven" comes from Tales of Mystery and Imagination, an LP-length homage by The Alan Parsons Project to the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. Among Poe's best-remembered works is The Raven, a poem that lent itself nicely to music. A retelling rather than a recitation, the song begins with ominous-sounding vocals, accented by a chorus that gives a foreboding ambiance to the track. That's appropriate for a song based on Poe's material; after all, sunny days and fuzzy puppies weren't his usual subject matter. However, the song's progressive sound gained detractors as well as fans.

There are two vocals heard on the record. First, Alan Parsons's distorted voice is heard through a vocorder, making it one of the few instances of Parsons's voice actually being heard on the records that featured his name. The other vocals -- featuring the poem's most famous line, "Quoth the Raven: "Nevermore" -- were preformed by Leonard Whiting, best known for playing the male lead in Franco Zefirelli's 1968 film version of Romeo & Juliet.

There's also a 1987 remix of the song that is longer and has an extra guitar solo before the final "Nevermore" refrain. The entire Tales of Mystery and Imagination LP was reworked because the advent of the CD inspired Parsons to use the new technology to overcome some of the limitations he'd encountered when making the original recording.

Lou Rawls - "Groovy People"

(Debuted #88, Peaked #64, 5 Weeks on chart)

While the word "groovy" may have seemed dated even in 1976, it helped give this song a personality. It was Lou Rawls' followup to his super-successful single "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" and even though both songs shared the same singer, writers, producers and album, they were different in many ways. Both featured Rawls and a female backing unit singing above Gamble & Huff's house band, the hit was an elegantly-delivered kiss-off and the followup was more of an upbeat tune about being a regular Joe.

While "Groovy People" probably deserved a better run on the charts (it definitely didn't sound out of place among many of the other hits of October 1976), it missed the Top 40. That may have been disappointing to Rawls and his label, Philadelphia International, since it came right on the heels of a #2 smash hit.  

George Benson - "Breezin'"

(Debuted #90, Peaked #63, 6 Weeks on chart)

This is a song I'd known for a while before realizing it was a George Benson tune. After hearing the instrumental several times but never knowing its name or who performed it, my moment of discovery arrived one day when playing a friend's copy of his his Breezin' CD.

While not a big hit, "Breezin'" is one of George Benson's best-known singles. It was written and initially recorded by Bobby Womack in 1971. It was released as a single right after the surprise success of "This Masquerade." A guitar solo that probably sounds a lot easier than it is to play, the song is still played in many radio formats like adult contemporary, easy listening and smooth jazz. As familiar as the song is, it may be surprising that it never managed to break the Top 40.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

This Week's Review -- October 7, 1978

Nine new singles debut on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, with five that eventually reached the Top 40 and one that go on to the Top 10. The biggest hit comes from a band that was making their debut...but not really new. Also, a lady who'd scored several hits as part of a group was trying out as a solo act. Three other acts are making their first appearance on the chart, with two of those not getting a chance to return. A member of The Moody Blues is here with a solo project, as does a man who'd been hitting the chart since the 1950s and a brother/sister act. Interestingly enough, the lineup includes four totally different variations of the disco sound as it was in 1978.

Normally, there is a link in this paragraph to the Billboard issue at Google Books, but October 7, 1978 is missing from the archive. So I'll share some recent additions to my 1970s music website instead. While most of the information (and attention) has been focused on the songs that hit the Hot 100 between 1970 and '79, Last year I added some new sections. Recently, I finished adding all the Country singles from the decade. I also have Top 40 LP info on the site, but have been able to fill in more albums and have quietly been adding all the albums from the Billboard 200. At present, only some of the pages have been updated but if you click here and visit the site, you'll notice that many of the LP pages have been expanded. The LP pages are linked at the top of the site.

While going through this project, I've been able to find albums that peaked in 1970 that had been missing before (like the "Easy Rider" soundtrack and "Tommy" by the Who) and also 1980 LPs that were listed (ZZ Top's "Deguello," ELO's "Greatest Hits" and Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall"). After I've finished adding all album info, I'll be working towards having R&B chart info, adult contemporary and perhaps the disco chart info available on the site as well. It's a work in progress, but it's steadily progressing.

The Beatles Box of Vision

Gabriel - "Martha (Your Lovers Come and Go)" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #81, Peaked #73, 4 Weeks on chart)

Despite the name, Gabriel wasn't a person using his first name. Instead, Gabriel was a Seattle-based group that only managed this one national chart hit. It was off their fourth album (also called Gabriel).

This was a standard 1978 pop song aspiring to "power pop" with clean production. It's a shame the song couldn't get some better breaks in other cities, as "Martha" isn't any worse than many of the Top 40 songs from similar one-hit bands that were essentially confined to geographic regions. It wasn't in the cards for the band, however; they would break up before recording another album.

Justin Hayward - "Forever Autumn" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #82, Peaked #47, 13 Weeks on chart)

"Forever Autumn" was the only 1970s hit for Justin Hayward that wasn't also credited to his fellow Moody Blues bandmate John Lodge. It does, however, share a lot of common qualities with the music the group was recording at the time with its orchestral underscore and dramatic flourishes. That said, the song wasn't exactly a Hayward project between Moody Blues LPs but had a story that might seem odd given its final version laid down on vinyl.

"Forever Autumn" actually began life in 1969 as a jingle for Lego building blocks. An instrumental piece written by Jeff Wayne, it would have lyrics added to it in 1972 by Paul Vigrass and Gary Osborne, who gave the tune a more dramatic element and recorded it as the B-Side of their only Hot 100 single "Men of Learning" (reviewed in this blog last June). In 1977, Wayne included "Forever Autumn" as part of a concept LP telling the story of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds -- likely inspired by the success of Star Wars that year -- and asked Hayward to record it for the album.

Thus, a song that was first intended to sell building blocks for children became part of a science fiction story and part of Moody Blues lore in just under a decade.

Paul Anka - "This Is Love" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #83, Peaked #35, 11 Weeks on chart)

A very adult tune from the former teen star who hit with "Diana" and "Lonely Boy" in the 1950s, "This is Love" may not have been a surprise to those who had already heard Anka sing "I Don't Like to Sleep Alone" or "Anytime (I'll Be There)" or even "Having My Baby." As the title suggests, Anka sings about love. However, rather than the euphoric feeling expressed in Anka's earlier hits, this song focuses more on that all-encompassing effect that people get when they realize what's happened: lack of focus at work, loss of appetite, a desire to yell it out, yet still understanding that what they're feeling is great.

Paul Anka's career enjoyed a resurrection during the 1970s, but "This is Love" would be his final hit single of the decade. His 1979 single "As long as We Keep Believing" would be an adult contemporary hit and a couple 1980s singles reached the Hot 100, but he never again reached as high on the chart as the #35 peak "This is Love" managed.

Toto - "Hold The Line"

(Debuted #84, Peaked #5, 21 Weeks on chart)

While officially the first hit for the group Toto, "Hold the Line" wasn't exactly the first time many music fans heard the band's music. Before forming Toto, its members were heavily in-demand L.A. studio musicians. Playing on half of the albums recorded in that city during the mid 1970s, several members had a big hand in writing and performing the songs on Boz Scaggs' Silk Degrees LP. As a result, this song wasn't exactly a "debut" record since the members had been playing together in various incarnations for much of the decade. In a way, by forming Toto, the members made official what they'd been doing for years.

Once that formality was out of the way, the band promptly made its name with a big hit called "Hold the Line" that essentially served notice that Toto was now playing with the big acts rather than backing them up. As one might expect from the liner note credits that appeared on the members' resumes, their sound on the single was well-crafted pop, from the opening piano riff to the guitar solo and the impeccably-timed instrumental breaks. That's good for fans who like studio perfection, but not so good for lovers of raw rock. Predictably, the critics blasted the group's power pop but fans bought an awful lot of their albums.

In short, liking or disliking the song is often going to come down to what the listener feels about Toto, or at least their opinion of studio precision.

Switch - "There'll Never Be"

(Debuted #85, Peaked #36, 13 Weeks on chart)

Switch was a band from Grand Rapids, Michigan and "There'll Never Be" was their first major hit. They were signed to Motown after being suggested to the label by Jermaine Jackson. Their sound was more in line with 1980s R&B than with the material most associated with Motown. While part of the reason for that sits with the fact that Motown had moved its corporate offices to Los Angeles and wandered from its Detroit roots, Switch members included older brothers of notable 1980s acts. Phillip Ingram's younger brother was James Ingram, while Tommy and Bobby DeBarge mentored their younger siblings in a group that used the family name.

Speaking of the DeBarge family, "There'll Never Be" actually has a similar feel to some of their hits, from the vocal harmonies to the light R&B/light funk rhythm backing track. Its romantic nature and boy/girl vibe, mixed with Bobby DeBarge's soaring falsetto, meant this was a song that was likely found on many mix tapes over the years and very well served as a wedding song many times over.

Chaka Khan - "I'm Every Woman"

(Debuted #86, Peaked #21, 16 Weeks on chart)

Before "I'm Every Woman," Chaka Khan was best known as the very distinctive lead singer of Rufus. By 1978 she had been singing on other projects (including Quincy Jones's hit "Stuff Like That") and emerged with her own solo LP Chaka. Even though she was still very much a part of the group (by then billing itself as Rufus featuring Chaka Khan), it was obvious her big voice was breaking out from the confines of the band.

Despite being a dance-oriented single that was released during the disco era, "I'm Every Woman" was produced to emphasize Chaka's voice ahead of the music track. This wasn't necessarily an oddity, but the disco craze led to many singles that pumped up the music as it maxed the number of beats per minute. Since many disco hits featured anonymous studio singers, the music took center stage. With Chaka, the voice was given the treatment and respect it deserved on the record. As a result, the song would be much more listenable years later than many other 1978 disco singles.

"I'm Every Woman" features Cissy Houston and her teenage daughter on background vocals. In 1992, the daughter -- Whitney Houston -- would record the song herself and take it to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. In a reversal of sorts, Chaka Khan handled backup vocals on that '92 single.

Judy Cheeks - "Mellow Lovin'" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #88, Peaked #65, 5 Weeks on chart)

No sooner do I finish explaining how "I'm Every Woman" was made more timeless by giving more weight to Chaka Khan's vocal's a song that gives an example of the other side of that equation.

"Mellow Lovin'" was a tune from the Salsoul record company. Salsoul was a label that was big in the disco scene, with their house band playing for a series of studio vocalists. While disco was notorious for its conveyor belt-like production process that went through countless studio singers, some were better vocalists than they received credit for. Judy Cheeks was a Miami native whose father was a preacher and gospel singer. She may have possessed some great musical chops, but she was merely a cog in the Salsoul machine. "Mellow Lovin'" is more about the orchestra and the rhythm section than it is about the singer whose name appeared on the label. In a way, that's a big negative effect of the disco era.

"Mellow Lovin'" was did manage to become a Top 10 disco hit, which was an extended-length version than the commercial single release. Fortunately, Cheeks wasn't relegated to oblivion like many singers identified with disco after the sound died; however, her success was largely in the U.K. and on the American dance charts. She never again had a Hot 100 single.

Donny and Marie Osmond - "On The Shelf" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #89, Peaked #38, 10 Weeks on chart)

Here's yet another disco single, which further illustrates the era: the disco song from an act that was trying to get in on the sound while it was hot.

Donny and Marie Osmond's television variety show was in its final season, their hits were drying up and they were becoming adults. Somebody must have figured, why not try recording a disco single? Looking at what happened after the single fell off the charts, it damn near killed their careers. It wasn't a terrible song when compared with the duo's other material (unless you're not a fan of theirs, in which case it still isn't worse than their other hits), but it was obvious the brother and sister weren't disco artists. It would be their last Top 40 hit together.

Marie went to score some country hits during the 1980s and Donny needed more than a decade to return to the Top 40. To be fair, there were probably several reasons for the Osmonds' disappearance from the pop charts: maturing of former child stars, overexposure on their TV variety show, other interests such as acting and family, even the coming backlash against 1970s culture. That said, an act seemingly cashing in on the disco craze to get one more hit single (produced by Mike Curb, no less) may not have helped them.

K.C. and the Sunshine Band - "Do You Feel Alright" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #90, Peaked #63, 5 Weeks on chart)

And now we're at Disco Oblivion '78, Part IV. I swear, I didn't plan these songs to line up this way.

After being one of the hottest acts of the mid-1970s, KC and the Sunshine Band hit something of a roadbump in 1978. Ironically, as disco music -- a sound Harry Wayne Casey and Richard Finch helped develop -- was at its zenith, KC and the Sunshine Band was seeing less chart success than they had when they were pioneering the format. It seems that as the sound expanded, the sound that scored them four #1 hits and one #2 between 1975-'77 became stale. "Do You Feel Alright" might have been a bigger hit during those years, but listeners seemed turned off hearing the same guitar breaks, rhythms and brass flourishes from "Get Down Tonight" and "Shake Your Booty" in 1978. As a result, the song died a quick death on the charts.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

This Week's Review -- October 4, 1975

Seven new singles made their debut on the Billboard Hot 100 survey for this week, with only two eventually making it to the Top 40. Only one song got into the Top 10. Among the songs that missed the Top 40 were songs by established artists like James Taylor, Roger Daltrey and Billy Preston. Preston would perform his song the following week on the very first episode of a landmark TV show. Another song was a remake of a 1971 film theme. A song by one former Beatle was a surprising change of form from his usual hit material. The most surprising change of form, came from a group of three brothers who had begun using a more rhythmic sound with their newest single, one that ended up becoming their best-remembered "sound" after the decade was over.

Google Books has a large archive of past issues of Billboard magazine. Unfortunately, the October 4, 1975 issue is missing from the available editions.

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Paul McCartney and Wings - "Letting Go" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #74, Peaked #39, 6 Weeks on chart)

Paul McCartney manged to reach the U.S. Top 40 with every chart record he released in the 1970s. Whether by himself, with his post-Beatles band Wings or billed with his wife Linda, every one of his 24 singles would reach the Top 40.* The number would reach 25 if you counted "Seaside Woman" by Suzy & the Red Stripes. He did have a few near-misses that ended up reaching the lower rungs of the Top 40, including this tune from Wings' Venus and Mars LP. However, "Letting Go" was a surprise from Macca, as a song with a strong R&B influence that made it stand out among the more rock and pop-oriented material on the album.

* It should be noted, however, that there were a couple of singles released by The Beatles in 1976 and '78 that missed the Top 40. As releases delivered by the group's former record company after their agreement with Apple expired rather than a decision by the band to release them, I didn't count those among McCartney's 1970s singles. That said, I also didn't include any Beatles singles from before the announcement of the group's 1970 breakup in the count either.

The Bee Gees - "Nights On Broadway"

(Debuted #82, Peaked #7, 16 Weeks on chart)

With the release of their LP Main Course, The Bee Gees served notice that they were changing their sound to reflect more of an R&B vibe and a new sound influenced by the disco scene then wildly popular in Miami, the city where the album was recorded. As the first song on that record, "Nights on Broadway" was the first taste of the group's new sound many fans would hear.

One of the first songs to utilize Barry Gibb's falsetto (then a vocal asset but later the target of derision from critics), it was a glimpse into The Bee Gees' future sound, which essentially kicked off a very successful period for them. Within the song, though, they offered a taste of the band's past offerings as well. While mostly utilizing the new R&B-influenced, disco-accented sound, there was a slow break before the final chorus and fade where the brothers showcased the harmonies as their fans remembered from the 1960s and early 70s before shifting it back into the high-energry groove.

Fans of the TV show Saturday Night Live may recognize this tune as the basis of the theme song to "The Barry Gibb Talk Show," where Jimmy Fallon assumed the title role, dressed up in all his Saturday Night Fever-era glory.

Billy Preston - "Fancy Lady"

(Debuted #85, Peaked #71, 4 Weeks on chart)

The week after "Fancy Lady" debuted on the Hot 100, it became part of television history. Preston and Janis Ian were the musical guests on a late-night television variety show for its very first episode on October 11, 1975. One of the two songs he performed on that premiere show was "Fancy Lady" ("Nothing From Nothing" was the other). Few people pay a lot of attention to such trivial matters, except that new show was Saturday Night Live, which is still on the air 35 years later.

Though largely forgotten in favor of his bigger 1970s hits and his credit playing on The Beatles' "Get Back," "Fancy Lady" showcases Preston's electric piano skills as well as his vocal talents. A funky riff propels the song through its entirety. A female backing singer chimes in from time to time who sounds at first like Chaka Khan but probably is someone else.

The Biddu Orchestra - "Summer Of '42"

(Debuted #89, Peaked #57, 6 Weeks on chart)

India-born, U.K.-based producer Biddu became known in the U.S. as the man behind the recording console for Carl Douglas's #1 smash hit "Kung Fu Fighting." When he wasn't preforming production duties for atrists such as Douglas and Tina Charles, he also recorded his own music as The Biddu Orchestra. In 1975, he released a discofied version of Peter Nero's 1971 hit "Theme from Summer of '42." While having little to do with the film, this new version was following a trend of taking familiar tunes and giving them a dance beat.

Where Nero's hit had been a piano piece with orchestral backing, Biddu begins with a piano opening but lets the orchestra take over as the first verse is finishing. While the piano can still be heard later on, the orchestra swirls around and drowns it out, with a very 1970s-sounding wah-wah guitar taking center stage. While Biddu's tune isn't enough to make people forget about crushes they developed on Jennifer O'Neill from the movie, it showed that even romantic tunes from nostalgic sources were rife to be remade (or ripped off, depending on your perspective) by disco producers.

James Taylor - "Mexico"

(Debuted #90, Peaked #49, 8 Weeks on chart)

There are a few differing opinions about what this song is about. One concerns getting a nasty case of Montezuma's Revenge (accounting for being there but never being able to experience the place), and another focuses on the words "body's still shaking like a live wire" and the part about the kid being hungry but having no money and insisting it's about Taylor's struggles with heroin addiction. Personally, I feel that people often place way too much importance on what a song means...and I'm saying this as somebody who writes about music on a weekly basis. Sometimes, a writer just strings some words together and puts music to them.

That said, "Mexico" is one of Taylor's better-known tunes of the era even if it wasn't a big hit. As the first track on Taylor's Gorilla LP, it's a nice leadoff in Taylor's inoffensive, laid-back musical manner. The song also features superb harmony vocals behind JT, effortlessly performed by David Crosby and Graham Nash. It features a catchy cadence with its pseudo-Latin rhythm and possibly catches the essence of being a foreigner who's trying to understand where he is.

Roger Daltrey - "Come And Get Your Love"

(Debuted #97, Peaked #68, 8 Weeks on chart)

"Come and Get Your Love" was the second and most successful of Daltrey's three 1970s solo singles. While the song's title brings to mind Redbone's huge 1974 hit, the Who frontman does a completely different song. To differentiate the two songs, Daltrey's is often shown as "(Come and) Get Your Love" or simply as "Get Your Love."  The first track and only chart single from Daltrey's second solo LP Ride a Rock Horse, "Come and Get Your Love" was written by Russ Ballard, who also produced the album. As a member of Argent, a solo artist, writer and producer, Ballard is little-appreciated for all the effect he had on 1970s rock.

Sung with studio musicians and a female backing group, the song featured a good guitar solo and fine vocals, but it seemed to lack an element that his fans might not have noticed right away. It was a pop/rock tune but not as over-the-top as Daltrey sometimes went on his vocals with The Who. His membership in that band may have been the biggest thing holding back Daltrey's solo 1970s material; while he was still wailing in front of Pete Townsend and one of the greatest rock rhythm sections ever known, his solo records were merely ways to bide his time between Who projects and Daltrey's films.

Johnny "Guitar" Watson - "I Don't Want To Be A Lone Ranger"

(Debuted #100, Peaked #99, 4 Weeks on chart)

Johnny "Guitar" Watson certainly had a diverse range of styles. Beginning in the 1950s, he was a top-rate blues and jazz guitarist and even showed his rock chops during the 1960s. During the 1970s, a time where many acts from the past were happy coasting on their past glories,Watson changed his focus again. While reinventing an image isn't exactly easy when you're pushing 40 and have been active for more than 20 years, Watson pulled it off easily.

The man who had recorded "Gangster of Love" in the 1950s re-emerged in the 1970s as a funky pimp, dressed in golden threads and playing a more contemporary sound than the blues that established his reputation. "I Don't Want to Be a Lone Ranger" was a nice mix of styles: it appealed to the R&B crowd but still had elements of jazz and funk. His new sound was much more influential than his two low-charting pop hits might indicate.