Saturday, November 27, 2010

This Week's Review -- November 27, 1971

There were 14 new singles (one a two-sided hit) making their first appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Seven went on to reach the Top 40, with three making the Top 10 and one becoming an iconic #1 hit. There is quite a bit of remembering among the songs this time around. The biggest hit here was a reminder of the day Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson were killed in a plane crash. A legend from Holly's era cut a version of a song that was made famous by Janis Joplin. A group decided to go on without Jim Morrison after his early celestial exit. Even the artists who were still alive here weren't immune, as Jackie Wilson soon proved. No wonder Tommy James is doing a prayer in his song. It wasn't all gloomy this week, though: there was a song based on a soda commercial, a double-sided hit from a young teen idol, the signature hit for a very well-known band and a return-to-roots ditty by a Canadian singer.

Google Books has an archive of past Billboard issues, including the November 27, 1971 edition. The full Hot 100 chart can be found on page 64. An article on page 50 mentions how jukebox operators were looking at ways to deal with the growing popularity of the long-play LP. On the other side of the progressive spectrum was cartridge television (CTV), which was seen as a way to have more control over what they watched than simply what broadcasters were airing. It was seen as analogous to playing records instead of listening to the radio. In essence, it was like a video 8-track. Page 26 has several articles about the format, which seems like a lot considering the way it bombed once it reached the market.

James Brown

Don McLean - "American Pie (Parts 1 and 2)" American Pie - American Pie - Single

(Debuted #69, Peaked #1, 19 Weeks on chart)

I'm not even going to try to explain what goes on this this song. It's been hashed, rehashed, and them examined even further ever since it was released 39 years ago. If you'd like to see just how much this song  has been analyzed, check out this post. It resurfaces on newsgroup boards every so often and will go about as deep as it possibly can.

Instead, I'll mention that "American Pie" was an unqualified smash hit, becoming Don McLean's signature song. It has been performed many times over the years by artists like Madonna, The Brady Bunch and Garth Brooks and parodied by "Weird Al" Yankovic. Its name even appeared on a series of bawdy teen comedies nearly 30 years later.

Most importantly, it led to a change in the way some stations handled hit singles. At the time, Top 40 radio stations -- mostly on the AM band then -- usually preferred shorter songs in their formats. Additionally, jukebox operators preferred shorter singles because they made more money from them. As a result, "American Pie" had its eight minutes broken into two sides for a single, with most stations opting for the second part. In the American Top 40 radio show, Casey Kasem would usually skip the intro, playing the song from the first "Bye, bye Miss American Pie." and fade it out before the final verse. As the song became a big hit, listeners called their stations and asked for the full version. Many stations, ever vigilant about keeping their listeners, relented and allowed the full version to play at the expense of their formats.

Lastly, the song generated more discussion about Buddy Holly and his influence. That's always a good thing.

Donny Osmond - "Hey Girl" Hey Girl - Osmondmania! Osmond Family Greatest Hits b/w "I Knew You When" I Knew You When - Osmondmania! Osmond Family Greatest Hits

(Debuted #70, Peaked #9, 10 Weeks on chart)

This was a two-sided hit, so there are two YouTube videos this time. Fans of Donny Osmond can enjoy both; others can simply skip to the commentary below (though this song is worth giving a listen if you've never heard it):

The two sides were meant to show a more soulful side to Donny Osmond than the kiddie-oriented singles he'd recorded before. At the time these songs hit Top 40 radio, Osmond had only two hits apart from his brothers: "Sweet and Innocent" and the #1 hit "Go Away Little Girl." When "Hey Girl"/"I Knew You When" didn't become as large a hit as the others did, it seems MGM records learned their lesson. They went back to the teen-idol pool and issued "Puppy Love" as his next single.

As per standard operating procedure for solo Donny Osmond singles then, he was given a couple of songs that were already hits before. "Hey Girl" was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. It was originally a #10 hit for Freddie Scott in 1963. Besides having the lush sound of a studio orchestra behind him on the record, a fuzzy bassline can be heard among the bells, flutes and other instruments on the single.

"I Knew You When" was written by Joe South, with a refrain that sounds a little like like Dionne Warwick's rendition of "Anyone Who Had a Heart." It was originally a hit in 1965 for Billy Joe Royal, leaving out the "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" intro from that version. Instead, the other Osmond brothers singing backup handle that part leading into the choruses. While Donny Osmond may not have had the same vocal range at 14 that Royal employed on his hit single, he doesn't do a bad job handling it.

Betty Wright - "Clean Up Woman" Clean Up Woman - The Essentials: Betty Wright

(Debuted #76, Peaked #6, 14 Weeks on chart)

The Memphis-style sound is actually from a Miami-based label, the guitar lick has been sampled on many hip-hop and rap songs and the cautionary vocal was from a singer who was all of 17 years old. While the song was written by two men, the female perspective given in "Clean Up Woman" is a counterpoint to the mainly male-centered songs about slipping out the back door, only to find out that somebody else has walked into the one up front.

In the song's lyrics, Betty Wright explains exactly what a "Clean Up" woman is. Basically, she's the person who is right there to mend the heart once it's been broken. When a man has been done wrong, she's there to make it right. The song is delivered in a mature manner for a 17-year old, but the fact is, it wasn't even her first pop hit. That had come in 1968, when she took "Girls Can't Do What the Guys Do" to #33.

The song's catchy guitar hook and Memphis-like rhythm would last long after the song's hit run, as frequently-sampled bits in rap, hip-hop and R&B songs. the most notable of these was Mary J. Blige's #7 1992 hit "Real Love."

Rare Earth - "Hey Big Brother" Hey Big Brother - The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 11B: 1971

(Debuted #77, Peaked #19, 10 Weeks on chart)

"Hey Big Brother" was a last hurrah of sorts for a group that had become Motown's first successful all-white act. Although they would briefly return to the Top 40 in 1978 with "Warm Ride," it's not a Motown record, it doesn't sound like the band did in the early 1970s and it rode a very nice coattail because -- as a Barry Gibb-penned tune -- it just happened to appear at the very moment The Bee Gees were the biggest group on the planet. "Hey Big Brother" would be the final Top 20 hit Rare Earth would enjoy.

It mainly follows the same type of sound as the group's earlier hits employed: a heavy, acid-rock infused tune that was heavy on guitar and organ, with familiar vocals throughout. Therefore, the onus as to whether a listener liked the song or not was the basic question of whether they liked the group performing it.

Tommy James - "Nothing To Hide" Nothing to Hide (Single Version) - The Solo Years (1970-1981)

(Debuted #78, Peaked #41, 9 Weeks on chart)

In the early 1970s, a subset of music arose that I like to call "God Rock." Though religious subtext has long been a part of soul records, it was missing from much pop music during the age of AM hit radio. However, something -- maturity, the ravages of war, assassinations and talk of revolution -- brought the subject to some secular hit records. Even before Jesus Christ Superstar would become a hit, Norman Greenbaum was saying "you gotta have a friend in Jesus" in a hit record, but one of the first subtle religious overtures came from "Crystal Blue Persuasion," a 1969 hit by Tommy James (who had become "born again" the year before) and the Shondells.

The song starts off with a prayer, with James going on to to explain he has no worries about what will happen to him in the Afterlife. Seriously, it sounds like he wrote a bedtime prayer and set it to music. However, unlike some artists who may have been performing religious-tinged music because it was cool, it seems Tommy James was very serious about his religion and that's commendable. Since he had been doing that since before Jesus Christ became a hippie icon, it doesn't seem so much like he recorded the single quickly to cash in on a trend. In any case, the song peaked at #41, which was as close as he'd get to the pop Top 40 for the rest of the decade.

Joe Simon - "Drowning In The Sea Of Love" Drowning In the Sea of Love - Drowning In the Sea of Love

(Debuted #80, Peaked #11, 13 Weeks on chart)

Here's an interesting example of aural "imagery": take a song whose title uses a water metaphor and place a guitar lick in it that sounds like it's being played under water.That said, the mix of a very tasty guitar lick, the sublime backing vocals and Joe Simon's strong performance, and the result is a very good song. Written and produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and backed by the same group that made up MFSB, the song was an attempt to inject a little Philadelphia flavor into Simon's brand of "country soul." The result is an interesting and almost irresistible mixture.

"Drowning in the Sea of Love" would miss the Top 10 by the slimmest of margins, topping out at #11. It was the best pop chart performance to date for the Lousiana native, beating the unlucky #13 position of 1969's "The Choking Kind." Simon eventually got his Top 10 pop hit, but he needed to disco craze to catch on and take "Get Down, Get Down (Get Down on the Floor)" there.

Jerry Lee Lewis - "Me And Bobby McGee" Me and Bobby McGee - The Definitive Collection: Jerry Lee Lewis

(Debuted #81, Peaked #40, 10 Weeks on chart)

Though best known from the version that Janis Joplin made her own, it is sometimes forgotten that Kris Kristofferson wrote "Me and Bobby McGee" as a country song, or that its earlier incarnations were by Nashville-based artists such as Roger Miller and Ray Stevens. By the time "Killer" released his version of the song, it was already after Joplin's tragic triumph.

Had Jerry Lee Lewis released the song after the Miller version, it may have had a different response. It would go on to be one-half of a two-sided #1 country single (along with "Would You Take Another Chance on Me"), but instead of being seen as a return to his 1950s sound melded to the country material he was doing then, it would inevitably be viewed through the prism that was created when Janis Joplin scored her posthumous #1 pop single. that's a shame, since he did a pretty nice job on the song.

The Hillside Singers - "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #87, Peaked #13, 12 Weeks on chart)

This was one of two different hit versions of the Coca-Cola TV commercial that charted around the same time.

Here's the original Coke commercial, for the benefit of those who may not have been around at the time to have it seared into your subconsciousness:

The commercial was a manifestation of the late 60s/early 70s ideal that people of all stripes can get along as friends if they just understood each other. And that could be reached if they all drank a bottle of soda. Quite a statement at a time when things like Vietnam, Kent State and political assassinations were still fresh memories.

The Coke commercial features a group of diverse youth gathered on the side of a hill in Italy; the Hillside Singers took their name from that. The group was a collection of studio singers and musicians assembled by Al Ham. Ham's wife Mary Mayo and their daughter Lori were among the members.

Although a competing version of the song by The New Seekers eventually outcharted and outsold The Hillside Singers', it was closer to the song used in the TV commercial, even adding the "It's the Real Thing" tag Coca-Cola used in its advertising then.

The Grateful Dead - "Truckin'" Truckin' - American Beauty (Bonus Track Version) [Remastered]

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

As beloved as The Grateful Dead were, it may come as a surprise that they only scored a handful of hits during the 1970s, and even more surprising that #64 was as high as they ever got on the Hot 100 before 1987.

The song "Truckin'" would include the line "what a long, strange trip it's been," which not only served as the name of the band's later greatest hits LP but became a fitting epitaph for their career. As a band, they drew from a wide variety of influences in their music, and this song featured elements of country (the "truck song" concept), blues and R&B. The lyric sheet reads like a casual account about life on the road; it isn't very positive, it's not entirely negative and just tells it the way it is. All the cities sprinkled into the lyrics also points back to Chuck Berry's "Promised land."

Like I said about "American Pie" earlier, "Truckin'" has been widely dissected and examined by the group's fans and critics alike. There's not much I can add to those dissertations.

The Guess Who - "Sour Suite" Sour Suite (2003 Remastered) - So Long, Bannatyne (2003 Remastered)

(Debuted #94, Peaked #50, 9 Weeks on chart)

"What ever happened to homes as opposed to houses?"

So goes this downbeat tune that is punctuated by a piano and orchestra. While the title "Sour Suite" is a play on the homonyms "sweet" and "suite," it's an accurate description of the mood of its writer. The lyrics read as if Burton Cummings was dealing with a case of writer's block very late at night. With lines about not wanting to be bothered by others, clearing away stray thoughts about things he can't do anything about and images being gone, it seems like this song with random imagery was the result of working through a lot of false starts.

One such example: the few lines about "46201" reference an Indianapolis Zip code that was on an envelope that was sitting around while the song was being composed.

The Chi-Lites - "I Want To Pay You Back (For Loving Me)"

(Debuted #95, Peaked #95, 2 Weeks on chart)

Written and sung by Eugene Record, "I Want to Pay You Back (For Loving Me)" was a track from the group's (For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People LP. It only spent one week at #100 (Mentioned in this blog a little while ago), but managed to return to the Hot 100 three weeks later and logged a couple more weeks on the survey.

A sweet ballad (and I do mean syrupy sweet, with lines like "I'm gonna give you a five-pound box of love with a million-dollar bill on top") that expressed gratitude for a woman's love, the song was a great example of the Chi-Lites' vocal harmonies in addition to Record's phrasing.

Though the song didn't ultimately fare well, it wasn't very long before they were known outside their Chicago-centered fan base. The Chi-Lites hit a groove immediately afterward, with the twin hits "Have You Seen Her" and "Oh Girl."

Jackie Wilson - "Love Is Funny That Way" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #98, Peaked #95, 3 Weeks on chart)

Jackie Wilson was a flashy showman, known as "Mr. Excitement" but considered by some to be the "Black Elvis." As a stage presence, he was an influence on James Brown, Michael Jackson and many others. He would be a consistent presence on the pop chart from 1957 into the early 1970s, even after the Top 40 hits largely dropped off in the wake of the British Invasion of the 1960s.

Sadly, he has been forgotten by many casual fans. Among the oldies stations left playing music going that far, Wilson's impressive hit list has been filtered down to "Higher and Higher" and "Lonely Teardrops," but not a lot else. That borders of criminal negligence. If nothing else, for anybody who isn't familiar with Jackie Wilson's music, make a point to check out "Reet Petite," "To Be Loved," "Night" and "Whispers (Gettin' Louder)" and get a little more acquainted with his work. It's well worth the few extra minutes. 

"Love is Funny That Way" would be the second-to-last pop hit Wilson would have before falling into a coma after suffering a heart attack while he was on stage. While the song may not have been among his best singles, but it still showed that he was still able to give a great performance. The bright ballad was both a continuation of many of Wilson's late 1960s output and a bittersweet tune once the fickle perspective of hindsight is applied.

Buffy Sainte- Marie - "I'm Gonna Be A Country Girl Again" I'm Gonna Be a Cntry Girl - I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again

(Debuted #99, Peaked #98, 3 Weeks on chart)

"I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again" was the first of three Hot 100 entries for Canadian-born Buffy Sainte-Marie. Despite no previous hits, she had released four LPs before that, starting out as a folksinger and trying to keep from being defined from any format after that. For her I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again LP, she recorded it in Nashville and immediately drew some fire from her fans despite getting an American pop hit. Despite the lyrics explaining that she longed for a return to the simple life, Sainte-Marie moved on after the album to record more songs about the plight of native tribes, appeared on several episodes of Sesame Street (including one where she breastfed her infant, something you'll likely never see on that show today) and writing a #1 hit a decade later with "Up Where We Belong."

The Doors - "Tightrope Ride" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #100, Peaked #71, 7 Weeks on chart)

The loss of Jim Morrison earlier that year didn't necessarily mean the closing of the Doors. They decided to carry on as a trio, rather than try to replace such a unique presence and personality. They even named their next LP Other Voices to signify the new direction they wanted to take. While that allowed the surviving members to showcase their own talents without being overshadowed by their lead singer, it wasn't the same. For instance, the song "Tightrope Ride" features a great guitar solo by Robbie Krieger, but Ray Manzarek sounds a little too much like he's trying to channel his departed friend. It makes listeners wonder, was "Tightrope Ride" directed at Jim Morrison?

After two albums without Morrison, though...the band decided to split up. As the group's material began to appear on CD in the 1980s, those final two albums recorded without Jim Morrison were never given an official release on the new format. Perhaps they didn't like the music, or is it possible that the three remaining members still considered the group complete with four members?

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