Saturday, September 8, 2012

This Week's Review -- September 7, 1974

There were nine new singles on this week's Hot 100, with a very solid six reaching into the Top 40 and two Top 10 hits. Those two Top 10 singles are still played today; one has been embraced by its artist (also its inspiration) as a theme song of sorts, while the other is largely seen as a novelty. The Top 40 hits were a diverse group, with a change of direction for The Ohio Players that signified a new stlye for them, another "comeback" hit for The Righteous Brothers, a funk-laden hit for Kool and the Gang, and Steppenwolf's last chart hit. The songs that missed the Top 40 included a country #1 by Waylon Jennings, a song that showed that The Blackbyrds were stretching out, and a hit that was essentially a reworking of William DeVaughan's earlier hit. 

Over at Google Books there is a large archive of past Billboard magazines, including the September 7, 1974 edition. The full Hot 100 list is on page 56. A focus on family acts and their history in the R&B field begins on page 28. The large pull-out section features a spotlight on the music of Texas, which was a big part of the magazine featured a couple of weeks back. That one was from 1979 and included Oklahoma, but it's worth noting that the state is large enough to be quite diverse, and this proves that Texas is home to more than just country.


The Ohio Players - "Skin Tight"

(Debuted #45, Peaked #13, 11 Weeks on chart)

At the time they released the LP Skin Tight, The Ohio Players had been a regular presence on R&B radio but really hadn't broken through in a huge way. They had just switched record labels and had to be convinced that they needed to lay off the extended jam sessions in the studio and narrow their focus into just making great pop music. Hindsight shows they did quite well for the next few years following that advice. 

Kicking off the LP, the song "Skin Tight" provided a taste of what was to come. The title was appropriate for the band -- tight -- as they were one of the dominant pop/funk bands for the next several years. Featuring a notable trumpet flourish throughout the song, it was a celebration of the women's jeans that were then in vogue. It also served notice that the band had arrived.

Elton John - "The Bitch is Back" The Bitch Is Back - Caribou

(Debuted #63, Peaked #4, 14 Weeks on chart)

Even though Elton John was the "music" side of the John/Taupin partnership, he was figured in the lyrics for this song. Evidently, he was in a foul mood one day and caused Bernie Taupin's wife Maxine to sigh, "the bitch is back." Taupin loved the phrase and soon wrote a song around it. To his credit, John embraced it pretty quickly and adopted it as a personal theme song, showing that there's no hard feelings arising from a term that might be considered offensive.

Of course, being able to sing those words with one of the top bands in the world behind him as well as The Tower of Power horn section, and inside one of the premiere studios in the world (the Caribou in Colorado, James Guercio's studio that gave the LP its title) didn't hurt at all. Nor was being Elton John in 1974...he was on the top of the music world, enough of a star that he could get away with using a word that would have caused most record executives to step in and take action.

Now that didn't stop the record company from trying.When some middle America stations refused to play the song, MCA offered a version that blanked out the word "bitch." Which was probably odd, considering the number of times it's used in the lyrics (42). That's a lot of dead air for a station to have. 

The Righteous Brothers - "Give It To The People" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #77, Peaked #20, 9 Weeks on chart)

"Give it to the People" was the second of three hits after Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield reunited as The Righteous Brothers after a six-year break to go solo. While all three songs made the pop Top 40, neither it nor its followup "Dream On" were remembered in quite the same way as their first comeback hit "Rock and Roll Heaven," a #3 hit in 1974. The fact that the video above is the third one I've had to find underscores that, and I really don't expect this one to stay for long, either. I hope I'm wrong, but the fact that a couple of Top 40 songs can be forgotten even among fans of the decade kinda proves the point I'm about to make.

"Give it to the People" is a generic Righteous Brothers song, featuring the two voices doing their thing the same way they did on their earlier hits. However, while their earlier material often featured some interplay between them, this time around they just seem to be going through the motions. Earlier, their work with producer Phil Spector made for some very compelling radio singles; with Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter here, they seem to just be singing over a music bed from the action scene of a generic movie.

Steppenwolf - "Straight Shootin' Woman" Straight Shootin' Woman - Born to Be Wild - A Retrospective (1966-1990)

(Debuted #81, Peaked #29, 9 Weeks on chart)

Steppenwolf's final hit is pretty much what you'd expect from the band: a high-adrenaline rush with a guitar-based attack behind John Kay's vocals. It was pretty automatic for the band's material.

That said, the original group had been broken up in 1972 as Kay devoted time to his solo career. They reunited with a couple of new members in 1974 and produced three records for the short-lived CBS subsidiary Mums after Kay stated that Dunhill's support for his solo record was lukewarm. Slow Flux was the first of the three albums but "Straight Shootin' Woman" was the only single to chart. They once again broke up after 1976, but would reappear many times in the future.

Kool and the Gang - "Higher Plane" Higher Plane - Light of Worlds

(Debuted #84, Peaked #37, 8 Weeks on chart)

Recorded just after the group's first brush with wide success, the Light of Worlds LP followed a theme. Sine it was the band's ninth album (counting two compilations), nine songs were recorded and represented the planets of the solar system. The concept was itself a novelty, but the music was a serene jazz/funk fusion that represented spirituality and sophistication.

Part of that sonic landscape was "Higher Plane," a funk-injected workout that represented the band's work pretty well. Like much of the group's material, the music wasn't as much about the lyrics as the overall groove. And "Higher Plane" cuts a fairly solid groove through its five minutes.

William DeVaughn - "Blood Is Thicker Than Water" Blood Is Thicker Than Water - Soul Legend

(Debuted #87, Peaked #43, 9 Weeks on chart)

At first listen, it might be easy to confuse "Blood is Thicker Than Water" with William DeVaughn's hit "Be Thankful For What You've Got" due to a similar beat. Since both songs came from the same album, it's likely that the two songs were written and recorded at the same time.

DeVaughn was working for the federal government at the time, and used $900 of his own money to get his music recorded for a vanity label called Omega. The words had a religious feel to them to fit his beliefs as a Jehovah's witness. DeVaughn was solidly behind his own lyrics, even preaching to the audience at his live shows. He soon grew tired of the industry (and perhaps its "evils") and would leave until 1980.

Reunion - "Life Is A Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)" Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me) - Radio Hits of the '70s

(Debuted #90, Peaked #8, 15 Weeks on chart)

"Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)" isn't as much a song as it is a list of influences that reached into the 1950s. The collection of musical acts, phrases and radio DJs was part of the overall nostalgic feel that was beginning to take hold of the population as they reflected on the fact that life seemed much simpler in the olden days. We all know it really wasn't, but things seem better when you're younger because the parents seemed to be the ones that worried. Once those kids grew up and realized that life was full of trouble, it's easy to think back on a time that didn't present the same troubles.

This is a nostalgic blog. Believe me, I understand the sentiment.

The vocals by in the song were provided by Joey Levine, the same guy who voiced dozens of bubblegum records by The Ohio Express and the Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Chorus. Levine was also a producer and a big architect of the "bubblegum sound." However, what "Life is a Rock" did was showcase his rapid-fire delivery of a bunch of lines that may not make a lot of sense to the kids who didn't grow up with 1960s rock & roll.

Waylon Jennings - "I'm A Ramblin' Man" I'm a Ramblin' Man - Ramblin' Man

(Debuted #91, Peaked #75, 7 Weeks on chart)

Before country's Outlaw movement took the genre by storm, Waylon Jennings was espousing its lifestyle well ahead of when it became "cool" to do so. At the time it was released, Nashville was still enamored of its Nudie suit-wearing, rhinestone-covered smooth singers. Little did the establishment know that the sound would soon get a shakeup in the form of long-haired, tough-living scoundrels.

"I'm a Ramblin' Man" seemed to come as a warning from Jennings that he was heading that way. While he doesn't apologize for his ways, he's also letting you know that it's not safe to get mixed up with him. In fact, his song is flat-out saying that he can't be held responsible for what happens if somebody gets "too close to the flame." Because he's going to keep on rambling his way on out of there.

The Blackbyrds - "Do It, Fluid" Do It, Fluid - The Blackbyrds

(Debuted #94, Peaked #69, 6 Weeks on chart)

The Blackbyrds were the result of six full-time students from Howard University taking the lead of Donald Byrd, a working jazz musician who served as the department chair at the time. Beginning as a Donald Byrd project, The Blackbyrds took flight on their own self-titled debut LP and "Do it Fluid" was both the first track on the album and the debut single under the group's new name.

A solid jazz/funk workout, "Do it Fluid" represents the band getting acquainted in the studio and their way of getting to know each other as they prepared to make more music. It was a way of loosening up the crowd before the better stuff came down.

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