Saturday, November 19, 2011

This Week's Review -- November 17, 1973

There were twelve new songs debuting this week in Billboard's Hot 100, with three making their way into the Top 40. However, two of them reached the Top 10 and one rose all the way to the #1 position. That chart-topper was unfortunately boosted by a tragedy, despite the fact that it was an excellent song regardless. The other Top 40 tunes included a Chicano classic and a country tune sung by a foreign artist. The other songs included early hits by artists who became superstars (like Earth, Wind & Fire), songs by established R&B artists (Ray Charles, Joe Simon, Smokey Robinson, The Chi-Lites) that got lost in the shuffle, a blues artist who was enjoying a career renaissance,  and a duet by a couple who had recently married.

Google Books has an archive of past issues of Billboard to read Online, including the November 17, 1973 edition. The full Hot 100 can be found on page 64. Fans of The Carpenters might enjoy the extended section about the group celebrating their success.

Jim Croce - "Time In A Bottle" Time In a Bottle - You Don't Mess Around With Jim

(Debuted #79, Peaked #1, 14 Weeks on chart)

There were two posthumous #1 singles in the 1970s. The first was Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee," which was a reminder of the talent that was wasted by drugs. The second, "Time in a Bottle," was a reminder of the cruel hand of Fate that caused a plane to crash with Jim Croce aboard. 

Ironically, "Time in a Bottle" wasn't intended to be a single at all. Written shortly after Croce's wife Ingrid told him she was pregnant, it was included on his You Don't Mess Around With Jim LP in 1972 and was passed over as a single release in favor of the title cut and "Operator (That's Not the Way it Feels)." However, it would get a reprieve thanks to its inclusion at the end of a TV movie called She Lives! that aired eight days before the crash. That helped sell more albums, but the song wasn't slated as a single until Croce's death gave the lyrics an entirely different message than the one he originally intended.

On its face, it was a great song that wasn't considered commercial enough for hit radio. With its new poignancy due to the tragic way Croce's story turned out, it became magnificent.

Earth, Wind & Fire - "Keep Your Head To The Sky" Keep Your Head to the Sky - Head to the Sky

(Debuted #82, Peaked #52, 11 Weeks on chart)

When Earth, Wind & Fire released their Head To the Sky LP in 1973, they were still making a name for themselves. The LP ended up being their first Top 40 pop album and its two singles, "Evil" and "Keep Your Head to the Sky" were the group's best-performing singles up to that point. Although neither made it past #50 on the pop chart, they helped set the sound that would propel them to much larger hits in the future.

If anything, the song "Keep Your Head To the Sky" was another example of a positive message in the group's lyrics matched with exemplary rhythm and vocal harmonies. The vocal features a tremendous effort by Philip Bailey, and features an atmospheric guitar-based riff in the absence of any of the horn section that would later become a hallmark of the group's sound. If you're a fan of Earth, Wind & Fire's bigger hits, give this song a spin and see if you're not wondering how this song missed the Top 40.

El Chicano - "Tell Her She's Lovely" Tell Her She's Lovely - Viva El Chicano! (Their Very Best)

(Debuted #83, Peaked #40, 10 Weeks on chart)

"Tell Her She's Lovely" was the third and final Hot 100 chart hit for El Chicano. As the name implies, the band was made up of ethnically Mexican musicians who were from Los Angeles. Although the group was often confused with Santana (and were clearly influenced by them), they were a band with their own identity and sound.

The light-funk, Latin-flavored "Tell Her She's Lovely" only reached #40 on the national charts, but was as big in Chicano neighborhoods as anything from War in its day. It has an easy beat and a lovely melody that is easy to follow.

Olivia Newton-John - "Let Me Be There" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #87, Peaked #6, 19 Weeks on chart)

Australia has had a long history of country music, which seems appropriate when you consider how much of that nation is made up of bush country and the image of Australian men as rough-and-rugged types. However, when Olivia Newton-John began recording songs in the style during the mid 1970s, her critics questioned the authenticity that a foreign singer might have. That is seen as silly today (especially when one of its biggest stars is Keith Urban, who is also Australian) and exposed a similar view that Southern country fans had against atrists from the Northeast.

Olivia's first country crossover hit was "Let Me Be There," which was recorded as a straight country tune complete with the steel guitar. It featured the distinctive deep voice of Mike Sammes, who would also accompany her on the future hit "If You Love Me, Let Me Know." Despite the fact that teh presence of a steel guitar was often the kiss of death with pop songs, the song went Top 10 in both formats, as well as on the adult contemporary chart.

First Choice - "Smarty Pants" Smarty Pants - The Best of First Choice

(Debuted #89, Peaked #56, 8 Weeks on chart)

First Choice was a female R&B trio from what was perhaps the best location for that genre in 1973: Philadelphia. They were under the aegis of producer Norman Harris, which also meant that the bulk of the MFSB instrumental ensemble was able to back them up on their records. They were part of the Salsoul label and remained there until that company folded in 1983.

"Smarty Pants" was the followup single to First Choice's breakthrough hit "Armed and Extremely Dangerous." Compared to that hit, "Smarty Pants" may seem like a different vibe. This time around, the narrator has fallen under the spell of a smooth-talking man and is now carrying his child. The arrangement is less slick than what the previous hit featured, even venturing into more of a bubblegum sound.

The Independents - "It's All Over" It's All Over - Discs Of Gold

(Debuted #93, Peaked #65, 4 Weeks on chart)

One of the more common misnomers about 1970s R&B concerns singer Chuck Jackson of The Independents. He's not the same Chuck Jackson who sang solo in 1960s, despite the fact that both Wikipedia and Allmusic both link to his biography from their pages about the group. Instead, this Chuck Jackson was the younger brother of the activist Jesse Jackson and would later go on with fellow group member Marvin Yancey to help get Natalie Cole's career started as The Independents fell apart.

"It's All Over" was a ballad that had its narrator pleading to keep a relationship going even if it means he has to change his ways. A piano accompanies Jackson, with an organ, brass section and chorus mixed in as well. Though it covers a different topic, it sounds like it has been largely influenced by gospel.

The Chi-Lites - "I Found Sunshine" I Found Sunshine - The Ultimate Chi-Lites

(Debuted #94, Peaked #47, 10 Weeks on chart)

The Chi-Lites were originally called The Hi-Lites, but added the extra letter to their name in 1964 to pay homage to their home city of Chicago. In the early 1970s, they stood out among the big R&B groups coming out of Detroit and Philadelphia by largely writing and producing their material, rather than attaching themselves to a star producer. Their biggest contributor was singer Eugene Record, who wrote "I Found Sunshine."

"I Found Sunshine" is an upbeat tune with a funky clavinet riff coursing through it. Since it missed the pop Top 40 and peaked at a relatively modest #17 on the R&B chart, it's become a forgotten hit from the group. That's unfortunate, and is worth a few minutes of listening time.

Bobby "Blue" Bland - "This Time I'm Gone For Good"

(Debuted #96, Peaked #42, 13 Weeks on chart )

"This Time I'm Gone for Good" was the biggest hit of 70s for Bobby "Blue" Bland on the pop chart and his best showing on the survey since 1964. That said, Bland's influence as a blues singer won't really be reflected well by looking at the pop charts because it wasn't his arena. In that decade since he's reached the Top 50 of the Hot 100, he had been a constant presence of the R&B chart and had scored a number of Top 10 hits there.

By the early 1970s, Bland was redirecting his life and career. He gave up drinking in 1971 and in 1973 changed record companies, moving over to MCA under Steve Barri, who was able to get L.A.'s top session players to play at the studio for him. "This Time I'm Gone For Good" led off the first LP he recorded there, and shows the benefit of his new arrangement. While the music is top-notch, it's Bland's emotive voice that got him where he was, and he uses it to its full effect.

Smokey Robinson - "Baby Come Close" Baby Come Close - The Ultimate Collection: Smokey Robinson

(Debuted #97, Peaked #27, 16 Weeks on chart)

The term "Quiet Storm" hadn't been applied yet, but Smokey Robinson was preparing it. The funny thing about it is that he stepped away as the lead singer of The Miracles the previous year to focus on his position as a VP at Motown, but was soon back in the studio to record his own LP after writing a few more songs. His first solo album was simply called Smokey, and it signaled a direction he may not have pursued with the group. "Baby Come Close" was the last track on that record, a slowed-down tune to bring the album to a close.

As the title indicates, "Baby Come Close" is a come-on accompanied by a lush orchestra and Willie Hutch's sharp production. It was something that never would have appeared on a Miracles record, but yet pointed to many of the best-remembered songs Smokey Robinson would record later.

Joe Simon - "River" River - Joe Simon: Greatest Hits - The Spring Years

(Debuted #98, Peaked #62, 7 Weeks on chart)

A year after the hit single "Drowning in the Sea of Love,"Joe Simon returns to the water metaphor on "River," a song that may not have been far from the gospel music he grew up singing. In the lyrics, this "river" flows everywhere and eventually reaches everybody. If that isn't religious imagery, I don't know what it is.

As Simon goes through the verses about a river, a light, meadows and a song, he is accompanied by a great guitar lick, a backing chorus and eventually a saxophone solo. In its purest form, "River" had the same spirit as The O'Jays' "Peace Train" did earlier in the year, a song that reminded us that we're all in this big world together.

Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge - "A Song I'd Like to Sing" A Song I'd Like to Sing - Delta Lady - The Rita Coolidge Anthology

(Debuted #99, Peaked #49, 10 Weeks on chart)

Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge were married in 1973, and it was likely no surprise that the two would soon release their own duet album together. That LP, Full Moon, showed up in September of that same year and "A Song I'd Like to Sing" was the last cut on the record. One thing that was unusual about the collection was that most songs were from other writers, but "A Song I'd Like to Sing" was a Kristofferson original.

The calypso-inspired rhythm that kicks off the song soon sways into a Mexican-derived chant and what sounds like a Cajun infusion during the bridge helps remind listeners of Coolidge's versatility and also overpowers Kristofferson's vocal (which, to be fair, was never his strongest suit anyway). However, the question arises: If this is a song you'd like to sing, what is it now that you've sung it?

Ray Charles - "Come Live With Me" Come Live With Me - Come Live With Me

(Debuted #100, Peaked #82, 6 Weeks on chart)

I've mentioned in this blog that R&B and country have a lot in common when it comes to topics. Over the years, a number of country hits have been remade into an R&B format and vice versa. What is less common is the R&B artist who has taken a series of country songs and reinvented them for his own fans the way Ray Charles did in the 1960s. With two volumes of LPs he called Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in 1962, "Brother Ray" came out as a big fan of country music even if he didn't mimic its style. The albums were successful, and he continued to look to country songs for material as his career continued.

In 1973, he cut a song that had been a hit by Roy Clark earlier in the year (reviewed here in May 2010) and made it his own. Although Clark's version was a #1 country hit, it's possible that more people know it as a Ray Charles song. That's not to say that Clark's version was inferior; it's just that Charles was that much more famous than him worldwide.

"Come Live With Me" was written by the husband-and-wife team of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant specifically for Clark to sing, but it seemed to be well-suited for Ray Charles's style as well. His version would make Billboard's pop, R&B and adult contemporary charts, not busting records on any of them but still showing Charles's cross-cultural influence.

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