Of Cassettes, Footballs & Radio

Originally posted October 22, 2007

During the fall of 1969, I began to really listen to Top 40 radio.

Oh, I’d heard rock and pop before then, of course. Music was all around: on the radio at friends’ houses, on television, at home on the occasional times my sister tuned the kitchen radio to KDWB in the Twin Cities as we did dishes or other kitchen chores, and on portable radios pretty much anywhere kids went.

So, as I’ve indicated other times – most recently, I think, regarding the sound of Procol Harum in the back of a school bus – pop and rock were an inescapable part of the background of teen life during the mid- to late 1960s. Left to my own devices, however, I rarely listened, with the stereo in the basement used for soundtracks and records by Al Hirt and Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass. The radio in my room – and in the kitchen, many times – was for Vikings’ and North Stars’ games.

Things changed during the autumn of 1969 for a couple of reasons.

First, I started my two-year stint as a manager for the St. Cloud Tech High football team: I lugged bags of footballs and other equipment around the practice field and hauled a primitive medical kit between the field and the school a block away, and on Friday evenings, I stood on the sidelines during games, hoping no one got hurt beyond my minimal abilities to tend to him. I also spent time in the locker room, a loud environment where adolescent crudeness played out with a radio always on in the background. In the locker room, I began to recognize more songs and more artists and realized that I liked a lot of what I was hearing.

The other reason was my tape recorder. From my work at the trapshoot that summer, I’d earned $50, and the day after the trapshoot was over, my dad and I went downtown to Dan Marsh Drug and its photo department, which also sold tape recorders. Dad stood by as I looked at several models in my price range and finally selected a Panasonic cassette recorder. The silly fun of recording myself or recording random sounds from the neighborhood wore off quickly, and I began to search for things to listen to. In September, my sister gave me my first commercial cassette, Blood, Sweat & Tears’ self-titled second album. In October, I saw that the Beatles’ Abbey Road was on sale at the mall for $3.50. I’d heard “Come Together” late one night coming from the radio on my nightstand, and I’d loved the spooky introduction. Once I heard it, I loved the rest of the album (and still do).

Once those two pieces were in place, I dove into Top 40 radio, listening in my room nearly every night after I finished my homework. I don’t know that the autumn of 1969 was, in reality, any better than any other season for Top 40 music, but in memory, it’s one of the greatest listening times of my life. And a clear-headed assessment from thirty-eight years afterward finds it a pretty good time for tunes. Singles released that autumn included:

“Everybody’s Talkin’” by Nilsson
“I Can’t Get Next To You” by the Temptations
“I’m Gonna Make You Mine” by Lou Christie
“Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley
“And When I Die” by Blood, Sweat & Tears
“Backfield in Motion” by Mel & Tim
“Cherry Hill Park” by Billy Joe Royal
“Something/Come Together” by the Beatles
“Something In The Air” by Thunderclap Newman
“Take A Letter Maria” by R.B. Greaves
“Tracy” by the Cuff Links
“Down On The Corner” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Holly Holy” by Neil Diamond
“Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” by Steam
“Up On Cripple Creek” by The Band
“Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday” by Stevie Wonder

And then there was the single that spurred this discussion this morning: “Baby, It’s You” by Smith.

The record, which went to No. 5, came from the group’s first album, A Group Called Smith and was the group’s only Top 40 single. It features a vocal by Gayle McCormick, one of the group’s three singers, over an insistent and punchy background underpinned by a Hammond B3 organ. McCormick’s vocal alternates between breathy and bold, and the backing – organ, crunchy guitar, horns and pounding drums – was just right for 1969.

It was, of course, a cover of the Shirelles’ Top Ten hit from 1962, a record that was much more controlled and subtle than Smith’s cover version seven years later. But we absorb the music we hear first, and although the Shirelles’ version is sweet and lovely, it is Smith’s version I think of when I think of “Baby It’s You.”

Covers, for the most part, were Smith’s stock in trade on A Group Called Smith. The record has versions that are tough and interesting – if ultimately lesser than the originals – of the Youngbloods’ “Get Together,” the Zombies’ “Tell Her No,” the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” Willie Dixon’s “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” (credited on the album, oddly, to Kenny Lynch and Bob Wackett, whoever they were) and Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?”

A Group Called Smith is more of a period piece than a great album. In retrospect, maybe Smith’s powerhouse approach might have been more interesting and more successful with more originals. The group’s second album, Minus-Plus, released later in 1969, did have at least eight originals among its ten tracks. Yet, the second album didn’t spin off a hit single and didn’t sell well enough to reach the Top 40 album chart, while A Group Called Smith reached No. 17, almost certainly on the strength of “Baby It’s You.”

And “Baby It’s You” still echoes nicely, bringing back memories of my orange-clad Tech Tigers on the green field and of October’s evening shadows outside my bedroom window.

Tracks
Let’s Get Together
I Don’t Believe (I Believe)
Tell Him No
Who Do You Love?
Baby It’s You
The Last Time
I Just Wanna Make Love To You
Mojalesky Ridge
Let’s Spend The Night Together
I’ll Hold Out My Hand

Some CD copies of the album are available, listed at GEMM, with prices ranging from around $11 to more than $50. (One CD listed at GEMM has a track listing that clearly is not from the same album.) Vinyl copies abound. The rip I’m offering here is evidently a vinyl rip, based on a note at headfonehaus, a great blog where I found the album about a year ago. I’ve converted the rip to mp3s.

Smith – A Group Called Smith [1969]

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