Saturday, March 19, 2011

This Week's Review -- March 17, 1973

Eight new singles debuted in the Billboard Hot 100 this week, with half eventually making it into the Top 40. One song eventually managed to reach the #1 position. There was a nostalgic feel to many of the songs: Neil Diamond does a live version of an early hit, Johnny Rivers does a faithful version of a Carl Perkins gem and "Hurricane" Smith does a newer song in a vintage style. Among the other songs, Glen Campbell addresses the fad of religious-leaning hits, The Jackson 5 use a little religious symbolism, Ramsey Lewis lets his keyboard do the talking for him and Archie Bell does a "Dancing" song before the disco era changed the public view of what those songs should be. Above it all, however, is Stevie Wonder with a well-crafted gem that starts off with others singing.

Over at Google Books, an large archive of past issues of Billboard magazines are available to peruse at no cost. The March 17, 1973 edition is among these treasures. The full Hot 100 list can be found on Page 62. I've mentioned in previous entries how I often like reading the Jukebox sections included in issues from the early 1970s. They disappear from the magazine around 1974, and this issue may help explain why. On Page 3, an article explains the furor that arose from Jukebox operators and vendors when the record business suggested making the spindle hole on 45-RPM singles smaller to match the ones on LPs. However, since the machines themselves were designed to automatically adjust its speed based on the size of the spindle, that seemed sensible. But, over on Page 38, several in the jukebox business were discussing limiting the running time of singles, since they were losing money because of them. Taken at face value, the articles seem to suggest that the people in the jukebox business were unwilling to adapt to new changes. While I see the flak over needing to adjust every machine, the idea of limiting a customer's choice because of lost profit is never a good idea in the business world.

Crawdaddy Magazine

Stevie Wonder - "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life" Higher Ground - Innervisions (Reissue)

(Debuted #76, Peaked #1, 17 Weeks on chart)

"You Are the Sunshine of My Life" was the song that opened Stevie Wonder's excellent LP Talking Book, but the song didn't begin with Stevie's vocals. The first lines of the tune were delivered by Jim Gilstrap (who is familiar to TV fans as the male voice in the theme to Good Times) and Lani Groves. A disarmingly simple (sounding) melody, the tender ballad became Wonder's second #1 single from the album after the more direct "Superstition." The song was also a chart-topper on the R&B and adult contemporary surveys.

When Wonder turned 21, he began to break free from the "assembly line" that made Motown's records and began to make music that was more intensely personal to him, often playing multiple instruments himself. Long regarded as a genius, he began to prove it by crafting what might be among the most successful bodies of work among popular music of the 1970s. Fans might argue about bubblegum, glitter rock, disco and the personal musings of singer/songwriters, but few differ on Stevie Wonder's place in the musical world.

Neil Diamond - "Cherry Cherry" Cherry Cherry - Hot August Night (Live) [Remastered]

(Debuted #84, Peaked #31, 10 Weeks on chart)

"Cherry Cherry" had originally been Neil Diamond's first Top 10 pop hit in 1966. In 1972, he included it in the live show he did at Los Angeles' Greek Theater that would become his Hot August Night LP.  The record was a watershed moment in Diamond's career, since it marked the point where he went from being a singer/songwriter who had a knack for catchy hooks in the studio to one known for his stage shows.

This live version is longer, due to being unrestrained by the mid-1960s radio format that kept many songs under three minutes. Therefore, this version runs more than 4 and a half minutes and features some extended vocalizations and a piano solo by Alan Lindgren (who is introduced by Diamond just before he knocks it out).

The Jackson 5 - "Hallelujah Day" Hallelujah Day (Single Version) - Skywriter / Get It Together

(Debuted #85, Peaked #28, 10 Weeks on chart)

After their phenomenal initial success -- four straight #1 singles, then two #2 hits -- and solo success for Michael Jackson, something happened that is never unseen but still rarely gets adequate preparation: the brothers began maturing. Not only were they getting older, but they were outgrowing much of the bubblegum-flavored pop they were being given to record for Motown. However, instead of understanding that kind of talent that they had on their hands, the record company was happy with trying to maintain the status quo even after Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were showing them the way to let their artists blossom in the studio.

"Hallelujah Day" is an example of the material the brothers were given to record. Co-written by Freddie Perren, the song was a decent effort but would be the first single from the group to miss the pop Top 20. On the R&B chart, it peaked at #10, which was also the poorest showing they had achieved on that survey to that point.

Hurricane Smith - "Who Was It" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #87, Peaked #49, 9 Weeks on chart)

Norman "Hurricane" Smith is best known for his surprise 1972/'73 hit "Oh Babe, What Would You Say" (reviewed here in December 2009). "Who Was it" was another song that evoked a retro-styled musical form with a saxophone part that sounded like it was cribbed from the pre-World War Two era.

Written by Gilbert O'Sullivan, "Who Was it" didn't have a history of being played in those pre-Blitz pubs. While it was among the last hits he managed to enjoy before returning to his regular gig as a studio recording engineer -- he had earlier worked with the Beatles and Pink Floyd, even playing drums for a song on an an early Floyd LP -- the idea that a guy who was pushing 50 performing on Top of the Pops was interesting for the youth-based rock field at the time.

Glen Campbell - "I Knew Jesus (Before He Was a Star)" I Knew Jesus (Before He Was a Star) - I Knew Jesus (Before He Was a Star)

(Debuted #89, Peaked #45, 12 Weeks on chart)

I've mentioned in previous entries of this blog about what I call the "God Rock" phenomenon. The early 1970s were marked by an upswing of tunes that were religiously oriented. There were likely many reasons for them -- as the sometimes intensely personal reasons for religious beliefs should dictate -- but in some cases they may have seemed to be a little bit much. Predictably, a song came out that essentially stated that (fad or not) there were people who had always looked to a Higher Authority even before it became "cool" to do so.

That's essentially the gist behind "I Knew Jesus (Before He Was a Star)." Glen Campbell has been quite forthcoming over the years about his devotion, so the song isn't something that should have come as a surprise to anybody. The words in the song actually went "I knew Jesus before he was a SUPERstar" but the title may have been altered to avoid royalty payments being forwarded to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the writers behind Jesus Christ Superstar. Because that would have been quite an ironic thing.

Johnny Rivers - "Blue Suede Shoes" (Studio Version Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #90, Peaked #38, 10 Weeks on chart)

With "Blue Suede Shoes," Johnny Rivers does his familiar task of taking on a golden oldie. This time, he really doesn't stray far from the style used in Carl Perkins' 1956 original or Elvis Presley's cover from later that year. That said, it's a really good nostalgia trip, since it features quite a few solid instrumental solos, including a really nice guitar in the bridge.

Rivers' take on "Blue Suede Shoes" made the lower reaches of the Top 40, perhaps buoyed by the success he enjoyed with "Rockin' Pneumonia--Boogie Woogie Shoes." However, this version deserved its own trip. At the time, 1950s nostalgia was beginning to bloom in America, as the realities of the 1970s made adults begin to look back to the seemingly better times just 15-20 years before. The debut of Happy Days and resurgence of Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" was still a few months away, but Rivers was reminding fans of the era even before then.

Ramsey Lewis - "Kufanya Mapenzi (Making Love)" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #99, Peaked #93, 3 Weeks on chart)

Here's a song that really should be heard more often than it is. Even though it wasn't much of a hit, it has a definite 70s vibe to it, as if Billy Preston had roots in jazz instead of gospel.

"Kufanya Mapenzi" is an instrumental that features Lewis on his electronic keyboard. There's not much to say about the song itself since there aren't any lyrics, but I will say that if the YouTube video above is still active as you read this, you should really click it and listen to how it goes. Even if you don't care for jazzy renditions, click it anyway because this is much more accessible than you may think.

Archie Bell & the Drells - "Dancing To Your Music" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #100, Peaked #61, 9 Weeks on chart)

Click Here to Listen

There aren't many biographies about Archie Bell & the Drells that fail to mention that Bell was drafted into the Army and serving in Vietnam while his 1968 hit "Tighten Up" was making its way to #1 on the Billboard chart. In fact, Bell was recuperating in a military hospital after being shot in the leg and was likely trying to convince others that it was his voice on that record when it played on the radio.

Of course, once Bell was able to get out of his Army uniform, he returned to performing but never managed to get another hit quite like "Tighten Up" was. "Dancing to Your Music" was the highest-charting (and the last) of his four Hot 100 entries of the 1970s. A lush ballad with strings, it was a lot like a Philly Soul song but had the light dance beat its title suggests. The lyrics mention that the man has given in to his woman and even references a military term ("I remember when I was the captain in command, but now I'm dancing to your music because you have the upper hand"), and is a testament to the power of love to make otherwise rational men go absolutely mad.

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