Saturday, April 21, 2012

This Week's Review -- April 17, 1976

There were ten singles debuting on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, and seven made it into the Top 40. Four of those reached into the Top 10 and one went to the #1 position. That chart-topper was also a #1 R&B tune, and a #1 country tune is in the list as well. While many of the bigger hits exemplify the pop sound of 1976, one of the songs that just missed the Top 40 is an interesting listen.

There is a large archive of Billboard magazines to read over at Google Books, but the April 17, 1976 edition is missing. So, I'll once again go into shameless promotion mode and recommend my other music-related blog 80s Music Mayhem, which just cycled through the decade once more. For the sixth time, 1989 was featured this 1980 is on deck once more.

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Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three - "One Piece at a Time" One Piece At a TIme - The Essential Johnny Cash (1955-1983)

(Debuted #71, Peaked #29, 10 Weeks on chart)

This week's review kicks off with quite a yarn. In "One Piece at a Time," Johnny Cash tells a story about an autoworker in Detroit who puts wheels on Cadillacs. After watching the cars rolling out, he comes up with a plan to take assorted car parts home from the factory until he could have his own. So, he spaces the operation out for more than 20 years and ends up with a car that looks like it was assembled by Dr. Frankenstein. While the song is technically an account of workplace theft, it's one of the many songs in a humorous vein that Cash would record over the years.

"One Piece at a Time" was written by Wayne Kemp and became the 13th song that Cash would take to #1 on the country chart. Sadly, it would also be his final one, as the changing tastes of Nashville pushed him out of the country mainstream despite a long history of crossover success by Cash. Though he continued to record and chart through his death in 2003, this would be the last of his 45 pop hits.

The Doobie Brothers - "Takin' It To The Streets" Takin' It to the Streets - Takin' It to the Streets

(Debuted #72, Peaked #13, 14 Weeks on chart)

"Takin' it to the Streets" established a new direction for The Doobie Brothers. It was the band's first single with a lead vocal by Michael McDonald, who also wrote the song. McDonald had stepped in to help the group when Tom Johnston suffered health issues that took him off the road, but when the illness lingered, he stayed on. As a result, the band's focus shifted from the guitar-driven rock of their earlier period toward a more adult contemporary and "blue-eyed soul" sound.

Despite the change, they continued selling records, with the album Takin' it To the Streets continuing the band's platinum streak. The title song was inspired by Motown and soul, which is evident in the gospel-style call-and-response chorus. The lyrics embody brotherhood, which is always a good thing but especially so from a multi-racial band. It was a reminder that the "brothers" in the group name weren't the fraternal type; the relationship was more spiritual.

Hot Chocolate - "Don't Stop It Now" Don't Stop It Now - Man to Man

(Debuted #80, Peaked #42, 6 Weeks on chart)

When most listeners (most American listeners, that is) think of Hot Chocolate, attention usually focuses on "You Sexy Thing," Emma" and maybe "Every 1's a Winner." However, that leaves out other worthwhile hits the group had, including "So You Win Again" and "Don't Stop it Now."

The latter song is an unexpected gem for fans who haven't heard it. While Errol Brown's vocal performance sounds much like it does on many of the band's hits and the string section sounds like they're still playing from the sheet music to "You Sexy Thing," the song's main riff comes from a bass and pulls the song along. It's a funkier tune than it was probably meant to be, and is definitely catchy enough to stay with the listener after the song has stopped playing.

The J. Geils Band - "Where Did Our Love Go" Where Did Our Love Go (Live) - Best of the J. Geils Band

(Debuted #81, Peaked #68, 6 Weeks on chart)

"Where Did Our Love Go" was familiar to most music fans in 1976, especially the Baby Boomers who were then just growing into their adult lives. Written by Holland/Dozier Holland in 1964, it was the first of The Supremes' 12 #1 singles. For groups like The J. Geils Band who grew up on Motown and soul classics, it was a natural choice for their live setlist. Not only was it familiar to their fans, but it was a reminder of the "good old days" before things like bills, responsibilities and kids (in some cases) got in the way.

The funny thing about the song is that The Supremes -- still unproven at that point -- were originally less than thrilled about the recording it. However, the success of that single helped establish them as one of Motown's premier acts and they eventually changed their minds. As for the J. Geils version, they do it in the same style they used on their stage show: more blues-based and with less of the studio tricks used in the original. This time, they weren't trying to attract a wider audience. For the band, they'd wait until the next decade before doing that.

Seals and Crofts - "Get Closer" Get Closer - Rhino Hi-Five: Seals & Crofts - EP

(Debuted #82, Peaked #6, 26 Weeks on chart)

For a band as closely associated with a religious movement as Seals & Crofts, it's interesting to point out that their three biggest hits all peaked at #6. However, three sixes is something associated with Christianity, and since Jim Seals and Dash Crofts were followers of the Baha'i faith, that doesn't count. Of those three hits, "Get Closer" spent more time in the pop Top 10.

In keeping with their habit of performing songs that affirmed their own faith, "Get Closer" was a song about togetherness. Featuring a soulful guest vocal by former Honey Cone member Carolyn Willis, it was definitely one of their most memorable tunes. It would also be the last time the duo would reach the pop Top 10.

Gary Wright - "Love Is Alive" Love Is Alive - The Dream Weaver

(Debuted #83, Peaked #2, 27 Weeks on chart)

Gary Wright scored a pair of #2 singles in 1976 from the LP The Dream Weaver, and "Love is Alive" was the second of them. Both songs were wildly successful, but neither one seemed to have that extra something to get past "December 1963" or "Disco Lady" -- in the case of "Dream Weaver" -- or "Kiss and Say Goodbye" or "Don't Go Breaking My Heart." All are classic singles, but really, either of these Gary Wright songs could have sneaked into the #1 spot for a single week, Billboard. Anyway, off the soapbox...

"Love is Alive" is a funkier, less ethereal song than "Dream Weaver" was, though both singles featured an otherworldly (for the time that is) synthesizer score. In fact, both songs were among the first hits to feature just keyboards and drums. They may have been solidly rooted as 1970s music, but they pointed the way towards much of the music from the next decade to anybody who was already tired of hearing the din of the Disco beat. But that's 20/20 hindsight, I suppose.

Heart - "Crazy On You" Crazy On You - Dreamboat Annie

(Debuted #86, Peaked #35, 13 Weeks on chart)

Heart's first hit was a cut off their LP Dreamboat Annie, but a dispute between the group and its record company (Mushroom) caused them to leave for Portrait records in 1977. By 1978, Mushroom Records was trying to get as much money out of Heart as possible so they re-released "Crazy on You" as a single in advance of the LP Magazine that was at the heart -- pun intended -- of the dispute with the company. It didn't do as well the second time around, missing the Top 40 but it didn't stop the song from remaining one of the group's best-known tunes.

Beginning as an acoustic guitar solo, a blistering guitar riff takes the song to Ann Wilson's lyrics. Beginning with little more than a whisper, she builds to a crescendo where her delivery of the chorus near the end of the song is nearly maddening. All the while, the music fuels the fire. It was an interesting song in its day, as female singers generally weren't as hard-edged. There were exceptions to the rule (like Fancy or Patti Smith), but by early 1978 Janis Joplin was dead, The Runaways couldn't get a break and punk bands hadn't yet gained a toehold on American radio. The 1980s would see more female acts that weren't afraid to crank up the volume (Pat Benatar, The Go-Go's, ex-Runaway Joan Jett, among others) so Heart was a trailblazer in that respect.

Starbuck - "Moonlight Feels Right" Moonlight Feels Right - Moonlight Feels Right

(Debuted #90, Peaked #3, 22 Weeks on chart)

To many who remember the era, "Moonlight Feels Right" is a song that exemplified the Summer of '76. JB over at the blog The Hits Just Keep on Comin' wrote this about the song last year, but has frequently written about the effect the record had on him. In fact, this list of "time capsule" songs he presents from that summer includes three songs on this week's list of debuts.

If anything, "Moonlight Feels Right" is a song about a southern summer night (fittingly, as Starbuck was from Atlanta) and featured a marimba solo that is often mistaken for a xylophone. Starbuck's later songs incorporated the instrument as well, but they'd never manage to recapture the magic that sent it to #3. For the time, it seemed that the stars were definitely aligned for Starbuck.

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes - "Tell The World How I Feel About 'cha Baby" Tell the World How I Feel About 'Cha Baby - Wake Up Everybody

(Debuted #96, Peaked #94, 2 Weeks on chart)

Teddy Pendergrass often came across as a preacher giving a sermon when he sang. That is an interesting contradiction of the subject matter he was famous for singing...which usually wasn't lauded by the preacher but dismissed as sin. And as "Tell the World How I Feel About 'cha Baby" gets started, there's Teddy exhorting the crowd like he's about to testify, and then switches gears into the worship of the female form. I guess it's another way of paraphrasing a different 1970s classic: "If Loving You is Wrong (I Don't Want to Be Right)."

However, it doesn't take long for the song to develop into a full-fledged 1976-vintage Disco tune, complete with the string section and the backing vocals of Pendergrass's fellow Blue Notes. The fact that this would be Teddy Pendergrass's final single on the Hot 100 as a member of the group has been largely forgotten, thanks to the song's early exit from the chart.

The Manhattans - "Kiss And Say Goodbye" Kiss and Say Goodbye - The Manhattans

(Debuted #99, Peaked #1, 26 Weeks on chart)

The platinum single certification was introduced in 1976, as increased sales of 45s led the music industry to recognize best-sellers beyond the "gold" standard used in the past. The first-ever platunim single was Johnny Taylor's "Disco Lady," and the second was The Manhattans' tear-jerker "Kiss and Say Goodbye."

Beginning with a spoken intro, the song tells of a couple's pending breakup. The narrator (Winfred "Blue" Lovett, who also wrote the song) is trying to be mature about it, but you know the events are about to tear him apart inside. And once Gerald Alston starts singing, the emotion of what is happening is laid bare.

"Kiss and Say Goodbye" was a major crossover hit, topping the pop and R&B charts and even reaching #4 in the U.K. It was also the biggest hit they'd get in their career.

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