Saturday, June 2, 2012

This Week's Review -- June 5, 1971

Of the ten new singles on this week's Billboard Hot 100, six reached into the Top 40 and two went Top 10. One of those songs even went all the way to the #1 position. Oddly, the four songs that missed the Top 40 were arguably deserving of a better shot. The chart-topper was a song by a noted singer/songwriter, but it was written by a different singer/songwriter. Gladys Knight shows why she's one of the era's great singers. Graham Nash writes what is essentially a "kiss off" to his chums. Freda Payne gives an impassioned plea for the return of "The Boys," while The Stylistics show up with their first Top 10 hit.

Over at Google Books, there is an archive of Billboard magazines, including the June 5, 1971 edition. The full Hot 100 list can be found on page 56. I continue to be amused at the stories in the Jukebox Programming section, if for no other reason than the way it gives a glimpse into the past. For instance, an article on page 34 talks about the fact that programmers have been reluctant about converting to a "two plays for a quarter" system because they're afraid of a customer backlash. Yeah, those were the days.

Where Rock Art lives

Freda Payne - "Bring The Boys Home" Bring the Boys Home - Freda Payne: Greatest Hits

(Debuted #66, Peaked #12, 13 Weeks on chart)

Interesting that this song pops up just after Memorial Day.

In 1971, the war in Vietnam was still raging without any apparent end in sight and people were still asking why there were Americans were halfway around the world doing a job that needed to be accomplished by somebody else. Though the peace movement wasn't as vociferous as it was just a few years before (not after four of them were shot to death at Kent State), the war weariness had set in and more people were wondering when the little "police action" was going to be handed over to the South Vietnamese for good. 

In that climate, Freda Payne recorded a song that addressed the issue. Rather than imploring the Powers That Be to simply end the war, she took a slightly different tactic: the song simply asked to get the soldiers out of harm's way. Actually, the three songwriters (including General Johnson) did that, but it was Payne's voice that was hitting the airwaves. Predictably, there was some controversy; Armed Forces Radio wouldn't play it, Payne was called names for taking a stance and some programmers simply set it aside. Despite the friction, the song peaked just short of the pop Top 10.      

41 years later, the location is different but the same question is being asked. They say that history will repeat itself to those who don't pay attention to its lessons...and the lessons of Vietnam didn't seem to get heeded. At least not by a new generation of Powers That Be who've sent another group of kids (many of whom weren't yet born when Saigon fell in 1975) into harm's way.

The Grass Roots - "Sooner Or Later" Sooner or Later - 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Grass Roots

(Debuted #77, Peaked #9, 11 Weeks on chart)

The Grass Roots sure knew how to make a catchy pop song. Since 1967, they had enjoyed a string of them and many shared similar hooks and elements. Basically, there was little chance you'd miss a Grass Roots hit because many of them featured a "sound" to them. Some call that predictable, but it was selling records and sounded great on the radio. With that kind of luck, there's no need to tinker with a successful thing.

"Sooner Or Later" generally followed the template and became the group's last Top 10 pop hit. It was written by Gary Zekley and Mitchell Bottler -- who also composed "I'd Wait a Million Years" for the group -- along with three others. While the band continued to make music that sounded great, the tastes of the public changed and the hits dried up. The Grass Roots have stayed together to the present, despite a revolving door of members and the death of lead singer Rob Grill. 

Neil Diamond - "Done Too Soon" Done Too Soon - Tap Root Manuscript

(Debuted #78, Peaked #65, 4 Weeks on chart)

Before "Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)," "It's the End of the World As We Know it" and "We Didn't Start the Fire," Here's a song whose lyrics consist largely of a list. The first half of the song is a list of people who died; some were recently deceased, and others had been gone for a long time. The last half of the song explains that all of then were "done too soon." Not necessarily "young," since Ho Chi Minh and H.G. Wells were pushing 80 when their time came, but "too soon" in the sense that many were still doing their thing when it happened.

With "Done Too Soon," there's a philosophical component that is often missing from pop music. The idea that life is a ride and that we all get one shot, and that it's up to us what to do while we're on it. While some listeners might be offended to hear a composition that lumps together such a collection of beloved figures and charlatans, it doesn't appear that Diamond is making any moral equivalence. He's simply saying that all were given a shot and did their part with the time they were given. They looked at the same sun and moon as the rest of us. That is part of the song's charm, in my opinion.

Graham Nash - "Chicago" Chicago - Songs for Beginners

(Debuted #79, Peaked #35, 11 Weeks on chart)

Here's a novel idea for a protest song. When your fellow bandmates avoid something that you think is a good idea, write a hit song calling them out and force them to relive that decision every time you do the song in concert. That's exactly what Graham Nash did when he wrote "Chicago" after (according to legend) Stephen Still and Neil Young vetoed the idea of singing outside the courthouse where the "Chicago Eight" were being tried for their part in inciting riots during the 1968 Chicago Democrat National convention. 

The line about the "brother" who was "bound and gagged" referred to Bobby Seale, who was secured to a chair and eventually removed from the courtroom because of his outbursts in the courtroom. As for "Jack," that was a reference to Chicago mayor John Daley. Nash wanted to show his support for the accused by holding an impromptu concert, but after the idea was shot down, he wrote and recorded a song anyway. Releasing it under his own name, it made the Top 40 and was popular enough that it was occasionally dusted off when he and his buddies have performed in concert. That must be a pretty sharp pain that Stills (and Young when he sits in) feels when he harmonizes. 

James Taylor - "You've Got A Friend" You've Got a Friend - Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon

(Debuted #80, Peaked #1, 14 Weeks on chart)

How ironic is it when a noted singer/songwriter whose material is often deeply personal scores his biggest hit with another person's song? For James Taylor, that hit was Carole King's composition "You've Got a Friend," which became his only #1 pop single. I don't blame Taylor for recording it, though; King had been writing hits for more than ten years at the time and her LP Tapestry was the biggest-selling album of 1971. That album contained King's own version of the tune, but Taylor's success certainly helped sell a bunch of those, too.

"You've Got a Friend" is one of those songs that's familiar enough to listeners. There's little that I can add to what's already been written about it, and trying would be a disservice.

Gladys Knight and the Pips - "I Don't Want to Do Wrong" I Don't Want to Do Wrong - The Ultimate Collection: Gladys Knight & the Pips

(Debuted #91, Peaked #17, 11 Weeks on chart)

Recently, I mentioned elsewhere on the Web that Gladys Knight was probably "underrated" when it came to artists of the 1970s. I was quickly reminded that Knight's records sold in the millions, which would indicate that she was definitely popular, and a tag like that would be inaccurate. I responded by pointing out that Helen Reddy also sold millions of records, but nobody is holding her out (nor should they) as a standard-bearer of the era.  I never received a followup to that statement.

"I Don't Want to Do Wrong" is a perfect example of what I was referring to when I wrote that. Knight is in fine command of her own voice, and the Pips don't back her up on the recording as much as they hang on for the ride. This is all Gladys, and even Motown's famed Funk Brothers can only sit back and provide the track that she's heading down. 

That's kind of what I was getting at...Gladys Knight's name is rarely brought up with contemporaries like Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan or even Dionne Warwick, but she deserves to be in the conversation. That doesn't necessarily mean she was better, but she definitely earned a place at the table. When she was on the mark, she was one of the best of the era.

Mandrill - "Mandrill " Mandrill - Fencewalk: The Anthology

(Debuted #96, Peaked #94, 3 Weeks on chart)

Mandrill was a jam band in the same vein as Santana, but from a soul influence besides a Latin one. They also hailed from Brooklyn, New York rather than San Francisco. But listen to the groove the band lays down on this song and see if you hear a definite similarity between the two bands.

Mandrill is the group's name, as well as the title of their debut LP and the first song on that album. It's an instrumental that features a number of featured solos, even for the flute and vibraphone. It's rooted in Latin rhythm and R&B, but fuses other interests as well. It's an interesting concept.

Van Morrison - "Call Me Up In Dreamland" Call Me Up In Dreamland - His Band and the Street Choir

(Debuted #98, Peaked #95, 2 Weeks on chart)

For a performer who's recorded a number of songs that his fans adore, Van Morrison hasn't seemed to have the hit pedigree to go along with it. Take "Call Me Up in Dreamland," for instance. The song is a fan favorite and occasional concert staple, yet it spent all of two weeks on the pop chart and peaked at #95.

One of his fans explained it to me once. His hypothesis was that Morrison's fans will gravitate toward his LPs, such as His Band and the Street Choir, the album that contained the song, rather than to be content merely with a single-length release. Of course, when I pointed out that the same record also contained "Domino" and "Blue Money," which were Top 40 hits on their own...and he wasn't so ready with an explanation.

"Call Me Up in Dreamland" is a bouncy tune that definitely deserved a better chance than the one it got.

The Stylistics - "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)" Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart) - The Stylistics - the Original Debut Album

(Debuted #99, Peaked #39, 9 Weeks on chart)

For many casual music fans, "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)" was the first time they got the chance to listen to the voice of Russell Thompkins, Jr. During the 1970s, they'd get the opportunity again. It was the first of ten straight Top 40 hits for The Stylistics, and part of a string of twelve Top 10 R&B singles.

Opening with a typically dreamy intro, Thompkin's voice takes command of the song rather quickly. The trademark strings are here, as are the sublime vocal harmonies and a mellow brass instrumental. While not their first single, it was the first track on their self-titled debut LP. In a sense, "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)" set the standard for the group's future hits. Fortunately, they (and producer Thom Bell) were up to the task.

The Supremes and the Four Tops - "You Gotta Have Love in Your Heart" You Gotta Have Love In Your Heart - The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 11A: 1971

(Debuted #100, Peaked #55, 5 Weeks on chart)

Shortly after Diana Ross left The Supremes for a solo career and Jean Terrell replaced her, they recorded an album's worth of material with fellow Motown group The Four Tops. The result was called The Magnificent 7, whose success was enough to spawn a second collaborative LP. While the first album featuring the two groups relied heavy on Motown's past glory, the second (titled The Return of the Magnificent 7)  went largely with original compositions.

"You've Got to Have Love in Your Heart" was one of the songs from that second album. It mixes a little rock and soul with a little gospel influence. Toss in a fuzz box-affected guitar break and a piano during the jubilant fade-out, and you get an interesting mix. The public didn't agree (as the song peaked at #55), but the material on that album is ripe for rediscovery.

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