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.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not interested in lyrics, but one of the things that makes me like many black records more than the white stuff is what you mantioned about the Latimore record. Black records of the 60s and 70s were much more likely to get more detailed and emotional about problems in relationships while white artists seem to just want to use superficial and idealistic terms about wanting to fall in love.