First Friday: April 1968

Originally posted April 4, 2008

Forty years ago this evening, I went into the living room to watch something on television. It was just after dinner and dishes, so it was somewhere between six and half-past six. Or maybe it was nearly seven o’clock. I’m not sure, and I have no idea what it was I was planning to watch that Thursday evening.

The television schedule for that evening shows nothing I’d have been interested in: Batman, The Flying Nun, Cimmaron Strip and Daniel Boone occupied the hour between half-past six and half-past seven. I’m sure I was planning to watch as much as I could that evening of a Minnesota North Stars playoff game from Los Angeles, but that would be later. When I turned the television on that evening, it was still light outside.

But almost as soon I turned the television on, it was dark. One of the national newscasters – I do not recall which one – told me and millions more that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed that evening in Memphis, Tennessee. He had been shot while on the balcony of his motel room, preparing for another evening of supporting the sanitation workers’ strike that had brought him to the city.

I was fourteen but already had – as I’ve noted before – a sense of news and a sense of history. I imagine I went and told my parents the news, but I know I sat in front of the television for a couple hours as the white men employed by whatever network I was watching tried to make sense of the assassination of a black leader. Except they couldn’t make sense of it, of course. It was one more brick of insanity falling in place in the mad wall that 1968 was building.

Campaigning in inner city Indianapolis that evening, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy found himself relating the news of Dr. King’s assassination to a crowd of black supporters. “It fell to Kennedy,” writes Tom Brokaw in his book, Boom!, “to deliver the news, which was so shocking and unexpected that it took everyone a few moments to absorb the enormity of the fact.”

Brokaw goes on:

“As he stood in the darkness, illuminated only by the lights of news cameras, Kennedy talked gently but intensely about the need to resist ‘hatred and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction . . .’ he said, ‘or we can make an effort as Martin Luther King did to . . . remove that stain of bloodshed that spread across our land.”

In what Brokaw calls “one of the most powerful speeches of Kennedy’s career, delivered extemporaneously,” Kennedy told the crowd:

“Aeschylus once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’ What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country; whether they be white or whether they be black. Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.”

There was no violence in Indianapolis that night, but riots broke out starting that night and over the next few days in more than a hundred U.S. cities in response to Dr. King’s murder, including – according to Wikipedia – Baltimore, Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C. In an event that may or may not have been related but that added to the tension in the country, two days after Dr. King was murdered, a shootout in California between Oakland police and members of the Black Panthers resulted in several deaths, including that of Panther Bobby Hutton, who was sixteen.

Racial tension continued to spark riots through the spring, as in Louisville, Kentucky, in late May, where rumors that white authorities were intentionally delaying a plane that was bringing black leader Stokely Carmichael to Louisville triggered two days of rioting in the city’s west end. A year already bad was getting worse.

Also that month:

In Germany, Rudi Dutschke, the head of APO, a left-wing student organization opposed to the sitting government, was attacked and injured April 11 (he would die eleven years later from his brain injuries). The same day, German left-wing students blockaded the Berlin headquarters of the Springer Press. Many of them were arrested, including Ulrike Meinhof, who in the next few years would organize the Red Army Faction, a German revolutionary organization.

From April 23 through April 30, protestors at Columbia University in New York took over adminstration buildings and shut down the university. Wikipedia says the “protests erupted . . . after students discovered links between the university and the institutional apparatus supporting the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, as well as their concern over an allegedly segregatory gymnasium to be constructed in a local park.”

From where I sat in the American Midwest, the world was falling apart. That wall of insane bricks the year was building, seemingly of its own accord, was getting larger. At the end of the month, there was an event that, looking back, provides a smile. At the time, though, it did nothing more for people of my parents’ generation than provide another bit of confirmation that the world was indeed going mad: On April 29, the musical Hair – with its songs about drugs and sex and its on-stage nudity – opened on New York City’s Broadway.

Within a year, despite its depravity, Hair would spin off four Top Ten singles for four different groups or performers: “Hair” by the Cowsills (No. 2), “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by the 5th Dimension (No. 1), “Good Morning Starshine” by Oliver (No. 3) and “Easy To Be Hard” by Three Dog Night (No. 4).

But those hits came in 1969. What was it we were listening to during the first week of April 1968, when the bricks began to fall faster?

Here’s the Top 15 from Billboard for the first week of April 1968:

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” by Otis Redding
“Young Girl” by the Union Gap featuring Gary Puckett
“Valleri” by the Monkees
“La-La Means I Love You” by the Delfonics
“(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” by Aretha Franklin
“Cry Like A Baby” by the Box Tops
“Lady Madonna” by the Beatles
“The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde” by Georgie Fame
“Love is Blue” by Paul Mauriat and His Orchestra
“Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro
“Might Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)” by Manfred Mann
“Simon Says” by the 1910 Fruitgum Co.
“Scarborough Fair/Canticle” by Simon & Garfunkel
“Dance To The Music” by Sly & the Family Stone
“Kiss Me Goodbye” by Petula Clark

If nothing else, it was a great time to seek solace with a radio (with the probable exception of “Honey”; I can live with “Simon Says”). Some folks, of course, liked their music in long form. Here’s what the Top Ten album chart looked like during the first week of April 1968:

The Graduate by Simon & Garfunkel/Soundtrack
Blooming Hits by Paul Mauriat and His Orchestra
Aretha: Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin
The Dock Of The Bay by Otis Redding
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme by Simon & Garfunkel
Valley of the Dolls by Dionne Warwick
John Wesley Harding by Bob Dylan
Disraeli Gears by Cream
Axis: Bold As Love by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly soundtrack

If one were looking at that as a shopping list, there are only a couple of hitches. One could get by without The Graduate for the most part as long as he or she had three Simon & Garfunkel albums: Sounds of Silence; Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme; and the forthcoming Bookends. That would give the listener all the S&G songs from the movie except for one version of “Mrs. Robinson.” Completists, of course, would need The Graduate. Other than that, the only album that’s not essential to get a musical sense of 1968 would be the Dionne Warwick record. The album’s two hits – the title song and “Do You Know The Way To San Jose” – don’t gain anything by being heard in the context of the album, which has otherwise always seem extraneous to me. The Paul Mauriat album, on the other hand, has always been enjoyable, from the hit title song on down, a remnant of the times – not all that far gone – when the album charts were dominated by pretty music and not by rock.

The album I’m sharing here today wouldn’t be released until September, so it doesn’t at all reflect the upheaval and anguish of April. (I thought about posting Hair here today, but I couldn’t get a good enough rip; maybe next month. I also thought about posting Otis Redding’s The Dock Of The Bay, but that Stax album is basically a collection of previously released singles and holds little interest to me as an album.) But today’s album does represent a trend in pop music of the merging and mingling of styles.

The 5th Dimension first hit the charts in February 1967 with the single “Go Where You Wanna Go,” a No. 16 cover of the Mamas & the Papas song. Four months later, “Up-Up And Away” went to No. 7 while the album from which the singles had been pulled, Up, Up and Away, went to No. 8. (And no, I have no idea why the song title and the album title are punctuated differently; it’s bothered me for years.) The album and the singles were all produced by Johnny Rivers and released on his Soul City label.

The sound of the 5th Dimension has been described as what would happen if the Mamas and the Papas sang in Motown. That’s a little harsh and not quite right. Yes, the sound is at least partly a blending of California pop and R&B, and it’s true that the 5th Dimension’s music is not as gritty as were the sounds coming out of Detroit. But rather than trying to create a Motown-Lite sound, I think what Rivers and the members of the 5th Dimension were trying to do was to bring several things – including Motown grit – into L.A.-based pop. The three male members of the 5th Dimension hailed from blues- and R&B-drenched St. Louis, while Marilyn McCoo came from Jersey City and Florence LaRue Gordon was from Pennsylvania. Add that Johnny Rivers was born John Ramistella in New York City, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to hear bits of Philly-Jersey-New York girl groups and echoes of street-corner crooning in the 5th Dimension’s music, combined with a pop-soul sensibility and all laid over a bed of L.A. session work by musicians who clearly had been listening to Motown and Stax.

The group’s third album, Stoned Soul Picnic, came out in August 1968. (The group’s second album, 1967’s The Magic Garden, spun off the minor singles “Paper Cup” and “Carpet Man” but otherwise failed to make much of an impact.) Three singles from the album charted: “Stoned Soul Picnic” (No. 3) and “Sweet Blindness” (No. 13) were both written by Laura Nyro, while the song-writing team of Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson created “California Soul,” which went to No. 25. The album itself went to No. 21 on the Billboard chart.

Those who pore over studio credits on the backs of album jackets found much to celebrate when they looked at the back of Stoned Soul Picnic. On guitars were Tommy Tedesco, Mike Deasy and Ray Pohlman. Joe Osborn and Pohlman handled bass. Larry Knechtel and Jimmy Rowles were on keyboards. Larry Bunker handled marimba, vibes and other percussion, and the drum work came from Hal Blaine. (Just listen to the fills and you’ll know that.) Also credited were the Sid Sharp Strings and the Bill Holman Brass. Marc Gordon, who was credited with Johnny Rivers as producer on Up, Up and Away a year earlier, was credited with “co-ordination,” while Rivers was called a “realizor” on Stoned Soul Picnic.

The album is a good one, falling into the genre that I call pop-soul rather than R&B: Lighter than a lot of things I listen to and certainly lighter than a lot of things that were being listened to in 1968. Heavy times need some lightness once in a while, though, and I think that’s what the 5th Dimension provided.

(This rip, which I found online a few months ago, is from the now out-of-print CD release and contains a bonus track, “East of Java,” which I can only assume came from the same sessions. My thanks to the original uploader, though I have forgotten who that was.)

Tracks:
Sweet Blindness
It’ll Never Be The Same Again
The Sailboat Song
It’s A Great Life
Stoned Soul Picnic
California Soul
Lovin’ Stew
Broken Wing Bird
Good News
Bobbie’s Blues (Who Do You Think Of?)
The Eleventh Song (What A Groovy Day!)
East of Java*
*bonus track

5th Dimension – Stoned Soul Picnic [1968]

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