Archive for the ‘Chart Digging’ Category

Lost On Campus

February 11, 2019

Originally posted June 29, 2009

I was seven or eight years old when I had my first great adventure on the campus of St. Cloud State College (as it was titled then). If I were eight at the time, then it took place in mid-summer of 1961, and from this long distance, that’s close enough for our purposes.

I wrote a little earlier this summer about attending summer classes at the Campus Lab School at St. Cloud State, spending mornings there so the college’s education students had someone to teach as they pursued their college degrees. If I recall correctly, on most days, my dad would be waiting when I left the school, and I’d ride home with him in his beloved ’52 Ford. Then came the day of the all-college picnic.

Think about this for a moment, as this is – at least for me – a quintessential 1960s event: A summertime picnic on the lawn, open to all students, all faculty and staff members, and all of their family members. The college was, of course, a much smaller place than is today’s sprawling institution, and then, summertime enrollment is always less than during other quarters. But still, a college-wide picnic! Barbecued chicken and beans and cole slaw for how many? Maybe five hundred people? It was a tradition that wouldn’t last much longer, as I don’t recall such picnics taking place during the summers I was a student on campus.

It was a different era, of course, one of freshman beanies and letter sweaters, with the young men mostly wearing dress slacks or khakis and the young women almost always wearing dresses, kind of like Faber College in Animal House (without the fascists or the slobs). I recall during one of those annual picnics looking across the street at a battered wooden building. It housed the campus bookstore and a student hangout called the Chatterbox.

The Chatterbox, probably ca. 1960. (SCSU Archives)

I asked a family friend, one of my dad’s student workers, what it was like inside, and he said it was crowded and noisy. He said they sold burgers and fries and coffee and malts. It was an honest-to-god malt shop! Except for the coffee, it sounded pretty good to a preteen whiteray, and I asked him if he’d take me in there someday. He shook his head no. A few years later the Chatterbox was gone, razed to make way for the new student center.

Anyway, on the day of the all-college picnic in 1961, I was supposed to meet my mom outside the Campus Lab School and we’d walk the three or so blocks or so to the picnic. I went out the door where I usually found Dad in his car. No Mom. I waited a few minutes, wondering what to do. And when she hadn’t shown up in ten minutes, I set out across campus, heading for Dad’s office. I wasn’t at all sure of the campus’ geography, but I knew Dad’s office was in the basement of the library, and if I could find the library, then I was in good shape.

So every once in a while, I asked a passing student where the library was. The college men chuckled at me, and one asked if I were going to do research for a term paper. The college women told each other I was cute, and a couple of them wanted to know if I wanted them to take me to the library. No, I said, I could find it myself, as long as I had good directions. And I did find it. And I found the stairs down to Dad’s office. The door was locked and the dark basement corridor was a little spooky.

I wasn’t sure what to do, but sitting in a dark basement corridor was kind of scary, and it wasn’t getting me any chicken. I clambered up the stairs, and went to the picnic. And that’s where I found my folks, who were of course, quite worried. (Though perhaps not as worried as parents in similar circumstances might be today; although a good portion of today’s horrors also existed back then, they were not placed nearly so firmly on our minds’ center stage then as they are today.) My mom told me she’d waited at the front door of the lab school for a fair amount of time; I told her dad had been picking me up at the side door.

And after a few minutes more of discussion, we got in line and filled our plates.

A Six-Pack From The Charts (Billboard Hot 100, June 26, 1961)
“Quarter to Three” by Gary U.S. Bonds, Legrand 1008 (No. 1)
“Every Beat of My Heart” by the Pips, Vee-Jay 386 (No. 8)
“Peanut Butter” by the Marathons, Arvee 5027 (No. 23)
“Let’s Twist Again” by Chubby Checker, Parkway 824 (No. 62)
“Theme from ‘Goodbye Again’” by Ferrante & Teicher, United Artists 319 (No. 85)
“Rainin’ In My Heart” by Slim Harpo, Excello 2194 (No. 99)

A couple of these are pretty well known: “Quarter to Three” and “Let’s Twist Again” are staples on any self-respecting oldies radio station, and they deserve to be so (although Checker’s original “The Twist” is a better single than “Let’s Twist Again”). Both of them, at the right moments, can get you out on the dance floor, and thus, they remain among the best that not only 1961 had to offer, but the entire era post-Holly and pre-Beatles. “Quarter to Three” spent two weeks at No. 1, and “Let’s Twist Again” peaked at No. 8 later in the summer.

Speaking of that era of American pop, the one that began with the plane crash in Iowa and ended with the Beatles playing on Ed Sullivan’s show: I’ve seen that era written off entirely. Now, it’s true there was a lot of bad pop and faux R&B being played on radio and racked in the stores – Fabian, anyone? – but there was still more good music than a lot of post-Sixties critics have recalled over the years. Some of the other records on that week’s Hot 100, stuff that I could have shared, were: “Tossin’ and Turnin’” by Bobby Lewis, “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King, “Hello Walls” by Faron Young, “Cupid” by San Cooke, “I Like It Like That (Part 1)” by Chris Kenner and “Mama Said” by the Shirelles. And that’s just a quick glance.

Now, there’s no doubt that pop music slumped a little in those years, but my point is that it wasn’t quite the desert that some writers have claimed it to be.

There’s a riddle surrounding “Every Beat of My Heart.” It’s listed twice on the Hot 100 for this week: Vee-Jay has a release credited only to the Pips (before Gladys Knight got top billing) at No. 8, and it’s also listed at No. 60 as a release on Fury Records, credited to Gladys Knight and the Pips. From everything I know, I have the Vee-Jay release here, but if anyone out there knows any better, let me know, please. According to The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, the Vee-Jay version peaked at No. 6, while the Fury version failed to make the Top 40.

Regarding “Peanut Butter,” writer Dave Marsh notes the strange tale: The Olympics and their producers, Fred Smith and Cliff Goldsmith, sold the single to Argo, a subsidiary of Chicago’s Chess Records. But as the group was still under contract to Los Angeles-based Arvee, the record was credited to the Marathons, a not-too-subtle change from the Olympics. And the song had a strong resemblance to the Olympics’ 1960 hit, “(Baby) Hully Gully.” So, without too much ado, the record wound up on the Arvee label anyway, and went to No. 20. Now, the tale is told quite a bit differently by Joel Whitburn in The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. Whitburn says that with the Olympics on tour, Arvee brought in the Vibrations to record “Peanut Butter.” But the Vibrations were under contract to Chess/Checker, which stopped the Arvee release and then had the Vibrations record a version of the song for Argo, the Chess subsidiary. At which point, Arvee brought in another group – evidently neither the Olympics nor the Vibrations – to record “Peanut Butter” yet again. That third release, I guess, is what is offered here. And none of that matters when the lead singer calls out “Scarf now!”

The Ferrante & Teicher record was in its third week in the Hot 100 this week. It would linger in the lower levels one more week before falling off the chart. And in August, the piano duo would have their first Top 40 hit with the “Theme from The Apartment,” which would peak at No. 10.

“Rainin’ In My Heart” would eventually rise from the depths of the Hot 100 to become one of two Top 40 hits by Slim Harpo, whose real name was James Moore. “Rainin’ In My Heart” would rise to No. 34, and five years later, his “Baby Scratch My Back” would go to No. 16. Those were Harpo’s only Top 40 hits, but he may be better known for two songs covered by the Rolling Stones: “I’m A King Bee,” which was on the album The Rolling Stones in 1964 (and was covered by many others as well, including Muddy Waters), and “Shake Your Hips,” which wound up on 1972’s Exile on Main St. (Oddly, the Exile on Main St. jacket listed the song as “Hip Shake,” but the label on the record had the correct title.)

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Rainy Day Make-Work

February 11, 2019

Originally posted June 19, 2009

It was dreary and rainy the other day, and I looked out our front window at the lawn. It’s probably going to need mowing – which our landlord takes care of – this weekend. And the combination of the weather and the wet grass reminded me of part of the summer of 1971, the first half of which I spent as a member of the lawn-mowing crew at St. Cloud State.

There were days, of course, when it rained, and no mowing would get done. But the maintenance department, without question, could always find something for us to do. I recall spending three days that summer in a second-floor hallway in Stewart Hall, armed with chisels and chipping away at old and worn tile on the floor. It was tedious work, made more tolerable by actually being able to talk to one another. When we were out on the lawnmowers, the only people we could talk to was ourselves. (I wrote not long ago about how I addressed that quandary.)

But there, in the hallway, with only occasional supervision – our boss, busy with other stuff, wandered through every hour or so, just to make sure we were making some progress – we could talk as we chipped away. (The tile had likely been in place since Stewart Hall was built in the late 1940s, and in places it had worn away entirely; finding an edge to pry away the bits of tile near those worn spots was a challenge.) Our topics ranged broadly, but music was one we always came back to. During one of those days in the hallway, I recall one of my co-workers and I exchanging views on Ten Years After: He preferred Ssssh, while I held out for Cricklewood Green.

On another rainy day later in the summer, our crew and a few others were dispatched to the new Education Building, which would open for classes that fall quarter. There, in a large room on the second floor, stood at least three hundred file cabinets, still in their boxes. Our work that day would be to get the cabinets out of the boxes and distribute them to the offices that were their intended destinations. While we unboxed the cabinets, someone from one of the painting crews plugged in his radio – the painters were allowed to listen to music as they worked, as long as it wasn’t too loud – and that made the morning more tolerable. I assume the radio was tuned to KDWB in the Twin Cities, but the only thing I recall hearing that morning was Peter Nero’s cover of the “Theme to ‘Summer of ’42’,” a record I welcomed, as I’d recently seen the movie.

As the day wore on and the empty file cabinet boxes piled up on the other side of the room, we might have heard some of these:

A Six-Pack From The Charts (Billboard Hot 100, June 19, 1971)
“Treat Her Like A Lady” by the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose, United Artists 50721 (No. 6)
“She’s Not Just Another Woman” by The 8th Day, Invictus 9087 (No. 20)
“Funky Nassau (Part One)” by the Beginning Of The End, Alston 4595 (No. 23)
“Get It On” by Chase, Epic 10738 (No. 50)
“Chicago” by Graham Nash, Atlantic 2804 (No. 61)
“I’ve Found Someone Of My Own” by the Free Movement, Decca 32818 (No. 91)

The Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose had two Top Ten hits, and what great records they were! “Treat Her Like A Lady” was the first of them, riding that chugging guitar, superb hook and gospelish call-and-response all the way to No. 3. “Too Late To Turn Back Now,” which went to No. 2 during the summer of 1972, was also a good record, but it was smoother and somehow less demanding. If forced to choose, I’d give the decision to “Treat Her Like A Lady” on points, but both sounded great coming out of the car radio. (The group had two other Top 40 hits, “Don’t Ever Be Lonely (A Poor Little Fool Like Me)” and “I’m Never Gonna Be Alone Anymore,” neither of which reached the Top Twenty.)

The second of these has to have an odd story behind it, but it’s a story I don’t know, and a quick riffle through my reference books this morning has left me uninformed. “She’s Not Just Another Woman” by the group The 8th Day went to No. 11 during the summer of 1971 and eventually went gold for the Invictus label. A slightly longer version of the same recording – an edit of 3:23 as opposed to the 3:04 of the single edit I present here – showed up, also in 1971, as an album track on Somebody’s Been Sleeping in My Bed, the debut album of the wonderfully named group 100 Proof (Aged in Soul), released on the Hot Wax label. Hot Wax and Invictus were sister labels, formed in 1969 by the trio of Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland when the three left Motown Records. So the same recording, essentially, was credited to two different groups. It might be that the single edit I offer here is a bastard edit, created after the fact by license for packaging purposes, but either way, it’s still an edit of the same track that shows up on Somebody’s Been Sleeping in My Bed, giving us, as I said, the same recording credited to two different groups. Very odd.

I don’t know much about the Beginning of the End, which came from Nassau in the Bahamas, or about its hit, which went to No. 15 that summer. I do have a vague memory of hearing the record as I drove around town one evening in my 1961 Falcon, but that’s all. I’m sure there’s information out there, but not through the usual sources. The only thing All-Music Guide has to say is: “One of the very few soul groups from Nassau, the Beginning of the End had one hit in 1971, the scintillating ‘Funky Nassau.’ They [sic] recorded an album of the same name that year, then dropped out of sight.” Obscure or not, the record was pretty good.

“Get It On” by Chase was one of the great and somewhat forgotten records of the early 1970s. Tough vocals and foundation, great horn accents, the escalating tension and the glorious whirling horn runs: What more do you want? Well, a longer career for Bill Chase and his band; Chase and three members of the band were killed in a plane crash near Jackson, Minnesota, in August 1974. What’s left is the group’s one hit, which went to No. 24 during the summer of 1971, and the three albums, all of which have been released on CD.

Let’s say you asked a fan in 1971: Which of the four members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young is least likely to release an overtly political single? My guess is that most fans would have responded with the name of “Graham Nash.” Not that Nash didn’t care about such things, but on Crosby, Stills & Nash and on Déjà Vu, Nash’s songs were more personal than political: “Marrakesh Express,” “Lady of the Island,” “Teach Your Children, “Our House.” So it was a little surprising when Nash’s solo album, Songs for Beginners, sandwiched its reflections about romance and personal growth (including the luminous “Simple Man”) with two clearly political songs: The opening track, “Military Madness” addresses the issue of the military’s influence on society in a general way (although it begins with a reference to Nash’s birth in Blackpool, England). Conversely, the album’s closing track, “Chicago,” is a more direct political statement, deploring the treatment of Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther party. During Seale’s trial for conspiracy and inciting to riot – charges that developed out of the events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago – one of Seale’s many outbursts led the judge to order Seale bound and gagged, inspiring Nash’s song. The record went to No. 35.

The Free Movement’s “I’ve Found Someone Of My Own” – a good record and a somewhat accurate reflection of the morals and mores of the time as regards fidelity – had been languishing in the bottom section of the Hot 100 for five weeks at this time thirty-eight years ago. The song dropped out of the Hot 100 for two weeks, then re-entered on July 7 and began its long climb that took it eventually to No. 5.

The Seeds Of A Brand Loyalty

March 25, 2012

Originally posted April 1, 2009

On April 1, 1974, thirty-five years ago today, I was playing hooky in a big way. In fact, I was starting my second week of hooky from St. Cloud State’s classes in Fredericia, Denmark. Spring quarter had started Monday, March 25. Sunrise that day had found me in a youth hostel in Zermatt, Switzerland, looking out of the window at the Matterhorn. I knew it was the first day of class, but I also knew I had yet to travel through Switzerland and Austria to Vienna and I had yet to see Munich in what was then West Germany.

It wasn’t a tough choice. So a week later, on April 1, I was in Munich, standing in a square to watch the town hall tower’s ancient glockenspiel chime the hour. As I stood and waited for the top of the hour – ten o’clock, I believe – I saw one of my fellow St. Cloud State students, DJ, whom I’d not seen for nearly four weeks, since a raucous few days in Paris. He grinned and we caught up with each other as we waited. At ten o’clock, the bells in the tower chimed, and colorful carved figures danced and jousted.

The crowd thinned, and I turned to DJ. “So what are you gonna do now?” I asked.

“I’m heading to the Hofbräuhaus for lunch,” he said, “and then I’m heading back to Fredericia, but I’m going to visit a shoe factory along the way.”

A shoe factory?

He grinned and said he was heading for the world headquarters of adidas, the company whose shoes bore a distinctive three stripes.

I knew the shoes. I’d wanted a pair for years and, finally, for Christmas 1971, my folks gave me a pair: blue with the three stripes in white. I loved those shoes, and I wore them out. Then I bought another pair to bring with me to Denmark. I don’t think I was wearing them the day I ran into DJ, as I’d left Fredericia for spring break in early March, and it was still a bit chilly to wear the adidas shoes every day.

We went to the Hofbräuhaus, where we ate some baked liver loaf and each had a couple of beers. After we ate, we found an unattended door on the building’s lower level, and we each sneaked out with one of the Hofbräuhaus’ distinctive gray mugs, repeating an act of larceny committed by thousands of others over the years. From there, we went to the train station and headed to Nuremberg.

As we rode, DJ explained. The adidas company had its headquarters in a small town called Herzogenaurach. We’d have to take a train from Nuremberg to a city called Fürth, and there, we’d have to catch a train to a station called Erlangen-Bruck, near the smaller city of Erlangen. There, finally, we would catch a train that brought us to Herzogenaurach. Our goal, DJ said, was to get a tour of the factory and the company’s shoe museum.

As DJ had planned, our fourth train of the afternoon brought us into Herzogenaurach, but it was mid-afternoon by that time. “We might be too late,” he said, as we hurried down the street. I saw a sign in the street, like a traffic sign. One portion of the sign pointed to the right, and showed “adidas” and the familiar trefoil logo. The other portion pointed left, and read “PUMA” with the also familiar leaping cat. As we headed to the right, I asked DJ, “Puma and adidas?”

He nodded as we hurried, and between breaths, he told me that the companies had been started by feuding brothers, Adolf and Rudolf Dassler, in the years after World War II. Adolf had used his nickname, Adi, and the first three letters of his last name to brand his shoes: adidas. Rudolf had chosen Puma as his brand name, and the headquarters for both brands were located in Herzogenaurach, a city that in 1974 had a population of around 15,000, maybe a little less.

We made our way through town to a group of buildings at the edge of town, with the most modern of them marked “adidas.” We went to that one, and at the door, DJ explained our mission. Eventually, the doorkeeper went away and brought back a man who was maybe in his forties, wearing a conservative coat and tie. He looked at the two of us, with our longish, untrimmed hair, and told us he was sorry, the factory was closed and it was too late to get a tour. He gave each of us his card and said that if we could come back early in the morning on a Thursday or a Friday . . .

Disappointed, DJ and I walked back into the center of the small town and went to the adidas factory outlet. He bought shoes and an athletic bag; I bought a t-shirt. And we headed back, via Erlangen-Bruck and Fürth, to Nuremberg, where we caught a train that would take us to Hamburg in northern West Germany. From there, it was only a few hours to Fredericia. We got home about mid-day on April 2, a week and a day late for class.

(We weren’t the only ones to be late for spring classes, nor were we the last ones back from spring break: Many of us had missed at least some class time that spring quarter, and a few others straggled in after DJ and I got back to Fredericia. I’ve mentioned before, I think, that our time in Denmark was St. Cloud State’s first attempt at a foreign study program, and although the administration had anticipated some absenteeism, our behavior at the beginning of the spring quarter was more widespread and blatant than expected. From then on, in all of St. Cloud State’s foreign study programs, an extended absence required a good reason. Those students without good reasons, I think, were sent back to the States. And I’m pretty sure that, “But I hadn’t been to Vienna yet!” wouldn’t have been a good enough reason.)

A couple of days later, I got a letter from a gal I’d met in Vienna who was studying in Poitiers, France, inviting me to visit for Easter, if my rail pass was still good. It was, and train schedules were good enough to allow me to get there, spend two days, and get back to Fredericia without missing any school.

In fact, I thought, as I looked at maps and train schedules, I could leave Wednesday afternoon and head south to Munich – where there was a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci that I’d not seen while I was there – and then take a Thursday night train to Paris. I could still get into Poitiers on Friday, which is what my lady friend had suggested. I looked at my adidas shirt drying on the radiator and thought a little more.

And at 7:30 in the morning on April 11, a Thursday, I presented myself at the main building of the adidas shoe company. I gave the doorman the business card I’d gotten during my previous visit, and waited. The conservatively dressed fellow came to the door and did a double-take when he saw me. I reminded him that he’d essentially promised a tour if we came back early on a Thursday or a Friday. He nodded, smiling tightly, and escorted me into the building. He handed me off to a junior somebody, who took me around the factory and then through a small museum, where I saw – among other things – adidas shoes that had been used by Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali. I left the factory after about an hour, impressed with what I’d seen and carrying a bag of key chains and other trinkets, all marked “adidas.”

And this may be silly, but since that day, I’ve never worn a shirt or jacket or anything that displays the brand name of another shoe company. No Nike shirts or caps, no Puma, no New Balance, no Air Jordan. I’ve not always had sports shoes, but when I have, they’ve been adidas. I have several shirts with the adidas logo and none displaying any other shoe brand’s logo. I have a small collection of baseball caps, most of them displaying the logos of various athletic teams . . . and three with the adidas logo.

As I said, that brand loyalty might be kind of silly. I’m not an athlete, never really have been. But that loyalty satisfies something in me, and that’s all that matters.

A Six-Pack From The Charts (Billboard Hot 100, March 30, 1974)
“Dancing Machine” by the Jackson 5, Motown 1286 (No. 40)
“On A Night Like This” by Bob Dylan, Asylum 11033 (No. 51)
“Star Baby” by the Guess Who, RCA Victor 0217 (No. 54)
“Mighty Mighty” by Earth, Wind & Fire, Columbia 46007 (No. 64)
“Watching The River Run” by Loggins & Messina, Columbia 46010 (No. 73)
“La Grange” by ZZ Top, London 203 (No. 97)

I don’t recall hearing any of these at the time. Readers might recall my mentioning the tape machine in the lounge of the youth hostel where I was living during the early months of 1974: We listened mostly to the Allman Brothers, the first Duane Allman anthology and Pink Floyd, with Graham Nash, the occasional slice of Bread and a few others being dropped in for variety. Radios were scarce at the hostel, and Top 40 was hard to come by.

Though I’m sure I’ve heard “Dancing Machine” before I ripped it from one of the Texas Gal’s CDs this week, I couldn’t tell you when. My tolerance for the Jackson 5 has been limited for years to “ABC,” “I Want You Back” and “Never Can Say Goodbye.” I don’t think “Dancing Machine” is quite up to the level of those, but it’s a pretty good, propulsive track, better than I thought it would be when I first chose it for this selection. The record went to No. 2 on the pop chart and spent a week at No. 1 on the R&B chart, the last Jackson 5 record to climb so high on either chart.

When listeners dropped “On A Night Like This” on the turntable, they were hearing something that hadn’t been available on record before except on bootlegs: Bob Dylan in the recording studio with The Band. The single was the first track from Planet Waves, which surprisingly – given their long association – was the first album that found all five members of The Band in the studio with Dylan. (The facsinating Basement Tapes, showing what Dylan and the five members of The Band had been up to during Dylan’s recovery from a motorcycle accident, would come out in 1975.) A rollicking and grinning piece of Americana (long before, as I said the other day, that term was applied to popular music), the single nevertheless failed to reach the Top 40; by the end of March, it had been in the Hot 100 for six weeks and had peaked at No. 44. By April 6, the record had fallen out of the Hot 100.

For about two-and-a-half years, between early 1969 and the late summer of 1971, the Guess Who – a group out of Manitoba, Canada – had been a reliable hit-making machine, putting eleven singles into the Top 40, with five of them reaching the Top Ten. (The most successful of them, “American Woman,” spent three weeks at No. 1 in the spring of 1970.) In the spring of 1974, the Guess Who broke a three-year absence in the Top 40, as “Star Baby” – a catchy piece of radio pop – slid into the pop chart. As March ended, the record was on its way up, moving to No. 54 from No. 63. Three weeks later, “Star Baby” poked its head into the Top 40, sitting at No. 39 for two weeks before tumbling back down the chart. The Guess Who had two more hits in 1974 – “Clap For The Wolfman” went to No. 6 and “Dancin’ Fool” went to No. 28 – and then disappeared from the Top 40 for good.

From 1974 into the early 1980s, Chicago-based Earth, Wind & Fire released a series of catchy singles that laced R&B with funk and the occasional tender ballad. That brought the group – formed and led by drummer Maurice White – sixteen Top 40 hits, seven of which reached the Top Ten. One of those, “Shining Star” spent a week at No. 1 on the pop charts; seven of the group’s hits were No. 1 on the R&B chart. That string began with “Mighty Mighty” in 1974. During the week in question, “Mighty Mighty” was at No. 64 and was heading up the chart towards its peak of No. 29. All together, the song – a potent slice of radio R&B – spent fifteen weeks in the Hot 100.

It’s interesting that Loggins & Messina included “Watching The River Run” on their 1976 anthology, The Best of Friends, as the song got no further up the Hot 100 than No. 71 in a six-week run. But then, Loggins & Messina only had three Top 40 hits, which would make for a pretty skimpy anthology. And “Watching The River Run” is a good choice, maybe the quintessential Loggins & Messina track: melodic and mellow with a lyric that tells us that we’re all part of something sweet and good, something that will go one when we no longer do.

The growling, nearly incomprehensible lyrics of ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” combined with the record’s Texas-style boogie, nearly got ZZ Top into the Top 40. “La Grange” crawled slowly up the chart after its March 30 debut, eventually reaching No. 41 in the last week of June 1974 and the falling out of the Hot 100 a month later after a nineteen-week run. Starting with “Tush” in the summer of 1975, ZZ Top would eventually have eight Top 40 hits, with two of them – “Legs” and “Sleeping Bag” – reaching the Top Ten in the mid-1980s. But as good as any of those were, I don’t think they match “La Grange.’ A-how-how-how-how!

Note: For those interested in the history of adidas and Puma shoes and the feud between the Dassler brothers that led to the forming of two competing companies in one small German town, look into Sneaker Wars by Barbara Smit. Even if you don’t wear sports apparel of any kind, it’s a fascinating look at influence the two companies had in starting the amazingly huge business of marketing sports gear and apparel.

I Wore My Tiger Every Day

March 25, 2012

Originally posted March 30, 2009

The Texas Gal and I watch Friday Night Lights and enjoy it immensely. Based around the lives of the members of the fictional Dillon Panthers in West Texas, the show is about much more than high school football. It’s truly one of those rare television shows that finds its drama in the small workings of day-to-day life. That’s not to say that it’s entirely subtle, but it’s character-driven, and the folks who live in Dillon are generally finely drawn, not caricatures. They are folks who are changing – many of them young people who do so as they take on the hard work of growing up, of course – and sometimes the changes are surprising, just as they are in real life.

The episodes currently playing on NBC on Friday evenings were shown last fall on a satellite service, and during this season, as in the previous two, the producers do pretty well in fitting their characters’ stories into the subfolders of high school life, high school football and life in West Texas. There aren’t a lot of obvious mistakes. But I think I spotted one in the episode that ran last Friday.

The week’s climactic scene dealt with a confrontation between J. D. McCoy, a ninth-grade quarterback new to town, and his father. Nothing wrong with the drama, but in the scene – which followed a football game – J.D. was shown wearing a letter jacket with a “D” on the front and a football patch on the sleeve. Now, maybe they do things differently in Texas, but I’ve never heard of a high school where you could wear a varsity letter on a letter jacket before you’ve earned it. And being new to town, J.D. couldn’t yet have done so. (Maybe I’m wrong and there are places like that. Anyone know?)

It’s not a big deal, but for a show that generally gets the details right, it stood out. And it reminded me of my letter jacket.

I was a manager, not an athlete. I spent three seasons going to wrestling practices and keeping the scorebook; two seasons at football practices, hauling balls, pads and other stuff around; and one season tending to the training room for track. And among the rewards for doing all that stuff were three varsity letters and the right to wear a letter jacket.

It was March 1970 when I finished my second season as a wrestling manager. Near the end of the month, I got a letter in the mail from the high school’s athletic director. The letter granted me permission to go to Fitzharris Athletic downtown and buy a St. Cloud Tech letter jacket. So the following Friday evening, my folks and I went into Fitzharris and I presented the letter to the clerk. Shortly after that, I walked out wearing an orange and black jacket. The next day, my mom sewed a tiger head on the front, my name on the pocket and the year “71” on the sleeve. I remember how smooth the leather (or maybe simulated leather) sleeves were, a condition I wanted gone as soon as possible, as it identified me as a newbie.

(I got my actual letter, my “T,” at the athletic banquet that spring. I put it away in a box, as the tradition at Tech at the time was to wear the tiger head on the jacket instead of the letter. I never knew anyone who put his letter – and it was an exclusively male group in the early 1970s – on his jacket.)

Looking back, it’s amazing how much that jacket mattered to me: It made me feel as if I belonged somewhere. And I think I wore that jacket to school every day from then on, even as the weather turned warmer in the spring and then – during my senior year – even though there were days when the temperature dropped below zero. The other guys did the same, I think: If you’d earned the right to wear a letter jacket, you wore it.

I continued to wear the jacket around town during my first year of college. (For those interested, the etiquette for wearing your high school jacket during your college days was to remove your high school letter [or tiger, in my case], your graduation year and any patches other than your name.) Most likely, it was sometime during the spring of 1972, as my freshman year at St. Cloud State was ending, when I took the jacket off for the last time. By the time I got home from Denmark two years later, my mom had packed it away. And there it stayed until I took it with me when we closed the place on Kilian a few years ago.

It’s in a closet again, near the back, its usefulness gone. I certainly won’t wear it again. I have no one to leave it to, and I doubt that anyone else would want it. But I also doubt that I’ll ever get rid of it.

A Six-Pack From The Charts (Billboard Hot 100, March 28, 1970)
“Give Me Just A Little More Time” by the Chairmen of the Board, Invictus 9074 (No. 9)
“Psychedelic Shack” by the Temptations, Gordy 7096 (No. 24)
“Reflections of My Life” by the Marmalade, London 20058 (No. 51)
“Rag Mama Rag” by The Band, Capitol 2705 (No. 58)
“Run Sally Run” by the Cuff Links, Decca 32639 (No. 77)
“Miss America” by Mark Lindsay, Columbia 45125 (No. 117)

A couple of weeks ago, I called “Give Me Just A Little More Time” by the Chairmen of the Board “chirping and warbling and absolutely wonderful.” It’s all that and more, one of the really great singles that I think tends to be a little overlooked. At the time of this particular chart, the record had just dropped from its peak position at No. 3; it would slide to No. 30 by April 25, its fifteenth week in the Hot 100, and then tumble completely out of sight by the next week’s chart.

‘Psychedelic Shack” seemed utterly weird at the time, especially for the Temptations, a group with records like “My Girl,” “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” in its pedigree. But “Shack” is what happened when producers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong were handed the reins. With “Psychedelic Shack,” the Whitfield and Strong pushed the boundaries they’d stretched with the No. 6 single “Cloud Nine” in late 1968, and “Shack” went to No. 7. The follow-up, “Ball of Confusion,” went to No. 3. (This is the album track and has the same running time as the single, but I don’t remember ever hearing the knocks on the door when the record played on the radio; maybe they were there, or maybe there was a radio edit without them. I don’t know.)

When it was on the charts, “Reflections Of My Life” seemed musically adventurous and lyrically important. I’m not sure how well “Reflections Of My Life” holds up as a piece of philosophy these days. I mean, “The world is a bad place, a bad place, a terrible place to live” isn’t Nietzsche; it isn’t even Lennon, for that matter. But the music, on the other hand, does owe something to Nietzsche (Jack, who worked with Phil Spector, not that German dude), with its horns and Wall of Sound-ish references. Maybe I’m still hearing this one with the ears of a high school junior, but man, I still love this record! At the end of March, it was still on its way up the chart, heading for a peak of No. 10.

I heard the second half of “Rag Mama Rag” on the radio – probably late at night on WLS from Chicago – sometime during the early months of 1970 and was frozen, staring at the radio as the song played out with its fiddle and honky-tonk piano. I didn’t catch the title or the name of the group, and I wondered for a long time what the hell it was I’d heard. I mentioned it to a few people I knew, and from my description, they said it sounded like country and they were sure I couldn’t have heard it on a Top 40 station. I quit asking people about it, and it wasn’t until the following Christmas when Rick gave me The Band that I learned what it was I’d heard. Utterly unlike anything being played at the time (probably well-defined as Americana before anybody thought about such a label), “Rag Mama Rag” never really had a chance of making the Top 40. It peaked at No. 57 the week of March 21; three weeks later, after eight weeks in the Hot 100, the record had dropped out.

“Run Sally Run,” the Cuff Links’ follow-up to their No. 9 hit “Tracy,” lasted six weeks in the Hot 100, with the March 28 position of No. 77 being its peak. There really were no Cuff Links, of course. What you got on the record was bubble-gum master Ron Dante and a bunch of studio musicians. Still, it wasn’t awful: It was fun, it had a good beat and you could chew it!

As I’ve noted here before, I do have a difficult time being at all objective about the Top 40 music of the second half of 1969 and all of 1970. Although I’d heard Top 40 before that – it would have been hard for any American kid to escape it – I’d not really listened until the late summer and autumn of 1969. So, as I’ve also said here before, when I think about and write about the music I heard during that period, I’m thinking and writing about old friends. Two of those friends are Mark Lindsay’s singles, “Arizona” (No. 10 in early 1970) and “Silver Bird” (No. 25 in the late summer of 1970). The single posted here is one that came in between the two, and to my mind, it’s a better single. Credited only to J. Kelly at All-Music Guide, the song is an allegory casting America as a young girl, with a nifty, if somewhat predictable, lyrical twist: “Do you miss America? I know I do.” The record, which peaked at No. 44, is pure pop with nothing of rock about it, and – not recalling it at all from 1970 – I wonder if the implicit political commentary kept programmers from playing it.

In The Light Of A Rainy Day

March 25, 2012

Originally posted March 23, 2009

As I look out the window this morning, I’m consoled by the thought that it could be worse: The temperature could be fifteen degrees cooler and it could be snowing.

As it is, the rain is expected to hang around here all day. That makes the view from the study window distinctly unappealing. Luckily, I have no need to go out into the rain, save for a quick trip across the street to the mailbox sometime this afternoon. And as I sit here pondering the rain, I’m struck for some reason by the contrast between the brightly lighted interior and the gloom – bare black oaks against a gray sky – I see outside.

It puts me in mind of rainy days in elementary school, days when the fluorescent ceiling lights were reflected in the large window that lined one wall of our classroom at Lincoln School. The splash and streak of raindrops on the outside window would grip my attention more firmly than could arithmetic or social studies, and I’d get lost in the ever-changing pattern on the glass.

In the cloakroom, yellow slickers and black boots would shed water all morning, leaving puddles on the brown tile floor. On some very wet or bitterly cold days, I’d eat lunch at school, but most days, just before noon, I’d head home for lunch, walking in the winter and riding my Schwinn Typhoon in the autumn and the spring, even on days of light rain. Somewhere there is a picture of an eight-year old whiteray in his yellow slicker with the matching cap, about to head off to school. I wore that slicker – or another one like it – for several years, making my way to and from school amid the drizzle and the drops.

I don’t recall if I ever heard music playing from the radio in the kitchen at lunch time. I would have been far more interested in eating my Campbell’s Scotch Broth or my Chef Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli and then heading back out in the damp for another few hours of school.

If there had been music during lunch, I would at best have heard two, maybe three, of the following songs:

A Six-Pack From The Charts (Billboard Hot 100, March 23, 1963)
“South Street” by the Orlons, Cameo 243 (No. 7)
“Walk Right In” by the Rooftop Singers, Vanguard 35017 (No. 22)
“Can’t Get Used To Losing You” by Andy Williams, Columbia 42674 (No. 31)
“Hitch Hike” by Marvin Gaye, Tamla 54075 (No. 54)
“Mecca” by Gene Pitney, Musicor 1028 (No. 81)
“Theme from ‘Lawrence of Arabia’” by Ferrante & Teicher, United Artists 563 (No. 88)

The Orlons don’t seem to be much remembered these days, and I’m not sure why. The Philadelphia quartet managed five Top 40 singles between June 1962 and October 1963, which is a pretty good run. Three of those hit the Top Ten: “The Wah Watusi” (No. 2), “Don’t Hang Up” (No 4), and ‘South Street,” which peaked at No. 3. If any of those get any airplay on oldies stations these days, it’s “The Wah Watusi,” which is probably third-best of the three Top Ten hits.

The Rooftop Singers’ version of “Walk Right In” was on its way back down the chart in March 1963, having spent two weeks at No. 1 as January turned into February. The song has a long history, having first been recorded by Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1929. According to the Billboard Book of Number One Hits, banjo player Erik Darling – who’d been a member of the Weavers, a legendary folk group – heard the Gus Cannon recording of the song, changed a line or two (the book says, for example, “a two way woman” became “a new way of walking”) and found a couple of friends to record the song with him. The hit “was a windfall” for Cannon, “who was living in a little house by the railroad tracks in Memphis.” Cannon had hocked his banjo for $20 worth of coal to keep from freezing the previous winter; after “Walk Right In” was a hit, Cannon not only earned royalties but gained a recording contract with Stax Records.

“Can’t Get Used To Losing You” went to No. 2 in the spring of 1963, Andy William’s seventh Top Ten hit. He would wait another eight years for his eighth and last Top Ten single, “(Where Do I Begin) Love Story,” which went to No. 9 in early 1971. “Losing You” is sweet but, I think, insignificant. More appealing is the flipside, “The Days of Wine And Roses,” which also charted, making it to No. 26. That single, of course, was the theme song from the film that starred Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Williams did well with movie themes; he also charted in late 1964 with “Dear Heart” and in the spring of 1972 with “Love Theme from ‘The Godfather’ (Speak Softly Love).”

“Hitch Hike” is a nice slice of early 1960s R&B, drawing a little bit, I think, from Ray Charles. My blogging colleague, Any Major Dude, will appreciate the flute break that starts 1:15 into the song (with the flute recurring at moments after that). The single, which went to No. 30, is notable as Gaye’s first Top 40 hit. As nifty a single as “Hitch Hike” is, one wonders if anyone around Gaye could see the brilliance waiting to take wing.

“Mecca” is an odd single, with its Arabian/North African opening riff, its tale of seemingly forbidden love and its chorus of “Mecca (Mecca, Mecca).” I doubt if the song would get released these days, as the cultural uproar – valid or not – wouldn’t be worth the trouble. The single peaked at No. 12.

I’ve thrown singles by Ferrante & Teicher on the logpile a couple of times. The duo’s twin-piano sound was, to me, one of the defining sounds of the early 1960s. Ferrante & Teicher had only five Top 40 hits, but four of them – all from movies or musicals – came in 1960 and 1961, and I know heard them somewhere, and fairly frequently at that. (Their fifth hit, another movie theme, was “Midnight Cowboy” in late 1969 and early 1970.) The single offered here, “Theme from ‘Lawrence of Arabia’,” bounced around in the lower reaches of the Hot 100 for twelve weeks, never getting any higher than No. 84.

(The songs that would have gotten airplay on any station we listened to on Kilian Boulevard? The Andy Williams, the Ferrante & Teicher, and maybe the Rooftop Singers.)

Spoofing The Kennedys

December 21, 2011

Originally posted February 13, 2009

American fascination with the Kennedy family is an on-going thing, as demonstrated by the recent kerfuffle about Caroline Kennedy and the seat in the U.S. Senate held most recently by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and occupied in the 1960s by Caroline’s uncle, Robert F. Kennedy.

That fascination may have started with Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, long before World War II. I don’t know. But I do know from my own memory that it burst into full bloom in 1960 with the election of John F. Kennedy as U.S. president. And that fascination meant media saturation, such as it was at the time: The Kennedys were the focal point of almost everything.

These days, the scrutiny given both public figures and private figures who happen to fall into the spotlight is more intense than ever. For some, the spotlight endures. For others, the light moves on, and the individuals so lighted can then move away from the public’s center of attention, most of them – I would guess – happy to do so.

But it seems that the Kennedys, having sought the nation’s attention long ago, have – as a family – never left that bright light. And, in the early years, some of the more frivolous things resulting from that bright light were a few records.

During John Kennedy’s last year as president, one of the best-selling records in the country was The First Family, a comedy record by Vaughn Meader, whose talents included the ability to do an uncanny impersonation of the president. The LP was released during the first week of December 1962, went to No. 1 in its second week, stayed atop the album chart for twelve weeks and won the Grammy for the Album of the Year. A second album went to No. 4.

Meader wasn’t the only comedian to spoof John Kennedy. In my small collection of 45s, I have a record by Joel Langram titled “I Really Wanted To Be A ‘Singar’” (Rori 714) that gives JFK and his family an affectionate nudge in the ribs.

But the jokes were no longer funny, of course, after John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

(I’ve never bothered to find out if it’s true, but I’ve heard for years that caustic comedian Lenny Bruce opened his show on the evening of John Kennedy’s death with the words, “Poor Vaughn Meader!”)

After JFK’s death, the Kennedy fascination settled on his widow and his two brothers, and that eventually resulted in the artifact that spurred these thoughts. In 1967, Senator Robert Kennedy became the object of “Wild Thing,” a record that featured comedian Bill Minkin impersonating the senator. With nods to Kennedy’s brother, fellow Senator Edward Kennedy, and to his family, the single – credited to “Senator Bobby” – chronicles a the recording of a record aimed at making the senator more interesting to young people.

The record, of course, is a cover of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” which was a No. 1 hit in 1966. Senator Bobby’s version of “Wild Thing” peaked at No. 20 in early February of 1967 and was still at that spot a week later, forty-two years ago this week. The record was actually pretty funny at the time, and then – after RFK was assassinated in a little more than a year – not funny at all for quite some time. Those of us of a certain age, I would guess, hear it these days with a sad smile.

A Six-Pack From The Charts
(Billboard Hot 100, February 11, 1967)

“Wild Thing” by Senator Bobby, Parkway 127 (No. 20)

“Are You Lonely For Me” by Freddie Scott, Shout 207 (No. 45)

“The Dis-Adadvantages of You” by the Brass Ring featuring Phil Bodner, Dunhill 4065 (No. 64)

“California Nights” by Lesley Gore, Mercury 72649 (No. 71)

“Sit Down, I Think I Love You” by the Mojo Men, Reprise 0539 (No. 80)

“Feel So Bad” by Little Milton, Checker 1162 (No. 91)

There may have been other records spoofing the Kennedys. Those mentioned are just the three in my collection. Additionally, I know that other, similar, records were issued poking fun at other presidents and their families.

“Are You Lonely For Me” was one of two records by Freddie Scott to make the Top 40 chart: In 1963, “Hey Girl” went to No. 10. “Are You Lonely For Me” reached No. 39 at the end of February. Scott’s muscular performance of a very good song did, however, top the R&B chart for four weeks.

There are plenty of examples of an advertising jingle or song being turned into a hit: One example that comes to mind in an instant is “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony),” a 1972 hit for the Hillside Singers and the New Seekers. That song began life in a television commercial for Coca-Cola. “The Dis-Advantages of You” started its life as the backing music for a series of commercials advertising a new and longer cigarette. The commercial showed such disadvantages as getting one’s cigarette caught in an elevator door and so on. The music proved so popular that “The Dis-Advantages of You” was released as a single and on an album of similar music. The single went to No. 36 and was the second Top 40 hit for the Brass Ring, which was basically a group of studio musicians pulled together by saxophonist Phil Bodnar. (The first hit was “The Phoenix Love Theme [Senza Fine]” from the film, The Flight of the Phoenix. That single went to No. 32 in 1966.)

“California Nights” was the last hit for Lesley Gore, whose Top 40 run started in 1963 with “It’s My Party” going to No. 1. “California Nights,” which to me sounds very much like the folk-pop/pop-rock of the Mamas & the Papas from the same time, went to No. 16, the eleventh and last Top 40 hit for Gore.

“Sit Down, I Think I Love You,” a cover of the Stephen Stills song recorded by the Buffalo Springfield, was the only Top 40 hit for the Mojo Men, a San Francisco group. The record went to No. 36 and came to some prominence again in 1972 when Elektra Records legend Jac Holzman and music historian Lenny Kay chose the single as one of twenty-seven tracks on Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968, a collection that’s been the model for many anthologies in the ensuing thirty-seven years.

Little Milton, a Mississippi native who recorded for Chess, Stax and several other labels during the course of a long career, made the Top 40 only once: In 1965, with “We’re Gonna Make It,” a record that went to No. 25 on the pop chart but topped the R&B chart for three weeks. “Feel So Bad” never went higher than No. 91, but it’s a heckuva record.

The Ghosts Of Downtown

December 21, 2011

Originally posted February 9, 2009

I misplaced a long-gone store in Saturday’s post. I talked about spending parts of some childhood Friday evening looking through the shelves of books at Fandel’s and said the building was on Fifth Avenue. Not long after, an email from former St. Cloud resident Yah Shure got me thinking. And I realized that Fandel’s was on Sixth Avenue, a block west of where I had placed it.

(If in fact, the bookstore/interior store had been on Fifth Avenue, it likely would have been right in the middle of a bar called the Red Carpet. It would take some years for me to find myself in the middle of the Red Carpet, but I have been there, too.)

When I realized my error, I was struck by the vividness of my memories of Sixth Avenue in St. Cloud in, oh, 1964. And I spent a few minutes thinking about the ghosts of downtown.

On St. Germain – St. Cloud’s main street – there was Dan Marsh Drug. We got our prescriptions there, had our photos developed there, bought greeting cards and giftwrap, discount records, pipe tobacco and pipe cleaners (Dad smoked until he survived a heart attack in 1974) and so much more. There was a restaurant/grill at the back of the store, a place that during the workweek’s daytime hours must have been home to lunch specials for the many folks who worked in what was a pretty bustling downtown.

After school and on Friday evenings, though, the restaurant was a gathering place for kids who gulped down French fries with cherry Cokes, chocolate Cokes, lime phosphates and other seemingly exotic potions. And on Friday evenings, as the clusters of kids came and went from Dan Marsh Drugs, other kids would drive up and down St. Germain, some revving the engines of their cars and others just looking at the other kids looking back at them.

Sometimes a cop directed traffic at the intersection of St. Germain and Sixth; other times, the police just put the four-sided portable sign, the one reading “No Left Turn,” in the middle of the intersection, and let the drivers and pedestrians otherwise fend for themselves. (For a few years in the early 1970s, the city made St. Germain a pedestrian mall for three blocks downtown and did as well some stupid things with traffic flow, and that pretty much killed downtown’s traffic . . . and a lot of businesses.)

North of St. Germain on Sixth was, I think, a funeral home. I recall clearly, however, the book and stationery store, a place of pens and pencils, ledgers and typing paper, erasers and sharpeners, the kind of place that entranced me then and can still do so today.

South on Sixth, Fandel’s and Herberger’s, two department stores, took the corner spots. Fandel’s is long gone, and Herberger’s – in an insane attempt at urban renewal during, I think, the 1980s – was allowed to build a mall across Sixth Avenue, so Sixth is now blocked at St. Germain. Herberger’s continues in business, but the other stores and restaurants in that mall haven’t thrived over the years.

Beyond Herberger’s, on the east side of Sixth, is a blank for me. I cannot recall what stood there. Beyond Fandel’s on the west side of Sixth was the building that held Fandel’s bookstore and interiors, the place where I got my copy of Born Free after seeing the movie, and where I bought Dad a copy of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim for his birthday.

All of those businesses except Herberger’s are gone. Most of the buildings are gone as well. And next to the Fandel’s book and interiors building stood another lost gem, the Eastman Theater, with its blue and white marquee. It was one of three movie houses in St. Cloud at the time. (There are none in the city these days; we now drive west into the adjacent city of Waite Park for a movie, although films are occasionally screened in the refurbished Paramount Theatre). I went to numerous movies at the Eastman, not many of them memorable. What I remember most clearly is waiting for the movie in the theater, with a series of colored lights projected from somewhere, walking their way up and down the theater on the side walls.

I do remember one film I saw at the Eastman, though: The Longest Day, the tale of the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy during World War II, was released in 1962. It came back through town during early June in 1964, and my parents okayed my request to see it. So one day – a Saturday? I’m not sure – I bicycled across the Mississippi and into downtown, to the Eastman. I locked my bike to the rack and then, as I bought my ticket, asked the woman there if the film had come back out because of the twentieth anniversary of D-Day, the Normandy Invasion.

She blinked and looked down at me, a short and bespectacled ten-year-old. “How do you know about that?” she asked me.

I might have shrugged. “I dunno,” I likely told her. “I just do.”

“Okay,” she said as I handed her my quarter and she handed me my ticket. “Enjoy the show.” I did.

A Six-Pack From The Charts (Billboard Hot 100, June 6, 1964)

“Today” by the New Christy Minstrels, Columbia 43000 (No. 18)

“Wish Someone Would Care” by Irma Thomas, Imperial 66013 (No. 32)

“Yesterday’s Gone” by Chad & Jeremy, World Artists 1021 (No. 64)

“The Girl From Ipanema” by Stan Getz/João & Astrid Gilberto, Verve 10323 (No. 87)

“Remember Me” by Rita Pavone, RCA Victor 8635 (No. 94)

“Dang Me” by Roger Miller, Smash 1881 (No. 126)

What? No Beatles? I can hear readers wondering as I write. There’s no doubt that they dominated the charts in 1964, especially during the week of April 4, when they held the top five spots in the Billboard Hot 100. (In order: “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “Please Please Me.”) And the Beatles did have a considerable chart presence during the first week in June, with three singles in the Top 40, an EP “bubbling under” at No. 105, and “Sie Lieb Dicht,” a German version of “She Loves You,” also bubbling at No. 108.

But there was so much more going on in 1964, at least in this chart. The British Invasion that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones triggered was underway, with Peter and Gordon, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, the Dave Clark Five and Gerry and the Pacemakers in the Top 30. And there was more. In fact, just look at the Top 20 for June 6, 1964, and you’ll see a snapshot of a time when popular tastes were in flux:

“Chapel of Love” by the Dixie Cups
“Love Me Do” by the Beatles
“My Guy” by Mary Wells
“Love Me With All Your Heart” by the Ray Charles Singers
“Hello, Dolly” by Louis Armstrong
“A World Without Love” by Peter and Gordon
“Walk On By” by Dionne Warwick
“Little Children” by Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas
“(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet” by the Reflections
“P.S. I Love You” by the Beatles
“Do You Love Me” by the Dave Clark Five
“People” by Barbra Streisand
“Every Little Bit Hurts” by Brenda Holloway
“Diane” by the Bachelors
“Cotton Candy” by Al Hirt
“It’s Over” by Roy Orbison
“I Get Around” by the Beach Boys
“Today” by the New Christy Minstrels
“Once Upon A Time” by Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells
“Tell Me Why” by Bobby Vinton

Wow! Girl groups, R&B from Motown and elsewhere, tunes from Broadway, pop instrumentals, British pop-rock, teen idol pop, folk and more – all of it underscored by the “skritch-skritch” of Warwick’s “Walk On By” and capped off by Orbison’s operatic finish as the Beach Boys rev the engine and head to the drive-in.

And in June of 1964, I waited to turn eleven late that summer, knowing – oddly enough – more about World War II than I knew about pop and rock music. Some of the songs in the Top 20 were familiar, certainly: I knew “Hello, Dolly,” “Cotton Candy” (though it’s one of the few Al Hirt tunes I’m not all that not fond of), and “Today.” And I might have known about “Walk On By.” The most fondly remembered is “Today,” with its sweet melody and its lyric predicting nostalgia, presented in a ersatz commercial folk style that owes more to Mitch Miller and the Fifties than to any folk music that ever came from the likes of Pete Seeger. Knowing all that now doesn’t diminish my affection for the recording because when I hear “Today,” I’m not hearing the record. I’m hearing the soundtrack of a time when a ten-year-old kid could bicycle by himself to a movie theater in the downtown of a small city, see a movie and get himself home safely with nothing greater to worry about than a flat tire. We have gained much in the past forty-five years, but we have lost much, too.

Anyway, “Today” marked the last bit of chart success for the New Christy Minstrels, as it happened. The record went as high as No. 17 and was the last of three Top 40 hits for the group. (“Green, Green” and “Saturday Night” were the others.) It’s of interest, too, that among the members of the New Christy Minstrels – organized by Randy Sparks – were Kenny Rogers, Barry McGuire and Kim Carnes.

Irma Thomas is still singing soul and R&B today after almost fifty years in the music industry, starting with her first single, 1960’s “You Can Have My Husband but) Don’t Mess with My Man” on the Ron label, based in her native Louisiana. “Wish Someone Would Care” was her only record to reach the Top 40, peaking at No. 17.

“Yesterday’s Gone” is pleasant folk-pop: light and insubstantial candy for the ear. It also serves as a reminder that not all the performers who followed the Beatles and the Stones across the Atlantic rocked. (The best/worst example of that might be Freddie and the Dreamers.) “Yesterday’s Gone” went only to No. 21, but its follow-up, “A Summer Song,” went to No. 7 in the autumn of 1964. After that, the two singers – who had been credited up to that point as Chad Stuart and Jeremy Clyde – gave up their last names and became Chad and Jeremy, scoring five more Top 40 hits into August 1966.

The story about “The Girl From Ipanema” says that the charming and somewhat affectless vocal by Astrud Gilberto was one of those happy accidents that sometimes happen in the studio. As I understand it, sax player Stan Getz and singer and guitarist João Gilberto were working on the track for their Getz/Gilberto album (1963) when they decided that “The Girl From Ipanema” needed a vocal. Gilberto’s wife, Astrud, who spoke no English, learned the words phonetically, and an international hit was born. The record went to No. 5 and won the Grammy for 1964’s Record of the Year. (That’s the story as I understand it. Anyone out there have any corrections or clarifications?)

I know next to nothing about Rita Pavone, only that I found one of her albums in a box of LP’s I bought in bulk at a flea market in February of 1989. I listened to it and was not impressed, but I figured it had little resale value, so I stuck it in the stacks. And there it’s stayed for almost exactly twenty years. But when I saw her name at No. 94 on the Hot 100, I went to the stacks and learned that the LP – titled simply Rita Pavone – in fact included her single. It’s a girl group-kind of tune, although Rita seems to often intone the lyrics rather than sing them. But there you are.

“Dang Me” was the first of twelve Top 40 hits for Roger Miller, reaching No. 7 during the summer of 1964. The record – and several of his others – are tagged in the Billboard books as novelties. I’m not sure that’s right. Miller’s style was quirky, but it was refreshing. Those of his hits not tagged as novelty records – “England Swings,” “King of the Road,” “Engine Engine” and more – are not that far removed from what he was doing with “Dang Me,” “Kansas City Star” and more. It doesn’t matter, I guess. Miller is long gone, having died in 1992.

Here’s To The Kiddie Corner Kid

December 21, 2011

Originally posted February 6, 2009

Well, it’s Babe Ruth’s birthday today. The Sultan of Swat was born in Baltimore on February 6, 1895.

That also means that it’s Rick’s birthday. Coming from a family that cared a great deal about baseball, the Kiddie Corner Kid never let me forget that he shared a birthday with Ruth. It doesn’t matter that, later in life, I discovered I have my own Hall of Fame member with whom I share a birthday: Napoleon Lajoie. In the famous ballplayer game, Babe Ruth trumps ’em all.

So the Kid turns another year older today, following the numerical path I trod back in September. I recall one afternoon when we were about ten, and one of Rick’s family members insisted that he had to be older than I was because he was born in February and I was born in September. The concept of September of one year coming earlier than February of the next was elusive, and at the time, it seemed important to be able to claim to be older than the other person.

These days, the only advantage I can find to being older than Rick or anyone else is that I get to claim a senior discount earlier. (I routinely get such discounts without asking these days; such is the power of a gray beard.)

Anyway, having remembered Babe Ruth’s birthday, I went back to the files to find a Billboard Hot 100 from February 6. That turned out to come from 1971, when we were both still in high school. As I’ve related here other times, that was when we were taking an astronomy class together at St. Cloud Tech, playing a lot of tabletop hockey and writing the occasional song lyric together. We also listened to a lot of music, whether on the record player or the radio. Our favorite album in those days was either The Band, which Rick had given me for Christmas just more than a month earlier, or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu.

When it was radio, it was either KDWB in the Twin Cities or WJON over across the tracks. I’ve pulled five records from the Hot 100 that I know we heard around the time of Babe Ruth’s birthday in 1971 and one that I doubt that we ever heard. So these are for the Kiddie Corner Kid as his odometer rolls another digit. May there be miles to go for both of us.

A Six-Pack From The Charts (Billboard Hot 100, February 6, 1971)

“Born to Wander” by Rare Earth, Rare Earth 5021 (No. 17)

“1900 Yesterday” by Liz Damon’s Orient Express, White Whale 368 (No. 35)

“Temptation Eyes” by the Grass Roots, Dunhill 4263 (No. 41)

“Whole Lotta Love” by Collective Consciousness Society, RAK 4501 (No. 64)

“Country Road” by James Taylor, Warner Bros. 7460 (No. 81)

“Timothy” by the Buoys, Scepter 12275 (No. 100)

Rare Earth, one of the first white acts signed by Motown, put together a nice string of singles in 1970-71, three of them in the Top Ten: “Get Ready” hit No. 4, “(I Know) I’m Losing You” went to No. 7, and “I Just Want To Celebrate” reached No. 7 as well. In between the latter two came “Born To Wander,” which I think is at least as good a record as the other three. For one reason or another, though, it went only as high as No. 17, and so it generally gets ignored when the programmers for the oldies stations read their charts and their tea leaves. Rare Earth added two more hits: “Hey Big Brother” went to No. 19 as 1971 turned into 1972, and “Warm Ride” – written by the Bee Gees – went to No. 39 in mid-1978. I’m not aware of ever having heard “Warm Ride,” but given its time period and its Bee Gees’ provenance, I would think it has to be Rare Earth’s version of disco, an idea almost as contrary and dismaying as that of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious touring with Up With People.

Speaking of Up With People and things of that ilk (I never pass up an opportunity to use the word “ilk”), Liz Damon’s Orient Express might not have been rooted in nostalgia all the time, but the group’s one hit certainly was. Damon’s nine-person group was based in Hawaii – there’s a slight but certain tropical lilt in the background of “1900 Yesterday” – and managed to turn a very pretty song into a minor hit: The record peaked at No. 33 and spent a total of twelve weeks in the Hot 100.

During my first quarter of college, in the autumn of 1971, one of the guys I hung around with would wince whenever he heard “Temptation Eyes.” That song, he said, was the story of his senior year of high school. We never got details, but then, I’d expect that almost any American schoolboy could find a bit of himself in almost any song the Grass Roots did during those years. And that sparks a thought that I should possibly explore: Is one of the things that makes a record a great record the possibility that the listener can see him- or herself inside the tale the record tells? Whatever the answer, “Temptation Eyes” eventually got as high as No. 15.

I don’t remember Collective Consciousness Society (CCS) at all. I was first tipped to the British group in a post last summer by Jeff at AM, Then FM, who then pointed me in the direction of Flea Market Funk, where DJ Prestige had posted the mp3 of the group’s instrumental version of “Whole Lotta Love.” And then this winter, while digging in my box of unsorted 45s, I found a copy of CCS’ “Tap Turns On The Water,” released later in 1971. Despite the prominence in the UK of some of the group’s members – see Wikipedia – there’s something not very serious about the group’s sound, almost like a low-level British Traveling Wilburys way ahead of its time. “Whole Lotta Love” peaked at No. 58 during a four-week stay in the Hot 100.

“Country Road” was the second – I think – single pulled from James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James album; “Fire And Rain” had gone to No. 3 in the autumn of 1970. And I think that the direct contrast may have hampered “Country Road,” which was a good record but one not nearly as good as its predecessor: “Fire And Rain” is one of the iconic records in the oldies playlist. “Country Road” has the added misfortune of being easily confused with John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which came along in June of 1971. Whatever the reasons, Taylor’s “Country Road” seems to get a little bit lost, and that’s too bad. This week was its first appearance in the Hot 100; it took six weeks for “Country Road” to climb from No. 81 to No. 37, and two weeks later, it was gone from the charts.

I asked the question above: Is one of the things that makes a record a great record the possibility that the listener can see him- or herself inside the tale the record tells? Well, in the case of the Buoys’ “Timothy,” I would hope not. The tale of a cave-in, implied cannibalism and amnesia is not a place any sane listener would want to be. It’s a catchy record, what with its persistent guitar strum and horn accents, but I doubt that it’s a song that inspires many sing-alongs. I seem to remember a bit of hoo-ha among our elders because of its story, a hoo-ha that would likely be much larger if the song were released today. Or maybe not; I’m not at all sure sometimes how jaded we have become. Anyway, “Timothy” spent seventeen weeks in the Hot 100, peaking at No. 17.

Driving On Ice With No Clue

November 16, 2011

Originally posted January 13, 2009

When I went to graduate school at the University of Missouri, I lived in a mobile home park on the south edge of the city of Columbia. The park was on at the top of a hill on Grindstone Creek Road. (The road is still there, according to Google Earth, but the mobile home park is gone.) Heading into the city from my home, Grindstone Creek Road twisted and turned its way down the hill to a major intersection; from there, the university campus was located up another hill, though the roads were straight and the hill not so steep.

For most of the time I went to graduate school, I had no problem getting to and from school and the offices on campus of the Columbia Missourian and, later, the office of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Through the last four months of 1983, I’d had no difficulty with the weather; I’d actually chuckled a little at the way folks clutched their coats and huddled over in the face of a thirty-degree breeze (-1 Celsius).

One day during the first couple weeks of January of 1984, I woke up to learn that an overnight storm had left a skim of ice on the ground, topped by about three inches of snow. I shrugged, got dressed and headed out. I swept the snow of my car – a Toyota that I’d named Toby; I’ll tell his tale someday – and headed through the mobile home park toward the gate on Grindstone Creek Road.

With the defroster clearing away the fog on the windshield, I watched as about four or five cars went past me, heading down Grindstone’s hill. Every one of them was sliding around the curve to the south, fish-tailing as they came through the short straight stretch by the mobile home park and then fishtailing around the curve where the twisty, downhill portion of the road began.

I know how to drive in snow and – when absolutely necessary – on icy roads. My record isn’t perfect: I’ve gotten stuck a few times and had a fender-bender or two, but I grew up driving in winter. Those folks I watched coming past the mobile home park and heading down the hill that morning had no clue. There was no way I was going to pull out onto Grindstone and put myself in their paths. I drove back to my place and stayed put until the traffic had settled down.

A Six-Pack From the Charts (Billboard Hot 100, January 14, 1984)

“Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes, Atco 99817 (No. 2)

“Church of the Poison Mind” by Culture Club, Epic/Virgin 04144 (No. 27)

“The Sign of Fire” by the Fixx, MCA 52316 (No. 32)

“In A Big Country” by Big Country, Mercury 814467 (No. 57)

“Sweetheart Like You” by Bob Dylan, Columbia 04301 (No. 70)

“Suddenly Last Summer” by the Motels, Capitol 5271 (No. 100)

Ah, the Eighties! Not one of my favorite decades musically, although I had some very good years during that time. (There were one or two years that were real stinkers, though, so that may color my perception of the decade.) I’m not at all sure how well any of these have aged. Well, except the Dylan, as its production is not tied to what one might call “The Classic Eighties Sound.”

Actually, the Dylan track sounds darn good, with a good lyric and melody. The credits on the album Infidels list Sly Dunbar on drums and percussion, Robbie Shakespeare on bass, Alan Clark on keyboards, Dylan on guitar, harmonica and keyboards and Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor on guitar. Knopfler and Dylan co-produced. I don’t know which of the two guitarists – Taylor or Knopfler – is playing on “Sweetheart Like You,” but, well, just listen to it. (The record peaked a couple weeks later at No. 55.)

As to the others – all of which I selected pretty much on whims – I think “In A Big Country,” with its bagpipes and broad ambitions, still works. In fact, I like it a whole lot more in 2009 than I did in 1983, when the album The Crossing was released. The single eventually went as high as No. 17 and was Big Country’s only Top 40 hit.*

Similarly, I like Culture Club’s “Church of the Poison Mind” more than I did back then. Still, what makes the track work is not so much Boy George and the rest of the band; it’s the vocal from Helen Terry that lifts the record up from the rest of the pack. By January of 1984, the record was sliding back down the chart, having peaked at No. 10.

Of the other three, I think the Yes single is the most memorable, though not necessarily the best; still, it reached No. 1 in the next week’s chart and stayed there for another week, the only Top Ten hit in the career of the long-lived and oft-altered group.

The Fixx’s single isn’t – to my ears – very memorable. It had reached its peak at No. 32 in the January 14, 1984, chart. And the Motels’ “Suddenly Last Summer” – which is either the best or second best of these six records; call it a tie with “Sweetheart Like You” – was just ending a long stay on the Hot 100. In a twenty-week run, the Motels’ single had gone up to No. 9 before falling back.

It’s possible – maybe even likely – that’s some of these are album versions instead of the singles. And as always, bitrates may vary.

Bonus!
Sadly, I don’t have the record or the mp3, but at Dr. Forrest’s Cheeze Factory, I found a link to the video for the No. 16 record on the January 14, 1984 Top 40: “The Curly Shuffle” by Jump ’N The Saddle:

That’s just one more bit of nonsense that proves that a good novelty single can make the charts in any era. Nyuk-nyuk!

*Shortly after this post was published, a kind reader who knew more than I about Big Country informed me that the bagpipe sound in “In A Big Country” had actually been created by electronically altering guitar sounds. Note added November 16, 2011.

Keeping It A Mystery

October 12, 2011

Originally posted December 12, 2008

One of the sheer delights of this time of year for me is giving the Texas Gal gifts she truly wants, whether from a brief list, from remembering comments she’s made throughout the year or simply from seeing something somewhere I know she’d like. I much prefer the latter two sources, because then she can truly be surprised.

Sometimes she prods me, asking for hints as to what I’ve found for her. I’m not all that subtle at that; any hints I give will either be too easy to figure out or too opaque to be helpful, so in order to maintain the surprise, I go with opaque:

“Is it bigger than a breadbox?”

“That depends on how large a loaf you have.”

Or, “What color is it?”

“Light brown, green and red, partly.”

All of which is true, and all of which leaves the Texas Gal less than enlightened about what she’ll find in her packages, which is my goal. You see, to me, the surprise is the one of the main pleasures of gift-giving, for both the giver and the recipient. That’s a lesson I learned through accidental experience.

It was December of 1971, and Christmas was not far off. I’d done my shopping for my family, for Rick and for a gal from school I’d been dating. The evening in question, in fact, might have been the evening when Jeannie and I exchanged gifts, just before she headed home to a small town south of St. Cloud for a couple of weeks. I remember that I’d gone outside to go somewhere, and then turned around and went back into the house to get something I’d forgotten.

And I walked past a doorway and saw my parents busily wrapping Christmas presents in the room. I tried not to look, but the item in Mom’s hands was unmistakable: It was the size of an LP, and it was dull orange. I knew immediately what it was: The Concert for Bangla Desh, the box set of George Harrison’s epic concert of the previous August, released only a week or so earlier. And I think my parents knew that I knew.

And as pleased as I was to receive the box set a couple weeks later on Christmas Eve, I think that my knowing what was in the package somehow diminished the joy of the gift for me and – more importantly – for my parents. The surprise heightens the joy in both directions, I learned that year.

So I think I’ll stick with opaque hints and keep a little mystery in the season.

A Six-Pack from the Billboard Hot 100, December 11, 1971
“Can I Get A Witness” by Lee Michaels (A&M 1303, No. 43)

“White Lies, Blue Eyes” by Bullet (Big Tree 123, No. 49)

“George Jackson” by Bob Dylan (Columbia 45516, No. 56)

“Witch Queen of New Orleans” by Redbone (Epic 10746, No. 60)

“Get Down” by Curtis Mayfield (Curtom 1966, No. 74)

“Take It Slow (Out In The Country)” by Lighthouse (Evolution 1052, No. 89)

A few notes:

Regarding Lee Michaels, I can’t really say it any better than does All Music Guide:

“One of the most interesting second-division California psychedelic musicians, keyboardist Lee Michaels was one of the most soulful white vocalists of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Between 1968 and 1972, he released half a dozen accomplished albums on A&M that encompassed Baroque psychedelic pop and gritty white, sometimes gospel-ish R&B with equal facility. A capable songwriter, Michaels was blessed with an astonishing upper range, occasionally letting loose some thrilling funky wails. In 1971, he landed a surprise Top Ten single with ‘Do You Know What I Mean,’ one of the best and funkiest AM hits of the early ’70s.”

As much as I liked “Do You Know What I Mean,” I always thought it was a little bit clunky, which was one of its charms. “Can I Get A Witness,” which hit the Top 40 for one week, reaching No. 39, falls for me into the same clunk-funk genre.

Bullet was a duo from England: John Cann handled the vocals and Paul Hammond played the drums. “White Lies, Blue Eyes,” which went as high as No. 28, was their only hit. The record has a pretty cool sound during the verses, but the lightness of the choruses for most of the record seems to me to presage the sound of groups like Pablo Cruise and the Little River Band a few years down the pike. I mean, that’s okay, but it’s not what it could have been; the later choruses, with some pretty good guitar and drum fills, sound a lot better to my ears.

George Jackson, the subject of the Dylan single, was an inmate in a California state prison who became a self-educated leader and political figure during his incarceration. He wound up dead in prison during the summer of 1971 in what some called an assassination, while others seemed to think that his death was simply the unsurprising end of a life of violence and crime. Folk hero or thug? I don’t know, and the page on Jackson at Wikipedia doesn’t really resolve anything. I recall the first time I heard the record: I was sitting at a picnic table somewhere with Rick and a radio one day, and we listened intently, as we did in those days to anything Dylan did. I don’t know if the deejay was asleep at the switch or making a statement, but the radio station didn’t bleep the line, “He wouldn’t take shit from no one,” and Rick and I looked at each other, startled. “Bob Dylan lays it on the line,” said Rick, laughing. In any case, the record – which never made it to an LP back then and, as far as I know, has since been included only on three relatively obscure Dylan CD anthologies – is an audio artifact of the tail end of the odd and bitter time we now call the Sixties. I sometimes wonder if Dylan ever regrets recording and releasing the song, but I figure not: I don’t think – at least as far as his music goes – Dylan has much time for regrets. The version here is called the “Big Band” version; the flipside of the single, which peaked at No. 33 – has a shorter, acoustic version.

Redbone, as I wrote here at least once before, was formed and led by Native American brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas, who, before they formed the group, were the writers of the song “Nicky Hoeky.” With its swampy feel, “The Witch Queen of New Orleans” reached No. 21 in early 1972. A couple of years later, Redbone’s brilliant “Come And Get Your Love” went to No. 5, and, as far as oldies radio is concerned, that’s the only Redbone single that seems to matter. It would be a kick to hear “Witch Queen” coming out of the radio speaker some day, but I suppose someone might complain about evil influences.

Curtis Mayfield’s “Get Down” has to be one of the great lost singles. The marketplace has its oddities, I know, but it baffles me how a single could be this good and not reach the Top Ten, much less the Top 40. “Get Down” peaked at No. 69 on the December 18 chart and then fell out of the Hot 100 before 1972 rolled around.

While not nearly as good as the Mayfield single, Lighthouse’s “Take It Slow (Out In The Country)” is a pretty good listen, too. The follow-up to Lighthouse’s “One Fine Morning,” which reached No. 24 earlier in the autumn of 1971, “Take It Slow (Out In The Country)” got as high as No. 64 in January of 1972 and was certainly better than a lot of singles that had more success. I know, I know: It’s the marketplace, but sometimes the listener is wrong.