Twenty-Five Favorite #1 Songs of the 1970s, Part Three

We’re crossing the halfway point of this exercise where Erik Mattox and I reflect back on charttoppers of the 1970s that still (sometimes, I suppose it’s now) mean a lot to us. This time, my set of five includes two long-running #1s from the early part of the decade, the biggest hits in the careers of two legendary performers, and one chart ascent that the artist never came close to duplicating. Let’s get on with the show:

Simon and Garfunkel, “Bridge over Troubled Water” (February-April 1970, 6 weeks)

WH: I can remember my father playing this album on his hi-fi when I was six years old. Hearing “Sail on, silver girl” puts me back in our living room in Stanford, the room where I’m introduced to music surging from a diamond needle applied to vinyl. I guess sometimes it’s the earliest memories that imprint themselves and wind up influencing how you feel about stuff even after a half-century. If I were giving you a ranked list in this series, “Bridge over Troubled Water” would slot in at #1.

I will go out on a limb to say this: it’s the classic it is in large part because Art sang it.

EM: This is one that I’ve come to appreciate a lot more with age and experience. As a kid, it would bore me to tears. My childhood connection to it would be sitting in a dentist’s waiting room. It’s a hard song to sing, but Art’s tenor effortlessly soars over a beautiful arrangement performed by the Wrecking Crew. A nice break-up gift from Paul to Art, netting them four Grammys and a lot of subsequent Simon jealousy.

Rod Stewart, “Maggie May” (October 1971, 5 weeks)

WH: The storytelling in “Maggie May” is remarkable. Overall, I’m not a huge fan of Rod’s–he had the look and the chops, but I think that all too frequently the material he chose was beneath his talent. Stewart sure ended up with quite a career, though. This, the song of a lifetime, was easily its peak moment.

EM: “Maggie May” is truly a high point in Rod’s catalog, but still not in my Top 25. It was so high he realized he could never top it, so instead, he went low with “Tonight’s The Night” and even lower with “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” both of which hit #1. Now and then, Rod puts out a single that I enjoy [“Baby Jane,” “The Motown Song,” “Leave Virginia Alone” ], but I’d just as easily prefer to listen to a Faces album.

Thelma Houston, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (April 1977, 1 week)

WH: By my count, I chose five covers. We saw two last time (from the Captain and Tennille and Manfred Mann) and between this song and the one immediately following, there are two more today.

No offense to Teddy Pendergrass, but Houston just brings it on “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Three years ago, I wrote about it, “I was either too young or too naïve to get exactly what Houston was going on about (in 1977), but her vocal performance is so visceral that I should have figured it out anyway.” Yep.

EM: After “Disco Duck” reached #1 in late 1976, Top 40 radio regarded disco as a fad and began to turn towards the California rock of The Eagles & Fleetwood Mac. Between Rick Dees (who was nuts) and the fever of Saturday night, fewer dance songs crossed over to Pop radio, making Thelma’s smash a more significant triumph than many regard it. It’s so much more potent having a woman sing this. Hats off to Henry Davis, who plays a propulsive yet rubbery bassline that I’m sure influenced Chic’s Bernard Edwards.

Linda Ronstadt, “You’re No Good” (February 1975, 1 week)

WH: Ronstadt’s extended period of commercial success began around the time when the radio started commanding more of my attention. Were I to go back and rank Ronstadt’s Top 40 singles, it’s a virtual certainty “You’re No Good” would come out on top. I’ve noted before it’s the instrumental segment at the end, which comes almost out of nowhere, that got me interested in the rest of the song.

EM: Another one that could have been on my list. 1975 was such a fantastic year for chart-toppers; I could have compiled a Top 25 from those twelve months alone. And I was starting to intently pay attention to Top 40 songs, who sang them, the lyrics, intros, solos, and endings. I heard that Linda was singing this live for a few years before she recorded for Heart Like A Wheel, easily one of the most inspired covers she performed. Linda is definitely the star here, but let’s also credit Andrew Gold, who plays electric piano, drums, and the guitar solo.

Gladys Knight and the Pips, “Midnight Train to Georgia” (October-November 1973, 2 weeks)

WH: One of two #1 hits from 1973 whose title mentions the Peach State; you might notice the other one, by a certain colleague of Carol Burnett, is nowhere to be found (and would be a contender for a bottom 25 list).

The call-and-response arrangement of “Midnight Train to Georgia” makes the song come alive. It’s another case where my favorite song by an act is also their biggest hit.

EM: Originally recorded as “Midnight Plane To Houston” by songwriter Jim Weatherly, Cissy Houston’s producer asked to change it to its well-known title. Gladys and company heard it, crushed their take, and became her signature song. Still don’t know what a pip is, but I’m always down for some air train whistle during the “woo-woo” part.

Erik’s next five can be found here. You’re invited to check back on Thursday for our next installments.

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