Saturday, February 12, 2011

This Week's Review -- February 10, 1973

Ten new singles were listed in this week's Hot 100, with half of those reaching the Top 40. Two of those would make the Top 10 and one went all the way to #1. The #1 song is one that is either loved or hated by music fans. Among the others: an undeserved misfire by the Queen of Soul, a reggae-inspired hit that was written by Bob Marley himself, a Hollies single featuring a new singer and the theme to a flop movie. With Valentine's Day coming up, there were some songs that fit that vibe in a twisted sense, including a song about working things out by splitting apart, another about writing fake letters to help forget that the lover is long gone, a "morning-after" talk and a song about insomnia inspired by relationship issues.

A large archive of past Billboard issues is available on Google Books, and the February 10, 1973 edition is available there. The full Hot 100 list is on page 68. A front-page article explains that the Decca, Kapp and Uni labels were being retired, as they were becoming absorbed into the MCA conglomerate. Also, a large section beginning on Page 14 celebrates the legend of Duke Ellington.

The Beatles Box of Vision

Aretha Franklin - "Master Of Eyes (The Deepness Of Your Eyes)" Master of Eyes (The Deepness of Your Eyes) - Soul Queen

(Debuted #77, Peaked #33, 10 Weeks on chart)

After nearly uninterrupted success on both the pop and R&B charts since 1967, Aretha Franklin seemed to stumble in 1973 with the LP Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky). It was her first Atlantic album to miss the Top 25 and was considered a commercial failure even though time has treated it better. "Master of Eyes" was a non-album single and was released a few months before that LP. While the song reached the pop Top 40 and R&B Top 10, the positions were lower than she normally achieved with her hits.

Quincy Jones arranges the music here, giving it a distinctive touch including the piccolo sound similar to the one heard on his 1964 song "Bossa Nova Baby" (better known today as the opening theme to the Austin Powers movies). Despite that tip of the hat to that past hit, there's still very much of a 70s sound on the record. And although Aretha's 1970s work is often set aside in favor of her classic output of the late 1960s, there's a mature element at work that gives them a richness that is often overlooked.

Shawn Phillips - "Lost Horizon" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #83, Peaked #63, 6 Weeks on chart)

"Lost Horizon" was the theme song to a film that was one of the biggest cinematic bombs of 1973. Listening to it, it comes off like a movie theme immediately, with its orchestral opening that evokes a panoarmic landscape shot and its soft vocal that mentions the sound of guns.

Shawn Phillips was a veteran of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk-rock scene and a session musician who contributed to many of Donovan's hit singles. He has remained active with recording and touring ever since, despite having few hit singles. In fact, Phillips only managed two Hot 100 listings and "Lost Horizon" was the last.

Johnny Nash - "Stir It Up" Stir It Up - I Can See Clearly Now

(Debuted #84, Peaked #12, 14 Weeks on chart)

For many American listeners, this would be the first time they were exposed to the work of Bob Marley. While it wasn't the first reggae-influenced song to reach the Top 40, in 1973 reggae was considered to be a small taste of the Caribbean culture that was well outside the mainstream, yet had a small but fiercely loyal following. That would soon change, thanks to the cult success of the film The Harder They Come, as well as songs like "Stir it Up." Marley himself would begin selling albums in the U.S. and another one of his songs -- "I Shot the Sheriff" -- would go to #1 when Eric Clapton recorded it.

As for "Stir it Up," Marley wrote the song in 1967, shortly after a brief period living in the United States. By 1968, he had become acquainted with Johnny Nash, a Houston native who was captivated by Jamaican rhythms and wanted to introduce them into his own music. In the process, he recorded a few of Marley's songs (occasionally featuring him and the Wailers on the recordings) and produced for them.

The Chi-Lites - "A Letter To Myself" A Letter to Myself - A Letter to Myself

(Debuted #85, Peaked #33, 11 Weeks on chart)

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you...the anti-Valentine's Day song.

The Chi-Lites were certainly capable of telling the story of the man whose heart is broken but whose pride won't let him give up his memory. Their big hit "Have You Seen Her" had that in it, as did its lesser-known "sequel" song "A Lonely Man" and this song, which has the narrator going so far as to write a phony letter from his old lover and spray perfume on it to fool himself into thinking she wasn't really gone. Beginning with a mournful harmonica and the consolatory vocals of the other members of the band, the singer is the only person who's fooled into believing there's still a chance.

"A Letter to Myself" was co-written and produced by Eugene Record, who also sang the song. It was the lead single from the LP A Letter to Myself, which was a disappointment for the band both in terms of sales and hit potential. It's a shame, since this a great soul song.

The Stylistics - "Break Up To Make Up" Break Up to Make Up - Round 2

(Debuted #88, Peaked #5, 14 Weeks on chart)

Unlike the Chi-Lites, who availed themselves of the talent within their own group, The Stylistics were under the aegis of producer Thom Bell. He wrote for the group (along with partner Linda Creed), arranged the music to his specifications and controlled the output. The arrangement worked well; the group had a string of classic hits not just because of Bell's direction and lush orchestration, but also on the strength of Russell Tompkins, Jr.'s sublime and distinctive vocal.

"Break Up to Make Up" was the band's fourth Top 10 pop single in just under two years. Meanwhile, over on the R&B chart, it was the seventh Top 10 single in a row for them. The lyrics don't necessarily take me back (as I grew up a decade after this song was a hit) but immediately remind me of my own high school sweetheart. We were that couple every high school has, that changes their status almost weekly. At one point, we'd be mad at each other over something silly, then a few days later it would be forgotten. Then, a sudden mood swing or pang of jealousy placed us right back at the low part of the cycle again. The blame wasn't entirely mine or hers. We were just young and didn't know a whole lot.

Judy Collins - "Cook With Honey" Cook With Honey - True Stories and Other Dreams

(Debuted #90, Peaked #32, 11 Weeks on chart)

During the 1960s, Judy Collins was known for her activism, her folk phrasing and a knack for uncovering talented young songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman.  By the 1970s, however, she had moved on to a broader audience and was charting with more eclectic material like hymns ("Amazing Grace"), show tunes ("Send in the Clowns") and material suitable for kids as she was appearing on Sesame Street.

"Cook With Honey" is another song from this period. Taken from the LP True Stories and Other Dreams, its lyrics mention how much nicer it is to treat others with kindness, or a corollary to the old saying "you'll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."

The Hollies - "Magic Woman Touch" Magic Woman Touch - The Hollies: Greatest Hits

(Debuted #92, Peaked #60, 8 Weeks on chart)

By 1973, The Hollies were a vastly different group than the team that enjoyed a string of radio hits during the 1960s. Graham Nash had exited the group in 1968, and vocalist Allan Clarke walked away in 1971. He was replaced by Swede Mikael Rickfors, who isn't remembered for much he recorded with the band. Not in the U.S., at least. His first single with the Hollies in the U.K. was "The Baby," which was ignored for release on this side of the Atlantic in favor of two Clarke-voiced songs, "Long Cool Woman" and "Long Dark Road."

"Magic Woman Touch" wasn't going to be the band's next memorable hit. While it managed to get to #60 on the U.S. charts, it missed the charts in their native U.K. Sounding like it was trying to let fans know it was a Hollies tune with its circa-1968 guitar riff and the familiar background harmonies, it was rather dated for 1973.

Michael Redway - "Good Morning" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #97, Peaked #85, 4 Weeks on chart)

Michael Redway hailed from Yorkshire, England and is best remembered for singing the vocal version of the theme from the film Casino Royale in 1967. Though he remained active for years afterward, he never really managed to reach a larger stage.

His only American hit single was "Good Morning," a song that deserves a listen, even if not because it's a song that deserved to be a bigger hit (I'm not going to argue that at all). The lyrics are essentially a conciliatory apology after spending the night with a lady, as the sun is coming up. He's trying to locate his things, trying to think of what to say to explain to his mother and get on his way way before anybody notices him. The last thing he asks: "who are you?" The entire conversation wouldn't flow the same way today.

Bunny Sigler - "Tossin' And Turnin'" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #99, Peaked #97, 2 Weeks on chart)

When it comes to the "Philadelphia Sound," there are two major architects given credit for building it. There is Thom Bell, who was mentioned in the entry about The Stylistics above. The others are the team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Both groups had others helping out, though, and Bunny Sigler was one of the cogs in the Gamble/Huff machine. He was a singer and musician who was often a "behind-the-scenes" guy but also had some solo recordings as well.

The title "Tossin' and Turnin'" immediately brings to mind a 1961 song by Bobby Lewis that was a #1 hit. This is a remake of that song in the truest sense because it doesn't sound much like the original. The arrangement is different, it's sung in a different manner and the words are altered a little bit to match the delivery. It's sung, rather than done in the half-speaking manner of Lewis's hit version. It's done in more of a call-and-response style that shows Sigler's gospel roots.

Not bad for a song that's essentially about fighting insomnia after having some relationship trouble.

Vicki Lawrence - "The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia" The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia - The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia

(Debuted #100, Peaked #1, 20 Weeks on chart)

It's a song about small-town Southern justice. Perhaps it's a tale of what happens to unfaithful spouses and their paramours. Or is it an admission of a wrongly accused man who was put to death for something he didn't do, merely on the basis of circumstantial evidence? In any case, "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" is one of those songs that is often pointed out as evocative of 1970s pop music by those who both love and hate the song.

The song was written by producer Bobby Russell, who had written the similarly polarizing "Honey" in 1968 and had a hit of his own with "Saturday Morning Confusion" in 1971. Recorded by his then-wife and ensemble member of the cast of The Carol Burnett Show Vicki Lawrence, it was one of the few songs to hit the top spot after debuting at #100. The song was given an ominous-sounding orchestral backing to match the lyrics, as if it were part of a Movie of the Week. Predictably, there has been a great deal of discussion over the lyrics and its "loose ends" -- what happened to Seth Amos? Where did the narrator stash her dead sister-in-law? Why couldn't the narrator just admit to what she did before the noose was placed around her brother's neck? -- ever since the song first arrived.

One small point that doesn't get mentioned: in 1973, capital punishment was outlawed in all U.S. states. Therefore, the song was presented as a retelling of past events. That little detail is usually missing from modern discussions of this song.

An often-repeated legend says that "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" was offered to Cher, but was turned down by Sonny Bono before the demo ever got to her. He may have dismissed it as too similar to "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," while others have said he was afraid it would be seen as offensive by Southerners (despite the fact that "Gypsies" wasn't exactly complimentary to them, either), but it's a song that should have been a big hit if Cher had lent her vocals to it.

A generation later, Reba McEntire remade the song and had a big country hit with the song, which brought the story to a new group of fans. In the meantime, Vicki Lawrence had become better known as the lead character in Mama's Family and a talk show host, and her short singing career had largely become a footnote.

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