Saturday, April 16, 2011

This Week's Review -- April 17, 1971

There were eight new singles debuting on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, with three getting into the Top 40 and two Top 10 hits. The songs includes first appearances for one of the biggest singer/songwriters of the era and a blue-eyed soul man from Texas, as well as a final entry for a former member of The Monkees. Aretha Franklin puts a gospel spin on a recent smash, while a Canadian band hits with a two-sided hit. A white Motown artist tries to get a mini-drama up the charts, a Baltimore soul group tries a mellow approach and a country artist tells a story about leaving a failed love.

Among the archive of past Billboard issues at Google Books is the April 17, 1971 edition. The full Hot 100 list can be found on Page 56. Page 3 has a couple of articles about the interest in a song called "The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley," issued just after that Army officer's conviction for the My Lai incident in Vietnam. Stores couldn't keep the single in stock, radio stations were torn about playing it, and a cover version by Tex Ritter was being canceled by Columbia. An editorial on Page 6 announces the passing of composer Igor Stravinsky. Finally, Page 8 mentions that the American Top 40 radio program had gone international after picking up stations in four new countries. However, the article spells Casey Kasem's last name as "Kasom."

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Aretha Franklin - "Bridge Over Troubled Water" Bridge Over Troubled Water (Live at Fillmore West, San Francisco, February 5, 1971) - Aretha Franklin: Live at Fillmore West

(Debuted #57, Peaked #6, 12 Weeks on chart)

Aretha Franklin is a songwriter, but she's also known for being able to interpret material written by others. As the daughter of a minister, her gospel background was incredibly helpful in doing a version of a song that had already been a huge hit the previous year for Simon & Garfunkel. It is fully immersed in gospel, with an organ, piano and a chorus singing behind her.

While the lyrics were born out of Paul Simon's feelings about the sometimes tempestuous partnership he had with Art Garfunkel, the images are easily seen through a gospel prism. After all, Christians have an affinity for water metaphors: baptism, the story of Jesus walking on the water, the manner preachers often discuss using water to extinguish the fires of Hell. If the waters are too rapid to wade across, a symbolic bridge built on faith can help believers cross them safely.

And seen through that gospel veneer, Aretha nails it. Aside from its Top 10 pop position on the pop chart, her rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" was a #1 R&B tune and won a Grammy.

The Guess Who - "Albert Flasher" Albert Flasher (Single Version) - The Best of the Guess Who b/w "Broken" Broken - The Best of the Guess Who

(Debuted #85, Peaked #29, 13 Weeks on chart)

Since this was a double-seded single, the video below features the song on the other (not necessarily the B...more on that in a minute) side:

This was an unusual single for the Canadian band, as it wasn't associated with an LP. Perhaps it was tossed out to radio stations as an appetizer as the group dealt with membership changes and other issues before a new album could appear. While The Guess Who often varied their music style, both sides of this single were straightforward tunes based in rock with "Albert Flasher" paced more quickly.

When the single originally appeared on the Hot 100, "Broken" was originally listed as the A-side. However, "Albert Flasher" was preferred by listeners and DJs and soon was listed as the A-side for the remainder of its chart run. Both songs are now available on the CD release of The Best of the Guess Who, but that album's 1971 vinyl version didn't include them. For many years, that single was the only place most fans could acquire either song for their collections.

R. Dean Taylor - "Gotta See Jane" Gotta See Jane - The Complete Motown Singles - Vol. 8: 1968

(Debuted #86, Peaked #67, 4 Weeks on chart)

R. Dean Taylor will be remembered by some for writing The Supremes' song "Love Child" or for being among a small handful of white artists on the Motown label. Above all else, he'll be remembered for a blast of 1970s melodrama known as "Indiana Wants Me" (reviewed here last September). Though he listed a few hits after that one, none managed to be nearly as memorable. As a result, Taylor is lumped in with One-Hit wonders of the era.

"Gotta See Jane" was one of Taylor's attempted followup singles, and even had a few similarities to "Indiana": sound effects to punctuate the story, a dramatic string section and a sense that the narrator is in a big hurry to get away. This time, however, he's trying to get back to the world he once left behind instead of running to avoid the consequences of his actions. This time, instead of a three-minute mini-drama, "Gotta See Jane" features a disjointed sound, with a constant drumbeat, a bass line that souns like a rapid heartbeat and sudden guitar riffs heightening the sense that nothing -- not a hard pouring rain, nor any stoplights, not even the laws of physics if possible -- can be allowed to impede this man from getting back to what he once felt was normal. In short, he went off to join the rat race and lost in spectacular fashion.

Boz Scaggs - "We Were Always Sweethearts" We Were Always Sweethearts - My Time: A Boz Scaggs Anthology (1969-1997)

(Debuted #89, Peaked #61, 6 Weeks on chart)

Although "We Were Always Sweethearts" was the first Hot 100 single of Boz Scaggs' career, he had been busy for several years before that. His career began in 1959, when Scaggs was a high school student in Dallas. One of his early bandmates was Steve Miller; the two would play again several times through the years, through college and even in an original lineup of Miller's band.
Leading off his LP Moments, "We Were Always Sweethearts" is an early sample of Scaggs' brand of blue-eyed soul before it took on a more slickly-produced sheen later in the decade. He sounds like he's inspired as much by Van Morrison as he was by soul artists.

Michael Nesmith and the First National Band - "Nevada Fighter" Nevada Fighter - Nevada Fighter

(Debuted #94, Peaked #70, 4 Weeks on chart)

Michael Nesmith's third and final post-Monkees hit was originally called "Apology" when he wrote it. Apparently, that was before he wrote the final words, because it's not anywhere in the lyrics. Instead, "Nevada Fighter" was a song that showed Nesmith's country influence, a harder-edged brand of C&W that focused more on the "Western" than it did on the "Country," and definitely a more hardscrabble version of country than was finding its way to that format's stations at the time.
Shortly after the song sank without a trace from the memory of most listeners, Nesmith disbanded his First National Band and debuted The Second National Band. Unfortunatley, his new group generated no followup hits on Billboard's pop chart. Eventually, he would go on to become a pioneer in the field of music video, and at a time when that was about to break open wide.

While "Nevada Fighter" is perhaps my least favorite of Nesmith's three "solo" projects, that's not to say it doesn't have merit. It's interesting, though, that he is often seen as a country-rock influence, yet The Byrds, Poco and Gram Parsons seem to get the main credit. "Nevada Fighter" is a reminder that there were others as well.

Carly Simon - "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be - Carly Simon

(Debuted #98, Peaked #10, 17 Weeks on chart)

The video above is from a 1972 concert in Central Park. Check out the short cut to George Harrison talking with Art Garfunkel before she starts singing.

If I were writing this blog during my teenage years, I'd have told you that I found this song long, slow and depressing. It was the aural equivalent of being forced to go and visit with an elderly relative. Time has eased my opinion about it, as I have learned from my own experience. Also, those elderly relatives have passed on, and the childlike feeling of boring conversation over topics that didn't interest me have been replaced by a selfish wish that I would get one more chance to have that talk and somehow make it right.

It was Carly Simon's solo debut on the pop chart, and quite a way to introduce herself to the world. The lyrics definitely paint a bleak picture, and the sad violin behind her voice only deepens the gloomy feeling. Sensing both inevitability and despair about it, she looks at the possibility of getting married at the same time as she considers the sad state of her own parents' union, the trap her friends seem to be in and the controlling nature of her supposed beloved. In other words, a song about life and choices.

It was quite an introduction. The song solidified her in the singer/songwriter genre, helped showcase her song sylings and helped vault her to become one of the decade's top female writers.

Susan Raye - "L.A. International Airport" L.A. International Airport - 16 Greatest Hits

(Debuted #99, Peaked #54, 9 Weeks on chart)

Songs about leaving have long been a staple of country music. In the case of "L.A. International Airport," the narrator is walking away from a broken relationship by flying away. All the while, the lyrics are telling their story: the cab ride to the airport, the sights in the terminal, the friendly voice of the captain as the plane is in the air. The picture is painted in a staccato fashion, as if the singer is still trying to make sense of what is happening even as she's doing it.

"L.A. International Airport" was originally recorded by David Frizzell in 1970, so the lyrics take on a different spin when delivered by a female singer. The song became Susan Raye's signature hit, even though she had others that were bigger hits on the country chart (this one reached #9 there). It was her only pop hit, though. She retired from the music business in 1986 and became a psychologist.

The Whatnauts - "I'll Erase Away Your Pain" I'll Erase Away Your Pain - Smooth R & B and Classic Soul, Vol. 1

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

"I'll Erase Away Your Pain" was the biggest pop hit for a soul group based in Baltimore. In 1971, R&B groups were able to get hits without needing slick studio production or resorting to a disco-friendly arrangement, so this song uses the backing strings to provide a lush, romantic atmosphere. At the same time, singer Billy Herndon pleads with a lady -- who may not even know he feels for her -- to get into her good graces.

Kanye West sampled this song as part of "Late" in 2005.

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