Saturday, December 10, 2011

This Week's Review -- December 10, 1977

There were nine new singles in this week's Billboard Hot 100, with four reaching into the Top 40. One of those hits ended up hitting #1 for several weeks. That chart-topper is a classic of the era, but the other songs are worth listening to as well. Two of the songs are reworkings of classic 1960s hits, with one being given an uptempo disco treatment, and the other being recorded by its writers. A "comeback" hit by Bill Withers joins lesser-known hits by Leo Sayer, Peter Frampton and Foreigner. Sammy Hagar shows up on the chart for the first time as an artist, while Al Martino shows up for his last.

There is a vast archive of past issues on Billboard magazine at Google Books, including the December 10, 1977 edition. The full Hot 100 can be found on Page 88. An article on Page 20 by Paul Grein explains how Dolly Parton's star was on the rise after the crossover success of "Here You Come Again."

Apple iTunes

The Bee Gees - "Stayin' Alive" Stayin' Alive - Saturday Night Fever (The Original Movie Soundtrack) [Remastered]

(Debuted #65, Peaked #1, 27 Weeks on chart)

As most fans of 1970s culture know, "Stayin' Alive" was the song that played during the opening credits of the film Saturday Night Fever, as Tony Manero (John Travolta's character) walks down a Brooklyn street while fetching a special-order can of paint for a customer at his job. Along the way, he puts a down payment on a silk shirt he sees in a store window, tries to flirt with a woman who just walks away and grabs two slices of pizza from a neighborhood pizzeria. The scene has become so identified with the song -- and with Travolta himself -- that it has become iconic.

The Bee Gees were already well-known before the film, but their work on the soundtrack made them the biggest group on the planet as 1978 rolled around. Their success raised the tide of all the acts around them, with their record company getting a boost, their younger brother Andy scoring his own hits and several acts that did well with songs written and/or produced by the Gibb brothers.

Like it or hate it, the song does have its merits. "Stayin' Alive" is introduced by a bass line that is both recognizable and simple. The song makes full use of Barry Gibb's falsetto, and the music before the fade echoes the same thing that Manero was feeling in the movie: "I'm going nowhere, somebody help me." His character was still 19 and was trying to determine what do do with his life, which makes those words an apt description of what many in that position are expressing.

Bill Withers - "Lovely Day" Lovely Day - Menagerie

(Debuted #67, Peaked #30, 12 Weeks on chart)

From a list of songs, it would appear that "Lovely Day" was a comeback for Bill Withers. It was his first time in the pop Top 40 in nearly four years and his first Hot 100 listing in more than two, but he hadn't really gone away. He was still releasing singles in the meantime, and while they missed the pop charts, they were still placing over on the R&B chart. 

The song was the lead track of Withers' Menagerie LP, a collection that was more upbeat and positive when compared to the earthy, homespun material from earlier in his career. On a personal level, he was happier; he had just gotten married and settled down to start a family. "Lovely Day" reflects this new-found optimism and is a very hard to resist. It's one of those songs that remains in the back of the head after it's done playing. The musical accompaniment is bright and the production is solid. And while it has a noticeable beat, it isn't a song that can automatically be lumped in with other songs of its era as Disco.

"Lovely Day" holds a record for American hits. Toward the end, Bill Withers lets loose a note that lasts for 18 seconds. As of this writing, it is still the longest single note held in a Top 40 song. That may remain for a while, judging by the current trend used by singers of melisma, where a single note can be held for an extended time but is subjected to changes of pitch and volume in order to extend it.

Peter Frampton - "Tried To Love" Tried to Love - I'm In You (Remastered)

(Debuted #70, Peaked #41, 8 Weeks on chart)

After setting the musical world on fire with Frampton Comes Alive!, it was going to be a tough time to top it when the followup LP I'm in You arrived in 1977. And sure enough, the title track was a ballad that was both his biggest single and a song his critics would point to when they wanted to prove a point about how success will change somebody (and not for the better). That's not to say the new album was totally soft, as it contained a solid reworking of Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed and Delivered (I'm Yours)" and "Tried to Love," which seemed like a song that hearkened back to the sound of his live LP.

In its delivery, "Tried to Love" sounds like it could have been recorded live, or at least in a more intimate setting than a studio. That in itself is a refreshing change from the slickly-produced material that was flooding the airwaves at the time. Unfortunately, it just missed making the Top 40.

Leo Sayer - "Easy To Love" Easy to Love - The Very Best of Leo Sayer

(Debuted #74, Peaked #36, 10 Weeks on chart)

Here's the second song in a row mentioning "love" in its title this week. It's also the second single in a row that was recorded after its artist was dealing with sudden fame. For Leo Sayer, it was the one-two punch provided by the #1 songs "You Make me Feel Like Dancing" and "When I Need You." Those were able to get Sayer back into the studio to record a new LP called Thunder in My Heart with producer Richard Perry and the cream of the L.A. session player crop, including Michael Omartian, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Ray Parker, Jr., Tom Scott and most of the future members of Toto.

However, there was no guarantee that having a flawless backing arrangement would lead to sustaining the hit cycle. For whatever reason, the sometimes quirky nature that found its way into Sayer's earlier material didn't want to show up this time around. Both of the singles from the album ("Thunder in My heart" and "Easy To Love") made the Top 40, but just barely. In fact, "Easy To Love" was the one that charted higher and peaked at #36. Co-written by Sayer with Albert Hammond, the song has an easy-going cadence, joined by lyrics that are repetitive and seemingly off-the-cuff.

Foreigner - "Long, Long Way From Home" Long, Long Way from Home - Foreigner (Deluxe Version)

(Debuted #81, Peaked #20, 14 Weeks on chart)

Musicians know what it's like to be a long way from home. Those who tour are often away for extended periods, which makes it easy to write songs about it. "Long, Long Way From Home" was written by three members of Foreigner, singer Lou Gramm, guitarist Mick Jones and multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald. Done as an anthem, the song features a cutting guitar line, a saxophone solo in the instrumental bridge, and the perfect production you'd expect from a Foreigner song.

The third single taken from their self-titled debut LP, it was the first to miss the Top 10 in the U.S.

The Addrisi Brothers - "Never My Love" (Original Version Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #83, Peaked #80, 4 Weeks on chart)

With this single, "Never My Love" was given its fifth run up the Hot 100. This time, however, the writers of the song were giving it their own voice. While better known as a song by The Association that hit #2 in 1967 and reached the Top 40 in the 1970s in separate versions by The Fifth Dimension and Blue Swede, what is striking about the version by Don and Dick Addrisi was the way it sounds like a mixture between The Association and Marilyn McCoo's breathy rendition of the song.

The production doesn't have the extra harmonies The Association gave it, and features a piano in the mix instead of an organ. A female voice is also included, as is an orchestral arrangement. While it's been largely forgotten in favor of the hit versions of the song, it's interesting to hear the people who wrote the words returning to it a full decade after it became a big hit.

Sammy Hagar - "You Make Me Crazy" You Make Me Crazy - Musical Chairs

(Debuted #84, Peaked #62, 8 Weeks on chart)

"You Make Me Crazy" is not exactly what you expect for the future Van Halen frontman. Nor is it something you'd expect from the former lead singer of Montrose. While much of the music on his LP Musical Chairs falls in line with the harder-edged material he's best known for doing, "You Make Me Crazy" is more laid-back and even features a keyboard line where a guitar riff would be expected. Its lyrics are about the effects of a woman's love, not that Hagar is complaining about it.

At the time, it's likely that Capitol Records was trying to get Hagar exposed to pop radio, so they opted to release this slowed-down ballad as a single rather than one of the rougher tracks on the album. It succeeded in getting him into the Hot 100 for the first time (Montrose never had a hit single), but he wasn't able to break the Top 40 until he reverted to his harder style.

Al Martino - "The Next Hundred Years" The Next Hundred Years - Capitol Collectors Series: Al Martino

(Debuted #86, Peaked #49, 10 Weeks on chart)

Al Martino was a crooner from an earlier era, but earned his place in the 1970s culture as Johnny Fontaine in The Godfather. In that film, he played a former teen idol who was looking to get cast in a motion picture despite interference from the studio chief. Not only does he get slapped by Marlon Brando in a memorable scene, but his request leads to the scene where the studio head wakes up one morning with the severed head of his prized horse in the bed beside him.

Although he may have been seen as an odd choice to portray a character loosely based on Frank Sinatra (he was more than a decade older than "Ol' Blue Eyes" would have been at the end of World War II), his career was supposedly affected by the Mob in real life. Unlike the film, his connections didn't help him. His management contract was supposedly bought out around 1953 and large payments demanded from him. He ended up moving to England until the problem could be sorted out.

His final hit single was "The Next Hundred Years," a song whose lyrics mention settling down with a woman. However, he sang it in a style that was largely becoming passe by that time. Like many of his fellow crooners, he went on to sing his familiar tunes to his fans but he never appeared on the pop chart again.

Marilyn Scott - "God Only Knows" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #90, Peaked #61, 9 Weeks on chart)

"God Only Knows" is best-remembered as a Beach Boys hit from 1966. The title came about after Brian Wilson thought about how there weren't any songs that addressed "God" by name without having a religious context. He agonized over it, thinking that the title alone would kill chances of radio airplay, but the song ended up being one of the group's all-time classics.

During the Disco era, many songs were redone with a dance beat, and "God Only Knows" was given the treatment in 1977. Despite the fact that many Disco songs were tooled to the lowest common denominator to get the crowds out on the dance floor, this song doesn't get trapped by convention.

Marilyn Scott was a jazz-influenced singer who had previously sung backup vocals for Tower of Power and parlayed it into a career as an in-demand session singer in Los Angeles. Due to that background, her rendition of "God Only Knows" is more in tune with a jazz performance rather than as just another Disco version of a familiar tune.

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