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.

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